Floating.

Floating out to sea.

People beneath the waves, staring, staring up at me.

Spirits? No. Those faces I know, I once knew.

Family lost out at sea, friends who were caught by the unpredictable nature of the water.

Their hands rise above the waves, reaching to pull me down to their plane, and while I ache to join them, suddenly I'm sure that there are things keeping me in this one.

There's someone keeping me here….

"Ayan."

A hand on my wrist and I surged backward, scrambling further into the boat and…into my bed? Spirit pounding beneath my ribs, I stared at Lus where he crouched nearby, his expression apologetic as he kept his hands back to himself.

"Didn't mean to frighten you," he said softly, but I shook my head, shaking the remains of the dream from my skin.

As I did, I noted that it was very early, the sky outside showing the barest hint of morning light to see by.

At my questioning look, he relaxed a bit; "Stores are low. I'm going to go fishing."

Oh.

"Wait, wait, I'll come with you. Just give me some time…."

He nodded and I sat up, taking stock of myself now that I was slightly more awake. The air was warm enough that I decided to strip down to the essentials rather than need to do so at shore, and after grabbing tools of the trade, we set off for the sea.

I was vaguely haunted by my dream, more so once we were in sight of the water, but managed to push it from mind with the busy work of readying harpoons and nets and making sure everything was in top condition; nothing was worse than having something break or snap just as you were bringing in the kill.

Flipping a boat was much easier with Lus' help, and we were soon pushing out to sea just as the morning rays of sun began to spill over the horizon. We didn't go much further out than I had before, baiting a net and then lowering it down into the water.

Then we had nothing to do but to wait, my dream coming back as I stared over the edge with vague unease.

"How often do you think about it?"

His voice startled me from my thoughts, my eyes blank as I stared at him until his words made more sense.

"Think about what?"

"Throwing yourself over."

Heat came to my face, remembering that he had been able to guess what no one should know; "I don't-"

"How often."

His voice was quiet but brooked no argument, something in his expression forcing me to tell.

"Not all the time."

"Right now?"

I shook my head, feeling his stare as I went back to searching the waves for the faces from my dream, knowing they were there and waiting.

"Ayan…."

"You think there are spirits down there?"

"What?"

I swallowed; "I dream of them, sometimes. Dream about being pushed or pulled under. Last night I dreamed they were calling me, and I wanted to go, but there was something holding me back."

Looking over, I quirked a humorless smile; "You were holding me back. Wasn't ready to leave, because of you."

"Promise?"

The intensity of him made me pause, ensuring my answer was true as I nodded. He moved, easily coming close enough to pull me into a kiss, the damp of his skin and the hand on my neck sealing the promise with a sudden surge of sweet lust.

When he pulled back, I surprised him by being obvious in my stare, my mouth pulling into a grin now that it was his turn to blush. Both of us more than a little aroused, we nonetheless became busy in pulling in our net to gauge the size of our haul.

It was more than enough to keep us fed for a while, so we head back, gutting and cleaning the fish when back on dry land. We ate two immediately and set about smoking the rest to keep, our day spent from the time-consuming and laborious chore.

When there was finally time enough to sleep, Lus yawned and went as to bank the coals before bed; only, he glanced over at me and stopped dead. The light from the fire danced over my expanse of bared skin as I knelt where I sleep, completely nude and aroused as I shifted myself slightly, my knees spreading to entice him to further courting.

"You didn't think I'd let you forget," I teased lightly, my hand moving to gently cup my arousal.

"Forget?" he asked, tone absent as he stared, and I grinned.

"Come here and remember."

Instead, he stood and disrobed, allowing me to see as he could see me; what had once dimmed my arousal to contemplate now only fired it further, my spirit pulsing low in my body to think of having Lus touch me.

I grinned again, my voice now husky with lust; "You do remember."

His response was to walk over and slowly kneel before me, wordlessly allowing me to do as I wanted. I could smell him, the musk of him, and it made the fire of my spirit burn hotter, sweat cropping up along my spine despite the chill of the night air.

Our touches began simple, exploratory, kisses sweeping between the sweet and the bruising, each searing me inside in different ways. When he pushed me to lie down I went willingly, unprepared for the kisses he placed to my chest, his hands moving down my sides and across my stomach, mapping the bones beneath the skin.

It was his mouth on my cock that undid me, my spirit soaring higher than I'd ever felt it before; when I tried to imagine someone else kissing me like this, I could see nobody but Lus. His movements were eager to pleasure me, and by the spirits did I feel pleasure, but not when he tried to take in too much, the noises he made dimming my thrill.

"Lus, no, not if it hurts."

Face red from his effort, he nonetheless moved up, allowing me to pull him back in for my kiss.

"Sometimes it just hurts. But okay."

His soft words distracted me from his movements until I suddenly realized what he was doing, my head thick with thoughts I couldn't make out as I watched him situate so as to take my cock into his body by sinking down until seated fully.

