He's a boy when they meet. Arthur lies on his back in the grass, resolutely staring at the sky as he tries to ignore his hunger, when a face that's all bony cheekbones and black-and-cream contrast thrusts itself into his field of view. "What're you doing down there?" He turns, lifts his face up to the flawless blue sky. "Isn't that boring?"
Arthur moves to sit up. "No. It is taking the whole of my concentration." It's not a lie, though it makes the boy's mouth purse.
"I'm Merlin." The boy reaches a hand to help him up.
The sea glints like a jewel in the gap between two nearby hills. Arthur shies away so violently the boy's eyes go round as moons. "Don't touch me."
Merlin holds his hands up, lips pursed. "Okay, okay." He edges away, eyeing Arthur like he thinks he might be crazy, and runs back down the beach the way he came.
"Are you a surfer?"
Arthur stares, unblinking. It takes him a full minute to place the face before him. The boy, with the pale face and the big eyes the color of the sea and no sense of self-preservation to speak of.
"Do I look like a surfer?"
Merlin reaches toward him. The sea is at his back today, hidden behind the bulk of a hill, so Arthur allows it. Merlin plucks a bit of dripping seaweed from Arthur's hair and gives a cheeky grin. "Maybe."
Arthur does not smile. He leaves the boy crouching in the grass and doesn't stop until he's two villages away, where he doesn't have to choose between his hunger and strange boys with eerie eyes and disarming allure.
Time passes. The seasons change, the tide ebbs and flows, and Arthur keeps to the beaches, where his hunger rumbles just beneath the surface, too loud to think of anything else, too close to remember the boy named Merlin, until the day he turns around and finds sea-blue eyes staring at him from a man's sharp-angled face.
Merlin's lips curl into a slow, wry expression. "So this is where you disappeared to."
Arthur should turn, should walk away, should take him by the hand and lead him into the water and be done with it. Instead, the words push off his tongue. "You look old."
"Thanks," Merlin says, dry. Then his expression changes. It's that same look Arthur remembers, the one that pins him. "You look just the same."
His gaze is canny and wise. He sees too much. Arthur should have brought him to the water when he had the chance, when he was a just a boy like any other. Arthur's chest feels tight and the water that soaks his hair drips in thick rivulets across his shoulders. The water calls to him and stirs up that old, insatiable hunger.
"You should go," he says, rough. "Go home."
Merlin's expression twists. "This is home, for the next few years at least. I'm here for uni."
Arthur will have to leave again. It's better this way. Before he can work out how to put space between them, Merlin catches the cuff of his sleeve between his fingers. "Hey. Come have coffee with me?"
He makes the question sound like an afterthought, a formality. Arthur bristles and pulls from his grip. It's too close to a touch, and they're only two good strides from the sea. "Why would I do that?"
Merlin smiles and lifts his brows. "Because it's delicious, and central air is a luxury meant to be enjoyed, and the coffee shop's seats are way more comfortable than whatever bits of log we can find out here." His smile turns crooked and sharp, and he plucks a piece of seaweed from Arthur's hair, just as he had that day all those years before. Laughter lurks in his voice as he says, "Plus, it'll give you a chance to dry out. Are you sure you're not a surfer?"
Arthur knows a tease when he hears one. If it were someone else maybe he would have laughed back, would have joked and charmed and taken him by the arm and led him down under the waves. He knows how to do these things, he just doesn't particularly care for them. They're a means to an end, and with Merlin standing there, the boy with the eyes like the sea and a smile that Arthur doesn't know how to interpret, Arthur finds it difficult to remember his hunger.
It's the eyes, he decides. Their blue-green depths sink hooks through his flesh to catch at his heart, and they pull and tug the same way that the sea calls to him. It's association. Transference. He can't think of the human word for it, but he knows it must exist. The humans have words for everything.
"I'm sure," he says, a beat too late and he knows it. Most would give him a strange look for it, would secretly wonder if he's slow or simply maladjusted. Merlin just grins like he hasn't noticed anything untoward at all.
"Well, I'd think you'd remember something like that, if you'd done it," he says brightly, and hooks his arm through Arthur's.
Arthur stiffens. Merlin's fingers press to the inside of his elbow and it's too much like touch. It's too close. He could slip his hand down Arthur's forearm and graze fingers against his wrist, and then Arthur would-- he would have to--
"Come on, then," Merlin says, and leads him away from the beach. "Coffee. My treat."
"Why?" Arthur demands again.
"Because you look like you're in rather desperate need of caffeine, and I'm inclined to take pity on you." There's a ramp that leads from the sand to the street, bridging the transition between town and sea. The concrete walls beside it are covered in graffiti. There are the expected inanities, the slurs and epithets. But there's art, too. Waves, and seals, and whales. And on the bottom corner of one of the smaller walls, a horse high-stepping through the surf.
Arthur stops, frozen by it. Merlin stops at his side, still acting for all the world as though Arthur is not the strangest man he's ever met in his life. Arthur knows he must be. He's been told it often enough. Usually by that time, they're just a step away from the sea, and he doesn't mind it. Usually, he's the one leading them toward the water, toward their fate. Instead, Merlin is the one leading him, guiding him away from the sea, away from his home.
That doesn't happen. Not ever.
"It's lovely, isn't it?"
Arthur turns his head to stare. Merlin's looking at the wall, at the paint that decorates it. If he's looking at the water horse in particular, Arthur can't tell.
"There was an initiative to paint it over, a few years back. Beige, I think, or something equally dreadful. I heard the students at the university all rallied in protest and stood guard night and day to make sure it wasn't covered up."
"I don't expect that university students needed much excuse to spend whole days at the beach," Arthur said, dry as dust.
Merlin's grin flashed, unexpected. "No, I suppose you're right. Still." He tipped his head and reached out to rub his thumb over the rough concrete of the wall, and bit of green paint that was part of the shell of a giant sea snail. When he pulled his hand away, he looked at the pad of his thumb as though he expected the paint might have transferred. "I don't know how anyone could look at this and call it vandalism."
Arthur just watches him, waiting for him to be finished. A moment passes and then Merlin shakes himself and smiles self-consciously. "Sorry. Easily distracted, that's me. I'm like a crow. Flash something shiny at me and I lose my whole train of thought. But, we were going to get you caffeinated, that's right."
Arthur follows when Merlin tightens his arm through Arthur's and leads him on, up the ramp and past the painted walls. With the sea at their back and the houses that line the streets mostly blocking it from view, Arthur is able to relax, to breathe a little easier. He will drink coffee with this sea-eyed boy, if he insists upon it. And then he'll leave Merlin and this town behind and find a new place to call home, as he did before. As he always does.
It's easier, that way. Anonymity is a balm. Merlin is the opposite, he's a grain of sand worked into a shoe, impossible to ignore. He makes everything more difficult, and he sets Arthur's nerves alight doing it.
Merlin leads him through the streets with ease. Arthur is barefoot, and the sun-baked sidewalk burns the tender soles of his feet. He wishes for hooves and the cover of fur, he wants sharp teeth and a mane to thrash and--
No. That's the sea calling, that's the hunger rising. It's not him. What he wants, what Arthur wants, is to placate Merlin by drinking his coffee, and then to slip away quietly into the waves and find somewhere else he can be unknown again.
Merlin leads him to a little café called The Stomping Grounds which has sign with a boot on top of a giant coffee bean. There are tables outside for sitting, and a sprinkling of customers in them. Inside, it's all bright glass and sky blue paint and weathered wood. There's a display case at the front built out of a giant piece of driftwood. Merlin leans over it, close enough for his breath to fog the glass but he doesn't touch, doesn't leave prints. His gaze roams, though, eager and hungry. His eyes dance. When Merlin looks back over his shoulder at him, Arthur feels pinned. "Do you want anything?"
It feels like a test. Arthur doesn't know what he must say to pass. But then he shakes that thought off and remembers that it doesn't matter. He doesn't need to try. "No." He keeps the word short and sharp. He means it to be a warning to Merlin, lest he get any ideas in his head about Arthur lingering over coffee or allowing Merlin to persuade him into having a good time.
Merlin just nods and smiles. Arthur might think he was simple, but the keen edge to his gaze belies that. He's an anemone, far more dangerous than he appeared. "Right. I never have much of an appetite when I'm undercaffeinated, either." He steps up to the register and turns that brilliant smile on the barista. "One hazelnut latte, please. And--" He turns toward Arthur again. "What will you have? You don't strike me as a milk sort of guy. Not drip, either. Americano?"
