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Badger Blood

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There was a collective gasp from everyone in the Great Hall. “Pendragon, Arthur” took off the Sorting Hat, but instead of making his way to the Hufflepuff table, he simply sat there, face gone slightly pale. Merlin couldn’t see clearly from where he was sitting with the Slytherins, but he was fairly sure Arthur was wondering the exact same thing everyone else was – that there clearly had been a mistake with this Sorting, because there was no way that Arthur Pendragon, son of the current headmaster, Uther Pendragon, could be in any house other than Gryffindor.

Everyone knew the Pendragons as one of the richest and oldest pureblood wizarding families, and every single one of them had been Sorted into Gryffindor without fail. Merlin often saw Professor Pendragon in The Daily Prophet with his family, usually things like a generous donation to St. Mungo’s. The famous Pendragon coat-of-arms were red and gold, and Professor Pendragon had always showed favoritism towards his Gryffindor students, no matter how unbiased he tried to be. Professor Pendragon was a great fan of Quidditch, too, and Gryffindor’s team had been winning the Cup ever since he came into office seven years before.

Merlin watched as Arthur shoved the Hat back on his head. “You’re wrong! I can’t be in Hufflepuff!” Arthur shouted. “You didn’t even look into my head properly, you didn’t give me time to – put me in Gryffindor right now!”

“Mr. Pendragon, I suggest you step down from the podium,” suggested Professor Wilson, who had introduced himself to the first years as the Deputy Headmaster, Head of Hufflepuff, and Potions professor. Merlin had expected the professors at Hogwarts to be far sterner, but when Professor Wilson smiled at them all on the stairs to the Great Hall, suggesting that they call him Professor Gaius instead, Merlin had warmed to him instantly. “There are other students in line waiting to be Sorted.”

“But I’m in the wrong house!” said Arthur, who was beginning to look panicked. He turned to Professor Pendragon, who was had moved to the professors’ table during the Sorting. “Father, the Hat can’t possibly put me in Hufflepuff – I’ve already bought my Gryffindor scarf and everything!”

The Hall began to titter. Professor Pendragon looked extremely embarrassed for a moment, but he visibly fought it down to say, “Arthur, you will take the Hat off and sit to the Hufflepuff table.” Arthur made to say something, but he continued with, “Do not embarrass me further. We will speak in my office later.” His tone was grave, and Merlin shivered as he felt the sheer authority radiating from the Headmaster’s voice.

“Oh, look, now you’ve beaten me to it!” shouted a voice from the Gryffindor table. Merlin craned his neck to see a handsome boy with long, brown hair (probably a third-year, by the looks of him) with the biggest shit-eating grin on his face. “I was wondering who’d be the first to get in trouble this year. Turns out it’s the Headmaster’s own son!”

“Thank you, Mr. Greene,” said Professor W – Gaius, Merlin corrected himself – very loudly and pointedly. The boy saw the look on his face, gave a confident but sheepish smile, and sat down.

Arthur made his way to the table, looking as if he was extremely aware that everyone’s eyes were on him. The attention was diverted away from him, however, when Professor Gaius read out the next name on the list.

“Pendragon, Morgana!”

There were gasps once more, but this one was followed by whispers.

Another Pendragon?”

“I wasn’t aware Professor Pendragon had a daughter…”

“Where did she come from?”

“She doesn’t even look like him…”

A pretty, dark-haired girl walked gracefully onto the podium and sat down. She was tall for her age, and had a confident air about her that meant business. Merlin was scared of her already.

The Hat took less than three seconds to decide. “SLYTHERIN!” it shouted.

Merlin chanced a look at Professor Pendragon to find that he was now looking mildly constipated. Not only was his son in another house, but his daughter wasn’t either. And why had he never heard of Arthur having a sister? The Daily Prophet had somehow not managed to pick up on her. He looked back at Morgana, expecting her to go through a panic attack like either had.

But Morgana simply stood up, smoothed down her robes, and stepped off the podium. “Guess I’ll be seeing you later too then, Uther,” she said over her shoulder, as she made her way to the Slytherin table.

The Hall murmured in surprise – no one had ever dared to address the headmaster like that – as she sat down next to Merlin, appraised him with a once-over, and looked away again without a second glance his way. Merlin was so stunned he couldn’t even speak.

The Sorting continued, but Merlin wasn’t listening. He lost track of the names as he glanced over at Arthur, who was sitting on the edge of his bench and looking distinctly terrified.

As soon as the last student was Sorted, Professor Pendragon announced the beginning of the opening feast. There were cries of amazement and appreciation from all around as the food materialised onto the tables, and in a few minutes the Great Hall was filled with the sounds of cutlery and frantic munching.

Merlin immediately dug into the delicious food – he hadn’t eaten on the Hogwarts Express and was absolutely famished – but after a while he looked at the Hufflepuff table again. He couldn’t seem to take his eyes off Arthur, for some reason. Perhaps it was because he had grown up knowing Arthur’s name. And to think that not one, but two Pendragons were sitting so near him…it was a little too surreal to compute.

A Hufflepuff wearing a purple badge with a shiny gold ‘P’ on it had moved from his spot further down the table to sit next to Arthur. “Hey, mate, don’t look like that,” he was saying, patting Arthur on the shoulder. “Name’s Leon. I’m a fifth-year and a prefect, so you can always come and talk to me if you need anything.”

“Thanks,” said Arthur, but Merlin saw that he still looked worried.

Merlin had almost forgotten that Morgana was sitting right next to him until she leaned to the left, bumping Merlin’s shoulder as she did, to meet Arthur’s gaze. “Arthur, honestly, don’t be such a scared little boy about it,” she said. “You’re in Hufflepuff, and I’m in Slytherin. Guess our father will just have to suck that up.”

“But what will I say to him?” said Arthur. “He’s going to be so disappointed in me!”

“I’ll be with you,” Morgana reassured him. “Everything’s going to be alright.”

“I apologise if this will sound impertinent,” said Leon, turning to look at her, “but I never saw you in the papers when the Pendragons were mentioned. So…where are you from, er…Morgana?”

“I’m Arthur’s adopted sister,” Morgana explained as she took a slice of cottage pie. “My parents died in the Battle of Hogwarts, and they were friends of Uther’s, so he took me in.” She shrugged. “I was never mentioned in the news, because I’m not technically a Pendragon. But I never really liked the limelight anyway.”

“My father died in the Battle of Hogwarts too,” said Merlin before he could stop himself. Leon, Morgana, and Arthur all looked at him at the same time, and he blushed. “I’m Merlin.”

“I thought I heard someone called Merlin during the Sorting just now, but I couldn’t be sure,” said Arthur, who had stopped cutting a slice of gammon to look at him with amusement. “I thought it was just someone swearing.”

Merlin narrowed his eyes, despite the fact that his heart had skipped when Arthur met his eye. “Yes, well, it was either that or Ambrosius,” he said. “And I don’t know about you, but I think Merlin’s far better.”

“It is a unique name,” Leon agreed, smiling.

“Who was your father?” Arthur asked. It was a little hard to believe that he was actually speaking to him, when Merlin had only ever seen his face in the Prophet now and then.

Merlin swallowed. “Balinor Emrys,” he answered.

“Balinor?” exclaimed Morgana, who was suddenly looking at him with new eyes. “As in the Dragonlord? I’ve read about him in Great Wizards of the Late Twentieth Century!”

Merlin blushed again. He really had to stop doing that. “Yeah. But I never really knew him. It’s just me and my mum. She’s a Muggle, so I’m a half-blood.”

“Can you control dragons, then?” Morgana asked, looking at him expectantly.

Merlin hesitated. “I’ve never actually met a real dragon.”

This was only part of the truth. Merlin wasn’t sure he was comfortable telling everyone just yet that he had made the dragons in his picture books float off the page and breathe fire as a child, or that when he got particularly angry or upset, he would start speaking in a deep, guttural voice in another language without realising he was doing it. He thought it was probably best to lay low, especially on the first day at Hogwarts, so he had a better chance at fitting in.

Morgana looked slightly disappointed, and Merlin felt bizarrely deflated, like he had failed to impress her or something. He hadn’t even realised he had been trying. Shaking his head, he tried to change the subject. “So…I guess we’ll be seeing a lot of each other in Slytherin, then.”

Morgana’s lip curled upwards. “I suppose. I always knew I was never going to be part of the Gryffindor lark, so I’m perfectly happy where I am. I’ve always looked better in green than in red, anyway. Arthur, on the other hand…”

“Stop it,” said Arthur, who had calmed down during the course of the conversation but was now looking a little tense again. “You don’t have anything to worry about because you’re not a Pendragon.” His face paled, and Merlin felt afraid on his behalf from just looking at him. “Father’s going to disown me later, I just know it!”

“He is not,” said Morgana, rolling her eyes. “So a Pendragon didn’t get into Gryffindor. Big deal.”

“I don’t think you should want to be in a house just because everyone else in your family before you has been in it,” said Merlin. “My father was a Gryffindor too, but I’m not him at all, so I was put in a different house. It’s not uncommon.”

“The Sorting Hat knows best, Arthur,” Leon interjected. “It’s been Sorting Hogwarts students for centuries, so it knows what it’s doing. It puts you in the right house according to which traits you value most. For Hufflepuff, it’s tolerance and hard work, which are valuable qualities, arguably more so than strength or intelligence. We’re the kindest and most accepting house, and we value loyalty much like the Gryffindors do.”

“I completely agree,” a girl Merlin hadn’t noticed before suddenly piped up. She was small, with dark skin and curly hair that bounced when she met Arthur’s gaze from opposite the Hufflepuff table. “Hufflepuff and Gryffindor do have some qualities that intersect. My older brother, Elyan – he’s in his third year – is in Gryffindor, but we’re so alike you’d think we’d be put in the same house.”

“I remember you from the Hogwarts Express,” said Morgana, also taking notice of the girl as well. “Gwen, isn’t it? But I remember you mentioning that you were Muggleborn. Isn’t it really rare for a family to have two magical children…?”

“My parents were just lucky, I suppose,” said Gwen, giving a genuine smile. “I can’t imagine Elyan and me not going to the same school. We’ve always been so close! I think I would have tried to follow him to Hogwarts even if I weren’t magical.” She giggled, and the sound was infectious; Merlin couldn’t help the smile that spread across his face, and noticed that Arthur, Morgana, and Leon couldn’t suppress them either.

“In my opinion, the Hufflepuff common room is probably the nicest out of the four Houses,” Leon continued. “And here’s the best thing: we’re located right next to the kitchens!”

Merlin raised his eyebrows. Arthur seemed to look doubtful as well, but Morgana voiced their thoughts for them. “No offense, but how is that the best thing?” she asked.

Leon’s eyes widened. “Just wait until exams come round,” he told them, pointing his fork at her to emphasise his point. “Everyone will be staying up late and craving food from the stress, but if the Hufflepuffs ever feel peckish, all we have to do is go right next door and ask the house elves to make something for us!”

Morgana nodded in comprehension, and looked like she was about to say something else when Gwen checked her watch and said, “We should probably get some food into our stomachs, it’s getting late.”

Merlin let out an involuntary squeak and began to shove food into his mouth as quickly as possible, and the others followed suit. It was fortunate that they had done so, for five minutes later, Professor Pendragon stood up again, meaning that supper was over, and that the prefects were to direct the first-years to meet their Heads of Houses in their respective common rooms.

“Can you find your way to the headmaster’s office on your own?” Leon asked Arthur and Morgana. They nodded. “Good. Arthur, I’ll see you later.” He smiled at them before calling to the rest of the Hufflepuff table, “First years, over here! This way please!”

“Good luck, Arthur,” Merlin found himself saying, as the two Pendragons turned to leave. “Guess I’ll see you around. Bye, Morgana.”

Morgana gave him a half-smile in reply, but Arthur only turned and gave him a quick nod before leaving in the opposite direction to find his father by the professors’ table. Merlin tried to follow his blonde head as it weaved its way through the crowd, but soon lost him, so he turned and followed the Slytherin prefect downstairs with the other first-years.

The Slytherin Head of House turned out to be an attractive young woman who introduced herself as Professor de Lisle, the Divination teacher (“That means you won’t be seeing me in class until third year, when you start studying for your O.W.L.S!”). She had her dark hair wrapped in a blue headscarf and had an ethereal quality about her that Merlin couldn’t quite put his finger on, but that was probably because he was far too tired to register what was going on around him.

He was quickly ushered down a corridor to his dormitory, which he shared with four other boys. They were all much too tired to introduce themselves properly, but Merlin recognised Valiant Davies, the first student who had been Sorted into Slytherin in his year, just before Merlin himself had been put in the same house. He tried giving him a friendly smile as they turned in, but Valiant merely gave him a haughty look before pulling the curtains around his bed shut.

Okay, Merlin thought, not exactly surprised, but slightly deflated nonetheless. It appeared there was already one person he had to watch out for at Hogwarts.

At least he had Arthur.

Despite the comment about him mistaking Merlin’s name as someone swearing, Merlin had a feeling that they would be seeing a lot of each other, and not just because his sister was in Merlin’s house. Merlin didn’t know what gave him this feeling, but he had a hunch that he and Arthur were going to get along.

Chapter Text

When Merlin saw Arthur again the next day, he found him with dark circles under his eyes and a very worn-out expression. He and Morgana sat with him at the Hufflepuff table, to the amusement and surprise of some of the older students.

"Late night?" Merlin asked. Arthur nodded.

"What happened after I left?" said Morgana. "I knew Father had more to say, but I hadn't expected him to keep you for that long."

"Oh, the usual," said Arthur. "He said that he was disappointed in me and that I clearly hadn't been aiming to follow in his footsteps." He poked at a slice of toast with his fork. "It's not my fault that my personality is different from his. I am my own person, after all."

"That's the spirit!" said Gwen, seating herself next to Arthur and smiling at Merlin and Morgana. "Good morning. The beds here are rather comfortable, aren't they?"

"Well, looks like you had a better night's rest than Arthur here," Merlin joked. "Cheer up, mate. It's not like you don't know anyone in your house."

"You've got me," Gwen reminded him, putting a comforting hand on his shoulder. "We can stick together during classes and things."

"And you've got us, too," said Morgana. "Well, whenever we have lessons together, that is. Would you pass the jam, please?"

Merlin reached to his left for the jam jar and handed it to her. "Speaking of lessons, have you all taken a look at your timetables yet?" he asked. "I was too tired to even glance at it last night; I don't even remember my head hitting the pillow."

Arthur fumbled around in his pockets and unfolded his schedule. "We have Potions with Professor Gaius. Slytherins and Hufflepuffs!"

"That's great! We can all sit together!" cheered Gwen.

"I've been looking forward to Potions," said Merlin, unable to suppress his excitement. "I have a few books that belonged to my dad. He always had to make them because he got injured so much from dealing with dragons."

"I'm looking forward to Charms," said Morgana. "I've been practicing spells at home. Watch me. Aguamenti!" She gave her wand a wave, and almost immediately, a stream of clear water began to fill her glass. Merlin and Gwen clapped enthusiastically.

"So what? I've been practicing too," Arthur said haughtily. "Here. Incendio!" He pointed his wand at his piece of toast, but to everyone's shock, instead of just igniting it, Arthur's wand emitted a loud bang and a puff of smoke. Merlin coughed and waved his hand in front of his face, and when the smoke cleared, it was to find Arthur with his hair slightly singed. His napkin and the toast had been reduced to ashes.

"Well, at least you burnt something," said Gwen reassuringly, though Merlin caught the doubtful expression on her face.

As it turned out, spells weren't the only thing Arthur was terrible at. In Potions, Professor Gaius insisted that each Slytherin be paired with a Hufflepuff, so Merlin sat next to Arthur and Morgana sat with Gwen. For their first lesson they brewed a Forgetfulness Potion, but instead of turning a clear blue, Arthur's final product was a green sludge. Merlin's potion had a slight turquoise tinge to it (apparently he had added the valerian sprigs too early on), but at least Professor Gaius had deemed it passable, as he had Gwen's. Morgana, however, had produced a perfect potion, and had also been the first to finish. Professor Gaius immediately poured it into a vial and held up in front of the class for everyone to see. After class, Morgana gloated about the twenty points for Slytherin she had earned.

Merlin and Morgana had Charms with the Gryffindors next, so they said their goodbyes to Arthur and Gwen heading to Transfiguration with Professor Escott. They had a little trouble with a staircase that decided to move while they were halfway up the steps, but they were nonetheless able to arrive on time, albeit with slightly sweaty brows from running. Merlin, Morgana, and a Gryffindor boy named Lancelot were the first three to successfully cast the Levitation Charm, earning them ten points each from Professor Fox, a thin, blonde, brown-eyed woman whose smile was more akin to a smirk. The other Slytherin first-years were already giving Merlin and Morgana admiring looks by the time lunch came around, with the exception of Valiant, who sneered at them.

"I don't think Valiant likes me very much," said Merlin to Morgana in a low whisper as they headed to their last lesson, Defense Against the Dark Arts.

Morgana snorted. "We can deal with him if he makes any trouble. If he dares to, that is. Just stand your ground."

