They’re on a routine cargo run, carrying flour, sugar, and some basic medical supplies to Ealdor, a small terraformed moon on the outer verge of the system. It’s a week-long assignment and it pays enough for them to keep flying for another couple of months, which isn’t much, but enough for now. Gaius always hires them and no one else, which at least gives them a tiny bit of work security in a world that’s anything but safe.
The cargo is safe in the cargo bay, Gaius is waiting on the planet, and Freya is laughing at something Gwen said... and that’s when everything goes to heck.
She’s interrupted by a loud drilling from the loading bay, and Gwen and Freya both rush towards the sound. Merlin hesitates as he passes the weapons locker, but stops to retrieve his old, reliable laser gun before following.
“Just make sure we can keep flying, and I’ll get us out of here,” he hears Lance shout from behind him.
He reaches the loading bay just as the hatch swings open and a large, blond man steps through the doorway. He’s medium built and very handsome, Merlin notices, but he’s carrying two modern guns and is followed by a slim, dark-haired woman and a couple of… goons, really — two men who don’t look very smart, in Merlin’s opinion. Hired muscle, probably. So it’s not likely they’re just popping round for a nice cup of tea, is it?
“Hello there,” the blond man says calmly, as the woman aims her large rifle towards them and raises an eyebrow challengingly. Merlin doesn’t raise his gun, although he tightens his grip on it, just in case.
“Get out,” Gwen says tightly, and Merlin can feel her shaking with suppressed rage. “Get out before we throw you out.”
“Aw,” the man says, and turns around to smile at his companions, “It’s like watching a kitten trying to intimidate a lion.”
He turns back to Gwen, Freya and Merlin. “No.”
“What do you want?” Merlin asks. “We don’t have anything you could possibly sell for money.”
“Ah, yes. We’d rather see for ourselves, if that’s okay,” the woman says.
But before they can start their search for valuable cargo, Freya closes her eyes again and puts her hand calmly on the intercom to contact Lance.
“Disengage the ship. Close the hatch, and jump,” she says. “Now. It has to be done now.”
Merlin and Gwen’s eyes meet. He raises his gun to fire the same moment Gwen sprints for the hatch. Whatever is about to happen, it’s never wise to question Freya.
And then many things happen at once. Shots are fired, but luckily they all miss their intended targets. Gwen manages to close the hatch and presses the emergency disengage before one of the goons takes her down. The blond man reaches out for Freya, but just when he’s about to grab her there’s an explosion. The ship jumps into hyperdrive, and in the same moment it’s hit by the debris and pressure wave. They’re all thrown to the floor, and everything goes quiet.
“... the fuck did you do to our ship?!” the woman demands, voice tinged with suppressed panic.
Merlin can hear Freya hum quietly, but it’s Gwen that replies.
“You should ask who blew it up. We’d all be dead had we not disengaged!”
“How would you have known to disengage if you didn’t blow it up?”
There’s a pause in the screaming as Gwen glances at Freya.
“If we’re the ones who did that, don’t you think we’d have blown you up before you arrived instead of waiting for you to have waltzed onboard? Now we’re stuck with four extra people! Maybe you blew it up!”
The woman stares at them like they’ve turned into cute kittens with poisonous tentacles. “And… why would we do that?”
Freya gracefully avoids the question. “The Avalon doesn’t have any weapons, anyway.”
Finally, Merlin is on his feet again, but everything is spinning. Maybe he should’ve stayed on the floor for a bit longer…
“We don’t carry weapons or anything of value, but you still… Merlin?”
Gwen interrupts herself and Merlin tries to wave to her that he’s fine, but it’s suddenly very difficult to keep upright. He can feel his legs giving way, and then everything goes dark again.
There’s a shooting pain in his chest as he turns onto his side. He groans loudly and turns his face down into the blanket. It’s not until he looks up again that he notices he’s not alone. Oddly, he doesn’t feel particularly worried.
“Um,” he says, “Why are you…?”
The blond man looks sheepish as he gets up from where he’s been sitting against the wall. He turns around and inadvertently shows a nicely muscled back under a tight t-shirt. Merlin doesn’t complain at the sight. The blond man takes a step closer.
“I’m Arthur. How are you doing?”
And Merlin blushes, for some inexplicable reason.
“I’m fine,” he says, and clears his throat unnecessarily. “Why do you care? You tried to rob us.”
Arthur shrugs slightly. “Finding work is difficult, and we never hurt anyone. Not on purpose, anyway. And you’ve been out of it for a while, we’ve gotten past that already. Gwen was worried for you though, and… I volunteered to babysit you.”
“I don’t need a babysit— Wait, Gwen… What happened? Where is she? Where’s Freya? Lance?”