Arthur only knows the meaning of half those words. Merlin's eyes are dancing, though, waiting. He's guessed and now he wants to know if he was right, so Arthur nods and smiles and says, "Right the first time," and tries not to notice the way it makes Merlin's face shine like sunlight through the shallows.
"A hazelnut latte and an Americano," he tells the barista, who's already punching their order into the register. Merlin digs a battered denim wallet out from the back pocket of his jeans and hands over a bill, waits patiently for the change, and then drops all of it into the tip jar without a second glance.
Arthur follows him through the maze of empty tables and abandoned chairs. Any one of them would suit, but Merlin seems to have a destination in mind. When he drops down into one of the booths that line the long wall of windows with an ocean view, Arthur stops where he stands.
The sea is crashing beyond the picture windows, the wind stirring up whitecaps on the waves. Hunger rises as the waves swell and crest. It pushes at his skin, makes his muscles shift and ache. He wants to bite and rend and tear. He wants to spread his hand over all that smooth, pale skin that Merlin displays like he's unaware of the effect he has, and hold on tight.
Arthur turns on his heel. He drops into a chair that has its back against a solid wall and looks on nothing more dangerous than the door to the men's room. His fingers curl tight around the table's edge. He wants to rise and stand and go to Merlin, he wants to touch and take.
He never should have come. This was a mistake. He's not as strong as he thinks. He should have run the minute he saw Merlin's unmistakable eyes gazing at him.
A moment passes and then movement draws Arthur's attention up. Merlin is there, looking puzzled but not upset. He drops into the chair opposite Arthur's and tilts his head at him in a gesture that invites Arthur to explain.
Arthur says nothing. He doesn't trust himself to.
"You're right," Merlin says after a moment of silence. His voice is light but carries an edge. "The view here is way better. I don't know what I was thinking."
Arthur ignores the sarcasm. When the barista calls out Merlin's name and puts two cups on the counter, Arthur seizes the excuse to rise and step away, just for a moment. He only needs the chance to catch his breath.
When he returns, Merlin is still watching him, still curious. He still doesn't ask, though, so Arthur doesn't offer. He sits and sips his coffee. It's bitter and unfamiliar and it reminds him of the taste of seawater in his mouth, the salty strangeness of the long strands of kelp that drift ashore to tangle around his fetlocks.
Merlin is leaning forward, his own drink ignored so he can watch Arthur as he sips his. Arthur doesn't know what he sees on his face, but whatever it is, it makes a smile spread across Merlin's face, slow as sunrise. "Oh good, you like it." He sits back in his chair, satisfied, almost preening. "They make it strong here, it's not to everyone's tastes. I've found it's a good litmus test, though. You bring a guy here and he starts dumping sugar in by the bucketful, you know he's not going to go the distance. Easier to cut them loose before you get attached."
Arthur takes another, longer sip. It gives him a chance to think, for all the good that does. He drains half the cup and still doesn't know what it is that Merlin wants him to say. But Merlin's watching him expectantly, his brows lifted. It feels like another test. Arthur's tired of being tested, of being assessed, so he lifts one shoulder in a shrug. He says, "It's good," because it's the truth.
Merlin's smile flashes, quick and sharp. "Yeah." He sounds thoroughly pleased with himself. "I knew you'd like it. You seem the sort."
Arthur settles back in the chair and watches Merlin over the rim of his cup. Merlin is restless -- like the ocean, Arthur thinks, before he puts that thought out of his mind -- always moving, shifting. He drums his fingers against the side of his cup, taps his foot against the leg of the table so that the vibrations of it echo all the way up to where Arthur's hand rests against the smooth wood surface. He chews on his lip and on the end of his straw, gets a bit of foam caught in the corner of his mouth and swipes it away with the tip of his tongue.
His gaze, though. His gaze is steady, and it doesn't move from Arthur's face at all. And when that constant regard grows too much for Arthur and he slides his eyes away, Merlin leans forward abruptly and closes his fingers around Arthur's wrist, says, "Listen--" and that's all Arthur hears because Merlin's fingers are pressed into his skin and his heart is trying to pound its way out of his chest.
He stares dumbly, aware of little more than the warm bracelet of Merlin's hand circling his wrist and the way Merlin's index finger and thumb are pressing into his pulse point. They are touching and it makes the hunger rise, old and habitual. The hunger is raging. He could have Merlin now and there would be no way for him to escape. Arthur could hold Merlin's skin against his, could drag him down to the water, pull him under the waves. He could swallow Merlin's last breath and then he could bite and swallow the hot salt of his blood.
Arthur is shaking. The hunger is stronger than he is, and Merlin is a fool because he doesn't run. He leans in, his brow creased, his eyes gone wide and concerned. His words reach Arthur's ears as though they're spoken underwater and from a great distance, garbled and faint. "Hey," he says. "Are you all right?"
He's not. He's drowning. He can't find the words, though, or the breath to speak them. He shakes his head desperately, and by some miracle, Merlin releases his wrist.
It's like breaking the surface, pushing up from water into air, into sunlight and biting wind. Everything is sharper and drawn with more clarity. He can see Merlin better now, can hear him clearly. His sea-green eyes are going to drown him again.
Arthur throws himself back in his chair hard enough that, if the wall weren't behind to catch him, he'd likely have toppled over. He's gasping for breath and he can't stop shaking. "I'm sorry," he says. "I'm sorry, I wasn't--"
"Yeah." Merlin relaxes, just a little. The corner of his mouth kicks up into a crooked smile. "You were somewhere else for a minute, that was pretty obvious." He runs his thumb over the pads of his fingers in an absent caress. Arthur's gaze fixes on it. He wonders if Merlin can still feel echoes of the memory of their contact there, the same way Arthur feels it vibrating just beneath his skin. "Are you all right?"
"No." Arthur is the farthest thing from all right. They aren't touching and the sea is out of sight. He shouldn't still be shaking apart like this. He shouldn't want to lean across the table and grab Merlin, just to feel the heat of him again.
Arthur stands up from the table abruptly. "I have to go." His feet tangle with the legs of the chair as he tries to make his way out. He isn't ever this clumsy, but the weight of Merlin's gaze on him makes him feel as awkward as a newborn colt.
"Jesus." Alarm flashes across Merlin's face. He scrambles after Arthur. "Are you sure—"
"Don't," Arthur snarls and pulls away when Merlin reaches for him. "Don't."
Merlin freezes. He stands there in the middle of the cafe, staring after as Arthur runs, like he's the prey and Merlin the thing to be feared. "You're welcome." Merlin's voice carries after him. It's said with a huff, droll and irritated.
Arthur doesn't answer. He runs back to the shore, back to the sea. He doesn't stop until he's plunged in up to his knees, and then it's only a brief pause to let his shape change, to let the water horse free.
When he has a mane and a coat again, when he has sharp teeth and lethal hooves, he plunges out into the surf and dives down, down, down until the water swallows the sunlight and all is cold and wet and dark, and Merlin with his coffee and his city streets and his worried eyes are a world away, far too distant to touch.
The sea is his refuge. It's where he belongs, and trips up to the shore are only done out of necessity, to feed the hunger when it rumbles beneath his skin.
That's how it's always been. Mostly been. And after coffee with Merlin, Arthur stays below the waves for days. But then he finds himself drawn up again despite himself. He walks along the beach without being quite sure why he's there. He dips his feet in the sea, but feels no draw to return.
The restlessness that twists through him, this time, drives him up, away from the beach and into town, despite the crowds and the unyielding firmness of the asphalt beneath his feet, the buildings with their towering walls and sharp angles.
It's almost a shock, the first time he sees Merlin. Almost. Some part of him thinks it was inevitable, that it's what brought him up from the sand and the shore in the first place.
He's standing at the edge of a rolling field of grass at the university's center. Merlin said he was a uni student, Arthur remembers that. He's not here with the purpose of finding him, but when he glimpses that shock of dark hair hurrying along the paths that criss-cross the park's center, it feels right. Good.
This isn't what he should want. Merlin sees too much, notices too much. He makes Arthur yearn for things he shouldn't want, like the touch of warm skin against his and the weight of sea-green eyes resting upon him. Arthur thinks, almost idly, I should leave, but he feels no urgency for it, and so he stays.
Merlin doesn't notice him. He's got his head bent down and the slender wires of headphones dangling from his ears. He's wearing a henley that Arthur thinks would bring out his eyes, if Arthur were able to see them, and a messenger that looks uncomfortably heavy as it drags at his shoulder.
