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Draco Dormiens: Year 1

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Eleven-year-old Merlin Emrys of 6, Avalon Lane, had always known that he was different.

It wasn't something anyone talked about. They were only small things after all, these abnormalities. Little incidents. Inexplicable things, best left alone. At least that's what his mother told him.

And yet, Merlin knew. Had always known. Something about him just… wasn't quite right.

And exactly seventeen days after his eleventh birthday, Merlin found out what that something was.

In retrospect, Merlin thought he should have realised it the moment they got home, when he and his mum both saw the large, tawny owl perched on their postbox. His mother took one look at it and grabbed Merlin's hand, almost dragging him past the bird - which didn't move a muscle as they passed, merely stared at them in a way that seemed almost bored (if birds had the capability of possessing such a feeling at all, that was. Which they did not, that would be preposterous).

Five minutes after they'd entered the house, Merlin looked out the kitchen window to find the owl now sitting on the windowsill, big eyes staring unblinkingly into his own.

He blinked. So did the owl.

Then his mum came into the kitchen, brushed past Merlin with a cry of outrage, and slammed the window shut in the owl's face; it hooted indignantly and took flight.

Merlin watched it go, feeling oddly sad.

But the very same evening, Merlin went out the back door to empty the compost bin, and there the owl was again, sitting on the bin as though it knew he would be there.

Only then did Merlin notice the letter tied to its leg.

'No way,' Merlin breathed, dropping the bag in his hand, not even noticing as potato skins and eggshells scattered at his feet. 'It has a letter!'

He wanted to call for his mum, tell her to come see - and if he had, maybe the story would have turned out quite different. Maybe his mum would have taken the letter, hidden it away, deemed Merlin safer hidden away from a world full of dangers he did not yet understand.

But Merlin was a curious child, and so rather than call for his mother, he took a tentative step forward, eager to discover the mystery of the sealed envelope tied to the leg of a bird.

'I thought this only happened with pigeons,' Merlin murmured curiously as he reached out a hand towards the bird - it hooted in an offended sort of way, but to Merlin's amazement it stayed completely still as he carefully untied the rolled-up letter from its leg.

The moment the owl was free of its burden, it ruffled its wings and took flight. But Merlin was no longer looking at the bird. He was staring at the emerald green letters on the faded yellow paper, which read:

MR MERLIN EMRYS
THE COMPOST BIN
6 AVALON LANE
BA6 9JJ EALDOR
ENGLAND

Merlin read it again. Then he looked up. Turned his head slowly. Looked down and read the second line one more time.

The compost bin?

'But... I don't live in a compost bin,' Merlin frowned.

A sigh behind him made him start; Merlin whipped around to find his mother standing in the doorway, a troubled expression on her face.

'Of all the things you could be wondering about right now...' she shook her head, and although she still looked worried, her voice was fond. 'Well, I suppose I best make us some tea. We have a lot to talk about.'

And that was how Merlin Emrys learned that he was a wizard.

★☆~~~~~~~☆★

'But I don't understand,' Merlin shook his head, looking up at the sign of the dingy London pub, 'why can't you come with us?'

He was still holding onto his mother's hand, almost pulling her forwards, but she would go no further. In front of the door leading into the Leaky Cauldron stood his Uncle Gaius, waiting for him.

His mother touched the top of his head gently, running her hand through his hair - hair that was as black and messy as her own - in a soothing motion.

'You know why, darling,' she smiled sadly, as behind her automobiles drove by slowly and dressed-up Londoners walked along the road leisurely, all of them seemingly oblivious to the fact that the dingy little pub was there at all. 'I don't belong in there.'

'Because you're not a wizard?' Merlin asked. He understood how it worked now: there were people with magic, and they had to go to a special school where they would be taught how to use it, and then there were people like his mum. They didn't get to go. He thought it was all awfully unfair.

His mum was silent for a while, and when he looked up, she was not looking at him, but rather up at the Leaky Cauldron sign, which was swaying gently in the breeze.

'Something like that,' she whispered. He wasn't sure he was even meant to hear it. But a moment later her smile was back, and she was letting go of his hand, stepping back. 'Now have fun, Merlin, alright? Stick to your list, and do what Uncle Gaius tells you. I'll see you at home!'

Merlin wanted to say something, try to call her back. His mother had always been there for big moments like these - his choir recitals, his first day at school, and that time Mike Copper beat him up in the second grade and then somehow ended up covered in bird droppings, an incident which for some reason he’d blamed Merlin for - and he couldn't imagine embarking on this new and completely overwhelming adventure without her.

