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Let Me Be Your Light

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Rhett was standing next to the helipad and looking towards the shore. He was a bit irritated. The pilot was late, and he’d been standing there for a while already. It was a cloudy day, but thankfully, the winds that had been howling all night had settled down. It was good flying weather, so there was no excuse for being late. Rhett had a warm jacket on, but he’d forgotten his knit cap inside, and his ears were quickly turning numb. He was thinking about maybe going back for it, but the walk to and back would take at least 10 minutes. The prideful part of him didn’t want the pilot to think he was late too. Finally, he settled to pressing his hands on his ears for warmth.

It wasn’t cold enough yet for the rain to turn snow, but it would happen soon enough. Rhett loved the first snow. Always had. Every year when it came, it filled him with a calmness that nourished his soul. It felt like the world was wiped clean, and somehow, that seemed to reach his heart too. And for a little while, he was wiped clean also. Today was not the day. It was just cold and damp. The dampness made the chill penetrate his clothing and seep into his bones. He walked a little to warm his limbs. A short distance up the path and down again. Finally, a low sound caught his ears. He eyed the shoreline and finally found the approaching spot of red in the horizon.

He tried to gather himself for the incoming social interaction. He was predisposed to hate the new guy. For starters, he was late, which was a grave error in Rhett’s mind. Rude and inconsiderate. Also, it had been so easy with Mike. He’d been as gruff as Rhett was. He’d just flown in, helped carry the stuff up to the lighthouse, and flown off. They barely even had small talk. It was perfect. But the gig was fixed-term, year at a time. And Mike apparently hadn’t wanted to do another year. So now there was a new guy, Charles Neal. Rhett didn’t know much about him, but in his e-mail, John had mentioned he was a talker. Rhett hated him already.

The helicopter was coming down now. Rhett took a few steps back and covered his face from the dusty air the rotor blades whipped at him. When the landing skids touched down, Rhett remarked that the landing was significantly smoother than Mike’s had ever been. His opinion of the man changed slightly despite his best efforts. He couldn’t help but respect the people who were good at their jobs. The rotor blades were still whirring when the door of the cockpit flew open, and the pilot hopped out. He was wearing tight jeans and a black leather jacket. Rhett almost shook his head. Not a weather-appropriate dresser, obviously. The man’s salt and pepper hair whipped around from the draft of the blades before they slowed to a stop. He lifted his hand and mussed his hair to a semi-purposeful style. He walked towards Rhett with a swinging step, and a wide smile plastered on his face. Annoyance flashed through Rhett but ever the southern boy, he politely lifted his hand for a shake.

“Neal.” Rhett offered the man’s name for a greeting. His voice was a low grumble. It was always a bit of a struggle to talk, after being silent for so long. Neal took his hand and shook it with purpose. Rhett observed the warmness of his palm and the pleasantly tight grip. His eyes were bright blue. Rhett couldn’t look away from them. He wondered if he was wearing colored contacts; the blueness was almost overwhelming.
“Wow. No one told me you were such a tall boy.” Link’s voice was laced with laughter. Rhett’s eyebrows creased to an angry frown. He let go of Neal’s hand and felt an unwelcome warmness creep into his neck and cheeks. What the hell kind of greeting was that? Very unprofessional. Neal either didn’t notice Rhett’s sour reaction or didn’t care. His smile seemed to only widen as he moved his gaze from Rhett to the lighthouse.

“That’s a damn pretty sight.”

Rhett thought so too. He’d fallen in love with his home as soon as he’d arrived here the first time, six years ago. The little island where they were was shaped like a droplet, the narrowest part pushing into the Atlantic Ocean. That part was also the highest. The lighthouse was built right at the end of it. It was slim and breathtakingly white. The light at the top was encased in glass and thin steel reinforcements, which made it have an appearance of a precious gem. Even after all these years living on the island, Rhett still marveled at the beauty of it. But he didn’t want to give Neal the satisfaction of agreeing, so he just let out a noncommittal grunt.

“Really, I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a pretty lighthouse. It’s big too. Fitting for you.” Link was laughing out loud now. Rhett just crossed his arms and looked at the man with a creased brow.

“How tall is it?”

“About 150 feet.”

“Big, as I said. And how tall are you? 6’5’, 6’6?” Neal was asking now with a smirk.

“6’7’.” Rhett said hoping this would end the conversation.

“And I’ve always considered myself a tall fellow. You’re really giving me an inferiority complex.”

Neal kept looking at Rhett, with that unwavering smile on his face. When Rhett didn’t answer anymore, he finally beckoned Rhett to follow him to the chopper.

“You can call me Link, by the way.” He said over his shoulder.

“They said your name was Charles?”

“Yeah, that’s my first name, but no one calls me that. It’s always been Link.”

“I think I’d rather just call you Neal.” Rhett mumbled. Honestly, I’d rather call you nothing at all, Rhett thought, can we just shut up and get this over with.

“If you’d like. I’m sorry I was late. Had to take a detour back to St. John’s because of a spot of engine trouble. Ok, here are the crates. These three are food. This one is refrigerated, these two are not. This fourth one has basic supplies, and your mail is also here. You probably need help carrying them up there?” Link asked as he was unloading the crates and placing them down to the helipad.

“Yeah, that’s the deal. You can take two and get going. The door is unlocked. The kitchen is on the second floor, you can take the crates there. I’ll load the pick-ups.” Rhett had no desire to walk back to the lighthouse with this man.

“Um, ok, I guess. Be gentle with Merle.” Neal said and gently patted the side of the helicopter. Rhett’s head whipped up.

“Merle? You’ve named your chopper Merle?”

“Yeah. After Merle Haggard. My constant companion.” Link smiled dreamily. Rhett’s eyebrows raised and he muttered:

“I love Merle.” At least Neal had an excellent taste in music. By the way he had been acting, Rhett would’ve thought his musical taste would have geared more towards the Top 40. An image of Neal wiggling his hips to some nonsensical dance beat filled Rhett’s mind. He chased the thought away, appalled.

“Me too!” Neal exclaimed excitedly and slapped Rhett’s shoulder with an air of familiarity they didn’t have yet. Then Neal winked at Rhett and said:

“I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Then he picked up two crates and headed towards the lighthouse.

“Hardly.” Rhett muttered, aghast. Rhett walked after him to get the crates that needed to be loaded into the chopper. He quickly realized his eyes were zeroed out on Neal’s hips. His step had an almost womanly sway. It freaked Rhett out. After about twenty steps, Neal suddenly stopped and put down the crates. He was crouching down and picking up something from the ground. Rhett was confused.

“What are you doing?”

“Found a rock.” Neal’s answer made Rhett cock an eyebrow. The whole island was basically nothing more than rocks and grass. To Rhett, seeing a rock didn’t exactly seem worth stopping.

“You found a rock?” Rhett repeated with a snarky tone.

Neal turned to look at him and polished his find against his thigh. He had a calm smile on his face.

“Yeah. It’s pretty. Wanna see?”

“No.” Rhett answered curtly as he picked up a couple of crates. Ridiculous. This man was ridiculous.

“It’s a thing. I’ve been doing this since I was a kid.” Neal explains as he slipped the rock into his pocket.

“Good for you.” Rhett huffed and turned his back on Neal. Soon he heard his footsteps moving away.

Rhett was procrastinating with the crates. Moving them to and fro. He wanted Neal to be heading back before he got there. Their interaction was giving him a weird anxiety. He kept looking at the lighthouse. The door stayed closed. It had already been almost 10 minutes since Neal had gone in. Finally, Rhett relinquished his hope and started a slow ascent towards the top of the hill.

The door opened with a familiar creak and Rhett made a mental note that it was time to oil the hinges again. The first floor was not heated, it was used as a storage area and a draught lobby. Rhett got up the stairs to the door of the second floor. It usually took a bit of maneuvering to put the crates down and open the door, but now the door flew open before him. Neal was standing on the doorway, still that same smile on his face. It was getting on Rhett’s nerves. Who the hell smiled that much?

“How was it?” Neal asked as Rhett placed the crates on the side counter.

“How was what?”

“Your time with Merle. Took you long enough to get here. I thought maybe you guys were getting to know each other.”

“Was just securing the crates properly.” Rhett said with a huff as he started to unpack the foodstuffs.

“Well, I appreciate that, obviously. Very sweet of you. But I actually can’t fly until I’ve checked them myself.”

“Mmh. Makes sense. I’ll remember that next month.”

Why was he still here? Rhett thought¨, feeling exasperated. He hadn’t talked this much in months. It was making him tired and irritated. Rhett looked at Neal from the corner of his eye and saw that he had moved to the other end of the kitchen and was bending down to look at pictures Rhett had on top of a bureau. He didn’t seem to be in a hurry to leave. Suddenly Rhett realized that a sound of bubbling water was filling the kitchen.

“Are you making tea?” He asked, looking at Neal incredulously. He didn’t turn but answered happily.

“Yeah. You’re my last stop today. Thought we could drink some tea and get to know each other. I brought pastries.”

“You…?” Rhett’s mouth hung slightly open. The cheek of this man. Rhett knew he was not very hospitable, but he hadn’t asked for this. This is specifically something he never asked for. Someone popping over for some tea and pastries. There was a reason why he lived alone on an island, surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean.

“You don’t have any pictures of your family or friends here.” Neal remarked and waved his hand at the bureau. They were all nature shots. Some taken by Rhett himself, other’s by famous nature photographers he liked.

“So?” Rhett snapped. Neal brought his hands up to placate.

“I mean, they’re pretty pictures. Was just wondering. Did you take them?”

“Some.” Rhett snarled.

Link smiled, leaving the pictures alone and started to open cabinets with a considerable banging and clanging. Rhett sighed. Apparently, there was no getting rid of this man. Might as well drink some tea then. His ears had started to burn as they warmed, and the chill seemed to be stuck inside of him. Tea would help.

“Just sit down before you break something. I’ll get the mugs.” Rhett murmured and pushed Neal towards the table.

“Thanks!” Neal sat down behind Rhett.

Rhett took out the mugs and steeped the tea. He took out plates for the pastries that were in a paper bag on the counter. He turned to bring everything to the table and was presented with an odd sight that made him draw a sharp breath. He didn’t remember the last time someone other than him had sat at that table. Also, apparently, there was nothing Neal could do like a normal person. He’d tucked his left foot under his right thigh and lifted his right foot to the chair. He was leaning into his propped knee. Who the hell sits like that?

Link accepted the steaming mug graciously and attacked the pastry with the fervor of a starving man. Rhett tasted it too. It was good. Light and fluffy dough with some kind of dark chocolate filling. Neal was chewing loudly and with purpose. It was obnoxious. Rhett had only taken a couple of bites of his when Neal was done and licking his fingers with a loud pop as they came out of his mouth. For some reason it made Rhett want to squirm in his seat.

“I love these so much. I get them from this bakery next to the hospital. They are amazing. It’s like this little mom and pop shop. The owner is so sweet. She usually gives me extra, and I always try to pay more, but she won’t let me. One time their delivery van was busted, and I figured it was a problem with the carburetor. I think she feels like she owes me for that, which is ridiculous. I love helping when I can.”

Rhett was stirring his tea slowly and listening to the flood of words that was pouring out of Link. He didn’t seem to mind the monologue. Without a beat, he moved on to a story about a dog he’d rescued from the street. Rhett needed only to nod his head and make a little mmhm-sound here and there. It wasn’t as bad when he didn’t have to talk. It was actually kind of nice.

“So, how long have you been here?” Neal had finally changed gear and was now looking intently at Rhett. Even in the low light of the kitchen, his eyes seemed to shine bright. Rhett was getting lost in them.

“Rhett?”

Rhett startled and quickly looked away. What was he doing?

“Hmh. You can call me Doctor McLaughlin.” They weren’t friends. There was no reason to be on a first-name basis.

“Seriously?”

“Yes.”

“Fine, Doctor McLaughlin.” He said it with an edge of snark and repeated the question. “How long have you been here?”

“About six years.”

“Wow. But not alone, right? Like, somebody else’s been here too for some of that?”

“What? No. Just me.”

“That’s crazy! Six years…Don’t you get lonely?”

“Not that it’s any of your business, but no.” The comfortable feeling Rhett had managed to achieve was quickly disappearing. He got up and poured the rest of his cooling tea down the drain. He leaned against the sink and crossed his arms on his chest.

“Maybe you should be leaving.” He tried not to sound as annoyed as he felt but failed. Neal got up, looking a bit hurt. He brought his mug over, and for a second, their arms brushed against each other. All the hairs on Rhett’s arm shot up, and he jumped farther away. Neal threaded his eyebrows together and looked at Rhett with a pondering expression.

“Yeah, ok. I probably should. I still need you to sign the delivery. Here.” Neal produced a folded paper from his jacket pocket. Rhett turned to the counter to sign it.

“See you in a month.” Neal turned to say with a tiny smile before he disappeared to the staircase.

Rhett waited for the outer door to close, snatched his jacket, and climbed up to the top of the lighthouse. He stepped outside and leaned on the railing, watching Neal make his way back to the helipad. Neal turned to look towards him before he got on the helicopter. He stood there a long time, hands in his pockets. Then he slowly waved his hand. Rhett didn’t wave back.

Rhett didn’t go inside until the chopper had turned into a tiny dot in the sky. He descended back to the kitchen. There was a weird lump on his throat. Maybe he was getting sick. The kitchen seemed wrong, somehow. Too empty after the onslaught of another person there. Rhett just stood in the middle of the room for a while. Then something caught his eye. On the bureau -- in front of the picture of the lighthouse he’d taken a few years back -- was a round white stone. Rhett picked it up. It was smooth and shiny, nothing like the bleak gray stones that made up his island. Was that really the one Neal had picked up from the path? How had it gotten there? Rhett rubbed the stone absentmindedly, imagining Neal, placing it there. Imagined the smile on his lips and those sharp blue eyes. A sigh escaped him.

Finally, he carefully placed the stone back where he found it.

“See you in a month.” He whispered to fill the void that had taken home in his stomach.

Chapter Text

It had been a strange month for Rhett. After the last supply drop, he’d been in an off-kilter headspace. He kept forgetting what he’d been doing. More than once, he’d found himself standing in the middle of the kitchen, having no idea how he’d ended up there or what he was supposed to be doing. He couldn’t get rid of the pit that had taken residence in his stomach.

He had half-lied to Neal when he was asked if he ever got lonely. In a way, it was true that he never got lonely. But that was only because you couldn’t catch something that was always there. He’d gotten used to the loneliness. After so many years feeling it, it had lost its edge and just became a constant thrumming. It was no longer something negative. It had almost a calming effect on Rhett. It just was. He was lonely.

But Neal had rattled something in him. During the last month, he’d started to notice the loneliness. It sneaked up on him when he was eating breakfast, and he realized he was drinking from the mug that Neal had used. It punched him in the gut when he came back from his daily walk and opened the inner door to the empty, silent kitchen. It even lingered at night as he read in bed, listening to the constant roar of the ocean and the howling of the wind.

As a desperate measure to lessen the feeling, he even emailed Stevie, his editor, asking something that he usually didn’t bother asking. Just to get a tiny respite from the emptiness that plagued him. If Stevie had been surprised by his email, which she easily could have since Rhett never before had initiated a conversation, she didn’t show it. Her reply came swiftly and was her usual mix of business and personal. Usually the personal made Rhett frown, but now he held onto it, even replying back.

Still, all of this irritated Rhett to no end. He had chosen this life for a reason. He had no desire to start to actually feel something again. It was all Neal’s fault, he kept thinking. That silly man had no right to waltz into his life and force his cheeriness into Rhett’s pleasantly bleak existence. Rhett kept thinking about their next meeting. It was almost an obsession. He imagined the conversation he would need to have with him. He would tell Neal that he would appreciate some professionalism, and what he really needed was for him to just do his job and leave. No need for niceties. No need for small talk. Definitely no need for that quirky smile. He probably shouldn’t say that last part.

Finally, it was the 15th again. Rhett woke up early and made his morning tea, whistling a tune that had been stuck into his head for a while now. After breakfast, he got some writing done and cleaned the solar panels since it had snowed the previous night. It was a clear day. The sky was a hue of bright blue that was rarely seen here. Rhett’s mind was wandering, and he realized the blue sky reminded him he’d see Neal’s blue eyes again today. He was really losing his mind. Thankfully, the cold felt refreshing, so Rhett walked at a brisk pace around the island, enjoying the weather and trying to shake the feeling of anticipation. He tried to keep himself busy, but the hours still dragged.

Rhett knew he was early. He was standing again at the edge of the helipad, looking expectantly at the horizon. Hopefully, Neal was on time today. He had a whole speech prepared. He just wanted to get it over with and return back to normal. When the red spot finally appeared, Rhett’s stomach flipped, and he let out an annoyed growl. He couldn’t change how his body reacted, but it still made him mad that social situations made him feel like this. The chopper came down as gently as last month, and Neal was jumping out in no time. Rhett noticed that he had changed his leather coat to a warmer one, a brown pilot’s jacket lined with white fleece. He still had on the same tight jeans, though, and the added bulkiness of the jacket made his hips seem even slimmer than they were. And, of course, he was wearing that goddamn smile.

“Hey there, tall boy!” Neal called out happily and started to unload the crates. Rhett bristled. Disrespectful. That’s what this man was. An insolent boy wearing a man’s appearance on him. The acute feeling of annoyance took over, and he strode to Neal, ready to speak his mind.

“I need to talk to you about something. But first, I thought we agreed that you’d call me Doctor McLaughlin.” Rhett started, voice stern.

Neal turned to look at him with a smirk.

“Oh, don’t be like that. Just a bit of fun amongst friends?”

“We are not friends. You are just providing a service to me.”

“And happy to do that.” Neal said with a wink.

Rhett’s face grew hot, and he felt like gasping for air. He was just about to unload on Neal, but Neal beat him to the punch.

“I’ve been meaning to ask. What kind of doctor are you anyway? I didn’t think one would need a Ph.D. to be a lighthouse keeper.”

“I’m not a lighthouse keeper.” Rhett answered, confused.

“What? What are you doing here then? Just squatting?” Neal had a mixed look of confusion and amusement on his face.

“I mean, it’s not my profession. The lighthouse is automated and remote-controlled. I do some light repairs and upkeep like cleaning and such. That’s part of the deal living here, but it’s not my job.”

“Still sounds to me that you’re a lighthouse keeper. Since you, you know, keep it working.”

“I guess. If you look at it that way. Haven’t ever really thought of it like that.” Rhett’s anger had vanished, and he turned to stare at his home. His hand rose to scratch his beard absentmindedly. How had he been living here for this long and never thought about this?

“So, you’re not like a doctor of seafaring, then?” Neal’s question turned Rhett back towards him.

“No, I’m a marine biologist.”

“Wow, really? That’s cool. Like coral reefs and whales and such?”

“Oh, no, I’m nothing that sexy.” Rhett couldn’t believe that had slipped out of his mouth. How horrifying. He scrambled to clarify. “I mean, that’s obviously what you think first when you hear marine biology. The popular specializations that the media likes to talk about. I did my dissertation on ocean-atmosphere interactions.”

Neal’s smile grew crooked, and he squinted. His gaze studied Rhett, from head to toe and back.

“Oh, I think you’re plenty of sexy.”

The blushing was apparent and intense. Rhett felt like he should get angry again, but for some reason, he couldn’t muster it. He just felt slightly confused and uncomfortably heated. Was Neal flirting with him? He couldn’t be. He opened his mouth to say something, but nothing seemed to come out. So, eventually, he just closed it and picked up the crates.

“Let’s get moving,” he mumbled and turned to walk.

He had a good head start before he heard the chopper door sliding closed and Neal’s footsteps closing the distance. Even with his long stride, it didn’t take Neal long to catch up with him. The man was in shape. Rhett sneaked a glance. Neal wasn’t looking at him, though. His neck was craned to look at the lighthouse, and he had a content smile on his face like nothing had happened. Like the most obscene thing Rhett has heard in a decade hadn’t been uttered. Rhett actually started to question his hearing. Maybe Neal had said something else entirely. That had to be it, Rhett decided. Because who could say something like that and act like nothing happened a second later?

“So, what do you do then?” Neal asked after a few glorious minutes of silence.

“What do you mean?” Rhett’s mind had wandered in the absence of words. He didn’t remember what they’d been talking about.

“You said lighthouse keeping is not your job. What is your job?” Neal clarified and stopped to adjust his grip on the crates he was carrying. Rhett stopped too, to wait for him, tapping his foot exasperated. Neal just stood there, looking at him, apparently waiting for an answer. Rhett made a new decision. He’d have an ACTUAL conversation with Neal. How bad could it be? He wasn’t exactly the king of conversation himself, so it just might be that Neal would decide on his own to stop this ridiculous “we’re friends” charade. Then he didn’t have to have an uncomfortable discussion about professionalism and such.

“Oh, umm…I write.”

“Like scientific articles?”

“Yes.”

“And?”

“What do you mean, and?”

“Just felt like there was an and.”

“Fine. Since you keep prodding, I’ve written some novels. But it’s not like they make money.”

“So, no true crime or erotic fiction?” Neal was laughing now. Rhett stopped a chuckle at the last second. The idea of him writing erotic fiction was hilarious for sure, but he hadn’t laughed in ages. Neal’s ridiculous jokes wouldn’t make him start again.

“No. Definitely not. Just literary fiction.”

“Maybe I’ll read them.”

“I don’t think you’d be interested.” Rhett couldn’t for the life of him imagine Neal reading at all, let alone reading his books.

“Really? Why do you say that?” Neal had stopped again and was peering at Rhett under his thick eyelashes. Rhett’s eyes got stuck in them. Such pretty eyelashes on a man, Rhett thought.

“Oh, probably not up your alley. Just some boring and gratuitous musings of an old man. Maybe a bit too high brow for you.”

Neal’s face contorted for a second. Rhett wasn’t sure, but it almost looked like hurt. Then the expression disappeared, and Neal grinned.

“You’re not that old. I reckon we’re almost the same age, and I’m young as hell!” He did a little half-dance, half-wiggle at the end of his exclamation to prove his point. An unsophisticated snort slipped out of Rhett. He frowned at the laughing man.

“I don’t think so. You can’t be older than…” Rhett stopped. He wasn’t exactly sure what he was about to say. He had no idea how old Neal was. It just seemed like he was way younger than him. He had such a youthful energy about him. He made Rhett feel ancient. Then again, he had that graying hair…

“I’m 40.”

Rhett’s eyebrows shot up. Neal scrunched his nose and smirked.

“I like it when I make you speechless,” he said with a cocked head. “Not like you’re usually the orator of the month, but it’s still fun.”

Rhett huffed at him and stomped forward. He couldn’t believe Neal was only a year younger than him. He also couldn’t believe he’d used a word like orator.

The kitchen was nice and warm after the nipping cold of the outside. They put the crates down, and Rhett took off his jacket and gloves.

“You haven’t put up your Christmas decorations yet,” Neal remarked.

“I don’t have any.”

“What?”

“I don’t do Christmas.”

“Oh. Why?” Neal asked almost sadly.

“No reason. I just don’t. What’s it to you?” Rhett snapped. He didn’t want to talk about this. He glared at the man. He had about enough of his questions.

“Nothing, I guess.” Neal shrugged and backed away, figuratively and literally. He now stood in the doorway, shuffling his legs and warming his hands by rubbing them together. His nose was red and runny from the cold. Nothing would make Rhett happier now that to ask him to leave, but it felt like an offense to banish him back to the chill right away.

“Tea?” Rhett asked, resigned.

Neal’s face brightened. He shrugged out of his jacket and plopped on the same chair as month before.

“Please. The pastries are in that crate.” He pointed to one.

Rhett frowned at him. He felt a little like he’d been tricked.

“I would have just left them both for you if you hadn’t offered,” Neal said smiling sheepishly and blew into his cupped palms to warm them.

Rhett opened the crate.

“What’s this?” He asked, confused. In the crate, there was a big parcel, haphazardly wrapped in sparkly red wrapping paper.

“Oh!” Neal jumped up. He looked properly embarrassed.

Rhett was looking at the parcel like it was a bomb. It was obviously a Christmas present. He hadn’t gotten a Christmas present since... The memory rose to his mind and ripped through him. He felt like choking. His skin was buzzing uncomfortably, and his throat felt suddenly dry. The feeling was familiar, but it hadn’t happened in years. Not after he’d come to the island. Rhett’s chest rose and fell in quick succession. He tried to control his breathing, but it just seemed to make it worse. Rhett’s hands shook as he lifted the present and placed it on the counter.

“Neal. What the hell?” Rhett’s voice cracked, and it almost made him want to vomit. He didn’t want anyone to see what was about to come, least of all Neal. He was standing next to Rhett now. His perpetual smile had vanished. He stood close, not touching, studying Rhett with his piercing eyes.

“It was just something silly. I saw it at the store and thought of you. I didn’t know you didn’t celebrate Christmas. If it’s too much, I can take it with me,” Neal said.

Rhett was hyperventilating. He felt like he was dying. He might as well. He’d never live this down. A grown man having a panic attack over a Christmas present. Neal moved quickly, picking up the gift and dashing downstairs. He was back next to Rhett before he could barely piece together what had happened.

“It’s okay, Rhett. Just concentrate on my breathing. Okay? In…out…” Neal’s voice was warm and low.

“I…can’t. It’s...” Rhett’s voice was hoarse, but the way Neal kept looking at him, all steady and calm, started to make him feel calmer too. He got to a right breathing rhythm. The buzzing was dissipating slowly. Rhett took hold of the counter with both of his hands and dropped his head down. He was breathing normally now. He just needed a minute to gather himself.

As if he’d said the thought aloud, Neal moved away from him. Rhett could hear him getting the tea ready. The light clatter and clinking was weirdly calming. He could hear the mugs being placed on the table and Neal sitting down.

Rhett considered his options. He could just leave the room, ascend to his bedroom and close the door, disappear. It was so tempting to not deal with whatever was coming next. With Neal, it would probably be a lot of questions.

He could yell. He could make Neal leave. A part of him really wanted to do that. Neal was the catalyst, after all. If he hadn’t brought that present, nothing would have happened. If he didn’t insist on being friends, nothing would have happened. But Rhett wasn’t that big of an asshole, was he? Neal hadn’t known. He’d just tried to do something nice to a complete stranger. Rhett still really wanted to yell.

In the end, Rhett just sat down heavily across from Neal. It was the easiest option, and he felt physically and emotionally drained. Neal was smiling calmly and sipping his tea. He’d already demolished his pastry, wiping crumbs away from his fingers. Rhett picked his up. It was a jam-filled one this time and as good as last month. Rhett chewed slowly and kept his eyes on the tea mug waiting for the inevitable questions.

“So.” Neal began, and Rhett could feel his chest tightening. “Do you want to hear what happened at work a few days ago?”

A relief flushed through Rhett, and he nodded almost enthusiastically. Neal’s voice filled the kitchen as he started to tell about a particularly tricky medevac situation. Rhett listened and hummed an “uh-huh” or “really?” here and there. He started to feel somewhat normal again. Neal’s voice and cadence had a meditative quality. The tea was helping too, warming him up and making him feel cozy. He’d gotten to such a contented place that he jumped a little in his seat when Neal eventually stood up looking at his wristwatch.

“Wow, look at the time. Should probably get going. I still have other stops today,” Neal said as he pulled out the papers for Rhett to sign.

“Oh. Okay. Bye,” Rhett managed as he signed. His mood sank.

“See you next month,” Neal said, a smile on his lips that didn’t seem to reach his eyes. The door closed behind him.

Rhett sat for a moment, feeling antsy. His body wanted to run after Neal. He growled in annoyance as his leg shook nervously. What was wrong with him? Then it suddenly dawned on him. He hadn’t had his practiced speech about boundaries. He still wanted that, right? Because he sure as hell didn’t want to have panic attacks over ridiculous things anymore. And even if he did, he didn’t want to feel like he needed to explain himself to anyone. He didn’t need a friend. He didn’t want to miss talking to someone. He didn’t want to feel, period.

He was already halfway down the stairs before he even realized he’d decided to go. Neal’s hand was almost touching the handle of the outer door when Rhett caught up to him. His hand wrapped around Neal’s forearm, and he staggered to a stop. He tried to ignore the feeling that ran through him as he felt Neal’s muscles move. Neal turned, and his arm took hold of Rhett to steady him. His eyes were blue lagoons of worry. Rhett’s resolve vanished. He gasped for air, trying to regain the determination he thought he had. It wasn’t happening.

“You okay?” Neal asked with a low voice.

“Hey, uh. I’m sorry, man.”

“No, I’m sorry. It’s ok. I get it. Panic attacks are a bitch.”

“You…um…have personal experience?” For some reason, Rhett had to know. He knew it was a personal question. He didn’t usually ask those kinds of questions. They stood almost chest to chest. Rhett noticed they were still holding onto each other. He didn’t let go. Neal nodded slowly.

“Yeah. It’s been a while, though. Are you okay? Maybe I should stay for a little longer…” Neal was looking straight into Rhett’s eyes. Rhett’s mind was screaming. Yes, please stay.

“No, it’s fine. I’m fine. Go, you have work to do.”

“Okay. I’m taking the…the thing.”

Rhett was confused for a second. Then he realized what Neal meant. A weird feeling rose in him. Something bittersweet, like he was losing something he’d never had.

“Oh, you don’t have to do that. Maybe I’ll…open it later.”

“You sure?” Neal looked worried, still.

“Yeah. I mean, you went to all that trouble. Would be ungrateful of me.”

“If you’re sure.”

“I am.”

They stood like that for a moment. Neal studying Rhett’s face, Rhett taking in the feeling of another person in his space. Then, Neal stepped out the door and picked up the present he’d apparently brought all the way out earlier. Neal stepped back and looked around. He pointed to an empty cardboard box.

“Do you need this?”

“No.”

Neal put the present in, closed the box and took his pen out. He wrote something on the box and then asked.

“Tape?”

“Yeah,” Rhett turned to a shelf and found a roll of packing tape. He looked over Neal’s shoulder as he taped the box. On top of the box, it read: “You are not your mental illness. Only open if you’re sure. It’s okay if you never do.” Rhett’s chest grew warm. Neal turned to smile at him.

“Okay. You sure I can go?”

No, Rhett thought. “Yes.”

Neal walked out. Rhett stepped after him, leaning into the doorframe. It was cold, and he didn’t have his jacket, but he didn’t care. Neal turned to look back after about fifty steps. When he saw Rhett, he grinned and hollered:

“I’m not going to call you Doctor McLaughlin! Just so you know!”

Rhett shook his head, and a chuckle burst out of him.

Chapter Text

The end of the year was the worst one in a while for Rhett. A few days after Neal’s delivery, he succumbed to the black void that swallowed him every year. He tried to do everything he usually did to combat the darkness. He kept to his schedule, woke at eight o’clock sharp, even though getting out of bed felt pointless. He had his meals, ate them methodically, tasting nothing. He had his walk and tried to enjoy the snow and biting wind. He tried to concentrate on his limbs moving. He did his chores and wrote his assignments. There were only a few, he knew not to accept many this time of year. Writing was slow and forced. He knew there would be many edits.

Christmas came and went. It wasn’t the hardest day of his yearly depression, so Rhett barely noticed. On New Year’s Eve, however, the tidal wave of emotion hit. He sat at the kitchen table, his bowl of oatmeal drying in front of him. It had been hours since he ate. He just kept staring into the nothingness and let the horrible sadness wash over him. This was the only day a year he allowed that. He knew he couldn’t feel this way all the time for his own survival, but he felt like he owed her this. A form of penance -- just one day, he would let himself mourn her and the future that was ripped from them. That HE ripped from them. There were no tears, just an all-consuming ache. Time’s supposed to heal all wounds, but, for Rhett, it felt like time made it worse. Year after year, it was harder to think of her. He was wondering how many more years he could bare this before his heart would just give up trying.

He turned a green triangular stone over in his hand. He’d found it next to the white one after Neal had left. It seemed to have just materialized there since Rhett had no memory of Neal ever going near the bureau. But there it was, deep green with lighter-toned bands going around it. It wasn’t as smooth as the white one, and it kind of looked like a Christmas tree when he turned it into an upright position. He’d Googled it, and it was called malachite. It had become some kind of charm to him. He’d rub the uneven surface with his thumb and index finger, feeling as though he could tap into the calmness that Neal had radiated when he’d had his panic attack. It wasn’t much, but it was helping him get through the worst of it.

With the new year came relief. He was always afraid that he’d stay in the void, that he wouldn’t be able to climb out of the darkness. But every year, by the end of January, he was more or less himself again. By the 15th, he was halfway there. Still feeling exhausted and empty but not nearly as much as the first of the month. On the morning of the supply drop, he even got out of bed before his alarm rang. He felt like he’d gotten a new reserve of energy. He emailed Stevie, asking for assignments and even answered few of the emails he’d received.

It was snowing. Tiny flakes floated slowly from the sky, clinging into Rhett’s beard and dusting his cap and shoulders. As he waited, he kept playing their last meeting in his head. He was feeling a bit awkward after everything that had happened. But it hadn’t seemed like it had had an impact on Neal. Rhett probably should just try to forget the whole thing. Neal had done Rhett a kindness because he knew how he’d felt. It wasn’t like they’d sworn a blood oath. It wasn’t like they were friends now. Rhett’s mind kept returning to the moment at the door when they stood close to each other. It kept bugging him, and he didn’t know why.

Rhett spotted the chopper and waited for his body’s usual nervous reaction. But it didn’t come. All he felt was a light buzzing of – what? Rhett tried to pinpoint what he was feeling. As the chopper touched down, it finally dawned on him. He was excited. He hadn’t felt like that in ages. It almost felt a little wrong, like the feeling was forbidden.

What did you even say to a person you wanted to greet? It seemed that it’d been so long Rhett had forgotten. When Neal jumped out, Rhett offered the first greeting that came to him.

“Hiya!” That felt weird. Rhett felt a faint blush forming on his cheeks.

“Hiya there, Rhett! How’ve you been?” Link was smiling at him as he walked up to him. For a moment, something about his body language made Rhett think he was going to hug him, but Neal’s body shifted at the last second, and he offered his hand for a greeting. Rhett shook it, even though it felt slightly too formal considering their previous meeting. Neal’s head cocked, and his smile vanished.

“Are you okay?”

Rhett frowned. He didn’t feel like he’d looked particularly bad before coming here. Wait, since when have I been checking my looks before a supply drop? The thought flitted through his mind but disappeared as Neal continued.

