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The Legacy of Salazar

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Exploring Diagon Alley

Quaint. Refined. Stern.

All adjectives he would use to describe the woman herself, but the headmaster found that they also applied to her office. Reflecting the minimalist style of its occupant, the office bore only the barest touch of personalization. There were no family photos, one plain lamp that burned with a rich amber hue, and regal chairs with musky red fabric. But there, hanging on the back wall, was a painting. Even for the Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, an original would be something difficult to come by—but it was a convincing replica. The orange and yellow of the sunflowers washed over the room in a warm glow, and Dumbledore appraised it for a long moment before turning to look the woman herself.  

Amelia Bones stood beside her desk, peering through her monocle at a file resting upon the mahogany wood, a frown tugging on her face. It was enlightening to know that a woman with such a strict demeanor nonetheless appreciated fine art.

“That is a lovely painting, Madam Bones.”

She did not look at him, but her lips quirked upward. “Vase with twelve sunflowers,”

“Van Gogh, correct?”

She nodded and at last turned to look at him. Her blue eyes were so light that they bordered on grey, giving them a frosty chill. Dumbledore could remember how even at Hogwarts those eyes had appeared stern. “These are very serious accusations, Dumbledore.”

Dumbledore held her gaze, surveying her from behind his half-moon spectacles. “Indeed they are.”

A loud knock came from the office door and Amelia Bones turned to look at it with a touch of irritation on her face. “Yes?” she called and the door opened to reveal a short portly man wearing a green bowler hat. “Ah, minister.” She didn’t sound the least bit surprised to see him, and she took a turn about her desk as the man entered.

“Cornelius,” Dumbledore greeted warmly, and his eyes flickered down to the minister’s shoes. Ah, yes those were the fine pointed purple boots he knew. “I take it you’ve heard?”

Cornelius Fudge did not reply immediately. His skin looked sallow, and the smallest glimmer of panic shone in his eyes before he coughed and removed his hat. “You’ve had Professor Quirrell arrested?” he asked, and he glanced toward Amelia Bones as though searching for confirmation.

“At the present moment,” Dumbledore corrected shortly, “he is under secure care at St. Mungo’s Hospital, due some ah—unfortunate circumstances.”

“Oh yes, I’ve heard!” And Cornelius started to swell, his face flushing with color. “Student attacked by professor; the press is having a field day.”

“And you have” Amelia said glancing from one to the other, “more serious accusations.”

“There’s more?” Cornelius blustered and he threw himself down in one of Amelia’s chairs.

“I’m afraid he must face a full criminal trial, and must be kept under constant watch until safely locked away.” Dumbledore shook his head, an image of unforgiving stonewalls and black despair plaguing his mind. He certainly had no love for Azkaban, and even less for the creatures that guarded it but he knew perfectly well that Quirrell could not remain free in the world. “He attacked a Hogwarts student, attempted to steal the property of another wizard and was doing so under the orders of none-other than Lord Voldemort himself.”

Cornelius stared at him, a mixture of emotions flashing in his light brown eyes. Shock, repulsion, fear, and doubt each took their turn before the man coughed and shook his head. “No—no, I’m afraid that’s just simply impossible. He’s gone.

Dumbledore turned his entire body to face him, meeting the man’s eyes. “He’s not, Cornelius,” he said softly. “He is merely weakened, but very much alive, if one can call it that.”

Cornelius scoffed and rose to his feet, coming to stand behind the chair as though to put a barrier between himself and Dumbledore’s words. “Sounds like the ravings of a madman, Dumbledore. I assure you, we are quite safe from him.”

“Such a claim,” Amelia interrupted, “must be backed up evidence.” She shot a sharp glance in Cornelius’s direction effectively cutting off whatever protest he had begun.

“Of course,” Dumbledore said. “I expected no less.”

She nodded and finally took a seat at her desk. “Time is of the essence, and so please submit all evidence to the Council of Magical Law Enforcement as soon as possible. At which time, a hearing will be scheduled to hear testimonials and review said evidence and determine if there is enough substance to proceed to criminal trial.”

“Hold on!” Cornelius said, his voice rising. “You can’t seriously think that this professor was working with You-Know-Who? It’s preposterous—”

“I have jumped to no such conclusion,” Amelia smoothly cut across. “I will review all the evidence before I make a determination. Whether or not he was affiliated with He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, Professor Quirrell attempted to steal the property of Nicolas Flamel and assaulted—even attempted to murder— a Hogwarts student. All of which are serious charges and each must be examined in turn.”

Cornelius blustered for a moment, looking both affronted by her clear disregard for his authority as Minister of Magic and defeated by her logic. He took a deep breath and released his hold on the back of the chair. “Fine,” he said and he started to fiddle with his bowler hat. “Keep me informed,” and he exited the office.

Dumbledore watched him leave and sighed when the door had shut once more. “He has always been adamant that Voldemort was defeated, never accepting the possibility that such defeat was only temporary.”

Amelia readjusted her monocle, surveying the file of papers more closely. “He’s not the only one, Albus.” She opened one of the drawers in her desk and removed a candle and a stamp. “I will need statements from you and all your staff regarding Professor Quirrell’s character and any suspicions concerning him. In particular, from the boy he attacked—” she glanced at the file again, “Mr. Merlin Evans.”

Dumbledore hesitated, something that clearly surprised Amelia. Her brows rose and she spoke for him, “You don’t want him to testify.”

“Eleven is hardly old enough for such adult matters,” Dumbledore said shaking his head. Not to mention the sheer amount of attention he will get because of this. He had his suspicions that the Daily Prophet were already writing an article about Quirrell’s arrest and it would be better to keep the boy out of their line of sight.

“Well, this eleven year old was able to knock out a fully fledged wizard,” Amelia said and Dumbledore could hear the smallest tone of awe in her voice. “He is also your strongest piece of evidence.” She paused a moment. “I know you wish to protect him, but he’s the one who brought Quirrell down. Don’t you think he deserves to finish the job?”

Dumbledore did not frown, but his lip twitched. “As always, you make a very good point.” His gaze drifted toward the painted sunflowers and somehow he found comfort in their design. He nodded and got to his feet. “I will organize the evidence immediately, and submit the names of all those who will be testifying. You will have it by tomorrow.”

“Then I will send you an owl tomorrow with the hearing date. After it’s conclusion, the counsel will decide how to proceed. “ She flicked her wand and the candle hovered over one of the documents and began to melt. It dripped a small puddle before ceasing and lying flat on the desk once again. She took the stamp in her hand and pressed it, engraving her seal on the document.

“I’m astonished that this first year boy was able to stop Quirrell.” She looked up at him, a real smile now trying to make its way onto her face. “Such a feat is incredible, to say the least.”

Dumbledore’s eyes twinkled and he returned her smile with one of his own. “To say the least, my dear Madam Bones, to say the least.”


ARREST OF HOGWARTS PROFESSOR SHOCKS PARENTS
Written By Rita Skeeter

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry may not be the safest place for your child after all, writes Rita Skeeter, Special Correspondent. Professor Quirinus Quirrell, who took over the post of Defense Against the Dark Arts at the beginning of the last school year, has been charged with assault and attempted murder by none other than Headmaster Albus Dumbledore himself. Although the man was not available for comment, anonymous sources have come forward claiming that the now ex-professor had attempted to steal the Philosopher’s Stone and attacked a first-year student who got in his way.

“This is an outrage,” says Lucius Malfoy, the Chairman of Hogwarts Board of Governors. “The stone should never have been placed at Hogwarts in the first place.”

The stone, the prophet can exclusively reveal, belonged to Nicolas Flamel a good personal friend of the headmaster. “An item like that should have been at Gringotts,” said Lucius Malfoy. “What Dumbledore was thinking when he put it in a school full of children is beyond me.”  Many parents have issued complaints to both the school and the ministry, wondering why a dangerous and highly coveted object like that was placed near children.

Quirinus Quirrell had previously been professor of Muggle Studies, and many came forward expressing their utter shock to his change in personality. “He had been my favorite professor!” Says Haley Martin. “He was always so nice.” Apparently, the professor took a year off in order to travel the world and when he returned came into his new position. Some speculate that he became obsessed with the dark arts during that time and when he came back to the school the temptation of the Philosophers Stone lying under his feet was just too good to pass up.

Near the end of the school year, the professor finally gained the courage to attempt to the theft and encountered first year student Merlin Evans in the corridor. Quirrell pushed Mr. Evans down several flights of stairs, in order to stop him from telling anyone what he was up to. However, sources say that Merlin Evans then went on to expose the professor for what he was and attempted to stop him by personally following him after the stone.

“It’s absolutely unbelievable,” says one Pansy Parkinson, a friend of Merlin Evans. “Merlin never liked Quirrell. At first we all thought that he just didn’t like the class, but I think he always suspected Quirrell of being up to something.”

Sources say that Merlin Evans caught up with the professor before he could reach the stone, however the specifics are unknown. “I’m looking forward to the trial,” said Lucius Malfoy. “The boy managed to defeat Quirrell on his own, which is an impossible feat for an eleven year old.”

Quirinus Quirrell was recently released from critical care at St. Mungo’s Hospital and has been placed in the custody of the Dementors until his trial date.


Something in the way Florean Fortescue’s lip quirked made Merlin sure he knew the subject matter of the Daily Prophet’s headline article. The ice cream man looked almost amused, and yet there was that slight curve of his eyebrows that revealed a bewildered state of mind. As if he sensed Merlin’s eyes, Florean glanced toward him and Merlin quickly busied himself with the marmalade.

He wasn’t quite sure what to make of the man yet.

It was obvious that Silas liked him. His foster brother had done little else this past week except talk about life with their new foster parent. Florean had even fixed Silas’ chipped tooth and enrolled him in a magical primary school – which didn’t actually teach magic, but rather the basics of wizarding culture and the necessary skills he would have learned at a muggle school. Florean had explained to Merlin that most wizarding parents homeschooled their children, while muggleborns attended normal school until they got their letter. But for those unable to homeschool their children a simple pre-Hogwarts primary school had been established.

Florean had finished reading the article. He sighed loudly and folded the paper with such refined skill that Merlin actually stared for a moment. Beside him, Silas looked up, his breakfast smeared about his lips and dribbling onto the tablecloth. His chestnut colored hair stuck up all directions, looking somewhat like he had lost a fight with his pillow. “Something wrong?” he asked, his fork hesitating above his kippers and eggs.

“Not that I can tell,” Florean said with a smile and he took a swig of orange juice.

“Merlin’s in the paper again, isn’t he?”

Merlin bent his head awkwardly over his breakfast, cheeks burning. Anybody would be happy to be in the Daily Prophet. But he wasn’t one to take credit, and now that he was—he was just embarrassed. It had been so much easier to let Arthur bask in the spotlight; at least the prince had known how to take it.

  His heart twinged painfully and he forced the memory away.

“Just an update, kiddo.” Florean winked. Merlin forced himself to look up, though he still felt uncomfortable when Florean glanced at him. “I suspect you’ll be called in to testify soon.”

“I ‘spect so.”

Like he always did, Silas was first to pick up on his reluctance. “It’s a good thing isn’t it?” he questioned looking from Florean to Merlin. “Quirrell will go to Azkaban, and—you were in the paper!” Although he sounded excited by that prospect, Silas looked uncomfortable.

“Course it is,” Florean said at once. “Merlin’s too modest to admit that he did an amazing thing,” and he nodded in Merlin’s direction. “He’s just not used to the publicity.”

“Yeah, well,” Merlin said frowning. “I am eleven.” He worried for a moment that he sounded too defensive—no, he was being stupid. Of course everyone thought he was eleven. Though, he had a feeling that would be part of the problem.

“At the rate you’re going, you might want to get used to it.” Florean surveyed him for a moment, as though waiting for Merlin to contradict him. He said nothing. A sinking feeling in his gut told Merlin that this definitely wouldn’t be the last time his name appeared in the paper. What would it be next time? He could see the headline now: Hogwarts Student Attempting to Raise Pod of Dragons in Nearby Forbidden Forest.

Merlin met his new foster parent’s gaze for a moment. “I’m going to start cleaning up,” and he took his empty plate to the kitchen in the next room. Behind him he heard a muffled, “let him go,” and supposed that Silas had wanted to follow him.

Good. He needed a moment to think.

The kitchen was in a state of organized chaos. It was comforting, in a way. The drawer handles were made of intricately designed spoons and colored like candy wrappers. There was a stack of perilously stacked jars on one counter, each containing a different spice and no doubt held up by magic. The pots and pans hung from a metal grate on the ceiling, and a portrait of a plump man in a pinstripe cloak hung on the wall opposite the fridge, though at the moment he was snoring peacefully in his frame. When awake he would give suggest things to eat and recommend recipes for whatever ingredients they happened to be holding at the time. Boris was his name, and apparently he was a jolly uncle who had passed away a decade or so ago.

He was amusing, if sometimes overbearing if he thought you were cooking something wrong.

Merlin shook his head, putting his plate in the sink and the sponge started scrubbing it of it’s own accord. Florean had considered taking the enchantment off in order to encourage them to clean their own dishes, but realized it wasn’t necessary when neither boy was bothered by this idea. Merlin should have protested. It felt weird, not using magic for things like this.

Maybe he should be happier about his name being in the newspaper. Any normal boy would be thrilled. Silas certainly was when Florean had told them the first time. He was over the moon about it—and it wasn’t even his name! He’d quickly realized that Merlin didn’t feel the same way and had stopped celebrating, making Merlin feel guilty at once. It wasn’t like he thought people were going to read his name and go, “Oh, it’s the founder of modern magical society, returned in order to save the day!” People just wouldn’t jump to that conclusion, and not just because magic powerful enough to that was all but unheard of.

It just wasn’t a logical jump.

Of course, if he suddenly started performing druidic spells in the middle of Diagon Alley then someone might make the connection. But he didn’t plan to do that, and another year of constantly stressing out whether or not someone was going to find out who he was did not appeal to him. Not that he’d managed to completely keep the secret—the Weasley Twins had managed to figure it out on their own. Talk about a panic attack. But now it didn’t bother him as much – it actually excited him. He would be able to talk to another human without feeling the need to filter himself. Maybe it was them finding out, but his identity just didn’t feel like the dirty little secret it had before. Then again last year had been just so full of fear, adjusting to an entirely new world and destiny that everything had filled him with worry.

At least this time he could control his magic. Mostly.

“Merlin!” he heard from the dining room. “You’ve got a letter.”

Get a grip, he told himself firmly. Maybe some fame will be good for you. He had complained in Camelot about never getting any credit—after a few years, anyway. This was his chance! To actually be recognized! To be honest, the only reason he didn’t announce who he was to the entire wizarding world right now was more because he knew he needed that element of surprise in this fight against Lord Voldemort.

And his uncertainty of how the world would react.

But no, all things aside, revealing himself wouldn’t help anyone at this stage in the game. Merlin took a deep breath and left the kitchen, returning to the dining room where Silas was entertaining a large screech owl. Florean got to his feet, pushing in his chair behind him.

“Here,” he said with a soft smile and he held out a wax sealed envelope. Florean was already dressed in a colorful pinstripe waistcoat of purple and brown hues. Merlin took it, noting the Ministry of Magic seal on the back. “It seems you’ve been summoned.”

So it seemed. Merlin opened the letter and read:

Dear Mr. Evans,

You have been summoned to give testimony at the hearing of Quirinus Quirrell, who was previously Professor of Defense Against the Dark Arts at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The hearing will take place three days from now on June 27th at 9:00AM in Courtroom 5. Please note that this is an evidence hearing, and that the subject in question will not be present. You may bring a parent or guardian with you.

Yours Sincerely,

Amelia Bones

Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement

“What does it say?”

The owl must have taken off because Silas appeared at Merlin’s shoulder, glancing down at the letter. Merlin showed it to him.

“There’s an evidence hearing in three days,” he told Florean, who nodded.

“Why do you need to submit evidence?” Silas asked, his brow furrowing in confusion. He handed the letter over to Florean and looked at Merlin. “You already caught him.”

“No one saw him attack me,” Merlin said with a shrug. Or Lord Voldemort on the back of his head. The very thought made him feel queasy. He could still remember that awful aura of malicious intent and putrid disfigurement. That was no doubt part of the reason why Quirrell had been in critical care for long. But Merlin would need to tell everyone about it, how he had stopped the professor. It was both exciting and nerve wracking. Yes, he had promised to stop hiding his abilities – but obviously he couldn’t go flouting them.

What if he scared the public into thinking he was another budding Dark Lord? Not everyone might be like Hermione and Draco.

“I’ll rearrange the shifts that day so I can take you,” Florean said as he folded the letter back up.

Merlin blinked. “You’ll come with me?” Sure, the letter had invited his guardian but—“But the shop?”

“I have employees for a reason,” Florean laughed. “Why, don’t you want me to accompany you?” he asked raising an eyebrow.

For the second time heat rose to Merlin’s face. “I do,” he muttered, glancing down at the table. He didn’t want to admit the anxiety he felt in his heart – the fear of letting himself get too attached to Florean only to be passed to another family. He hadn’t forgotten the fiasco at the Haddocks – or the likelihood that they were only here with Florean until someone else offered to take them.

The eleven year old inside him feared abandonment.

“Well then.” Florean said, and he looked at Merlin as though he could see the turmoil of thoughts racing behind his eyes. “I’ll need to dig in my closet for something clean. You too, come to think of it.”

“Can I come?” Silas asked, but his face fell when he met Florean’s eyes.

“No, I’m afraid not.” Florean shook his head. “This isn’t something children should attend,” and he frowned. Merlin had the feeling he wished Merlin himself didn’t have to go. Silas opened his mouth – not doubt to protest – when another owl flew through the open window. The barn owl circle once above their heads before dropping a letter onto Merlin’s head and flying out again.

“Busy day, isn’t it?” Merlin muttered, rolling his eyes. He glanced at the seal on the envelope. “It’s from Hogwarts!”

“The headmaster, I expect.”

He was right.

Dear Mr. Evans,

If you have not already, you will shortly receive a letter from the Ministry of Magic summoning you to a hearing on June 27th.  Now, I am sure you are aware of the charges against him and that your testimony may be the deciding factor of this case. However, there are certain details that must be omitted. Professor Snape will be stopping by tomorrow to explain the particulars. He will also walk through the case with you and how you might present your testimony to the counsel.

Although what you did in the third floor corridor was incredibly brave, I believe that I am right in saying that it was also terrifying. I wish there was another way, I truly do, but it’s almost over.

Sincerely,

Albus Dumbledore

“Snape’s visiting tomorrow,” Merlin said, and he smiled at the thought. He liked the Potions Master. The two of them had formed a rather peculiar bond – one that he cherished. There had been a time when he’d hoped Snape would become his and Silas’ foster parent – even though logic told him it would’ve never worked. He trusted Snape. Keeping his identity from him was more about preserving the relationship they had now, then anything else.

“Is he now?” Florean seemed to have noticed his sudden excitement. “Perhaps you should get some homework done before he comes. It wouldn’t hurt for you join him, Silas,” he nodded and started clearing off the rest of the dishes from the table.

“What?” Silas groaned. “It’s the holidays!” He grabbed the ketchup bottle and took it to the fridge.

“I’m sure you have summer work to do,” Florean said raising his eyebrow. Merlin tried not to laugh at the look of annoyance on Silas’ face. Merlin knew for a fact he had homework and he understood how Silas felt. What was the point of giving them essays to do over the summer? Did they think they would forget everything they’d learned, or something?

“Fine,” Silas grumbled before brightening. “Can we explore Diagon Alley when we’re done?”

Merlin wanted to tell him that it couldn’t really be called exploring, since he’d memorized all the shops.

“I suppose so,” Florean sighed and Silas grinned broadly before taking off down the hall.

“Come on, Merlin!”

Merlin hated homework. He would love nothing more than to disregard it, but he’d never get away with it. Not now that his professors knew what he was capable of. Such a pity.

Merlin and Silas shared a bedroom. Florean had set up a bunk bed for the pair of them, and Merlin had gladly taken the lower bunk. He’d put up a few Slytherin pride posters, although the overall theme of the bedroom was one that Silas had suggested. Medieval Europe. Merlin smiled at the thought. They’d put up some moving dragon posters and a stream of flags bearing the coat of arms of all the old English families. It didn’t look medieval to him, of course – less dirt and animal skins – but he had liked it all the same.

Silas made a racquet as he dug in a drawer looking for his school folder. Merlin hadn’t quite unpacked yet. He’d hung most of his robes in the large closet he and Silas shared, but all his books and equipment lay in a messy heap. He’d probably never completely unpack. There was hardly a point. He found his potions textbook and grabbed an inkbottle and a few roles of parchment, before standing up and glancing over at Silas.

“I’ll meet you back in the parlor, okay?” The kid was still looking for his homework.

“Yeah.”

Merlin smiled and left. Silas rejoined him ten minutes later, slamming his books down.

“Have to read this entire thing,” he grumbled and he glared at the copy of, Wizards and the Muggle Catastrophe: War and our impact. Merlin assumed it was a brief overview since the book was actually rather thin.

“Better than writing an essay when and why one should use their wand while making a potion,” he grimaced. Busy work. Useless for his education. Maybe he should try to strike some kind of agreement with his professors – projects or something. Anything was better than the mindless regurgitation of information.

They worked for nearly an hour, Silas fidgeting in his seat every ten minutes. Merlin scribbled his essay down mostly from memory, only glancing at his potions textbook to make sure he’d gotten everything. When he’d finished, he sat back and appraised it. Hopefully Snape would appreciate that he mentioned how spells could bring out magical properties in certain plants.

“I’m done for today,” Silas grumbled and he shut his book. “Let’s ask Florean if we can go exploring.”

“Yeah, sounds good.”

“Come on, Merlin!”

Silas raced ahead of him, his hazel eyes bright and excited. Merlin resisted the urge to roll his eyes and increased his pace, not wanting to lose sight of him. He had a pretty good idea of where Silas was taking him and—sure enough—he found Silas with his nose pressed against the glass of the Quidditch Supply Shop.

Since Silas had officially become part of the magical community—except in receiving his letter from Hogwarts, which Florean assured him would happen next year—he had become particularly interested in Quidditch. Merlin had secretly hoped that maybe his story of being impaled by an exploding broomstick would put him off the idea. No such luck.

“The new model’s out!” Silas exclaimed and he turned to look at Merlin behind him. “Look!”

“Yup, I see it.” Merlin didn’t bother getting closer though. Silas sighed heavily and turned back to the sleek black brooms on display. The plaque beside them identified the model as a Nimbus 2001, the newest racing broom on the market. “Pretty.”

“Pretty?” Silas shook his head. “No, this is powerful and beautiful and—“

“Probably worth your Christmas and Birthday present combined.”

“Meh, it’d be worth it.”

Merlin raised an eyebrow. “For two years.”

“Still worth it.”

“Do my ears deceive me?” came a loud drawling voice behind Merlin. “Does your brother actually appreciate Quidditch?”

Merlin turned, and a grin slid across his face as he saw his friend standing there. It’d only been a week since he’d last seen Draco Malfoy, be he already felt as if the blond had grown in height. And though he held himself in the same aristocratic manner as the first time they had met, there was something kinder in his grey eyes now. He had just walked out of the supply shop.

“My mother is discussing prices with the owner,” he continued with a shrug.

“Oh, are you buying one?” Merlin asked, nodding toward the Nimbus 2001 in the display case.

Draco smirked, “Why, you jealous?”

“I am.” Silas frowned. “Florean would never get me one.”

“Oh right,” Merlin turned to Silas. “I don’t think you’ve actually met. This is Draco Malfoy and—”

“Your brother Silas, I figured that out on my own.” Draco smirked again and gave Silas a long appraising look. “Which Quidditch team is your favorite?”

“Puddlemere United,” he replied at once.

“You’re okay,” Draco said and he smiled. “At least someone understands,” and he gave a pointed look at Merlin.

Someone was impaled by a broomstick shaft.”

Draco flinched but was saved from responding because Silas asked, “So are you going to try out for the school team?”

“Yes.”

“Oh really?” Merlin blinked. “You want to be in the middle of that?” He could remember watching the games last year. “Fancy a bludger to the head?”

“Stop it, Merlin,” Silas grumbled. “What position do you play?” he asked Draco and he took a step in front of Merlin as though worried he would interrupt him.

“Seeker.” Draco beamed at him. “Let me guess, you can’t have a single conversation about it with this guy,” and he nodded at Merlin again.

“It’s awful,” Silas groaned, making Draco laugh.

“Actually,” and here he dropped his tone conspiratorially, “I’m hopping to buy new brooms for Slytherin. Boyle’s still on a cleansweep for crying out loud.”

Merlin frowned and folded his arms. “I thought everyone was responsible for their own broomstick.”

“Well, sure, unless a kind benefactor can give them a little help – which I can.”

“Oh, how very Slytherin of you,” Merlin snapped. “You’re bribing them!”

“What—?” Silas looked confused. “How’s that bribery?”

“It’ll make them feel indebted to you, like they have to put you on the team whether or not you actually make the cut!” Merlin shot a glance at Silas. This wasn’t a conversation he wanted to have with his brother here.

“You don’t think I’m good enough?” Draco challenged, his ears turning pink.

“I didn’t say that,” Merlin amended, shaking his head. “It just doesn’t look good, is all.”

“Is it bad if I want to give Slytherin their best chance at winning?” Draco grumbled.

“Course not,” Silas spoke up, glancing from one boy to the other with increasing alarm. “It’s not bad…cause… it’s not.”

You just don’t appreciate Quidditch.”

“I—” But Merlin let his words trail off. Draco’s mother had just emerged from the shop. Narcissa was a beautiful woman, with her long blond hair pulled back in an elegant up-do and light eyes. But as she laid her gaze upon him something ugly twisted her features and she turned sharply to Draco.

“I cannot accept his current price,” she said, her voice cold and stern. “Perhaps he can be persuaded later.”

“Oh,” Draco looked crestfallen. The anger that had been steadily rising in his voice had all but vanished. “That’s a—shame,” he continued glancing back at his mother. Silas opened his mouth to say something but Merlin stood on his foot.

Narcissa saw the action. “Ah, Merlin. I see you’ve managed to avoid an interview for the Daily Prophet.” Her cold tone did not change. She lifted her chin higher and came to stand beside Draco, as though feeling the need to protect him.

Merlin inclined his head politely. “By sheer luck, Mrs. Malfoy.” He subtly moved Silas behind him. “I see your opinion of me has fallen some since we last spoke.” He smiled without joy, noting the way her eyes widened at his blatant disregard for subtly. Oh, he lived to surprise the lords and ladies with his charm.

Narcissa Malfoy did not speak for a moment. She clasped her hands together in front of her, her blue eyes narrowing. “Well, I’m sure you must understand that I can’t condone such reckless behavior.” She glanced at her son before turning her full attention back to Merlin. “You could very well have gotten Draco killed, as well as yourself.”

“I would have thought you to be proud,” Merlin’s veiled smile widened. “After all, he aided in the capture of a dangerous man. I am surprised he wasn’t in the Prophet as well.”

Draco gaped at him, but had the sense not to speak. He glanced up at his mother, who hadn’t shifted her gaze yet. Merlin knew he was on dangerous ground where the Malfoy’s were concerned. He had never been on particularly good terms with Draco’s parents, and by influencing Draco to improve his opinion of muggleborns he was sure to have worsened them. And by aligning himself with Dumbledore and actively fighting against Lord Voldemort’s return, their worst suspicions were confirmed.  They didn’t want Draco affiliating himself with someone like Merlin. Draco had said so himself, that his parents would be furious with him standing with Merlin against Quirrell.

“Fortunate, I should think,” Narcissa countered.

“May I invite Draco for Ice Cream?” he asked, dropping the subject entirely. “I’m sure you know that my guardian, Florean Fortescue owns the ice cream parlor on Diagon Alley.”

“I do…” Narcissa said shortly. She paused a moment, and Merlin realized that she was seriously considering his invitation. He had expected an immediate refusal. He blinked and some of his façade faltered, revealing a hopeful boy. Her eyes flickered to Silas behind him. “This is—?”

“My brother,” Merlin introduced turning to Silas and nodding.

“Silas Meadowes.” Silas nodded his head like Merlin had done, giving him a curious glance. “I won’t be starting Hogwarts for another year.”

“But you will?” Narcissa prompted, looking vaguely surprised. “I recall that you were both raised in a muggle orphanage.”

“I think we have magical ancestors,” Merlin said and he held his chin a little higher. He knew he did, and from what Silas had hinted about his brother he suspected the same. He swallowed and glanced at Draco, who shrugged in return.

“I see.” Narcissa put a hand on Draco’s shoulder. “Draco and I really need to be going. However,” and she paused again. “You may invite Draco for ice cream next week.”

Merlin stared at her. “Oh—oh, yes. I will! Thank you,” and he inclined his head quickly. Even Draco stood stunned, gaping at his mother. Narcissa’s features softened slightly, but she did not smile.  She merely nodded and turned.

“Come, Draco,” she said before setting off down the street without a backwards glance.

I’ll send you an owl,” Draco mouthed to him. “Our conversation isn’t over,” he added a little louder and he winked at Silas. “Nice to meet you!” and he quickly ran into the crowd after his mother.

“You too!” Silas called after him. “What was all that about?” he asked, turning to Merlin. “The way you talked to that lady—”

“The Malfoy’s are a little different than most wizards,” Merlin said, coming to himself. “They have the potential to change the wizarding world, but whether for better or worse is up to them.”

 

Chapter Text

“Did you really mean it?” Draco swallowed, wondering if he even dared allow himself the luxury of hope. “I can go for ice cream with Merlin next week?”

His mother didn’t answer immediately, keeping her gaze fixed on their approach to Malfoy Manor. He considered that a good sign—she would’ve wasted no time in declaring otherwise. It wasn’t the first time a Malfoy had lied in the name of public image. Even if his parents didn’t agree with Merlin, the boy had been thrown into the media spotlight and they’d therefore maintain, if not friendly, at least polite terms with the boy.

But they didn’t like him.

Merlin had declared himself an advocate of the light, an enemy of the Dark Lord and a muggle-lover. The fact that Draco therefore chose to associate with him—well, his father wasn’t pleased. Lucius had already threatened to transfer him to Durmstrang twice, and was only prevented from doing so by his mother. Not that she approved of their relationship either—

“Is your friendship with Merlin so important that you would risk our family losing favor with the Dark Lord?”

Draco gaped at her. She was rarely so blunt. “I—” he faltered.

“He has already defied the Dark Lord once,” his mother continued, casting him a glance. “Standing in his way will not end favorably for us—particularly for your father.”

“You were the one who said I should keep an eye on him,” he shot, frowning as he recalled the trip to Diagon Alley last year. It felt impossibly long ago now. So much had changed. “Father said he’d never heard of a Whomping Willow wand.”

“That was before he allied himself with Dumbledore and the rest of them.”

“Don’t—” Draco took a deep breath, choosing his words carefully. “Don’t you think it might be better to stay close to him because of that? What’s that phrase?” He sneered. “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”

“You’re too close, Draco.”

But she didn’t sound angry. Her shoulders dropped in exhaustion and he heard her sigh softly beside him. Draco didn’t speak. He knew that although she spoke of loyalty to the Dark Lord, she had never truly wanted him to go down that path. He had seen it in her eyes, the way her jaw clenched when his father mentioned some of his more radical purist ideals. No—she was terrified. His mother wanted him to be safe, nothing more.

Well, he certainly felt safer with Merlin.

His parent’s didn’t know everything. They didn’t know that Merlin had single-handedly killed a troll. They didn’t know the sheer amount of raw power that the boy possessed, and Draco had a feeling that once they knew they would be more supportive. They might not agree with Merlin’s muggle-loving ideas, but they wouldn’t risk antagonizing power.

“Will you attend the evidence hearing with father?” he asked as they scaled the steps of the manor.

“If I can.”

Draco nodded. “And—” He didn’t need to finish.

“I’m sorry, but you may not attend. Your father is a school governor and his presence, although not a necessity, is recommended due to the nature of the case.” She opened the doors with a wave of her hand and strode inside.

“Oh, good.”

She turned back to him, raising one of her penciled eyebrows.

Draco shrugged, “He might understand, that’s all.”

Merlin deserves his loyalty more than the Dark Lord.

“I see.” She appraised him for a moment before turning away. “So, about those purchasing those brooms—”

 

If Severus Snape was honest with himself, he wanted to see Merlin.

He argued that it was perfectly normal to have the boy on his mind. The events of the previous school year stared at him from every copy of the Daily Prophet. The imprisoned ex-Defense Against the Dark Arts professor glared at him from behind bars, wearing a hungry, frustrated expression that twisted his bandaged face. Snape was almost disappointed Quirrell had managed to pull through—for a brief moment the healers at St. Mungo’s weren’t sure he would. But he didn’t think Merlin would’ve taken it well if he discovered he’d accidentally killed someone—accidental magic, or not.

And then there was the prophecy.

He hated seers. By predicting the future, he often felt they were forcing that future to happen. If no one paid attention to a half mumbled prophecy, would it still come to pass? And this one—sure it foretold the downfall of the Dark Lord but now he was taking protective measures. There went any chance of a surprise attack. And Merlin—

Dumbledore thought he was the boy spoken of in the prophecy. Though Snape hated it, he nevertheless found himself agreeing. He might not understand all the vague language but Merlin had defeated him once, and he’d therefore put himself on the Dark Lord’s radar. Even if he weren’t the boy of the prophecy, he would be now. Plus the notes about blue eyes and the late July Birthday were oddly coincidental.

Snape sighed, tapping the brick to allow him entry to Diagon Alley. The trial would begin tomorrow. He almost wished he could attend, but his role as a double agent demanded that he keep a low profile. He would ask Merlin to mention his involvement as little as possible. It wouldn’t bode well for him if the Dark Lord thought he might have truly switched sides—especially not now that it was clear he wasn’t gone.

He reached the ice cream parlor quickly, and was pleased to see that he’d arrived before the lunch rush. Snape gritted his teeth—Merlin was clever. He didn’t want the boy realizing something was wrong, and although he and Dumbledore had their differences they agreed on this matter: Merlin was too young to know about the prophecy. He didn’t need that ominous shadow following him around. Snape shook his head, and pushed open the door.

A bell clanged.

“Ah, Professor. Merlin said you would be dropping by.” Florean Fortescue was standing behind the register, wearing a white stained apron over what looked like a bright orange pinstripe waistcoat.

“Mr. Fortescue.” Snape politely inclined his head.

“Florean, please. You make me feel like I’m still in school.” Florean gave a hearty laugh and walked out from behind the counter, still smiling. “Should I grab Merlin?”

“If you wouldn’t mind.”

“I have a private room in the back,” Florean said, pointing to a door on the far side of the shop. “Usually reserved for birthdays and the like. I trust you don’t want to be overheard?”

Snape nodded and without another word, strode across the room. The thought that a student might spot him inside the ice cream parlor did not appeal to him. He swept into the private room and almost winced at the array of brightly colored streamers hanging from the ceiling. Empty and unused, the chairs rested upside down on the large center table. He flicked his wand and two chairs righted themselves. Snape had just taken a seat when the door opened again.

“Congratulations, you managed to last nearly two weeks without seeing me.” Merlin gave a broad cheeky smile and flung himself into the chair opposite him. “That’s got to be a new record, isn’t it?”

Snape’s lip curled. “I see your new foster hasn’t addressed your insolent behavior.”

Merlin scoffed. “Oh, I don’t think there’s anyone that can fix that.”

“Pity.” Snape pinched the bridge of his nose. The image of the boy lying bloody and unconscious beneath heavy slabs of rock had haunted him since the end of the quarter, and it seemed impossible that this was the same boy. He had almost expected Merlin to be more subdued after his encounter with Quirrell—but he was as tenacious as ever. Somehow, that comforted him. Merlin was too young to be plagued by nightmares. “I trust I don’t need to reiterate the purpose for my visit?”

“Nope.”

Snape nodded. “The hearing, I’m sure you’re aware, will decide whether or not there is enough evidence to convict Quirrell.”

“And I’m the key witness,” Merlin sighed.

“Yes, now it’s important that in your testimony you refrain from mentioning my involvement as much as possible.”

He watched as Merlin frowned. “Why?” the boy asked. “You suspected Quirrell long before I did.”

“It would,” Snape said slowly, choosing his words with care, “cause unfortunate complications.” Merlin didn’t need to know about his role as a double agent. He had no doubt that Merlin would find out eventually, especially if he really was the boy of the prophecy but now wasn’t the time. “The headmaster has explained that certain members of his staff desire anonymity—so they are prepared for such details to be omitted.”

Merlin didn’t say anything for a long moment. He could see the boy thinking, his brow furrowed as he took in Snape’s explanation. “Okay,” he said finally, meeting Snape’s eyes. “But, won’t it seem odd that I didn’t go to my head of house for help?”

“I didn’t say that you couldn’t mention me entirely,” Snape said. “But it would be a good idea if you didn’t give the jury the impression that I shared sensitive information with an eleven year old.” Snape watched Merlin’s eyes widen in understanding. “Also,” he decided to add, “Lucius Malfoy will be present, and I’d rather he didn’t come to the conclusion that you consider me a confidant.”

Merlin’s face suddenly went impassive. Snape recognized the expression of someone hiding their emotions, though he didn’t understand why Merlin would feel the need to hide something from him. He surveyed Merlin for a moment before saying, “Lucius would no doubt take advantage of it, especially since I am Draco’s Godfather.”

“You—” Merlin spluttered a moment, before shaking his head. “Okay.” Snape was willing to bet that Draco would be receiving an owl after he left. “So,” and Merlin took a deep breath, “I just tell them what happened then?”

“A verbal testimony will only persuade so many,” Snape said. “Would you be willing to submit a memory of the incident?” Since Merlin would need to omit certain details, undergoing a Veritaserum interview was out of the question. In any case, it was forbidden to use the truth potion on a student—it could have adverse effects on a developing brain.

But Merlin had gone stiff in his seat. Even though he was clearly trying to hide his emotions, Snape could see panic and fear in his eyes. Maybe the incident had affected Merlin after all—or was he simply scared of how people would see him? Merlin had killed the troll on Halloween night and hadn’t taken the credit. He’d only told Snape because he’d threatened to expel the boy, and even then he hadn’t wanted anyone to know about it. In all honesty, he would have expected a student to brag about accomplishing something so difficult, and yet Merlin feared being discovered.

Why?

“Wizarding law,” Snape said after a minute, “protects the privacy of youths more fiercely than adults. You may submit one, all, or no memories the incident.”

This seemed to comfort Merlin. He relaxed slightly, and his expression turned thoughtful. “I’ll submit the memory of eavesdropping on Quirrell in his classroom and getting pushed down the stairs. That was the first time I saw Voldemort—” Snape flinched, “—and that’s the one they’ll have the most difficulty believing, isn’t it?”

Snape nodded, but didn’t speak, bringing his hands together on the table. So he didn’t want anyone to see him dueling the ex-professor. Snape was almost disappointed. How had Merlin managed to stand his ground? And again, he was refusing to bask in the spotlight of doing something incredible.

“Are you uncomfortable with recognition?” he shot suddenly, his curiosity getting the better of him.

Merlin blinked. “Um—why do you ask?” He fidgeted in his seat.

“One dead troll and an incarcerated professor would indicate that you don’t like to take credit for your accomplishments. I’d have thought you were excessively humble if I didn’t know otherwise,” Snape sneered.

“Everyone knows that I defeated Quirrell though,” Merlin said, folding his arms. “That’s taking credit, isn’t it?”

“And yet you guard your memory of the incident. I’m right when I assume you encountered the Dark Lord then as well, in even more detail then a glimpse through a cracked door.” He knew he was right when Merlin went silent again, those blue eyes dropping to the floor. “But you don’t want anyone to see that memory, do you?”

“Maybe it’s just too traumatic for me,” Merlin snapped suddenly. “I was stabbed.”

“And I suppose being pushed down two flights of stairs and cracking your skull isn’t traumatic?” Snape replied, seeing the lie for what it was immediately.

“I—” Merlin faltered. He bit his lip and mumbled something that Snape didn’t hear.

“Would you care to repeat that?” He snapped.

“I’d scare them.”

Of the responses Snape’s had expected, that wasn’t one of them. He thought he would scare them? “I’m sure the Dark Lord would concern them far more than a boy,” he deadpanned. But then Merlin laughed, and the harsh mirthless sound grated against his nerves. It didn’t sound right coming from him and not just because he was young. It belonged to someone much older and darker than Merlin.

“Right, because dueling Voldemort at eleven is so ordinary,” the boy spat sarcastically. “I’m not an idiot, professor. I know that power scares people, especially when they aren’t sure which side it’s on and lets face it—Slytherin doesn’t exactly have the best track record.” He took a deep breath and shook his head. “And yeah, I’m not used to recognition either,” he added in a softer tone.

“Perhaps,” Snape said slowly, “you have a point.”

The Dark Lord had been gifted from a young age as well. He had often bragged to his Death Eaters that his first muggle-killing had been while he was a student, and it had been his sheer power and charisma that had drawn so many to follow him in the first place. If everyone saw a young boy fight him on equal ground, the question would be raised. Would Merlin be another Dark Lord? Perhaps if he’d been in Gryffindor he would’ve been regarded as a hero, but everyone knew Slytherin could go either way and as of late it seemed they had a tendency to go dark side. But what else hadn’t Merlin received recognition for? Or maybe he didn’t want to know.

Snape leaned back in his chair and after a moment, chuckled. Merlin looked sharply up at him, his eyes narrowing.

“What?”

“It appears you are more intelligent than I thought.”

“Are you saying you thought I was stupid before?” Merlin asked, frowning.

Snape raised his eyebrow, “You certainly didn’t do anything to suggest otherwise, or shall I remind you of the number of zeros I have in my grade book?”

“Yeah, well,” Merlin shrugged, “I passed anyway.”

“Don’t think I or any other professor will tolerate your slothful behavior this time,” Snape said. “Have you finished your potions homework yet?”

Merlin brightened. “Funny enough, I have.”

“You’ll forgive me if I don’t take your word for it. Bring it here.”

Merlin groaned before getting to his feet and shuffling out the door, clearly taking more time than was necessary for such a task. Snape pinched the bridge of his nose after Merlin shut the door behind him. So, his defeat of Quirrell had not been an accident. That was the only reason why he thought his memory would scare the wizarding community. Snape frowned. He had always pictured a scared, desperate boy just barely holding Quirrell off—if it was otherwise…

“Can I interrupt for a moment?”

Snape blinked and looked up, spotting Florean hanging in the doorway.

“I wondered if I could speak to you about Merlin for a moment.”

“He is as hopeless as he is insolent, I doubt I’ll be of much help,” Snape sneered, but he gestured to the chair opposite him all the same. “Or are you looking for detention ideas?”

Florean laughed, “No, nothing like that.” He took a seat and brought his hands together. “I just wondered if perhaps you knew anything about his birth parents.”

Snape stared at him. He wanted to know about Merlin’s parents? “When I first met him, he was living in an orphanage. They had no record of his parents, and Merlin himself claims he remembers little of them.”

Florean raised his eyebrow. “Claims?” he repeated, and he leaned forward. “What makes you think that?”

“He changes his story regarding them. First he doesn’t remember them at all, and then a little.” Snape’s lip curled. “He mentioned to me once that no one could ever replace his father, making me think that he does remember the man even if he won’t say anything about him.”

“Well, that’s more than what he’s told me,” Florean said scratching the back of his neck. “He’s very guarded, isn’t he?”

“He is.”

Florean shook his head. “His birthday is coming up in about a month, I’m sure you know, and I was hoping to give him a photo or something that had belonged to his family.”

“He does possess a family heirloom,” Snape said, remembering the chain Merlin wore around his neck. The only time he’d ever caught sight of it had been when it’d fallen off, after Merlin had been injured by the exploding broomstick and very briefly at that. “A ring, I think. He wears it around his neck.”

“Oh!” Florean looked delighted. “That’s good, I was hoping he had something to remember his parents. Looks like I need to come up with another idea.”

The door opened and Merlin entered, holding a roll of parchment in his hand. “Florean?” he asked, stopping short when he saw them.

Florean smiled and got to his feet. “Just having a quick word with your professor,” and he nodded to Snape. “I’ll leave you to it then.”

Snape watched him leave for a moment, Merlin taking the seat again and pushing the roll of parchment toward him. He honestly hadn’t thought about Merlin’s parents in a long time, but now that Florean had brought it up the thought stayed with him. Something must have happened while Merlin was younger that made him hesitant to trust others, or take credit for his accomplishments. There had been a time when Snape had thought that Merlin might be related to Lily Evans. But other than lacking any physical similarity to her or her family, she still had living relatives and Merlin would surely have been placed with them instead of going straight to an orphanage.

Merlin was a bundle of mysteries, each buried deep where no one would find them. Not unless he wanted them to.

“Okay,” Snape said shaking his head and snatching the homework. “Let’s see if anything is salvageable.”

Merlin stared at the ceiling, listening to the gentle snores coming from the bed next to him. He couldn’t sleep. He kept running over the conversation he’d had earlier with Snape, doubting his responses. The professor had always been rather sharp, realizing when Merlin was truthful and when he wasn’t. He had started to consider Snape a confidant; even if it were always painfully obvious that he would never be like Gaius. But hearing the professor say it like a fact—he’d felt touched.

And then he’d felt guilty.

He tried to be honest with Snape as much as he could. Merlin had told him about the troll first. He’d trusted him, sent for his help when Quirrell went after the stone. But although Snape knew about his accomplishments he was also right—Merlin refused to give details. He’d told Draco and Hermione because they had already seen him like that, as something powerful and dangerous and they hadn’t been scared of him. Now, Merlin didn’t think he’d scare the professor—he doubted anything could really scare that man—but he was worried what Snape would think of him.

And he didn’t want them to hear his use of druidic spells. He suspected that someone would recognize them, or at least attempt to research them and then he’d be questioned about where he’d learned them. That wasn’t something Merlin wanted to deal with. And if people started to worry that he was another Dark Lord, just waiting for a chance to take over? Voldemort had made everyone paranoid, and his being in Slytherin certainly wouldn’t help matters. At least the Professor had understood that.

Also, he was Draco’s Godfather? Somehow the Malfoy had forgotten to mention that. Merlin supposed he ought to have realized—Snape had appeared to be on good terms with Lucius when they’d met in Madam Malkin’s. The Malfoy family wouldn’t have gone to lunch with just anybody. Or perhaps Draco had mentioned it before and Merlin had just forgotten—it was known to happen. Merlin shook his head, his brow furrowing.

He wished he could be more honest with Snape. But so much of what he said would just be taken as nothing more than a child’s word—Snape had said last year to leave adult matters to adults, and Merlin didn’t think he’d change his mind now. Not when it was clear Snape actually cared about him to some extent. Merlin teased him, but he knew the professor worried about his wellbeing. He wouldn’t take it well if Merlin actively went against Voldemort again, or at least, he wouldn’t expect him to.

Brilliant.

Snape had also clearly wanted to see Merlin defeat Quirrell himself. He’d seen the disappointment in the professor’s eyes. He sighed and rolled over in bed, pulling the covers over his head. He wasn’t sure how that made him feel. Gaius had never really asked for the particulars. He’d just wanted to know that everything had gone okay, and was ready to caution him about what some of his actions could entail. And Arthur—well, that was part of the reason Merlin had grown accustomed to never accepting credit.

Yes, everyone knew he’d defeated Quirrell. They even knew some of the details, as a gaping hole in the corridor was hard to miss. Only Draco and Hermione knew the blow-by-blow account, although that was surely to change at the hearing tomorrow. Anxiety touched Merlin’s mind, whispering that even though they wouldn’t see the memory he was still likely to cause concern among the wizarding world.

Not at much, he argued back.

He heard Silas shift in his sleep and the snores stopped. Merlin shook himself again. He needed to get to sleep. He had court in the morning. He yawned and closed his eyes, summoning images of Ealdor to lull him to sleep. He’d just started to float into unconsciousness when Silas tossed again, the action loud and feverish. Merlin’s eyes opened. Silas made a choking sound and Merlin sat up, looking over at him.

“Silas?” he whispered, but his foster brother didn’t hear him. The bedside table rattled, and Merlin stared at it. Silas had mentioned of his possibly going to Hogwarts but Merlin hadn’t considered it as anything more than hopeful thinking. Silas made another strained noise and the table shook again, causing the glass of water resting on top to spill a little.

“Silas,” Merlin repeated, moving to sit on his foster brother’s bed.

Silas fought with his covers before shouting, “Byron!” and jerking upright just as the glass of water on the bedside table shattered. He didn’t say anything for a moment, his breathing heavy. Merlin noted with the tremor wracking his frame, and put his hand on his shoulder but when Silas flinched he quickly pulled his hand back.

“Are you okay?” Merlin asked slowly. “Were—were you dreaming about your brother?” Silas had never mentioned his name before but Merlin couldn’t think of anyone else that could cause Silas to be so distraught.

“What?” Silas looked blankly at him for a moment, wiping sweat from his forehead. He turned to look at his bedside table and gasped, pointing at the broken pieces of glass. “Merlin—look!” he said, the panic from before disappearing. “I did the same thing you did!”

“Congratulations, it’s caused by nightmares.”

“Yeah—” Silas shook his head, and met his eyes. “But this is proof I have magic, right?”

Merlin raised his eyebrow. “You say that like you have other evidence.” Silas bit his lip and Merlin stared. “You do?

Silas fidgeted. “I didn’t want to tell you in case it didn’t turn out to be true! Snape said he would check if I was on the Hogwarts roster for me, but I think he’s been to busy with the Quirrell case…” he trailed off, shrugging.

“Oh.” Merlin found himself smiling. “Well, I think you might just be a wizard.”

Silas looked thrilled. He laughed and wrapped Merlin in a tight hug. He could actually feel his magic now that Merlin thought about it, he had never noticed it before but it was there. It was still slightly agitated by whatever Silas had been dreaming about, though as it calmed it became harder for Merlin to sense.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Merlin asked when Silas didn’t break the hug after a moment.

“What?” Silas pulled back and looked at him. “About the other times? Well—”

“Not that—the dream. You said Byron before you woke up.”

Silas went very still.

“Is that your brother?” Merlin watched him closely. He knew very little about Silas’ older brother, other than he was presumed dead. He’d disappeared one day and Silas had been forced to live in the streets for a while before going to Wool’s Orphanage. He could understand why Silas didn’t like to talk about him—he himself avoided the topic of his family. It was painful, to think about them.

Slowly, Silas nodded and he lay back down in bed. “Just, the last time I saw him,” he mumbled. He shook his head. “Anyway, can we tell Florean? I want to tell him that I have magic!” He sat up again, his smile wide. “I’ll be able to go to Hogwarts with you next year!”

 

 

Chapter Text

“Merlin, eat something!”

They’d overslept.

The excitement surrounding Silas hadn’t died down until long past midnight, and even Florean had slept in. He hadn’t been surprised that Silas had magic. Apparently, the teachers at the magical primary school had also noticed and even Snape had mentioned the likelihood while asking him to foster the boys. But while Merlin had loved the sheer joy that spread over Silas’ face when he’d realized that he’d be joining Merlin at Hogwarts in a year, he was also worried.

Part of him had hoped Silas wouldn’t have magic.

Maybe that was cruel—he knew better than anyone how beautiful and amazing magic was. But last year he’d come face to face with none other than Lord Voldemort. At Hogwarts! The idea that Silas might get hurt—maybe he’d ask Florean to consider sending Silas to a different magical school. There was more than one, right? But then, there was nothing to stop trouble from happening at those schools either. Chaos followed magic around like an indentured servant.

He would know.

“Merlin.”

He glanced up. He had been pacing in front of the kitchen table, too agitated to sit. He and Florean would be leaving to Quirrel’s evidence hearing in a few minutes, as soon as Florean made sure everything was fine in the shop downstairs. Silas was watching him, holding out a piece of toast.

“You really should eat something.” Now he’d made Silas worried.

“I’m not hungry,” Merlin managed, resuming his trek around the table. How could he eat? He would have to submit memory evidence, talk about what had happened, how he had defeated Quirrell. The comfort that he got to choose which memories he wished to give was minimal. Just like Snape, they would wonder why he didn’t give them the memory. The fight. And while he knew no one would suspect his identity at first, awkward questions would arise if they saw him use ancient druidic spells.

“You’ll do fine,” Silas said and he gave a reassuring smile. “Just tell them what happened, and it’ll be over before you know it.”

Not until Voldemort himself is defeated.

The sound of rushed footsteps scaling the stairs saved Merlin from answering. Florean entered, wearing a waistcoat of royal purple with silver stitching—the only one that had managed to avoid ice cream stains. The star-shaped buttons twinkled brightly in the morning light, and Florean checked to make sure they were all closed as he caught his breath.

“Right, kiddo,” he said crossing the room and grabbing a piece of toast. “We need to leave.” He held the toast in his mouth while he consulted a bronze pocket-watch. His eyebrows rose. “Immediately.”

“Okay.” Merlin took a deep breath. He could do this. What was he even worried about?

“Wish I could come,” Silas muttered, giving Florean a look.

“No, we’ve already had this conversation,” Florean said shaking his head. “This is by invitation only. Do some homework while we’re gone.”

“What—”

“Merlin, let’s go.” Florean led the way back to the door.

“Wait!”

Merlin turned as Silas ran up to him and stuffed a few pieces of toast into his hands. “Just in case you get hungry,” he said. Although he was grinning Merlin could see the earnest look in his eyes, his assurance that Merlin would do great, that there was nothing to worry about—a good luck hanging unsaid in the air.

Merlin managed a smile. “Thanks,” and he ran out the door. At the bottom of the stairs Florean was consulting his pocket-watch again. He looked up as Merlin approached.

“We have barely half an hour.”

Merlin nodded. “How are we getting there?” he asked while Florean waved goodbye to his employees and led Merlin out of the shop. “Are we walking?”

“Course not,” Florean snorted. “You’ve apparated before, right?”

Merlin blinked. “Yeah, with Snape.”

“Good, because we’ve got no time for anything else.” He put his hand on Merlin’s shoulder. “Take a deep breath,” and he turned on his heel.

Merlin felt the magic wrap around them, intertwining and bending, changing their bodies as they vanished and reappeared with a crack. They were standing in the wide entrance of the Ministry of Magic, where he and Snape had first arrived, on one of the several platforms lining the black tiled walls.

“You all right?” Florean asked him as he led the way off the platform, his hand resting reassuringly on Merlin’s shoulder.

“I’ll live,” Merlin said, and he faked a grimace. He’d decided that he wanted to bring as little attention to himself as possible. The more normal he appeared, the better. Sure, Snape knew he hadn’t gotten sick while apparating but that didn’t mean everyone had to. And although Merlin liked Florean very much, he didn’t know him that well yet. “Where’s the hearing?”

“Down in the courtrooms.” Florean led the way through the crowd and—Merlin groaned.

“Doesn’t this place have stairs?”

“What’s wrong with the lift?”

Merlin swallowed. “I’m just—not a huge fan,” he said awkwardly.

Florean laughed. “Well, unfortunately we don’t have time to find the stairs—I’m not even sure they have them, as a matter of fact.” He joined the small queue that had already formed in front one of the lifts and surveyed his watch. “Yup, sorry kiddo. Definitely don’t have time.”

Merlin sighed, but when the doors opened he got in after Florean all the same.

“Floor?” a man next to the buttons asked.

“Ten, thank you,” Florean said and the lift closed.

Merlin tried not to groan. They were the last floor, below the Department of Mysteries. He tensed as the lift shuddered into life, dragging them down. They stopped just one floor down—and were pushed further back as more people filed in.

“So, know what you’re gonna say?” Florean asked him.

“Sort of.” Merlin paused. “Why can’t they just take Quirrell’s memories?” he asked. “Wouldn’t that answer everything?” He was the guy who was being charged, after all.

“You need to have evidence,” Florean said. “If memories aren’t volunteered, you need to have reason to take them.”

“We have a reason.”

“But you need some proof,” Florean sighed, readjusting his waistcoat again as they went down another level. “It’s a serious invasion of privacy, and can get painful if you fight it.”

Merlin shot him a panicked look.

“I said, if you fight it.”

Merlin wasn’t sure that made him feel better. “So, innocent until proven guilty and all that?”

“Precisely. If all goes well today, I believe they’ll withdraw some of Quirrell’s memories. Even if he doesn’t let them but—Merlin, memories are not the most reliable piece of evidence.”

“What do you mean?” Merlin stumbled as several people leaving the elevator jostled him.

“Okay, well how you interpret a memory can change it. No one remembers all the details of day-to-day life, so when you remember something your brain fills in the gaps. The weather, what you were wearing, all of that.” They shuddered to a halt, the cool female voice telling them they’d reached the Department of Mysteries. The last two people left and they were alone.

“Two people can remember the same thing differently, depending on what a person thought they saw. Do you understand?”

The lift opened for the last time and Merlin followed Florean out, mulling over this information. “I think so,” he said slowly. “But, why allow memories at all then?”

“Why allow testimonies?” Florean countered. “They’re the same thing, just spoken.”

Merlin frowned. “So how can anyone know what happened for certain?”

“There’s no certainty. It’s called beyond a reasonable doubt for a reason. And, if all the testimonies match up on certain points, and the hard evidence—material evidence—supports what the witness says, then you can get a pretty good idea of what the truth is.” When Merlin didn’t reply Florean glanced at him. “It works most of the time.”

“Yeah.”

Looking ahead, Merlin saw a small crowd of people, queuing to get into the courtroom. And, waiting next to the door wearing navy blue robes, was Albus Dumbledore. He smiled merrily at them, and walked forward to meet them.

“Mr. Fortescue, pleasure to see you again, although I wish it was under—ah—different circumstances.”

Florean beamed back at him, and heartily shook the hand that Dumbledore extended. “As do I. Come round my shop sometime, I’ve improved the lemon sherbet.”

Dumbledore’s eyes twinkled and he laughed. “It seems news of my favorite flavor has reached you.” He turned to Merlin. “I’m sorry to put you through this, Merlin.”

“Anything to stop Voldemort.”

“Merlin!” Florean said in an urgent whisper, and he looked around them as though half expecting him to appear.

“It’s perfectly all right, Mr. Fortescue. Fear of the name only increases the fear of the thing itself.” He surveyed Florean through his half-moon spectacles until Florean turned pink and nodded.

“Now, Merlin,” Dumbledore continued, “I’m believe Severus has told you that Quirrell will not be here today?” He waited for Merlin to nod. “Don’t be nervous, everyone in that room just wants to hear what happened and will decide what to do with Quirrell accordingly. I’m leading the case against him, and will call you up when it’s time.”

Merlin released a long breath. “Okay.”

Dumbledore smiled at him, and then gestured toward the door. “You’ll be sitting first row on the left. It’s been marked.”

Merlin nodded again and Dumbledore left them to speak to a witch wearing a monocle. Florean led the way through the doors and Merlin swallowed a lump building in his throat.

They’d entered a large hall, with a high ceiling, and arranged so that every single one of the raised seats was angled toward an open marbled floor. A tall wooden podium stood before them—glossy and chipped with age. No one was sitting up behind it yet, although scattered through the seats were several wizards adorning purple robes with gold lettering conversing with one another. Florean gave a sigh of relief as he looked around too and Merlin glanced at him.

“They’ve removed that hideous chair for the hearing.”

“What?”

“Oh nothing—just supposed to be a chair with chains in the center of the room. Probably removed it because this is just an evidence hearing.”

Merlin followed him to the left side of the room, where some seats had been marked, “reserved for witness,” and sat down. Across he spotted some wizards in regular black robes, and one witch in acid green. She had short curly blond hair and a crocodile skin handbag, which she had propped on her lap. Florean groaned.

“How did she worm her way in?”

“Who?”

He nodded toward the woman. “That’s Rita Skeeter.”

Merlin recognized the name. “The woman who wrote that Daily Prophet article?”

“The same.” Florean shook his head. “I had hoped they wouldn’t let her in, but then again I’m not surprised. It’s big news.”

“Oh.” Merlin wasn’t sure how he felt about a reporter being there to witness his testimony. He looked jerkily away from her, and spotted a platinum blond head he couldn’t forget. Lucius Malfoy was sitting a few rows above Rita Skeeter, donning a Victorian collar with his robes. As Merlin watched, he looked over at him and after a moment, nodded curtly before beginning a conversation with the man next to him.

“You all right, kiddo?”

“Yeah, just thinking.” Merlin sighed and leaned back in his chair, watching as people continued to file into the courtroom. The woman with the monocle took the seat behind the podium. “Who’s that?” he asked.

“Madam Amelia Bones. She’s Head of Magical Law Enforcement.”

That made sense. Merlin turned and smiled when he saw a familiar face entering the room. Madam Pomfrey came and took a seat on Florean’s other side, and she leaned over to smile at him.

“You all right, Evans?” Madam Pomfrey asked, meeting his gaze. He wondered why everyone kept asking him that.

“Yeah. Why are you here?” He blinked, realizing that may have sounded rude. “I mean, are you testifying as well?”

“Of course. I was present for the aftermath of the staircase incident.”

“Right!” Merlin smiled back. Dumbledore took the last seat on the end. Somehow, with so much backup Merlin couldn’t help but feel that there was no chance Quirrell would get away with what he’d done. And neither would Voldemort. Merlin turned back to the rest of the room, noticing how it had filled. Not a single seat was left unoccupied, and everyone was talking, laughing, which should have relaxed him but only made him more anxious. He’d have to speak in front of all of these people. He turned his gaze back to Amelia Bones, and as Merlin watched—she stood.

The conversation died at once, all eyes turning toward the woman as she adjusted her monocle, straightened the parchment lying on the weathered podium with meticulous grace, and cleared her throat. He held his breath, feeling the tension of the room soar as energy rose in the air. His clamped his shaking hands together. His palms felt sweaty. Beside him, Florean placed a comforting hand on his shoulder and squeezed.

The hearing had begun.

“The Wizengamot is here today to hear the evidence against Quirinus Quirrell, previous Defense Against the Dark Arts professor of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardy, and to determine if the case should proceed to criminal trail.”

There was a ripple through the jury as Amelia Bones spoke, and Merlin felt their flickering glances. He shifted in his seat, but kept his eyes fixed on the department head. Even from across the room, he could hear the scratch of a quill dancing across parchment. Florean clicked his tongue in annoyance and dropped his hand from Merlin’s shoulder. Rita Skeeter was already penning her opinions then.

“As Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement I will conduct this hearing.” She paused a moment, and Merlin thought he caught amusement in her frosty gaze. “I call Albus Dumbledore, Headmaster of Hogwarts, Supreme Mugwump of the International Confederation of Wizards, and Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot to present his case against Quirinus Quirrell.”

Dumbledore left his seat from the end of Merlin’s row and strode down to address them. Conversation broke out at once, and Merlin heard snippets from around him.

“Dumbledore’s the plaintiff?”

“I think the outcome of this case has already been decided.”

Merlin frowned and looked at Florean. “If Dumbledore’s Chief Warlock,” he asked slowly, “doesn’t that mean he’s usually the one overseeing the court?”

Florean looked amused. “Only for the most serious cases. Madam Bones presides otherwise.”

“Yeah, but,” Merlin glanced down at Dumbledore—who had just responded to a wave from someone in the crowd—and trailed off. Florean seemed to know what was troubling Merlin because he sighed.

“Professor Dumbledore has a lot of influence in the Ministry, and the fact that he’s the plaintiff tells everyone how important this is. Does Quirrell stand a chance?” Florean shrugged. “The Wizengamot is supposed to make unbiased decisions, looking only at the evidence presented to them—but there’s a reason he’s Chief Warlock. Wizards trust his judgment. You couldn’t have asked for a better advocate.”

Merlin didn’t reply. He felt conflicted. Although the system was quite obviously more fair than a King bestowing a hasty judgment with barely any evidence except someone’s word, Merlin had a feeling this system had moments of failure too. He half wondered if Quirrell would get the same verdict if Dumbledore weren’t a factor—no. Merlin shook himself.

The man had tried to kill him, after all. And that was easily proved.

“As you may already know,” the headmaster began, a serious edge in his tone now, “last year, Quirinus Quirrell took the post of Defense Against the Dark Arts at Hogwarts and over the course of the year it became clear to my staff and I that he was intending to steal the Philosophers Stone.” He paused a moment as though waiting for questions, though none came. The room held its collective breath.

“Many,” and here his blue eyes flickered over to Rita Skeeter, whose acid green quill was dancing across her parchment, “have criticized the wisdom in placing a highly valuable artifact inside a school. Allow me to explain. The genius behind it, Nicolas Flamel, is an old and dear friend of mine, and over the summer he became aware that it’s location had been leaked and that leaving it in the care of Gringotts Bank—although a truly fine establishment—would be most unwise. I encouraged this, and volunteered to take the stone under my possession. You can imagine my surprise that someone would attempt to steal the stone while it was in my care.”

One person laughed, and the headmaster smiled. “Precisely.”

Merlin had never felt such a pleasant and electrified mood. The way Dumbledore commanded the floor made him feel very small indeed— somehow it didn’t process that he had done just the same at King Arthur’s Court.

“Because a series of events, my staff and I came to suspect Quirinus of possessing a more malevolent nature, but by then we were unable to secretly move the stone. The testimonies that you will hear today will force you to question matters the wizarding society has buried for years. I can only ask that you consider them with the urgency they deserve.” He offered his hands, Madam Bones ruffled her papers.

“The first piece of evidence,” she read, “that you wish to submit regards an incident taking place on Halloween night, yes?”

“Indeed, yes—but you must forgive me, as some professors wish not to be named. They have submitted their testimonies anonymously, as I’m sure you understand.”

Madam Bones nodded. “We have discussed this matter. You may proceed.”

The headmaster inclined his head to her, and began. “On Halloween night, Quirinus Quirrell ushered a mountain troll into my school.” A shocked silence met his words. “During the feast, Quirrell ran to the head table and announced that a troll had somehow found it’s way into the dungeons. I—who had already begun to suspect him—had one of my professors keep an eye on him, while I led the rest to confront the creature. The professor encountered Quirrell while he was on his way to the third floor, where the stone resided.”

“And the troll?” asked Madam Bones.

“Had somehow found its way into the second corridor.”

“I’m sure you understand that this is circumstantial, at best?”

“Of course.”

Madam Bones nodded. “Please continue.”

Dumbledore then spoke about how Quirrell had been seen acting strangely, wandering the corridors at night and speaking to a disembodied voice. One of his professors had managed to catch Quirrell during one of these episodes and reported the behavior, and how it became clear after piecing together all the snippets of conversation that he was planning on stealing the stone.

“I was not the only person to have pieced this together either. One Merlin Evans,” and here all the eyes flashed toward him before returning to Dumbledore, “discovered the professor’s intent. And he very nearly paid for his discovery with his life.” He paused again. “I call Madam Pomfrey to the stand.”

Merlin glanced down the row as the medi-witch got to her feet and joined Dumbledore on the floor. She politely declined the offer of a chair, and Madam Bones surveyed her through her monocle for a long moment before asking, “You are the medi-witch of Hogwarts, correct?”

