Merlin is eighteen when he comes to Camelot; eighteen and uncertain, but with a desperate confidence in the world around him and in the magic that he knows glistens along its edges.
The monarchy has been abolished and magic has been made a secret, kept close in the hearts of those who hold that secret between heart and breath.
Merlin knows this about magic, even before he arrives at the university: that it is part of every breath he takes, that it has the same quiet constancy as the beat of his heart, that it's stronger than his spirit or his body, and that he could shape the magic still inherent in the world, that he could bend it to his will.
"There are few true sorcerers left in the world," Gaius tells him, two weeks after he arrives at the university. "And none like you, none with power like yours. What you could do--"
"I could. But I wouldn't, not unless there were some good reason." Merlin says. "I just want to do history, and maybe linguistics." And, unspoken, the rare history of magic, kept in secret texts, and the language of the Old Religion.
A month later, he meets Arthur, and discovers there is one good reason.
Merlin's still in bed, reading the paper and drinking tea, while Arthur chooses a necktie and does it up in front of the mirror. His eyes glance away from the tie to Merlin, who looks tired and bed-rumpled, like he ought to go back to sleep once Arthur leaves, but surely will get up and head out to work an hour early instead.
"I don't think I've seen you in a tie since... I don't know. Uni?" Merlin lowers the paper to watch Arthur, thoughtful, and smiles when Arthur shrugs. "You look handsome."
"Oh... not much call for a shirt and tie just working in a shop. Thanks, though." Arthur frowns at himself in the mirror and tightens the knot on the blue with gold stripe tie he'd chosen. He probably hasn't worn it since his university days, and certainly not since he and Merlin moved in together after their quiet wedding.
The bedroom's half lit by the cloudy morning, one of the bedside lamps turned on, an odd combination of grey and gold. Arthur's fingers linger on the necktie, and he searches for a sign in his reflection, the one that'll tell him he chose the right tie, that'll tell him he looks confident and certain enough.
"You don't just work in a shop. You restore and sell antique books. You're ridiculous." Merlin folds the paper up and places it aside. "Come here."
Arthur hesitates; his eyes flick to Merlin's reflection and then back down to his own fingers. He sighs, but turns and sits down on top of the blankets next to Merlin.
"You're going up to the city today?" Merlin tightens the knot of the necktie for Arthur, then fixes his collar. His fingers brush against Arthur's jawline, warm and fleeting, then reach up to brush his fringe to the side. "To see your uncle?"
Arthur nods and his stomach does the odd twist it always does when he thinks about his family. Or, no, when he thinks about his uncle; when he thinks about his sisters, and the bright magic that burns in their veins, he only feels warmth and safety and, sometimes, scared for them.
"Stop by the university on your way home? I'll probably be in Gaius's office, so just come there."
Arthur gives another nod, and closes his eyes as Merlin's fingers skim over his hair again, fixing his fringe, petting the hair that's behind his ears.
"I need a haircut," Arthur says. He feels strange, like his clothes are a costume, like he's playing a part and he's forgotten the right way to say his lines.
"Mmm... you look handsome, though." He leans in and kisses Arthur on the cheek, then rests his forehead against Arthur's. "Please come to the uni? It's only one stop earlier on the train back..."
"After lunch? I'm hoping not to stay in the city past the early afternoon."
Merlin nods. "I have a meeting at eleven, but anytime after that."
Arthur slips both his hands into Merlin's, leans in closer to kiss Merlin again, and to breathe in the scent of newspaper and strong, black tea. Merlin's hands tighten around his and there, he thinks, yes, there it is, the fine, gold-spun spark of magic that lights the bond between them. Arthur basks in that light for a moment, letting it fill the hollow spaces inside him, letting it take away the last, lingering cold of the morning before he has to leave their flat and go out into the world.
"Stay safe today, alright?" Arthur kisses Merlin once more and leans his head against Merlin's shoulder.