“You look sad. Everything all right?”

“I’m fine. I…uh…have been a bit under the weather,” Rhett stuttered as he tried to come up with an excuse.

Neal scrunched his face. He didn’t seem to buy Rhett’s explanation.

“Mmhm. Okay. Hope you’ll feel better soon,” he said anyway, making Rhett breathe a sigh of relief. Suddenly, he realized they were still holding hands. He dropped his hold with a sudden twitch. Neal didn’t seem too bothered. The corner of his lips had turned up, and he was looking at Rhett in a way that made him swallow awkwardly.

“Is there something on my face?” Rhett asked, voice uneven. I haven’t talked in a month, of course, my voice sounds weird, he told himself. It wasn’t because of Neal, who let out a low chuckle and lifted his hand. Rhett startled, taking a step back. Neal followed with a fluid movement, and his finger brushed gently at Rhett’s eyelashes. Rhett felt like he’d forgotten how to breathe.

“Snowflakes. On your eyelashes.” Rhett heard Neal’s voice muffled, overpowered by the thrum of his racing heartbeat. His eyes shifted at Neal’s finger that had a few quickly melting snowflakes on it. He saw that Neal was still looking at him, piercing blue eyes dancing at the edge of Rhett’s vision, but he couldn’t look back.

“Um..should we?” Rhett motioned towards the chopper. He felt hot and cold at the same time. Maybe he really was coming down with something. He hadn’t had the flu in ages.

“Yeah, let’s get out of this cold.”

The walk back to the lighthouse should’ve cleared Rhett’s head, but as they stepped inside, he still felt light-headed. As they walked through the storage area, Rhett noticed Neal glancing at the cardboard box that was still on the floor where he’d left it last month. A twinge of guilt flashed through Rhett.

“I’m sorry, I haven’t…” he started to say. Neal just smiled at him over his shoulder.

“Don’t worry about it. I don’t mind.”

The kitchen was warm and felt abnormally cozy. Must be the cold weather, Rhett thought as he shook the snow off his clothes. Neal did the same and shrugged out of his jacket. Rhett put on the kettle without asking, and Neal rummaged through the crate for pastries before sitting in his usual seat. A smile crept to Rhett’s lips as he turned to place the mugs on the table.

“What?” Neal asked smiling back.

“Just…How can you sit like that?” Rhett asked with a chuckle.

Neal sat as before, one leg propped up and the other tucked under it. He looked down at himself and let out a hearty laugh that made Rhett’s chest warm up.

“I don’t know. Never really thought about that. This is just how I sit.”

“It’s weird, man. You look like a pretzel.” Rhett huffed still smiling.

“Hey, pretzels are delicious. You a pretzel man, Rhett?” Neal quipped with a smirk. Rhett’s face reddened, and he frowned. He wasn’t imagining this, right? This had to be flirting. How was he supposed to feel about it? He couldn’t even remember the last time someone had flirted with him. And that someone had definitely not been a man, least of all an attractive man. Neal was objectively an attractive man. Beautiful, even. I’m not gay, but I can still appreciate beauty, Rhett thought. Suddenly he realized he’d been staring at Neal mouth hanging slightly open as he waited for an answer.

“I…uh…no, not really,” he mumbled and turned to get some plates and hide his flushed face. When he turned back, Neal had changed his position. He was now sitting in a lotus pose and was opening the pastry bag, an innocent smile on his face. He’d brought donuts this time. They were glazed with pink icing and tasted sickly sweet. Rhett had to keep licking his fingers as the glazing kept sticking on them.

“Okay, no pretzels. Sweets then. Want me to bring anything specific next month?” Neal asked as they ate and sipped their tea. His eyes kept following Rhett’s fingers.

“Oh, anything is fine. I liked the chocolate-filled ones,” Rhett muttered, mouth half-full of donut. Neal saying the words 'next month' made Rhett’s stomach drop. Was he leaving soon then? Last month, he didn’t seem to be in a hurry.

“Chocolate-filled ones it is then!” Neal proclaimed and lifted his tea mug into a toast. Rhett forced a smile and let their mugs clink.

“You…um…have many stops left today?” He asked, trying to sound disinterested. The last of the donut disappeared into his mouth, and he felt almost as empty as the plate left in front of him.

“Nah. You’re my last one today.”

“Oh.” Was all Rhett managed to say as relief flushed through him.

They finished their teas slowly. Neal kept the conversation going, telling work stories, and talking about his dog, Jade. Rhett asked a question here and there and felt a smidgen of pride for trying so hard.

Their mugs had been empty for a long while when Rhett finally got up and took them to the sink. He was washing them when Neal stepped next to him to give him the plates. Their arms brushed against one another. Rhett felt a shiver travel through him. Neal didn’t move away. He stayed next to him, arm touching arm, took a towel, and started to dry the mugs. A warmth radiated from him. Rhett wanted to lean into it. He mentally shook his head. He had been alone for too long. It was obviously making his brain glitch.

“So, how did you end up here?” Neal asked, breaking their contact as he turned to look at Rhett. Rhett wanted Neal to turn back, wanted to feel another person’s body next to him. The need for closeness was sudden and aching. Rhett felt his stomach constrict. As he battled with the unwanted feeling, he struggled to understand the question Neal had asked.

“A friend of mine knew I was looking for a rental. He works for the Navy and happened to hear about this place. He suggested it to me.” He finally got words out, head still foggy. Was he even answering the right question? Neal nodded in response, so he must have.

“The rent must be crazy?”

“Not really. The location is not exactly central.”

Neal giggled. It made Rhett smile, and suddenly, he felt better. It was normal, wasn’t it, to want human connection? He’d been alone so long. His body was just reacting to the stimulus like it was supposed to react. He could just ignore it as it didn’t mean anything. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he admitted to himself that he liked it when he made Neal laugh.

“Want a tour?” Rhett asked. Neal’s eyes widened, and he grinned excitedly.

“Really? Yes, definitely!”

“Okay. Come on then.”

They climbed the stairs Rhett leading the way and Neal following with a spring in his step.

“Bathroom is behind here.” Rhett said as he opened the door at the next level. Neal peeked in and made a surprised sound.

“There’s a bathtub! Why is there a bathtub in a lighthouse? How did they even get it here?” Neal stepped in and ran his fingers across the lip of the clawfoot tub that stood in the bathroom. Rhett chuckled.

“Legend has it that at one point there was a keeper who tore down some walls to get it here. He apparently really liked bathing.”

Neal turned and smiled. There was a twinkle in his eyes.

“I can imagine you taking long bubble baths here. The wind howling outside. Very romantic.”

Rhett snorted. He felt like he should’ve been annoyed or embarrassed by Neal’s words, but all he could feel was a strange giddiness.

“Don’t think there’s been many bath bombs on my supply lists. Come on.”

Neal threw a final glance at the bathtub and followed. After a few flights of stairs, Rhett motioned to another door.

“Bedroom.”

Neal looked at him expectantly and lifted a brow.

“What? I thought I was getting a tour. I want to know what a lighthouse keeper’s bedroom looks like.”

“It’s nothing special. Just a bed and some bookshelves,” Rhett muttered. It really was nothing special, but it still felt too personal. Neal looked at him head cocked to the side, waiting, but when Rhett didn’t budge, he finally said:

“Fine. Up?”

Rhett nodded, thankful that the man relented. There was another smaller room above the bedroom that might have been a second bedroom at one point, but now it was just storage. They ascended further.

“This used to be the control room,” Rhett said when they came to the top... Neal walked around, fiddled with the radio transmitter and dipped his head back to look at the ladder that lead to the light.

“Can we go up there?”

“Sure. It’s cold, though. Didn’t think about taking our coats.”

“S’okay. Just for a minute?”

“After you. Just open the latch and push.”

Rhett followed Neal up the ladder. When the hatch opened, a batch of frigid air pushed down, making Rhett look up. From his angle, he got a front-row seat to the show that was Charles Neal’s round behind wiggling itself up the hatch. Rhett’s breath hitched, and he felt an unmistakable twitch in his pants. His foot slipped a rung, and he scrambled to hold on. Neal had managed to get up and was looking down at Rhett from the hatch.

“You okay?” Neal sounded worried.

Rhett was hanging on to the ladder for dear life, seeking purchase from the metal rungs. He felt his chest heaving. It’s normal. It’s normal. Ignore it. You’re fine. His mind was spinning. His eyes refused to leave Neal, and he was sure he wore his thoughts on his face for the other man to read. Rhett waited for Neal to joke or in any way acknowledge the situation, but he just jutted out his hand as an offering of help.

“Come on. You’re fine.”

Rhett started to climb again, limbs shaky and head spinning. He ignored the offered hand and climbed up to the hatch.

“Move.” Rhett’s voice was harsh. Neal jumped away with a surprised expression. Rhett banged the latch shut, got up, and rubbed his shaking hands on his thighs. It was cold in the light chamber, and Rhett hoped Neal would mistake his shaking as a reaction for the temperature drop. Neal had moved further away, trying to open the door to the balcony that circled the chamber. Rhett walked up to him and pushed him off the door. He knew he was unnecessarily rough, but he couldn’t help himself. As he popped the door open, he saw Neal’s face from the corner of his eye. He looked confused, and a bit hurt. The expression gnawed at Rhett. Logically, he knew it wasn’t Neal’s fault that he was feeling this way. But he wasn’t feeling calm and logical right now. It was almost like he was having a fight or flight response to his inner turmoil. And since pride wouldn’t allow him to flee, he had only one choice left.

Rhett stepped outside, and his teeth instantly started chattering. The wind had picked up and was whipping snowflakes around them. Neal followed Rhett but stayed farther back, wrapping his arms around himself for a desperate attempt for warmth. Rhett brazed his hands against the railing, leaned his upper body over it, and looked down. The cold was actually helping him. His mind seemed clearer, and his body felt comfortably numb.

“Rhett. Can you step back a bit?” Neal’s voice sounded shaky.

Rhett turned to look at him, still leaning over the railing. Neal’s face had gone pale, and his hand was in front of him in an imploring gesture. A dark thought rose to the surface in Rhett’s mind. He wanted Neal to feel uncomfortable. It seemed fair since he was making Rhett feel that way too. He stepped closer to the railing and cocked his head to Neal who seemed to get paler.

“I’m sorry. What did you say?” Rhett’s voice was velvet, and a little smile of pleasure danced on his lips.

“Come on! You heard me. Can you step back a bit? It’s freaking me out.” Neal took a step towards Rhett. Rhett could see his hand shake.

“You can’t be afraid of heights. You’re a pilot.” Rhett laughed as the realization dawned on him.

“That’s different,” Neal hissed and strained from his position towards Rhett to pull him away from the edge. Rhett moved away from his hand, leaning even farther out. A strangled cry broke out of Neal, and he rushed to Rhett. Neal’s hands wrapped around his midriff and yanked them both away from the railing. Neal was panting, and Rhett could feel everything. Their bodies were pressed entirely together, Neal’s fingers digging into Rhett’s back. As Neal pulled them still closer to the door, Rhett stumbled, and Link’s face fell against Rhett’s bare neck. Rhett could feel lips on his skin. Every hair on his body stood on end. Rhett’s reaction was sudden and violent. His muscles constricted, and his mind went blank. He pushed Neal off himself with an angry growl.

“What the hell are you trying?!”

“I…I wasn’t,” Neal stuttered and shrank in front of the looming figure.

“I don’t care what you get up to when you’re on the shore, but don’t go trying that shit on me, flyboy!” Rhett bellowed. His breathing was hard and ragged, and he threw the door open with a bang. Neal dodged the door and whimpered. Rhett pointed inside.

“Get the hell out of my home!”

“Rhett, please. I was just trying to…” Neal’s eyes had a gathering film of tears on them, making them even more blue than they usually were. A sharp pain slashed at Rhett as he saw that, but he couldn’t control himself anymore.

“OUT!”

The tears were flowing free now. Neal let out a pathetic sob before he disappeared down the hatch. Rhett’s legs gave out, and he dropped to his knees. He pressed his fists to his chest and tried to dig out the new hurt that had taken its root there.

Chapter Text

It was the goddamn stone that did him in.

After Neal had left, Rhett had crawled into his bed and fallen to a fitful sleep. In his dreams, Neal was there. In his bed. With wandering hands and warm breath all over Rhett’s body. He had woken up angry and aching. I hate him.

He’d tried to stretch the ache away, but his hand had found his neck. It was like Neal’s lips had branded his skin. Rhett could still feel him there. His skin had bristled as his fingers grazed the spot slowly. I hate him.

He’d got up with a growl and stomped into the shower. Cold water had helped to calm his body but not his mind. When his skin had numbed to the point of pain, he got out and scrubbed his body on the rough flannel towel marking his skin with red streaks that burned. I hate him.

He’d grabbed his laptop and marched down the steps. He was going to email John. There had to be a way to fire Neal. Or just get someone else to do his supply drop. But when he’d flipped the laptop open, he’d seen the stone.

Rhett’s stomach lurched. It was almost funny how fast his anger dissipated. He got up and slowly walked to the bureau. The stone was brick red with light and dark grey streaks. It had been polished to an oblong shape. Rhett picked it up and turned it over and over in his hand, feeling the smooth surface. Something broke in him, brutally and without warning. His knees gave out and he found himself sobbing, clutching the stone. The tears had been long time coming and the place they flowed from was deep within him. I don't hate him.

When the sobs finally settled into sniffles, he crawled off from the floor and sat back down in front of his laptop. He breathed deep, ridding himself from last shreds of darkness. It felt as if his soul was scrubbed clean. His thoughts were sharp and an all-consuming need to apologize gripped him. Before he could change his mind, he emailed John asking for Neal’s email address. He was surprised and glad John didn’t ask for a reason.

Rhett wrote an apology. Then he deleted and wrote another and another. None of them seemed to convey how he felt. He kept at it. Doing his daily chores in between drafts. Deleting and re-writing, he felt like nothing he could write would be good enough. Weeks went by. The little number (1) in his drafts folder seemed to mock him every time he opened his email. He knew he should’ve just sent the first one. Now there was a fear that kept him up at night. When he laid in bed, trying to fall asleep, all he could think about was the possibility that next time the chopper would land, someone else would jump out of it. And those blue eyes would be missing from his life.

Trying to come to terms with this influx of all of the emotions that had long laid dormant came as a surprise. Now the unmistakable feeling of attraction, and even lust, was coursing through his veins. It was disorienting and exhilarating at the same time. Rhett regularly took care of his physical needs as part of his weekly routine. He understood that it was important for his health, but it wasn’t a pleasurable thing. It was more like maintenance. He hadn’t felt want in years. The fact that he felt it towards a man was another matter altogether.

Rhett had friends who were gay and never felt like it mattered much. But he definitely never felt sexual desire for men. Not before now. Just thinking about pressing his mouth against Neal’s sharp collarbone made his dick swell. The imagined feeling of Neal’s hip under his hands, the sharp gasp that came when Rhett bit and licked under Neal’s ear. He let the thoughts come freely now. He wouldn’t do anything about them. He couldn’t. But when he had tried to deny how he felt, things had gone horribly wrong. Perhaps they could still be friends if maybe, once in a while, Rhett would let himself look and fantasize. If he didn’t bottle his feelings up, he’d be able to control them. Rhett liked the idea. Just being in the same room as Neal seemed to lift his spirits.

After three agonizing weeks, Rhett finally gathered all his courage and pressed send for his thousandth attempt. It wasn’t good enough, but he’d started to realize nothing would be.

Neal,

I know you probably don’t want to hear from me. I should have sent this to you weeks ago. There are no words to atone for the way I acted. You did nothing wrong. All you’ve ever done to me is be kind and considerate.

Please know that I feel horrible and even if you don’t accept it, I send my deepest apologies.

Rhett

Rhett stared at the screen for a minute, anxiety rising. Then he felt overwhelmed and shut the laptop. He didn’t want to know if, when or how Neal would answer. He probably wouldn’t answer at all. Rhett got up and went about his day. Once in a while, he hovered over the laptop trying to decide if he wanted to open it. Would it be better if Neal said he wouldn’t forgive him? If he said someone else was coming next week? Could Rhett go back to what he was before Neal had tumbled into his life? Maybe it would be easier. But he didn’t want that. All he wanted right now was to see those clear blue eyes and that infuriating smirk again. He didn’t deserve this attraction, but there it was, in the open for him to overanalyze and dull to the best of his abilities.

Rhett finally opened the laptop before going to bed. He knew he would not get any sleep if he didn’t check. He was ready to be disappointed, but to his surprise Neal had answered.

Rhett,

I obviously don’t know you and don’t know why you’re hurting but I urge you to seek professional help. The way you acted was uncalled for and unacceptable.

I do think it took a lot from you to apologize. And I accept your apology, but you should know that I will not tolerate that kind of behavior anymore.

See you next week.

Link

Rhett hadn’t fully realized how tightly he’d wound himself up waiting for an answer. The relief that flooded him was like a tidal wave. The words blurred. Rhett pressed his palms into his eyes and sniffled, annoyed at himself. He never cried. At least he didn’t use to. When his laptop was shut and the bedroom dark, Rhett laid in his bed, heart thrumming. His body was on overdrive. Everything tingled and he felt a need to touch himself to quell the sensation. See you next week. The words seemed to have burned on his vision. His chest swelled and he felt light-headed. It was such a long forgotten feeling it took him a while to place. When he finally figured it out, it was like a gut punch. He was happy.

----------

The chopper landed with a soft thud. The snow had melted and while it was still cold and damp, Rhett felt warm. His heart was beating hard and there was that light buzzing again. But he was scared too. Neal jumped out, looking exactly like the month before. Except he wasn’t smiling. Rhett’s stomach dropped. The smile was such an integral part of him that it almost seemed like that was someone else, not his Neal. What am I thinking?! He’s not mine.

Rhett took a tentative step towards Neal and waved awkwardly. Neal answered with a curt nod and started to unload the crates. The hollow in Rhett’s stomach intensified. He probably doesn’t want to stay for tea. The thought made Rhett a bit nauseous and he realized that some part of him figured everything would go back to normal after his apology. He chastised himself for his delusion. With a sigh, he walked up to Neal and lifted his crates.

“Hey,” Rhett said his voice barely louder than a whisper. Neal looked at him. There was a flicker of softening in his features and then he answered.

“Hey, Rhett.”

“Neal…” Rhett started, but stopped because he had no idea what to say to make it better. He just looked at the man peering back at him. Maybe Neal could read his face. Maybe he would understand how much Rhett regretted what he’d done. There was a sound, something between a sob and a grunt of pain. Rhett realized with a startle that it had come from him. Neal’s eyes whipped to Rhett’s chest and back to his eyes. He lifted his hand and slowly moved it towards Rhett. Rhett couldn’t help himself. His brain screamed for him to stand still but his body desperately wanted to avoid the contact. His body won and he jerked back. Neal’s hand dropped. Rhett opened his mouth, wanting to explain. But he was too late as Neal was already walking towards the lighthouse. Rhett watched him go, feeling miserable. Great, that made everything better.

Rhett caught up with Neal and for a while they walked in silence.

“I lost my wife.” The words just stumbled out of Rhett. He didn’t even know he’d made a decision to say them. But there they were. Hanging heavy in the air between them. Offered to Neal as an explanation that didn’t make anything better.

Neal stopped abruptly and turned to look at Rhett. His eyes were big and questioning.

“It’s been eight years since…” Rhett drew a deep breath trying to find the words. It had been so long since he’d talked about her.

“The…ah…anniversary of her…” Rhett swallowed the word death. He couldn’t say it. Had never been able to. “I mean, it happened on New Year’s Eve. So around that time of year I…Not that it’s any excuse for what I did.”

“I’m sorry for your loss.” Neal’s voice was hushed.

“Yeah, me too,” Rhett sighed. He felt lighter.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“No. Not really.”

“Okay.”

They resumed their silent walk but there was a shift in the mood. The heaviness had subsided a little. Rhett still felt the hollowness, but it was almost like it didn’t take as much space as before. Soon, they were stepping into the kitchen and Rhett was wracking his brain thinking of a way to ask Neal to stay. Neal placed the crates next to the door and turned towards Rhett. His hands slipped into his jacket pockets and he bit his bottom lip. Rhett couldn’t stop staring at his teeth gnawing on the soft flesh. I wonder what he tastes like. Neal’s gaze fixed on Rhett’s face like he’d heard his thought. He let his lip go and quietly said:

“I brought the chocolate ones. Like you asked.”

Rhett’s brain seemed to not be able to process the words at first. When he finally caught on, his face burst into a wide smile. Neal glanced at him and seemed almost taken aback followed by a shy smile blooming. The hollow in Rhett’s stomach filled with a warmth.

“Tea?” he asked. Just to be sure.

“Yes, please,” Neal answered before shaking off his jacket. He was wearing a light blue t-shirt that clung to his shoulders showing off his taut muscles and the sharp cut of his clavicles. Rhett’s gaze lingered there for too long. He might have even licked his lips, he wasn’t exactly sure. It was like his brain had fogged up. Neal cocked an eyebrow at him, and the corner of his mouth lifted into a hint of a smirk. Rhett turned to put the kettle on to hide the blush that was creeping on his face. He could hear Neal rummaging for the pastries. He was staring at the teakettle feeling odd kinship with it. His insides were boiling too.

Rhett sat down across from Neal and pushed a steaming tea mug to Neal who accepted it with a happy hum. He’d already taken a bite of his pastry.

“Impatient,” Rhett tutted. Neal just shrugged.

“I don’t feel the need to make myself wait for something I want.”

Rhett stared at him, incredulous. If he didn’t know better, he’d think this man was a mind reader.

Rhett turned his eyes down and concentrated on his pastry. Was he that obvious? Rhett tried to readjust his features to a more neutral expression. Rhett couldn’t help but to chuckle when Neal drew a sharp, cooling breath with a grimace on his face after sipping his tea. The tea was still scalding. Rhett found his impatience oddly endearing.

A silence fell between them. Rhett was so used to Neal filling it with his stories, but he kept quiet now, slowly sipping his tea, tiny smile on his lips. After an embarrassing amount of time, it finally hit Rhett. It was his turn. What could he talk about? He didn’t have any exciting work stories. He’d forgotten to save a draft once this week. How riveting.

“I’ve loved the ocean since I can remember.”

Neal perked up. His smile widened and there was a warm twinkle in his eyes. His gaze made Rhett breathless. It took him a second to continue.

“As a kid, I was obsessed with it even though I hadn’t actually seen it. Something about it spoke to me. The vastness. The fact that so much of it was undiscovered. Like a foreign planet right here next to us.” Rhett closed his eyes, remembering himself as a ten-year-old pouring over stacks of books.

“I tend to do that. Get obsessed over something new and interesting. Usually the obsessions slowly fade away but not this one. My first one,” Rhett smiled widely at Neal. He hadn’t talked about himself like this in God knows how long. He was surprised how good it felt.

Neal put his mug down and propped his elbows on the table. His face pressed into his palms, he smiled dreamily, gaze fixed on Rhett.

“I read everything I could get my hands on. About the organisms living at the bottom of the ocean, about coral reefs, tides, whales, other ocean dwellers, currents, navigation. If a book had anything to do with it, I read it. Watched documentaries too.”

“I was twelve when we took a family vacation to Florida. I’m from North Carolina.”

“Me too,” Neal interjected, looking surprised.

“Really? I grew up in Raleigh. You?” Rhett asked. He was surprised too. He’d guessed Neal was not Canadian, but he never would have guessed Neal was from North Carolina. He barely had an accent.

“Oh, that’s a coincidence. I grew up in Buies Creek.”

Rhett’s mouth fell open. They could have met years ago.

“We were supposed to move there! We already had a house picked out but then my father got a better job offer and we went to Raleigh instead.”

“Wow.” Neal’s eyes widened.

“Yeah,” Rhett hummed. Neal seemed to have gotten lost in his thoughts. He’d leaned back and crossed his arms. Rhett noticed a change in his mood. He seemed pensive, almost gloomy.

“Probably better this way,” Neal said eventually, shrugging with a sad smile. “I don’t keep in touch with people from there. Not an easy place to realize you’re gay.”

Neal’s gaze flitted to Rhett and then quickly back towards the table. There was an audible swallow. Rhett’s chest tightened. He’s afraid. He’s afraid of how I’m going to react to him saying it aloud. Anger swelled in Rhett. Not towards Neal, but towards the people that had made him this way. Made him afraid to tell who he was. No one deserved that, least of all Neal.

And then the thought hit him. A chill ran through him and he felt nauseous. I did that. I hurt him like that too. How could I do that? Rhett felt like gasping for air. This is who you are. You hurt people. Have you forgotten? This is why you’re here. He should tell Neal to go. He should tell him to go and never come back. Not because Rhett wanted him to go. He didn’t. But because Rhett would surely hurt him again and the thought almost broke him. Rhett was so lost in his self-reflection, he missed Neal’s words.

“What?” Rhett’s head snapped up.

“Last month. I just want it to be clear, I wasn’t...” Neal’s eyes were panicked, and he was wringing his hands on the table. Rhett drew a sharp breath. His hand flew up to stop Neal.

“No! Oh, no. You don’t have to say anything. What happened had nothing to do with you and everything to do with my messed-up mind. I’m so sorry. I was an asshole.”

“You were.” Neal’s voice was strangled, and he kept twisting his hands.

“I was. No question about it. I feel horrible. And ashamed. I know these are going to sound like empty words, but I’m not like that. I’m so sorry you had to grow up like that. That you had to deal with close-minded people and you couldn’t be yourself.”

Neal didn’t answer. He was staring at his hands. Rhett followed his gaze and was surprised to find his own hands wrapped around Neal’s. Neal’s hands trembled. Rhett waited for his body to react, to push away from the touch of Neal’s warm skin. But the reaction never came. He realized he’d been holding his breath. He let it out and gently squeezed Neal’s hands between his own. His eyes found Neal’s as the other’s hands stilled.

“I’m sorry.”

“I already forgave you.”

“I’m still sorry, Link.”

Link let out a small, sharp gasp and smiled softly. The name felt good in Rhett’s mouth. He loved how his tongue rolled when he said it. And it really suited the man. For a while, they sat silently, their gaze falling back to their joined hands. Eventually, Link drew a deep breath, pulled his hands back to his tea and said, “So, Florida?”

Chapter Text

They’d talked for a few hours before Link had to leave. They talked about Rhett’s love of the sea and Link’s love of the sky. They talked about music they listened to, finding that in addition to Merle they had similar tastes. Rhett told he used to play the guitar and Link revealed that the only thing he could play was a recorder. The revelation made Rhett giggle uncontrollably and Link pout in a way that made Rhett want to take a bite out of his bottom lip. When Link noticed Rhett wincing after shifting in his seat, it ended with Link playfully chastising Rhett for not telling him sooner about his bad back and an insistence that he can take care of all the crates from now on. Rhett had no intention of letting Link do that but he appreciated the gesture. It all had felt comfortable and easy.

Before they left for the chopper, Rhett had seen Link dash for the bureau. Link hadn’t said anything, and Rhett had neither. It felt like if he acknowledged the stones, some kind of a spell would be broken. He realized he had been worried that Link wouldn’t bring one this time. It would have been fair after what happened last month. He picked it up gingerly, getting the feel of it, just like the others before. At first, he thought the stone was translucent black all around, but then he noticed a bit of purple at the bottom. This one was not polished. It was jagged and rough. It was beautiful.

That night Rhett laid in bed. It was late, but he couldn’t get to sleep. His head was filled with Link. His stomach roiled with a tight warmth. His mind painted a picture after another. He seemed to have no control over his thoughts. His hands on Link’s hips, bending him over the kitchen table. Taking him slowly, making him moan his name. Link sprawled naked in his bed, Rhett’s mouth on every inch of his body. He’d make Link lose himself, make him plead and beg. He’d make him come over and over until he had nothing left to give. Rhett was gripping his sheets. He was so hard it hurt. Beads of sweat were rolling down his temples. The pulse in his boxers was overwhelming. But he wouldn’t touch himself. Not like this. He couldn’t. He didn’t deserve it.

When he was finally able to fall asleep, Rhett’s subconscious didn’t hold the same reservations his wake-up mind did. In his dreams Link was on top of him, riding him, back arched, body glistening with sweat. Rhett’s hands were on his hips, fingers digging into the soft flesh. Link leaned over, bringing his lips to Rhett’s ear. There was a whispered gasp that held his name. Rhett woke up as he came. His body constricting equally with the pleasure of the release and the following embarrassment.

That’s how his month went on. During the day, he tried to occupy his mind with writing and chores. At night, he dreamt of Link. More than once he ended up laying in his mess, panting into the night, feeling like a fifteen-year-old again. Sometimes he’d write an email to Link. Nothing special, just a thought he’d had while writing or asking if he liked a particular song. He never sent them. His drafts folder filled up slowly as the days went by.

On the morning of the 15th, Rhett woke up to the whine of the winds of the Nor’easters. The storm shutters rattled in the icy winds. The rattle traveled straight to Rhett’s chest chilling his blood. Link couldn’t fly in this weather. Rhett opened his laptop, placing it on his covers, rubbing his sleepy eyes open. Just as he’d expected, there was an email from John. The storm was predicted to go on for at least three days. The supply run was cancelled until further notice.

Three days was nothing. He had supplies for at least two extra weeks if he didn’t stuff himself. Physically, he’d be fine. Emotionally, Rhett was a wreck. Link had talked about his work a lot. His actual work as a medevac pilot. Rhett knew that the supply runs were a side gig. In three days, someone else would come. Someone else would jump out of that chopper and carry his crates up to the kitchen. There would be no tea, no talking, no stone, no smiles. He’d have to wait a whole month to see Link again.

Rhett was surprised by the depth of his sadness. He found himself sitting at the kitchen table hours after eating his breakfast. He had no idea where the time had gone. He opened his laptop, planning to write for bit needing the productiveness to balance the episode of apathy. He’d gotten an email.

Rhett,

The winds are not so bad yet. I’m coming today.

Link

Rhett’s heart skipped a beat. He looked at time stamp. The email had arrived an hour ago. It was possible that Link hadn’t left yet. Rhett typed a quick email back. His fingers trembled and he made a typo. He didn’t care to correct it.

NO! Don’t come! It’s too dangerois!

Rhett’s heart was beating in his throat. This was ridiculous. Maybe Link was joking. The wind seemed to have only picked up since the morning. There was no way it was safe to fly. His email dinged. Rhett jumped and scrambled to open it.

Don’t worry, I’ve flown in worse weather. I can make it. Just refueled. Leaving St. Johns now. Be there in about 30 minutes.

Link

Rhett growled. That man was insane. He’d get himself killed. And for what?

DON’T COME!

There was no answer. Rhett’s leg was shaking. Anxious energy coursed through him.

Link, turn back right now or I’ll swear to god

Rhett stood up, ran his fingers through his hair and started pacing around the room. He kept glancing at his laptop, but his inbox stayed empty. Link was on his way. He could die. Just the thought of that made Rhett ache from head to toe. He doubled over and gasped for air. If Link died flying to him, it would basically be his fault. He couldn’t have another death on his conscience.

You better get here in one piece or I’ll dig you from the wreckage and kill you all over again.

Rhett was staring at the clock. Ten minutes. Fifteen. Twenty. At twenty-five, he put his rain gear on and threw the door open. The wind snatched the handle out of his hand and threw the door against the wall. Rhett struggled to close it. As he jogged down the path, it finally started to rain. The wind whipped the rain against Rhett’s face. It hurt. It was freezing. Rhett’s heart hammered in his chest. His eyes scanned the horizon. How long had it been? More than thirty minutes for sure.

He’d stood at the end of the path for what felt like hours but in reality was probably only for a few minutes when he finally spotted the chopper. Relief flooded him but it went away as quickly as it had come. The chopper was struggling. It was obvious. It flew low and kept getting pushed around by the gusts of wind. Rhett’s eyes were glued to it. Like he could keep it in the air by just looking at it. His anxiety was in overdrive, skin buzzing so much he felt like he was about to disintegrate.

Flying over the roaring ocean seemed to be even harder. The whole chopper shook. Rhett couldn’t breathe anymore. All he could was stare. He didn’t really want to see, but he couldn’t turn away either. The first attempt to land failed. Right at the last second a gust of wind pushed the chopper towards Rhett who jumped out of the way landing face first into the muddy grass. The second attempt brought the chopper down with a speed that seemed more like crashing than landing. Rhett scrambled up from the ground and ran to Link who was getting out looking slightly shaken.

Rhett crashed into Link. Rhett’s hands grabbed Link’s jacket lapels. They flew against the side of the chopper with a metallic thud. A strangled groan broke out of Link’s mouth. Then Rhett’s mouth was on his. The kiss was desperate and raw. It tasted of mud and salt water. Link’s hands flew to Rhett’s soaked hair and burrowed into it. Rhett wasn’t sure if he was crying or if it was the rain. When they broke apart, Link looked at him with a soft smile and glazed eyes. Rhett shoved him against the chopper again and bellowed over the howling wind:

“Don’t you ever do that to me again, you hear me?!”

“I’m sorry. I won’t,” Link answered, smiling weakly. His quiet words were lost into the wind, but Rhett could read them from his lips. He also realized Link was shivering from the cold. He had no rain gear, so he was soaked to the bone with the icy rain.

“You’ll freeze to death. Let’s go.” Rhett motioned to the to the crates. Link nodded looking equal amounts of relieved and disappointed. Rhett pulled his wind-blown hood back on and followed Link.

They walked without talking. It wouldn't be any use to try, since the wind made it impossible to hear anything. Once in a while they’d throw a glance at the other. Link was still smiling even though his lips had started to turn blue. Despite the cold seeping through Rhett’s gear his body was warm and buzzing. I kissed him! His mind was screaming. He kissed me back. Rhett hadn’t meant for it to happen. Hadn’t planned on it. But seeing Link emerge from the chopper safe and sound, had flipped something in his brain.

They stumbled into the kitchen making a muddy mess of the floor. Link dropped the crates and wrapped his arms around himself. He was shaking in earnest now, his hair plastered on his forehead almost hiding his eyes. Rhett shrugged out of his gear. He was mostly dry, only his hair dripping cool water on his face. Rhett walked up to Link and grabbed his hand towing him towards the stairs. Link’s fingers were icicles.