Yes, Merlin tried to remind himself, that’s what this is. An adventure.

His mother smiled at him, her eyes brimming with tears he knew that she would not shed before he had gone.

He smiled back. At first it was a small, hesitant little motion, but soon he found that it was growing. Completely without meaning to, he soon found himself grinning from ear to ear, and then he couldn't wait a moment longer. He turned and sprinted towards uncle Gaius, who merely raised an eyebrow at him, but Merlin didn't care - he was a wizard! Magic was real! He would be buying spell books and potions and a wand!

'Ready?' Gaius asked him as he skittered to a stop in front of his uncle, still smiling widely.

And oh, he was.

★☆~~~~~~~☆★

Diagon Alley. Nothing could have prepared Merlin for this sight. Not that he had been told a lot - his mother had never been, and Gaius had not been back here since his own time at Hogwarts.

It still amazed him that Gaius had gone to Hogwarts. He knew his Uncle as nothing more than the kindly old man who lived at the end of the road and watched Merlin on weekends. He was nice, and treated Merlin like he was family, but Gaius was also strict - and he never talked about his past. Now, Merlin supposed he understood that a little bit better, although he couldn't imagine why anyone would want to keep something like this a secret!

There was an entire magical world out there, and Merlin had never even known it existed. Merlin was a part of this world, and his mother had known this, or at least suspected. That was what she had told him, when he had received his letter.

'You have magic, Merlin,' she had told him. 'I knew you would have, of course. How could you not? Still I prayed every day that this letter would never come, but here we are...'

She had trailed off, and Merlin had had to bite his tongue to keep himself from asking all the questions he was dying to know the answers to. How could magic exist without anyone knowing about it? Why had she never told him? Why did she not want him to go - and if she really didn't want him to go, why had she given in so easily when the letter had come?

In the end, the only question he had asked was: 'How did you know?'

She had said nothing for a long time, and when she finally spoke, it was only two words. 'Your father.'

So, Balinor Emrys had been a wizard. Merlin had never known his father, who had died before he was born. But now he knew that his father had been magical, had been a part of a whole other world. And then he had fallen in love with Merlin's mum, and here we are.

In Diagon Alley.

Merlin felt like the wind had been knocked out of him. He had never seen anything like this before; it was like stepping into a dream. Everywhere around them, there were people milling around, shopping and talking and laughing like on any other street in the world... and yet nothing was the same, once you really started to look.

Most people were wearing cloaks, odd hats, and the oddest assortments of clothes Merlin had ever seen. And the shops! Outside there were barrels of slimy green and black globs, globes that spun in the air as if by magic (No, Merlin reminded himself, it is magic! He still couldn't believe it), and the shop windows were lined with incredible, unbelievable things.

As Merlin and Gaius walked down the street, he slowly really began to take in what he was seeing: broomsticks. Owls. Cauldrons. Wheelbarrows moving without anyone pushing them, objects zooming around and flying through the air without strings or motors.

This was not a dream. This was really happening.

'Come along, Merlin, we haven't got all day!' Gaius called gruffly; Merlin started, he had completely forgotten about Gaius! He shook his head, snapping out of his daze, and hurried down the street to catch up to his uncle.

'Sorry, Uncle Gaius,' he wheezed when he'd finally managed to weave his way through the masses of people that had somehow come between them, 'it's just... this is all a lot to take in!'

To his surprise, Gaius actually chuckled. 'At least you didn't faint in the middle of the street. I'd say that means you’re doing better than I did my first time in Diagon Alley.'

Merlin looked up at him in surprise. ‘You didn’t!’

Gaius smiled kindly. ‘You’ll get used to it. Now come on, there’s a lot of items on your school list and I’m not getting any younger. Ollivanders is just over there; let’s go meet an old friend.’

And then he turned and walked on, before Merlin had a chance to ask what that even meant, heading for the white marble structure in the distance.

★☆~~~~~~~☆★

Merlin and Gaius walked into the dark, dusty shop, only to find it empty - well, perhaps empty was not entirely accurate. The shop was full, alright; small oblong boxes seemed to cover every available surface, and were crammed onto shelves and stacked high on the floor.

A little shiver went through Merlin as he realised that all of these boxes probably contained wands. One of them will be mine.

'Now where has he got to?' Gaius grumbled from behind Merlin, clearly not as impressed by the sight as Merlin was. 'He’s always running off. Garrick!'

Merlin heard a crash and a string of cursing from the back room (which he hadn't even noticed was there for all the boxes). A moment later an elderly man appeared, grumbling to himself, weaving around the stacks with the unexpected grace of someone much younger than he was.

