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Like a Second Heart

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Tuesday and Thursday nights, Merlin went out to the Forbidden Forest.

The official word was that the school was safer than ever following the Battle of Hogwarts ten years previous. But the Forbidden Forest remained off limits to pupils. Professor Grubbly-Plank was too professional to comment on the possible creatures lurking within but Hagrid could usually be prevailed upon to offer up a few tidbits.

“Yer still have to watch out fer the spiders, they seem to have nested in to stay. I saw what looked like a manticore track last month but he’s well out of his territory, poor thing. And the blast-ended skrewts are still thriving, bless ‘em. Yer know, Merlin, I’m beginning to think they can’t die…”

All of those were manageable. Slightly more ominous were the rumours that several of the creatures banished after Voldemort’s defeat were hiding out there. But Merlin took necessary precautions. He never went in too deep, he always cast protective spells around the little clearing he made use of, and he never stayed out too long.

He could have used one of the practice rooms at school. He could have even used the common room, he was sure Mordred or Kara would have been happy to help him out. Hell, Gwen would probably sneak him into the prefect’s lounge if he really begged.

But he had to do this alone.

Magic came easy to Merlin. He was spelling bottles of milk towards his mouth before he could walk. If he saw another child with a toy he wanted, he’d clap his little hands and it would zoom over to him, causing his mother many an embarrassing moment. That had all been instinctive but since he’d arrived at Hogwarts and begun actually studying the craft, it was rare to encounter a spell he couldn’t do.

He wasn’t good at everything (“thank God,” as Gwaine would regularly and dramatically say). He had no head for Herbology, Runes befuddled him, and he was average at best in Potions. But Charms, Transfiguration, Defence Against the Dark Arts… they came as natural to him as riding his mum’s old bike.

Professor McGonagall said it wasn’t surprising.

“Your father was positively overflowing with magic too, Mr Emrys,” she’d told him in second year, after he’d accidentally transfigured the entire classes’ plant-pots into rather adorable guinea pigs. “A pity he left school before I had a chance to help him rein it in.”

Hagrid didn’t think it was a pity at all.

“Yer dad had the right idea,” he sighed, misty-eyed. “Leaving in fifth year to go and breed dragons! That’s the dream, Merlin.”

Merlin loved to hear stories about his father, which was why he always managed to bite back the question on his lips: was getting killed aged thirty four part of the dream too?

Most of the time Merlin was proud that his father had sacrificed himself to save the dragons in his care when the Death Eaters came. But a part of him was angry, too. Were the dragons more important than his seven year old son at home? His wife of ten years? The life they’d all built together?

Fighting Past Hope: A Chronological Account of the War on Voldemort’ listed Balinor Emrys as one of the earliest casualties of the Battle of Hogwarts. Merlin had pored over the book so many times in the library that he knew the paragraph off by heart.

“Two days before the attack, Voldemort sent a small convoy of Death Eaters to the Gobaith Dragon Sanctuary in Swansea with the intent of capturing several dragons to deploy as weapons against Hogwarts. Thanks to the courageous efforts of sanctuary breeder Balinor Emrys – who single-handedly fought off the attackers long enough to allow staff to escape with the dragons – the convoy’s mission was unsuccessful. Emrys lost his life in the struggle and was posthumously commended by Minister Shacklebolt, who stated that ‘the wizarding world owe[d] a great debt to Emrys for preventing Voldemort from gaining what might have been a battle changing advantage’.” 

Kingsley Shacklebolt had also visited them a few months after the battle, to express his thanks in person. Merlin didn’t remember much about the visit itself, only that his mum had cried for hours after the Minister was gone.

There was a plaque up at Gobaith now, commemorating Balinor’s actions. And several paragraphs in several books and a feature in The Daily Prophet and a handful of photos that his mum kept locked away in a drawer. That was all Merlin had left of his father.

That and his magic. Everyone agreed that Balinor had the same affinity for charms and transfiguration that Merlin did, even if all his interest was for Care of Magical Creatures. Merlin couldn’t help but feel it was something passed down to him, something in his blood. When he mastered a spell, for a second he felt like his father was there beside him, looking on in approval.