“Hey!” Link said weakly but followed Rhett to the bathroom. Rhett left him standing at the threshold and flipped the tap open starting to fill the bathtub. Link sighed at the sight of hot steam rising from the tub. Rhett washed his muddy face in the sink while the water ran. He tried to get the mud out of his hair too. He’d have to do a proper wash later. Then he turned to Link, who was still standing in the doorframe. Rhett’s eyes involuntarily zeroed in on Link’s trembling lips. His body’s reaction was two-fold. There was an unmistakable swelling in his pants and at the same time his chest tightened so hard he had trouble breathing. Why did I kiss him? I wasn’t supposed to do that. He’ll probably want more now, and I can’t…fuck! Rhett realized he was just standing there and staring at Link, his still wet face dripping on his shirt. He felt awkward as hell.

“There are towels and a robe here.” Rhett said, opening a cabinet door and picking a towel for himself. “They’re obviously mine, but if that’s okay…?”

“Y-yeah. Of course.” Link’s voice was shaking as he took his jacket off. He had on a mint-green collared button down. Rhett couldn’t help but to notice how well the color suited him. His eyes stuck to the way the wet shirt clung to his skin. Embarrassed, he rubbed his neck and coughed.

“I’m gonna…leave you be. ”He said and motioned towards the door. Link stepped out of the way, fumbling his shirt buttons. Rhett was already out the door when Link’s frustrated growl made him turn.

“Rhett, I…I’m sorry but I’m gonna need help with…” Link was shaking so much, he couldn’t get his clothes off. His hands flopped to his sides and he looked Rhett with a resigned expression. His cheeks might have flashed red with embarrassment if he wasn’t too cold for that to happen. Rhett could still read it in his eyes. He swallowed hard. Okay. Okay. You’re just helping him out. This is fine.

“Oh, sure. Here.” Rhett mumbled and started to slowly unbutton the shirt. His hands were shaky too, but not from the cold. He concentrated hard at what he was doing. He knew Link was looking at him, he could feel his eyes on him. They were standing so close to each other, he could smell Link’s hair. He smelled sweet and manly. It was intoxicating. The shirt opened to reveal toned chest muscles and curly black hair. Rhett felt dizzy. He’s so beautiful. Rhett battled with a sudden need to rake his fingers through the chest hair.

He helped Link slip out of the shirt. He wasn’t even thinking anymore, he just guided Link to sit against the bathtub and kneeled to untie his shoes. His palm grabbed Link’s upper calf as he pulled the shoes off. Then he rolled Link’s soaking socks off. They landed onto the bathroom floor with a wet plop. Rhett got up, his hand trailing along Link’s thigh. Link was looking up at him, eyes big and dark. His chest was rising and falling quickly. Rhett’s hands hovered over the button of Link’s jeans. I’m just helping. It’s the right thing to do. Right? He looked at Link.

“Can I?”

Link swallowed, his goozle jumping excitedly, and nodded quickly. Rhett’s fingers grazed Link’s stomach as he popped the button open. Link shivered at the touch and Rhett felt embarrassed by the rush of pleasure it gave him. He realized he was half-hard already, quickly on his way to a full-blown erection. Stop it! The sound of the zipper was almost obscene, making Rhett grunt under his breath. There was a low gasp, coming from Link. Rhett ignored it and slipped his fingers under the waistband of the jeans and pulled down. Link braced his hands against the rim of the bathtub and lifted his ass to help the jeans slip off. There was an awkward moment where Rhett had to kneel again to tug the tight pant legs over Link’s calves. The tug pulled Link off the tub and he almost fell giggling nervously.

Then they were standing up, almost chest to chest, Rhett still fully clothed, Link in his boxer briefs. Rhett wanted to press his hands on Link’s waist. His fingers moved on their own and Rhett watched almost in awe as they gently caressed Link’s hip bones. Link’s eyes closed and he let out a ragged breath. The bathroom was warm and steamy from the hot water filling the tub and Rhett could finally see a hint of red on Link’s cheeks. Rhett looked down and saw an unmistakable bulge in Link’s boxers. The size of it took his breath away. Of course, he’d be big. An errant thought bubbled up in Rhett’s mind. I’ve never wanted anyone as much I want him.

Rhett’s gaze rose from Link’s hips to his face. As if on cue, Link’s eyes opened. They were black and glazed over, lids hanging heavy. His eyes were dripping of hunger and Rhett’s stomach tightened deliciously. Rhett’s hands grabbed Link’s hips and pulled him in. Link’s lips parted and Rhett licked his bottom lip in anticipation. But then Link’s hands rose to rest on Rhett’s chest and his whole body locked up. NO! Rhett let go of Link with a jerk, like his skin was scorching hot and Rhett had been burned. There was a flash of confusion on Link’s face and it made Rhett want to double over and cry. He covered his face with his hand, willing the tears not to fall, and backed out of the bathroom with a strangled: ”I’m sorry.”

“Rhett!” Link called after him.

Rhett threw the bathroom door closed and strode up the stairs. He wished there was a lock on his bedroom door as he crumbled on the floor next to the bed and let himself cry. He sobbed into his hands. His head was spinning, and his nose was blocked from the crying. He felt utterly horrible. Why was he like this? What was wrong with him? Link obviously wanted him. Would it be so bad to surrender to this feeling? Yes, it would! Remember the last time you felt like this? Rhett’s chest heaved at the memory of her. But then a part of his mind whispered the truth he would never say aloud. I don’t think I’ve ever felt like this before, not even with her. And somehow that was worse.

The crying stopped eventually. Rhett still sat there, staring at the wall, listening to the rattle of the storm shutters. Link had flown to him through a storm. He’d literally risked his life to come to Rhett. Rhett couldn’t figure out why. There was nothing for him here. Rhett knew now he was too far gone. There was no going back, even if he kind of wanted to. With a sinking feeling, he realized that he’d been holding onto hope that maybe he’d be able to do this. That hope had been left shattered on his bathroom floor. He could hear the tub water draining. Rhett took a few deep breaths and got up feeling resigned.

Rhett had brewed tea and fixed some sandwiches when Link quietly padded down the stairs. He stood at the entrance and looked at Rhett with trepidation. He was wearing Rhett’s bathrobe and the sight of him like that made Rhett ache. No. Concentrate! You’re going to be just friends.

“Hey. Did you get warmer?” Rhett asked sitting down at the table. He chose the tone of his voice carefully. Friendly, but neutral.

“Yeah. Um, Rhett…”

“Come eat. There’s tea too, to warm your insides,” Rhett interrupted him. He needed a minute to get himself centered. Link sat down across from him and took a sandwich.

“You didn’t have to do this,” Link said, mouth already full.

“I wanted to.”

Link smiled weakly at him.

“Link,” Rhett began and had to stop to cough, because his throat felt like a desert. “I’m sorry about what happened. In the bathroom and earlier when I kissed you. I think I’ve given you the wrong idea. Led you on. I…”

Link was blushing now and staring at the table. Rhett was glad. It was easier to get this out without those blue eyes peering at him. He drew a breath and continued.

“I can’t. It’s just that simple. It has nothing to do with you. You seem like a great guy. Maybe in another life, you know?”

“Rhett…”

Don’t say my name. It hurts too much.

“We can still be friends. Yes?” Rhett interrupted Link. Link lifted his eyes at the word ‘friends’ and his gaze pierced Rhett. Rhett couldn’t look away. Seconds stretched into minutes and Link was still silent. He seemed to be lost in thought. Suddenly he jerked and smiled at Rhett. Rhett noticed that the smile didn’t reach his eyes.

“Yes. We can be friends.”

“Good.”

They sat in silence for some time. It was not a comfortable silence. Rhett wanted to get back to that feeling of ease they’d had last month, but he had no idea how to get there.

“The weather is getting worse. Just checked the report. I think… um… you might have to spend the night.” Rhett flicked his eyes to Link, wanting to gauge his reaction. Link moved the sandwich slowly to his mouth and tilted his face to look at Rhett. He looked like he wanted to ask something but decided against it. The silence seemed to get heavier and heavier with every passing minute. It was messing with Rhett’s already fragile mind. He felt an uncontrollable need to laugh or scream - do something to break it.

“I only have one bed.”

“Okay,” Link said slowly cocking an eyebrow. “Is that going to be a problem?”

“I could sleep on the floor?” Rhett offered, not really meaning it.

“With your bad back? I don’t think so,” Link grimaced.

“Well, you’re not sleeping on the floor either so…” Rhett said like it was decided.

“I guess it’s settled then,” Link said staring at his mug.

“Yeah. It’s gonna be fine,” Rhett said. It’s not gonna be fine. Link gave him a small smile.

The heaviness dissipated a little. They finished eating and Rhett offered to loan Link some clothes. Link chuckled and looked pointedly at Rhett’s long legs.

“I’ll find something. Wait here.” Rhett laughed, feeling relieved that they could still laugh about something together.

Rhett wasn’t sure why he told Link to wait. He would have to come in by the end of the night anyway. Rhett stepped into his bedroom and halted. He was staring at his bed. How are we supposed to fit there? It hadn’t ever before occurred to him how narrow his bed was. With a swallow, he left that for them to figure out later. There were still hours to fill before bedtime.

Rhett descended back to the kitchen and threw some clothes onto one of the armchairs facing the fireplace saying: “Try those. I think they’ll fit. I put your clothes in the dryer.”

“Oh, thanks. Can you…?” Link asked and drew a circle into the air indicating for Rhett to turn around. Rhett blushed and turned his back to Link. He could hear the bathrobe hitting the floor. The fact that Link was naked behind him made Rhett’s mind fill with dirty thoughts. Just friends, he kept repeating in his mind. Rhett bit his lip and tried to think of anything else than the naked body he had had his hands on earlier. There were sounds of shuffling, then a loud thud and a quiet curse.

“You okay?” Rhett asked stifling a laugh.

“I’m fine. Just managed to hit my foot on the chair. You can turn.”

Rhett turned. Link had on his t-shirt. It fit pretty good, but it was much looser than the ones he usually wore. The sweatpants were obviously too long, but Link had managed to turn the pant legs to proper length. Rhett was too preoccupied with the way Link’s body looked in his clothes that he missed the question. Link snapped his fingers, making Rhett return to reality from a quickly developing fantasy that involved him slowly lowering those pants.

“Sorry, what?”

“I was just asking if you had any plans tonight?” Link repeated.

“Oh. No, not really. A bit of work and maybe some reading.”

“You should definitely do your work then. I’ll figure out something to pass my time.”

“There are books in the bureau. More in the bedroom if you don’t find anything interesting.”

Link’s eyes brightened. “Okay. Thanks! Just go about your day as you would.” Then he walked to the bureau and opened the doors crouching to peruse Rhett’s books. Rhett got his laptop and settled at the table. Link had soon picked a book and threw himself on one of the armchairs. He slung his legs over the armrest and sank into the chair. Rhett could only see his dangling legs and the top of his head. Rhett tried to get to work but his eyes kept wandering to Link. He had quickly been absorbed by the book. There was a steady sound of turning pages and breathing. Rhett couldn’t tune out the sound of Link’s breathing. It seemed to fill the room and pierce his thoughts. It was like Link was right there next to him, his breath warming Rhett’s skin. His lips… No, stop it!

After about an hour, Rhett finally gave up. It was clear he wouldn’t get any work done today. He got up, stretched and started to unpack the crates. There were chores he could busy himself with. After a while, Link’s eyes appeared from behind the armchair.

“Do you need help with anything?” he asked.

“No. Just enjoy your book. What did you pick?”

Link lifted the book so Rhett could see the cover. It was one of his favorites.

“Oh, that’s…” Rhett started to share his thought with Link when it suddenly dawned on him that the edition Link was holding was annotated by him. He could see the smirk on Link’s eyes as he said:

“I especially liked your thoughts on chapter five.”

Rhett blushed. There was a sex scene on chapter five. He could clearly remember commenting about the position the author had chosen to describe. It had seemed unrealistic.

“Oh, um. Yeah. That’s one of my favorite books,” Rhett muttered.

“Mine too,” Link said before disappearing again.

The day went on as any day of Rhett’s. Except of course for the ever-present proximity of another person. Link was just constantly there. Even when Rhett climbed up to the control room to check on things, he could somehow feel Link’s presence. They cooked dinner. Well, Rhett did. He realized quickly Link couldn’t be trusted with anything that might hurt him. He managed to nick his finger with a peeling knife and for a second Rhett was certain he’d faint. Rhett had helped him to a chair and cleaned the wound. When Link was looking less pale and his finger was bandaged, Rhett ordered him on permanent table setting duty.

They had relaxed back to the earlier ease of conversation. At dinner, they talked about the book Link was reading. Rhett was impressed by Link’s thoughts on it. He’d obviously thought about it a lot. Link was able to relay his opinions to Rhett with such conviction that Rhett had to change his mind on some points he’d been sure about before. After dinner, Rhett actually got some writing done. Link’s presence had seemed to morph into a pleasant white noise. He was there, but it wasn’t as distracting anymore.

“I think I’ll go shower and then to bed,” Rhett said after Link had yawned loudly a few times. Link’s top of the head moved as he nodded.

“Come holler at me after you’ve showered. I’ll come to bed too.”

Rhett’s heart ached. There was something very domestic about the way Link said that. Like this was something that they did every night. Like going to bed together was a normal occurrence.

“There’s extra toothbrushes under the sink.”

“Great. Thanks.”

Rhett went to get Link after his shower and Link followed him into the bedroom. Rhett pulled the cover from the bed and grabbed an extra pillow from the cabinet. Link stepped gingerly into the bedroom.

“So, this is the famous lighthouse keeper’s bedroom,” he said with a soft smirk.

“Yeah. Worth the wait?” Rhett chuckled.

Link’s eyes flitted to the bed.

“Good things come to those who wait,” Link said so quietly Rhett wasn’t sure he’d heard him correctly.

“So.” Rhett stood next to the bed. He brushed his fingers through his still damp beard and looked at Link, waiting for a reaction.

“Yeah.” Link said staring at the bed. “It’s pretty narrow.”

“I know. You sure you don’t want me to sleep on the floor?”

“No. We’ll manage. Right?” Link looked at him eyes big and so dang blue. Rhett couldn’t help wondering if Link was hoping sleeping in the same bed would turn into something more. Rhett couldn’t help but wonder that himself.

“Let’s just…you know? Dive into the deep end,” Rhett tried to joke and climbed on the bed. He positioned himself on his back on the far edge. Link stepped next to the bed. His eyes flitted to the sweatpants he was wearing.

“I don’t think I can sleep in these. Can I…?”

“Um, sure. Go ahead,” Rhett said trying to hide his blush by turning to fluff his pillow. “Get the lights?”

“Oh. Yeah.”

Darkness fell to the room. Rhett had thought it would make this easier, but it had the opposite effect. His heart started to race. It thumped so hard he was sure Link could hear it. Rhett could feel Link getting into bed: a tilt of the mattress and then the press of warm skin against Rhett. There was shuffling of limbs and annoyed grunts as they tried to settle next to each other.

“Rhett,” Link huffed after a minute. “Half of me is hanging out of the bed. I don’t think this is going to work.”

Rhett closed his eyes, swallowed and said the words he’d hoped he could avoid saying:

“We’ll probably fit, if I spoon you.”

Silence fell to the room. Then Link let out a nervous giggle.

“Just two friends spooning?”

The tension broke and Rhett couldn’t help but laugh too. The whole situation had reached ridiculous proportions.

“Just get in here,” he murmured, wrapping his arm around Link’s stomach and pulling him in.

Chapter Text

Rhett woke up feeling disoriented. Something was wrong. His hands swept the bed looking for something--someone. It was empty. Rhett’s eyes flew open and he sat up. Link wasn’t in the bedroom. Rhett felt the sheets and there was no leftover warmth from Link’s body. An irrational thought made Rhett’s stomach drop. What if he’d just left? But then the reality of still howling winds came back to him and he relaxed a little. Link had probably gone to the bathroom. Rhett sank back into the bed and closed his eyes. He could still feel Link’s body flush against his own.

It had taken considerable effort on his part to not let his fingers caress the soft fluff of Link’s stomach. There was also some thinking of God and country to dampen the beginnings of an erection when Link’s perfect behind nestled against his crotch. But somehow, he’d managed. It helped that Link had fallen asleep quickly. Rhett didn’t have to police his body’s reactions as much after that. It had taken a long time for him to fall asleep and he’d kept waking up to adjust his position. Every time he woke up the closeness of Link hit him hard. At least Link slept like a log, not changing his position at all, hands sprawled in front of him. The thought of him turning and wrapping his hands around Rhett made him nauseous and excited at the same time. He knew he couldn’t take it though, so he was glad that Link was a heavy sleeper.

Minutes ticked by and Link hadn’t returned. Finally, Rhett got out of the bed and padded into the staircase. The bathroom was empty. When he descended further, he started to smell something burnt. And then he heard a string of curse words fit for an old-timey sailor. The kitchen door opened to a display that made Rhett burst into a deep belly laugh. Link was standing in the middle of the kitchen, shirtless, waving the shirt over a smoking toaster that had been thrown on the floor. One burnt toast was still stuck inside it, another had fallen on the floor. Link’s hair was sticking up and he was cursing up a storm. Rhett’s sweatpants were riding low on his hips, revealing the deep v-shape of his hip bones. When he heard Rhett’s laugh, he jumped and looked at him sheepishly.

“Oh. You’re awake.”

“Link, what are you doing?” Rhett walked up to him still chuckling and peered into the smoking toaster.

“I…I’m sorry, Rhett. I think I broke your toaster.” There was a slight tremble in Link’s chin, and he looked sullen.

“What were you trying to do? Smoke the toast?”

“No! I don’t know what happened. There must have been something else in the toaster, it just started to puff up smoke. I’m really sorry.”

Rhett smiled at him, finally getting a hint of a smile back.

“It’s okay. Don’t worry about it. It was old. It was probably just its time,” Rhett said picking up the burnt toast and throwing it into the garbage.

“I was just trying to make you some breakfast,” Link whispered a blush creeping to his cheeks. Rhett couldn’t help thinking he looked adorable.

“Didn’t we come to an agreement about you cooking last night? I quite clearly remember me saying you shouldn’t.”

“Breakfast is not cooking! It was just some toast.”

Rhett looked at Link and then pointedly at the toaster still laying on the floor. Link threw his hands in the air and huffed annoyed.

“It could have happened to anyone. You said it yourself! It was old.”

“Yeah. Sit down. I’ll fix us some eggs.”

“But I wanted to…”

“It’s fine, Link. I’m happy to do it. You’re my guest.”

Link stomped to the table and sat down looking like a scolded six-year-old. Rhett had to turn away to hide his smile and started to cook. Link sat in silence for a long while, eyes following Rhett as he moved about the kitchen. By the time the eggs were done, Link had regained his smiley self.

“I just wanted to help, since you have to deal with me being stuck here,” Link said after he’d finished eating. Rhett smiled at him.

“I don’t mind you being here. But if you want to help, I have some small repairs I have to get done. You can help with those. If you want.”

“Yes! I’d love to help,” Link smiled widely and wiped his plate clean with his finger that he stuck into his mouth. Rhett stared at the finger slowly disappearing between Link’s greased lips. Heat pooled in his stomach. It was going to be a long day.

But surprisingly, it wasn’t. They worked well together, quickly falling into a rhythm of cooperation. There were a few words said here and there and hands offering tools before the other one asked. It felt familiar and pleasant. Together, they got more done than Rhett usually managed in a week. Having another pair of hands obviously helped, but Rhett wondered if the company had more to do with it. It didn’t feel like chores, it felt like time well spent.

While Rhett made lunch, Link found a pack of playing cards and challenged him to a game of gin rummy. They played after eating and it turned pleasantly heated. Rhett had forgotten how much he enjoyed a good-natured competition. Link was a sore and dramatic loser which made the game all the more enjoyable to Rhett.

“Dang it!” Link exclaimed, flailing his hands around after Rhett had won. “I still think you cheated. You’ve obviously marked the cards.”

“Yes of course. I’ve marked the cards so I can beat myself in solitaire.” Rhett chuckled and shook his head to Link, who’d jumped up and was wagging his finger at Rhett.

“After dinner we’ll play again. And I’m going to win.”

“Fine, fine. We’ll play again,” Rhett said smiling patronizingly. Link grimaced at him and said:

“I think we need to have a prize. The winner…” He stopped to think.

“I don’t think you have much to give me. You’re not even wearing your own clothes,” Rhett laughed motioning to Link. Link smiled a toothy smile and winked.

“Oh, I think I’d have plenty to give you if you wanted to take it.”

Rhett jerked back and swallowed hard. The images that flashed in his head made him dizzy.

“But since we’re just friends, how about we play for the big spoon?”

“What?” Rhett said aghast.

“Tonight, the winner gets to be the big spoon,” Link smirked, standing over Rhett, his hands on his slender hips. Rhett guffawed, amused by Link’s bravado.

“Fine,” Rhett answered.

“Fine,” Link repeated and offered his hand for a shake. Rhett took it. It was a safe bet. He’d win easily.

-----

The fire was crackling happily in the fireplace and warming Rhett’s outstretched feet. He sat on the armchair and tried to read. Link was sprawled on the other chair, back turned to Rhett, sighing periodically making Rhett lose his place in the book. Link was still pissed after losing the game. Rhett had known he’d win. There was no way he was going to be the little spoon. Rhett couldn’t get Link’s wide-eyed disbelieved look out of his head. It still made him chuckle. The day had gone by so fast. It was almost bedtime. The weather report had shown that the storm was dissipating slowly. Link might be able to fly tomorrow. The thought of Link leaving kept flitting in and out of Rhett’s mind and every time it surfaced it caused a painful tightening in his chest.

“I’m gonna get something else to read,” Link said suddenly, getting up from the chair. Rhett hummed in acknowledgement and returned to his book. He came to a little while later, realizing that Link hadn’t come back. Rhett wondered if he’d gone to sleep already. The stairs creaked when he ascended to his bedroom.

Rhett found Link standing in front of his book case. He had a book in hand and he was staring at it intently. Rhett stepped closer and realized it was one of his. One of the older ones he’d written and self-published while he was still in university.

“Oh, yeah. That’s mine,” he said, feeling a bit self-conscious.

“I know,” Link said with a reverent tone that made Rhett look at him quizzically.

“I mean, obviously. It has my name on it.”

“No, Rhett. I…” Link’s voice cracked. He closed his eyes and, to Rhett’s great surprise, pressed the book against his chest holding it tight like a long-lost friend. Then he turned to Rhett, intense look on his face and said:

“I need to confess something.”

Rhett swallowed. He sat on the edge of the bed. Link sat next to him, still holding the book.

“I knew who you were. First time I came here.”

“What?” Rhett stared incredulously at Link.

“I…I saw your name on the schedule. I asked around a bit. And when I knew it was really you... I just couldn’t believe it. Rhett…” Link stopped to take a deep breath and turned to Rhett before continuing.

“You saved my life.”

Rhett was utterly confused. Link turned again to look at the book and gently ran his fingers across the cover. He was smiling, a dreamy look on his face. Rhett didn’t know what to say. After a moment's pause, Link continued. He spoke slowly, choosing his words carefully.

“I told you it was hard growing up in the south, yeah? Well, it took me a while to come out. Like a long while. I was 29. I was living with a woman. She was…” Link stopped. His face faltered. Rhett felt like he was afraid to breathe.

“She was emotionally abusive. It was…bad. And I was blind to it. It took me a long time to realize it for what it really was. I think the fact I didn’t desire her made it worse. She could sense it and it drove her mad. “

A hot pulsing anger filled Rhett. The knowledge of someone hurting Link like that was making his head hurt and his hands to ball up into fists.

“I think I still might be with her if I hadn’t…” Link paused. He looked like he was thinking hard. He must have made a decision because suddenly he looked Rhett straight in the eyes and continued. “Actually, no, that’s only partly true. I’d be dead.”

Rhett jerked at the words. He couldn’t wrap his mind around them. It was unfathomable. A world without Link just seemed ridiculous. The pain he felt was something new. It seemed to seep into his old pain making everything muddled. Rhett’s head was throbbing.

“If you hadn’t come out?” Rhett asked, trying to piece everything together.

“That too, yes. But that came after. What saved me was something I read,” Link’s voice fell and then looked away before citing:

“The people you must lie to, own you. The things you have to lie about, own you,” His voice was a whisper.

The words rang in Rhett’s head. They were so familiar. Why were they so familiar? Link's neck was crimson with the rising blush and it was creeping onto his face too. Suddenly, Rhett realized. Of course, how could he be so dense? They were his words. Old words but still definitely his. From the exact essay compilation that Link was cradling.

“Is that…? Are you quoting me?” His voice dripped with disbelief. Link seemed to blush harder. His head did a tiny nod and he glanced at Rhett, face open and vulnerable.

“How? It was self-published. There were only few hundred copies.”

“A friend gave it to me. I think you went to the same school. Can you believe it?” Link laughed awkwardly. His eyes kept flashing to Rhett, waiting for a reaction.

“I…” Rhett was at a loss for words. He felt like the world around him had dislocated and spun around before settling into a new position. And at the center of it was the man sitting next to him. Rhett knew what he wanted now. He knew what he needed and his stupid body wasn’t going to stop him anymore.

“I lost my copy when I left her. I think she threw it away. She knew how much it meant to me,” Link sounded heartbroken. He’s meant to be here. The thought rang loudly in Rhett’s mind.

“Link,” Rhett’s voice was ragged and pleading. Link turned to look at him, startled by the way he sounded. Rhett’s hands were on him in an instant, cupping his face. Link gasped for air.

“I’m going to kiss you now. Don’t touch me,” Rhett said in a low tone.

Link’s eyes were on Rhett’s lips, but then he jerked up and stared straight into Rhett’s imploring eyes, looking confused. “What?”

“Don’t touch me. I have a problem with that. It’s nothing to do with you, okay?” Rhett tried to explain. He wanted to get to kissing already but he needed Link to understand. Finally, Link let his hands drop to his lap and nodded. Rhett gave him a thankful smile and dived for his lips.

At first, it was just a hard press of flesh on flesh. Rhett knew it was a bad kiss, but he needed it to ground himself. He needed it to let go of a barrier in himself. Then he moved away, took a deep breath and kissed Link in earnest. Slowly, gently, with little kisses on the corners of his mouth. Link’s breath came in sighs between the kisses and his lips followed Rhett’s every time he moved back to catch his breath. Rhett stopped to look at him. Eyes closed, looking blissful, lips parted, wet and plump. He was so beautiful, it hurt. When another kiss didn’t come, Link’s eyes fluttered open and he saw Rhett admiring him. There was a bashful smile, biting of the bottom lip. Rhett smiled.

“You’re beautiful,” he whispered. Link blushed.

“Kiss me again?” Link pleaded. Rhett didn’t need to be asked twice. The kisses grew more passionate. Rhett licked the seam of Link’s lips, getting him to open his mouth. They breathed into each other as their tongues brushed together fervently. Rhett’s fingers threaded into Link’s hair. He took a gentle hold of it and used it to tilt Link’s head to a better angle. The move made Link moan helplessly. Rhett smiled into his lips and sucked on his bottom lip, satisfied when that got another moan to rumble out of Link’s throat. After a few minutes, it started to feel silly to kiss like that, sitting next to each other.

“Take your shirt off. Get on the bed.” Rhett ordered with a low voice. Arousal made his breathing labored. Link looked almost drunk, his eyes blinking slowly, movements sluggish as he moved the book away and yanked Rhett’s t-shirt off him. He climbed on the bed, settling his head onto Rhett’s pillow looking at him expectantly. Rhett closed his eyes for a second and tried to steady his breathing. He was painfully hard. He climbed on top of Link, hovering over him on his hands and knees.

“Lift your hands above your head.”

Link obeyed, wrapping his fingers around the spokes of the headboard. Rhett swallowed hard at the way Link’s muscles tensed in his chest and shoulders as he moved. Link wasn’t naked, but this was still so close to his fantasy it made him light-headed. Rhett kissed him again, deeply, drawing more breathy moans out of him. Then he went to work, starting with the neck. He gently kissed the soft spot behind Link’s ear, moving lower, kissing and licking as he went. He stopped at the collarbone, drawing his lips along its sharp protuberance and finally with a satisfied sigh, sinking his teeth into it. Link drew a sharp breath and growled. Rhett chuckled under his breath and bit down again sucking at the flesh. Link bucked under him whining with pleasure.

“Like that, don’t you?” Rhett murmured lips still pressed to his warm skin. Link answered with a ragged sigh. “Yes. Please, don’t stop,” he said quietly. Rhett kept at it until there was a bright red mark on the end of Link’s collarbone. Rhett lifted his hand to caress it lightly. He kissed it once more and then returned to Link’s mouth sinking his tongue in to it. Link sucked on it desperately, rolling his tongue over it. It made the hair on the back of Rhett’s neck stand on end. Just the thought of that tongue on his more sensitive parts was enough to make Rhett shiver with want. Rhett pulled away, making Link mewl pathetically at the loss of it.

“God, you’re sexy,” Rhett murmured. Link let out a pleased hum and looked at Rhett with dark eyes. He was a proper mess. Lips red and throbbing, hair mussed up, cheeks flushed and blotchy. Rhett couldn’t believe he’d made Link look like that.

“I wanna make you come,” Rhett felt the words roll out of his tongue. Just saying the words made Rhett twitch in his pants. Link gasped for air and nodded looking dazed. He still held onto the headboard, fingers shaking a little. Rhett dove down, starting at the neck again, taking his time. He stopped to lick and suck Link’s nipple eliciting moans of pleasure that made his pants feel even tighter if that was even possible. Rhett got lost into it for a while before he remembered his goal further down. His hands fell on Link’s hips and he kissed his hip bone making Link buck under him again. His erection pressed on Rhett’s shoulder. It’s so big. How am I going to do this? His fingers trembled as he dug them into the waistband of Link’s pants. Link’s dick sprang free slapping into his stomach with a delightful smack. Rhett chuckled. Link was panting now.

“Oh god…I…Rhett…Please….” Link was pleading, his body was shaking under Rhett. He took a deep breath and slipped his palm under Link’s cock. Link jumped at the touch and when Rhett’s fingers wrapped around him, he settled back into the bed with a happy little moan. I need lubrication. Rhett rolled his tongue around his mouth and gathered his cheeks full of saliva. An impressive glob of it dropped on the head of Link’s cock and Link whipped up to see what Rhett was doing. He let out a solemn “fuck” that morphed into unintelligible growling when Rhett moved his hand to slick up Link’s length with the wetness. He worked his hand like he used to do for himself. That was his only reference, so he did what he would have wanted to be done to himself. It seemed to be working. Link’s head thudded back down to the pillow and his hips rose repeatedly to fuck Rhett’s hand.

God, he’s so fucking gorgeous. Rhett was in awe of the length and the pulse of Link’s cock. He wanted more. There wasn’t really a decision made before Link was half way down his throat and basically howling with pleasure. Rhett could never get him all the way into his mouth, he was just too big but he worked his hand and pressed the sensitive part of the head against his cheek for stimulation. Rhett was surprised how much pleasure he was getting out of this. It felt good to fill his mouth with Link, it felt right. He could taste his precum and it made him dizzy.

“Rhett. Oh god…I’m…so…close,” Link was panting hard, hips squirming under Rhett. Rhett took him deeper gagging a little, not really caring. Link’s back arched and his whole body tensed up. As he shook, a muffled yell broke out of him. Streams of cum hit the back of Rhett’s throat and he felt like choking. He had to lift his head to cough up the cum, his hand still pumping Link dry. Link was trembling in his hands, still moaning slightly. Last threads of cum dripped over Rhett’s fingers before he got up to get a towel. Rhett cleaned his hand and gently wiped Link down before pulling his pants back on. Link was trying to steady his breathing, his head lolling back on the pillow, eyes closed, mouth hanging open. He was still holding onto the spokes. Rhett sat next to him and his fingers brushed Link’s wrist. Then he kissed Link lightly on the forehead and said:

“You can let go now.”

Link’s eyes fluttered open and he seemed to have trouble focusing on Rhett’s face. His fingers slowly opened and let go. He tried to get up but plunked back on the pillow with a soft thud.

“Everything okay?” Rhett asked.

“Mmhm. Dizzy,” Link muttered closing his eyes again. Rhett smiled at him and brushed his fingers through his messed up hair.

“Take it easy. I’m just gonna… I’ll be right back.”

Link hummed affirmatively, looking like he might doze off at any second. Rhett left him in the bed and locked himself in the bathroom. His hand was in his pants as soon as the lock clicked. He was so hard that the feel of his own fingers made him moan. There was no way he could get it to go down without release. He was already moving in the confines of his pants while simultaneously trying to rip them out of the way. When he finally managed to free his dick, he pressed his other hand against the tile wall for support. He was so close already. Legs shaking, he moved his hand in desperate jerks. His chest was heaving as flashes of Link writhing in his bed filled in his mind. There was nothing mechanic about this, in no way did this resemble the way he usually took care of himself. He chased his release with desperation. As he neared the precipice, he gasped Link’s name to the empty bathroom walls. He fell hard over the edge, body doubling over, knees giving out, pumping his seed onto the cold, hard floor.

He took a minute, on his hands and knees, trying to clear his dizzy head. Then he got up, cleaned after himself and slunk back to the bedroom. Link was sprawled on the bed, snoring lightly. Rhett stopped next to the bed taking in the sight. There was an unmistakable warmth in his chest and he couldn’t help but smile. He sat on the edge of the bed and let his fingers slowly caress Link’s cheek. Link sighed in his sleep and turned to nestle his face against Rhett’s fingers. Rhett leaned over to press his lips lightly on Link’s. Link stirred at the touch and melted into the gentle kiss.

“You coming to bed?” Link asked when they moved apart. Rhett nodded and nudged for Link to move. Link made room for Rhett, turning his back for him to press against. Rhett pulled the covers over them and pressed his chin onto Link’s shoulder. Link let out a drowsy giggle when Rhett’s lips brushed against his neck.

“Good night,” Rhett whispered, with his lips pressed flush against Link’s ear earning a whole-body shiver that made him think of all the ways he wanted to make this man shake.

“G’night, Rhett.”