I had wondered about this, knew there were different forms of penetration between a man and a woman, but hadn't contemplated they'd be valid between us. My spirit surged fiercely, my cock harder than ever, and Lus' face contorted briefly.

"Does it hurt?"

He frowned, his hips moving ever so slightly; "Yes. And no."

"Lus-"

He smiled; "Mostly, it doesn't."

"Promise?"

My question made him pause, surprised by my intensity, and he could only mimic the nod I'd given him earlier when he'd been asking me the same.

Even still, he made himself ask, "Why does it matter, so long as I bear it?"

Frowning, I pushed myself up as best I was able, grabbing the back of his neck for support as I pulled him into a kiss that had him moaning a little.

"Because you are my mate. If you are in pain, I cannot bear it."

Blushing all over, he grinned a bit; "I am not in pain."

As if to prove it, his movements became rougher, my mouth twisting with the effort of not voicing my pleasure too loudly.

When I could no longer hold back, I ground out, "On your knees."

He nodded, removing himself and making me sob from the loss, his face showing the same haggard need; my breath caught in my chest, my spirit seizing with sweet pain as I watched him get comfortable while bent on his knees. I came up behind him and used my legs to spread his knees further, adjusting his height so I could easily sink back inside, the two of us hissing at the union.

As I moved, hips snapping forward on each thrust, my eyes caught the pattern of scars of his spirit on the back of his left shoulder, marks reminiscent of a sea turtle's shell. Soon, I'd have a version of the pattern cut into my flesh, mingled with the pattern of my own, and I briefly marveled that I welcomed such a thing where before I'd been merely resigned.

Lus shifted, lowering further, and the moans my thrusts drew from him became different, sharper and full of a different sort of pain. I didn't worry this time, because I felt the same pain, soaring with my spirit as I finally came to completion.

After, I was embarrassed I'd seen to myself before him, his legs trembling from exhaustion even as I pulled from his body.

Head clearer, I pressed back against him, simulating our previous act even as I reached beneath and took his cock into my hand, the noises of his pleasure making me grin. His completion pleased me, that I'd satisfied my mate, and I rubbed out the soreness of his body even as he hissed and lay down, turning so as to see me in the dying light of the fire.

"No pain," I pressed, only half teasing, and he breathed a laugh.

"Nothing I can't bear."

After a moment, his face twisted into an expression I couldn't quite place seconds before he abruptly struggled to sit up and onto his feet.

"Lus?"

Awkwardly embarrassed, he hissed, "I'm leaking!"

Confused, it wasn't until he turned for some clothing that I understood that the seed spilled in his body was the cause of his discomfort, and felt a flutter of guilt tempered with a pride that the seed was from me. I didn't apologize but watched as he pulled on enough clothing for decency's sake before leaving our home, the sound of his footsteps quickly fading into the night.

I combed fingers through sweat-damp hair and went about righting my bedding; I attempted to wait for his return but bone-weary exhaustion had me lying down and asleep within moments.

I woke late the next morning, my body sore in ways that bemused me, until I remembered what I'd done the night before. Looking around the dwelling, I found myself alone, though food had been laid out nearby.

The fare was simple, dried fruits from the last harvest, and while it wasn't my favorite, I ate quickly because of the symbol that had been painstakingly drawn into the ground near the door.

Emerging from the dwelling, I noted that it was even later than I'd thought, and I hoped I'd have time to find Lus before his return. It was easier to withstand people averting their eyes to my passing as I slipped along the edge of the village to a lesser-traveled path to one of the rivers in the area that wound close to our community before dumping into the sea.

It was the main reason our people settled where they had; the stories tell us we were once part of a larger set of tribes, descending from common ancestors before the world began to change. Many groups moved further inland, where they found rich soil for growing gifts from the spirits of Earth, or even further where whole tribes traveled the Earth with the animals that sustained them rather than remain rooted to one specific location, while a few of us migrated toward the sea.

My people answered a calling, a great many voices calling us to water, calling us to where we live today.

This all happened before the time of names we can remember, but the stories remain of our journey, led by the spirits that still guide us in life. The spirits favor us because we honor them; perhaps the spirits favor me.

Thinking back on what had transpired the night before, I certainly felt favored.

I found Lus at one of the points less-frequented for bathing, where he sat sunning his body in the shallows. Though I moved with the stealth honed by hunting, he somehow sensed my approach, his back stiff as he glared until realizing it was only myself.

"Is it very cold?" I asked, noting the slight chill in the air, but he smiled a bit and shook his head that it wasn't.

Knowing he was lying, I nonetheless stripped to the skin and waded into the water, gasping at its bite and hearing him laugh behind me. Mock glaring, I plunged into the water and popped back up with a curse, shaking my hair as I shivered a bit. I moved closer to shore and found a bit of rough sand, scrubbing my skin quickly before retreating to deeper depths to rinse clean.