"I'm only going to the university. I will, I promise," he adds, and turns to press a kiss to Arthur's hair. He hums something indistinct and fond, and then kisses Arthur again when he tries to pull away from Merlin.
"Let me go, or I'll never get myself to leave."
Merlin laughs at him for that, and gives Arthur's hair and necktie another smoothing with the palm of his hand. When Arthur stands from the bed, Merlin pushes the blankets and sheets back off himself, and comes to stand next to Arthur in the mirror. He watches Arthur fix his own hair and pull on his jacket, straighten his cuffs and flatten his lapels.
For a moment, Merlin's gaze rests on Arthur, still and fond, and the same gold glow that seems to attenuate all of Merlin's quiet actions settles over them. To Arthur, in these moments, magic is warmth and safety, and the promise of a secret life.
Merlin rests his arms around Arthur's waist, loose and warm, and holds him for a few more seconds.
"You look like a prince," he murmurs to Arthur, his voice barely above a whisper.
Arthur smiles and lowers his eyes, feels pride and affection well in his chest; it's the only real secret he has, and he could only ever trust Merlin with it.
Magic rose, crested, and fell long before the family of du Bois came to power in Camelot.
By the time Igraine du Bois married Uther Pendragon, uniting two great houses, one magic, one martial, Camelot had dissolved its monarchy and magic had fled to the edges of the land.
Merlin's glimpsed it in the small, bright edges of forests and fields, between buildings and back alleys, in the last flicker of sunset and first light of sunrise. He thinks, sometimes, magic lingers in all liminal spaces, raw and unfiltered and much needed.
It lurks in darker corners, too, and slithers through the fingers of those who have distorted magic, who have bent its light into darkness and have tried to warp it to their own will.
He catches it at the edges of buildings at the university, in the gargoyles' gaze and in the glint of stained glass windows. One morning, crossing from the library to the history building, he swears he can taste magic in the air, and can feel it in the warmth of the sun on his shoulders.
A moment later, he feels his chest come into sudden, hard contact with what feels like the sharp corners of a stack of library books. The man he obviously ran into makes an impatient sound, and starts to reach for his toppled books just as Merlin does.
"Sorry," Merlin says, already picking up the other man's books and papers. "Here, no, I'll get that for you, it's fine..."
The man makes another impatient sound, and then leans down to pick up the last of his books before Merlin. "No, it's alright, I don't suppose you can help being that clumsy."
Merlin sighs, and then looks up. Before he can reply, however, the late afternoon sun catches the man's hair in a halo of burnished gold. His eyes are a sudden, bright blue, too, and Merlin knows.
The knowledge comes to him like magic, brilliant and unfiltered, a pure radiance that touches all his senses.
The prince, the lost prince of Camelot, the baby born long after the monarchy was dissolved and after magic fled to the farthest reaches of the land. The baby about whom whispers had circulated through the small secret places of the magic world.
And yet, that knowledge is secondary to the way his own heart catches at the smile in the man's eyes, at the way his fingers brush against Merlin's, and the way he nods when Merlin hands over the papers. Fine-spun light sparks between them, silent and secret, and Merlin feels his heart catch again.
"Oh," he say, and ducks his head away when the man frowns. "You're--"
"Yes. Please don't say anything..." He frowns again when Merlin glances back, and this time just offers his hand to shake. "Arthur," he says. "And you are?"
"Merlin." Arthur's grip is tight and warm, and Merlin takes Arthur's hand into both of his to feel the warmth radiate through him. Arthur, he thinks, the lost prince of Camelot, his lost prince.
Taking the train from the university into the city always reminds Arthur irrevocably of his own uni days. The campus unfurls into residential roads and houses, then the rolling fields that fill the space between the city and the university with patchwork greens and browns.
He half-dozes once the train leaves the university town, and lets his mind drift to the long weekends he spent going to see his father, his uncle, his sisters. Almost all those visits were during his first term at uni, before he met Merlin.