------

Rhett woke up first. Something had stirred him, pulled him out of his sleep. Then Link made another noise. Rhett’s eyes flew open. Link was moaning in his sleep. He was moaning Rhett’s name. Link’s voice was ragged and needy. All the blood in Rhett’s body rushed to his dick and it jumped to attention against Link’s rump. Rhett bit his lip and tried to control his breathing. Link was mumbling incoherently. Rhett’s palm was pressed against Link’s stomach and he fought the need to move it lower. Link’s hips started to move. He pressed himself hard against Rhett and let out a low whimper. Then Link moaned aloud, and Rhett could make out one word in the unintelligible mess of mumbling that spilled out of Link: “Deeper.” It was too much. Rhett couldn’t let this continue. He felt like an intruder, like he was trespassing on a private moment.

“Link,” Rhett said, lifting his hand on Link’s arm to shake him gently.

Link jerked and in a fluid movement turned to face Rhett. His eyes were half-open, and his lips parted. He wasn’t fully awake yet, warm breath panting against Rhett’s mouth. Rhett marveled the look of him. The sharp valley of his cupid’s bow begged to be kissed and his messy bed hair was a heart wrenching nest of dark and gray. Rhett moved instinctively. He pulled Link into a kiss, desperate to touch such beauty.

Rhett had done it without thinking. The need to touch Link had overridden the part of Rhett’s brain that still wanted to keep his walls up. Link had no time to adjust to the change in their position. His hands had nowhere else to go but to Rhett’s chest. And as they settled there, Rhett’s body fought back, hard. Rhett pulled his lips away and pushed Link back to the other end of the bed.

“Fuck!” the curse was muffled by his hands as he hid his face feeling thoroughly ashamed.

“I’m sorry. I…” Link stammered an apology. His eyes were open now. The shock of Rhett’s reaction had finally woken him up.

“No. It was my fault. I…I got caught up in it,” Rhett muttered, feeling deflated.

“Rhett.”

“Can we maybe not right now?” Rhett pleaded. He didn’t want to talk about this. It was too embarrassing. He was a grown man, he should be able to control his body and his reactions. Serves you right, thinking you could do this. He deserves better.

“You deserve better than this.” He said the thought aloud. There was truth to it that needed to be said. Link huffed, obviously annoyed. He’d gotten up and was sitting with his back against the wall, hugging his legs. He looked at Rhett, squinting annoyedly.

“You don’t get to decide what I do or don’t deserve.”

“But…”

“No! I want this. Don’t you?”

Rhett sighed. He did. After all these months of back and forth inside his mind, this was the only certain thing now. He wanted Link.

“You do, don’t you?” Link pressed, nudging the mattress next to Rhett with his foot.

“Yeah. I want this. I want you,” Rhett breathed out. Well, now you’ve really done it. This is going to be a shit show. Link was smiling at him. A happy knowing smile. And all Rhett could do was smile back at him.

Chapter Text

They were standing at the chopper, both of them unwilling to say goodbye yet. Rhett’s eyes were roaming Link’s features, trying to memorize every inch of him. He’d see him in a month but that seemed too long of a time. He didn’t want to forget anything. Link apparently noticed because he smirked.

“Why don’t you take a picture? It’ll last longer.”

Rhett blushed and a smile crept to his lips. A picture wasn’t a bad idea actually, but he was sure Link was kidding.

“God, that smile of yours. It’s just unfair how much I love it,” Link sighed. I love it. The words echoed in Rhett’s mind. He loves something about me. How did this happen? Rhett shook his head, ridding the thought, afraid that he’d get himself freaked out if he dwelled too long on it. Link was deep in thought, biting his lip, staring at Rhett’s mouth.

“What are you thinking about?” Rhett could hear himself asking. It sounded like something a girlfriend would’ve asked him back when he had girlfriends. For a second, he felt embarrassed. But Link smiled widely at him and answered.

“Kissing you. To be honest, I’m almost always thinking about kissing you.”

Rhett took a step forward, stepping into the heat of Link’s body. His finger rose to Link’s chin and lightly nudged it up before pressing a gentle kiss to his lips. Link sighed into his mouth before melting into him completely. The light brush of his tongue made a shivers run down Rhett’s spine and stirred something in his boxers. More of this. We need more time. Rhett leaned down to press his lips to Link’s neck eliciting a slow moan. Link’s hands were hanging by his sides, fingers pressed to fists, trembling a little.

“I…ohh…Rhett, I just need you to know, I really want to touch you. Maybe next month we could work on that?” Link sounded hopeful. Rhett’s lips continued their exploration down his neck until finally Link stepped back to find Rhett’s eyes with his own.

“Rhett?”

“Yeah, maybe,” he whispered. “I want to. Don’t get me wrong. It’s just…” Rhett couldn’t find the right words, so he just shrugged and looked at Link with pleading eyes, hoping for understanding. Link’s lips turned into a sad smile and he nodded. Then he sighed and said:

“I really need to go.”

“Okay.”

“One more for the road?”

The lingering kiss turned into heaving chests and Rhett’s hands grabbing the back of Link’s jacket to pull him closer. When they parted, both were panting and wide eyed. Link’s fingers pressed onto his lips and he closed his eyes. He drew a deep breath and turned to climb in. Looking at the receding chopper had never felt as gut wrenching as it did then. Rhett stood next to the helipad long after the tiny dot had disappeared into the horizon.

That night, Rhett sat in front of the fireplace, staring at the flames with a book in his lap. He wasn’t reading, however. The newest stone was in his hand. It was bigger than the others. There was something comforting about the heft on Rhett’s palm. It looked like a polished and smoothed piece of amber, but Link had told him it was citrine. Link had placed it on the table between them at lunch. Rhett had looked at the stone and then to Link, who was staring at his food and blushing fiercely.

“It’s beautiful,” Rhett had said.

“It reminded me of you,” Link had answered with sparkling eyes, making Rhett blush as hard as he was.

Rhett’s phone buzzed. The sound made his heart jump to his throat. He didn’t get texts. He didn’t get calls either. Everyone who had his number knew it was for emergencies only. Except one person.

'Good night,' the text read.

That was it. Rhett smiled. He wrote the same words and pressed send. There was a warmth in his chest that still scared him. I’ll get better at this. I can do this.

It was a long month. Rhett had missed Link every month before this one, but it felt different now. He was allowed. He let himself wallow in the feeling. It wasn’t the gnawing, all-consuming feeling that threatened to eat at his soul. It was a sweet ache that was almost healing. Somewhere out there was a man who thought of him. And he thought of that man. It felt just right. But it made the time slow down. Days stretched on and the 15th seemed to be farther than ever before.

Texting helped. By anyone else’s standards, it wouldn’t have been anything special. At first, it was writing about their daily activities and saying good night and good morning. But to Rhett even that was everything. Every time his phone buzzed, his heart skipped a beat. Then Link started to send him random questions he’d think up. The beach or the mountains? Favorite childhood toy? What drink could you not live without? If you could learn one skill instantly, what would it be? The questions came unprompted and at all times of the day and night. Rhett started to refer it as Link’s random question time, quickly shortened to RQT. Bit by bit, they got to know each other and with every text the feeling grew in Rhett. After a month of writing each other, Rhett felt like he’d known Link since forever.

When the supply drop day finally arrived, Rhett woke up with butterflies in his stomach. It made him feel like a teenager again and he found himself singing out loud when he was making breakfast. Then his phone rang. Rhett turned to stare at it. Rhett’s stomach dropped. They didn’t call each other.

“Hello?”

“Hey, Rhett.” Link didn’t sound happy.

Just the sound of Link’s voice made Rhett skin start buzzing. God, I miss him so much. He bit his lip, waiting for the bad news.

“I thought I’d call, because… I can’t come today.”

“Oh.” Rhett felt himself deflate. When the phone had rang, he knew something like this was coming, but hearing the words still hurt. He sat down at the table.

“Yeah. I hate this, but I have to cover for a colleague who’s sick.”

“Okay.” Rhett’s finger was drawing circles into the top of the table. His chest tightened.

“I really wanted to come,” Link said. His voice was strained.

“Yeah, I…I was looking forward to it,” Rhett said quietly. The line was silent for a while. Rhett sighed.

“I’m sorry, but I have to go. Can I call you tonight?” Link asked.

“Mmhm.”

“Okay. I’ll call. Bye.”

“Bye.”

Rhett put the phone down and let his eyes go unfocused. Another whole month. He’d have to wait another whole month before seeing Link again. He missed those blue eyes. He missed that crooked smile. He missed touching him. His mind went straight to the memory of last month. Link on his bed, back arched in pleasure, gasping for breath, begging for Rhett to touch him. Rhett let out a low growl and pressed his palm on his crotch. The pressure made him hiss with pleasure. Never before had he regretted his living arrangement. He felt the heaviness of his decision now. An angry sizzle jerked him back to reality. His eggs were burning.

The supply drop came at the usual time. The chopper was different. It actually made the whole thing easier. It would have been worse to see someone else climb out of Merle. Rhett didn’t respond to the pilot’s attempts at small talk. He should be talking with Link now, not this stranger. He didn’t even catch the guy’s name. Thankfully, the pilot got the picture quickly enough and they walked to the lighthouse in silence. The pilot left after putting the crates down. Not even a goodbye was uttered. For a second, Rhett thought if he’d managed to offend him some way. Not that he cared. Rhett started to unpack, relieved to be alone again. But then he heard footsteps again and turned annoyedly at the door.

“Sorry, I almost forgot. I was supposed to give you this,” the pilot said with an eye roll and offered Rhett something. Rhett stuck out his hand, frowning at the man. A stone dropped on his palm. The kitchen door closed. Rhett stared at the stone, chest heaving. How did he do this? The stone looked like a regular beige rock, but when Rhett turned it over he saw that the rock was split open to reveal the light green quartz. Rhett marveled at the gleaming surface of it. The color reminded him of tropical ocean water. Rhett took the stone to the bureau and placed it carefully next to the others. He smiled fondly at his little collection of Link.

After getting the supplies taken care of, Rhett opened his laptop and answered an email from Stevie. After a paragraph about the latest edits, Stevie had written about a date she was taking her girlfriend. She ended the email with a usual “any plans tonight?” that Rhett had recently started to actually answer. He did that now without really thinking about it. I had plans, but they were cancelled, he wrote. His email dinged almost instantly.

Your plans were cancelled? What, did the puffins have better things to do?

Rhett chuckled. Stevie was understandably confused. His plans weren’t usually the type that could get cancelled. Rhett hadn’t talked about Link with Stevie. There wasn’t really a reason why he wouldn’t. He trusted Stevie, considered her to be the closest thing to a friend he had. It just hadn’t come up. Missing Link had apparently made him crave for any social interaction because uncharacteristically he answered back.

Yeah, they missed the whale that was supposed to give them a ride.

An instant message popped on the side of the screen.

Steviewlevine:
You made a joke! I’m so proud.

Rhettmc:
Ha ha.

Steviewlevine:
But seriously, what plans did you have?

Rhettmc:
Someone was coming over.

Steviewlevine:
I’m sorry. Give me a minute to gather my jaw from the floor.

Rhettmc:

Steviewlevine:
Rhett, have you met someone?

Rhettmc:
Is it so unbelievable?

Rhett knew that it was. Stevie probably thought so too, but she deftly dodged the question.

Steviewlevine:
Where did you meet? Hard to believe a tinder date would get all the way out there.

Rhettmc:
Do you really believe I’d go on tinder?

Steviewlevine:
So grindr?

Rhett stared at the words. Did she know? He shook his head. No, she was just joking. Rhett’s fingers hovered over the keypad. Was he about to come out to someone? Come out as what? When he pondered the answer to that Stevie had apparently interpreted his silence incorrectly.

Steviewlevine:
I’m sorry. That was too far. Sometimes I forget you don’t do the social thing so much.

Rhettmc:
No, you actually got it right. In a way.

Rhettmc:
I mean I didn’t meet him on grindr, but yeah

Steviewlevine:
Rhett James Mclaughlin, do you have a boyfriend?

Rhettmc:
I wouldn’t call him that.

Steviewlevine:
I’m screaming. You should hear me right now.

Rhettmc:
Control yourself. I’m about to put this laptop away.

Rhett wasn’t that serious. Surprisingly, it actually felt nice to talk about this with someone.

Rhettmc:
He’s the supply pilot.

Steviewlevine:
Wow, bold move, Mclaughlin. Hitting on the help.

Rhettmc:
He’s not the help!

Steviewlevine:
But I guess your choices are pretty limited so… I’ll allow it. Is he hot?

Rhettmc:

Steviewlevine:
So, very?

Rhettmc:
Yeah

Steviewlevine:
I’m so happy for you. It was about time.

Rhettmc:
I guess. It’s not that simple though.

Steviewlevine:
Sure, I get it. I’m sorry he’s not coming today.

Rhettmc:
Me too.

Steviewlevine:
Tell me about him?

And Rhett did. He was glad of Stevie. She made a bad day bearable. After talking with her, Rhett did his chores and took a walk. He stood next to the helipad for a while, imagining the red spot appearing from the horizon. If he concentrated enough, he could almost hear the tell-tale thumping of the rotors. He shut his eyes and imagined Link jumping out. Always in those skinny jeans, no matter the weather. Rhett would put his hands on his slender hips and kiss his smirk away. With a sigh, he opened his eyes and walked slowly back to the lighthouse.

The evening slogged on. Rhett made dinner and did some writing. He read in front of the fireplace until the fire had died out and only warm ashes remained. It was late. Link hadn’t called. Rhett tried not to read too much into it. His shift had probably run long. Rhett showered, phone propped on the sink so he’d hear if it rang. After his shower, he climbed to bed and tried to read for a bit, but his eyes kept drifting close. Disappointed, he finally gave up on the phone call and wrote a quick good night text before shutting the lights. As his head hit the pillow, the phone rang. Rhett scrambled in the darkness to answer it.

“Hey!”

“Hi! I’m so sorry. My shift ran long.”

“Yeah, I figured as much.”

“Were you sleeping? Did I wake you? I saw your text and panicked and called and I just realized you might have sent it hours ago and…” Link prattled on, sounding anxious.

“I wasn’t sleeping,” Rhett interrupted him. With phone in hand, he burrowed back into bed and bundled up. “But I am in bed already.”

“Oh. Mmm.” Link made a throaty sound that made heat pool into Rhett stomach.

“What was that?” Rhett asked with a low chuckle.

“Just thinking about you. In bed.” Link’s voice had dropped an octave. It made the hair on Rhett’s neck stand on end.

“So, is this a booty call?” he asked, still amused.

“Oh, yes. Definitely.” Rhett could hear the smile in Link’s voice. Link sounded excited, ready to play a game Rhett wasn’t sure he could play along.

“Are you at home?” he asked to diffuse the situation a little. To gather up the courage.

“Yeah. I just came from the shower.”

“You did?” An image of Link, naked, dripping wet after a shower, rose to Rhett’s mind. Rhett’s fingers grazed over the crotch of his boxers and his cock jumped against the fabric.

“Mm-hmm. I’ve been thinking about you all day.”

“Yeah?” It was hard to think when Link said things like that. Rhett was sure that if they were going to really do this thing, Link was about to experience the worst phone sex of his life.

“Oh, yeah. Do you know how difficult it is to fly a chopper with a hard-on?”

Rhett laughed out loud. He felt awkward and very turned on at the same time.

“I’d guess it’s hard,” he managed to say, still giggling. Link joined in the laughter, making Rhett feel a bit better. This wasn’t so serious.

“Very hard. Like me right now. God.” The last word was a breathless whisper and Rhett doubled over with want. He imagined Link sitting on the edge of his bed, legs hanging off the side, knees far apart, back arched, leaning onto his other hand as the other wrapped around his impressive length. Rhett gasped for air and felt his mouth water. He needed his mental image to come true.

“Where are you?”

“Where do you want me?” It was like Link had read his mind.

“Can you sit on your bed? On the edge.”

“Yeah.”

“Spread your legs. Lean back a bit. You can balance yourself with your other hand.”

“And my other hand?” Link was already breathless.

“Touch yourself. Slowly.”

“Ohhhh, Rhett.” Link was moaning, low and slow.

“Good…” Rhett swallowed the word ‘boy’ he almost tagged onto that. It seemed too much.

“I really wish I was there with you. I wish it was you touching me now. Your big hands on me.”

Rhett’s chest was rising and falling quickly. His dick was fighting its way out of the boxers. His hips rose from the mattress, like he could get the purchase he needed from the covers on top of him.

“Mm-hmm. I want you here too. Been dreaming about it.”

“If you were here right now,” Link started and stopped to draw a sharp breath before continuing. “What would you do?” Rhett could hear the movement of his hand through the line. There was a deliciously dirty slickness to it. I really need to get lube.

“I’d kneel in front of you. Take you into my mouth. As deep as I could. God, I miss that. Miss the way you feel in my mouth. I’d…” Rhett couldn’t think anymore. Link’s breathless whine was too much for him. He had to touch himself. The need was too great. He palmed himself and couldn’t stop the moan that escaped him. He could hear Link’s breath hitching.

“Fuck, Rhett. Are you touching yourself?”

“Yes,” Rhett rasped. He’d managed to pull his boxers down and was moving his hand on himself.

“Oh God, yes, Rhett. Touch yourself for me. Fuck, you’re making me so hard. I wanna be there. I want to sit on top of you. Slick myself up for you. I wanna ride you. God. You have no idea how much I want you inside of me. Want you to fill me up. I bet you feel so good.”

Rhett just moaned in answer. Link’s voice was making him slowly lose his mind.

“Do you ever think about that, Rhett? Do you think about taking me?”

“Yeah. Ohh, yes. I think about that,” Rhett mumbled.

“I want to make you feel so good. Would you let me do that?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“Tell me, Rhett. Tell me what you want to do to me. Tell me what you think about when you're alone.”

Rhett slowed his hand. He wanted to give Link all the mental power he could muster in this state.

“I…uh…I think about your hips. I love your hips. I love the way my hands wrap around them.”

“Mmm. Your big hands. You make me feel so small. I love that about you,” Link purred.

“I think about ripping your clothes off in the kitchen. I think about bending you over the table. Pressing your face on the surface of it. I think about how your back arches as I slide into you. I think about how fucking tight you are. I think about driving you delirious with my cock.” Rhett felt like he was having an out-of-body experience. His mouth was saying the words, but he didn’t remember deciding to say them. His hand was moving again, fast. He was stroking dry and it hurt a bit but also felt too good to stop to search for lubrication.

“Fuck, baby. You’re amazing. I want that. I want you to do that to me.” Link’s voice was strained.

Rhett couldn’t speak anymore. He was breathless and dizzy. He threw the covers away, kicking them to the foot of the bed.

“Are you close?” Link's whisper traveled to Rhett’s spine, making him buck his hips desperately.

“Uh-huh,” was all he managed to get out.

“Are you gonna let me hear you cum? I wanna hear it. Wanna hear you cum for me, Rhett. Please.” Link was pleading him. Rhett dropped the phone on the pillow next to him and lifted his other hand above him. He grabbed the spokes Link had hung onto last month. The headboard rattled from the movement of his strokes. He felt a telling tightening in his balls, felt his thighs muscles constrict and tremble, felt the heat rush from his stomach to his dick. So close.

“Link!” He came hard, ears popping, Link’s name echoing from walls of his bedroom. The pleasure peaked and he was covering his chest and stomach with evidence of his release. Link was breathing heavily into the phone. Rhett was enjoying the last shivers of pleasure as he listened to Link reach his resolution.

“Fuck, Rhett, I wish I was there. I’d lick you clean. Kiss you off your high. Rhett…Oh…I’m gonna…” Then there was only a low guttural sound and stuttered breaths. Rhett smiled into the darkness. His breathing was steadying. He felt light-headed and satisfied. Link was silent for a long time. Rhett listened as his breathing normalized too. Suddenly, he felt self-conscious.

“Was that good?” Rhett asked tentatively.

“I could listen to you screaming my name all night long,” Link sighed. Rhett snorted and felt a bit embarrassed.

“No, seriously, Rhett. That was amazing.”

“Yeah. It was good for me too,” Rhett confessed, smiling. There was another silence and a sigh.

“I can’t wait to get to you next month. I’m gonna try to arrange my schedule so that I can spend the night.”

“I’d like that.”

“I need to clean up. Can I...can I call you after? I know it’s late but I miss your voice and…”

“Yeah. I’m not that tired.” Rhett was telling the truth. He wasn’t anymore. He felt alert and alive with sensation. He got up to clean himself and returned back to bed to wait for Link’s call. This time, he didn’t have to wait long.

Chapter Text

Rhett woke to the sound of the phone ringing. He scrambled for it blindly, still barely awake.

“Huh?” he gruffed, frowning at the bright light of the screen.

“Morning!”

“Link?” Rhett was trying his hardest to wake up properly, but the sleep hung heavy on him.

“Were you sleeping?” Link asked in mock surprise.

“Yes! It’s like 5 a.m.,” Rhett grumbled. Suddenly his eyes flew open and a chill ran through him. It was the morning of the 15th. This couldn’t be a repeat of last month, could it?

“Sorry! Didn’t realize it was so early.” He was obviously lying.

Rhett couldn’t manage to answer. He waited for the bad news. If he had to wait another month to see Link, he’d go crazy. He’d join the puffins and spend the rest of his life on a rock eating fish. It didn’t occur to his sleepy brain that if Link was calling to tell bad news, he wouldn’t sound so cheery.

“Rhett? Did you fall back to sleep?”

“No, I’m here. Are you coming?”

“Oh, hopefully yes. Preferably multiple times.”

It took Rhett a minute to process the sentence. A smile spread on his face.

“You’re gonna be here? Today?”

“Yes, you dummy! And I got the schedule sorted out so I can stay the night,” Link sounded giddy.

“That’s good news,” Rhett said yawning.

“Wow. Your enthusiasm is infectious,” Link said faking indignation. Rhett wasn’t worried, he could still hear the smile in Link’s voice.

“Oh, you know me. I’m just bursting from joy,” Rhett chuckled.

“I mean if were talking about bursting…”

“God, Link. It’s too early for flirting. See you later.”

“Fine. I get it. You need your beauty sleep. But be prepared for lots of shameless flirting tonight,” Link said, voice lowering to a seductive timbre. Rhett smiled at the sound and felt the immediate reaction it created in his boxers.

“Would expect nothing less from you. Bye.”

“Bye.”

Rhett dropped the phone to the bedside table and fell promptly back into a sweet, undisturbed sleep. When he woke up the second time that morning, he opened his eyes with a smile on his face. He chuckled to himself. He’d been smiling so much this past month he’d probably grown new muscles into his face. I’ll see him today. Rhett felt a calm happiness flush over him. He’d get to kiss him and hold him and touch him and… His mind started to veer into the territory of dirty thoughts. Rhett closed his eyes and palmed himself roughly. He should probably just release the tension. It would take hours before Link was here. He moved his hand slowly over his boxers, imagining Link on his hands and knees.

An idea sprung in his mind. Rhett dug his phone from under the pillow and threw his covers away. He grabbed himself through the fabric of his boxers and took a picture. It wasn’t even really that dirty. Just an outline of a hard-on. Rhett’s belly flushed hot as he pressed send. He wrote a text after the image: “Thinking about you.” Then he pulled himself out of his boxers and returned to his fantasy. His phone buzzed. He opened the message while still stroking himself with his other hand.

Fuck, Rhett. I am in public.
Are you trying to kill me?

Rhett chuckled and kept working on himself. His breathing was shallow and fast. His phone buzzed again.

Is that all I’m getting?

It was hard to write. But Rhett managed to send back: “Yes.” The reply was almost instant.

You’re a cruel man, McLaughlin.

Rhett was too worked up to answer anymore. His hand kept going as did the filthy movie reel in his mind. It didn’t take long for him to finish on himself with a satisfied grunt. He looked at his cum-painted hand and smiled mischievously as he took a picture of it laying against his bare stomach. The image left for Link’s phone with a satisfying whoosh sound. The reply was short but sent shivers down Rhett’s spine.

Save me some.

—————

Rhett did his morning chores with a smile plastered on his face. But as the day went on, his mood shifted and doubt started to creep in. They’d talked on the phone almost daily after that first phone call and even the phone sex was a pretty regular occurrence, but Rhett realized he was still nervous. They hadn’t seen each other in two months. Even though Rhett felt very comfortable talking to Link on the phone now, he had no idea how his anxious body was going to react to actual touching. He knew Link had expectations for today. It was obvious and, honestly, it was normal. They’d basically dated for at least a month now. Who wouldn’t want to be physical at that point? Even Rhett wanted that, but he knew that what he wanted and what he was able to do were two very different things. As the hours passed, Rhett grew more and more jittery.

Rhett was so wrapped up in his increasingly stressful thoughts he forgot to keep track of the time. When he finally happened to glance at the clock, he frantically jumped up and rushed to the door. He was only halfway to the helipad when he could see Merle in the distance. The familiar red figure made his heart hammer against his ribcage. Soon he could see from afar the chopper touching down and Link jumping out. Link looked his way and waved. Rhett’s breath hitched and he stopped on his tracks. His body was on overdrive, skin buzzing, limbs shaking. He was sweaty and breathing rapidly. At first, he cursed his apparently very bad shape, since hurrying down the hill could make him this out of breath. But when he started to feel faint, he finally realized he was having a panic attack. No, no, no, not now! Goddamn it! He could hear the rush of blood in his ears and his vision started to blur. The world swayed around him and the last thing he saw, before the darkness fell, was Link running up the hill towards him.

Rhett came to slowly. He was having trouble getting his hazy brain straight. Someone was talking to him. Rhett wracked his brain. He knew the voice. He loved that voice. Who did he love?

“Anna?” he managed to get out. The voice silenced. Rhett strained his hearing. Where did she go? No, you idiot, Rhett realized. It can’t be Anna. Shit.

“Rhett. Can you open your eyes?” the voice asked. Rhett could remember now, and he felt like sinking into the mud in which he was laying. God, please. Let me just disappear. Link sounded so worried. Rhett tried to listen to his voice, tried to hear if there was something else there. Hurt? Jealousy? He couldn’t be sure. He opened his eyes slightly and the light of day made him squint.

“Link. Hey,” he said quietly.

“Oh, thank God. Are you okay? I was so worried. You went down so hard.” Link was on his knees next to Rhett. His voice was shaky and strained. His hands hovered over Rhett’s body. Rhett leaned on his elbows and pushed his upper body up.

“I think I’m okay. Dizzy.”

“What happened?”

“I don’t know. Fainted, I guess,” Rhett muttered and scrambled to a sitting position. He had to drop his head between his knees to fight the light-headedness. He had surely never been this embarrassed. He felt Link’s hand settle on his back and jerked. Link jumped back. Rhett could see hurt flash through his features before they settled back into a concerned look. It made his stomach turn. Their day together wasn’t starting as Rhett had originally anticipated.

“Can I do something?” Link asked, voice low. He was staring intently at Rhett.

“No. I’m gonna be fine. Just wait a minute and I’ll come get the crates with you.”

“No, you will not.” Link shook his head and frowned. “I’m gonna take you back inside and get the crates by myself.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. You’d have to make three trips,” Rhett said, getting annoyed. He didn’t need to be coddled.

“I’ll make as many trips as I have to. You’re not carrying anything today.”

“Link. I’m not a fucking child. Stop hovering.” Rhett growled. The words just spilled out from him. Link sighed and got up. He shook some of the mud off of his knees. There was a stab at Rhett’s heart when his eyes flitted to his jeans. It wasn’t long ago when he had fantasized ripping those things off Link. Now he was flustered and irate.

“Tell me when you can walk,” Link just said and took a few steps back, giving Rhett the space he’d demanded. Rhett immediately regretted it. There Link finally was, basically at his fingertips, after two months of waiting and Rhett was already driving him away. Idiot.

“I’m sorry,” Rhett said, voice trembling. He looked at Link, who was standing downhill, arms crossed and a sour look on his face. Rhett took a shuddering breath and said the words again. “I’m sorry, Link. Please.”

“Took you a lot longer last time. I’d say this is progress,” Link said clearly still trying to sound indignant, but Rhett could see the corner of his lips tugging up.

“Come here,” Rhett said, opening his arms. Link took an uncertain step towards him. Rhett crooked his fingers and nodded encouragingly. “Come on, babe.” The pet name dropped from his lips without much thought. Only Link’d used those and even he reserved them to times when things had gotten hot and heavy. Link couldn’t stop the smile anymore. It lit up his face and he rushed to Rhett’s arms, dropping on his knees between Rhett’s legs. Rhett wrapped his arms around Link’s slim figure and pulled him close. Link’s hands searched for a place to go and finally settled gingerly on Rhett’s hips. Rhett’s body rebelled, but he pushed the feeling down and pressed his face onto Link’s neck. He took a long breath and sighed.

“God, you smell amazing.”

“Is this okay?” Link whispered moving his fingers a bit.

“Yeah. I can handle it. I’m really sorry. I’ve been kind of in my head today. Freaking out.”

“About us?” Link asked.

Rhett swallowed. Us. Are we really an us? For some reason that hadn’t occurred to him before.

“Yeah,” he just answered, because it was true enough. Link nodded against Rhett and fell silent. They sat like that for a moment. Then Rhett could feel the moisture of the wet earth under him start to seep through his pants onto his butt cheeks.

“We should probably get up,” he said, trying to disentangle from Link. Link resisted, making a throat sound that was a clear sign of refusal. Rhett chuckled and sank back into Link’s heat.

“Babe?” Rhett asked, laughter in his voice.

Link burrowed deeper into Rhett’s neck where he’d ended up at some point. Rhett hadn’t even noticed. Link found a sliver of skin that was visible between Rhett’s jacket and beanie. Link’s hot breath there made Rhett’s stomach coil with heat. He felt the jitters returning. Link was so close.

“If I stay right here, are you gonna keep calling me that?” Link muttered into him. His voice was small and needy. Rhett’s whole body flushed warm and he laughed out loud. It was a low rumble, that shook them both.

“My butt is freezing off. I promise to keep calling you that if you let me go inside.”

“Okay. If you promise,” Link said and slowly let go of Rhett. He jumped up and offered his hand to Rhett. Rhett had to really challenge a part of himself to be to able to accept the offered help. Link pulled him up.

“How do you feel?” Link asked. Rhett shook his head a bit, to test the sensation. He still felt a bit faint, but not so much that he couldn’t walk.

“I’ll manage.”

“I don’t need to carry you?” Link asked with a wicked grin. Rhett guffawed at the thought.

“No one needs to see that.”

“I’m surprisingly strong,” Link offered with fake annoyance.

“I’m sure you are. I’d still ruin you.”

Rhett looked with interest as what he said made Link’s eyes widen and his pupils dilate. His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed hard. Rhett squinted at him, trying to figure him out.

“I’ll go ahead. No need for you to escort me,” Rhett offered a compromise. He still felt like he could easily carry the crates, but he was sure Link wouldn’t let him.

“Are you sure you’re okay going up by yourself?” Link asked frowning.

“Yes. And if I’m not, you’ll just find me on your way up,” Rhett said with a smirk. Link rolled his eyes, but looked more amused than annoyed.

“Fine. I’ll be right behind you. And if you feel faint at all, you’ll sit down and wait for me. Okay?” Link looked for confirmation on Rhett’s face. Rhett nodded and motioned Link to go. When Link finally turned to walk back to the chopper, Rhett started his own trek back. He felt a bit weak, but he still made good time. He had taken off his jacket and was milling about the kitchen waiting for Link who came up the stairs sooner than Rhett anticipated.

“You got back okay?” Link asked as he placed the first crates on the floor.

“Yes. Just feel a bit cold. Need to change. Are you sure you don’t want me to walk with you?” Rhett asked hoping for a yes. He hated the idea that Link was here, but not with him.

“No. You should go and wash up. You’ve got a little...something on your face,” Link said smirking and pointed a finger at Rhett. Rhett touched his face and felt something crusting his beard.

“I kinda like it, though. Makes you look wild. Bit like a caveman...or a viking,” Link said voice drawling with a dreamy look in his eyes.

“For crying out loud,” Rhett muttered and blushed fiercely. “Get going. Before I conk you with my club and drag you to my cave.”

“Is that a threat or a promise?” Link asked, biting his lip as he moved closer to Rhett. Rhett swallowed as heat coiled in his stomach. Nervous shakes rattled his body.

“Just go. I’ll wash up. See you in a bit.”

“Don’t start without me,” Link’s voice carried to the kitchen from the stairs before the door closed behind him.

A pile of muddy clothes were lying discarded on the bathroom floor. The mirror above the sink was already fogging up and Rhett swiped it with his palm to get a look at himself as the bathtub was filling. He looked frazzled. There were streaks of mud on his face and beard, his hair was all messy from wearing his beanie and sweating and his eyes were wide and bloodshot. Not exactly a look he hoped to have when seeing Link for the first time in months. Rhett frowned, annoyed at himself for even thinking that. What does it matter? It’s not like he likes you for your looks. Then he stripped out of his wet boxers and stepped in the tub. The water was almost too hot and as he sank in up to his shoulders, he let out a sigh of pleasure.

Rhett hadn’t been in the water for long, not even long enough to cool down from scalding, when he heard the tentative knock.

“Rhett? Can I come in?”

Rhett had hoped and feared for this.

“Yeah,” he answered and silently cursed for the tremor in his voice. It was stupid, but he automatically moved his hands to cover his private parts. Link stepped in but stopped at the door. He didn’t look directly at Rhett. His eyes were dancing on the ceiling and he was rubbing his neck.

“How are you feeling?”

“Better.”

The tension in the room was palpable. Rhett tried to find the words, tried to find the courage but he felt vulnerable and anxious. Link shuffled his feet, maybe waiting for Rhett to say something, maybe trying to find his words too. When neither came, he turned to leave. Rhett’s stomach tightened. The door was already closing when he finally got the words out.

“Wanna join me?” His voice was small. For a second, he was sure Link hadn’t even heard him. But then the door creaked open and Link’s head popped back in.

“Are you sure?” he asked, voice mirroring Rhett’s.

“Yes.”

Link stepped back in. Soon his clothes were piling on the floor too. He wasn’t as bashful as Rhett. He even looked straight at Rhett before dropping his underwear. Then again, Rhett had seen it all already. He couldn’t help noticing Link wasn’t exactly limp.

“How do you want me to…?” Link’s voice startled Rhett.

“Oh.” Rhett realized he’d been staring. Thankfully he was already flushed from the hot water, so the blush didn’t show. “Can you sit in front of me, your back to my chest? Is that…? Would that be okay?” He was still unsure, afraid of his capabilities for physical closeness. There had been progress already. Link had touched him outside, but they had been clothed then. This was a whole different ball game. Literally.