It turned out that Defense Against the Dark Arts was taught by Professor Pendragon himself. As it was a double lesson, they spent their first one taking notes as Professor Pendragon lectured them on vampires. Merlin scribbled down as much as he could, but ended up staring at a painting on the wall until Morgana elbowed him when Professor Pendragon looked round. The second lesson was a practical one, and much more interesting. They were to be paired up to practice the Disarming Spell. Merlin and Morgana instantly looked at each other when Professor Pendragon announced what they were going to do, but visibly deflated when he added that they had to pair up with someone of the same sex.

It was just Merlin's luck that he was paired with Valiant. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a willowy Ravenclaw girl with blonde hair (he wasn’t sure what he name was – Victoria, perhaps?) stand opposite Morgana. Merlin tried to look as threatening as possible – he was slightly taller than Valiant, after all – but Valiant gave him such a menacing look that Merlin was almost cowed. But then he remembered what Morgana had said about standing up for himself, so he straightened his back and met Valiant’s gaze unflinchingly.

“You’re Merlin, aren’t you?” Valiant sneered. “What was your mother thinking when she decided to name you that?”

“Look who’s talking,” Merlin retorted. “At least I’m named after the greatest wizard of all time. I’ve never seen a name less fitting for someone like you.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Valiant said, beginning to raise his voice, but Professor Pendragon interrupted them.

“Wands out, please! Stand opposite each other, a few feet apart so you’re a good distance away – that’s it – now say the spell with me, but don’t wave your wands just yet. Expelliarmus!”

“Expelliarmus!” the class chorused.

“Very good,” said Professor Pendragon. “Now the wand movement is very simple – you slash downwards, then flick it in an anticlockwise direction, like so.” He demonstrated, and the class followed. There was a moment of confusion when one of the Ravenclaw girls lost her wand, but she quickly found it again. “Have you got your wand, Freya? …Good. Now practice with your partners. Remember, you’re only disarming them! You have five minutes, starting now.”

Merlin and Valiant turned to face each other. “Let’s see how good you are, then,” said Valiant. “I bet you don’t even come close to living up to your namesake.”

“Well, I’m only a first year,” said Merlin. “There’s still time for that.”

Valiant narrowed his eyes and raised his wand. “Expelliarmus!

Merlin reflexively held on tighter to his wand – he wasn’t sure what to expect – but to his surprise, nothing happened. He was a little confused for a second, but then he realised that Valiant had flicked his wand in the opposite direction after slashing downward. He couldn’t help but smirk at him. “Guess it’s my turn, then,” he said. “Expelliarmus!”

A scarlet jet of light shot out of his wand, causing Valiant’s to fly out of his hand. The wand made a high arc above the rest of the students, finally landing in the far corner of the room. Merlin grinned in surprise; he hadn’t expected his spell to work on the first try either, let alone this spectacularly.

Valiant’s cheeks pinked, and he turned to Merlin with gritted teeth. “I’ll get you for that!” he said, and ran towards him, arms stretched out. Merlin had no time to react; he was pushed backwards and onto the floor with a crash, Valiant’s landing on top of him. Merlin raised his hands to duck, but before Valiant could so much as attack him, there was a yell of, “Petrificus Totalus!”

Almost immediately, Valiant became as stiff as a board. Merlin had one second to overcome his shock before the weight was pushed off him and he was pulled to his feet.

To his amazement, the person who had helped him was Freya, the Ravenclaw girl from earlier. “Are you alright?” she said, looking worried. “He looked like he was going to attack you, so I just said the first spell that came into my head.”

Merlin was about to thank her and tell her he was all right, when Professor Pendragon shouted, “Who in Merlin’s name cast a Full Body-Bind Curse on a student? I asked you to disarm only!” The students quickly scurried out of the way as the headmaster strode towards them. He waved his wand, and in the next moment, Valiant was scrambling to his feet, hissing with rage. “Well? I know it was one of you two. Answer me at once!”

Freya visibly paled and fell silent. Merlin spoke for her instead. “Valiant was about to physically attack me, sir,” he said.

“I was provoked!” Valiant shouted, still brushing dust off the back of his robes.

“Only because you couldn’t cast a Disarming Spell to save your life!” Freya said. “That’s a petty reason to want to attack someone. Look, there’s your wand!” She pointed, and everyone turned to look at the corner where Valiant’s wand lay on the floor.

“It’s true, sir,” said the Ravenclaw girl Morgana was paired with. “I wasn’t standing too far away. Valiant was first to cast the spell, and when he failed, it was Merlin’s turn. Merlin made his wand fly all the way over there, and that was when Valiant got angry and attacked him.”

“I saw it too, Fa – sir,” added Morgana, pinking slightly at the slip-up. “I was just about to disarm Vivian when Valiant lunged.”

Valiant looked as if he were about to explode. “I did not – ”

“You had Merlin on the floor when I cast the spell on you,” said Freya. “Stop making excuses, Valiant. There were witnesses.”

Professor Pendragon was quiet for a few seconds as he looked between them. Merlin held his breath until he said, “I see you are telling the truth.”

Merlin let out a sigh of relief.

“Ten points from Slytherin, Mr. Davies. I will inform your housemaster of your actions later today.”

“But – ”

“Would you like to make it twenty?”

“No, sir.”

“Good. Please retrieve your wand and wait outside the classroom for the rest of the lesson. Do not leave until I ask you to, or there will be consequences.”

Valiant took his wand and left, but not before he shot a glare Merlin’s way.

Merlin joined Freya and her partner, Mithian, for the rest of the lesson to practice the Disarming Spell, and by the time the bell rang, all three of them had mastered it.

“I think Professor Pendragon should have given you at least ten points for that Disarming Spell; that really was quite impressive,” said Freya, once they were out of the classroom.

“Never mind me, what about you?” said Merlin. “Valiant would have punched me or something if you hadn’t been there!”

“I agree,” said Morgana, walking up to join them. “And did you see Valiant’s face?” She proceeded to do a surprisingly good imitation of Valiant under the Full Body-Bind Curse, complete with wide eyes and her hands pressed tightly to her sides. Merlin and Freya laughed.

“I like you,” Morgana continued as the three of them reached the courtyard. “Would you like to sit with us at supper later?”

Freya smiled back, and even though she wasn’t looking at him, Merlin was momentarily struck by how pretty she was. How hadn’t he noticed before? “Of course.”

Chapter Text

Supper was a pleasant affair. Freya, Arthur, and Gwen joined Morgana and Merlin at the Slytherin table. After they sat down, Arthur asked a tall Hufflepuff boy, Percival, to join them as well – apparently they had gotten along in Transfiguration. They got a few weird looks (and a few unwelcome ones) from the older Slytherins, but a threatening glare from Morgana in return shut them up rather quickly. Merlin discovered quickly that Morgana could be extremely formidable, despite being a first-year. It also helped that she was apparently brilliant at everything.

“Do you want to explore the castle together?” Arthur asked as they made their way out of the Great Hall later on. “I haven’t got a lot of work to get done – just a Potions essay so far, but that’s not due for ages.”

“It would be nice to have a look round,” said Merlin. “This place is huge. I wonder what we’ll find!”

“Should we start at the top and work our way down?” Arthur suggested. “That way, we’ll be relatively close to our common rooms when we’re finished.”

Merlin shrugged. “Why not?”

They made it up to the seventh floor landing, panting when they reached the top. Merlin was disappointed to find that there was only one painting there; upon closer inspection, it turned out to be one of a knight on a very fat horse.

Merlin watched as Arthur approached a painting of a knight on a horse, when said knight suddenly let out such a loud cry of alarm that both of them jumped backwards.

“AHA! What scoundrels are these, that dare trespass upon my private lands?” he yelled. “Braggarts and rogues, the pair of you! Tell me your names, and the purpose of your journey!”

Merlin stared. He had seen moving pictures in The Daily Prophet, as his Muggle mother read it every day, but to have a moving image that wasn’t in black-and-white was something else.

“Wicked!” Arthur exclaimed. “I bet my father bought this one; he’s always had a fascination with Arthurian legend. That’s why he named me and my sister.”

“Answer my question, you dogs!” screamed the knight. “I am Sir Cadogan, and I will not be cowed! Draw, you knaves!”

Merlin and Arthur watched in fascination as ‘Sir Cadogan’ drew his sword and brandished it wildly in their direction. However, the sword seemed much too large and heavy for him, and with a loud clunk, the knight fell off his horse and crumpled to the ground. The horse neighed, but did nothing.

Merlin winced in sympathy. “Are you all right? …Sir?” he added the title as an afterthought.

“Ah, manners!” said Sir Cadogan, groaning a little as he got to his feet. “Perhaps you are not such a cur after all! What is your purpose here, good sir?”

“We’re students at Hogwarts,” said Merlin, “and we were just exploring.”

“A quest!” exclaimed Sir Cadogan. “Why, dear friends, let me accompany you on your journey! Where are you headed?”

“Nowhere in particular,” said Merlin hesitantly. “We were just, you know, having a look round.”

“No matter, no matter; rest assured that I will assist you on your path ahead! The night is dark, and terrors lurk in the shadows at every corner. But we shall charge forth, or perish in our attempt!” Sir Cadogan picked up his sword from where it had been lying in the grass beside him. “But first, my comrades-in-arms – what are your names?”

“I’m Merlin,” said Merlin, “and this is Arthur. We – ”

“IMPOSTORS!” yelled Sir Cadogan, so loudly and suddenly that Merlin actually staggered backwards in shock. “KNAVES! VILLAINS!”

“What are you on about?” said Arthur, who looked very confused.

Sir Cadogan pointed his sword at them. “You are not who you say you are!” he shouted. “Roguish rascals! Plume-plucked paltoniers! I am friend to the real Merlin, and have been loyal to King Arthur of Camelot for many years now. Do not think you can fool me! Stand and fight, you mangy curs, unless you be too craven!”

“Shut up!” hissed Arthur. “You’ll get the whole school up here if you keep making such a racket!”

“BASTARDS!” screamed Sir Cadogan, ignoring him completely. “MISCREANTS! TRAI – ”

Just then, there was a loud roar from within the painting, and the field Sir Cadogan and his horse were standing on began to shake. The horse gave a high-pitched whinny and bolted out of the frame as a looming figure emerged from the mountains in the background.

“GET BACK!” Sir Cadogan shouted, who had apparently forgotten about Merlin and Arthur at this point. He turned so he was facing away from them and raised his sword towards the sky. “I am the vanquisher of the Wyvern of Wye, and I will not be cowed by a mere dragon!”

Merlin felt his heart lurch in his chest. Dragon?

He and Arthur approached the painting until they were so close that their noses were almost touching the canvas. The shape in the sky came ever closer, and when it was large enough Merlin saw that it was indeed a dragon, but not one that he had read about in his father’s battered copy of Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them: this one was larger than any of the dragons Newt Scamander had ever described, was brown in colour, and had great, beating wings. The dragon roared once more, and landed with a resounding grass onto the field. Sir Cadogan yelled and toppled over.

Merlin could tell the dragon was angry. Perhaps it was because Sir Cadogan had been shouting so loudly, and he had woken it up. But none of that mattered, because Merlin could see the smoke coming out of the dragon’s nostrils, and knew without knowing how that its intention was to kill.

“STOP!” he yelled. “DON’T HURT HIM!”

But the words that came out of his mouth were not in English. Merlin’s voice had not yet broken at this point, but suddenly his voice was deep and resonant as it echoed across the landing in an entirely different language.

And just like that, the dragon was still.

There was a silence. Sir Cadogan took one look at Merlin, whimpered, and staggered out of the painting. Merlin was suddenly aware of the fact that he was breathing heavily, his hair plastered across his sweaty brow. He turned to look at Arthur, and found him with his mouth agape, staring at him like he’d never seen him before.

“What the hell was that?” Arthur said. His voice was small, and his tone carried a note of not fear, but awe.

Merlin tried to crack a smile. “Guess I just met my first dragon,” he said.

Arthur nodded silently, his mouth still slightly open.

Merlin turned back to the painting, where the impressive-looking dragon was watching both of them. He noticed for the first time that the dragon had great, yellow eyes, and its gaze made him feel distinctly uncomfortable.

“You are Merlin, son of Balinor, are you not?” asked the dragon. Merlin was surprised to discover that it spoke in English, and that its voice was deep and rumbly.

“Yes,” said Merlin. Then, after a pause, “Hold on. How did you know what my father’s name was?”

The dragon laughed, and Merlin felt an inexplicable shiver run down his spine. “I see all,” it said simply.

“That’s…really creepy,” said Arthur.

The dragon turned to look at Arthur, its unblinking eyes studying him for a few seconds. “You have magic,” it said. “How interesting.”

“I beg your pardon?” said Arthur, sounding affronted.

“Nothing,” said the dragon, and bared its teeth in what Merlin guessed was supposed to be a grin. “It is merely interesting that you two should meet, and that you share the names of the famed king and sorcerer you were named after. But the first King Arthur had no magic, though he was born of it.”

Merlin frowned. “Are you trying to tell us something, or are you just going to keep making observations for the rest of this conversation?”

“My name is Kilgharrah,” said the dragon, “and I have come to inform you of your destiny.”

There was a pause.

“Merlin, I think we should go,” said Arthur, grabbing his arm and tugging it in the direction of the staircase. “It’s getting late, and this dragon is clearly mental.”

“No, wait,” said Merlin. “Let’s hear him out.”

He didn’t know what it was, but something about the dragon called to him like nothing else ever had before. Perhaps it was because he was his father’s son, and he had a natural kinship with dragons. Nevertheless, he was curious to know what Kilgharrah had to say, no matter how mad it would be.

“Merlin is the successor of an ancient line of Dragonlords,” said Kilgharrah, continuing as if Arthur hadn’t spoken. “He, like his father and those before him, have the unique ability to command dragons like myself, and speak a language that only we can understand. The dragons of today are very different from those of my time, which have been extinct since the Great Purge.” The dragon inclined its head. “I am one of the last of my kind, but not all is lost. It has been foretold that you, young warlock, will help to bring back a lost dragon of Albion.”

“Oh my God,” said Merlin, echoing a phrase his mother had always said (she had never really taken to using Merlin’s name whenever she was surprised or shocked).

“So, assuming you’re telling the truth,” Arthur said slowly, “how exactly do we find this dragon?”

Kilgharrah spread his wings until they spanned the entire frame. “There is an egg,” it said, “hidden in the Forbidden Forest.”

There was a shocked silence as Merlin took this information in. Then his heart sank. “But the Forbidden Forest is, well…forbidden,” he said.

“Your friend will assist you, young warlock,” said Kilgharrah. “The path will become clear.”

“I’m not a warlock, I’m a wizard,” Merlin insisted. “And couldn’t someone else just go and get the egg? There are dragon reserves all over the world; surely it would be much wiser for someone to find the egg and bring it there.”

“This egg cannot be hatched without the help of a Dragonlord,” said Kilgharrah. “The druids meant for you and you alone to find it.”

“But that egg must be ancient,” said Arthur, still sounding dubious. “How do you hatch a thousand-year-old egg?”

“A thousand years is but a blink of an eye from a dragon’s perspective,” Kilgharrah explained. “You two may not have as impressive a destiny as your namesakes, but together you will find this egg and care for the dragon that hatches from it."

“And how do we do that, exactly?”

Kilgharrah looked as if he were about to answer, when Merlin suddenly heard footsteps approaching. He turned to see the Head of Gryffindor, Professor de Bois, storming up the staircase towards them.

“What is the meaning of this?” hissed Professor de Bois. “You two are supposed to be in your respective common rooms, not wandering the castle at your pleasure!”

Merlin glanced quickly at the painting once more, and was simultaneously surprised and relieved to find that the dragon had disappeared. He considered for a moment that it had all been a very bizarre hallucination, but then it couldn’t have been, because Arthur had seen Kilgharrah, too. Perhaps it had simply flown out of the painting, to avoid being seen.

“We were just – ” Arthur began.

“Admiring the paintings,” said Merlin, cutting Arthur off with a look. “I’m sorry, sir, but we didn’t know we had to be in our common rooms after supper. No one explained it to us, and we wanted to see the castle.”

Merlin could be a very good liar when necessary. He had suspected the fact that being outside the common rooms after supper was a privilege restricted to older students, but no one needed to know that. Besides, he doubted the information Kilgharrah had just relayed to him about a dragon egg and his destiny (he still had trouble wrapping his head around that word) was something he needed to inform a member of staff about.

Professor de Bois looked very stern for a few seconds, but at Merlin and Arthur’s earnest expressions, it softened around the edges. “Very well,” he said. “But don’t let me catch you out here again.”

“Yes, sir,” said Arthur and Merlin, before racing down the steps as quickly as they could.

“Professor de Bois is my uncle,” said Arthur, once they were out of earshot. “It’s a little weird calling him that, I just call him Uncle Agravaine whenever he comes round back home. Anyway, my father made him Head of Gryffindor despite the fact that he’s a Slytherin. I think Nimueh was just adamant about keeping her post.”

“Professor de Lisle’s first name is Nimueh?” said Merlin. “That’s an unusual name.”