Which was why the Patronus charm was killing him.

It wasn’t that he found it hard. He’d found spells hard before – it had taken him weeks to use ascendio properly and his engorgement charms were hit and miss to this day (Gwaine had never quite forgiven him for swelling his new headphones beyond repair). Usually with a bit of time and practice he got better, and he figured he’d get the hang of the more elusive ones eventually.

But the Patronus charm wasn’t hard. It was impossible.

Professor Achike was constantly telling Merlin to lower his expectations.

“It’s an extremely difficult charm. One that many accomplished witches and wizards go through their lives unable to cast. You’re seventeen years old, Mr Emrys, it’d be a miracle if you could produce a corporeal Patronus.”

“Harry Potter produced one at fourteen,” Merlin said, slightly sulkily, and she smiled gently at him.

“Harry Potter lived through a time of great turmoil. His ability came partly from necessity. Thank your lucky stars we don’t live in circumstances that require young wizards to master such spells.”

Which was Achike’s pleasant, well-mannered way of telling Merlin to shut up and count his blessings. Which he did. It wasn’t as though he wanted to be fighting off dark wizards or battling Voldemort. But the fact remained that Harry Potter was one person in the world Merlin looked up to more than his dad. He wanted to be like him. He wanted to cast like him. And he wanted to produce a Patronus like him.

Yet he couldn’t muster so much as a wisp. It wasn’t as though his classmates were much better – only Morgana had ever managed to create anything even close to corporeal, a tiny hummingbird which had fluttered and melted into the air as quickly as it had come. However by the end of the term, almost every classmate had managed to let loose at least a silver tendril. Except Merlin. Try as he might, his wand never produced even a glimmer.

Thank God it had been Morgana and not her prat of a brother who’d managed to produce something. Arthur was insufferable at the best of times, but he was ten times worse when he had an achievement to gloat over.

Well, perhaps Merlin was being a little unfair. He and Arthur had been operating under a sort of uneasy truce for the last couple of years. They no longer traded barbs at the rate they used to, even if they’d never actually grown comfortable in each other’s company. Merlin would likely never forgive Arthur for siding with Val and his fellow Gryffindors when they were trying to make Merlin’s life hell back in fourth year. But they weren’t enemies anymore.

That didn’t mean Merlin wanted to see Arthur excelling at a spell he himself couldn’t do.

“Potter wasn’t always good at the Patronus charm,” McGonagall had said briskly when she’d caught Merlin practising by the lake one evening.

Merlin had blushed, embarrassed to have been so transparent. He supposed hero worship of Harry Potter was nothing new to her. Merlin was just a cliché, one in a long line of students who idolised the witches and wizards of the Potter era.

He couldn’t help it though. Harry Potter had been raised in the Muggle world like him. Harry Potter had been lonely as a child like him. Harry Potter had lost his father like him. Merlin felt a connection with him that bordered on the painful sometimes. It was as though Harry was living proof that people could leave their past behind, rise up to do good things even when the odds were against them.

So he trained. Every Tuesday and Thursday, with a small ball of light to illuminate the clearing. It was the only light he ever saw there, for his wand remained resolutely dark and devoid of life. And he knew why.

It wasn’t the way he was saying the charm, or the motion of his hand as he circled round. It was the memories. Merlin couldn’t conjure up a happy memory to save his life.

It sounded stark when put like that, but it was true. There’d been pockets of pleasure in his life, small moments of joy and triumph and contentment. But nothing strong enough to bring forth a Patronus.

The thought saddened and infuriated him in equal measure. Harry Potter had a terrible upbringing, much worse than Merlin’s. And yet he’d managed to do it. Perhaps Merlin wasn’t so much like his idol after all.

 

By the time January came around, it was a struggle to tear himself away from the cosy common room and head out to the forest. On the last Thursday of the month, Merlin actually debated not going at all. Gwen had invited him to play Gobstones in the prefect’s lounge (which was tempting even with the risk that Arthur Pratdragon might be there) and his fellow Slytherins were engaged in an Exploding Snap tournament (Kara was winning in a most ungracious fashion, to no one’s surprise).

