Even at night, the sand is warm between his toes. Grains spill over his feet and kick up against his calves as he walks far beyond where the lights reach and away from couples seeking intimacy. It is rare, even for this isolated island, for so few people to be on the beach after hours. The night is dark, devoid of moonlight save a sliver of phosphorescence reflected back on the thick rolling sea.
Just for a moment, Arthur pauses and gazes out at the water. How many men have stood in the same place, touched the sand where his feet touch it now, breathed the same air and thought the same trite thoughts about the smallness of man and the depth of the ocean? He scoffs at himself and kicks one bare foot through the sand. It’s all over tomorrow, this vacation forced upon him by his father. In order to gain some perspective, he’d told Arthur, he should take some time off, go somewhere.
Arthur had chosen an island on the opposite side of the world.
When Arthur was a child, he’d always been scared of water, but he’d also had too much pride to admit it. He’d spent many summer holidays in sheer terror, waiting by the shore until the teasing grew too embarrassing to ignore, and he’d hold his breath, pinch his nose, and dive under the waves, breath catching in his throat and heart hammering as if his body knew it was in peril though it was just a quick swim with his sister and cousins. It was a primal fear.
If I just inhale, if I inhale, if I inhale, what would happen . . . He’d imagine breathing deep lungfuls of water only to be fished out of the surf, limp and fading warmth. The strangest part of all was that he’d never felt so alive as when he was having those fantasies of death. It was that same masochistic impulse that brought him here to the middle of the Pacific, though in the two weeks since his arrival he’s yet to dip his feet in once.
Just like the night before, he walks until the beach grows littered with debris from the sea, the manicured sand giving way to a rawer nature. This is far enough. Body tingling in anticipation, he walks a few strides up from the shoreline and plants himself, splay-legged, on a towel, dropping his rucksack beside him.
The ocean’s cadence usually has the ability to lull him into complacency. One. Two, three. He inhales a deep lungful of salty air and exhales towards the sky, senses growing more alert. The stars are innumerable. Tonight, every inch of his body is tense.
Then he sees him.
The man casts no shadow because of the moonless night, and the sand and the waves silence his approach. Like Arthur, he is shirtless. His swim trunks hang low on his hips, showing off a taut waist, and his chest and arms are strong. In the daylight, he would be beautiful.
Arthur doesn’t look up, just continues pretending to regard the sea in front of him, though his peripheral vision is focused on the man’s long legs.
“You’re here,” he says as he settles down besides Arthur, saying the words as an afterthought. He’s not surprised. He knew Arthur would be here.
Every night for two weeks, Arthur’s met this unnamed man and fucked him in the sand under the stars. Tomorrow he returns to England.
Those are the words on Arthur’s tongue, goodbyes, but then he turns and sees the gentle curve of the man’s throat, the hollow divot between skin and bone that his memory knows tastes of salt and sweat.
“It’s a beautiful night,” he replies instead.
“Aye, that it is.”
For a while, they both are silent, watching what they can of the waves. Every night their coupling has been hungry and quick, spilling into the sand and into each other with barely a word. Arthur doesn’t know how to broach all the things he’s thinking: that he’s never been in love before, but he thinks he might be now. In love with a man who won’t tell him his name and who, after tomorrow, he will never see again.
When they finally do speak, it’s not with words. The dark-haired man turns to him and nudges his mouth gently, seeking.
They kiss, tongues dancing, and Arthur’s body tightens. He resists the urge to push the other man down and lets the kiss happen, a slow, languorous slide of tongues. The stranger, only he’s not really a stranger now, not anymore, tastes of salt, and Arthur’s fingers tangle through wet hair; he’s been swimming again, as he had on that first night, emerging from the water like a phantom. Arthur had been shocked to see another person so far down the beach, but when the man had approached him, dripping water onto the dry sand by his feet and smiling down, it hadn’t seemed strange at all.
As on that night, Arthur wonders if this man is wholly human. He remembers stories his gran told him about creatures that lived as seals and shed their skins to walk the land as men and women. Perhaps this beautiful man is one of these, hiding his pelt and coming ashore to seduce lovers. Out here, anything is possible.
“I’m afraid of the sea,” Arthur confesses, not knowing why. His words are just a whisper against lips; he barely knows whether they’re heard.