“I am.”

“Headmaster, you and your witness have the floor.”

But Dumbledore didn’t ask any questions. Madam Pomfrey cleared her throat and began at once, sending a tender look in Merlin’s direction. “Merlin was brought to the hospital wing just after dinner by Professor Quirrell, after a supposed nasty fall down the stairs.”

“I’m sorry, did you say Professor Quirrell brought him?”

“I did indeed.”

“And why would he have done that, if he had attempted to kill him?”

“He wanted to silence Merlin, not kill him. If a student had been killed, the school would’ve gone into lockdown and he would never have made it near the stone. Professor Quirrell brought him in unconscious, and I must say that even I didn’t expect him to regain consciousness so quickly—he had fallen two flights of stairs. But he woke while I was talking to Quirrell and immediately accused the professor of attacking him.”

She shook her head. “I assumed his head injury had confused him. At the time, I didn’t understand why the man would hurt Merlin if to bring him to the hospital wing either. But he used the incident as an excuse to give Merlin a sleeping draft. And, as Merlin’s agitation made him liable to further injure himself, I saw no reason not to agree.”

“I take it then, you were not one of the staff members to suspect Quirinus Quirrell.”

“Not at the time, no. I was not part of the protection for the philosopher’s stone, and frankly had little interaction with the professor.” She narrowed her eyes. “I am disgusted that he could—”

“Thank you, Madam Pomfrey,” Dumbledore said kindly behind her. She clamped her mouth shut, nodded, and returned to her seat.

“Would you please call your key witness?” Madam Bones asked, and Merlin swallowed. The eyes all moved to him again, and this time they didn’t leave.

“Ah yes. If you could join me, please Merlin?” Merlin quickly got to his feet, and as he passed, Florean patted his back reassuringly. For a minute he thought Madam Pomfrey was going to break into tears—thankfully she didn’t. Merlin released a long breath when he reached Dumbledore and looked up at Madam Bones. Somehow, the room felt much larger from this vantage point.

“You are Merlin Evans?”

He cleared his throat. “Yes.” He pretended he was just in King Arthur’s Court again, that he had to give another speech to the advisors. He stood straighter.

“Please explain what happened.”

So he did. He told them how he had started to suspect Quirrell after the troll incident, and how one day he forgot his book back in the classroom. He decided to go retrieve it after dinner, and when he entered the classroom he heard Quirrell talking to someone in his office and thought nothing of it until he’d heard a high cold voice reply. He had then crept to the door and when he peaked through the open crack he saw another face on the back of Quirrell’s head—with red eyes and a flat snake-like nose.

Immediately, there was an uproar. Several people jumped to their feet. Rita Skeeter took the quill in her hand and started writing feverishly. Dumbledore put his hand on Merlin’s shoulder.

“You mean to say that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named is involved?” one man shouted from the top row.

“Impossible,” said another. “He was defeated over a decade ago. This is preposterous!”

“Possession of that kind has never been documented!”

Order!” shouted Madam Bones, and she slammed her mallet onto the podium. “Headmaster, do you go on record claiming that Professor Quirrell conspired to steal with philosopher’s stone with He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, in addition to attacking your student?”

Dumbledore’s eyes twinkled. “I do indeed.” He looked around at the shocked and furious faces before him. “Because as this is difficult to swallow, Merlin has graciously volunteered to present his memory of the incident for collaboration.”

There was a shout of approval. “Bring a pensive!” Madam Bones called, and at once the doors opened. Two men entered, one leading a pedestal with their wand, while the other carried a large silver basin. Merlin and Dumbledore moved away as they placed the pensive in the middle of the room.

Dumbledore turned to Merlin. “Do I have your permission?”

Merlin’s throat had gone dry. “You do.” He hoped his voice sounded firmer than he thought it did. Dumbledore smiled at him and led him to stand beside the pensive.

“Now, I want you to think of the memory, especially the beginning and the end. I will place my wand against your temple and draw it while you think of it—do you understand?”

Merlin nodded, and Dumbledore placed his wand against his temple. It was an odd sensation, and not altogether unpleasant. Merlin saw the moment play in front of his eyes in fast forward, and within a moment Dumbledore had drawn a long silver strand with his wand. He then carefully transferred it over to the basin.

“If the Wizengamot would please turn their attention to the pensive,” Dumbledore said, and Merlin nearly rolled his eyes. As if anyone’s attention was elsewhere. His memory swirled in the basin for a minute before jumping up, and the scene started to play before them like a film.

Merlin carefully pushed open the door to the classroom and peered inside. It was dark and empty. He smiled and walked inside, strolling casually over to his desk and grabbing his bag. He slung it over his shoulder and was just about to leave when he heard voices. Confused, Merlin glanced toward Quirrell’s office door. It was ajar, and he could hear someone mumbling when another voice cut sharply across.

“We cannot wait much longer!”

Merlin froze. The high, cold voice did not belong to the professor. It still sent chills down his spine, made his stomach writhe with disgust. It felt cloyed with decay and malice, a pathetic creature that was just barely hanging onto life.

Merlin slowly climbed the steps to Quirrell’s office listening all the while.

“Master, we cannot act while Dumbledore is watching our every move! He would stop us before we even started playing the music for that oafs dog!”

“Then get him out of the castle,” the other voice cut like an ice shard. “We only require a few hours. One urgent message from the Ministry of Magic should be enough to distract him.”

“And what of Severus, he know something—”

“He is of no consequence.”

Merlin had reached the landing, and on his hands and knees he looked through the crack of the open door. He clamped a hand over his mouth so that he wouldn’t scream. Quirrell was sitting at his desk holding a mirror in his hand, while sitting in front of another. His purple turban lay discarded on the floor. Reflected in the mirror was, not the back of Quirrell’s head but a face. The most awful face Merlin had ever seen.

Several people in the Wizengamot gasped. One woman offered a faint scream.

He had no nose. Instead, there were crude slits cutting into the pallid and peeling skin. And his eyes, red gleaming eyes that shone in the darkness of the office. There was no mistaking who that was even if Merlin had never seen him before.

Without waiting there a second longer, he tiptoed back down the stairs. Back into the main classroom, and he made a mad dash for the door but halfway there he heard a clatter and froze. His bag had caught one of the chairs, knocking it over.

He heard some movement from Quirrell’s office, and the next minute the professor had emerged, tugging his turban on straight.

“Evans?” He said softly, looking down at Merlin.

“S-sorry, professor,” Merlin said quickly, putting the chair back by the desk. “I-I just forgot my bag this afternoon. Thought I’d come pick it up after dinner.” He took a step back. “I didn’t mean to disturb you. I’ll just be going.”

Quirrell didn’t say anything for a long moment. Merlin hovered next to the door.

“Yes,” Quirrell finally said nodding. “Be sure to study for exams.”

He had no stutter. Merlin nodded nervously and slipped out the door but once he was in the hallway, he ran as fast as he could. But when he reached the head of the stairs, he found out why professor Quirrell hadn’t bothered to keep up his charade of the poor stuttering professor. And like he had thought, he hadn’t wanted to know.

He didn’t time to turn around when he heard a mumble behind him. The curse hit him hard, like a kick in the back and he fell from the top of the stairs. One flight, and then a second. Merlin had a fleeting glimpse of the ground rushing up to meet him before he collided with it and with a flash of horrible pain the world dissolved into darkness.

The memory dissolved back into the basin, and for several minutes no one spoke. Merlin took a deep breath. It had been very different watching it unfold before him. He looked up to the stands and found Florean’s white face staring back at him. When he met his eyes though, he offered Merlin a reassuring smile. Madam Bones cleared her throat.

“Please continue your testimony, Mr. Evans.”

Merlin nodded. “So—so after I woke up in the hospital wing, I knew that Quirrell was going to go after the stone and—”

“Just a minute, Madam Pomfrey said she gave you a sleeping draft—and yet you managed to wake from it?”

Merlin met Madam Bone’s gaze evenly. “Yes.”

“Our potions master has informed me that Mr. Evans has an uncommon tolerance to potions,” Dumbledore added. While it wasn’t surprising that Snape had told Dumbledore it still stung. Merlin swallowed thickly and nodded in agreement, hoping the movement didn’t suddenly look stiff. Madam Bones glanced at Dumbledore before back to Merlin and motioned for him to continue.

“So—and I’ll preface this by saying I wasn’t really thinking—” he thought he heard a few chuckles in the audience, which eased the tension coiling in his stomach, “—I snuck out of bed and decided to head him off. I ran into my friends—” Merlin faltered and glanced at Dumbledore. He knew Hermione wouldn’t mind getting drawn into the testimony but Draco—and Lucius was in attendance. Dumbledore seemed to know what was troubling him because he cleared his throat.

“Their names have already been submitted, yes?”

Madam Bones glanced at her papers and frowned. “I don’t—ah yes, I see.” She returned her gaze to Merlin. “You encountered them in the hallway?”

“Yes! They had been sneaking up to see me, you see,” and he smiled at the memory. “So I told them what happened and had them go get my head of house and the headmaster, while I went directly to the third floor corridor.”

“But why?” A man spoke up and there were several murmurs of agreement. “What did you expect to do in your state?”

Merlin shrugged. “I don’t know. I just had to hold Quirrell off long enough for the other professors to arrive.

“You did more than that, as I understand it,” Madam Bones said. She was perusing the documents again. “I see here that the stone was guarded by a series of obstacles?”

“Protection for the stone, provided by some of my professors,” Dumbledore said. He glanced at Merlin and raised his eyebrow. “But I believe they were for the most part defeated by the time Merlin arrived.”

Merlin nodded. “Yes, Quirrell pretty much paved the way for me.” Merlin held his breath as Madam Bones surveyed him. Yes, Fluffy and the Devil’s Snare had all been taken care of for him but that’d still left Flitwick’s obstacle and he didn’t really want to explain how he’d managed to break the door down. Luckily it seemed that she didn’t require any further explanation.

“What happened when you reached Professor Quirrell?”

For a long moment, Merlin couldn’t speak. He saw Quirrell clearly in his mind’s eye, standing in the middle of the chess board, just about to win—and then he saw himself. He remembered how good it had felt to stop pretending, to confront the professor. Merlin lifted his head.

“He was in the middle of the room, about to win the chess game—that was the obstacle, except the pieces were life-size and you had be one of them. He saw me.” Merlin glanced at Lucius Malfoy, noting the way the man was leaning forward. “He asked me to join him.”

“I assume you said no,” Madam Bones said, and Merlin was relieved to see that she actually seemed amused.

“You would assume correctly.” He sighed and scratched his head. “I realized that the best way to buy time would be to get the game to reset—so I stepped onto the board and fired a blasting charm at the doors.” He shook his head. He knew he was seriously downplaying himself, but knew no one would pay too much attention to that. “Somehow it worked, and the pieces all cleared for another game and Quirrell—well, he was pissed. I dived behind one of the chess pieces, and it blocked most of his spells. I just threw whatever spells I knew at him, and basically prayed that the headmaster would arrive quickly.”

He paused, knowing that his lack of detail was frustrating Rita Skeeter. She had looked up from her notepad and was frowning at him. Maybe she’d just hoped for a thrilling tale of him beating the professor in a duel or something. But the next part—well there was no way to reinvent that.

“He—Quirrell I mean—cast a spell that animated the chess piece or something because it turned on me and hit me with it’s sword.” He thought he saw Florean flinch out of the corner of his eye. Merlin swallowed, trying not to focus on how the stone sword had slammed into him, breaking ribs and flesh. “I—remember hitting the ground. I was losing consciousness, and that knight was getting ready for another attack. I just—I just panicked. I let myself panic.” He took a deep breath. “I’ve had some problems with accidental magic before, and I could feel it building in my chest and I tried to channel it, you know? I mean, it sorta worked because I survived, but I also brought the roof down.”

“Let me see if I understand this correctly, Mr. Evans,” said Madam Bones, cocking one of her eyebrows. “You somehow managed to collapse two floors with accidental magic?”

Merlin felt his face grow hot. He shuffled his feet, but managed not to look away. “Yes.” The crowd of onlookers didn’t say anything. Instead there was a shift of movement as they glanced at each other and Rita Skeeter was writing feverishly again. He waited for Madam Bones to ask another question, to say something about the sheer power it would require to cause such destruction or maybe that it was impossible to direct accidental magic at all, but she turned to Dumbledore instead.

“It was you, Headmaster, who first reached the third floor corridor, correct?”

“It was indeed,” and Dumbledore smiled. “Along with Professor Snape, Merlin’s head of house.”

“Can you explain what you saw when you reached Mr. Evans?”

“Certainly, however I would rather show you.” Dumbledore glanced around the Wizengamot. Several nodded eagerly, and Madam Bones gestured to the pensive before them.

Dumbledore placed his wand against his temple and withdrew the memory, dropping it with practiced ease into the basin. Like it had done with Merlin’s, the image rose to become a pillar and expanded until they were looking at a projection of the memory as if it were a three-dimensional filmstrip.

The Headmaster was running through an underground passageway, walls lined with what looked like charred plant matter. He said nothing to the man accompanying him, not even when they entered the next room, bright with cold white light and filled with flying keys, and saw the door blasted off it’s hinges—dust and debris spilling over the threshold.

But he did look at the man. Severus Snape did not meet his gaze, his expression tight and gaunt. Dumbledore jerked his attention back to the defunct door and stepped onto the rubble, his wand held firmly in his grasp. The sight that reached him—it forced him to pause, his lips parting for a breath. The ceiling had given way, a chasm of stone stretching the entire length of the room. Three classrooms from the level above had been caught in the blast, and splintered desks, cracked chalkboards, and bent chairs were strewn about the crater. Most of the chess pieces appeared to have been buried, but some poked through the fallen rock like sprouting flowers.

“Merlin!” Snape shouted, the panic of his tone unmistakable. It was a quality rarely heard in the Potion’s Master voice—soft but thick with emotion that pushed the sound toward desperation.

The light in Dumbledore’s eyes had vanished. He looked much older, but as he flicked his wand and sent a stream of light to slither over the rocks in search of life, the old power was tangible, even through the memory. Snape took a deep breath, watching the light as it circled settled on a spot just to the left of them. He lifted his wand.

“Careful,” Dumbledore cautioned, but it didn’t feel directed at the action. Snape gritted his teeth and swish-flicked his wand. Dumbledore joined and together they levitated rock from the spot as quickly and carefully as they could. From the rubble they unearthed a black knight, fallen forward, a tuft of black hair just visible through a gap in the stone.

“Merlin!” Snape shouted again. “Merlin! Albus—”

Dumbledore didn’t answer immediately. He removed the chess piece covering the boy, and Snape approached at once. For a second, all they could see was Snape’s billowing robes as he bent over Merlin Evans. Dumbledore cleared his throat, defeat in his voice.

“Is he—”

Snape gave a loud sigh of relief. “He’s alive. Dumbledore, he’s alive.” Snape shook his head and conjured a floating gurney. He carefully levitated Merlin onto it, revealing him for the first time. He was out cold, an uncomfortable amount of blood caking his clothing. “I’ve stopped the bleeding,” Snape continued, and he waved his wand over Merlin again. “At least he won’t die of blood loss. The idiot.”

“A brave one.”

“No—” Snape whirled around to face Dumbledore. “This was not bravery . This was sheer stupidity. I don’t know how badly—he’s got several broken bones, a concussion—Bloody Hell Albus, the boy was stabbed! He was an idiot to even try. How could a child hope to fight a professor on equal terms?”

But Dumbledore cast his eyes around the destroyed room, “How indeed,” he said and Snape deflated as the memory faded.

Sometime during the memory, Merlin had wrapped his arms around himself. His hand rested against the line of raw pink scar tissue where the chess piece had hit him. He hadn’t even noticed the scar until he’d come home for the summer. His own memory of the incident swam to the surface and he resisted the urge to wince, instead tightening his grip on the tender flesh. It was only now that it hit him, after watching himself being lifted bloody and limp. This had happened to him just a few weeks ago. It hadn’t even been a month since the incident. Without magic he would still be on the mend—or dead.

“Are you all right, Mr. Evans?”

Merlin snapped out of his musing, and realized that everyone had been watching him silently. He dropped his arms, nodding. His throat felt too tight for speech at the moment. Madam Bones watched him a moment longer before clearing her throat.

“All those in favor of proceeding to trail.” There was a rustling, and a clear majority raised their hands. Madam Bones looked around the room, her own hand in the air and nodded. “The trial of Quirinus Quirrell will take place the first week of August.”

And with the bang of a mallet, the hearing concluded.

Merlin shouldn’t have seen that.

Florean shook his head, and leaned back in his armchair. The boy in question was asleep now. They’d returned from the hearing to Silas waiting tables—which Florean had a feeling might actually be illegal. But at the look on Merlin’s face, Silas had apologized at once, taken off his apron, and accompanied them upstairs for a rundown of the hearing. Merlin had behaved almost normally, and if weren’t for the way Silas watched him Florean wouldn’t even have realized something was wrong.

And maybe nothing was. Maybe he was just reading too much into it. Florean grunted, and brought his pipe to his lips again, taking in a long breath. Purple smoke furled from his nostrils, and he blew the remainder into the air. But the image of Merlin’s bloody form was seared into his mind. He couldn’t shake it. Now, he was glad that Merlin had decided not to submit his memory of the actual fight. He wasn’t sure everyone else was—but he didn’t need to see the boy fight to know he’d done something both amazing and terrifying. He felt it like an ache in his bones.

Florean frowned, and extinguished his pipe with a wave of his hand. He set it gently back into the cabinet behind him, and got up. He had no doubt that Rita Skeeter was going to put something in the Daily Prophet about Merlin living with him, and be damned if that didn’t mean his shop would be full of people hoping to get a look at the boy. Great for business—bad for privacy.

Florean walked down the hallway and paused outside their room. He pushed open the door and peered inside. As he had thought, they were both asleep. Silas’ blankets had slipped to the floor, and it was with a small smile that Florean entered the room and picked up the fallen cover. A glint of silver caught his eye in the dim light. He blinked, placed the blanket back over Silas’ shoulders and bent to the floor. Just beside Merlin’s bed was a long silver chain holding a beautiful ring.

It must have fallen off Merlin’s neck while he’d slept. Florean picked it up and surveyed the ring for a long moment. The wings of the merlin caught the light and shone, the blue illumined. He looked past the unique ring, to the sleeping child and smiled. He placed the ring on Merlin’s bedside table, and closed the door behind him with a soft click.

 

 

Chapter Text

MEMORY EVIDENCE OF HE-WHO-MUST-NOT-BE-NAMED
Written by Rita Skeeter

If you thought the Dark Lord’s reign of terror had passed you may be wrong, writes Rita Skeeter, Special Correspondent. Quirinus Quirrell, on trial for attempting to murder a Hogwarts Student and steal the most coveted stone in existence was not working alone, claimed witnesses at his evidence hearing. Headmaster Albus Dumbledore of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardy led the evidence hearing on June 27th against the ex-professor. But it was the voice of Merlin Evans who was the deciding factor of the case.

“Just who is this kid?” asked one Wizengamot member. “And how did he do that?”

Merlin Evans, age eleven, took the initiative when he discovered what the ex-professor was going to do. But is the boy to be congratulated on his heroism or feared for his sheer power? During his testimony, Merlin explained how he dragged himself out of the Hogwarts Hospital Wing and dueled Quirinus Quirrell on the Third Floor Corridor. The prophet can exclusively reveal that the confrontation ended in the collapse of several floors of solid stone as a result of Merlin’s accidental magic.

“Anyone with that much power is dangerous,” said Lucius Malfoy, the Chairman of Hogwarts Board of Governors.

But that’s not all! During his witness testimony, Merlin accused the ex-professor of actually sharing his body with none other than He-Who-Must-Be-Named. He then submitted memory evidence to support his claim—but were these images nothing more than the imaginings of a scared eleven-year-old boy?

Memory Evidence has a history of unreliability, and it’s a shock that Madam Amelia Bones, Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement even allowed such evidence to be submitted. During the First Wizard War, several Death Eaters were able to escape justice by tampering the memories of their victims as well as their own, and were only caught after vicious muggle-killing sprees.

Was the memory manipulated, implanted, or scariest of all true? The Daily Prophet contacted the Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge, for more word on the subject.

“It’s preposterous!” said Fudge “The boy must have imagined it! He is not back, I tell you!” and he promptly stormed from his office.

Merlin Evans also boasted during the evidence hearing that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named invited him to join his ranks. “Of course, I refused,” Merlin said with a laugh. “And then I brought the roof down.”

Is Merlin Evans just a confused child who accidentally collapsed a ceiling on his professor, or a powerful sorcerer who managed to defeat the Dark Lord at age eleven?

“I guess there is power in a name,” said Lucius Malfoy, outside the Evidence Hearing. “And it looks like The Prince of Enchanters has returned.”

The fireplace roared with brilliant green flames, and a short portly man wearing a bowler hat emerged. Albus Dumbledore had known this moment would come, but the sight of the Minister of Magic, blustering, purple, and brandishing a copy of the Daily Prophet as if it were a rapier still made him sigh.

Cornelius Fudge marched up to his desk, huffing and wheezing. His brown eyes were popping, but the headmaster saw that beneath all the anger and disbelief was blinding fear. The man had never been very good with confronting his fears.

“Memory evidence of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named return? What is this nonsense?” Fudge threw the newspaper onto Dumbledore’s desk and took a deep breath, as though the action had left him winded. Dumbledore glanced down at the Daily and inwardly sighed again. Rita Skeeter had never been good at handling delicate matters. She was more likely to shatter them with biased words and inappropriate facts—although surprisingly this particular article was more accurate than her usual stories. In front of him, Fudge was shouting again.

“I want to scrutinize the memory personally. It has to have been tampered with, or just some nightmare the boy had,” Fudge shook his head, turned away for a moment and started to pace. “That Skeeter woman is right. What were you thinking? Children aren’t supposed to submit memories. Warped details, I tell you. They don’t see things the same way, are more susceptible to suggestion. That Quirrell fellow—he planted the idea in his mind. Scared him silly just so that he could have a big laugh while the rest of us run around in panic!”

“Cornelius,” Dumbledore said calmly, “you are welcome to peruse a copy of the memory, but to suggest that the memory I personally took from the boy in front of the Wizengamot is not authentic borders more on just ignorance.” His tone had taken on an icy quality, and Fudge actually took a step back when Dumbledore had finished.

“I’m not blaming you Dumbledore,” he said in an offhand way. “If the boy believed it then the memory—” he shook his head. “It’s just not possible.”

“I’m afraid you are the only wizard who believes that.”

Fudge took another step back, his face purpling again. “You—you’re going to cause a panic Dumbledore. Scare the general population for no reason! One child’s memory isn’t proof; there are a number of reasons for what he saw. You would throw us back into the chaos we had before?” he roared.

Dumbledore got to his feet and Fudge flinched when he spoke, despite the fact that the headmaster’s voice never rose. “It will only turn to chaos, Cornelius, if we ignore it and do nothing to prepare for the possibility that he will come back.”

The minister of magic opened and closed his mouth wordlessly for a moment, his bottom lip trembling like a scolded toddler. “He’s not coming back,” he whispered before shaking his head again and retreating to the fireplace. “You’re mad, Dumbledore. You’ll ruin everything.”

And he vanished in another blaze of green flame, leaving behind air rancid with fear.

“I still can’t believe that your dad let you come. Isn’t he supposed to hate me?”

Draco didn’t speak for a moment, his hand hesitating over his sundae of green tea ice cream. It’d been three days since the evidence hearing, and Merlin had expected Lucius Malfoy to bar his son from ever spending time with him again. So the fact that Narcissa had kept her word about Draco joining Merlin for ice cream that week had surprised him.

“I think my mom talked to him,” Draco replied at last. He watched as Merlin took another bite of ice cream—chocolate with pecans. “Watching the hearing probably helped.” He went back to eating normally.

“I thought that would have made it worse. I admitted to standing in Voldemort’s—” Draco coughed, “—way.”

“Well,” Draco glanced around and lowered his voice; “they have a habit of allying themselves with the strongest player. The instant He disappeared they cozied right up to the ministry, and since, well…” he trailed off pointedly.

Merlin stared at him. “Are you telling me that I may have won your father’s allegiance?” he asked, feeling smug.

Draco snorted. “C’mon, you didn’t think it’d be that easy?” He shook his head. “No, but I think he’s realized it might be safer not to get on your bad side—just in case.” He smirked and ate another spoon of ice cream.

“I’ll take what I can get.” Merlin didn’t say anything more for the moment, scooping out the last few melting chunks from his bowl. From across the room he could see more than one person brandishing a copy of The Daily Prophet, his name plastered across the front page.

Merlin wasn’t sure what kind of media response he’d been expecting. He had read Rita Skeeter’s articles before, known that she would detail the evidence hearing and put some sort of spin on it. But when a squat man ambushed him the first time he left the parlor the day after the hearing, holding a camera and snapping three photos before Merlin could even open his mouth, he’d actually blushed. Of course, the media had loved that. The photo ran the next day, under the headline, “Boy Who Defeated Quirrell Shy of Attention,” with Merlin’s photographic image staring blankly at the camera before his cheeks unmistakably darkened and he disappeared back into the parlour.

“They haven’t approached you for an interview yet?” Draco asked, noticing where he was looking.

“I think I have Dumbledore to thank for that.” Merlin could remember how the headmaster had tried to keep Merlin’s privacy before.

Draco snorted. “That won’t last long. I’d be surprised if this Skeeter woman doesn’t make an appearance while you’re walking around Diagon Alley.”

Merlin grimaced. “Sort of like that photographer.”

“Yeah!” Draco had finished his ice cream too. “The hell was that Merlin? Blushing? You’re making it too easy for them.”

“Ugh, I know,” he ran his fingers through his hair. “I don’t even know what happened. I just got embarrassed—”

“Embarrassed?” Draco repeated indignantly. “You’re kidding me.”

“How was the ice cream, kiddos?”

Florean Fortescue had walked over, smiling at the pair of them. His eyes flickered to the empty ice cream bowls and his grin broadened. “Want a refill?”

“Oh no, Mr. Fortescue,” Draco said quickly. “Mother will probably have a fit if I eat too much.” He shot a look at Merlin that dared him to ask for more. Merlin wanted to laugh, the two of them could probably eat third helpings but he too didn’t want to antagonize Narcissa Malfoy. Not now that she’d actually allowed the two of them to hang out.

“I’m fine with just this,” Merlin said looking up at Florean.

Florean laughed, and took the two empty glasses off the table. “Give a holler if you change your mind. We want young Mr. Malfoy to come back, after all. Wouldn’t want to be inadequate hosts,” and he left their table.

“Okay, I’m officially jealous. How do you not end up eating ice cream for breakfast, lunch, and dinner?”

“Who says I don’t?”

It took a moment for Draco to realize that he was joking. While Merlin dodged an attempted kick, the bell of the shop door clanged. Narcissa Malfoy wore light cyan blue robes, the heat of the summer day having made thick black cloaks impractical. Her blonde hair was pulled back in an elegant bun, and she systematically scanned the shop once before seeing the pair of them in the corner. She did not approach, or speak a word. All she gave was a small nod, and she walked back out with another soft bell.

Draco got to his feet at once. “Time to go,” he said heaving a loud sigh. “We’ll do this again soon, right?”

“Course.” Merlin stood up as well. “Maybe you’ll invite me over for tea and biscuits or something,” he added, donning the queen’s British accent.

Draco rolled his eyes. “Right, and maybe my Dad will adopt a muggle.” He shook his head. “Well, at least I’ll see you when I get my school supplies.”

Merlin walked with him to the front door, and waved as Draco joined his mother. Narcissa nodded to Merlin as well, before leading the way back up the street. Perhaps where he stood with Lucius would remain ambiguous forever, but at least Narcissa seemed to tolerate his friendship with Draco. He go so far as to say that she even liked it—the way that he was a good influence on her son. He wished he could say with confidence that Draco was safer but—well, he was planning to stand directly in front of Lord Voldemort’s path.

So how much safer would Draco be really?

“That was a short visit.”

Florean had joined him beside the door, and Merlin shrugged in reply. “Didn’t expect a visit at all, to be honest.”

“You know about his family, then.” It wasn’t a question.

Merlin glanced at him, hesitating. Should he admit that he knew that Lucius Malfoy was still loyal to Lord Voldemort? Somehow it didn’t feel right to voice it. Florean seemed to realize this because he continued without a response.

“I’ll invite him to your birthday anyway. Maybe you’ll get lucky again.” He stroked his short goatee, and smiled. “Along with, oh—the bushy haired girl from the station. Hermes?”

“Hermione?” Merlin supplied, now staring at him. “But my birthday isn’t until the end of July.” They were still several weeks out.

“I think the Malfoy’s would appreciate some notice.” He ruffled Merlin’s hair. Someone rang the bell of the counter and he turned around. “Duty calls.”

Merlin watched him for a moment before heading up to the flat above the shop. In the living room, Silas was reading one of his schoolbooks and he looked up as Merlin entered. He frowned. “You done already?” he asked, shutting his copy of, Language and Form: A collection of Short Stories and Essays.

“Had just enough time to finish our ice cream,” Merlin said snapping his fingers. He shook his head. “You were welcome to join us, you know.”

“Nah, you needed to catch up.”

Merlin laughed. “Yeah, but I know you’re dying to talk to him about Quidditch.”

His foster brother grinned in reply. “Right, so next time be prepared for me to steal him away from you completely.”

“Consider me prepared, what’re you reading?”

As it turned out, Dumbledore couldn’t hold back the press forever. Merlin had already decided with Silas not to talk to them due to the sheer number of things Merlin didn’t want the magical community to know. Like the dragons, or how someone might figure out that Whomping Willow couldn’t actually be used as wand wood. And anyway, the press had a reputation for skewing the facts.

Rita Skeeter being the chief culprit.

She turned up at the ice cream shop a few days later, a hungry glint in her eyes. Merlin had been sitting in one of the side booths, doing his history of magic homework when she walked inside. Somehow it was easier for him to concentrate when he had a wash of noise around him. Silas on the other hand focused better in quiet, and had stayed up in the flat.

“Ah, and you must be Merlin.”

Rita Skeeter didn’t even bother waiting for him to respond. The blonde woman took a seat across from him, an acid green quill and notepad flying out of her crocodile skin handbag. She smiled widely, bright cherry colored lipstick throwing her teeth into sharp contrast, and it somehow came off as feral rather than pleasant. Even though he hadn’t yet replied, the quill was already scribbling away.

He raised his eyebrow. “And you are—?” he asked, even though he knew perfectly well who she was.

Her smile bordered on the too wide. “I’m Rita Skeeter, Special Correspondent for the Daily Prophet.” Her eyes darted to the scroll of parchment in front of him. “And you’re already doing your homework; my, you are fastidious.”

Merlin snorted. The quill danced across the notepad.

“Would you mind if I asked you a few questions?” she asked when the silence started to drag.

He knew he would mind when her article came out. “I can’t discuss the case until it’s over.”

Skeeter waved her hand. Several gold rings with assorted gems glinted in the afternoon light. “Oh, the readers already know all about the case. They want to know about you.”

“Yeah, I don’t—”

“Is everything all right, here?” Florean had spotted the pair of them, and Merlin had to say that the man had impeccable timing. He stood opposite Skeeter, regarding her with curt politeness. “Can I help you, Mrs. Skeeter?”

Her attention snapped to him and her quill jotted something else down. “Just having a friendly word with young Merlin here. You are his guardian, are you not?”

Florean nodded. Skeeter returned her gaze to Merlin. “Where did you stay before you came into this lovely gentleman’s care?”

Maybe a few answers would satisfy her for now. Vague answers.

“Muggle London.”

“Do you like living with Mr. Fortescue?”

“Yes.”

“What happened to your parents?”

Merlin frowned. “Take a wild guess,” he shot, though as soon as he’d said it he had a feeling he might regret that one. He shook his head. Time to stop this before he did some real damage. “I don’t really want to answer any more questions, Mrs. Skeeter.”

She looked surprised. “Everyone’s just curious about who you are, Merlin. The boy who stood up to He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, and all that.”

“Great for them.” He smirked. “But I like my privacy.”

“But—”

Florean cleared his throat. “I’m afraid I must ask you to leave, Mrs. Skeeter.” His tone left no room for argument. “If Merlin changes him his mind, he will send you an owl.”

She didn’t speak a moment, the scratching of the quill loud in the silence. Merlin glared at it until it finally lifted off the parchment and fluttered back into her bag. Skeeter closed the clasp with a snap. “Of course,” she said, flashing another fake smile before getting to her feet.

“My apologizes Merlin, perhaps some other time?” and she left the shop. Merlin had a feeling his name would be all over tomorrow’s paper—and sure enough—


JUST WHO IS MERLIN EVANS? EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW!
By Rita Skeeter

It turns out that Merlin Evans has more up his sleeve than powerful magic, writes Rita Skeeter, Special Correspondent. He revealed in an exclusive interview that he originally grew up in muggle London.

“It was difficult,” Merlin Evans said. “My parents died when I was very young, and I had nowhere to go.” His eyes glistened with tears as he spoke, and he took a moment to recover himself.

When our correspondent first approached him, Merlin was immersed in his schoolwork. “I take my studies very seriously. Need to keep on top of it in case I need to defeat another professor!” he laughed.

Of course, the boy was very shy. As mentioned in our previous article, Merlin blushed when photographed by the Daily Prophet the first time. And again, Merlin quickly grew uncomfortable by questions. Is this the remnants of a tragic past, still plaguing this young man? What exactly happened to his parents? Investigation has revealed little. “It’s like he doesn’t even exist!” one ministry official said. Merlin’s records are certainly lacking and his parents don’t even have records. Of course this may simply be due to the poor filing during the Great Wizard War but could this point Merlin’s parentage in the other direction?

Or not. Apparently the young Slytherin is also good friends with Mr. Draco Malfoy.

The Malfoy family has long spoken against muggleborns, and placing emphasis in the old magic families. However the prophet can exclusively reveal that Merlin’s other best friend is none other than muggleborn Hermione Granger.

Hermione Granger received the highest score of all Hogwarts first years in her exams, much to the pleasure of muggleborn sympathizers. And Merlin is one of them.

“Merlin sticks up for everyone,” said fellow classmate of Merlin’s, Zabini Blaise. “He really alienated the house with his muggle loving ideas at first, but we grew to like him anyway.”

Mr. Malfoy may want to be more careful about who his son spends his time with—but as Merlin has already demonstrated truly staggering magical prowess, perhaps the Malfoy’s can forgive his new ideas.

“I’m hoping that by befriending my son, Merlin gains a better respect for magical culture,” said Lucius Malfoy. “And rest assured, no one that powerful could possibly be muggleborn. And he’s a Slytherin!”

Although Merlin grew up in muggle London, he now lives with the owner of Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour, by the same name. “It’s a great place, but I do miss my parents,” said Merlin giving another sad smile.


 

Merlin had crumpled up the copy of The Daily Prophet, earning concerned looks from both Florean and Silas. He’d slowly straightened the paper, handed it to Florean, and disappeared into his room. Merlin had told himself he wouldn’t say anything to the press, hadn’t he? But none of those had been actual quotes. He’d seriously considered calling her out for libel before deciding Skeeter would just use the excuse to write another ridiculous article about him.

And a few days later, Skeeter was back for more. She’d timed it this time so that Florean was busy with the lunch rush—obviously hoping to really talk to him this time. He’d just come down to grab dessert for him and Silas, when she ambushed him by the flat door.

“Just a short interview? We just want to get to know you a little better.”

Merlin frowned. “You seem perfectly capable of that without me,” he said coolly. He tightened his grip on the two ice cream sundaes in his hands.

“Oh, come now Merlin—” she started to say, but he shook his head.

“Sorry, I’m simply too shy to talk to the Daily Prophet. And with so much embellishment from my first article, I guess I just feel betrayed.” He donned the best hurt expression that he could and even threw in a lip bite. Then he turned on his heel and ran up the stairs to the flat, leaving Rita Skeeter staring after him.

He wasn’t sure whether or not she believed him, but to his relief there wasn’t a follow-up article. In fact, except for a few updates on the state of the case, an opinion piece about memory submissions which miraculously only mentioned his name in passing, and several comments about the current status of the philosophers stone—Nicholas Flamel had destroyed it—Merlin had stayed out of the paper.

“Maybe you should answer a few questions,” Silas suggested after a few weeks. “Reward for good behavior and all that.”

Merlin laughed and shook his head. “I still don’t want to talk about my parents though.”

Silas shrugged, “But you could say why you don’t want to. Or you know, just talk about your favorite colour, which classes you like the most.” He got off the couch and stretched, glancing at the clock on the opposite wall. “Let’s go wander Diagon Alley, I’m getting bored and I’m not doing anymore homework.”

“Yeah, okay.”

They waved goodbye to Florean, mentioning that they’d be back in a few hours, and took off. Merlin had avoided going out in public since the last article about him—more because he had worried that the photographer would ambush him again, then anything else. But Silas was right, other than homework there wasn’t much to do at Florean’s flat. And as the man worked all day, most days of the week he and Silas needed to entertain themselves.

They passed by the Magical Menagerie, looking at a kitten with dappled black fur and a tuft tail in the window display. It looked up as they passed and yawned, revealing a deep purple mouth.

“Think if I asked Florean, he’d let me get a pet?” Silas asked Merlin, gazing at the catlike creature. It blinked and fixed its silver eyes on him, cocking its head curiously.

“Maybe, but I don’t think that’s actually a cat.”

“I think it’s a kneazle.”

“Bless you.”

Silas rolled his eyes and pushed open the door to the shop. “Come on.” The cat, or kneazle, turned to watch them as they entered. It was cool and dark inside. Aquariums and cages lined the walls, full of exotic and familiar looking creatures. Vibrantly colored toads chirped, while low hissing came from a cage in the far back corner.

“Hello dearies, I’m Sally,” said a woman from behind the counter. She was thin, with extremely curly black hair and a dark completion. She smiled brightly at the pair of them. Next to her on the desk was a basket of funny custard-colored fur balls that were humming loudly. “What can I do for you today?” she asked.

Silas glanced back at the window. “Is that a kneazle?”

“Ooh yes!” Sally left the counter and walked over to the display case. “She’s a breed of kneazle from Eastern Europe, the purple maw. Don’t get many of them here.” She opened the cage and gestured for Silas to approach.

“They’re very intelligent, and good judges of character. They can be a little aggressive though, so be careful.”

Silas nodded and came to stand next to the cage, holding out his hand. “Hello,” he said. The kneazle watched him for a moment before mewing softly and brushing her head against his fingers. Silas laughed when she arched her back, and he scratched her ears. “She’s so soft!”

“She’ll grow a pretty thick mane, too I expect. I thought she would sell quickly but you’re the first person she hasn’t bitten.” Sally looked thoughtful. “You can hold her, if you like.”

Silas nodded and gently took the kitten into his hands, pressing her against his chest. The kneazle mewed again, and rubbed her face against his chin, making Silas laugh. “Merlin,” he whined behind him. “Buy her for me.”

“I don’t have any money.”

“Summon some.”

Merlin sighed, and looked at Sally. “How much is she?”

“She’s fifteen galleons, as you also need a license for her, although—” she paused a moment, “Tell you what. If you buy her by the end of today, I’ll be willing to take eleven galleons instead, okay?”

“Deal.” Silas gave the kitten one last hug before slipping her back into the display case and Sally quickly locked it again. “Merlin, let’s go ask Florean!”

“Okay, okay.” He laughed, shaking his head. “We’ll be back—hopefully!” he said as Silas all but dragged him out of the shop. The kneazle put her paws on the window, meowing loudly as they left.

“Come on, Merlin!” Silas said. “What if someone else buys her before we get back?”

“So, you really want her, huh?”

“Yes!”

“More than a broom?”

Silas paused, and Merlin saw him bite his lip. “Yes,” he answered finally. “I mean, I can’t really fly in Diagon Alley, and with you going back to school I’m going to be really bored so—”

“Why, Merlin! How are you?”

They both jumped. Merlin turned around to see Rita Skeeter emerging from Scribbulus Writing Instruments, holding a parcel in her hands. He had to remind himself that she had managed to restrain herself since their last meeting. Merlin swallowed, glanced nervously at Silas—they hadn’t yet met—and gave a bashful smile.

“Oh, hello Mrs. Skeeter. Silas, this is Rita Skeeter.”

“I’m a writer for the Daily Prophet,” and she smiled. Merlin thought her smile looked a little softer—not quite the leering it had been last time. “And you must be Merlin’s foster brother. Lovely to meet you.”

Silas’ eyes widened. “Uh,” he said when Skeeter shook his hand. “Hello.” He glanced at Merlin, shuffling his feet. “We need to go,” he ground out.

“Is something wrong?” Skeeter’s smile had faltered.

“Oh, Silas just wants to buy a knealy,” Merlin said. He didn’t want to be rude, not when she could really make things worse for them. “And he’s worried that someone else will get her first.”

Kneazle,” Silas corrected, sighing loudly.

“I assume Florean is busy minding the shop?” she asked.

“Well, yeah.” Merlin raised his eyebrow, wondering where she was going with this. Rita Skeeter nodded, falling silent for a moment. Then, she smirked and bent to their level.

“How about I make you a deal, then? I’ll buy the kneazle, and Merlin will sit down for an interview with me. I’d also love a quote or two from Silas. You don’t have to answer anything you don’t feel comfortable about—” she added when Merlin opened his mouth. “And I won’t, ah, embellish too much.” She winked.

Merlin raised his eyebrow. “Really?” he asked, hoping he didn’t sound too disbelieving.

Skeeter’s smile widened. “Of course. Anyway, the readers seem to really love this whole shy boy act. Powerful budding wizard is an actual sweetheart—that sort of thing. But you and I both know that you’re not shy at all.”

Merlin stiffened a moment before asking, “What gave it away?”

She smirked again. “Watching the evidence hearing helped.” Skeeter paused, and straightened up. “Normally I wouldn’t even bother. Kid stories are usually one-offs, and nobody cares what some snot-nosed first Hogwarts Student did in their spare time. But—He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named? That makes news. Everyone cares. And you’ve claimed that you fought him and won. So the way I see it, you need someone to keep your public image good and I need to please my avid readers.”

Merlin exchanged looks with Silas. She had a point but— “What happens when your readers get bored of the powerful shy boy persona?”

She only smiled. “So, what do you say about getting that kneazle?”

He hesitated only a moment longer. “Let’s do it.”

Rita Skeeter grinned, that glint returning to her eyes. She turned on her heel and led the way back to the Magical Menagerie at a brisk walk. Silas tugged on Merlin’s shirt, biting his lip.

“Merlin!” Silas whispered. “Are you sure? What if—?”

“I’m not. But I think if she wanted she could turn everyone completely against me, and I’d rather that didn’t happen.”

“She could do it anyway, though,” Silas said as Skeeter pushed open the door to the shop and started talking with Sally.

“Yeah, well, this way you get a kneazle out of it.” Merlin said as Sally looked over at the pair of them, surprised but happy. She put the gold into a drawer and walked around the corner to unlock the cage. The kneazle was mewing, paws up against the glass again, silver eyes on Silas. “I just hope that Florean doesn’t mind.”

As soon as Sally opened the cage, the kneazle jumped out and ran over to Silas who picked it up laughing. “Told you I’d be back!”

“Here is your license. What will you name her?” Sally said, and Merlin took the scroll of paper as Silas’ hands were occupied.

“Hm… what do you think, Merlin?”

“Anything but blackie.”

Silas laughed and shook his head. The kneazle had started purring. “I’m going to name you… Khoshekh.”

“Actually, blackie is fine.”

“Nope. Merlin, meet Khoshekh!” Silas held the kneazle out to Merlin, which was still purring. Merlin hesitated a moment before petting it. He thought it smiled.

“Uh… nice to meet you.”

“Khoshekh.”

“Khoshekh,” Merlin repeated, sighing. Silas beamed at him and snuggled the cat again. Merlin turned to Rita Skeeter and inclined his head politely. “Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me yet. Now it’s your turn.”

Hermione Granger had gotten used to wizarding life. Nine months at Hogwarts would do that to you. But her parents, her perfectly normal dentist parents, had yet to catch up. Which meant her father knocked over the pitcher of orange juice when an owl flew through the open kitchen window during breakfast.

“Oh dear, Hermione hand me those napkins please,” said her mother, gesturing to the stack in the holder near the end of the table. Jean and her husband Thomas worked a dentistry business together called, Granger Pearly Whites. It meant that Hermione had straight clean teeth, but that she was also constantly thinking about her enamel and how much sugar she ate.

“Can’t they wait until after breakfast?” Thomas grumbled, mopping up the spill. His waffle looked soggy.

“I’ll get you a new one,” Jean laughed. She turned to Hermione. “It’s a letter, right?”

The owl had dropped the letter next to the salt and peppershakers before perching on the edge of Hermione’s chair. She had been busy running her fingers down the barn owl’s speckled belly fur. “Oh, right!” she said looking up. She saw Merlin’s handwriting across the parchment.

He had gorgeous penmanship, which had surprised her immensely. It looked like he’d been writing with a quill for years. She hadn’t known until she’d forced him to write some notes last term during one of their study groups.

“It’s from Merlin,” she said reaching for it.

“Please, Hermione—eat your breakfast first.” Her father gave her that pleading look and she sighed. She often had a habit of reading books during meals, and her father felt that meals should be family times. No books. No parchment. No reading for just fifteen minutes…

But what did Merlin say? Hermione started shoveling her food into her mouth as fast as possible. After about a minute her dad groaned loudly and her mother started to laugh.

“Stop—stop, just read the letter.”

Hermione grinned and snatched the envelope, tearing it open.

Hermione,

I don’t know if you know, but my birthday is coming up. Florean’s going to throw an ice cream party, and it’d be awesome if you could attend. Hopefully Draco will be coming as well. Let me know whether or not you can come. It’d be at the Ice Cream Parlour on the 31st of July at eleven o’clock.

Merlin.

P.S. Silas got a kneazle. You have to see it.

Hermione laughed and quickly re-read the letter aloud for her parents. “I can go, right?” she asked. They had to. She’d been begging them to take her to Diagon Alley for weeks now. Their discomfort about becoming part of the wizarding world had led them to avoiding it, much to her disappointment and annoyance. She’d need to get him a present too—a card and a book? That sounded too much like her. Maybe she should surprise him, get some pranking supplies.

“That’s next week, isn’t it?” her father said scratching his chin. He took another bite of his waffle, glancing at his wife.

“Oh, why not?” her mother beamed. “I can take the morning off and drive her to Diagon Alley. Do you know how long the party will last?”

“Um, maybe a few hours? But—I’m sure we can entertain ourselves longer,” she added quickly. Her parents usually worked until four or five and probably wouldn’t be able to pick her up until then.

“I can pick her up about five,” said Thomas.

“Write back and ask if that’s fine, but otherwise you can go.”

Hermione scribbled a hasty reply on the back of the letter and gave it to the owl—which had been patiently waiting for them to finish. Hermione suspected that Merlin had told it to wait, as she didn’t have an owl herself. She tied the message to the bird’s leg and it took off at once through the still open kitchen window.

“This is Silas’ brother, right?” Thomas asked. Silas had briefly stayed with them while Merlin attended a Christmas Party at the Malfoy’s. He’d been polite, adorable, and willing to listen to anything Hermione had wanted to talk about. He also played a good hand of Uno.

“Yeah, he’ll be there too.”

Her father nodded.

“Well,” Jean clapped her hands together. “What are you planning on getting him?

Merlin woke up to find an ice cream sundae on his bedside table, Silas already down from his bunk and waiting for him to wake up. Khoshekh was still on Silas’ bed, sleeping in the morning light. Florean had let them keep the kneazle, but he’d been a little exasperated that they hadn’t asked him first. Not to mention when he found out how they’d paid for it. They’d actually received a scolding for that one.

But Rita Skeeter hadn’t published the interview yet. Merlin had a feeling she was holding it until the final trial in a few days.

“Happy Birthday!” Silas said, and he promptly handed Merlin a spoon. “Here’s your breakfast.”

Merlin laughed. “Sounds good to me.” While they were eating, the door opened and Florean entered, grinning at the pair of them.

“I still expect you to eat breakfast, by the way,” he said as they finished. “Your Hogwarts letter arrived too, Merlin, but we’ll deal with that later. Your friends all said they’d be here by eleven, right?”

“Yeah, though Draco said he might be late.” He put the spoon back in the empty dish and stretched.

“All right. It might be a good idea for you to take a shower and get ready now; it’s already half-past nine.”

“Yeah!” Silas added, grinning. “And take as much hot water as you want!”

Merlin had a feeling they wanted to decorate the room while he was gone. He mocked a look of suspicion and went to the bathroom. He thought about taking an obscenely short shower and catching them in the act, but decided he wanted to see the finished product. He took his time, washing his hair with more care than he normally did. He dried, dressed, and brushed his teeth before coming back into the bedroom—which had been completely changed.

The beds had vanished, replaced instead by several beanbags, a coffee table and some simple green and gold streamers. Silas was teasing Khoshekh with a balloon, laughing when the kneazle batted it with her paw. He looked up. “Do you like it?” he asked getting to his feet.

“It’s perfect.”

***

Hermione arrived several minutes early, her face flushed. “I forgot my watch! I’m not late, am I? I stopped on the way to get your present and—”

“Hermione relax!” Merlin said as he let her inside the flat. “You’re the first one here.”

“Oh. Good!”

“I can take that, kiddo,” said Florean, nodding toward the parcel in Hermione’s hand. “We’ll open them all together.” Hermione smiled and handed over the package and card, then followed Merlin back to the room where Silas was entertaining Khoshek again.

Hermione crooned softly when she saw the baby kneazle. “She’s gorgeous!” she said, bending down. The cat glanced at her, tail flicking before letting Hermione pet her. “What did you name her?”

“Khoshek!” Silas said proudly.

Hermione snorted, but said that it was a very fine name indeed.

Draco arrived right on the dot, and Florean led him back to the room after taking a professionally wrapped present from him. He was excited about the kneazle too, but didn’t attempt to pet it. “They don’t tend to like my family much,” he admitted. Merlin looked around, thinking that as everyone was here they should probably start playing some games.

“Hold on Merlin,” said Florean coming back to the room. “There’s someone else coming.”

Merlin stared at him. “Who?” he asked blankly, looking from Draco to Hermione.

“What do you mean who?” said a voice behind Florean.

“You honestly think we’d miss your birthday?” came a second.

Two identical boys with flaming red hair entered the room, beaming at the lot of them. Fred and George Weasley had grown a few inches in the month and a half, and each supported a much darker array of freckles.

“How did you know?” Merlin asked, laughing. George flopped down into one of the beanbag chairs and looked at the kneazle with interest, while Fred took a seat on the floor, leaning back against Merlin’s seat.

“I suggested them to Florean,” said Draco, smirking now. “Thought they might liven up the party a bit.”

“Recommended—”

“—By a Malfoy?”

Fred snorted and appraised the Slytherin for a long moment. “Not bad, not bad. You might just redeem yourself yet.”

“Anyway, who’s up for exploding snap?”

Merlin had worried that the kneazle might attack one of them, but the feline didn’t even mind it when Draco accidentally nudged her with his elbow. After a few rounds of exploding snap and swapping Hogwarts stories, Florean came back with a round of pizza and an enormous ice cream tower—which they attacked ravenously.

Khoshekh included.

The twins lead a song of Happy Birthday, floundering their arms as though they were opera singers. The act nearly brought Hermione to tears from laughing so hard.

“Okay, presents!” Silas announced. Khoshekh was slung around his shoulders; muzzle and whiskers dirty with chocolate ice cream. Florean—who had joined for the birthday song—snapped his fingers.

“Yes, I’ll be right back.” And he dashed from the room, to return a minute later trailing several floating presents behind him. He banished the empty dishes to the kitchen and laid the presents in front of Merlin.

“Right. Which one should I open first?” Merlin asked looking up at them.

“Mine!” Silas said at once. Ignoring Draco’s sniggering, he reached into the pile and withdrew a small present wrapped in bright blue paper.

“Is it wrapped a million times?” Merlin asked taking it, remembering the previous gifts from his foster brother.

“I wish. They wrapped it at the store for me.”

It was a stripped green and silver winter hat with silver stitching. There was a tuft at the top and two strings attached to flaps designed to cover his ears.

“You know,” Silas said fidgeting slightly. “To match your scarf.”

Merlin grinned at him. “It’s perfect.” And he rammed it on his head, earning a roar of laughter from everyone. Fred coughed, trying to compose himself enough to say, “It suits you wonderfully.”

From Draco he received an eagle feather quill set, with a maintaining kit and a self-refilling spell. He thought Hermione had given him a book on effective studying tips—“Very funny, Hermione,” until she’d told him to open it, revealing a secret compartment full of chocolate and filibuster fireworks. Even Draco had been impressed. The twins had given him an assorted back of wizard candy as well as several dung bombs, a bottle of invisible ink, and pair of socks enchanted with a warming spell and Merlin written in large golden letters.

“Who’s this from?” asked Fred, picking up one of the presents left. He stared at the name on the card. “Snape?

“Really?” Merlin snatched it from him and ripped open the card first.

See you back at term.

“He gave you the new potions book, huh?”

“Yup.” Merlin had finished taking off the wrapping. “Still, least I’ll use it.”

Florean had given Merlin his very own brand of ice cream. He brought it out later, after they’d started a match of gobbstones. It had a sweet refreshing taste, like icilces dusted in mint and sugar, and had a cool blue color. He’d then topped it with thick chocolate surryp and roasted almonds.

“Breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” he said, flashing Draco a smirk.

“Yeah, next birthday I’m coming here. Just saying.”

As far as birthdays went, Merlin thought that this one might be the best he’d ever had.

“You two still awake?”

Florean had returned the bedroom back to normal after Hermione finally left. Draco had left much earlier, but the twins had gladly stayed longer and George had actually volunteered to walk Hermione to the muggle side of The Leaky Cauldron when five o’clock came.

The sugar still hadn’t left Merlin’s system. He and Silas had started a pillow fight after Florean had sent them to bed, and Khoshekh was darting about their heels, chasing the feathers that fell to the ground. Silas took advantage of Florean’s entry to smack Merlin full in the face.

“Come on, it’s almost midnight. Get into bed.”

“Okay…” Silas groaned, and he crawled into the top bunk. “I won, by the way,” he shot at Merlin grining.

“You cheated.”

“Kids, come on.” Florean raised his eyebrow, and Merlin got into his bed as well. Once they were both under the covers, Florean drew up a chair and sat down, stroking his goatee. “Maybe a bedtime story will help calm you down.”

“You’re going to read us a story?” Silas asked, and he sat quicky up.

“I’m going to tell you one, but you have to lie down.” Florean smiled, and didn’t speak again until Silas had rested his head back on his pillow. Merlin hid his smile. It’d been a long time since he’d been told a story. It made him feel like he was back at home, in Ealdor and his mother was settling him down for the night.

“Now, let’s see…” Something in Florean’s eyes twinkled. “A long time ago, in a time of knights and ladies, and queens and kings, a wizard befriended a prince.”

Merlin’s eyes widened.

“Together they would change the world forever, ushering in Albion and helping a magical community finally find it’s footing. But before all of that, before the Battle of Camlan, before Hogwarts was even an idea, there was just a prince and his manservant.”

Merlin felt his eyes droop as Florean talked, memories playing before his eyes. He saw himself walking through the marketplace. He’d been running errands for Gaius, the court physician. Arthur was there, but he wasn’t the king everyone knew him as. He was young, arrogant, with a band of laughing knights.

“Oh, don’t run away!”

“From you?”

“Oh good, thought you were deaf as well as dumb.”

He smiled into his pillow, no longer hearing Florean’s story. Or were they the one and the same?

“And how long have you been a prat?”

“Ha—You can’t address me like that.”

“I’m sorry, how long have you been a prat, my lord?

Merlin drifted off to sleep, his mind full of jousting tornaments, sword fights, cups being thrown at his head, and loud robust laughter. His heart felt both heavy and light, a bubble of nostalgia in his chest as he remembered King Arthurs court, his home. And he dimly thought as Florean got to his feet and turned off the light, that had been one of the most accurate re-tellings that he’d ever heard.

 

Chapter Text

“Good on time, ‘re ya?”

“Please Barnabas, you know me better than that.”

Barnabas Cuffe leaned back in his chair and chuckled. He spoke with a cockney accent, though Rita had never asked if her editor was really from the area. He wore his beard proudly despite its salt and pepper colour and usually donned a black bowler hat to cover the growing bald spot on his head. At the moment however, it sat on his desk.

“It don’t hurt to be reminded e’ery once in a while.” Barnabas broke into a yawn and reached for a steaming mug on his desk. “Ne’er thought I’d see you back in the court room. Andy nearly threw a fit, he did. Thought the case was his for sure.”

Rita rolled her eyes and pushed off from the wall to stand before him. “Please, this story is larger than just the court case. Andy wouldn’t know what to do with it, and we both know he couldn’t handle the Ministry breathing down his neck.”

“No he wouldn’t, but least he don’t sit on interviews like you do.” Barnabas narrowed his eyes slightly. “You interviewed that Merlin boy weeks ago, so ‘ow come i’s not crossed my desk?”

Rita didn’t even blink. “Come now Barnabas, you know the danger of milking a good story too quickly.”

Barnabas huffed but nodded all the same. “You bring in a lot of traffic Rita,” he said carefully, “but don’t get too cocky now. I’m expectin’ a hell of a story for the evenin’ edition.”

Rita turned on her acid green heels. “Of course,” she tossed over her shoulder, and she left the office. From the corner of her eye she spotted Andy next to the stove, putting on the kettle. He was lanky, with a nose that had been broken at least twice and curly brown hair.

Honestly… if that punk tried to swipe another story from her, Rita would see to it that he made tea for the rest of his career. Then again, she’d been the one to swipe stories back in the day—make a name for herself too—but at least she’d done the stories well. She could handle it. The bureaucratic bullshit, the ministry sticking their nose into her articles—changing and spinning the news as they saw fit. The paper wasn’t there to tell the news, it was to calm the public, to reassure them that the shit they saw wasn’t all that important.

Sometimes it was fun. Other times it irked her. Pity she liked her job too much to fight against it.

Rita swung by her desk, grabbing an extra note pad and sticking it in her crocodile-skin handbag. One could never have too many. There was a wrap of knuckles against wood, and she looked up to see Bozo leaning against it. Her favorite photographer. If she needed a photo, it didn’t matter how, he would get it for her. He was a paunchy man, though he claimed to be working on it. Somehow, Rita thought the look suited him. He was more imposing and impressive this way. He scratched his stubble, brown flecked with gray, and looked at her with dark brown eyes.

“You wouldn’t be leavin’ without me, would ya?”

Rita laughed. “I would be lost without my photographer. Though,” and here she pushed a memo from the ministry toward him. “This time they’ve specified no photographs of the proceedings.”

Bozo hummed. “So, setting up in the hallway then? Snap a few as they leave?”

Rita paused a moment, considering. “Ideally, but do try to ask permission this time. I’ve heard word that the Minister of Magic himself will be in attendance, and I don’t think we need to antagonize him.” She shrugged, “Besides, they’d dare not deny a photo—free press and all that.”

“And if they do dare?”

“Take the photo anyway.”

He smiled, a wide one that took up most of his face. “That’s what I thought.” He checked his watch. “Time to go?”

“I should think so.” Rita snapped her bag closed and led the way out of the publishing house. One apparation later, she and Bozo strolled the halls of the Ministry. It always amused her how people would regard her. Some looked downright scared, others angry, and some waved pleasantly as she passed through the crowd. Rita had long forgone the idea of pleasing everyone; then again, maybe she’d never wanted to.

She checked her watch as they got into the lift, and turned to Bozo. “See if you can’t snap a photo of Quirrell being brought into the court room.”

For once, Bozo looked less pleased. He coughed, and pulled at his shirt collar. “You think we need that? I mean, there’s only so much room in the paper and a shot of the kid and everyone leaving after they make the decision would make a better header, wouldn’t it?”

Rita raised her eyebrow. “As opposed to the scandal of a previous Hogwarts professor being ushered in by Dementors?”

At the mention of the Azkaban guards Bozo lost colour. “W-what’s their policy on photographs, anyway?” The lift skidded to a halt and Rita led the way out.

“I’d really rather not get my soul sucked out,” Bozo called after her in a loud whisper.

“Are you daft?” Rita said turning around to stare at him. “That’s the equivalent of a death sentence.”

“So?”

She rolled her eyes. “They don’t give someone the death sentence for taking photos.”

But Bozo still looked unconvinced, not that she blamed him. Dementors were foul, and even if they didn’t stoop to kiss her beloved photographer, there was still the emotional abuse to consider. But he would do it. She saw the resignation in the way he adjusted his bag strap, and in the setting of his jaw.

The man deserved a bonus for this.

Ahead, Rita spotted the courtroom doors, pushed open as Wizengamot members entered in talkative droves. She nudged Bozo. “Feel free to set up,” she said, and after he’d nodded, she strode toward the crowd. By the door stood Cornelius Fudge, wearing his favorite bowler hat and engaging Lucius Malfoy in polite conversation. She didn’t even need to clear her throat.

“Ah, Ms. Skeeter.” Malfoy had turned around. She was always amazed by his ability to smile so convincingly. “Do you require a quote already?”

“Ms. Skeeter,” Fudge said quickly, glancing at Malfoy with raised eyebrows. “I do think that this is hardly the time…” He sounded stressed. Lovely.

Rita smiled at the pair of them, enjoying the way it unsettled Fudge even more. “Oh, just greeting the gentry, nothing wrong with that I hope?”

Malfoy laughed, a smooth practiced sound. “Wouldn’t expect any less from you, Ms. Skeeter. And—ah, young Mr. Evans is here at last.”

“Oh. Good.” Fudge deliberated for a moment, glancing at the pair of them before excusing himself and walking over to meet Florean and Merlin as they came up the hallway.

The boy looked like before, hair tousled but neat and his blue eyes brighter and older than they had any right to be. He seemed excited, with a slight spring in his step, though he was calm when shaking Fudge’s hand. Florean looked more nervous, visibly fumbling his words. She heard Malfoy laugh softly beside her, and this time the sound was different. Darker, with a melancholy that reminded her of dark halls and monastery bells.

It gave her the chills.

“Something amusing?” she asked without averting her gaze from the boy.

“Fudge is terrified of him.”

Rita tore her gaze away to stare at Malfoy, her lips parting slightly. “Is he now?” she asked, almost breathless. Now, that would be one hell of an angle for her story— “The boy himself or of what he says?”

Malfoy glanced at her, “I think you’re clever enough to know which.” Merlin and Florean passed by them, watching curiously. Rita waved to Merlin, and to her surprise he waved back. He disappeared into the courtroom.

“Well, I’ll be sure to find you if I need a quote,” Rita said, stepping toward the doors herself.

“I would be surprised if you didn’t.”

He followed her inside the room and the doors closed behind them. Malfoy had always freely given her quotes. Whether he enjoyed the spotlight or the spin she put on her stories—she didn’t know. He was a difficult person to characterize, and she had no desire to antagonize a man who had managed to not only dodge punishment for Death Eater activity, but rise to great influence and power despite it. He could finish her career with one owl, and probably end her life at the same time. So, she tended to agree with whatever he said and be happy he gave her such amazing quotes for her articles.

Rita sat down at the end of the row in the guest section, putting her directly across Merlin and his guardian. At the moment, the boy was staring at the chair covered in chains, rooted at the center of the room. It seemed to unsettle him.

A rustle beside her told her that Malfoy had decided to take the seat next to her. And, for the first time, she wasn’t sure how Malfoy wanted her to present the Merlin boy. She was suddenly scared of getting it wrong. Rita cleared her throat, steeling herself. Don’t lose your nerve. She opened her purse and her acid green quill jumped out, followed closely by her notebook.

Conversation is muted this time around as the prospect of facing the defamed Quirrell and determining the allegations set against him turn the mood. Merlin Evans sits beside his guardian, Florean Fortescue, once again relying on the man in order to explain what’s happening. He’s nodded toward the chained chair in the center of the room, and frowns as Florean explains its purpose. Merlin does not seem to like the idea of chaining someone up, which is interesting since the main in question attempted to murder him and is facing allegations of conspiring with He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.

Behind the podium, Amelia Bones got to her feet and silence fell at once.

Still supporting the monocle, when will the Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement realize that it’s the end of the twentieth century and buy herself a stylish pair of glasses that don’t make her look like a stern school-teacher?

“The trial of Quirinus Quirrell, previous Defense Against the Dark Arts professor of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardy, is now called to session. The defendant will present his case, following which he will be sentenced in accordance with the law.”

Dumbledore has frowned—it’s a well-known fact that the headmaster harbors no love for the dementors. Merlin appears to have frozen in his seat—dreading the arrival of his ex-professor, no doubt. Madam Bones nods towards the doors and they fly open to reveal Quirrell, escorted by two of the robed creatures.

Beside her Malfoy stiffened, and Rita felt the cold despair seize hold of her lungs. She never got used to it, even during her time as a crime reporter. That awful depression that lingered even after they’d left. She swallowed, trying to ignore the frosting of her breath and the whispers in her ear.

Quirrell looks haggard, with his cheeks sunken and eyes shadowed. A fuzz of light brown hair covers his head, the famed purple turban finally retired. And although there’s sheen of sweat on his brow, he holds his head high. He stares unnervingly at Merlin who—

Rita’s quill stopped.

Children often had a strong reaction to the dementors. All their fears and insecurities—even the unrealistic ones—made them easier targets. And children who were involved in criminal cases had it even worse. But even though Rita had been prepared to see Merlin pale-faced and shaking—the sight was so much worse.

Merlin had grabbed his head, and in the silence his shallow gasps filled the room. Florean put his hands on Merlin’s shoulders, speaking in a hushed voice that echoed like a shout.

“It’ll pass. Merlin—it’s okay, I—are you all right?”

Rita could hear Merlin’s breathing grow more labored. He sunk down in his seat, disappearing from her view. Florean stopped pretending to whisper entirely.

“Merlin!”

Dumbledore stood up, and Rita realized for the first time that the dementors had already seated Quirrell into the chained chair. They were hovering next to him, refusing to leave.

“Your duty is done, leave the room!” Dumbledore ordered the dementors, his voice just as cold as the air, and they quickly withdrew. The door swung shut behind them. As soon as they’d left, conversation broke out.

“That was more than just emotional turmoil.”

Rita glanced at Malfoy before looking back at Merlin. He was slowly getting back into his chair, taking the chocolate that Florean offered with shaking hands.

“Dementors don’t cause physical pain.”

“Pain is pain.”

Merlin was rubbing his head with his fingers, speaking so quietly to Florean that Rita couldn’t hear him. Dumbledore had leaned over to talk with him as well—and all the while, Quirrell watched. Silent. Blue eyes wide and curious.