Then he caught sight of the letter he’d received over Christmas from Charlie Weasley in his trunk and suddenly he couldn’t stand to be around the laughter and hubbub anymore. He grabbed his robe and made a quick exit, ignoring Mordred’s concerned look after him.

He’d been trying not to think about it. He knew that he should be pleased. One of the Weasleys, no less, had reached out to him. Had invited him round for dinner at their family home. There was a possibility that Charlie’s brother Ron might be there. There was even an outside chance Harry Potter could be in attendance.

But that wasn’t all the letter said. Charlie had reached out to talk about Balinor. He wrote that he’d known him when he first left school, had worked under him at Gobaith. He thought Merlin might like this photo he’d come across of his father. He said that Balinor had been an inspiration to him, had taught him everything he knew about dragons. He’d love to tell Merlin all about it sometime.

The photo included was his father standing in front of a huge Romanian Longhorn, beaming into the camera. Merlin remembered that dragon. It was his father’s favourite, he had raised her from an egg and she responded only to him. Merlin had been deemed too young to meet her but his father had carved him a small wooden figure in her likeness. Merlin took that figure wherever he went and he still held it at night occasionally, whenever he felt alone.

It had been a visceral shock to see that photo, in a way that Merlin wasn’t expecting. His father looked so young and so full of life. He might have only been twenty eight or twenty nine. Merlin might have just been born. It might have been the happiest time of Balinor’s life.

And now he was gone and the years would go by until Merlin was older than his own father and it wasn’t fair, any of it.

He was downright melancholy by the time he reached the forest clearing. He hadn’t responded to the letter. He wasn’t sure he was ready to hear about how Balinor had been Charlie’s mentor and teacher. Not when his father never had the chance to teach him.

Merlin had wanted to be alone but he quickly realised the mood he was in, a Patronus was ridiculously out of reach. He could barely think up an even vaguely positive memory to practice with. He tried half-heartedly a few times but his wand felt like a lump of wood in his hand. It was hopeless.

He felt so despondent that he didn’t notice the air growing colder at first, or the tingling of the wards he’d set around the clearing. It was the sudden airlessness that tipped him off, the way his breath caught in his chest.

Something was nearby.

Merlin tensed, wondering if he’d strayed into spider territory. He listened for the crack of twigs underfoot but the forest was still and silent around him. The only sound was a faint rustle in the leaves above…

Merlin tipped his head upwards and his heart stood still.

He’d never seen a Dementor in real life before, only in illustrations. They had fled after the Battle of Hogwarts, and many believed them to have died out. It was certain that their numbers had been greatly diminished as sightings of them were increasingly rare.

It looked like the illustrations but he could have recognised it purely from the way he felt. The cold he’d sensed before seemed to seep into his very bones, freezing him in place. His hands began to shake and his legs felt weak, like he might fall to his knees. And his mind was full of darkness, as though all the saddest thoughts he ever had on late and lonely nights had hit him in one giant rush and left him reeling.

For a long moment he stood there, paralysed, and then the Dementor dropped a little closer. Merlin’s hand came unstuck and he was raising his wand, some voice in his head desperately telling him not to succumb to the despair.

“Expecto Patronum,” he said shakily, trying to think of his tenth birthday and the broomstick toy Gaius had bought him. But the memory shifted and suddenly all he could remember was crying in bed that night, because it was his birthday and his father wasn’t there.

His wand did nothing. The Dementor drew nearer.

“Expecto Patronum!” Merlin shouted, panic thick in his throat. His mind cycled through images – getting his Hogwarts letter, transfiguring his first matchstick, the time Hagrid showed them a unicorn. But they were insubstantial, flickering out to be replaced by other memories – running away from the boggart in third year, Val and Cenred hiding his robes after Quidditch, waking up from yet another nightmare about the Gobaith attack…

The Dementor was perhaps only six feet above him now. Merlin wondered if he could outrun it but no sooner had he stepped back then he tripped, falling to the ground. The darkness clouding his head was making his limbs heavy, his reactions slow. He fumbled with his wand, lifting it with one trembling hand.

