There was a cat under a car. This was remarkable only because of the exceedingly concerned expression it was wearing, which was unmistakable due to the proximity of its wide eyes to Merlin’s face. He had been crawling around on the driveway in search of a suddenly missing Mundungus, as he had been known to hide under things—much like cats, as it turns out.
“Sorry to bother you,” said Merlin, head halfway under the Dursleys’ car, “but have you by any chance seen a rather offensive man by the name of Mundungus recently?”
The cat did not respond, but he didn’t run away either, which Merlin took as a good sign.
“I suppose he’s run off again, then? No surprise there, really. Well, as it happens, I’ve been keeping an eye on the boy too, so I suppose I’ll take it from here. My name’s Emrys.”
He was not at all sure whether that meant anything to the cat, but reasoned it was polite to give some name or other in either case. At length, the cat seemed satisfied, so Merlin started to get back up. “Er, don’t tell anyone, if you don’t mind? I’m trying to keep a low profile here.”
When the cat continued to stare at him, Merlin took that as his dismissal.
“Low profile,” he snorted to himself. “How long did you honestly think you could keep that up for? You’re delusional, is what you are.”
But he sensed Harry on the move, so he made his way back down the driveway and headed in that general direction. Not a moment too late, in fact, as darkness clouded around the area rapidly, leaving behind a cold and quiet that made Merlin slow his pace slightly as he approached Harry’s location.
Leave the kid alone for five seconds and he gets attacked by Dementors, of all things. He’s as bad as Arthur, and that’s saying something. Merlin picked up the pace and ran into the alley that seemed to be the center of the disturbance. Harry was making a valiant attempt to conjure a Patronus while Dudley shrank blindly away from the invisible force attacking him.
To Merlin’s surprise, Harry did in fact manage to create a corporeal Patronus after a few attempts, so as the ethereal stag worked on fending off the first Dementor, Merlin set to work on the other one. He despised Dementors, personally, but they didn’t seem to like him much, either, so at least they were on the same page. The creature didn’t immediately notice Merlin’s approach, busy trying to pry Dudley’s hands away from his face, but it quickly recoiled when it saw him. After a split second, it lunged forward.
Wisely reflecting that a giant dragon Patronus might raise a few questions, he instead figured he might as well just dump the accursed thing back through the Veil (it was sometimes useful to know exactly where that was located, even if that location was the Ministry). But Merlin realised too late that doing that would make it look as if he had evaporated a Dementor, and that that was not ideal for several reasons.
Oh, well, he thought. At least he didn’t have to sacrifice anything to send it back where it had come from in the first place. He had a vague feeling that the Balance approved, but he couldn’t be sure. The Dursley boy seemed fine, at least, as he was still squirming on the ground and groaning.
“Who are you?” came Harry’s suspicious voice from behind him. Meanwhile, his stag Patronus was nuzzling Merlin’s arm as if looking for treats.
So much for a low profile, he thought, and threw caution to the wind (where caution normally went, when it came to Merlin).
“Just in the area,” he said. Oops, that’s not what he asked. “Er.”
He turned to see Harry’s wand pointed vaguely at him; he scratched sheepishly at the back of his head.
“Your friend doesn’t look too good,” he redirected.
“He’s not my friend.”
“Yeah, I gathered that, actually. Just trying to be concise.”
“Who sent you?”
“Er, well, not Voldemort, if that’s what you’re asking. Nobody sent me, per se. See, I was watching Mundungus Fletcher, who was watching you—Dumbledore did send him, Avalon knows why. Anyway, he ran off somewhere, so I figured I’d, you know. Give you a hand. Given the Dementors and all.”
Harry definitely did not look any more at ease when Merlin finally stopped talking, but he didn’t get the chance to respond.
“Who are you?” said a voice from the end of the alley—an old woman was standing there in her slippers.
“Who are you?” Merlin returned, squinting at her as the meagre light started to return.
Harry visibly rolled his eyes at the repetition, but didn’t put his wand away.
“I’m Arabella Figg,” said the woman, answering Merlin’s question for some reason, “and I’m protecting Harry—under Dumbledore’s orders.”
“You know Dumbledore?” asked Harry.
“Everyone knows Dumbledore,” she said.
“That’s true,” Merlin agreed.
Harry turned back to him. “Fine, I know her, but who are you?”
“Er…” Think of a name. Any name. Lancelot. No! Don’t say that, you’ll sound like a nut. What’s my name again? Okay, easy, think of a bird, think of a bird…
“Robin.” That’s not a good bird.
“You don’t sound too sure.”
Bloody hell, I’m stuck with this now.
“Well, it’s always wise to maintain a healthy dose of skepticism.”
Harry decided to let it drop, apparently, but it wasn’t much relief. “Wait, you mentioned Mundungus—he was the one that Disapparated in front of my house, wasn’t he? Why was Dumbledore having me followed?”
“I don’t know,” Merlin shrugged, “probably the same reason you were immediately attacked by Dementors after he left.”