Merlin appears to have had a particularly averse reaction to the dementors, Rita’s quill scribbled across her notebook. Dementors summon forth the darkest memories, hidden away in our mind and force us to dwell on the worst. Were Merlin’s memories so terrible that they caused him physical pain? Did Quirrell’s attack leave lasting damage on the young boy’s mind or are there worse skeletons in his closet? Contact source at St. Mungo’s—can dementors cause physical pain e.g. headaches?

Amelia Bones banged her mallet down, restoring silence.

“Quirinus Quirrell, you’ve been charged with the assault and attempted murder of Merlin Evans, and of conspiring with He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named to steal the Philosopher’s Stone. Before we pass judgment, do you have anything to say in your defense?”

Quirrell isn’t surprised by the charges, in fact he smiles. He keeps his gaze fixed Merlin, although his words address the Wizengamot.

“Ask your questions. You know I have no defense that could possibly stand up to the testimony of Albus Dumbledore and Merlin.” Finally his eyes turned to the Minister of Magic, seated just behind Madam Bones. “Even though I was unsuccessful the Dark Lord will rise again.”

Cornelius Fudge has started to bluster, face turning purple. He is infuriated by the mention of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named—or is he about to suffer a heart attack? How can the man protect us from the famed dark wizard if he falls apart at just the mention of him?

“Is that a confession?” asked Madam Bones.

Quirrell shrugged, smirking now.

“Then tell us, where did you find him?”

For a moment Quirrell didn’t speak, seeming to enjoy the deepening color of Fudge’s face. “I met the Dark Lord while traveling in Albania. The dark forest holds many ghosts, but he was less than even the weakest spirit. He helped me realize the truth of this world—”

“This is preposterous!” Fudge had stood up, his lip quivering. “This testimony is nothing but lies to cover the depth of his own greed.” He pointed a wagging finger at Quirrell.

Is it about time Fudge stepped down as Minister of Magic?

Madam Bones slammed her mallet down again. “Minister, I am preceding over this case and the accused will be allowed to finish his statement.”

“But you can’t possibly—”

“That is irrelevant,” she cut across sharply. “Quirrell is charged of conspiring with He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named and he will give testimony in regards to it. I must ask you to sit down or I will have you escorted from the courtroom.”

In a rare display of power, Head of Magical Law Enforcement Madam Amelia Bones informs the Minister of Magic that his personal bias have no place within the courtroom and that if he doesn’t sit down and behave like an adult she will remove him. Fudge doesn’t know how to react—he appears both affronted and embarrassed. He stares open mouthed at Madam Bones for a moment before throwing himself back into his seat—fuming like a child. How often does she save our society from Fudge’s needless tantrums?

“Continue, Mr. Quirrell,” Madam Bones said after it was clear Fudge had calmed down. “What is this truth?”

“You can’t kill a ghost.” Quirrell started to laugh. Rita swallowed, and her pen hesitated again. “And you can’t defeat someone who has mastered Death!” Across from her, Merlin had narrowed his eyes.

Quirrell might be a crazy psychopath, but he’s not wrong.

Madam Bones cleared her throat. “All those in favor of acquitting Quirinus Quirrell?”

Not a single person raised their hand.

“Quirrell you are charged guilty of the crimes posed to you and I sentence you to life in Azkaban.” She banged her mallet down for the final time.

“Ah, Amelia why don’t we allow Merlin to excuse himself before the dementors return?” Dumbledore suggested. Rita wondered how he made it feel like an order when his tone was so polite.

“Perhaps a good idea—Merlin?”

Merlin nearly jumped to his feet, nodding to the pair of them at the same time. “Thanks,” he said softly, his cheeks tinting with pink. Florean got up as well, and started leading the way down the row.

Quirrell met Merlin’s eyes again, and Rita saw something more than curiosity. There was malice, surprise, and a mutilated form of respect that made her skin crawl. Her quill went to scribble something down but she stopped it. She didn’t want to document that look—or the fear of what it implied.

The doors shut after them with a thud.

“You all right, kiddo?”

Merlin nodded, although all right couldn’t be further from the truth. “I want to talk to Rita Skeeter before we leave.” The idea of her writing about—well, about what had happened to him in there with the dementors made him nervous. Or, how she could twist it did. Her photographer hovered nearby, looking confused. He’d had his camera set up next to the courtroom doors, but clearly hadn’t expected them to leave ahead of everyone else. Merlin dimly registered that he’d probably ruined some amazing photograph of the lot of them exiting the courtroom together—

Florean put his hand on Merlin’s shoulder. “Well, let’s go around the corner at least. The dementors should be coming any moment.”

That got him moving. He walked with Florean down the corridor until they were standing right next to the elevators. But even from this distance, when they came—he knew.

Florean had neglected to mention the dementors until they’d gotten to the courtroom. They had probably just slipped his mind, but the rushed explanation about the Azkaban Guards hadn’t prepared him at all. They’ll make you feel sad hadn’t quite covered it.

They hit Merlin like the Dorocha, a creature born from that black space of hopelessness. But the dementors didn’t need to touch you to chill your bones like the Dorocha. They drained every happy thought just from standing in the same vicinity. They found the worst memories buried deep and dragged them to the surface. Merlin cringed as he felt their aura drift over to him, cold prickling his mind. And then it started to hurt.

He hadn’t known about the curse that had swallowed over half his life until the sorting hat had told him about it. It was the reason he couldn’t remember why he’d come to this time period, and it was why he’d had such a hard time figuring out what he needed to do. He could barely remember the Hogwarts founders, even though they’d apparently been close friends. He couldn’t remember the Bloody Baron or Helena Ravenclaw at all—even though they knew him. And every time he tried to touch those memories, it hurt.

The dementors reached right into that part of him, reaching for those memories with their rotting hands and forcing them to the surface. They didn’t seem to know—or care—that they were too corrupted for him to actually recall. His head was splitting open, burning up, collapsing in on itself—

And he couldn’t make it stop.

“Hey, you sure you’re okay?”

Merlin managed to open his eyes, wincing as he looked up at Florean. His head still ached from his first encounter, let alone from the dementors currently down the hall. “I’ll be fine.” That was closer to the truth. He took a deep breath, relieved when he felt them leaving at last.

“Here, eat some more chocolate.” Florean handed him the bar from earlier and Merlin eagerly broke off a piece.

“Why does it help?” he asked as he ate a piece. He felt his mood lift immediately, though he still felt weak and shaky.

Florean shrugged. “You’ll have to ask a medi-witch for that one. I just know that it does.”

Merlin nodded, finishing his chocolate. He heard the doors open and took another steadying breath. Time to face Rita Skeeter.

“You don’t have to talk to her today, you know.”

“I need to.” Merlin grimaced and led the way back down the hallway. He stopped a little before the doors, watching as the photographer snapped a picture of the head Wizengamot members, Dumbledore, and Fudge.

“Ah, Mr. Evans, I hope you are feeling better.”

Lucius Malfoy had emerged from the sidelines, and Merlin thought he saw a flicker of genuine concern in his light grey eyes. He hadn’t expected that.

“Yes—a little.”

Lucius gave him a long surveying look—as though he knew that Merlin wasn’t being entirely honest—before turning to Florean. “You must be very proud, Mr. Fortescue.”

Florean lifted his head slightly. “I am. Merlin’s a good kid.”

“I shudder to think what would have happened if he wasn’t there to save the day.”

Merlin raised an eyebrow. “That almost sounds like a compliment, Mr. Malfoy.”

Lucius chuckled softly, and readjusted his grip on his cane. “I know when to acknowledge power, Mr. Evans.” He nodded curtly to the pair of them and started to walk away. “Oh, and Draco would like to purchase his school supplies next week. He’s asked that you join him.”

“Oh! Yeah! I mean, yes, that would be great.” Merlin finally cracked a smile.

“He’ll meet you at the shop.” Lucius nodded again and left.

“I think he’s warming up to me,” Merlin said, turning to Florean but at the look on his guardian’s face, his smile faded. Florean had his brows creased in worry, the lines of his face taunt. Merlin looked back at Malfoy’s retreating back and said softly, “Don’t look so grim, Florean. He hasn’t asked me to be his new Dark Lord yet.”

Florean started. He turned to Merlin and broke into a smile, shaking his head. “Well anyway, at least Draco will be coming around soon.” Merlin didn’t miss the way he avoided the subject.

“Ah, Merlin! Good, you’re still here.” Fudge had finally managed to escape Rita Skeeter and her photographer. He walked up to them, and slipped his arm over Merlin’s shoulders. “Would you mind if I had a quick word?” he asked, nodding to Florean.

Merlin had a sinking feeling he knew what this was about. But he still nodded when Florean caught his eye.

“Of course, Minister,” and with that, Fudge guided Merlin a little ways from the group. When they were a suitable distance away, he turned to Merlin and gave a strained smile.

“First,” he said and he took Merlin’s hand. “I want to congratulate you on the outcome of the trial. Unanimous vote, Quirrell won’t ever be getting out of Azkaban.”

The thought of a lifetime with dementors made Merlin shiver involuntarily. “But?” he asked, knowing what the minister really wanted to ask.

“But,” and Fudge sighed. He glanced once more toward the group around the doors, and spoke in a bare whisper, “Are you positive you saw He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named?”

“Did I miss something? Quirrell confessed sir,” Merlin said slowly. If Fudge’s explosion during the trial was any indication, the man was in serious denial. “What more proof do you need?”

Fudge gave a nervous laugh, putting his hand on Merlin’s shoulder again. “You’re young—” he began and immediately Merlin narrowed his eyes. “But not long ago every single criminal claimed to have been working with You-Know-Who. It was a popular plea bargain—your life in exchange for information. So forgive me if I don’t take that man’s word. He doesn’t have two faces at the moment, after all.”

Merlin’s face had gone impassive. He was sure Fudge was right, and that several criminals had used Voldemort as an excuse for their heinous acts. “He made me do it,” sounded a lot better than an outright confession—but Quirrell had admitted to voluntarily working with Voldemort. And there wasn’t any bargain to be made.

“I know what I saw, sir.”

“But it was dark. Isn’t it possible you only thought you saw—”

Merlin shook his head and cut him off. “What do you have to gain Minister, by pretending he doesn’t exist?”

Fudge flushed, but managed not to lose his temper. “Yes, well—” He let go of Merlin’s shoulder at last and straightened up, adjusting his cloak. “Well, in any case Quirrell can’t do anymore harm. You ought to head home, Merlin. Those dementors took their number on you,” and he quickly left, walking not back toward the Wizengamot but to the elevators.

Merlin sighed, and turned back to the group. Florean was still talking with Dumbledore and smiled when he saw Merlin heading back. But he didn’t join him, instead Merlin found Rita Skeeter—who was deep in conversation with Bozo, looking excited. She spotted him at once and smiled broadly.

“Merlin, congratulations!” She seemed honestly happy for him. “How are you feeling, dear?”

Merlin grimaced. “Actually—that’s what I wanted to ask you about.”

Rita raised her eyebrow. “Now, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Dementors bother everybody. Unless you’re going to tell me what memory they brought up?” Her acid green quill shot out of her bag at once.

“No!” Merlin said at once, and Rita sighed heavily. “I just don’t want you twist it or anything.”

“Twist it?” Rita took a step back in mock indignation. “Of course not—I was merely going to tell my avid readers that you were upset by the arrival of the man that had put you through so much pain.” Her smile turned feral, “Although a story about what sort of skeletons lie in your closet would be more interesting, wouldn’t it?”

If she only knew how many skeletons…

“I just don’t want you making any guesses about why,” he said honestly. He swallowed, hoping that he wasn’t giving her ideas instead. “I don’t really want to deal with everyone at school asking me if it’s true that I…” he trailed off implicitly, not wanting to finish that sentence.

Rita looked thoughtful. Her acid green quill had disappeared back into her bag. “Well, that’s not entirely undoable. I’m sure you understand I can’t omit it entirely.”

Merlin nodded. “Yeah, just—” he shrugged.

“I’ll see what I can do,” and to his surprise, Rita gripped his shoulder briefly before turning back to her photographer.

Maybe he looked sicker than he’d thought. He found Florean walking toward him and decided that home—and bed—sounded like a brilliant idea.

Cornelius Fudge was going to be a problem.

Dumbledore had known it for a while now, although he had hoped that the minister would see reason. The fact that he refused to accept not just memory evidence but Quirrell’s outright confession meant that his denial was worse than Dumbledore had feared. Fudge might never see reason. Fear could do that to a person.

He watched as Merlin retreated to the elevators with Florean. The boy certainly looked worse for wear, that pallid quality in his cheeks hadn’t left since the encounter with the dementors. Florean had told him that even from down the hall, Merlin had sensed them. Dumbledore couldn’t say he was entirely surprised—if the incident with the troll was anything to go by, Merlin had a strange affinity with magical creatures. Though it was interesting…

“Headmaster.”

Amelia Bones had disentangled herself from the crowd. She fixed him with those cold blue eyes and nodded—a look he understood. It was time to plan countermeasures. He fell into step beside her, and together they left the Wizengamot members still excitedly discussing the case. Amelia was still fuming over Fudge’s outburst—he could see it in the rigidity of her shoulders, in the corners of her mouth.

“He’s just scared,” he told her. “I still hope that he’ll come around eventually.”

Amelia shook her head. “There’s only so much evidence he can ignore. At this point it’s willful negligence and it won’t be long before his inaction has brutal consequences.” But she didn’t sound angry, if anything the Head of Magical Law Enforcement sounded exhausted. “His fear has frozen him, and we can’t be led by a frozen man.”

They’d reached her office. Amelia pushed open the door for him, revealing another man already waiting inside, appraising the Vase with twelve flowers. “You must tell me where you acquired this, Madam,” he said as he turned to the pair of them. “I do think my office could use a little color.” He inclined his head, “Albus.”

“Rufus.”

Rufus Scrimgeour bore his age with pride. His mane of tawny hair had streaks of grey, though from behind wire-rimmed spectacles his yellowish eyes were alive. He crossed over to them, and despite a slight limp in his leg; there was a surprising even loping grace to his movements. The Head of the Auror Office extended his hand to Dumbledore, who clasped it, feeling rough hands.

“It’s good to see you again,” Dumbledore said with a smile.

Rufus grimaced. “Wish it were under better circumstances.” He turned to Amelia. “I received the memo—Quirrell admitted it then?”

She closed the door behind them and nodded, going to her desk. “It has become apparent that You-Know-Who is actively trying to return to power.” She sat down, and after a moment Rufus took one of the high-backed musky red chairs. Dumbledore remained standing.

“We knew this day would come,” he said heavily, resting his hand on the back of Rufus’ chair. “One would hope we’d be more prepared.”

“With Fudge ignoring the signs?” Rufus scoffed. “I assume he didn’t take Quirrell’s admittance well.”

“That would be putting it mildly,” Amelia said. She brought her hands together before her, thoughtful. “I will try—” and here she met Dumbledore’s eyes “—to work on him, but we can’t wait for Fudge to catch up.”

“What do you need?” Rufus said at once, sitting up in his chair.

“Although we cannot yet officially reinstate the Order of the Phoenix, it would be prudent to inform all former members of these proceedings.” She met Dumbledore’s gaze again, and continued after he’d nodded. “See who else we can bring into the fold—but we can’t give Fudge a reason to panic.”

“Panic?” repeated Rufus, frowning.

“If he suspects we are acting without his approval and under the assumption that Voldemort is returning,” Dumbledore said, noting the way the room flinched at the name, “he may believe we mean to usurp him. His fear will not let him differentiate between the nonsense and practicality, and we don’t need to fight the ministry as well.”

“This isn’t going to stay quiet,” Rufus said glancing between the two of them.

“I’d be very surprised if Fudge allowed the Prophet to start broadcasting news of Voldemort’s return,” Dumbledore said raising his eyebrow. “He doesn’t want a panic, and he’s going to try to squash any attempt to do otherwise.”

Amelia sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Well, all the same we don’t want a public panic either. I’ll do what I can to make Fudge see sense—if we’re lucky he’ll get enough heat to sanction the reinstatement of the order just for determent purposes. He’s not back yet, but his death eaters are certainly still around.”

“Yes,” Dumbledore said nodding. He had no doubt that Lucius Malfoy would inform the rest of his circle the details of Quirrell’s case. It was only a matter of time before they acted, if only to save their own skins.

“That’s it?” Rufus said, his voice rising. “That’s all we can do? We have a chance to get out in front of this.”

“And we are, my friend. But this is a place where we must tread carefully,” Dumbledore said calmly. “Fudge might still come around, and at this stage panicking the public without a real threat just might push the death eaters to act before Voldemort actually returns.”

“Right now,” Amelia said meeting Rufus’ eyes, “this is just story of failure. Those with fluid alliances won’t see this as true power. But if even one of them decides to follow in Quirrell’s footsteps, he will come back. I don’t know how, but it’s clear to all of us here—” and she paused a moment to look at Dumbledore “—that it’s only a matter of time. We need that time.

“To do what?” Rufus growled. “Convince Fudge?”

“To prepare, Rufus,” Dumbledore said softly. “It’s been nearly twelve years, all our contacts have dried up. Alliances have broken. And what more, we don’t even know how he’s coming back to power.” He shook his head. “We already killed him once, Rufus. It’s clear that isn’t going to be enough this time.”

Rufus finally nodded, the heat leaving his face. He stroked his chin for a moment, fingers curling in his tawny hair. “I’ll see what I can do. One of my auror’s might have a contact in the Department of Mysteries, perhaps they can figure something out.”

“Very good, keep me informed.” Dumbledore checked his watch, “And I must be getting back to the school—they’ll be needing this information as well.”

“Of course.” Amelia and Rufus both stood, and Dumbledore nodded to the pair of them.

It didn’t take Dumbledore long after that to apparate to Hogsmeade, and twenty minutes later he strode into his office. But before he’d even had a chance to sit down, the office door banged open and Snape barged inside.

“Tell me you aren’t serious,” he spat, crossing the room in a few furious strides.

“I generally am, although in this case you’ll need to be more specific.”

Snape’s lip curled. “I’ve just been told that you’ve decided whom to hire as Defense Against the Dark Arts.”

Dumbledore sighed and sat down at his desk. “I’m sure you’re aware I couldn’t hire you.”

“I know that,” Snape shot back his voice rising. “But surely there were better candidates than him?”

 

 

Chapter Text

“We can’t print that!” Barnabas Cuffe exclaimed, shoving the article back toward her. “You’ve gotta rewrite it.”

Rita Skeeter frowned, picking up the parchment and clenching it tightly in her hand. She’d finished the write up minutes ago—some of the ink hadn’t even completely dried. “You are kidding me, right?” she said, her tone low and angry. “This isn’t even exaggerated!” She shook the article in his face. “Not enough bullshit for you, or something?”

Barnabas snatched the article back, ripping the corner in the process. He straightened it out, and read aloud:

QUIRRELL ADMITS TO WORKING WITH HE-WHO-MUST-NOT-BE-NAMED

“Okay, I admit that’s a bit long,” Rita said rolling her eyes. “But we can change that to THE DARK LORD or something.” Barnabas glared at her and continued:

We can all sleep well tonight with Quirinus Quirrell safely behind bars—or can we? —writes Rita Skeeter, Special Correspondent. Earlier today Quirrell was sentenced to life in Azkaban but in his final testimony the ex-Defense Against the Dark Arts Professor admitted to working with none other than He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.

“Even though I was unsuccessful, the Dark Lord will rise again,” Quirrell told the silent Wizengamot.

Barnabas paused and looked up at her. “We cannot print this!”

“I’m literally quoting him, word for word!” Rita snapped back, gesturing toward the article for emphasis. “For once,” she added and Barnabas heaved a loud sigh before continuing.

But will the ministry be able to protect us from this possibility? Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge, was in attendance and interrupted the proceedings in order to contest Quirrell’s claim.

“This is preposterous!” Fudge said. “This testimony is nothing but lies to cover the depth of his own greed.”

In a rare display of power, Head of Magical Law Enforcement Madam Amelia Bones informed Fudge that if he couldn’t keep his personal bias to himself, she would remove him from the courtroom. In fact, Fudge was apparently so terrified by the idea of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named returning that he reportedly approached the witness, Merlin Evans, in order to persuade him that his memory had been the conjuration of his troubled mind—

“—Really Rita,” Barnabas said, shaking his head. “Do you wanna get me fired?” “Do you wanna get fired?” The min’ Fudge reads this article both of us will ne’er work in journalism again.”

Rita clicked her tongue, leaning on his desk. “Clearly we’re not working in journalism now if the ministry can dictate what we do and do not publish!” she hissed.

“Don’t lie to yourself!” Barnabas roared back, getting to his feet. As he continued, his cockney accent grew heavier and heavier until she could barely understand him. “The reason you took this story was because of them politics—what was it?—Andy couldn’t handle it!” He slammed the article down on the table, breathing heavily. “Now, you’re gonna rewrite this, and leave Fudge and him outta it!”

“And what?” Rita said. “Bore my readers? They’ll read the first paragraph—go, “oh good, we knew that was going to happen” and toss it. You wanted a hell-of-a story, and I’ve given you one! It just doesn’t mesh with their political agenda!”

“Rita, I’m not doing this with you again. Focus on that damn kid, make the whole article about him, hell write that interview from a few weeks ago—I don’t care. And if you won’t I’ll give it to Andy.”

“Andy wasn’t even there!”

“Then it’ll be easy for him to keep that shit outta it, won’t it?” Barnabas huffed and sat back down in his chair, pushing the crumpled and slightly ripped piece of paper back toward her. “Look—your right. It’s a hell of a story, but Fudge’s worried about causing a panic. Last time when you brought him up Fudge stormed in ‘ere, trying to get me to pull the story—but o’course we’d already published. This time he’s watching us.”

His voice had lost its anger, replaced instead with the weary drone of a man who’d had this argument before, and even disagreed with the words forcing their way out of his mouth but couldn’t change it. Rita rarely had issues like this. Normally the ministry loved sensationalized stories about meaningless gossip—no doubt to distract the public from the more important issues, like this one.

“There’s nothing I can do, and unless you wan’ ta kiss your career goodbye, you’ll rewrite that article. And quick too—we’re supposed to send out the Night Edition in a few hours.” He shook his head. “Or I could, if you don’t think you can stomach it.”

“I got it,” Rita said through gritted teeth. She grabbed her draft and left, slamming the door behind her.

So much for the story of a century, instead she’s saddled with bullshit politics and terrified editors. She knew she ought to be used to it by now, but when they wanted to downplay a story rather than embellish it she grew frustrated. Sometimes she wondered why she hadn’t gone to the Quibbler, or one of those other magazines that could spout literal lunacy and get away with it—and then she remembered. She wanted fame, she wanted readers, and the Daily Prophet was the only place where she could find plenty of both. It was only when she was alone she admitted that sometimes it’d be nice to tell the truth.

QUIRRELL: LYING TO COVER UP HIS OWN GREED?
By Rita Skeeter

Hogwarts is once again safe for your children, writes Rita Skeeter, Special Correspondent. Earlier today the Wizengamot sentenced the ex-Defense Against the Dark Arts Professor, Quirinus Quirrell to life in Azkaban Prison.

“It is always a pleasure to see justice in action,” said Lucius Malfoy, Chairman of Hogwarts Board of Governors. “And it’s really all thanks to young Merlin.”

Merlin Evans, age eleven, can now sleep easy knowing the man who attacked him at the end of last term has been incarcerated—or can he? Evans has been the subject of much speculation ever since Quirrell’s arrest, after all how often does a first year duel his professor and win? But new evidence suggests that the young wizard is more traumatized than he lets on.

Although Evans maintained his cool during the opening remarks by Head of Magical Law Enforcement, Madam Amelia Bones, Evans froze when he came face-to-face with Quirrell once again. In fact, Evans departed from the courtroom early, in order to escape Quirrell’s sinister stare and the horrific memories no doubt summoned by being placed in the same room with his attacker.

“I question Dumbledore’s decision to allow Merlin to attend the sentencing,” Malfoy said after the proceedings. “It was unnecessary and Merlin didn’t need to be subject to both Quirrell and the dementors.”

Evans also revealed in an exclusive interview that he did not walk away from his encounter with Quirrell unscarred. “I have a long scar right here,” he said pointing along his left side, just above his hip. “Where the knight chess piece stabbed me.”

But this begs the question—did Merlin really see He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named?

Memories have always been considered unreliable in the court of law, and one St. Mungo’s medi-wizard explained to The Prophet how trauma could easily warp details. “It’s the reason they can’t be used without evidence to back it up—they just can’t be substantiated.”

The Minister of Magic argues that this is merely a madman’s attempt to shift the blame off of himself.

“This testimony is nothing but lies to cover the depth of his own greed,” Fudge said. “He’s just trying to cause a panic, and there is no concrete evidence to suggest that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named was involved.”

Quirrell himself was unavailable for comment, but displayed alarming behavior during his hearing. Near the end of his testimony he started rambling about ghosts and mastering death. And many Wizengamot members expressed their anxiety in regards to how the man looked at Merlin.

“Cold,” said one Wizengamot member after the hearing. “Never seen an expression like it—he’ll fit right at home in Azkaban.”

Only time will tell whether or not Evans will ever recover from his encounter with the defamed professor.

Something fuzzy was going up his nose.

The realization hit a minute later, and Merlin’s eyes flew open to see a mound of black fur sitting on his face. Although he was grateful it wasn’t a caterpillar—which his sleeping mind had suggested—it didn’t really improve the situation. He gently pushed Khoshekh to the side, and the sleeping kneazle yawned widely before flipping onto her back and continuing her snooze on his bed.

Merlin wanted to follow her example. He felt heavy, sluggish, as though he had woken hours before his mind wanted to be awake. But the sunshine streaming through his window implied it was well into the morning—perhaps even afternoon. And now that he was awake, the noise would have made going back to sleep impossible. Diagon Alley sounded alive with patrons, as did the ice cream parlor beneath him. Merlin groaned and rolled onto his side, staring at Khoshekh’s chest rise and fall. He could feel it starting up again—a slight prickling at his temple, an ache behind his ears.

Ever since Quirrell had been sentenced a week ago, Merlin had been plagued by a pervasive headache. It’d made falling asleep hard, and waking up at a decent hour even harder. Florean thought it was just one of those annoying summer colds, the kind that lingers, dishing out a steady stream of body aches but never evolving into the real thing. Personally, Merlin thought he might still be dealing with the dementor aftermath. Either way, all he could do was wait for it to blow over.

Resigning himself to the day, Merlin pushed off his covers—careful not to disturb the kneazle—and eased himself out of bed. He ran his hands through his hair, hating the fog settling behind his eyes. This thing, whatever it was, had pretty much destroyed his sleep schedule. After years of waking up early, sleeping in felt like a huge waste of time. Or at least, sleeping in to this extent did.

After splashing some cold water on his face, he shuffled off to the kitchen—where he could hear Florean and Silas arguing with the painting about lunch. From what Merlin gathered, Boris thought cheese and ham sandwiches were a waste of their culinary talents. He smiled, and entered the kitchen.

“Well, looks who’s finally up.” Florean beamed up at him, pausing from cutting cheese and ham. Silas was sitting on a stool next to him, spreading mayo and mustard on slices of bread. “Feeling better, kiddo?”

Merlin yawned, nodding. “What time is it?”

“Lunchtime.” Silas gave a lopsided grin. “Obviously,” he added raising an eyebrow.

Merlin snorted. “I think I’m rubbing off on you.”

Silas looked delighted. Florean consulted his fob watch for a moment and said, “It’s almost twelve-thirty.” He gestured towards the sandwiches. “Hungry?”

“Starved.” Merlin pulled up another stool next to Silas and started assembling the sandwiches. Boris huffed loudly behind them, but didn’t say anything else while they worked. Merlin saw the Daily Prophet sitting on the edge of the counter, last week’s Night Edition poking out from beneath today’s paper.

Rita Skeeter’s article had frustrated him. There’d been too much about him and nothing about Lord Voldemort. In fact she had tried to discredit Merlin’s memories, and make Voldemort a non-issue entirely. Hadn’t she said that Voldemort was big news? He’d expected her to write about Quirrell’s testimony. She wouldn’t even have had to exaggerate! Quirrell had made it perfectly clear whom he’d been working with. But, instead she’d made Merlin sound traumatized and had swept the whole thing under the rug. Boring in comparison to an exclusive about The Dark Lord.

At least she hadn’t lingered on his reaction to the dementors, which was a miracle in itself.

“Draco will be here in about half-an-hour,” Florean said, shooting Merlin a glance while he started putting away food.

Merlin started. “What?”

Silas looked at him too. “School supplies?” he prompted, raising his eyebrow.

Merlin groaned and rubbed his temples, willing his mind to work properly. After Lucius had invited Merlin to shop with Draco he’d even received a formal letter. How had he forgotten? He grabbed one of the finished ham and cheese sandwiches and started eating. “And I forgot to run to Gringotts,” he grumbled in between bites.

Silas grabbed a sandwich too. “Why do you need to go to Gringotts?”

“Oh, it’s this orphan funding thing. The ministry will cover the cost of my school supplies.”

Silas frowned. “But Florean—”

“As I haven’t officially adopted you,” Florean cut in smoothly, placing a glass of orange juice before each of them. “The ministry will support your education costs. And there’s no shame in accepting a bit of help.”

Neither Merlin nor Silas wanted to broach the topic of adoption just yet. Merlin swallowed thickly and reached for his orange juice so he wouldn’t be able to reply. He knew they would have to talk about it someday—how long were they staying with Florean anyway? Shaking his head, Merlin emptied his glass.

“Right, I’ll need to run to Gringotts then. Entertain Draco for me if he arrives before I get back, will you?” he asked as he stood up.

“Sure,” Florean said. He paused a moment, watching Merlin stretch. “You’re okay going alone?”

“Yeah, goblins don’t bother me.” He smiled.

“I see. Oh! Hang on you need your funding card,” Florean said, stepping out of the room for a moment. Merlin heard him say from down the hall, “Where did I—ah, there we go.” Florean reappeared a moment later, holding the silver card in his hands. “Wouldn’t want to forget that.”

Merlin nodded, accepting it. “Yeah, probably not.”

“Just remember to give it back when you return.”

“Bet Snape told you to hold onto it,” Merlin said smirking as he pocketed the card.

Florean laughed, “Don’t think there’s a point denying that.”

Merlin took a moment to ruffle Silas’ hair on his way out, chuckling at the indignant, “Hey!” behind him.

It was warm outside. Bright sunshine bathed Diagon Alley, bleaching the colors, and hurting his eyes. The street was packed with shoppers, parents hunting for those back-to-school deals and students looking for next year’s supplies. Merlin thought he recognized some of the faces he passed—maybe he had History of Magic with that girl—but no one stopped him as he headed for Gringotts Bank.

Crooked as ever, the way the marble pillars caught the light temporarily blinded him. Which made the interior look darker than normal. Merlin waited for his eyes to adjust back to normal lighting, and looked around. The bank was packed. Goblins bustled about, weighing and exchanging coins. They at least seemed unbothered by the storm of people, even excited by it. Their organic magic engulfed the room, electric and tangible. But even though Merlin found the magic oddly calming, it was with a grimace that he stepped into the queue.

At this rate it’d take him an hour to get his funding.

“Ah, Forger. Welcome back.”

Or not.

Merlin turned around to see a familiar goblin standing next to him. It took him a moment to place the name. “Dirknot,” Merlin replied and he inclined his head politely. The goblin mimicked the gesture.

“What can I do for you, Forger?”

Merlin glanced at his place last in line before turning back to goblin. He’d almost forgotten what it was like being treated as Merlin—perks included. Like the Weasley twins, the goblins knew who he was. “I need to withdraw my annual school allowance,” and he presented his ministry orphan-funding card to Dirknot.

The goblin took it and nodded. “This way, please,” and he led Merlin over to one of the desks. The goblin there, younger with a distinct brown hue to its skin, accepted the card from Dirknot and left through one of the doorways without a word.

“Markath will return with your allowance shortly,” Dirknot said turning back to him.

Merlin nodded. “Thank you.”

Dirknot inclined his head again and excused himself to help another patron. It was probably a good thing he’d decided to come alone after all; Merlin mused as he fiddled his fingers, waiting for Markath to return. He could only imagine what Florean would say if he’d witnessed this. Or Draco. In fact, Draco might be worse—Florean was blessedly in the dark about the troll. He looked up to see Markath returning, a back of gold in their hand.

“Your student allowance,” they said in a high squeaky voice. Markath gave Merlin a fond look. “And congratulations on the outcome of your court case.”

Merlin accepted the money. “Thanks,” he said smiling.

“Of course, were Quirrell tried in our courts, we would have treated his actions more seriously,” they continued, frowning now. “Claiming alliance with the Dark Lord is serious to us.”

Markath must have read Rita Skeeter’s article. “It’ll be serious for everyone soon enough,” Merlin said, shaking his head. And not in a good way, if the ministry kept ignoring the threat. Markath appeared to agree, for they inclined their head.

“Have a pleasant term, Forger.”

Merlin bowed his head as well, and left. Dirknot’s promise rang in his ears, and it was comforting to know that not everyone disregarded the possibility of Voldemort’s return. Of course, the fact that Merlin basically had an army at his command was comforting too.

He dashed back to Florean’s only to find that Draco had indeed beaten him there. The blond was waiting outside, leaning against the wall of the ice cream parlor and chatting with Silas. He pushed off when he saw Merlin.

“Finally,” Draco called, folding his arms. “Took you long enough.”

“Oh, don’t pretend you’ve been waiting long,” Merlin quipped back rolling his eyes. He didn’t see Lucius or Narcissa anywhere in the vicinity. “Parents ditch you then?”

Draco shrugged. “I’m supposed to meet them later at Flourish and Blots.”

“Sounds good.”

Draco turned to Silas, “You’re joining us, aren’t you?”

Silas glanced at Merlin before looking back at Draco. “Are you inviting me?” he asked, shuffling his feet awkwardly. “Cause it’s no trouble, I’ve got stuff—” he gestured vaguely behind him.

“Not anymore,” Draco said, sneering now. “I need some civilized conversation and Merlin knows I can’t get it from this guy.”

Merlin rolled his eyes. “Right, because Quidditch dominated conversations are so civilized.”

Silas laughed. “Don’t be so melodramatic. Hang on, let me tell Florean I’m going with you.” He disappeared back into the ice cream shop.

Maybe Silas knew that there were some subjects they would avoid in his presence. It didn’t have to do with him personally, but the moment Silas disappeared the mood changed. The smiles didn’t quite fade, but neither did they linger. Instead a chill passed through the air, a touch of seriousness that ought to have belonged to a conversation between adults, rather than children.

Draco picked off a piece of lint from his cloak. “By the way,” he said as he tried to flick it off his finger, “congratulations on the case. My father said it was a unanimous vote.”

“Yeah, it was.” He paused, chewing his tongue. He had a feeling he’d be hearing those words all day. “Skeeter is trying to cover up Voldemort though.”

Draco flinched at the name. “I noticed that,” he said his lip curling, and Merlin suspected he had also noticed the way Rita had portrayed Merlin. “Although it’s probably the ministry doing it—father said Fudge has been acting nervous ever since Quirrell was arrested.” He sighed and shook his head. “He can’t seem to accept that, well, he might return.”

“Oh, there’s no seems about it. He definitely can’t accept it.”

Draco paused a moment, cocking his head. Then he broke into a smirk, “Was it just me or did the phrase ‘Nay it is, I know not seems’ pop into your head?”

“I—what?”

“Hamlet?”

“Should I know who that is?” Merlin asked slowly.

He watched as Draco mouthed his words, squinting at Merlin as though he was unsure whether or not Merlin was just pulling his legs But as the seconds passed, Draco appeared to realize that Merlin was not in fact joking, and he took a step back, his hands rising to run absently through his hair—which turned to pulling his hair as though trying to pull this unsettling detail out of his mind. “Not know—” he repeated aloud, shaking his head. “I can’t believe this.”

Silas returned before Merlin could reply. “I told him we’ll be at the bookstore in an hour or so if he—”

“Hey,” Draco cut across, turning to him. “You know who Shakespeare is, right?”

Silas stared at him. “Yeah…”

Draco turned slowly back to Merlin, squinting again. “I can’t—you educate him,” and he jabbed his finger in Merlin’s direction, sounding truly distressed that Merlin wasn’t familiar with now two rather odd names. Draco shook his head, and headed off up the street. Silas turned to Merlin, raising an eyebrow and adopted a quizzical expression.

“Oh, don’t ask,” Merlin said, following Draco.

“Do you not know—?”

“Shut up.”

“So, what’s next?”

They’d gone to Amanuensis Quills to resupply on parchment and ink. Draco was still inside, just finishing up his purchase. Merlin held his package under his arm, having also decided to buy their new erasure quill. It could erase unwanted ink blotches and words, which seemed like a good investment. They’d already stopped by the apothecary and the shop next door, Madam Malkin’s Robes For All Occasions. Merlin had found he’d grown another three inches during the summer.

“I think that’s everything except the books,” he replied, perusing his shopping list again. He frowned as he heard Draco rejoin them. “You think this bloke Lockhart will be our next Defense Against the Dark Arts Professor?”

“Why?”

“Because they want us to buy every book he’s ever published.” Merlin showed him the school list.

“Well, not every book—Household Pests isn’t here.”

Merlin rolled his eyes. “Brilliant.” He shook his head. “Ever read his stuff?”

Draco shook his head. “He’s pretty popular though. I’ve seen him mentioned in the Prophet several times. Maybe our new teacher just likes his work a lot?”

“I guess we’ll find out.” Merlin shoved the school list back into his pocket, and started up the street. Next to him, Silas did an odd sort of skip. “What’s up with you?”

“Nothing!”

Draco nudged Merlin with his elbow. “Quality Quidditch Supplies is on the way there, Merlin. You know, Quidditch. The most amazing—”

“I’m so sorry I asked,” Merlin groaned, covering his ears with his hands and walking faster.

For the next several minutes Merlin didn’t even bother trying to change the subject. He knew a fruitless cause when he saw one. And as he couldn’t add anything to the conversation anyway, he went silent and listened as Silas and Draco talked animatedly about the different positions and local teams. He didn’t understand most of it, but he gathered that Draco considered the Seeker the most important player, whereas Silas actually preferred Chasers. Something about how they actually got to play?

They came around the corner and found Flourish and Blots bursting with patrons. They spilled into the street, loud with excited conversation. Merlin stopped and Silas crashed into him.

“Wha—hey, what’s going on?” he asked, peaking around Merlin at the crowd, which upon closer examination appeared to be comprised mainly of middle-aged women.

“I’ve got no idea.” Merlin tried to catch sight of the display window, but there were too many people. “Should we just come back later?”

“Merlin!”

All three of them turned around to find a familiar face running toward them. Hermione had her thick bushy hair pulled back into a ponytail, and stuck out among all the wizard robes in her muggle t-shirt and shorts. She was out of breath when she finally caught up. “I thought I recognized you,” she said in between gasps, smiling broadly at them.

“Hermione! Nice timing,” Merlin beamed back at her. He nodded toward the shop, “Do you know what’s going on?”

Hermione blinked. “No?” she said, raising her eyebrow. She met Silas’ eyes and grinned at him too. “Nice to see you again, Silas.”

“Yeah!”

“I guess I don’t get my own hello?” Draco finally drawled, folding his arms.

Hermione glanced at him, “Oh, I suppose,” she said and hit his arm with her elbow. “Hello Draco. Come on, let’s go see what’s going on,” and she led the way into the crowd.

Draco grumbled in reply, and as soon as she wasn’t watching furiously rubbed his arm. “She hits a lot harder than you’d think,” he shot at Merlin in an undertone as they followed her.

Merlin smirked. “I didn’t say anything.”

“Yeah, well I saw that look.”

“This is just my face.”

“Hey, didn’t you say all your books were by Lockhart?” Silas asked. They had reached the interior, and both books and patrons surrounded them. It looked like they’d formed a line that wrapped around the entire shop, and out into the street.

“Yeah…” Merlin said turning back to him.

“Well, he’s signing copies of his autobiography,” and Silas pointed at a large sign that’d been erected, surrounded by a mountain of thick books, all with the same face on the cover. Merlin had never seen a smile so even and so white in his entire life. Ahead, Hermione pointed at the sign as well, before rushing back over to them.

“We can actually meet him!” She said, eyes bright. “I mean, he’s practically written the entire booklist.”

“Don’t worry, Hermione,” Draco said sneering at her. “I’m sure he’ll sign your textbooks for you.”

Hermione went pink. “I don’t care about that!” she said quickly, and Draco laughed.

“Sure you don’t. Well, let’s take a look at him,” and he took the lead.

“Do you really think he’ll sign my books?” Hermione whispered to Merlin and Silas, her cheeks darkening in color.

Merlin snorted in reply while Silas said, “If you ask him, probably…”

Hermione hummed and Merlin glanced at her. She was looking around at the queue of people and knew he didn’t have to tell her that it’d probably be several hours before Lockhart got to her. “C’mon, you can at least see him,” he said. “Maybe it’s not even worth it.”

She glared at him, but didn’t reply. They pushed their way through the line—assuring people they weren’t cutting—until they found Draco. He was standing off to the side, looking somewhat disgusted by the sight before him. And when Merlin joined him, he saw why.

Lockhart sat at a table surrounded by posters, all depicting his face and all flashing broad smiles with impossibly perfect teeth. Copies of his autobiography “Magical me” towered in a pyramid next to him, assuring that no one came up to him empty-handed. Lockhart himself wore robes of forget-me-not blue that exactly matched his eyes, and a pointed hat that sat at a jaunty angle on his wavy blond hair. He finished signing one book, met the lady’s eyes and winked, causing half-a-dozen onlookers to swoon.

Draco turned away. “I cannot watch this. I’m going to go find my books,” he muttered to Merlin, cringing while a cameraman danced around them, taking photos that created great plumes of purple smoke with every shot. Draco turned to Hermione, “You should never meet your idols,” he sneered into her ear before disappearing back through the crowd.

“Honestly—” Hermione huffed, turning to look after him but she cut off. “Merlin,” she said, nudging his shoulder. “Look.”

Merlin followed her eyes and saw what he assumed was the entire Weasley family—or most of them, at any rate. Fred and George wore expressions remarkably similar to Draco, and Merlin almost laughed. But they hadn’t seen him. Merlin waved to get their attention, standing on his tiptoes to be better seen in the crowd. But this turned out to be a huge mistake, for while he did manage to get Fred and George to look over at him, he also attracted the gaze of Lockhart himself.

He had just finishing signing another book, and looked up to see Merlin waving his arms. He stared. Merlin quickly dropped his hands, but he could see that it was too late. Lockhart’s mouth had opened slightly, eyes widening in recognition. And the next moment, Lockhart had leapt to his feet, toppling the stack of books next to him, and shouted across the room, “Well, if it isn’t Merlin Evans!”

The crowd of witches all turned to look at him. Merlin felt his face growing hot. He hadn’t thought he’d receive this much attention after the court decision. The few congratulatory he’d thus received—yes—but not this. Stunned by the turn of events, he didn’t notice Lockhart diving toward him until Lockhart had seized his arm and was dragging him to the front.

“No—I don’t—”

The flash from the camera cut him off. The man had taken Merlin’s hand and was shaking it in front of everyone. The photographer started clicking away madly, engulfing the Weasleys’ in smoke. “Nice big smile, Merlin,” Lockhart said, beaming down at him.

Merlin considered pulling a huge frown instead, but didn’t get a chance to put it in practice. Lockhart let go of his hand and wrapped his arm around Merlin’s shoulders instead, pulling Merlin right up against him. Some sort of flowery perfume filled his nostrils, sickly sweet and overpowering.

“I want to personally congratulate Merlin here for his success against Quirrell,” he announced, and there was a storm of clapping. “Going through something like that,” he gave a dramatic sigh and squeezed Merlin’s shoulder uncomfortably tight. “I can’t imagine. Especially at the hands of your professor, someone who was supposed to protect you.”

Was this seriously happening?

“Well, don’t you worry this year,” Lockhart continued, his voice rising in volume. “Yes, that’s right ladies and gentlemen, this year I will be Defense Against the Dark Arts professor at Hogwarts!”

Merlin had a sinking feeling that this year was going to be no better than the last. As everyone clapped again, he tried to untangle himself from Lockhart’s surprising vice-like grip. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed,” he said shortly, “but I can handle myself well enough.”

He seemed to have startled Lockhart into silence. He stared at Merlin again, before laughing and finally letting go. “Look how brave he is!” he said, and he led another round of applause either not noticing—or not caring—about Merlin’s very red face. “Bless.”

Merlin wanted to curse him.

“As a sign of my utmost respect, and as an apology for my former peer, I have decided to give Merlin my entire,” he turned around for half a second and returned with a stack of books which he dumped into Merlin’s arms, “collected works,” he continued as Merlin stumbled under the sheer weight—how many blasted books were there— “Free of charge.”

As even more applause ensued, Lockhart put his hand on Merlin’s shoulder again, inciting the photographer to take another dozen photos. But this time, Lockhart didn’t resist when Merlin pushed against his grip, staggering over to Hermione and Silas. Behind him, Lockhart returned to his table and began signing books once more.

“Pick a new celebrity crush,” Merlin ground out, face still unbearably hot. “I might have to kill this one.”

“I’m sure he meant well,” she said, but she shifted uncomfortably.

Yeah, in the same way Uther meant well when he decreed magic illegal, but of course he couldn’t say that. Merlin glared at her, biting his tongue. He settled for putting as much distance as possible between him and that—that peacock. He still needed to pick up a copy of the Standard Book of Spells Grade Two, before he could retreat home. He noticed Silas watching him, brows knitted in concern. After a few moments, in which Silas kept shooting him increasingly worried glances, Merlin stopped and turned toward him.

“What?”

Silas fidgeted, “You just look…”

“What?”

“Really annoyed,” Silas finished, giving a weak smile. Merlin deflated, his shoulders slumping. He wasn’t annoyed with them. Lockhart on the other hand—Merlin white knuckled the books in his hands.

“Do you really have to read all of those?” Silas asked, frowning down at Lockhart’s books.

“Pretty much.”

“And I thought I had too much reading.”

“It’s more likely he’ll assign select passages from each of them,” Hermione said after a moment. “Not that reading all of them is a bad thing.” She turned quickly away when Merlin looked at her, busying herself with the shelf in front of her. Somehow Merlin didn’t think that Lockhart’s books would have much substance, considering the absolute—

“Here,” Hermione said handing him a copy of their grade two spell book. “I’ll grab my own Lockhart collection on the way to the counter,” she added. “I’m pretty sure I saw them over there earlier.”

Merlin nodded, and followed her through the crowd in silence. He didn’t see Draco anywhere, and wondered whether or not the blond had decided to wait outside for them. Hermione motioned for him to pay first—She had to wait for her parents anyway—and even the shop assistant gave him such an expression of pity that Merlin considered ditching everything and booking it for the exit.

“Blimey, Merlin. I thought you were going to hex him.”

He turned to see Fred and George headed toward him, each holding their own collection of Lockhart books. Merlin appraised them for a moment before admitting, “I thought about it.”

“Merlin!” Hermione said, aghast. “He’s our teacher!”

“Like that’d stop him,” George said, chuckling. “He already took out one professor.”

That got Merlin to smile. “Good to see you guys again.” The Weasley twins always knew how to cheer him up. He took his books off the counter, grimacing at their combined weight. “But as I can barely hear myself think in this place…” he trailed off pointedly.

“Gotcha, we’ll be right behind you.”

“Hermione?”

She frowned, and stood on her tiptoes, trying to see over the crowd. “I might have to meet you outside as well, I don’t—”

“Hey, where did you go?” Came a new voice, and they all turned to see Ron come round the corner. “Mum wants—you!” He’d caught sight of Merlin and stopped dead.

“Me?” Merlin replied with a sneer. “Tell your mum I’ll be right over.”

Ron glared at him, and his eyes slowly traveled over to Hermione, before finally falling on Silas. “Who’re you?” he shot, ignored Fred when he hit his shoulder.

“Oh, this is Silas,” Merlin introduced, stepping aside—which was difficult, since there wasn’t that much space to begin with. “My foster brother.” Silas offered Ron a small smile, holding up his hand in a polite wave. Merlin planned to drop all his textbooks on Ron’s toe if he said anything degrading, but Ron only blinked in surprise.

“You have a foster brother?” he repeated, looking back at Merlin.

“No, I made that up, he’s a complete stranger.” Merlin rolled his eyes, and behind him Fred and George laughed. “Yes, foster brother. Don’t you read the papers?”

“I skim,” Ron shrugged. “Dad says that Skeeter woman tells mostly lies anyway.”

Merlin took a step back and adopted an expression of mock surprise. “Would you look at that, something intelligent came out of your mouth.”

“Oh, don’t be too hard on him,” George said, slinging his arm across Ron’s shoulders. “He’s got some Weasley in him yet.”

“Piss off,” Ron snapped, and he pushed George off him.

Fred sighed, shaking his head. “Such language Ronald,” he said adopting the stern tone of his mother. He shrugged and leaned over to Merlin, “He’s just upset his rat died,” and Merlin noted the way Ron stiffened at once. “It’s made him crankier than usual,” and Fred raised his voice, “hasn’t it, Ronald?”

Ron dropped his books, his ears flaming with color. Half-expecting him to attack Fred, Merlin took a step back, stumbling into Silas. But whether or not Ron actually would have thrown a punch, Merlin never found out for the next moment a loud commotion from the entry way interrupted them. Raised voices floated toward them, and with a start Merlin realized that he knew one of them.

“Lucius?” he said, bewildered, while simultaneously the Weasley children went, “Dad?” They looked at each other, and as a loud crash signaled the collapse of a bookshelf, all of them ran toward the chaos.

Lucius Malfoy and Arthur Weasley were locked in a tangle of flying limbs and falling books. When Ron saw what was going on, he darted forward with a shout of, “Get him Dad!” on his lips, while at the same time a woman that Merlin assumed to be Mrs. Weasley yelled, “No, Arthur, no!” A shop assistant emerged from the crowd, staring at the pile of books with his hands in his hair, crying, “Gentlemen, please!” But neither Malfoy nor Weasley heeded any of the voices, so intent as they were on beating every inch of each other.

Merlin spotted Draco standing a few feet away, staring at the fight in shock. “What happened?” He had to shout to be heard over the racket.

“I don’t know!” Draco yelled back. “One minute they’re talking about her books—” and he nodded to Ginny Weasley, standing only a few feet away from the brawl and holding a cauldron full of books. “—and the next Weasley tackled him into the bookcase.”

“It might be because of those new ministry raids,” Fred shouted, joining them. “Dad’s got some new legislation passed that’ll let him search houses for dark objects—the ministry’s gotten nervous ever since Quirrell.”

Draco paled at his words, and Merlin was willing to bet that Lucius had more than one dark artifact hidden away in his home.

“What’s all this?” Lockhart had emerged from his book signing. The shop assistant turned to him, shaking his head, mouthing wordlessly. No one seemed to want to get in the middle of them, with even Lockhart watching excitedly. Merlin wasn’t sure what made him do it—but when he watched Lucius land a right cross he couldn’t stand still any longer. He dived forward—casting his books aside.

“Hey!” he shouted, and he grabbed Lucius’ arm in an attempt to pull him back. “That’s enough!” But Malfoy senior wretched his arm free, nearly sending Merlin to the ground himself. Mr. Weasley had recovered from the blow, getting to his feet to retaliate—

“I said: THAT’S ENOUGH!” and his eyes flashed gold. The books beneath their feet shifted, tripping the two men and dragging them away from each other in a sudden jerk of motion.

The noise died. All the cheering, all the shouting, and the crying replaced with an eerie silence that permeated the shop. It felt awkward, unnatural even. Everyone appeared too stunned to say anything, all eyes traveling over to rest on Merlin. He felt cold dread settle in his stomach, felt it crawl up his throat as an excuse.

He swallowed it down.

Lucius staggered to his feet, wiping blood from a cut on his lip. Merlin had never seen him so disheveled. His normally refined manner had gone, leaving behind a man seething with rage. His blond hair fell loose over his flushed face, and he took a moment to brush it out of his eyes. “Here, take your book,” he shot at Ginny, who flinched, snapping toward him. Lucius took a step towards her and shoved something into her cauldron. “It’s the best your father can give you.”

His words rang in the silent bookshop. And as he straightened his robes he gave Merlin an unfathomable expression, as though he wasn’t quite sure what had just happened. The anger radiating off his person began to fade. “Draco!” he called, turning on his heel and Draco took a hurried step away from the Weasley twins. “We’re leaving.”

Draco caught Merlin’s eye as they walked past, mouthing, “I’ll send you an owl,” before he disappeared from the shop with this father.

“You—you’re not allowed to use magic outside of school.” Arthur Weasley sat sprawled on the floor, color blossoming across his swelling eye. He sounded numb, and he stared at Merlin with his mouth slightly ajar. Fred and George darted forward to help him to his feet. But as they did, conversation returned. Muted, hushed, whispered exchanges between neighbors. It bothered Merlin just as much as the silence, but Mr. Weasley was still staring at him, his words still hanging unanswered in the air.

Merlin found himself holding his breath.

Lockhart strode forward. “I think we can let it slide this once,” he said, flashing one of his dazzling smiles. “After all,” and here he laughed, a warm booming sound that eased the atmosphere, “No one else stepped up.”

Merlin clenched his fist. “Including you,” he glowered, half-spoken, but Lockhart heard him. He laughed again, and shrugged with exaggerated movement.

“You moved just as I was about to,” he said, his eyes twinkling. “And you handled it beautifully! Didn’t he?” and he started clapping. For a moment, he was alone and then others joined him, until nearly everyone in the shop was applauding him. Merlin managed not to blush this time.

His insides still felt cold.

Maybe Silas knew, because he tugged on Merlin’s arm. “Come on,” he said in his ear, pulling him toward the door. He didn’t need telling twice. He felt Lockhart’s disappointment, but no one tried to stop him as he and Silas left the shop. Maybe they were scared he’d perform magic again if they did. He felt Silas glance at him, heard him open his mouth to speak only to close it again a second later. Merlin was grateful; he couldn’t have spoken if he’d tried.

Why had he acted? Why hadn’t anyone else? It felt wrong that he’d been the one to break up the fight when there’d been adults in the vicinity. He knew Malfoy’s reputation must’ve made some people wary of stepping forward, but no spells had been exchanged. And Lockhart was supposed to be the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor. If anything, Merlin would have expected his pompous attitude to drive him to the center of attention—show off his skills, as it were. But instead, Merlin had acted instead. He wanted to scream.

“Merlin—you forgot your books!”

He and Silas stopped, turning around to see Hermione, Fred, and George rushing toward him.

“That was wicked, what you did back there,” Fred said with a wink.

“You missed Lockhart telling the photographer off for missing it,” George added. He gently handed off a stack of books to Merlin. “Think you might need these.”

Merlin felt the muscles in his shoulders relax. “Thanks,” he said softly.

“That’s a trick you should teach us, you know,” Fred said, his eyes bright. “Now, what’re we going with?” He smacked his hands together conspiratorially. “Accidental?”

“Sorry, but that was clearly wandless magic,” Hermione interrupted, and she caught Merlin’s eye. “Right? I only saw it the once…” she trailed off. Right, she’d seen him with the troll. He’d wondered whether she’d noticed that little detail.

He scratched his neck, and threw his head back into the sunlight. He closed his aching eyes. “Yeah.” His heart fluttered in his chest with the admission. “Yeah,” he repeated, opening his eyes again and looking back at them.

“Isn’t that really hard?” Silas said.

“Supposedly,” and Hermione folded her arms. “How long have you been able to do it?” Merlin grimaced, and Hermione’s eyes widened in realization. “You’ve always been able to?”

“See, that right there is why I hadn’t told anybody.” He caught George fidgeting out of the corner of his eye.

Hermione’s mouth had fallen open. “Why do you even have a wand then?”

“Right, because no one would find that odd at all.” Merlin paused, chewing his tongue. This would be the moment to admit it, to tell them that he technically he didn’t even have a wand. But was that wise? Fred and George, sure—they already knew everything—but Hermione? Draco? Would they keep it secret? It wasn’t that he didn’t trust them, just that he’d kept everything close to the chest for so long that he wasn’t even sure he knew how to be open anymore. But he didn’t want to lie either.

He mentally flipped a coin.

“Although strictly speaking, I don’t.” His heart fluttered again.

Even Fred and George looked confused now. “What do you mean?” Silas asked, turning to him as well.

Merlin pulled up his pant leg to reveal his holster and removed his wand. He handed it to Hermione. “Try to cast something.”

Disbelieving, Hermione took the wand. She raised her eyebrow, and swished the wand toward one of Merlin’s books, “Wingardium Leviosa.” Nothing happened. She frowned and performed the spell again.

“Let me try.” Fred took the wand, and attempted the same spell, staring when it failed.

“It’s not your casting,” Merlin said when George reached toward it. “That’s literally just a stick.” They stared at him. “There’s no core in that wand.”

“Ollivander gave you a stick?” George said incredulously, while Merlin took the wand and put it back in his holster.

“No,” Merlin said smirking now. “I made that.”

“You’ve…never used a real wand?” Hermione had stopped blinking. “I—” she turned away, hiding her face from him. Merlin exchanged looks with Fred and George—who had both already recovered from their surprise with mutual shrugs of understanding.

“Are you okay?” Fred asked her.

“Yeah, just—” she took a deep breath, “re-evaluating my life.” She turned back to him, and Merlin searched her face for fear or even panic. He didn’t find either, and released a breath that didn’t realize he’d been holding. “You do realize how unfair you are.”

“What? How so?”

Hermione glared at him. “I work hard for my grades, and here you are—” she gestured vaguely toward him, “—don’t even need a wand to do magic. Honestly, are you even real?”

“Don’t take it too personally, Hermione,” Fred said, patting her on the shoulder. “You’re a brilliant witch.”

Hermione grumbled, but Merlin saw her eyes light up at the compliment. He laughed. “C’mon, let’s go eat ice cream. I think we could all use it.”

 

For the first time, doubt entered his mind.

Quirinus Quirrell had managed to remain strong during the entirety of the trial, never once second-guessing his loyalty to the Dark Lord. But now, flanked by dementors and escorted to his cell, he couldn’t help but consider his life. Even if he hadn’t had old memories rising to the surface of his mind, putting into question every decision he’d ever made.

The Dark Lord had come to him like a light in the dark. Velvet words wrapped in bright packaging with his name written across it in fluid glowing script. A beacon in a world plagued by judgment, insecurity, and pain. Quirrell had traveled to Albania for the sole purpose of finding him—though his plan after that had always been vague. Defeating his remains? But faced with the specter, he’d dropped his wand and fallen to his knees.

He hadn’t expected him to be so beautiful.

From his whispers, to his presence, to his promise of sheer power—he’d promised Quirrell everything, and Quirrell couldn’t have denied him. Even now, as the dementor in front shuddered, sucking in a horrible ragged breath, Quirrell didn’t regret it. But trying to steal the stone from Dumbledore? Well, that’d just been stupid. He wondered why the Dark Lord had even thought to suggest it.

And then there was Merlin Evans.

Quirrell hadn’t noticed the boy for a long time. But when he did, he wondered how he could ever have ignored him. Merlin felt—different, somehow. His aura possessed a quality that reminded him of that moment—in the forest of Albania. Nowhere near as hypnotic, or desirable. He couldn’t even describe why it felt similar—there were no words of comparison—and yet, fighting the boy on the chessboard had summoned a feeling. It tugged on his mind.

The dementors came to a stop, and he watched as they opened one of the cells. His new home for the rest of his life. Azkaban was cold, damp, and smelled strongly of mold. The rough stone walls kept out the wind, but he could hear it howling in misery against the rocks. The dementor in front of him gestured toward the cell, and not wanting to be touched again by those sickly looking hands, Quirrell entered of his own accord.

The door shut behind him with a deafening clang.

He threw himself down onto the mattress, and stared at the floor. The last inmate appeared to have taken to scratching pictures into the stone with his fingernails. He could see blood ingrained in the lines of a crude image of a woman’s face. How long would it be until he was driven to similarly self-destructive behaviors?

“Hey, new guy.”

He started, and looked up. The prisoner in the cell across him waved through his bars. His hair was long, matted, though beneath the filth appeared mousy brown. His hazel eyes were sunken, hallowed, but didn’t possess the same defeated look Quirrell had noticed in some of the other inmates. His beard was patchy, long at some points, and shorter and others—indicating a young man. His garment hung loosely on his thin frame.

So that’s what he had to look forward to, huh?

“What’s the news?”

Quirrell blinked. “What?” he hissed, glancing down the hall. Were they allowed to talk to each other?

The guy rolled his eyes. The movement made Quirrell cringe—his eyes were almost too large for his sockets. “The news,” he repeated. “In the world. Last prisoner came here six months ago, and it’s not like we can subscribe to the prophet.”

“Uh—” Quirrell lifted his head. “The Dark Lord is on the move once again.”

To his surprise, the guy groaned loudly. “Oh Merlin, another death eater? Please, I don’t want to hear another spiel about him rising back to power soon blah, blah, blah. You lot have been saying it for ten fucking years, and I’m sick of it. Hey—are the Weird Sisters still together? It’d be a shame if they stopped producing music.”

Quirrell stared at him, open-mouthed. “Who are you?”

“Oh,” and the guy smiled—actually smiled, in this godforsaken place. “I’m Byron. Byron Meadowes.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Sometimes Ginny Weasley wished she'd been born a boy.

Not that she disliked being a girl—she was actually rather proud of being the only girl among six brothers. It made her feel special. At the same time though, she hated the way they excluded her from their games, as though girls were somehow inferior when it came to gnome tossing or Quidditch. Course, she was going to shove it in their stupid faces later when she became Quidditch Captain—but that's beside the point.

At least she got her own room.

It had previously belonged to Bill, before he'd left for Egypt. He'd left behind some odds and ends—a couple of posters of ancient wizarding tombs, a blood red throw pillow, some stale Bertie Bots Every Flavour Beans, and a couple of matchless socks. She planned to stitch a dragon onto the pillow when she could do it justice (her skill with a needle wasn't great). Maybe Charlie could make her a pattern—he kept sending her dragon sketches. Anyway, Percy got Charlie's old room across the hall—a reward for becoming a prefect—which meant that Ron ended up with his own room too, but Ginny thought he kinda deserved it after living with Percy for so long.

Her door closed, Ginny leaned against the wood and listened to Mum telling off Dad for fighting at the bookstore.

"Really Arthur, what were you thinking? And stopped by a boy Ron's age—"

She stared at the ceiling, resting her head against the door and no doubt annoying the Holly Head Harpy poster that she'd pinned to it. She couldn't help but feel somewhat responsible for what'd happened at Flourish and Blots, even though everyone had assured her otherwise.

"Malfoy was looking for a fight," George had told her as they'd walked back to the fireplace in the Leaky Cauldron. "And he's the one who took your book first, isn't he?"

"With Dad's new legislation passed, he's probably in trouble. What's the bet he's got some dark artefacts from his Death Eater days still in the cupboards?"

Still, Ginny couldn't help but think that nothing would've happened if she hadn't been there. It was stupid, but now Mum was yelling at Dad and her gut churned uncomfortably at the sound. And how Merlin had stopped the fight? Well, that was something else entirely.

She didn't know much about Merlin. Fred and George seemed to like him a lot, and talked about their adventures constantly. During last year, Ron had complained about him and his friendship with Fred and George. It's like they don't even know he's Slytherin! But the more Ron had ranted, the more Ginny had started to agree with Fred and George. He didn't sound like any of the Slytherins their parents had told them about. In fact, it sounded like the twins were the ones corrupting Merlin, what with sneaking him out of the castle and getting him involved in their shenanigans. At the time, her one memory of Merlin had been that of his smiling face as he'd waved goodbye to her through the train window.

A rather cute smile, if she was honest with herself.

Now she didn't know what to think. Even though Ron had mentioned how Merlin had collapsed a bookshelf in the library and Fred let slip that Merlin had somehow exploded a broomstick, she'd never been able to picture him as a powerful wizard. She'd only seen someone like Ron cowering while Quirrell advanced—definitely not the display of wandless magic she'd just witnessed.

After Merlin had left the bookstore, everyone had been too stunned to say anything about it. Fred and George had picked up Merlin's dropped books and run after him with that Hermione girl. Ron had complained about her friendship with Merlin too. And about her know-it-all behaviour.

Maybe he liked her.

Anyway, Mum had finished paying for all their books while Lockhart unsuccessfully tried to rope Dad into an impromptu interview and photo-shoot—then they'd left. Fred and George had met them outside, ice cream lingering about their identical smiles, but no one talked about Merlin and his magic.

Except her mother just now while yelling at her father.

Maybe she'd talk to him herself on the Hogwarts express—ask him what he'd done. Shaking her head, Ginny pushed off her door and glanced toward her pile of textbooks strewn haphazardly across her bed. She hadn't planned on opening them until term started but even Ron had recommended taking a look at her potions textbook beforehand. Apparently, the professor liked to quiz students the first day and was merciless if you didn't know the correct answer. Unless, of course, you were Slytherin and somehow Ginny doubted she was destined for that house.

Call it a Weasley hunch.

Figuring that she should at least organize her books—maybe throw a couple of them into her trunk and be done with it—she sat down on the edge of her mattress and started grabbing each volume in turn, glancing at the first few pages before setting it down on the floor in a neat pile. But as she went to add her transfiguration book to the growing stack, a second, much smaller volume fell onto her bedspread. Ginny stared at it, looking from her transfiguration to its dark cover with confusion. She'd gotten most her textbooks used so… so someone must have forgotten it or something. She picked up the black leather-bound book and thumbed through the pages.

It was blank.

On the back someone had inscribed the name Tom Marvolo Riddle in gold lettering. But whoever this Riddle was, he hadn't bothered to use the diary at all. Or journal—she wasn't really sure what the difference was. But…

Ginny hesitated, running her hand over the slightly yellow pages again.

She's always wanted a diary. She'd considered starting one several times, asking Mum to pick up a blank book for her while out shopping. She never had because asking for such a selfish object had made her feel guilty—she wasn't blind, she knew their family had money problems. But the idea of being able to write about her worries, her frustrations, the little things she noticed of life—the things she'd never been able to talk to Mum about...

Last year had been the first time she'd gotten Mum all to herself but by then she'd learned how to deal with things on her own. Mum had always been sorting out some catastrophe her brothers' had caused, so when she'd finally gotten the chance to talk about girl things, she found she didn't know how.

She'd never been particularly open with her feelings anyway.

But a diary? She could vent all she wanted—it was the perfect thing for her. Grinning, she leapt off her bed and went to her desk, pulling out a feather quill and an inkbottle. She opened the diary to the first page and sucked on her quill, wondering how to best to begin.

Dear Diary,

I'm Ginny Weasley. I'll be starting Hogwarts this year, so I thought it might be a good time to start keeping a diary. 'Never too early', as Dad likes to say.

She paused, re-reading what she'd wrote. Maybe she'd write about the incident at Flourish and Blots, get her thoughts straight before she talked to Merlin. But, before she could bring the quill back to the page, her words started to disappear.