“Expecto P-Patronum,” he said and it was barely more than a whisper. He tried to picture his mum’s face, to remember a time when they were happy together. But all he heard inside his head were her screams the day the news came; the almost inhuman howl she made to hear her husband was dead.

The Dementor was close enough that Merlin could see its scabbed hands reaching out for him. He couldn’t think properly, he could only hear wailing and he could no longer tell if it was his mother’s or his own.

He was so cold. He gripped his wand in numb fingers, tried to raise it. But his lips couldn’t even form the words.

“Expec-expec-”

It was too dark. He couldn’t see anything. He could barely even breathe.

“Expec-“

The Dementor dipped lower. Merlin fell back, into nothingness.

Chapter Text

Contrary to what Morgana often implied, Arthur didn’t only like being a prefect for the power trip. He actually took his responsibilities quite seriously, although he was big enough to admit that he probably spent more time bathing in the luxurious prefects' bathroom than he did patrolling the corridors. Still, there were times when Arthur felt a certain relish in discharging his actual duties and catching Merlin Emrys in the Forbidden Forest would certainly be one of them.

The feud between them had been going on so long that Arthur barely recalled how it started. By the time they’d arrived at Hogwarts, there’d been a massive attempt to foster greater unity between the houses, to prevent the kind of disharmony that had come before. The seating arrangements in the Great Hall had been scrapped and classes were no longer divided by house. The common rooms remained but they were all encouraged to invite students of other houses in to spend time there. Perhaps most importantly, the rivalry between Gryffindor and Slytherin had died down considerably. Both houses now displayed a tentative but sincere respect for one another, with the acknowledgment that they had more in common than they thought. Friendships had blossomed, partnerships had been forged, and inter-house relations had never been less fraught.

Apparently he and Emrys hadn’t got the memo, though, as they’d both hated each other on sight.

Emrys had made some big fuss in the very first week of school when he’d seen Arthur trip one of the smaller students (which had totally been a joke and Morris had thought it very funny, so there). Sharp words had been exchanged and from then on Emrys always seemed to be ready with an insult or a sneer for Arthur. Not that Arthur didn’t give as good as he got. More than once McGonagall had them up in her office for jinxing each other in the halls or throwing Bouncing Bulbs at each other in Herbology. Even having Gwen as a friend in common couldn’t make them get along, no matter how many pleas for a ceasefire she made.

Well that wasn’t entirely true. When fifth year began, Arthur suddenly realised he was tired of their bickering and came back to Hogwarts vowing to make amends. Unfortunately that was the week that Val and Cenred cornered Emrys after Potions and cast a Jelly-Legs jinx on him. Arthur had laughed along with everyone else when Emrys wibbled down the corridor but he’d been a little taken aback by the look Emrys shot him. It wasn’t as though he had anything to do with it, he had no reason to feel guilty about the rage and misery in Emrys' eyes.

Yet it left a bad taste in his mouth. Val might have been his dorm mate but Arthur could hardly stand him. And he didn’t like bullies. What he and Emrys did to each other was always on an even keel. He’d never collude with an idiot like Val, who only seemed to have malice as a motive.

It wasn’t like he was going to apologise to Emrys so he did the next best thing instead, which was to plant a Chinese Chomping Cabbage in Val’s trunk and wait for the screams when it latched onto his hand. It turned out his revenge was hardly needed however, as the Slytherin was more than capable of getting his own back. He never found out which spell Emrys cast on Val, but it seemed to be a good month before Val could sit down without wincing. Arthur suspected boils of some kind, and was filled with a grudging admiration for the caster.

Arthur hadn’t had much contact with Emrys since. Their overt hostilities had cooled into a strained peace but they hadn’t become friends and Arthur had given up the idea of making amends. It was clear that this was one Gryffindor/Slytherin relationship that was never going to be repaired.