Link stepped into the tub, lowering himself between Rhett’s legs. The water sloshed over the edge of the tub, water level rising almost to Rhett’s chin. He inched himself up a bit. He knew he had to move his hands now. He wanted Link to lean against him and that would not work if his hands were on the way. With a hard swallow, Rhett raised his hands and gripped the edges of the tub. Link was sitting in the tub now, back unnaturally straight, waiting for Rhett to make the first move. A flood of warmth crashed over Rhett. It was overwhelming and made the hot water feel barely lukewarm. I’ve done nothing to deserve this. Why is he so good to me?

“Lean back,” Rhett said. The warmth inside of him was dripping into his voice, making it all sweet and velvety. Link’s posture relaxed a little and he scooted back a bit before lowering himself onto Rhett’s chest. Link was still straining not to touch him too much. Still, it was so much skin, so much contact. Rhett fought his body. His mind was a battlefield and he was determined to be the one left standing. For a minute, Rhett forgot to breathe, forgot to think. All he felt was Link flush against him. When he finally remembered he needed oxygen to survive, Link was already in the middle of a sentence.

“…but it’s probably already cold.”

“Sorry. What’s cold?” Rhett managed to ask, the battle still raging on. Concentrate, man!

“The food. I brought us dinner,” Link repeated.

“Oh. That’s nice. Well, we can heat it up later,” Rhett offered. His hands were gripping on the edge of the bathtub, knuckles turning white. God, I want this. Let me have this, he pleaded with himself.

“Yeah. I’d rather be here,” Link sighed. “You can touch me, you know?” He said the last part slowly, voice low and inviting. Rhett felt like he was moving in slow motion. He let go of the edge and moved his hands on Link’s shoulders. Link’s skin was smooth and silky under his palms. He could feel Link’s taut muscles move as he rolled his shoulders slightly before sighing contently. The battle in Rhett’s mind stilled. It was instant. Suddenly, nothing else mattered except touching this man pressed against him.

Rhett moved his hands slowly towards Link’s neck, letting his fingers brush against the nape of his neck before wrapping his arms around Link. Link sighed again and relaxed completely against Rhett. Rhett was happy to realize he didn’t mind. Now that his body wasn’t fighting him, he actually preferred it. He pressed his cheek against Link’s hair and sighed too. Link let out a low chuckle. His hands rose to the surface and moved around, making little whirlpools onto the water.

“This is nice,” Link whispered. It wasn’t a question, not really but Rhett could hear the uncertainty in Link’s voice.

“Yeah. Definitely,” Rhett said, wanting to convey to Link he was fine. That he was winning and that his prize was this intimate moment with Link. They sat pressed against each other in silence for a long time, just enjoying the closeness after so many weeks apart. There seemed to be no need to talk now.

After some time, Link moved slightly. He had been slipping down and he wiggled his butt as he backed back into Rhett’s embrace. Link’s tailbone rubbed against Rhett’s crotch and he jerked. A host of pleasure coursed through him and suddenly, just sitting still behind Link seemed like the silliest thing on Earth. He needed more. Rhett’s hands started to move. They slipped back to Link’s shoulders, giving them a quick squeeze before diving down over to his chest.

The soapy water worked like a lubricant, letting his hands travel down Link’s body with a smooth glide. His hands lowered all the way down to Link’s stomach. Link gasped and Rhett could feel his ass rising from the bottom of the tub. Rhett smirked, but didn’t move lower. Instead, his hands grabbed Link’s sides and traveled back up fingers dancing on Link’s skin as he went. Link squirmed and giggled, sloshing more water out of the tub.

“Ticklish?” Rhett murmured, still smiling wickedly. Link hummed an affirmative and relaxed back against Rhett as Rhett’s hands moved back to his chest. Rhett grabbed Link’s chest, feeling his strong pecs under his palms. His fingers brushed over Link’s nipples, excited to find them perked up despite the warm water. He stopped to play with them for a bit, drawing low moans out of Link. Rhett was hard as a rock between their bodies and through the murky water he could see Link was not far behind him in that regard.

“You like this?” Rhett asked, just to hear Link’s voice again. He craved for it.

“Yes. Please, Rhett. Touch me,” Link’s voice was trembling with his body.

“Aren’t I already?” Rhett teased, knowing full well what Link had meant.

“Do you want me to beg? Is that it? Because I will. I’ll beg, I’ll plead. I’ll do anything, Rhett. I need your hands on me.” Link squirmed against Rhett. Link’s slippery body pressed against his straining cock was too much and Rhett moaned too. The sound was low and desperate and he should have felt embarrassed but he didn’t. Not anymore.

“Kiss me,” Rhett gasped. Link’s head dropped to his shoulder and his face turned up towards Rhett. His lips were parted in a moan and Rhett ducked down to kiss him. He felt feverish in his movements, pressing with his lips to open Link up more so he could sink his tongue into his warm mouth. Link sucked on it and Rhett growled. His hands shot down, finding Link’s thighs. He squeezed and enjoyed the yelp he got from Link. He felt Link’s pleasure with his mouth. Link had forgotten about kissing for a moment, he was just making low needy whines against Rhett. Rhett’s tongue was freed and he used it to explore Link’s mouth and neck languidly as his hands massaged up and down Link’s thighs muscles. When his palms slipped to the insides of Link’s thighs and started to glide upwards towards his crotch, Link’s lips slipped away from him altogether. Link’s head lolled to its side like he couldn’t concentrate on keeping it upright anymore. Rhett lifted his head, training his eyes on his target between Link’s legs.

“Rhhhhhett,” Link whimpered as Rhett’s hands finally wrapped around Link’s throbbing cock. Rhett shivered. His skin broke into goosebumps. He started pumping slowly with both hands. The soapy water made his hands move smoothly and he enjoyed the feel of Link’s body convulsing against him. Link’s moans grew with Rhett’s determined movements. He let his other hand duck down and cradle Link’s balls before gently tugging on them, making Link writhe in his hands. Gasped breaths and low whimpers echoed from the bathroom walls.

“Don’t stop,” Link managed to get out between moans and Rhett almost wanted to still his hands, wanted to make him wait, wanted to make him delirious with need. But he also needed to see him reach his peak, needed to see his face as he came in Rhett’s hands.

“Look at me,” Rhett ordered. Link turned his face back to Rhett and slowly opened his eyes. They seemed bluer than ever, framed by long eyelashes, some of which were stuck together from the steamy heat. Link’s mouth hung open in a silent moan and his cheeks were flushed red.

“God, you’re gorgeous,” Rhett muttered and quickened his pace making Link groan and buck into him. “Cum for me, babe. I wanna see you,” Rhett huffed feeling as out of breath as Link. He could feel Link cum before he heard him. His cock was pulsing in Rhett’s hands, spreading his mess on their bath water. The sound started deep in Link’s belly and traveled through his chest to be finally spilled from his lips and into the air. It was the most beautiful sound Rhett had ever heard and he carefully saved it into his memory, certain he could remember the exact cadence and timbre of it even on his deathbed. Link’s body had arched into the orgasm and he finally crashed back down so hard that Rhett felt air escaping his lungs. Then there was just silence and gasping breaths from both of them.

Chapter Text

They sat at the kitchen table, warmed up Chinese food containers spread between them. Link was wearing Rhett’s bathrobe. It was too big for him and every time Rhett looked at him, his heart seemed to skip a beat. Link’s eyes were trained on Rhett. He hardly even looked at the containers. He just dug his chopsticks down and ate what he came up with. Rhett was sitting at the table barechested with just a towel wrapped around his waist. He was still hard. He didn’t really mind. Link had offered, well, pleaded, to get him off but Rhett had refused. He still needed to go slow.

“What do you want to do tonight?” Rhett asked and popped a spring roll into his mouth. A smirk spread to Link’s lips and he wiggled his eyebrows. Rhett chuckled, trying hard not to choke on his food.

“I know that! So nothing else then?”

Link squished his nose and smiled fondly at Rhett. Rhett stared at the little wrinkles forming on the bridge of his nose and imagined kissing them smooth. Then he realized he didn’t have to imagine. He got up and circled the table. Link looked up at him, eyes expectant. Rhett took the chair next to him and turned it backwards before straddling on it. He checked that the towel still covered him before turning to Link. Link turned his upper body towards him. Rhett’s took a hold of Link’s jaw and leaned in to press a kiss on the spot he’d been admiring.

Link giggled, eyes shining bright. Rhett let his fingers slowly caress Link’s features starting with his jaw, feeling the sharp curve of it. He moved to brush his thumb over Link’s cheek. There was a faint coarseness, a five o’clock shadow. Rhett shivered at the thought of Link’s stubble scratching against Rhett’s inner thighs. To cool off from the sudden flood of heat, he playfully flicked Link’s nose, eliciting another giggle. His fingers moved to slowly draw the edges of Link’s slightly parted lips. Link’s eyes fluttered close and he sighed into the light touch.

“What are you doing?” Link whispered.

“Whatever comes to mind,” Rhett admitted, smiling.

“I like the sound of that. You know you can do that, right? You can do anything you want to me,” Link’s voice was low and breathless. Rhett’s hand stopped. He looked at Link, suddenly strangely uncomfortable.

“Why?”

Link’s eyebrows shot up. He was clearly startled by the change in Rhett’s tone.

“What do you mean why?” Link asked cocking his head to the side. He was carefully studying Rhett’s expression.

“Why do you want me like this? I just don’t get it. You are smart and funny and flirty and sexy as hell. You could have basically anyone in your bed. Why me?” Rhett was breathless now too but for completely different reasons. Ever since they decided to give this a go, whatever this was, the questions had plagued him. It made no sense for Link to want him.

“Because you’re all of those things too,” Link answered quietly. Rhett opened his mouth to protest but Link shut him up with a stern look. He turned in his seat, now facing Rhett head on.

“You are smart. Well, a smartass most of the time, but smart nonetheless. Talking with you is my favorite pastime. You are funny too, when you relax and let your guard down a bit. And flirty?” Link stopped to let out a low laugh and a sigh that sounded more like a moan. “Do I have to remind you of the very suggestive pictures you sent me this morning?”

Rhett’s face and neck burned and he couldn’t stop the shy smile spreading on his face. His body was warm and soft all of a sudden. He felt like if he relaxed a little more, he’d just melt into a puddle on the floor. Link looked at him, eyes shining with intense emotion.

“You missed one,” Rhett said, voice gravelly, feeling slightly embarrassed for his need of validation but still determined to get it. Link’s smile widened and morphed into a wicked grin.

“Oh, did I? Hmmm. It seems so. Well, let’s put it like this. You know what I thought when I first laid eyes on you on the edge of that helipad?”

“What?” Rhett rasped. His veins were filled with liquid fire and the towel was straining to cover him.

“That I’m going to climb that man like the tree that he is. Even if it’s the last thing I do.”

Rhett groaned and pulled Link into a kiss. He moved so quickly his chair tipped, almost making him fall and he jumped up to stop himself. The chair fell down with a rattle that made both of them flinch. Link was still sitting, staring straight ahead, jaw hanging slack, eyes wide. Rhett looked down and realized that in the chaos he’d lost his towel. He was standing in front of Link stark naked sporting a considerable erection. Link’s gaze flitted up to him.

“Rhett?” he pleaded.

“I…” Rhett tried to answer. He tried to get the words out. That he wanted nothing more. That this was all he thought about when he was alone in the dark. That if touching him could make Link as happy as touching Link made Rhett, he wanted to give him that. But he couldn’t.

“Please. Let’s try,” Link’s voice was a whisper. His hands rose up and approached Rhett. Rhett jerked back in panic.

“No, I’m sorry. I can’t. I’m not… I’m so sorry.” Rhett mumbled, utterly disappointed in himself. He grabbed the towel and ran for the stairs. He threw himself on his bed and burrowed under the covers like a petulant teenager. Why? Why am I like this? He should just leave. I’m not worth the trouble. Tears stung the corners of his eyes but he willed them away. It didn’t take long for him to hear the soft footsteps. He could hear Link stopping next to the bed. He felt like an idiot, hiding under the covers.

“Rhett? I’m sorry I pushed you. We can go as slow as you want. You’re worth the wait.”

Link’s words were a dagger that pierced Rhett’s heart. How did he know to use those exact words? Rhett doubled over and one tear managed to escape. It dropped onto the pillow and Rhett pushed his face down hard, fighting to keep rest of them in. The covers slowly slipped off of his head. He sighed into the pillow before rolling over. Link was standing over him, brow furrowed with worry.

“No, I’m sorry,” Rhett said feeling deflated. “Maybe we should try.”

“I don’t think so. Not yet. But can I suggest something? It’s just an idea. You can say no.”

“Okay.”

“You’ve touched yourself when we’ve been on the phone. Maybe… Could you do that now? And let me be here. I promise not to touch you.”

Rhett looked at Link and thought about it. Why not? It wasn’t that different from what they’ve been doing. Maybe it was a start. He propped himself up on his elbows and patted the bed next to him.

“Come here.”

A hopeful smile rose to Link’s lips. He climbed on the bed and positioned himself next to Rhett, as close as he could without actually touching. Rhett let out a shaky breath and tried to relax. His hands were trembling as he shifted on the bed and let the covers slide off him.

Link was biting his lip now, staring intently at Rhett. Rhett felt incredibly self-conscious. His cock bobbed between his legs, craving to be touched. He closed his eyes and tried to imagine he was alone with his phone.

“Keep talking.” Rhett murmured and let his hand trail down his chest. He stopped right before grabbing himself and listened to Link’s voice.

“I knew you were big. I’ve felt you before. But I had no idea you were this gorgeous. God, it’s just so…thick. I’ve never…I mean, I don’t know if I could take that,” Link was speaking in a slow drawl. Rhett noticed that his southern accent was sneaking through. Rhett could feel Link’s warm breath on his shoulder. It sent shivers dancing down his spine. But there was something about Link’s voice that seemed to soothe Rhett’s jitters. It was familiar. He’d gotten used to it. It was a comfort and a turn-on at the same time.

“Touch yourself for me, please. I wanna see you move.” Link’s voice continued in the same cadence. It was driving Rhett insane. He grabbed himself and started to move his hand. He was surprised how far gone he was already. Link was panting in tandem with him. Rhett could feel his breath moving up on his body. From shoulder to his neck, finally settling near his ear, making his scalp tingle with frisson. It made Rhett’s head fill with visions of Link on him.

“I’m imagining it’s you touching me. Your slender fingers around me. Your mouth…” Rhett muttered. Link turned his head to bite down on his own arm to quell the moan that rose from his chest. Then Rhett felt his breath returning.

“Keep talking, Link. Please.” Rhett gasped and moved faster on himself.

“I want you in me. Fuck, Rhett. You have no idea. All I’ve thought about these past few months is you in me. You in my mouth. You in my ass. I’m yours to use however you like.”

Rhett couldn’t help but to moan at the words that seemed to penetrate his brain. He could feel Link’s body heat all over himself and he wanted so badly for Link to touch him. But he knew it was a bad idea.

“I wanna taste you. If you’d let me touch you, you’d be fucking my mouth right now. Slow, fast, however you’d want me. I’d take you in so deep. I’d make you cum so hard. I’d swallow every drop and thank you after. Rhett, please. Cum for me.”

Link’s deep voice and filthy words finally took Rhett over the edge and with a strangled groan he spilled over his stomach. Link let out a strangled gasp.

“Oh god, yes baby. That’s so good. You’re so good for me.” Link purred still as Rhett slowly came down from his high. Rhett felt like clay, pliable and smooth.

“Babe?” he muttered eyes still closed.

“Yeah?”

“Kiss me?”

Link moved slowly. Rhett felt the mattress press down around his body as Link leaned on his hands and knees over him. Their lips met. The kiss was sweet and gentle. Perfect. Rhett sighed into Link’s mouth and wrapped his hands around Link’s shoulders pulling him down. Link let out a small yelp when he lost his balance and crashed onto Rhett’s chest. Rhett chuckled and turned sideways, dropping Link on the bed next to him. He opened his eyes and looked at the man laying against him.

“I can figure this out. I promise,” he whispered between soft kisses. Link hummed affirmatively.

---

Their night was over far too quickly. After a good, long makeout session on the bed, they finally dressed and spent the rest of the night talking and playing cards. Link was wearing a light pink collared shirt that seemed to make Rhett head spin a little. He kept tugging on the collar to pull Link into a kiss.

“It appears that I should wear this shirt every time I come see you,” Link laughed after some time.

“I can’t help it. It suits you. There’s something about the color. Makes you shine,” Rhett said blushing.

“Never would have thought you’d be so corny, McLaughlin. Big, strong guy like you. You really are just soft and squishy inside, aren’t you?” Link said with a fond smile on his face.

“Oh, shut up,” Rhett scoffed and pulled him into another deep kiss. When they separated, Link jumped up and went to dig around in his overnight bag.

“I just remembered,” he said as he walked back to Rhett. “Here.”

Rhett took the offered stone. He felt a tug at his heart. How could something so small make him this happy? He studied the stone. It was about an inch wide, polished into an almost perfect sphere. The coloring was a mix of deep blue hues.

“What is it?” he asked rolling it around on his hand.

“An apatite crystal. I looked up the meaning or whatever. It’s not like I actually believe in it but this one supposedly helps you to reach a desired goal. Um…like, helps with personal growth or something,” Link explained sounding slightly embarrassed. Rhett turned to look at him with a crooked smile and a cocked eyebrow. Link hurried to continue with a chuckle. “I mean it’s all bullshit obviously, but I like the way it looks too, kinda reminds me of the ocean.”

“I love it,” Rhett said getting up. He leaned down to kiss Link’s blushed cheek before padding to the bureau to add the stone to his collection.

“It’s getting late,” he said sighing, staring at the stones.

“Bedtime?” Link asked trying to sound cheery, but Rhett could hear an edge of sadness in his voice.

“Yeah. Bedtime,” Rhett said feeling the quickly approaching separation as an ache in his chest.

 

---

There had seemed to be no end for their need to keep talking long into the night. Every time one of them started to drift off into sleep, the other one remembered something else he wanted to ask. Link had been snuggled against Rhett, back to chest, Rhett’s arms wrapped around him. Rhett had used the position to his advantage, pressing ticklish kisses onto Link’s neck and shoulders. Link had tested his limits repeatedly by squirming his butt against Rhett’s crotch and at some dark hour of the night Rhett had finally had enough and had attacked Link with his tongue and his hands. He had ended up between Link’s legs, deepthroating him with much more success than the first time. Link’d cum hard again, fingers tangled in Rhett’s curls. Rhett had taken care of himself like earlier, Link’s heavy breaths and dirty words egging him on.

They’d fallen asleep far too late. The morning was already turning into the day as they fought the need to get up. The sleepless night hung heavy around them and Link kept drifting back into a shallow sleep snoring softly. Rhett was nuzzling his face against Link’s hair and drawing in deep breaths, trying to imprint Link’s scent into his memory for the month to come.

“So, next month,” Link said yawning loudly as he was roused again by the tickle of Rhett’s beard. “It’s my birthday on the first. Maybe you could come to the shore and we could celebrate.”

Rhett froze. Link couldn’t be serious. His chest tightened.

“What?” he managed to get out. His arms slid from Link and he sat up on the bed.

“I said…” Link started to repeat himself.

“No, I heard you. Just…I don’t go to the shore,” Rhett said looking straight ahead, avoiding Link’s gaze. He was starting to feel anxious. How could Link even suggest that? Didn’t he know Rhett at all? Just the thought of it was ridiculous.

“Ever?” Link asked turning to look at Rhett. He looked incredulous.

“Not if I can help it, no.”

“Why?”

“What do you mean why? I just don’t want to,” Rhett said voice strained. He could feel the anger building up inside of him. He had no desire to talk about this. Link should stop prying. He scrambled out of bed and sorted through their pile of clothes trying to find his.

“Rhett. Can I…can I ask you something?” Link said, voice slow and careful. He’d moved to sit on the edge of the bed and was looking at Rhett with serious expression.

“What?” Rhett spat out. He was feeling the buzzing in his skin again. It was getting hard to breathe.

“Have you thought about therapy?”

“No. I don’t need therapy. Come on, let’s go make breakfast,” Rhett muttered and yanked his pants on. He could see this conversation ending badly and he was desperately trying to right the course.

“Did you talk to a professional back then? After Anna died?” Link asked. Rhett felt like he was blacking out as the name dropped from Link’s lips. His hands started to tremble, and his breathing grew ragged and rough. He turned to look at Link with piercing glare.

“Don’t. Say. Her. Name.”

“Rhett. Please, I’m not trying to hurt you. I just think you really need to talk to someone about all of this. This is not normal. You realize that, right?”

“Link, I’m fine. I just don’t want you talking about her. She’s off limits,” Rhett’s voice was almost a hiss. He was speaking through gritted teeth.

“Really? Can you honestly say you’re fine? The way you’re acting right now,” Link said with a sigh motioning to Rhett. He wasn’t trying to be mean. Logically, Rhett knew that, but he couldn’t help the flash of irrational fury that struck him. He snapped.

“You don’t know me! You think you do, but you don’t. Not really. I’m just some weird obsession for you, aren’t I? A project to make you feel better about yourself. I don’t need you to cure me! This is my life and I’m perfectly happy just like it is. Did I ask for your opinion? No! Did I ask you to judge my decisions? No! So, fuck off!”

Link flinched at the words. His mouth was hanging slightly open, eyes glossy. Rhett knew he needed to apologize. He knew he’d gone too far. But he couldn’t do it. His brain was going mile a minute and it was fuming. There was the anxiety too, trying to explode out of him. He was afraid he’d faint again.

“Seriously?” Link asked quietly. He looked miserable. Rhett had no words anymore. He just stared at Link with fiery eyes. Link got up suddenly, making Rhett jump back. Link looked at him condescendingly and shook his head. He gathered his clothes and disappeared into the stairs. Rhett crashed down on the floor and pressed his face onto his palms. He felt like screaming.

It took some time for the anger to dissipate. Rhett was left feeling anxious and ashamed. He couldn’t believe he’d exploded like that. He got up shakily and padded downstairs. The kitchen was empty. Rhett frowned. The bathroom had been empty, too. Suddenly, his throat closed, and his vision blurred. Link couldn’t have…? His eyes searched for the overnight bag. It was nowhere to be found. The kitchen door bounced against the wall with a crack as Rhett hurried to the stairs. He stormed out of the lighthouse just in time to see Merle taking flight. Rhett’s legs gave out. He dropped onto the gravel, not feeling the sharpness of the rocks digging into his legs. A sob burst out of him. A line from the first email he’d ever received from Link rose to his mind:

“You should know that I will not tolerate that kind of behavior anymore.”

Link was gone.

Chapter Text

Rhett sobbed, still on his hands and knees. The sharp gravel was digging into his palms and he welcomed the pain. He could still hear the rotors of the chopper in the distance. The sound felt like a slap to his face. Link was really going.

“I’m so sorry. I fucked up,” Rhett whispered as hot tears streamed to the tip of his nose and dribbled down on the ground. He needed to say the words aloud even though Link wasn’t there to hear them. The emotional drop from last night’s bliss to what he felt now was brutal. What the hell is wrong with me? He’d already gotten a second chance with Link and this is how he’d used it? What had he even been that angry about? That Link wanted him to do things normal people did? Link wanted a partner—someone to go on dates with, someone who took him to places and experienced new things with him. There was nothing bad about that. Rhett’s outburst had been an embarrassing overreaction. Link had been right to leave. Rhett ached over the realization.

He got up slowly and brushed his hands on his pants to dislodge the tiny rocks that had burrowed in. His palms and knees burned and tingled. He had managed to rip his pants. He took one last look at the horizon. Merle had disappeared. Rhett forced a sob down. He scrambled inside and found his phone. He sent message after message. He knew he was a mess but he couldn’t stop himself.

I’m sorry.

I am an idiot.

I know I fucked up.

Please call me when you land.

I understand why you left.

I’m so sorry.

I know I don’t deserve it, but
could you give me another chance?

I was an asshole.

Forgive me.

Link, please.

Call me.

He waited for an hour. Then two. No answer. He tried calling Link multiple times. He sent his last message five hours after Link had left.

I need you.

Rhett still had hope. Surely Link just needed time to cool down. He would call tomorrow. Rhett would apologize. He would do better. He would be better. He fell asleep that night repeating those two sentences like a mantra. His hope was crushed quite effectively in the next few days. Link wasn’t answering any of his calls. He wasn’t answering any of his texts. There was a total radio silence. Rhett sat with his phone hoping against hope that at any minute Link would contact him. He couldn’t sleep. He barely ate. He did his work to the best of his ability but it wasn’t much. All the while he thought of Link and what he had lost. This was what he did. This was what he had always done. He was the culprit of his own pain and more so, the pain of others.

After a week of agony, he broke down and, in a fit of clarity, called Stevie.

“Rhett?” she answered, almost immediately sounding worried. Rhett never called her.

“Stevie, I…” But that was all Rhett got out before he burst into sobs again. Just hearing a kind voice was too much for him.

“Oh my God. Rhett! What’s wrong? Talk to me,” Stevie coaxed him. Rhett tried to calm himself down, tried to quell the sobs but it took a while. Stevie kept talking to him, soothing him with her words, making him laugh between his sobs and eventually Rhett was able to get some words out.

“I fucked up, Stevie. I fucked so bad. He’s gone,” Rhett managed to say and then he was sobbing again. Stevie let out an empathetic hum and went back to the soothing. It took some time for Rhett to finally calm down. They talked for a long while after that.

“You can still try to make it better,” Stevie said after they’d gone over the past and present fights.

“I don’t know, Stevie. I think he’s done with me.”

“It’s not done until it’s done. Do something. Make him believe you can change.”

“Like what?”

“Do something for his birthday like he wanted. Go to shore. Be with him.”

“I don’t know if I can…”

“That’s just your fear talking again. I get this is hard for you but think of it this way. Which is harder, losing him or going out into the real world?”

That shut Rhett up. Stevie had a point. So, with some help from Stevie and some recommendations from John, Rhett cooked up a plan to show Link he could change and be the man Link needed him to be.

---

It was finally June 1st. Rhett was standing at the pier. Never in his life had he been as nervous as he was now. The anxiety crashed through him in waves. Once in a while, he managed to draw a few quick shaky breaths but then the wave crested again and he felt like passing out from the tightening in his chest. His mind was screaming to him. Get away from here! It wasn’t a busy morning by anyone else’s standards, but to Rhett there were way too many people milling about. What made it worse was the fact that it was mainly couples. Rhett tried to not look at them; tried not to see their loving eyes and excited faces. So much touching. Had people always been this comfortable with public displays of affection? The boat was big and white and reminded him of river cruises he’d been on as a twenty-something. With Anna. He pushed her away from his thoughts almost coldly. He shouldn’t think of her now. That was a bad idea. This was hard enough as it was. He glanced at the time. It was ten minutes till departure time. If Link was coming, he was cutting it short.

Rhett had sent Link a text last night asking him to meet Rhett at this location before 10 o’clock. He’d gotten no answer. Rhett knew that Link could easily have plans: maybe a party with his friends or he might even have to work today. Rhett waited, chest heaving, eyes watering, riding the waves of his anxiety. Minutes ticked by and second by second, Rhett’s hope dwindled. All the couples at the pier were ambling towards the ship and the pier was filled with excited chatter. Amidst all the joy, Rhett’s heart was slowly breaking. Three minutes to departure.

“You still waiting for someone?” Rhett turned to look at a crew member standing behind him. He was a young man, dressed in a sharp white uniform. His features were soft and he studied Rhett with a small smile.

“Yeah,” Rhett answered, unable to erase the shakiness from his voice. He tried to smile at the man but could only manage a sad imitation. “Can we wait a little bit more?”

“We really need to get going, but I can stall a few more minutes,” he said looking at Rhett with empathetic eyes. Rhett turned to look away, afraid he might burst into tears. He felt a gentle squeeze on his shoulder and then heard the receding footsteps. One minute to departure. Link was not coming. After a few more minutes, the man came back.

“I’m sorry, man. We really have to go now. You coming?”

“No. Thank you, though.” Rhett smiled sadly at the young man.

“No problem. And for what it’s worth, I would’ve never stood you up,” he said with a crooked smile.

Rhett couldn’t help the awkward chuckle that escaped him. The man winked at him and walked back on board. Rhett stood there and stared, eyes blurry with tears, as the boat left the dock. He didn’t move for some time. In the back of his mind, he still hoped that Link would show up. Eventually, he had to admit to himself that his hope was for naught. With a heavy heart and bloodshot eyes, he headed for the taxi stand. He was about to step into the waiting vehicle when he heard it.

“Rhett!” The voice was faint but unmistakable. Rhett whipped around in search of the origin of the voice. Link was running towards him. Rhett slammed the car door shut and moved to meet him. Just seeing Link made his lips turn into a smile. He couldn’t help it. Link didn’t look exactly happy. His eyes were wide and the corners of his lips dragged down. He could be coming to tell Rhett that it was really over, to tell him to stop pestering him, but in that moment Rhett didn’t really care. All he could think about was the fact that he got to see Link again. He stopped a few yards before Link, who was still coming at him full force. They crashed into each other. Link’s hands were on Rhett’s neck, yanking him down. Their lips met with desperate passion. Rhett knew Link could taste the tears on his lips. He didn’t mind. He took Link in his arms and lifted him off the ground. Link whined into him and wrapped his legs around Rhett. Rhett lost himself in his lips. It had only been two weeks, but it felt like eternity.

Finally, his back forced him to put Link down. Link still stood on his tippy toes and kept his mouth on Rhett’s, sucking on his bottom lip and licking his way into Rhett’s mouth again and again. Rhett felt Link’s hardness against him. It made his head spin and his heart race. The need to touch Link, to make him moan and writhe, was too strong for their public setting. They had to cool it down a little. Rhett pushed Link gently off of him. Link frowned at him, his mouth pursing into a pout.

“Babe, calm down. If we keep going down this road we’re gonna end up in jail for public indecency,” Rhett murmured, smiling fondly. Link huffed, but dropped down on his heels. His hands slid down Rhett’s body and settled on his hips. It was only then that Rhett realized Link had been touching him all over during their reunion. He’d felt it. A tightness in his pants told him that much, but what he hadn’t felt was his usual need to push Link away. A wide grin rose on his face. He pulled Link into a tight hug.

“I missed you,” Rhett whispered into Link’s ear. Link nodded against him. Rhett took a step back and looked at Link. He searched for the gaze of those bright blue eyes and when he captured it, he asked the most important question.

“Can you forgive me?”

“I…” Link started and stopped. His chin wobbled. A film of tears was gathering in his eyes.

“I messed up. Real bad. I get that. I want to be better. I can be better. For you,” Rhett said voice low. His gaze was locked on Link. He was looking for signs of forgiveness. He was hoping for even a glimmer of something to hang his heart on.

“Rhett… Don’t you get it? I don’t want you to be better for me. I want you to be better for you,” Link said. He sounded tired. Rhett ached. He wanted to soothe Link’s worried brows with his fingertips. He wanted to kiss the pain away from his face.

“I’m trying. I am. Stevie is helping me to look for references for a psychiatrist who would be willing to do online sessions. I’m gonna do it.”

Link’s eyes widened a bit.

“Really?” he asked, voice full of hope. Rhett took that hope and drank it up like it was an antidote for a deadly poison that was threatening his life.

“Yes, really.” Rhett was hoping his voice conveyed how serious he was.

“Okay,” Link said with a tiniest of smiles.

“Okay?” Rhett thought he understood what Link meant, but he needed a confirmation. As he waited, his mouth felt suddenly dry. Link pulled on his collar and when Rhett leaned in, Link whispered.

“I forgive you.” He pressed a light kiss on Rhett’s lips. It was like the weight of the world was lifted off from Rhett’s shoulders. He was floating with a goofy grin on his face. Link opened his eyes after the kiss and chuckled.

“Don’t look so happy. You just used up your final life. You’re not a cat, you don’t get nine.”

“That’s fine. I don’t even like cats.”

Link laughed and pulled him into another kiss. It didn’t take long for it to deepen into a mess of hands all over their bodies, sighs and low moans. This time it was Link who pushed Rhett back.

“I’m sorry I missed your thing. I didn’t read your message until this morning. I tried to get here,” Link said. Rhett shrugged.

“I don’t care. You’re here. That’s all that matters.”

“What was it?” Link asked looking curious.

“It was a day cruise to go see the icebergs. There are a lot of them this time of year floating down Labrador Current. There would have been food too and wine and I don’t know…Just sounded nice to me.”

“Oh. That does sound nice. I bet they’re beautiful. I’m sad we missed it.”

“The season is not over yet. We can go another time.”

“Yeah?” Link was smiling and rubbing his thumbs on Rhett’s hip bones. He hadn’t let go of Rhett after his kiss of forgiveness.

“Of course. If you want to. There might even be another cruise today.”

“Or we could just take Merle and go see them by ourselves right now.”

“We could. But also we could…I…uh…I have a hotel room booked,” Rhett said rubbing his neck. He swallowed and glanced at Link.

“You that tired of me already? That you need to take a nap?” Link asked with a smirk and pulled Rhett closer to himself. Rhett couldn’t stop the blush creeping onto his neck.

“To be totally honest, I was thinking of something else than napping.”

“Room service?” Link offered with a wink.

“You could call it a service I guess,” Rhett whispered and kissed Link deeply.

“It’s your birthday present. It’s back at the hotel,” Rhett muttered to Link’s ear as Link’s lips were dragging down to Rhett’s neck in search of flesh to bite and suck on. Link perked up at the words.

“Really? You didn’t have to do that. Just you being here is an amazing present,” Link said, voice warm and honeyed.

“I think you might like this though. Wanna go?” Rhett asked with a quick kiss and a smirk. Link nodded and basically dragged Rhett back to the line of taxes.

The taxi ride to the hotel was an exercise in restraint. They sat side by side, Rhett’s arm draped over Link’s shoulder, Link’s palm resting on Rhett’s thigh. Link’s fingers drew lazy circles onto his leg. The driver was a chatty bloke and kept talking to them about his fishing trips. Rhett heard him but processed none of it. His entire concentration was on Link’s slow moving fingers. Halfway to the hotel, Rhett was basically ready rip Link’s clothes off in the back seat of the taxi and take him right then and there. Link turned his head to look at Rhett, like he’d heard his thoughts, and the glint in his eyes told Rhett he felt the same agonizing need.

