When Merlin was eight he turned all the window frames red. His mum had been talking all morning about how they needed a tidy, and when she’d (finally) gone to the shops for paint, leaving Merlin under the watchful eye of his next door neighbour (who preferred to watch from a distance) Merlin had looked critically at the window frames and thought how nice they might look in red, red being Merlin’s very favourite colour. And suddenly they were. And not just any shade of red, but a bright, pillar box red that glared out from their otherwise nondescript grey cottage. The problem was, of course, that once Merlin had thought it, he couldn’t un-think it. The frames stayed resolutely, and stubbornly, red. So Merlin did what any self-respecting eight year old would do after he’d magically painted his house; he got a blanket, and a torch, and a packet of crisps, and he went to hide in the shed where his mum would never, ever find him.
Of course his mum did find him. She opened the door, car keys and pot of sensible brown paint in hand, and just sighed.
“It was an accident!” protested Merlin at once.
His mother shook her head, and told him to come out before he got himself filthy. “What on earth were you thinking?” she said, as she dusted him off.
Merlin just stared down at his half-eaten packet of crisps. “I like red,” he said, small, then, “You can paint over it, if you like.”
But his mother didn’t paint over it. She took Merlin with her to the paint shop, and swapped brown paint for varnish, and together they covered the frames and the shutters, dragging the brushes over the wood until it glistened brightly, sealing in the colour.
When Merlin was twelve, he met Arthur. Merlin was lying on the grass under the tree in the front garden, re-reading Harry Potter and taking copious notes, when he suddenly became aware of a blond boy standing in the lane and staring at the red window frames in apparent disbelief.
“Hello,” said Merlin, because his mother had brought him up to be polite, “Can I help you?”
“Why are your windows red?” asked the boy, in the poshest voice Merlin had ever heard. He was wrinkling his nose, as if the very sight of them was somehow offensive.
Merlin twisted round on his belly to look at the frames – in the high afternoon sun they looked redder than ever.
“Well?” said the boy - rather rudely, Merlin thought.
“It’s blood,” said Merlin matter of factly, turning back, “There was a burglar and they had a terrible accident.”
There was a silence, and Merlin read three more paragraphs of his book, before, “Then why are all the frames red?”
Merlin sighed, and carefully bookmarked the page. He’d just reached the part where Harry was putting Fluffy the three headed dog into an enchanted sleep, and you never knew when that might come in useful (his mum was very fond of dogs). Then he squinted up to where the boy was watching him impatiently. “There were a lot of burglars.”
The boy snorted. “That’s a stupid story, you could at least make up something decent.”
“I magicked them red with the power of my brain,” said Merlin.
Merlin grinned. “Thank you.”
The boy stared at him again, then he shrugged. “What are you reading anyway?”
Merlin lifted the book so he could see. “Harry Potter.”
“In case my mum gets a dog. I’m taking notes,” he indicated the exercise book lying on the grass next to him with his elbow and then rubbed his nose. Looking into the sun was making his nose itchy, and the last time he’d sneezed too hard he’d blown up the television. The boy didn’t look very impressed by his note taking so Merlin asked, “What do you read then?”
The boy shrugged again, “Dunno. Terry Pratchett, stuff like that.”
“I tried him,” said Merlin, “but the magic was very impractical.”
This time the boy took even longer to answer. He seemed to be sizing Merlin up, as though as were a particularly odd species. Merlin wished he’d just go away, he was sure he was about to sneeze and in the absence of a handy television, he’d probably blow up the strange boy’s head.
“Are you lost?” Merlin asked at last, when the boy still didn’t speak.
“No,” said the boy at once. Then he shifted a bit awkwardly, and Merlin actually put his book down as that was probably the most interesting thing the boy had done so far. “I’m here for the summer,” the boy said reluctantly, “And I was just looking around.” He pulled a face. “Is there actually anything to do round here?” He looked up and down the quiet lane as he spoke, as if expecting something entertaining to leap from the hedgerow.
“I usually manage all right,” said Merlin, feeling oddly protective of his lane and his hedgerows. “What do you want to do?”
And that was how he ended up inviting the strange boy – whose name turned out to be Arthur (which Merlin found hilarious, until he was forced to tell him his name) into his house. Arthur had looked rather shocked that Merlin’s telly only had four channels (apparently he didn’t realise you could get televisions like that) and even more shocked that Merlin didn’t have a computer.
“What do you do without a computer?” Arthur asked, sounding horrified.
“Just... stuff,” said Merlin, scuffing his trainers against the worn kitchen tiles.
“What stuff?” said Arthur.