Despite the cessation of open warfare, Arthur wasn’t quite noble enough not to enjoy the idea of landing Emrys in a bit of trouble. The Forbidden Forest was off limits for a reason and who was Emrys to think he was above the rules?

He was probably modelling himself on his precious Harry Potter. Ha! Arthur had more in common with Potter than Emrys did. They were both Gryffindors. Both brave (if Arthur did say so himself). Both good at Quidditch. Emrys could hardly get his broom off the ground, for God’s sake. If Emrys thought recklessness would get him any closer to his hero, well Arthur was about to spectacularly burst that bubble.

He set off determinedly in the direction Emrys had gone. He probably wouldn’t actually report the Slytherin for being out of bounds but it wouldn’t hurt to give him a bit of a lecture. After all, the forest still harboured a number of things Arthur wouldn’t like to run into on a dark night. He loved Hagrid as much as the next student but he wasn’t sure the man’s illegal breeding days were entirely behind him. Only a few weeks ago he’d overheard Hagrid speculating on the lovechild of an Erumpent and a Chimaera. Gryffindor or no, if he found Emrys cornered by one of them Arthur was running for his life.

It was with his wand out and a certain degree of caution that Arthur closed in on the faint light he saw hovering in the distance. Perhaps Emrys was involved in some kind of ill-advised breeding attempt of his own; Arthur wouldn’t put it past him. He crossed his fingers that at least Emrys had chosen some non-deadly creatures. A mix between a Bowtruckle and a Puffskein didn’t sound so bad. It’d be like a sort of furry stick, perhaps?

Then he heard a voice crying out and he began to run.

A voice in Arthur’s head was telling him not to overreact, that Emrys had probably just tripped over his own clumsy feet. Another voice was telling him to overreact much more, that now was the time to head back to the castle for reinforcements. Arthur ignored both of those voices. He ran towards the light, towards the clearing, towards where he hoped Emrys would be.

When he burst through the trees he couldn’t understand what he was seeing at first. Emrys – Merlin – was slumped on the ground, wand clutched in one white hand. His eyes were shut and his face was deathly pale. And right above, a strange cloaked figure hovering in the air, barely three feet away from Merlin and reaching out with one grey hand…

Arthur’s blood ran cold. It was a Dementor.

He’d never anticipated coming face to face with one and it was worse than he could have imagined. The air around him was so frigid that Arthur’s face and hands went numb. The light from the orb seemed to dim and the trees closed in above him, dark and impenetrable. For a few short seconds Arthur stood completely still, a yawning chasm opening up inside of him. He was nothing, he was nobody, he’d never be happy again…

No!

Arthur wrenched his mind free from the darkness. He was loved, he mattered, and he had to get Merlin out of there.

He raised his wand, hand unsteady. He’d managed to produce a sort of faint approximation of a Patronus once before; an unresolved silver glimmer that he could have sworn took on a feline aspect for a second before dissolving. It felt easy then, in a classroom surrounded by his friends, a whole host of happy memories to choose from. But now…

The Dementor swooped down towards Merlin and Arthur circled his wand.

“Expecto Patronum!” he bellowed, thinking hard about the time he and Elyan had an impromptu midnight snowball fight after the Yule Ball.

A wisp shot out of his wand, fading into the darkness almost instantaneously. It was enough to attract the Dementor’s attention, however. It turned its unseeing eyes on Arthur, whose hands turned clammy with fear.

“Expecto Patronum!” he shouted again, remembering the first time Uther took him out flying, the giddy thrill of realising his father wasn’t holding the broomstick up anymore, he was doing it all by himself…

Another wisp. This one made it all the way to the Dementor before disappearing and it reared backwards. Arthur took his chance, pelting into the clearing to skid to a stop beside Merlin.

“Wake up,” he said urgently, tugging at Merlin’s robes. Two heads were better than one, they had a better chance of fighting this thing if they worked together…

But Merlin only moaned a little, his eyes still closed. His skin was icy to the touch and his breath was coming fast and shallow, it was as though the Dementor had already sucked the life from him. When Arthur pulled him onto his lap, Merlin was limp as a rag doll. His mouth was moving a little and Arthur could hear murmured fragments like “Dad”, and “don’t cry,” and “help me”.

