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Ashes to embers

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“Is everyone out?” Arthur shouts out to Leon as he jogs to help Percival carry a middle-aged woman outside, fire roaring in a gust of wind behind them. “I need to know the building is completely empty before we can start extinguishing the fire!”

Lancelot calls into his walkie talkie as Gwaine comes out of the building's entrance with a sobbing baby girl that he passes over to her to an anxious-looking mother. Another ambulance arrives, the siren's wailing only causing more alarm among the people as they hopelessly watch their homes turning into dust.

Leon approaches Arthur then, lifting his grungy helmet off his face. “I think I saw someone else in there, but I can’t be sure.”

Arthur curses under his breath as he wipes the sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand. "I can't send anyone in if you're not a hundred percent sure. This doesn't look good."

He witnesses Leon stuggle with himself. Arthur trusts him, but he knows better than anyone what a hardwork keeping tabs on your surroundings is in these kind of situations when the fire has spread out and visibility is almost null. More often than not even Arthur feels he doesn't have enough eyes to keep on the families they need to evacuate, his teammates and himself.

But an old man appears before them just then, a troubled look on his face. “Could you please help me? I lost sight of my nephew as we were escorted out. I believe he’s still in there, I can't find him in the crowd."

Leon's suspicions confirmed, Arthur stares at the building being consumed by flames. Leon has moved away to help carry an injured man towards the ambulance, and the rest of the team save Gwaine seem to be busy dealing with someone. “I’ll go look for him myself," Arthur concludes. "If you could tell me a name, age and the last floor you saw him in that would be extremely helpful.”

“Merlin, his name is Merlin, and he’s in his early twenties. I live in the first floor. Please,” the man grasps Arthur’s arm tightly. “He’s all the family I have left.”

Arthur holds the man's gaze evenly, then nods his head. "I'll bring him back safe," he answers, then jogs away.

“Gwaine, in with me,” he shouts over his shoulder as he slips his helmet back in place. Reaching out for the oxygen mask, he places it over his mouth and nose before leaping inside the door and traversing the cloud of smoke, Gwaine at his heels.

This is probably one of the most fierce fires Arthur’s seen in quite a while because the neighbours rang late. The building is already half burnt to pieces, the structure so damaged it's impossible they can save it from falling apart at any moment.

He navigates through the dusty staircase to the first floor to see that it consists of two flats, one in front of the other. He doesn’t know in which direction to go and he can’t allow a second of hesitation, every instant counts.

“What if we split?” Gwaine suggest, clearly coming to the same conclusion as Arthur.

“Merlin?” Arthur yells instead, hoping to get an answer, and quickly. The longer they stand unmoving the more suffocating the air around them becomes. The crackle of the fire eating the wood up and his own labored breathing keeps rattling Arthur’s ears. “Merlin, are you in there?”

Gwaine shakes his head and, just as he’s about to turn to the other door, they hear a muffled scream, though it sounds as if it belongs to a child instead of a bloke in his twenties. Sharing a look, Gwaine and him venture inside the entrance of the flat on the left, or what's letf of it, for it seems to have been reduced to a vast number of wooden panels, pilars and such other structures hanging low from the ceiling and sinking in every which direction onto the ground as angry red flames consume the last of them.

“Arthur, this looks pretty awful, I don’t think we can’t get in there without catching ourselves on fire.”

“I can’t go back, I told the man I’d look around.” He squints his eyes as he scans the room, barely distinguishing a thing behind the clouds of black smoke.

“There’s nothing here but ruins, we need to get the hell out before the ceiling collapses on top of us!” Gwaine tugs at his jacket from behind, and Arthur shakes him off.

He takes a step closer, floorboards cracking and whining in his wake. Little as he likes to admit it, Arthur knows Gwaine's right and he's pushing their luck with every passing second, but he won't leave until he's certain they are completely alone.

"Arthur, get a move on!" Gwaine insists.

“You go back if you want, I won't be long,” he shouts, patting Gwaine on the chest.

He heads inside the flat and Arthur knows even before he senses him trailing behind that Gwaine's got his back.

Arthur yells Merlin’s name out loud once more and this time he thinks he does see some movement at the other side of the unrecognisable doorframe, so he trudges forward carefully to come across a guy that must be without a doubt Merlin.

“Merlin?” Needing to be listened clearly, Arthur lifts the face shield of his helmet and pulls his oxygen mask off for a second, letting it hang over the strap on his shoulder that's attached to the oxygen tank on his back.