“Outdoors stuff, mostly,” said Merlin
“Fine, we’ll do that then,” said Arthur, in an imperious sort of way that seemed to assume Merlin would have no objection. Merlin thought briefly about turning Imperious Arthur into a frog, but he had very strong feelings on magical clichés so he didn’t.
“All right,” said Merlin, “but you’ll need a bucket.”
So Merlin fetched Arthur a bucket, and two nets, and put on his wellies (Arthur would just have to manage without, but that’s what you got for coming to the countryside unprepared and disparaging Merlin’s hedgerows), and led the way out of the cottage, through the garden and the gate and over the field to the stream.
“What are we supposed to do now?” said Arthur, very dubiously, when they were standing on the bank, in the shade of the trees.
“We catch fish,” said Merlin, and handed Arthur a net.
“Why?” said Arthur, looking down at the shallow stream. “Aren’t they going to be too small to eat.”
He was holding his net completely the wrong way, Merlin noted in despair. Clearly Arthur was even worse at this country-lark than Merlin had thought. “We’re not going to eat them,” he replied crossly, correcting Arthur’s grip, “we’re going to catch them and put them in the bucket and then we’re going to see if any of them will turn back into the keys to the shed.”
“Are you serious?” said Arthur, looking horribly confused, and honestly, sometimes Merlin forgot how stupid non-magical people could be.
“It’s a school project,” he said firmly, already eyeing a hopeful looking stone.
“All right,” said Arthur, after a moment, holding his net like it was a weapon and he was going into battle against a deadly foe. He kicked off his trainers and waded into the water. “But I still think you’re weird.”
Merlin’s relationship with the magical cliché was a long and complex one, and began, he suspected, when his mother named him after the biggest one of all. In the course of his Magical Research he’d discovered that many of them were completely rubbish. The wand thing, he tried when he was twelve, and his mother’s knitting needle had never recovered, and Quidditch had just hurt. A lot. Merlin still had the scars from that, and his arm had been in a plaster cast for over a month. After that his mum had made him promise not to do any more practical experiments and he’d settled for just making his notes instead.
Disney had seemed a safe enough bet. And it wasn’t as if the hoover even worked properly anymore, not since Merlin tried to make it more efficient and it started trying to hawk its cleaning services around the village. They had it locked in the cupboard under the stairs now, and only let it out to clean under his mother’s strict supervision (which it was very unhappy about). So really, Merlin had thought he was doing his mum a favour when he thought of the animals. Their garden was always full of rabbits in the early morning, and squirrels in the afternoon, and his mum loved to leave food out for them, and for the birds that used the little wooden birdbath. Rabbits and squirrels and birds hadn’t sounded so bad, Merlin just wished he knew where the angry goose had come from. The goose didn’t look very keen on the whole ‘cleaning’ idea at all. As far as Merlin could see from his hiding place behind the armchair, it seemed to be mainly soiling the furniture and terrifying the squirrels that were crouched on top of the mantelpiece. Merlin didn’t remember Snow White having this problem. He’d tried to summon his notebook from the kitchen table, but it had hit the door frame instead and fallen down the back of the bin. It looked like he was stuck here until his mum came back from work. With an angry goose.
In the circumstances, Merlin thought he could be forgiven for the sheer relief he felt when a sudden tapping noise caused him to peek over the top of the armchair and spy Arthur, looking through the window, his shocked face framed in glaring red. Arthur stared from the goose, to the squirrels, to Merlin for what seemed an unreasonably long time, before finally taking notice of Merlin’s frantic hand signals long enough to look baffled. Merlin had said it before, and he’d say it again – Arthur was a bit useless.
He decided to risk yelling. “Don’t just stand there, open the cupboard under the stairs!”
The goose flapped round immediately, fixing its beady eye on Merlin. Merlin did his best to look innocent, and maybe like the squirrel had done it (the squirrel looked horribly betrayed and climbed higher). Arthur seemed to have got the message though, because after a final disbelieving look, he disappeared from the window and moments later Merlin heard the wonderful sound of the front door cautiously opening and footsteps in the hall.
“What am I looking for in the cupboard?” came Arthur’s voice, disembodied through the closed door to the living room.
Useless, and no good at following orders. He raised his voice. “Don’t worry about that, just open it! Oh, and maybe say there’s been a terrible spillage.”
There was a longer silence, then the creak of the cupboard door opening and Arthur saying, haltingly, “There’s, er, been a spillage?”
In hindsight, being rescued by an enchanted hoover was not Merlin’s finest hour, although watching the hoover chase the goose down the lane was certainly something Merlin would treasure for years to come.