“Come on, Emrys,” he said, giving Merlin a little shake as he watched the sky. The Dementor had retreated to the trees but Arthur knew it wouldn’t be long before it had regrouped for another attack.

“Hurts,” Merlin muttered and Arthur’s heart clenched a little. He looked around the clearing, into the woods beyond. Was it still possible to get help? Would anyone hear him if he called out?

Then the air around him frosted again and Arthur knew it was too late. He looked up to see the Dementor bearing down, bony hands reaching for its hood, ready to reveal itself for the kiss of death…

It wouldn’t take Merlin. Arthur wouldn’t let it.

He tightened his grip on Merlin’s body and raised his wand high.

“Expecto Patronum!” he cried and it was a very ordinary memory that sprung to mind; his mother putting him to bed as a small boy. Reading him a story, singing him a lullaby, stroking the hair off his face as he drifted off to sleep. All the quiet acts of love his mother had left behind her when she passed on. A lifetime of happy memories for Arthur to cherish.

It was strange but he felt no surprise when something burst forth from his wand, something solid and strong. Something feline and sharp and proud.

A leopardess.

He hugged Merlin closer and watched as she charged towards the Dementor. It let out an unearthly shriek, stopping mid-flight. She swiped out with her claw and it shrieked again, gliding backwards. Arthur looked on in silent awe as his Patronus chased the creature into the tree, up, up, and away, until the warmth had returned to the air.

If it wasn’t his imagination, the leopardess looked down at him before she vanished, swishing her tail in approval. He could only nod back at her, throat tight with emotion.

And then she was gone and all traces of the Dementor with her.

Arthur looked down to see Merlin was stirring in his arms.

“Em-Merlin? You alright?”

Merlin blinked slowly.

“Arthur?” he said, and he sounded so confused. “I- there was a-“

“It’s gone,” Arthur said hastily. “I’m gonna, let me just-”

He shot a few sparks in the air from his wand, hoping someone would see. If not… well, he’d carry Merlin back to the castle if he had to.

It didn’t come to that. He heard the welcome sound of Fang’s barks only a minute later, fast approaching.

“Hagrid’s coming,” he said, and tucked Merlin’s cloak around him a little tighter. He was still holding the other boy close but it didn’t feel strange. Merlin was cold and his eyes were still wide with shock and… and Arthur didn’t want him to feel alone. He wanted Merlin to know there was someone here with him, someone looking out for him. 

When Hagrid lifted Merlin from his arms, it was almost hard to let go.

 

 

***

 

“More chocolate,” Madam Pomfrey said briskly, forcing yet another chunk into Merlin’s hand. “For you too Mr Pendragon, don’t think I haven’t noticed you sneaking it all to Mr Emrys.”

“He was out there longer than me!” Arthur protested. To be perfectly honest, he was beginning to feel slightly ill with all the chocolate but one look at Madam Pomfrey’s face highlighted the futility of arguing.

She waited for Arthur to swallow a handful before starting towards the door.

“I must check on another patient but I expect you to be in bed when I return, Mr Pendragon. Your own bed.”

Arthur blushed a little. He was perched on the end of Merlin’s bed, who was sat propped up against his pillows. Madam Pomfrey had rather snugly tucked him in after administering a Pepperup Potion to warm him up. The combined effects of both remedies had turned Merlin’s cheeks pink, which Arthur was struggling not to find faintly adorable.

Adorable was an odd thought to have in conjunction with Merlin but it had been an odd day all round. Arthur had just battled a Dementor, for goodness sake. Surely he’d earned the right to indulge whatever unexpected thoughts popped into his head.

Madam Pomfrey hadn’t deemed Arthur cold enough to be Peppered-up but she was most insistent that he lie down in his own bed and get some rest. And yet Arthur was strangely reluctant to leave Merlin’s side.

“So…” he began.

“You can go,” Merlin said tiredly. “Don’t feel you have to stay.”