Somehow they made it into the hotel. Rhett pulled their room key and let his hand drop to Link’s lower back as he guided him to the elevators. As soon as the metal doors closed, Link was on him. His lips wet and hot, Link had Rhett lightheaded in mere seconds. Rhett’s fingers raked on Link’s scalp, tangled in his hair, making Link whine low and needy. Link’s hand went to Rhett’s hair too and tugged hard until Rhett’s ear was pressed against Link’s mouth.

“I want you,” Link whispered into it licking the curve of his ear for good measure. Rhett shivered and tugged at Link’s hair exposing his neck and sinking his teeth into it. Link hissed and bucked against Rhett.

“This is the longest fucking elevator ride ever,” Rhett muttered against Link’s heated skin. He felt Link’s chuckle more than heard it as the doors finally dinged open. They stumbled into the room. Rhett closed the door and pushed Link against it. His head dipped down and attacked Link’s neck and shoulders. He needed to get his teeth into those clavicles again. He pulled on Link’s collar, exposing the sharp angles underneath. There was a sound of cloth tearing.

“I’m sorry,” Rhett said through his teeth that were already clamped on Link’s flesh. Link let out a deep throaty sigh as Rhett’s teeth grazed his skin.

“I don’t care. Just rip it off. Do whatever you want,” Link rasped. His hands were scratching at Rhett’s back and bunching up the fabric of his shirt under his jacket yanking it up to get to skin on skin contact. Rhett laughed low and booming. He straightened and looked Link dead in the eyes. He grabbed Link’s collar with both of his hands and yanked hard. The sound of the shirt ripping in half was almost as good as the dirty moan the move elicited from Link. Link’s knees buckled and Rhett caught him. His jacket and torn shirt slid easily off of him. Rhett lifted Link off his feet with barely any effort and threw him onto the bed. Rhett’s jacket fell on the floor next to Link’s clothes. Link looked positively drunk with lust.

Soon Rhett’s mouth was everywhere, tasting Link’s shoulders and the whole of his chest, nibbling on his perked up nipples and nuzzling to his abs. His fingers tickled Link’s sides making him writhe and giggle and gasp for air. When Rhett’s mouth finally reached Link’s pants, he wiggled down on the bed and pressed his face on Link’s crotch through the jeans. Link cursed and squirmed and begged and Rhett’s mouth was on him through the fabric. Rhett popped a button open and was about to remove Link’s pants when he remembered. He’d gotten carried away. Link’s eyes opened when he felt Rhett getting off the bed.

“What are you…” he asked voice almost slurred from the arousal.

“Getting your present,” Rhett answered. Link tried to grab his hand but Rhett easily shook it off.

“It can wait. Come on, Rhett. Don’t leave me like this.”

Rhett just chuckled and went to dig around in his bag as Link was left whining on the bed. Rhett found what he was looking for and returned to Link.

“Sorry, it’s not wrapped. Well, not yet anyway,” Rhett said and threw the items on the bed next to Link. Link’s eyes widened at the sight of them. He took the bottle of lube on his hand and turned it in his fingers as if he was marveling a piece of art. The condoms still laid on the bed. Link turned to look at Rhett eyes wide and a goofy smile on his lips.

“Really? Are you sure?” he asked sounding so needy and hopeful that Rhett wasn’t sure if he wanted to laugh or cry.

“Yes,” Rhett answered and shrugged out of his shirt. Link’s eyes followed intently as Rhett popped open the buttons on his jeans and pulled them down. He stood at the end of the bed with only the thin fabric of his boxers hiding his hardness. He palmed himself roughly, letting himself be vocal with the pleasure that the pressure brought him. He could see Link swallowing hard. A low whimper rose from Link’s throat.

Rhett leaned over him and with a swift movement pulled both his jeans and boxers off. Link yelped in surprise as his cock sprang free. Rhett let out a low growl of pleasure and took Link in his mouth. He felt ravenous, pressing down until his nose brushed up against Link’s curled dark hairs. He gagged a bit but, reciting ‘mind over matter’ in his head, didn’t let it stop him. His head began to bob lightly and he put his tongue to work, lapping at the shaft as he moved.

“Holy fuck! Rhett… Oh my god. Ohhhhhhhh! Have you been practicing?” Link muttered sounding awed, but then tugged at Rhett’s hair to pull him off of him. Rhett tried to fight against his hands. He wanted more, wanted to feel Link’s pleasure with his mouth, wanted to taste Link’s cum again. His eyes turned to look at his face.

“You gonna make me cum far too soon for me if you keep that up,” Link said out of breath and face flushed.

“Would that be so bad?” Rhett asked and managed to get his lips on Link’s tip again, licking it with his tongue as he still stared at Link. Link’s eyes flitted close for a bit and he moaned but then he pulled Rhett off again.

“Definitely not, but I’d rather have my present.”

Rhett climbed up and lowered himself next to Link. Link pulled him into a kiss. Rhett still felt the feverish need in Link’s body pressing against him, but the kiss was soft and slow. Link nibbled on his lip before diving in to explore his mouth with his tongue. Link’s palm was pressed against Rhett’s neck and his thumb slowly twirled in his beard. Rhett was totally lost in the feeling. I could spend rest of my life doing this. But there was also something else he wanted to be doing.

“Link,” he started. Link tried to chase his lips as he backed away from him. Rhett chuckled and dodged the kiss. Link’s lips pressed onto his bearded chin and he made a throat sound of displeasure.

“You need to help me with this. I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing,” Rhett continued quietly.

Link stopped and his eyes flitted from Rhett’s lips to his eyes.

“What do you mean?”

“You know…sex. With you,” Rhett said blushing. He hadn’t felt this vulnerable in bed since he was a teenager trying to figure out his first time with that nice girl from next door. This was a kind of a first time for him too, so it made sense. But it was still embarrassing. A forty-year-old man blushing as he was talking about sex with his partner. Link got up on his elbow so he could look down at Rhett who’d let his head fall on the bed.

“You haven’t been with a man before?”

“No.”

“Oh.”

“You thought I had?”

“Actually, yeah. I mean, I know you have had straight relationships but I just assumed you’d experimented. Even with all of your touching issues, you seemed to be so unfazed about touching me that I just thought… You sure you want to do this?” Link’s features had grown serious.

“I’m sure. I want you. I’ve wanted you for a long time. You just need to guide me a bit. Can you do that?” Rhett asked pressing his palm on Link’s cheek and caressing his skin lightly with his thumb. Link smiled and nodded.

“I assume you want to top?” he asked.

“Isn’t that what you wanted?” Rhett answered with a question.

“Oh, yes definitely. I’ve been fantasizing about that since November,” Link murmured and, for a moment, his features went dreamy and his eyes drooped closed.

“It’s your day, babe. Whatever you want,” Rhett whispered as Link turned to catch Rhett’s thumb in his mouth. His tongue twirled around it making Rhett twitch in his boxers. He drew his finger out of Link’s mouth and took the lube.

“I assume I don’t just stick it in?”

Link laughed out loud and took the tube.

“No, you don’t. Gosh. I feel like a sex ed teacher,” he said still chuckling as he popped the tube open. A wicked grin rose to Rhett’s lips. His hand slipped to Link’s waist and he pressed them together.

”Professor Neal? Will you show me how it’s done?” Rhett said voice pitched high, batting his eyelashes. Link jerked at the unfamiliar sound.

“Christ. Stop it,” he said but couldn’t stop smiling. “You’re being weird.”

“But Professor, I thought you wanted me to learn?” Rhett continued looking at Link from under his lashes trying to look innocent. Link shook his head as he laughed and gently slapped Rhett on the chest.

“So not my kink. I’d rather just have sex with my caveman.”

“That can be arranged,” Rhett said and with a growl pulled Link on top of him. Link yelped as the sudden movement made him squirt lube all over their chests. The tube dropped on the bed as Rhett continued the move, rolling them over again so that Link was under Rhett. Rhett‘s hands were everywhere and he was biting and sucking and kissing all over Link. All of this was accompanied by low growls and murmurs. Link was laughing and squirming, pleading Rhett to stop. Rhett did at first, to peek at Link who just frowned at him and spurred him on with a enthusiastic nod. Rhett went back to his caveman ways and soon had a moaning and writhing Link under him.

Rhett traveled up Link’s body nibbling and licking on his way and finally found his way to Link’s ear. After sucking on his earlobe Rhett whispered, “What do you need me to do?”

“You need to…aaahhh…Take the lube and…um…Ohhh. You need to stretch me… Oh gosh! ...with your fingers,” Link managed to get out between Rhett’s bites and licks. Rhett’s hand had found its way to Link’s dick and was slowly pumping him as he spoke. After few more pulls, Rhett let go of Link and found the dropped lube. In front of Link’s hooded gaze, he squirted a healthy amount on his index and middle fingers. He looked at Link for confirmation and got it. Rhett shifted off of Link dropping on his side next to him. He lifted one of his legs over Link’s leg and let it fall down. He pulled Link’s legs further apart with his knee and Link bended the knee of his free leg to give Rhett a better access.

Rhett swallowed as his hand slipped between Link’s cheeks. Link gasped as Rhett’s finger slowly circled his entrance. Rhett turned to look at Link, trying to read cues from his face. Link’s eyes were closed and his mouth hung slightly open. Rhett pushed his middle finger in, just up to the first joint. Link’s back arched a little and he sighed.

“This okay?” Rhett asked, voice low. Link nodded eagerly.

“Keep going,” he murmured. Rhett’s finger sunk in slowly drawing a low moan out of Link. A tight heat coiled in Rhett’s belly. He bent down to kiss Link, slowly rolling his tongue in Link’s mouth. Link whined against him twisting his hips. Rhett took it as a request to start moving and did so. Link moved with him and the slight grinding of his hips against Rhett’s finger was making Rhett slowly lose his mind. He wanted more. His dick was already leaking into his boxers as he rutted against Link.

”I want you so fucking much,” Rhett muttered as he worked on Link.

“Oh, God. More, please,” Link gasped. Rhett drew his finger out and pushed back in with two. He kissed Link’s shoulder as he started moving again, slowly at first but picking up speed as he felt Link relaxing around his digits. He tested the waters, swirling the fingers around, trying to loosen the muscles further. The move drew a nice whine out of Link and Rhett repeated the motion enjoying the sounds he was getting as a prize.

His hand flipped and he crooked his fingers in search of more sounds. He apparently hit the jackpot because suddenly Link’s body went rigid and a string of expletives fell from his lips. Rhett smiled wickedly and pressed harder to the spot that seemed to be the source of Link’s increasing pleasure. Link bucked against him and howled. Rhett was panting, mouth still pressed against Link’s shoulder. He drew his fingers out, making Link whine pathetically. Rhett added more lube and glanced at Link who was nodding at him eyes wide, pupils blown to dark pools of desire.

Three fingers were harder to get in and Link let out a small sound of discomfort. Rhett went as slow as he could and whispered encouragements in Link’s ear.

“You’re doing so good, babe. Just breathe. Relax. I got you. I’m so fucking impressed with you. You’re taking it so well. I’m gonna fuck you sore, darlin’. You’d like that, yeah? Me taking you hard? ”

Link moaned and panted and nodded at Rhett’s questions, not being able to form words anymore. Rhett was afraid he might cum untouched from just looking at Link like this. He should’ve gotten the first load out of the way before getting into this. He would not last long. Suddenly, Link’s hands were grabbing onto him.

“Now, please, Rhett. Do it now,” Link said, voice low and hoarse. Rhett withdrew his fingers and wiped them on the sheets. He snaked out of his boxers and got on his knees. He had accidentally rolled Link on top the condoms and had to dig one from under his back. That seemed to bring Link out of his lusty haze and he got up on his elbows to look at Rhett struggling with the wrapper. Rhett’s hands shook. He’d been so into Link’s obvious pleasure, he’d forgotten how nervous he was. Was there even a tiny chance that he could satisfy Link? He had no skills in this.

“You need help there, hun?” Link asked with an amused smile.

“Just haven’t done this in a long time. But I’ve got it,” Rhett murmured as he rolled the condom on. Link bit his lip as Rhett positioned himself between Link’s legs. He took the lube and squeezed some on his dick. Link’s eyes followed hungrily as Rhett spread the slickness all over himself. Link scooted towards him a bit as Rhett guided himself to the edge of Link’s hole.

“This okay?” he asked Link, pressing against him a bit.

“Yeah. Just go slow.” Link’s voice was small and his eyes fluttered close as each drew a deep breath. Link’s eyes flew back open as Rhett finally pushed in. The eye contact was intense and made the intimacy of the moment almost overwhelm Rhett. He fought back tears. The tightness was overwhelming too. He wanted desperately just to pound into Link, push in fast and fierce and keep going until he didn’t remember his own name anymore. But he didn’t do that. Instead, he moved torturously slow.

When he finally bottomed out, Link let out a relieved sigh and Rhett leaned in to kiss him. They stayed like this for a little while, deepening the kiss. Rhett pressed his forehead onto Link’s and they gasped together as he started to move again.

“You feel too good. I don’t… God! I don’t think I’m gonna last long,” Rhett whispered. Link’s hands were on his back, touching all over, gently scratching his skin, making him shiver all over.

“I need more. Just, please. Use me,” Link moaned. Rhett got up and grabbed Link’s hips. He looked at the panting man sprawled under him and felt a rush of possessive need take over him. He drew himself out and pushed back in with more force. Link answered with a hoarse curse. Rhett kept going. His hips moved fast now, his movements relentless and primitive. Link was falling apart before him. His back arched and his body shook against Rhett’s raging need. They both chased their orgasms together and Rhett changed his position, trying to get to the spot he’d found with his fingers earlier. When he did, it was unmistakable. Link’s eyes shot wide and his hands grabbed fistfuls of the sheets wrinkling under them.

“Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck! Oh god, right there, Rhett! Don’t fucking stop. Yes-yes-yes-yes! Ohhhhhhh!”

Rhett felt Link tighten almost painfully around him as he came, untouched. It was too much for Rhett. He yanked himself out, ripped the condom off and finished himself with his hand, spreading thick strings of cum on Link’s heaving chest and stomach. Their seed mixed in together wetting Link’s soft body hair. Rhett collapsed on top of Link and their shared mess with a grunt. Slowly, their breathing evened out. After some time, Link nudged Rhett off of himself, curling into him and sighed contently.

“Best birthday present ever.”

Chapter Text

They never got around to seeing the icebergs that day. What they did see were plenty of stars. At least that’s what it felt like to Rhett. They spent most of the day in the hotel room. They both fell asleep after the first time. Rhett woke up to Link’s tongue lightly lapping at his neck. He let out a tiny growl of pleasure to inform Link he was awake. Link’s mouth became more demanding, sinking into Rhett’s flesh, biting and kissing his neck. Rhett let out a long breath. He felt light and heavy at the same time. Like he could float away if he wasn’t so strongly pulled towards Link’s body.

“Rhett?” Link said quietly against his skin.

“Mmhm?”

“I know I’m being greedy, but it is my birthday…”

Rhett chuckled and turned to look at him. Link was biting his lip and his eyes were pleading.

“You want another round? I wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to that.” Rhett grabbed Link’s chin and kissed him deeply. When they parted, Link sighed.

“Yes. I do want that too. More than you know. But I was actually hoping you’d let me…” Link looked at Rhett and seemed to be deciding on what words to use.

“Let you what?” Rhett encouraged. His stomach tightened as a thrill ran through him. He wanted it all with Link now.

“I want to taste you. I’ve been dreaming about it. God, you have no idea how many times I’ve made myself cum thinking about you in my mouth,” Link’s words tumbled out in a rush. He looked at Rhett and Rhett could see that Link was expecting him to refuse. A warmth enveloped him. He didn’t need or want to say no. He didn’t need to see that disappointment in Link’s eyes anymore. The possibilities seemed endless. Rhett suddenly felt like burrowing into Link’s arms and staying there indefinitely. Seizing the opportunity, he scooted closer and pressed his cheek onto Link’s chest. Link twitched a bit in surprise but relaxed into the new position. His arms wrapped around Rhett gently and he pressed his lips onto the top of Rhett’s head.

“Is that a no?” he asked in a small voice.

“No,” Rhett said and stopped for a minute to listen to Link’s heartbeat quickening. “Just needed to do this first.”

“Oh, gosh,” Link whispered and squeezed Rhett tightly against himself. Rhett still listened to the thump of Link’s heart and enjoyed the rise and fall of his chest. Slowly their breathing synced up and Rhett almost wanted to fall back to sleep like this. But only almost. After some time, he lifted his head slowly and went looking for Link’s mouth. Link received him eagerly. The kiss quickly grew passionate. Rhett’s felt himself stirring against Link’s side. Link noticed too and his hand soon found its way to the growing hardness. Link pushed Rhett on his back and rolled on top of him. Link’s full length pressed against Rhett’s straining cock. For a moment, Link slowly ground them against each other. Touching Link like this was taking Rhett’s breath away and he desperately gasped for air.

“Oh, you like that?” Link smirked, still moving his hips teasingly. Rhett muttered affirmatively as Link took a hold of his chin and turned his head to the side. Link’s lips pressed against Rhett’s ear and he shivered as Link’s warm breath tickled his ear.

“You’re so fucking sexy. I can’t wait to choke on your thick dick,” Link whispered into his ear. Rhett groaned and bucked again him. Link chuckled and got up. Rhett popped up on his elbows to see where he was going. Link slipped off the bed and kneeled next to it. He looked at Rhett from under his long eyelashes and invitingly crooked a finger at him.

“C’mere.”

Rhett swallowed and moved to sit on the bed in front of Link. Link grabbed his hips and yanked him to the very edge. Rhett yelped and let out an almost embarrassing giggle. Link smirked at him and parted his shaky legs a bit more. Rhett looked in awed anticipation as Link’s lips pressed onto his skin near his knee. Link kept looking up at his eyes as he started to move further along on his inner thigh. Rhett was sure he looked stupid with need. The light touches were like tiny electric shocks as Rhett’s breathing quickened and he tried not to squirm too much. His cock jumped at every touch and as Link inched closer to it. Rhett was beginning to fear that he might just pass out from the arousal. He leaned back a bit, pressing his palms on the bed for support as his hips rose involuntarily in search of the much-needed touch.

“So eager,” Link murmured against his thigh. Rhett bit his lip and nodded in agreement. He was that. There was no use denying it. “I’ll get there soon enough,” Link promised and went back to kissing. Rhett sighed and tried to relax into the feeling. As Link neared his groin, his tongue came into play and Link licked his way around Rhett’s throbbing erection all the way over his stomach and onto his nipples. A slow, wet, hard pressure dragging over Rhett’s sensitive nipple made him growl. Link swirled his tongue around the areola and finished the move with a soft nibble. Rhett trembled. No one had ever played with him like this. The high it gave him was out of this world. Link repeated the maneuver on Rhett’s other nipple making him curse under his breath.

“I thought you wanted to suck me off?” Rhett panted. Now that it was an actual possibility, he felt impatient. Link’s lips felt too good everywhere else, he needed to know how they felt between his legs.

“I do, honey. I most definitely do. You really want it, don’t you?”

“Yes,” Rhett breathed as Link moved back down again gently biting on him as he went.

“Tell me how much you want me,” Link muttered and bit down hard on his hip bone. Rhett yelped and sighed as the pain lessened into a pleasant throb. Link was hovering over his cock now, licking his lips, looking at Rhett, eyes glossy and filled with lust.

“Never wanted anyone like I want you. I think I wanted you the second you jumped out of that chopper last year. God, you looked good. Put your mouth on me, please, Link. Please. I need it. I need you like I need air,” Rhett gasped and begged looking back at Link. A wide smile spread on Link’s face and then he dove in. The wet, tight heat around Rhett’s cock was heavenly. He moaned and bucked and cursed. Link’s hands moved from his hips to Rhett’s cock and balls and Rhett’s head fell back as he lost himself to the sensations.

Rhett had gotten blow jobs before. But that had been years ago and even then they’d been few and far between. He hadn’t had many sexual partners and all of them had been quite timid with oral satisfaction. Rhett had never felt the need to complain but it had always felt like something they were giving him. That it was a chore, a job like in the name of the act itself. But this, with Link, was something else altogether. Link was an enthusiastic participant. More than that. He was the one that did the taking in this equation. Rhett was there and he was surely enjoying himself, but he was Link’s present and it was quite obvious he’d been at the top of Link’s wish list.

Link hadn’t been kidding when he’d said he couldn’t wait to choke on Rhett’s dick. He took him deep. There were gags and sputters that made Rhett cringe with empathy but also made his spine alight with flames. There was something enormously erotic about Link convulsing around his leaking cock. Rhett tried to withdraw though. He didn’t want Link to hurt like this and wanted him to enjoy the experience too. But it became quickly clear that Link already did. He grabbed Rhett and pressed harder onto him, impaled himself voluntarily on Rhett’s length. Rhett’s thighs started to tremble. He was nearing on to the end.

“Link, I….gosh…I’m gonna…Fuck! I’m so close. How do you wanna…?” Rhett muttered as Link drew back to get some much-needed air. Link turned his face to him. Rhett’s heart skipped a beat. He looked wrecked. He was flushed and blotchy, with tears streaking down his cheeks. His hair was stuck on the sweat on his forehead. If he didn’t have the most blissed out smile on his face, Rhett would have felt bad.

“Cum on my face. Please?”

Rhett’s stomach flipped. He leaned forward a bit.

“Fuck, that’s…so freaking hot. Are you sure?”

Link nodded slowly and leaned back on his heels. His hands slipped down Rhett’s legs and landed onto his own thighs. Link lifted his chin and opened his mouth. Rhett stood up shakily and wrapped his hand around himself. He stroked himself a few times. He was slicked up from Link’s saliva and his own precum. It felt amazing. Link looked at him expectantly with those goddamn blue, puppy dog eyes and Rhett almost came just from the sight of him like that. He started pumping himself slowly, marveling the man sitting in front of him. His other hand moved to grab Link’s hair to help his aim. Soon the hand on his cock was a blur and he was groaning and gasping.

“Oh, my fucking God!” he growled as the heat pooled up in his stomach released with a force that almost buckled his knees. Strings of cum painted Link’s face. He didn’t even close his eyes until Rhett was all out. As he did, an expression of deep satisfaction spread on his face. He licked his lips, devouring all he could get from there and then he leaned forward to lick the last drops still dripping from Rhett’s slit. He opened his eyes, looked straight at Rhett and said very emphatically:

“Thank you.”

---

It had been a perfect day. They’d gone to dinner that night, to a little bistro John had recommended to Rhett. It was tiny and comfy and the waiter was lovely. They ate sitting side by side at the booth at the back of the restaurant. Rhett’s hand rested on Link’s thigh and Link kept feeding Rhett from his dishes. There were quick kisses, loving eyes and murmured conversation. After eating a wonderful meal, Rhett had ordered some cupcakes to go and they’d gone back to the hotel to celebrate some more. There were no birthday candles to blow out but instead, Link happily blew Rhett again.

The next two weeks flew by. They were constantly on the phone and when they couldn’t talk they sent either sweet or dirty messages. The 15th came around quickly. Rhett was waiting for Link at the helipad. When Link climbed out of the chopper, he was quickly drowned in kisses. Link giggled against the barrage of affection. When they parted, Rhett started yanking the crates out of the chopper and hurried towards the path.

“Come on!” Rhett was rushing Link along. He couldn’t stop smiling. Not that he wanted to. Link was running after him and laughing.

“What’s gotten into you?” he asked as he tried to catch up with Rhett.

“I have a surprise for you,” Rhett said. He knew he sounded silly, giddy even, but he didn’t mind. He was so happy to have Link here again.

“God. Should’ve known that if you succeeded in something, you couldn’t be stopped anymore,” Link teased.

“Ha ha. Very funny. Come on, Neal!” Rhett said and sped up.

Link just shook his head and tried to keep up. The sun was high in the sky, but a light breeze made sure it wasn’t too hot. It was the best kind of day the Newfoundland’s summer had to offer. Link had remembered to put on the pink shirt Rhett had drooled over just like he’d promised, and Rhett kept glancing at him as they walked. He was so beautiful it almost hurt. The grey in his hair caught the sunlight perfectly and it almost looked like a halo over Link’s face. Those bright blue eyes were definitely angelic too.

“He even flies,” Rhett murmured aloud and chuckled as the amusing thought caught him. Link crooked an eyebrow at him.

“What?”

“Just wondering if I’ve died and gone to heaven. Or maybe I just have been blessed by a visit from my personal guardian angel.”

“Wow. I had no idea you were such a big, old softie, McLaughlin,” Link muttered and blushed fiercely. Rhett just grinned at him.

When they’d unpacked the crates, Rhett pulled Link by the hand and led him to the stairs.

“Is the surprise your dick again?” Link asked still laughing. “Because if it is, I demand at least a few surprises every time I come over.”

“Not this time.” Rhett said before stopping on the steps abruptly. He turned and pushed Link against the wall.

“Hey!” Link managed to say before Rhett’s mouth was on his. Rhett licked his way into Link’s mouth and decided he tasted of heaven too. Link’s hands wrapped around him and he pulled Rhett flush against him. Rhett’s hand was threading into Link’s hair and he pulled gently making Link moan into his mouth. His other hand slipped under Link’s pink shirt and tickled his side. Link sucked Rhett’s bottom lip into his mouth and nibbled on it as Rhett’s hand snaked down and palmed at Link’s crotch. He found that Link was already sporting a semi. Rhett gave him one more deep kiss and a firm squeeze, but then he stepped back. Link whimpered and tried to pull him back. Rhett chuckled.

“Don’t worry, babe. You’ll get that too. Let’s go.”

Link pouted as he followed Rhett past his bedroom. Soon they were at the control room. Rhett stopped before the ladder and turned to Link. Link was frowning and looking up the hatch. Rhett took both of Link’s hands on his own and looked him in the eyes.

“I know, okay? I know that last time we were here, it ended horribly. I own that. And I will be forever ashamed how I acted then…”

“Rhett, that’s all water under the…” Link tried to insert, but Rhett just shook his head and continued.

“I know, babe. Just acknowledging the situation. But the reason we are here now is the fact that I love this place. I love going up there. I love the view and I love you and I think if I show it to you in a proper way, you will love it too. I just want to share it with you. Would you be okay with that?”

Link looked at him. He looked dazed. Rhett frowned.

“What?” he asked slightly confused. Link’s mouth opened but no sound came out. Rhett was starting to get worried. Maybe this had been a horrible idea. Maybe the memory of their last time here was too painful for Link.

“Link, I’m sorry. I thought…I… We can go back down. You don’t have to go up there. I should’ve realized…” Rhett stumbled over his words, still squeezing Link’s hands. Link coughed and swallowed before opening his mouth again.

“You love me?” his voice came out all quiet and careful. Rhett’s eyes widened. What? Rhett’s brain rewound what he’d just said, and he realized that, yes, those words had slipped out.

“I…” Rhett he knew he looked panicked. He hadn’t meant to say it. It was too early. They hadn’t been together that long. They hadn’t even really said they were together. No conversation about the nature of their relationship had taken place.

“Rhett.” Link said. His hand shook itself out of Rhett’s death grip and gently cupped his face. He was smiling tenderly now. “It’s okay. It’s was just a saying. Don’t worry. I get it.”

“I do, though. I love you,” Rhett said looking at Link.

“You do?” Link’s smile faltered; his hand trembled slightly.

“Isn’t it obvious?” Rhett asked smiling and pulled Link into his arms. He wasn’t sure why he’d been afraid of saying it. He was in love with Link. It was a fact. Saying it wouldn’t change things. Rhett kissed him softly, lightly brushing their lips together. Link hummed happily against him.

“I love you too,” Link whispered. Rhett felt his heart beating hard against his ribcage. It wasn’t like it came as a surprise to him, but hearing the words still filled him with a sweet warmth.

“Oh, I know. I read you like a book,” he teased. Link playfully punched him on the arm. Rhett laughed and kissed him again before murmuring against his lips. “One of those erotic fiction books you so hoped I would write.”

“You really should. I bet it’d be amazing. I could give you some ideas…” Link’s hands slipped down to cup Rhett’s ass firmly making him let out a low, booming laugh.

“I’m sure you could. Go ahead then. What should I write about?” Rhett asked. Link scrunched his eyebrows and rubbed his chin as if he was thinking hard.

“You could write about a dashing helicopter pilot, “ he started and smirked at Rhett. “He goes to a remote island and finds a tall, gorgeous hermit that has had a spell cast on him by an evil sorceress. He can’t leave the island until he gets someone to fall in love with him. Unfortunately, the spell also makes him act like a jackass. But the pilot can see through that and falls in love with him anyway.”

Link’s story was making Rhett’s stomach ache. It was a sweet pain and he felt a telltale burn at the corner of his eye, too. Link swiped the tear away with his thumb when it fell.

“I thought it was supposed to be erotic fiction?” Rhett asked quietly.

“Oh, yeah. And then they fuck a lot.”

They both burst into laughter and Rhett pulled Link into a hungry kiss. They quickly got lost into each other. Both touching the other all over, both noticing the other’s growing hardness but purposefully leaving it alone. When they finally pulled apart, they were panting slightly, looking at each other with yearning. After a moment Link sighed and looked up again.

“So, we’re going up?”

“Yeah. If it’s okay with you?”

“Let’s go.”

They climbed the ladder. Like the last time, all those months ago, Link went ahead. Rhett used the opportunity to admire the way his tight little ass swayed as he climbed the rungs.

“You checking me out, McLaughlin?” Link’s voice came from above.

“Always,” Rhett answered with a smile.

“Good,” Link said, sounding smug.

Rhett pulled himself up into the light chamber. It was basking in sunlight. The windows glimmered in the light, scattering the beams all over the room, making all the colors of the rainbow dance across the floor. It was like standing inside a diamond. The sea was all around them, a vastness of deep blue that speckled with white were the waves crested. A few icebergs floated in the distance. The sunlight bounced off of them, making them look almost violently blue. Link was standing near the back window looking at the open sea. Rhett stepped next to him.

“Don’t you think it’s beautiful?” he asked in a hushed tone. Link nodded. Rhett leaned over to peek at him and saw a fervent look on his face.

“I understand why you like it so much,” Link whispered. Rhett wasn’t sure why they were speaking so quietly. It just felt right.

“Come on,” he requested, nudging Link towards the door. Link looked a bit apprehensive. Rhett took his hand and gently tugged him along. They stepped outside and Rhett walked over to the side where they could see the icebergs. There was a blanket laid out on the floor with some wine and assorted snacks. Link’s face lit up and he turned to look at Rhett with a wide smile.

“A picnic?” He sounded giddy.

“Yeah. We never got to that iceberg gazing cruise, so I thought we’d just do it here. I mean, it’s not the same. They’re pretty far away but…” Rhett said with a shy smile. His heart was racing. He had desperately wanted Link to enjoy this and it seemed to be starting off well. Link pulled him into a tight hug.

“This is amazing. I love it,” he muttered against Rhett’s chest. Rhett wrapped his arms around Link and tightened the hug. He felt something press onto his chest. Rhett pulled away a bit and patted Link’s shirt pocket.

“What’s this then?” he asked.

“Oh! It’s your stone. Here.” Link slipped his fingers into the small pocket and fished out a rough pink stone. “It’s a rose quartz. I tried to find something that matched this shirt.”

Rhett took the stone and compared it against the shirt. It was almost a perfect match. Rhett’s eyes found Link’s. He smiled.

“Thank you. Gonna add it to my collection of Link.”

“Is that what you call it? Wow, you really just have syrup running in your veins, don’t you?” Link laughed. Rhett just shrugged and tucked the stone safely into his pocket. Rhett poured them wine and sat down with his back leaning against the wall. Link plopped in front of him and shimmied backwards until he was sitting between Rhett’s legs, his back against Rhett’s chest. Link sighed contently and let his head fall against Rhett’s shoulder. Rhett closed his eyes and made a mental note to remember this feeling: Link’s lithe body pressed against him, the light breeze caressing his hair, the sun kissing his face, scratch of the blanket under his palms, the steadfast wall of his home supporting them, the thrumming of his own heart in his ears, almost drowning out the sounds of the waves. It was a moment of pure happiness.

Chapter Text

Link woke up feeling the butterflies in his stomach. As soon as he stirred from his sleep, Jade jumped from her spot at the foot of the bed and ambled over to lick his face as a good morning. Link giggled and gave her a good scratching before gently lifting her off the bed. She wasn't really supposed to sleep there anyway. Some nights, Link was just too tired to be strict to those sweet, brown eyes. Jade looked at him disapprovingly and then curled up on her dog bed.

Link lifted his arms up above his head and pointed his toes and stretched, letting a small sound of pleasure slip from his lips. He felt like a cat purring in the beam of sunlight. His whole body was alight with anticipation. It was a supply drop day. It was a Rhett day. The thought of Rhett made him instantly hard. The effect that man had on him was awe-inspiring. Link let his hands wander for a while before palming himself. He thought of Rhett’s body on top of him. The fullness between his legs. Rhett’s warm breath on his neck. Whispered words in his ear. Link’s breath hitched as he slipped his boxers down and wrapped his hand around his dick. He stroked a few times and moaned Rhett’s name.

Link didn’t finish. He wanted to wait. He wanted to only cum wrapped up in Rhett’s arms today. With a soft sigh, he let go of himself and tried to steady his breathing. There was a gap between his bedroom curtains and the sun suddenly peeked behind the clouds, shining straight at Link’s face and blinding him. He turned his head and blinked for a minute to regain his vision. When he did, his gaze happened upon the stone on the nightstand. He’d left it there last night after choosing it so he’d remember to pack it today. It was an aquamarine crystal. It was a pretty thing, a mix of light blue and transparent stone. Link had chosen it because he thought it looked a bit like an iceberg.

He picked it up with a small smile. Last month’s picnic was still fresh in his mind. Link couldn’t help but smile widely when he thought of Rhett’s enthusiasm as he’d led him upstairs. Link laughed out loud as he remembered how salty he’d been that their destination wasn’t the bedroom. But that feeling hadn’t lasted long. First of all, there had been the accidental love confession. Link had long hoped their relationship was going that way but Rhett had always been hard to read. To hear the words… It had been magical. And everything that came after that was just icing on the cake. It had been a perfect date. The view, the weather, the drinks, the food, Rhett’s arms around him. Not to mention, the mind-blowing sex against the railing that still made Link’s stomach tighten and his legs shake when he thought of it. His hand slipped back towards his groin but he stopped himself.