They'd sent him to the university because they claimed it was safer, that without his own magic, he needed to be kept in a place that held its own magic in the very walls of the buildings and the cobblestone streets. He needed to be kept a secret.
His father feared that Camelot would want a prince again, one who would unite the world of magic with the outside world. With the world at war.
Arthur rubs a hand over his face and pulls himself out of the doze. The edges of the city creep up along the fields and the roads into Londinium begin to unwind outside the train window.
The only way to fight magic is with magic, and the only spark of magic Arthur has is because he found Merlin to waken it inside him.
Camelot has no need of royalty and Arthur no need of his royal heritage.
When he gets into the city, the mid-morning air is cold and winter-sharp, and Arthur turns his coat collar against the wind that winds between the buildings and through the busy streets.
His uncle's house is big and empty, and Arthur's footsteps echo through the chilly corridors and into the staid drawing room.
Agravaine offers him a drink, and frowns when Arthur turns it down.
"Your sisters wanted you to have these." He offers Arthur a stack of letters and a keepsake box, both tied with a faded lavender ribbon. Agravaine keeps his fingers tight around the papers, especially, as if he doesn't want to give them up, as if he doesn't think Arthur ought to have a chance to hold them. "They're cleaning out the family estate in Brittany."
"Yes, Morgana told me... she's invited me to stay with them during the spring." Arthur holds his uncle's gaze when Agravaine frowns at him again, then reaches for the letters and box with both hands.
Agravaine relents with a nod. "Of course. You should go visit them and see where your mother grew up."
A sigh of relief barely escapes from Arthur's lips. He has so few things left of his mother that even a half-dozen letters written to Morgause when she was at school and a box of old family jewelry are a treasure to him. He fingers the edge of the ribbon and smoothes his hand over the small, enameled box.
He has a quiet lunch with Agravain at his uncle's club, all stilted conversation and heavy food. The wine makes him feel a little warm and sleepy, and he settles into his seat for the train back to the university with a different warmth in his heart.
The letters, Arthur will read those when he gets home and when he has Merlin there to read over his shoulder, or to listen to Arthur read them aloud. He'll go through the box, too, with Merlin and share the sparks of memory and magic with his husband.
They get married quickly and quietly in the stark cold of a late January day, the scent of snow and frankincense in the air outside the university chapel. Merlin slips a plain, gold band on Arthur's finger and presses a kiss to his knuckles before he lets Arthur do the same for him.
He's told Arthur everything in the few months since they met: how his magic filters through his blood and breath, how he can feel it in the wind and the water and the earth; how he does more than study magic, how he practices it, and how he sometimes has to slip between the cracks and through the narrow edges of the secular world to make sure that the magic practiced by those in darkness is always tempered by the light; how he's only ever used it to protect others and how he'll always use to keep Arthur safe.
"I'll do the same for you," Arthur murmurs into Merlin's neck later that night, his hand warm as it strokes Merlin's chest. "I'll keep you safe, Merlin, I'll make sure you always come home safe."
Merlin's voice catches in his chest, a soft gasp, something that almost wants to become a cry, happiness and quiet, needy desperation all in one. He arches up into the touch, and tries to tell Arthur that he doesn't need such protection, and that he can take care of them both.
But Arthur presses a soft kiss to the side of his neck and nuzzles into the dip of Merlin's collarbone, taking Merlin's breath and refusal away from him. His mouth moves slowly over Merlin's shoulder and he keeps on kissing Merlin, soft, murmured kisses that leave Merlin's skin sensitive, burning with the need to be closer to Arthur.
"Here," he says, and touches the side of Arthur's face. "Come here..." Merlin catches the sudden, soft, shy look on Arthur's face and feels affection flood his chest. "My prince..."
Arthur lowers his eyes, shy again, and his lashes brush gold against his fair skin. "Only yours."