The man looked to be about the same age as Gaius. His hair was white and his eyes were pale as they set first on Gaius and then on Merlin, glimmering for a moment with something like recognition.

Merlin gulped; he wasn't sure what it was about the old man, but something about him seemed... familiar, somehow.

'Gaius!' the man - Garrick, Merlin reckoned - exclaimed, clapping his hands together and moving towards them. 'Goodness, but I never thought I'd see you again!'

Garrick took Gaius' hand with both of his, shaking it vigorously.

'And who is this?' He added, eyes once more settling on Merlin. 'Don’t tell me he's yours!'

Gaius laughed. Goodness, no. Merlin, this is Garrick Ollivander, Britain's finest wand maker - oh don't pull that face, Garrick, you know it's true - and Garrick, this is my nephew Merlin. Merlin Emrys.'

Merlin's immediate thought was that Garrick Ollivander would make a very good poker player. There was almost nothing to suggest that Merlin's name should mean anything at all to the older man - nothing, except for the slight widening of those pale grey eyes, which Merlin would have missed completely if he hadn't been watching them so intently, feeling like he was staring into a fogged-up mirror, knowing there was a reflection on the other side but unable to make it out.

'Ah,' Ollivander said, and the moment passed. 'Starting Hogwarts, I presume? Yes. You look the right age. You're after a wand, of course.'

The last was directed at Gaius with a raised eyebrow, and Gaius nodded his assent.

Merlin felt like the butterflies were about to burst out of his stomach, and completely forgot about Ollivander's creepy eyes.

'Yes, please,' he said excitedly, and to his surprise, Ollivander actually laughed; a strange, hoarse sound.

'Well then,' Ollivander said, moving towards one of the shelves. 'I think we shall try... yes, here we are.'

He pulled a box out, and produced a long, thin piece of wood. 'Dragon heartstring, ebony, 12 inches. Completely unyielding, this one. Try it out.'

He held it out to Merlin, who gingerly reached out and took hold of the wand.

'Er,' he said, turning it over in his hand, but before he could even as much as give it a swing, Ollivander had snatched it from his hand again.

'Never mind,' he said cheerfully, turning to a pile of wand boxes stacked on the floor. 'Here we are: dragon heartstring, willow, 11 1/2 inches, and very supple.'

Merlin took hold of the wand, and looked expectantly at Ollivander.

The wand was snatched away again and Ollivander ambled away, whistling to himself; Merlin looked to Gaius in confusion but the older man just nodded at him reassuringly.

'Don't worry, hardly anyone is chosen by the first wand they try,' Gaius assured him.

'Chosen?' Merlin asked.

'Ah yes,' Ollivander called from behind his desk, where he was crawling around. 'The wand chooses you, Mr Emrys, not the other way around! Now, where... aha!'

Ollivander emerged, a new wand in hand. 'Here we are. Dragon heartstring, holly, 9 1/2 inches, reasonably springy.'

When that didn’t work either and Ollivander snatched it back, Gaius put a hand on the other man’s arm, pulling him a short distance away.

'Garrick,' he began in an undertone, ‘don't you think maybe you should try another—’

Ollivander shook his head. 'You know just as well as I that that would just be wasting everyone’s time, Gaius.'

Merlin frowned, looking back and forth between the two men. But Gaius seemed to have no further argument; he removed his hand from Ollivander's sleeve, and the other man moved back towards the stacks.

'Ah,' he said after a moment, hand hovering over one particularly faded box which was tucked in between much shinier, newer ones - easy to miss, and Merlin would certainly never have selected it off the shelf. 'But of course,' Ollivander chuckled to himself. 'We have to try this one with you, don't we?'

He pulled out the box and blew a thick layer of dust off of it.

'One of our oldest,' Ollivander proclaimed, 'and one of the few which has been owned before, a long time ago. I sometimes like to bring it out to see if it might choose someone new... and why not? Here you are; dragon heartstring, oak, 10 1/2 inches, and surprisingly springy for its type.'

Merlin reached for the wand, fully expecting another anticlimax - but the moment his fingers touched the wood he gasped; he felt like something soft and warm was wrapping around his hand, his arm, his whole body; his fingers seemed to close around the wand on their own accord as though it belonged there, and fiery sparks burst from its tip, almost singing the startled Ollivander's hair.

‘By all that is – I don’t believe it!’ Ollivander said, shaking his head. ‘Of course I might have… but no, this is most unexpected indeed.’

‘What’s unexpected?’ Merlin asked, gripping the wand tighter – frightened, suddenly, that Ollivander would take it away.