“You’re back then?” Merlin said afterwards, as he picked feathers off his t-shirt and watched the hoover happily zooming around the room (he’d locked the front door, just in case it got Ideas again).
Arthur dragged his eyes away from the Hoover, to blink at Merlin. “Yes,” he said, a bit blankly. “My aunt invited us and my father was going away anyway.”
Merlin directed the Hoover towards a particularly feathery corner. “Oh good, you can be my independent observer.”
“For my magic experiments. It might be safer that way, in case the goose comes back.”
Arthur appeared to be struggling with something, so Merlin stopped supervising the Hoover and looked attentive. After what seemed an excessively long pause, Arthur looked around and then said, “So the magic thing is... real? Really real, not just you being, you know, weird.” He looked at Merlin hopefully, as if expecting him to disabuse him of such a ridiculous notion.
Merlin rolled his eyes, and sent the Hoover to the kitchen, “Honestly Arthur, what did you think I was doing when I fell in the pond last year?”
“I thought you’d been... climbing the tree? Like your mum said.”
“Don’t be silly, I had a broom in my hand, I was obviously trying to play Quidditch.”
“Obviously,” said Arthur, a little faintly. Then he seemed to pull himself together with a great effort. “All right, you’re Harry Potter, or whatever. Show me some proper magic then.”
Merlin gave him a withering look, and then glanced pointedly at the Hoover. He was rather taken aback when Arthur failed to look impressed. “I don’t think it counts if you have to lock the door to stop it escaping. And I bet you didn’t want the goose here either. What about spells and potions and stuff like that?”
Merlin felt his ears growing red. “I made the broomstick fly,” he said, defensive.
“You crashed into a tree and broke your arm,” Arthur pointed out, like the horrible person he was.
“I could turn you into a frog!”
Arthur looked a bit more interested. “Could you turn me back again?”
“That’s not a very good spell then.” Arthur was starting to look a lot more sure of himself. “You sound a bit hopeless at this whole magic thing.”
“At least I can do it,” said Merlin sulkily.
“Ability is only one tenth of achieving something, the rest is practice and effort,” said Arthur pompously – and Merlin glared at him because he was sure he’d just made that up, or copied it off his father or something.
“I make notes,” Merlin muttered.
“I think I should look them over,” said Arthur decisively, “So we can perform the experiments properly and not kill anyone.”
“I’ve never killed anyone,” Merlin felt moved to protest.
“There’s a first time for everything, Merlin.”
“Don’t you have to spend time with your aunt?” Merlin said, wishing he could rewind time to last year and be sure not to invite Arthur into his house.
For the first time since he’d recovered from the shocking news that magic was really real, Arthur looked disconcerted. “I can see her in the evenings. And anyway,” he continued, recovering somewhat, “She has Morgana, and you obviously need my help.”
“I was managing perfectly fine without you,” said Merlin, in his most blatant lie since he told his mother that the teapot had always been chicken shaped. And a chicken.
Arthur looked pointedly from the traumatised squirrel clinging to the curtains, to the goose feather stuck to the lampshade, and then to the red window frames and smirked. “If you say so.”
Merlin concentrated very hard on trying to disappear Arthur’s eyebrows.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t very good at that either.
As it turned out, when Arthur said they would start work “straightaway” he meant that very afternoon and not sometime next year as Merlin had secretly hoped.
“Right, I think the first thing is to make a list of what you’ve done so far – such as it is.” Merlin stuck his tongue out but Arthur wasn’t looking, occupied as he was in writing ‘Work Completed So Far,’ at the top of a clean page in Merlin’s notebook and underlining it twice. “Let’s see your research books then.”
With a scowl, Merlin dragged himself up from where they were sitting on his bedroom floor and went to retrieve his Box of Magical Research from on top of the wardrobe. It took him longer than he’d expected, the back corner of the box had become mysteriously welded to the wall and was emitting a faint burning smell, but Merlin yanked it away with only minimum loss of plaster, and hoped Arthur hadn’t noticed.
“Is this everything?” Arthur said, looking over the contents with a disparaging eye.
“What’s wrong with it?”
“I thought there would be, you know, proper spell books.” Arthur pulled out a somewhat dog-eared copy of ‘So You Want To Be A Wizard’ and frowned at it. “I don’t think this stuff is real magic, you know.”
“I know that,” said Merlin, somewhat peevishly as he snatched his book back. “But I don’t know where you find proper magic books.”
Arthur flicked through an ancient brochure entitled ‘Magical Holidays to the Maldives,’ and then placed it neatly on the rug, next to the cracked Magic 8 Ball. “Well I’ll make a list of these, and then you can tell me if anything has worked, ever.”