Ginny froze, watching transfixed as the sentences sunk into the parchment, leaving it just as clean as before. Was—was that supposed to happen? She held her quill suspended above the page, racking her brain for some explanation as to why the diary had just eaten her words, when suddenly words started to reappear. But they weren't hers.

Hello Ginny Weasley,

I'm Tom Riddle. How did you come by my Diary?

She couldn't breathe. Now that definitely wasn't supposed to happen. She stared at the beautiful script, a small voice at the back of her head saying that she should probably tell her father and stop writing this instant. The diary was clearly enchanted (and possibly dangerous). But—but it didn't' feel dangerous, she argued, watching as the letters faded away again. And she wanted to talk to someone, anyone, so badly. She closed her eyes and gritted her teeth. What was the worst that could happen?

It was just a diary.

Oh, hello.

Someone forgot you in one of my textbooks—Transfiguration if you were curious. But it looks like you're mine now. Can I tell you about my day, Tom? It was pretty crazy and I don't know what to make of it.

Of course. That's what I'm here for.

Okay. It begins with this boy named Merlin—

"Still got that headache then?"

Merlin stopped pinching the bridge of his nose and looked up at Florean. Kings Cross breathed around them, trains staggering to a halt while others pushed out of the station. But busy as the station was, the storm of witches and wizards trying to board the Hogwarts Express needed to stagger their passage through the barrier between platforms nine and ten. The unofficial queue that had formed strolled slowly down the platform, pausing to appraise the train schedule, and looped back up to where one could slide into the barrier—or run into it, as seemed to be the fashion among younger students.

When Merlin didn't reply right away, Florean reached for his forehead, as though intending to feel for a fever. The motion startled Merlin, and he jerked back—shaking his head as colour touched his cheeks. Florean had been behaving increasingly paternal since the court case, and Merlin wasn't sure what to make of it.

"It's fine," he said. "Just didn't get much sleep."

Florean held his gaze, a frown still lingering about the corner of his mouth. Well, Merlin wasn't lying—he had stayed up most of the night talking with Silas. The primary school Florean had enrolled Silas in had started today as well which, although exciting, meant he couldn't come to the train station to say goodbye. They'd said their farewells at the flat of course, but it still felt strange without him. And yeah, he was returning to Hogwarts confident he'd left Silas in far better hands than last term, but he still would've liked to spend more time with him. Summer had gone by far too fast.

"Hmm—well, if it gets any worse go see Madam Pomfrey," Florean said as they circled the barrier and came to a stop right beside it.

"Or Snape," he added as an afterthought.

Merlin nodded once, avoiding his eyes. He'd hoped that whatever damage the dementors had inflicted would've healed by now—instead, it felt as if a pervasive cold had settled in his bones. Every morning brought the same soft pressure wrapping around his temples and settling behind his eyes, hands that increased their vice like grip as the day wore on. But he could handle a little discomfort. The pain was bothersome but bearable, and he didn't want to deal with the whole dose situation a trip to the infirmary would inevitably result in.

He probably just needed a little more time to heal.

"Right." Florean cleared his throat, straightening his striped orange and cream waistcoat. "It's our turn."

He gave Merlin another lingering glance before striding toward the barrier, pushing the trolley with Merlin's trunk toward it—which was feather-light but of course, the muggles didn't need to know that. Merlin followed him, and together they vanished from sight, only to reappear on a packed platform featuring a brilliant red steam engine.

Florean consulted his pocket-watch. "Ten minutes," he said, "plenty of time."

He tapped Merlin's trunk with his wand and it rose a few inches off the ground. "There, that's easier to maneuver. Just tap it with your wand when you get to a compartment." He pushed the trolley off to the side where an array of them was stacked against the wall, waiting for the careful return to muggle London.

Merlin almost laughed. Having told Hermione, Silas, and the twins about his fake wand he'd almost forgotten he hadn't told Florean. And speaking of—he still needed to tell Draco. It just hadn't felt right, putting something like that in a letter. He glanced around now, wondering if Draco had arrived yet, but didn't notice his blond hair amongst the crowd.

"So, I guess this is goodbye."

Merlin turned back to Florean. The man seemed awkward, fidgeting with the silver buttons of his candy-coloured waistcoat, coffee-brown eyes crinkled in sheepish affection.

"Thanks," Merlin said, scratching the back of his neck. "For everything," he added, and he smiled.

Florean stared back at him, and then threw his arms around him in a tight hug. Merlin froze, startled. Would Florean really miss him that much? Maybe the sight of Merlin bleeding in Dumbledore's memory was still fresh in the ice cream connoisseur's mind. He was just wondering if he should pat Florean's back, when he pulled away. He ruffled Merlin's hair, messing up the untidy strands even more.

"You take care of yourself, kiddo," he said, shaking his head. "I don't want to read in the papers that you've—that you've blown up a greenhouse or something."

Merlin had a feeling that sentence had originally been heading somewhere much darker. He decided not to think about it.

"I'll do my best," he said, heaving an exaggerated sigh, "but if a greenhouse looks at me the wrong way…" he smirked.

Finally, Florean brightened. With a laugh he said, "Get on the train, you troublemaker." Merlin beamed back and started leading his trunk toward the express, but just as he reached it he heard Florean call him back.

"And kiddo!" he said, some of the concern returning to his eyes, "don't be afraid to be yourself."

Anxiety flared unexpectedly at his words. Merlin swallowed, knowing he couldn't pretend this year. He wouldn't be able to. He lifted his head higher and waved. "Till the holidays!" he watched one last smile stretch across Florean's face, and then boarded the train, still mulling over their parting words.

"Finally."

Merlin turned to see Draco marching up the corridor toward him, his collar loosened and blond hair missing its usual slicked back quality. "Well," Merlin said, noting his frown, "nice to see you too."

Draco glowered, and then peaked behind him out onto the platform. "My father didn't talk to you, did he?"

Merlin stared at him. "No," he said slowly. "Should he have?"

Draco shook his head, his eyes darkening. "Ever since that fiasco at Flourish and Blots he's been acting different." He inclined his head for Merlin to follow him down the corridor, dropping his tone as they passed full compartments.

"I take it by your tone it's not a good different," Merlin said, guiding his trunk in front of him.

"He tried to transfer me to Durmstrang!" Draco continued, hissing the word. "And then when mother convinced him otherwise, he's done nothing but drop ominous threats." He paused and cleared his throat, adopting the soft clipped tones of his father. "It would be wise not to trifle with Mr. Evans any longer."

"I take it I'm no longer in his good graces," Merlin said, watching as Draco ran his fingers through his hair. "What happened to not antagonizing power and all that?"

"That's different. But—ah, it's complicated," Draco said, glancing back at him. It wasn't just the untidy appearance, Merlin realized. Draco looked tired, strained even, with dark shadows ringing his lids, and though fury was etched in the jut of his jaw Merlin saw something else in his eyes: fear.

But of what?

Draco came to a stop beside a compartment and pushed open the door, revealing a lone occupant. Theodore Nott was a timid Slytherin who had nonetheless befriended Merlin during last term. As such, Merlin was surprised to see him shrink back, wringing his hands and avoiding eye contact. He exchanged looks with Draco, and entered—he'd have to clue Draco into everything later.

"What's up?" Merlin asked, taking the seat across Theodore while Draco stowed away his trunk, stopping the levitation spell with a tap of his wand.

Theodore swallowed, his eyes darting between Merlin and Draco before settling on the latter. "My parents don't want me to associate with Merlin anymore." He started picking at his thumb, his ears turning red. "Said it'd look bad on the family."

Draco gave a derisive snort and flopped back onto the seat beside Merlin. "Yeah, same with my father but I've decided I don't give a flying—"

The compartment door swung open again and Blaise poked his head inside, interrupting Draco's expletives. He must've heard their conversation from the hallway because he jumped onto the topic without missing a beat.

"Like I said last term, my mother doesn't care," he said taking the spot beside Theodore. "And even if she did, it's not like she can stop me."

"Exactly," Draco gestured toward him, grinning.

"Besides," Blaise continued, surveying Merlin closely, "there's only room in this world for one Dark Lord, isn't there?"

Merlin had almost forgotten he'd said those words at the end of last term to the whole Slytherin common room. He hadn't meant it like that, of course—or maybe he had. Maybe Blaise noticed the weight of his words because he didn't wait for a reply. "Anyway, tell us about the case Hufflepuff! You never said you'd actually seen the Dark Lord. What'd he look like?"

As the steam engine began its long trek to Hogsmeade, Merlin recounted the Quirrell court case in as much detail as he could. Even Draco—who had already heard everything—hung onto every word. By the time he'd finished Blaise was staring at him and Theodore was meeting his eyes again.

"So—so Quirrell's sure that he's coming back," Theodore swallowed, his eyes wide.

Blaise whistled. "No wonder your families are getting twitchy," he said, leaning back in his seat and slinging his arms behind his head. "I wouldn't want my loyalty questioned either."

Draco had fallen silent, white-knuckling his knees.

"I guess I'll just have to persuade them over to my side," Merlin said shrugging.

Blaise snorted and even Theodore cracked a smile. "Good luck with that," Blaise said shaking his head. "You might have a few things going for you, but you're eleven—"

"Twelve." Merlin leaned forward, propping his chin on his palm.

"Happy Birthday—but I mean," and here Blaise grimaced. "You're coming up against a guy who's literally conquered death. If he comes back like Quirrell thinks he will, I think he'll gain more followers than ever."

"And you can't just stop being a follower either," Theodore added, his eyes darting toward Draco.

"Well, not unless you want a spot on the Dark Lord's hit list," Blaise sighed. He paused a minute before frowning, "Speaking off—" and his eyes narrowed slightly, "should we get you food tasters or something? I wouldn't put it past Avery to try scoring a few points by poisoning you."

"Wait." Merlin dropped his hand, sitting up. "Do I—" he turned to Draco, "—do I need to be worried about that?" Would his fellow Slytherins attack him? He hadn't even considered the idea. At the end of last term he'd felt accepted by his house, even with his muggle-loving ideals. "What ever happened to: our parent's mistakes not ours?"

Draco scratched the back of his neck. "That's true and all," and he glanced at Theodore now, "but we also have to go home and live with them. It's not like—" he faltered, his frown deepening.

"It's not like we have a choice," finished Theodore in a bare whisper.

He'd been so stupid. Merlin leaned back in his seat, casting his eyes to the ceiling. He had hoped that by influencing his housemates, they in turn would inspire their parents but instead he'd just created more conflict. Now his friends were trapped, imprisoned by their new ideas and progressive thinking in a cell built by their parents. He understood Draco's fear now; understood Theodore's. They were scared that in order to survive they'd have to realign with their parents and knowing that if it came to it, they'd do it.

They didn't have a choice.

Merlin wished he were older, able to influence the adults in charge of everything. Not to say he couldn't do anything as a kid, but Blaise was right—no one in their right mind would ditch an all-powerful Dark Lord to follow him. Not unless he became a real player in this game of power, an actual contender—not some lucky student. And Merlin had no illusions—one way or another Lord Voldemort would find his way back to corporeal form, and even the most powerful warlock couldn't defeat a whole army on his own.

Well, not a magical one.

He didn't need to tell the world he was Merlin, Prince of Enchanters. Even if he did he doubted anyone would believe him. Besides, that Merlin was a different person, one that had founded magical society, who'd had a different destiny. He didn't need people to know who he used to be, only what he was now.

Merlin Evans.

"But," Draco added after a moment. "I don't think anyone will actually try to poison you. He's not back yet, and not even Crabbe's stupid enough to try something right under Dumbledore's nose."

"Yeah, plenty of time to persuade everybody over to Team Merlin," Blaise sneered. "What're going to call your followers? The Death Eater Eaters?"

Merlin rolled his eyes. "I'm not going to be some cult leader," he said while Draco burst into laughter. "I mean, do Dumbledore's followers have names?"

"Uh—"

"Actually, yeah," Theodore said, blinking in surprise. "They're the Order of the Phoenix. I remember my mum mentioning them."

They stared at Theodore for half a second, then—

"Okay, now you definitely need a name." Draco said clapping his hands together.

"Think it should have some magical creature in it? Merlin, what's your favourite creature?"

"Guys—" Merlin tried to say but Blaise ignored him, leaning forward to converse with Draco.

"What about the Threatening Thestrals?"

"That sounds like a Quidditch Team."

"Pity the Order of Merlin is taken—should we try to steal it back?"

"No, that'd get confusing for everybody."

Merlin groaned loudly as Theodore joined the discussion, all the noise aggravating his headache. He could just imagine the panic that would ensue if people thought he was amassing followers under the name Threatening Thestrals. Not exactly the message he wanted to send. After a few more failed attempts to switch the topic, he stood up.

"Where're you going?" Draco asked.

"Yeah, and hey—what about the Deadly Casters?" Blaise said, looking up too.

"Awful. I'm gonna find the toilet," he said, and as he shut the compartment door behind him, he heard Blaise and Draco argue over whether or not the name should include 'Order of' or not.

Merlin paused in the corridor for a minute, rubbing his eyes. Sometimes he forgot just how young his friends were—and just how old he was. Sure, however he'd managed to de-age himself had left him more child-like than he would've expected—and he'd argue that he'd always been a child at heart—but there was a definite difference between his maturity and theirs. He heaved a sigh, and as he turned to walk up the train nearly collided with someone.

"Sorry—" he said automatically, taking a step back. Then flaming red hair caught his eye, and he realized he knew the person. It was Ginny Weasley. They stared blankly at each other for a moment, her brown eyes widening in delayed recognition.

"Oh," she said softly, and her cheeks went pink. "Hello."

"Hey," he said, and watched as she bit her lip. She tugged on a strand of her hair, glancing behind her.

"Um… Hermione's back at my compartment." She looked back at him. "I mean," she added, "if you're going to looking for her."

"Oh! Right. I'll swing by, thanks."

They stood there, awkward for another moment before Ginny gestured behind her with a sheepish smile, and led the way back down the train. But after a dozen steps she paused again and looked back at him, all trace of redness gone from her face. Instead her brows were knitted, frustration in her eyes—as though she'd been considering a complicated puzzle for days. Merlin stopped too, regarding her cautiously.

"Yes?" he said when the silence started to drag.

Ginny's frown deepened, then— "How do you know wandless magic?"

Merlin stared at her.

"Because," she continued as though she hadn't expected him to respond, "no one seems to know. I tried to ask Fred and George, but of course they're sworn to secrecy," she rolled her eyes. "Dad thinks it was accidental but you meant to do that, right?"

"Well—"

"He said we won't cover it at Hogwarts until six or seventh year," she went on, frowning now. "And most wizards don't even bother with it because it's so difficult. I asked—" she faltered and shook her head. "Well, everyone I asked doesn't really know what to make of it. Not to mention that whole thing with Quirrell!"

"Are you actually looking for an answer?" Merlin asked when she paused finally to take a breath.

"Looking. Not all that optimistic about finding." She gave him a surveying look, chewing on the inside of her cheek. "So it was wandless magic, then?"

"I—" He'd better get used to telling people. He had the sinking feeling he'd be repeating himself a lot in the near future, especially if he wanted to attract the attention of more than just his classmates. "Well I meant to do it, so—yes." It was a strange feeling, admitting it to someone he didn't know well. Nerve-wracking. Exhilarating. Freeing. Ginny was still watching him expectantly, her arms crossed.

"Well?" she said when he didn't continue.

"Well what?"

She rolled her eyes. "How?" She gestured vaguely toward him. "How do you know wandless magic?"

"Oh." That was an unanswerable question, even if he'd wanted to tell her the truth. He remembered Gaius asking him something similar, wondering how he could catch a falling bucket of water without a spell at all. "I don't know, I just do. I was born like this." He gave an embarrassed smile.

She was staring at him again, her brown eyes wide and disbelieving. Then she shook her head and turned on her heel, continuing down the train. As he followed, he could hear her muttering under her breath, "Don't know what I expected. I—" she glanced back at him, "Wait, didn't you nearly fail first year?"

Merlin groaned. That was forever going to haunt him, wasn't it?

"Was that intentional?"

"Yes…"

"Why?"

"Are we close to your compartment?" he asked instead and she looked back at him again, stopping in the corridor.

"Why?" she repeated, emphatically.

"Other than this right here?" Merlin sighed. "I just didn't want the attention, all right?"

"Oh, and now you do?"

What was with this girl?

"It's not my fault Quirrell decided to go to the dark side," he snapped. "And I don't have much of a choice at this point, do I?"

She blinked, opened her mouth before changing her mind and closing it again. Merlin realized he'd raised his voice, and some of the other compartments had cracked open their doors to listen in. He swallowed and scratched the back of his neck, avoiding Ginny's eyes.

"The compartment is just at the end."

She had turned around and started leading the way again. The back of her neck was flushed, and there was a stiffness in the way she stepped. Merlin almost didn't follow her, still frustrated by both the conversation and his reaction to it. He hadn't expected Ron's sister to be so forward, and yet there'd been something about her questions that reminded him of Gwen. That in itself was jarring.

He shook himself and followed her down the corridor. As they came near the compartment she paused one last time before she opened the door, looking at him with a much softer expression than he'd expected, "Thanks, by the way—you know, for stopping Dad."

He managed a smile. "S'nothing."

She nodded and pushed back the compartment door to reveal Hermione seated with Ron and Neville.

The range of emotions that met him was nothing short of hilarious. Hermione beamed at him, her hair bushy as ever, and motioned for him to take the seat across her. Ron seemed torn between grudgingly acknowledging his presence and ignoring him. And Neville's mouth dropped open, stammering what Merlin assumed was his name, and giving him the most terrified smile he'd ever seen on a person.

Merlin appraised them for a moment, thoroughly amused. "Good to see you all remember who I am," he said, sliding into the seat Hermione had indicated.

Ron snorted. "Hard to forget, what with your name constantly plastered across the paper." He twitched as Ginny took the empty seat next to Merlin.

The thought of everyone reading those articles made Merlin cringe. "Right." He looked at Neville. "How was your summer, Neville?"

The poor boy went stark white, but took a deep breath and said, "G-good. Gran let me tend the garden, and even got me a few extra potions books."

"Cool. Can I ask why you look like you've just seen a ghost? Or have I died, and just don't know it?"

"Wouldn't that be something," Ron said leaning back in his chair.

Hermione smacked his arm. "Stop it Ron, you can't possibly think Merlin is just like all the other Slytherins now, can you?"

"I don't. But that doesn't mean I have to like him."

"Fair enough," Merlin said, rather surprised that Ron had admitted anything at all. He looked back at Neville, waiting for the kid to reply. But Neville only spluttered, and avoided his eyes.

"His Gran is worried you might turn into another Dark Lord," Ginny supplied. "She's told him to be careful."

Merlin leaned back his chair and rubbed his temples. The headache was getting worse. "Fantastic," he said. "The fact I stopped the current Dark Lord counts for nothing, right?"

"Of course it does!" Hermione said leaning forward. "They just don't know what you're like. Tell him, Ron."

Ron heaved a huge groan, rubbing his eyes.

"Right. Even I know you're not going to start killing muggleborns… Course, it doesn't help when we see you being all chummy with the other Slytherins."

"They're not all bad," Hermione protested. "I saw you too," she added, giving Merlin a small smile, "but didn't want to intrude."

"I doubt they would've minded," Merlin said, surprising himself. "And even if they did, they wouldn't say anything."

"Yeah," Ron said, "because you'd probably send them to Azkaban too."

Merlin and Hermione stared at him. Neville seemed to finally find his voice again and said, in a shaky voice, "I-I don't think Merlin would do that."

"Thank you, Neville," Merlin said giving him the warmest smile he could muster. "Look at that Ron, even Neville knows I'm not a prat."

"But you could," Ginny said suddenly. Merlin glanced at her, raising his eyebrow. She shrugged and continued, "I mean, you sent Quirrell to Azkaban."

"Yeah," Merlin said slowly. "But he was trying to bring back Lord Voldemort."

Everybody flinched. Ron's ears turned red and he snarled, "Don't say the name!" while Neville whimpered. Ginny recovered first and continued, with a sharp glance at Ron, "And they know that if they do the same, you'll stop them."

"We're like, twelve, Ginny," Merlin said with a laugh. "I don't think any of us can do any resurrecting."

"Their families could," she pointed out. She had the same intense look in her gaze as earlier, as though searching for something particular in Merlin's eyes.

"Yeah," Ron said jumping on board. "Let's say Malfoy tried to do something and Malfoy Junior told you about it—would you send his dad to Azkaban?"

Merlin swallowed. He hadn't thought of that. Hermione seemed to notice because she said, "I highly doubt Lucius Malfoy would try something when he's so involved with the ministry." She cleared her throat. "Anyway, have you started reading Lockhart's books yet?"

As Hermione began speculating what classes would be like—mainly Lockhart's—Merlin leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes. He listened to Hermione and Ron bicker, Ginny laugh, Neville's voice slowly regain confidence, but his stomach curled into knots.

The headache hadn't gotten any better, and there was something else. He hadn't noticed it at first, but it grew on him, like a tide coming in until it was sweeping over his insides. He felt—sick. Like he'd eaten something rotten and it was trying to claw its way out of him, but he'd barely eaten all day. He couldn't really focus on it. A fog was settling over his thoughts, a churning cloud that pushed against his temples.

"Hey, are you all right?"

He opened his eyes. Hermione was looking at him, and even Ron looked somewhat taken aback. "You look a bit peaky."

"Yeah, fine. Just didn't sleep well. I'm going to head back and take a nap." He didn't wait for a reply before standing up. "I'll see you guys at school."

"See you…"

He found that Blaise and Draco had moved on from discussing possible follower names, to whether a chimera could take on a dragon in a fight. Theodore was engrossed in his new spell books. They didn't protest when Merlin announced he was going to take a nap, making him think he looked nearly as bad as he felt. And as he started to drift, Draco and Blaise's furious whispers oddly calming, he felt the tide begin to recede.

In the few hours since Snape had known Lockhart, he'd managed to lose every last vestige of respect for the man and had come to the conclusion that Mr. Most Charming Smile Award was a complete nitwit with not enough brains to fill a teacup. At least James Potter had been able to back up some of his more arrogant boasts with clever wand work—which only made Lockhart's appointment as Defense Against the Dark Arts Professor even more insulting.

Snape could understand Dumbledore's reasoning. To some extent he even agreed with him. After all, there was no possibly way Quirrell was in league with the Dark Lord and therefore—although a pompous imbecile with no real qualifications save for his downright spurious books—would make a safe appointment. The fact that he was the only applicant came second. Snape already had a running bet with McGonagall on what would drive the celebrity from the school at the end of the year. His money was on Lockhart accidentally hospitalizing himself. Hers, that Merlin would somehow prove his incompetency—which he'd have bet on himself if she hadn't beaten him to it. He never thought he'd be glad of the curse on the position that limited all DADA professors to a year—or less, his mind hopefully reminded.

He swept into the Great Hall, black robes billowing, and found Lockhart had seated himself right by where he usually sat, near the end in front of the Slytherin table in robes of forget-me-not-blue. If he had to spend another hour listening to those driveling stories—Snape ignored the seat entirely and took the vacant chair on Dumbledore's other side. McGonagall cast him a curious look before glancing down the table. Her lips thinned and she turned her gaze back to the doors of the Great Hall, tapping her fingers on the table.

Needless to say, he wasn't the only one Lockhart had managed to alienate.

Dumbledore raised his eyebrows, his blue eyes twinkling. "Why, Severus, this is a surprise."

Snape glared at him. The seating arrangements were fluid, though tradition had pushed the head of houses to align their seating arrangements with their house. Probably why Professor Flitwick regarded him with a startled expression as he walked past to take Snape's usual seat.

"A change of scenery seemed in order," Snape replied curtly.

"I see." Dumbledore gave him a long searching glance. "I must say I'm almost impressed, how did he manage to offend you so quickly?"

Snape's lip curled. "Breathing."

To his surprise, he heard McGonagall grunt in agreement from Dumbledore's other side. "You too Minerva?" Dumbledore asked sounding amused.

For a long moment she didn't reply, then, "You know very well I didn't approve. But," and here she grimaced as though she'd just swallowed a lemon, "Clearly we didn't have any other options." Her eyes met his, and Snape resisted the urge to snarl.

She knew every well how badly he wanted that job.

"My dear professors, let's at least wait until he's had his first class," Dumbledore said placidly, looking from one to the other. "His qualifications were quite spectacular, however," and the twinkle in his eye shone brighter, "one never knows how these things will play out. I have heard rumours about a certain wager."

McGonagall turned very slowly toward him, her brow rising. "Oh, you've heard that, have you?"

"What, going to tell us we're crossing some ridiculous ethical line?" Snape sneered. "Will the curse kill Lockhart because of our insensitivity?" Wouldn't that be lovely?

"Nothing of the sort," Dumbledore said smiling now. "Although, I'm surprised at you Severus. Smart money is surely on young Merlin, is it not?"

"Do you mean to tell me," McGonagall said dropping her tone to a bare whisper, "that you hired Lockhart for the sole purpose of exposing him?"

"My dear Minerva, of course not! He was merely the only reasonable applicant. There's no reason to suspect that he needs exposing for any reason, however…" Dumbledore lowered his tone as well and they both leaned forward to hear him, "if such a thing occurs, I'll not be entirely surprised."

Any resentment that Snape felt toward Dumbledore's decision vanished at once. McGonagall on the other hand, was less amused.

"He's supposed to be teaching!" she hissed. "We can't put the education of our students in jeopardy like that!"

"If he is true to his word, our students are likely to receive the best Defense Against the Dark Arts instruction for several years," Dumbledore said lightly.

"But you don't think that's so," McGonagall grumbled, folding her arms.

"I sincerely hope it is, Minerva. I really do."

They looked up to see the doors of the Great Hall swing open, and the older students began pouring inside. McGonagall stood up, straightened her black pointed hat, and strode through the side door. Snape knew she was going to meet the first years in the entry hall.

"You could have told me that earlier," Snape said. "It's a better reason than, well at least this one won't try to perform necromancy."

"I told you the truth, everything else comes secondary." Dumbledore brought his hands together in a steeple. He sighed, and Snape glanced at him. The twinkle had dimmed. "Frankly, I hope I'm pleasantly surprised by our new appointment. I'd rather not have to search for a new professor midway through the term."

"But you're already looking, aren't you?" Snape said his eyes widening in realization. He had only entertained the idea that Lockhart was a fraud on a hopeful whim—the man had an entire book list that had been verified by several other sceptics after all. But now it seemed a real possibility. He wasn't sure whether he felt smug satisfaction at being right, or depressed.

Dumbledore met his eyes, and gave a sad smile. "I'm always looking."

A little of both, then.

He looked down at the students filing inside and his eyes caught Merlin taking a seat at the Slytherin table. The boy yawned widely, and rubbed his eyes—his black hair more messy than usual. Even as he watched, Draco reached over to pull Merlin's collar down. It looked like he'd just woken up from a nap, his grin bemused as he talked with his housemates. But he was fidgeting, and Snape caught him looking at the door nearly five times in a single minute. Was he waiting for someone?

The older students had only been sitting for about five minutes before the doors swung open again, revealing McGonagall leading the troop of terrified first years to their sorting. Snape checked if Merlin was indeed waiting for someone, but although his eyes surveyed the newcomers for a moment, he returned to eyeing the main doors—now chewing his cheek. He wanted to leave – that much was plain to see – but why?

McGonagall placed the hat on the stool, and Merlin finally turned his attention toward the ceremony, seeming to resign himself to staying a little longer.

The sorting hat, patched, frayed and dirty as ever, sat motionless on the stool for a long minute before the rip near the brim widened, and it burst into song.

A hat I am, but be not fooled

I was there when Hogwarts began,

And watched the founders four

Come to Camelot with a daring plan.

To create a school at last

And return magic to the land,

Where cruel Uther once declared

All magic must be banned.

Brazen Gryffindor lead the way

Clever Slytherin slipped in after,

Noble Hufflepuff boistered along,

And wise Ravenclaw followed much faster.

They came upon Great Emrys first

And then talked to King Arthur,

A school indeed, but who to teach?

That decision was much harder.

Ravenclaw thought those studious

And intelligent deserved admission,

While Slytherin held blood purity

In high regard with great ambition.

Gryffindor sought only those like him

Brave souls who fought so reckless,

And Hufflepuff, honest and diligent

Why, she would take all the rest

Together they threw some brains in me

So that I could help them choose

I can see where you ought to go

Put me on and I'll give the news!

As Snape clapped with all the rest, he couldn't help but notice the shell-shocked expression on Merlin's face. Granted, the hat had indirectly referenced his namesake—and even Snape was a little vague on who Uther was—but, ah, it was probably different for Merlin. Even stranger, now that he thought about it, considering how well he was living up to his name. He wouldn't be surprised if this Merlin also brought about some major change in the wizarding world, and if Dumbledore was right about him being the boy of the prophecy, he would.

As McGonagall began reading the names and first years ran to their respective houses, the boy began fidgeting again. Luckily, there were few hat stalls—the hat had taken nearly four minutes to decide what to do with Luna Lovegood—and McGonagall removed the stool.

Dumbledore stood. "Welcome, welcome to another year at Hogwarts," he told the silent students. "Now, before we begin the feast allow me to introduce our new Defense Against the Dark Arts Professor: Gilderoy Lockhart!"

There was a scattering of applause, and an outbreak of whispers among the girls. Lockhart got to his feet and beamed, flashing his sparkling teeth and waving. Snape was almost surprised he didn't try to make a speech, and instead politely sat back down—though continued to smile and wink at the students.

"Yes, he has graciously offered to take on the teaching position, cutting short his book tour." Lockhart batted his hand as though it was nothing at all. "On that note, I'm sure most of you have been keeping tabs on the Daily Prophet this summer, and the fate of our previous Defense Against the Dark Arts Professor."

You could have cut the tension in the air with a butter knife. All eyes flickered toward Merlin before settling on the Headmaster again.

"I must ask you to not bother Mr. Evans about the particulars." Snape saw Merlin sink in his chair. Maybe he'd been mistaken on why Merlin wanted to escape the Great Hall. "If you are truly curious, feel free to come discuss it with me. Now, enough talk. Let the feast begin!"

Food immediately appeared on the sparkling platters, decadent and aromatic as ever. Snape filled his place without paying too much attention to what he was grabbing—he'd learned a long time ago that everything the house elves made was delicious—and began to eat, still keeping an eye on the boy.

Merlin grabbed chicken, beef, potatoes, carrots, and heaps of salad. He doused the entire plate in liberal amounts of dressing—possibly ranch, though from this distance he couldn't be sure. And then began to stuff his face with such speed that Snape was sure he would make himself sick. Perhaps Merlin felt his eyes on him, because he looked up and paused, swallowing. Very slowly, so that Merlin couldn't mistake his meaning, he shook his head and glanced toward the door pointedly. Leaving right now would not make matters better.

Merlin deflated. Snape thought he actually saw a pout. Then he dipped his head and began to eat at a more normal speed.

"I see Merlin's not too pleased," Dumbledore said next to him. Snape grunted and took a swig of his pumpkin juice. "Although, considering he intentionally hid his skills all last year, I'm hardly surprised."

"And I highly doubt the students will leave him be," Snape said. "Even with your request."

Dumbledore took a bite of his steak and kidney pie. "Some will," he said. "He's reiterated that story too many times already."

"Maybe." Snape paused, regarding the boy again. He was chatting animatedly with the other Slytherins. He had worried that his house would avoid him after the case, but judging from the way Blaise was laughing he had been wrong.

As the feast came to close and Dumbledore gave his usual start of term notices—no magic in corridors, don't go in the forbidden forest etc.—Snape knew Merlin was up to something. The instant Dumbledore finished his remarks, Merlin was on his feet and making a beeline for the door—and Snape knew he wasn't heading for the common room. He cut through the side passage by the high table and came around the corner to see Merlin making a run for the main doors.

"And just where do you think you're going?" Snape called after him.

Merlin stopped dead. He turned slowly around, looking a bit like he'd gotten his hand caught in the cookie jar. He lifted his chin. "Out."

"Out?" Snape repeated, coming to stand in front of him. "I think not."

"It's not curfew yet!" Merlin snapped. "I can go where I like still."

Snape's lip curled. "Don't take that tone with me. The grounds are off bounds after dark, unless of course you want me to accompany you?"

Merlin frowned.

"I didn't think so," Snape sneered. "Do you think that because of Quirrell the rules don't apply to you anymore? Or that I'm just going to let you do whatever you want this year because you've been in the paper a few times?"

Merlin glowered at him. "Of course not!"

"Then?" Snape said nodding toward the door. "Suspect the Dark Lord to come riding in on a centaur?"

Merlin rolled his eyes. "No."

"Then it can wait for the morning. Get back to the common room, and if you try to sneak out tonight, I'll know."

Merlin sighed and turned on his heel, trudging back down the hall where the rest of the Slytherins had already vanished. Snape fell into step just behind him. "Stop looking for trouble," he said softly. Merlin glanced sharply up at him, his bright blue eyes searching. Snape almost winced; he knew it'd sounded more like a request than an order.

But if Merlin kept trying to stop the Dark Lord, then he'd definitely fulfill the prophecy.

Snape paused by his office door, his hand on the doorknob. Merlin had stopped too, still watching him. He cleared his throat. "We've got our eyes on it already. Just keep your head down and do your coursework. For once," he added. He shut the door behind him with a snap.

"I can't."

Merlin didn't say it until the door had been long closed, still standing in the corridor where Snape had left him. He hadn't been looking for trouble—all the stares had sent him desperately wanting to see Korrizahar. He'd been out of contact with the dragon all summer, and he needed to know they were all okay.

But he wouldn't stop looking for trouble either. He couldn't. He knew Voldemort would be coming back, and he had to stop him. Somehow, Merlin had the feeling Snape already knew that—he'd more than proved it last year. Merlin shook his head and headed down the hall toward the Slytherin common room, staring at his feet.

This was all so complicated. He felt as though he were lost in the wilderness without a compass. He needed to build a reputation, a following that he could call on when the time came. He needed to figure out Voldemort's next move and take counter-measures. And then there were the Slytherins with Death Eater ties—how to make them jump ship? Oh yeah, and he had dragons. There was just so much that if he kept thinking about it he was going to explode. Focus on his coursework? In light of everything else it was such a pointless prospect—but it was the only thing he could do at the moment, wasn't it?

Merlin came to a stop at the stretch of wall that hid the entrance to the common room, and realized he didn't know the password. Figures. Snape probably hadn't told him on purpose. Not wanting to walk back up to his office to ask, Merlin bent down to inspect the engraved snake that curled along the bottom of the wall. Last year, he'd heard it speak—welcome the first years when the prefect opened the door. In the dim lighting, the green-gem set eyes seemed to flicker.

It was worth a try, wasn't it?

"Open." But it wasn't English that passed his lips. As soon as he spoke, the snake moved and the wall began to slide open, replying in Parseltongue, "Welcome back."

Merlin grinned and entered the common room. "Well, that's handy."

 

Chapter Text

 

“Never saw that one coming.”

“Wait—but I thought he failed first year?”

Merlin couldn’t escape the whispers. They clung to his robes as he walked to breakfast, tainting his eggs and kippers. A pervasive cloud of questions, all of which seemed too nervous to actually ask. The curiosity from the end of last term had only magnified during the course of summer events.

Merlin pushed one of his fried tomatoes along the rim of his plate, unable to block out the discussion drifting over from the Ravenclaw table.

“Statistically, Slytherin produces more dark wizards than any other house,” a girl was saying.

“Yeah, but c’mon—Merlin? He doesn’t have it in him,” another girl replied. “He’s a huge muggle lover.”

“Not all dark wizards form anti-muggle régimes. Take Grindelwald for example. And if Merlin could hide the fact he’s powerful enough to defeat Professor Quirrell, there’s no knowing what other tricks he’s got up his sleeve. I mean, just look at what happened in Flourish and Blots—”

Merlin let his fork fall onto his plate with a clatter, stopping the conversation as heads swiveled in his direction. It restarted within seconds however, in softer tones that still none-the less carried and Merlin slouched in his seat, massaging his temples.

Get used to it, he told himself. It isn’t going away anytime soon.

If anything, all the whispers, speculation, and even anxiety surrounding his person would just get worse. His fellow Slytherins were more aware of his intentions, as he had a feeling his “room for only one dark lord” statement had been taken exactly as he’d meant it—joking but not really. On the train, he’d thought he had made himself pretty clear: amass a following and defeat Lord Voldemort. And he couldn’t exactly do that by keeping his head down and twiddling his thumbs.

But the whispers burned his ears worse than shouting.

Draco looked at him. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah.” Merlin pushed his still full plate away from him, and went back to massaging his temples. “Spectacular.” He could feel the headache building again.

“It’s not too late to change your mind.”

Merlin had a feeling he wasn’t talking about breakfast. He’d told Draco late last night about his coreless wand, eager to bring him up to speed. Draco had taken it a little better than Hermione—before more seriously asking when Merlin planned on becoming the next Dark Lord. Which was fine. Totally fine. He just needed to know his deadline for convincing his father to jump the Death Eater ship.

It’d had the same, joking-but-not feel to it.

“Yeah—it is,” Merlin said, meeting his eyes.

Draco swallowed. “Right.” He looked away for a moment, staring at his own breakfast before sighing. “Right—you’re doing this all wrong.”

Merlin stared at him. “I’m what?”

“This celebrity spotlight thing—you’re not handling it well.”

“Thanks, Mr. Obvious.”

“I mean,” Draco said exasperated, “you’re not enjoying it. You’re letting what everyone says about it—true or not—get to you because you care too much about what people think. I mean,” and he dropped his tone, slinging his arm around Merlin’s shoulder so he could whisper, “that dude who killed the troll? I’ve never met that person—that wasn’t you. You’re so paranoid that you can’t even enjoy being in the paper. Look—” he started to laugh, and nodded behind him. “That girl has been staring at you since last night and you haven’t even noticed.”

Merlin noticed now. She was one of the Ravenclaws who’d been talking about him earlier. He’d never even met her. She blushed when she caught his eye and looked quickly away.

“So, chill out,” Draco said. “You make me want to send a professor to Azkaban just so I can show you how to take publicity.”

“You know—I’m sure no one will mind if you send Lockhart,” Merlin said smirking. Draco snorted and let go, jokingly punching his arm.

“Don’t tempt me.”

Feeling better, Merlin pulled his breakfast back toward him. It was hard to explain, the anxiety he felt. He did care a lot what people thought of him—though it was hard to tell Draco how there’d been a time when he could’ve been executed for doing the simplest spells, let alone demonstrate the full extent of his power. But this wasn’t Camelot. The same rules didn’t apply, and it was pointless—not to mention self-defeating—for him to be so, well as Draco put it, paranoid. Maybe sometime soon he’d be able to tell everyone he didn’t use a wand. That was a nice thought.

“So, Merlin.” Pansy Parkinson leaned around Draco in order to look at him. Her hair had grown over the summer, and her face bore a splash of faint freckles that he couldn’t remember seeing before. “What actually happened in Flourish and Blots?”

Everyone around them fell silent too, and Merlin hesitated before replying. Draco kicked him from under the table, raising his eyebrow meaningfully. Would the butterflies in his throat ever fly away?

Chill out. “I assume you’re not referring to Lockhart,” he said, earning a few chuckles.

“No, not that,” Pansy said, her lip quirking into a smirk. “Was it really wandless?” she continued.

You always complained you never got enough recognition. “Yeah.” He heard a ripple of excited voices. “But you all already knew that.”

“Oh, couldn’t be too sure,” Blaise said, shrugging. “The Prophet’s been known to embellish.”

Merlin glanced at him, raising his eyebrow. “Well, you should’ve already known.” He’d pushed Blaise back in their dorm room last year.

Blaise blinked, staring at him. “But—I thought that was accidental magic,” he said.

“Well, yeah it was an accident,” Merlin said and Draco started laughing, “But I mean, you grabbed me from behind. I could’ve been hurt.” He flashed a cheesy smile.

“What about the broomstick?” Pansy asked, her eyes narrowing. “Did you actually—”

“No, that one was out of my control,” Merlin interrupted, shuddering at the memory of splinters imbedded in this side.

“And the bookcases in the library?”

Mostly out of my control.”

Daphne Greengrass stared at him from across the table, her eyes wide. Pansy however, frowned. “So you’ve basically been pulling the hood over our eyes from day one,” she said, leaning her elbow on the table. “What, didn’t trust us?”

Merlin’s lip curled, “Well after Blaise ambushed me,” he said slowly. “Can’t say I felt an overabundance of trust.”

“But—”

“Oh, give it a rest, Pansy,” Draco said over her and Pansy fell silent at once, looking startled. “Leave the kid alone.” She gave Merlin one last frustrated look before sitting back in her seat, chewing her tongue.

Daphne cleared her throat. “So—so can we see some?”

Merlin stared at her. “See…wandless magic?”

She bit her lip and nodded. Merlin looked around, noting that Blaise had leaned forward, Theodore was holding a fork of food suspended half-way to his mouth, and even the Ravenclaw table had stopped chattering by now. Merlin lost his nerve.

“I dunno if that’s a great idea.”

“C’mon,” Blaise said rolling his eyes. “She doesn’t want you to collapse the ceiling, just—make your plate float or something.”

“Uh,” Merlin looked from him to Daphne, to Draco who shrugged encouragingly. He’d never been one to show off before; first time for everything he supposed. Merlin took a deep breath. Chill out. “Okay.” You deserve some fun in the spotlight.

He thought he heard shushing, and smiled. “Hands up!” someone else called and he put both hands up, enjoying himself for the first time that morning. He looked around at them all and said, “Leviosa.

For a second nothing happened, and then the pumpkin juice that had been in Blaise’s goblet rose smoothly into the air, twisting and swirling like a long orange ribbon. It went higher, suspended above their heads. The silence that had followed his incantation gave way to muted whispers of awe.

“Having fun, are we?”

As Merlin turned quickly around to find Snape standing behind them, sneering at the sight, the pumpkin juice fell back to earth with a resounding smack and a loud expletive from Blaise, who’d received the bulk of it on his breakfast and robes. Everyone burst into laughter—Draco had tears in his eyes.

“Language, Mr. Zabini,” Snape said, but he sounded amused. He waved his hand and the juice vanished, leaving Blaise and his breakfast unsoiled once more. “Course schedules,” he said, proceeding to hand them out. “And, I’m sure with Merlin’s new proficiency, he’ll do marvelous in his classes.” Snape’s lip curled as though he didn’t believe a word he’d said—which Merlin reckoned, he ought not to.

“If you do marvelous in any of your classes,” Draco muttered after Snape had continued down the table, “I’ll eat my scarf.”

Merlin smirked. “Careful, Draco,” he said, “That just might motivate me.” He laughed when Draco pushed his shoulder, and looked down at his course schedule.

They had Charms first thing that morning, and a couple minutes later he and the other Slytherins headed towards the Charms corridor. Pansy and Daphne loudly traded ridiculous suggestions on what they’d be doing, which included anything from inflating toads to igniting desks. Merlin and the others listened, laughing and groaning at different suggestions.

“By the way,” Pansy said, pausing in her competition with Daphne and turning to Merlin, “Are you going to use your wand in class?”

Merlin tripped over the hem of his robes, earning a peel of laughter—with the exception of Pansy. “Well, yeah,” he said staring dumbly at her. He wanted to stare at his shoes.

“I mean,” Draco said heaving a shrug. “He might be able to do it, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.” He gave Merlin a knowing look. “Plus, if that’s the case he might as well take classes with the fifth years or something.”

“Oh, is that an option?” Merlin asked, pretending to sound surprised. “You mean I don’t have to attend class with you lot?”

“As if,” Blaise said rolling his eyes, “you’d miss us too much.”

“I dunno about that.” Merlin smirked, and dodged when Blaise tried to shove him. He felt a hand grip his shoulder and knew—knew without looking up who it was. After all, there was only one person he knew who wore that flowery perfume.

“Now, now, boys,” said Lockhart, “No rough-housing in the corridors.” He flashed one of his perfect smiles, a laugh on his lips. “Can’t afford this one breaking any more school property.”

Merlin had never seen anyone color-coordinate everything quite like Lockhart. He adjusted a turquoise hat trimmed with gold as he winked, his robes a turquoise beacon in the middle of the corridor. Now trapped at his side, Merlin wondered how such a brightly colored creature had managed to sneak up on him.

Draco cleared his throat. “Right—we’ve got Charms in a few minutes, Professor,” he drawled. “Wouldn’t want to be late,” he added, sneering.

“Of course not,” Lockhart said, and just when Merlin thought the interaction was over, “Tell Professor Flitwick that Merlin won’t be long. I just want a quick word.”

“All right.”

But Draco didn’t seem to want to move. None of them did. They hesitated in the corridor, eyes drifting from Lockhart to Merlin. He thought he saw Theodore fidget, and Blaise even raised his eyebrow and gave him the thumbs up. It was with great satisfaction that Merlin realized they didn’t trust Lockhart. Not until Merlin had vetted him.

“I assure you,” Lockhart said with another laugh, eyes widening in surprise, “that I intend to occupy this post for several years, and mean you all no harm whatsoever.”

Still no one moved. Merlin met Draco’s eyes and nodded. He might not like the man, but Lockhart felt relatively harmless. He was too obnoxious for Lord Voldemort in any case. With his nod, Draco and the other Slytherins filed into the Charms classroom. As soon as they were gone, Merlin tried to pull away from Lockhart’s grip.

Why did the man constantly need to touch him?

“Merlin, Merlin,” Lockhart said, shaking his head. He released his hold, and Merlin turned sharply to face him, folding his arms. “Merlin.”

“Yes?” Merlin finally snapped, raising his eyebrow.

It was unnerving how Lockhart could show off every single one of his perfect teeth when he smiled. He smiled now, wide and filled with flawless white. “I suspected—well, I think everyone did.” He chuckled. “I mean, all that publicity! Got used to it, didn’t you? Got used to making the front page—and I partly blame myself for that. I enabled you.” He grimaced and heaved a huge sigh. “But, you can’t let it get to your head. Take it from one celebrity, to another.”

Merlin stared at him. Was this seriously happening?

Lockhart met his eyes, and waved his finger—what was he a petulant child? “There are much better ways to attract attention than levitating pumpkin juice in the Great Hall. But not to worry—not to worry, you’ll have plenty of other opportunities to get your name out there. Being to hasty is bad for your image, see?” Lockhart laughed again.

The shock was starting to subside, leaving indignation behind. Who was Lockhart to lecture him about attention-seeking behavior? “And what would you suggest,” Merlin asked, derisive. “Publish a book?”

Lockhart’s smile fell for a fraction of a second. “Oh—plenty of time for that when you’re older.” He shook his head again, the toothy-grin back in place. “I’m sure you’ll have plenty to offer the wizarding community then. But if you ever need to talk, want some advice from someone who knows the business and all that, my office is always open.”

Lockhart gave one last blinding smile, turned on his heel, and headed back down the corridor with Merlin glowering after him, distinctly disgruntled. He dearly wanted to shout after that turquoise retreated back, shout that he’d never be caught dead in Lockhart’s office. He promised himself that he’d never ask for advice from that peacock.

Merlin took a deep breath and walked into the Charms classroom.

Rumor had it that Professor Flitwick was part goblin, and although Merlin had watched him closely during the previous year, Flitwick had given no outward sign that he knew that the goblins of Gringotts had sworn allegiance to him. Perhaps he wasn’t in contact with his goblin relatives—or everyone had been wrong about his parentage. In any case, he spotted Merlin’s entrance from atop his stack of books and ambled over to him.

The moment Merlin mentioned Lockhart’s name, Professor Flitwick pursed his lips in understanding. They were learning the Skurge charm today, with the rest of the class already put to work trying to banish a puddle of green slime from off their desks. The instructions were on the blackboard. Merlin took the empty seat next to Draco, who was carelessly flipping his wand.

He stopped when he saw Merlin.

“So, what did the peacock want?” Draco asked in an undertone as Merlin got out his own wand. Blaise and Theodore—who flanked Draco and Merlin—leaned in to listen too.

“He tried to give me celebrity advice.” Merlin rolled his eyes.

“Seriously? What did he say?”

Merlin reiterated everything Lockhart had said. When he’d finished, Draco looked just as affronted as he felt. Blaise however, leaned back in his chair and smirked.

“You know what it sounds like?” he sneered. “He sounds like he’s worried you’ll take all his fans.”

“Come off it,” Merlin snorted. “I’m not going to write a book.”

“Yeah—you don’t need to,” Blaise countered. “Lockhart’s got to write books in order to get attention for his accomplishments,” he said, rolling his eyes on the word. “The media has given you more attention this past summer than he gets in one of his book tours.”

“You know, he’s probably trying to feed off your fame too,” Draco added. “Remember how he dragged you to the front in Flourish and Blots? I bet he wouldn’t have gotten on the front page without you!”

“Guys,” Merlin shook his head. “I think you’re overestimating me. I’m not a celebrity.” The word conjured half-a-dozen fans following him around at all times, begging for autographs. And, to his great relief, he didn’t see any in the vicinity.

“You’re better than that,” Theodore said softly. He looked up from the puddle of slime on his desk.

Merlin turned to him. “What do you mean?”

“Well, what you did—it mattered, you know? It was a big deal. Like…” he trailed off, unsure of what to say.

“It’s like the fame that surrounds Dumbledore,” Blaise finished. “He’s not a celebrity, but he’s one of the most important people in the wizarding world. If he does something, it’s automatically on the front page, you know?”

Merlin stared. “So, what you’re saying is I have a lot of potential power.”

“Nothing potential about it,” Draco mumbled and Merlin kicked him under the table. He could imagine it now: Posters depicting Merlin slaying the troll with recruitment ads for the Death Eater Eaters.

Blaise raised his eyebrow. “Maybe,” and he shrugged. “But Lockhart’s definitely jealous of the fame you’ve got right now.” He gave Merlin a more serious look. “Be careful, he might not try to kill you, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he tried to use you to improve his own reputation.”

As Blaise attempted to banish his slime, Merlin frowned. He hadn’t considered the idea that Lockhart might resent him for his easy entrance into the public spotlight. Was it possible? He’d spent so long trying to stay out of the public’s view that he’d forgotten some people sought the opposite.

“Mr. Evans?” Professor Flitwick had wandered over to him, eyeing the puddle of slime on his desk. “You haven’t tried to perform the Skurge charm yet,” he said matter-of-factly.

“Oh.” Merlin shook his head. He actually had to do classwork this time around. “I’ll do that.”

But Professor Flitwick didn’t leave. He folded his arms expectantly, watching Merlin. He wasn’t the only one either. Nearly everyone had stopped casting to watch.

“Uh, right.” Merlin brandished his useless wand. “Skurge,” he commanded, and with a glint of gold the slime vanished. Professor Flitwick gave a little squeak of excitement, clapping his hands together.

“Perfect! Five points to Slytherin.”

There were several hoots of glee at this, and Blaise smacked Merlin’s back so hard that it smarted. Merlin gave a small smile, feeling awkward. After pretending to do poorly for so long, this felt weird. And now there was nothing for him to do for the rest of class except twiddle his thumbs—

“Would you like to go around and help the others?” Flitwick asked, intruding on his thoughts. “I’m sure the words of a fellow student would be appreciated.”

“Oh!” Merlin grinned. That sounded much more appealing. “Sure, okay.”

“Me first,” Draco said immediately. “Best friend’s got to come with some perks, right?”

Merlin could honestly say he’d never had such a fun class. Before long, his classmates were fighting for his attention and Professor Flitwick vanished from behind one of his books. Charms had always come easily to Merlin. He could understand why the wizarding world had dubbed him The Prince of Enchanters, among other things. But what he hadn’t expected was how easily teaching came to him too. By the end of class, everyone who flagged him down successfully vanished the slime from their desks. Course, Crabbe and Goyle, and even Avery had refused to look in his direction—no doubt threatened by their parents to stay way—but Merlin had caught them eavesdropping, and was strangely proud when Crabbe banished his slime.

“Merlin, just a minute,” called Professor Flitwick as everyone packed their things.

“I’ll wait outside,” Draco told him, and Merlin nodded.

Professor Flitwick waited until the last person had left, and positively beamed at Merlin. “I think that went quite well,” he said, nodding. “Very well—where was that boy last year, hm?”

Merlin scratched the back of his neck. “Hiding?” he suggested and Professor Flitwick chortled.

“You’re very bright Merlin, and I’d hate to see you squander that. Did you enjoy teaching your fellow classmates?”

“Yeah, I did, actually.”

Professor Flitwick hummed. “Why don’t we do that more often then? And if you’re feeling bored, maybe we can work out some special project. I don’t see the point of making you write meaningless essays, after all. And you, well, promise not to sleep in my class, all right?”

Merlin laughed. “Yeah, sounds good, Professor.”

“Off you go then!”

Merlin practically skipped into the corridor. Draco sneered at him, raising his eyebrow. “Good news?” he asked, as they started walking toward their next class: Herbology.

“Yeah, he said I could do that more often.”

“Good, you made more sense in two minutes than fifteen with Flitwick.” Draco paused. He chewed his tongue for a moment, glancing at Merlin as they descended the staircase. “By the way,” he said slowly, now surveying Merlin’s face. “Do you know that your eyes kind of…glitter, sometimes?”

Merlin stared at him. Mirrors weren’t exactly common in Camelot, and as he had never actually watched himself perform magic— “They do?” he asked, shocked.

“Yeah. I thought it was a trick of the light at first. It’s like a flash of gold.”

“Huh.” Merlin made a mental note to perform magic in front of the next mirror he saw. “I take it that’s not normal?”

Draco hesitated. “Not really. I mean, I haven’t heard of it before.” Merlin fidgeted. “But I mean,” Draco quickly added, “it’s kind of cool.”

“Right. Should I hide it?” Merlin asked scratching the back of his neck.

“Like with a glamour?” Draco shrugged. “It’s not that noticeable. I mean, no one noticed last year, right?”

Merlin nodded, though the idea his eyes actually flashed gold was unsettling. He wrestled with the idea of putting a glamour charm on his eyes—which might be more trouble than it was worth—as they walked through entrance hall.

Outside, the sun clung onto the last vestiges of summer, bathing the landscape in a warm yellow glow. It wasn’t until they were halfway down the steps that Merlin noticed a familiar face headed toward them. Hermione Granger grinned at the pair of them, and ran to meet them at the steps. Merlin noticed that she had a layer of dirt under her fingernails.

“Morning!” she said brightly. “How was your first class?”

“Merlin taught charms,” Draco sneered. His eyes traveled to her hands too, staring.

“You didn’t,” Hermione said, her eyes widening.

“Okay, not really,” Merlin amended. “But Professor Flitwick let me walk around and give advice and stuff.”

“Let me guess,” Draco said, “You had Herbology.”

Hermione glanced at her hands and laughed. “Yeah. It was fantastic! Professor Sprout had us repot mandrakes!”

“Mandrakes?” Merlin repeated, staring at her. He’d encountered the plant several times in Camelot, and never under pleasant circumstances. Morgana had used the withered root to send Guinevere into an episode of insanity. Not that he thought the school had that particular use in mind when they decided to cultivate it. “What for?” he asked, frowning.

“All sorts of things, but mostly as ingredients for antidotes. I think that’s what we’re going to do with this lot when they’ve matured.” She grinned.

“Well,” Draco drawled, “that’s probably what Sprout will have us to as well. We’ve got Herbology next—”

“Oh, hello there!”

Merlin closed his eyes in horror. Why? Why? Didn’t he have a class to torment? He reluctantly turned to see Lockhart striding toward them from the direction of where Professor Kettleburn held Care of Magical Creatures. In his hand he held what looked like a birdcage clothed in deep purple.

He didn’t dignify Lockhart with a reply.

“Hello, Professor Lockhart,” Hermione said, hiding her hands behind her back. She avoided Merlin’s eyes.

Lockhart beamed back at her—making her cheeks flush—before his eyes traveled over the house crest on her robes and he blinked, surprised.

“Well, never thought I’d see that!” he said heartily. “A Gryffindor and a Slytherin putting aside their differences. Splendid work, Merlin!” and he patted Merlin on the back, not noticing—or caring—when Merlin grimaced. “You’ll have to tell me how you managed your inter-house connections. Maybe I’ll learn something,” and he laughed. “You’re in my next class, aren’t you Miss—?”

“Granger. Hermione Granger,” she finished, almost breathless. Merlin caught Draco rolling his eyes.

Lockhart nodded, “Splendid! You can tell Merlin here all about it.”

Merlin didn’t smile, and Lockhart’s grin faded slightly. He wondered what it would take to make it vanish entirely. The effort of not snarling at him sent Merlin’s nails digging into his palms—but the idea of detention with him kept his mouth shut.

Lockhart adjusted his hat, snapping his gaze back to Hermione. “I’ll see you soon,” he said and he winked, before striding past them and into the castle.

“I’ll see you soon,” Draco repeated in a mocking tone. “You know, he might actually give you extra credit if you decorate your homework in hearts, Hermione.”

She flushed an even darker shade of red. “Shove off,” she muttered, avoiding his eyes. “I’ll see you guys later,” and she darted after Lockhart.

“I don’t get it,” Draco said, frowning after her.

“Neither do I.” Merlin heaved a sigh. “Come on, we’ll be late for Herbology.”

Draco had gotten used to the way Merlin vanished at night.

Granted, curiosity still clawed at the seams and more than once he’d considered following him. But every time he did the memory of Merlin facing down the troll popped into his head and he changed his mind. And, their friendship meant more to him than satisfying his curiosity.

At this point he just assumed Merlin had a streak of paranoia that pushed him to do regular perimeter checks.

So, when Merlin muttered he had something to do after dinner, Draco had acted lookout until he’d slipped out the front doors. Maybe one day Merlin would relax enough to tell him what he was actually doing, but for now this would have to do. Draco wandered the halls for a time, deliberating on whether or not he wanted to spend the rest of his evening in the common room when his feet took him past the library.

Well, he could never pay attention in History of Magic. He’d probably get more in just one reading about the Medieval Assembly of European Wizards than listening to Professor Binns drone for hours. He hesitated a moment, before pushing open the door.

The library was nearly empty. Which was expected, being the first day in the quarter and all. Draco thought he saw a couple Ravenclaws huddled in a corner and an older Slytherin student surrounded by heavy Transfiguration volumes. He headed for the History of Magic section, but as he passed the shelves he saw something that made him stop. A familiar knot of bushy brown hair was dancing about the Counter-Curse books.

Honestly, why wasn’t she in Ravenclaw? Draco watched as Hermione reached for a particularly thick book on the shelf above her head, withdrawing it with practiced ease. He swallowed.

“Hermione.”

She turned quickly, surprised. Draco saw her eyes search for Merlin behind him, and when she didn’t find him, became even more confused. She raised her eyebrow. “Draco, what’s up?”

He walked toward her, leaning against a table she had piled with books. He saw The Counter-Counter Curse Anthology, and When You Can’t Wave Your Wand and Wandless Incantations for Beginners. “I take it you didn’t get enough homework?” he asked.

Hermione frowned. “Forgive me if I like to do independent research,” she snapped.

Draco didn’t say anything for a long moment, tracing his finger along the spine of one of the books.

“Is everything—all right?” She asked finally, putting Easy Counter-Curses Everyone Should Know, onto the table.

“I—” Draco shook his head. “Never mind.”

“Just say it, Draco.”

He chewed his tongue, eyeing her. “How did your parents react when they heard about the wizarding world?”

Her mouth fell open slightly.

“I mean,” he continued, now taking a seat at the table. “They found out that everything they ever believed was wrong. I—my father has lived his whole life in this world. He knows about muggles, but he hates them. I used to understand, or at least I thought I did.” Draco closed his eyes. “It was so much easier, just hating all of you,” and he gestured vaguely toward her.

“Draco, what’s this all about?” Hermione whispered. Her eyes had gone wide.

He stared at a dent on the table as he spoke. “My father and I had a fight, okay?” His voice grew progressively more cynical as he talked, a furious snarl trapped in quiet. “He told me to keep my distance from Merlin, and from you. Consorting with a Mudblood?” he hissed, and Hermione stiffened. “I mean, I don’t think he’s even talked to a muggle. Ever. He keeps spouting that pureblood supremacy stuff—I mean he always did, but now…”

“It’s different.”

“Yeah. It’s like,” Draco heaved a sigh. “I want to hate Merlin for the things he says. I used to. And now he’s off doing, who knows what and I’m covering for him without a second thought. And I thought—I hoped my father would understand, especially with Merlin sending Quirrell to Azkaban and coming out as this up-and-comer Dark Lord. But no—instead he nearly transfers me to Durmstrang and tells me I’m going to get all of them killed if I—” he trailed off, breathing hard.

Hermione swallowed. “He said that?” she asked, staring at him.

Draco nodded, and put his face in his hands. “Why am I even telling you all of this?” he groaned, voice muffled.

Hermione didn’t answer at first. “My parents were scared.” Draco looked up. “Still scared, in fact. They subscribed to the Daily Prophet, you know so that they could find out more about the wizarding world.” She grimaced. “They don’t know much about the pureblood movement, but they know enough to worry about it. I’m sure part of them wishes they could go back too—back to when they didn’t know any of it existed. The world made sense to them then. But they can’t.”

Hermione gave a sad smile. “I think your dad is scared too. Scared of losing you, of losing his core beliefs. Because then he’s got to reevaluate everything he’s ever done, everything he’s ever fought for. If you tell him he’s wrong about muggleborns, well, what else was he wrong about? What about all the work he’s done for the pureblood movement?”

“I know—I just,” Draco ran his fingers through his hair. “My mom’s cousin was actually disowned from his family because he switched to the light.”

“Oh, I don’t think your father would do that,” although Hermione didn’t sound sure. “Maybe talk to this cousin about it—he’s got first hand experience, after all.”

“Maybe.” Draco didn’t tell her he might get disowned just for doing that.

“And anyway, you said your dad would align himself with the strongest player, right?”

“Right.”

“So, just help him see that Merlin is that person!”

“Hermione, I know Merlin’s good and all but he’s twelve,” he rolled his eyes. Blaise had said the same thing on the train. “He’s no Dark Lord.”

Hermione shrugged. “Well, the—the Dark Lord was twelve once too, wasn’t he? Give it time.”

“But—”

“Give it time. I mean, what else can we do?”

That had an air of finality to it, and Draco nodded. She was right, of course. Maybe that was why he’d gone to her instead of Merlin or Snape—she had a non-Slytherin perspective. His loyalties kept shifting. He could only hope that his father would come around—before it was too late.

“By the way, what do you know about eyes changing color during spell casting?”

The cool evening air whipped though Merlin’s hair as he raced through the Forbidden Forest. He had worried Snape might try to stop him again, and was relieved when Draco agreed to keep watch. He hadn’t even questioned him. Part of Merlin felt guilty about that—why couldn’t he just open his mouth and trust his friends with this?

Well. Wandless magic was one thing. Dragons were something else entirely.

As he neared the clearing, Merlin cleared his throat. He started the dragon call, shouting the language into the darkness—but he was cut short when something crashed into his midriff, sending him flying back into a bush.

Merlin!”

“Kor!” Merlin laughed, pushing the dragon off his chest.

The dragon had grown over the summer, approaching the size of a wolf or a small bear. The red scales had deepened in color and melted into the charcoal black patches, turning him into a mosaic of volcanic flame. Smoke curled out of his nostrils, and he nuzzled his head against Merlin’s hand—which had doubled in size.

“About time,” Korrizahar snorted. He got to his feet and walked with Merlin back into the clearing. “I want to know everything.”

The clearing had expanded quite a bit since Merlin said goodbye in June. It cut deeper in the forest, the ground a blend of charcoal, ash, and animal fluff. Aithusa came trotting through the trees, her white scales glowing in the light of the stars and moon. She grunted and dipped her head in greeting, and behind her Merlin saw Norberta. The dragon had already reached behemoth size, competing with Aithusa for who was larger. Her deep brown scales looked almost black in the gloom, and she clicked when she saw him.

“She’s gotten… big,” Merlin said faintly. How long until someone spotted her?

Korrizahar seemed to know what he was thinking because, “We’ve started heading deeper into the wilds—and Aithusa and I keep an eye on her so she doesn’t head into populated territory.”

“Are you finding enough food?” Merlin asked. He extended his hand to Norberta who, after pausing, touched her muzzle against his palm. Her scales felt hot.

“For the most part. It’s harder since we try to only hunt at night when we can hide in the dark.”

Merlin wondered if this forest was even capable of sustaining three fully-grown dragons.

“Anyway,” Korrizahar said, and he sat down on the ground, tail wrapping neatly around long talons. “Tell me the news! How was your summer?”

For the next few hours, Merlin talked. He talked about life with Florean Fortescue, how Silas would be coming to school next year—Kor was eager to meet him too—about the evidence hearing and the trial, how he couldn’t shake this headache since he’d encountered the dementors, and about his first day of school.

When he’d finished, Korrizahar had moved until he was curled around Merlin—the warm scales like a comforting blanket.

“I agree with Florean—if the headache gets worse go to Snape,” he said. “Or even Dumbledore, he might know something about memory curses.”

Merlin grimaced. “Hopefully it won’t come to that.”

“Yeah, well, if you did aggravate that curse it’ll cause problems. You don’t know how you got it, right?”

“Funny about memory curses, they mess with your memory.”

Korrizahar snorted, releasing another flume of smoke. “Still. I wish I knew more.” The dragon growled. “I feel so useless. All you can do is bounce ideas off me, but I have no knowledge.

Merlin blinked. “That’ll come,” he said automatically. He would admit that sometimes he wished Korrizahar had the same wealth of knowledge as Kilgharrah, but it was also nice to just have a companion. Someone who knew everything. Who might see something Merlin had missed. He told Kor so, and the dragon hummed, nuzzling him again.

“I just don’t want to go to Lockhart’s class tomorrow,” Merlin groaned, leaning back and staring at the stars. In Diagonally it was too bright, the glare of London washed them away. In Camelot the stars had always ignited the night sky.

“Oh, it’ll be fine. You said yourself he’s probably not working with Voldemort. He’s just a bit—”

“Unbearable?”

“Ostentatious. But hey, you said he’s written all these books. Maybe you’ll learn something from him,” Korrizahar said, poking him with his tail.

The thought made Merlin laugh again—hard. “I guess we’ll see tomorrow,” he said.

But for tonight, he had the stars.

Chapter Text

It didn't take long for word of Lockhart's catastrophic lesson with the Gryffindors to spread.

Apparently, the Professor had opened a cage containing a fair number of Cornish Pixies, who thoroughly wrecked the classroom and sent two students – with minor injuries – to Madam Pomfrey. And Lockhart? Well, he'd dived under his desk until Hermione had taken control with a clever freezing charm.

So, it wasn't a surprise when the Slytherins reluctantly trudged up to their Defense Against the Dark Arts class the following day, Merlin dragging his heels far behind the rest. Draco hung back with him, seemingly torn between pity and amusement as Merlin grumbled obscenities under his breath.