Merlin whirls around, forearm covering his mouth. There's a tiny sparkle of relief upon seing them, but his face is still tense with worry. "You need to help her out, her legs are trapped under a plank, but I can’t dislodge her without burning my hands,” he starts babbling, pointing to the other side of the room before coughing into his bare arm.

“She, who?” Gwaine beats him to ask. They hear the girly screaming again, and Arthur realises what’s happening here.

“Look,” he says, addressing Merlin. He takes a huge intake of breath from the oxygen mask before speaking again. “If you’re not hurt, you need to get out now, we'll deal with her.”

“But—” Merlin protests, and Arthur cuts him off.

“Stop playing the hero, your uncle is worried sick about you.”

Arthur signals Gwaine to steer Merlin away, but before Gwaine can even take a step closer, a big load-bearing girder drops off and lands with a clean thud on Merlin’s head, sending him reeling backwards and onto the floor. The girl screams Merlin’s name and even Arthur holds his breath, but the guy is lucky enough to fall over one of the few patches on the floor that aren't ablaze.

“Change of plans, get the girl out, I’ll go for the stubborn idiot,” Arthur instructs Gwaine, who briskly does as he’s told. He lifts the troublesome piece of wood Merlin was talking about off the girl’s legs, and then hoists her up into his arms, promptly walking out of the room.

Arthur crouches down to hook an arm under Merlin’s knees and another over his back before he lifts him up with some difficulty. Merlin seems lean, but he certainly weighs more than he lets on at first glance.

Once Arthur’s back on his feet he hurries to get out of the room before it actually combusts with them inside, securing Merlin tighter against his chest.

"Let me down, I can walk, ’m fine," Merlin wheezes close to Arthur’s cheek, sounding everything but.

As struck as he is to hear Merlin still talking, Arthur maintains his eyes firmly on the floor he steps on and the way ahead of him, and he makes sure to shield Merlin with his body when another board of the ceiling falls off a couple of feet ahead of them.

"No, it's procedure. Plus you’ve just received a pretty heavy blow to the head, I’m not sure you can even stand up."

"Y’know, if you wanted to grope me, you could’ve just asked." His answer is full of cheek, but his voice is weak. “No need to use your job as an excuse.”

Arthur finds himself huffing a laugh and quickening and lengthening his strides until he sprints out of the front building door as rapidly as he can and elbows past the shower of people towards the ambulance. Not a second after he’s stumbled out, his team of firefighters is already pointing the fire hoses against the building and firing away.

Merlin seems groggy, about to pass out, in fact, and the arm that was before wrapped tightly around Arthur’s shoulder and neck is now loose, the other slack and bouncing against his side and Arthur’s thigh. Arthur immediately tightens his grip on him, afraid he’ll slip off to the ground, and then turns his face towards Merlin to whisper, “Hey, you idiot, don’t faint on me.”

“‘m not,” Merlin answers in a breath.

“Over here,” Arthur says to a passing paramedic pulling a gurney along. She redirects it towards Arthur, who deposits Merlin on it carefully. He glances around for Merlin’s uncle; now that he’s found Merlin he’s lost him. He’s about to move away to go find the man when Merlin catches his wrist.

Arthur stares down at him, at his glazed blue eyes fighting not to blink closed. Now that they are out in the open in the clear daylight, Arthur can see that Merlin’s forehead is bleeding a bit much, but before Arthur can fret the chocolate-skinned paramedic comes to treat the wound immediately.

“Wait,” Merlin husks as Arthur turns to go. “Is—is Freya alright?” Arthur can’t believe Merlin’s worrying over someone that’s not him, considering he seems a second away from losing consciousness. Arthur nods, if only to reassure him. “And Gaius?” Merlin asks.

Arthur frowns. “Who?”

Merlin licks his lips, swallows. “My uncle. Did he—make it?”

Arthur smiles a faint smile, grabs the hand Merlin’s still touching to Arthur’s wrist and gently places it on the bed beside his hip. “Yes, both of them are. Remember I told you your uncle was really worried about you before? I’ll go to get him, stay awake.”

Merlin nods, but Arthur doesn’t think he seems very aware of his surroundings anymore.

It takes him a couple of minutes to find Gaius, but when he comes upon him he offers a reassuring smile. “He’s alright, got hit in the head but he’s being taken care of. I’ll take you to him.”