“Madam Pomfrey said I had to,” Arthur said, stung.

“She just wants you to keep me company,” Merlin muttered, eyes glued to the bedspread.

Arthur thought this over for a moment.

“Well. Here I am, then. Keeping you company.”

“There’s really no need-”

“Why were you out in the forest on your own?” Arthur interrupted. He didn't like the defeated look in Merlin's eyes, he wanted him to snap out of it.

Merlin bit his lip.

“Just walking,” he said defensively.

“It’s out of bounds,” Arthur said and winced at how snotty he sounded. But it had the desired effect. Merlin finally looked up to meet Arthur’s gaze.

“None of your business.”

“But I saved you from a Dementor, Merlin,” Arthur drawled. “So it is my business. My big, heroic business.”

“You prat,” Merlin said and that was better, an angry Merlin was preferable to a sad one. “I would have done the charm if you hadn’t come along.”

“So why didn’t you?” Arthur said, and he was only trying to keep the teasing going, but Merlin’s face crumpled.

“Because I can’t,” he mumbled, and he looked utterly deflated.

There was an awkward silence as Arthur tried to wrap his head round why Merlin would be this upset over a stupid spell.

“Well, yeah. I mean, hardly anyone can. It’s like crazy advanced magic.”

“You did,” Merlin pointed out and Arthur had no answer to that, because he was still a little shocked himself. It wasn’t that he was bad at DADA, but he’d always been solidly in the middle of the class. Up until this evening no sixth year in the school, himself included, would have bet money that Arthur would be the first to form a corporeal Patronus.

“You were in danger,” he surprised himself by saying. Merlin looked straight at him and Arthur felt his face heat.

“I mean, Achike always says some spells work better under pressure,” he added lamely.

“She says that about loved ones in danger,” Merlin said. “You don’t even like me.”

“That’s not true,” Arthur heard himself say and wondered if Madam Pomfrey had slipped him some Veritaserum on the sly. He didn’t know why else he’d be voicing every thought that popped into his head.

Except maybe… maybe because Merlin could have died tonight. Or at least been left an empty husk. It seemed to throw their childish feud into perspective.

“I haven’t disliked you for years,” he said, emboldened. “Last year I even wanted… I thought maybe we could start again. But you wouldn’t speak to me.”

Merlin’s expression, which had momentarily softened, darkened again.

“You wanted to start again? Was that before or after you sent Val to jinx me after Potions on the first week back?”

“What?” Arthur said, baffled. “I never sent Val to-”

“Oh really? What about hiding my robes after Quidditch all through third year? Or filling my bed with frogspawn in second year? Or sending me a fake Howler in fourth year from my dad-”

Merlin broke off, choked. Angry tears were forming in his eyes and his fists were clenched. Arthur could only gape at him, chest tight.

“Merlin, listen to me,” he said slowly. “I had no part in any of those things. I swear to you.”

“Val said-”

“Val lied. We’re not even friends, we never were.”

Merlin’s eyes were bright, seemingly torn between suspicion and belief.

“The stuff between us… it was always equal,” Arthur said. “You got me, I got you. And I never did anything behind your back, only to your face. The fake Howler…”

Arthur felt sick to think of it.

“I would never,” he said quietly. “I lost my mum, remember?”

Merlin let out a breath then, a long exhale.

“No. You wouldn’t,” he said at last. “I should have known.”

Silence stretched between them. Arthur should have felt absolved but instead he just felt weary. He made to get up, to move to his own bed.

Then he felt Merlin’s hand on his arm.

“My dad was-” Merlin said, then stopped, clearing his throat. “My dad was a natural at magic.”

Arthur didn’t say anything, just sat back down.

“I thought I was like him,” Merlin said with difficulty. “But I couldn’t… I can’t make a Patronus. So I was practicing. In the forest. I thought if I could make one… it would prove that I was like him.”

He swallowed.

“Sounds stupid out loud.”

“No it doesn’t,” Arthur said softly.