"You're enjoying this," Merlin finally said, glancing at him and narrowing his eyes.

"Consider it my reward," Draco sneered. "For tolerating whatever shenanigans you get up to."

Merlin chewed his tongue. He'd slipped back into the castle last night a good two hours after curfew, chilled but relieved to have finally checked in on his dragons. Draco had been lounging in one of the squashy black armchairs, staring at the low burning coals with a cloud over his eyes, and it hadn't been until Merlin sat down next to him that he'd looked away.

"Well, did you find the Dark Lord prowling the forbidden forest?" Draco had asked, not all together facetious.

"Not this time."

"Right." Draco turned his gaze back to the fireplace. "Are you ever going to bring me along?"

Merlin paused. "Do you actually want to come?" he asked, "What with Voldemort prowling and all?"

Draco flinched at the name. "I suppose not," he said quietly. "Though I think I should."

"Nah, that's Gryffindor you're thinking of."

Draco glared at him. "The Gryffindor," he said testily, "would have already followed you instead of respecting your privacy. So eager to be the hero and jump into danger, whereas I'm more concerned with looking out for my friend."

Merlin blinked, staring at him for a moment. "So am I," he said and he looked at the fireplace too. "So am I."

They sat like that in silence for several minutes, watching the embers dim.

"Oh, I ran into Hermione after dinner," Draco said suddenly. "And wait until you hear what she said about Lockhart's class…"

The class that Merlin now dreaded.

He saw the classroom just up ahead, the front of the Slytherin pack—Pansy Parkinson and the other Slytherin girls—already filing inside. What would Lockhart do? Re-create his first lesson or try something new? Merlin swallowed.

"Maybe I should just skip," he said.

"No—you're not leaving me alone in there," and Draco grabbed him by his tie, pulling him into the classroom.

Although the real Lockhart hadn't arrived yet, his smiling visage decorated the walls. Some of them, Merlin noticed with glee, seemed to be hiding half their face behind the frame or else scrubbing at ink splotches on their boisterously coloured robes.

As Merlin took the seat closest to the door, Draco wrinkled his nose and stared around the classroom. He took a seat next to Merlin, now staring at one of the pictures—an enormous one at the far back dressed in sunshine yellow, who was winking at Pansy Parkinson.

"That's just—that's a whole new level of narcissism," Draco muttered, shaking his head in disgust.

"Yeah, it's totally unexpected." Merlin ran his fingers along an ink stain on his desk.

Draco rolled his eyes. On Merlin's other side, Blaise snorted with laughter. He had already pulled out his books, laying them in a towering stack in front of his face as though attempting block Lockhart's giant picture from his line of sight.

Merlin probably would have done the same if he'd actually brought his books with him.

Exactly on time, Lockhart's office door flew open and he stepped out. He looked like he'd just stepped out of his picture, wearing the same golden robes, trimmed in cream and baby blue. He looked around at them all, eyes lingering a second too long on Merlin—who refused to look up from the ink splatter on his desk.

"Let me introduce you to your new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor," he announced, slowly descending the staircase as he spoke. "Me. Order of Merlin, Third Class, Honorary Member of the Dark Force Defense League and five-time winner of Witch Weekly's Most-Charming-Smile Award."

As though needing to prove this, he gave a wide smile.

"Now, I'm sure that by now, you've all heard about yesterday's little—ah—mishap."

Nearly everyone sniggered. Merlin looked up from his desk. Lockhart seemed somewhat unnerved at the way they all enjoyed his embarrassment. And then he flashed another one of his toothy grins.

"Yes—I know," he looked at Blaise who was positively shaking with laughter, now. "A slight miscalculation on my part. I'd thought the Gryffindors would be able to handle it," and he gave a huge sigh. "But I'm afraid I overestimated their abilities."

He laughed, and Merlin exchanged a look with Draco.

"Now, I presume you've all bought a complete collection of my books." His eyes hovered over Merlin's empty desk. "I've decided to start you all off with a little quiz—nothing to worry about, just to see how well you've read them."

As he walked around the room, passing out papers, Draco leaned over to Merlin. "Have you even cracked open the spine on your books?"

Merlin gave him a look.

"Good. Neither have I."

Merlin swallowed a smile—Lockhart was walking past their desks. He put the quiz on Merlin's desk with a flourish, before heading back to the front of the classroom and clearing his throat.

"You have thirty minutes, starting now!"

Merlin looked down at this paper and read:

One: What is Gilderoy Lockhart's Favorite Color?
Two: What is Gilderoy Lockhart's secret ambition?
Three: What, in your opinion, is Gilderoy Lockhart's greatest achievement to date?

Merlin stared, and stared some more. What kind of questions were these? He looked up, wondering whether Lockhart was actually serious. The man had taken a seat behind his desk and had pulled out his complete collection of books, which he organized so that no matter which angle you looked you saw the same cheeky grin with perfect clarity.

Merlin looked back down at his test, and flipped through it—three whole pages, fifty-four questions, and every single of one of them concerned the histrionic now flipping through his copy of Magical Me and humming.

When the thirty-minutes were up, Merlin hadn't answered a single question.

After Lockhart had collected all the quizzes, he flipped through them in front of everyone. "Again, no one remembers my favorite color is lilac," he said shaking his head. "I say so, in Year with the Yeti."

He paused in his riffling, and raised his eyebrow. "Come on now—" he looked up, and met Merlin's eyes. He sighed. "You didn't answer a single question, Merlin. And I know you have a copy of all my books."

Merlin leaned back in his chair. "Yeah, well, I didn't open them—did I?"

His classmates snickered. Lockhart paused, before wagging a disapproving finger. "Slipping back into old habits, are we?" he said. "Well, I've been told to keep a close eye on you, and I intend to do just that. Can't let a brilliant mind like yours go to waste, now can we?"

Merlin chewed his tongue. He made the firm decision to ignore all homework Lockhart assigned. He didn't care if Snape made him clean the dungeons for a month.

Lockhart set the quizzes back on his desk, grabbed a copy of Voyages of Vampires and started flipping through the pages. "As you all need to get better acquainted with my books, I'm going to read you a piece – just to give you a taste."

Lockhart cleared his throat. "Spurred as I was by the rumours of a fearsome vampire wreaking havoc in the countryside, I had decided I would only stay one night in a small village in Transylvania—until I had regained just enough strength to continue on my quest to rid the people of the blood-sucking fiend. I arrived at nightfall and made my way through the dark streets to a quaint little pub, the name translated from Romanian meaning The Impaled Drinker. The owner – a man named Vlad – was standoffish at first, but after I had introduced myself to him and told him about my mission he gave me his best room and all the mead I could drink.

"I tried to ask him what he'd heard about this vampire, but my Romanian was poor and his English worse, and so he pointed me out to another one of his customers who might be able to help me. But just after I had told this new person who I was, they asked if I knew how to cure a babbling curse. It seemed that her father—a local farmer—had been cursed years ago and had been able to do little other than splutter and stammer gibberish since the incident. And I told her, Of course I do! I didn't want to deviate too far from my mission, but how could I leave, now that this woman had asked me for help? And so, I promised that I would arrive at her farm the next day and cure her father from his terrible affliction."

Lockhart paused, and then grinned. "This is where it gets good, but I'll need a volunteer to show you the full effect." He pretended to look around for a second before zeroing in on Merlin. "Come up here, Merlin."

"Oh no, I couldn't do it justice," Merlin responded at once. Listening to Lockhart read his book was one thing, but helping him do it would be torture.

"Of course you could," Lockhart laughed. "I'm sure of it, all you need to do is babble a bit. Dramatize the event so that you all," and he gestured to everyone else, "can really appreciate what I accomplished here."

"Babble a bit?" he repeated, narrowing his eyes. Was Lockhart serious? He actually wanted Merlin to embarrass himself in front of all his classmates? But Lockhart had already dived toward him, seizing the sleeve of his robes, and was pulling him to the front of the classroom.

"There we go," Lockhart said, nodding. "A little shy, isn't he?" and he laughed again.

Merlin was somewhat relieved that none of his classmates joined in. Even Pansy and Daphne—who had been watching Lockhart in rapt attention—frowned. Theodore looked downright scandalized, and Draco and Blaise seemed to be trying to kill Lockhart with looks alone.

"When I arrived at the farm," Lockhart began again, completely unaware of the growing hostility of his students. "The villager seemed to be engaged in a heated argument with his daughter, which of course was made rather difficult by the curse addling his speech—go on Merlin, babble."

But Merlin didn't say a word. He stood there; lips clamped tightly shut, his hands balled into fists.

Lockhart gestured to Merlin again, as though under the impression that Merlin had missed his cue. "Come on, it's not that hard," Lockhart said laughing. "It's not like I'm asking you to break the curse!"

Merlin glared at him.

"I think Merlin needs a little encouragement," Lockhart said glancing toward the class. "How does five points, sound?"

The class fidgeted, whispers breaking out. Pansy shot Merlin a nod, as though trying to say that it was worth it. Merlin scowled at her—maybe she should get up here and do it then.

Lockhart seemed to sense his refusal, because he suddenly said, "All right, ten. Ten points if you participate, and," he said sweeping his arms, "no homework!"

At this the class broke into hoots of glee, and Merlin deflated. That wasn't even fair! He glanced at Draco, who shrugged helplessly, before turning back to Lockhart. His lip curled, and with a curt nod Lockhart clapped his hands together.

"Ten points to Slytherin!"

He waited a couple seconds for the cheers to subside, cleared his throat, and began again, "Like I said, he was having a heated argument with his daughter, made difficult by the curse addling his speech—"

Merlin gritted his teeth. "Blah. Blah. Blah," he hissed. His head had started aching again.

Lockhart flashed a huge smile. "Just like that—and so, I went up to him, and I said that I knew exactly how to cure a babbling curse. Done it before, in fact. His daughter was so pleased, she begged her father to at least let me try. After all, he couldn't speak already, so what was the harm? He still seemed a little hesitant, and he babbled something—"

Merlin made a vomiting sound. He knew he should have skipped class.

"But I knew exactly what he wanted to say," Lockhart went on. "He wanted to tell me he couldn't afford to pay me in return for curing him. But I said that the knowledge that I'd helped out a fellow human being was reward enough for me."

Lockhart paused, beaming around at them all as though expecting some sort of awed reaction to his apparent generosity. A few girls smiled weakly. Merlin wanted to really vomit all over the man's golden shoes.

"I told the villager that the only way to break the curse was for me to cast the counter-curse while he babbled—catch it in the act, as it were." Lockhart turned back to Merlin. "Now, I want you to ramble nonsensically for a minute."

"You must be joking," Merlin said, shaking his head. But Lockhart wasn't listening anymore. He had pulled out his wand, and was rolling up his sleeves.

"The babbling counter-curse is tricky to get right, and requires some complicated wand movement," he whipped his wand high over his head, a large flurry of motion that, in Merlin's opinion, looked pointlessly overdramatic. "At my signal, the villager started to ramble—"

"Not in this universe," Merlin hissed.

"—and I spun my wand," Lockhart continued as if he hadn't heard him. He made some more ridiculous twirling wand gestures.

"Right," Merlin spat, growing steadily more irritated. "Because most counter-curses want you to write your name in the wind."

Merlin thought he heard Daphne nervously whisper his name, but he no longer cared. There wasn't a counter-curse on the planet that used such stupid motions, making this entire lesson pointless.

"Merlin," Lockhart said wagging his finger, as though he were about to reprimand a dog. "I said babbling, come on—it's unintelligible, lad." If he was angry that Merlin had insulted him, he didn't show it. "Let's try again."

"Oh, I must be unintelligible if you can't understand what I'm saying," Merlin sneered. "What's the matter? Can't quell the angry ferocity of my babbling curse?"

Lockhart ignored him, turning toward the rest of the class. "And as I performed the counter-curse, his tongue loosened and he was finally able to speak coherently once again," he finished in a rush.

There was silence, then—

"What a relief," Merlin snarled.

"Merlin—" he heard Draco caution from across the room, but he couldn't stop.

He didn't want to.

"For a minute there," he continued savagely, "I thought you were actually going to teach us something."

"Merlin—"

"You know, other than how to stoke your own ego."

Lockhart had finally turned his attention back to him, eyes wide and mouth slightly ajar. Merlin was willing to bet he'd never had anyone talk to him quite like that. Lockhart didn't move for a moment, regarding Merlin with the same shock as everyone else, then he frowned.

"My dear Merlin," he said walking toward him, and gently gripping his shoulder. "If you haven't learned anything, it's because you weren't paying attention!" he said shaking his head. "But then, what else is new?" he said turning back to class and chuckling. "I think Merlin needs some extra homework, for his benefit, you see?"

"Yeah, because I care so much about homework," Merlin scoffed, rolling his eyes. "If you weren't such a clotpole—"

"Merlin!" Draco shouted, cutting him off.

Merlin turned to see that Draco had gotten to his feet. He didn't look surprised—like Lockhart— instead he seemed ready to jump forward as though he half expected Merlin to attack the so-called professor. Which, Merlin grudgingly admitted to himself, he wanted to.

"Five points from Slytherin!" Lockhart said. His voice sounded far less jovial than before. "I know," he said at the resounding groans, "I know. But there has got to be a line." He heaved a huge shrug. "And I want a foot-long essay detailing the history and effects of the babbling curse, to turn in next Monday."

The bell to signal the end of class was the sweetest sound Merlin had heard in a long time. Without a backwards glance at anyone, he strode from the room, seizing his bag from his desk on the way out. In the corridor he paused, took a ragged breath, and stalked off toward the dungeons, staring at his feet the entire way.

Merlin felt exhausted, as though he'd just run several miles and had yet to catch his breath. He knew he shouldn't have lost his temper like that—it was a miracle Lockhart hadn't given him detention. Maybe next time he'd just walk out of the classroom. Say nothing, just leave, and let Lockhart figure out what happened. Or better yet, never show up.

That sounded even better.

The door to the Potions classroom jumped open as Merlin strode toward it, and he forced himself to stop and breathe. He couldn't let Lockhart get to him. He had more control than this! Merlin shook himself, took another deep breath, and entered the classroom.

It was empty. Lucky him. Merlin threw himself into his usual seat in the middle back of the classroom, and two minutes later the rest of his classmates started filing inside.

"You all right?" Draco asked, sitting down next to him.

"Who cares?" Pansy shot angrily, from her seat one table over. "Couldn't keep your mouth shut, could you, Merlin?" she said leaning toward him.

Merlin gritted his teeth and whipped around to face her. "Easy for you to say," he sneered. "How about this? Next time you act out his bloody story."

Pansy's lip curled, but she didn't reply. With a huff, she turned around her seat and started unpacking her potions equipment.

"Frankly I'm surprised it wasn't worse," Blaise said softly. He'd taken a seat at Merlin's table as well. "You didn't notice all his paintings, did you?"

Merlin blinked. "No?" he said glancing from Blaise to Draco.

Draco grimaced. "They'd—well; they'd starting shaking by the end of class." At the look of panic on Merlin's face he added, "Lockhart didn't notice, though."

Merlin swallowed. He hadn't noticed either. Blaise was right—it could've been a lot worse. He ran his hands through his hair, muttering obscenities under his breath. Performing wandless magic in front of his classmates must've relaxed his control over it. Now, psychologically, he wasn't as worried about them seeing it—and maybe a part of him had wanted to scare Lockhart…

Get him to back off.

The door swung open again and Snape entered, ending all conversation. His eyes swept over them once, lingering on Merlin, before he turned and started writing the day's instructions on the board.

"Today," he announced, "we will be concocting a Hair-Raising Potion." He paused, and sneered, "Even though there are no Gryffindors here to show up, I fully expect your best work. I want a vial from each of you by the end of class. The instructions are on page 15 of your textbooks."

The Slytherins liked it when they had Snape to themselves. He took far more interest in their work, and although one couldn't entirely escape his criticism, he combined it with instruction. But Merlin didn't think any amount of instruction could save his potion.

He just couldn't think. Blaise and Draco had started talking about when Quidditch tryouts might take place, trying to push the Lockhart class out of mind. But Merlin's mind was still there, standing in front of everybody, getting pressured to babble like an idiot for the entertainment of an absolute prat.

"Merlin, do you know what's wrong with your potion?"

Snape had wandered over. Merlin glowered at him, before fixing his gaze on the bubbling mess of sludge in front of him.

"Can you sense failure, or something?" he asked, jerkily mixing his potion.

"Indeed, it has a rather putrid scent, like too many rat-tails in a Hair-Raising Potion," Snape replied, rolling his eyes. "You need to water it down. Add more honey water."

"Right." Merlin said without looking up. He grabbed the vial as Snape started walking away.

"You all right?" Draco asked, while Merlin emptied the bottle. "You've been very quiet."

For a second, Merlin didn't reply. He chewed his tongue for a moment, then, "How can he tell us about the babbling curse and then not even tell us the incantation for the counter-curse?" he said, now grabbing mouse bile and dumping that inside his potion too.

"Merlin—"

"No." He stared at his now smoking potion. "No—this is a disaster." And without another word, he whipped out his wand and vanished the mess.

Draco gaped at him. "Why did you do that?"

"I know a lost cause when I see one," Merlin replied, kicking back in his chair. He rubbed his eyes with his hands.

"You can't let Lockhart—"

"I know!" and Merlin slammed his hand on the table. An odd hush rippled through the classroom. "I know," he repeated, more quietly. As conversation resumed, Merlin saw Snape make a beeline for him.

"What happened to your potion?" Snape asked, peering at his empty cauldron.

Merlin shrugged. "Evaporated."

"Evaporated," Snape repeated, staring at him. "I'm afraid that's the first time I've heard of something solid evaporating."

Merlin ran his hands through his hair again. "I vanished it, okay? I didn't feel like beating a dead horse."

Snape gave him a long surveying look. "Stay after class, Merlin." And he walked away.

Merlin began shoving his things back into his bag. After a few minutes, he sighed and looked up at Draco—he'd fallen silent, along with Blaise. They didn't deserve his ire. He wasn't mad at them. Maybe Pansy—but definitely not Draco.

"Sorry," he muttered. "I just—" he made a grunt in frustration and Blaise started laughing. Merlin frowned. "What?"

"If you weren't angry," Blaise said, "I would be more concerned."

Merlin tried to smile. It came out more like a grimace. "Yeah."

"Maybe we should all boycott his class," Draco said. "It's absolutely disgusting that an idiot like that became our teacher. I could send a letter to my father—as a Hogwarts Governor he might be able to do something."

"Yeah, because it was so easy to get Quirrell removed and he only had Voldemort on the back of his head," Merlin said rolling his eyes. Everyone around him flinched.

"Merlin, I'm begging you," Blaise said. "Call him the Dark Lord. I'd even accept V."

"You should have completed your potions," came Snape's voice from the front of the classroom and they looked over at him. "Bottle it and bring the vial to my desk. After that you may leave." He met Merlin's eyes, clearly adding except Merlin.

"See you guys later then," Merlin said. "Maybe I'll convince Snape to slip a failed Hair-Raising Potion into Lockhart's evening pumpkin juice."

Draco laughed. "I'd pay handsomely to see that man's hair stand on end for once." He smiled, though his eyes were still crinkled in worry. "You sure you're okay?"

Merlin shrugged. "Yeah."

"Right. See you later," and he followed Blaise to drop off his potion.

Within five minutes, the classroom emptied and Merlin trudged up to Snape's desk. For a few moments, the professor didn't speak. He had his grade book open and was taking each vial in turn, opening them, taking a sniff, before recapping them and recording the grade. Merlin shifted from foot to foot.

"Well," Snape finally said.

"Well, what?"

Snape put down his quill and looked up. "You want to explain to me why you failed to create a simple Hair-Raising Potion? Even Crabbe managed to turn something in."

Merlin frowned. "I was a bit preoccupied," he said, folding his arms.

"I noticed. Care to explain why I now have to fail you for the day?" Snape leaned back in his chair, bringing his hands together as though he didn't think there was any excuse for Merlin's preoccupation.

Merlin gritted his teeth, dropped his bag unceremoniously to the floor, and turned around for a moment. Anger had flared up at his words—though not at him. He took a deep breath and turned back to Snape.

"Lockhart," he hissed, "is an utter prat unfit to train a dog, let alone teach a classroom of children." It was like the floodgates had been opened. Now that he'd started, he had to get it all out before it suffocated him. He started pacing back and forth in front of Snape's desk, his voice growing louder and more scathing as he continued.

"I don't even know what Dumbledore was thinking—hiring that. From the way that man teaches a class we'd be better off taking the year off. Hell, reading a single book in the library on counter-curses would probably give us a better education than Lockhart could in seven years!"

"Ah. I take it you just had Defense Against the Dark Arts."

"Not by regular academic standards," Merlin countered. "I don't even care anymore, bring back Quirrell. At least he was marginally competent. Enough for Voldemort to want to possess him anyway, which is more than what I can say for Lockhart."

Snape flinched. "Don't say the name!" he snapped. He heaved a sigh and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Might I ask what Lockhart has done to deserve such remarks?"

"He decided to read us a passage from his books."

Snape raised his eyebrow. "Yes, I always mess up simple potions after I read a terrible book."

Merlin gave a derisive laugh. "Clearly you've never been to one of his book readings." He gave his bag a kick as he passed by it. "He likes to act it out. But of course he couldn't do that alone—he wouldn't miss an opportunity to share the spotlight with a budding celebrity. Just in case he can humiliate them a bit." He kicked his bag again.

"Merlin," Snape said dropping his hands and leaning forward. "Would you stop pacing and explain what happened? I don't have time for passive aggressive musings."

Merlin stopped, and looked at him. "He forced me to play a Transylvanian villager he cured of a babbling curse," he said. "And he used the promise of house points and homework in order to blackmail me into agreement."

Snape's lip curled. "I see."

Merlin glanced at the bottles of Hair-Raising Potion on his desk. "Any chance you could slip one of those into his evening pumpkin juice? Doesn't matter which one. Either his hair will stand on end or he'll die, though my fingers are crossed for the latter."

Snape stared at him for a second, and then he laughed, a dark chuckle that sounded rusted from lack of use. It knocked Merlin right out of his spell of fury—he didn't think he'd ever heard the potions master laugh.

"You're laughing," he said, staring at Snape. Then he frowned. "Why?"

Snape didn't respond immediately. His chuckle tapered off quickly, though he still looked amused. "I imagined Lockhart experiencing the effects of a poorly executed Hair-Raising Potion," he said. "I do believe you vanished your concoction prematurely."

"Damn," Merlin said, snapping his fingers. "I'll remember that next time."

"Unfortunately, he is your professor regardless of his qualifications, and you will need to tolerate his—" Snape seemed to have trouble searching for an adequate word for a moment, "his idiocies."

For the first time that day, Merlin smiled. "You know he's a phony, don't you." It wasn't a question.

"Innocent until proven guilty." Although Snape didn't seem to believe a word of what he'd just said.

"Yeah, well. That shouldn't be too hard."

Snape shook his head. "No—you focus on your schoolwork. I do believe Lockhart is fully capable of landing himself in trouble."

Merlin paused, surveying Snape. "You made a bet with McGonagall, didn't you!" His eyes widened, "and you didn't bet on me?" He did his best to look offended.

"She beat me to it." He sounded frustrated.

"For shame!" Merlin bent down and picked up his schoolbag. "For shame, Snape."

"Where do you think you're going?" Snape asked, watching him. "I have not dismissed you. There's still the issue of your pathetic potion's grade."

Merlin heaved a sigh. "Can't you just let it slide?"

"No. What's your next class?"

"History of Magic."

"I'll inform Professor Binns you won't make it. Set up your cauldron, and this time don't vanish it."

 

 

Chapter Text

He could hear his heartbeat reverberate against the stone walls of the corridor—or was it against the bones of his chest? His eyes traced up and down the hall, but fell only on flickering candlelight and shadowed darkness.

The familiar third-floor corridor now felt foreign, and dangerous—as if he had taken a turn into some back alley where death had long ago permeated the ground. He itched to run, to run and never stop. His ragged breathing swallowed the silence; his shoes scuffing the stone as he turned were thunderclaps.

His eyes locked on Draco, who had come to an abrupt halt in the corridor, some twenty feet in front of him. Draco took slow soundless breaths, watching as he searched the space for something unseen and unheard. Then, Draco cleared his throat and spoke in a low, halting voice that gave weight to air.

"You're a Parselmouth."

And Merlin knew from the quiet horror encompassing his bloodless face, that fact alone scared Draco more than anything else Merlin had ever done.

One Day Earlier…

"Well, you made it," Draco said, slapping Merlin on the back.

He glared in reply. He was still disappointed that Snape hadn't slipped Gilderoy Lockhart some Hair Raising Potion during dinner after their first—well, he refused to even call it a class. He had fully intended to skip all future classes with the imbecile, but his fellow Slytherins had assured him they wouldn't allow a repeat performance to occur. They needn't have bothered, for though Lockhart continued to read from his books, he didn't ask Merlin to act it out—much to everyone's relief.

But even without Lockhart, the demand for homework had started and Merlin just didn't know what to do with it. Sure, he and Flitwick had managed to come to an arrangement but the other professors weren't nearly as accommodating. Professor McGonagall made no such allowances and even Snape seemed to think that writing essays would be good for his character. And by Friday, the mountain of homework that he had to complete by Monday was staggering, as was his total disinterest in doing it.

"I don't know how I'm ever going to get all of this done," he grumbled. "McGonagall and Binns want essays, and Snape has that potion ingredient write-up."

"Don't forget Lockhart." At the look on Merlin's face, Draco had to smother a snort of laughter. "Right, well, I think Hermione has a plan," he said as they walked through the entrance hall, back towards the dungeons.

"When did you two talk?" Merlin asked, surprised.

"Oh, just in passing," Draco said with a shrug, "But anyway, I told her that you were already having homework problems."

"Bet she expected that. Well?"

"Well," came Hermione's voice from behind them, "I said we should do a study group, didn't I?"

They turned around, and Merlin groaned. He remembered their study groups from the end of last year. "Already?" he said looking from one to the other.

"Not like that—more like communal homework sessions," Hermione clarified, correctly reading the look on his face. "That way you have someone to ask questions and we can make sure you stay focused."

"And she's got the best notes," Draco said with a shrug.

Merlin had to admit, doing his homework with the two of them sounded better. He still resented the idea but he couldn't just give up without trying. With a resigned sigh, he nodded and said, "All right. When should we meet?"

"How about tonight after dinner? Usual place in the library?"

"Wait," Draco said, holding up his hand. "Not tonight."

"Why not?" Hermione asked, frowning. "Might as well get it out of the way."

"Well," Draco said sneering, "other than wanting a break from a week of education, I've got Quidditch tryouts."

"So? Why not after the tryouts?"

"So," Draco continued, "tonight there'll be a party to honour the new team." He raised his eyebrow, "Of which I fully intend to be a part of."

Merlin smiled and raised his hand, "And I second that whole, 'need a break from education' thing."

Hermione groaned. "Fine, have it your way. Saturday," she said eyeing them both. "And you better come. I know Draco doesn't need it. But if you," she said nodding toward Merlin, "neglect your homework, just know that you'll probably end up doing it in detention anyway."

Merlin grimaced. "Right. I'll be there, promise."

Hermione held his gaze for a moment, as though making sure he meant it, and nodded. She turned to Draco, raising her eyebrow, "You're trying out for the Quidditch Team?"

He smirked. "Of course," he said, and he lifted his head. "We're actually headed back to our dormitory so I can grab my broomstick. Merlin is going to help me practice a bit before the tryouts."

"I'm going to throw some apples at him," Merlin said with a grin, and he showed Hermione the few he'd snagged from lunch. "Want to watch?"

She hesitated. "I've got to drop off a few books first," she said nodding toward her bulging bag, slung over her shoulder. "When are tryouts?"

"The Slytherin tryouts," Draco said, looking at her oddly, "Are just after dinner."

"Right." She deliberated for a moment before shaking her head, "Maybe I'll see you later." She smiled and headed for the staircase, leaving Merlin and Draco to stare after her.

"You don't think she intends to come to tryouts, do you?" Draco asked, frowning.

"No idea," Merlin said. "She might, if she ever manages to pull herself away from the library."

Draco looked doubtful. "Well, that'd be the day," he drawled. "Come on."

Ten minutes later saw Draco zooming around the Quidditch Pitch on his brand new racing broom. He had hoped to purchase new brooms for the entirety of the Slytherin Team, but he and his father were still on shaky ground. He'd told Merlin that his father had given him a new broom as a sort of apology—an attempt to buy his son back. Maybe when Lucius finally placed his bets on Merlin instead of the Dark Lord, he'd buy brooms for the rest of the team.

Merlin enchanted the apples to zoom around the field, subtly controlling their movements with his fingers. After a while, during which Draco sped after the impossible-to-catch-apples, he seemed to realize what Merlin was doing and dive-bombed him.

"You're supposed to be helping me!" he shouted, as he sped back up in the air, frowning as Merlin laughed.

"I am!" Merlin called back and one of the apples shot directly at Draco, forcing him to serve wildly in order to avoid collision.

"The hell? Snitch, Merlin! Not Bludger!"

Merlin laughed again. "C'mon, after training like this, Quidditch will be a piece of cake!"

Draco grumbled something Merlin didn't hear and shot off after one of the apples hovering by the goal posts.

They went at it for the rest of the afternoon, and when they finally trudged back up to the castle for dinner, Draco had managed to catch all of the apples.

"We should've been doing that all week," Draco said with a sigh. He dished out some mashed potatoes onto his plate. "I didn't realize how out of practice I was."

Merlin drenched his plate in salad dressing, amused by the disgusted look on Pansy's face from across the table. "You did great," he said. "And you got them in the end. The snitch is going to be way easier to catch."

"But harder to see," Draco countered.

"Just stay focused. Block out everybody else and don't taunt the other seeker because then you're not paying attention."

"You know, for not even knowing what Quidditch is, you are quite a good trainer," Draco said, with only the barest hint of sarcasm.

Merlin shrugged and took an enormous bite of cottage pie. "I'm full of surprises," he said with his mouth full, and Draco rolled his eyes.

After dinner, they headed back onto the pitch. Merlin glanced sideways at Draco. The blond looked paler than usual, and there was an unfamiliar tension along his jaw as though he were biting his cheek. Merlin clapped him on the back.

"You'll do fine," he promised. "I'm going up to the stands to watch, okay?"

Draco nodded stiffly, and Merlin ran to the Slytherin section. Already there was Pansy, Daphne, and Theodore, and they waved when they saw him coming. A little further down the row sat Crabbe, Goyle, and two girls Merlin barely ever saw: Tracy Davis and Millicent Bulstrode.

They glanced curiously in his direction before returning their attention to the pitch.

"Blaise is trying out too," Theo told Merlin when he'd sat down next to him. He pointed onto the pitch and sure enough, there was Blaise standing next to Draco, a fifth-year girl he didn't know, and a couple fourth-year boys. Also trying out was the old Slytherin team, though he only knew the old seeker, Terence, by name.

"Blaise told me earlier that every position is up for grabs," Pansy said with a smug grin. "Draco is sure to make seeker."

Merlin wanted to agree, but seeing Terence—who was a seventh year, and looking downright furious with Flint—he was a little less sure.

"Am I late?"

Merlin turned to see Hermione rushing up the steps of the stands. Merlin gaped at her, before glancing toward the rest of his classmates. He didn't think they'd ever really interacted with Hermione outside of shared classes. He turned back to her and smiled, making room for her on the bench.

"Nope, just in time."

The others were all looking at her now. Pansy sniffed loudly, raising her eyebrow as Hermione took the seat on Merlin's other side. "You know," she drawled, "the Gryffindor stands are on that side of the pitch."

Hermione ignored her, and Pansy frowned. She opened her mouth, closed it, blinked, and then continued, "In fact, why are you even here at all?"

Merlin turned to her, "Because I invited her," he said shortly. "Everyone, this is Hermione Granger. My friend," he said hoping a formal introduction might smooth things over.

"Hermione, this is Theodore Nott," he said, indicating the boy next to him. Theo smiled nervously, but didn't speak. "Daphne Greengrass," he went on, "and Pansy Parkinson."

Hermione smiled back at them, though it faded quickly at the sneer on Pansy's face.

"You came just because Merlin asked you to?" Daphne asked after a moment's pause. She had cocked her head to the side, staring at Hermione with a mixture of surprise and awe.

Hermione blinked. "Yeah. He's supporting his friend," and she nodded toward Draco on the pitch, "and I'm supporting mine."

"Yeah?" Pansy said, shooting a glare at Daphne, "and what about when we kick your ass in the match? Will you still support him?"

Hermione folded her arms. "If you win," she said testily, "you'll have my congratulations. Though when we win, I doubt I can expect the same level of sportsmanship from you."

Merlin thought Pansy looked ready to pull out her wand and hex Hermione on the spot, so he interrupted, "Stop it, they're about to start."

Which was also true. Marcus Flint had started talking to the assembled players. From what Merlin gathered, he was asking what positions people were trying out for. He did seem keenly interested in Malfoy's Nimbus 2001, and even took it in his hands to examine. After that he started splitting people into different groups.

"Can you hear him?" Hermione asked Merlin, softly. Pansy heard her.

"Well, some positions don't have anyone trying out for them," she said, and she laughed as though everyone should have known this. "See? He decided to keep Miles Betchley as keeper."

Miles was tall, lanky, and had very closely cropped light brown hair. But as far as Merlin could tell, he seemed to be the only player Marcus had decided on. They were organized by the position they wanted, and there were several extra in every group.

Then, they all kicked into the air and the tryout began.

It took a moment for Merlin to realize that Marcus must have organized them into two teams. And with all the balls released, it turned into a mock-game of Quidditch. The only difference was that Marcus occasionally intervened and switched up the team of Chasers and Beaters. As only Draco and Terence were going for the seeker positions, Merlin assumed that whoever caught the snitch first got the position.

But of course, that wasn't that easy. The first game Terence caught the snitch—but the second one, Draco beat him to it. And he did again the time after that. After about an hour, Marcus switched it up, and had everyone fly to the ground except the chasers. And of course, the entire time Pansy kept up a steady commentary with the occasional insult thrown in Hermione's direction.

Merlin was impressed by how Hermione handled it all. He suspected she had expected this sort of treatment and had prepared accordingly, but he still wished Pansy would drop it. Finally, after a jab at Hermione's Quidditch knowledge dragged her parents into the mix, he put his foot down.

"Parkinson!" he snapped, turning toward her. He didn't say anything else. He didn't need to. The long glare he shot at the girl was enough of a message, and she swallowed visibly.

"My apologies," she threw at Hermione, before jerkily turning away from them.

Hermione gave Merlin a look.

"What?" he muttered in an undertone, so that the others wouldn't hear.

"Oh, I just didn't know."

"Know what?"

She blinked. "How much they respected you."

Merlin stared at her. He'd never thought of the Slytherin's respecting him. It'd always been more of a tacit understanding between them, but then things had changed after the incident with Quirrell.

He glanced at Pansy and then added, with a laugh, "Not enough to respect my friends, it seems."

Hermione smiled too, and the rest of the tryout session passed with less conflict. By the end—by which time Merlin felt cold and sore from sitting on the hard wooden bench—it'd gotten very dark and they could hardly see the players on the field at all.

"Right, back to the common room?" Pansy said getting to her feet and stretching.

"But, the team?" Merlin said, getting up too.

"Oh, Marcus will probably announce it in the locker-room anyway. They'll tell everyone back in the common room."

"Ah, okay," Merlin glanced at Hermione, hesitating.

She stood up. "Well, you can tell me at our study group tomorrow," she said with a smile. "So you have to show up!"

"I know! I already promised," Merlin said, shaking his head. She gave him another long look, nodded and then glanced around at the other Slytherins.

"It's been lovely meeting you all," she said, with a rather cold glance at Pansy, and left ahead of them.

Merlin watched her go, before turning on Pansy. "Are you incapable of being polite?" he snapped.

Pansy folded her arms. "No. I just don't like her. Oh stop it," she added when she saw Merlin open his mouth to speak, "yeah, that whole muggle-loving thing suits you well but I'm not convinced."

"You were pretty convinced when Draco said it," Merlin said, coolly.

Pansy flushed and dragged Daphne up to her feet. "We're heading off," she said, and they headed after Hermione into the darkness.

"I don't mind her," Theodore said after a moment and Merlin laughed.

"Thanks, Theo. Well, we might as well go after them."

"I can't believe you actually came to tryouts."

It was Saturday night, and the three of them were situated in their usual spot at the back of the library. Draco was gazing at Hermione, surprised and confused. He shook his head and glanced at Merlin, before turning his attention back to her.

"Pansy couldn't stop talking about it."

Hermione hummed but didn't reply. She was reading one of Lockhart's books again, having already finished her essays.

Draco had made the team, though narrowly. What with it being Terence's last year, the confrontation between the old seeker and captain had turned rather ugly in the locker-room. Marcus had ended up giving Terence a position as chaser, and reserve seeker, though neither was quite happy about it. Every other old team member had been reinstated.

Merlin suspected that Draco's new broom had been the tipping point for Marcus in deciding.

"I said I would come," Hermione said without looking up from her book. "Why is that so hard for everyone to understand?"

"Probably because of the rivalry," Merlin grumbled, rubbing his eyes. They'd been there already for several hours, and he felt no nearer to completing his work.

At last, Hermione looked up. She narrowed her eyes. "Why aren't you writing?" she asked Merlin, indicating the sheet of parchment in front of him, which only had a couple sentences on it.

Merlin groaned. "Because," he said, pushing his parchment away from him. "I don't get it."

"Well, the act of transforming the beetles—"

"—is unlike killing them because they can be returned to their living state," Merlin finished, shaking his head.

"Then what's the problem?" Hermione asked, frowning.

Merlin looked from her to Draco. "I don't get the point of that," he said. "So turning beetles into buttons doesn't kill them, big deal! I don't care about a couple beetles."

"Well," Draco said slowly, "would you care if it was a dog?"

Merlin blinked.

Draco shrugged, "I mean, you'd want to know if transforming your dog into something might kill him."

Merlin paused. He hadn't thought of that.

"Exactly," Hermione said, nodding. "It's important to know that transforming living things into inanimate objects doesn't actually change them permanently, and vice versa. The transfigured object can be returned to its original state."

"But," Merlin said, shaking his head, "I mean, why would it kill him in the first place? It's magic."

"That's true, but magic uses the energy of an object during the transformation," Hermione said. "Haven't you noticed that we always transfigure things of similar size? Matches into needles, beetles into buttons—you can't just turn a pebble into a bed. The pebble doesn't have enough energy. But that also means it's easier to turn a living creature into an inanimate object than the other way around, because animals have more energy."

Merlin stared at her. "Are you telling me magic has laws?" It was hard to imagine applying any sort of logic to magic.

Hermione grimaced, "In a very loose sense, because after enough practice and education, wizards can stretch that law by using the energy around them during the incantation as well. And you could just materialize the bed with a conjuration spell but it won't last forever." She took a breath. "But, back to the dog—since we're using the dog's energy to turn it into a chair or something, if we were to damage that then transfigured chair, it'll have less energy when we turn it back into a dog."

"I don't think I understand."

Hermione hesitated and then dug in her pocket to retrieve the coat buttons she'd made in class. "See these?" she said, placing them carefully on the desk. "If I were to slam my book on them—I'm not going to do it," she added when Draco eyed the transfiguration textbook at the top of the pile of books next to her. "But if I did, I'd damage them right? Well, if I transfigured them back into the beetles they used to be, they'll also be injured or even dead. I mean, why do wizards bother creating anything when they could just transfigure it?"

"Because," Draco answered with a sneer, "no one wants dead beetles for buttons."

Merlin laughed, and Hermione smiled.

"That," she said, "but also because anything a wizard transfigured can be returned to its original state via untransfiguration. They recognize that it takes more skill to craft something. Not to mention that anything transfigured can't last forever. It expires, kind of like enchantments do after a period of time."

"Right, Hermione," Merlin said with a laugh, "At this rate, I think you could just teach transfiguration yourself."

She huffed and folded her arms. "I know when I'm being made fun of," she said frowning. "There's nothing wrong with liking to read! And I think my marks speak for themselves."

"Yeah, I think we know that by now," Draco drawled with a sneer.

Hermione glared at Draco, before grabbing Merlin's essay and tossing it back at him. "There," she said. "Now you get it, so finish the essay. I would like to get back to my common room before curfew."

Merlin sighed, but took the essay and began writing again.

Transfiguration was a topic he hadn't expected to be as complicated as it was. He'd had difficulty with it before—in Camelot. Turning a statue of a dog into an actual dog had taken him all day and night. It might have been easier had he known about the molecular composition and energy requirements. He had so much raw magic that transforming things was easy, but at the same time he had to admit that—as Hermione had said—an understanding of the composition or biology of the thing to be transfigured and what into, required less effort on the part of the wizard. In Camelot, most people had been less concerned with the why and the how, and more about whether or not one could. He had never stopped to wonder how a statue turned into a dog—just if he could make it happen.

He finished his essay with a flourish and leaned back in his chair, stretching. "Done," he said, yawning.

Hermione took the essay and began reading. He saw her shrug. "There are a few places were you could have gone more in-depth but I don't think Professor McGonagall will mind." She handed it back to him.

"I think she'll just be impressed by the fact you did it," Draco said.

"Yeah, well. Having low standards will be in my favour then." Merlin rolled up his essay and started packing his things. "I'm done for the night."

Hermione sighed. "Fine, but you still need to do Professor Lockhart's write-up sometime."

Merlin stared at her, incredulous. Next to him, Draco snorted into laughter.

"Now, that's a good one," he said shaking his head. "Merlin doing homework for Lockhart—I didn't know you could make a joke, Hermione."

She folded her arms, a twitch in her jaw. "I'm not joking."

"Pity. That would've been a good one." Draco sighed. "Now, we're going back to our common room to enjoy what's left of our Saturday night."

Hermione rolled her eyes, and got stiffly to her feet. "Fine." She glanced at Merlin. "See you tomorrow," and she stalked out of the library.

After she'd left, Draco hissed loudly in frustration, "How can she not see what an idiot Lockhart is? The guy actually set loose pixies in her class."

"Blinded by the smile." Merlin sighed, and began packing his things. "Anyway, I refuse to complete a single assignment for that man. I don't care what you guys say."

"You've got no argument from me," Draco said, yawning and getting to his feet. "I've already complained to my father about his incompetence. You know, in case the Board of Directors could do something about it."

"Well?"

"He told me it should be easy for me to pass his class then," Draco groaned. "So, I'd join you in protesting his homework but…" he trailed off, hesitating.

"Yeah," Merlin said, slinging his back over his shoulder. "I don't need to give your father another reason to hate me."

They headed out of the library and into the deserted corridor.

"He doesn't hate you," Draco said, but he looked uncertain. "More like what you stand for."

"Great."

"Or rather, what he thinks you stand for."

"Thank you for the clarification," he said sarcastically.

They turned the corner and descended the stone staircase. They stepped onto the third floor landing, and Merlin was just about to ask what exactly Lucius thought he stood for, when he heard it.

"Come, come to me."

Merlin stopped dead. He couldn't hear what Draco asked him—his mind had violently shifted languages and English sounded strange and foreign. All he could hear was the voice—rasp and soft, a whisper poisoned by harsh chilling violence.

"Let me rip you, let me tear you, let me kill you."

It was moving. He could hear the voice traveling further down the corridor, and without a second thought, he ran after it. Merlin thought he heard Draco shout his name, but the numbing panic soaking his brain wouldn't let him reply.

It was going to kill someone.

He skidded to a halt at the end of the corridor, straining to catch the voice again. Merlin looked around, as though he might find the speaker hiding in a dark corner.

On an impulse he shouted, "Where are you?" into the hall, turning on his heel.

He could hear his heartbeat reverberate against the stone walls of the corridor—or was it against the bones of his chest? His eyes traced up and down the hall, falling only on flickering candlelight and shadowed darkness.

The familiar third-floor corridor now felt foreign, and dangerous—as if he had taken a turn into some back alley were death had long ago permeated the ground. He itched to run, to run and never stop. His ragged breathing swallowed the silence; his shoes scuffing the stone as he turned were thunderclaps.

His eyes locked on Draco, who had come to an abrupt halt in the corridor, some twenty feet in front of him. Draco took slow soundless breaths, watching as he searched the space for something unseen and unheard. Then, Draco cleared his throat and spoke in a low, halting voice that gave weight to air.

"You're a Parselmouth."

And Merlin knew from the quiet horror encompassing his bloodless face, that fact alone scared Draco more than anything else Merlin had ever done.

"I—" Merlin swallowed. He wanted to say, I can explain but the words died in his throat.

The silence that followed deafened him. He wanted Draco to say something, anything.

"I should have told you—" Merlin started at last, but Draco held up his hand. He had stopped staring, and instead dropped his gaze to the floor as he collected his thoughts.

"No." Finally, Draco looked back up, still ashen faced but resolve hardening in his grey eyes. "No, I understand."

Merlin took a tentative step toward him. "What do you understand?" he asked, slowly.

"We shouldn't talk here," Draco said, looking around himself now. And before Merlin had a moment to process it, he'd rushed forward, grabbed his sleeve, and begun leading him toward the forbidden corridor.

Not that it was forbidden any longer. Unused, dust filled Merlin's nostrils and he smothered a building sneeze as Draco pushed him into the room, and closed the door behind them. He took a deep breath.

"It all makes sense," he said. His voice was soft but in the still air it echoed, striking and final. "That's why you play everything so close to the vest."

"What do you mean?" Merlin asked. He could feel his heart jumping in his throat. It made it difficult to breathe.

"Well," and Draco put his hands in his pockets. "If I spoke the same language as the Dark Lord himself, I wouldn't want anyone to know about it. Especially being in Slytherin myself. It would make everyone think that I would lead the next reign of terror."

"So you—you don't think that I'm—" he couldn't finish, but Draco knew what he was going to ask.

"A Dark Lord?" He raised his eyebrow. "No. Though if you became one, I'm not sure that'd be such a tragedy. Unless you're going to tell me all that about muggleborns and fighting for the light was a lie?"

"No."

"Well then." Draco took another deep breath. "We need to keep this quiet. Hermione and I know you, but if anyone else found out—" that look had returned to his face, the fearful panic, and he shuddered.

Merlin stared at him. Draco hadn't been scared of him? "You're okay with this?"

He didn't respond immediately, instead surveying Merlin with a long calculating look. "My father is a Death Eater," he said. He grimaced, and dropped his gaze from Merlin's. "I was all ready to join the Dark Lord whenever he returned to power before you showed up. I would have hexed you back into the stone age before willingly hanging out with a muggleborn, let alone call one my friend."

He looked back at Merlin. "So, become a Dark Lord, or don't. I don't care. You have my loyalty, Merlin—no matter what you end up doing. It doesn't mean that I'm not scared out of my wits—I am. I mean," and he gave a derisive laugh, "You won't tell me anything, you wander the school and the forbidden forest at night, you—a first year, mind—killed a mountain troll, not to mention dueled his Defense Against the Dark Arts professor and won, and you don't even use a proper wand!"

He laughed again, and ran his hands through his hair. "But here I am, thinking about what happens if someone who doesn't know you finds out all these things, and all I can think is that either the wizarding world or some devout followers of the Dark Lord will try to eliminate you before you become more of a threat. And maybe that's irrational—maybe I am a little scared of you too, like the way you fear a dormant volcano or anything with more power than yourself. Because you are powerful, scary powerful, and I don't think I really understood that until now."

Draco paused a moment, his expression sobering. "Just," and he hesitated, "Just tell me the truth, for once," and at that moment, Merlin promised to tell him anything he asked, identity and all. "Why were you speaking Parseltongue in the middle of the corridor, in the first place?"

The question brought back the memory of the voice like a douse of ice water. Draco must have noticed because he stiffened, and asked, "Merlin, what's going on?"

Merlin cleared his throat, "First, thanks. Second, we have a major problem, and it involves a snake."

 

 

Chapter Text

Something had happened.

Hermione glanced at the Slytherin table again, chewing her tongue, fork suspended above her untouched kippers. Normally, Merlin and Draco slept in on Sunday, meeting up with her later in the library. And yet, there they were, seated apart from the rest of their early rising classmates.

Merlin hadn’t touched his breakfast either. He was deep in conversation with Draco, his eyes flickering towards their classmates and then up to the high table where Professor Snape was drinking pumpkin juice. As she watched them, Draco looked up and met her eyes. He said something to Merlin, and his blue gaze snapped to her as well.

Slowly, Merlin shifted his gaze toward the main entry hall before returning to her. Hermione stared at him, and after a second he repeated the moment, his head bending slightly toward the large doors. Figuring that meant he wanted a word, she nodded. An as one they got to their feet.

She raised her eyebrow as they neared, though Draco shook his head with a meaningful look at Merlin and led the way out towards the grounds.

What was going on?

Thick dark grey clouds churned in the sky above, heavy with the promise of rain. Hermione shivered in the cool autumn breeze. If they were planning to take a stroll around the lake, she’d need to run back for her cloak at this rate. The pair of them stopped at the bottom of the stairs and turned around to face her.

The silence dragged.

“Well?” she demanded finally, rubbing her arms for warmth. “What’s going on? Why couldn’t we have talked inside?”

“Didn’t want to risk being overheard,” Draco said, and he looked around them.

Hermione felt a touch of impatience. “By all means, take your time,” she said narrowing her eyes. “I’m not freezing or anything.”

“Draco’s just being overly cautious,” Merlin said shaking his head. “Last night, as we were leaving the library I heard something. A voice—it said it was going to kill someone.”

Hermione stared at him. “What?” she breathed, “Did you see who it was?”

“More like, what.”

“What do you mean?” she asked, frowning now.

Merlin sighed. “I’m a Parselmouth,” he said simply.

It took a moment for that to sink in. Her mind drew up a hundred different references to the language she’d gleaned from her readings, boiling it all down to a concise definition: The rare ability to understand and speak the language of snakes, commonly associated with dark magic due to the fact that most Parselmouths could track their lineage back to the most famous speaker, Salazar Slytherin himself.

Hermione looked from Draco to Merlin, and suddenly she understood why they’d dragged her out into the cold. But one thing at a time. She swallowed. “So,” she said slowly, “You’re telling me you think that there’s a snake in the castle that’s going to kill someone?”

Merlin nodded and Hermione felt her stomach clenched painfully. She glanced at Draco who was surveying her with a guarded expression, his grey eyes narrowed.

“What?” she asked, shortly.

“You know how important this is, don’t you?” Draco said, folding his arms. “Don’t go telling any of your Gryffindor friends that Merlin can speak Parseltongue.”

“I know that!” Hermione snapped huffily. Hadn’t she kept every other secret? “If anything,” she added, “I’m worried you’ll run off to tell your father!”

Draco’s lip curled, but Merlin cleared his throat loudly before he could speak.

“Come on, you two,” he said shaking his head. “Hermione’s not going to tell anyone,” and he smiled at her, “and neither are you,” he added, nodding to Draco.

Hermione heard Draco grumble something that sounded distinctly like, “I sure hope not,” and rolled her eyes. She resolved to find at least one historical example of a Parselmouth who hadn’t turned into a Dark Lord and shove it in Draco’s snobbish—

“More to the point,” Merlin said, pinching the bridge of his nose. “There’s a homicidal snake in the school.”

“And you don’t want to tell the professors because of the Parseltongue, right.” Hermione frowned, wracking her brain. “Could you use your ability to sense animal magic?” she asked, thinking of the incident with the troll.

Merlin stared blankly at her for a second. “I don’t know,” he said sounding surprised. “I didn’t notice it last night.”

Hermione hummed, and she shivered when another gust of wind brushed through her hair. “Right, well either way we’re going to have to go into the castle to search for this snake, and I’m freezing.”

“Go look for it?” Draco repeated. “Did you miss the part about it wanting to kill someone?”

Hermione waved her hand and started leading the way back up to the castle. After a moment, Merlin and Draco followed her. “It’s probably just a Boomslang that escaped from Care of Magical Creatures. You said it yourself, you didn’t notice a potent magical aura, so it couldn’t have been that big.”

She could tell that Merlin didn’t entirely agree with her. He’d started chewing his tongue, and he glanced at Draco.

“She has a point.”

Merlin still didn’t look convinced. One of his hands rose to his temple and he rubbed small circles, massaging the point. Hermione wanted to ask what he thought it might be, before deciding against it. She was confident it was nothing. No doubt he’d let his imagination run away with him since last night, helped along by Draco scaring him no doubt with Parseltongue’s sinister reputation.

The warmth of the entrance hall burned her fingers and ears. Hermione rubbed her hands together. “Even if it is something else,” she said, “we still have to find it, don’t we?”

Merlin sighed. “Yeah,” and he scratched the back of his neck. “Okay, let’s find this thing.”

He led the way to the third floor corridor, where he’d heard it the first time. Hermione watched as Merlin cocked his head slightly to the right, trying to hear something other than their footsteps and the cheerful conversation of students enjoying their Sunday. After a few moments however, he frowned, shook his head and they moved on to the next corridor.

Hermione had never explored the castle like this before. It was even fun—if you forgot the part about the homicidal snake. At one point, Merlin seemed to hear something and rushed forward, only to stop when they came to a painting with two sapphire blue snakes eyeing a yellow canary in the branches of a Mulungu tree.

“Could you understand them?” Hermione asked as they left the portrait behind them.

“Not here!” Draco hissed through his teeth, looking almost paranoid as he craned his neck to look around but the corridor was deserted.

Merlin sighed. “Yes,” he answered. At the look on Draco’s face he added, “Oh stop it, there’s no one around.”

Draco shook his head and stormed ahead, as though deciding he needed to keep lookout.

“They were discussing how best to catch the canary,” Merlin continued. “It sounded like they’ve been at it a while.”

Hermione giggled. “That’s amazing! So, if I put a common garden snake in front of you—”

“I could talk to it, yeah.”

“How long have you known?” she asked as they turned a corner and started ascending another staircase.

Merlin paused. “A long time,” he said, though he refused to elaborate more much to Hermione’s disappointment.

When they’d reached the top of the staircase, Hermione recognized the corridor. “We’re right by the Astronomy tower,” she said.

Draco groaned. “Brilliant, and here I thought my legs were burning.” He shook his head, “Anything, Merlin?”

“Not yet.” Merlin frowned, rubbing his temple.

“Are you all right?” Hermione asked, curious. He’d been doing that on and off since they’d started looking.

Merlin offered a weak smile. “Yeah, just a headache.”

“Well, lets hurry up and hit the astronomy tower,” Draco drawled. “Lunch should be soon, and I’ve had enough exercise for one day.”

Merlin snorted with laughter. “You’d be terrible on a quest,” he said and Draco shot him an offended look.

“I’d be brilliant,” he retorted as they started walking down the hallway.

“If it only lasted a few hours long,” Merlin countered and Hermione giggled. She couldn’t help but repeat the word in her mind—quest, what an archaic idea.

Draco glowered at the pair of them but didn’t have time to respond because he was pelted suddenly with chalk.

“Ouch! What the—”

There was a cackle of malicious laughter above them, and as one they looked up to see Peeves The Poltergeist floating on his stomach. His vivid orange eyes were gleeful, and he took a moment to straighten his orange bow tie and large hat adorned with bells before straightening up.

“Ooh, snakes and lions play together now, do they?” he chortled, flipping onto his back and circling around them.

“Leave us alone Peeves,” Draco shot, lifting his head. “I’ll tell the Bloody Baron.”

This made Peeves cackle harder. He doubled over, clutching his belly. “Whatever will I do?” he said when he’d finished, flashing a wide toothy smile.

Draco swallowed, and Hermione caught Merlin’s eye. They were in for it now. In a last ditch effort it seemed, Merlin cleared his throat and Peeves snapped towards him.

“Oh great and powerful Merlin,” Peeves said, adopting oily tone thick with sarcasm. “What an honor. Is it your turn to make a pitiful little threat, hm?”

Merlin looked somewhat taken aback by this. Hermione watched as he paused, his fingers considering a fist at his side before relaxing.

“Oh no,” he said, holding up his hands. “I was just curious—you haven’t seen a Boomslang roaming the halls, have you? It looks like one escaped Care of Magical Creatures. You know how poisonous they are, and we were sent to look for it before it fell into the wrong hands.”

Peeves looked positively thrilled at the idea of a poisonous snake roaming the castle. He straightened up, bellowed, “Not if I find it first!” and he threw a whole handful of chalk into the air above their heads before zooming down the corridor. They could hear, “Oh snaky, oh snaky, where are you? In Filtch’s mop bucket you belong,” echoing behind him.

“Nice one,” Draco said, inclining his head to Merlin.

“No it’s not!” Hermione said, looking scandalized. “What if he actually finds it? Someone could get hurt!”

“Hermione, we’ve just searched the entire castle. It’s not here,” Merlin said shaking his head. “They must’ve already found it,” he added in a much quieter tone that made Hermione think he was really talking to himself.

“Well,” Draco said and he sneered, “Filtch won’t die anyway. That stupid cat of his would probably eat the snake first. Anyway, let’s go to lunch.”

Merlin disappeared into the undergrowth of the forbidden forest, his footfalls fast and light as he traversed the rugged terrain with practiced ease. He could feel rain misting against his face. He breathed in the sweet crispness, and for a moment he could forget everything; where he was, all the concerns plaguing his mind. He existed in a world outside of time and space, with nothing but the earth beneath his feet and the droplets of water against his skin for company.

Then he saw the clearing up ahead.

At the far end of the clearing, among the blackened tress, he could just see the shimmer of wet scales. Korrizahar turned his head toward Merlin and cocked it to the side, the young dragon obviously confused.

“Merlin,” he said, and he stretched his wings, hopping into the air and crossing the length of the clearing in a single weightless bound. “What’s wrong?”

Merlin took a deep breath and told him about the voice he had heard, and how Draco and Hermione had discovered he was a Parselmouth. When he’d finished, he could feel water dripping from his hair to his face and his cloak felt heavy and damp. He brushed his sodden bangs out of his aching eyes.

“So, you’re still not convinced that it was just a Boomslang, then?” Kor asked after a long moment. The dragon had curled up in front of him, the heat of his scales evaporating the water in soft flumes of steam.

Merlin shook his head, “I don’t—I mean,” and he ran his hands through his soaking hair, “You should have heard it. That voice—I’ve never heard something so malevolent. I was convinced it was going to hurt someone.”

“Was?” Kor prompted and Merlin sighed, plopping down onto the wet ground next to him.

“I don’t know. No one has been hurt as far as I know, and as we didn’t find anything—do you think I imagined it?”

A curl of smoke rose from Kor’s nostrils. “I doubt it,” the dragon replied. “Unless you’re prone to such things?”

Merlin frowned. His instincts were usually pretty good. Maybe that’s why he was so confused by the entire situation—nothing had happened. “I didn’t think so,” he said softly, and Kor cocked his head to the side again.

“Do you think you imagined it?”

Merlin wanted to say no but the word didn’t quite make it past his lips. “I’ve been having a lot of headaches recently,” he admitted, and he glanced up towards the darkened sky. “And it was late—maybe I wasn’t thinking clearly.”

Kor didn’t reply immediately. He surveyed him for a long moment, and when Merlin looked back at him, the dragon scoffed. “Somehow I don’t think you’d imagine something even if you were delirious with the flu.”

Merlin wanted to smile, but it came out as a weak grimace. “How do you explain not finding anything, then?” he asked.

“Simple, the snake wasn’t in the castle anymore.” Kor got to his feet, stretching in a catlike manner before sitting up, wrapping his tail over his talons.

“So that’s it?” Merlin said, “Don’t worry about it?”

“Well, I mean, keep a weather eye,” Kor said, doing a great impression of a shrug, “but I think your friend Hermione might have been right. There’s no point worrying about it needlessly, Merlin. You did what you could with the information you had.”

“Yeah.” Merlin ran his hands through his hair again, this time more to brush away the build up of water. He felt like a weight had been removed from the pit of his stomach. Kor watched him for a moment before giving a large toothy smile.

“Allow me,” and before Merlin could stop him, he blew a gust of fire-hot air in his direction. It felt like he’d been slammed in the face with an oven door, and Merlin staggered back, blinking his burning eyes.

“Whoops!”

“Whoops?” Merlin repeated, coughing. His face had gone numb. “Are you trying to set me on fire?”

“I just wanted to help dry you off!” Kor said, though he looked amused. Merlin felt his hair—sure it was dry now, but it felt like his ends had been singed.

“I think you need some practice,” Merlin grumbled and another flume of smoke rose from Kor’s nostrils.

“Oh really?”

“Wait—not on me!” Merlin said jumping out of the way from another blast of hot breath, laughing now. He caught the scent of charred wood and roast meat.

Kor sat back on his haunches, triumphant. “Feel better?” he asked, and Merlin smiled. He walked back around to rub the dragon’s head.

“Yeah, thanks.”

And he disappeared back into the undergrowth of the forbidden forest, finally able to push the memory of the voice out his mind.

Ginny Weasley frowned down at the match on her desk, chewing her tongue. She was supposed to be turning it into a needle, but she couldn’t concentrate. Her head felt heavy, her thoughts sluggish. It’d be just her luck if she’d caught that flu floating around Hogwarts.

The girl beside her had already transfigured her match and was appraising the metallic needle with a dreamy look on her face. She was smaller than Ginny, with willowy arms and snow-white hair that fell in a straight sheet to her shoulders. She’d introduced herself as Luna Lovegood their first day in class together, hailing from Ravenclaw house.

She was odder than the other Ravenclaws Ginny had met so far. She only had Transfiguration with them but they’d struck her as a grounded group—although she was quickly finding out that ‘seeking knowledge’ didn’t necessarily apply to assigned classwork. But, Luna had come across as untethered, daydreaming during lectures instead of rigorously copying down notes like Ginny would’ve expected.

Though it was frustrating that she’d managed to transfigure her needle before Ginny had.

Screwing up her eyes, Ginny raised her wand again. From just behind her, she heard Jeffery Kingston mutter something to Colin Creevey, both Gryffindor boys in her year, and her attention was diverted towards the conversation.

“Did you hear what they call her?” she heard Jeffery say, a snicker in his voice.

“What?” Colin had a habit of sounding excited regardless of what the subject matter was, kind of like an over-eager puppy.

Loony Lovegood. Get it? Because she’s so—”

Ginny gritted her teeth and whirled around in her seat. “You’d better not finish that sentence,” she hissed, her eyes flashing.

She watched as Jeffery’s eyes shifted to her still raised wand and visibly swallowed. “It’s just what I heard,” he tried to say with a weak laugh. It died quickly at the look on her face and he added, “Sorry!”

Ginny held his gaze for a second longer before turning back around in her seat, clearing her throat meaningfully and turning her attention back to the match on her desk.

“You didn’t have to do that.”

Ginny started and glanced at Luna Lovegood, who was appraising her with wide eyes. They were light blue, almost grey.

“They’re just picking on you because they can’t figure out how to transfigure their own needles,” she said, shaking her head.

Luna stared at her for another moment, before breaking into a wide smile. The far-away look that was usually in her eyes had returned. “It’s probably just the wrackspurts. I could see them all around those two. Do you want some help?” she asked, nodding towards Ginny’s match.

Ginny was just wondering what on earth a wrackspurt was, when suddenly—she was sitting in the armchair by the fire in the Gryffindor common room.

She leapt to her feet and looked around, her heart beating so painfully fast that it hurt. What—what had just happened? Hadn’t she just been in Transfiguration with Luna? No one else seemed to have noticed her sudden appearance, so she probably hadn’t apparated. She didn’t even know how to apparate!

Ginny glanced down at her hands and realized that she was holding her diary. She also noticed several long red feathers clinging to her robes, and as she watched one of them fell to the floor. Her mind went blank. She bent down to pick it up, twirling the scarlet feather in her hand. She recognized it—a rooster tail feather, just like from the ones back home.

But how had they ended up on her robes?

Almost feverishly, Ginny brushed off the other loose feathers from her robes and tossed them into the fire and sat down again, swallowing hard. She couldn’t remember anything after Transfiguration class—not leaving, not walking back up to Gryffindor tower, nothing.

She glanced down at the diary she still held in her hands. Had she said something to Tom? Her breath coming in shallow waves, she looked around for her bag and spotted it on the side of her chair. She dug out a quill and nestled the inkbottle in-between her knees. After opening the diary and smoothing out a random page, Ginny dipped her quill and wrote:

Dear Tom, I’ve got feathers all over my robes and I don’t know how they got there.

She watched as the letters sank into the page, holding her breath.

Ginny, you were just telling me how you ran into Hagrid, swinging one of his dead roosters. Are you feeling all right?

The words faded back into the page a moment later, and Ginny leaned back into her chair. She had been a little off color recently, even Percy had said so. Maybe she really was coming down with something.

I must have caught the flu that’s going around campus.

Ah, well the Hogwarts flu season is starting. Take a nap maybe, or go to the infirmary. They should be able to fix you right up.

Yeah, I think I will. Thanks, Tom.

Anytime, Ginny.

She closed the inkwell and the diary, placing both in her bag. A quick glance at the clock on the wall told her that she had enough time to see Madam Pomfrey before dinner.

October hit the castle in the form of torrential downpour and frozen corridors. Even with all the torches lit and fires burning in every room, the castle felt thick with cold, as if the stonewalls had developed the ability to leach warmth from the air. The cold was especially apparent down in the dungeons, where the damp caused ice to glaze the walls and their breath to form clouds of mist.

Even with a constant fire roaring in the Slytherin common room, several older students had created portable heaters and had situated them about the room. Merlin had one such heater at his table—it looked like a large stone jar, filled with blue flames that crackled every once and a while. He almost wished that an ember would fly out and burn his astronomy homework.

Or maybe he’d just chuck it in the fire and blame it on the heater anyway.

Merlin heard the telltale sound of rock scrapping against rock, and turned to see Draco trudging into the common room with his broom slung over his shoulder. He looked miserable. He caught sight of Merlin and wandered over, throwing himself into the chair opposite him and leaning forward to absorb some of the warmth from the heater.

“It took ages to wash the mud out from my hair,” he grumbled, and he ran his hand through his hair as though making sure he hadn’t missed a spot. “And my uniform was entirely soaked through. The weather better improve before the game or I’m likely to get frostbite.”

“Practice went well, then?” Merlin asked, leaning back in his chair and rubbing his eyes. They had been aching most of the day. His headache—a near constant thing now—had settled somewhere at the back of his head, sending jabs of pain into his eyes every so often. It made concentrating on his homework nearly impossible.

Draco frowned. “Why don’t they ask Flitwick to charm the stadium to repel water or something?”

“You could try asking him to charm your uniforms,” Merlin said with a shrug.

Draco paused. “I could.” He seemed to consider it for a moment, and then sighed. “So, how are you doing?”

Merlin saw Draco’s eyes flicker down to his astronomy chart, and Merlin resisted the urge to cover it with his fingers. He had no doubt that the little he had managed to complete was wrong, and at this point it might be better to give up entirely. Merlin yawned, throwing back his arms in a stretch.

“Terrible. I think I’ll head in early.”