“Right. You don’t know his plans, then?”
Merlin snorted. “No one knows his plans. He just moves people around like chess pieces. But now, we have one advantage—he doesn’t know my plans, either.”
You have no plan, he reminded himself.
“Anyway,” he continued, “we should probably get your cousin home.”
Harry nodded, stowing his wand in his back pocket (a terrible place to store a wand, really) and helping Dudley to his feet.
“Mrs. Figg,” Merlin asked of the old woman still standing a few metres away, “would you mind alerting the Order of what has happened? I imagine they will want to get Harry out of here as soon as possible.”
She squeaked at the mention of the Order, but scurried away anyway—which wasn’t all that surprising since “Tell us if anything weird happens” was probably the only instruction Dumbledore had given her, and this definitely qualified.
Harry was still struggling with his cousin. Merlin moved to levitate him, before realising he had left his wand at home.
“Oops.” Hopefully Harry had been too preoccupied to notice that he had a) made a Dementor evaporate and b) done so without a wand.
“What?” said Harry.
“Oh, I, uh… dropped my wand.”
He made a show of looking around for it.
Harry squinted at him, probably wondering if it was him or Merlin that was stupid. “Couldn’t you just… summon it?”
Merlin stopped scuffling around. “Oh, right.” He’d seen people do that wandless. “Uh, accio wand?”
A wooden stick appeared out of thin air and smacked him in the face.
The stick clattered to the ground, and he pointed warningly at it before bending down to pick it up. Practically every inanimate object seemed to acquire a personality if it spent enough time around Merlin. It was a nightmare.
Well, at least Harry seemed to be getting a kick out of it. Village idiot all over again. Merlin shook his head at the boy’s laughter and levitated his catatonic cousin.
When they reached the driveway a few silent minutes later, Harry helped Dudley stand upright and turned to look inquiringly at Merlin. “Don’t you need to disappear or something?”
“Why? Your aunt and uncle already know about magic. And I have a feeling you’ll be needing backup.” He knocked on the door and stepped back.
“Diddy!” called a high-pitched voice from inside. “About time too, I was getting quite—quite—Diddy, what’s the matter!”
The second the door opened, “Diddy” proceeded to vomit all over the doormat. Harry, by some miracle, had extricated himself from his cousin just in time to avoid the blast. The vaguely horse-like woman and her ample husband ushered their still-catatonic son into the kitchen, all the way peppering him with questions that went unanswered, and raving about muggings and police. Harry and Merlin both followed completely unnoticed—right up until Dudley uttered a single word: “Him.”
“BOY! COME HERE!”
Merlin let out an exaggerated sigh and trudged into the kitchen behind Harry. He had spent enough time snooping around the Dursley house to already be sick of this nonsense. He had no idea how Harry had put up with it this long. It was just asking for a complex, really.
“What have you done to my son?” Vernon demanded when Harry came into view.
“What did he do to you, Diddy?” Petunia asked. “Did he use his—his thing?”
Merlin snorted. Dudley, unfortunately, nodded.
Harry started to protest, but he was cut off by an owl which flew at his uncle’s head, dropped a letter at Harry’s feet, and zoomed back out the window.
“OWLS!” Vernon bellowed, and slammed the window shut as Harry busied himself with the letter. “Owls AGAIN!”
“Ministry?” Merlin asked Harry, cutting off his uncle’s oncoming rant.
Harry didn’t answer immediately, just handed him the letter and wandered out of the kitchen in a daze.
“Who the hell are you?” demanded Vernon, having evidently realised that there was a stranger in his kitchen.
“Er, Robin,” Merlin answered, then followed Harry. “Don’t worry, these charges are totally absurd. Dumbledore’s heading to the Ministry now to sort it out.”
Harry gave him a strange look. “How do you know?”
Merlin shrugged. “I keep an eye on him.”
“You keep an eye on Dumbledore?”
He grinned. “Only fair, isn’t it? Besides, he’s not the only batty old wizard around here.”
“So you’re one of them too,” said Vernon, standing in his kitchen doorway.
“Oh, yes. The strongest one, actually,” Merlin answered with a smile, assuming Harry would take it as either a joke or a poorly executed threat. At least he brightened up a bit, though that might be because Vernon was now fuming in someone else’s direction for once.
But before the large man could start on another tirade, a sharp CRACK filled the room, making everyone jump. Harry ran over to open the window and rescue the owl that had caused the ruckus.
When Harry read the letter, he looked back at Merlin. “Huh. You were right.”
“Don’t act so surprised.”
“Who are all these ruddy owls from?”
Harry started to reply, but it was already clear they’d never believe anything he said, so Merlin stepped in.
“Your ward used magic to protect your son from some soul-sucking monsters called Dementors, so there will be a hearing to determine whether it was justified. You see, he’s not normally allowed to use magic in front of you lot because they’re afraid you’ll go nuts and start burning people at the stake again. Or something. So, in short, you’re welcome.”
“And what in the ruddy hell are these Dementy-whatsits?”