Arthur follows him, preserving the distance between them so he won't be noticed. Occasionally, Merlin lifts his head to smile or wave at other students as he passes them. He embraces a few of them, and they walk together for a few moments until their paths diverge again.
Arthur wants to get closer. He wants to see these people who touch Merlin so casually. He wants to look into their faces and know their secrets. He wants to step between them and Merlin and bare his teeth at them until they go away.
He holds himself back. He doesn't let himself close any of the distance between them. And when Merlin disappears into a low building, joining the throng of students pouring in through its heavy industrial doors, Arthur tips his head back and looks up at the cloudless blue above him. He wonders if going inside, where he'll be locked away from the earth and sky, will be worth the sacrifice. He wonders if he dares.
He doesn't, in the end. He sits outside, far enough away from the lecture hall's doors that Merlin won't notice him when he comes out. Arthur sits there and watches, just another face among the crowd.
Merlin's with a group of people when he comes out, his arms full of books and his face lively as they laugh together about something. Arthur wants to follow him, wants to soak that laughter in like water, but the crowds are thinning and he fears being noticed, so he stays where he is. When Merlin has disappeared from sight, Arthur leaves the university behind him and returns to the waves.
He's back in just a few days. This time, Merlin's sprawled across the grass on his stomach, a thick textbook propped up before him. Arthur watches from a distance. Merlin chews on a pen cap and flips from one page to the next, and Arthur cannot tear his gaze away.
He stays longer than he should, sitting with his back against a tree, and watches as Merlin studies, watches as he lays his head down on the open book and naps there in the grass, as he rouses and stretches and scrubs his hands over his face, then starts packing his things up.
A few days later, Arthur wants to catch Merlin studying or on his way to class again. Instead, he finds Merlin with a group of other students, kicking a football between themselves and breathless with laughter. They're running across the grass, hollering and shouting to each other, maneuvering to get possession of the ball from each other. Merlin's breathless with laughter, his face bright and flushed from exertion. He runs after the ball when a kick goes wide, and comes closer to Arthur than they've been since The Stomping Grounds. Arthur wants Merlin to see him, wants Merlin to look at him like that, with his eyes alight and his smile irrepressible. He bends over with his hands on his knees to catch his breath for a moment and Arthur has a moment to hope.
But when Merlin laughs, he's looking at his friends, not at Arthur at all. Sudden rage twists in Arthur's chest like a knife, sharp and burning. His hands curl into fists at his sides. He stares at Merlin's friends and he hates them. He wants to go to each of them, to grab hold of them and drag them down to the water and feast on their livers. He wants to steal Merlin off and keep him for himself. He wants, but it has nothing to do with his hunger.
Not the hunger he's used to, in any case. He doesn't want to feed, but he wants to touch and taste and have, to grab on tight and never let go. He wants Merlin for his very own, and the absurdity of that makes him turn away when he wants to stay. It drives him back to the sea though he wants to linger. It makes him forget who he is, what he is. It's dangerous. Deadly. These are human desires, meant for them alone. He doesn't get to indulge in such flights of fancy.
He sinks beneath the waves again, and resolves to stay there this time. Enough of Merlin. Enough of this hunger that isn't hunger, that twists through him and transforms him until he no longer even knows himself.
For two weeks, he holds firm to his resolution. It's enough to make him think that this time, he'll be able to last. Enough that he can sit on the giant driftwood logs on the beach and stare out at the sea without secretly wishing it was Merlin he was looking at, his eyes that he was getting lost in, his laughter that rolled over him like the surf crested over the shore.
This is who he is. What he is. This is how it has always been, and how it will be again. Eventually, he is sure, he'll stop yearning for something else.
But then one day he is basking on the driftwood log, letting the sun soak into his skin and fill him with its warmth, when that too-familiar voice says, "Yes, I figured I'd find you down there," like they're continuing a conversation that's already begun.
Arthur opens his eyes and squints against the sunlight. Merlin stands beside the log, looking at him with fists on his hips and his head angled to the side. Arthur wishes he were disappointed to see him there, or irritated to have his solitude interrupted.
By rights, he ought to be both those things, but when Arthur looks at that boy looking down at him, all he feels is happiness. Relief, that his self-imposed exile is over.
He sits up, swinging his legs over so that they face one another. "It's where you've always found me before," he says. "You don't expect me to congratulate you for such feats of deductive reasoning, do you?"
Merlin grins, his smile quick and sharp, and Arthur's heart sings.
"Come with me," Merlin says, and offers his hand to help Arthur down. "I need you to help me with something."
Arthur looks at his hand, fingers long and curled just a little, the faint marks of calluses across his palm. He looks past Merlin to where the sea churns just beyond his shoulder. The hunger is there, as it always is, but it's quiet, and Arthur thinks maybe he's daring enough to try.
He puts his hand in Merlin's slowly, braced for everything to go wrong. An electric thrill prickles up his spine when they clasp hands, palms pressed firmly together. His chest tightens, breath coming short and fast. But only that.
Arthur curls his fingers around the side of Merlin's hand and holds on tight, marveling at the novelty of the sensation. When Merlin pulls, Arthur lets himself slide off of the log, down to stand in the sand with Merlin, close enough that Arthur could touch him anywhere he wanted, if he dared.
His bravado does not extend quite that far, not this close to the sea. He's content with that small stretch of Merlin's skin pressed to his and the thrill of danger running down his spine, the electric excitement of doing something one knows one oughtn't.
"What?" he asks at last. Merlin's brow furrows with confusion, the conversational thread lost in Arthur's long delay. "What do you need my help with? You've got friends you could turn to for that, don't you?"
He can't help the way his voice comes out bitter and jealous. The memory of Merlin playing and laughing with the others on campus is still as keen as a knife's edge, and he is a wild animal at heart. When hurt, he lashes out.
Merlin tips his head again and gives Arthur a look that seems to take in everything that he is and everything that he feels in one canny glance. "I am asking one of my friends," he says, like it's blindingly obvious and Arthur's an idiot for asking. But even then, Arthur doesn't truly understand until Merlin tightens his hand on Arthur's and pulls him up the beach after him.
"This," Arthur says, flat and disbelieving as he stands in the parking lot with Merlin, arms crossed over his chest and frowning at the giant sign on the building's side that announces they're arrival at Seaside Racing, "the best go kart experience on the shore". "This is what you wanted my helpwith?"
Merlin is unrepentant, grinning fit to split his face in two. "Well, I've got these tickets, see," he says, and brandishes them. "Won them in this thing earlier in the school year, and it's for today. It's a private event, so you can see my predicament. You can't exactly have a go kart race all by yourself. I was in rather desperate need of someone to accompany me." He rocks his shoulder against Arthur's, jostling him sideways. "And here you are, come to my rescue. My hero."
There's something about his words, or the way he says them, that spreads something warm and nice through Arthur's chest, so he doesn't protest as Merlin drags him forward into the building.
It smells of oil and rubber and metal inside, all of it foreign and disconcerting. Arthur hangs back, clinging to Merlin's hand like it's a lifeline as Merlin leads him in and hands their tickets over to the attendant. He endures the baffling lecture about safety, but doesn't hear much of it because the building's doors are open to the outside and there are people out on the track, cars zipping by with the high whine of their engines and the flash of light and color. It's distracting, disconcerting. He thinks if he climbs into one of those machines, he's going to die. But Merlin is still pressing his hand, and his face is eager as he listens to the attendant's speech. Arthur looks at him, the excited flush riding high on his cheeks, and he thinks, Oh hell and doesn't speak a word.
His panic returns when they're pulled apart. The attendant shoves a bundled of fabric into his arms and pushes him towards a changing room. Merlin's already halfway to the one beside Arthur's, so Arthur follows, in a bit of a daze.
It's a full-body suit, he realizes shortly, thick and heavy and not at all comfortable, but he recalls distantly that the attendant mentioned it at some point during his speech, while making a point about safety and the rules. He thinks he remembers something about it being necessary, and so he puts it on and swallows down his discomfort because the only other option is to leave Merlin here to do this alone, and that's no option at all. Not after he called Arthur a hero and looked at him the way that he had in the parking lot, with his eyes so big and bright and earnest.
There are gloves to accompany the racing suit, and boots, and Arthur puts them all on and then takes a moment in the privacy of the changing room to writhe a little bit, twisting against the constriction of all these foreign garments. When he's got that instinctive protest out of his system, he pushes the changing room door open and goes out to rejoin the others.
Merlin is already done and they're all waiting on him. He's got a similar suit on, blue to Arthur's red, but he looks as comfortable in it as in his own skin, with a helmet tucked under one arm and a fierce grin cutting across his face.