Draco stared at him. “It’s not even curfew yet!”

Merlin shrugged and stood up. Instantly, his head throbbed and his vision dissolved into blackness before receding a second later, leaving him exhausted and dizzy. Merlin’s hand went to his temple, in an attempt to steady himself, his other hand resting on the table.

“Are you all right?” Draco asked. He’d gotten to his feet too.

Merlin did his best to wave him off. His eyes shifted toward a fourth-year girl seated by the main fire, wrapped in her winter cloak, holding a cup of tea, and steaming slightly from the ears. Theodore had sported a similar look just a few days ago.

“I think I caught that flu that’s going around,” Merlin said after a moment. Or at least, he hoped he had.

“Maybe you should go see Snape.”

Merlin blinked. “Why?”

Draco gave him a look. “To get a potion?” he said, and he shook his head. “He’ll cause less fuss than Madam Pomfrey and he’s closer.”

Merlin had to admit, he had a point. While he didn’t exactly want to smoke from the ears either, he had been feeling more sluggish than usual these past few days. He’d barely done any of his homework—though not for lack of trying. Merlin hesitated only a second longer before nodding, and heading out of the Slytherin common room.

He shivered in the corridor, folding his arms against his chest. No wonder everyone was getting sick—the castle was an icebox. Jolting himself to get moving again, Merlin set off down the corridor towards Snape’s office, wishing that he’d thought to grab his cloak.

As usual, he didn’t bother with the niceties of knocking, and instead pushed his way into Snape’s office. The man in question was sitting behind his desk, a roaring fire behind him and a grade book open before him. He didn’t look up when Merlin entered, though Merlin though he saw his lip twitch.

“Ah, here to turn in your homework at last?” Snape asked. He flipped the page and dipped his quill into the inkbottle. “You’re two days overdue.”

Merlin cringed. He’d completely forgotten about Snape’s assignment. “Right…what was that homework again?”

Snape slammed his quill onto his desk. “Well, if you couldn’t be bothered to pay attention in class,” he spat “I hardly see why—” he trailed off when he looked up and saw Merlin standing before him. He paused then, “But perhaps this is a conversation for another time.”

He must look worse than he’d thought. “I think I caught that flu that’s going around.”

His stomach clenched at the words—a voice in his head whispering that he’d been having these headaches for weeks now. He forced the thought away. There was no way he was still suffering the effects of the dementors. He wasn’t that fragile! It was just a combination of stress and now this flu—that was all.

Snape surveyed him for another moment before nodding and getting to his feet. “I always expect cases this time of year,” he said as he walked around his desk, “and stock up accordingly.”

He pulled out a small vial from his cloak pocket. The contents were deep red, and seemed to froth slightly. He held it out to Merlin saying, “Pepper-Up Potion will make you steam from the ears, but it’ll stop the flu in its tracks.”

Merlin appraised the vial for a second before downing the contents. When he’d finished, he found that Snape was holding out a second vial for him. Merlin raised his eyebrow.

“I seem to recall that you require more than one dose.”

Merlin blinked. “Right.” How had he forgotten that? He took the second potion, and after a moment felt a swell of heat rise to his face, steam gushing from his ears. It tickled slightly, and his entire head felt suddenly heavy with warmth.

“Thanks,” he said, and he started back toward the door.

“Don’t think this means you’re off the hook,” Snape called after him. “I expect that essay on my desk before the end of the week.”

“Right,” Merlin said, waving vaguely back at him before stumbling into the corridor and shutting the door. It was only when he’d reached the common room that he realized that he still didn’t have a clue what assignment Snape was talking about. He’d have to ask Draco or Hermione about it tomorrow. He certainly wasn’t doing anything else tonight.

Blaise had taken Merlin’s spot at the table, and both he and Draco waved to him as he headed toward the boy’s dormitory. He waved back, tripping over his feet as he did so.

He heard Draco call, “You okay?” from across the room, though he seemed trying hard not to laugh.

“Oh yeah,” Merlin said, giving a thumbs up without looking at them, and heading up the stairs towards his dormitory.

As it was still early, the place was deserted. Good. Merlin collapsed in his four-poster without bothering to change and fell asleep in seconds.

He was standing on the chessboard, a flume of white dust rising into the air before him. But there, within the particles falling back to the cracked marble surface, he saw him. Merlin could see his red eyes, illuminated in the gloom. They shone so brilliantly, the dust swirling around him turned blood red—until the entire room seemed to bleed.

Then a shadow fell over Merlin, and he looked up to see the knight chess-piece raising his broadsword. He brought it down, swinging hard at his head, heard the resounding crack of metal on bone—

Merlin woke with a start, and winced as his head was jostled. He lay there, still as he could, until the rise and fall of his chest evened. His face still felt hot, though the steam from his ears seemed to have dissipated. But when he looked past it, past his throbbing head, he felt the familiar tingle of magic at his fingertips.

Samhain had come once again.

 

Chapter Text

Merlin felt jittery.

He leaned against one of the black couches before the fire in the Slytherin common room, an odd tingle dancing across the nape of his neck, the hairs on his arms. The rest of Slytherin House was slowly filing out through the stone passageway, and on to the much-anticipated Halloween feast. Merlin could see Theodore rocking on the balls of his feet, Pansy and Daphne giggling amongst themselves, and even Blaise had an odd spring in his step as they filtered towards the promise of delicious food.

He waved when Blaise looked back at him, and pointed towards the stairs to the boy’s dormitory. “Waiting for Draco,” he said, by way of explanation and Blaise laughed.

“Still doing his hair, huh?”

Merlin shrugged, and Blaise too disappeared through the stone doorway. He sighed, and dropped his head, tightly shutting his eyes for a moment as a wave of sickening pain broke behind his lids.

The two doses of Pepper-Up Potion had only partially cleared his mind. It felt as though his magic were chasing the pain in circles around in his head, darting from behind his eyes to the back of his skull, and back again. Though Samhain had made it more bearable. All week he had been siphoning some of the raw magic and directing it towards his throbbing brain. Okay, it had left him light-headed and dizzy up until the headache reasserted itself but it was better than wincing at everything.

And he’d miss it when Samhain ended.

He heard steps on the stairwell and looked up to see Draco coming down at last, his sleek blond hair carefully brushed back.

“It’s not like we’re going to a dinner party,” Merlin said, raising his eyebrow.

“Don’t I know it,” Draco sneered in reply. “Did you know I saw some Gryffindor first-year try to slide down the bannister yesterday? Crashed into a whole group of Ravenclaw girls.”

Merlin chuckled at the thought. “Bet they were thrilled.”

Draco glowered. “They blocked up the corridor for fifteen minutes, shouting at him. But regardless,” and he shook his head, “I will give this day the respect it deserves.”

Merlin paused, his eyes widening. “That’s a new one.”

“It’s not, actually, but come on. We’re falling behind,” Draco said, gesturing toward the still open stone passageway.

“And whose fault is that?”

Draco didn’t reply, and instead led the way out into the chilled corridor.

This time, Merlin had remembered to bring his cloak. He shivered, the eerie light of hundreds of black candles making it seem colder than it really was. He wondered who had thought the dungeons needed more mood lighting. They turned the corner, and at first Merlin thought someone had erected a silver fire in the middle of the corridor to go with the candles, before it moved and he realized it was the bloody Baron. He was pacing back and forth, his brow furrowed.

As they neared, Merlin heard him grumble, “Every year it’s the same. Don’t see why he needs to—”

He stopped short when he saw them approaching. “Ah, on your way to the feast?”

“Yes, sir,” Draco answered at once.

“Then you best hurry. It’s starting soon.”

Draco nodded and made to continue up the corridor, but Merlin didn’t move. He felt Draco shoot him a peculiar look, pausing too. The Bloody Baron raised his eyebrow at Merlin, his dark eyes flashing toward Draco.

“Is something the matter, young snake?”

“I could ask you the same thing,” Merlin replied. The Baron glanced at Draco again before replying, his voice sharp and rough, like shaking a bucket of rusted nails.

“Oh, I’ve been invited to Nearly Headless Nick’s Death Day party.”

“The Gryffindor Ghost?” Draco said, coming back to stand next to Merlin.

“Why yes,” said The Bloody Baron, nodding. “He and I have become somewhat friends these past few decades, and tonight is his 500th Death Day.”

Merlin took longer to process this than normal. “Wait,” he said, holding up his hand, “he celebrates the day he died?”

“We all do, in some form or other,” The Baron said, shrugging. “I’ve attended his party every year, and it’s always the same. Complains constantly about being unable to join the Headless Hunt.” He shook his head. “Don’t worry yourself, Merlin. Go on and enjoy the feast, it’s sure to be a delight,” and the ghost turned, vanishing through solid stone.

Merlin turned to see Draco surveying him with that peculiar expression again. “What?” he asked as they started down the corridor again.

“You’re friends with him.”

It wasn’t a question.

“I suppose,” Merlin said, slowly. “He is our House Ghost.”

“No—oh, never mind,” and Draco shook his head.

Merlin didn’t speak for a long moment, staring at his feet as they headed out of the dungeons. “We talk every now and then,” Merlin admitted at last as they reached the Entry Hall. “I’ve got him to help keep an eye out for anything weird.”

Draco stared at him. “I didn’t know ghosts did anything other than wander through walls.”

Merlin hesitated. He could feel his gut clenching. “It’s not exactly usual, is it?”

“No.” Draco heaved a sigh. “You’re just one mystery after another, aren’t you?”

Merlin opted to smile, and they pushed through the doors into the Great Hall.

It was breathtaking. A hundred live bats swooped overhead, darting between thousands of black candles, causing their dim ghostly light to dance across the walls. Pumpkins the size of carriages floated high above the tables, their large triangle eyes and wide toothy grins seeming to bend and creak with silent laughter in the candlelight. Merlin tripped over his feet as he followed Draco to the Slytherin table, his eyes trained on the ceiling. Tonight it depicted a mass of black clouds that churned and spun among scattered stars.

“Oh, that’s right,” Draco, said, glancing at him as they took their seats. “You didn’t come to the feast last year.”

Last year, Merlin never made it to the feast. He had been running late and sensing animal magic, had instead headed up stairs where he’d encountered and killed a mountain troll.

“I wish I had,” Merlin replied, still looking around at the decorations. The weight of the magic in the room was incredible. He could feel it vibrating as a living, breathing thing.

“Do you want some of this?”

“Huh?” Merlin turned to see Draco holding a bowl of mashed potatoes toward him. Nodding, Merlin took it and scooped a few spoons onto his plate before passing it down the table. He grabbed whatever else was in reach: roast beef, roast chicken, heaps of lettuce. And, true to his style, he doused his plate in dressing and started to eat.

It tasted absolutely delicious, as it usually did. But after his fourth bite, Merlin lowered his fork.

He wasn’t hungry. Whether it was because of the magic or the flu he clearly hadn’t been able to shake, he didn’t know. The pain wasn’t the same—it had changed into a strange combination of pressure and mist, leaving him light-headed and nauseous. He rested his head in his hands.

He felt like he was spinning.

“Are you all right?” Draco asked, and Merlin felt his hand on his shoulder.

Merlin gave a non-committal hum. “I think—I think I might turn in early.”

Now?” Draco asked, clearly confused.

“Yeah. I’m not feeling well.”

Draco paused. “The Pepper-Up Potion didn’t help at all, did it?”

Merlin shook his head. He stopped abruptly when another wave of dizziness hit him, and pressed his palms against his eyes until he could see kaleidoscopes of black static.

“I’ll walk you back.”

Merlin lifted his head, blinking as light re-entered his vision. “No—I can make it back,” he said. “I don’t want you to miss the feast on my account.”

“It’s fine,” Draco insisted. “You look like you might fall over, anyway.”

Merlin hesitated, and his eyes shifted towards Draco’s plate. “Just—finish eating at least. I can wait that long.”

“You sure?”

Merlin nodded, and after a final look, Draco began to eat again—though much faster than before. Merlin massaged his temples, eyes closed. What was going on? He tried to draw in some of the magic around him, and he only felt worse. It was bouncing off his pain, engulfing it, swirling around until he felt suspended within it. Not uncomfortable or pleasurable.

Draco downed the rest of his pumpkin juice and got to his feet. “Okay, let’s go. With any luck I’ll make it back before desert finishes,” he said, though he sounded doubtful.

“I could still go alone,” Merlin started suggest but he stopped at the look on Draco’s face. He scratched the back of his neck. “Uh, thanks,” he said, standing up.

“Yeah, well, anyway,” Draco said as they headed out of the Great Hall. “What if you ran into another troll?”

Merlin chuckled quietly. The moment the doors closed behind them, Merlin felt better. He took a deep steadying breath.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” Merlin said as they neared the entrance to the dungeons. “I don’t know—”

The words died in his throat. From somewhere above him came the voice, the same terrible chilling whisper he had heard that night as they’d left the library. It hit just as it had before, the malicious intent, the biting venom dripping from each hushed word.

“Rip…tear…kill…”

Merlin stopped dead. He could barely hear it over the conversation drifting towards them from the Great Hall but there was no mistaking it. And this time he was positive—this was no escaped Boomslang. This was something much larger, much older. But where was it? He strained his ears, trying to block out everything around him.

“Kill…time to kill…”

“Merlin? What’s going on?”

Merlin ignored Draco. He rested his hand on the wall, trying to catch the voice again.

“Merlin!”

“Be quite—it’s that voice again,” Merlin hissed, praying he hadn’t lost it. Draco fell silent at once, the color draining from his face. Merlin closed his eyes, listening with all his might.

“So hungry, for so long…”

The voice was moving. Moving upward. Merlin turned on his heel, and without a second’s pause he ran for the marble staircase. He took two at a time, Draco’s clattering steps right behind him. It came again, loud even over the sound of their pounding footsteps.

“Not him… No…” The voice gave way to a spitting hiss and for a moment Merlin panicked—had his Parseltongue failed him? Then he realized the snake hadn’t said anything. It’d been a scream of frustration.

Merlin came careening onto the second floor corridor and slipped, landing flat on his back. Coughing, blinking stars out of his eyes, Merlin sat up and looked around. He was sitting in a puddle of water, stretching all the way down to the end of the corridor where—where—

“Merlin we need to get out of here.”

Merlin didn’t respond to Draco’s words. He hardly heard them. All his attention was focused on the wall opposite them, where words had been painted in glistening red:

THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS HAS BEEN OPENED
ENEMIES OF THE HEIR BEWARE

His stomach turned to lead. Merlin didn’t know what that was. He had never heard those words before and yet—and yet he had the gnawing sensation of familiarity. He got to his feet, the entire back of his robes sopping wet. In the distance he heard it again, growing fainter and fainter.

“I smell blood… I smell…blood…”

Merlin ran forward, skidding and sliding on the wet stone. As he neared the message on the wall, he caught sight of something small and fluffy hanging from the torch bracket, just above the smeared message on the wall. Merlin narrowed his eyes, then took a fast step back. The thing was Filtch’s cat, Mrs. Norris. At the sight of the animal, suspended and immobile, Merlin threw caution out the window.

“Where are you?” he shouted, desperate to catch the voice again. What if it ran into a person next?

“Merlin!” Draco hissed, urgently.

“I command you to leave this castle!”

“Merlin, shut up!”

If I find you I’ll—” Draco seized his arm, cutting Merlin off. Merlin spun around wrench himself free, but what he saw made the blood freeze in his veins.

The feast had ended.

 

Standing before him was a crowd of students. They had halted some ten feet away from him, a sea of wide terrified eyes shifting first to him, then to the suspended cat, and back to him with increasingly hostile expressions. For a long moment, no one spoke. Then—

“The Chamber of Secrets had been opened?” someone from the back read aloud, and the silence ended in a tumult of furious conversation.

“Did you hear him?”

“Was that what I think it was?”

“I knew you couldn’t trust a Slytherin!”

“Is that Mrs. Norris?”

“It’s him! He’s the one who did it!”

Merlin couldn’t have moved even if he’d wanted to. His legs felt like someone had glued them to the floor, his fingers numb. He wanted to say, it wasn’t me, but the words wouldn’t make it up his throat. It stayed trapped in his mind, mutating until it was screaming in his ears—What have I done?

He caught a glimpse of bushy brown hair, and a moment later Hermione stumbled towards them. Ron Weasley hissed her name from behind, and Merlin saw him try to grab the back of her cloak. She ignored him, wrenching herself free and rushing towards Draco and Merlin, her brown eyes wide and worried. At the sight of her however, Draco’s face drained of all colour.

“You need to leave,” he whispered, his voice barely heard over the crowd.

Hermione blinked, coming to an abrupt halt in front of them. “Why?” she replied, and her eyes darted to the writing on the wall.

“Hermione,” Draco said, his urgent undertone unlike anything Merlin had ever heard before, “go back to your dormitory and stay there.

“What’s going on here?” and Filtch the Caretaker parted the crowd. His beady bloodshot eyes fell on Merlin, narrowed in obvious dislike before looking past him—to where his cat hung suspended on the torch bracket. He came to a dead stop, and gave a terrible croaking gasp.

“My cat—my cat—what’s happened to Mrs. Norris?”

“I swear I don’t know,” Merlin breathed, but at his words there was an uproar from the onlookers.

“We saw you!”

“He’s a Parselmouth.”

Merlin took an unsteady step backwards, swallowing as Filtch’s eyes snapped to him. “YOU!” he howled, pointing a shaking finger at Merlin. “You’ve murdered my cat! I’ll kill you—I’ll—”

“Argus.” Dumbledore had arrived, flanked by Professors McGonagall and Snape. And behind them came Lockhart, his unaffected smile out of place among the expressions of furious alarm and silent panic.

Merlin watched as Dumbledore’s light blue gaze darted across the message on the wall, survey the suspended cat, and finally, settle on him. Merlin held his breath but Dumbledore didn’t say anything. Instead, he swept past and detached Mrs. Norris from the torch bracket.

Dumbledore cleared his throat. “Everyone, return to your dormitories immediately. Mr. Evans, Mr. Malfoy, please follow me.”

Lockhart bounced forward. “My office is nearest, Headmaster,” he said and he gestured down the corridor.

“Thank you, Gilderoy,” Dumbledore said with a nod, and he followed after the Defense Against the Dark Arts Professor. With a glance at Snape, Merlin and Draco followed.

Hermione shot Merlin a terrified look, and he did his best to give her a reassuring smile. He didn’t succeed. The crowd had withdrawn as he neared, giving him and the professors a wide birth as they passed by. He thought he saw Fred and George in the crowd—one of the few faces sharing Hermione’s worry. But the mass of panic and anger felt seared into his brain.

They walked in silence to Lockhart’s office. Merlin thought he could hear the man in question clear his throat every minute, as though dying to say something. Merlin almost wanted him too, at least then he wouldn’t have to listen to the pounding of his heart.

The office was dark. McGonagall waved her wand and the candles re-lighted on the chandelier, bathing them all in yellow light. All around the walls, Lockhart’s portraits were ducking out of frame— their hair in rollers. Dumbledore strode over to the desk and laid Mrs. Norris on it. He began poking and prodding her, his nose bent so close over the animal his breath ruffled her fur.

“It wasn’t us,” Draco said the minute the door closed behind them. “Merlin was feeling ill and wanted to head back to the common room early. We found Mrs. Norris like that, Headmaster.”

“It’s true,” came Snape’s voice from behind Merlin, and he felt the Potions Master place his hand almost protectively on his shoulder. “Merlin came to my office for a Pepper-Up Potion a few days ago.”

“Rubbish,” snarled Filtch. He had collapsed into a chair in front of the desk, and though his words were taunt with anguished fury, his eyes never left his familiar lying immobile before him. “Even if that’s true, the Slytherin common room is in the dungeons. What was he doing up here? And the students claimed they saw him speaking Parseltongue—Parseltongue Headmaster!”

Merlin narrowed his eyes. “What?” he said gesturing to the cat, and he felt Snape’s grip tighten on his shoulder. “You think that I shouted her to death or something?”

There was a very pregnant pause as all eyes swiveled towards him.

“You don’t deny it, then?” Professor McGonagall asked, her lips so thin that each word came out as a whisper.

“I didn’t kill the cat.”

Merlin paused. He could see Lockhart fidgeting out of the corner of his eye, as though he longed to draw everyone’s attention back to himself but couldn’t fight his own curiosity. Merlin took a deep breath, and met Dumbledore’s light blue gaze.

“But I am a Parselmouth.”

Filtch gave a triumphal cry, gesturing towards him as though he had just admitted his guilt. Professor McGonagall took a step back, her lips thinner than ever and a pallid sheen taking hold of her complexion. Snape was now gripping his shoulder so tightly that it hurt. And, after a tense silence, Lockhart gave a funny little giggle.

“Now, now,” he said sweeping over to stand next to Merlin—though he seemed to think better of it when he saw Snape and instead settled in between Merlin and Dumbledore. The unaffected smile was back. “I’ve run into several Parseltongue users in my travels, and although they are rather slippery,” he laughed knowingly, and then shook his head. “Not all of them are evil.”

“He killed my cat!” Filtch roared, jumping to his feet. “You saw what he wrote on the wall!”

“She’s not dead, Argus,” came Dumbledore’s voice, gently. He had been tapping the cat with his wand for the past minute, to no effect.

“Not dead?” spluttered Filtch, turning back to Mrs. Norris and frowning.

“She has been petrified,” Dumbledore continued, and Lockhart hummed in agreement.

“Ah! Thought so,” he said lifting his head. “What a pity I wasn’t there—I know the exact counter-curse that could have spared her.”

Merlin wanted to throw up. His head had started pounding so hard he was grateful he had Snape’s grip to keep him upright. Why did they all have to speak so loudly?

“Can Parseltongue do something like this?” asked Professor McGonagall and Merlin glared at her. It was a language, not a curse.

Dumbledore shook his head. “No. I doubt any second year could have done this.”

“We thought a first year couldn’t duel a professor either,” Filtch spat, his eyes popping. “Who knows what else he’s capable of!?”

Merlin winced at his shrill words. “Headmaster,” he said, avoiding the eyes of everyone else in the room. “Could I have a private word?”

“Do you know something?” Professor McGonagall asked at once.

Merlin met Dumbledore’s gaze, and he got the strange impression that Dumbledore was looking right through him, right into his soul. After a moment, Dumbledore nodded. “Everyone, please leave us.”

Merlin felt Snape’s hand leave his shoulder and quickly added, “Snape can stay.” He would have gone to tell him later, anyway.

“As it’s my office—” Lockhart began, puffing himself up importantly but with another stab of pain, Merlin’s patience ended.

“I’m not saying anything with you here!” he snapped, turning sharply toward Lockhart. The man took a fast step back, his smile fading. For a moment, Merlin stared at him before realizing that he hadn’t spoken in English. He looked around and saw everyone regarding him with a mixture of suspicion and surprise. He brought a hand up to massage his temple.

Do you want to make this worse?

“Why don’t we head down to my office?” Snape suggested lightly, and Dumbledore nodded.

“An excellent idea. Minerva, could you take Mrs. Norris and Argus up to the hospital wing? Inform Poppy what has happened.”

“The hospital wing?” Filtch repeated and for the first time he looked hopeful. “You mean—you mean we can—”

Dumbledore’s eyes twinkled. “Yes. Professor Sprout has a crop of mandrakes this year, and when they’ve matured a potion will be brewed that can restore her.”

He turned back to Snape and nodded. Without a word, Snape turned on his heel and led the way out of the room. And with a final glance back at Draco and Dumbledore, Merlin followed.

“Are you all right?” Draco whispered as they followed Snape down a flight of stairs.

Merlin didn’t know how to reply. “I’ll be fine,” he said after a moment, massaging his temple again.

It was silent for another moment as they reached the entry hall and started the decent into the dungeons. Then, Draco asked, “What did you say to Lockhart?”

“I’d rather like to know that myself,” came Dumbledore’s voice behind him and Merlin started, jerking back to look at him. But, Dumbledore didn’t look angry or upset; in fact he looked mildly amused.

Merlin gave a weak smile. “I said, I’m not saying anything with you here.”

“Ah, yes, and not all together unwarranted I must say.”

Merlin felt his shoulders relax. Sometimes Dumbledore reminded him of Gaius. The small things—his calm demeanor, his soft-spoken nature, his ability to make him feel like everything would turn out okay.

Snape waved his hand as they neared his office door and it swung open to welcome them. He shut it right after them, pulling out his wand and casting a spell that Merlin didn’t hear. When he caught Merlin’s eye, he said, “To stop eavesdroppers,” by way of explanation and nodded toward the chair in front of his desk.

Merlin took a seat, grateful for the support.

“Now,” Dumbledore said walking around to stand behind Snape’s desk. “What is it you wanted to tell us?”

Merlin glanced at Draco, who offered a shrug, before returning his gaze to Dumbledore. Snape had come to stand next to him, leaning against his desk and wearing and unfathomable expression. He took a deep breath.

“I didn’t attack Mrs. Norris,” he began, “but—” he faltered a moment.

“But?”

Merlin lifted his head. “I heard what did. That’s why I was shouting in the corridor—It’s a snake, Headmaster. I heard it speak when I left the Great Hall, which is why we went to that corridor in the first place. I followed it there.”

“Are you certain?” and Merlin was taken aback by the Headmaster’s sharp tone. It didn’t sound like Dumbledore doubted him—more like he believed him. Unquestionably.

Merlin nodded and watched as Dumbledore and Snape traded significant looks. What was going on?

“What did the voice—the snake—say, Merlin?” Dumbledore asked, his voice still serious. It unsettled Merlin, but not as much as what the snake had whispered in the dark.

“That it was time to kill and how hungry it was.” He shook his head, “What’s going on?”

But Dumbledore didn’t answer him. He had turned to Snape. “Organize a staff meeting in my office, immediately. We will need to search the school tonight—thoroughly.”

Snape’s eyes flickered to Merlin, and he saw something he’d never seen on the Potion Master’s face before—something that looked suspiciously like fear. Then it gave way to expressionless stone, and he whipped out of the office in silence.

“Sir?” Draco prompted. He gripped the back of Merlin’s chair with white knuckles. “It’s happened, hasn’t it? The Chamber of Secrets has been opened again.”

Again?” Merlin repeated, his eyes widening.

“It seems an explanation is unavoidable,” Dumbledore said shaking his head, “Though I apologize, for it will have to wait until tomorrow.” He paused, seeming to consider his next words carefully. “That being said, it does seem that may be the case, Mr. Malfoy. I trust you will explain to Merlin all that implies.”

Draco had gone uncharacteristically pale, but he nodded all the same. “Yes, sir.”

Dumbledore gave him a searching look, and some of the twinkle returned to his eyes. “Now, both of you hurry to your common room. Professor Snape will be along shortly.”

Merlin didn’t want to leave. He wanted to help them find the snake. How were they going to find it without him, anyway? But the look on Dumbledore’s face had a finality that kept him from speaking. Instead, he got to his feet and quickly followed Draco out of the office.

“What’s going on?” he whispered as they sped-walked back towards the common room. “What is the Chamber of Secrets?”

“It’s an old Slytherin legend,” Draco said. “You know how Salazar Slytherin eventually left the school over conflicts of blood purity?”

“Yeah…”

“Well, before he left he built a secret chamber so that one day, his heir could return to the school and open that chamber, releasing the monster within. He would then use it to purge the school of all the—the muggleborns.” He swallowed and shook his head.

“What did you mean when you said the chamber had been opened again?” Merlin asked slowly.

“The Chamber was opened once before, fifty years ago. My father didn’t tell me who did it, only that they were expelled. But last time, a girl died. My father used to tell me stories about it when—” he stopped talking abruptly.

They had reached the secret stone passageway into the Slytherin common room, but neither of them spoke the password. Instead, Draco turned to face him and though Merlin could just barely make out his features in the dim glow of the black candles burning low, he could see the dawning comprehension mingled with panic.

“Draco—?”

“He knew this was going to happen.” He was speaking so quietly that Merlin had to lean forward to hear him. “That’s why he asked me to stay away from you this year.”

Merlin felt a chill go up his spine. “How could he know?”

Draco didn’t reply. Instead he glanced up the corridor, and suddenly shivered. When he looked back at Merlin, his grey eyes had hardened with resolve. “I don’t know. But I’m going to find out.”

Ginny Weasley returned to her senses with a sickening lurch, stumbling back on trembling legs.

She stood alone in the dormitory washroom, staring at her pale reflection. It’d happened again. It’d happened again. It’d happened again. Her heart fluttered in her chest, sharp spines stabbing against her ribs. Her eyes took in the red—the vibrant, terrible hue staining her fingers and glistening down the front of her robes.

She couldn’t breathe.

Her hands sought the sink for support, her stomach heaving with food she didn’t remember eating. Paint splattered against porcelain, and she shut her eyes so she didn’t have to watch it trace crimson spider-webs down the drain.

It wasn’t blood. It wasn’t blood. It wasn’t blood.

She repeated the words until she could open her eyes again. It wasn’t blood. It didn’t have the iron smell. It was just paint. Just paint. But how had it ended up on her robes? Why was it all over her hands?

She forced herself to take slow breaths, in through her nose and out through her mouth. She could hear the air quiver on its way out. She could feel every part of her shaking; feel the chilling sweat on her forehead.

What happened?

She feverishly washed her hands—twice—three times before peaking out of the lavatory. Her dorm was empty. In a blur of red, she raced to her trunk and grabbed a fresh change of clothes, dressing at break-neck speed. She then took the stained robes back to the bathroom, throwing them into the sink and dousing them in cold water.

She washed the robes as long as she dared, then squeezed the water out and threw them onto the pile to be laundered, hoping she’d managed remove all the paint.

What had she done?

She could hear commotion down in the common room now, and after a final glance at her hands to make sure they were clean, she headed down the stairs.

The force of raised conversation nearly blew her back. Everyone was in an uproar. She could see Ron arguing passionately with Hermione Granger—no big surprise there—but Dean Thomas and Seamus Finnegan were with him, and Fred and George with Hermione. And the entire Gryffindor house surrounded them, voices elevated in fury and anxiety.

Colin Creevey spotted her and pushed his way through the crowd, his eyes wider than she’d ever seen.

“Did you hear?” he had to shout in order to be heard. “Merlin Evans opened the Chamber of Secrets and attacked Mrs. Norris!”

What?”

“Yeah! He wrote a message on the wall! We saw him!”

Ginny stared at him, and then stared at the commotion before her. She could just hear Ron’s furious yell amid the cacophony of sound.

“YOU KNEW HE WAS A PARSELMOUTH?”

Ginny felt unsteady on her legs again. Merlin? But that didn’t make sense. None of it made sense. She turned on her heel and raced back up the stairwell, taking two at a time.

The blood hell was going on?

She found her bag at the foot of her four-poster and practically wrenched open the diary, her fingers stiff with panic and confusion. She sprayed blotches of ink across the blankets in her haste, and dripped excess onto the pages as she scribbled in a uncharacteristically untidy scrawl:

Dear Tom, I don’t know what I did during Halloween but a cat was attacked and I’ve got paint all down my front.

She took a shaky breath, and continued:

They’re saying the Chamber of Secrets has been opened, and Merlin is to blame!

Ginny, calm down. Why would they say that?

He was seen in the corridor! He’s a PARSELMOUTH, Tom!

Ginny watched as her words faded into the parchment, and for a long moment nothing happened. She ran her fingers over the parchment, each second a reply didn’t appear another she didn’t breathe. What was taking him so long? And then, finally, he answered.

Ginny, tell me everything you know about Merlin Evans.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Yellow, orange, flickering red—brown igniting, smoldering, black into off-white dust. Maybe if Merlin focused hard enough on that log turning into charcoal, a solution would present itself. Maybe his headache would finally vanish. Draco sat on the armchair next to him, eyes closed. Merlin might’ve thought he was asleep if not for the way he’d periodically shake his head—“He knew this was going to happen,”—and grimace—“I don’t know. But I’m going to find out.”

But if Lucius had known the Chamber of Secrets would open again, that only meant one thing: Lord Voldemort was somehow involved.

As if he didn’t have enough to worry about.

By the time he and Draco had reached the common room, word had spread: Merlin was a Parselmouth and he had attacked Mrs. Norris. His head still pounding, he had left Draco to explain as he’d made a beeline for the fireplace. Not that any explaining had occurred. Instead, Draco had informed them that Snape would be along shortly to answer their questions and had gone to join Merlin. Now was the waiting game, the whispers having finally faded and died with the passage of time.

Merlin heard the telltale sound of rock grating against rock and turned with the rest of Slytherin to watch as the stone passage opened, and Snape strode inside. He glanced once around the room, no doubt able to discern that the entirety of Slytherin was present. He cleared his throat.

“As you no doubt have already heard, someone wrote a threatening message on the wall of the second floor corridor. The culprit, whoever it is,” he added meaningfully, “also petrified Filtch’s cat.”

He paused, and his eyes flickered to Merlin along with the rest of Slytherin. “The Headmaster has personally listened to Merlin and Draco’s account of events, and has decided he was in no-way involved with this distasteful prank despite his… abilities.”

Prank? Merlin exchanged a perplexed look with Draco. Snape knew full well that it wasn’t a prank. Why would they disregard something so dangerous? Merlin frowned, but Snape caught his eye—a silent warning not to interrupt him.

“If you aren’t already aware, the Chamber of Secrets is a reference to an old Slytherin legend,” Snape continued, his lip curling. “One that, given the circumstances, you ought to be aware of.” He looked as though he’d swallowed something sour.

“Now, not long after Hogwarts was founded, Salazar Slytherin expressed his desire to be more selective about who they admitted to the school. He believed that magical learning should be reserved only for those of magical parentage, or purebloods. The other founders disagreed and as a result, Salazar Slytherin left the school. According to this legend,” Snape said with a hint of skepticism, “Salazar Slytherin had built a secret chamber somewhere within the school. Before departing, he sealed it so that only his heir would be able to open it and, by so doing, purge the school of muggleborns. Meaning,” Snape said carefully, “as of this moment, you are the prime suspect.”

At that, there was a cry of protest. Snape held up his hand and the noise died, but Merlin could tell from the look on everyone’s face that it was a tongue-biting type of quiet.

“The sooner the culprit steps forward,” Snape said icily, “the sooner this whole mess can be swept under the rug. As no one was irreparably hurt, I can assure minimal punishment—I doubt any of the other professors would offer such a thing.” Snape swept his gaze over the room again and when his black eyes settled on Merlin, he seemed to hesitate. “Which…is what I have been instructed to tell you.”

There was shift as surprise rippled through the room.

“I do not believe any of my students would be foolish enough to play such a prank,” Snape said. “But, I do not expect the other Heads to tell their students the same, and I don’t think I need to tell you how self-righteous the Gryffindors can be—” There was a scattered hum of acknowledgement, “—and our vilified reputation, not to mention the reality of this situation, will do little to persuade them otherwise. It is more important, now than ever, for Slytherins to look out for each other—because no one else will.”

Merlin swallowed as everyone’s eyes turned to him again. They all knew, without Snape saying it, that he would have the hardest time of all.

“If anyone remembers seeing something suspicious, or has relevant information that they feel would help resolve this mess, my office is open.” Snape did not wait for questions. Instead he gave a nod of finality and turned on his heel. Conversation erupted before the stone passageway closed, and Merlin knew that this time he couldn’t avoid it.

But, if that speech was anything to go by, they hadn’t found a giant snake roaming the corridors.

“Does this mean that it might not have been a prank?” Daphne asked, slumping down into one of the couches by the fire.

“Even if it was,” Pansy said, shaking her head, “It wasn’t a harmless one, not for Mrs. Norris anyway.”

“Well, you can’t say that cat didn’t have it coming,” Blaise said. He rolled his eyes when Pansy shot him a scandalized look. “Anyway, there are more important things to discuss—” and he turned to Merlin. “You should’ve told us you were a Parselmouth.”

Merlin got gingerly to his feet, h head still aching fiercely. He thought longingly of his bed. “Look, like Snape said, I didn’t attack Mrs. Norris or write that message.” He noted how the rest of his house moved closer to listen.

“I never believed you did,” Blaise said, looking surprised. “Out of all of us, I think you’re the least likely to have done this.”

“What?” asked Pansy. “Do you think one of us did?

“Well, it wouldn’t be the first time,” Blaise said with a laugh. “It’s a Slytherin Legend for a reason, you know.”

“But Snape said he doesn’t think it was any of us,” Daphne said, glancing at him.

“Or he’s using reverse psychology,” Pansy snapped. “Doesn’t change the fact that right now, Merlin looks guilty.”

“He’d look guilty anyway,” Blaise said, shaking his head. “He’s in Slytherin.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Draco interrupted, slamming his hand on the armrest of the chair he sat in. “Merlin didn’t do this—end of discussion.”

“Except when the Gryffindor’s come with pitchforks,” Pansy said sardonically. She folded her arms. “If we threw him to the lions, the rest of us would be able to live our lives as usual.”

“No—we’re not suggesting that,” Draco said, getting to his feet. He met Pansy’s gaze evenly and after a second she sighed and nodded. “We’re all in this together. He’s not the Heir of Slytherin. We’ve been over this.”

“But he could be,” Blaise said, scratching his chin. “I mean, wasn’t the Dark Lord a Parselmouth as well?”

“Blaise—” Draco said warningly.

“Just hear me out. Your families,” and he gestured vaguely around them, “what would they do if they found out Merlin could speak Parseltongue?”

“They might think he’s a new Dark Lord,” Draco sneered.

Blaise raised his eyebrow. “Exactly.”

There was a pause as they all fell silent. Merlin could see some of the older students behind them exchanging thoughtful expressions. Most of them, Merlin knew, didn’t have ties to known Death Eaters. Terrence Higgs, the seeker turned chaser after Draco joined the team, seemed to want to say something but a girl nudged his shoulder and shook her head. Maybe she felt like it wasn’t their place to interrupt.

“What exactly are you saying?” Merlin asked Blaise.

“Let Draco and Pansy and the others tell their parents about what’s happened,” Blaise said. “You said you wanted to be taken more seriously—what a better way to show them that you’re a real contender than the fact you can speak Parseltongue?”

“But,” Daphne said, looking confused, “How will thinking he’s the Heir of Slytherin make them take Merlin more seriously?”

“They will when he catches the real Heir of Slytherin.”

Merlin considered this. If Draco was right about Lucius knowing, and he was right about Lord Voldemort being involved, then that idea might work out even better than he’d thought. He glanced at Draco and shrugged. It was worth a shot, wasn’t it?

Draco, however, frowned. “No—this is a terrible idea.”

“Why? Because it’s not yours?” Blaise sneered.

“No.”

“They’re probably going to find out anyway,” Daphne put in. “I wouldn’t be surprised if students from the other houses are writing letters to their parents as we speak.”

“But that’s—”

“Draco,” Pansy interrupted softly, “You know full well that Merlin stands against what your father, what a lot of our parents stand for. They’ve been entertaining him because of what he did to Quirrell, but at some point that’s not going to be enough. My mother already wants me to keep my distance. If I’m going to pull out my wand and defend Merlin and defy my family’s wishes, then I need to give them a damn good reason.”

“Pull out your wand—?” Merlin started to say but Draco nudged him.

“It’ll happen,” he muttered. “We can barely restrain ourselves from hexing each other before Quidditch matches, I’d hate to see the Gryffindor’s when they think they’re on some righteous mission.” He sighed.

“She has a point,” Theodore said in a very small voice, somewhere behind Blaise. He moved aside and Theodore gave a weak smile. “Parseltongue is viewed almost like a personal gift from Slytherin.”

“Among Slytherins anyway,” Pansy amended with a shrug. “You could even be a descendant, even if you’re not… you know, his heir.”

“Exactly,” Blaise said. “They might even be willing to put up with your muggle-loving ideas long enough for you to convince them,” he said looking smug.

Merlin looked at Draco again, and this time the blond heaved a sigh. “It’s up to you,” he said, shoulders slumping. “I’m not responsible for what my father does with this information,” he added, dropping his voice.

“Understood.” Merlin looked from Blaise to Pansy before inclining his head, “You have my permission to spread the word. Though don’t misrepresent me—I’m not the Heir of Slytherin.”

“Yeah, sure,” Blaise said with a shrug, “As if you won’t be saying that a thousand times over.”

Merlin grimaced and brought a hand up to massage his temple. He could see some of the older students heading up to bed now—something that sounded like a fantastic idea.

“By the way,” Daphne asked before he could make a move, “why were you shouting Parseltongue in the corridor?”

It was as though she’d said the magic words. Everyone froze and looked back at Merlin. He opened his mouth to speak, but Draco grabbed his arm and whispered, “Telling them everything is a bad idea. The other houses will find out and it’ll cause a panic.”

“I know.”

Draco surveyed him, as though assuring himself that Merlin didn’t intend to do anything stupid. Then, he nodded, and let go of his arm.

“What is it?” Blaise asked, his tone taking a turn for the serious, looking from one to the other.

Merlin took a deep breath, “Well, I’m not the only Parselmouth at Hogwarts this year.”

Pansy’s mouth fell open, Blaise took a step back, Daphne put her hands over her mouth, and Theodore’s eyes went wide as a ripple of nervous tension went through the rest of Slytherin.

“But,” Theodore spoke up at last, “that’s a uniquely Slytherin trait. How can it not be one of us?”

No one slept well that night in Slytherin.

The week that followed was the worst he’d had at Hogwarts.

Students who had once admired him, now hissed as he walked past. Merlin tried not to listen to what they said but he couldn’t block it out when it was shouted, screeched in his ears.

“Who’re you going to attack next?”

“Liar!”

“I always knew you were bad news.”

“I don’t know how you got out of this one, but we’ve got our eye on you now.”

“Slytherins really are all the same.”

The days leading up to the first Quidditch match of the season always resulted in mounting tension between Gryffindor and Slytherin, but things had taken a turn for the extreme. Most Gryffindor’s seemed convinced that Merlin was the Heir of Slytherin, and had come to the odd conclusion that he’d lied his way out of punishment, and that the entire house was culpable. Which meant they were personally obligated to prove otherwise.

There were fights in the corridors, with and without wands, accompanied with impassioned orders to tell the truth and to turn themselves in. The bulk of these, of course, fell on Merlin. He suspected he might have received the end of a wand too, if it weren’t for the reminder that he had defeated a professor and petrified Mrs. Norris that kept self-righteous Gryffindor’s at bay. And as Draco went everywhere with him, the Gryffindors seemed particularly motivated to see him fail in the upcoming match on Saturday.

But, Merlin would rather have people snap at him than run away. It was disorienting to see a group of Ravenclaw girls stop dead in the hallway and turn right back around at the sight of him. Even Neville Longbottom—who he had defended against bullying last year— fled at the sight of him.

Of course, Fred and George Weasley didn’t run. They were the only people in the world who knew who Merlin really was. He didn’t even need to explain himself to them, a welcome reprieve. Instead, the twins took it upon themselves to walk in front of him in between classes, announcing his presence.

“Make way! Make way for the Heir of Slytherin!”

“Budge up there, Dean, the new Dark Lord is headed to History of Magic!”

At first Merlin had been exasperated. He already had the Slytherin’s escorting him everywhere. But he quickly realized that when the twins were there, the Gryffindors took a step back. The first time they’d done this, George had told him that Ron and a lot of the other Gryffindor’s planned to curse him the instant they saw him or Draco anywhere near Hermione.

“But she’ll be in the library Friday like usual,” Fred promised with a smile. “We’ll distract ickle-ronnie-kins.”

“That twat,” Draco said as the twins left them to their charms class. “It’s as if the fact you stopped Quirrell doesn’t even matter anymore.”

“Oh, but didn’t you hear? I can talk to snakes. So evil.”

But perhaps worst of all was Gilderoy Lockhart, who had held him back after class in a misguided attempt to cheer him up. “Not to worry, Merlin,” he’s said, clapping his shoulder. “Once I’ve caught the real culprit, everything will go back to normal. So for now, just hold your head high and look on the bright side. They could be ignoring you.”

And with the near constant ache at his temples, Merlin wanted to just stay in bed until the Christmas. He almost wishes he had taken more of Draco’s advice and enjoyed his earlier positive fame. Being known for defeating a professor was so much better than everyone thinking he was the next super-villain. When class ended on Friday, he and Draco almost ran to the library.

They found Hermione seated on the floor of the magical creature section, surrounded by half a dozen open volumes. She had a roll of parchment atop another book on her knee.

“What’s all this?” Merlin asked, gesturing to the books.

She started and looked up at them. ”Oh good, you’re here!” she said and she waved for them to sit down. “Mind the ink,” she shot grabbing her inkbottle from the floor before Merlin knocked it over with his foot. “So, the other day I asked Professor Binns about the Chamber of Secrets and—”

“You actually interrupted that ghost?” Draco asked, sitting back against the bookshelf with a bemused expression.

Hermione glowered. “How else was I going to find out about it? All of the copies of Hogwarts A History, have been checked out, and there’s a two-week waiting list!”

“Yeah, and that prat Ron didn’t want you to come ask us,” Merlin finished, rolling his eyes. “So?”

“Well,” Hermione continued, “Professor Binns mentioned Slytherin’s monster, you know, and it just got me thinking—you said you’d heard a snake roaming the school and if it’s Slytherin’s monster, it’d make sense for it to be a giant snake. So, I’ve been trying to find out what kind.”

“Because then we’ll know how to stop it? Not a bad idea,” Merlin said, and he grabbed one of the open books. “Any luck so far?”

Hermione sighed and shook her head. “All I have to go on is really old and petrification, which I can’t find anywhere.”

“Still,” Merlin said, and he began flipping through the pages, “it’s worth a look.”

Hermione smiled. “That’s what I thought."

They spent the next few hours perusing through different books on magical snakes. Merlin hadn’t realized there were so many different types. There were boomslangs, yes, but also ashwinders, and then the stranger snake-hybrids like the Occamy. He even thought he might’ve found the snake he remembered Salazar holding back in Camelot, a lamia snake. But like Hermione had said, he couldn’t find any snake that’s venom could petrify its victims.

“Ah,” Draco said after they’d been at it for over an hour, stretching. “But even if we do find out what it is, we still don’t know where the thing is hiding when it’s not slithering through the halls.” He shut Poisonous Snakes of Europe and tossed it onto the stack to be re-shelved. “I mean, we told Snape and Dumbledore that there was a snake, and even with everything looking they couldn’t find it.”

Hermione frowned. “Maybe it leaves the castle somehow? I mean, if it’s hiding in the forbidden forest, it’s going to be almost impossible to find. It’s not like they can search the whole forest.”

“Great,” Draco grumbled. “Another reason I never want to set foot in that place.”

But Hermione had just given Merlin an idea. He knew someone who could search the forest for them. He made a mental note to tell Korrizahar later that night—if he could get out of the castle with everyone watching him, that is. He could just imagine the panic that would ensue if someone caught him out after bed, especially if it wasn’t Snape.

“Are you all right, by the war?” Hermione asked and Merlin blinked. He’d been absent-mindedly rubbing his temple. He dropped his hand.

“You mean, other than the constant negativity thrown my way?”

“That,” Hermione said with a grimace, “and you still look a bit peaky.”

“It’s just a stubborn cold,” Merlin said, and he grabbed another one of the books to avoid meeting her eyes.

Hermione pursed her lips. “Maybe you should go see Snape again.”

“Yeah, I might.”

“Right,” she said, and Merlin got the impression she didn’t believe him. She checked her watch, and closed her book. “I should head back up to Gryffindor tower. I want to drop off my books before dinner.”

“Right.” Draco stretched and got to his feet. “I’ll walk you.”

Hermione stared at him. She glanced at Merlin, who shrugged, before looking at Draco as though she wasn’t quite sure she’d heard him correctly. “What?”

“I’m walking you back to Gryffindor tower.”

“No, you’re not,” Hermione said with a disbelieving breath of laughter. When Draco raised his eyebrow, her smile faded a little. “You are kidding.”

“I’m really not.”

“What about Ron, and the others?” Hermione protested. “They’re not exactly keen on Slytherins being around me at the moment, and coming up to Gryffindor will just piss them off!”

“Oh, I’m aware. I bet they’re the same prats who tormented Theodore the other day.”

Hermione frowned. “What did they do?”

“Verbal abuse mostly,” Merlin said, getting to his feet as well. “He took off before they could get their wands out.”

Hermione shook her head. “Honestly—you’d think they’d realize antagonizing this Heir would be the stupidest thing they could do.”

“When have Gryffindor’s ever done anything smart?” Draco scoffed.

Hermione gave him a look.

“You’re the exception.”

“Uh huh,” and Hermione started putting the books back on the shelves. “Which is why I’m going up, alone.

Draco folded his arms. “No. You’re not.”

“Why—?”

“Come on, you should be able to figure it out,” Draco sneered. When Hermione raised her eyebrow, he rolled his eyes and continued, “The Heir of Slytherin attacks Muggleborns, Hermione. From now on you should always walk with a pureblood. Just in case.”

“I—well I—” Hermione didn’t seem to know what to say. She looked torn between insulted and concerned. She shot Merlin a look.

“Draco,” Merlin said, frowning. “It’s not even dark out yet, and the corridors are full of people. You really think that’s necessary?”

Draco held up his hands, “Maybe not, but better safe than sorry.”

Merlin pinched the bridge of his nose. “He’s got a point?” he said and Hermione spluttered.

“But—oh, I suppose if you insist.”

“I do,” Draco said and Hermione glowered at him.

“Fine!” she said, shouldering her bag. “But if Ron sees you, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Merlin grimaced at the thought of another row with the ginger, and nodded. With any luck, maybe Ron would realize he was an idiot when he saw Merlin genuinely concerned about Hermione’s safety. But as they left the library, he had a sudden thought.

“Hey, let’s walk past the second-floor corridor,” he suggested, causing Draco to scoff derisively.

“Yeah, because that’ll make you look less guilty.”

“I don’t think anything can help with that,” Merlin snapped. “Come on, let’s just see if Filtch is still guarding the place at least.” The caretaker had haunted the spot all week, as though expecting the culprit to return.

“Maybe we’ll find something the professors missed!” Hermione said, her face brightening.

“Fine,” Draco said, shaking his head. “But Filtch is probably still trying to scrub away that message.”

But to their surprise, Filtch was nowhere to be seen. His chair stood empty just beneath the message on the wall. The words glistened as they had on Halloween night, and Merlin walked over to inspect it while Draco and Hermione watched the corridor. Filtch hadn’t even smeared the paint. He touched one of the stains and felt magic push against his fingertips.

“Well, someone didn’t want this message to fade away,” he muttered. “It’s got some kind of ward on it.”

“You can tell that just by touching it?” Hermione asked, coming to stand next to him.

“Er… yeah.” Merlin looked away from Hermione’s wide eyes.

“Can you get rid of it?” Draco asked, also walking over.

Merlin pushed some of his magic into the enhancement, and shook his head. “Doesn’t look like it.” He paused. “I think it’ll dissipate on it’s own after awhile, though. It’s strong, but I can feel it getting weaker.”

“Huh,” Draco said, appraising it for a moment. He glanced down at the floor and frowned. “Remember all that water? Where was that from?”

“You know, that might have been Moaning Myrtle,” said Hermione, thoughtfully.

“Moaning Myrtle?”

“Yeah, she’s this ghost that haunts the girls toilet over there,” and she pointed to a door across them with what looked like a permanent Out of Order sign on it. Even from this distance, Merlin could see water stains seeping from under the door. “She floods it so often, nobody ever goes near it,” Hermione explained.

“Well, maybe she saw something,” Merlin said, walking toward it.

“I’m not going in there,” Draco said flatly. “I’ll keep watch out here.”

“Suit yourself,” Merlin said and he pushed open the door.

The bathroom looked miserable. Splashes of standing water littered the floor, and the mirrors above the cracked sinks looked as if they hadn’t been washed in quite some time. Merlin wrinkled his nose as the cloying scent of mold hit his nose, and he glanced at Hermione.

“Least the constant flooding washes it out,” Hermione offered with a shrug.

“Who’s that?” came a glum voice from the end stall. They watched a silver-faced girl with large round spectacles poked her head around the corner. She paused, watery eyes narrowing, and floated over to them. “What’s a boy doing here?” she asked, pointing at Merlin.

“I just—we just wanted to know if you saw anything on Halloween night,” Hermione asked with a sideways glance at Merlin. “A cat was attacked just outside your door.”

Moaning Myrtle stared at her before giving a loud wail that echoed in the tiled room. “I d-don’t know,” she sobbed, tears rushing down her face. “I went to Sir Nick’s Deathday Party. But why’d he have to invite Peeves?” she wailed.

“So you weren’t here?” Merlin said, deflating. “But the water?”

Myrtle shook her head. “Peeves upset me so much I left early,” she said, sniffling. “I came here and tried to kill myself, only I’m—I’m—” she broke off with a tragic sob and dived into one of the toilets, splashing water everywhere. They could hear her wailing somewhere near the u-bend.

“Oh, dear,” Hermione said softly.

“Let’s go,” Merlin muttered. “She can’t help us,” he said, and with a touch of irritation he turned on his heel. Back to square one.

Outside, they found Draco next to the window, frowning. “No luck, huh?” he said, correctly reading the look on their faces. “I might have something though—take a look at this,” and he nodded toward the windowsill.

Merlin and Hermione went to look. Climbing through a crack to the outside was a thin line of spiders. Merlin could just see a single silken thread dangling above the ledge, as though they had all scaled it one-by-one. As they watched, the last spider slipped outside and Draco looked up with a peculiar expression.

“Do spiders usually behave like that?”

“No,” Hermione said, frowning too. “Weird…”

“Add it to the list of stuff we gotta figure out,” Merlin said, shaking his head. “Don’t you need to get back to your common room?”

“Right! We should probably go.”

They headed up the stairs in silence. Merlin brought his hand up to massage his temple, not really seeing the stone steps. Why hadn’t anyone been able to find the snake? How had Mrs. Norris gotten petrified? They hit the landing. And what was it with those spiders?

“Gryffindor inbound,” Draco muttered, coming to an abrupt halt in the corridor. Merlin skidded to a stop behind him and peaked around. He recognized her at the same time Hermione said, “Oh, its just Ginny.”

Ginny Weasley hadn’t seen them yet, her eyes trained on her shoes. Giving a smile, Hermione walked forward. “Hello, Ginny.”

The girl started and looked up. “Oh, Hermione.” Her gaze shifted to Draco, and then to Merlin. Her eyes widened. “Why—”

“No matter what Ron says,” Hermione interrupted, “Merlin and Draco are innocent, all right?”

Ginny blinked. “That’s not—I mean, why are they walking you to Gryffindor tower?”

“Oh, so you don’t think it was us then?” Draco asked, raising his eyebrow. “That’s a new one.”

Ginny frowned. “Somehow I thought it might be weird for Merlin to stop Quirrell and then turn around and threaten muggleborns,” she snapped. “Plus,” she added shuffling her feet. “Fred and George vouched for you.”

“’Course,” Merlin said giving a small smile. “If only you could all convince the rest of Gryffindor,” to which both Hermione and Ginny exchanged weary expressions.

“If only—” Hermione muttered, “but anyway, they,” and she gestured back to Draco and Merlin, “are being paranoid because of said threat against muggleborns.”

“Oh.” Ginny’s eyes went wide. “Really? So they don’t think it’s just a prank either.”

“Better safe than sorry,” Draco repeated with a careless shrug.

Merlin brought his hand to his temple again. He felt oddly nauseous. He swallowed thickly and said, “And on that note, maybe we shouldn’t go all the way up to the common room.”

Draco seemed about to protest but he stopped short at the look on Merlin’s face. “Yeah, I suppose you’re right,” he said slowly, “After all, Weasley is a pureblood herself.”

“Tell the twins too, maybe,” Merlin said, closing his eyes for a minute. “Since, they count.”

“Now, wait a minute,” Hermione said, folding her arms. “You can’t just expect me to be escorted everywhere!”

“Yeah, until the culprit is caught,” Draco retorted.

Hermione threw up her hands in frustration and stalked off down the corridor. Ginny shot one last nervous look in their direction before following her.

“Now,” Draco said, turning to Merlin. “Are you okay?”

“Just the usual,” and he gave a weak smile. “Nothing a little dinner won’t fix.”

Draco paused a moment, watching him. “Sleep in tomorrow.”

“Uh… I intend to.”

“No, I mean—” and Draco trailed off, looking uncomfortable.

It clicked. “What?” Merlin said, taken aback “You want me to miss the match? It’s your first game! And at this point even I want to stick it to the Gryffindors.”

Despite what he’d said, the next morning Merlin wished he had stayed in bed. Breakfast had never felt so tense. Both teams ignored their food, and instead shot increasingly hostile expressions at one another from across the Great Hall.

“Look at them,” Draco spat, narrowing his eyes at the Gryffindors. “They think they actually have a chance.” Wood seemed to be giving some kind of empowering speech.

“Good to see you’re confident, then,” Merlin said as he poked at his food. He struggled to find his appetite these days. He looked up to see Ron glaring daggers at him, and shook his head. “You’re probably lucky Fred and George are the Gryffindor beaters.”

Draco grunted and folded his arms. “They’ve never gone easy before now,” he countered.

“Yeah, but at least they won’t miss the bludger to hit you instead,” Merlin grumbled. He had heard the Slytherin beaters Derrick and Bole discussing such a thing last night in the common room.

“Well,” Draco looked slightly uncomfortable, “sometimes the best defense is a good offense.”

“Why do I feel like you’ve inverted that saying?”

“Anyway,” Draco said, and he grabbed his goblet of pumpkin juice, “we’re going to win and knock these sanctimonious Gryffindors down a peg.”

“Just as long as you ignore the Gryffindors and focus on catching the snitch,” Merlin said, seriously. Draco grimaced and nodded, taking a drink of his pumpkin juice instead of replying.

Sitting a few seats away from them, Marcus Flint got to his feet and looked around at the Slytherin team meaningfully. Draco took a deep breath, looking less confident than before, and got up.

“Good luck,” Merlin said as he and the rest of the team made their way out of the Great Hall. He saw the Gryffindor team similarly rise to their feet, and would have been concerned about the two meeting in the entry hall if he didn’t see Professor McGonagall and Snape keeping a weather eye.

“What exactly do they think they’ll prove if they win?” Blaise said, sliding over to take Draco’s empty seat. He nodded toward the Gryffindors. “Do they think you’ll suddenly be found guilty if they catch the snitch, or something?”

“That’ll be the day,” Merlin said rolling his eyes. He pushed his beans in a circle around in is plate, frowning.

Blaise shook his head. “Well, we might as well go get seats unless you want to keep playing with your food?”

“No, let’s go,” and they got to their feet. “You coming Theo?” Merlin asked the shy Slytherin from across him. And together, the three of them left the Great Hall.

They were among the first to reach the stands, but it wasn’t long after they’d sat down and Blaise began explaining his list of predictions for the game that the rest of the school joined them. Merlin could just see among the Gryffindor stands a first year boy dancing about the edge of the stands with a camera, and cringed when he saw it point in his general direction.

“I though paparazzi weren’t allowed?” Blaise said in a mocking tone, nudging Merlin’s arm. “Maybe he thinks he’ll sell it to the Daily Prophet.”

“He can try,” Merlin said, narrowing his eyes. He was surprised to see Ginny Weasley pull the boy back into his seat, shooting a half-grimace and a silent sorry, in his direction.

Bellow, the doors opened and the two teams stepped out onto the pitch and the tumult of noise—positive and negative—drowned out any possibility of conversation.

It was a violent game. Merlin cringed as he watched players dive-bomb each other, and it felt like Madam Hooch blew her whistle every thirty-seconds. Fred and George didn’t try to hit anybody with their clubs but they didn’t pull their punches either, and the Slytherin beaters looked downright murderous.

“And Slytherin is in possession,” came the commentator’s voice, barely heard over the sheer noise from the crowd. “Flint passes to Higgs—take it from him Angelina! Rip it from his slimy—”

“Jordan!” came McGonagall’s voice. “If you can’t commentate in a non-biased manner—”

“Sorry, Professor. Higgs is in possession of the quaffle. He’s coming up to the goal posts—Wood, stop him!”

But Wood missed. The cheers from Slytherin were almost drowned out from the torrent of boos and hissing thrown in their direction.

“This is terrible,” Merlin said, rubbing his temples. He could just see Draco circling high above the pitch. He seemed to have taken Merlin’s advice to heart, and stayed out of the way of the chasers pelting up and down the field. The Gryffindor seeker—some third year Merlin had never met, hovered a good ten feet below him.

“It’ll make out victory that much sweeter,” Blaise yelled. “Go Draco!”

“Gryffindor in possession,” said Lee Jordan. “Angelina finally got that ball, good girl. Stick it to those snakes—”

“Jordan!”

Merlin plugged his ears, watching as Draco passed by above them. The blond suddenly stopped, and Blaise pulled one of Merlin’s hands away from his ear.

“He’s seen it!”

“Where?”

“There!” said Pansy, pointing. Something gold was hovering right by the Slytherin goal posts.

Draco shot toward it, but below him the Gryffindor seeker did the same thing. But whereas Draco passed above the stampede of chasers speeding down the pitch, the Gryffindor seeker flew into the chaos.

It happened so fast, Merlin didn’t see it but the next moment the Gryffindors were screaming, “FOUL,” while their seeker fell to the ground.

“What happened?” Merlin shouted, as Draco dived.

“Their seeker just took a bludger to the back!” Blaise explained. “Come on! GET IT! YES!”

And as Draco began to rise, the glittering snitch clenched in his hand, Madam Hooch blew her whistle for the last time.

Black static pressed against his eyes, and then moved to travel down his arms as tangible electric pressure. He tried to focus, to form thoughts from the quagmire, to see images through the ink blotting his vision. His headache groaned and swayed, building with his focus until he could see a man standing before him in faded colors. Merlin winced, glass behind his eyes now, but he squinted toward the person—and recognized him.

Salazar Slytherin spoke soundless, his words nothing more than the static dancing down Merlin’s arms. He watched as Salazar frowned, and shook his head before turning his back to Merlin.

Wait—

Merlin tried to reach out too him. What had he tried to tell him? But the next moment, Salazar had faded back into the black.

Merlin woke with a start. The pain had followed him through the dream. He pressed his palms against his eyes, but when the static returned he winced and massaged his temples instead. After a few minutes, the pain lessened and he was able to sit up without the room spinning.

It must’ve been a memory—one of those blocked by the curse. He winced as he thought of it. Maybe he should ask Hermione to help him research memory curses, though he quailed at the thought of her asking why. If she knew—she might just drag him to Dumbledore herself. No, maybe he’ll do some research himself.

Now that he was awake, Merlin felt cold. He shivered, and pulled his blanket up around him—but when it didn’t help the fire in the common room popped into his mind. Pulling the blanket with him, Merlin headed down to the common room. But when he reached the bottom of the stairs, he saw something that brought him to an abrupt halt.

Snape was standing behind the long black couch in front of the fire, staring into the flames. He turned around when he heard Merlin and in the gloom, Merlin almost missed the somber expression he wore. The professor cleared his throat and took a step toward Merlin.

“There’s been another attack.”

Merlin took a sharp in-take of breath. “Are they—?”

“Petrified,” Snape said, and he grimaced. “No doubt sneaking out for a midnight snack.” He paused. “I need you to come with me.”

Merlin blanched. “You don’t honestly think I—?”

“Of course not,” Snape interrupted in a furious whisper. “But as you were able to hear it last time… Dumbledore has requested you join us for a search of the castle.”

Merlin stared at him. “I’ll grab my cloak.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text


Eyes trained on the hem of the Potion Master’s cloak, Merlin trudged back to the common room. He was exhausted. They’d spent the remainder of the night in a fruitless search of the school without finding so much as a scale. The student who’d been attacked was Colin Creevey, a Gryffindor first year who had snuck out of bed for a midnight snack—they’d found a bunch of grapes beside his body, in addition to a camera with its internal components melted.

And they had nothing to go on.

Merlin rubbed his bleary eyes. The Gryffindors had been annoying, sure, but no one had gotten hurt. Not really. But with Colin Creevey? Now it was personal, and they’d be worried about the next attack. How far would they go to stop, well, him from doing it again? Even Professor McGonagall had questioned his innocence, voicing aloud whether it was wise to include Merlin in the search party before Dumbledore had exonerated him. And even then, Merlin had felt her watching his every move.

They reached the stone entrance. “Paracelsus,” Snape said and the stone slid back for entry.

The common room was deserted so early on a Sunday. Merlin yawned hugely as Snape drew out his wand and brought it to his throat. “EMERGENCY MEETING IN THE COMMON ROOM, NOW.”

Merlin winced as the magnified voice rang in his ears, going to lean against one of the couches. Snape stopped him with a simple wave of his hand.

“You’re not required for this meeting,” and Snape nodded pointedly to the stairwell where his classmates were emerging.

Merlin yawned again as he nodded. Snape would tell them everything he already knew, and he needed to crash. He heard Snape’s tenor as he entered the dormitory, the words a mimic from earlier that night.

Another attack. Colin Creevey. Gryffindor. Petrified.

Merlin fell into his bed without removing his cloak, kicking off his shoes as he lay there. He had almost dozed off when he heard someone near his bedpost whisper his name.

“Merlin, you still awake?”

It was Draco. Merlin considered not replying for a moment before changing his mind. As tired as he was, they needed to talk.

“Yeah,” he grumbled, and Merlin pulled himself into a sitting position. Draco came around to sit on the edge of his bed, looking grim and tired. He didn’t speak at first, staring into the watery blackness of the lake through the window.

“You…” Draco faltered. He shook his head and turned to Merlin. “Stay in the common room today.”

“Well, I definitely need to sleep for a week.” He managed a weak smile.

“You know what I mean,” Draco said, exasperated. “I’ll talk to Snape about sending up some food.”

“I can’t just hide from this. I’ve got classes.”

Draco gave a strained huff of laughter. “Great, now you care about your grades.”

Merlin gave him a look. “If I avoid the school I’ll only look worse. Besides, the teachers know I’m innocent. I’ll stay today,” he added when Draco opened his mouth to argue. “But if I let the Gryffindors bully me into hiding I might as well catch the next train home.”

Draco grimaced but nodded. He seemed to hesitate a moment, before pulling a piece of paper from the pocket of his robes. “Remember when you gave us permission to write home about you speaking Parselmouth?”

Merlin slowly nodded, his eyes darting down to the paper in Draco’s hands.

“Well, Snape informed us that Dumbledore wants to keep these attacks out of the Daily Prophet. He’s told the Board of Governors he is confident we will find the culprit, so they’re doing some major damage control.”

“Wait,” Merlin rubbed his eyes, “you think he’s censoring letters or something?”

“Dumbledore infringing upon student rights?” Draco snorted. “He probably just calms down the concerned parents. Anyway, most of the wizarding world worships the man so they might just trust him to take care of it.” Draco shrugged, “I doubt he even told Creevey’s parents what really happened to him, and since they’re muggles it’s not like they’d understand it anyway—you know it’s true,” he added at the look on Merlin’s face. “But Snape has asked us to be careful about what we put in our letters because of how it could impact you.