Gaius seems eternally grateful once Arthur leaves him by Merlin’s passed out form on the gurney, so Arthur goes help his team drown the fire, because being in charge doesn’t mean working less. When they have the fire down to a minimum, Leon and Lancelot take care of the last embers of fire so Arthur disposes of the oxygen equipment and allows himself to fleetingly check one by one on all the people gathering outside the building to make sure they are unharmed.

Then, because a small voice keeps nagging at him in the back of his mind, Arthur seeks one final person one last time before they return to the station.

Merlin is sitting on the trolley bed now, holding a hand to his patched wound and talking to his uncle evenly.

"That was selfless of you, but incredibly foolish," Arthur says lightly to announce his presence.

The two of them stop talking to acknowledge Arthur, and Merlin’s eyes do a double take on him before he seems to recognise him. "Thanks for the insult," he says dryly. Gauis reprimands him with a hard look.

But Arthur smiles, though. "I recall having thrown a compliment your way as well. Not to mention I saved you from your idiocy."

Merlin ducks his head and when he glances up again his eyes are teasing, testing. “My saviour, my knight in shiny armour.”

“Hardly,” Arthur replies, irremediably amused.

The paramedic makes Gaius approach for a quick medical checkup, leaving the two of them alone. Arthur looks over his shoulder to see his team scooping the ladders and hoses up, and even though he knows he should be helping out, he doesn't move an inch.

Merlin takes that as a cue to continue the conversation, his smile flirtatious when he asks, “So, who do I owe my life to?”

“I'm Arthur,” he says, taking his helmet off and running a hand through his grubby and stiff hair. “Arthur Pendragon.”

Merlin hums, looking at him quite intensely. “Everyone says I’m always pretty direct and mouthy, and it seems not even a blow to the head can shy me, so maybe I’m about to make a fool of myself for the second time today, but I'd like to invite you out sometime. To, um, repay you for saving my arse.”

Arthur stares, thrown at Merlin's proposal, and for a moment, he doesn’t know how to react. In all the years he’s worked as a firefighter he’s had to deal with many surreal situations, but no one has ever plainly invited him out. It's a blunt offer, but a brave one at that, and definitely not unpleasant. Arthur's used to being praised for a job well done, but he doesn't think that's what this is.

Merlin’s unfocused blinking eyes set on him as Arthur was carrying him and his sassy comments make Arthur believe this is just Merlin feeling interested in him.

Arthur knows the most logical thing to do should be politely declining Merlin and move on, because he barely knows him, and his vivid gaze and how nice he’d felt in Arthur’s arms aren't even strong enough reasons to accept. There should really be an ulterior motive for him to agree other than the fact that Merlin's looking ridiculously hopeful right now, with his face covered in dirt, the patch fixed in between his eyebrow and hairline, and his dimpled cheeks, but there really isn’t one when he finds himself saying yes. He simply realises he wants to. “Alright.”

For a beat, Merlin looks competely taken aback. “Alright?” A slow smirk makes its way to his lips, and Arthur thinks Merlin’s got a charming smile, one that Arthur would certainly like to see more of.

“A date. Why not?” he replies with a shrug.

“Why yes?” Merlin asks curiously, tilting his head to the side. "Is it my stupidly brave heart, or is it my disheveled aspect?"

Arthur finds himself chuckling more fondly that he's meant to. Perhaps it's neither, or perhaps it's both, but something about Merlin draws Arthur in, that's for sure.

Lancelot shouts out his name as he hops in the truck, and Arthur realises with a pang of disappointment that everyone’s already ready to go and they are waiting for him. Elyan is waving a hand for him to hurry up from behind the wheel while, Percival, Leon and Gwaine lean against different window sills, observing the conversation between Merlin and him with little discrection.

When Arthur glances back at Merlin he's smiling a bit more sheepishly but his gaze is still full of intent. Arthur walks one step backwards, not taking his eyes off of him. “Do you know the pub Camelot?”

Merlin nods, biting his lower lip as though he can hardly believe Arthur's agreed yet.

“Meet me there Friday evening at six?” Arthur proposes.

"Stop flirting during work hours and get your arse here, Arthur!" Gwaine yells this time, making a few heads turn and Percival and Leon snicker.

Arthur waits to see Merlin nodding his head vigorously between peals of laughter, before he himself offers a grin in return and races to the fire engine.

He knows he doesn’t have any assurance that Merlin will show up, but he's entirely optimistic that he will, and that something good will come out of this. Arthur cannot wait to find out everything about it.