He gives Arthur a long look as Arthur walks over to join him. His gaze travels a slow path down and then back up the length of Arthur's body. Arthur wants to squirm beneath it, self-conscious.
Merlin sets his own helmet down to take the one the attendant offers. He steps in close so he can tug it down over Arthur's head, and gives it two pats that sound muffled and distant. He flips Arthur's visor open and peers in at him. "All right there, Arthur?"
Arthur is not all right. He feels like he's drowning, the world closing in on him, pressing at his skin from every angle. He focuses on Merlin's face, the wide blue of his eyes and the slight curve to his mouth. He keeps his gaze on Arthur's, waiting for an answer, for confirmation, and as the moments pass while Arthur tries to find his voice, his smile fades slowly toward concern.
Arthur nods quickly, so he can witness Merlin's cheer return in full force. "I'm all right." He swallows down the panic and tries to gives Merlin his best reassuring face.
Merlin does not look particularly reassured, but he nods and takes Arthur at his word. "All right, then, let's go. Time's a-wasting." And he picks his own helmet up and pulls it down over his head like it's nothing.
The attendants lead them outside to the track, where two cars wait for them, in matching colors to their own suits. Merlin climbs into the blue car in front while Arthur allows the other attendant to motion him to his own, in shades of red that make Arthur think of fire and flame and hunger.
He climbs into the car and fights to keep still as the attendant latches the harness, a complicated thing that wraps over both shoulders and buckles at the front, pulling his back against the seat in a way that makes the panic rise. The attendant asks him if he's ever done this before and Arthur gives a quick shake of his head. He tries to listen to the instructions about which pedals to use and proper formation for starting the race. And then the attendant gives him a pat on the shoulder and backs away, leaving Arthur alone with a piece of machinery that growls and rumbles like it wants to eat him alive.
The red lights overhead turn green and Arthur hears Merlin shout back, "Catch me if you can!" a moment before his car zips away with a roar of its engines. And there's nothing to do for that but to stomp his foot down on the accelerator and chase after him.
The tires spin and screech, then finally catch and the car jolts forward. Merlin's well ahead and gaining ground by the second, so Arthur keeps his foot on the pedal and takes the turns too fast, ricocheting the thick bumper that surrounds the car off of the track's padded edges.
It's shameful is what it is. He's a predator, a creature of the sea, he should be better than this, should be more agile. He feels clumsy and stupid and he wishes he'd never agreed to come with Merlin in the first place. When the distance between their two cars begins to shrink, Arthur narrows his eyes in stung pride, sure that Merlin must be throwing the match out of pity.
He reconsiders when, just as he's catching up, Merlin veers across the road and crashes the back end of his car against the front of Arthur's, sending Arthur fishtailing and ricocheting down the straightaway, fingers white around the steering wheel and breathless profanity tripping off his tongue.
Arthur chases after with renewed purpose, pride and a desire for retribution driving him on. When he manages to catch up to Merlin again, he's not sure if it's due to his own merits or because Merlin is slowing down to allow it.
It doesn't matter, not in the end. What matters is the surprised look on Merlin's face when Arthur eases up beside him and nudges his wheels out to the side, sending both of them into wild spins that have them bouncing off of each other and the walls halfway around the track's curve.
The turn catches them and slows them down enough that they both come to a stop, turned backwards and half-jammed against each other and the barriers at the edges of the track. Merlin's laughing like a loon. Arthur twists to look back at him over his shoulder, catches him with his head thrown back and his face bright as the sun. Something sharp twists suddenly beneath Arthur's breast.
The attendant jogs over, shaking his head at them before he's even reached their sides. "Come on, guys," he says as he grabs them both by the bumpers and hauls them around to face the correct direction down the track. "I know you don't drive like this on the streets."
Merlin laughs again, hollers, "He doesn't even have a license!" and then takes off with a sudden engine roar, his laughter trailing behind him like a banner.
Arthur takes off after him as soon as the attendant is out of the way, a fierce, predatory grin fixed across his face. This is fun -- but it's more than that, too. Excitement makes his heart pound heavily against his ribs. Hunger hones the edge of his reflexes, makes him faster, more agile.
This, at least, is something that he knows. He is every inch a predator, and if there's one thing he knows how to do, it's pursue his quarry. They didn't call it the thrill of the chase for nothing, and the familiarity of it makes Arthur's blood sing. This... This is his forte, this is where he excels. Merlin may know how to operate the go kart better than Arthur can ever hope to, but Arthur has dogged determination on his side, and familiarity with the hunt.
In two laps, Arthur has caught up to him. Merlin swerves wildly across the track, trying to lose him, or to block him, but Arthur remains steadfast, unwavering. He catches the looks Merlin shoots him in the rearview mirror, wide-eyed and exhilarated, but also fearful. He knows he's being hunted, and it makes him drive faster, makes him scream through the turns, just this side of losing control and spinning out. But Arthur has the scent of his prey now, and there's no shaking him. He keeps his bumper on Merlin's as they make another lap, and a forth, until Merlin calls back to him, the wind whipping the words off his lips, "Christ, just pass me already!"
It makes Arthur grin. That's not the game he's playing, and Merlin will realize it soon enough.
They drive a few more laps together, and then the attendant waves a checked flag as they near the finish line one final time. Merlin crosses it first, one car length ahead of Arthur, and he veers over to the pit to bring the car to a stop. When they've both cut their engines, Arthur can hear his breathless laughter rising up over the attendants' attempts at congratulations.
Arthur's trembling as he climbs out of the car, the adrenaline from the chase making him unsteady, making everything too bright and too loud. Merlin staggers over to him from hid own car, looking just as dazed as Arthur feels. His eyes are wide in his face, his cheeks flushed, and he doesn't say a word as he nears, just grabs Arthur by the shoulders of his racing suit and drags him away, pushes him back against the wall and then just leans there against him, like Arthur and the wall are the only things keeping him on his feet.
He leans their helmets together, brow to brow. His breath gusts against his helmets visit, clouding it in time to the rapid rise and fall of his shoulders. And he just stares at Arthur, his pupils swallowing all the color in his eyes, stares at him like he's never really seen him before.
Arthur's hands are on his hips, fingers wrapped tight and holding him close, though Merlin seems no more inclined to part than he is. Merlin's throat works in silence for a moment, and then the stillness is broken and he's a flurry of action, dragging Arthur's helmet off and his own, tossing them aside to bounce off the asphalt and completely ignoring the attendants' protests. He surges forward, catches Arthur's face between both gloved hands and pulls him into a kiss that is as fierce and violent as the sea.
Arthur is drowning, swept away by the frenetic energy of Merlin's kiss. He cups the back of Arthur's neck and pulls him in, angles his head until their mouths fit together like puzzle pieces. When Arthur gasps, reeling, he presses his advantage and slides his tongue into Arthur's mouth, lures him into it, until Arthur is gasping and holding onto Merlin just as hard as Merlin's holding on to him.
Like a wave, Merlin retreats just as quickly as he came, drawing back and staring at Arthur like he's the one who did something shocking. "Oh God," he gasps. "Was that— I'm sorry. Was that okay?"
"Okay?" Arthur echoes dumbly. The word makes no sense. "That was more than okay."
"Oh good." Merlin breathes it out like a sigh, like he was genuinely worried. His gaze drops down to Arthur's mouth and he worries his lip between his teeth. "Can I do it again?"
Merlin kisses him again, before the answer is even fully off his lips. And here, he's like the ocean too, unpredictable and constantly moving. He grabs at Arthur and drags their bodies in hard against one another, so they press together from shoulders to knees. He snakes an arm around Arthur's waist and uses it for leverage, buries the other hand in Arthur's hair and just laughs against Arthur's lips when his fingers tangle with seaweed and come away wet.
Arthur can't breathe, can barely stand, he's sure that the only reason he's still upright is because of the wall at his back and Merlin's strong arms wrapped around him, holding him close and holding him up. He wants to touch Merlin everywhere, wants to trace the long lines of the body he can feel pressed against him through the bulk of their racing suits. He drags his hands over Merlin, but the gloves are in his way, deadening his senses. He snarls an oath and tears away from Merlin's kiss long enough to bite at the gloves' fingers and rip them off. He tosses them away with the discarded helmets and pushes his fingers into the heavy, silken weight of Merlin's hair.