Every time a relative commented on how like his mum he looked; every time Uther sighed and said, wistfully but not sadly, “that’s just what your mother would have done”, Arthur felt a glow of warmth that he couldn’t describe. The idea that his mother lived on, even in the smallest of ways, softened the grief of her loss.

Merlin gave him a half-smile.

“I failed anyway.”

“Yes, what a failure you are,” Arthur said sarcastically. “The seventeen year old who couldn’t perform one of the hardest charms in existence. I’m sure Rita Skeeter’ll do a feature on you as the worst wizard alive.”

Merlin’s lip twitched.

“And I suppose she’ll do one on you as the best?”

“Of course,” Arthur said, preening. “Forget The-Boy-Who-Lived, screw Albus Dumbledore, there’s a new genius in town.”

Merlin laughed then, composure finally cracking.

“Better than Hermione Granger too?”

“Okay, maybe I wouldn’t go that far.”

Arthur shoved another piece of chocolate into Merlin’s hand and then crammed a bit more in his own mouth. For a second there was only the sound of chewing and then:

“Thanks,” Merlin said. “For saving me.”

There was a shy smile on his face and Arthur felt a strange tingle that had nothing to do with his toes finally warming up.

“What are prefects for?” he said. “Or, you know, friends.”

If he wasn’t imagining it, Merlin’s Peppered-up cheeks turned slightly pinker.

“Yeah, alright. Friends."

Merlin fiddled with his blankets for a second.

"Um, listen. If McGonagall doesn’t ground me for the rest of the school year, there’s a Hogsmeade visit next weekend. If you, um, wanted to go. Together.”

Arthur was about to say yes, and why didn’t they bring Gwen too, when he realised that perhaps Merlin wasn’t asking strictly as a friend.

“Yeah,” he said, with a pleased, embarrassed cough. “That’d be nice.”

“Mr Pendragon!”

Arthur jumped a foot in the air before landing on the floor with an ungraceful bump.

“You are supposed to be in your own bed,” Madam Pomfrey said, advancing threateningly.

“I did try and tell him,” Merlin said innocently. Arthur stuck his tongue out and Merlin crossed his eyes in return, prompting a heavy sigh from the matron.

“Lights out, boys. Not another peep from either of you.”

Arthur just had time to scramble into bed before they were plunged into darkness. He waited for Madam Pomfrey’s footsteps to recede and then hissed into the darkness.

“Hey. You’ve got first class free tomorrow, right? Wanna go feed the Giant Squid some Pepper Imps and see what happens?”

“Yeah,” Merlin whispered back. “And… can we stop by the Owlery? I’ve got a dinner invitation I need to accept.”

“Course,” Arthur said, grinning into the gloom. “Night Emrys.”

“Night Pratdragon.”

“Oi!”

“Mr Pendragon, do not make me come in there again!”

 

***

 

It was one year later that Merlin ran into Gryffindor common room, flushed and pink and panting hard.

“Come quick!” he said and tugged Arthur out into the corridor and along the hall. Arthur only made a token effort to protest, it wasn’t the first time his boyfriend had dragged him out of the common room with no word of explanation, and it wouldn’t be the last. He just hoped Merlin hadn’t found another exploded Flobberworm, those things were disgusting.

They reached an empty classroom and Merlin pulled him inside (a quick nervous scan of the room reassured Arthur that no Flobberworms, exploded or otherwise, were in sight).

“Alright, what is it?”

Merlin could barely talk for a few seconds, he was so excited.

“I did it, Arthur!” he managed to get out at last. “I did it!”

“Did what?”

Merlin grinned and raised his wand.

“Expecto Patronum!”

As quick as a flash a creature shot forth into the room, big and silver and clear as day. Arthur felt a huge grin split his face, he was suddenly so taken over with joy and pride for Merlin that he could hardly breathe.

“I was thinking about you,” Merlin said and Arthur's heart was full.

“You did it! Merlin, you-”

Then he looked a little closer at the Patronus.

“It’s a… it’s a…” was all Arthur could manage, and Merlin nodded, eyes shining with such love that Arthur’s own grew wet.

For the Patronus was a leopard.