They kiss again, long and deep, before the man asks, “why?”
“I don’t know. I’ve always been afraid of water.”
The man doesn’t respond this time. Instead, he trails his fingers over Arthur’s bare chest, almost as in contemplation. Odd, how even on this last night it feels they have all the time in the world. Arthur shivers as the touches grow bolder, move lower. He lets himself sink into the sand with the man straddled above him.
“The thing about the ocean,” the man says in his soft, deep voice, “is you have to learn to swim with the current, not against it.”
“You seem to know what you’re talking about.” It’s unsurprising. He has the build for it, and no weak swimmer would take to the sea here alone at night. While the water on the far side of the island is placid, here the waves approach violence.
“Well . . . as I said, you have to learn.”
He kisses Arthur’s neck, sucking into the skin to draw a bruise. Arthur groans as his body, already prickling with desire, responds. On that first night, it had only been this, this mad kissing and grinding. He’d walked back to his hotel in a daze, his mind trying to catch hold of something just beyond his reach. For some reason, he’d known the man would be back the next night, and the next, and so it had been.
Their mouths move more forcefully, and the man stretches himself over Arthur, their cocks hard for each other, trying to connect through impeding material. For a moment, Arthur imagines taking this man back to his bed, fucking him long and slow through the whole night among soft sheets. What would he say if Arthur asked? Fearing the answer would be no, and that then he would lose this, Arthur ignores the impulse and kisses the man with a thrusting tongue, dipping his hands inside the damp swim trunks. It’s not enough.
With a soft grunt, Arthur shifts his hips upward and pulls frantically at his shorts.
“I need to be inside you.” And it is a need, not a desire, not a want. He needs it like air.
The man rears back and looks down, eyes black in the night. “Yeah. Fuck yeah.”
Their hands are sandy, rough against each other’s skin as they touch everywhere they can reach, tumbling naked together. Arthur memorises the long lines of the man’s body under his palms, feels his sinewy muscles and warm, hard cock. Dipping down, he takes it deep into his throat and the man makes a distressed sound, thrusting up. Arthur lets the man fuck his mouth, savours the salt from the ocean and sweat and precome.
His own arousal is hard against his belly, and he cants his hips into the air. It’s difficult to ignore, but Arthur doesn’t want this to end. A whimper escapes the man’s lips as Arthur pulls off and pushes his hips back to get at his hole, licking the salt and sand from skin, not caring about the grit in his teeth. He licks his way inside, offering the man the fuck of his tongue, feeling the tight muscle spasm as his beautiful stranger cries out and rocks closer. He buries deeper, jaw aching as he moans helplessly against the musky skin. If it were possible, he’d consume this man.
“Please, please, please.” Hands in his hair urge him up, and he takes the man’s mouth in a filthy kiss. He wants to know if there are any other lovers. A killing jealousy erupts inside and teeth enter the kiss. He pulls away to look down at the man’s face.
“Who are you?” he asks, not for the first time.
“Don’t you know?”
The man offers him a sly smile, and Arthur frowns, his mind spinning from the proximity and the throb between his legs.
“No. I don’t.”
“You know.” The sly grin deepens.
Arthur kisses it off of his face, wants to impale the man on his cock and fuck him full of come, angry that he has to leave off to find the necessary protection in his bag. He curses, fumbling with the small foil package and the lube, and the man chuckles at him with one raised eyebrow.
“Do you need some help?”
“Fuck. No, I’ve got it.”
Arthur sheathes himself and hovers over his stranger again, his erection tapping against the place he’s just opened with his mouth. Those long, sexy legs wrap around his hips. Despite his urgency, an overwhelming tenderness slows him. He touches the soft furl, slicking it before finally, finally, guiding his cock inside.
Below him, the man’s eyes widen and glaze. Arthur bites his bottom lip to stifle a moan. He begins to move with long, sure strokes, almost withdrawing entirely before plunging back to the root. He can feel every ripple and contraction around his length, and balls draw close to his body, aching. He’s never been so hard.
“Tell me your name,” Arthur says, voice straining as he braces himself and increases the speed of his thrusts.
The man responds by throwing his arms over his head and closing his eyes, arching his back in silence. He writhes as Arthur fucks him.