Instead, he got up and took a cooling shower. It helped clear his head a bit and calm the throbbing between his legs. After drying off, he took his phone in anticipation of messages from Rhett. He frowned. There were none. Rhett hadn’t even answered the question Link had sent him last night when he got back from the night shift. And now that he thought of it, there had been no usual ‘good night’ text. Nothing. That was…unprecedented. The butterflies dissipated. A pit took place in Link’s stomach. He tried calling Rhett. The phone just kept ringing. No answer. Link tried to reason with himself. There was no need to be worried. It wasn’t like he was mandated to answer all of Link’s messages. He was probably napping now. That had to be it. No need to worry, he tried to tell himself. The pit was still there though.

After leaving Jade in the care of his lovely neighbor, Link was ready to go. He kept periodically checking his phone all the way to the airport and in between his ready checks. Still nothing. He was starting to get a bit freaked out. He tried calling again before taking off for the first route. Still no answer. Link had a three-stop flight before coming back to St. John’s to refuel. Then another three-stop flight that ended with Rhett’s island. It was actually called East Bird Island, but to Link it had always been Rhett’s island. Even before he actually met him. He’d been so excited that first time he’d flown there. John had warned him about Rhett. “He’s a bastard,” John had said. But that didn’t deter Link. He couldn’t help himself, but he had a naïve belief he knew Rhett because he knew how he wrote. That had obviously been quickly proven wrong but he’d stolen Link’s heart anyway.

After the first string of supply drops, Link had to stop to eat since he’d skipped breakfast. He didn’t want to, but he knew it was dangerous to fly hungry. Especially for him, since it lowered his concentration.

“You okay?” Alex asked. Link kept fiddling with his phone. He blushed a bit and turned to look at his friend. They’d met up for a quick lunch. Alex worked at the hospital as a paramedic. That’s how they’d met. There had been some sparks at first but they’d quickly realized they worked better as friends.

“Yeah. Just worried. Haven’t heard from him since…oh gosh…since yesterday morning,” Link suddenly realized. That seemed way too long. Something had to be wrong. His mind immediately conjured an image of Rhett’s body bent and broken on those jagged rocks behind the lighthouse. The visual made Link nauseous.

“Wow. That’s long for you guys. He’s not picking up?” Alex asked. He looked sufficiently worried. He was only one who was clued in to all of Link’s relationship details. Link was still a bit careful about talking about Rhett. He wasn’t even sure why. They’d said the ‘I love yous’; they were definitely a couple. But something was stopping him.

“No. I’ve called like six times and sent a lot of messages. Nothing.”

“Maybe his phone is broken?” Alex offered.

“Oh,” Link gasped and hope flooded him. He smiled a bit. “That could explain it.”

“There you go,” Alex said, smiling back. “And you were already thinking about him lying dead in a ditch, weren’t you?”

“No….”

“Link. I know you. You go straight to the extreme. He’s fine.”

“Fine. Yes! Drag me like that. But it wasn’t a ditch. There are no ditches there…” Link muttered annoyed at being called out like that. But honestly, it was kind of nice at the same time. Alex knew him too well. It was good to have a friend like that. Link hugged him tightly as they separated after eating.

“Message me, okay? When you know for sure that he’s fine. I mean, you can fuck first and all that. I know how you are… But then message me, yeah?” Alex said. Link laughed at the teasing and promised to do as he was told. He returned to the airport and was in the air faster than ever before.

Thankfully, the first two drops went by quickly and without a hitch. Soon Link was on his way to Rhett. As he neared the island, a worrying thought hit him. If Rhett’s phone had broken down, he would have sent Link an email. The nausea returned and it only worsened when Link saw that the helipad was empty. No Rhett. He touched down and left the crates on board. They could wait. Link ran.

It was good that Rhett did not fear intruders out here, so the door was unlocked. Link rushed up the stairs and his gaze quickly swept over the empty kitchen before he continued towards the bedroom. Link slammed open the bedroom door and immediately covered his nose. The room stank of disease, of fevered sweat and dirty laundry and stilled air.

“Rhett?” Link’s voice was barely a whisper. There was a small bump on the bed under the covers. It looked unmoving. Link’s throat felt like it was closing in on itself. He let go of his nose and climbed onto the bed. He noticed he was shaking from the adrenaline rush. He pulled gently on the covers revealing Rhett’s face. It was pale and gaunt and Link’s stomach twisted into a painful knot.

“Rhett,” he said, a bit louder and lightly poked Rhett on the chest. There was no response. No sound, no movement. Rhett was totally unresponsive. Is he even breathing? A chilling panic took over Link’s mind. You can’t be... No one can just die of the flu. Can you? He grabbed Rhett’s covered shoulders and shook him hard. Rhett felt like a marionette on his hands.

“Rhett!” he was yelling now, voice strangled and harsh. “Rhett, baby. It’s me. Please, wake up. Please.” Link had been crying for a while now, he hadn’t even realized until now. The hot tears dripped from his chin to Rhett’s face as Link bent down to try and feel if he was breathing. When he pressed his ear close to Rhett’s nose, there was the tiniest sound.

“Rhett?!”

Rhett drew a raspy breath and muttered something unintelligible before silencing again.

“Thank God,” Link whispered and cupped Rhett’s face. He kissed his clammy lips. Rhett frowned a bit and his hand struggled out from under the covers. He feebly pushed Link back.

“Stop,” Rhett said, but it sounded more like ‘toh’. It seemed like it was very hard for him to speak. “Am sick.”

“I can see that. Don’t you fucking scare me like that. Goddamn it. I thought you were a goner,” Link said laughing almost manically. The relief was making him giddy. Rhett’s hand dropped on the bed and he fell immobile again. Link’s laughter died. This was not good. This was not normal.

“How long have you been like this?” Link asked him. Rhett answered with a soft “mmh” sound like he was thinking but then a fit of coughing took his words away. His whole body shook with the attempt to clear his airways and his breathing wheezed. Link cringed. He sounded awful. He had been sick last week. Just a basic flu, nothing bad. He’d still mentioned it multiple times. He’d playfully ranted about it to Link. How it was his fault. How before they met he was never sick. But he’d been getting better.

Link grabbed his wrist and took his pulse. It was racing. He was hot too. Link gently pet Rhett’s sweaty hair back from his forehead before getting up and going to look for a thermometer. Rhett had a medicine cabinet in the bathroom and Link found one there. He went down to the kitchen and got a glass of cold water.

Link sat next to Rhett’s head and shook him awake again. Rhett seemed annoyed at his attempts to care for him. Link dragged him up against himself and made him drink. Rhett grimaced and sputtered and held his throat.

“Does it hurt?” Link asked. His voice was low and soft. Rhett nodded. “I’m sorry, but you need to drink. When’s the last time you drank something?” Rhett shrugged and took the tiniest of sips. Link managed to take his temperature despite his low growls and attempts to shuffle back down on the bed. It was over 102 F. Link laid him gently back on his pillow. Rhett muttered a ‘thank you’ and promptly fell back to sleep. Link looked at him for a minute, feeling the ever increasing dread. He took his phone and stepped onto the landing to call Alex.

“Hey!” he answered quickly. “Everything okay?”

“Um..he’s really sick. I don’t… Alex, I don’t know. I feel like I should maybe take him to the hospital.”

“Okay. What are his symptoms?”

Link told him everything he could. Alex listened attentively and asked follow up questions, most of which Link couldn’t answer.

“Okay. I can’t be sure, obviously, but there is a possibility he has pneumonia. Do you know if he has any illnesses that could weaken his immune system?” Alex asked.

“I don’t know. He has problems with his back. He hasn’t mentioned anything else,” Link’s voice was raising. He was running his fingers through his hair, tugging on it. He felt helpless.

“Okay, calm down. Everything will be fine. Pneumonia is nasty, but it’s rarely dangerous to people under sixty-five. But just in case he has some underlying illness he should be checked out and given antibiotics. Do you want me to send the medevac?” Alex’s voice was calm and soothing. Link tried to listen to it and calm himself. He had to be strong now. I’m not helpless. I’ve never been helpless. She made me feel that way. I’m not. I’m capable. I’m strong. I can do this. I can be there for him.

“No. I think it’ll be faster if I just fly him,” Link said.

“Do you think you can get him to the chopper?”

“Yeah. I can. I’m sure. Thank you.”

“Call me if there is anything. I’m still on shift so I’ll come find you as soon as I can.”

“Okay. Thanks. Bye.”

It It was not easy, but after a lot of coaxing and some mild threatening Link got Rhett out of the bed. He thought of changing his sweat soaked and smelly clothes but, after trying for a while, he decided it was no use. Instead he pulled a sweater over his t-shirt and some sweatpants over his pajama bottoms. Rhett fought him every step of the process.

“Just lemme sleep,” he muttered voice cracking as he tried to push Link away.

“No, you need to go to the hospital. It’s gonna be okay. I’m gonna take care of you.”

“I’m not going to a hospital,” Rhett growled but he was too weak to resist Link.

The first problem was to get him to downstairs. Rhett’s legs shook and kept giving out under him. The staircase was so narrow Link couldn’t stand next to Rhett, so he slipped his arms under his armpits and leaned him against his chest helping him descend the staircase. Rhett stumbled a few times, but they got outside without breaking any bones.

Looking down the length of the path made Link swallow hard. It was a long way to go and Rhett was basically unconscious. He’d sat down on the front step and was shivering against the doorframe. Could I carry him?

“Okay, honey. Wake up. Rhett? Can you hear me? “ Link shook Rhett’s shoulder. Rhett responded with a murmured ‘yeah’.

“I need you to wrap your arms around my neck. Can you do that? “

Rhett’s trembling hands slowly rose and feebly wrapped around Link. Link took a deep breath and hoisted Rhett in his arms. His head lolled onto Link’s shoulder and he seemed to be totally out of it. He was heavy but not as heavy as Link had assumed. He started his trek towards Merle. It took a good while. He had to stop multiple times and when they finally got there, Link’s leg muscles shook and protested under the strain he’d put them under. He took a deep, relieved breath when he managed to get Rhett on board the chopper. He still had to maneuver him into the seat. He seemed to be all legs and arms and Link let out a few choice curse words as he got clocked in the temple while wrangling Rhett in. Link radioed in to the hospital that he was on the way with a medical emergency and took off.

Rhett slept in his seat, at least that’s what Link hoped he was doing, as his head swung limply from side to side as the chopper changed direction. Link kept checking on him. He still had that horrifying image in his head of Rhett’s unmoving body. It gnawed at him. The adrenaline that had made it possible for him to get Rhett into the chopper was dissipating and Link felt nauseous and tired. The flight was only thirty minutes, but to Link it felt like hours.

After they landed, everything seemed to happen in a blur. Rhett was put on a stretcher and taken away by medical staff. Link tried to go along with him, but they wouldn’t let him. Some angry words were said and finally an orderly had to escort Link to the waiting room where Link sat down, defeated. He wasn’t even sure if he could get updates on Rhett’s situation. He was not next of kin, not officially. After ten minutes, he got up and started pacing around the room.

The uncertainty made his mind go to a dark place. What if Rhett had some illness he didn’t know about? What if he was dying? What if he’d been too late? Maybe he shouldn’t have done his regular route today. He’d known something was wrong. Why hadn’t he just flown straight to Rhett? What if it would have been faster to get the medevac? It had taken him a long time to get to Merle. What if… Link couldn’t stop and with every new thought he felt his chest tighten more and more. When, about thirty minutes later, Alex appeared in the doorway, Link was on the brink of a panic attack. Alex could instantly see he was not feeling well. He walked briskly to Link and drew him to a smaller side room.

“Link. You need to breathe. Rhett is going to be just fine.”

Link drew a shaky breath and tried to concentrate on Alex’s words. It felt like they were coming from far, far away, like he was underwater, and Alex was talking to him from the surface. Link closed his eyes and tried to find his way out of the depth. Alex’s hand rested on his upper back and he concentrated on that.

“Like I suspected, he has pneumonia. He’s also very dehydrated. He’s getting antibiotics intravenously and some hydration. He’s sleeping now. He is going to be fine.”

“Okay,” Link breathed. He felt better. Rhett was okay. Everything would be okay.

“But…umm…just so you know. When they were examining him, he woke up and…” Alex seemed to be trying to find the right words. Link turned to look at him, eyes widened with panic.

“What? He what, Alex?” Link grabbed Alex’s wrist. Alex gently shook him off and took his hands into his own. He spoke in a low, calming voice. Link knew the voice, it was his professional talking-to-the-stressed-loved-one voice.

“He wasn’t very happy when he realized he’d been brought to a hospital. At first, he got very anxious and then he got angry. They had to restrain him.”

“What?!” Link rasped.

“He wasn’t actually violent towards anyone, he just tried to leave and was causing a scene,” Alex explained in a hurry. Link’s heart was beating against his ribcage. He was certain he was about to throw up. His hands trembled in Alex’s grip. Alex squeezed them compassionately. Link drew a breath and tried to get his head clear.

“He might have been having a panic attack. His wife died… I don’t know how it happened but maybe hospitals trigger something?” Link said slowly. Alex nodded.

“Could be. I wasn’t in the room, just talked to someone that was.”

“Can I go see him?”

“Soon. He’s sleeping. He’s fine right now. Let’s just sit here a minute and you can calm down.”

“I want to see him right now.”

“Link,” Alex said, and his voice was stern. “Even if I could take you right now, I wouldn’t. You’re a mess. You don’t want him to see you like this. It would not help him. It would just make him more anxious. You don’t want that, do you?”

Link had nothing he could say to that, so he just huffed and ripped his hands from Alex’s grasp. He folded his arms across his chest and groaned. He knew Alex was right, but that didn’t mean he had to like it. From the corner of his eye, he could see Alex smiling a little and that aggravated him even more.

“Tell me about him.” Alex’s request surprised him.

“What?” Link almost spat the word out. He knew he was being horrible to a person who only meant well but he couldn’t help himself.

“Tell me about Rhett. Tell me what you like about him.”

Alex was clever. Link had to admit that. Somehow, he’d found exactly the right thing to say to Link. Link sighed, trying to convey that if he’d asked any other question than this, Link wouldn’t have answered. Alex just chuckled. He settled into his seat and nodded to Link.

“Well, go on.”

“Fine. He’s smart. I like the way his brain works. I think I kind of already had a crush on him before we met, at least on his literary mind.”

“Sure. I remember you raving about him on our first date. That was a red flag right off the bat,” Alex chuckled.

“Oh, shut up,” Link said, but couldn’t help but to laugh too.

“What else? What did you think when you first met him?”

“I thought he was hot. God, he had that whole sexy lumberjack thing going on.”

“Just your type.”

“Yeah. And then he opened his mouth and he was an asshole.”

“Oh, just your type, too!”

“Fuck off,” Link said, laughing. Alex wasn’t wrong. Link did have an unfortunate tendency of falling for difficult people.

“Obviously, that’s why it didn’t work between us,” Alex said smirking. Link punched him in the arm making him yelp and rub it while grimacing at Link.

“No, it was because you were too into hockey. It was off-putting,” Link teased.

“Ha! Okay, enough about the awesomeness that is me. What else?”

“Oh. Well, then I realized he wasn’t an asshole at all. He was just…sad and troubled. And I got kind of hooked on that. Wanted to make him open up to me. I know I can’t save him. I’m not an idiot. But maybe I could ease his suffering a little bit? Like he did for me.”

Alex was nodding and humming affirmatively.

“And when we got to talking, finally, he was…” Link closed his eyes and let the memories wash over him. “He was exactly what I thought he was before I met him. Smart, thoughtful, funny, sweet. Beautiful inside and out. And it turned out we had a lot in common. It was easy to talk with him. We could talk for hours on end.” Link smiled and turned to look at Alex who was smiling back at him. Link smirked and continued.

“And then the sex. Whooo. It’s fucking amazing. Mind-blowing. I don’t know how he does it, but when he touches me, I just get to this primal place in the back of my mind and all bets are off.”

“Yeah, yeah. I’ve heard all of this before. You do realize it’s because he’s the first person you’ve had sex with that you’ve also loved?”

Link looked at Alex and blinked slowly. I’ve been in love before. Right? Alex looked at him and shook his head, almost like he’d heard his silent question.

“You’ve never talked about anyone like you talk about him.”

“Yeah, but…”

“But?”

“I’m 41. I have been in love before!”

“Have you really? Think about it.”

Link drew a deep breath and was about to argue but something stopped him. He’d had relationships, even some that lasted years. And he’d felt for the people he was with, but if he was honest with himself, he’d never really let any of them in. He hadn’t let them know him, not like he’d let Rhett. It was almost like in the need to get to know Rhett, he’d forgotten to guard himself. His heart had been laid bare for Rhett and Rhett had taken what was offered.

“Tell me how you feel about him,” Alex said quietly. It took Link some time to answer.

“It’s like we have known each other our whole lives. It’s like he’s always been there, in my heart. I know it sounds corny, but that’s how I feel,” Link was whispering. His stomach was in a knot. Suddenly, he was scared.

“It’s bad, Alex. I don’t know how all of this is gonna end. He’s so broken. And, in a way, I am still too. I fear…”

“Yeah?”

“I have this fear that I can’t shake. That we’re not gonna make it,” Link almost couldn’t get the words out. He couldn’t believe he’d said that out loud. They were so happy now. Why was he feeling like this?

“You shouldn’t think like that. Yeah, I get that both of you have stuff to figure out but from everything you’ve told me, it seems like you’re a really good influences for each other.”

“Maybe. I don’t know. Sometimes it’s just too much. Like there are too many emotions inside me. They’re not gonna fit. And I think he might feel the same way.”

They sat in silence for a good while.

“Want to go see him?”

“Please.”

Link stepped into the room apprehensively. Rhett was in the hospital bed, asleep. Link walked up to him. He looked so small and vulnerable. The sight of him like this made Link’s eyes prickle and his stomach tighten. The restraints still hung from the edge of the bed, but they’d taken them off. Link was relieved. The idea of Rhett basically chained to a hospital bed made him nauseous. There was no staff around and the other bed in the room was empty. Link swayed next to the bed for a while. Then he climbed on. He wriggled next to Rhett and carefully wrapped his arms around him. Rhett moved in his sleep, his body automatically melting into Link’s. Link’s cheek was pressed onto Rhett’s chest when the tears started to fall.

“Please,” he whispered. “Just please, let this work.”

Chapter Text

Rhett woke up with a start. It was too bright. He tried to lift his hand to shield himself from the light. He couldn’t. He yanked his arm. It wouldn’t budge. Neither would the other one. His throat was suddenly very dry. There was movement around him. And whispers. He tried to say something. Ask for help. Ask for water. Who are you? Where am I? He was lost. His vision sharpened. White coats. Faceless figures. Machines whirring and beeping. He was breathing hard, chest rising and falling. Someone’s hand on him, pressing down hard. Harsh words. Sneers. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t scream.

“No!” he sat up as he woke himself with a cry. He was in his own bed. By the looks of the light shimmering between the curtains, it was early morning. Rhett was tangled in his sheets, sweaty and his mind still hanging on to the nightmare. Rhett fell back on the bed and groaned. It was a month since his trip to the hospital and the dreams still wouldn’t leave him alone. There hadn’t been a single night since he hadn’t had some kind of nightmare about that first night. Rhett tried to go back to sleep but after a while he resigned to the fact that it was useless.

He got up and made a cup of tea. He should’ve been feeling excited. He should’ve been checking to make sure that Link had texted him a confirmation that he was coming. But he hadn’t touched his phone. He didn’t want to confess it even to himself but a part of him wished Link wasn’t coming today. So, he just stirred his tea and stared at the calendar. August 15th. Why did it have to be today?

He cleaned a bit, just so he’d have something to occupy his mind. He’d had some trouble with tidiness this month. It was hard to concentrate. He’d start to clean and realize an hour later he’d been searching research articles about germ life spans on wooden surfaces for the most part of the hour. He vacuumed the kitchen and sat down after that, feeling utterly exhausted. He was supposed to be fine now. The doctor had said that the recovery from the pneumonia would take him about a few weeks. It had been a month now and Rhett still felt like dying even after the smallest physical act.

Rhett thought about showering but in the end, couldn’t be bothered. He sat on one of the arm chairs and took a book out. A few hours later, he was still on the same page where he’d started. It was time to go. He didn’t want to be late. He knew that would worry Link, especially after last month. After Rhett got back home from the hospital, Link had filled him in on what had happened. Rhett had no real memories about that night, about Link finding him half-dead (those were Link’s words), about the flight to shore. He only had the few painful flashes from the hospital. The days after that first night, those were the worst ones. He remembered every second of them. The smell of the hospital seemed to still linger on him. He knew he was imagining it, but it still made him nauseous and anxious.

It was a warm and a foggy day. The swirls of fog clung on to the surface of the sea and moved slowly. It was actually quite beautiful in a haunting way. Rhett stood at the helipad and stared at the nothingness. Our child would have turned seven today. The thought hit Rhett like a hammer and his knees buckled. He doubled over and fought the howl that threatened to burst out of him. He was breaking slowly, cracks forming and tearing wider, pieces of him crumbling on the gravel below. Link was coming and Rhett wanted nothing more than tell him to go away. You can’t do that. You have to fight. You want that right? You promised to try. Try, goddamn it!

When Merle appeared from the fog, Rhett had himself together again, just barely. The smile felt strange on his face, it tugged on muscles he hadn’t used in weeks. Rhett was concentrating. Merle touched down. Rhett concentrated on the red paint; there were nicks and scratches here and there. The door slid open. Rhett concentrated on the metallic sound, how it seemed to pierce into his body and grind on his bones. Link jumped out. Rhett concentrated on the way his knees gave in a bit, to receive the ground. Rhett imagined his muscles contracting, joints moving, skin tightening over his knee. These were all real things that happened. Why was he feeling like everything was a dream?

“Hey!” Link called out. He was smiling. Was that a normal smile? Rhett was trying to read tiny cues from his face. He knew he’d been increasingly distant since they last saw each other. He forgot to answer texts and he never initiated calls anymore. He tried so hard but sometimes just picking up the phone felt insurmountable. If Link had noticed, he hadn’t said anything and his smile seemed natural now. Rhett moved to him, wrapped him in a bear hug and kissed him. He did all those things but he felt like he wasn’t really here. He was a stand-in and the real Rhett was somewhere far away, not here, not wrapped up in Link’s arms. His body was repelling Link’s touch again. It saw the cracks in Rhett’s mind and used them shamelessly. Rhett felt the need to push Link away. He kept fighting.

“Let’s go,” the Rhett-shell said and smiled that strange, tight smile. Link frowned at him but agreed. They walked side by side. Link was speaking. Rhett tried to keep track of what he was saying but he kept losing the thread.

“Rhett?” Link asked again. Rhett looked at him. He had no idea what had been said.

“Sorry, got distracted. What were you saying?”

“I was just saying, I bought the chessboard like we talked about. Want to play tonight?”

“Oh, sure. That sounds nice.”

Silence fell. Gravel crunched under their feet. The edge of the crate was digging into Rhett’s skin.

“Are you okay?” Link asked. His voice was hushed. Rhett could hear the worry.

“Oh, just tired. Sorry,” he answered, managing to sound almost normal. He kept fighting.

“Still having nightmares?” Link asked. Rhett couldn’t look at him but it was like he could hear Link’s expression. He saw it in his mind, the upward curve of his eyebrows, the compassionate gaze. Link cared too much. It made Rhett sick to his stomach. He didn’t deserve it.

“Sometimes. Not that often anymore,” Rhett lied. He regretted telling Link about the nightmares. It wasn’t his burden to bear.

“I’m really sorry. I had to take you. I didn’t know…” Link started. Rhett quickened his pace and left Link behind him. Stop apologizing! You’ve been apologizing the whole month. I don’t need it. I can’t take it.

“Rhett?” Link called after him. He sounded confused. Hurt even? Rhett was not sure. He didn’t want to look at Link. There was too much hurt inside him already, he could not take Link’s too.

“Come on. I want some tea,” Rhett huffed and heard Link’s hurried footsteps behind him. For the rest of the way up, they walked in silence.

Tea was brewed, pastries were dug from their paper bag. They were sitting at the table, across from each other. Link had placed the newest stone between them. Rhett had already forgotten what it was called. It looked like marble, but it was something else. Link was looking at him. His intense blue gaze was boring into Rhett over the lip of Link’s tea mug. Rhett kept fighting.

“Have you been seeing your therapist?” Link asked.

“Um…I had to change therapists. We didn’t get along,” Rhett said. He was squirming in his seat.

“Okay. That’s fine. It’s important to find the right fit. But you’re seeing a new one now?”

“Well, I’m kind of in between right now. Trying to find someone.”

“When was your last session?”

Stop, please. Please. I don’t want to talk about this. I don’t want to talk. Let me be. Rhett’s chest was constricting. He heard the thump of his heart in his ears. It was almost deafening. He drew a shaky breath. He kept fighting.

“Not that long ago.” Another lie. He was a liar today. Liar and a bastard. Useless waste of space. It should have been you that died that day. It was supposed to be you. They could be here instead of you. You could have been a good husband for once in your life and none of that would have happened. Link would be better off without you too. Why did you drag him into your miserable life? How dare you steal his happiness like this? Let him go!

“Really?” Link pressed on. Rhett couldn’t look at him anymore, instead he got up and took the stone. He walked to the bureau and placed it next to the other ones. Ten stones, for ten months. This would be the last one. The realization hit him, taking his breath away. He knew it to be true.

“Yeah, really.”

“I don’t believe you,” Link’s voice was rising. He was getting annoyed. Good. Stand up for yourself. Reclaim your happiness. Go away.

“That’s your prerogative.” Rhett still stood at the bureau. He stared at the stones. At least he’d have them. To remember Link by. What would Link have? Just bad memories.

“Rhett. I can see that you’re hurting.”

“I’m fine. Never better,” Rhett said, laughing a hollow laugh.

“You are obviously not fine. Please, Rhett. Talk to me!”

“No.” The word echoed in the room. Not as an actual echo but it still seemed to fill the space and suck the life out of the men sharing the space.

“What do you mean ‘no’?” Link sounded like he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Rhett turned and leaned against the bureau. The smile had long gone from his face. He looked at Link and a part of the hate he felt for himself leaked into his expression. Link recoiled from the stare. His mouth hung open. Rhett looked away. He hadn’t meant to do that. But it would help Link understand how wrong Rhett was for him.

“Did I stutter? I meant no.” There was no malice in Rhett’s voice. It was quiet and steady. Rhett was no longer fighting. He’d let go. There was no use. It was better this way. For both of them.

“But… You need to… I…” Link was stumbling on his words. Link drew a deep breath and got up.

“Okay. I get it. You don’t have to talk to me. Of course not. I’m not making you. But you need to speak with someone,” Link was pleading as he walked up to Rhett. Rhett just stared at him. All of a sudden, he felt calm. No, not calm, that was wrong. Calm meant happy. Rhett was not happy. Rhett was nothing. He felt nothing. It almost felt good. Like a relief. He felt like sinking into the bottom of the ocean. He could see the storm above, the waves cresting and crashing, but they did not touch him. He was in deep. It was silent and airless. He kept sinking.

“There is no need. I feel just fine,” Rhett said almost dreamily. Link moved slowly and he sought Rhett’s hand. His fingers slipped around Rhett’s but Rhett shook him off. Link’s face crumbled. Rhett felt a twinge of pain. He chased it away. He wanted to stay in the nothingness. It was bearable there.

“Rhett,” Link whispered. His eyes were glazing over. His chin had an almost imperceptible wobble.

I feel nothing.

“Rhett, please. Talk to me. I can’t do this if you won’t talk to me.” A single tear fell from the corner of his eye. Rhett wanted to brush it away. Wanted to tell Link this was for his own good. But it was not his place anymore. Someone else would comfort him. Someone else would hold him from now on. Another twinge of pain. He just shrugged and turned to look into the distance. He shut himself off.

“Rhett!” Link’s hands grabbed Rhett’s arms and shook him. Rhett sighed and pushed him gently away.

“Don’t touch me, please,” he said calmly. Link wiped his runny nose and scowled at Rhett. He was so angry. Rhett had never seen him this angry.

“I love you!” Link almost spat the words out. He was panicking, Rhett knew this. He could see it in the shift of his eyes and the shake of his fists. Rhett drew a deep breath and prepared himself for the death blow. He had already lied twice today. What would another lie matter?

“I don’t. I never did. You were right; it was just something you say.”

Link's whole body went limp. Big, fat tears rolled slowly down his cheeks. He believed me?! How could Link ever believe that to be true? Had he not seen how Rhett looked at him? Had he not felt his touch? Rhett had been sure he needed to do more, convince him more. It made him feel more certain about this. Rhett must have not loved him enough if he could believe the lie so easily. And there he was, looking at Rhett with sadness that pierced Rhett soul and threatened to shred him into pieces. Link turned his back on Rhett and walked away. The door closed behind him with a creak. Then, there was only silence and the rush of Rhett’s blood in his ears. His legs gave out. He sat on the floor and wept. He was no longer under the sea. He was hanging onto to a broken life raft on the surface, fighting for his life.

Chapter Text

 

Sometimes he slept. Mostly he just laid there staring at the ceiling, listening to the waves. He ate. At least he tried to, when he remembered. He didn’t work. He had some money saved up. He’d manage for a while. He had written to Stevie canceling all his assignments. She might have messaged back. He hadn’t looked. He didn’t touch his phone. It was turned off.

 

 

The days muddled together. The 15th came quickly, almost like someone snapped their fingers and time jumped. Someone else flew in. Rhett had no memory of him later.

 

 

He’d moved the stones to his bedroom window sill. To remind him of what he’d lost. What he’d driven away. The pain was unbearable. That place in the deep, the place of nothingness, he was not allowed there anymore.

 

 

He opened Link’s present. He thought that he couldn’t hurt any more than he already did. He was wrong. It was an old record player and a stack of Merle Haggard albums.

He played them over and over again and he ached.

 

Our lives came together

Somehow we came to mingle for a while

Like two colors of the rainbow

We blended well together for a while

 

But I won't ever anchor down

The Lord above has numbered all my days

I'm just driftwood

And I think it's time I drifted on aways

 

 

Chapter Text

Rhett wasn’t sure what day it was. It was daytime though. He could see a sliver of light intruding between the storm shutters. Dust motes slowly swirled in the beam of light, disappearing when they floated into the shadows. Rhett wished to be one of them, just floating into the darkness. Seemed like a nice idea.

Instead, he got up, gathered his pain and brought it with him into the kitchen. He ate and drank. Mechanized movements, unseeing eyes, tasteless tongue. Bathroom was next. He relieved himself feeling no relief. A hollow laugh rang against the tiles at the thought. Then it was back to bed. He tucked himself in, cradled his pain, caressed it and sung to it, hoping to make it sleep. It never slept, not even when Rhett did. He still sung. The record player had been silent for days, maybe weeks. But Rhett sang the songs, low and husky. Hoping for his pain to sleep at last. The beam of light had shifted. Rhett stared at the floaters until he fell asleep again.

Another day. Rhett wasn’t sure how many had gone since he went to the kitchen. It couldn’t be that many, since he was still here. The pain sat on his chest. It was singing now because Rhett couldn’t anymore. Rhett closed his eyes and smiled.

---

Stevie was sitting in the hospital cafeteria. A cup of coffee was slowly getting cold on the table. She couldn’t pick it up, her hands shook too much. It probably tasted horrible anyway. She wrung her hands trying to quell the tremors. She should’ve gone earlier. Why did she wait so long?

Stevie closed her eyes and breathed deeply. Images flashed behind her lids. The dark bedroom, Rhett’s limp body curled up on the bed. The smell. Stevie had never before experienced death up close, but she was sure she knew now how it smelled when it was near. It was acrid and so wrong. She shivered. Why had she gone so late?

“Are you Stevie?!” a panicked voice roused her from the nightmarish thoughts. She lifted her head. A guy stood in front of her. A tall one, dark hair laced with grey, impossibly bright blue eyes, a stubble on his chin and a look of dread on his face.

“You must be Link,” she said as a greeting. He nodded. “Sit down.”

Link drew a chair scraping the floor loudly and getting a few annoyed stares from other patrons. He saw none of it. His eyes were stuck on Stevie’s.

“Is he…?” he started. He swallowed hard, either deciding not to say the word or trying to gather the courage.

“He’s alive. Barely.”

Link’s whole body relaxed and he slumped on the table. His forehead was pressed onto his hands and his shoulders shook with silent sobs. Stevie gently squeezed his arm getting only a long, snotty sniffle in return. They sat there for a while, Link crying in relief and Stevie silently giving support with a light touch of her palm.

“Can you tell me what happened?” she asked after a while. Link drew a deep breath and lifted his head. He looked wrecked. Hair drooping over his forehead, eyes bloodshot and snot and tears running down his face. Stevie gave him a napkin and he blew his nose with a pathetic whimper.

“We broke up. At least I think so. We didn’t use those words specifically but, then again, we never officially said we were together, so…” his voice was strained, and his gaze evaded Stevie’s.

“I figured,” Stevie said with a sigh. Rhett had not given her any explanation in his email, but she didn’t have to be a genius to guess. “When was this?”

“Fifteenth of August.”

“Oh!” Stevie slipped out. That date was familiar.

“What?” Link’s eyes were suddenly trained on her with an intensity that almost made her jump.

“What?”

“You made a noise. You know something. Tell me!”

“It’s not my place to tell,” Stevie tried to protest.

“He doesn’t tell me anything. Please. I just need to understand. It was so sudden. We were happy. He was happy. At least, I thought so. And then after the hospital… It was like they switched him. Suddenly, he was sullen and unresponsive. He barely talked to me. It was like he couldn’t care less. And then I went there, on the fifteenth and…I don’t know. He was...” Link’s voice trailed off. Tears glistened in his eyes. Stevie hummed empathetically. Link swallowed and continued. “He was someone else. Not my Rhett. Someone dark. Unmoving. And I knew he felt nothing towards me. It was like talking to a wall. There was nothing there. I couldn’t deal…I just left. I didn’t try to contact him again. I just stopped. Stevie…?”

He was looking at her with a pained expression. His hands shook and he threaded his fingers together to quell the tremors. Stevie’s heart ached for him.

“Stevie, is this my fault? Did I do this?” He looked like he’d confessed to a crime. Stevie grabbed his hands between her own. Her hands felt so small against his. Yet she had to be the strong one here.

“No! Rhett is ill. He has severe depression. You couldn’t have done anything to change that.”