Arthur shrugged, then stopped as they reached the foot of the stairs. “About what happened – ” His eyes darted around, as if to make sure no one was listening, but leaned forward anyway to whisper. “We’ll talk about it at some point, yeah? We’ll figure out how to find the thing.”

“Okay,” Merlin whispered back.

“Good.” Arthur straightened and gave Merlin a perfunctory nod, looking so much like his father for a second that Merlin was momentarily thrown off. “You’re heading that way,” he said, pointing to the staircase that led down to the Slytherin common room. “I’m going in the other direction. See you tomorrow?”

“Yep,” said Merlin. “See you.”

Chapter Text

The next few days at Hogwarts passed by more quickly than Merlin could ever have imagined, and before he knew it, it was the weekend. However, this did not mean he had escaped the wrath of homework, and so it was on a Saturday afternoon that he decided to head to the library with his new-found group of friends.

Apart from the occasional stern look from the librarian, Mr. Monmouth, when their chatter grew too loud, they were rarely interrupted. Freya and Morgana proved to be the most helpful of the bunch, and though neither of them agreed to letting anyone copy their work, Freya had the patience to sit down with Merlin and guide him through a particularly tricky concept Professor Escott had mentioned in Transfiguration. Morgana was more helpful with finding books. According to Arthur, she spent most of her time in their library back in the Pendragon home, and was used to navigating so many shelves. This fact boggled Merlin, because Arthur’s house had to be huge if they had their own personal library.

The encounter with the dragon, however, still weighed heavily on Merlin’s mind, though he and Arthur hadn’t spoken since that night. Arthur had mentioned that they would figure it out ‘at some point’, but given the fact that they were constantly in the company of Morgana, Gwen, Percival, or Freya, private communication was made somewhat difficult. But if what the dragon said about Merlin’s destiny was true, then he simply had to find this egg. It was his responsibility, even though he wasn’t entirely sure how he would be able to shoulder it. Perhaps he and Arthur would tell the others in time, but how much would that help, ultimately? Six first-years were hardly qualified to care for an actual dragon, and Merlin wasn’t sure he wanted others to be let in on the secret.

Merlin saw his chance on Sunday night when, after a prolonged chat in the Hufflepuff common room (which was indeed as comfortable as Leon had described), the others retired for an early night, until it was just him and Arthur left. Arthur had arranged himself comfortably on the couch, but his eyes were still bright with only a slight hint of tiredness.

“You can’t stay for much longer,” said Arthur. “It’s getting late, and we have Potions first thing tomorrow.”

“Have you thought about what the dragon told us?” Merlin said without preamble.

Arthur started in his seat. “For Merlin’s sake, Merlin!” he hissed, quickly checking to see if anyone else had heard. “You can’t just say that out loud! We have to use a code name for it. Something that only we will understand.”

“Operation Camelot,” Merlin said immediately.

“What? Why?”

“It makes sense, doesn’t it?” Merlin said. “I mean, the dragon egg was hidden during the Middle Ages, and the dragon who told us about it came from a medieval painting. Plus, both of us are named after people from that era. And so are our friends, in case you haven’t noticed.”

Arthur nodded. “Perfect. Operation Camelot it is, then.” He leaned forward. “So, any thoughts?”

“I think we should sneak out tonight,” Merlin said, lowering his voice to a whisper, despite the fact that no one was around. “The others aren’t here, most people are probably up in their dorms, and I’ve got an invisibility cloak.”

“You what?” Arthur said incredulously. “The Invisibility Cloak?”

“Not the Invisibility Cloak, just a regular one. They’re rare, but not unheard of,” Merlin explained. “It’s one of the things my father left me; that, and a carved wooden dragon, though the other thing’s not important for this. The point is, we can sneak out unnoticed. The cloak’s big enough to cover both of us.”

“Does it actually work, the cloak?” said Arthur.

“Yes – well, most of the time,” Merlin said, hesitating a little. “I mean, it’s not the actual cloak from the legend of the Deathly Hallows, but it’s a good enough replica. It doesn’t work as well when it rains – something to do with the fabric not reacting well to water, and besides, raindrops just bounce off it, so it becomes more obvious because you’d just see a blank space in the middle of all that rain – but it should be good enough. It’s dark outside, anyway. No one’s going to see.”

“I’m not so sure,” said Arthur, looking worried. “What if someone catches us?”

“We’ll simply have to risk it,” said Merlin. When Arthur still looked unsure, he moved towards him and looked him straight in the eye. “Arthur. Listen to me. I know we’ve got classes tomorrow, but we’re hardly ever going to get a chance like this again. I don’t think teachers will be expecting us to so blatantly break the rules this early on in the year, so it’s unlikely they’ll be on the lookout.”

“Okay,” said Arthur. Then, as he saw Merlin get to his feet, “Wait. We’re leaving now?”

“Have you not been listening to what I’ve been trying to say this entire conversation? Yes, we’re leaving now,” said Merlin, his impatience starting to finally get to him.

“Wait, let me get something warmer – ”

“Don’t go to your dorm, you’ll risk waking someone up,” hissed Merlin. “Let’s go.”

“This is a really bad idea,” Arthur said as the Forbidden Forest came into view. 

“Shhh,” Merlin admonished. “I know we can’t be seen, but we can still be heard. Keep your voice down – ouch, that was my side you elbowed, you prat!”

Merlin had never had much reason to use the cloak before, which meant that walking under it with Arthur was extremely awkward. They had to walk as closely together as possible in order for their feet to stay unseen, which meant they had bumped into each other’s sides more often than was comfortable since they had left the castle.

Merlin could not deny, however, that the Forbidden Forest was indeed very intimidating. The trees were tall and foreboding, with trunks as thick as stone pillars, and they grew so closely together that Merlin could not identify a clear path through it all. At this point, he and Arthur had reached the bottom of the steps leading from the castle to a small pumpkin patch and the greenhouses they went to for Herbology. According to the most recent edition of Hogwarts: A History, the gamekeeper’s hut, which was situated nearby, was uninhabited, and was now used as a shed where Herbology-related odds and ends were kept.

The path will become clear,” said Arthur, echoing what the dragon had told them. “Fat lot of help that old dragon gave us. I don’t see a path anywhere.”

“Maybe it’s a path you can’t just identify by eye,” said Merlin, trying to think of an explanation for Kilgharrah’s cryptic speech.

Despite the fact that his mother was a Muggle, her years spent with Balinor had taught her a lot about magic, and Hunith had relayed all the information she could to Merlin. Merlin remembered her telling him once that there were some kinds of magic that could not be done with incantations and wand-waving, that some possessed inherent powers, and all it took for a person that possessed such powers was to listen to their intuition.

“Let me try something,” said Merlin. “Stop walking for a second, I need to think.”

Arthur silently acquiesced, and stood as still as he could under the cloak as Merlin closed his eyes. He didn’t exactly know what he had to do, but if he had interpreted his mother’s words correctly, it meant he had to cast his senses about and find a path, somehow.

I need to find the egg, he thought. Find the egg, find the egg, find the egg…

Suddenly, the blackness behind his eyelids became awash with colour, and Merlin gasped aloud. He could see the forest before him, illuminated in light so bright that even the darkest leaves were pale as spring grass. The vision brought him to stop in front of a tree not so far from the pumpkin patch. The tree had a curious marking etched into the bark – three interlocking spirals extending from a triangular centre. It was a triskelion, a mark Merlin knew to be of ancient magic. Merlin reached out a hand to touch it, and the mark immediately flared bright gold, growing hot beneath his palm but not hot enough to burn. He looked beyond the tree and saw that some of the other trees had started blazing with the same symbol, forming a meandering line through the woods. Merlin followed the line with his sight, and the rest of the forest passed by in a blur until he reached the end.

Merlin’s eyes snapped open. “I’ve got it,” he said. “Follow me.” 

“Merlin,” said Arthur, his voice in an awed whisper. “Your eyes…”

“What about them?” Merlin said, frowning at the unexpected comment. 

“It’s just that…they went gold for a second.”

“Are you sure?” That had never happened before. Perhaps it was a side effect of the weird vision he’d gotten, Merlin mused.

Merlin led the way to the tree he had seen in the vision, and sure enough, when he reached the pumpkin patch there was a towering beech tree with the same strange symbol on it. “Watch this,” he said, and lifted the edge of the cloak so he could press the flat of his palm against it. Almost immediately, the symbol flared, as did those on the trees deeper in the forest. In the near-pitch darkness, they seemed like strangely shaped fireflies glowing in the night.

Merlin gave Arthur a silent nod, and the two of them proceeded onwards. They stepped over fallen tree trunks and waded through streams, not caring how muddy or wet they got as long as they kept the next glowing symbol within sight. Neither of them knew how much time had passed when they finally reached the end. The symbol was emblazoned onto a large oak tree that looked like it had been there for centuries.

Merlin took the cloak off of them both, folding it to store in his pyjamas pocket. “We’re here.”

Both of them were silent for a moment, taking in their surroundings and listening to the crickets chirp. Somewhere above them, an owl hooted forlornly.

“What do we do now?” said Arthur, looking around. “I don’t see it.”

“Don’t be daft, Arthur, the druids wouldn’t just put the egg in plain sight for whatever lives in the Forest to eat it or something,” Merlin said.

A gust of wind suddenly whistled through the trees, and both of them huddled closer together for warmth. Merlin regretted not wearing something warmer, and was sure that Arthur was thinking the same thing.

“Do the thing you did with the first tree,” said Arthur.

Merlin looked at him. “What, put my hand on it, you mean?”

“Yeah, give it a try. It can’t hurt.”

Merlin shrugged and did as he was told. He almost tripped over a tree root as he made his way towards the trunk, but he got there in the end. Without hesitation, he pressed his hand to the glowing symbol –


Merlin fell backwards as the ground began to shake beneath him, and landed hard against a particularly large root that made him gasp in pain. He looked around wildly for Arthur, and spied him on his hands and knees a little distance away. Their eyes met, wide and frightened.

“WHAT’S GOING ON?” Arthur yelled.

“I DON’T KN – AAARRGGGHHH!” Merlin screamed again as the root he had fallen against began to move, too fast for him to scramble away from it. Another root on the opposite side began to move in the other direction, and Merlin could do nothing but cling on for dear life –

And then, just as suddenly as it had started, everything stopped.

Merlin’s heart was hammering in his chest, like it was threatening to jump out of his throat and run off into the woods without him. His hands were clammy from where they were still holding on to the root, and he removed them so he could dust off the bits of bark on his trousers.

“Merlin?” he heard Arthur call. “Merlin, are you – MERLIN!”

“I’m here!” he called back.

“Are you alright?”

“Yeah, you?”


“Thank Merlin.”

Arthur’s blonde head came into view as he scrambled towards Merlin. “What was all that about?”

“I have no clue,” said Merlin, “but it seems to have opened this hole in the ground – look.”

Both of them clambered over the root to the other side. A cavern had indeed opened up between the root they had climbed over and another one to their left, creating a large and circular crater-like hole, in the middle of which was a platform. And on top of the platform was –

“Is that it?” said Arthur, pointing at what looked very much like an oversized egg with a very pointy tip.

“It’s got to be,” Merlin breathed, his feet already moving of their own accord towards it.

He reverently placed his hands around the egg and lifted it off its pedestal. It was heavy and almost as large as his torso, and Merlin feared more than anything that he would drop it, but the shell was leathery to the touch despite its smooth surface, which meant he had a good grip on the sides.

“It’s a lot pointier than I thought it would be,” said Arthur, his head cocked to one side as he gazed at the egg. “I thought all eggs were oval-shaped.”

“Never mind that, it’s time to go back,” Merlin replied. “The cloak’s in my pocket, throw it over both of us and run, before something else comes after us." 

As soon as they stepped out of the cavern, the roots began to move again, though not as violently as they had before; this time, they merely arranged themselves over the hole until it looked as if it had never been there at all.

The glowing symbols on the other trees had already grown dimmer, and it was for this reason that Merlin and Arthur made haste back to the castle. Fortunately, by the time the lights winked out completely, the gamekeeper’s hut was already in sight. Merlin wished he could high-five Arthur for getting out of the Forest alive and relatively unscathed, but his hands were unfortunately full.

“Where are we going to hide the egg?” Arthur asked, as soon as they were (both literally and metaphorically) out of the woods.

“I have no clue,” Merlin said, suddenly realising just how badly he had thought this through. While he had extensively planned in his head how to retrieve the egg, he had not given a single shred of thought towards what to do with it once it was in his possession.

“Before you say anything, we’re not hiding it in the greenhouses,” Arthur said. “That Venomous Tarantula is terrifying.”

“Venomous Tentacula,” Merlin said tiredly. Honestly, whoever thought pure-bloods would be more competent at magic than anyone with Muggle blood was a complete and utter idiot, because Arthur Pendragon was living proof that it was not the case.

Just then, Merlin spotted the gamekeeper’s hut. “There!” he said, jerking his head towards it (his hands were full of dragon egg, after all). “Barely anyone goes in there anymore, and it’s far enough from the castle for people not to notice.”

“Good plan,” said Arthur, and proceeded to lead the way. Upon reaching the door, Arthur seized the handle and pulled. When it didn’t budge, he moved towards it, planted his feet firmly on the ground, gripped the handle, and leaned backwards as far as he could go, but the door still would not open.

“Um, Arthur?” said Merlin, who was watching helplessly from a distance, still clutching the egg. “Need I remind you that you have a wand?”

“Oh,” said Arthur. “Right.” He took his wand out from his back pocket and pointed it at the door. “Alohomora!

Miraculously, Arthur’s spell did not malfunction, and the door swung open. Inwards.

Merlin laughed out loud. “You utter clotpole,” he said. “You were supposed to push the door, not pull!”

“What did you call me?” asked Arthur, but Merlin was already shoving past him into the hut.

He had expected to see the place strewn with cobwebs and dust littering every available surface, but surprisingly enough, the interior of the hut was relatively clean, albeit a little messy. There were various garden tools hung up on one wall, pots and pans on another, and a large assortment of various things Merlin couldn’t even begin to name placed all over the room.

“Maybe we should put it on the hearth,” Arthur suggested. “Look, it’s empty. There’s no firewood at all.”

“I’m not so sure we should hide it here, Arthur,” said Merlin. “This place looks like someone regularly uses it. I think it’s a storage room or something.”

“And you would be correct,” said a gravelly voice coming from behind them.

Merlin and Arthur whipped around, startled, and when they saw who it was, Merlin almost dropped the egg.

“Professor Gaius? What are you doing here?”

Chapter Text

“I could ask you the same question,” said Professor Gaius, furrowing his brow as he observed them from the doorway. “But first, I shall answer yours. I was merely looking for my garden shears. There is a special herb in the Forbidden Forest that I must pick before sunrise to ensure it lasts longest, once picked. It appears, however, that I have stumbled upon a much more pressing issue.”

Merlin could only nod in reply, his heart high in his throat. Arthur, who was beside him, had gone pale.

“I will, for the moment, disregard the fact that you are not only out of your dormitories in the middle of the night, but are wandering the school grounds outside the castle, when both of you know you must get up early tomorrow for classes,” Professor Gaius continued. “I will ignore those facts in favour of inquiring how you have what I believe is the Lost Egg of Albion in your possession.”

Merlin looked down at the egg in his grasp, feeling his eyes widening. “The Lost Egg of Albion?” he said weakly.

“You have not been sufficiently trained in your knowledge of magical creatures, having only been at Hogwarts for less than two weeks,” said Professor Gaius. “For future reference, however, dragon eggs of today are round, sometimes with speckles on them, depending on the breed of the dragon within. The egg you currently have in your hands has a shape and colour that I have only read about in ancient tomes. Arthurian legend,” he explained, when Merlin looked up at him again. “The Lost Egg of Albion, as the druids called it, is a dragon egg from the medieval age. As the legend tells, if my memory serves, the famed King Arthur and his sorcerer, Merlin, hid the egg with the druids in the hope that it would hatch once times were not as dangerous. The egg, however, is highly unusual, in that it does not contain a baby dragon, but a dragon that used to be a dear friend of the warlock.”

“Hold on,” said Arthur, raising his hand like he would in Potions class. “Assuming that we take all this information at face value, you’re saying there’s a grown dragon trapped inside this egg?” Arthur said, aghast.

Professor Gaius shook his head. “Merely a reincarnation of one,” he said.

At Merlin and Arthur’s questioning looks, he sighed and stepped into the hut, closing the door behind him before he continued his explanation. “Aithusa – the dragon Merlin and Arthur knew – had been damaged by her experiences. Soon after she hatched, she went into the care of the Lady Morgana, who was later captured. Aithusa was held hostage and tortured to such an extent that, when she was released, she had lost the ability to speak.”

Merlin felt a pang in his chest. “That’s awful,” he said with feeling.

“Dragons could talk back then?” Arthur asked. “Father told me that they were incapable of human speech.”

“Indeed, that is the case now,” said Professor Gaius. “Magic was far more present a thousand years ago than it is now. It was in the fibre of every being, intricately tied to the universe. Over the years, however, it has become exclusive to those who are born with magic like you and I. Muggles can no longer learn how to cast spells like they did before, just like how dragons cannot learn to talk.”

“So what happened?” Merlin asked.