“Oh.” Merlin paused. “Did you tell him he’s a little late? Besides,” and he shook his head, “do you really think none of the Gryffindors are going to write home about it?”

 

Draco grimaced, ”I’m sure he’s aware of that. Though, let’s be fair, their parents are more likely to contact Dumbledore about their concerns than say, use it for a smear job on you. But as it turns out, no one except for me had gotten around to it. I think they were more curious to know what my father would say than theirs, in any case.” He took a deep breath. “Snape handed me this after the meeting—my owl had a late-night letter for me.”

“You haven’t even read it yet?”

“I got two.” Draco handed it to him. “This one’s for you.” Merlin took the letter, and Draco took out his wand with a soft, “Lumos.”

It was very short. In a sweeping elegant script were the words:

Full of surprises I see, young Lord.

Merlin looked up to see Draco reading his own letter—it was much longer than his. When Draco seemed to have finished, he handed his message to Draco and raised his eyebrow. “I’m so tired I can’t think—What does this mean?”

Draco glanced at it and chuckled, “He used his gold-tipped Verreaux feather quill for this—it’s the only one that does this particular loop.”

“But what does it mean?

Draco sighed, “It’s not just about what is written here. I know my father; he uses different quills for different people depending on how much he respects them. The minister gets a silver swan feather whereas some pesky underling might get a fwooper quill, you know? Now, this quill is one of his favorites—the feather is from this African black eagle. It’s a sign that he respects you, and not just for show. I mean, you wouldn’t know what quill he was using just by looking at it.”

“Lucky I have you around.”

Draco shrugged, “And he might have taken that into account, I’m not sure though I doubt it. He’s loath to use a quill for someone who doesn’t deserve it.” He re-read the message. “He doesn’t seem to have switched loyalties but, I mean, we didn’t expect him to with just this.”

“What, how can you tell?”

“It’s the young Lord, here. He’s acknowledging your power, but draws attention to your age. If was trying to cozy up to you, he’d have said my Lord.” Draco folded the message and handed it back to Merlin, grimacing now. “Also, in my letter he assured me as such. Of course, now if he decides you’re not worth the risk he’s got the ammunition to blacken your name among the magical community. ”

“What did he say?”

Draco hesitated, and then showed him the letter.

Draco,
The Board of Governors was made aware of the events on Halloween as a formality, but this detail was omitted. If the Chamber of Secrets has indeed been opened again, I expect that to change when the letters of concerned parents pour in. That being said, the Headmaster and the Board will do their best to keep a Hogwarts scandal out of the Prophet. I trust you know what this information implies, though I am well aware you would not have told me if Mr. Evans did not suggest it. I also suspect there are other displays of power he has demonstrated in order to earn your loyalty. I trust they will be revealed in due time. When last we spoke I did not extend you the courtesy of listening for I did not realize you could grow so quickly—the price of fatherhood. I will not waste a warning of caution here. You know the blood that runs through your veins.

I look forward to our next meeting.

“You hadn’t spoken to your father since you left for school?” Merlin said, handing the letter back to Draco.

“He threatened to transfer me to Durmstrang and then forbade me from associating with you,” Draco said rolling his eyes. “I didn’t feel particularly eager to let him know I had ignored him.”

“Still, it sounds like an improvement.”

Draco didn’t seem to share his thoughts though. He avoided Merlin’s eyes as he folded the paper and stuck it back inside his robes. “I know my blood. You’ve got his attention now,” and he nodded toward Merlin’s own letter, “He will keep an eye on your progress and do what he can to help you as long as it doesn’t damage his influence with more powerful players.”

“Until I become one of those players.”

Draco nodded. “He will undoubtedly try to influence you as well. Parseltongue makes you a rare asset.”

“Well, influence goes both ways,” and Merlin yawned. But there was something else sitting on his tongue, stopping him from flopping back into bed. “What happens if he does have something to do with these attacks?” Merlin’s gut clenched and he dropped his gaze. “Would you tell Snape?”

Draco swallowed. “I don’t know.” He took a shaky breath and Merlin looked up to see him running his hands through his hair. “I just don’t know. Even if I did, we don’t have proof. It’s circumstantial. I might even be wrong.”

But from the look on Draco’s face, he didn’t think he was wrong. “Are you going to tell Snape?” he asked in a bare whisper.

“No,” he said and Draco exhaled. “It’s not for me to do.”

Draco gave a stiff nod. He turned to look out the window again, at the black water shifting to murky green. “I’ll let you get to sleep,” he said, getting to his feet. “Something tells me you’re going to need it.”


The desk behind Ginny Weasley sat conspicuous. She turned around to look at it, remembered Colin Creevey sitting there, shifting and breathless like an overexcited puppy. She had been a little annoyed with him recently. He had taken to snapping photographs of everything, and his boisterous chatter had irked her but—she returned her attention to Professor McGonagall’s lecture—the silence of his desk distressed her more.

McGonagall had waited for them in the common room Sunday morning to tell them the news. Somber and thin-lipped, she had explained a new curfew, urged them not to travel alone, and to report suspicious activity directly to her. But when someone shouted Merlin’s name, she had shaken her head.

“Merlin Evans has been interrogated by the Headmaster and he believes Mr. Evans was in no way responsible for these attacks.”

But McGonagall had looked skeptical. It was clear to Ginny and the other Gryffindors that she wasn’t convinced. As soon as she’d left, the common room had exploded into furious whispers and speculations on how Merlin had avoided punishment a second time… and what they were going to do about it.

Ginny swallowed thickly. She had given up taking notes by now.

Had Fred and George been wrong? Had she misjudged Merlin? Was he actually capable of something like this? The Gryffindors had been on the warpath Sunday, probably why Merlin had made himself scarce. But she couldn’t help thinking about what would happen when they found him. And even with most of the school yelling for his head, Fred, George, and Hermione had all steadfastly refused to stand down.

She almost admired them. Well, she admired Hermione.

“Have you forgotten about last year? How he stood up to Quirrell and stopped He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named?” Hermione had cried in the common room. “You don’t know how he’s stood up for me and other muggleborns, how he’s actually tried to change the prejudices of his fellow Slytherins!”

“He’s dangerous, Hermione!”

“It might’ve all been an act to throw us off.”

“He’s a Parselmouth!”

Ron especially had tried to convince her to stay away from him. “You could be next!” he had roared in her face. “Don’t you care about that?”

“I think I’m safer with Merlin than with any of you!”

“Well when you get petrified, I’ll be sure to tell you I told you so!” Ron had shouted at her retreating back.

Ginny thought of the time Draco and Merlin had escorted Hermione up to Gryffindor Tower and chewed on the inside of her cheek. If they really were the ones doing this, wouldn’t they have attacked Hermione first? And how could he have found out Colin was muggleborn? She didn’t think Merlin had ever even talked to Colin. Well, he had been taking photos of Merlin during the Quidditch match—a fact some Gryffindors used to rationalize their argument—but it still didn’t sit well with her.

None of it did.

Class ended without her noticing and with a start, she began to pack up her things. “He’ll be all right you know,” came a dreamy voice from next to her. Luna was slowly putting her things away, cocking her head slightly in Ginny’s direction.

She must’ve noticed her periodic glances at Colin’s desk.

“I’m not worried about that.”

“You’re worried about something, though.”

For someone who’s head was always in the clouds she was shockingly observant. “I’m thinking about Merlin,” said Ginny as she slung her bag over her shoulder.

“So is everyone else.”

“What do you think?” Ginny asked, waiting for Luna to finish packing up so they could walk out of class together.

Luna hummed. “He doesn’t look well these days, does he?”

Ginny shook her head. More often than not, Merlin looked distracted, his fingers massaging his temple or, strained with bruises beneath his eyes.

“But, you would think someone stressed by false accusations and personal attacks would look worse for wear,” Luna went on.

It took a moment for Ginny to understand what she was saying. “So, you don’t think he’s the one who did it?”

“Oh, I think the Herbalist Association for the Use and Protection of Rare and Dangerous Plants are responsible—if they prove the necessity of Mandrake cultivation the Ministry will overturn their strict regulations. Did you know how lucky Hogwarts is to grow mandrakes this year? Professor Spout had to pull some serious strings. They require a very high magical content in the soil—it would kill the surrounding non-magical foliage. They also tend to kill any muggles who mistake them for wild potatoes with their screaming.”

Ginny stared at her. “You think… a group of herbologists are petrifying kids because they want to grow Mandrakes?”

“It makes sense, doesn’t it,” and Luna gave a wistful carefree smile. “I’ll see you next week,” and she skipped away down the hall.

Ginny shook her head. She didn’t understand that girl at all. That had to be the most outlandish theory she’d ever heard—and yet— she gave a small smile and made her way down the corridor to Charms.

She had just turned around the corner when two huge figures covered in thick brown fur leapt out from behind a pillar, hissing and spitting. Ginny gave an almighty scream, jumping a foot in the air, and one of the things fell over laughing—fur rolling on the ground.

She knew that laugh. “FRED?” She shrieked. “George? What the bloody hell are you playing at?”

“We know how distraught you were about Mrs. Norris,” said Fred, wiping tears from his eyes now.

“Thought we’d take your mind off things.”

“THAT’S NOT HOW YOU DO IT!” Ginny screeched. But they only laughed harder, and she stalked away, the back of her neck scarlet. Let’s see how hard they’re laughing when I perfect my first hex, she thought darkly.

Besides—she took a seat in Charms class and as she began to pull out her things her fingers brushed against the diary—she didn’t need their help. She had Tom to talk to now.


“You really should see Snape,” Hermione said, and Merlin had to grudgingly admit she was right.

They were walking down to dinner, having met up with Hermione in the library beforehand. But he wasn’t hungry. In fact, the idea of food brought with it a wave of nausea. It wasn’t just the headache anymore, though that was still an excruciating factor. He felt drained, exhausted. Draco hadn’t been sugarcoating it when he said the Gryffindors would be out for blood. They didn’t attack him out right—worried about getting petrified he supposed—but the jeering, hissing, and promises to prove his guilt weighed on him. They dogged his steps all day, hands clamped around their wands as though ready to hex him the minute he spoke Parseltongue. Fun times.

They reached the Great Hall and at the idea of sitting there while his head pounded and his stomach clenched as another swell of hissing burned in his ears, Merlin made up his mind. “Yeah, I’m going to see Snape,” he announced. “I’m not hungry anyway.”

And he turned on his heel, making a beeline for the dungeons. He thought he heard Draco and Hermione call after him, but Merlin ignored them. He was tired of this, tired of the ache behind his eyes.

Merlin went to barge into Snape’s office as he normally did, when he was met with a locked door. He pushed against it for a moment, and was about to blast it open with magic when he groaned. Of course, Snape was at dinner with everyone else. That’s why his friends had tried to call him back. It was so obvious he should’ve thought of it. Merlin brought his fingers to his temples, and closed his eyes.

Get a grip.

“And why aren’t you at dinner, Merlin?”

Merlin gave a little jolt and turned to see the Bloody Baron. Merlin gestured to Snape’s office with a grimace. “Looking for Snape.”

“Ah.” The ghost was silent for a moment. “Actually, I was hoping for a word…”

Merlin shrugged and pressed his back against Snape’s door, letting himself slide to the ground. He’d have to wait until after dinner anyway. “Now’s good.”

“You are skipping dinner?”

Merlin shrugged again, and though the Baron raised his eyebrow, he didn’t press the issue. Instead he drifted closer to Merlin, glancing once up and down the corridor. “It’s this Chamber of Secrets situation. I remember when it was last opened.”

Merlin stared at him. “Of course you do!” he sighed and rubbed his temples again. Why hadn’t he gone to find the Baron right after Halloween? Somehow it’d totally slipped his mind.

“Are you well, Merlin? I must say you look rather ill.”

“Why I’m here, but anyway,” Merlin said, shaking his head. “What happened last time?”

“It is complicated,” and the Baron shifted uncomfortably. “You recall that as a ghost I need not concern myself with daily events?”

Merlin deflated. “Well, what do you have? Who opened it at least?”

Baron looked rather surprised. “Why, Tom Riddle, of course. But you knew that.”

Merlin nodded. “I suspected. It’s good to have confirmation.”

“Yes. He opened the chamber while he was a student here. Dreadful business, I tell you. I didn’t find out until after the fact however,” the Baron admitted. “At the time, Rubeus Hagrid was blamed for the attacks.”

“What? You’re kidding!”

“I wish I was. The lad has always had a bad habit of fostering dangerous creatures, and Tom used it to his advantage. He was a Prefect at the time. He framed Hagrid, but following an investigation Dumbledore was able to acquit him. Still, he had been attempting to raise an acromantula in the school—I’m not even sure how he acquired the thing—and was expelled for endangering his fellow students. Though, I’m sure not everyone at the ministry is convinced of his innocence.”

“I see,” Merlin said mulling this over. “But who is opening the chamber this time? I wouldn’t expect Voldemort to pull the same move twice and possess someone at the school.”

“Well, he’s certainly not doing it the same way,” the Baron said. “Dumbledore took extra precautions to ensure that wouldn’t happen. In any case, I haven’t head of him leaving Albania.”

Merlin frowned. “But if Voldemort is still in Albania—”

“How is he opening the Chamber of Secrets?” the Baron finished gravely. “How indeed? Though I will tell you that no Slytherin left the common room the night the young Gryffindor was attacked—I had been lurking in the dungeons during the occurrence and no snake could have slipped past me.”

Merlin ran his fingers through his hair, “But that makes no sense! Salazar’s Heir would need to know Parseltongue, wouldn’t he? And as far as I’ve been told, it’s a uniquely Slytherin trait.”

“I wish I could be of more help,” the Bloody Baron said.

“So do I, but I’ll take what I can get,” Merlin sighed, offering a weak smile. He began to massage his temples again. The Baron watched him for a moment.

I’ll fetch Snape for you.”

“Oh, I’m fine waiting,” but even as he said it, he felt another stab of pain and winced.

“Consider it my apology for not being more helpful,” and the Baron rose to vanish through the ceiling.

Now alone, Merlin shivered. The cold dankness of the floor beneath him seeped through his robes, and with some hesitation he got to his feet. He didn’t want Snape to find him sitting there, anyway. But what did this mean? He had been so convinced that if Lucius somehow knew the Chamber of Secrets would be opened this year, it meant Voldemort was somehow involved. But the Baron said Voldemort hadn’t left Albania since his return at the end of last year.

Maybe Lucius didn’t know anything. Maybe he really had just wanted to transfer Draco because of the possibility that his friendship with Merlin could hurt them. Draco would be pleased at least—he’d no longer have to wrestle with himself about turning his father in. But who was responsible for these attacks then? It wasn’t a Slytherin, at least according to the Bloody Baron. Snape too hadn’t believed any of them were responsible. But the heir would need to speak Parseltongue! Of that, Merlin was certain.

And who could speak it, if not a Slytherin? And if Voldemort was somehow responsible, how on earth was he doing it?

Merlin heard Snape’s footsteps and took a deep breath. He’d return to this problem later. The Bloody Baron wasn’t with him, and to his surprise Snape looked concerned. His brows were knitted. What had the Baron said to him?

“Sorry to drag you away from dinner,” Merlin said as he neared.

Snape halted in the corridor. “You must be ill.” He surveyed him for a long moment. Merlin wasn’t sure what he was trying to see; the professor’s face looked oddly guarded.

“What?” Merlin finally asked, folding his arms.

“This is the first time the Baron has ever fetched me on behalf of a student.”

“I asked him nicely.”

Snape raised his eyebrow and opened his office with a wave of his hand. “Somehow, I can’t picture such a thing.”

“Right.” Merlin followed him into the office. He squinted his eyes when Snape lit the candles, having gotten used to the gloom of the corridor. It evidently did not escape Snape’s notice.

“I gather this is about that persistent headache of yours.”

“You would be correct.” Merlin pinched the bridge of his nose. “I think it’s mostly stress and lack of sleep causing it though.”

Whether or not Snape believed him, he didn’t know. But after another moment of silence, Snape went into a side room and returned with a small vial. “My personal headache potion—it’s a little stronger than the regular potion, but I think you need it.”

“I won’t argue that,” Merlin grimaced, and he downed the drink. It tasted strongly of lavender, which might have been pleasant had it not been so overpowering. He was grimacing at the woody aftertaste when the effects hit him so hard that he swayed. Snape grabbed his elbow to keep him steady.

“The dizziness will pass.”

It did, and with it came the realization that it didn’t hurt anymore. His head instead felt pleasantly warm, and a little heavy like he hadn’t slept well in weeks—which he hadn’t. It’d been such a long time that Merlin hadn’t realized how much pain he’d been living with everyday. He gave a real smile, and Snape let go of his arm.

“That stuff is amazing.”

You’re welcome.

“Oh right, thanks.”

“Now, why weren’t you at dinner?” Snape asked, taking the empty vial back.

“I wanted to get a headache potion.”

“Clearly, you would’ve had to wait until after dinner.”

“Right.” Merlin fidgeted. He didn’t want to say he had forgotten that detail at the time. “I just, well, I didn’t want to be surrounded by people who hate me.”

“An understandable notion, but consider for a moment what would happen if there had been another attack during dinner and no one to account for your whereabouts?”

Merlin blanched. He hadn’t thought of that either.

“Precisely,” Snape continued. “I’d recommend you figure out a way to tolerate the impudent stares and attend every meal. I do believe the Gryffindors will look for any excuse to implicate you in Creevey’s attack, or a future one, and there’s no reason to make their job easier.”

The idea of another attack sat uncomfortably in Merlin’s gut, and yet he knew it would be true if they didn’t figure out who was responsible. His throat too tight for speech, Merlin nodded.

“Good. Now, lets return to dinner. I left my plate half-eaten.”


In the following weeks, paranoia ran rampant through the students. A few Ravenclaws began selling amulets and talismans that exploded in popularity. At least once a day, a Gryffindor would dangle a rabbit foot or other such nonsense in front of Merlin and order him to speak the truth. He found out after one particularly exhausting day that retaliating in Parseltongue did not help matters.

His fellow Slytherins were similarly strained. Gryffindors and Ravenclaws kept trying to convince them to turn Merlin in, to admit what everyone already knew, though they went about it in different ways. Gryffindors tried to appeal to their sense of honor. Ravenclaws tried to prove his guilt and failing that, bribery. Neither worked.

First chance he got, Merlin asked Fred and George whether they had seen anything on their map.

“We were asleep at the time,” Fred said with a grimace. “We’ll keep an eye on it though. Maybe we’ll get lucky and catch the next one.” He hadn’t sounded confident though. And, Hermione, Draco, and Merlin hadn’t gotten any closer to finding out what kind of snake they were looking for or how it managed to slip in and out of the castle without anyone noticing.

The only good thing was Snape’s headache potion, which worked like a charm but didn’t last very long. The second time, he had asked Snape how to brew it himself and though Snape had seemed somewhat suspicious—Merlin had told him he was only curious—gave him the recipe. Merlin had then gone up to his dormitory during break and had brewed an entire cauldron full under his bed to use as he needed—which turned out to be every other day. It left him with a heavy sensation of warmth behind his eyes that lasted up until the pain returned, but he hadn’t felt this good in weeks, and decided he had enough to worry about. The Gryffindors of course took his improved attitude as proof he’d managed to escape punishment. Just thinking about it almost brought his headache back.

In the second week of December, Snape came around to take the names of everyone going home over the holidays. Merlin signed up at once, as did every other Slytherin.

“Maybe we’ll get lucky and the Heir will attack someone over the holidays,” Blaise had muttered to him, “At least it’d exonerate us.”

But on December 17th Merlin and Draco had come down to the common room to find a new notice on the board. A small crowd of Slytherins had gathered around it.

“A dueling club?” Draco read aloud.

“I can think of so many ways that could go poorly,” Merlin said, leaning in to read the sign. It said the first meeting was that night, in the Great Hall.

“Come on, Merlin. I know you have dueling experience but for the rest of us, it’s a little hard to come by,” said Draco.

“Funny. You imagine dueling this heir?”

“You never know.”

And so, ten minutes to 8 o’clock, he and Draco met Hermione outside the library and headed down to the Great Hall.

“Who do you think is going to teach us?” Hermione asked, her eyes bright and excited. “I heard that Flitwick was a dueling champion back in the day.”

“Flitwick? I put my money on Snape. My father told me he’s a formidable dueler, and everyone knows he’s keen on teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts one day.”

Packed with what looked like the rest of the school, the four long tables of the Great Hall had been put away. Instead a raised platform with gold trimming was in the middle of the room, a thousand candles hovering in the air above. But as soon as they entered, the cheerful chatter stumbled to a halt as heads swiveled in Merlin’s direction.

“I knew this was a bad idea,” Merlin muttered through clenched teeth. He was acutely aware of the fact that everyone was holding their wands.

“It’s fine,” but Draco didn’t look convinced. He swallowed, then lifted his head and sneered at anyone who met his eyes as he led the way towards a group of Slytherins huddled in the back corner. Merlin and Hermione followed, students pulling back from him as if he were the carrier of some terrible disease.

Then, from somewhere in the crowd, a voice called, “What’s the Heir of Slytherin doing here?”

“We’re supposed to be learning how to fight him!

They reached the band of Slytherins and Blaise stepped forward to greet them, grimacing. “Cheerful bunch, aren’t they? Hello, Granger.”

“Hello.” She glanced behind her, chewing on her bottom lip. Merlin noticed.

“If you want to join them, you can,” he said gently, and Hermione turned to him looking startled.

“I don’t want to!” she said at once. “I’m just concerned about safety…”

“I was rather thinking that myself!” came a voice behind them, and they turned to see Ron pushing his way toward the crowd to them. Behind him was Dean Thomas and Seamus Finnegan, along with a few other Gryffindor’s Merlin hadn’t had the pleasure of meeting. He thought he saw Fred and George making their way over to them in the background.

“I meant Merlin’s,” Hermione said, and she folded her arms.

At that, there was some scattered laughter. “His safety?” Ron said, his eyebrows rising so high they were in danger of disappearing. “What about our safety?”

“What’s the matter, Weasley?” Draco sneered, moving slowly to stand a little in front of Merlin. “Scared he’ll petrify you while everyone’s watching?”

“He can’t. I’m a pureblood.”

“I’m sure he could make an exception—”

“That’d be if I was the one petrifying anybody,” Merlin interrupted, giving Draco a pointed look. Ron had started white knuckling his wand.

“Hermione, get away from him,” Ron glowered.

“How many times do I have to tell you—!” Hermione began, exasperated, but Ron ignored her. He seized her wrist and attempted to wrench her out of the way.

“Hey!” Merlin protested, and on an impulse he stepped forward to intervene. This, however, turned out to be a huge mistake. Jumpy, eager for a fight, Ron jerked his wand at Merlin and shouted, “Everte Statum!”

The force of the spell hit Merlin so hard, it threw him into the group of Slytherins behind him in a mess of tangled limbs. Gasping for the wind kicked from his lungs, Merlin dimly heard a furious roar and the next minute, people were screaming as curses flashed back and forth above his head.

Theodore was hit by a spell from Seamus Finnegan, and he toppled to the floor as he legs froze. Draco hit Dean Thomas, and his legs started moving in an uncontrollable quickstep. Hermione yelled for them to stop, and then hit Ron with a full-body bind. Merlin staggered to his feet, but before he had even decided what to do—and narrowly dodged a flash of red—Snape’s magically amplified voice cracked like a whip over the vociferous noise.

“Finite Incantatum!”

Dean’s legs stopped moving, Theodore could move his, and Ron got to his feet massaging the back of his head. There was a moment’s pause as Snape swept between them, looking from one to the other with silent fury.

“He attacked us first!” Ron shouted, jabbing a finger at merlin.

“I didn’t start this!”

“You started it when you attacked Colin Creevey!”

“I’m not the one attacking people, unlike someone!” Merlin bellowed back, and Draco grabbed his shoulder as though worried he might need to hold Merlin back.

Merlin was so fixated on Ron, he didn’t notice Gilderoy Lockhart until he stepped in between them, performing a multitude of sweeping placating gestures. “Please, everyone calm down, all right? I’m sure we can sort this out.”

No one acknowledged him.

“We all saw you shouting Parseltongue in the corridor!” Ron went on, folding his arms.

Silence!” Snape hissed, his lip curling and Ron visibly swallowed. “Fifty points from Gryffindor,” and at the cries of disapproval he added, “and Detention, Weasley—I know who threw the first punch.”

Ron’s ears went brick red and though his mouth twisted as if he wished to retort, he bit the inside of his cheek and nodded—throwing a look of utter loathing in Merlin’s direction.

Merlin pushed Draco’s hand off him, holding Ron’s expression. He wouldn’t be intimidated. Let Ron come at him—he clearly didn’t know whom he was messing with. How could he be so thick? He knew Ron was scared and lashing out, but Merlin found it hard to be sympathetic. This—acting impulsively and violently against what you fear never ended well. It ended with witch burnings and bad blood. It ended with pain and regret.

Merlin had seen it before.

“Now, now,” Lockhart said, pushing Draco aside to stand next to Merlin and—of course—sling his arm around Merlin’s shoulders. Merlin shot him a poisonous look, but Lockhart wasn’t paying attention. He was smiling at Ron like one would at a five-year-old child. “I understand that this is a trying time for all of you, but lay blame where blame is deserved!”

Lockhart steered Merlin toward the stage, ignoring his protests with a whispered, “Trust me.” Merlin didn’t know anyone who he trusted less, and when he failed to pull away, wondered whether Lockhart used had magic to somehow glue himself to Merlin.

Professor Lockhart—” Snape began, following them up onto the platform.

“These students are scared of him, Professor Snape,” Lockhart interrupted, waving his other arm toward the crowd. “And they have every reason to be. I mean, he’s become something of a celebrity for taking down Quirrell,” and Lockhart gave a little laugh as though he thought Merlin’s newfound fame was amusing. “I understand—I understand, but I assure you, you have nothing to worry about.”

“That’s what I’ve been—” Merlin said, trying to wrench himself from Lockhart’s grip.

“Not while I’m here!” Lockhart went on loudly over him. “I’ll show you all that he’s really quite harmless.”

Merlin was so surprised he stopped struggled. “I’m sorry?” he said staring up at Lockhart. Was he serious?

Snape cleared his throat and took a slow step toward him, his eyes darting to Merlin and back, “Do you mean to say,” he said in clipped tones, “that you intend to duel Merlin?”

“I know you were looking forward to it Professor Snape,” Lockhart said with a great sigh, “but circumstances change!” and he gave a hearty laugh. “No—these students think Merlin is Slytherin’s Heir. What a better way to show them he means no harm than with a sporting, demonstrative duel? After all, we all know he understands how to duel. I’m sure he’ll do the job admirably!”

“Professor—” came a nervous voice from the crowd and Lockhart waved his hand nonchalantly. “Quirrell was nothing compared to me, don’t you worry,” and he winked in their direction.

Snape’s eyes narrowed and he stepped closer to them, his tone dropping. “I hardly think the headmaster would approve of such a thing.”

“He’s already granted me permission to start this little dueling club,” Lockhart replied, not bothering to keep his voice down. “I’m sure he’d approve of anything that would assuage the worries of his students.” He looked out to the students gathered and raised his voice, “When I’m through with him, you’ll all realize Merlin means you no harm.”

“Fine,” Merlin found himself saying.

“No—” Snape said, but Merlin met his eyes.

“I’m doing it,” he said. At the very least, maybe it’d stop Ron from impulsively cursing him again.

“Excellent!” Lockhart said. Then, he dipped his head to Merlin’s ear and whispered, “But of course, it will only work if you let it.”

Merlin felt something cold settle in the pit of his stomach. “—What?” he hissed back, narrowing his eyes. “You’re asking me to lose on purpose!”

Lockhart chuckled and shook his head, as if Merlin completely misunderstood. “I’m only trying to help you improve your image,” he said, giving him a patronizing look.

Merlin grabbed his arm with his hand, trying to pull it off him. He knew exactly what Lockhart was doing. He was trying to make himself look better. This had nothing to do with Merlin at all, and he wasn’t going to stand for it.

“Get off me,” Merlin spat when Lockhart wouldn’t let go. The candles above them flickered as if caught in a sudden wind.

“You must understand—”

“Oh, I understand,” Merlin cut across. “I said I’d do it, but I’m not going to just let you win.”

“Merlin—”

And like that, his frustration reached its limit. Without really intending to do it, a shock of magical energy rushed through Merlin. Lockhart jumped and let go as if he’d been electrocuted, that plastic smile falling for a single breath. Before Lockhart had a chance to say anything—or try to touch him again—Snape swooped in and ushered him away.

“You should decline,” Snape said with a meaningful look at Lockhart, who was now engaging the crowd.

“I’m not going to let him make a fool of me,” Merlin retorted, his jaw stiff.

Snape regarded him for a moment before nodding. “Why don’t you try using a simple disarming spell? Expelliarmus should do the trick without causing undue panic.”

Merlin swallowed hard but nodded in agreement. As much as he wanted to wipe the floor with Lockhart, that would be the last straw for the watching Gryffindors.

“Now,” announced Lockhart, waving him over. “The etiquette of dueling requires the opponents to bow to each other—come Merlin—”

With one final look at Snape, Merlin walked forward and gave a stilted bow. Lockhart did his with large sweeping gestures with his hands before straightening again, beaming at him.

“Bring your wand to the accepted combatant position,” Lockhart instructed, whipping out his wand and holding it in front of him like a sword. Merlin followed suit. Was he mistaken, or was Lockhart regarding the curled shape of his wand with envy? “Now, on the count of three, we will cast our spells. Neither of us will be aiming to kill, of course. Ready?”

Merlin nodded jerkily and tightened his grip on his wand. It wasn’t a real wand of course, but it felt nice to white-knuckle something. He repeated Snape’s Expelliarmus in his head.

Lockhart took a deep breath. “Go!” and instead of counting down like he said he would, Lockhart waved his wand and shouted, “Garrio!” hitting Merlin square in the chest.

Merlin doubled over at the blow, but though he felt like he’d just been punched in the windpipe, everything seemed to be working. There was an outcry from the crowd. He heard cheering mingled with screams of foul. Merlin bit the side of his cheek and straightened, massaging his throat. He thought he heard Snape ask him if he was all right, but he didn’t reply.

If Lockhart was going to fight dirty—

Merlin jerked his wand to Lockhart, and tried to say, “Expelliarmus,” but what came out was a half mumbled, slurring of sound. Confused, he tried again but it was like he couldn’t control his tongue. At this point, the crowd had noticed and laughter began to swell. Lockhart dropped his wand, looking triumphant. He took a step back, gesturing towards Merlin.

“What did I tell you? Harmless!”

It was his bloody spell! But Merlin didn’t need to speak in order to cast a spell. Burning with embarrassment and fury, Merlin stashed his wand back in his robes and began to advance on Lockhart. But just as the laughter took a sudden drop in volume, Snape grabbed him back.

“L-let go of me—he ch-cheated!” he managed to stutter, earning another peel of laughter from the Gryffindors.

“It’s not worth it,” Snape hissed in his ear.

But that only made Merlin angrier. Was he just supposed to take it? The rational part of his brain tried to say that this was good, that perhaps letting the school see him in a less threatening light would improve relations—or, he argued, it’ll just make it look like a professor has given everyone permission to pull their wands on him.

“Would you like a second try?” Lockhart asked Merlin, bending slightly toward him. The condescension in his voice burned in Merlin’s ears. Snape might be right that he wasn’t worth it, but he certainly didn’t need to stand here and let him bully him. And this time, it wasn’t wholly accidental when a shock of magic coursed through him—making Snape abruptly let go. Above, a patch of candles flickered and died.

Without looking at anyone, he jumped off stage. “Get out of my way,” Merlin snarled at a chuckling Hufflepuff boy, blocking his path to the main doors. His laughter cut off as he jumped to the side, and Merlin broke into a run once he’d reached the entrance hall.

Oh, what wouldn’t he give to curse Lockhart into oblivion?

 

Chapter Text

Merlin stood on the Dueling Club platform, royal purple cloth beneath his shoes. He could feel the eyes of a hundred silent faces watching him, but he refused to shift his gaze. Standing in front of him was Gilderoy Lockhart, dressed in violently red robes, and bowing with a single extravagant sweep of his arms. Merlin saw the way Lockhart’s hand tightened on his wand, a manic glint in his forget-me-not eyes, and acted. With a jerk of his wand, Lockhart flew back in a high arc, crimson billowing about him, and landed with a shattering thud on the other end of the platform. The ends of his robes drifted slowly to the ground, like party streamers. And then, the fabric shifted, oozing in a slow river of blood, until it stained Merlin’s shoes.

“Murderer.”

It began as a whisper, a soft chant, until the crowd was yelling, screaming it into his ears.

“MURDERER!”

Merlin clamped his hands over his ears and ran, ran into the entry hall and out the front doors. He ran until he was deep within the Forbidden Forest, blackness encroaching upon his vision. And as his pace slowed, he heard a voice light with laughter that brought him to a staggered pause.

“I don’t think Rowena will ever forget that one.”

It was his voice.

Merlin backtracked, following the sound of muted chuckling, and broke into a clearing where two people sat around a crackling campfire. It was him. Though he was older, imposing with silent power. He could see it in the fine blue robes he wore, not at all like his days as a servant. But, he was still relatively young, his hair still dark, the hem of his robes stained with clay-like mud from the road. Opposite him was a man he recognized as Salazar Slytherin. He was leaning against a piece of deadwood, his dark robes tinted with green and gold. Like Merlin, he had dark hair but it was longer and well kempt, even here in the middle of the woods.

Salazar laughed at the other Merlin’s comment, before the sound tapered off and his green eyes darkened. “Everything’s changed.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean now that King Arthur has legalized magic again. I saw a child in the town we past, openly playing with a magic ring—no doubt gotten it from his parents. He’d amassed a crowd of villagers, all admiring the image of a dog he had created with water from the well.” Salazar paused and shook his head, looking troubled. “A little over a year ago they would’ve dragged him screaming to the pyre.”

“We fought hard to get here,” Merlin said, slowly.

“Indeed.” And Salazar paused again before leaning forward and bringing his hands together. “But, what about the hundreds of druids and warlocks who were burned at the stake? The villagers play nice with us now, but they were once our executioners. Are we expected to just forget it ever happened?”

The scene began to swirl with blackness, but Merlin strained to hear Salazar’s words.

“Where is the justice?” Salazar went on, now getting to his feet. “I know children that have watched their parents murdered before their eyes, and parents who’ve had to bury their children. And while they nurse their grief, the murderers walk free.”

Murderers.

Murderer.

His head was splitting. The scene dissolved before his eyes and Merlin woke with a start. He was standing in the middle of the common room. He managed to grab the back of one of the black couches before his knees gave out beneath him, his breathing fast and shallow. The pain, so sharp and intense before, melted away and in its place came the fogginess of the headache potion.

He’d never sleep walked before. Perhaps it was a side effect? He’d taken a dose last night to help him sleep.

Merlin shivered, his bare arms prickling with Goosebumps and staggered over to the fireplace. He sat down in front of it, staring at the flames as the heat danced across his skin. Maybe he should mention it to Snape in the morning—or maybe he should stop taking the potion at night. It probably wasn’t meant for sustained use like this. His eyelids drooped, and before he even registered falling asleep, he felt someone shaking his shoulder.

“Merlin! Did you sleep here last night?”

Merlin opened his eyes. He seemed to have curled up on the hearth in front of the fire. Draco kneeled next to him, his eyes wide and concerned. He helped ease Merlin into a sitting position, and Merlin grimaced, his hand going to his head.

It felt like—like he’d been out drinking all night at the pub. A dull pulsating throb had settled somewhere next to his temple. What was he doing here? Why wasn’t he in bed?

“Do you not remember?” Draco asked in a panicked whisper.

“I think I’m going to skip class today,” Merlin said, now pinching his nose. He’d feel better after a couple more hours of sleep—not to mention another dose of that potion he had hiding under his bed. He got gingerly to his feet with Draco’s help.

“Good idea,” Draco said though he still looked nervous, “I’ll tell Professor Flitwick you weren’t feeling well.”

Merlin nodded and stumbled back up the stairs to his dormitory. He didn’t pay any attention to the other boys who were getting ready for the day, and instead collapsed into bed, clumsily yanking the curtains to hide him from view. He was asleep seconds after his head hit his pillow.

When Merlin woke up several hours later it took him a few moments to remember why he was still in bed while everyone else had gone to class. It came to him like a half-remembered dream, Draco waking him next to the fireplace.

“Get it together,” he muttered, shaking his head. The movement made him nauseas with pain, and he reached under his bed to grab another dose of headache potion. And with the pain muted, Merlin got dressed and headed down to the common room.

A quick look at the clock told him he was missing History of Magic. Merlin hesitated a moment, then made his way out of the dungeons. He’d just had a bad night, that was all—a bad night following that terrible display at the Dueling Club.

It burned just to think of it. Yesterday, after storming out of the Great Hall, Merlin had been so furious with Lockhart that he’d sworn off ever going to another one of his classes. It’s not like the man was capable of teaching Merlin anything. And, he shouldn’t have let Lockhart get away with embarrassing him like that! Yes, allowing the “professor” to beat him might calm the panic about being Slytherin’s Heir—or it might make everyone think Merlin was fair game. He should’ve just—the dream from that night popped into Merlin’s mind and he winced.

Or maybe it really had been for the better and he was just being bitter.

Merlin was so preoccupied with his thoughts that he collided with something massive and unyielding in the corridor. The strong scent of pine and animal musk filled his nostrils.

“Yer alright there, Merlin?”

Merlin took a fast-step back, shaking his head. “Yeah,” he said, looking up into bearded face of Hagrid, the Groundskeeper.

“Why ain’t ya in class?” Hagrid asked, and Merlin wondered for a moment whether the giant also suspected he was the Heir of Slytherin. Everyone knew Hagrid got on well with Gryffindor house. But, Merlin saw crinkled concern in the giant’s dark eyes and relaxed. It was somehow encouraging to know that not everyone hated him.

“Rough morning,” Merlin said glumly, and Hagrid appraised him for a second.

“Don’ let them bother you, Merlin. Yer a good kid.”

“Thanks,” but Merlin couldn’t find it in him to smile. Not sure what else to say, he looked down and was somewhat surprised to find that Hagrid was holding a dead rooster.

“Oh, this?” Hagrid said, noticing. “The second one killed this year, an’ I need the Headmaster’s permission to but a charm ‘round the coup.”

Merlin nodded, silent.

“You sure yer alright?” Hagrid asked.

Merlin didn’t know how to answer that, but he was spared from trying. At that moment, he heard that terrible chilling voice drift down the corridor, and stiffened.

“Kill… time to kill…”

Hagrid must’ve noticed his abrupt change in posture because he asked, almost urgently, “What’s the matter?”

“It’s attacking again,” Merlin whispered, turning on his heel and looking wildly around the corridor. It had sounded so close. Without a backward glance at Hagrid, he ran, straining to hear the voice again over the sound of his pounding footsteps.

Merlin careened around a corner and tripped over something in the hallway, crashing to the ground. Knee smarting, Merlin rolled over to see what he’d fallen over and closed his eyes in dismay.

He was too late.

There, lying on the floor was a boy in Hufflepuff robes. Dimly, Merlin recognized his face. Justin—something. He had been at the Dueling Club last night, too. But floating just above him, and far more concerning, was Nearly Headless Nick, the Gryffindor ghost. Merlin got shakily to his feet, staring at the apparition who was no longer a shimmering silver but a heavy unnatural charcoal. They both wore an expression of shock, eyes wide and mouth slightly ajar.

Breathing hard, Merlin looked up and down the corridor. What should he do? He could hear Professor McGonagall shouting at a student a few doors down in the Transfiguration classroom—something about a student turning his friend into a badger. But would she believe that he didn’t have anything to do with this? Merlin hesitated, feeling unsteady on his feet. What if he just left?

The sound of thunderous footfalls told him that Hagrid had followed him, and sure enough, the giant came around the corner a moment later, the jerking movement of his hands sending rooster feathers all over the corridor. He stumbled to a stop just before he too tripped over Justin’s petrified body. He looked from the boy to Nearly Headless Nick to, and finally, Merlin.

“I didn’t—” Merlin started to say, unsure of why he was defending himself when he’d just been with Hagrid, but he was interrupted by one of the side doors bursting open with a bang.

Peeves the Poltergeist emerged and cackled at the sight of him. “Why, it’s Merlin! What’s ol’ Merlin doing skipping classes? Why—” he flipped and froze in mid-air, his eyes falling on the petrified forms of Justin and Nearly Headless Nick. He flipped back up again, filled his lungs, and just as Hagrid boomed, “Wait!” shouted into the corridor, “ATTACK, ATTACK, ANOTHER ATTACK! NO MORTAL OR GHOST IS SAFE! RUN FOR YOUR LIVES! ATTACK!”

The doors along the corridor slammed open, one after another, a mass of students rushing toward them in a mad stampede of electrified panic. Merlin found himself getting swept up by the crowd until Hagrid seized his shoulder and brought him to stand next to him, his broad girth protecting Justin from getting trampled.

“E’rebody calm down!” Hagrid roared, sticking out an arm to stop a Ravenclaw boy from accidentally walking into Nearly Headless Nick.

“You caught him!” someone shouted, pointing to Merlin hovering next to Hagrid.

“No, I—” Merlin tried to say but he drowned out by yells of congratulations, while others snapped that, “it was about time,” and Merlin would finally, “get what’s coming to him.”

Merlin clenched his fists, even as Hagrid tried to tell the deaf crowd otherwise. He despised mobs. Nothing good ever came of them. They were swelling masses of fear and hysteria, acting impulsively in order to satisfy their own panic. He could just imagine what might’ve happened if Hagrid hadn’t been around to act as a barrier.

“Professor!” Hagrid said, turning. Merlin turned too—Professor McGonagall had arrived with her class, one of the boys behind her still with black and white hair. She set off a loud bang with her wand, silencing the crowd.

“Everyone return to your classes!” she ordered.

Above them, Peeves cackled maliciously. The Poltergeist danced above the heads of the retreating students, and as McGonagall and Hagrid bent to examine the petrified student and immobile ghost, Peeves broke into song:

Oh Merlin, you Slytherin, oh look at that smirk,
You’re finishing Ol’ Salazar’s noble work—

Merlin shot the ghost a poisonous look and Peeves finished with a loud wet raspberry, before zooming away backward, laughing manically the whole way.

Professor McGonagall conjured a stretcher for Justin and Hagrid lifted him onto it with ease. But, what about Nearly Headless Nick? Even Merlin felt a prickle of anxiety—what could do that to a ghost? How were they supposed to revive him? Professor McGonagall conjured a fan, which she gave to one of her students with the order to waft him down to the infirmary, though Merlin wondered what was the point if they couldn’t undo…whatever had been done to him. But as soon as Nearly Headless Nick vanished from view, Professor McGonagall turned and Merlin knew at once she blamed him.

“Professor,” he began, swallowing. “I didn’t—”

“This is out of my hands, Evans,” she cut across.

“It wasn’t him,” Hagrid said, frowning. “It can’t have been. I was talkin’ to him seconds before it happened. He never had time.”

“Be that as it may, the Headmaster would still like to talk to him in light of—this,” Professor McGonagall said stiffly. “Hagrid, please go tell Madam Pomfrey what’s happened, I’ll be along shortly,” and with that she led the way down the corridor. Merlin gave Hagrid a feeble smile—really more of a grimace—and followed her.

Well, at least Dumbledore would believe he was innocent, Merlin thought as he followed Professor McGonagall up a staircase and down another corridor. He kept his eyes trained on his shoes, still seeing the blackened ghost behind his eyes. Ahead, Professor McGonagall came to stop and Merlin stopped just before he walked into her, looking up to see a large stone gargoyle at the end of the corridor.

“Sherbet Lemon,” she said.

Merlin watched as Gargoyle sprang aside and the wall behind splitted in two, revealing a spiral staircase. He followed the professor onto the stairs, which jerked into movement beneath them, the walls closing with a thud. Honestly, why didn’t they have moving staircases like this in all of the towers? Just as Merlin started to feel rather dizzy the staircase came to a stop before a glossy oak door with a brass knocker in the shape of a griffin.

Professor McGonagall did not enter with him. She opened the door, ushered him inside, and left him alone as the door shut with a snap behind him.

Save for a sickly red bird sitting on a perch near an immaculate oak desk, the room was devoid of life. Merlin breathed in relief. Now that he was here, he was less confident. Surely Dumbledore believed him? He shook his head and took a moment to admire the delicate instruments that filled the beautiful circular office, each spinning and giving off soft little chimes while puffs of light blue smoke rose into the air. Portraits elderly witches and wizards lined the walls, snoozing gently in their frames. And there, on a shelf behind the claw-footed desk, was the Hogwarts Sorting Hat.

At the sight of something so familiar, Merlin felt a rush of longing. He crossed over to it, and ran his fingers over the tattered material. This—this was something from his time. He lifted it off the shelf, eying the rip that had announced his house and thought of something. It was from his time. Maybe it knew something about the Chamber of Secrets, back when it was built! It was worth a shot. He put it on and it slid over his eyes, just as it had last time.

For a moment nothing happened and then he heard a voice in his ear, far more concerned than he had expected it to be. “Why Merlin! This is not good at all!”

What? Merlin thought, confused. What’s not good?

“You have not noticed?” The Sorting Hat said, sounding almost indignant. “Do you not remember what I said about the memory curse?”

It took a several moments for Merlin to remember what the hat was talking about. When it had sorted him into Slytherin, the Sorting Hat had mentioned he had some sort of curse on his memories. It was why he couldn’t remember meeting the Bloody Baron, or Lady Helena, or, indeed, much of anything after signing the order to build Hogwarts.

What about it?

“It’s active again! You have numbed the pain, but it is attacking your mind.”

Merlin frowned. But as a memory curse it would surely attack his memory and he didn’t recall any serious gaps.

Are you sure?

He got the distinct impression the hat was exasperated when it spoke. “A curse like this one affects more than immediate memories. Pain, lapses in judgment, the—”

A loud shriek next to him distracted Merlin completely, and he lifted the hat in order to see the bird next to him burst into flame. He stared, taken aback, dimly aware that the Sorting Hat was still whispering just above his ears when he heard some soft laughter above him.

“I think it’s a bit big for you, although you do look quite fashionable if I do say so myself.”

Dumbledore was standing on the balcony above, not at all concerned that his bird has just exploded. Merlin yanked the hat off his head and put it back on the shelf. “Sorry, Headmaster, I—”

Dumbledore held up his hand, a twinkle in his blue eyes. “Not to worry. I sometimes find myself using the hat to explore my thoughts as well. It was the unique ability to reflect one’s mind and give insight into your mind without ah—shall we say bias?”

Merlin nodded, fidgeting his hands. If that was true, then was his own mind ignoring the curse? Or was it the paranoia that had been reflected? Not wanting to wrestle with this under the watchful eye of the Headmaster, Merlin turned toward the pile of ash now beneath the perch.

“Was that… a phoenix?” he asked, taking a step toward it.

Dumbledore gave a delighted, “Yes,” clapping his hands together. “His name is Fawkes,” and he waved for Merlin to join him next to the perch. As Merlin watched, a tiny bird poked its head out of the dust, looking somewhat like a fluffy ball of grey. “Pity you had to see him on a burning day, he’s usually quite magnificent.” Dumbledore went on, though Merlin saw the warm crinkle in his eyes as he appraised the newly born Fawkes.

Something told him Dumbledore never tired of seeing the phoenix reborn.

“Do—do you know why I’m here?” Merlin asked after the silence began to drag.

“Yes,” and Dumbledore straightened. He walked around to sit at his desk, and Merlin took the chair opposite him. “I wanted to know what the snake said.”

Merlin frowned. “Nothing different. Just the same, Time to kill bit.” He paused while Dumbledore nodded, looking grave. The twinkle in his eyes had vanished. “Sir, is it really a good idea for the school to still be functioning like this? I mean, why hasn’t there been a formal investigation?”

“I know it must seem like we’re not doing all we can,” Dumbledore said, bringing his hands together in a steeple. “But, rest assured, that we are taking all the precautions we can. In light of this new attack, the students will be escorted around the castle by a teacher and no one will be allowed to wander about on their own.”

The way he said it made Merlin feel like the Headmaster wasn’t totally unaware of his nighttime wanderings. He fidgeted his hands again, waiting for Dumbledore to question him, but he didn’t. Instead he asked, “Where were you exactly when you heard the voice this time?”

So Merlin told him all about running into Hagrid just down from the Transfiguration Corridor and running after the voice. “But it’s not really the snake we have to be worried about, is it?” Merlin said when he’d finished. “It’s whoever is controlling it.”

The Headmaster peered at him from over his half-moon spectacles. “Whoever indeed. Now, is there anything else you wish to tell me? Anything at all?”

Merlin’s eyes flickered over to the Sorting Hat. Should he tell Dumbledore about the memory curse? It was true, even with his headache kept at bay by the potion he still felt… off. This morning alone was cause enough for concern. He shouldn’t ignore it. Something was clearly wrong and if Merlin was in his right mind he would mention it.

But, as it was—

“No, sir. Nothing.”

Ginny sat cross-legged in one of the couches in the Gryffindor common room, absentmindedly flipping through her Transfiguration textbook. She was just wondering when they would reach the chapter about turning tortoises into teapots when the portrait hole burst open, and Lee Jordan rushed inside.

“There’s been another attack!” he announced, breathless, an anxiety on his brow that Ginny had never seen before. “Justin Flinch-Fletchley and Nick!”

“Nick?” came Hermione’s voice somewhere behind Ginny and she turned to see Hermione standing in the doorway to the dormitory, her eyes wide. “The Gryffindor Ghost?

“Yeah!”

At this, there was an outcry of panic. A ghost was attacked? But how was that possible? Ginny sat, stunned, as the conversation swelled around her. It sounded like Merlin had been seen standing next to the new victims, but he’d been in the company of Hagrid. Speculation ran rampant. Ginny’s heart did funny little somersaults.

Where had she been, fifteen-twenty minutes ago? She’d only just sat down here to read after finding herself in her dormitory with several long rooster feathers on her robes. What had she done?

Knowing that no one would notice her, Ginny pulled out her diary.

Dear Tom, there was another attack today and I don’t know where I was.

She wondered if Tom could read the panic in her shaky script. She waited, her breathing shallow as she watched the letters sink into the page. After a moment, he replied.

Slow down, Ginny. What happened?

She wrote down everything she could overhear from Lee Jordan, who was now retelling what had happened to new arrivals.

And, I had another blackout, not fifteen minutes ago! I found more feathers on my robes and I know heard Hagrid complaining about someone killing his roosters the other day. Oh, Tom, what am I going to do? I think I’m going mad…

Her hand hovered above the page, her heart fluttering in her throat. She brought down her quill again, working to keep her hand steady as tears pricked at her eyes.

…I think I’m the one attacking everyone, Tom.

He wrote back at once.

Ginny, how could it be you? You’re not Slytherin’s heir. Merlin said he heard a snake, didn’t he? You don’t know Parseltongue—how could you be the one attacking people?

Ginny felt her lip tremble. I don’t know, I don’t know, she wrote, shaking her head. I know it doesn’t make sense. But it’s too much of a coincidence!”

Why don’t you go to Merlin about it?

Ginny blinked. Merlin? She’d never considered—Do you think he could help?

Well, he’s the only one you know who speaks Parseltongue. And from all that you’ve told me, he seems like the type of person who would be able to prove that you’re not capable something like this. And if you are—Tom seemed to pause a moment, as though choosing his next words very carefully—he’d be the only one who could stop you.

Ginny read, and then re-read the words as they faded back into the page. A small part of her still hoped she was overreacting or that she’d developed some sort of rare condition and could be cured after a weekend in St. Mungos. Or, even, that she was completely delusional. She’d take madness over unconsciously attempting murder any day. Still, Tom’s words calmed her. However getting a chance to speak to Merlin was going to be difficult, what with the holidays coming up.

He’s going home for the holidays, I think, she wrote back in dismay.

Well, that gives us time to come up with a plan. After all, we’re going to have to do this delicately. We want him to take you seriously, don’t we?

Yes! Ginny wrote back, the tears gone. And as Tom started giving suggestions on how to broach the topic with Merlin, she relaxed. She really was so lucky to have Tom to talk to.

Draco couldn’t sleep.

He frowned and rolled over, squeezing his eyes shut. It hadn’t taken long for the entire school to hear of the double attack on Justin Finch-Fletchley and Nearly Headless Nick, accompanied of course by a swath of rumors. Some even claimed that Merlin had been seen petrifying the pair himself—caught red-handed by Hagrid. While some more ridiculous rumors were under the impression Merlin had dueled Professor McGonagall in the corridor. Whatever the story, they all ended with Merlin in the Headmaster’s office.

Draco opened his eyes and stared at Merlin’s four-poster some feet away, the curtains drawn tightly around his bed. Merlin hadn’t said much about his trip to the Headmaster’s office, other than he definitely wasn’t expelled and that Dumbledore had only wanted to know, verbatim, what the snake had said. Even so, Draco could tell that something else weighed on Merlin’s mind.

His friend hadn’t looked good these past few weeks. Everyone had noticed. Most had chalked it up to stress from being labeled the Heir of Slytherin, and at first Draco had agreed, until he remembered that Merlin had looked off color long before everyone discovered he was a Parselmouth. Now, he looked worn, perpetually exhausted, withered even. He might not complain of headaches anymore but Draco wasn’t a fool—he’d seen Merlin knocking back those pain reliever potions nearly every morning. And last night—

He flipped onto his back, staring up at the dark wood of his four-poster. He had hoped Merlin would come to senses and go to Snape or Madam Pomfrey himself. He’d considered dragging him several times, but he’d figured that with the Christmas Holidays approaching, Florean Fortescue would do the job for him when Merlin came back looking like a strong gust of wind might knock him over. But—Draco turned to look at Merlin’s bed again, and started.

Merlin stood, swaying slightly, in front of his bed. His dark hair was plastered across his forehead, which glistened with sweat in the dim light. Draco could hear his uneven breathing, a wet, rattling sound that permeated the darkness.

“Merlin?” Draco whispered, sitting up in bed.

Merlin didn’t answer. He just stood there, unsteady on his feet. Draco squinted in the dark and realized with a jolt that Merlin’s eyes were closed.

He was still asleep.

“Hey, Merlin,” he said a little louder. Merlin didn’t respond. Then, after several long minutes during which Draco fretted about what to do, Merlin began to move. He was walking toward the door, and Draco bolted out of bed.

“Merlin!” he half-shouted. He was tempted to grab the boy’s shoulders and shake him but decided against it. He still remembered what’d happened when Blaise had snuck up on him last year, and he didn’t fancy getting thrown across the room.

And speak of the devil— “What’s going on?” asked Blaise, sitting up and yawning. Draco could hear the other boys beginning to stir.

“Merlin’s sleep walking.”

“Don’t touch him!” Theodore piped up at once, jumping out of bed.

“I wasn’t going to!”

But this complicated things, since Merlin clearly intended to leave the room. He, Blaise, and Theodore danced around Merlin, shouting his name to no avail. Blaise almost tripped in his haste to move out of Merlin’s path as he opened the door and strode through it. Draco grimaced, grabbed his cloak, and followed Merlin down the stairs. He’d come to a pause in front of the fireplace.

“Keep an eye on him,” Draco muttered to Blaise and Theodore, who had followed him down. “I’m going to grab Snape,” and he dashed out of the common room. Draco tried to contain his panic. He was sure Merlin had never sleepwalked before and now two days in a row? Draco was sure it meant nothing good and he was tired of waiting for Merlin to sort it out himself.

He reached Snape’s office out of breath and for the first time in his life, went for the door handle instead of knocking. Locked. What time was it? Late, no doubt. But was the Potions Master asleep or still patrolling the castle? Draco banged on the door.

“Professor Snape!” he banged again. He really didn’t want to venture into the rest of the school to find him but after several minutes of knocking and calling the Professor’s name, he knew he’d have to do just that. Draco gritted his teeth.

It’d be just his luck to run into Professor McGonagall the night after a double attack.

Cursing under his breath, Draco ran up the corridor, peaking inside the empty potions classroom before heading out of the dungeons. He stopped, just before leaving and peered around the corner. He spotted the elder Weasley brother strolling down the entrance hall and frowned—he doubted the Gryffindor Prefect would believe him. Trying not to make a sound, Draco slipped past him and up the marble staircase. He had just reached the landing when a reproachful voice from down the corridor made him jump a foot in the air.

“What are you doing out of bed?” It was Professor Sprout. Well, that was better than the Head of Gryffindor House, but then again it’d been one of her students who’d been petrified that day. Swallowing hard, Draco ran over to her.

“I need to find Professor Snape. There’s ah…a situation down in the common room and he’s not in his office. Not about the chamber,” he added quickly, “someone is having a, well, a sleeping issue.” He didn’t want to violate Merlin’s privacy more than he needed.

Professor Sprout gave him a searching look, and just when Draco was starting to think she was going to drag him to the Headmaster’s office, she nodded. “I just passed him. He’s over by the Library, come along,” and she motioned for him to follow her down the corridor.

“Thank you, Professor,” Draco said, breathing in relief.

They found him just around the corridor from the Library, and his eyebrow rose at the sight of Draco.

“Mr. Malfoy says there is a matter in the Slytherin common room that requires your attention,” Professor Sprout said by way of explanation. “Something about a sleeping issue?”

“I see.” Snape paused, giving Draco an almost confused look.

“I realize there is some desire for privacy about this,” Professor Sprout went on and Draco shot her a small smile of gratitude, “So, this is where I will leave him.”

“Indeed, I will take him back to his common room,” Snape said with a nod, and he lead Draco back down the way he had come while Professor Sprout went on.

“It’s Merlin,” Draco said as they reached the staircase. “He’s sleepwalking.”

“Sleepwalking?” Snape repeated, and his pace increased.

“Yes, sir. I left him in the common room. He’s not…well, Professor.”

Snape didn’t answer and after a few minutes of silence, they reached the stretch of stonewall hiding the common room. “Asphodel,” Snape said, but before the wall had even finished moving, Blaise and Theodore burst forward.

“He left!”

“What! You were supposed to watch him!” Draco snapped.

“He walked out! What, did you want us to hold him back?”

Snape swore under his breath, and the second years all turned to him, surprised. “When did he leave?”

“Just a few minutes ago, sir.”

“Draco, stay here,” Snape said, turning on his heel. “I’ll find him.”

Severus Snape swept back through the dungeons, taking the stairs two at a time. Sleepwalking? Would this boy ever run out of surprises? Or, at the very least, offer one that wouldn’t send him tearing through the corridors? Snape reached the entrance hall and saw Percy Weasley, the Gryffindor Prefect, heading toward the marble staircase at a power walk. He seemed to notice Snape out of the corner of his eye, skidded to a halt, and shifted direction.

“Sir—he’s in there,” he said, pointing toward the Great Hall. “He doesn’t seem to be awake.”

“No,” Snape confirmed, brushing past him. He heard the Prefect follow. He considered sending the boy away before relenting—he might need him to retrieve Dumbledore or Poppy. After all, Merlin wasn’t one to habitually sleepwalk. Students who were prone to such nighttime wanderings had their beds especially charmed, and it was unlikely Merlin had managed to get away with it for this long.

The tables of the Great Hall had been removed, save for the one where he and the other teachers dined. The floating candles had all been extinguished, the only light coming from the enchanted ceiling in the form of scattered stars and clouds. Snape silently illuminated the tip of his wand and saw a figure standing, suspended in front of the seat where Dumbledore usually sat.

“Merlin?” Snape said as he approached.

The boy gave no indication that he’d heard him. Snape could see sweat across Merlin’s forehead, a slight tremor in his shoulders. Was it a night terror, perhaps? Not impossible. The combination of stress and the leftover trauma from the whole Quirrell situation could have triggered one.

“Merlin,” he repeated, firmly.

“Mr. Evans,” Weasley tried next to him. “You are dreaming. It’s just a dream. Wake up!”

No response.

Well, time for plan B then. Snape waved his wand over Merlin and said, “Rennervate.” Merlin’s eyes fluttered and his knees buckled. Snape managed to grab him just as he began to fall and was startled to find the boy blazing hot to the touch. He hadn’t even suspected—the boy’s complexion was so pale.

“Merlin!” he said, urgently, easing him to the ground. “Can you hear me?”

Merlin seemed unable to open his eyes. He licked his lips and began to mutter, but when Snape leaned forward to catch the words he found that they were not in any language he understood. Parseltongue? No—this sounded… different somehow. Older. Dead.

“Weasley!” Snape ordered, hoisting Merlin into his arms. Blast it—the boy was light. He’d noticed he wasn’t eating well, but to this extent? “Fetch Dumbledore immediately. I’m taking Merlin to the Hospital Wing.”

“Yes, sir!”

Snape walked swiftly out of the hall and up the stairs to the Hospital Wing, Merlin whispering incessantly the whole way. Idiot boy—Snape glanced down at him with a worried scowl. Unsure of whether or not this was a foreign language or just gibberish, he tried to memorize a few words but Merlin spoke so softly and so quickly it was hard to know what marked the beginning and end.

He reached the Hospital Wing. “Matron!” he shouted as he pushed open the door.

“Who’s been petrified?” came Madam Pomfrey’s voice and a moment later she came out of her office, pulling a robe over her nightdress.

“You have a temporary reprieve from petrified patients,” Snape said with a grimace. He couldn’t deny the flutter of panic in his chest as he and Madam Pomfrey eased Merlin into a bed. He’d noticed of course that the boy had looked worse for wear in recent weeks, but he hadn’t thought it’d turn out to be something so serious! What hadn’t he noticed? What had he ignored?

He took a step back while Madam Pomfrey took a look at Merlin, her lips drawn into a tight line. She pulled open his eyelids to look at his eyes, which were rolling into his head, she pressed a palm to his forehead, took his pulse. Then, she took out her wand and cast a variety of diagnostic charms—some of which Snape recognized. She gave a small gasp.

“What?” Snape said sharply, as Merlin began to convulse. “What disease does he have, Matron?”

“This is a curse!” she said, waving her wand again. “I’ve never seen anything like it before.”

Snape felt his gut contract. He whipped out his own wand and waved it over Merlin. He knew a thing or two about curses; it came with being a spy. It also came with his interest in Defense Against the Dark Arts. But as Snape began casting his own set of diagnostic spells over Merlin, he felt his vast knowledge fail him.

The curse, whatever it was, seemed to be attacking Merlin’s brain, causing it to swell. The inflamed tissue was then affecting healthy brain function. The headaches! This was surely the cause. Snape felt something bubble in him, something remarkably like shame. He should have been more alert. He should have caught this sooner.

The doors opened again and Dumbledore strode inside, looking somber. “What’s happened?” he asked, crossing over to them.

“I have no idea,” Madam Pomfrey said, shaking her head. “But this isn’t something I’ll be able to treat with a simple finite. The boys got a curse that’s going to require a skilled curse breaker!”

“It reeks of dark magic,” Snape agreed, swallowing down his panic. Who had done this to Merlin? When had they done it?

Dumbledore looked from one to the other before nodding and Snape noticed a spark in his otherwise dim blue eyes, a fury fighting to be contained—a student, cursed, possibly within his school? Dumbledore crossed over to the large fireplace against the back wall of the infirmary, the flames jumping as he approached.

“Get him ready to travel to St. Mungo’s at once!”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 


Black hair tangled, splayed across twisted sheets, a sheen of sweat across trembling lips—the sight of Merlin Evans sleeping was not one of peace. The cool blue light that emanated from the intricate rune on the boy’s pillow threw his strained features into sharp relief, stressing the sickly pale hue of his skin.

Severus Snape rubbed sleep from his eyes, and leaned back in his armchair. He hadn’t slept all night. As much as he hated to admit it, he was worried. Far more worried than he’d ever been about a student. Finding the boy wandering about the Great Hall, delirious and in pain—well, it’d been a long time since he’d acknowledged the word panic. Not that the feeling had been entirely alleviated…

No time to set up a portkey, they had taken Merlin by floo powder to St. Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries. It would have been amusing, the way Dumbledore swept up to the front desk and half a dozen Healers came running without his saying a single word, were it not for the situation. They took Merlin to the fourth floor, to a tiny little ward called Grecian Herpo: Dark Curses. The only other occupant remained sheltered by their privacy curtains—something about a facial disfigurement charm. But though Healer Alan Chilton and his trainee Healer Freesia Bloom had managed to put the breaks on the curse, they were no closer to removing the thing than when they’d arrived.

Nothing like this curse had ever been seen before.

Diagnostics had revealed it had the capability to devour memories, but then it should have just kept eating them away until there was nothing left. Residual evidence implied that some of Merlin’s memories had indeed been devoured—impossible to say how much without talking to the boy. But, the curse had moved on from eating memories to causing brain inflammation. Perplexing, was the word Healer Chilton had used.

“Still asleep, then?”

Dumbledore had returned, holding two steaming purple mugs with golden crescent moons. He strode into the room and handed one to Snape, who took the tea gratefully, before taking a seat in the chair on the other side of Merlin’s bed. Snape didn’t reply, the answer was clear to see, and instead inhaled the steam rising from his mug. No sugar. No cream.

“You can’t be blamed for this,” Dumbledore went on, and Snape found he suddenly couldn’t look at Merlin’s sickly figure.

“I should’ve seen it,” Snape said. “He came to me twice for a headache draft. I was going to take him to the infirmary if he came for a third—” he trailed off.

“We had no reason to suspect it was anything more than a common illness,” Dumbledore said gently.

Snape watched Merlin’s chest rise and fall, the sweat on his brow. It was more than that. They had all noticed that Merlin looked off-color, it had been so obvious to the staff that the boy had been struggling with some illness. Someone should have realized there was something more to it. Now, Merlin’s life was in danger. The rune drawn into the boy’s pillow and sheets was only a temporary fix, not to mention the damage—

Merlin’s eyelids fluttered.

Snape rose from his chair, setting the mug of tea on the windowsill. “Merlin?” he said, softly. Across him, Dumbledore had straightened in his chair. Then, just when Snape thought he’d been mistaken, Merlin’s eyes snapped open.

“Why—” he started, his voice weak and rough. He blinked, his light blue eyes darting around until they settled on Snape. “Why can’t I move my head?”

“That would be the work of your healers,” Dumbledore said as Snape waved his wand and Merlin’s bed shifted upwards, until he was at a soft recline and could see them more easily. “There is a rune on your pillow and it is very important that you do not move your head from it at the present time, so it seemed prudent to limit your mobility.”

Merlin’s eyes went wide. “What happened—this—this isn’t Hogwarts?”

Snape couldn’t sit back down. Instead, he crossed until he was standing at the foot of Merlin’s bed, holding onto the frame. “You are in St. Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries. What’s the last thing you remember?” he asked.

“I—” Merlin frowned, looking from Dumbledore to Snape. “I remember going to bed.” He trailed off, confusion coloring his face.

“Professor Snape found you wandering the corridors in the middle of the night. You don’t remember him finding you?” Dumbledore asked, after a moment.