“I want to know your name,” Arthur demands. He pulls out all the way just to feel the exquisite squeeze of entry again.
The man’s cock is dark against his belly. Arthur pumps it slowly, rubbing his thumb around the head, pressing into the wet slit. The man bucks beneath him, gasping.
“Why?” Even as Arthur asks the question he wonders why it matters, why he needs to know. The waves are loud, crashing as he pushes inside again and again. He’s all pulse, blood pumping from his cock to his heart, and he can feel the echo of the drumming beat inside the man’s body, in the hard prick in his hand. It comes to him in a flash, what they must look like, Arthur’s back rippling and the man below him frightening in his beauty. His face is ghostly, too finely moulded to be real. With his cock planted as far as it will go, Arthur leans down and latches their mouths together. How has he lived all of his life without this? How will he continue to live?
The man’s hands are still above his head as if in supplication, and Arthur can’t resist pressing them into the sand as he starts moving again. The acceptance only makes Arthur more possessive. He straightens his legs for leverage and the man lifts his hips higher, letting Arthur claim him. Arthur tries to resist the brutal pace and force but his body is beyond him, he’s too far gone, and the man only urges him on with that challenging smile. Their sweat runs together, both of them heedless of the sting of the sand. Something is changing in the landscape around them. For an intoxicating moment Arthur sees them in a field with soft green grass, making love on a swath of red and gold velvet. The man’s eyes, too, are gold.
“Why won’t you tell me your name?” It’s a plea now, made more desperate by his building climax. He hurts with the force of his desire, his balls swollen-sore and ready to empty as the topography shifts again. They are fucking on the cool granite cliff of a mountainside, and this time the man is riding him, hips moving in slow circles. His dark hair is plastered to his face with rain and his eyes are golden-wild. Arthur. My King.
Arthur’s eyes snap down to the man, and in his heart, a burst of fear. “What did you just call me?”
“Nothing. Nothing.” Even as he says the words, Arthur knows it is a lie. Still, his body won’t let him stop, won’t let him pull out and demand answers, he needs . . . he needs . . .
Another scene. The man is fucking him from behind, drilling hard and without preparation, it burns, it hurts. Arthur loves it.
In a strange room with vaulted ceilings, windows adorned with tapestries, Arthur is on his knees in front of the man, pulling his cock out of his breeches, mouthing the soft flesh to hardness. The first time. Sire.
Heart aching, Arthur watches the man from across the room where he stands with unknown, familiar people. The man looks away.
A car filled with friends, and the man’s hand finds his secretly under a blanket.
Times and places and worlds rush together, and Arthur can’t breath, can’t think, he’s not in control, all pistoning cock and shaking thighs. The release that was imminent only moments before now seems just out of reach, impossible. He cries out and bears down harder.
Another crashing wave brings the water over their twining legs, leaving trickling rivulets behind. Beneath him, the man’s eyes are luminous gold, his lips parted as he breathes Arthur’s name.
The man lies cold and lifeless in his arms, his full lips blue. No. No.
You have to learn to swim with the current.
A battlefield littered with corpses, fallen comrades and friends. The wound in his side is only a dull throb now, though he knows it is mortal. And then the man is there. His . . .
“No,” Arthur says out loud, his voice hoarse. “Oh fuck. Oh fuck.” His cock plunges inside and the man reaches up for him, steadying his face with sure hands.
“Oh, gods, Merlin.”
His orgasm shatters him, whiting out everything but Merlin’s golden eyes. He thrusts shallowly, riding through endless pulses as Merlin cries out and follows him, spurting hot stripes against Arthur’s stomach. As the force of it ebbs, Arthur realises he’s shuddering. Only Merlin’s arms keep him sane. It’s too much, too much love and death. And now here they are to do it over again.
“I wanted to tell you,” Merlin says, pressing hasty kisses all over Arthur’s face. “But I couldn’t. If I did, you’d never remember.”
“How do you know that?”
Merlin looks at him sadly, brushing the back of his hand against Arthur’s cheek. “Part of the rules, love.”
Another wave reaches them, but Arthur doesn’t have the strength to be alarmed, not even when it rushes over his hips and he can feel the drag of the current as the water recedes. It washes away Merlin’s come and leaves nothing but the truth between them.