“Fine,” said Merlin, in a voice that was absolutely not sulky, as Arthur began digging through the box and making scandalised faces at the state of Merlin’s books and the notes crammed in the margins of the pages, before he added them neatly to his list. In fact he took so long that Merlin eventually wandered off to get some lemonade, adding some for Arthur (as it was only polite), and after a moment’s thought, some custard creams as well. When he got back, he found Arthur had sorted his precious books into piles of ‘useless’, ‘possibles’ and ‘definite magic’ and was currently looking at the remains of his pointy blue hat that his mum had got him for Halloween and which Merlin had worn frequently before he’d set it on fire.
“That’s very important!” said Merlin, depositing the lemonade and biscuits and rescuing the hat before Arthur could throw it in the bin along with what was left of his cauldron (a lump of blackened metal) and a feather from his pet owl (before it had soiled his duvet and escaped, never to be seen again).
Arthur frowned. “What is it?”
“It’s a wizard hat,” said Merlin, putting the hat safely in his drawer before helping himself to a custard cream. “Like in all the books.”
“Did it do anything useful?” said Arthur, looking dubious.
“I’m not sure,” said Merlin, wrinkling his nose in thought. “I wasn’t ever very clear on what it was supposed to do.” He swallowed his mouthful of biscuit. “But it was extremely flammable, as it turned out.”
“I can’t believe your house is still standing,” muttered Arthur.
“There used to be three floors,” said Merlin, before stuffing two more custard creams into his mouth at once.
Present: Arthur P. (observer). Merlin E. (
Aim: To float a feather with the power of his brain.
Observations: This is a stupid experiment – Merlin.
Note: Obtain new feather.
Arthur, it transpired, was an extremely determined sort of person. In the three weeks he was there, the incident with the feather didn’t deter him in the slightest, and the flying hamster just earned Merlin a tut and a very lengthy comment in the notebook (they found the hamster on top of the shed, windswept but otherwise in one piece). When Merlin complained to his mother at the end of the second week, she pointed out that Merlin had asked for Arthur’s help and could he please get her spatula off the ceiling. Sometimes, Merlin thought his mother didn’t understand him at all.
I’m sending some books that Morgana recommended. They seem to be about a lot of girls at a witch’s academy, so I thought they would suit you very well.
Hope your house is still there,
Ps. Merry Christmas
Please thank your sister for me. I’m sending you a curse, hope it works.
Ps. The curse is for you.
The third summer, Arthur arrived with a folder and a plan. It took Merlin longer than it should have to notice either of these things, preoccupied as he was with Arthur’s sudden and inexplicable tallness.
“Have you been listening at all?” Arthur said crossly, slapping his folder shut.
“Probably,” said Merlin, vaguely. “Are you taller?”
Arthur looked oddly self-conscious for a moment, probably because Merlin was standing about an inch from his face in an attempt to make a proper tallness comparison. “You are taller!” said Merlin, accusingly. He tried squashing Arthur’s hair flat, just to make sure it wasn’t giving him an unfair advantage, but Arthur ducked away and clutched his folder in front of him like a shield.
“Do you want to be a proper wizard or not?”
“I suppose,” said Merlin, scowling and wondering if he could magic himself taller, or maybe magic Arthur shorter.
“Well then,” said Arthur, looking a bit red as he pushed past Merlin and sat down on Merlin’s messy bed, gingerly pushing aside a frog and a vibrating fork. Then he opened his folder again and pulled out a sheaf of printed pages. “I’ve been googling magical stuff.”
“On a computer?” said Merlin curiously, trying to look at the sheets upside down.
Arthur gave him a withering look, “Of course on a computer, we don’t all live in the middle ages, Merlin.” Merlin glared. “Anyway,” Arthur continued. “A lot of it was rubbish, unless you want to see into the future, or summon a demon, or find out your Hogwarts house, but I’ve made a list of the things that seemed useful.”
“For the demon summoning?” said Merlin, who thought that sounded rather interesting.
Arthur looked disapproving. “Of course not. For learning how to stop blowing things up.”
“Oh,” said Merlin, a bit disappointed. “Do you have the demon summoning stuff as well? Just for research?”
Arthur ignored him, and shuffled through the pile until he found a page, liberally covered in highlighter pen. “I thought the best place to start would be to find out what sort of magic you have.”
“Are there different kinds?” Merlin said, plonking down on the bed next to Arthur and reaching for the sheet.
Arthur moved the sheet out of reach. “I think so,” he said, then frowned. “Or at least, I couldn’t find one sort. The main one seems to be earth magic. There are loads of sites about that, communing with nature, and harnessing the power of the earth and all that sort of thing.”