Merlin knows this to be true, for not only will Arthur keep his royal blood a secret, but he also gave up his name that morning and took Merlin's own name as easily as he let Merlin slip that plain gold band on his finger.
A surge of desire matches the affection Merlin feels and he captures Arthur's mouth with his own, murmuring his own love and need into the kiss, pulling Arthur closer and closer to him, always closer, always kept safe.
He kisses Arthur until he's breathless and until his body arches, a perfect bow, taut and wanting, beneath Merlin's mouth.
Later, Arthur brings him tea and warm toast cut into triangles, with marmalade and butter. They eat in bed, the rumpled sheets draped over their legs, and their feet brushing against each other between kisses and cups of tea.
Merlin rests his head against Arthur's shoulder and reaches up to brush his thumb over Arthur's mouth. He laughs when Arthur's tongue darts out to lick his finger, then settles himself in closer to Arthur on the bed.
"You taste like orange marmalade," Arthur says. He sounds very satisfied with himself, and he turns to nuzzle a few kisses into Merlin's hair.
"I wonder who I can blame for that..." Merlin curls himself even closer to Arthur, as close as he can amidst the pillows and blankets and discarded tea cups.
There's a winter grey afternoon outside, the sharp wind cutting through the empty university streets, but inside the world is warm rumpled blankets and sheets, Arthur's hair an uneven crown of gold-blond against the pillows, his body warm and relaxed next to Merlin's.
"Maybe we should've planned a honeymoon," Merlin says. He touches Arthur's mouth again, just to enjoy the shape of it beneath his fingers. They'd married quickly enough that most of the touches and kisses are still new, and Merlin cannot stop himself from wanting his hands and his lips all over Arthur.
"We'll go to Brittany in the springtime. You can see my mother's house, and where my sisters went to school." Arthur turns into Merlin's touch, brushing another lazy, soft kiss against Merlin's fingers.
"Or I could take you to my mother's house..."
"Mhmm.... Caerleon, then. Lovely," Arthur replies. "I hope it rains, or that it's just miserably damp the whole time. Odds are it will be, no matter when we go..."
Merlin laughs at the skeptical frown on Arthur's face, and tries to kiss it away, though it only means he gets pulled into Arthur's lap, the blankets a messy tangle around their bodies. Before he leans in to kiss Arthur again, Merlin lets himself reach out with his senses to feel the soft hum of magic around them.
Arthur catches his eye, smiles, and the hum of magic reverberates perfectly, a perfect low pitch beneath Merlin's senses. His eyes slip shut as he kisses Arthur, long and deep, and feels the warmth of Arthur's skin against his own.
He married Arthur this morning, mere hours ago, and the realization comes to him with a joy that he knows will last everlong.
This is all he'll ever want, then, Arthur, warm and safe in his arms, the low hum of magic between and around them, and the knowledge that they found each other before the world could ever come between them.
Though he knows it can't be true, the university campus feels warmer than the city did to Arthur when he gets off the train. The late afternoon sun glints off frost rimmed branches and mellows the wind what whisks across the silent streets.
Arthur keeps the letters and box in his coat pocket, gloved hand clutching them tight and close, and draws in a deep breath of the cold air. A morning and half the afternoon in the city is enough to remind Arthur that he's more at home here, though he'd only come to the university as an adult.
The time between terms is always quiet at the university; the shorter days and the frost that settles over the campus seems to lend a hush to the winter break that isn't there the rest of the year. The buildings feel familiar and the streets unwind beneath his feet without him having to take the time to notice. The cold wind sifts through his hair and Arthur smiles, glad to be home.
He stops at the bookshop to see if Elyan needs help for the afternoon, then rings Merlin while he has a cup of tea at the back of the shop. There aren't any customers up front, and the back is crowded with Arthur's restoration projects. It feels like home here, too, and Arthur knows Merlin was right: he doesn't just work in a shop, he's a partner in a small business that restores small, print works of art.
