“Tell me a story.”
Arthur leans into his sister's warmth as they look out over the ocean, Morgana's cheek pressed against his windswept hair.
“In the old days,” she starts, “all of us had four arms. Four legs. We were strong and whole and happy. But the gods didn't like that, and so they split us apart. From that day on, there was no greater quest than to find the one who'd make us whole. Our soulmate. Our other half in mind, soul... and body.”
“But how would you know?”
“You'd touch them, and you would know," Morgana says. She sounds sad. “But we don't do that anymore.”
“We found your reproductive match.”
Uther Pendragon is sitting behind his desk, looking up at his son standing at parade rest in front of him.
“I didn't know we were looking,” Arthur says when the silence becomes uncomfortable.
Arthur's a commander, out patrolling the hills and mountain paths more often than he's home behind the enforced walls of Camelot. He doesn't have the time for children, and he tells his father as much.
“Don't be silly, Arthur. Of course you wouldn't raise the child, but you need a heir.”
“You mean the Pendragons need a heir.”
“It's the same thing.”
Arthur thinks back to his sister, hair the colour of crow's feathers where Arthur's resembles nothing more than the beach grass adorning the dunes to the east. She had stroked his hair, touched her lips to his cheek even though it was frowned upon even between siblings. He has no idea where she is now.
“All right,” he says, resigned. “Who is it?”
“That's not important. He won't be in the picture.”
He, Arthur thinks, and there's a strange flutter in his stomach that he can't quite identify. It's stupid. He'll probably never meet this person, all that's necessary is that they have enough uncompromised DNA to match his own.
“Edwin expects you tomorrow afternoon.” His father's attention is already back on his papers. “That should leave you enough time to give your report to the council beforehand.”
The next day, Arthur is leaning against the wall across from Edwin's office with his eyes closed, waiting for his appointment. When the door opens, he is jolted out of his daze only to find himself staring into a pair of curious blue eyes. The man is about Arthur's height, lithe and with the pale skin of those who work in the tunnels.
“Arthur,” he says, smiling as he holds out his hand.
Arthur blinks, shocked by such a casual offering of contact. Does he know this man? He doesn't think so.
“You don't remember me, do you? We used to play when I came here with my uncle, Gaius.”
A distant memory tugs at Arthur's mind, of running through the dunes with a raven-haired boy, laughing. Of a toothy smile across a camp fire. Roasting marshmallows on sticks. For some reason, it makes him a little breathless.
“Merlin,” he mumbles, half questioning, and the man's smile brightens.
Arthur doesn't know why he takes Merlin's hand. You simply don't touch other people. It's dangerous and vile. And, yet, it doesn't feel that way at all right now. Merlin's skin is dry and smooth and just a little cool against his own calloused palm. When he looks up, Arthur finds the other man staring at him with dark eyes and an inscrutable look, and Arthur's heart speeds up in his chest.
“Godspeed, Arthur Pendragon,” Merlin says, and Arthur is left, watching him walk away while his hand is tingling as if he touched a live wire.
Getting into the tunnels is more difficult than Arthur would have thought, even for a Pendragon. Contamination is a big concern down here, where Camelot's gardens stretch out, away from aggressive microbes and fungi. But he knows he has to see Merlin again, hasn't been able to stop thinking about him since that day.
He asks around, earning suspicious looks, and finally finds him picking apples in a grove. He stops and stares, not knowing what to say. When Merlin catches sight of him, he drops his basket, fruit spilling around his feet.
Arthur hastily crouches down to pick up an apple that has rolled over, apologising—for what he's not exactly sure. When he hands the fruit over, their fingers brush and Merlin sucks in a sharp breath.
“We shouldn't be doing this,” Arthur says, confused and a little scared as he trails his fingers further along the inside of Merlin's forearm to the tender crease of his elbow, eyes caught on the map of blue veins running beneath the soft skin. Merlin's eyelids flutter close when Arthur bends his head, brushes his lips against Merlin's pale wrist.
In their world, privacy is discouraged and intimacy is forbidden. To lie with another person is a crime, Arthur knows that and yet can't stop himself. They sneak out, hide away in the sandy slopes of the dunes, touching each other, drunk on the sensation of the other's skin.
The breeze coming in from the sea is cold, carrying the smell of seaweed and salt, and Merlin's skin breaks out in goosebumps when Arthur bares his torso. He strokes along his rips, his collarbones and taut nipples, tastes the sweat at the base of Merlin's throat.
It's exhilarating, settling his weight on top of Merlin, their whole bodies aligned and touching in places that have never been touched before. Arthur presses his lips against Merlin's cheek, inhales his spicy scent, and he knows.
They explore all the ways their bodies fit together, no idea what they're doing but completely awed at the pleasure they can give each other, as their gasps and moans are swept away with the wind.
When the sun comes up over the waves, heralding a new day, Arthur leans back against Merlin, their limbs tangled and Merlin's chin resting on top of his head.
“Let me tell you a story,” he says.