“Like Tom Bombadil,” said Merlin, nodding wisely.
“God, you’re such a muggle. So,” he went on before Arthur could do more than look confused, “How do I find out if I have this earth magic then?”
Arthur pulled out another sheet. “I’m not sure, the websites weren’t terribly helpful. The best I could find was this one,” He gave the contents a slightly dubious look, which didn’t inspire Merlin with confidence. “It’s all about becoming one with the natural world, or something like that. Closing your mind to everything but the elements and feeling the earth moving through you. But it doesn’t say how you do that.”
Arthur looked at Merlin like he’d grown another head (Merlin checked to make sure he hadn’t). “Merlin, I am not doing yoga, don’t be stupid.”
Merlin shrugged. “It’s what my mum does. She says it helps her find her inner centre.”
“Well so does Morgana and my aunt, and I refuse to do anything Morgana thinks is good.”
In the end they went camping.
Merlin nearly fell over twice, trying to find his way along the path in the pitch dark. He was supposed to have met Arthur twenty minutes ago, but his alarm had disappeared (literally), and he’d only woken up when Arthur started throwing things at his window.
“Arthur? Are you there?” Deciding that actually finding Arthur was more important than all Arthur’s stupid warnings about Stealth, Merlin switched his torch on and then let out an extremely manly shriek as Arthur loomed suddenly out of the darkness bare inches in front of his face, looking both cross and temporarily blind in the beam of Merlin’s 100 Megawatt torch.
“Turn that off you idiot!” Merlin pointed it somewhere else instead (they needed to see after all). “Where the hell have you been?”
“Sorry,” Merlin whispered back. “I overslept and then I had to find my stuff.”
“Well, come on then,” Arthur said, and led the way further along the path to the space beneath the trees where he’d put his rucksack and what looked like a bedroll and a sleeping bag. Merlin dropped his overlarge bag to the floor with a sigh of relief and a quick rub of his back. “Right,” Arthur was saying. “I thought this would be as good a place as any.” He circled the tree, examining the ground like he expected fairies to leap forth and attack him at any moment. “Apparently trees are particularly linked to earth magic because of their— Merlin!”
Merlin paused, tent poles in hand. “What?”
“What are you doing?” Arthur sounded scandalised.
Merlin looked from his hands to Arthur, and then waved the poles helpfully, in case he’d still somehow missed the point. “I’m putting up the tent.”
“You’ve brought a tent?” said Arthur loudly, apparently forgetting all about the stealth thing.
“Well, duh,” Merlin rolled his eyes. “Of course I’ve brought a tent, we’re outside, and there are gnats.”
“We’re supposed to be communing with the earth,” said Arthur, giving the tent poles a rather dark look.
Merlin frowned at the poles as well, trying to work out which one went where – maybe he should have brought the instructions? “I know that. Can you pass me the hammer from my bag?”
With a loud and very put upon sigh, Arthur strode over and yanked open Merlin’s bag, pulling out a sleeping bag, a pillow, a rather squashed bag of sandwiches, a flask, two packets of crisps, a packet of digestives, a toothbrush and a woollen hat, before at last, he found a hammer and a bag of tent pegs at the very bottom. “I thought you were meant to be good at this outdoors stuff?”
“I remembered the tent didn’t I?” Merlin replied, helping himself to a handful of pegs from the bag in Arthur’s hand. “I don’t see you contributing anything.”
“That’s because we’re meant to be doing this properly, I don’t think ancient druids had tents and a thermos.”
“That’s only because they hadn’t been invented in ancient druid times.” Merlin replied firmly. “Now give me a hand with the ground sheet.”
An hour later, Merlin was bored, and not feeling much of anything except a lot of very uncomfortable tree roots.
He wriggled round some more, and turned his head on his pillow until he could see the dark shape that was Arthur. “When is the earth going to speak to me?”
Arthur sighed loudly, “When you’ve emptied your mind.”
“It’s already empty.”
“Oi!” He didn’t need his torch to know that Arthur was smirking, like the insufferable prat he was. Merlin briefly thought about trying the vanishing eyebrow spell again, but then decided it probably wouldn’t so much fun in the dark (and Arthur had threatened to tell his mother if he tried lighting a magical fire in the tent). He sat up instead, and wriggled over to his bag.
“What are you doing?” Arthur whispered immediately.
“I’m getting some crisps,” Merlin whispered back, digging around in the bag until he found a packet of ready salted, and then retrieving his thermos flask for good measure. “I think my hunger is impeding my ability to commune with nature. Do you want to share my tea? I brought an extra mug.”