Merlin sighed. Apparently he was still stuck on the first half of his explanation.
“They guard the wizard prison, Azkaban,” said Petunia.
Everyone turned to gawk at her. Well, except Dudley, who still had a thousand-yard stare and didn’t seem to be hearing much of anything. Petunia clapped a hand over her mouth.
“How’d you know that?” asked Harry.
Her voice was jerky when she finally replied. “I heard—that awful boy—telling her about them—years ago.”
Harry bristled. “If you mean my mum and dad, why don’t you use their names?”
“She’s not talking about your father,” said Merlin, causing Petunia to lift her eyes from the floor and regard him suspiciously.
“So,” started Vernon, “so they—er—they, er, actually exist, do they?”
Yet another owl clattered through the still-open window and landed on the kitchen table.
“Enough—effing—owls,” said Vernon through gritted teeth, and shut the window as soon as the owl took off again.
“I’ve got to go to a hearing,” said Harry.
“That’s normal,” Merlin assured him. “You’ve got nothing to worry about, you were defending yourself against some bloody Dementors. I swear, the government these days…”
“Dementors again!” Vernon exploded. “I demand you tell me what happened to my son.”
“I already told you: nothing, thanks to Harry. Just got a bit of a fright, he’ll be fine in an hour. They were going to suck out his soul, of course, but they didn’t succeed.”
“Fought ‘em off, did you, son?” said Vernon with a tinge of desperation. “Gave ‘em the old one-two, did you?”
“You can’t give a Dementor the old one-two,” said Harry through clenched teeth.
With a whoosh and a clatter, a fourth owl shot out of the kitchen fireplace.
“For god’s sake!” roared Vernon.
“I’m afraid I’m starting to agree with your uncle here,” said Merlin, “which is decidedly not a good sign.” But Harry seemed reluctant to tell him what was in this letter, so he didn’t push it.
“I can’t stop the owls coming.”
“Well you can’t stop the Dismembers coming either!” Vernon shouted. “In fact, they’re probably here for you!”
Merlin jumped in. “Mr. Dursley, Dementors are not normally in the habit of chasing down fourteen-year-olds on their summer holiday.”
“Actually,” said Harry absently, “it’s probably Lord Voldemort again. He does have it out for me.”
“Lord—hang on,” said Uncle Vernon, thinking with his entire face. “I’ve heard that name… that was the one who—“
“Murdered my parents, yes,” said Harry dully.
“But that giant bloke said he was gone.”
“Back?” whispered Aunt Petunia, for once the only one having a normal reaction to the proceedings.
“Yes. He came back a month ago. I saw him.” Again, Harry seemed to be hoping someone would believe him.
“Yeah,” said Merlin. “He’s back.”
“I see,” said Vernon, hitching up his trousers. “Well, that settles it. You can get out of this house, boy!”
“You heard me—OUT! OUT! I should’ve done this years ago! You’re not staying here if some loony’s after you, you’re not endangering my wife and son!”
Merlin stepped bodily in front of the boy. “Now, hold on just a damn minute. You agreed to care for this boy, and not only have you not done that, now you’re—“
He was interrupted by the sound of yet another owl hitting the floor after having flown directly through the chimney. Once recovered, it dropped a red envelope on Petunia’s head despite Harry’s attempts to retrieve it.
“You can open it if you like,” said Harry, “but I’ll hear what it says anyway. That’s a Howler.”
“Let go of it, Petunia!” roared Vernon. “It could be dangerous!”
“It’s addressed to me.” Her voice shook. “Look, Vernon! ‘Mrs. Petunia Dursley, The Kitchen, Number Four, Privet Drive—“
But when the envelope caught fire, she screamed and dropped it.
An awful voice rung against the walls of the small room: “Remember my last, Petunia.”
It wasn’t Dumbledore’s voice, but he was the only one who was routinely so vaguely threatening. Excepting Merlin himself, of course.
“What is this?” Vernon’s voice was hoarse. “I don’t—P-Petunia, dear?”
“The boy—“ she started weakly. “The boy will have to stay, Vernon.”
“He… but, Petunia…”
Uncharacteristically, she ignored him and addressed Harry directly. “You’re to stay in your room. You’re not to leave the house. Now get to bed.”
Harry was still frozen. “Who was that Howler from?”
“Don’t ask questions,” she snapped.
“Are you in touch with wizards? What did it mean?”
“I told you to go to bed!”
“YOU HEARD YOUR AUNT, NOW GET TO BED!”
“Well,” Merlin interrupted, “this has been a most pleasant evening, but I should probably be going now. Harry, if you need me, just give a note to any random bird and tell them to take it to Emrys, it won’t take me long to respond.”
“Me.” Er… “It’s my last name.” Good save. “And, Petunia. You’re obviously acquainted with Dumbledore. Well, take it from me: I’m worse. And if any cupboard-related shenanigans go on around here, I will know about it. Good evening.”
And with that, he strode back out the front door before anyone could respond.