It's warm and a little sweaty in close against his scalp, from the helmet and from the excitement of the race. Arthur sucks Merlin's lower lip into his mouth and works it between his teeth until Merlin is gasping, whimpering and pushing his hips in against Arthur like he'd climb into Arthur's skin and share it with him if only he could.
Arthur spreads one hand wide across the side of Merlin's face, uses it to pull him into a deeper, hungrier kiss. He's got thoughts only for this, only for wanting more, when he feels it happen, that too-familiar itch just beneath his skin, the tingling in his palms that shouldn't be happening because the sea is so far away, because they're surrounded by walls and a roof and Arthur can't even sea the ocean, much less hear it calling to him. He should be stronger than this, should have more control, but with Merlin wrapping Arthur in his arms like an octopus and biting eagerly at his lips and tongue, Arthur's control is nonexistent. Arthur wants, he hungers, and with Merlin so close he overwhelms every one of Arthur's senses, Arthur's instincts can't tell the difference between this hunger and the older, more familiar one. He feels it rumble through him, feels the call of the sea even from so many miles away, and he feels his skin tingle and stick where he's got it pressed to Merlin's cheek.
He's going to fight now. Arthur shuts his eyes and waits for it, knowing this is the end. He'll fight, when he realizes that they're stuck together, that he can't escape. And Arthur's instincts will rise and the hunger will take over, the old hunger, not this strange new one that Merlin has introduced him to. Arthur will drag him under the waves because it's what he does, and this time, Arthur suspects that when he kills him, neither of them will survive it.
Merlin makes a sharp, surprised sound against Arthur's lips, but his eyes stay shut and his mouth stays eager on Arthur's. They're still kissing and he's still pressing in, fighting to get closer.
It feels like a gift. Arthur shuts his eyes and fights the hunger down, fights with himself to curb his responses until he can feel the prickling ease and, when he tries, his palm slides off of Merlin's cheek as easily as it ever has. Arthur gasps, relieved beyond words, and drops his head back against the wall behind him to try to catch his breath.
They were kissing, he reminds himself — as though he needs any reminder. Merlin was distracted. He must not have noticed the way their skin stuck together for that briefest of moments, because they were kissing and grappling to get closer to one another, not to get away. He couldn't have noticed because if he had, he wouldn't still be here, leaning his forehead against Arthur's sternum like even now, he wants to get closer.
"Well," Merlin says, breathless and smiling so hard Arthur can see it in his eyes. "If that's what I get for winning, I think I'm going to have to demand a rematch."
Merlin's idea of a rematch, it turns out, is extracting a promise from Arthur to meet him after his last Friday lecture the next week. Arthur promises, because Merlin's standing close and holding on to his hands and smiling at him, and Arthur finds that he's helpless to do anything but.
When the day came, Arthur rises out of the sea and follows Merlin's instructions to a bench in the shade of an oak tree just outside a lecture hall. He settles onto it just as the doors open and students come pouring out.
Merlin is among them, toward the front of the pack. He starts toward the bench, and Arthur doesn't miss the way his face lights up when Merlin sees him sitting there, like maybe he didn't think Arthur would actually come.
Arthur nearly didn't, but it makes him glad he did.
Merlin hooks his arm through Arthur's and pulls him up to his feet. "Come on, let's go. I saw a flyer the other day for this place just off campus. Fridays are free admission, so it can't hurt anything to check it out."
"Place?" Arthur echoes dubiously, but Merlin doesn't clarify, he just pulls Arthur along. And Arthur lets him, because his face is bright and his eyes eager and it's not in Arthur's power to say no to that.
The place turns out to be a club, small and nondescript from the outside, full of thumping music and a press of bodies that makes panic climb up Arthur's throat. He rears back just inside the door, instinct urging him away from too great a temptation. But then Merlin is there to pull is focus, coming around to stand in front of him and tip his face up with gentle fingers under his chin.
"Hey," he says quietly. "Are you all right? Is this too much? We can go, if you—"
Arthur shakes his head quickly. Just the thought of it is making Merlin's expression dim and his smile slide to a frown. Arthur doesn't want to be the cause of that, and with Merlin standing close like he is, it's almost enough to make him forget about everyone else.
"This is what you want?" he asks, because if there's any chance Merlin is going to answer no, he wants to find out.
Merlin's grin flashes, a beacon of light amidst the club's strobing colors and dark corners. "Well, I thought it might be fun. It's a college town, though, there's no shortage of ways to have fun, if you'd rather something else."
Arthur draws a breath for strength and shakes his head. "No. No it… It's fine."
Merlin looks unconvinced. Arthur thinks he might decide to call an end to it all the same, despite Arthur's assurances, so he catches Merlin's hand and draws him toward the dance floor before he can make that choice.
The music is something rhythmic, heavy on the bass and skimpy on the lyrics. It's all the same to Arthur's ear, in the end, but the press of bodies on the dance floor moves in time to the beat and it catches them both up with it, carries them along like a tide.
Arthur tenses when the crowd first closes around them. Instinct has him bracing to be overwhelmed, swamped by his hunger — but they're indoors, with four walls around him and a roof above to keep the call of the sea at bay. He's safe here, his hunger nothing but a distant rumble without the waves to call it to the surface.
They're forced to press close, lest the crowd flow into the space they leave in the middle and separate them. Merlin takes to it easily, sidles in close and drapes his arms around Arthur's neck. He moves in time with the music, too, and that means he moves against Arthur, swaying and sliding, his hips snapping to the side whenever there's a particularly catchy beat.
Arthur holds on to his waist, letting Merlin's body move his, borrowing rhythm that he doesn't possess himself. Merlin's close, plastered in against Arthur. His breath is hot on the side of Arthur's throat and a faint sheen of sweat makes Merlin's shirt warm and a little tacky in between them, makes it cling to all the contours of Merlin's physique that it ought to be hiding.
Arthur lets his eyes roam down the strong slope of Merlin's shoulder, across his chest. He sweeps his thumbs over Merlin's waist and drinks down the way the touch makes Merlin shiver like it's water.
He should not have done this, he thinks dimly, too distant a thought to cause any sort of panic. This was a mistake. He's safe from the water horse's hunger here, with walls to surround him and the sea too far in the distance to hear it's call, but what about the man's hunger? Merlin's awoken it now and Arthur is ravaged by it, consumed by it. And he wants to consume in turn.
He wants to kiss Merlin, right here in the middle of the floor. He wouldn't be the first man here to kiss his dancing partner. It seems as though everyone around them is doing it, pressing in close and letting their hands wander, letting their mouths take and claim the way that Arthur wants to.
He holds himself back, though, and does not indulge as the others do. This is not the old hunger that he's grown so familiar with, over the years. It's not, but it feels similar. It still rises within him, still opens like a maw and demands satisfaction. It still leaves him trembling with the urge to give into it. He has spent so long trying to resist or avoid that old hunger. To give in to this one now seems like it will be an admission of his own weakness. It will be admitting that the hunger has strength and power over him that he doesn't want it to have. It may not be the hunger that he's been fighting all this time, but it will be a loss all the same, if he gives in to its demands.
Merlin, for his part, does not make Arthur's decision easy. He presses and slides against Arthur, tightens his arms around the back of Arthur's neck and pulls himself in close until they're plastered against each other.
He is wicked. His breath against the side of Arthur's throat is torment enough, but then he leans in and leaves light, biting kisses down the side of Arthur's neck. Arthur's skin tingles in his wake and the hunger twists through him, impossible to ignore. He tightens his fingers where they wrap around Merlin's waist and fights for air.
Merlin laughs quietly against the skin of his throat. "You're not much of a clubbing guy, are you?"
Arthur has to fight to work the words past his throat. "Not so much, no."
Merlin lifts his head. The absence of his lips on Arthur's skin is as much a loss as it is a relief. He smiles at Arthur softly and leans in to place a light, tender kiss against his lips. "We can go," he says quietly, his eyes steady on Arthur's, gauging his reaction. "If you're not having a good time, we can go somewhere else."
"No, I--" He can't think of anywhere else they might go together that would give him an excuse to hold Merlin close like this, to indulge in the gentle heat of his mouth on Arthur's throat. He doesn't want to lose that connection. It's terrifying and exhilarating in equal measure, the two so wrapped up in each other that Arthur doesn't think he could separate them if he tried. "I'm fine," he finishes quietly, the words almost lost beneath the heavy beat of the music around them, like a pulse, filling his ears until its the only rhythm he knows. "I'm not very good at dancing."
Merlin's smile spreads slow and glorious across his face. "You're doing just fine from where I'm standing."