There was a short and disapproving silence, then, “Are there biscuits?”
Merlin rooted round for his packet of digestives and waived them tantalisingly, and after a brief internal struggle, Arthur muttered, “All right then, pass it here,” and Merlin grinned.
“So, do you...”
“Do I what?”
“You know, feel anything, from the earth?”
“The only thing I can feel is the tree root sticking into my—”
“Well it hurts!”
“Oh shut up and go to sleep.”
“I think I can feel something... It’s like a tingling, on my foot.”
“Maybe. It’s on my ankle now.”
“Merlin, is there a spider in your sleeping bag?”
“...Maybe. ...Maybe it’s a magical spider?”
“Does it look magical?”
“It looks, sort of...flat, now.”
“You’re such a crap wizard.”
It was decided, after much deliberation, that Merlin probably didn’t have earth magic, and Arthur decided (by himself) that Merlin would make a pretty rubbish druid, or earth witch, or whatever it was anyway. So it was back to Arthur’s list. They were forced to skip number two, as Merlin didn’t know of any ancient magical stone circles nearby, and Arthur’s research only turned up Stonehenge and there was a distinct lack of buses to Salisbury Plain from the village. Merlin was quite keen on trying a transportation spell, but Arthur flatly refused after what happened to the hamster (which Merlin thought was a bit much as the hamster had turned up alive). That left them with suggestion number four (which Arthur insisted was really number three as he’d crossed out Merlin’s attempt to add ‘Jedi’ to the list). According to Arthur, number
three four was entirely his sister Morgana’s idea but she’d had some pretty impressive evidence so Arthur had added it, as a last resort, and written out a questionnaire.
“Do you have prophetic dreams?” Arthur asked, looking ridiculously serious where he was perched on the edge of Merlin’s bed, his folder on his knees.
“Um...” Merlin blew out his cheeks and then let out a long breath from his far more comfortable sprawl on his bedroom floor. “I would say yes.”
Arthur looked impressed. “Really? Like what?”
“Like when I dreamt my pillow was trying to eat me, and then I woke up and it was trying to eat me, and I had to fight it off with my tennis racket – which wasn’t in the dream by the way.”
Arthur stopped looking quite so impressed. “I don’t think it counts if you make it happen. What about visions? Do you see the future?”
Merlin thought for a moment. “I don’t think so.”
Arthur made a note on his questionnaire. “What about crystal balls and tea leaves and all that rubbish? Have you ever seen the future in those?”
“Dunno, Mum gets teabags,” said Merlin, rather disappointed. Then he perked up. “But I have a crystal ball! Well, sort of.” Pushing himself off the rug, he clambered onto the bed, over a surprised looking Arthur and reached on top of the wardrobe for his Box of Magical Research. “There,” he beamed, brandishing his prize.
“It’s a magic 8 ball,” said Arthur, whose only magical power was apparently stating the obvious.
“So? It tells the future. Sort of.”
“No, it doesn’t”
“Yes, it does.”
“No, it—” Arthur broke off and glared.
Merlin grinned, then gave the ball a shake. “Is Merlin always right?” He turned it over. “Ha! It is decidedly so. Told you.” Then he jumped off the bed and made a run for it, before Arthur could rugby tackle him to the floor (he was annoyingly good at that).
At the end of the two weeks, Arthur still hadn’t discovered what sort of magic Merlin had, but Merlin found he’d been enjoying himself too much to really care.
Although Merlin wasn’t a druid, or an earth witch, or a seer, he still had magical powers, and those magical powers were pretty good at picking up when something wasn’t quite right. Sometimes Merlin just had a feeling about these things (like a Jedi, whatever Arthur might say about that), and his powers of perception were rather impressive, if he did say so himself. So when it got to the day of Arthur’s arrival, that fourth summer, and Arthur didn’t arrive at the cottage as usual, Merlin’s magical senses suspected something might be wrong. When there was still no Arthur on the second day, they began to get very alarmed indeed. And when Merlin finally got out his bike (part of his muggle disguise) and cycled up the hill to Arthur’s aunt’s house and found Arthur with a red nose, flushed cheeks, and a croaky voice, Merlin had used his powers of perception and latent Jedi skills to conclude that he was probably desperately ill.
“It’s a cold, Merlin,” Arthur croaked at him from the sofa, looking if possible even more flushed and obviously putting on a brave face.
“Are you sure?” Merlin tried to check his temperature with his hand, but Arthur moved back too quickly. “Because you look horrible.”