The water was mildly more bearable, but I still took the time to shoot off a curse at my mate that would have had Father strapping my legs if he'd heard. Lus' face appeared thunderous as he slowly pulled himself to his feet, glaring as he approached where I stood chest-deep in the water.

He looked fit to beat me but I was oddly unafraid, though still unprepared for him to suddenly lunge and tackle me beneath the water, his laughter loud when I struggled back onto my feet.

"Cheat!" I accused, grinning as I attempted the same maneuver only to be caught by his strength, the two of us wrestling like children until I finally gave up and grew still, immobilized against his chest and abdomen.

His face registered surprise when I adjusted myself more comfortably against him, my legs wrapping about his waist and arms around his neck. He let go in his shock and I pressed more tightly until he recovered enough to catch me again, my mouth capturing his.

Finally, he had to ease me down to my feet, blushing at the obvious invitation on my face.

Somewhat awkward, he nonetheless admitted; "I'm too sore to take you in me again so soon."

"But I'm not."

That threw him, his eyes widening at the smirk I gave before he allowed himself a laugh, his hand pulling me in for a brief kiss.

"Okay, but not here. You're already turned blue."

The water was cold, so I nodded and led the way to the shallows. Impatience and a courage the night before had given me had me stopping while still in the water, a hand on his shoulder pushing him down to his knees before me.

The open need in his face at my forcefulness should have surprised me but I chose to think about it later, instead anticipating his mouth again bringing me pleasure. His mouth on me was even better than I'd remembered, and I would have easily allowed him to bring me to completion if I hadn't wanted him to move in me as I had in him.

Not knowing any other way of going about it, I decided taking him into me while sitting would be the easiest start; although, through practice I learned that it had only seemed easier when he was the one doing it, frustration making me blush even as he smiled gently.

His hand reached under and to my backside, fingers stroking slightly until I relaxed and allowed him to penetrate, my face screwing up at the oddness of the sensation. This time, his cock was able to breach inside and I froze, overcome with it all until I gradually adjusted, helped by the understanding in his voice and on his face as he offered soothing remarks.

Once seated completely, I was exhilarated by knowing I'd taken my mate into my body in a way I'd never have known was possible until he did it first.

Our movements were constrained by the position and location, only his hand on my cock allowing me to achieve completion in a timely manner, his gaze capturing mine the entire time. We both stroked him to the same completion, and he laughed at my expression when I too began to leak as he had before.

And it was odd that last night, I had been proud to spill my seed within my mate, and today, I was proud to have received the seed of my mate.

Either way, I just felt lucky.

Lethargy overtook me as we walked back to the village at a leisurely pace, and once inside our home I slumped down into my bedding, holding up a hand in invitation when he hesitated nearby. My impatient waving bade him closer, but I had to mumble a demand for his company before he actually lay down and pulled me in to mold against his side.

I was tired without a need for sleep, so lay there a while in comfortable silence, listening to his soft and even breathing.

Eventually, I was able to rouse myself enough to think real thoughts, and took my time before asking, "How did you know my urges are backward?"

He shifted, and I waited for him to settle again before physically prodding him for an answer.

Finally; "You don't look at women the way the others do, never courted anyone." "But how did you know."

He sighed; "I didn't. I claimed you, but never thought you'd accept."

With his standing, and mine, he could not have seriously thought I'd have the option of refusing, even if I'd already begun to court someone else.

"Lus…I had no choice. Even if I had tried, I could not have found a better match. Your status forced my hand."

"My status. Spirits take my status."

The bitterness in his voice was deep-rooted, and it dampened the closeness that had grown between us over the past few days; I ached at the thought of returning to such coldness, and swallowed down pride to lay some of myself bare.

"I was forced into this, yes, and I was angry and full of despair. But I was wrong. …Even if I had had the freedom to court anyone, I would not have been able to find another better suited than you."

He was silent but I could almost hear his spirit rising and ebbing like swollen waves upon the shore, the coldness between us abating.

Hunger finally drove us from our lazy embrace, the two of us working in tandem in mild quiet, though it bemused me the almost…affectionate…way he'd glance over and smile to himself. This man is not the one who once repulsed me in every way imaginable.

Or rather…he was not the man I once thought him to be.

His mother had mated again later in life, when Lus was closer to his majority than not; the man had been turbulent in his loudly-voiced opinions and moods, often ridiculing Lus for being quiet and prone to enjoying his own company over others. Before the man's death at sea, he had been several times reprimanded for his treatment of others, his temper leading him to fighting when others knew to back off and cool down.

I once spoke too loud in his vicinity and received a harsh cuff that had my ear ringing for hours. He had frightened me, and I did not even live with him. I cannot imagine how it was for Lus, but looking back, I believe now that what others perceive as faults may have become traits of survival.