Ollivander’s eyes met Gaius’, and Merlin thought some silent communication must have passed between them before Ollivander turned back to Merlin with a smile. ‘Nothing at all, boy. It is just a relief to finally have found a new owner for this old thing.’

Somehow, Merlin thought there was probably a lot more to this story.

Little did he know that this was just the first mystery of many to come on his strange and fantastical journey into the magical world.

Chapter Text

Merlin turned away from the window as the train pulled away from Platform 9 3/4, blinking rapidly, trying to stop himself from dwelling on the fact that he had just said goodbye to the only family he had ever known, and that he wouldn't see his mum or Uncle Gaius for months.

He had never been away from home for more than a weekend before today. He took a deep breath, trying to remember what his mum had told him. Be brave.

I'm going to a school of magic, he reminded himself. I'm a wizard. This is my world now. This was my father's world.

Outside in the train corridor, he heard shrieks of laughter and hurried footsteps as older students ran past, calling for their friends.

No one came into his compartment. Merlin wasn't sure if he was disappointed or relieved; he didn't want anyone to see him upset, but at the same time... Merlin didn't make friends easily. Ever since that incident with Mike Copper, the other kids had always looked at him funny. The only one who kept playing with him was Will Tawny, but he wasn't going to Hogwarts.

Here Merlin was completely alone, and he didn't know if any of these children would like him any better than those at his old school. Sure, they all had magic like he did... but here, everyone had magic. Here, Merlin was just Merlin. And that terrified him a little bit, even if he’d never show it.

Just when he had given up hope of meeting anyone on the train ride, a soft knock on the door made him jump.

'Er, come in?' he called hesitantly.

The door rolled open a fraction, and a round, wide-eyed face surrounded by wild dark curls materialized in the narrow gap between the wall and the doorframe.

'Er, hello,' the face squeaked, and a small hand pushed itself through, waving awkwardly.

'Hello,' Merlin echoed warily. For all he knew, what with this being a magical train and all, this could very possibly just be a floating hand and a face. But, not wanting to seem rude, he added, 'want to come inside?'

The face lit up into a wide smile, flashing a set of white teeth. The door rolled all the way open and Merlin was relieved to find that there was indeed a whole person standing there - a small girl, around his own age, wrestling with a suitcase that was almost bigger than herself.

'Oh, here, let me help you!' Merlin exclaimed, jumping out of his seat and rushing to the doorway. Together, he and the girl managed to wrangle the gigantic suitcase inside the small compartment, and the girl collapsed into the seat opposite his own.

'Thank goodness, I was beginning to worry I'd have to sit in the corridor the whole way there!' the girl said, shaking her head. 'Everywhere else is too full for both me and the trunk! I don't know what I've even got in there, everyone else seems to have packed much less. Or maybe they just packed with magic, I don't know how to do any of that. I didn't even know I was a witch until I got my letter, my dad was ever so surprised! He thought it was a hoax, of course, so they sent this woman, she was terrifying. Oh, I'm Gwen, what's your name?'

Merlin gaped, trying to make sense of everything the girl had just said. When she continued to look at him expectantly, wide eyes and smile still in place, he gulped. 'Um. I'm Merlin.'

'Merlin!' the girl exclaimed, 'Of course, like the Merlin! I get it! Are your family wizards then?'

Merlin winced. 'No. It's... just me. And my dad, apparently.'

'Then why are you named Merlin?' the girl asked, scrunching up her nose. Then she gasped, covering her mouth. 'Not that Merlin isn't a perfectly lovely name, of course!'

Merlin laughed. He couldn't help it; this girl was adorable.

He was pretty sure he'd just made his very first friend in the magical world.

★☆~~~~~~~☆★

Merlin and Gwen spent the entire ride to Hogwarts talking, about everything and anything, but mostly about how excited and apprehensive they were about getting to the school. As neither had known about the existence of the magical world before getting their letters, they were both completely overwhelmed by the experience, and quickly bonded over the fact that they felt unprepared for everything that awaited them.

'I mean, the books all talk about the spells and potions and everything else that we're going to be learning, but I haven't actually ever seen any real magic!' Gwen lamented. 'Well, obviously, there were some things in Diagon Alley that finally convinced my dad, but it all just seems... I mean, I still don't know if I believe that I can actually do any,' she added, almost in a whisper as though she was afraid someone would overhear and send her back to London.

Merlin thought back to his own childhood, the way all of those inexplicable things that had happened suddenly made sense, and wasn't sure he agreed with her. 'Haven't you ever... done something, on accident, that you couldn't explain?' he asked hesitantly, suddenly worried that that wasn't as normal in this new world as he'd thought.