Merlin starts to get up, but Arthur is immediately at his side and gently holds him down. “Don’t aggravate your ribs, I think you might’ve cracked a few.”
“Wh—? Look, I need to talk to Freya. She’s—”
“I’ll call her, okay?” The look on Arthur’s face is almost worried. “They’re all fine, you seem to have taken the worst hit.”
His entire chest hurts so Merlin reluctantly obeys, but he can’t help noticing that Arthur keeps his warm, strong hand on his shoulder as he reaches for the intercom and hails Freya and Gwen on the bridge.
“Um,” Merlin says in response to nothing in particular.
And soon Freya and Gwen burst in through the door and Arthur takes a step back to let the girls crowd around the bed. Freya explains everything before Merlin can ask, and it all makes him dizzy in a way he’s usually not, but what he takes away from it is that everything is fine. Arthur and his sister Morgana and their two friends Percival and Leon, will have to stay on the ship until they can be dropped off onto a suitable planet. Which means at least ten more days with the ‘guests’ onboard.
“But…” Merlin says when Freya pauses to breathe, “Rations? Do we have enough…?”
Gwen steps in before Freya can answer. “We’ll have to ration a little bit, especially since we had to jump off course to escape the explosion. But we’re all alive, the Avalon is intact, and we’re still flying. We should be on Ealdor only a day later than planned. We’ll manage, Merlin.”
Suddenly feeling very tired, Merlin nods. “Okay,” he says. “Okay.”
Freya strokes his forehead gently. “You need to sleep. We’ll leave you to it.”
Merlin watches Gwen follow Freya through the door and close it quietly behind them, but only then does he notice that Arthur must have left earlier. The room suddenly feels strangely lonely.
“Why are you such a fucking idiot?!”
They’re glaring at each other, Merlin standing with his hands on his hips and Arthur clenching his fists. A pot of foul-smelling soup is bubbling away on the cooker. The small table is covered with weird books and tablets and other… crap that Arthur has found in some distant corner of the ship.
“All of this needs to go before dinner is ready, and it’ll be ready in a minute.”
“We can eat on the bridge or somewhere else. These are important documents about the history of the ship!” Arthur holds a huge volume against his chest like it’s a small child.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m sure it is,” Merlin says and throws his hands up, “but we need the space!”
“There’s space everywhere in this ship, but this is the only place to sit down and properly work with something like this!”
“It’s also the only place to sit down to eat!”
Percival, who had turned out not to be hired muscle after all, pops his head into the galley and waits for them to notice him.
“Is dinner ready?”
It is not.
Then they get hailed by a Corps cruiser who wants to do an ‘inventory’ of their cargo. The cruiser’s straight ahead at very close range, and is towering over them like an abusive parent. Merlin can see the powerful laser cannons mounted over the thrusters.
“It’s a ruse,” Gwen says and turns to Merlin. “It must be. Right?”
Corps cruisers usually don’t operate this far out from the Ring planets, and it’s unlikely they’d be here for something as routine as a cargo inventory.
“But we’re legal,” Lance says. “They can’t take us in for anything even if they do conduct an inventory. Our cargo’s legal, our destination’s legal… Everything onboard is legal.”
Merline notices Arthur shift uneasily, but it’s Morgana who speaks.
“Except us, of course.”
Merlin’s chest has started to hurt again and he strokes the ribs above his heart absentmindedly to try and lessen the pain. It doesn’t work. He turns to look at Arthur, who’s talking to his crew across the room.
“It’s not—” he starts.
Gwen looks at him. “Look, I like them too, but running means we can’t go back. We’ll become Illegals if we don’t hand them over.”
Lance watches them with the same calm demeanor he always displays, but Freya is suspiciously quiet.
“Freya? What do you think?”
She sighs lightly and closes her eyes. “It won’t matter what we want or decide.”
The communications signal beeps, and Merlin nods to Lance to open the channel.
“I’m sorry, sirs, we might need some t—” he says, but gets interrupted.
The voice on the other side is unforgiving.
“Let’s cut to the core issue here. We know you hold the Illegals. Surrender or we’ll fire. We wish not to harm innocents, but some collateral damage is acceptable to wipe out a threat to the Government.”
Merlin breathes in harshly. “Threat? But I— Look, we’ll try—”
“You have 45 seconds to surrender before we open fire.”
Lance closes down the comm channel and they all look at each other. Merlin glances at Arthur again. Their eyes meet.
When Gwen relieves Lance at the helm, he just smiles sadly at her and goes straight to his bunk. His eyes are sad and his shoulders slumped.
Merlin watches from the doorway and distractedly strokes his chest.
What have they done?
The dark circles under his eyes get more and more prominent, and he can see Gwen’s worried, but she doesn’t say anything. Several times, Arthur tries to talk to him, but Merlin is getting better and better at avoiding him. The rations are running low, and the tension is running high.
