This is the lesson you learned long ago: forbidding magic does not smother it, merely drives it underground. Quiet hedge-witches must still practice in the provinces, studious magicians mix old art with new science, but here in Camelot the mere mention of the word works like the thing itself; in an instant your father's eyes blaze, Morgana looks away, you feel a curious twitching just under your skin. Magic is uncontrollable.
You find things to control. You master every weapon you touch. By fifteen years of age you walk with perfect swaggering balance, can defeat men twice your size with experience down to their bones. The world is a simple solid place.
One day you will make magic a controllable thing too. Sons should not repeat the mistakes of their fathers.
Through a hard winter you are plagued with strange dreams. Morgana suffers worse than you, the skin of her face going a beautiful translucent white with exhaustion while you train in indoor practice courts and keep your heart pumping. Gaius gives Morgana a remedy for peaceful sleep and gives you nothing at all, no second look. You dream of worlds without Gaius in them; every colour oversaturated, your cloak like blood and your armor blinding you. You dream of drowning and of fire, of ghostly lights, of a boy holding you solid and upright while the sword you grip sets your whole frame shaking with power. Sometimes a voice whispers your name.
It takes you longer than you would like to admit to yourself to recognise the skinny big-eared mouthy servant boy. When you do, you're not sure you like it.
You realise the truth the moment Merlin bursts into the council chambers, spine stiff with resolve; he says it, says, "Gwen is not the sorcerer. I am." And in the middle of an overwhelming impulse to laugh at his mad lying impetuosity, you see the look on Gaius' face and know: he means it.
In that moment you don't deal with it, don't even begin to deal with it. You follow your first instinct and protest, deny, explain: "He's in love," you say, and Merlin throws you a look of such astonishment that your mouth adds, "With Gwen," even as you wonder at your own obviousness, the obviousness of your statement, the indignant incredulity stamped on Merlin's face.
And you are not a prince for nothing. Your torch flares bright in an unseen breeze to devour the afanc, and you know which way the wind is blowing. Merlin does not lie to you.
Something at least makes sense now. Why you had such trouble beating an untrained country boy on the first day you knew him; why Merlin sees magic so easily; why he remains so unafraid, easy as breathing, while you struggle not to drown.
Every moment he stays at Camelot is a danger to him. Your best gift is to play the arrogant blockhead he imagines you to be; shove him, prod him, heap him with mundane tasks. You don't tell him you know about the light that guided you from Nimueh's trap, don't tell him that half-faint with blood loss you felt the power leave him to strike the griffin down, don't tell him that you've noticed all the smaller tricks and tells, all those small things that give him away. Play stupid at every turn and you might even fool your father.
The worst of it is the slow transmutation of learned fear into something worse. It's impossible to be afraid of Merlin, not Merlin, with his awkward half-smiles and inability to hold his own in a fight. But it is not, you find to your horror, impossible to be fascinated. The same way you study an opponent's style before a tournament, you watch your manservant. Merlin is earnest, Merlin is studious, Merlin's fingers twitch when he's nervous. Merlin is fiercely determined, Merlin doggedly believes in the right thing, Merlin's awkward little smiles light up whole chambers of rooms.
You learn things to control them, which makes it all the worse when you discover that you cannot control this.
No, you are not frightened of Merlin's magic. But you might be frightened of Merlin after all.
There comes a time when every ruse must end. It is your good fortune that yours is revealed before Merlin's is.
Trapped against a rock wall with thorns creeping up towards you to gouge and strangle, some nameless bitter sorcerer standing on the far side of the thicket and laughing to revenge Uther by the murder of his son, you glance at Merlin and snarl, "Doesn't anyone have any imagination left?"
Painful death a foot from him, he stares back at you in astonishment and says, "Well, the deadly plant life is new."
You laugh and hack at the nearest vine. It notches your sword. You swear and look back at Merlin, this stupid useless boy who gives you huge innocent eyes and actually hesitates. "Do it," you say, and he keeps staring at you, and you shout, "Improvise!" and just like that understanding and bewilderment and relief shine through; Merlin takes a deep breath and sheds -- not the innocence, not the caution -- all his hesitance, speaks words that reverberate in your chest and looks every inch a creature you would be right to be frightened of. Your sword flares up golden and you nearly choke on your own awed breath. Three sweeps of your blade and you're through the thorns, shoving fire and steel straight through the astonished sorcerer. Behind you Merlin gives a shout of triumph.
Then it leaves you; your sword flares out and is simple steel, the thorns a simple thicket, the boy at your shoulder a simple boy. You wipe your sword upon the grass, sheathe it, turn to him. It is the first time you see that his eyes are level with yours. Together you stand, awkward in the dusk.
"Look --" Merlin starts, shuffling his feet.
"Don't," you say. "I know. You've saved my life and I won't tell my father."
Merlin nods, fading down into misery now that the excitement is over. "Should I leave?" he asks; hesitates between Arthur and your highness, and into the gap you set a hand on his shoulder, the curve of cloth simple and warm. He twitches, a little nervous twitch of shock.
"I should be dead five times over," you say. "Maybe more that I haven't seen."
He nods again, his gaze steady on yours. The current of understanding that sometimes passes between you comes now, and this time it feels like Merlin's magic. Your breath snags again. Merlin says, "Then I should be dead too," and starts to thank you, his mouth shaping the words, his whole being shifting into courtesy.
"Don't," you say again. "Merlin."
His eyes are very blue, except when they are gold, and now his mouth is trying to form that strange little smile. Your hand is still on his shoulder. You think: things which frighten Merlin do not frighten you, and things which frighten you do not frighten Merlin, and there must be some overlapping space where both of you are afraid and can only fight it together. You think: magic is uncontrollable. You think: no it is not.
"Show me," you say. You look around and see the sorcerer's corpse; your lip curls and you pull Merlin from it, away into the woods towards Camelot while he makes some inarticulate protest and you say, "Show me your magic."
He nods and speaks those reverberating words. Above your head a light appears, blue and sheened over like a soap-bubble. You laugh. You do not feel less frightened. Merlin is looking at you with a slight smile that you have never seen before; self-satisfied, like one of yours. You smile back, mirroring him, and under the light that saved you, you take his shoulders again, feel the fragile reality of his frame, draw him in and say again, hard, "Show me."
Merlin grins and leans in, whispering something ancient against your cheek. You hiss in a breath, hands tight on Merlin's arms, your whole being filling up with light as though you are a soap-bubble too. But Merlin is shaking a little and you do not break; together you hold onto the power.
You have long since learned to trust yourself, so you do not think about what it means, or what you will have to say or do, and you do not hesitate when you lean in to kiss him.
Merlin opens up into it, unsurprised, his arms suddenly tight around your waist. He tastes of purged fear and of magic, and he kisses in an unpracticed way but not at all like a girl would, and he lights up too, in a way you can see even behind your eyelids. You hold him and you don't even like him that much but he belongs here and it is your right and without him you would be dead.
You are no longer afraid.