“When Merlin found Aithusa again, she had been damaged beyond repair,” Gaius said. “Despite Merlin’s immense power, he could not heal her. He and Arthur were extremely distraught by this, but they decided not to prolong her suffering. As a result, Merlin decided to cast a spell on her such that she would be reborn, much like a phoenix would, with her new body unharmed. However, this powerful magic came at a price.”

“What was it?”

“Once Aithusa is re-hatched, she will have no memory of her previous life.”

“Oh,” said Arthur, visibly deflating. “I was hoping she would be able to tell us about what Camelot looked like, and all that. It would have been fascinating.”

“Sir,” said Merlin, finally addressing a thought that had been niggling at him ever since Professor Gaius had found them, “what are you going to do with us? Are we…expelled?”

“Oh, of course not,” said Professor Gaius, looking genuinely surprised. “I thought I had made it clear that neither of you would be in trouble for retrieving the egg. It is exceedingly valuable, and I would very much like to hear how you found it. However,” he said, when Arthur opened his mouth, “It is already very late, and you should be returning to your beds. I must put you in detention for being out of your rooms after the curfew. ”

Merlin’s shoulders slumped. He had expected a punishment of some sort, but the confirmation was still unpleasant to hear.

“You may tell me the story at a more reasonable hour of the day,” said Professor Gaius. Then he paused. “However, there is the issue of what you are going to do with the egg.”

“We were just wondering about that, actually,” said Arthur. “Sir, do you have any ideas for where we could hide it safely?”

“I might do,” said Professor Gaius, after a short pause. “Come with me. You shall be delayed from returning to your dormitories for a while longer, but the situation is clearly urgent; your egg must be kept somewhere safe tonight.”

The walk back up to the castle was a silent, contemplative one. Professor Gaius led the way, his grey hair shining silver in the pale moonlight. Arthur and Merlin followed him, Merlin still clutching the egg to his chest.

“Where are we going?” asked Arthur, once they reached the stairs.

“I shall explain once we get there,” Professor Gaius said simply, and Merlin knew from his tone that he was not going to answer any more questions. The two of them were already treading thin ice for having received a punishment, and Merlin did not wish to anger him any further for fear of getting a much harsher one he probably deserved.

The figures in the paintings they passed were all sound asleep, and Merlin was grateful for it; he was not sure what ruckus he would have caused had any of them seen him carrying the dragon egg. He glanced at Arthur, who was also looking around him to make sure no one was watching. All three wizards were panting by the time they reached the seventh floor (Merlin counted), and Professor Gaius led them along a corridor until they came across a tapestry. 

“Barnabas the Barmy,” Arthur said, reading the inscription underneath aloud.

“He is not important,” said Professor Gaius. “The only purpose he will serve is to help you remember this location. Now, please be quiet for a minute or two.”

Merlin and Arthur watched as Professor Gaius paced up and down the small stretch of corridor, muttering to himself. Merlin strained to hear, but could only make out the words “need” and “hide”.

He didn’t have to wonder what Gaius was doing for long, but suddenly, Arthur let out a barely suppressed gasp. “Look!”

Merlin looked in the direction Arthur was pointing, and saw that a door was materialising in the wall. Merlin felt his mouth fall open.

Professor Gaius walked towards the door once it was fully formed and pushed it open. Arthur and Merlin followed close behind. The room they entered had forest-green walls, but was mostly bare.

It felt like a bit of an anticlimax. Arthur and Merlin looked at each other, raising their eyebrows. Whatever air of mystery Professor Gaius had managed to maintain about where he was taking them on their way here had completely dissipated.

“What is this place?” asked Merlin, leaning over to place the egg on the floor. He held out his hand to ensure it did not roll away from him, but found that the egg was able to balance upright without his help. He stood up again and shook out his arms, glad to be free of the weight.

“This is the Room of Requirement,” said Professor Gaius. “It will change itself according to what the user needs. We needed a place to hide a dragon, and it has provided one.”

“How does that work?” asked Merlin. “Is it alive? Does it have some form of sentience that allows it to read our minds?”

“I would explain the concept to you, but I am afraid it is far beyond your capabilities to understand, and we have no time for that tonight. Please listen closely. Once the dragon has hatched, the Room shall provide it with shelter and safety. However, it is not exempt from Gamp’s Law, which states that food cannot be made from magic. The two of you shall provide this dragon with food, drink, and company. Dragons may be solitary creatures, but they, too, need to be looked after in the early stages of life.”

Arthur and Merlin both nodded simultaneously.

“But how do we hatch it?” asked Arthur. “Do we have to make a nest of some sort, to keep it warm? Don’t dragons these days blast their eggs with fire to incubate them?”

“You forget that this is no ordinary egg,” said Professor Gaius. “It can only be hatched using a Dragonlord’s magic.”

Merlin felt a sudden thrill at the professor’s words; despite having been told this exact information by Kilgharrah, the confirmation from a person he knew was not insane gave him a greater sense of excitement. “What do I do?” he asked.

For the first time that night, he saw Professor Gaius hesitate. “I forget,” he said finally. “Perhaps you should try touching the egg once more, but this time, try to connect with the dragon within.”

Merlin looked warily up at Professor Gaius, but did as he was told. Kneeling to the floor, he placed his hands around the egg, marvelling once again at its size. He closed his eyes, trying to instill confidence in himself like he did earlier when he was finding the egg’s location. Hello, Aithusa, he thought in his head, and chased away the inevitable thought that talking to an egg was a clear sign of madness. My name is Merlin, and I am a Dragonlord. After a pause, Merlin added silently, I am here to keep you safe.

He let out an involuntary gasp when his palms began to heat. The egg was growing warmer, not enough to burn, but a comfortable warmth that reminded him of the hot water bottle his mother would give him to hug on cold winter nights. The egg was responding to his touch and his thoughts. The dragon inside sensed his presence. 

I’m not sure what to do, Merlin continued in his head. Is there a spell I have to cast? Please tell me, so I can set you free.

Merlin waited a few moments. The silence dragged on, and Merlin began to feel as if he would never get a response. But just as the first shadow of a doubt began to cast itself over him, he heard a voice.

You must say my name aloud.

The voice seemed to whisper in his ear and resound in his mind all at once. It was the strangest sensation, like someone was observing his thoughts, was feeling what he was feeling. The connection was so intense Merlin felt a shiver run through him.

Speak my name, and I shall be free.

Merlin took a breath, and as he did, he felt a small reverberation coming from the egg, like the dragon inside was breathing with him. He opened his mouth, and said with an exhale, “Aithusa.

A few seconds passed. Then, gradually, Merlin felt a tremor beneath his fingertips. The egg was quivering of its own accord, and Merlin took his hands off it, opening his eyes. Arthur and Professor Gaius had knelt down beside him, and the three of them to watch the egg as the vibrations increased, until the egg was practically shaking with energy.

A hairline crack appeared along its side. Merlin, Arthur, and Professor Gaius were completely still as the crack grew longer and wider, until with a crack, a large fragment of the shell fell away. Arthur gasped when a little white head poked out, before shrinking back in to headbutt the rest of the shell, causing more and more pieces to break apart until, with a crack, it split in half.

The dragon let out a sound unlike anything Merlin had ever heard before – it sounded like a chicken clucking, but lower and more gravelly. It made other sounds too – low trills and staccato squeaks.

“Well done, Mr. Emrys,” said Professor Gaius, his voice tinged with pride.

Almost instinctively, Merlin held out his hands, cupping them together. The dragon toddled over on its spindly legs and hopped into Merlin’s palm, its wings fluttering briefly, not fully stretched. It looked up at him, its blue eyes unblinking, and Merlin felt that strange sensation he had felt earlier, like someone else was sharing his thoughts. Then the dragon trilled again, cocking its head to one side as it observed Merlin’s face. Merlin smiled as he lifted the dragon up, and the dragon finally spread its wings. Like the rest of him, they were snow white. It was the most beautiful creature Merlin had ever seen.

“Hello, Aithusa,” he said softly. “Welcome back.”

Chapter Text

To Merlin and Arthur’s surprise, the Hogwarts library had a Dragon Section.

“You would have thought that the school hid this stuff ages ago, in case some nutter decided to raise a dragon on their own,” said Arthur, brushing the dust off a second edition of From Egg to Inferno: a Dragon-Keeper’s Guide. “Look at this! It even tells you what spells to cast to make a wooden house fireproof!”

“No one would be daft enough to raise a dragon in a flammable house,” said Merlin. “I doubt we’ll need those anyway. Hogwarts is made of stone, and the walls of the Room seem fireproof enough.”

Aithusa was still too young to breathe fire, but Merlin and Arthur had hurled multiple Incendios against the walls of the Room to test it. It turned out that the fire had no effect on them. Professor Gaius had admonished them on their actions when they told him about it, telling them that they had been extremely reckless and could have set the room on fire with them still in it, but when Arthur and Merlin explained their reasons, Professor Gaius softened and congratulated them for taking precautions.

“We’ll have to borrow these books one at a time,” said Merlin, flipping through a copy of Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them. “The school will get suspicious otherwise.”

“We’ll take it in turns,” said Arthur. “Or we could get Gwen and Morgana to help – ”

“No!” Merlin cut in, momentarily forgetting to lower his voice in the quiet library. He glanced through a gap between two books on the shelf and saw that several older students were looking at them with narrowed eyes. Moving closer to Arthur, he whispered, “We’re not including anyone else in Operation Camelot.”

Merlin didn’t tell Arthur that he had felt a stab of jealousy when Arthur suggested they tell more people. The whole thing was a secret only the two of them knew, and he wanted to keep it that way. He couldn’t explain why, but telling other people about Aithusa and their plan to raise her felt too private, too personal. Perhaps it was his instinct to protect her, or maybe it was because widening the circle of people who knew about Aithusa would make it less special.

“This is mad, Merlin, and you know it,” Arthur whispered urgently. “We can’t do this alone. I know we have Gaius, but he’s a teacher and he can’t help us every time we go running to him. We’ll have to check on Aithusa every day, and it’ll look odd if we’re always sprinting to the seventh floor – there’s nothing there except old medieval paintings and the Arithmancy and Divination classrooms. We’re not even in third year, so we have no excuse to go there so often. What if Uncle Agra – I mean, Professor de Bois – finds us again?”

Neither of them mentioned how it would look if the two of them were found in a deserted corridor on the seventh floor.

“We have to tell someone else,” Arthur continued, insistent. “Gwen and Morgana can definitely help. If the four of us can’t manage, perhaps Freya and Percy can help us too. They seem trustworthy enough. Between the six of us, if we took turns to visit Aithusa and bring her food, it would look less conspicuous.”

Merlin let out a sigh, knowing that Arthur was right. Silently berating himself by letting his own selfishness take over his capacity to reason, he said, “Fine. But make sure they don’t tell anyone else.”

“Merlin, I’m not an idiot,” said Arthur, rolling his eyes at him.

“You had me fooled,” Merlin retorted, smirking.

Arthur looked affronted. “Oi!”

Merlin chuckled. “No, you’re not an idiot. You’re a clotpole; that’s what you are.”

“You still haven’t told me what that word means.”

“A dragon?” said Gwen later that evening, her brown eyes shining with amazement in the light from the copper lamps in the Hufflepuff common room. “A real live dragon?” 

“Keep your voice down,” Morgana hissed, despite the fact that no one was around. “Merlin, Arthur, why are you telling us this?”

“Because we need your help,” Merlin explained. “We’ve found a place to keep Aithusa – that’s her name – in school, but we have to bring her food and keep her company every day. The room is on the seventh floor, and we can’t go there too often in case someone suspects. So, we’re going to devise a rota, and we’ll take turns.”

“Have you told anyone else?” asked Gwen, looking towards Arthur.

“No,” said Arthur, “just you, but we might tell Freya and Percy if the four of us can’t manage.”

Morgana wrinkled her nose. “I’m not so sure about that,” she said.

“Why not?” asked Gwen. “Freya and Percy are lovely.”

“No, it’s not that, I’m just worried about Ai – what’s her name?”

“Aithusa,” said Merlin.

“Right, Aithusa,” Morgana said, shifting a little in her seat and tucking her legs in. “I’ll admit I don’t know much about dragons, but I do know a bit about raising small animals. Arthur and I have a cat back home, and she had kittens once,” she explained. “They need a small group of people to latch on to and recognise as companions or carers, so if too many people arrive at once it’ll only distress her. If you’re going to be asking Freya and Percy to help, I suggest you task them with something else, like helping us get food.”

“That makes sense,” said Arthur, nodding.

“What do dragons eat, anyway?” Gwen asked. “Do they eat meat?”

“See, that’s the thing,” said Merlin. “Professor Gaius told us that Aithusa is a completely different breed of dragon to the ones we know today, so we don’t actually know what her diet is supposed to be. From what we’ve read, though, baby dragons mostly feed on plants and insects before moving on to proper meat. We won’t have to worry about that bit for a while, fortunately – Professor Gaius says we can go to him about that once she starts teething." 

“Ugh,” said Arthur. “I’m not getting insects for her, that’s disgusting.”

“I don’t mind them so much,” said Gwen. “I’ll get them if you like, I’m sure there are plenty in the Herbology greenhouses.”

“I can help,” Merlin offered.

“Thank you,” said Morgana gratefully. “For a moment I thought I would have to carry out that horrible task.”

“You can help us if you like,” said Gwen. “It’s not hard – all you need is a jar with a lid, and it essentially does the job for you.”

To Merlin’s surprise, Morgana shuddered. “I don’t like insects,” she said quietly.

“Oh,” said Gwen, finally understanding. “I see.”

“Too many legs,” Morgana muttered, and then fell silent.

“So,” Merlin said, breaking into the quiet before things got too awkward, “um, the four of us will have to sneak food out of the Great Hall during meals. That shouldn’t be too hard. Perhaps get a mix of fruit and nuts to see if she likes those. We’ve taken care of insects now, and I guess we could just snip off bits from plants here.”

Merlin gestured around the room, which was littered with plants of all kinds; it was an old Hogwarts tradition the late Professor Sprout had begun during her time at the school to decorate the Hufflepuff common room with exotic plant specimens. When Professor Gaius had come into office, he had not opposed this, simply because Hufflepuff students did very well in Herbology as a result. “Obviously, we can’t take too much from this room, or people might notice, but we can use the plants her as an alternative to the ones in the greenhouses. Anyway, I’ll show you the room tomorrow night – Arthur and I fed her some oranges earlier, so she should be happy for a while.”

“Ooh, I look forward to that!” said Gwen, grinning widely. “What time should we – ”

“You guys all right?” came a voice from the staircase, and all four of them jumped.

Merlin turned to see Leon standing at the bottom of the staircase leading to the boys’ dormitories. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you,” he said, holding up an apologetic hand and smiling at the four of them. “I’m feeling rather peckish. Care to join me and grab some food from the kitchens?”

“Sure,” said Arthur, getting up from the armchair he was in.

“I haven’t actually had the time to visit the kitchens yet,” Gwen said, brushing her curls out of her eyes. “This is exciting!”

“It’s easy, just follow me.”

The four first-years followed Leon out of the doorway to the Hufflepuff common room – Morgana was the only one apart from Leon who had to duck her head. They turned left and walked down a narrow hallway littered with empty barrels. Leon stopped just as they came up to a painting of a bowl of fruit.

“Watch closely,” he instructed, and reached out towards it. Just as Merlin was about to warn him that the painting was made of oil and that touching it would probably not be a good idea, Leon tickled – actually tickled – the pear.

Merlin felt Gwen jump and take a step backwards into him when, after a second’s silence, the pear let out a noise that sounded like a high-pitched giggle. Mouth falling open in amazement, the four of them watched as the painting swung open like a door to reveal…

“Welcome!” squeaked a creature Merlin had never seen before – it had large ears that dwarfed the size of its head, eyes as large as tennis balls, and was dressed in plain-coloured clothing that hung loosely off it. Merlin could not help but stare in shock. “What would you like, master? Nolly can make master whatever he wants!”

“Hello, Nolly,” said Leon, crouching down to greet her. “I was wondering if you had any sandwiches? Just simple ham and cheese will do.”

“Yes, master!” chorused ‘Nolly’ and a few other creatures in the room, all about the same size, dressed in similar clothing. Nolly rushed off to prepare the sandwiches as Leon turned to the four of them, chuckling at the expressions on Merlin and Gwen’s faces.

“Merlin, Gwen, you should see your faces,” he laughed. “These are house elves. Some people regard them as the servants of the wizarding world, and they have been happily subservient to us for centuries.”

“Do you find them only at Hogwarts?” asked Merlin, watching the house elves bustling around the kitchen.

“No, Arthur and I have one at home named Tinky,” said Morgana. “Old wizarding families, usually ones that are well-off, normally have house elves to look after them, but in the old days some families didn’t treat them so well. To counter this, there was a law passed just a few years ago, banning the mistreatment of house elves and ordering them to do awful things like punish themselves in brutal ways.”

“That’s right, Morgana,” said Leon, who looked impressed at her knowledge. He gestured at the expanse of the kitchen, where several house elves were busying themselves with slices of bread, ham, and cheese. “These house elves here, however, are free. They work here not out of obligation, but because they have made the choice to stay. Nowadays, Hogwarts is a sanctuary for house elves, especially those who were abused in the past, and they are happy to work in the kitchens and make food for us." 