"Did you enjoy your lunch?" Merlin asks, then adds: "You know, I can practically hear you frown at me over the line. Are you still coming up here?"
"Yes, and yes. It was lovely," Arthur says. "Do you ever wish we'd moved to city?"
Merlin's quiet for a moment. "Not really. I realize we just sort of settled here, but... Did you want to--"
"--no," Arthur interrupts before Merlin can finish the question. "I'm not even sure why I asked. I like the city enough, I suppose," he says, and shrugs. "I'll come fetch you in a bit. You're not in your office, are you?"
Merlin gives a laugh in reply. "I told you I'd be with Gaius. Anyway, he has a fire in his office, and mine only has unmarked papers."
"Ridiculous," Arthur murmurs. Worry flutters in his chest for a moment, and he puts his half-finished tea down. "This morning, did you..."
"It's fine. I'm fine." A shuffle of papers, then Merlin shifting in his seat. "Minor stuff. Scrying, which you know I'm terrible at, and spellcasting. Well, charm breaking, but just around here. Oh, and I had my meeting. It's been a long week, though."
Arthur lets out a sigh of a breath and reaches for his tea again. "Alright. Give me ten minutes, and I'll be there to bring you home."
As promised, Arthur finishes his tea in ten minutes, walks up to the History building, and makes a great effort of pulling Merlin off the sofa in Gaius's office. He's sprawled out across the length of the sofa, his hair and clothes rumpled, a book open on his chest.
"You can sleep at home," Arthur murmurs. He tucks Merlin's scarf around his neck, and then leans in to nuzzle a kiss against his cheek. "Besides, you're too tall for that sofa to be comfortable."
Merlin makes a small, fond sound and slips his arms around Arthur. "Yes, well, it's warm, and you weren't home, so it wasn't worth going back there. You weren't at work either, so I couldn't really go sleep in the back of the shop."
"I'm not sure that's comfortable, either, though Elyan will let you sleep in the back as long as you're quiet." Arthur kisses Merlin on the cheek again, then starts to fuss with his scarf and coat once more. "Does Gaius know you sleep in his office when he's gone?"
"He knows I use it to work... I wasn't sleeping. Not per se. Anyway." Merlin turns aside and gives the fire a glance, then a little incredulous frown when it flares up at him instead of dying down. A second later, however, it flutters, then fades, and finally flickers away. "Incorrigible," Merlin says, but gives the fireplace a nod of approval.
The act of magic is so small, but inimitable warmth and pride fill Arthur's chest and he cannot help but pull Merlin back into his arms. He tightens the hold he has on Merlin so he can feel the rise and fall of his chest as Merlin breathes and so he can tuck his face into the crook of Merlin's neck. He's almost certain Merlin spent at least a few hours asleep here; he'll probably doze off on the sofa at home, too, while Arthur puts dinner together and then wrap himself, warm and safe and secure, around Arthur after they eat.
Arthur kisses Merlin's neck, then his ear, and then draws back to let Merlin fix his collar and brush his hair from his eyes.
"Did you have a nice lunch?" Merlin asks again, his voice soft this time. He uses the tip of his index finger to smooth Arthur's fringe, then to stroke the hair that he can nearly tuck behind Arthur's ear. "I'm sure you ate at Agravaine's club, that has to have been decent. The wine, at least... right?"
Arthur glances aside, then nods. "Morgana sent me some of my mother's letters, and some of her jewelry. We can look through them together. Tonight, maybe?"
"I'm glad," Merlin says. He tips his head up to press his lips to Arthur's forehead in a slow, fond kiss. "And, yes, tonight. You can read me the letters, that will be nice."
In the dying warmth of the fire and the last rays of the winter sunset, Arthur rests his forehead against Merlin's and basks in the last, waning golden moments before they make the walk back home. There's enough warmth between them, though, to last the winter through, and well past the colder months of this year into all the winters that will follow.