Five days of hard work and almost no sleep pass before Arthur manages to corner Merlin in the electrics cupboard where he’s been trying to fix the emergency lighting.
“I don’t want to fight,” Arthur says. “Just talk.”
Merlin just looks at him.
“Just listen. Merlin, listen.”
Merlin nods slowly.
“We never meant for this to happen,” Arthur says. “This was supposed to be an easy job, and we obviously didn’t expect to lose the Dragon, or to get you guys in trouble. Honestly.”
Merlin nods again. “Okay,” he says, but keeps his eyes firmly on Arthur’s feet. His shoes are dirty. He should tell him to clean them.
“And if you want, if you and Gwen and Freya and Lance decide that we should leave… We’ll hop off on the first available planet, I promise.”
Arthur sighs deeply.
“But… I’m not sad we ended up here. With you.”
He squeezes Merlin’s shoulder and looks down. Merlin looks up. Arthur looks tired, and it doesn’t suit him at all. His skin has a greyish tint to it and his hair is messy and unkempt. He’s biting his lip and it’s started bleeding slightly.
Merlin’s heart is pounding hard in his chest.
Arthur’s eyes are blue and honest when he looks up at Merlin. He looks just as exhausted as Merlin feels.
“You’re…” Arthur seems to be struggling with what word to use. “... special.”
Then he tilts his head back and shakes his head slightly, like he’s disappointed in himself. Merlin doesn’t think, just reaches out and strokes Arthur’s cheek lightly, wanting to reassure. Arthur looks down again. Merlin wets his lips and slowly leans forward.
“Are you—?” Arthur whispers.
“Yeah, I’m sure.”
And so, Arthur closes the small distance between them and they share a kiss. It’s warm and soft and gentle — nothing like their fights. Merlin presses his body closer to Arthur’s, who lets out a small puff of air, but doesn’t let go.
Merlin pulls away slightly. “Okay,” he says.
“Yeah,” Arthur agrees.
There’s a small, awkward pause before Merlin takes a deep breath.
“I don’t want you to go.”
“I’m happy,” she says.
Merlin studies her. “That’s great,” he says. “Any special reason?”
Her smile turns mischievous. “Well, apparently, my brother has finally gotten laid.”
“W-what?” Merlin sputters. “You can’t use your magic for stuff like that!”
“Never on purpose. Plus I didn’t need to. Arthur is quite vocal.”
Merlin can feel his face grow hot. “I— Uh…”
“It’s good, though,” she says and picks up a stray bolt from the floor. “I don’t mind. Just thought I’d let you know.”
They manage to find a tiny rebellion moon where they can stock up on supplies and fuel, and Morgana and Gwen surprise everyone by holding hands as they walk off the ship together.
Merlin spends the last of his money on a knitted hat with ear flaps that he knows Arthur will look absolutely adorable in. It’s silly and Arthur hates it, but it’s also fun, and it does feel like home to walk around with Arthur on a strange planet while Freya collects bolts and springs and small scrap pieces of metal, and while Lance, Leon and Percival are playing a weird sort of ball game with some odd-looking local folk.
“You’re such an idiot,” Arthur says with a huff, and tries to make the hat sit right on his head. “And silly, and awful, and a jerk, and…”
“And what?” Merlin asks, as he sneakily takes Arthur’s hand and squeezes it reassuringly on their way back to the ship.
Arthur sighs and squeezes back. “And I don’t know. You’re…”
“The cleverest person you know? Better than you?”
“No!” Arthur scoffs and pushes Merlin’s shoulder with his own, “Don’t be stupid. More… I don’t know.”
They reach the Avalon. Merlin lets go of Arthur’s hand and turns towards him. The hat sits wonkily on his head, and Merlin straightens it.
“I know,” he says, and leans in for a kiss. “Me, too.”
And then the guys rush in, sweaty and excited and loud, laughing and basking in the sheer joy of being alive. Freya trails behind slowly, holding a small mechanical bird that she’s apparently built herself. It chirps, but it sounds more like a cat than a bird.
“It’s not done yet,” Freya says as she disappears into the lower ship corridor.
Morgana and Gwen return 15 minutes later looking a little bit dishevelled, but very pleased with themselves. They’re both carrying fresh supplies and enough dried and canned food to keep them alive even if they aren’t able to resupply in a few weeks.
Leon cooks them their first proper dinner together later that evening, and it’s full of laughter and bickering and silly conversations.
Amidst the cacophony, Merlin catches Arthur’s eye and gives him a small, secret smile. Arthur’s face softens at the sight of it and he leans in, his breath ghosting Merlin’s cheek.
“I never said ‘thank you’,” he whispers, “for keeping us.”
Merlin kisses him.
“What else could we do?”