“That’s wonderful,” said Gwen, eyes bright. “No wonder people are always saying that Hogwarts is a safe place to be.”

Gwen looked as if she were about to say something else, but just then Nolly returned and handed Leon a plate of ham and cheese sandwiches stacked in such a way that the pile resembled a tall Egyptian pyramid. “We hope that master is satisfied!” she chirped.

“I always am; you make the most amazing food,” Leon replied gratefully. “I think we’ll go now, but we’ll see you soon.”

“Goodbye!” cried the house elves in unison, waving their little hands as the five of them turned to leave.

Leon led the way out of the kitchens and into the common room, where the five of them set the plate on a table and gathered around it to eat. Leon ate three before retiring to his room, saying he still had work to finish, and left Morgana, Arthur, Merlin, and Gwen to their own devices.

“Maybe Hufflepuff isn’t so bad after all,” Arthur mused, his words slightly muffled by the bite of sandwich in his mouth.

“Arthur, that’s disgusting, please close your mouth,” said Morgana, shooting him a glare. Arthur rolled his eyes at her by way of response.

“I’m glad you’ve accepted your house, Arthur,” said Gwen. “Hufflepuff has such lovely people.”

“Wait,” said Merlin, who just had a brainwave. “I just realised – now we won’t have to worry about getting Aithusa food! We could just ask the house elves whenever we need some!”

“Well, we’ll still have to get her insects,” Gwen added, “but you’re right, the fruit and vegetables will be taken care of.” 

“Brilliant. Problem solved!” Arthur said, who had now finished his sandwich and was reaching for another.

They munched in silence, mulling over the events of the day and what they had learned. When only one sandwich was left on the plate, Morgana reached out for it before Arthur did and gave it to Gwen, who smiled at her and received it gratefully. Merlin wasn’t sure if it was a trick of the light from the lamps in the room, but he could have sworn that Morgana blushed.

Chapter Text

Over the next few weeks, Operation Camelot was efficiently carried out without suspicion. Arthur, Merlin, Morgana, and Gwen devised a rota for Aithusa’s visitations, which went relatively smoothly apart from the one time Morgana got her hair singed by an accidental burst of fire in her direction when Aithusa got too excited from seeing her. “You’re lucky I like you at all,” she hissed to the other three when they passed each other in the corridor, the response being a chorus of stifled chuckles.

Merlin and Gwen regularly visited the Herbology greenhouses to rummage for insects, their excuse being that they were helping Professor Collins, the Herbology professor, tend to her plants. Of course, the fact that they were of opposing sexes meant the assumption that they were a couple began to spread among their peers, despite the fact that they were only first-years. Within a month, whispers and giggles surrounded them whenever they were seen walking together, and on one occasion Gwaine actually wolf-whistled at them when he saw them sitting in the courtyard, shouting, “Nice catch, Emrys!” Gwen and Merlin found this unwanted attention hard to ignore, but never really spoke of it to each other. However, Merlin caught himself feeling increasingly confused about whether or not his affection for Gwen was more than platonic.

Late in November, the weather began to turn colder than usual with the occasional drizzle of rain. Still, Merlin and Gwen kept up their meetings in the greenhouse, braving the walk outside the castle with scarves wrapped around their faces and the biggest coats they owned. Merlin had a pair of white, fluffy earmuffs that he wore occasionally when the wind was particularly biting (his ears were sensitive, and the fact that they stuck out so much did not help); he had never really cared what other people thought of him, and wore them proudly.

The two of them had figured out by now which plants housed the most insects and other small creatures. The flutterby bushes gave off a scent that attracted them, as did the honking daffodils, and gurdyroot was a good source for earthworms. The extra time in the greenhouses meant that both Merlin and Gwen became rather adept at Herbology, which gave them a small sense of pride.

“Got one!” Gwen held up her hand, a fat earthworm wriggling between her gloved thumb and index finger.

Merlin gave her a thumbs-up. “Good job!”

Gwen beamed. “In the jar you go, dear.” She popped it in a glass jar she had borrowed (with permission) from the Potions classroom, and closed the lid. “Any luck with the flutterby?”

“Not yet,” said Merlin. “The trouble with this bush is that it’s always moving so much, and I can never tell whether it’s the plant itself moving or something else that’s making it move.”

“What a struggle,” Gwen teased, moving to his side. “Here, let me help.”

“If only there was a spell we could do that would pull the insects directly out of the soil and into the jar,” Merlin grumbled.

“I’m fairly sure there is one, actually,” Gwen said. “Morgana mentioned it once; it’s called the Summoning Charm, though I heard it’s fairly difficult.”

Merlin couldn’t help but smile. “Of course Morgana would know that,” he said.

“She is very bright, you know,” said Gwen. “I’m surprised she wasn’t put into Ravenclaw.”

“Don’t be silly, not every smart person is automatically Sorted into that house.”

“Fair point – ooh, look, an aphid!” Gwen took out her wand, placed it on the leaf so that the aphid would climb onto it, and deposited it into Merlin’s jar.

“Thanks, Gwen,” said Merlin, though he knew she could read the clearly disappointed expression on his face; an aphid was tiny, after all.

“No worries, I’m sure Freya and Percy will collect enough food during supper tonight,” said Gwen. “Winter’s approaching, so you can’t expect there to be as many insects these days.”

Merlin looked from the Flutterby bush to her, smiling. “I suppose.” Then, “You’ve got some soil on your cheek.” 

“Oh,” said Gwen, surprised, a hand flying to her face. She touched her cheek, causing more soil from her glove to stick to it.

“Here, let me.”

Merlin took off a glove and brushed at her face, his fingers lightly skimming across her cheek. The affectionate gesture caused an unbidden heat to rise to his cheeks, and watching Gwen, he noticed that hers had coloured as well.

Merlin made to step back, his hand faltering, when Gwen leaned forward and kissed him. The kiss was chaste, her lips just barely pressing on his, hesitant, fleeting. Merlin could only stand there, slightly surprised, when she moved away, her face still close to his.

They stared at each other for a few seconds, faces blank.

It was Gwen who broke the silence first.

“Did you feel anything?”

Merlin couldn’t tell what she was thinking; her expression was, for the first time, totally unreadable. At his lack of a response, she prompted him again. “Be honest with me, Merlin.”

A pause.

“N-no,” Merlin stammered, still thrown off guard by what Gwen had just done. Then, after having a few seconds to think more seriously about it, he said more firmly, “No, I don’t think so. I don’t think I like you that way.”

And it was true, too. Gwen was a wonderful person, and possibly the kindest soul he would ever meet, but the idea of altering their platonic relationship to something more just didn’t sit right with him. Merlin didn’t have the foggiest clue about love, but despite the depth of his affection towards Gwen, he knew this wasn’t it. 

To his surprise, Gwen looked relieved. “Oh, good,” she breathed. “Because, after that, I don’t think I do either.”

They looked at each other again, and suddenly, both of them began to giggle uncontrollably at the ridiculousness of the situation. Merlin had to put his jar aside just so he could clutch at his sides and laugh. Their mirth rang through the greenhouse, unheard by anyone but themselves. It was awkward, but the more he laughed, the more at ease Merlin felt with her.

“Well, that clears up a lot of things,” said Gwen, once their laughter had died down. “I’m sorry, I just thought…after what everyone else was saying about us…”

“No, it’s okay,” said Merlin. “I was confused as well. I think we just mistook very close friendship as romantic affection, which is an easy mistake to make.”

Gwen gave another happy sigh. “I just…can I hug you?”

Merlin spread out his arms. Gwen practically threw herself into him, and Merlin staggered. They laughed again, faces buried into each other’s shoulders.

“Let’s never speak of this again,” said Merlin.

“The others don’t need to know,” Gwen agreed.

“So, just friends?”

“Just friends. Forever.”

Before Merlin knew it, Christmas had arrived. The Great Hall was a spectacle to behold when he entered it on the morning of the first day of December; a large Christmas tree had been installed next to the staff table, a multitude of pastel-coloured bubbles floating around it in addition to the decorations on the tree, and the candles suspended in mid-air above him were glittering silver. Over the next few weeks, more and more students wore Christmas jumpers after lessons, and Peeves, Hogwarts’ resident poltergeist, had somehow gotten himself a sprig of mistletoe, which he mischievously held over unsuspecting students’ heads until it was pointed out by their friends, causing much embarrassed laughter on the whole. 

It was the first morning of the last week of term when Merlin made his way to where his friends were sitting (with the Hufflepuffs, this time – they switched every once in a while), admiring the tables, which were laden with minced pies, mulled fruit, and other Christmassy goods. Expecting to see them enjoying the Christmas cheer, Merlin was surprised when he noticed the solemn expressions on their faces.

“What’s going on?” he asked, instantly knowing that something was up.

Wordlessly, Freya pushed a copy of The Daily Prophet in his direction. Merlin clambered over the bench, sat down, and saw the headline:


His heart sinking, Merlin’s gaze dropped to the text below it, but Morgana summarised the article for him.

“Basically, there’ve been reports about unexpected deaths of Muggleborn witches and wizards over the past few months. The Ministry thought they were random at first, but they’ve just discovered that those people were murdered by a group of neo-Death Eaters. Apparently, they’re trying to emulate what Lord Voldemort’s followers did when they were still alive.”

“Muggleborns will have to keep on the lookout,” Percy added.

“That’s awful,” Merlin said, casting a worried look in Gwen’s direction. He knew that she was the most vulnerable in their group; apart from her, all the rest of them had at least a bit of magical blood in them, and were therefore not at risk.

“You’ll be alright here, Gwen,” said Arthur at Gwen’s slightly pinched expression. “There’s a reason why Hogwarts is the safest place to be.”

All six of them sat in silence for a few moments, mulling over what the article reported and what it meant for them.

“So…” Percy said, drawing out the ‘o’ as he attempted to defuse the awkwardness, “any of you doing anything nice for Christmas?”

“No, nothing in particular,” said Freya as she reached out for another minced pie. “I was thinking of staying at Hogwarts over the holidays, actually; I’d like to get some headway into what we’ll be learning next year.”

“I can see why they put you into Ravenclaw,” joked Merlin, and all of them laughed.

“Actually, Arthur and I were thinking…” Morgana began, trailing off as she turned to meet Arthur’s gaze.

“What?” said Gwen expectantly, her worried expression disappearing as she looked between them.

“Well…” Arthur and Morgana shared another meaningful look.

“Oh, go on, stop teasing,” said Percy, clearly as impatient as the rest. “What’s happening?”

“We’ve asked Father whether we could invite you over for the holidays, and he said yes,” Arthur finished, the beginnings of a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.

There was a chorus of cheers from the other four. Morgana and Arthur looked very pleased.

“It’s only going to be for a few days, though,” Morgana added. “Obviously, you’ll have to get permission from your parents; I’m sure you all want to get back to your families for Christmas.”

“It’s going to be so odd,” said Gwen. “I can’t imagine Professor Pendragon outside of Hogwarts.”

“Oh, believe me, he’s perfectly normal back home,” said Arthur.

“Besides, he spends most of his time in his office, so we won’t be seeing very much of him,” Morgana added.

“What are we going to do over there?” Percy asked.

“I was thinking we could play Quidditch,” said Arthur. “We have a garden big enough to play, and spare brooms. As long as we don’t fly too high, we’ll be fine.”

“But what about Aithusa?” Freya piped up suddenly. “Who’s going to look after her during the holidays?”

The elation that had been building up in Merlin’s chest extinguished like a light. Caught up in their excitement, the six of them had completely forgotten about the dragon. Freya and Percy were let in on the secret a few weeks ago, but as they weren’t urgently needed to provide food, they only visited Aithusa occasionally as friendly faces. 

“We’ll have to ask Professor Gaius,” said Arthur. “I’m sure he wouldn’t mind. He knows more about dragons than the rest of us, after all.”

“It’d be an awful lot of bother, though,” said Gwen. “She’s started to teeth and shed her scales. If he can’t look after her, we’ll have to stay at school.”

“I’ll ask him,” said Morgana. “We can’t well bring her along to Father’s, he’d have a fit. Let’s just hope Professor Gaius doesn’t live in a wooden house." 

The others nodded fervently. Out of the six of them, Morgana was probably the best person qualified to ask for favours from teachers, given that she was top of the class in nearly every subject. Beside him, Merlin spied Freya crossing her fingers under the table.

Fortunately for them, Professor Gaius was up for the task. Morgana told them so in the afternoon of the same day, and Merlin couldn’t help but sigh in relief. Apparently Morgana had thought of everything, as she had asked Professor Gaius to send them owls every week updating them on Aithusa’s condition. “He knows he’ll have to write under a different name, obviously, and he’ll try to keep the messages as coded as possible so only we will understand.”

Before they knew it, the Christmas holidays had arrived. There was a universal burst of cheers from all the students as soon as the last period ended, and Merlin found himself being pushed up the stairs as others jostled around him to get to their dorms, pack their bags, and leave for the carriages already waiting outside the castle. He was given a particularly hard shove by Valiant, but ignored it; Valiant had been mostly civil for the entire term, apart from the occasional glares when Merlin did well in Defense Against the Dark Arts, and unkind glances when they passed each other in the corridors. Merlin wasn’t afraid of confrontation, but felt no need to start unnecessary fights unless someone intentionally provoked him to do so. However, he knew he was deluded in thinking that he would make it through Hogwarts without having to go head to head with Valiant at some point.

Those thoughts disappeared from his mind when he reached his dormitory, where most of his things had already been packed, as he had taken a bit of time out after breakfast. Stuffing a few last things into his trunk, he closed it and made for the stairs, which he was pleased to find were considerably less crowded than before, being one of the first to leave.

He only had to wait half a minute in the Slytherin common room before Morgana came down from the girls’ dormitories as well. “Shall we?” she said, a wry smile on her face. Merlin smiled back at her, and the two of them left the common room to join the others for the holidays.

Chapter Text

The rest of Merlin’s day passed in a flurry of activity. Shortly after getting off the Hogwarts Express, he and the others were whisked off via Side-Apparition to Pendragon Manor, which turned out to be in Cardiff. Having heard about Apparition at school from Morgana, who had yet to encounter a topic she didn’t know anything about, Merlin was excited about the trip. He did not, however, expect the sensation that felt like his body was being violently compressed, and came out of the other end slightly green in the face. Settling into his bed at Pendragon Manor, too tired to even eat or admire his surroundings, Merlin dozed off in his day-clothes.

“Master Merlin!”

The voice seemed to come from far away, and Merlin’s brain was too fuzzy to comprehend.

“Breakfast is served, Master Merlin!”

Merlin felt a pressure in his side, like a very tiny hand was pushing at his torso. He opened his eyes and nearly jumped out of his skin when he saw Tinky, the Pendragon house elf whom he had seen briefly yesterday, hovering only inches away from his face. “ARGH!”

“Tinky apologises for surprising Master Merlin!” Tinky squeaked, backing away and clasping her hands together. “Tinky shall not do it again!”

“No, it’s alright,” said Merlin, concerned at the way Tinky was fretting and doing his best to reassure her. “I’m just not used to having a house elf wake me up is all. And please don’t call me Master Merlin, just Merlin is fine.” Just then, he looked to his right and saw that Percival’s bed was empty. “Oh, are the others up already?”

“Master Percival is in the restroom, but Tinky can show you to another one if Master Merlin wishes.”

“Again, please call me Merlin. And I’m sure he won’t take too long. Anyway, I’m going to get dressed.”

“Does Merlin require help with his clothes?” asked Tinky.

“What? No!” Merlin looked at Tinky incredulously, then did a double take as he realised something. “Hold on, do you normally help Arthur and Morgana get dressed in the mornings?”

“Tinky is not allowed to say,” said Tinky, vehemently shaking her head, but Merlin laughed anyway. In his mind, he pictured a sleepy Arthur struggling into his clothes with Tinky’s assistance, eyes half-lidded and his hair askew.

They were interrupted by the sound of the door to the en-suite bathroom opening, and Percy stepped out fully dressed, his closely-cropped hair slightly damp from a morning shower. “Hullo,” he said. “Your turn, I guess.”

“Sure,” said Merlin. “I’ll see you downstairs, Percy.”

Percy nodded and left the room, closely followed by Tinky to give Merlin his privacy. Merlin changed into his clothes and performed his morning ablutions with quick efficiency, then rushed down the stairs to join the others at the breakfast table.

“Morning, Merlin!” called Gwen as soon as she saw him, patting the empty seat next to her. Merlin sat between her and Arthur, who still looked half-asleep as he poked at his fried egg. Sitting opposite him was Freya, her long hair swept over her right shoulder, deep in conversation with Morgana, who like her had already finished breakfast. Percival was cutting at a piece of ham.

“Where’s your father?” Merlin asked Arthur, spotting that the seat at the head of the table was empty.

“Upstairs, in his office,” Arthur said. “Something to do with the Ministry, I think.”

“I expect it’s to do with the Muggleborn murders we saw in the paper,” said Gwen. “The school will have to step up on security measures.”