Gwen appeared to think about it for a moment, then her eyes widened. 'Well... there was one time my brother Elyan had nicked my dolls and then I got really mad, and for the next two weeks his room was filled with this horrid stench that no one cold get rid of. I always wondered...' her expression brightened. 'Do you think that was magic?'

Merlin grinned. 'I think it might have been. Not sure I want to be near you when you cast any spells in the future though.'

'Oh, shut up,' Gwen mumbled, cheeks burning bright red, but Merlin thought she still seemed pleased.

Just then, a sharp rap on the door made them both jump.

The door opened a fraction, and a dark-haired boy stuck his head into the compartment.

'Hello,' he said, looking from Merlin to Gwen (whom Merlin noticed was still blushing profusely). 'I'm sorry to interrupt, just passing along a message. We're arriving soon, so you two best put on your robes!'

'Oh, uh, okay,' Merlin nodded, and the boy threw one last glance in Gwen's direction before pulling his head back, shutting the door behind him.

Merlin and Gwen began to pull out the long, black Hogwarts cloak they had purchased at Madam Malkin's. Even though he was still nervous, Merlin couldn't help but be excited as he put on his cloak for the first time. He was actually going to learn about magic! It still hadn't quite sunk in yet.

Of course, before they began learning spells, they had to be put into one of the four Hogwarts Houses, Merlin knew. He had memorised their names: Hufflepuff, Slytherin, Gryffindor, and Ravenclaw. But other than that he did not know much about them, and when he'd asked Uncle Gaius, the old man had only told him that the sorting ceremony was meant to be very mysterious, so he did not want to give Merlin any ideas.

Merlin thought this was very unfair, as the children from magical families must surely know about it already - but from what Gwen had told him, she didn't know either. And maybe that was just as well; they'd know soon enough anyway.

And the good thing about not having any hopes about which House he’d be sorted into was that he wouldn’t be disappointed if he didn’t get the one he wanted. His favourite colour was blue, which was the colour of Ravenclaw House, but he also quite liked red, which was Gryffindor’s colour… but he was sure it would not be as simple as picking your favourite colour, anyway, so that hardly mattered.

'Have you any idea what House you'd choose, if you could?' Merlin asked, his back turned to Gwen as she changed.

'Not really. I heard someone talking about the Slytherins on the platform, apparently there's some nasty people in there,' Gwen said, 'but then, I’m sure that’s true for all the Houses.' She paused, and Merlin thought he heard the cloak rustle as she put it on. 'I do hope that whichever House I end up in... you go there too,' she said, voice quiet.

Merlin didn't say anything. He was afraid his voice would waver if he did, and wouldn't that just be embarrassing? When Gwen told him to turn around, however, he did give her a huge smile, which she returned.

He suddenly couldn't imagine facing this new and terrifying adventure without Gwen, and he thought together they could brave even Slytherin, if the people turned out to be as nasty as what Gwen had heard.

★☆~~~~~~~☆★

In no time at all, the train slowed down, and Merlin and Gwen joined the bustle of the other students flooding the corridors. It was a sea of black cloaks and laughing faces, and Merlin found himself swept up in the excitement of it all. He and Gwen shared an excited grin, and as they were pushed along by the swarm, Gwen grabbed a hold of his arm.

They exited the train, and Merlin found himself pushed and shoved along the platform. He heard a rough voice shouting, 'Firs' years! Firs' years, over here!' and tried to follow it, Gwen close behind him, pushing the much taller students around him, trying to avoid taking an elbow to the face.

They finally cleared the crowd, and Merlin gaped as he found himself face to face with the biggest, hairiest man he had ever seen.

'Hi, Hagrid!' a boy called from behind them and the huge man raised his hand, nodding and possibly smiling (it was hard to tell what was going on underneath that beard). Merlin heard Gwen's sharp intake of breath behind him and knew that she, too, had set eyes on the giant.

'Righ',' the man said after a moment, as a crowd of kids around Merlin's age (and thankfully height) gathered around them, 'that everyone, then?'

Merlin looked round, but he really would have no idea - he obviously didn't recognise any of the kids here, and he doubted anyone else would, either. But the man, Hagrid, seemed satisfied that he had assembled all the new students, and turned on his heel to herald them along a narrow pathway leading off the platform.

Merlin was so busy trying not to trip over his cloak (this was going to take some getting used to, he thought absently) that he was hardly able to look around and take in his surroundings. At one point he stumbled, almost taking Gwen down with him, and he felt something solid hit his back.