“I’m just saying.” Merlin looked around for somewhere to sit, and eventually located a rickety stool which he dragged over. Then he flopped down onto it (ignoring the slight creak and the wobble), “I suppose you want me to cure you then?”
If Merlin hadn’t known his expression was the expression of the desperately ill, he might almost have thought Arthur looked alarmed. “No! That is... no, I’ve got some Lemsip.”
“Shall I magic it stronger?”
Merlin reached for the box, but Arthur got there first and shoved the remaining packets of Lemsip under the sofa cushion with what seemed like quite unwarranted haste. “No,” he croaked, pressing the cushion down firmly. “I think it’s strong enough for now.”
“Oh,” said Merlin, disappointed. He kicked his legs against the stool, and then stopped rather quickly when it gave an ominous lurch. “So how long are you stuck here then?”
“I’m not—” Arthur stopped, and looked flustered (like he had the time Merlin had accidentally disappeared his shorts). “I just... I thought I’d better wait to come and see you. I didn’t want to give you this,” he gestured to the stack of tissues on the floor next to the sofa. Merlin had almost got as far as thinking that was quite nice of him, when Arthur added quickly, “I mean, you’d probably sneeze and set your house on fire, knowing you.”
Merlin wrinkled his nose. “I’ll have you know I had chicken pox once and the house was perfectly fine.”
“Really?” Arthur didn’t look convinced.
“Yes really. Well, except for all the chickens. I don’t know where they came from.”
Arthur’s laugh quickly turned into a cough, and Merlin found his magical senses were giving him the strangest urge to mop Arthur’s brow - which he manfully resisted. It wasn’t as if he’d been looking forward to this fortnight or anything, it was just that he’d gotten rather used to Arthur and his lists and his independent observation every summer, and it wasn’t the sort of thing he could ask of just anyone, after all. He’d almost gotten Arthur trained now, and if either of them was going to suffer horribly, it should at least be while they were fighting Voldemort, and not because they couldn’t help sneezing seven times in a row. As impressive as that was.
Clearly, something had to be done.
He gave Arthur his very best Serious Look, the one he’d started practicing when he was ten in case he ever won the Order of Merlin, First Class. “Arthur, do you trust me?”
Arthur looked nervous. “Is that a trick question?”
“No!” said Merlin, wounded. When Arthur just looked even more nervous, Merlin cleared his throat and whispered. “This is the bit where you say yes, by the way.”
“To my curing you. Because I have loads of magical experiments planned, and I can’t do them without you, and if I have to come here every day to see you, I will probably blow up the television, and your aunt will be very unhappy.”
“I really don’t think that—”
In the interests of progress, Merlin decided to abandon his Serious Look for the Look he gave his mother when she discovered the enchanted Hoover trying to sell cleaning door to door. Surprisingly, that seemed to prove far more effective because Arthur stopped talking immediately, and it was only a few moments before he shifted uncomfortably and looked like he might be wavering.
“Please,” Merlin added, for good measure, because Quidditch training just wasn’t as much fun without Arthur looking grumpy and brandishing a copy of Quiddith Through The Ages as he argued the rules. When Arthur didn’t immediately say no this time, Merlin tried, “I haven’t blown anything up in months. And I cured the goldfish when he was ill.”
Arthur huffed a little. “And how long did it live, afterwards?”
“Ten!” Arthur seemed taken aback at what sounded suspiciously like competence on Merlin’s part.
“I think I really, really cured him,” Merlin said, reflectively. Arthur sneezed again, and Merlin passed him another tissue. “It’s not like I’ve ever hurt anyone,” he said, wheedling. “Only that time with my toe, and it grew back.”
Arthur blew his nose, and then looked up at Merlin. Merlin sat up straighter and looked Responsible. After a few long moments of this, Merlin’s right eye started to twitch, but it seemed to do the trick regardless, because Arthur slumped back against the cushions and croaked. “Oh all right. But only the sneezing! And if at any point it looks like my head will explode, then we’re stopping.”
Merlin beamed, nodding. “You won’t regret it!”
Arthur looked like he might have been regretting saying anything at all, but Merlin had already abandoned the stool, and climbed on the sofa somewhere in the region of Arthur’s knees, and Arthur closed his mouth rather abruptly.
Arthur nodded. This close up, his face really did look very red indeed, and Merlin thought he better factor a fever into his mental calculations (that was probably linked to the sneezing after all). Merlin settled himself comfortably, and then grabbed Arthur’s hands.
“What are you doing?” Arthur said, trying to yank them back.
Merlin held on. “I have to be touching you when I cure you. Like in Lord of the Rings. And with the goldfish.”
“I’m not a bloody hobbit! Or a fish.”