“There’s not much the school hasn’t already done,” said Morgana. “There’s an invisible shield around the school that has been regularly maintained since the Second Battle of Hogwarts, which protects against most of the malicious spells and curses that we know of, not to mention the Anti-Apparition Charm that has been in place ever since Merlin knows when.”

“I’m sure we’ll be fine,” said Percival. “Let’s move onto something less upsetting, shall we?”

“Sure,” said Morgana. “Who’s up for a game of Quidditch after this?”

“Me!” Arthur said, immediately perking up at the suggestion. Everyone else laughed.

“…Okay, do you think you’ve got all that?” Morgana asked Merlin and Gwen, in conclusion to her crash course on Quidditch. Doubtfully, they nodded. “Normally a game has fourteen players, but as there are only six of us, we’ll have to play without Bludgers and Beaters. Which is probably a good idea, considering that most of you haven’t played before; those things could seriously injure you. There’ll be two Seekers, Keepers, and Chasers instead. Gwen, would you like to be the Seeker?”

“Sure,” said Gwen. “Who’s the other one?”

“Freya – she’s never played before either, and the Snitch is slower than the ones they use in proper matches, so it should be easier to catch.”


“What will I play?” Merlin asked.

“You’ll be a Chaser, against Arthur. Percy and I will be the Keepers. So, in summary: Gwen, Merlin, and me on one team; Freya, Arthur, and Percival on the other. The goal hoops are the oak trees on either side – if you manage to chuck the Quaffle past the Keeper in that direction, you get ten points. We don’t have anyone to keep the score, but I’m sure you can all do basic arithmetic. That seem fair?”

“Yup,” the others chorused.

“Great. Let’s go!”

The six of them kicked off the ground and shot up into the air. Merlin was a decent flyer, despite having only had one lesson with his classmates at Hogwarts, but playing Quidditch was radically different; it was a game of teamwork and strategy, things Merlin was not accustomed to. Looking around, he could quickly tell who was experienced and who was not: Morgana, Arthur, and Percy were the confident ones, zooming around on their brooms with ease, and Gwen seemed to be flying smoothly too. Freya, however, looked petrified as she rose up into midair, clutching at her broom with whitened knuckles and wobbling slightly from side to side.

Merlin pointed his broom downwards until he and Freya were at the same level. “You okay?” he asked.

“N-not really,” said Freya. “I don’t like heights. I feel like I’m going to fall.”

“We’re not going to fly that high,” said Merlin. “Perhaps you can wait for the Snitch until it’s a bit lower down, so you can catch it then.”

“That’s a good plan,” Freya breathed, looking grateful. “I think I’ll stick to that.”

“Ready, everyone?” called Morgana from above, and Merlin looked up to see her pointing her wand at the ground, where the chest containing the Quidditch balls was.

“Ready!” called Percival, hovering in front of the oak tree on the other side of the garden.

“Ready!” said Merlin, flying up until he was only a few feet away from Arthur.

“Ready!” called Gwen and Freya, one from above, one from below.

“Alright, let’s play! Alohomora!

The chest burst open, and the Quaffle shot vertically upwards, right into the space between Merlin and Arthur. Both of them reached for it, but Arthur caught it first, grabbing it with both hands before Merlin could even get close to him. He made for the goal post, Merlin hot on his heels (or rather, the tail-end of Arthur’s broom) and threw the Quaffle, but Morgana blocked it, the Quaffle landing neatly into her hands. “To you, Merlin!” she yelled, and threw the Quaffle in his direction.

Merlin had no time to react before the Quaffle smacked him in the face.


The Quaffle fell to the ground, but Arthur abandoned it in favour of going to Merlin. “Are you alright?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” said Merlin. “My face stings a bit, but no harm done.”

Morgana was by his side too. “Merlin, did I hurt you? I’m so sorry!”

“I’m fine, Morgana, really,” Merlin said. “Let’s keep playing. I’ll get the Quaffle.”

Merlin flew to the ground, scooped up the Quaffle in one arm, and the game was on once more. He managed to get to the goalpost without any obstruction, but Arthur blocked his throw, flying in front of the Quaffle and catching it deftly with one hand. What infuriated Merlin the most was how he made it look so easy.

Merlin survived ten more minutes of this before Gwen caught the Snitch, and then the game was over. Merlin’s team had won, but only because the Snitch was worth so many points; if Gwen had delayed any longer, the frequency of Arthur’s goal-scoring would have meant a victory for his team. Merlin flew to the ground, then rolled off his broom onto his back and lay there in the grass, both physically and mentally exhausted. He heard a flump next to him and saw that Freya had done the same.

“I am never playing Quidditch again,” said Freya. “I prefer to have my two feet on the ground.”

“Me too,” Merlin answered. “That was more tiring than I thought it would be.” 

The others descended as well, and dismounted from their brooms. Morgana laughed at Merlin and Freya’s expressions as she picked up their brooms to put back in the shed. “Come on, you lazy lumps,” she called. “It’s time for tea.”

For the next half hour, the six of them feasted on scones slathered with clotted cream and jam, and ham sandwiches cut into neat triangles. By the end of it, Merlin was not only stuffed with food, but also felt that peculiar sloshing in his stomach that came from drinking too much. Tinky, ever the dutiful house-elf, had been constantly refilling their cups of Earl Grey tea every time they were less than half-full, which meant none of them knew how much tea they had had.

Arthur and Morgana proceeded to take them on a tour of the manor, which turned out to be much larger than Merlin had imagined. There were moving portraits of Pendragon ancestors on the walls of the top floor corridor, all of whom gave them bemused looks as they passed. Merlin didn’t recognise any of them except for the one at the end of the hallway, which was unmistakably Ygraine Pendragon, Professor Pendragon’s late wife.

“Do you come here often?” Gwen asked as they walked.

“Not really,” said Arthur. “The only portrait I want to talk to is my mother, but as this was painted after she died, it doesn’t act anything like her.”

“Portraits only behave like the person they’re supposed to be if the subject spends time with it beforehand, so the portrait can learn their mannerisms,” Morgana explained. “This portrait doesn’t do anything but sit there and smile.”

“That must be hard,” said Percival.

“I’ve gotten used to it,” said Arthur, trying to sound nonchalant, but Merlin noticed he was staring at his feet as he said this.

Morgana then led them to the library she had often talked about at school. It wasn’t anywhere near the size of the one at Hogwarts, but was impressive nonetheless. It had a high, dome-shaped ceiling with a chandelier hanging from the centre, casting multicoloured fragments of light all over the room. The shelves were mahogany, stuffed so full of books that some were slotted horizontally into the gaps and stacked on top of the shelves themselves. Merlin was busy perusing the titles when he heard Freya gasp.

“Look!” she said. “There’s a mural on the wall.”

The others gathered round to look where she was pointing, and Merlin instantly recognised what the mural was portraying: the lake of Avalon from Arthurian legend. The mural did not move like the portraits did, but despite this, it seemed very lifelike. Sunlight glinted off the surface of the water, and tiny glittering fairies hovered among the duckweed. In the centre of the lake, a slender hand rose from the water, carrying a sword Merlin knew to be Excalibur. He and the others stared at it for a few breathless seconds.

“My mother painted that,” Arthur said quietly.

“Wow,” Gwen breathed, obviously lost for words.

“It’s beautiful,” said Percival, gazing at it with admiration.

“I come in here sometimes just to look at it,” Arthur continued. “We’ve got more of her paintings downsta – ”


All six of them jumped and whipped around. Professor Pendragon was standing in the doorway, his expression stormy.

“Arthur, I did not give you permission to show your friends into the library! Get out of here at once!”

“But you said I could give them a tour – ”


Arthur quickly shut his mouth, realising that this was not a moment to talk back. Looking shamefaced and mumbling apologies, Merlin and the others did as they were told and shuffled out. Professor Pendragon fumed at them as they passed him in the doorway, and once they were all outside the room, he went inside and slammed the door with a bang that made them all start.

“I think it would be best to leave him alone for a bit,” Morgana advised tentatively, after a short pause.

“Yeah,” Arthur agreed. “Sorry, everyone, I didn’t expect Father to throw a fit about this.”

“It’s alright,” said Freya. “Neither of you knew.”

“Well, it’s getting late anyway,” Gwen said. “Should we get back to our rooms? If we’re good for the rest of the evening, perhaps Professor Pendragon will forget about it tomorrow morning.”

The others murmured their assent, and Arthur led the way to their rooms. They said goodnight to each other in the corridor, and Merlin went with Percival into their shared guest room. Tinky had evidently done some housekeeping, because the bed was neatly made, the duvet folded down at the corner, and Merlin’s clothes, which had been strewed about the bathroom from his rushed changing in the morning, had been returned to the wardrobe.

“Well, good night then,” said Percival. “Would you like to use the bathroom first?”

“Yeah, thanks,” said Merlin, and did. By the time he was out again, Percival was already asleep.

Chapter Text

Merlin couldn’t sleep.

He rolled over for what seemed like the fiftieth time, his right cheek mushed into the soft pillow. He had tried everything to get himself to sleep, including reversing his entire body so his feet were where his head usually lay. That tactic usually worked, but his eyes opened merely minutes later after he closed them in an attempt to sleep, no more tired than he was before.

He thought about Aithusa, safe wherever Professor Gaius was keeping her, but far away from him and the team of Operation Camelot. He didn’t know whether dragons were capable of missing people, but he certainly missed her. He wondered how she was coping with her new abilities now that she was older, and whether Professor Gaius had been giving her the right food. He thought about how much longer Aithusa could be kept a secret, and what would happen if other people found out. Unbidden thoughts about Valiant following them in the shadows as they made their way to the Room of Requirement, then telling on them about the dragon they had stashed away, rose to his mind, but Merlin forced himself to think of other things. At this rate, he was going to get anxiety dreams about Aithusa every night.

At last, Merlin decided that sleep was just not going to happen, and got out of bed silently so as not to wake Percival, who was sound asleep on the other side of the room. Thankful that his bed was the one closer to the door, Merlin walked slowly towards the exit, his body tensing up whenever his feet made the slightest noise on the floorboards.

He wasn’t sure what he was going to do once he was outside; after what had happened with Professor Pendragon, Merlin wasn’t keen to go exploring Pendragon Manor like he did Hogwarts in case he got into trouble. He found himself wandering in the direction of the living room, and let his feet take him there – surely Professor Pendragon wasn’t going to shout at him for going there, if he was found. The only light in the house came from the windows, so Merlin walked towards one and peered out.

He gasped.

Large snowflakes were falling from the sky, swirling as they caught the wind on their descent. The snow seemed to be settling as well; Merlin could already see a thin layer of it coating the grass like a shimmering blanket in the garden outside. He looked up and saw the moon, a smooth crescent with two stars positioned above it so it looked oddly like a smile. Merlin grinned back up at it, grateful that he was able to see this lovely sight.

“Can’t sleep?”

Merlin jumped and turned. Arthur was at the bottom of the staircase, rubbing his tired eyes, and dressed in light blue pyjamas that looked like they were made of silk. “What are you looking at?”

“It’s snowing,” Merlin whispered, unable to control the smile spreading across his face.

Arthur let out a small snort. “It’s just snow; we get it here practically every year.”

“But look at the moon,” said Merlin, gesturing for Arthur to come over and look outside. “It’s smiling at us!”

“Oh?” Arthur came forward until he was standing next to Merlin, their shoulders pressed together as he looked out.

“See the two stars above it? They’re the eyes, and the moon is the – ”

“Yeah, I see it,” Arthur interrupted. “Huh.” Then he looked at Merlin. “You look like an excited five-year-old with that expression, honestly,” he said, in a slightly pompous tone, as if he was above finding smiley faces in the sky.

Merlin rolled his eyes.

“So, what’s keeping you up tonight?” Arthur asked, turning towards him.

Merlin sighed. “Aithusa. I just miss her, that’s all.”

“I do too,” said Arthur. “I’m not anywhere as close to her as you are, but she does grow on you, doesn’t she?” He looked outside the window again. “I expect we’ll be hearing from Professor Gaius tomorrow. I’m sure she’s doing alright.”

“Yes, but I can’t help thinking – ”

“Yeah, I know what you mean.”

They shared a silent look of understanding.

“I…” Arthur hesitated. “I’m really glad I met you, Merlin.”

Merlin’s eyebrows went up in surprise. Perhaps it was because it was so late at night, and he was slightly delirious from lack of sleep – did Arthur really just say that to him?

Well, if we’re going to be honest… “I’m glad I met you too,” Merlin replied. “You’re a good friend. Loyal.”

Arthur’s lip turned up slightly. “How very Hufflepuff of me.”

Merlin exhaled through his nose, giving Arthur a rueful smile. “Look, I know you still beat yourself up about not getting into Gryffindor – and don’t deny it, I’ve seen the way you look at your school scarf whenever you put it on – but honestly, whatever house you would have ended up in, they would have been proud to have you.”

Arthur’s expression was one of bashful confusion, but Merlin could tell he was pleased. He went on. “You give Hufflepuffs a good name, Arthur.” 

Arthur looked down, seemingly unable to meet Merlin’s eyes. “Thanks,” he said quietly. “I needed that.”


Merlin wasn’t sure when he crawled back into bed and fallen asleep, but apparently he had, because he found himself awoken in his own bed the next morning. This time, however, it wasn’t Tinky who roused him, but Percy.

“Look outside!” he was saying, pounding his fists on the mattress in excitement. “It’s a snow day!”

“Hrrm,” Merlin grumbled, opening one eye to look at Percy.

“Go on, Merlin, get dressed and join me outside!”

“Maybe l’ter,” Merlin slurred. “Sleepy.”

“I thought you were a morning person, Merlin,” Percy joked, poking him. “What’s up with you?”

“You go f’rst,” mumbled Merlin, turning his face back into the pillow. “I’ll be down in a bit.”

“Fine. I’ll hold you to that!” Percival called, already bounding out the door.

Merlin rolled over in his bed and closed his eyes. After a few minutes, though, he realised it was impossible to get back to sleep, what with the ruckus going on downstairs. He could hear his friends’ excited voices and the sound of their footsteps as they ran up and down the stairs, no doubt getting something warmer to wear.

“Where’s Merlin?” he heard Freya say, her voice muffled. “We can’t go without him!”

Merlin snuggled further into the sheets, using them to muffle his ears and get back to sleep. He only got about thirty seconds of peace and quiet.



His friends ripped the blankets off him, and Merlin yelled in surprise. The air surrounding him was no longer a warm cocoon of sheets, but cold, unyielding air. Gwen and Freya laughed hysterically as Merlin curled into a shivering ball.

“Come out and play!” cajoled Gwen. “My mum always told me that snow is like natural Play-Doh; we can do whatever we want with it!”

“You’re almost worse than Arthur was when he woke up this morning,” said Morgana. “Tinky had to drag him – ”

“OI!” Arthur protested.

Morgana’s comment, however, was what propelled Merlin out of bed, albeit with much groaning and complaining. “I had a late night, that’s all; I’m perfectly capable of waking up.”

“See you downstairs!” Percy said, and he and the others ran out again as Merlin stumbled into the bathroom.

It took a little less than fifteen minutes before Merlin was bounding downstairs in full winter wear, joining the others at the front door. Morgana, who was wearing a bright green scarf, gave him a once-over, then failed to conceal a smirk.

“What?” said Merlin, mildly affronted.

“Nothing,” said Morgana, still smirking. “Nice earmuffs.”

“Oh,” said Merlin, hands going up to the both sides of his head. His mother had made him the earmuffs two years ago after Merlin grew out of his older ones; this particular pair was white and fluffy, and wrapped around him ears just as snugly as the earmuffs they wore during Herbology, albeit without the noise-cancelling feature. Due to the way his ears stuck out, they had a tendency to get very red, cold, and painful if exposed to harsh winter weather.

“Well, I think they’re adorable,” said Gwen, coming to Merlin’s defense. “They look very warm, too.”

“That they are,” Merlin said gratefully.

The was a bit of a scuffle as a the six of them pulled on their boots and fought to be the first outside, but after a bit of playful pushing around, Gwen, the smallest of them all, was the first to step on the newly fallen snow. The garden was filled with whoops of delight as they left the manor, looking back at the imprints their boots made on the snow, falling on their backs to make snow angels, and screeching whenever snow touched bare skin.

Merlin had much experience of fun with snow, having spent the majority of his winters as a child playing with Will, his Muggle friend from across the street back home. Their games often got violent and often ended up with them being admonished by their parents for nearly catching their deaths in the cold, but it left Merlin with a very good aim, an agile body, and the ability to fight very, very dirty if the situation called for it.

These skills came in useful when Arthur decided to sneak up behind Merlin and shove a handful of snow down his back.

Merlin yelled, and twisted out of Arthur’s grasp, narrowly missing Arthur’s attempt at a headlock and possibly a noogie, as he doubted Arthur had been meaning to punch him with his right fist. In a flash, he bent down, scooped up a handful of ice, and shoved it right in Arthur’s face. Arthur tried to roar, but ended up getting a mouthful of ice instead.