It can't be anything but a blatant lie. Arthur's doing little more than holding on to Merlin and swaying in one place. But Merlin's smiling, the kind of smile that goes all the way to his eyes and lights them up from the inside, so Arthur doesn't mention it. He just pulls Merlin in closer, leans his forehead onto Merlin's shoulder, and lets himself take a rare moment to indulge in the want coursing through him, instead of hating it or fighting it.
"Are you always in your head this much?" Merlin asks a song and a half later. "Christ, no wonder you always look so grim."
"I don't," Arthur protests automatically, but Merlin just laughs and says, "You really do." He unlaces his hands from around Arthur's neck, lets them trail down Arthur's chest, slow and lingering, before he slips them around Arthur's waist to the small of his back. They linger there, fingertips dancing light patterns across Arthur's, before they slip a little lower, past the waist of Arthur's jeans, spreading along the curve of Arthur's backside.
Merlin's gaze is mischievous when Arthur meets it. "Let's see if we can't figure out a way to keep you distracted, hmm?" he suggests with an impish grin.
Arthur doesn't understand how it's so easy for Merlin, so natural. He wants to touch, so he does. He wants to kiss, so he kisses. He makes everything seem like it should be effortless and fun. Arthur wants that, wants it for himself, wants to know what it's like to be able to act without fear of the consequences. He wishes he could touch Merlin without having to hold some part of him back, to make sure nothing happens again like it did at the go kart track.
"Ah-ah," Merlin says, light, teasing, and brings one hand up to press his thumb against the seam of Arthur's lips. "There you go thinking again. We're really going to have to work on that."
Arthur gives a short, bitter laugh. "That's easier said than done."
Merlin, undaunted, just smiles and says, "I have a plan." Before Arthur can wonder or worry about what it might be, Merlin leans in and kisses him. He slides his hand around to the side of Arthur's neck, fingers curled around the back to grip him tight and urge him into the kiss.
Arthur's head spins. When he grabs on to Merlin, it's as much to keep himself grounded as it is because he wants to touch. Merlin's lips curve against his mouth and he bites, nipping lightly at Arthur's lower lip, and then laughs quietly into the kiss like this is the most fun he's had all day.
Fun is not the word to describe what Arthur's feeling. He is reeling, floundering. This has all been a terrible mistake. He thought he'd be safe from his hunger in here, with the sea out of sight, but instead Merlin has found a different hunger and stoked it all the same. Arthur is dizzy with want, mad with it, and this new, unfamiliar hunger is not one he knows how to control. It churns inside him like the sea in a storm, wild and unpredictable. He wants to grab Merlin as tight as Merlin is holding on to him, wants to force his mouth open and kiss him until neither of them can breathe. He wants to drag him off into some dark, semi-private corner and taste all that skin that Merlin has been taunting him with.
He tears away, gasping, when he feels the last strands of his control slipping through his fingers. He stumbles back. He can't go far, because of the crowd, but far enough that the people who are dancing around them flow into the space Arthur has made and Merlin has to fight his way through them to reach him.
"Arthur?" He grabs Arthur's arm and frowns, searching his face for something, but Arthur doesn't know what. A moment passes while Arthur wheels around, searching for a way out of this press before his rising panic chokes him.
"Christ," Merlin breathes, and tightens his hand on Arthur's arm. "You look like you're going to pass out. Okay, come on, come with me. Let's get you some air."
He forges a path through the dance floor and Arthur follows him because he is helpless to do much else. It feels like an eternity before they break through the outer edges and into the empty space around the floor that's been left for tables and chairs and those who want to use them.
Merlin doesn't stop there, though. He leads Arthur across the club, through the doors and outside, where the air feels cold and thin compared to the hot press inside the club. There, he stops and turns back to Arthur, watches him with an expression twisted with concern as Arthur slumps back against the wall of the building and fights to catch his breath.
"Sorry," Merlin says after a few long moments. "I guess if you're not used to how it gets in there, it can take you by surprise. Better now?"
Arthur nods. His heart is still pounding too hard for him to try to speak. His hands shake, so he presses them flat against the wall behind him. The bricks are cool in the evening air. They feel steadying, grounding.
Merlin comes over to him and leans up beside him for a moment, letting Arthur have the time he needs. When Arthur is just about able to breathe steadily, Merlin hooks his arm through Arthur's and guides him away from the wall. "Come on," he says. "There's a path down to the beach near here, we can go take a bit of a walk until you're feeling better."
Arthur is too relieved by the opportunity for escape to think better of it. He'll feel better with the salt spray on his face and the waves lapping at his feet, he thinks. But then Merlin leads him to the narrow set of wooden steps that lead down to the sandy beach and he freezes at the top of them, his fingers curling tight around the rail.
No. This was a mistake. The sea is right there, only yards away. It's right there, and its call is so strong it's deafening. Arthur is at the bottom of the stairs before he even realizes he's moving, taking halting steps across the sand toward the surf.
"Arthur?" Merlin touches him -- on the shoulder, thank God, where there's still the thin fabric of his shirt between them -- and he sounds terribly concerned.
Arthur pulls away from Merlin's touch. "I'm fine," he says, short and brusque so it won't invite any further inquiry or concern. If Merlin keeps touching him like this...
Merlin just shrugs, though, and seems to take him at his word. "Let's head up this way," he says, gesturing. "It'll take us toward campus so we won't have to double back once we decide we're tired."
Arthur turns where he directs automatically, moving like an automaton. Every fiber of his being is focused on Merlin and the space between them. When Merlin darts ahead and starts crouching down at the edge of the surf, picking out sand dollars and shells and sea glass as he makes his way up the beach, Arthur trails after him, relieved at the distance he's keeping between them. For the briefest of moments, he thinks that maybe they'll be able to get up the beach and back into town without having to touch, and then Arthur's fears will all be for nothing. He'll be able to keep control of himself, once they're back in town.
Merlin returns with the hem of his shirt pulled up to make a sling. He shows Arthur what he found, an impressive collection of beach detritus that makes Merlin's face glow bright and pink with pleasure. Arthur smiles and praises it and keeps walking, and Merlin falls into place at his side as he works at stuffing the collection into the pockets of his jeans.
It's worse with Merlin right there beside him. Arthur's skin prickles with the awareness of his proximity, with the nearness of the sea. Hunger churns within him, just beneath the surface of his skin, and he doesn't know which hunger it is this time. The hunger of the man, or the water horse?
He knows that either one is dangerous. He shouldn't be here. He should turn, make a sharp left and walk straight into the ocean, let the waves close over his head and swim down into the depths where Merlin will never be able to follow.
"Arthur?" Merlin's touch is light on the inside of Arthur's elbow, but it makes him jump all the same. "Christ, that club was a terrible idea, wasn't it? I wish you'd said something earlier. You look like a mess right now."
He reaches for Arthur, and Arthur's too lost in his own head to realize the danger while it still might have been avoidable. Merlin frowns up at him, full of concern and affection, and spreads his hand along Arthur's cheek.
Arthur's control is tenuous at best, here with the surf swirling around their feet. It's the thin film of a soap bubble, and at Merlin's touch, it bursts. The force of it rocks Arthur and he nearly stumbles as the force of his hunger crashes through him, transforming sinew and bone too fast for him to fight off.
He is the horse in an instant, with his blood-red coat and his knife-sharp hooves. Merlin's hand is still pressed to his cheek and he couldn't remove it if he tried, now. But he's frozen, staring at Arthur as though Arthur has shocked all the common sense out of him. His eyes are big and bright and still the color of the sea that calls to Arthur. Its song is louder now than Arthur can ever remember it being, and he has no choice. He spins, his hooves kicking up sand and sea water. Merlin gasps and grabs onto him, fingers curling tight into Arthur's mane.
It's one last, belated instinct for self-preservation that has Merlin pulling himself up onto Arthur's back, bending low over his neck and holding on tight, away from the danger of his hooves. And it's that instinct that's going to spell his doom, as it has for so many before him.
Arthur gallops straight into the sea. Merlin's arms stay tight around his neck, even when the waves rise over Arthur's back then climb up his neck to swallow them both down.
Arthur dives, frantic, his heart battering against his breastbone. He's hungry, but he doesn't want this, not this time. He runs from the knowledge of what he is and what he's done until the sea is black around him and its cool embrace soothes the frantic fire that burns through him, at least long enough for him to regain some measure of coherence.
Even now, Merlin holds onto him with an iron grip, his arms banded around Arthur's neck, his knees tight against Arthur's sides. It's this that brings Arthur back to himself fully, this faint promise that sends him wheeling about and swimming up, up toward the waves and the air and the sky. Because the hunger might want this, but he doesn't, and if Merlin still has the strength to hold on, then it might not yet be too late.