'Hey!' a boy sneered in his ear, 'watch it!' A shove almost sent him flying again and he turned to find a blonde boy scowling at him.

‘Er, sorry,’ Merlin tried, but the boy just continued to look at him, blue eyes narrowed.

‘Do I know you?’ the other boy asked, hands on his hips. The other children were pushing around them and Merlin glanced back towards Gwen, who was hovering anxiously, waiting for him.

‘I don’t think so,’ Merlin shrugged. ‘I’m Merlin Emrys.’ He stuck his hand out, trying for a smile, but the other boy just looked down at his hand with contempt before raising his eyes to Merlin’s again, a new anger there – which Merlin thought was terribly misplaced. The boy had run into him, not the other way around.

‘Get out of my way,’ the boy spat, and Merlin was so shocked by his hostility, he stepped back automatically, allowing the blond boy to push his way past him, stalking to the front of the line and leaving Merlin gaping after him.

‘What was that about?’ Gwen asked as she rushed over, looking between Merlin and the other boy. ‘What did you say to him?’

‘I have no idea.’ Merlin shook his head. What had just happened?

'Well, don’t let him ruin this, Merlin, he’s just a bully,' Gwen said soothingly, grabbing his arm and pulling him forwards before they lost sight of Hagrid’s lantern completely.

‘Right, of course,’ Merlin said. He’d known enough bullies in his life to know to stay away from them; and Hogwarts was a big school. It was unlikely he’d even have to deal with the boy much anyway.

Gwen didn't seem to have heard him, though - and a moment later, Merlin realised why.

Quite without him realising, Hagrid had led the group to a massive lake, and reflected in its surface were thousands of tiny little lights - and the source of those lights, Merlin realised as he lifted his gaze, were the miniscule windows of a massive, shadowed castle just visible beyond the lake in the twilight. It was unlike any castle he'd ever seen before, looking like a mixture between something from a fairytale, and a castle he thought he might have seen in a medieval colouring book once.

With its towers and turrets, the castle stood majestic and ancient on a rocky cliff, and there was complete silence from the children as they stood on the bank of the lake, gaping up at the magnificent sight. At that moment, Merlin felt a strange tug in the pit of his stomach. He smiled, for the first time completely at peace this entire bizarre situation.

Hogwarts. It already felt like home.

'Righ', here they are!' Hagrid's voice boomed out, cutting through the silence and making a few of the kids jump.

Merlin tore his gaze away from Hogwarts with great difficulty to see that Hagrid was talking about a few dozen empty rowboats, which seemed to be moving across the lake completely on their own accord.

'Are we expected to row across ourselves?' Merlin heard the blonde whisper haughtily, but the boy next to him merely shrugged, eyes still glued to the castle in awe.

As it turned out, they weren't. Gwen and Merlin shuffled into the nearest boat, and were quickly joined by two girls, a blonde and a brunette, who somehow managed to clamber over the side much more elegantly than Merlin had been able to.

'Hello,' Gwen smiled as the boat began moving. 'I'm Gwen Smith. What are your names?'

The dark-haired girl shot the other a quick look before looking back at Gwen, returning her smile with a more cautious one of her own. 'Hi, I'm Morgana Pendragon. This is my sister Morgause Gorlois.'

The other girl, Merlin noted, was not smiling. She was staring down into the depths of the lake and didn't seem to be paying them any attention, but when hearing her name, she lifted her eyes to shoot a brief, assessing glance in their direction. 'Half-sister,' Morgause mumbled before returning her gaze to the water.

Morgana rolled her eyes. 'Why does that always seem to matter so much to you two?' she asked, clearly picking up a conversation that they'd had before. But when Morgause didn't seem inclined to answer her, Morgana tossed her long, straight dark hair over one shoulder and returned her attention to Merlin and Gwen. 'Anyway, what is your name?' she asked Merlin, flashing bright white teeth in a smile which somehow managed to make her look both exceedingly pretty and a little bit ferocious.

'Oh, um,' Merlin stammered, feeling the tips of his ears go red and wishing she would stop smiling at him like that, 'I'm Merlin. Merlin Emrys.'

Morgana's eyebrows shot up, and even Morgause seemed to pay more attention, shifting slightly in her seat. After a moment Merlin thought he might have imagined their reaction though, as Morgana’s eyes crinkled and she looked like she was fighting a smile. 'Merlin? Seriously?'

Merlin winced. He guessed some things didn't change, even in the wizarding world. 'Yeah, I know. Mum was a bit mental for naming me after a fictional wizard.'