Grimacing slightly, Merlin untucked his shirt and attempted to scoop out what was left of the snow Arthur had shoved down it, but half of it had already melted, and the area where the cloth touched his spine was very, very cold. Before he could think of a way to rectify the situation, a snowball hit the back of his head and exploded all over his earmuffs.

Merlin whipped around to see Gwen, hands over her mouth to stifle her clearly uncontrollable giggling. His mouth fell open in mock-horror. “Gwen, you absolute traitor!”

Gwen continued to giggle, then squealed loudly when Merlin began throwing as many well-aimed snowballs at her as he could possibly manage. She ducked half of them and shielded the rest with her hands, but ice still managed to cling to her curls and her puffy beige coat.

“Merlin, how dare you!” Morgana yelled. “Gwen’s our friend!”

Merlin saw her turn to see Arthur trying to get snow out of hair and, hilariously, coughing up melted snow. Her eyes grew wide. “You attacked Arthur too?”

“He did it first!” Merlin said in protest, not missing a beat. Gwen was in hysterics by this point trying to block his attack.

Morgana’s face darkened, and she turned back towards him. “Merlin Emrys,” she said in a low, dangerous voice, “this is war.”

What happened next was complete and utter chaos. Merlin tried to fend off Gwen, Morgana, and Arthur pelting snowballs at him from different directions, but was soon overwhelmed when Percival and Freya joined in on the fun just because they could. After about three minutes of unrestrained attack by snowball, they still had not relented, and Merlin couldn’t even get a single snowball at any of them, as it would mean he would have to let all his shields down.

Hold on. Shields!

Merlin whipped out his wand and thought as hard as he could.

“PRO – ”

A snowball hit the side of his face (probably from Morgana – her aim was unfortunately better than his), and his concentration slipped. Steeling himself and trying to ignore the blasts of cold that hit every half-second, Merlin tried again.


The snowballs bounced off an invisible wall about a metre from his body and ricocheted right back at his friends, who all yelped in surprise. Freya fell over in an attempt to dodge her rogue snowball, and it landed with a splat next to her head.

“That’s not fair!” said Arthur, sounding almost petulant. “Nobody said anything about magic!”

Chapter Text

Merlin and the others decided to call it a day as dusk began to fall, pink-cheeked, snow-streaked, and totally exhausted. Panting heavily, they trudged through the snow back to the house, when something caught Gwen’s attention.

“Look!” she said, pointing at the sky. The others looked, and saw a distinct shape silhouetted against the sunset coming towards them. As it neared, it became apparent that it was a barn owl with a letter tied to its feet.

“It must be from – ” Freya began loudly, but was instantly shushed by the others before she could finish her sentence. “Oh, right. Sorry!”

The owl began to descend, and Arthur ran towards it, reaching his arms up. The owl landed neatly on his shoulder and playfully nipped at his ear. “Ouch! Alright, alright, I know you want food, but I can’t give you any without my father seeing.”

“I could sneak something from supper later,” said Morgana. “We’ve done this all before, after all. That owl has flown a long way to get here, it’ll be too exhausted to make the return journey if it doesn’t have anything to eat.”

“Good point.” Arthur began to work at untying the string on the owl’s leg and released the letter. The others crowded around him as they began to read.

Dear Arthur and co.,

I hope you are enjoying your holiday. All is well. However, do beware of sharp cuts and spontaneous combustion upon your return. Everything will be taken care of.

The letter was unsigned.

“Sharp cuts?” said Percival, frowning.

“Aithusa’s teething, remember?” said Merlin, careful to speak in an undertone. “I think what Gaius is trying to say is that we should be careful of being bitten, and ‘spontaneous combustion’ must mean that she’s beginning to breathe fire, too.”

“As long as she’s healthy and happy, that’s fine by me,” said Gwen. “Oh, I do hope she doesn’t miss us too much!”

“No matter; we’ll be back at school in a week anyway.” Arthur folded the letter and stuffed it into his coat pocket. “Let’s head inside, shall we?”

At the doorstep, Percival shook himself like a wet dog so that snow went flying in all directions, and the others found it so funny that they copied him. Tinky, dodging the bits of airborne snow, collected their coats to dry and informed them that supper would be served in fifteen minutes, so the six of them bounded upstairs to change into lighter clothes.

Professor Pendragon, seated at the head of the dinner table, smiled amicably at the six of them when they came down the stairs. The smile was strained, however, and Merlin was reminded that he had only been shouting at them just the night before. It was evident that he was trying to keep up the appearance of normality, which was probably a good alternative to extreme awkwardness. “Did you have a good day in the snow?”

“Yes, I’m absolutely exhausted,” said Gwen as she slid into the second chair along the table. “We had a snowball fight!”

“And how was that?” said Professor Pendragon. “Oh, and do start with your supper.”

Merlin cringed internally as he picked up his knife and fork. He knew Professor Pendragon was just trying to be friendly on their last night at Pendragon Manor, but the very visible effort only resulted in a tense atmosphere around the table. He looked around and saw the apprehensive expressions mirroring his own.

“It was really fun!” Freya said before the silence could stretch out for too long. “It was mostly Merlin against the rest of us, but he put up a good fight. Didn’t you, Merlin?”

Merlin tried to shoot Freya a look of no, please don’t pass me the ball, this is awkward enough as it is, but it was too late. “Er, yes,” he said, avoiding Professor Pendragon’s gaze by pretending to be very interested in the piece of carrot he was pushing around on his plate. “I couldn’t fend off the snowballs so I used a Shield Charm – ”

“ – and all the snowballs just came flying right back at us!” Percival said. “It was genius!”

Professor Pendragon paid no attention to Percival’s attempt to take his attention away from Merlin. “Barely into your first year at Hogwarts, and already a master of the Shield Charm?” he said. “Most students don’t manage it until third year. That is quite impressive.”

Merlin felt a little flustered under Professor Pendragon’s scrutiny. “Thank you, sir. It’s nothing, really, I just read up on spells before I came here, and I thought the Shield Charm would be useful.”

“Indeed it is,” said Professor Pendragon, still looking at him.

Merlin was feeling distinctly uncomfortable now. “I mean, Morgana’s also good at – ”

Suddenly, Tinky came bounding down the stairs with something in her hand. Morgana, who was seated next to Merlin, immediately froze. “Oh no,” she said under her breath. “Oh no.”

Merlin was confused for a second, until he realised what Tinky was holding. Freya had also clocked by this point, and both of them looked at each other in alarm. Percival was gesturing wildly from the other end of the table, making shooing motions at Tinky, but it was too late.

“Tinky apologises for interrupting your meal, Master Pendragon and Master Arthur,” she said, bowing. “Tinky was washing Master Arthur’s coat and found this in his pocket. Would Master Arthur like Tinky to place it in his room?”

Arthur seemed to be the only person maintaining his cool, which was probably just as well. “Yes, Tinky, just put it on my bedside table. Thank you.”

“What’s this?” said Professor Pendragon, as Tinky turned and made her way up the stairs.

“Oh, it’s nothing, just a to-do list on what I need to read up on over the holiday,” Arthur said, far too quickly.

Professor Pendragon raised an eyebrow at him. “Tinky,” he called. “Come back here.”

Gwen sank into her chair, mouthing nononononono.

“Yes, Master Pendragon.” Tinky came down the stairs and handed him what was in her hand: Gaius’ letter.

Merlin glanced at Arthur and they shared a look of terror. Professor Pendragon opened the letter slowly, smoothing out the crinkles as he laid it on the table.

Morgana had her eyes squeezed shut and her fists clenched, Freya was trembling, Percival was staring at Professor Pendragon with his eyes wide, and only the top of Gwen’s head was visible from Merlin’s side of the table due to how far she had sunk in her chair. Arthur and Merlin were the only ones who were still attempting composure at this point.

“This is Gaius’ handwriting,” said Professor Pendragon. “What need would he have to send you a letter in the middle of the Christmas holidays, Arthur?”

Arthur looked at him. “I don’t know, Father.”

“Well, you must know. Don’t lie to me, Arthur, I know when you’re hiding something.”

Arthur opened his mouth to speak, but it was clear that his mind was entirely blank. Merlin thought furiously of an excuse, for a reason he could use…

Then it clicked.

“I can explain, Professor,” Merlin said hurriedly.

Professor Pendragon turned to him, a quizzical look on his face. Having gotten his attention, the words tumbled out of him. “I’m sorry we kept this from you before, but as Arthur’s friend I think it would be best if you knew.”

All around the table, the others were giving him looks of betrayal. Merlin stayed calm and collected. They would know his plan in a second.

“Arthur hasn’t been doing very well in Potions lately, sir,” he began, trying to act as if this was something he very much did not want to disclose. “We’ve all been trying to help him, Professor Gaius included, and Professor Gaius was just reminding him to read up on the subject over the holidays because, well, he’s sort of been making things explode in lessons. All by accident, of course.”

Merlin couldn’t read Professor Pendragon’s expression, but judging from the fact that he wasn’t totally rejecting his words, he thought it safe to continue. “Arthur didn’t want to tell you because he knows how proud you are of him, sir, and he didn’t want to disappoint you. But we’re all helping him, and Professor Gaius understands that Arthur works very hard.”

Professor Pendragon’s expression morphed from something unreadable to one of understanding. Merlin allowed himself to finally relax. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Gwen sitting up in her chair again, and the others were also looking much calmer.

There was a few seconds of silence. Everyone held their breath.

Professor Pendragon folded up the letter and looked at them all. “I understand now why Arthur has such a close relationship with all of you,” he said. “He has chosen some noble friends, and I appreciate the effort you have put into this. I understand how embarrassing it can be to struggle with a subject; I myself was never very good at Transfiguration when I was your age.”

“I’m really sorry that you had to find out this way, Father,” said Morgana. “We’re all trying our best to help Arthur, and I hope you won’t think badly of us for hiding this from you.”

“No, of course not, Morgana,” said Professor Pendragon. “I completely understand why you did it.” He turned to Tinky, who was still waiting beside him, and handed her the letter. She bowed and left. While Professor Pendragon’s focus was away from the rest of the table, everyone shared a look and breathed a sigh of relief.

With that, the atmosphere around the table changed completely, with Professor Pendragon seeming to be in a much better mood. He asked more questions about everyone’s day, genuinely interested this time, and gave approving smiles at the answers he got.

The others avoided looking at Merlin for fear of giving anything away until it was time to retire to their rooms. Percival joined Merlin as they made their way to their shared room and nudged his shoulder. “That was really close, mate,” he said in an undertone. “Well done.”

“It was nothing, I just thought of a convenient excuse at the time,” Merlin replied.

Later that night, all six of them congregated in Merlin and Percival’s room to celebrate their close shave with Professor Pendragon finding them out. There was a lot of congratulatory back-slapping and affectionate hair-ruffling directed at Merlin, who received it all somewhat bashfully.

“Well, now we’ll have to tell Professor Gaius our new code term for Aithusa,” joked Freya, as they sat in a circle on the carpeted floor. “We’ll just call it Remedial Potions.”

“He would definitely approve,” nodded Percival.

“I’m so glad you were here to help me out,” said Arthur. “It all happened so quickly; I couldn’t have thought of an excuse that quickly myself.”

“That’s what Slytherins are for,” said Morgana with a smirk. “We’re very good liars.” She playfully elbowed Merlin, who returned the gesture.

“I can’t believe we’re going tomorrow,” said Gwen, somewhat petulantly. “I’m going to miss you so much for the rest of the holidays.”

“We’ll see each other at school,” said Merlin. He put his hand down in the centre of the circle. “Operation Camelot?”

The others piled their hands on top of his, and the feeling of solidarity between them warmed Merlin’s heart. “Operation Camelot!” they all chorused in a whisper.

As the six of them collapsed into silent giggles, revelling in their shared secret, not one of them looked towards the door. If they had, they would have noticed the subtle creak of the bedroom door hinges as a shadowy figure moved away, clearly having eavesdropped on the conversation, and the echo of carefully measured footsteps down the corridor.

Chapter Text

As soon as the door to Merlin’s home opened, he was greeted with the warm, homely smell of the place he had known since childhood. The jasmine and plumeria-scented candles he knew his mother loved overpowered his senses, and he closed his eyes to take in the scent, unable to suppress a smile. His mother, Hunith, instantly enveloped him in a tight embrace, and as he burrowed his face into her apron, he caught a whiff of the shepherd’s pie she had been making especially for him.

“I’ve missed you,” he said, as they rocked slowly back and forth in the doorway. “I feel like it’s been forever!”

Cariad,” she said tenderly, and he looked up at her smiling face. “You know I feel the same. Now come in and take your coat off, or we’ll both turn into blocks of ice!”

Merlin grinned back at her and did as he was told, brushing the snow off his boots on the doormat before stepping into their flat. It was a small, cosy apartment in a council estate in Cardiff, where he had lived all his life. Growing up here, Merlin had gotten to know his best friend Will, who lived just a few flats across, and had many fond memories of the place.

As he closed the door, the panes of reinforced glass rattled slightly, and Merlin reminded himself that he should fix it with a quick reparo, now that he knew how to cast the spell. Then he remembered that he wasn’t allowed to do magic outside of Hogwarts. Pendragon Manor had been an exception, given that Arthur’s father was such a prominent figurehead in wizarding society, so doing magic there was guaranteed to be safe from prosecution, as well as far away from prying eyes. He felt a slight stab of envy at the fact that Arthur and Morgana could practise their Charms and Transfiguration over the holidays, whereas he could only rehearse wand movements with his toothbrush.

He snapped out of his reverie when his mother emerged from their tiny kitchen. “Sit yourself down, I’ve made you your favourite meal,” she said, setting down a freshly baked pie in the middle of the dinner table, which was already laden with two plates, knives and forks. “Go on, help yourself!”

Merlin stood up a little so he could lean over and smell the pie. He could feel himself immediately begin to salivate as he took in the scent, smiling again as he detected a hint of cinnamon, Hunith’s secret ingredient. It was different to the pie he had now and then at Hogwarts; the house elves could make a mean pie, but there was absolutely nothing they could do to replicate this smell.

“This is amazing, Mum,” he told Hunith, who had taken off her apron by now and joined him at the table. “Better than anything I could ever have at school.”

“Oh, you flatterer,” said his mum, reaching over to ruffle his hair. “You always know what to say, don’t you?”

“I promise it’s true!” said Merlin, adamant. “Nothing will ever taste as good to me as the stuff you cook.”

“Oh, shut up, you,” said Hunith, but Merlin could tell she was pleased as she cut out a large slice of pie for him. “How was Arthur’s? I imagine it must have been grand.”

“It was,” Merlin agreed. “We had a snow day in the garden, it was great!”

“I’m glad you had fun,” said Hunith. “So tell me about him and your other friends. You mentioned in your letters that you had a few from every house, didn’t you?”

“Every house except Gryffindor,” said Merlin. “I mean, I know people from there, but not well. So there’s Arthur, obviously, and his sister Morgana, who’s in Slytherin with me – ”

“Arthur has a sister?”

“Well, foster sister – her parents died in the war, like Dad.”

“Oh, that poor child.”

“She was quite young when it happened, so it’s alright. I don’t expect she remembers much of it. Anyway, there’s also Gwen, who I met on the train, and she got into Hufflepuff. She’s really nice and bubbly all the time! And then there’s Freya, who’s super clever and absolutely lovely, and Percival, a friend Arthur met in Transfiguration who joined us later on.”

“I would very much like to meet them,” said Hunith.

“Perhaps you’ll see them when I go back to school, on the platform!”

“I would love that,” said his mum. “And how is school?”

“It’s great, I’ve been learning lots! I’m not bad at Potions and Charms. History of Magic is a bit of a bore, but I’m getting by. Transfiguration is a little tricky. I’m not allowed to practise anything involving my wand, though; Professor Fox, who teaches Charms, told us that once we’re old enough to go to Hogwarts, we’re not allowed to do any kind of magic at home because of safety and stuff.”

“That does make sense,” said Hunith. “Do you have any work at all for the holidays?”

“I have a few essays, but nothing too difficult; I think I can manage.”

Merlin spent the rest of the meal telling his mother about life at Hogwarts, describing the castle in as much detail as he could and talking about the teachers he liked, as well as those who scared him. His mother was definitely intrigued by the story of his meeting with Kilgharrah, but her eyes widened in shock when he told her about Aithusa and Operation Camelot.

“It’s against the rules, but you mustn’t tell anyone, Mum,” said Merlin. “She’s just a baby!”

“What are you going to do with her once she’s older?” his mother asked. “You can’t just let a dragon go and fend for itself in the middle of Scotland! Have you and your friends even thought this through properly?”

Merlin gulped. His original plan had been to look after Aithusa until she was old enough to roam free, but now he saw the holes in that idea.

“We have Professor Gaius to help us,” he said feebly. “We’ll figure something out.”

“Merlin Emrys, I never thought you would be this irresponsible!” his mother chided. She wasn’t quite angry, but Merlin could tell that she was more than mildly disappointed at his rashness. “I understand that it is your duty to look after Aithusa, but you need a clear plan moving forward. She is a living creature, after all, and a very precious one at that. You must discuss with Professor Gaius what you plan to do with her. Tell me, does she have teeth yet? And is she spitting sparks or breathing fire?”