Merlin paled. “No—no I don’t. But,” and Snape thought he almost looked scared. “Why did you take me here?”

There was something about the tone of his voice— “Did you know?” Snape shot, and Merlin glanced at him.

“Know what?” He seemed to be trying to hide behind that mask of his, but couldn’t maintain it.

“You are under the effects of some type of curse,” Dumbledore said, with a surveying look in Snape’s direction. “Apparently, it is the cause of your headaches, your fever, and even your midnight wandering.”

“Did you know?” Snape repeated, gripping the bedframe so hard now that his knuckles had turned white.

Merlin hesitated. “I—I could tell something was wrong,” he finally admitted in a small voice.

“If you knew why didn’t you go to the hospital wing?” Snape said, his voice steadily rising. “Do you not realize how utterly imbecilic you’ve been? You could have died!”

Merlin flinched and Snape took a deep breath. Yelling at him wouldn’t change anything now. “Why didn’t you come to me?” he asked, in a much softer tone.

“I don’t know,” Merlin whispered. “I just—I didn’t think it was a big deal. I thought it would go away on it’s own.”

“Well,” and Dumbledore gave Merlin a kind smile; “you are not wholly to blame for your actions. Healer Chilton tells me that the way the curse affected your brain may have caused a lapse in judgment.”

If anything, that seemed to distress Merlin even more. “It changed the way I thought?” he said, aghast.

“Well, that explains your dismal work these past few weeks,” Snape said, recalling one of the few papers Merlin had managed to turn in. Not only that, but the handwriting had been sloppy, almost illegible, which compared to the neat cursive script the boy usually had, had made Snape suspect that either Crabbe or Goyle had written it for him.

“So—so this curse,” Merlin prompted. “Is it gone?”

“Not yet,” Dumbledore said with a sigh. “It’s causing a bit of a stir, actually. St. Mungo’s has sent for some more experienced curse-breakers to help. Although,” and here he gave Merlin a searching glance, “it would help if we knew more about it.”

Merlin frowned. “I don’t know anything.”

“Are you certain?”

Merlin didn’t answer for a moment, and then said, “Oh,” and Snape suspected the boy had just tired to shake his head. “No,” Merlin added. “No idea.”

“I see.” Dumbledore paused. “Well, let us know if anything comes to mind. For now, there appears to be someone who would like to see you,” and he nodded in the direction of the door.

Snape turned, and saw Silas enter the room with a sheepish smile. “I didn’t mean to eavesdrop,” he said in a rush. “Just, Florean and I came soon as we heard, and that happened to be now, so—”

“It’s quite all right,” Dumbledore said, getting to his fight. “In fact, I’d like a quick word with Mr. Fortescue.”

“He’s talking to one of the healers now.”

“Well then, I think, we’ll leave you two to it,” Dumbledore said with a glance at Snape. Snape nodded and got to his feet. No doubt Dumbledore wanted to question Florean about this curse. Perhaps he had noticed some change in Merlin’s behavior over the summer or—and his expression darkened—perhaps they needed to have a very different kind of conversation with the ice cream connoisseur.

They found him in the hallway, wearing a deep purple waistcoat with a light grey shirt, and holding two pairs of thick black winter cloaks in his arms. He was talking to Healer Chilton, a stern, flat-footed man, with a neatly trimmed beard and carefully combed hair, wearing the deep red cloak of a St. Mungo’s healer. They could hear Florean Fortescue’s raised voice drifting down the hall.

“What do you mean, you don’t know what kind of curse it is?”

“Mr. Fortescue,” Dumbledore said as they approached, and Florean turned. Relief broke across his face.

“Headmaster, Professor, what is going on? This man here says there’s some sort of unknown curse on Merlin?”

“Yes. That’s actually what we’d like to talk to you about,” Snape said through thin lips. He shot a look at Healer Chilton, who nodded and turned on his heel.

Florean took a step back. “Me? But I’m—” he gave a nervous laugh. “I don’t know anything about it.”

“It is likely,” Snape went on, lowering his voice, “that he was cursed during the summer holidays.”

Florean stared at him. “That’s—that’s not possible.”

“One symptom of this curse appears to be a persistent headache,” Dumbledore said smoothly. “Do you recall Merlin complaining of any?”

Florean uttered a soft ah, under his breath. Snape and Dumbledore exchanged looks. “He did begin to complain of some headaches after the trial,” Florean said. “I thought it was a simple summer bug. He was supposed to go to either you or the infirmary if they didn’t improve.”

Snape’s lip curled. “Clearly, Merlin is incapable of admitting he needs help from others even if his life is at stake.”

Florean shook his head, “Stubborn kid,” he muttered. He took a deep breath. “That’s all I know though. Aside from the court case nothing out of the ordinary happened. Or at least, he didn’t let on that anything did. And,” he added with a self-depreciating laugh, “I don’t have the skill to pull something like this off. Headmaster, you know I’m not responsible.”

Dumbledore didn’t reply immediately, and Florean gave an audible swallow. Then, his blue eyes crinkled and he said, “No, I don’t believe you are.”

Florean released a breath of relief. “Thank you.”

“Of course,” Dumbledore went on, and he glanced back toward the room they had just left. “We need to ask ourselves, who is?”


Merlin watched Snape and Dumbledore leave with a sense of foreboding curling in his stomach. The fact that they were aware of the curse—which logic told him had needed to happen eventually—filled him with irrational anxiety. That’s the curse still talking, his rational side pointed out. He ought to tell them everything he knew, but how could he tell them that it was likely he’d gotten cursed back in Camelot and that it had eaten away a huge chunk of his memories before falling into a dormant state only to reactivate upon encountering the dementors.

No, he didn’t think that’d go over too well.

He took a breath; somewhat perturbed by the fact he couldn’t move his head. He wanted to shake the growing fog from behind his eyes. They had stopped it, but the curse was still there, restless and coiled, leeching pain into his temples.

“You look pretty bad.” Silas plopped down on the edge of Merlin’s bed, his hazel eyes wide and worried. “Why didn’t you say anything in your letters?”

“I thought I’d get better.”

“Well, that was stupid of you.”

Merlin managed a smile. “Yeah,” he said. He’d been incredibly stupid. It was only now that he saw that. Why hadn’t he gone to someone? He had known something was wrong. Had it been the curse itself that’d prevented him? He wanted to believe that, that he wasn’t responsible for his actions but he knew—he’d known for a long time something had been wrong and he’d done nothing about it.

“What’s that blue light around your head?” Silas asked after a moment, cocking his head to the side.

“Uh,” Merlin paused. Blue light? Oh— “There’s a rune drawn on my pillow and apparently it’s keeping the curse at bay.”

“Cool!” Silas said, but the excitement didn’t last. He dropped his eyes, fidgeting with a fold in Merlin’s blankets. “I’m worried they won’t find out what’s wrong,” he admitted in a small voice.

“Well, I mean, they already know what’s wrong with me.”

“That they won’t break the curse,” Silas said, giving him a look. “You really don’t know who put it on you?”

“No,” Merlin said, meeting his eyes. “I really don’t. I was telling the truth.”

Silas raised his eyebrow. “But?” he prompted and Merlin sighed. He really was more observant than he let on.

“But,” he agreed, dropping his voice to a whisper. “I do have noticeable memory blanks.”

“Why didn’t you tell them that?”

Merlin sighed, closing his eyes for a moment. “It’s complicated,” he said. “And it wouldn’t help them.” Or so I think. But he really didn’t know for certain when the curse had been placed on him, and if he said he’d lost all his memories from, well, his mid-twenties on that’d be confusing for everybody. And if he said, I don’t remember my childhood—which was a stone-faced lie—it still wouldn’t help because that’s not when he was cursed anyway.

“If you say so,” Silas said, giving him a searching glance. “They seemed really confused.”

“So am I,” Merlin said at once. “I didn’t even know I had it until—”

“Until when precisely?” came a cold voice from just outside the door and Merlin blanched. Severus Snape strode back inside the room, and his expression of icy calm made Merlin feel very small indeed. Why had he said anything? Silas looked from him to Snape, before getting slowly to his feet, as though worried one of them might attack.

“I’m going to—step outside for a bit,” he said to neither of them in particular before darting from the room and closing the door behind him.

Snape looked tired. He had dark lines beneath his eyes and his hair glistened with a heavy amount of grease, more so than usual, but his cold black eyes had burst back into life and they were drilling holes into Merlin’s face. He took a single, smooth step toward him along the side of his bed. No bedframe barrier this time.

“I’d rather not have to invade your privacy,” the Potions Master said, each word perfectly enunciated in clear clipped tones. “But I will if you do not tell me the truth.”

“What, you’ll read my mind?”

Yes,” Snape hissed and Merlin swallowed. He wasn’t kidding.

“Now,” Snape went on, his hand clenching and unclenching as though it missed the support of the bedframe. “Do tell me when you knew you had a curse on you. And if you say ten minutes ago, I will force-feed you a bottle of Veritaserum.”

“First telepathy and now potions? Do make up your mind,” Merlin said with a nervous smile that vanished under the furious glare the Professor shot him.

“Do not test me, Merlin. When did you know?”

He tried to think. How could he tell the truth and not the whole truth? If Snape knew he’d known about the curse ever since he’d tried on the sorting hat and didn’t tell anyone—which was probably the stupidest thing he’d done about the whole curse thing, considering it hadn’t been active back then and he couldn’t blame that lapse in judgment on it but hey there was a reason he wasn’t in Ravenclaw—when it hit him.

“In Dumbledore’s office, after I put on the Sorting Hat,” Merlin said. “After the attack on Justin and Nearly Headless Nick, Professor McGonagall took me to Dumbledore’s office and well, he wasn’t there at first and I saw the hat and decided to see if it knew anything about the attacks, and it told me.”

It was as close to the whole truth as he could get. He waited as Snape stared at him, silent, imposing, until finally, “And you did not think to mention it to the Headmaster when he arrived?” Snape asked, managing to sound as if he couldn’t believe Merlin could get any stupider.

He might have been offended if he didn’t secretly agree.

“I—I don’t know why I didn’t tell him,” he said instead, shocked at his own honesty. Merlin tried to remember that moment, standing in the Headmaster’s office. It came to him as if through a thick layer of mist, missing defined lines. “I suppose,” he began again when Snape continued watch him, “I was scared.”

“Scared, Merlin? Of the Headmaster?” Snape said, and he took a seat on the edge of Merlin’s bed.

“No—not really, more like, scared of what it might mean,” Merlin said slowly. And then, he was talking. Talking more than he’d had in a long time. It felt good to articulate the feelings he’d had these past few months, back when all he had were feelings with no words to describe them. Even now, he wasn’t sure Snape would understand him, he hardly did himself, but he let it stream from his mouth regardless.

“Even when I knew it was a curse affecting me, I just kept thinking I could handle it. It wasn’t bad enough. I didn’t need help, but I also didn’t want to concern anyone. I didn’t want anyone else to know what was wrong because I didn’t know myself. What if it was something that would make me look guilty or give the school a real reason to crucify me? Not to mention that it seemed like such an insignificant problem compared to a monster roaming the school and attacking muggleborns. And then, little by little, I just ignored it.

“I don’t know why. It’s hard to explain. But after telling myself over and over that it’d be fine and not to worry about it—because I had so many other things to worry about—it sort of became true. And then I lost the ability to recognize in myself that something was wrong. I mean, this was back before I even put the Sorting Hat on and I thought it was just an illness that would go away on it’s own, or that it was a physical symptom of the stress I’d been feeling—so I couldn’t change it anyway unless I got rid of the stressor, and so by the time I found out it was curse, it was too late.

“I’d lost myself, piece by piece, until I was no longer seeing what was wrong and I was just left with an inkling that was easy to ignore. All I thought when I knew it was a curse and not some physical illness was that I can take care of it later. I could last a bit longer. And then I thought that the Sorting Hat wasn’t reflecting the truth but perhaps some strange twisted mirror image of my paranoia—an explanation of what I was felling and at the same time ignoring. And my thoughts just continued in that loop until I dismissed the matter entirely. Then I forgot why I’d been so bothered about it in the first place.”

Merlin felt a bead of sweat building between his eyes, his breathing harsh and ragged. He raised his hand to wipe it away, an unnatural movement without the ability to move his head. But the action gave him the ability to hide his face for a moment, to calm his nerves as he tried to catch a glimpse of Snape’s face without notice.

The professor looked—well, he’d always been hard to read. He sat, resolute, near Merlin’s feet, his lips drawn into a thin line. But he didn’t look angry; the cold fury in his eyes had vanished. He looked pensive, a tension in his posture that bespoke a certain anxiety and discomfort.

Merlin didn’t know what else to say. He wished he could move his head so that he could look at something else, rather than be trapped in this staring contest. Then, finally, Snape broke eye contact and his shoulders sagged.

“I see,” he said, and the anger was definitely absent from his voice now. “It sounds to me,” he continued, “as if Dumbledore’s assumption that this curse addled your ability to think rationally was correct. You are not wholly to blame for your refusal to tell us what was wrong, however—”

Merlin felt a surge of guilt because, well, he was far more responsible than the Professor knew.

“—However, I must impress upon you the absolute arrogance and sheer negligence of your actions,” the Professor was recovering his usual manner, as if he’d caught Merlin mouthing off in class. “You should have come to me the moment you felt the headaches beginning to worsen and you should not have kept it from me. Yes, I found the potion you’ve been hiding under your bed. I’m rather surprised you were in a state of mind to brew it properly,” and Merlin cringed because he’d never even considered that aspect, “And it all comes down to your inability to trust anyone. Not to mention this odd misconception that no one cares about you.”

“What?” Merlin said in a choked voice. “I know people care.”

Snape raised his eyebrow. “Not wanting to bother someone with what you perceive to be a trivial matter means that you do not wish to be a burden. You don’t seem to realize there are people, like Madam Pomfrey, and myself who care greatly about your well-being, including the trivialities. In fact, Madam Pomfrey would fuss over a minor headache as much as she would a broken bone or a major illness.”

Merlin gaped at him.

“And as such,” Snape went on, “If you were less concerned about being a bother, you would have gone to any one of us. Your friend Draco Malfoy comes to me the instant he feels the least bit poorly for two reasons, Merlin. First, he knows I will listen to whatever it is unconditionally, and second, because he doesn’t want to risk any member of the school finding out he might not be in peak condition. You see, he cares about not just his health, but also how others perceive his health. You, Merlin, who couldn’t care less about how the world notices trivialities like this, are willing to suffer through it. You focus on the big picture. Which,” and Snape paused, “is… admirable in some cases, but not where it concerns your health. Have I made myself clear?”

Merlin had never thought of it that way. But Snape was right. He didn’t think about his image. It was why he’d fought against the blood ideals of his house during first year. If he had been more concerned, he would have tried to sort out this mess sooner. Or not, said a grudging voice, after all he was so tight-lipped about anything even remotely connected to Camelot that he probably would have kept quiet anyway.

But Snape didn’t need to know that.

“I will try not to let something like this happen again,” Merlin said, taking a deep breath.

“See that you don’t,” Snape sneered. “I don’t have time to hold the hand of an insolent whelp who’s too arrogant to ask for help, even when he clearly needs it.”

Merlin wished he could cock his head. “Yeah right,” he said with a laugh. “You’d hold my hand anytime, if I asked you to.”

Snape stared at him. Then stood up and abruptly left the room, Merlin smirking after him. For all his distancing language, he knew Snape cared. More than Snape probably wanted to, but it was clear to see. Merlin relaxed back into bed, smiling softly to himself as Silas re-entered and flopped back onto the bed, excitedly asking him to reiterate everything that had just happened.

Merlin had to admit that this would’ve been a hell of a lot simpler if he’d just gone to Snape the second week of term about his headache, instead of brewing potions beneath his bed like a maniac.


Healer Bloom was a short, heavy-set woman with long curly dark hair and a big heart, who fussed almost as much as Madam Pomfrey. Three times a day, right after urging Merlin to eat a little more food— a struggle with his nonexistent appetite—she would help him knock back a handful of potions. Fever reducers, pain relievers, and a triad she called The Brain Team, which were supposed to treat inflammation, promote brain tissue regeneration, and the recovery of memories. At first, Merlin had been concerned—where the dosages correct?—until Healer Bloom had explained.

“We cast a spell on you the moment you arrived in order to figure out your exact dosage for potions. It’s standard for all patients.” She gave him a warm smile and went on, correctly reading the look on Merlin’s face, “Professor Snape had mentioned you may be nervous regarding the subject, but it’s confidential information known only to I and Healer Chilton. You know, it’s probably lucky you have such a strong magical core. As advanced as this curse appears to be, I think it would have already overtaken a weaker person.”

Healer Bloom preferred to use euphemisms regarding death.

Silas liked her. Unlike Madam Pomfrey, she didn’t mandate that Merlin be left alone to rest. “Company and laughter can be just as healing,” she told Silas with a smile.

Merlin finished drinking the last of his potions—the last of which had a lingering aftertaste of copper and something woody—and Silas handed him a glass of water.

“Thanks.”

“Shouldn’t be too long now,” Healer Bloom said. “We have another curse breaker coming in to take a look today. Apparently, he’s very good. Flying in all the way from Egypt.”

“Right,” Merlin said as he handed Silas back the empty glass. He hoped she was right. His neck was starting to hurt him, even with the extra pain relieving potions.

“And uh, you have another visitor.”

“Who?” Merlin started to say until he saw a familiar face peak through the door, brown bushy hair pulled back in a haphazard bun. “Hermione!” he exclaimed at the same time as Silas. “What are you doing here? What about school?”

Healer Bloom excused herself silently and Hermione entered. She was wearing a dark red sweater with a snowman across the front. She stepped forward to stand next to Silas.

“Hello, Silas,” she said with a grin. “Winter break started yesterday, Merlin.”

“Oh.”

“Nice sweater,” Silas said with a grin and Hermione looked down at it for a moment and laughed.

“My mom says it’s not Christmas until you wear a cheesy sweater.” Merlin watched the smile fade as her eyes traveled along the glowing rune circle just visible behind his head. “They still don’t know?” she asked.

“They know it’s a curse.”

“Yes, I read the sign before I entered the ward,” Hermione said, rolling her eyes. “I mean, how to get it off you.”

Merlin had gotten very good at shifting his shoulders without moving his head. “Not yet.”

“Hopefully soon though,” Silas offered.

Hermione nodded, then she said in a rush, “If you told me everything you knew about the curse, I could look in my books, or buy some extra ones. I’m sure there’s something about—”

“Whoa, Hermione,” Merlin said, starting to laugh. “They’ve got a curse breaker coming later today. I think they’ve got it covered.”

“If they did they would know what to do about it,” Hermione snapped.

“Well, give me a chance at least,” Came an amused voice in the doorway and the three of them turned around. A young man stood in the doorway, a fang earing dangling from his left ear. His clothing looked out of place in this place, black and leather, with boots of dragon hide. But his long ginger hair, pulled back into a low ponytail, looked oddly familiar.

“I’m the curse breaker,” he went on, striding into the room. “Bill Weasley. Sorry, I’m a bit early.”

“Weasley?” Hermione said, raising her eyebrows.

“Fred and George’s brothers?” Silas said, his hazel eyes going wide. He was staring at Bill’s earing.

Bill laughed, a soft dry sound. Pleasant. “Oh yeah, I’d forgot you guys were friends. Yeah, they’re thrilled. Got flown in from Egypt for free—mum might even get you a thank you gift, Merlin.”

Bill’s good humor was infectious and Merlin smiled back. “It’s the least I could do.”

“What were you doing in Egypt?” Silas asked, as Bill laughed again.

“I work for Gringotts. They’re interested in, shall we say, protecting ancient Wiz-Egyptian artifacts from falling into muggle hands.”

“The bank?” Hermione said with a frown. “No offence, but how’s that supposed to help Merlin?”

But Merlin had felt a flicker of true hope at his words. While his curse wasn’t Egyptian, it was similarly ancient.

“Fair enough, but Healer Chilton was able to figure out that whatever the curse on Merlin, the type mimics ancient practices. There’s a certain black magic energy it gives off that’s only found in curses older than a thousand years. And, well, my supervisor’s busy with a new tomb we unearthed last week,” and he gave a smile, somewhat-self depreciating, “so you get me.”

“Mr. Weasley is very good.” Healer Bloom had returned. “A prodigy in the subject I daresay. We’ve asked him several times to join the official staff here.”

“I like what I do,” Bill said but he held his head higher. “Besides, most of the time you’ve got it covered.”

“Yes, but, I’m sorry to say I’m going to need to ask Miss Granger and Mr. Meadowes to exit the room while Mr. Weasley conducts his examination,” Healer Bloom said.

“My parents are waiting for me outside, anyway,” Hermione said and she turned back to Merlin. “Get better soon, you hear?”

“I’ll try,” Merlin said, and she beamed at him.

“I’ll be in the lobby,” Silas said with a wave.

After they left, Bill closed the door. “Okay. So I’m not actually going to take the curse off yet. Just going to get a feel for the old girl, all right?”

“Do your worst,” Merlin said with a clumsy shrug and Bill took out his wand.

Soft whispers, wand strokes, Bill would wave his wand over Merlin and recite a long stream of unfamiliar words. At the end, his wand would glow different hues. Light blue, vibrant green, crimson, and white. Then he’d do it again. After nearly ten minutes, he walked around Merlin’s bed to inspect the rune on his pillow.

“Now, I’m going to cast some spells that are a little more mind specific,” he said. “You might feel some pressure, or something akin to a presence—but I am not in your mind,” he added, firmly. “I’m not accessing any memories. I am only assessing the physical condition and physical effects of the curse. Do I have your permission?”

“Er, yes,” he said.

“All right,” and Bill took a deep breath. “Just relax. Sometimes it helps to close your eyes.”

Merlin swallowed and let his eyes fall shut. He felt nervous. But he knew there wasn’t another way if he wanted to break this curse. Next to him, Bill whispered another stream of foreign words and a light pressure washed over his forehead, before shifting down to his temples. It hovered there, neither pleasant nor painful, before moving around the back of his head. After a few moments, the sensation faded away and Merlin opened his eyes.

Bill had put away his wand, stroking the bottom of his chin with his thumb and forefinger. When the silence began to drag, Merlin cleared his throat. “So?”

Bill seemed to consider something before speaking. “I need to do a little research, but—when would you say the symptoms began? Say, the first headache?”

“Uh, probably after I met the Dementors at Quirrell’s trial, why?”

But Bill didn’t answer him. Instead he asked, “Tell me about it. Was there a sharp pain, a build up?”

Merlin paused, racking his brain. What had it felt like? “I think—there was a build up, yeah. It started like, well, a trickle of ice going though my ears until it was in my mind where it turned into this sharp intense pressure.”

Bill nodded. “Okay, I think I can work with that,” he said, “I need to have a clear plan of attack before we even attempt to take this thing off of you. Don’t want it to rebound in a failed removal.”

“Yeah, that doesn’t sound so good.”


With long hours with nothing to do but stare at the walls, Merlin began to seriously consider his own curse.

It was clear to him that he’d received it back in Camelot. It explained why he had scattered memories of the Hogwarts Founders. It might also explain why it had fallen dormant during his transportation to the future. Someone had wanted to wipe out anything to do with Hogwarts from his memory or his goal in coming here.

Why?

Bill Weasley was hard at work, doing research. He had to hand it to the guy; he didn’t give up easily. After the examination, he came back several times to cast more spells and ask Merlin increasingly random questions, like—when you eat red meat did your headache get noticeably worse and what color do you see first when you press your palms against your eyes? Merlin humored him, being as honest as he could. He even told Bill he had some memory gaps, though he refused to elaborate.  

Silas had wanted to stay glued to his side, but Florean had drawn a line at letting Silas sleep in the armchairs provided—and secretly Merlin was glad of it. If he so much as winced, Silas would be on his feet looking for a healer, and the constant conversation had turned exhausting with the inability to move his head.

He was so lost in thought that he didn’t notice it when the door to his wing opened and he was joined by three people—two of which he never expected to visit him when he was bedridden.

Lucius and Narcissa Malfoy stood just behind Draco Malfoy, taking in the room with something remarkably like distain while Draco stepped forward, stiff and grim. All their winter cloaks were trimmed in sleek black fur and intricate silver stitching. The kind of cloaks that had your name engraved with magic and specially charmed for comfort.

“Merlin,” Draco said inclining his head. “How are you? You remember my father and mother?” and he half-turned toward his parents.

“How could I forget,” Merlin said, wishing for the millionth time that he could move his head. “I apologize I’m not in better condition,” he said, thinking of his unwashed hair. But really, the apology was a social cue. It meant nothing. They both new he couldn’t possibly be in better condition. No the statement implied, I’m not really in a condition to entertain politics right now, so this better be important.

“Not to worry,” Lucius said smoothly, taking a step into what Merlin had come to label the conversation space. “I’ve heard they have yet to identify, let alone break this curse you have.”

Merlin wondered who’d told him. Draco seemed to know what he was thinking because he said, “There was another article by that woman, Rita Skeeter. I have no idea how she found out.”

Merlin narrowed his eyes. “What did she say?” he asked, keeping his voice as neutral as possible. Still, Lucius smiled at his words—he knew all the tricks of making polite conversation.

“Nothing, uh, slanderous, shall we say?” Lucius said with a soft chuckle. “In fact, it came across as a cry of outrage, wouldn’t you say, dear?”

Narcissa hummed an affirmative behind him. She didn’t appear keen to join the conversation. Lucius didn’t pursue the subject and instead said, “The department of magical law enforcement has made finding whoever curse you a priority of theirs,” and Merlin wondered how much Lucius had been involved. “I’ve heard a skilled curse breaker is working on it?”

“Yes.” He wasn’t about to tell him it was Bill Weasley though.

“Well then,” and here Lucius glanced at Draco before continuing, “I am sure you are eager for a conversation with Draco. I wish you speedy recovery, Mr. Evans.” He gave a slight inclination of his head, and then gestured for Narcissa to take the lead. He did not look back as they exited the room, but Merlin could just see the slight twitch of a smile.

The minute he left, Draco crossed to the door and shut it.

“Think he’s ready to swear fealty?” Merlin asked with a smirk.

“This isn’t a game, Merlin.”

“You’re right. It’s too soon. He needs to do a few quests for me first.”

“Merlin,” Draco said, shaking his head. “You do realize he’s going to be trying to get you to swear fealty to him.”

“I fully expect him to tell me all the wonders of the dark side in his next letter.” At Draco’s annoyed expression he added, “I’m perfectly serious. I even expect the promise of cookies.”

Draco threw his hands in the air. “Fine. But him and all the other Death Eaters are going to keep a close eye on you. They might even suspect you’re a distant relation of the Dark Lord himself—I’m sure father’s told them all about your Parseltongue by now.”

Merlin sighed. “Or a replacement if he never regains power.”

Draco nodded. “Or that,” he paused. “You’re going to be okay.” It wasn’t a question. Draco crossed to take a seat in one of the chairs near Merlin’s bed.

“Well, I sure hope so,” and Merlin gave a cheeky smile.

“Even my father offered to provide curse breakers—my father!” Draco repeated, shaking his head. “And they all operate outside the ministry!”

Merlin felt oddly touched. “Say what you want about evil, but at least they look after you if they like you.”

Draco gave him a look.

“Okay, if they want your power, but it’s the same thing really.”

“I swear,” Draco said, sounding exasperated, “sometimes I think you really will become the next Dark Lord.”

Merlin did his best shrug. “I’m keeping my options open.”

“Right, well, keep me in the loop. I need to know who to sever ties with,” Draco said in the same candid tone, with touch of sarcasm. “By the way, swear fealty? What age are you living in?”


Meerrrlin!” came a thrilled, half-sung voice followed by a heavy thwump on the side of his bed.

His neck always hurt the most in the morning. He groaned, opening his bleary eyes to see Silas bouncing and holding an armful of brightly wrapped presents. Oh yeah—Christmas. He reached for the dial on the side of his bed and it moved him into a soft recline.

“What time is it?” he asked, yawning.

Present time,” Silas said, handing him one wrapped in glittering purple paper. Merlin took it with one hand, his other going to rub his eyes. He looked up to see Florean Fortescue, wearing a red and silver pinstripe cloak today, enter the room with a few more gifts in his arms.

Merlin suddenly felt terrible. “I—I didn’t remember to get you anything,” he said, his eyes going to the gift in his hands. He’d been so out of it, Christmas had slipped his mind. He still wasn’t used to the holiday. They hadn’t celebrated it back in Camelot. Today would be a party around a bonfire, loud with lots alcohol. Winter Solstice or Yuletide. Gift giving hadn’t really been a part of it—

Silas however didn’t seem bothered. He smiled and shook his head. “You getting better will be a present,” and then he touched his chin thoughtfully, “though I suppose you could always just make up for it later with a really special present.”

Merlin laughed. “Of course,” he said and he tore off the wrapping paper. Like before, Silas had wrapped whatever it was in layers and layer of packaging. He had to wrestle with it for nearly a minute before he finally revealed a book entitled, “You and your dragon, how to connect magically.”

“He said it was an inside joke between the two of you,” Florean said coming to sit in one of the armchairs.

Merlin and Silas exchanged looks. “I told him it’d be awesome to have a dragon as a familiar,” Merlin said after a moment, smiling. It wasn’t even a lie.

“I’m just preparing him for that eventuality,” Silas added. “Now, here’s the next one,” and he handed Merlin another present.

They’d brought all of his gifts. Florean had explained they’d arrived at the house—since no one had expected him to be in the hospital. Hermione had given him a book as well, “Tricks to recover lost memories,” and Draco had given him an ink bottle of password protected ink and a note:

Just tap it with your wand with a word-password of your choice and the ink will be unreadable to anyone without that password. Wish you could’ve come to the Christmas Party, suppose I’ll have to entertain myself this year. Best wishes and Happy Holidays!

Snape had given him a package of ingredients with a stern note that he’d better not be caught making any nefarious potions for rule breaking or otherwise. He’d gotten an assortment of chocolate frogs and pumpkin pasties from the twins, and an additional basket of sweets and a meat pie along with a simple best wishes note from Mrs. Weasley. But Florean had given him an odd little contraption he couldn’t figure out.

“What’s this?” he asked. It was a small box, the walls an assortment of mirrors, all different sizes, reflecting the room in broken miss-matched pieces.

“It’s called a mirror cube,” Florean explained, taking it gently from Merlin and holding it out on his hand. He pulled on one of the mirror square and it shifted forward, creating a three-dimensional reflected surface—a metallic box atop the larger whole. “By moving each piece the right way, the box will expand three times it’s normal size and open. You can then put whatever you want inside it before closing it again.”

“It’s a puzzle box!” Silas said, taking it from Florean and fiddling with it. “Did you put something in it?”

At this Florean gave a sly smile. “I guess Merlin will have to solve it in order to find out.”

Merlin grinned. “I accept your challenge. Come on Silas, this can’t be that hard.”


But it turned out that the puzzle was much more difficult than Merlin had thought. He played with it long after Silas and Florean had left, right up until Healer Chilton came to check on him at quarter to midnight and told him he needed to his rest. Still, at least it was something that kept him occupied while he waited for them to figure out this curse.

Two days after Christmas, Bill strode into his hospital room with a triumphant grin. “I’ve got it!” he declared.

“Seriously?” Merlin said, setting his cube down on his bedside counter.

Bill beamed at him. “Oh yes,” he said, and he smacked his hands together. Behind him came Healer Chilton and Healer Bloom, both looking similarly excited.

“Mr. Weasley—sorry, Bill—has just shown my all his research,” Healer Chilton said. “It looks like it should work!”

“Should?” Merlin repeated. He wasn’t sure he liked the sound of that. “Just, hypothetically, let’s say it doesn’t work. What happens?”

“Usually nothing,” but at Merlin’s pointed look Healer Chilton went on, with a grimace, “Or we might lose the ability to hold it back altogether.”

“Great…” Merlin took a deep breath. Did he have another option? “Well, I can’t leave my head on this rune pillow forever,” he said, biting his lip.

Bill smiled. “Well, unlike my colleagues, I’m a hundred percent confident. You’ll be out of here by this time tomorrow,” and he rolled sleeves.

Merlin found himself smiling back. It was hard to be dour with Bill. The Weasley nodded to the other two healers, and they flanked Merlin’s bed. “For support,” he said, at Merlin’s raised eyebrows. Bill took a deep breath and waved his wand over Merlin. An odd tickling sensation seized him, and the wand tip glowed white.

“Yes!”

The sensation lifted. Merlin stared at him. “Was that it?” He didn’t feel any different.

“Hm? Oh no, I was just confirming my findings. Don’t want to be too careless,” and he laughed at the look of shock on Merlin’s face. “Now, we begin.”

And without waiting for Merlin to say anything else, began to draw a symbol just above his bed with his wand. A circle followed by a triangle in glowing white, intersected with intricate lines and curved, Celtic designs—and scribbles of words Merlin recognized.

O’ gemyndig etere – O Memory Devourer

Was that—the name of the curse? Merlin didn’t get a chance to ask before Bill flicked his wand and the design dove around Merlin’s head, and his vision went white.

He couldn’t move. He couldn’t see. He wasn’t sure he even wanted too—scared he might ruin the ritual. For, that’s what it looked like to him. He hadn’t seen any modern magic that used runes like that. He strained his ears, hoping to catch some of what Bill was muttering but he couldn’t hear a thing. It was as if he’d been plunged into a blank space, where nothing existed except his thoughts.

He didn’t know how long he stayed like that, in that white expanse, frozen, hyper-aware. Time did not move correctly here. At any moment it felt as if he’d just arrived, and the next like he’d been here an eternity. Then—a flash a blue cracked across the white like a bolt of lightening and he was seized by a terrible headache. It cut lines of pulsing wounds, cracking behind his eyes and thudding in his ears, until settling like a snake coiled around his mind. It shifted, sharp scales grating against soft flesh and he cried out—or he wanted to. It was hard to know in this place. And then, he felt someone working to pry the snake away. The white light slipped, feather light hands, around the body of the snake, but it writhed and tried to tighten it’s grip.

Let go! Merlin pleaded. Just let go, already! And, without really meaning to, his own magic shot forward to help—crackling like electricity. Maybe together, the white light and blue lightning, maybe they could burn the creature fastened to him. The snake spit and hissed, furious, but it was flailing, shrinking back against the light. Merlin bushed harder, his heartbeat reverberating in his ears. He could taste the sweetness of the snake’s absence, just visible beneath its loosing grip.

The serpent gave one last spitting hiss and let go, dissolving into black ash. The magic rushed out of him in a violent tidal wave and then he was back in St. Mungos, back in his bed.

Merlin opened his eyes. His room looked like a tornado had blown through it. The window to his side was cracked; the mirror cube had fallen to the floor along with the shattered remains of his water glass. Healer Chilton looked like he’d been knocked to the floor, dusting off his medical robes while Healer Blooms hair was a windswept tangle. Bill looked relatively unchanged, but there was surprise in the lines of his face.

“Well, it’s never done that before,” he said, blinking. Then, he cocked his head to the side. “Did you use your magic too?”

Merlin stared at him. That seemed to answer enough for Bill.

“Whatever it was, it worked. I was starting to struggle there and then I felt a surge of power.” He looked impressed. “You’re something.”

“How do you feel?” Healer Bloom asked, waving her wand over Merlin, concern knitting her brows.

Merlin took a moment. How did he feel? His neck still felt stiff and pained, but he could move his head again. And, for the first time, his early memories of Hogwarts were no longer painful to consider. He still had a massive black hole and he couldn’t remember who’d done this to him. But, attempting to poke at that void didn’t hurt. Everything was—clear.

“I still have some blank spots in my memory,” he said, slowly. “But the pain is gone!” He broke into a broad smile. “It’s gone!”

He was going to have to add Bill Weasley to the list of people he sent a Christmas Present.


For the first time, in a long time, Merlin felt well. The thick pervasive fog that had numbed his mind had lifted, and he felt a renewed clarity wash over the thoughts that used to chase themselves about his head. He didn’t think he’d ever felt this way. Not even while the curse had been dormant—which might have impacted his day-to-day life without his ever knowing it. He couldn’t be certain, of course, and there was a chance he was attributing too much to it.

But, the stark difference between the before and after stayed with him like renewed sight to a blind man.

Healer Chilton and Healer Bloom kept him on the regime of healing potions for another day. Now that the curse was gone, they would actually be able to do their job and not just ward off continued damage. They were optimistic, but realistic about a full recovery.

“It all depends on the type of damage and how severe it is,” Healer Chilton had said when Merlin asked whether he’d regain all his memories. “There is a chance, of course, and it has been known for portions return spontaneously, months even years after treatment. But memory is a fickle thing and this was a very powerful curse.”

That was bittersweet. Still, Merlin was relieved when they told him he could go home for the remainder of the holidays—a whole two days—as long as he continued to take the potions they sent with him. He was so anxious to get back that he didn’t even protest when Florean summoned the Knight Bus.

“Sorry, they said no to Apparation,” Florean had explained. “Said it’d interfere with your healing.”

When he stepped through the door of Florean’s Ice Cream Emporium, he hadn’t been expecting anything—how could Florean and Silas through a surprise party if they were with him?—but he was met by a shower of balloons and streamers with several cheers of congratulations.

Draco Malfoy and Hermione Granger were standing next to a heavily laden table covered in chocolate, pastries, chees, ham, pies, and a number of other things Merlin didn’t have time to examine.

“Knew it was only a matter of time,” Draco drawled, taking a slice of cheese and eating it carefully.

“It was a long time,” Hermione countered, but she was beaming at him. “I’m so glad they were able to break it!”

“Same here,” Merlin laughed. He heard a mewling and looked down to see Khoshekh darting about his legs, batting his knee with her head. She’d doubled in size since last he’d seen her. “Look at you!” he said, bending down and picking her up. She purred and nuzzled his neck, making him laugh.

“Yeah, she’s started catching pigeons!” Silas said, looking delighted. Merlin noticed that Florean didn’t seem to thrilled by this, he’d heaved a huge sigh and shook his head.

“I keep finding feathers everywhere,” he muttered and Merlin snorted. He gave the black kneazle a squeeze and put her back on the ground.

“Let’s eat!”


The night before Merlin had to return to Hogwarts, he and Silas stayed up late into the night. Silas had joined him on the lower bunk, Khoshekh nestled in the crook of his knee, and in the dim yellow glow of the streetlamps of Diagon Alley they discussed the Chamber of Secrets.

Merlin had told Silas everything he hadn’t felt comfortable writing in a letter. By the time he’d finished, Silas was wide eyed and absently petting Khoshekh, who purred. There was a moment’s silence, during which Khoshekh flipped onto her back and went on purring.

“You keep just barely missing the person,” Silas said after a moment. “I mean they can’t be far away when they set the snake on a person. Is there anyone who’s been present at every crime scene?”

“Crime scene?”

“You know what I mean, the petrified kids.”

Merlin frowned. “No—I mean, unless they’re hiding in the crowd that forms afterward. But I can’t think of anyone I remember seeing every time. Other than myself,” he added with a grimace.

“Except that one Gryffindor,” Silas reminded him. “The kid you said was taking photos of you?”

“Oh yeah.” He hadn’t even thought about him since it happened. “I’d never even had a conversation with him.”

Silas hummed, leaning back against the wall. “How would the heir have found out he was muggleborn? Cause they only go after muggleborns, right?”

Merlin paused. “Probably heard him mention it in class, or overheard him in the corridor.”

“But is it that easy?”

Merlin shrugged. “It’s a pretty small school Silas. I don’t think it’d be that hard to find out.”

“I’m just thinking out loud here.” Silas sighed. “Okay, what about the snake? Any idea where it’s hiding yet?”

Merlin scratched the underside of Khoshekh’s chin. “Not yet. It travels all over the castle and vanishes seconds later.” Merlin pinched the bridge of his nose. “At this rate I’ll need to set a trap somehow.”

Silas frowned. “You’d need bait.”

Merlin hesitated. He was sure Hermione would be willing to do it if---no. He didn’t want to risk it. “It’s too dangerous,” he said. “The snake keeps threatening to kill someone.”

Yeah,” Silas yawned. “I don’t know. Are you sure only a Slytherin can speak Parseltongue?”

“No. I don’t think this was a Slytherin at all.”

“Then they’re probably hiding in another house.” He paused. “Could the snake be hiding in the lake?”

Merlin hadn’t considered that. “Maybe. I’ll look into it,” though he had no idea how he was supposed to search a lake of indeterminable depth. He yawned too. “Anyway, let’s go to bed. I have to get up early tomorrow.”

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Merlin’s return came as something of a shock to most students, they gawked at him as he strode through the corridor, speculated in urgent whispers that nonetheless carried over to him.

“Merlin’s back?”

“I thought he’d been arrested—”

Someone had turned his disappearance into a wild story of a midnight arrest—he’d dueled two auror’s at once apparently. Of course, all of Slytherin knew what had really happened thanks to Professor Snape, but they felt there was no need to tell the rest of the school. Which was why a flurry of confusion followed Merlin his first day back. But for once, he didn’t care. He didn’t hunch his shoulders or cringe as he heard Dean Thomas and Seamus Finnegan shout after him, and even smiled at the soft-spoken Ravenclaw first-year with snowy hair when she asked what had really happened. His mind was clear. His head didn’t hurt. He wasn’t perpetually tired. He could think and pay attention in class with a stunning clarity he didn’t even know was possible.

The first night back in the common room, Daphne Greengrass had come up to him with a warm smile. “You look well, Merlin.”

“That’s what happens when you finally get a curse broken,” and he smiled too.

“I forgot you knew how to do that,” Pansy scoffed, but her words didn’t hold the same bite they normally did. She came to stand next to Daphne and tossed her short dark hair in a flippant manner. “Welcome back to the land of the living.”

“Did I really look that bad?”

“Well, now it’s really obvious,” Blaise said with a sneer. “I’d forgotten what you looked like when you weren’t imitating a corpse.”

“Stop exaggerating,” Draco said. “If it was that bad, someone would’ve done something about it before.”

“Someone should’ve anyway,” came Daphne’s voice, soft and clipped.

“It’s all right,” Merlin said, getting to his feet. “It was partly my fault too, I mean, I ignored everyone who told me to go to the Hospital Wing,” he laughed.

“Yeah, all it took was for you to sleep walk out of the dorms,” Blaise said, rolling his eyes. He sighed, and leaned back in his chair, putting his feet on the table in front of him. “Of course, the heir went silent after you left, blast him.”

Merlin snapped his fingers. “That explains why the Gryffindors look equal parts gob smacked and furious,” he said.

“As if there was anyone for him to petrify anyway,” Pansy said, folding her arms. “Every muggleborn within Hogwarts went home for the holidays.”

Everyone went home,” Theodore said. “It was just Higgs and me, and a handful of Ravenclaw sixth years.”

But there was just no rationalizing with the Gryffindors, for the next morning it’d taken all of ten minutes before someone shouted, “Bloody Hell, what lie did you use to weasel your way out of this one, Evans?”

Merlin sighed and grabbed the pumpkin juice. The only way to clear his name would be to catch the Heir of Slytherin. He knew Snape would hate that idea—leave it for the adults, and all that. But considering that the Heir of Slytherin had a large snake at his disposal that could somehow petrify its victims, Parseltongue would be a necessity. He didn’t think he could control the snake himself—he would try, of course—but it would be useful against the Heir.

After all, he’d already fought Tom Riddle once.

Unlike the rest of his classmates, he already knew who the Heir of Slytherin was. The Bloody Baron had told him how Tom had opened the chamber fifty years ago, killing one student in the process. And, if there was any reason why he’d come to this time period in the first place, he was willing to bet that it included defeating Lord Voldemort. But the Dark Lord wouldn’t pull the same move twice and possess someone. Dumbledore would be keeping a careful eye on that front. So how was he, a mere vapor, controlling the snake?

Unless—Merlin’s eyes widened and he set his fork and knife down. Around him, students were heading off to class. He followed his fellow Slytherins in something of a trance, a nervous excitement tingling in his fingers. Unless, he was the snake! It would make sense. Why couldn’t he possess his own snake? If he killed a student, or two, the Ministry would have to report on it and he’d get the attention of his Death Eaters or maybe he was biding his time until he escaped during summer break—either way, Merlin had to find the Chamber of Secrets and stop him. The next lecture he received from Snape was sure to be a good one.

“Hey, I think Ginny Weasley is following you.”

Merlin hummed and looked up. Draco nodded behind him and Merlin turned. At first, he didn’t see her, then a flash of ginger hair as Ginny Weasley peered around the corner. Their eyes met and she froze. He watched her brown gaze dart from him, to the Slytherins filing toward History of Magic, and turned on her heel.

“Maybe she likes you,” Draco said, sneering. “You’re chummy with the twins, perhaps they finally convinced her you’re innocent. Such a shame they can’t persuade the rest of those idiots.”

“Come off it,” Merlin said, laughing. “She didn’t think it was me even before Christmas. Remember when she walked Hermione back to the common room?”

“Look at you, that memory’s coming back,” Draco said as they headed into the classroom and found their seats.

“Recent events are, yeah,” Merlin said, and then they were forced to stop talking. Professor Binns had begun his lecture on the continued history of the Medieval Assembly of European Wizards. Even healthy once more, Merlin only just managed not to fall asleep to the extraordinarily boring recount of the 1442 confusion of succession after three members of the Medieval Assembly died while on holiday in Greece.

That night, Merlin slipped out of the castle and ran deep into the Forbidden Forest. The last time he’d visited Korrizahar, Norberta, and Aithusa he’d been delirious with fever, and had collapsed in the snow. He cringed at the memory—that should’ve been the last straw, but of course his common sense had fled by that point. Still, he could only imagine what Korrizahar must think, vanishing on him without even a goodbye before the holidays.

Draco, to his credit, had raised his eyebrow when Merlin mentioned he was stepping out for a bit. If anyone asked, he’d say Merlin had gone to bed early. He’d done it often enough back while under the effects of the curse that no one would question it.

Merlin had almost reached the clearing when a furious snarl brought him skidding to a halt. He didn’t have time to turn around. He heard ragged breathing at his ear and threw his hand back, as he turned on his heel. Levitating in midair, lips pulled back to reveal a row of sharp ivory teeth, was Korrizahar. Though he hadn’t grown much since the last time Merlin had seen him, the dragon was formidable enough at the size of a small black bear, and had a wingspan twice that.

“Kor?” Merlin began, taking a step back as he lowered the dragon onto the snow.

Korrizahar’s tail whipped behind him in a catlike manner, his eyes narrowed as he continued to growl. Merlin stared, baffled. “O drakon,” he began, then the dragon hissed at him.

“What happened?” Kor said through gritted teeth.

“Shouldn’t I be asking you that?” Merlin said, eyeing the spikes at the end of the erratic tail.

“Let’s see, last time you were a walking zombie, and then you vanished from the face of the earth for two weeks, and it’s not like I can just waltz into the castle to find out what happened to you.” Acrid smoke curled from his black nostrils. “You look better,” he added, with a huff.

“Are you going to kill me the next time I leave you hanging for a few weeks?” Merlin asked, trying not to smile. He’d known Korrizahar would be worried, but not angry.

“I might.” The dragon took a deep breath, and went on in a more subdued voice, “You’re all I have, you know.”

“That’s not true. You have Aithusa and—”

“It’s not the same. You know it’s not.”

Merlin fell silent. Kor was right. And, it was the same for Merlin. As wonderful as Hermione and Draco and Snape and all of them were, there was something different about the relationship he had with Korrizahar. His kin.

“Yeah,” he agreed. “Now, a lot’s happened,” he went on, taking a seat on the snow. He told Kor about everything that had happened, how Snape had found him sleepwalking in the Great Hall, and waking up in St. Mungo’s Hospital. When he reached the part about Bill Weasley breaking the curse, Korrizahar got to his feet and strode over to curl up around him. Warmth wrapped around him, and he smiled as Kor laid his large black and red head on Merlin’s knees. His golden eyes never strayed as Merlin finished.

“It’s gone then,” he said. Merlin nodded and Kor lifted his head until they were eye-to-eye. “I cannot believe what a stubborn sack of frog urine—”

“I know—I know, but it was mostly the curse’s fault, okay?”

“Are you kidding? I know you could’ve gone to someone way before the symptoms got so bad.”

Merlin grimaced. It was true, of course. “Great, first Snape, now you…” he groaned.

Korrizahar snorted. “Good, I’m glad I’m not the only one worried about what a complete dunderhead you are. If you ever pull this again, I don’t care, I’ll drag you to Snape myself.”

“I bet he’d like that,” Merlin said. He wondered if Snape would hear Korrizahar out before he cursed him.

“I’m serious.”

“I know you are.” He ran his fingers over the hot scales of Kor’s neck. “It won’t happen again. Not now that the curse as been broken.”

The dragon snorted again. “I’ll believe that when it happens. Can you remember who cursed you?”

“Not yet.”

“You’ll remember.”

Merlin shrugged. Somehow, he didn’t think so. That had probably been the curse’s intention from the very beginning. He opened his bag and pulled out the book Silas had given him for Christmas: You and Your Dragon, How to Connect Magically. Korrizahar twisted his head so that he could read the title.

“I can’t stay long,” Merlin said, thinking of the night patrols. Ever since the attacks began, the number of people wandering the castle at night had increased ten-fold. “But I thought we should start on this. Could be useful, right?”

Korrizahar’s lips pulled back again, this time in a feral smile.

Merlin couldn’t remember having so much homework. He didn’t have to make up all the work he had missed before Christmas, but his professors seemed determined to give him enough new work to offset the difference. Professor McGonagall especially took any opportunity to assign him extra work. Talking out of turn? Essay! Wrong answer? Essay! Staring off into space? Essay!

And to top it all off, Ginny Weasley kept following him. She’d hover in his peripheral vision, pale-faced and nervous. She never seemed to want to approach him while his classmates surrounded him.

“If I didn’t know better,” Pansy said with a sniff in her direction. “I’d say she’s spying on you. Poorly.”

“Probably drew the short straw, you know the lot of them are just waiting for you to incriminate yourself,” Blaise said, nudging Merlin’s shoulder.

“Or, she likes you,” Draco said. He turned toward Ginny and called, “It’s polite to talk to your crush, you know!” and laughed when she skidded out of sight.

It was so weird that Merlin ran to catch up with the Weasley twins after lunch on Thursday. When he started to tell them about Ginny following him around, George burst into laughter and Fred put his hand over his heart with a dreamy expression on his face.

“Oh, our dear sister, such a relief she has good taste in men.”

“You can’t be serious,” Merlin said, staring at them.

“She talked about you all holiday,” Fred said, wiping away a fake tear.

“Yeah, Ron nearly blew his gasket,” George added, still laughing. “He didn’t believe Bill at first when he told us he was treating you.”

“Very stubborn, our ickle Ronnie-kins.”

“But, we think we’ve convinced him that you’re not evil incarnate.”

Merlin rolled his eyes. “Yes, how splendid. Now if you could convince everyone else.”

“I’m sure you’ll beat us to that,” Fred said with a wink. “Now, as for Ginny, just let her down easy, okay?”

“Or don’t. I’m sure mom would get a kick out of being the great Merlin’s mother-in-law,” George said, and Fred snorted into giggles. Merlin left them like that, howling with laughter as he left, now calling, “Merlin Weasley,” after him as if it were the funniest joke they’d ever heard.

Did Ginny Weasley like him? Merlin mulled the thought over as he headed for Defense Against the Dark Arts. What should he do? He might look twelve but he was, in fact, much older. It was almost too weird to contemplate. He took his seat at the back of the classroom next to Draco and Blaise, seconds before Lockhart emerged from his office in robes of resplendent green.

Lockhart was perhaps the only professor who didn’t drown them in homework. Merlin almost wished he would—rather than whatever it was that he did. Their first class back he had bounded before them, all smile. “Welcome back, welcome back,” he’d announced, as if they hadn’t seen each other in months. “I trust you all had a good holiday? Of course, we are delighted to have young Merlin back with us,” he clapped his hands together, but no one joined in on the applause and he tapered off after the fourth one. “Feeling better, are we? I do wish you’d come to me, Merlin. I’ve broken many a curse in my day—I could’ve had that thing off you in a jiffy. I’ve done it on multiple occasions. Allow me to direct you to page 14—”

And he’d proceeded to spend the rest of class going over every instance of curse breaking in his books. By the end of class they still hadn’t covered them all and today Merlin wondered if Lockhart would just pick up where he left off.

Lockhart strode over to his desk as if it were a stage, returning a cheeky wink from one of his portraits with one of his own. How could someone be that vain? Merlin wondered as Lockhart cleared his throat and instructed them to pull out Year of the Yeti and follow along as he read select passages. Merlin flipped open his book to a random page and entertained himself with a furtive game of tic-tac-toe with Blaise until the bell rang.

“One moment, Merlin,” Lockhart called over the class and Merlin’s heart sank. He should’ve known Lockhart couldn’t go an entire class without talking to him.

“I’ve got Potions,” he tried to say but Lockhart only smiled.

“I’m sure Professor Snape won’t mind.”

“You’d think that by now he’d know that Snape would mind,” Draco muttered under his breath. “I’ll let him know,” he added, “Maybe he’ll come rescue you if you don’t show up in five minutes.”

The thought of Snape showing up to yell at Lockhart for making his students late put a smile on Merlin’s face. “One can hope,” he said. He waited until everyone had left before shouldering his bag and walked up to Lockhart’s desk. Lockhart had gone around it to stand in front of a life-size portrait of himself in canary yellow, and only turned around when Merlin cleared his throat.

“Merlin, Merlin,” he said, shaking his head and he strode forward to grip the back of his chair. “And how goes your search for the Chamber of Secrets, eh? I know, I know—” he added when Merlin opened his mouth, “—You’re not doing anything of the sort.” He gave a knowing wink. Then he laughed, a boisterous full sound. He wiped the corner of his left eye.

“But I don’t think you need to worry,” he went on, starting a slow walk around his desk. Merlin wondered if it’d be too obvious if he started doing the same, if only to keep the distance between them. “It’s only a matter of time before I catch the heir—in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they stopped attacking soon,” he tapped his nose.

“You’ve lost me,” Merlin said. If Lockhart caught the Heir of Slytherin he would eat Gadding with Ghouls, binding and all. Lockhart leaned on the corner of his desk and sighed, shaking his head with an almost pitying smile.

“Merlin, Merlin, Merlin,” Lockhart went on, “I’m sure you understand. We’re just alike you know?”

Merlin scoffed. “We definitely aren’t.” He had a feeling he knew where this was going, and it coiled in his gut like worms. He took a step back and folded his arms. He wasn’t going to let Lockhart use him.

“I have a sense about these things, believe me,” Lockhart went on, as if he hadn’t heard Merlin. “I know all the details about your little incident with Quirrell. You can’t stop yourself from figuring this out. But going against the Heir of Slytherin?” Lockhart shook his head, a chuckle on his breath. “You aren’t ready to handle something like that.”

Merlin narrowed his eyes. “And let me guess, you are?”

Lockhart missed the sarcasm. He beamed, wide and toothy, and straightened his robes. “You do understand. Bless. It’s just—” he heaved a sigh, “—there’s just experience I have that you don’t. And we wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to you, of course. You’re a rising star! I’d consider it such a shame if it were to be extinguished prematurely.”

“Come off it,” Merlin said rolling his eyes. “You’re just worried I’ll steal all your fame!”

The smile went stiff. “Merlin, what a thing to say, I don’t—”

“Yeah right, you’ve been cozying up to me all year and I’m sick of it.” It felt liberating to say it out loud. He had been trying to pinpoint why his skin crawled every time he and Lockhart were in the same room, and at last he’d figured it out. The man was a sham. A fraud. And he was desperate to leech off of someone with real power. “I doubt you could defeat the Heir of Slytherin, even if he let you have the first shot. You’re all talk.

“Detention!” Lockhart snapped, the smile falling further. “Well, well, it’s clear you haven’t been paying attention in class! But,” and he forced his smile back on his face. “I’m sure it’s hardly your fault, what with the curse and all. Don’t know what you’re saying—bless. I’ll send along the details of your detention later—I’m sure Professor Snape is anxious for you to return to class,” and he shooed Merlin out of the classroom

But Merlin didn’t care that he’d gotten detention. If anything, it was an opportunity to figure out how much a fraud Lockhart really was.

No matter how many times Draco exclaimed that Lockhart was an overzealous twat and that Merlin shouldn’t get detention for saying the truth, it didn’t change reality. Merlin tried not to think about the detention to occur that evening, stabbing at his kippers harder than was necessary. Although, perhaps a detention could provide the perfect cover—Korrizahar would want his Friday night update—and what a better way to explain away his absence then a late detention? Still he grimaced at the idea of spending time with the peacock, even if Merlin managed to prove what a fake he was.

Owls swooshed by over his head, delivering messages. He glanced up, out of habit, and was surprised to see a tawny school owl glide over to him, drop a piece of parchment on his plate, and fly out again. He tried to wipe some of the oil off the paper, and read:

Meet me after dinner at the second floor corridor.

“Either he’s going to make you scrub that message,” Draco said, reading it over his shoulder. “Or he’s going to try to make you help him look for the entrance to the chamber.”

Merlin grimaced. He had a sinking feeling it was the latter. “Is that even legal?” he groaned, folding the piece of paper and sticking it into his pocket. He wanted to be able to use as evidence later if Lockhart tried to pin the entire idea on him.

“Not unless it involves some reckless endangerment,” and Draco smirked. “Which ought to happen, knowing him. Or maybe the monster of Slytherin will get him first, that’d solve all our problems.”

Merlin rolled his eyes. As much as he disliked Lockhart, he didn’t think the man deserved to die. Still, it was with some reluctance that he made his way toward the second floor corridor after dinner.

He’d gotten there first. On a whim, he tilted his head and closed his eyes. No voice reached him through the stone. Were they biding their time? Selecting their next target? Merlin knew that Tom Riddle wouldn’t stop. He strode forward, his footsteps echoing along the corridor. No water this time. He reached the words, red stains that still shone bright. Filtch had long since stopped his attempt to scrub the wall clean. He had even stopped patrolling the space. Merlin had a feeling he probably stopped by Professor Sprout’s office every day to ask about the Mandrakes. He might not like Filtch, but he couldn’t deny him the pain he felt for Mrs. Norris.

“You came.”

Merlin jumped. That wasn’t Lockhart. He turned to see Ginny emerge from the girl’s bathroom across him. He paused, staring at her. His hand went to the pocket he’d placed the morning’s note. “You sent it?” he said, somewhat taken aback. “Well, uh, not that I wouldn’t like to find out why you’re following me, but I have detention with Lockhart.”

“Detention?”

“Yeah, I thought the note was from him,” Merlin shrugged.

“Oh, well this won’t take long,” she said. “Most detentions start about an hour after dinner finishes anyway.”

That was mostly true. And Merlin had no desire to rush off to Lockhart’s office any sooner than he needed to. The man hadn’t even given him a time. How would he know he was late? “Uh, sure. So,” Merlin paused, appraising the Gryffindor in front of him. “Why are you following me?”

“In here,” Ginny said, pushing open the door to the bathroom again. “I don’t want to be overheard.”

If Draco was right and this was some sort of love confession, Merlin would never hear the end of it. He hesitated a second before following her inside. He’d only been here once before, right after the first attack on Halloween. But, although Moaning Myrtle had flooded the corridor she hadn’t seen who—or what—attacked Mrs. Norris. A dead end. Or so Merlin had thought—as he walked across the chipped tiles and appraised the grime-coated mirrors, a twisting sensation seized his gut. His magic could taste something old and familiar, an enchantment it both embraced and recoiled against. In his cursed state, he hadn’t noticed it.

“Okay, so it’s like this,” Ginny began in a rush, turning around to face him. She took a deep breath, and went on in a slower tone, “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this Chamber of Secrets business and I think I---” she faltered.

“Think what?” Merlin prompted when the silence began to drag. Out of everything Ginny Weasley wanted to talk to him about, the Chamber of Secrets hadn’t even occurred to him. Not in this context.

Ginny chewed on the inside of her cheek. She shook her head, and then relaxed. She took another breath and then said, “I’ll start at the beginning. I came here a few weeks ago, and ended up having a conversation with Moaning Myrtle.”

“I did that too, but she didn’t see anything that night,” Merlin said, furrowing his brow.

Ginny held up her hand, a spark entering her eyes. “That’s what I thought too,” and she turned to walk toward the stalls. “Myrtle? Are you here?”

Silence, and then a choked sob reached them. It sounded like it was coming from somewhere beneath them. Then, the sound shifted and a voice drifted from the end stall, “What?” Myrtle poked her silvered face through the door. She caught sight of Merlin and gave a hiccup, her sobs tapering off. “What’s a boy doing here?” she asked.

“I want you tell him about how you died,” Ginny said.

Myrtle stared at the pair of them. She didn’t seem to understand the question. And then she broke into a wide smile. She flew forward, appearing before them with an excited giggle. “Oh, I’d love to! It was terrible! It happened right here in this bathroom fifty years ago. The same thing had been happening then, you know, and—”

Merlin’s eyes went wide. How had he not realized--the Bloody baron had mentioned a death! “You mean,” he said, unable to stop himself, “you were killed by the snake—the monster of Salazar?”

Myrtle gave him a severe look for interrupting her, but shrugged. “I don’t know,” she said shaking her head so that her hair tossed. “I just remember seeing a pair of great big yellow eyes and,” she held her head high, “I died.

“Myrtle, tell him the whole story,” Ginny admonished, waving toward her.

If anything, Myrtle looked flattered at being asked to elaborate. “So, I’d hidden in here because Olive Hornby had been teasing me about my glasses. And I heard someone come in, and of course I didn’t care because I was crying but then they said something funny. It wasn’t English. But what really got me was that it was a boy speaking, so I unlocked the door to tell him to go use his own toilet when,” she smiled at the pair of them. “I died.”

All this time it had been right in front of him. How could he have been so stupid? Merlin turned from the ghost and began to pace up and down the room. A snake with a killing sight—now the name came to his tongue. A Basilisk. He could remember Gaius mentioning the creatures. They had been the things of epic quests in Camelot. He felt Ginny’s eyes and after he’d walked the length of the room again, turned to her.

“The entrance to the Chamber of Secrets is in this room.”

Ginny had gone pale. She cast her eyes about the cracked tiles. “Okay.” She didn’t sound skeptical in the slightest.

“Help me look for…” he trailed off. He had no idea what to look for.

“Something that says Chamber of Secrets got it.” She didn’t smile, but the corners of her lips lightened. Merlin laughed.

“Yeah, you know, and engraved snake or something.”

Merlin began a methodical search of the toilet stalls, starting with the one across from where Moaning Myrtle had died. He ignored the toilet—plumbing hadn’t been invented at the time of the chamber’s creation—and instead inspected the stone. Nothing. Neither the walls nor the floor had any engravings. He went on to the next one, and the next one.

“Anything?” he asked Ginny.

“Not yet,” came her voice from the other side of the room. She paused. “What if you just asked where it is?”

Merlin rolled his eyes. “Sure, because I’m sure the Chamber of Secrets is just waiting for someone to ask where—”

“In Parseltongue?” Ginny interrupted.

Merlin paused. He pushed open the door to the stall he was in and looked at Ginny. She was leaning against one of the chipped sinks, her arms folded. It didn’t look like she’d been helping him search. In fact, she looked rather smug. The ghost was floating above the pair of them, too interested in what was happening to wail and moan.

“That would make more sense,” Merlin said, slowly.

“Doesn’t it just?”

Merlin strode forward until he was somewhat in the center of the room. He cleared his throat. “Where are you?” he hissed. He heard nothing then—“Here,” came a soft whisper near the sinks. Merlin rushed toward it and circled the place once. No plumbing meant there wouldn’t have been sinks either. They had to have been a later edition. But what could have been here before? A laundry shoot? A well? Merlin bent down to examine the stone at the base of the sinks. There, engraved into the stone, half-hidden beneath a tower of porcelain, was a stone serpent.

“Okay,” Merlin said straightening. He stared down at the stone, his heart racing. He had found it. Did he go down there, right now? What if he didn’t, and there was another attack? Did he go tell The Headmaster and Snape, but he already knew whom they would have to face—

Who he needed face…

“Okay,” he repeated, turning to Ginny. “I need you to go get Professor Snape. Tell him what’s happened.”

Ginny looked from him to the mark on the stone. “You’re going down there?” she said, blinking. She sounded almost impressed or maybe it was incredulity, he couldn’t tell. “Alone?”

“I can’t explain,” Merlin said and he took step back. “Please?” he prompted and although Ginny gave him a long surveying look, she turned and fled the room.

Now alone—except for Myrtle, who had taken a seat atop one of the stall doors—he took a deep breath. He rolled up his sleeves. “Open, Chamber of Secrets,” he commanded in Parseltongue. There was a shudder, and then stone shifted against stone, and a circular opening formed in the floor. He bent down to inspect it, but the pipe extended far out of sight.

“Snape’s going to give me detention for a year,” he grumbled, but he slid inside all the same. The path wasn’t quite as steep as he feared, but it twisted and turned, and he invoked his magic to slow his progress, so that instead of shooting out the exit, he landed gently on his shoes.

Even gently, a resounding crack echoed and Merlin froze. In the darkness he couldn’t see a thing. He lifted his hand and with a flicker of gold in his eyes, a small orb of light appeared in his hand. He cringed. The ground was littered in tiny animal bones, caking the ground in a skeletal carpet. Not exactly an encouraging start. Still, there was nothing for it. If he wanted to get there before Dumbledore and Snape had a chance to catch up, he’d better get moving.

He’d taken three steps when a sound behind him had him wheeling around in time to see Ginny Weasley fly out the pipe. She landed in a sprawled heap with a loud, uncomfortable crunch. “What are you doing?” Merlin hissed as she got to her feet. “I told you to go get Dumbledore!”

“I couldn’t let you go alone!” she snapped back. “I told Moaning Myrtle to do it.”

Merlin couldn’t believe it. Either he was going to get this girl killed or she was going to find out how powerful he really was. “You need to go back up there!”

“How?” she retorted, folding her arms. “You going to push me back up the pipe?”

“If I have to,” Merlin said, narrowing his eyes. He was sure he could think of a spell that could do the trick.

“Then I’ll slide right back down—look,” she went on, interrupting a protest he’d begun, “It’s either that or we wait here for Dumbledore and Snape to arrive.”

Merlin stared at her. Her lip twisted into a sneer as she lit her wand. “I thought so. Come on then,” and she started down the passageway.

Ginny Weasley was not what he had expected, that was for certain. “Bloody Gryffindors,” Merlin hissed, jolting himself. Just trust her to find the snake before he did, or for help to arrive too early.

But up in the second floor bathroom, Moaning Myrtle sat atop her cubicle, picking at a mole on her chin. Albus Dumbledore sat in his study reading a book on advanced alchemy while Professor Snape opened his door to find a perturbed Lockhart. And at the end of the second floor corridor, new words shimmered in red beneath the first:

THEIR BODIES WILL LIE IN THE CHAMBER FOREVER