Morgana shook her head, frowning. 'Fictional? What do you...' she trailed off, and her frown became more apparent. 'Oh. You must be Muggle-born.' She shot her sister another look, this time seeming a bit nervous, but Morgause was back to pretending she couldn't hear them. Morgana bit her lip, but after a moment she said, 'No, you wouldn't know this of course, but Merlin was very much a real wizard. I was just surprised someone would name their child after him is all, that'd be like naming their child, I don't know... who is the most famous person in the Muggle world?'

'Elvis.' To Merlin's surprise, it was Morgause who answered. The other three turned towards her, but she kept stubbornly looking down at the water.

Morgana let out a small, relieved laugh. 'Yes, I suppose, like a magical Elvis.'

'Oh,' Merlin said, mind still reeling from the fact that the original Merlin - the one with the white beard and the rabbits and the flying crockery, if that Disney picture was to be believed - had actually existed. His old History teacher would have an aneurism if he ever found out.

‘So you are both Muggle-born, then?’ Morgana asked, although she seemed to only be watching for Merlin’s response.

‘Gwen is. I’m half-blood,’ Merlin shrugged.

Morgana shot another furtive look at Morgause, biting her lip. ‘Who did you say your parents were?’ she asked.

‘I... didn’t,’ Merlin said, confused. ‘Why?’

But just then, the boat passed under a cliff and for a moment they were submerged in darkness, until a large cavern opened and they found themselves approaching the rocky shore.

Chapter Text

After all the children got out of the boats, Hagrid led them up a narrow passageway, where they had to walk in single file until they reached a large set of wooden doors.

He knocked three times with his giant fist, and the doors swung open to reveal a young black-haired woman with her hair tied into an impossibly tight bun, mouth set in a thin line as she surveyed the shivering first-years.

‘Here they are, Professor McGonagall,’ Hagrid announced proudly, swinging out his arms; a few kids had to duck out of the way to avoid being knocked over.

Professor McGonagall followed the movement of his arms with narrowed, sharp eyes, frowning, before turning towards the students.

‘Thank you, Hagrid,’ she said curtly. ‘Students, please follow me.’ She turned, leaving the group to rush after her into the castle.

A few kids gasped as they looked around the enormous entrance hall. Torches hanging from the walls lit their passage, which took them past a marble staircase and a big statue, towards a set of wide wooden doors, behind which Merlin could hear what sounded like the muted chatter of hundreds of voices.

The Professor stopped in front of the doors, turning around to face them. ‘Beyond these doors lies the Great Hall. You will walk in an orderly line down the center aisle, and await your turn to be Sorted. Any questions?’

There were none – or maybe the first-years simply found the stern young woman too intimidating to voice any – and McGonagall gave them one last hard look before speaking a quiet word, and stepping back as the large doors swung open, revealing the Great Hall within.

 

 

★☆~~~~~~~☆★

When he looked back on it later, Merlin would not be able to remember anything of his first impression of the Great Hall but the ceiling. Immediately upon entering through the massive wooden doors, his eyes were drawn upwards to the starry sky above, and he did not see students nor House banners, or anything else, until the moment they stood in front of the high table and Professor McGonagall called them to attention.

Merlin regretfully lowered his eyes, and found himself standing directly in front of an old, dirty hat resting on a chair.

'Um,' he murmured to Gwen, 'did I miss something?'

'This,' McGonagall announced, effectively cutting off anything Gwen might have said in reply, 'is the Sorting Hat. Each of you will walk up to the chair, place the hat upon your head, and it will tell you which House you belong in.'

At McGonagall's words there was an outbreak of nervous whispering among the first-years, but Merlin saw that Morgana and Morgause, who were standing at the front of the group, were smiling at each other as though sharing a private joke.

They probably already know which House they'll get, Merlin realised. They came from a magical family, after all, and surely their parents would have told them all about Hogwarts before they arrived at the school. But how was he supposed to know? Gaius hadn’t told him anything, and his mother had never set foot in the magical world.

He wished he knew something about the different Houses now, after all; as he glanced around the Great Hall and saw the four tables with their colourful banners so divided, he suddenly felt as if it was a really important decision.

Your House will be like your family, Gaius had told him, back on Platform 9 ¾ as they were waiting for the Hogwarts Express to depart. But what if Merlin didn’t like his family? What if they didn’t like him? What if the Sorting Hat got it wrong? It was only a hat, after all! How could a hat know anything at all?

Merlin did not have to wait long for an answer to his silent question. Professor McGonagall had rolled out a piece of parchment, and called out the first name: 'Avery, Craig.'