“But I left him. I just left him there, all alone. How could I be so horrible?” Link whispered. He was crying again. Stevie felt her own tears starting to gather.

“It’s not your job to cure him. You couldn’t have done that even if you’d stayed. He has to do that himself. They’re gonna have him committed. An inpatient facility.”

“Yeah? That…sounds good, I guess. Do you know how he feels about it?”

Stevie shook her head. “He hasn’t been that lucid yet.”

“Can I see him before he goes?” Link said sounding hopeful.

“I…I don’t think that’s a good idea. For either of you.”

“Please, Stevie. I need to see him. I need to tell him I’ll be there for him. As a friend. He doesn’t have to love me. I love him. I’ll always love him and I can settle. I just want to be in his life.”

“I’ll tell him if you want me to but I’m afraid if you go see him…I’m afraid of his motivations. He needs to get better for him.”

Link hung his head. Stevie knew she’d convinced him.

“But Link,” she continued. She knew she was crossing a line, but she felt compelled. “Just so you know. August fifteenth? It was his baby’s due date. His wife, Anna, was pregnant when she died. They were in a car crash. A drunk driver hit them. She died in his arms. He was hurt as well and spent a long time in the hospital after that.”

Link looked at her, eyes wide, jaw hanging slack. He covered his mouth. He looked like he might get sick and Stevie backed away a bit. Her day did not need to end covered in vomit. But he swallowed hard and gathered himself.

“I didn’t know,” he whispered.

“I thought so. He doesn’t really talk about it.”

“I knew he was a widower, but…”

“Mm-hm.”

“Why did you tell me?” Link was looking at her curiously now. Stevie sighed.

“I really shouldn’t have. He’d be mad at me for telling. But…he loves you.”

Link made a noise that told Stevie he was about to protest. She lifted her hand to shut him up. “Don’t. Whatever he said to you, whatever happened, it was his illness talking, not him. The way he talked about you—he has never talked about anyone, even his wife, like that. He loves you and I think that kind of love deserves a fighting chance. He just needs to get better first.”

Link took her hand and squeezed gently. He had a small smile on his face and he nodded.

“Thank you.”

Stevie felt her throat constricting. She smiled fighting the tears. She got it now. She got why Rhett loved him. And she would do her damnedest to get them another chance.

---

The beginning was the worst for Rhett. The medication made it feel like he was submerged in glue. He could barely move a finger and his surroundings seemed blurred somehow. It was too bright. The bed felt unfamiliar. He wanted to go home. Rhett was scared. He didn’t remember the last time he was so genuinely scared. People came in periodically. Rhett wasn’t sure how often as time moved in jerks and pauses. They talked to him. At first, he decided not to listen and their voices just turned into a buzzing in his ears.

Instead he retreated into his head. Mostly he thought of Link. He tried to remember the happier times, but his mind rarely let him. He just played the last moments they spent together over and over in his head. Link’s hurt expression was permanently etched into his vision. Eventually, he grew tired of it all, of the perpetual hurt and the drone of the voices. He feared he might be losing his mind. He started to listen.

“You’re safe here. You’re here to get better. You want that right?”

Rhett just wanted to go back home.

“You can go home when you get better.”

Okay. I’ll get better then. Can’t be that hard to fake.

He always listened after that. He did the breathing and mindfulness exercises. He took his meds without fighting. To his surprise, it started to help a bit. His fear started to subside. The people were lovely; Rhett grew to appreciate their voices. He used the techniques even when he was alone. His head felt clearer.

Eventually, they moved him to a room with other people. Rhett did not care for that at all but he was committed to the faking. And the breathing techniques actually helped with the anxiety of being with others. The institutionalization happened fast. Rhett dived into the daily rhythm. He got up on time. He took his meds. He ate what was offered. He went to group. He went to his one-on-ones. He sat in the community room, doing whatever grabbed his fancy. He went to bed on time. Days blended into weeks.

Group therapy was the worst. Rhett hated it. Hated the sharing, hated the listening, hated the heartfelt tone others seemed to speak to each other with. They all just droned on about problems that were not problems at all. Like the man that had lost his wife in a plane crash. Obviously, it was sad. Rhett wasn’t a monster. But the man thought it was his fault! Because he’d insisted on changing seats with her after take-off. His legs had been cramping and she had had the aisle seat. They’d changed so he could stretch his legs. The plane had crash landed. She’d died. He’d survived. He blamed himself for her death. It aggravated Rhett to no end. Finally, he’d had enough.

“It wasn’t your fault!” Rhett almost growled after particularly annoying rant from the man. Everyone turned to look at him. He rarely commented unprompted. It might have been the first time. The group leader smiled a little and asked, “Clark’s words have obviously affected you, Rhett. Care to elaborate? Nicely?”

Rhett nodded and gave her a quick smile. She was lovely and Rhett felt a bit ashamed for raising his voice. He took a deep breath and said: “He didn’t kill her. The plane crashed. It’s sad and I really feel for you, Clark, but you didn’t crash it. It’s all just chance anyway. Maybe if you hadn’t changed seats that would have changed something else and it still would have been her.”

Everyone was silent. Clark was looking at Rhett with a frown. The group leader threaded her fingers and quietly said, “Don’t you think the same could be said about your situation, Rhett?”

Rhett’s head whipped to her. He scowled. “No. That’s totally different.”

“You didn’t drive the car that crashed into you. Just like Clark didn’t fly the plane.”

“But she wouldn’t have been driving if I hadn’t been drinking!”

“Did you usually drink at parties?”

“Well, usually yes.”

“And what about her?”

“Sure, before she was pregnant.”

“What did you do then? Take a cab probably, right?”

“Yes.”

“Why didn’t you take a cab that night? Did you force her to drive?”

“No. She insisted.”

“So, she wanted to drive. And you were just doing what you did normally. And someone else crashed into you.”

“So?”

“She means that how was it your fault then?” someone else asked, sounding faintly annoyed. Rhett threw a scowl their way too.

“If I had decided not to drink, I could have driven and then it would have been me. I would have died. That’s how it was supposed to be.”

“Well, you said it yourself: It’s all just chance anyway. What if you’d driven you would have tried to avoid the other car and he would have crashed into the passenger’s side?”

“But…that didn’t happen,” Rhett felt a sheen of sweat on his forehead. His skin was buzzing. He felt his chest constricting.

“Remember your breathing, Rhett,” the group leader reminded kindly and Rhett started to count in his head. It helped. “Yes, that didn’t happen. Instead, she drove because she loved you and wanted you to have a fun night. The other driver chose to drink and drive. She died. But none of it was your fault. Just like Clark.”

Rhett stared at her, jaw hanging slack.

“There’s something to think about for both of you. Let’s get back to that later. Gary, want to tell us what you’ve been thinking?”

The group moved on. Rhett didn’t listen. He felt like his head was spinning. He looked at Clark and saw his own expression mirrored in his face. A corner of Clark’s lips twitched up and Rhett smiled back at him, both of their eyes glistening with tears that would eventually flow. And with that, something heavy lifted off Rhett’s heart.

There was a shift. Rhett had trouble pinpointing what it was exactly. The schedule was the same but the days flowed differently. He listened more and participated actively. He even talked to others in the community room. He started to write. First, he wrote about that night. Over and over again. Every possible way he could think of. And with every version he wrote, he let go of his pain a little.

After about a week, he finally realized what had changed. He felt a bit stupid for not getting it earlier, it was so obvious. He wasn’t faking anymore. He actually wanted to heal. He worked towards it. It was not pleasant. There were days when he still felt like a dark void resided inside him. There were days when all he wanted was to scream and yell and throw things. At first, it felt like nothing changed inside him. The healing was incremental. From one day to the next, there was barely any change. But then after some time had passed, he found himself sitting in the community room one evening, laughing at something stupid. Someone looked at him funny.

“What?” he asked puzzled.

“Just haven’t heard you laugh before. It’s nice.”

Rhett cried after that. Clark sat with him. They’d grown close.

After that night, he started to write something else. Something new, something for Link. It was supposed to be a letter at first. To explain everything to him. Rhett had no delusions about their relationship. He’d messed up too many times. He had no right to ask for more chances but he could tell Link his story. But his story morphed into something more and it became their story. It became a story about a dashing helicopter pilot who flies to a remote island and finds a hermit that has had a spell cast on him. It became something real and something magical. It became a love story, with a healthy sprinkle of sex. Rhett always smiled writing those bits. He could see Link standing at the erotic fiction shelf at his local bookstore and spotting Rhett’s name. He could see Link smiling fondly. The thought made Rhett feel light.

All of a sudden, it was time for him to leave. He was equally excited and afraid. He knew he’d only begun his journey. The ward had become a safe place to trudge along. The outside world seemed too big and crowded. He knew he could do it though. He would have help: a weekly therapy appointment, group grief therapy and regular check-ups with a psychiatrist. They’d helped him rent a small one bedroom apartment in the city. He still rented the lighthouse. He couldn’t let that go. It was his home. Eventually, he would go back there, at least for some time.

When the time came, he hugged Clark tightly and made him promise to call as soon as he got out. The smaller man clung onto him and sobbed. Rhett could feel his own tears welling too. He’d grown to love this man like a brother. He rubbed his back gently and whispered encouragements to him. They parted glossy eyed and smiling. There was a flurry of people around him, more hugs and offerings of support. Rhett walked out to Stevie who was waiting for him. She got the tightest hug of her life and more tears were shed.

Rhett stared out of the car window as Stevie drove. He had been afraid of the outside world and he did feel a bit intimidated. It was so busy and there was just too much space. It made him want to curl into himself. But he refused. He did his exercises. He talked with Stevie. He got groceries. He bought some nice bed linens. They went for dinner. He told her about the book and asked her to read it when it was done. She agreed. Stevie left him in his new apartment with an order to call at any hour if he needed. Rhett sat on the bed as the day came to a close. He felt the waves of anxiety. He breathed. He fought.

He would keep fighting. Because now he had hope.

Chapter Text

Rhett fiddled with his tie. He had on black pants and a two toned gray suit jacket with a light colored dress shirt underneath. The tie didn’t seem to fit the ensemble, but Rhett felt uncertain. It had been a while since he’d gotten dressed up like this. Stevie stepped into the doorframe. She crossed her arms over her chest and smiled. She had on a smart, bright red business suit that fit her like a glove. She looked like a force to be reckoned with. Exactly what she was.

“Well, don’t you look dashing! I would lose the tie, though. Just leave a few buttons unbuttoned?” she suggested and Rhett let out a relieved breath.

“Exactly what I thought,” he said and smiled back at her. He pulled the tie off and popped some buttons open. He mussed his hair a bit, trying to tame it to the perfectly coiffed casual swoop he liked.

“You look good. Really. We should be on our way already,” Stevie said. Rhett still stared at his mirror image and bit his lip.

“Are you nervous?” Stevie asked. Rhett nodded.

“It’s gonna be fine. You just have to make an appearance. If it gets too much at any point, we can leave.”

“I know. Just…getting to the right headspace. Can you give me a minute?” he asked. Stevie nodded and closed the door after her.

Rhett stared in the mirror. He tried to breathe evenly. He reminded himself that it was perfectly normal to have jitters about an event like this. He lifted the dropped tie from the floor and draped it over the back of the armchair next to his bed. He took one more deep breath and gave himself a little wink on the mirror. Stevie was right, he looked good tonight.

Soon, he sat in the Uber with Stevie. The city was busy. It was a Saturday night. Rhett let the lights outside blend into a sea of colors and flashes. He concentrated on his breathing.

“I still think it should have been published as erotic fiction,” he said after a while. Stevie hummed. They’d had this conversation multiple times. It was hard for Rhett to let go and Stevie knew the reason. He still kept on thinking new reasons for why he was right.

“It’s so different from my earlier books. People are going to be confused when they buy a literary fiction book with magical realism and get page after page of graphic blow jobs.”

The driver’s eyes flashed to the rearview mirror and Stevie snorted. Rhett looked at the man and shrugged. He couldn’t help the little smirk that tugged at his lips. The driver’s eyes shifted quickly back on the road ahead.

“The sexual nature of the story is very clearly stated in the blurb. It’s going to be fine. Everyone is going to love it,” Stevie insisted again. Rhett huffed.

The venue was packed. Guests were mingling around small tables and waiters with big trays worked the room offering ocean themed appetizers and endless glasses of bubbly. A huge banner of the book’s cover was hung behind the podium. Rhett looked at the lighthouse peeking from the magically swirling, purple fog and felt emotional. He loved the cover. Especially the red chopper in the distance beyond the lighthouse.

“What’s with all the press?” he asked Stevie quietly as they moved into the room. Rhett was surprised by the amount of cameras and notepads. He was basically a nobody who’d written a very niche book.

“Your story is pretty unique and the whole mental health background is very popular in the media right now. The marketing department is just doing their job, dear. Try and talk to some of them if you can?” It was more of a question than a plea. Stevie knew Rhett’s limits and respected them. Rhett nodded. In a strange way, he wanted to make her proud and he took a glass in hand and started to make his rounds.

It was surprisingly pleasant. He talked about the story. He talked about his depression and his time at the hospital. He answered questions about mental health legislation and the state of care in Canada. Stevie had prepared him for this. He had eloquent answers and he could see that the reporters were impressed. A few had read advance copies of the book and he received praise that made him blush fiercely. He signed a copious amount of copies.

“So, is he here today?” one reporter asked as he was signing her copy. Rhett lifted his head and threaded his eyebrows.

“Who?” he asked confused.

“The man you dedicated the book to?” she specified, smiling as she took the offered book back.

“Oh! No, he’s not here,” Rhett said trying to keep the pleasant smile on his face. His heart sped up.

“Too bad. Would have loved to get his thoughts on the book.”

“Mm-hmm. Sorry. Thank you for coming. Have a nice evening,” Rhett said and quickly stepped back. He escaped to the bathrooms. It was a unisex bathroom with individual stalls and Rhett locked himself in one. He should’ve guessed someone would ask about that. The reaction he had to a mention of him had taken Rhett by surprise. He sat on the toilet and applied his breathing technique. Slowly, his heart rate returned to normal and he started to feel calm again.

The bathroom door opened and Rhett could hear faint footsteps.

“Rhett? Are you here?” Stevie’s voice called.

“Yeah. Just a second,” Rhett answered. He took one more centering breath and stepped out. Stevie was looking at her, face scrunched up in worry.

“Are you okay? Do we need to leave?”

“No. I’m fine. Just needed a minute. Let’s go back in.”

Stevie still looked concerned but followed Rhett back to the banquet hall. As Rhett stepped to the view of the room, he stopped so abruptly Stevie crashed into him.

“Ooof! What?” she asked rubbing her nose that had slammed into Rhett’s back. She stepped around Rhett and followed his gaze. She breathed a quiet “oh” sound.

Rhett stood still. He wasn’t sure if he was seeing things. The man that stood next to the entrance looked like a vision in a navy colored, tailored suit that made his eyes shine bright blue all the way across the room. He looked exactly like Rhett remembered and somehow totally different. He was frowning a bit and Rhett could see from all the way out here that his lips were twitching. He looked worried. Rhett felt the squeeze of Stevie’s hand on his arm.

“Go.”

He moved as in a dream. He knew the exact moment when Link spotted him approaching. His whole face lit up. The luminosity almost made Rhett’s knees buckle. The other people in the room turned into a mass of blurry white noise. Someone tried to grab Rhett’s arm. He shook them off. It was the longest walk of his life. When he finally reached him, he stopped and opened his mouth. No sounds came out. What could he say?

“Hey,” Link said quietly. His voice was warm and melodic; like a song Rhett had always loved but hadn’t heards in years. Rhett felt the warmth all over. He felt like crying.

“Hi,” he managed to answer before losing his ability to speak again.

“Link, so nice to see you again! I’m glad you could come.” Stevie’s voice startled Rhett. Apparently, she’d followed him across the room. He turned to look at her and frowned. She’d invited him? Stevie averted his gaze and grabbed both of their hands.

“How about some privacy?” she suggested and towed them behind her to a side door. It was some kind of a storage room. There were stacks of chairs and tables. Stevie turned on the lights and pushed them in. She stepped outside, finally looked at Rhett, winked and closed the door behind her. Rhett stared at the closed door, jaw hanging slack. How dare she? But then again, it was Stevie. Rhett shouldn’t have been surprised.

He turned to look at Link who stood a few feet away, swaying slightly from one foot to another. He was looking at the floor. He looked so scared. It tugged at Rhett’s heartstrings. He wanted to walk up to him and hug him tightly. He wanted to feel his breath on his skin again. He wanted to press him against the wall and kiss him until they’d melt into one being of moans and whimpers. Rhett wanted everything and more. He had no idea why Link was here. He didn’t want to hope for any of those things, but he still did.

“She invited you?” Rhett asked just to say something. Link lifted his gaze.

“Yeah. Is…is that okay?” he asked hesitantly.

“Of course!” The words tumbled out in a hurry.

Link smiled a little.

“I heard that you’ve been feeling better?” Link asked. He still moved restlessly. His eyes were on Rhett, seeking for confirmation to his question.

“I mean, it’s a process. I’m still medicated and in therapy. But definitely yes, I feel a lot better.”

“Good,” Link said smiling in earnest now. “Congratulations. On the book.”

“Oh, yeah. Thank you. It’s a bit different than my previous ones,” Rhett said looking for clues on Link’s face. Did he know what the book was about? Had he seen the dedication?

“Mm,” Link’s answer was a noncommittal hum that told Rhett nothing. Then, Link slipped his hand into his pocket and dug out a small package that was tied with a string. “Here. Brought you a gift.”

Rhett stepped to him and took the package. It was light. Link bit his lip and all of a sudden, a surge of nervous energy burst out of him. He spun on his heels and started to walk anxiously back and forth in the small space.

“It’s just something stupid, you know? You don’t have to open it now if you don’t wa-” Link started to babble.

“That’s what you said before,” Rhett said with a low chuckle. “And I’m sad I hadn’t sooner. It was pretty amazing.”

“Huh?” Link had stopped to the other side of the room and turned to look at Rhett. He looked confused.

“When you gave me the Christmas present,” Rhett reminded him.

“You opened it?!”

“Yes. I love it.” He did love it. The record player stood in his bedroom now and not a day went by that he didn’t listen to it.

“Oh.”

Silence fell between them. Link was looking at him eyes wide, with a small, silly smile on his face. Rhett pulled on the string and gently tore the wrapping paper open. It was a stone. It was pink and grey and shaped like a heart.

“It’s a…” Link started to say. Rhett finished his sentence. “A rhodonite.” Link nodded. Rhett’s heartbeat quickened. He felt light-headed and tingly. Could it be?

“Did you know that a rhodonite supposedly heals emotional wounds of the past? That it helps to deal with panic and lessens the desire of emotional self-destruction? That it inspires forgiveness and helps to restore love?” Link asked in a hushed voice. Rhett gently rubbed the stone’s smooth surface. He lifted his gaze to Link.

“As strange as it may sound, I actually did know all that,” Rhett said smiling fondly at him. The stone played an important role in his book.

“Yeah?” Link said smiling back. He had a knowing glint in his eyes. It was only now that Rhett noticed an advanced copy of the book had appeared in Link’s hands. Rhett swallowed.

“So, does this mean you’ve read it?” he asked, voice trembling. Link lifted the book to his chest and hugged it tightly. He nodded. Rhett felt a shiver run down his spine. What did this mean? He’d read it. He was here. He’d given Rhett a stone. Rhett clung on to his hope. Link broke the silence.

“You wrote me a book.” Link’s voice was barely a whisper. He sounded incredulous. He stared at Rhett, eyes glimmering with more than gratitude.

“I did.” He had so much to say, but no words left to say any of it. Maybe he didn’t have to right now. Link had read the book after all. Everything was there. Rhett took a wary step towards Link. Link mimicked his movement.

“You wrote me an erotic fiction book,” Link said with a hint of a smirk. He took another step.

“I did.” Rhett said with the corner of his lips rising. He stepped closer too.

“You dedicated it to me,” Link whispered as he stepped once more. Rhett met him in the middle of the room with one final, long stride.

“I did.”

“It had a happy ending,” Link said lifting his eyes to Rhett’s. Rhett’s hand rose to gently cup Link’s face. Link closed his eyes and sighed into it.

“It did.”

“I liked that.” Link’s eyes opened. They were filled with love and adoration. A tear rolled down Rhett’s cheek. Link brushed it away with a gentle sweep of his finger. Rhett leaned down and took his face in both of his hands.

“Who doesn’t love a happy ending?” Rhett murmured against Link’s lips. Link gasped at the light touch. Rhett felt him shake in his hands. He knew he was trembling too. Link closed the imperceptible distance between them. The kiss was deep and sweet and long awaited. The book dropped on the floor as Link’s hands wrapped around Rhett. It lay open on the dedication page.

To my flyboy.

You helped me see the light.

I’ll love you forever.

Chapter Text

Rhett opened the door of their apartment, his hands filled with luggage, and barged in. The dogs came running from the other room and Rhett sat on the floor so both could jump on him and lick his face as a greeting.

“Hey, babies!” he cooed and tried to divide the pats and scratches evenly. He’d missed their furry children. “Is your daddy home?”

“Rhett?” a surprised voice sounded from the kitchen. Link appeared in the hallway. His eyes flew wide. “You’re home!”

The dogs were chased away as Link’s body crashed into Rhett. In an instant, they were sprawled on the floor, Link on top off Rhett. Rhett giggled uncontrollably as Link peppered him with wet kisses.

“Stop! Babe! You’re worse than the dogs!”

“You weren’t supposed to come until tomorrow!” Link said between kisses as an explanation for his behavior. Rhett laughed and kissed him in earnest. Two weeks was too long a time to be apart. But it made sense to string the book tour appearances of his new book together like that.

Link’s tongue was heating up Rhett’s mouth and his hands were moving between their bodies. Soon, Rhett felt his pants being torn open.

“Seriously? You gonna do that right here on the hallway floor?” he managed to ask amusedly before Link’s face disappeared from his line of vision. Cool air on his cock made him jerk as Link yanked his pants down. He wasn’t even hard yet but Link took him fully into his mouth making a relieved hum with his throat. Rhett gasped for air. He’d missed this. He’d missed Link like this.

“God, baby... You really missed me, didn’t you?” he muttered as he swelled in Link’s mouth. They both knew it wouldn’t take long for him to get hard like this. Rhett couldn’t get enough of it. Link moaning happily between Rhett’s legs, the heat of his mouth, and the gentle stroke of his tongue. Rhett loved the feeling of slowly filling his mouth with himself.

When he didn’t fit anymore, Link let him out with a wet pop and gave him a couple of tight fisted strokes. Rhett shivered in his hands and let out a low moan.

“I wanna ride you,” Link said matter-of-factly, hands still wrapped around Rhett’s length.

“That sounds amazing but we need to move to the bed. My back can’t take this,” Rhett groaned, already feeling the slight pull at his lower back.

Link sighed and muttered the usual “Fine, grandpa,” rolling his eyes. Then he helped his laughing partner up and dragged him to the bedroom.

“What’s with Barbara’s fur? It looks like she’s missing a patch near her neck,” Rhett said as they stood next to the bed shedding their clothes. Link glanced at him sheepishly.

“I might have dropped some glue on her accidentally. Had to cut it away.”

“Glue? What were you doing with glue?” Rhett asked laughing. He sat on the edge of the bed and kicked his shoes off. Link was jumping around the room trying to yank his skinny jeans over his calf, a dance Rhett knew all too well. It always made him smile fondly. Rhett slipped out of his own pants and stopped to gape at Link. He was so fit. They’d been going to the gym together for the last six months and Link’s hard work was definitely bearing fruit. A fruit Rhett planned to enjoy right now.

“I was trying to repair my sneakers. The heel peeled off. You know how much I love those things,” Link explained as he took his socks off. Finally, he stood there fully naked. Rhett drew a deep breath.

“I know. It’s okay, the hair will grow back. C’mere, babe,” Rhett murmured patting his lap. Link straddled him and their mouths slotted together. Rhett’s hands found their familiar place on Link’s ass and he squeezed Link gently.

“I’m so glad you’re home,” Link purred into Rhett’s neck between nibbles. Rhett hummed a “me too” and reached for the lube.

“Two weeks is way too long,” Link continued and let out a small yelp as Rhett’s slicked finger sank into him.

“It is,” Rhett said and cocked an eyebrow at the unmistakable feeling of Link’s already stretched out hole. He’d been playing today. The thought made blood rush to Rhett’s groin. Link’s hips worked in Rhett’s lap and his breathing quickened. Rhett’s cock stood at attention between them and rubbed against Link’s awakening hardness. Rhett bit his lips and groaned.

“I missed you so much,“ Link panted as Rhett added a finger.

“I missed you too, baby. I’m here now.”

“More,” Link moaned.

“Already?” Rhett teased already knowing the answer to his next question. “Does this mean my fingers are not the first thing in you today?”

“Mm. Your replacement might need a battery change,” Link said and laughed but the sound stopped abruptly as Rhett grabbed him and threw him on the bed. His hands pressed Link’s hips down on the mattress and his tongue ran the length of his shaft before his mouth enveloped him. Rhett moved Link’s legs over his shoulders and pushed his fingers back inside. Link mewled and whined.

“Yes! Oh, God, fuck yes! Rhett! Ohhh! Fuckfuckfuckfuck!” Link cried out as Rhett sucked him against the roof of his mouth while swirling his tongue against his slit. Link’s hips rose from the bed and he gasped for air. Rhett felt a strange sense of pride. He loved that he still could make Link into a screaming mess. With a final stroke of his tongue, Rhett let him go and crawled on the bed. He got on his back next to Link who looked at him dazedly.

“I thought you wanted to ride me?” Rhett said with a smirk as he slowly stroked himself slick and ready for Link. Link’s eyes widened as he remembered.

“I did. So sweet of you to remind me,” he said and got on top of Rhett. Rhett helped him line up his cock and readied himself for the tight heat. Even after a year, it still always took his breath away. This time was not an exception. Link eased him in slowly, swirling his hips slightly and breathing raggedly. Rhett’s eyes closed involuntarily and he let out a satisfied breath.

“Look at me,” Link pleaded as he sank all the way in. Rhett opened his eyes and moved his hands to Link’s hips. Link pressed his own to Rhett’s chest and started to move. His hair was a tangled mess and his eyes were dark and filled with need. Rhett stared at him, mouth hanging open as he bounced on top of him muttering praises and curses.

“How are you this fucking big? That toy has nothing on you. Fuuuuuck. You feel so good. Filling me up like this. God, I missed you, baby. Oh! I love you so much.”

Rhett got up, wrapping his arms around Link as he kept straddling him. Link clung to him and tried to kiss him without much success. His mouth kept moving away as he slid up and down Rhett’s cock. Rhett kissed his neck and his shoulders and bit on his favorite spot on his clavicle. Link moaned loudly and took Rhett’s hand. He guided it to his own leaking cock and Rhett happily obliged.

“I love you, baby. You make me feel so good. Gonna return the favor,” Rhett whispered into Link’s ear. Link’s movements were changing to more jerky and desperate. Rhett’s lubed up fingers methodically worked his cock. He knew just the rhythm to use and the right pressure. Link was putty in his hands and he was molding him to a beautiful wreck. Link’s thighs started to shake. He’d stopped moving completely, he just sat on Rhett, fully sheathed. His fingers dug into Rhett’s back and he just kept muttering Rhett’s name under his breath. His eyes had rolled in his head and it hung back, face tilted towards the ceiling. A low groan started from his belly and burst out of his mouth as Rhett jerked him over the edge. They were both covered in his cum. Rhett pumped him dry and lifted his soaked fingers up to his face. Link was just returning back to earth and opened his eyes to a scene of Rhett licking his cum of his fingers and he shook violently like he was coming all over again. He grunted and leaned over to Rhett, pulling him into a deep kiss that would surely make him taste himself.

Rhett flipped him on the bed and started to move inside of him again. Link lay under him limp and blissed out and just took it. Rhett loved him like this.

“God, I love you. My gorgeous mess. Taking me so well. Gonna make me cum so hard, baby. I’ve missed you like crazy,” Rhett muttered as his hips sped up chasing the pleasure waiting for him around the corner. Link grabbed his hand and stuck Rhett’s fingers into his mouth rolling his tongue languidly around them. The sensation was too much for Rhett and he came with a roar. He emptied himself into Link and slumped on top of him. Link pushed him off and crawled into his arms. They laid in silence for a while, just listening to each other’s breathing.

“So, I’m gonna go to group first but could we go to the lighthouse tonight?” Rhett asked after some time. They still rented it even though they’d bought an apartment in the city a few months ago. Rhett had trouble letting it go and Link seemed to be in no hurry to press on the issue. Sometimes Rhett went there alone for a few days to write but usually they went together.

“Sure, honey. Let’s just ask Mrs. Henderson if she can take the dogs for tonight,” Link said and turned to kiss Rhett gently on the lips. “I’m so glad you’re home.” Rhett took his face in his hands and returned the sentiment.

---

Mrs. Henderson was more than happy to take care of the dogs and hugged Rhett tightly when they were leaving.

“Good to have you back home,” she said with a hushed voice. Then her gaze flitted to Link who was still petting the dogs. “That one was getting a bit antsy already.”

“He tends to do that. Apparently there was some kind of episode with glue?” Rhett said and cocked his eyebrow at her.

“Oh yes, poor Barbara. Link was so distraught about that. But all is well now, right? Do you have something special planned for tonight?” she asked, looking up at Rhett. Rhett smiled at her and winked conspiratorially. She nodded knowingly and turned to say goodbye to Link.

It was a good flying weather and Link even did a little detour over the ocean. He knew Rhett liked that. And Rhett usually did, he loved to look at waves cresting below, but today he had trouble concentrating. He kept staring at Link who seemed to be none the wiser about his partner’s nervous gaze. Despite the scenic route, they still made good time and were at the lighthouse right before sunset. They started to walk up the path as the sky turned orange.

“You used to call me tall boy,” Rhett suddenly remembered. Link turned to look at him with a strange, dreamy smile he always got when Rhett reminisced about their first meetings.

“I did.”

“Why’d you stop?”

“Seemed like you didn’t appreciate it that much.”

“You do realize that was before everything?”

“Hadn’t really thought of it that much. Would you like me to call you that?”

Rhett shrugged. “Maybe sometimes. Would make me feel nostalgic.”

“Okay... My tall boy,” Link said with a smirk. Rhett’s belly flushed hot and he blushed. All of a sudden, he felt like a teenager, talking to his crush. Link threaded their fingers together and they walked the rest of the way in comfortable silence.

They unpacked the food and Link climbed to the bedroom to make the bed. Rhett stayed in the kitchen under the pretense of starting on dinner. As soon as Link disappeared into the stairs, Rhett dashed to his bag and dug out the box. He took it to the bureau. The stones had been moved back to their rightful place. Sometimes Rhett thought about taking them to the city with him but it felt wrong somehow. They belonged here. The rhodonite was the only one that traveled with him. He almost always had it on his person. Now he set it down next to the other stones and added the box at the end of the row.

He looked at the picture frames. Only a few held nature photos anymore. Most had pictures of people now: him and Link, Stevie, Alex, Clark and few other friends from the hospital. All the people that loved him and who he loved. And obviously, there were a few pictures of the dogs. Rhett smiled at the one of him and Link that had been taken at his book launch party a year ago after they’d reunited. No one else would know but Rhett saw the plumpness of Link’s lips and the light shade of red on his cheeks. It was taken only moments after they’d stumbled out of the storage room, after Link had been on his knees in front of Rhett as Rhett tried his best not to moan too loud. He touched the face of Link on the photo and sighed. It had been a good year - hard at times for sure, but so good. He heard Link’s footsteps on the stairs and ran for the stove.

They had dinner in candlelight. They bathed together, as was their tradition when coming back to the lighthouse. Link loved to recreate their first experience in the tub with endless variations. They put on pajamas and were about to go to sleep when Link announced that he was still hungry.

“I’m gonna get some peanut butter,” he said and ran for the stairs. Rhett chuckled. He was already in bed, reading a book. He felt tired in the best possible way; he was emotionally and physically satisfied. All he wanted was to curl up next to Link and let deep sleep take him. For a moment, he’d forgotten about the box. Then he heard Link’s voice coming from the lower floor.

“Rhettttt!”

His heart in his throat, Rhett descended into the kitchen. Link was standing in front of the bureau. The sight made something in Rhett’s stomach flutter. He took a deep breath.

“This was next to the stones. What is this?” Link turned, holding the black, velvety box between his thumb and index finger. Rhett couldn’t read his expression. Rhett’s hands started to tremble a little. Could this be a mistake? Maybe it was too soon.

“Rhett! What is this?” Link repeated shaking the box at Rhett’s face.

He was already at the deep end; there was no going back now. Rhett stepped gingerly to Link. He took the box and sank to one knee. He lifted his face to look at the man who had become his whole world. The box opened with a snap. It was not a ring. It was a tiny piece of emerald.

“Link,” he started. It was almost impossible to speak. His throat was dry and raspy. He had to stop and cough. He felt the tears already.

“Oh, god.” Link’s voice cracked and he threw a hand over his mouth. His eyes welled.

“Link. We had a rocky start. Which is fitting since it all started here on this rocky island in the middle of nowhere. I was… I was not very nice to you in the beginning. But you saw something in me that I didn’t. That I couldn’t yet. You made me laugh when I hadn’t in years. You thawed my frozen heart. You made me feel love and lust and all the little things that come with them. You understood that I needed to heal myself before I did. You pushed me when I needed it. I still feel horrible for lashing out at you when you did. You waited for me to get better. And this past year has not been always easy, but it’s been the best year of my life so far and I hope to make all the rest of my years the best of yours. You showed me the light, Link Neal, when all I saw was darkness. Would you let me be your light from now on?”

Link was sobbing now. He dropped to his knees and took Rhett’s trembling hands on his own.

“Yes,” he said.

“I didn’t even ask you yet.”

“Yes, yes, yes. A thousand times yes.”

“Let me ask you. Properly.”

“Okay. I’m sorry.” Link was beaming, tears still streaking his face.

“Charles Lincoln Neal the third, will you marry me?”

Link crashed into him, tilting them onto the floor. The kiss was deep and hungry. Their tears mingled together and all Rhett could think was how much Link would love to tell the story of how Rhett had proposed to him in pajamas. Rhett chuckled into Link’s mouth.

“So, just to be absolutely clear, was that a yes?”

Link laughed through his tears and just kissed him again.