“She’s teething now,” Merlin began, before he realised that his mother, a Muggle, was lecturing him about dragon care. “Hold on. How do you know so much about this?”

“I may not be born with magic, Merlin, but you know father taught me a fair thing or two about it, especially about dragons,” said Hunith. Merlin’s mouth fell open in shock. “It was an important part of his identity! How could you expect me not to know anything?”

“I don’t know, it just never occurred to me,” said Merlin, a little stunned.

“Well, I suppose you’re in luck. Consider me part of this ‘Operation Camelot’; I’ll dig out the journals your father used to write about his dragons and see if they’ll help. I’m sure they’re lying around somewhere…” She got up and disappeared into her room.

Moments later, Merlin heard a lot of shuffling noises from where he sat. He took this opportunity to sit back and shake his head in amazement. He supposed he should have thought to ask if his mother had anything left by his father that could assist him in caring for Aithusa, given that his father had literally worked with dragons throughout his lifetime. Perhaps his father had something more to offer than the books on Welsh Greens or Chinese Fireballs that Merlin found in the Hogwarts Library. And maybe he knew something about the ancient lore Kilgharrah had told him and Arthur about…

Merlin spent the next few days poring over a small pile of dusty, leather-bound journals his mother had dug up belonging to his father. He had initially been very excited to receive them, expecting to read about Balinor’s adventures in various parts of the world with other dragon wranglers, but he quickly found them not as illuminating as he thought they would be. The entries were rather sporadic and brief, often not much longer than ‘17th Jan 2000 – hatched a Horntail today. Snappy little thing. Singed my beard.’ Despite this, it was nice to have something in his hands that his father had owned. As he read, he couldn’t help imagining his father writing it, how his hands had touched the very pages Merlin was now touching, how he must have smiled when he wrote about the dragons he loved so dearly. It was the most valuable Christmas gift Merlin had ever received.

One morning, Merlin was sitting at the dinner table reading his father’s journals, when he suddenly heard a furious tapping noise. His head snapped to the front door, where he saw an owl, a letter attached to its leg, bashing its tiny beak against the window. The glass began to rattle again, but before the owl could cause serious damage to an already shaky door, Merlin was opening the door to let the owl in. It landed clumsily on his shoulder and tugged at a few strands of his hair.

“Hey,” said Merlin, lightly swatting at it. “Don’t do that.”

The owl paid no attention and kept pulling at his hair, this time with more force.

“Ow! Okay, okay, I get it, you want food. Look, I haven’t got any Owl Treats here – I’m the only magical person in the house, you see. Do you like sausages? I can cut mine up for you.”

The owl hooted in response. Merlin assumed it meant a yes.

“Alright then. Here, give that over.” He tried to reach for the letter, but the owl moved its leg just out of his grasp, and he sighed. “Fine. Food first, then. Demanding, aren’t you?”

The owl hooted again, and Merlin could swear it almost sounded cheeky.

“Just give me a second.”

With the owl still resting on his shoulder, Merlin moved to the table where he still had his father’s journals and a plate of half-finished breakfast, and used his fork and knife to cut up his sausage. The owl hopped off his shoulder onto the table, and pecked at the first piece he sliced off before he could dice it into bite-sized chunks (or rather, bite-sized chunks by owl standards). Before he could cut a second slice, the owl proceeded to relieve itself right on the table.

“Oi, that’s not nice!” said Merlin, who immediately reached for a tissue to scoop up the little pellets of poo with a grimace. “Couldn’t you have done that on your way here?”

The owl hooted.

“For the love of – ugh. Just give me the letter.”

The owl stuck out its leg for him to untie, and pecked merrily at bits of sausage as Merlin unrolled the parchment.

Father found out about Aithusa. Morgana tried to cover for us but I’m a terrible liar. He’s gone ballistic. Aithusa is still with Professor Gaius so Father says we’ll deal with this at school. He’s already sent a letter to him. I don’t know what’s going to happen. Just thought you should know. -  Arthur

Merlin swore. Loudly.

“Language!” his mother chided as she entered the room. She looked in his direction and did a double take. “Merlin, what in God’s name is an owl doing on the table?”

“He’s a messenger owl,” said Merlin. “He brought me a letter from Arthur.” A pause. “Professor Pendragon knows.”

“Oh dear.”

“I know.”

“What’s going to happen to Aithusa?”

“We don’t know. It’s all up in the air at the moment. Arthur says his father will deal with it at school.”

“But she’s just a baby!” said Hunith, echoing the words Merlin had told her just days earlier. “The school can’t just ban it or something!”

“I know. And it’s a special dragon, so we can’t just leave it up to some dragon reserve in Europe. Kilgharrah said specifically that I was responsible for it, because I’m a Dragonlord. I suppose – I suppose I’m just not a very good one.” Merlin’s voice broke on the last line, and his eyes began to well up with tears.

“Merlin, my darling,” said his mother, coming forward to hug him. “Of course you’re a good Dragonlord. You hatched Aithusa, remember? And you’ve taken good care of her so far.” She began to rub soothing circles on his back, like she always did when Merlin felt sad. “It’ll be alright. Let’s just hope Professor Pendragon has enough sense in him not to do something drastic.”

There was a hoot from the owl on the table.

“Oh, shut up,” said Merlin, to the owl. “I’ll deal with you later, just finish your sausage.”

Hunith laughed. Merlin sniffed and wiped at his eyes.

“Well, there’s no use worrying about what Professor Pendragon will do, if he’s not going to take action until you’re all back at school,” his mother reasoned. “Don’t let this ruin your holidays, Merlin, alright? Just sit tight, do your work, and read your father’s journals. Arthur and Morgana can take care of the situation for now, and I expect the six of you will come up with a plan once you see each other again.”

Merlin had to admit that his mother, as always, had a point.

Chapter Text

“What are we going to do?!”

Gwen was wringing her hands with a wide-eyed expression of panic. It was the last day of the holidays, and she, Merlin, Percival, and Freya were on the Hogwarts Express back to school. Arthur and Morgana were not present; Merlin didn’t know whether this was normal, or because Professor Pendragon was so angry at what they had done that they weren’t allowed of his sight. He fervently hoped it was the former.

“We have to fight back, obviously,” said Percival. “We can’t let them take Aithusa away. She wouldn’t be comfortable without us.”

“I’m sure Arthur and Morgana have a plan,” Merlin said. “We’ll see each other and Professor Gaius once we’re at Hogwarts and discuss what we’re going to do.”

The four of them sat in silence for a while in the train cabin, mulling over their thoughts. Merlin looked out the window at the rolling hills and countryside passing by. “On a different note,” he said, “it turns out Mum still has my father’s journals. She gave them to me for Christmas.”

The other three instantly brightened. “That’s wonderful!” said Gwen. “That’s so kind of her.”

“I never knew either of my birth parents,” said Freya. “I wish I had something of theirs. You’re very lucky, Merlin.”

Freya’s expression turned wistful for a moment, her gaze focused on something very far away. The others were quiet for a few seconds as they watched her. Freya had explained to them some weeks ago that she had grown up with her foster parents, but hadn’t revealed much else. Merlin wondered momentarily of her past.

“What were the journals about?” said Percival, breaking the silence before it got too awkward.

Merlin wrinkled his nose. “To be honest, they haven’t been terribly helpful in terms of dragon care tips, but we know what we need from library books anyway. At least I know a little more about my legacy now – being a Dragonlord, and all that.”

“Have you brought them with you?” Percival asked.

“Just the last one,” Merlin replied. “I haven’t finished that one yet. It’s the thickest notebook out of the collection.”

“Okay, but back to Aithusa – ” Freya said, when their cabin door suddenly opened and a familiar face peeked in.

“Hey.” It was a Gryffindor boy, Merlin guessed a third year, whose face was strikingly familiar. Merlin had definitely seen him before, but he couldn’t remember when. His hair was dark and windswept, and when he smiled, it was a mixture of cheeky, flirtatious, and undeniably attractive. “Sorry, all the other cabins are full, and I just got kicked out of my cabin by my girlfriend. Sorry, ex-girlfriend,” he amended quickly. “Anyway, there’s a load of drama going on, and I’d rather just be someplace else right now. Mind if I join?”

The four of them looked at each other, unsure how they would be able to carry on their private conversation now that someone else wanted to sit with them. “Wouldn’t you rather sit with some other third-years?” said Freya. “I’m sure you don’t want to look uncool or something, sitting with us.”

“Ah, age doesn’t matter to me,” said the boy, with a wink that Merlin could only describe as sly. “And sitting with you is better than sitting out in the corridor to face the wrath of the trolley witch. She’s mighty fierce, that one.”

Gwen looked confused. “She seems rather lovely to me.”

The boy whistled, glanced behind him, and invited himself into the cabin. He sat down in the seat nearest to the door and leaned forward, speaking almost conspiratorially. “Oh, you don’t know what the trolley witch is really like until she gets her hackles raised. My friends and I tried to get up onto the roof by climbing outside the window, just for the fun of it, and...” He laughed quietly and shook his head. “You really don’t want to know.”

“Hold on,” said Merlin, belatedly realising who the boy was. “You’re Gwaine Greene, right? I remember you from the Welcome Feast. You said Arthur had beat you to being the first one to get in trouble this year.”

“That’s some memory you’ve got there,” said Gwaine, smiling again. “I caught up soon after, though. Filch found me taking one of the illegal passageways to my room and immediately reported me to the headmaster.” He seemed rather proud of this achievement.

“There are passageways?” said Freya.

“Of course! It’s an ancient castle, and those always hold secrets,” said Gwaine. “Look, just so you know, I didn’t discover those all by myself. I stumbled on about two before I found a map that told me about all the other ones.”

There was a stunned silence.

“A map?” Percival prompted.

“Yeah,” Gwaine said, grinning, clearly pleased at having gotten the reaction he expected. “It basically shows the locations of all the shortcuts within Hogwarts, so you never have to deal with the constantly changing stairs. You know as well as I do how much of a hassle they can be.” He raised an eyebrow, and the others nodded. “But that’s not the best thing about this map. It also shows the locations of every person within the castle. It’s absolutely amazing. I don’t know what kind of magic you’d need to make something like that.”

“Can you show us?” Gwen asked.

Gwaine’s gaze darted to the door. “Not here,” he said. Then the corner of his lip turned up, his eyes glinting. “But I will if you ask me later today, in private.”

There was no denying it: Gwaine was likeable. He was carefree, easygoing, and scored extra points for actually treating students in the lower years like human beings. Each individual year tended to get along as a whole, since there were only about forty students in total, but apart from the prefects and the Head Boy and Girl, it was rare that the first-years ever got any attention from older students.

Merlin glanced at the others, trying to guess if they were thinking the same thing. It helped, too, that the map Gwaine was talking about would be extremely useful to Operation Camelot…

He opened his mouth to ask Gwaine a question, but Freya beat him to it. “Guys, should we tell him?”

Merlin glanced at Gwaine and noticed the satisfied look on his face. Of course. The other cabins hadn't really been full. Gwaine had probably seen their expressions before he came in. It made sense for Gwaine to tell them about the map, something he probably kept quiet about to everyone else, because...

“I knew you were up to something,” said Gwaine.

Merlin looked at the others again, noting their worried expressions. “Would you mind excusing us for a second? We need to – er – discuss something.”

“Of course,” Gwaine said smoothly, getting up from his seat and leaving the cabin. He slid the door closed, but winked at them through the glass before turning around and leaning against the door. Merlin barely stifled a laugh when he saw Freya roll her eyes.

The four of them hunched forward in their seats, heads close together. “Alright,” said Merlin. “Thoughts?”

“I think it would be useful to have someone older on the team,” said Gwen. “Someone who knows Hogwarts better than us.”

“Not to mention that he knows people in his year, too,” added Freya. “If we’re going to fight back against whatever Professor Pendragon’s planning, we need more people.”

“Wait, you’re thinking we should start some sort of revolt?” said Merlin.

“No,” said Freya. Then she paused. “Well, I think ‘campaign’ would be a more delicate way to put it.”

Gwen giggled, covering her mouth with her hands. “That sounds fun!”

“Gwaine could help us spread the word,” said Percival. “I mean, now that Professor Pendragon knows, it won’t be long before the rest of the school does, so keeping Aithusa secret isn’t our priority now. We need to let as many people know about her as possible.”

“That makes sense,” said Merlin. Then, just because he felt like it, he sat up and held his head high, trying to look as important as he could. “All those in favour of Gwaine Greene joining Operation Camelot, say ‘aye’.”

“Aye,” chorused the other three. Then they looked pointedly at him.

“Oh, right,” said Merlin, suddenly feeling rather foolish. “Aye.” He leaned to his left and tapped on the door, signalling for Gwaine to come back in.

Gwaine slid the door open and looked at them all expectantly.

“You’re in,” said Merlin.

“I knew it,” said Gwaine. He sat down again. “So what are you four up to?”

“Well…” said Merlin, unsure how to start.

“We’ve got a dragon,” said Percival. Gwaine’s eyebrows shot up. “A special one. Merlin’s a Dragonlord, and…whatever, it’s a long story. The point is, Professor Pendragon’s found out about it, and we think he plans to take her away, but we’re the only people qualified to look after her, partly because she’s special, and also because she’s used to us…so in short, we need as many people as possible to know about it to help us stop it from happening.”

Gwaine stared for a moment. “Alright,” he said slowly. “I’ve got to admit that a dragon was not what I envisioned when I noticed you guys looking like you were up to no good.” Then his expression brightened. “But it sounds like something I can help with, so I’m game. What’s your plan?”

The four of them looked at each other. “We haven’t…got one?” Gwen said in a small voice. “Yet?”

Gwaine whistled. “Okay. Mind if I make a suggestion?”

“Go ahead,” said Freya.

“Write a petition,” said Gwaine. “Something with a catchy headline. Then we’ll tell people about it, get them interested, and make them sign.”

“I like that,” said Percival. “It’s discreet enough to not immediately notify anyone important until it’s absolutely necessary.”

“Exactly,” said Gwaine. “Professor Pendragon’s probably going to see you in his office fairly soon, perhaps even tonight, so you haven’t got much time. You’ve got to come up with an alternative plan to him taking the dragon away, and make a damn good case about it too.”

“We could petition for the dragon to be our school mascot,” Gwen piped up. “We have one for each House, but not for the school as a whole.”

“I like the way you think,” said Gwaine. Gwen blushed with pride.

“Also,” said Percival, “you could go for the emotional argument. How cruel would it to take a baby dragon somewhere unfamiliar and away from people she knows?”

“Yes, good!”

“You guys do Care of Magical Creatures starting third year, right?” said Freya. “How better to learn about dragons than observing one right in front of you?”

“And she’ll be able to protect us,” said Merlin. “Once she’s grown, that is.”

“Excellent,” said Gwaine. “We’ve got a case. Okay. Who’s got parchment?”

“I’ll get it,” said Freya, reaching for her trunk. 

“Great. Now, here’s how you start…”

By the time the Hogwarts Express reached its destination, Operation Camelot had a petition ready. The five of them signed it first, and Merlin was entrusted with it before they told Morgana and Arthur.

They didn’t get a chance to do so, however. As soon as they got off the train, they were greeted by a stern-looking Professor de Bois. “The four of you are to come with me,” he said.

The four of them looked nervously at each other. Out of the corner of his eye, Merlin saw Gwaine slip off unnoticed, but not before giving them a thumbs-up behind the professor’s back.

Professor de Bois led the way and escorted the four of them to a carriage. As they came closer, Merlin gasped at the creature that was pulling it. It looked like a horse, but darker, sleeker, and with no eyes. He glanced at the others, but no one seemed to be reacting the same way except Freya, who was staring wide-eyed too.

“Guys, what is that?” said Merlin, pointing.

Percival gave him a strange look. “A carriage, of course,” he said.

“No, I mean the thing that’s pulling it.”

“But there’s nothing there,” said Gwen, looking worried. “Merlin, are you feeling all right?”

“Don’t worry, they’re just Thestrals,” said Freya.

Merlin looked at her. “You see them too?”

“Yes,” said Freya. “Only certain people can.”

“Who – ”

“Get in,” instructed Professor de Bois. “Professor Pendragon is waiting for you in his office, and he doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”

The four of them hurriedly got into the carriage. Professor de Bois entered last, sitting next to Percival, who looked mildly intimidated by his presence.

Freya sat next to Merlin, facing forward so both of them could see the majestic Thestral. “Hey,” she said softly. “I don’t want to alarm you, but…you’re only supposed to see Thestrals if you’ve stared Death in the face.”

Merlin felt a shiver at her words. “But – ”

“No talking!” said Professor de Bois.

Just then, the Thestral began to pull the carriage forward, and all of them jumped in their seats before it began its mildly bumpy journey down the uneven stone path. The others were looking worriedly at Merlin, but he was still reeling from Freya’s information, too shocked to even give them a look of reassurance.

Thoughts were spinning in Merlin’s head. But I’ve never seen anyone die before, he thought. How is it possible that I can see these Thestrals? Perhaps someone died so long ago I can’t remember. But who? Dad left before I was even born…

Then another thought, one that chilled him to the bone, occurred to him.

Who did Freya see die?