The black of the water around him grows slowly brighter. Never before has Arthur felt anything but in his element here in the water, but now it feels claustrophobic. He feels like he's drowning, suffocating, like if he doesn't break through the surface soon he'll be the one who dies.
At last, he can see the glimmering pattern of the water's surface above them. He swims faster, kicks harder, and the moment his head breaks the surface he changes back into the shape of a man, with hands to grab at Merlin's body and hold his head up out of the water so he can breathe, please, please breathe...
Merlin is not limp in his grasp, not dead, not even half-drowned. He grabs onto Arthur's forearms, his fingers curled tight, and shakes water out of his face before he opens his eyes.
They're not blue-green anymore, not that particular shade of the ocean at midday. They're gold now, as bright as the morning sun reflecting off the waves, golden and brilliant and smiling at him, somehow, though even that seems like a miracle too great for Arthur to deserve.
"Well, that explains rather a lot," Merlin says, laughter lurking in his voice. He moves in close, one leg hooking around Arthur's for leverage, and runs his fingers through the seaweed that is always caught in Arthur's hair. "Can't say I'm surprised, though."
Arthur just stares at him, struck dumb. "What are you?"
It's the only question worth asking. With those strange strands of gold still whirlpooling through Merlin's eyes, Arthur knows the answer has to be something more complicated than Merlin has ever given him reason to believe.
Merlin's grin is just as quick and sharp as it has ever been. "You didn't think you were the only magic thing around, did you?" He stretches out onto his back and starts kicking lazily toward shore, his fingers twined through Arthur's to pull him along.
Merlin's always seen more than he ought to, Arthur remembers. He's always been just a little too canny for his own good. "You knew?" he demands, and he's frowning. He's a little bit angry. All this time Arthur had been struggling, and it hadn't been necessary, because Merlin knew.
Merlin's shoulders shift beneath the water in what Arthur assumes is meant to be a shrug. "I knew there was something about you." His grin flashes, just as bright as the moon overhead. "The specifics were a bit of a surprise." He kicks harder, says, "Come on, I'll race you back to shore," and flips over onto his stomach to swim in earnest.
It's a foolhardy challenge. Even with Arthur in his human form, even with Merlin's magic, there's no way he can hope to swim as easily as Arthur does. He catches up in two long strokes and grabs hold of Merlin's ankle, uses it to drag him back.
Merlin comes, laughing. He twists and straightens and somehow ends upright and plastered in against Arthur's chest, his arms around his neck and his breath warm on Arthur's face. He slips a thigh between Arthur's, tangles their legs together, and fits his mouth against Arthur's as they dip below the waves.
Merlin's kiss is open-mouthed and eager, like his hunger matches Arthur's own. He twists his fingers in Arthur's hair, for purchase maybe or just to tease, and makes sharp, pleased noises into Arthur's mouth as the waves bob them up and down, as the water pushes at Arthur's back and drives him forward against Merlin.
Arthur is naked, his clothes lost in the initial transformation. They're rags now somewhere, floating on the waves. Merlin is still fully dressed, his clothes twisting and tangling around his limbs, but he just hums appreciation against Arthur's mouth and pushes his hips in. The wet denim of his jeans scrape against Arthur's stomach and the sensitive skin of his prick, making Arthur gasp and push into the kiss.
Merlin breaks away long before Arthur's ready to. He rears back, dropping his head back on the water like it's a pillow, and laughs up at the night sky above them. "Come on," he says, and waves his arms lazily beneath the water, pulling them closer to shore one stroke at a time. "I'm soaked, and freezing. Let's get back on dry land."
Arthur likes it here, where it's wet and dark and he can pretend that there's nothing else in the world but the waves and the two of them. He pulls Merlin in and sucks at the base of his throat until Merlin twists and swats at him, laughing, "Oh my God, stop, do you have any idea how easily I bruise? You're going to give me a hickey the size of Australia if you keep that up."
Arthur moves his kisses elsewhere, pushing up the hem of Merlin's shirt to reveal skin where bruises won't show when he's dressed, and Merlin stops protesting. He curls his fingers around the back of Arthur's neck, legs wrapped tight around his waist, and rocks his hips into Arthur's with short, breathy grunts as Arthur kisses a trail of bruises up over his ribs.
When they reach the shore, where the beach slopes up beneath them to rise out of the water, Merlin doesn't even try to get his feet beneath him, he just tightens his arms and legs around Arthur and drags him down into the sand. They lie together, kissing and clinging and writhing together with the waves rising up to swirl around them.
"I've been thinking about this," Merlin confesses in a hot whisper against Arthur's ear as they twist together, struggling to peel off wet clothes. Arthur shudders and closes his teeth on Merlin's shoulder. "I thought -- Christ, yes, do that again -- I thought maybe you were a traditional sort, who expects his partners to put out after the third date."
Arthur rises up to frown down at him. "You thought that?"
"Well." Merlin grins, cheeky and full of mischief. "Hoped, is more like." He fits his hands on Arthur's waist and pulls him down as Merlin arches up, sliding their hips together.
Arthur shudders and bends over Merlin, stretching out along the length of his body. This time, he has no doubt which hunger it is that roars through him, demanding he touch and take and claim. This is wholly the hunger of the man, desire burning hot beneath his skin. And now, with Merlin laid out beneath him like a feast, the both of them touching everywhere they're able, hands and mouths and limbs sliding eagerly against each other, he is overwhelmed. He wants, desperately. He wants Merlin's mouth on his, wants Merlin's hands racing over his skin to never stop. He wants Merlin out of these goddamned clothes so he can touch in return.
It's not easy, wrestling him out of his wet clothing. Merlin laughs at him when he bites off an oath beneath his breath, and pushes Arthur back enough that he can sit up. He drags his shirt off over his head and twists, tossing it up onto the beach, out of reach of the waves hungry grasp.
Arthur is distracted by the smooth expanse of his chest, pale as moonlight. He leans in and sucks another bruise to his skin, fueled by Merlin's breathless laughter and the way it chokes off and turns to a moan beneath Arthur's mouth.
His nipples are hard, drawn to dark nubs in the moonlight, and Arthur is fascinated by them. He curls his tongue around one, licks and sucks and pulls at it with his lips while Merlin moves beneath him, lying back and pushing his hips up off the ground to try to shove his wet jeans off his hips. When Arthur catches Merlin's nipple between his lips and tugs at it to see what Merlin will think of it, Merlin gives a breathless shout and collapses down onto the sand, his jeans still caught around his thighs but forgotten as he spears his fingers into Arthur's hair and pulls his mouth in hard against Merlin's chest.
"Again?" Arthur asks, his lips moving against Merlin's skin, because he'd rather be sure than assume.
Merlin hisses out a breath that almost sounds angry and snaps, "Yes, again, Christ Almighty."
Arthur grins, and does it again. This time, he doesn't stop until Merlin's voice has gone hoarse and unsteady, until he's got his legs around Arthur's hips and he's writhing beneath him, head tossed back and throat bared and frantic little whimpers pushing out of his throat.
"Oh my God," Merlin groans, holding Arthur tight as his hips move, thrusting his cock against Arthur's stomach. "You're going to kill me. I thought you couldn't, but I was wrong. You're going to kill me, and you won't even take pity on me and make me come first. Fuck, Arthur..."
Arthur plants his hands in the sand and pushes up, looking down at Merlin as he lies there in the sand, his hair a wild mess around him. His expression is hungry and nearly feral. He stares up at Arthur with a steady gaze that won't relent, and his chest rises and falls like a temptation with every rapid breath.
Arthur shifts his weight onto one hand and keeps his gaze on Merlin's eyes as he reaches the other down between them. Merlin hisses a breath when the backs of Arthur's knuckles brush against his cock. When Arthur takes him in hand, wrapping his fingers around hot skin and stroking him slowly, Merlin's expression transforms. His eyes go wide with surprise an instant before he shuts them, a wrinkle of concentration gathering in the center of his brow. His mouth gapes open on a breath and he forgets to close it, leaves it parted, his lips flushed red and swollen from Arthur's kiss and begging for more.
Arthur lowers himself down from hand to elbow. It brings their chests together, so Arthur can feel the rapid, caged-bird flutter of Merlin's heart battering against his skin. Arthur leans in and skates his breath across Merlin's mouth for a moment, waits until Merlin's breath catches and his eyes blink open. And then he captures Merlin's mouth and claims it for his own, sweeps in just as he closes his grip on Merlin's cock and gives him a faster, tighter stroke. Merlin gasps, a sharp, startled sound, and then he groans, long and filthy as he pushes his hips up into Arthur's grip.