“Merlin, are you sure you’re—”
Arthur’s voice faded into the background as Merlin concentrated, hard, feeling the familiar swirl of power in his stomach and behind his ribs (it felt rather like indigestion), and thinking about how he really, really wanted Arthur to stop sneezing, and breathing germs everywhere. Preferably soon, so he could start making notes again. And then he added a quick thought about how would really prefer not to explode Arthur’s head either. The power built, until he could feel it tingling along his arms and legs, and he held tighter to Arthur’s hands as it tried to fly every which way like always. Arthur squeezed back, and suddenly with a whoosh it was free, moving from his hands to Arthur’s.
There was a long pause, and Merlin (who had absolute confidence in his ability, thank you very much) squinted one eye open cautiously, hoping that the fact he could still feel Arthur’s hands in his meant that he had at least not turned him into anything that would be difficult to explain to his aunt, or to Morgana (who sounded terrifying).
Arthur was staring back at him, looking shocked. “It worked!”
“It did?” said Merlin, opening his other eye and blinking at Arthur, at a pale cheeked, pale-nosed Arthur whose voice was distinctly uncroaky. “I mean, of course it did! I’m brilliant.”
“It actually—” Arthur broke off and just gaped at him for a moment, and then began checking himself for injuries in a way Merlin thought terribly insulting.
“I told you I could do it,” said Merlin, though he held off being too smug until Arthur had counted all his toes.
“But you’re rubbish,” said Arthur at last, regarding Merlin with something unnervingly like awe.
Merlin sniffed. “I am a magical healing genius, I think you’ll find.”
Arthur looked briefly torn between awe and his more usual desire to smack Merlin over the head, then he stared down at himself again. “But I don’t understand, nothing you do works, not properly.”
“Well,” said Merlin, who had thought something very similar himself but decided to gloss over it in the interests of smugness. “Maybe I’ve just... er, come into my power?” Arthur didn’t look convinced, and even Merlin had to admit that one was fairly weak – he couldn’t remember reading of anyone coming into their anything when they reached the important age of Fifteen And A Bit.
“It must have been me,” said Arthur, having recovered from his awe in a distressingly short time.
“What?” said Merlin, indignant.
“Well, think about it, Merlin,” Arthur went on, reasonably. “Normally you’re doing magic on your own, and I’m just there to help you clear up the mess or make notes, or otherwise stop you dying in horrible ways.” Merlin glared. “I think you need my help with the actual magical stuff.”
“You didn’t help, you just sneezed a lot,” Merlin pointed out.
“Yes, but you were— um...” Arthur suddenly stopped and blushed scarlet, which made Merlin worry that the fever part of the magic hadn’t been as effective as he’d hoped. But before he could say anything, Arthur continued, looking embarrassed. “You were holding my hand this time, weren’t you. That was different.”
Merlin thought about it, and was forced to admit (grudgingly) that it had felt nice to have his hands in Arthur’s – which he supposed must have been because of his magic and it wanting to hold onto something and not explode from him in its usual highly inconvenient fashion. “I suppose,” he said at last, sulking, because it had been quite nice to think himself a magical healing genius, even just for two minutes. “So do we have to hold hands now, when I do magic?”
He must have looked a bit sceptical because Arthur cleared his throat and said, “No, of course not. Well, not unless you think it would help. I mean, you don’t have to, but it might, you know, help you focus. But I can just... put my hand on your shoulder, or something, if you’d rather.”
Merlin worked his way through this convoluted sentence, and concluded that it meant, “yes.” He shrugged, and flopped back against the seat, his shoulder brushing Arthur’s as he did so (that tingled too, but it was probably just residual magic from his Healing Superpowers). “I prefer hands,” he said, firmly.
Arthur looked pleased, and leaned back cautiously, until their shoulders pressed together again and Merlin could feel the tingle spread all down his arm. “Me too.”
The next day, Merlin came down with Arthur’s cold, but apparently self healing was a lot harder than healing other people (and goldfish).
“Arthur, I’m dying.”
“You’re not dying,” said Arthur, who, Merlin was disappointed to see, had recovered his full measure of Prat in the wake of his miraculous healing.
“Will you tell my mother I love her?”
“I hate you.”
There was a loud sigh. “What?”
“Drink your Lemsip.”
Merlin sniffled pitifully. “It tastes horrible.”
“Well drink it anyway.”
“I think I’m going to sneeze.”
“Well, go on then.”
So Merlin did. Loudly, and several times.
There was a short and disbelieving silence, then; “Did you just sneeze your window purple?
“You’re such a rubbish wizard.”