I finally broke the silence as we ate; "What would you have done if I had refused your claim?"

Startled, his cheeks darkened as he admitted; "Not hold it against you."

Looking over at me, he then glanced away as he continued, "And I guess I would have learned my lesson."

"What lesson?"

His eyes saw things I could not as he stared far away; "That I could be happy."

I felt like I'd dropped from the cliffs into the unforgiving sand below; "I make you happy?"

The expression he gave me was half knowing pity and half…something else. Whatever it was, it made my spirit flit about my body, my fingers trembling even as I tightened their hold on my bowl and felt my face start to burn.

He smiled, only half of it for himself, and the two of us spent the remainder of our meal grinning to ourselves like complete fools.

"I did not like him."

Lus' voice told a lot about how deeply he felt his words as he talked about his mother's second mate. Simple and matter-of-fact, a thousand tales untold.

Still, I wanted to know. "Did he hurt you?"

He shrugged; "Sometimes. I think because I was already big as a man, it made him feel…in control to put me back in place. I had more status, and it made him beat me because he knew I would never fight back."

"I would have fought back."

He snorted slightly, sparing me a glance; "You would have learned to hide better."

Okay, maybe.

"Yu is Father's favorite."

He didn't say anything, because he didn't have to, and I appreciated his silence as I put into words what I'd known my whole life but never voiced aloud.

"I was hard for him to love. Maybe he never learned to, I don't know. My mother aside, I am just not as good as Yu. At anything."

"Not true."

This time, it was me sparing him a glance that he was being dull, but he shook his head with complete seriousness.

"Your laugh. Your smile. They are better."

I scoffed; "My laugh? His makes women lose themselves in want! I have seen elders who would rather spit in a youngster's direction than suffer their company ask him to tell one of his stories just to hear his laugh. My laugh? It is nothing."

"Ayan…your laugh is so contagious you make the sick laugh with you, because it goes so deep there is no longer a sound. When the pox hit last summer, who did Lanrian ask to sit with the youngest while she tended their fever? Not your brother."

"He had a mate to care for, not sick children."

Exasperated, Lus puffed out air, moving on; "Your smile is your best feature because it is genuine. One side rises further than the other, and I have always liked it."

I couldn't understand the prickling of tears that turned my voice husky as I asked him which side, the lump in my throat as his hand reached out and cupped my chin, his thumb tenderly smoothing against the left corner of my mouth.

"For as long as I can remember, your smile has made me ache for want of kissing you," he admitted, eyes holding mine even as he leaned in to perform the action, his lips just barely brushing against mine before allowing the kiss to deepen.

The sharp pain in my spirit was something unfamiliar, a tightening I've never felt before, and I kept my eyes closed even after he'd pulled back again. For a moment, I almost believed it, that I was everything he said and more, but in the end, I just couldn't.

Opening my eyes, I said, "My smile doesn't change anything."

Anger sparked in his gaze, anger and sorrow and personal pain.

"Ayan, no one could ever own my heart the way I have given it to you. To me, your smile is everything."

When I said nothing, my mouth drawn up tight and too dry to even try, he pulled away from me. This man, my mate, my unorthodox and far more honest than I'd have ever given him credit for mate…he was breaking.

I could feel it, the bitter tone to the air in our home, but I was powerless to stop him.

I did nothing but watch as he pulled on a skein of water used during hunting, the sheaf for his knife tied about his waist to rest at his hip even as he left our home and stiffly walked off toward the river.

I watched him until he passed out of view, and then I doubled over to control the lightheadedness threatening my consciousness, my breathing erratic and my spirit thrashing against my ribs for allowing him to leave with this between us.

His heart…he says I own his heart.

Me.

I gasped, panic clawing me deep, until my focused breathing brought it back under control, allowing me to think more clearly. Lus, the man I am mated to, that I have taken into my body and been taken into his, has given his heart to me.

Regardless how I feel about the sanity of such emotion, I have to respect it.

I can't say for anyone else, but to have your mate tell you in unequivocal that he loves you, that he could never love anyone like he loves you…that's rare. Maybe my mother would have loved me that way if she'd lived, but it's more likely to be as my father said, that she loved him enough to give birth to me at the expense of herself.

Their closeness was rare in a mating, to be so compatible.

I would never have dreamed Lus felt so for me…would never have dreamed I'd be capable of feeling so for someone else. Because as I play back his words, I find myself willing to entertain the notion.

But I allowed him to leave because I am a fool.

I awaited his return until darkness fell, my patience wearing into sick anger, that he was so coward to leave me to sleep alone once again. I'd thought us past that, but apparently not. Furious, I curled up in bed and turned away from the entrance so it would seem as though I weren't lying there waiting for his return.

Except I was, and I did, until sleep finally stole up and pulled me away.