"Oh Christ." Merlin's voice is wrecked with need. "Oh my God. Please. You bastard. Please."
Arthur keeps stroking him, keeps kissing him and swallowing the sounds that he makes. When Merlin inches his hand down Arthur's stomach and wraps his fingers around Arthur's own cock, stiff but untouched between them except for the weight of their bodies pushing together, Arthur's rhythm breaks for a moment, and Merlin's mouth curves to that sharp, familiar smile against his.
"Ah, that's knocked you off your stride, hasn't it?" He strokes Arthur, and his grip is tight and unyielding. Arthur muffles his cry against the skin of Merlin's shoulder. "Come on, Arthur. Turnabout is fair play in this game."
Arthur rises up to look down at him again. This time, his arm trembles as though too weak to support even his own weight, though he knows he's stronger than that. Merlin stares straight into his eyes as he moves his hand over Arthur's flesh. When he draws Arthur's foreskin back and skims him thumb around the head of his cock, Arthur chokes on a groan, and Merlin's eyes light like he's won something. "That's more like it," he breathes, and pushes up on an elbow to brush his lips against Arthur's. Arthur is too overcome, too breathless and panting, to return the kiss, but Merlin seems pleased as punch all the same. "Let's race, shall we? See who can get the other there the fastest." His eyes glimmer, bright with mischief. "I've been thinking about this a lot. Bet I'll win."
Arthur just shakes his head, more overwhelmed incomprehension than actual refusal. Merlin seems to take it in the way it was meant, because his grin just spreads, and he starts stroking Arthur in earnest now, his grip tight and relentless. Arthur's head is swimming. He's not going to take that bet. He's already half certain that Merlin's right, and he's going to win.
Still, he wants this to be good for Merlin. More than that, he wants him to like it, to love it. He wants him to let Arthur do this all the time. So he tightens his hand around Merlin's cock and strokes him faster, grip tight, twisting his hand at the end of each stroke so his palm rubs across the head. It makes Merlin's noises go high and sharp when he does that, makes suck in sharp breaths and jerk frantically beneath him. He wraps his arms around Arthur's shoulders like a snake, holding to him tight, and presses his lips beneath Arthur's ear so that he can ear every gasp, every tiny hitch in his breathing, every muted, strangled cry that he doesn't quite manage to swallow down all the way.
And he hears it, too, when Merlin starts whispering absolute filth, there against his skin where only Arthur can hear it before the crash of the surf drowns it out. "I want you to fuck me, Arthur. I want you in me so bad it fucking hurts. I thought maybe if you were too much of a gentleman to expect me to put out on the third date, I might have to bring you home and push you down on the couch and kiss you all over, until you wanted me too much to remember to be shy. I wondered, if I dropped to my knees in front of you and opened your pants, if you'd let me suck your cock. I want to do that, Arthur. You have no idea." His lips move in a tickling caress against Arthur's neck. "Sometime when you taste of something other than seawater and sand, I'm going to show you how nice it can be, to not have to breathe."
"Fuck," Arthur mutters, and shudders. "God. You have to stop saying those things. You have to."
"Why?" Merlin demands, and licks his ear.
"Because I'm going to lose." He squeezes his eyes shut and thrusts helplessly into Merlin's grip. He can feel his climax clawing at him, spiraling tight inside his skin. It's enough like the old, savage hunger that it makes sweat break out across his skin and his heart pound. He gasps for air and struggles to cling to the last, slipping threads of his control.
Merlin's laughter against Arthur's ear is low and carnal and delighted. "I'll make you a deal." He catches Arthur's earlobe between his teeth and sucks at it. "Let me watch you come, and next time, I'll let you win."
"Let me win?" Arthur demands with a growl, and tugs Merlin's dick faster.
"Stung your pride, have I?" Merlin drops his head back and grins up at the night sky like this is the best thing that's ever happened to him. "You -- oh Christ -- you talk a good game, but I haven't seen any moves to back it up yet. Let's see you put your money where your mouth is, tough guy."
Arthur turns his head and skates his lips across Merlin's, luring him into a heavy, frantic kiss until Merlin is panting and squirming beneath him. And then, thinking of Merlin's words and the echoing ripples of arousal they're still sending through his body, he disentangles himself from Merlin's limbs and slides down his body.
Arthur doesn't mind the taste of seawater and sand. He noses at Merlin's erection just long enough to catch the way he gulps down a huge breath of air and then holds it, his eyes gone wide and genuinely startled. And then Arthur opens his mouth and drags his tongue over Merlin's cock, lapping the salt from his skin.
The thing Merlin failed to consider is that Arthur doesn't need to breathe, either. So when he works his way to the head of Merlin's cock and then swallows him down, he does so fast and relentless. He swallows Merlin to the root, nose pressed to the thatch of curly hair between his thighs, and then sets a pace that's every bit as maddening as Merlin's hand was on Arthur's cock.
Arthur doesn't let up, not even when Merlin is writhing beneath him, gasping and choking on his own vocalizations as his body bends, toes curling and heels digging into the sand as he strains beneath Arthur. He pushes his hands into Arthur's hair, grabs on tight and gasps, "Oh Christ. Oh my God, you have to stop, you have to— I can't— Oh Jesus." His mouth gapes open and his eyes scrunch shut and his whole body shakes beneath Arthur's as he comes down Arthur's throat, as salty and bitter as the sea.
Arthur savors the taste of him, this new flavor to learn and memorize. He swallows Merlin's seed and laps it from his cock as it soften, until Merlin makes a breathless sound and pushes him off. "Oh my God," he says on a laugh. "You're a bastard. A complete and utter bastard." He pulls Arthur up his body, only to wrap around him and roll him over onto his back. The waves are cold on the back of Arthur's neck as the surf eddies around him, but Merlin's smile is bright as the sun. "You cheat. You're marvelous." He works one hand between them and strokes Arthur's cock as he leans in and claims his mouth. His tongue is eager, searching, like he's seeking out the taste of himself in the secret spaces of Arthur's mouth.
He gets Arthur off like that, with his tongue down Arthur's throat and his hand quick and demanding. And Arthur's already won in all the ways that matter, has already had the joy of watching Merlin come apart beneath him, so there's no point in holding back any more. He keeps his gaze on Merlin's face, letting him see, as he gives himself over to the hunger and the need that claw through him. He's so used to fighting his body's changes, to exerting control and struggling to keep it in line, that it's strange now to let go and give himself over to it. But when he does and the pleasure crashes through him like a tidal wave, he gets to watch Merlin's delight spread across his face. It's the first time anyone has ever looked at him like that, like he's something worth treasuring. Arthur shuts his eyes as the last of the spasms work through him and holds that image close so that, when his climax has left him empty, that's all that remains, new and remarkable.
He could lay there forever, warmed by Merlin above him and rocked by the surf. He only has a moment, though, before Merlin's back in motion, twisting off of him and climbing to his feet. He grabs at Arthur and drags him upright, too. Arthur only puts up a token protest, then lets Merlin pull him out into the water, until it's past their waists and they can wash the sand off of themselves and each other.
"You're coming home with me," Merlin says decisively as they wade back to shore. He picks his clothes up off the beach and shakes the sand out of them.
"Am I?" Arthur asks, amused.
"You are. We can shower together — I've got sand in places I don't even want to think about, and that's your fault, so you get to help me wash up — and then I demand a rematch on account of the cheating." He hands Arthur his jeans, keeps the shirt and the boxers for himself, and grins. "Maybe we'd better make it two out of three."
Arthur can't help but smile. It sounds wonderful, but also terrifying in its normalcy. This isn't anything he's ever been able to have for himself. He is the monster from the deep, the maneater, the one who comes and watches and hunts, but doesn't ever get to have. The hunger he feels for Merlin eclipses the call of the sea, but it can only last for so long. Eventually, the other hunger will rise again. And when it does, he doesn't know if having Merlin at his side will be enough.
"This won't be easy," he says quietly as they start together up the beach towards Merlin's place. Home, he'd called it. Arthur wonders what it will feel like to have something to call that.
"I know," Merlin says, and sounds like he means it. Like he understands. He reaches out to grasp Arthur's hand and gives it a solid squeeze. When Arthur turns his head to look at him, Merlin's smile is the brightest thing around. "But it's going to be worth it."