After a moment's silence, a thin, slight and dark haired boy stumbled out of the queue, and walked towards the hat with shaking hands, glancing back towards the others every few paces as though expecting someone to stop him. But no one did, and when he reached the hat he gingerly picked it up and, after a quick look at McGonagall, put it on his head.

For a moment, nothing happened. Craig Avery just stood there, the old hat covering most of his tiny head, facing the crowd. But no one said a word, or laughed at the absurd spectacle; clearly, something was about to happen.

And then, before Merlin's eyes, the brim of the hat trembled and opened, and a clear voice called out: 'Slytherin!'

There was uproarious applause from the Slytherin table at the far side of the hall, and if Avery's relieved smile as he removed the hat was anything to go by, he'd gotten the House he wanted. Merlin joined in with the few others that were applauding, happy on behalf of this boy even though he was still beyond nervous for himself.

Don't be stupid, he tried to tell himself, you can't be nervous when you don't even know which House you want!

The next person was a girl, ‘Bean, Emma,’ who was sorted into Hufflepuff almost as soon as she placed the hat on her head. It seemed like the hat took longer to decide for some kids than others. Merlin wondered how long it'd take with him.

As Emma Bean rushed off to join her new Housemates at the Hufflepuff table, blushing but smiling shyly, McGonagall called out, ‘Brewer, Mia,’ who spent at least two whole minutes under the hat before it proclaimed her a 'Ravenclaw!'

The next name called was 'Brook, Freya,' another Ravenclaw. This girl looked so frightened that the moment the hat announced her House, she almost flung it off her head and bolted for the Ravenclaw table; Merlin had to jump back to avoid her colliding with him.

He watched as the girl ran to sit down, while another kid was called up to be sorted. Once Freya Brook reached her table she looked more at ease than before, struggling to introduce herself to all the curious Ravenclaws around her. Ravenclaw wouldn’t be so bad, Merlin thought absently.

‘Cooper, Elena’ became the first Gryffindor. So far, Merlin could see nothing special about these kids that gave him any idea about why they were placed in different Houses – they all looked different shades of terrified, and seemed equally relieved that they’d been placed into a House at all when they removed the hat from their heads.

Next up was the nice boy from the train, ‘DuLac, Lancelot.’ He shot Merlin and Gwen a nervous smile before walking up to the hat and putting it on – and almost immediately the brim of the hat opened, and proclaimed: ‘Gryffindor!

Merlin gave Lancelot a thumbs-up as he passed them, looking relieved, and watched as he joined Elena at the Gryffindor table.

‘Dunn, Gilli’ was next, and this poor boy was shaking so much, he actually tripped on his way to the hat. Merlin heard mocking laughter from somewhere behind him, mainly from the direction of the Slytherin table, and caught a glimpse of Gilli’s bright red face before he plunged the hat down over his eyes. It only took a few seconds before ‘Hufflepuff!’ was announced, putting poor Gilli out of his misery.

But Merlin did not have more than a moment to be relieved for the other boy, because just then, McGonagall called, ‘Emrys, Merlin,’ and he felt his stomach drop as he realised that it was already his turn to be sorted. Merlin took a deep breath before stepping forwards – watching his step, determined at the very least not to trip like Gilli had done. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the blond boy from earlier turn to the boy next to him (whose hair was blond too, almost platinum), and whisper, ‘Did you hear that? He said Emrys,’ but Merlin couldn’t worry about that now. At least for once it wasn’t his first name people were taking note of.

He reached the stool, and picked up the hat carefully - but it felt just like an ordinary hat. Coarse and worn, very old, and not at all like it was a sentient being capable of thought or speech.

Before he put it on, Merlin turned back and caught Gwen's eye - needing that reassurance, even though he knew she wasn't any wiser about this process than he was. Still, the small smile she gave him was all the courage he needed, and without another thought he plunged the hat down over his head, letting the world grow dark.

It helped, he thought, that there was only darkness. No curious faces (or mocking ones, in the case of the blond boy), no judgement.

'Oh my,' a voice said in his ear, and Merlin jumped in alarm before realising it must be the hat itself, speaking only to him. It’s a hat. A hat is talking to me. He supposed he'd have to stop being surprised by such things.

'Well,' the hat continued, 'this is... curious. Ah, yes. I see.'

What do you see? Merlin wanted to ask, but so far he hadn’t seen anyone else actually talk to the hat, so he thought he best not.

'Yes, yes... there is certainly the potential for great wisdom here, and reason too; curiosity, deduction...' the hat mused, 'oh, but there is a loyal streak stronger than most, indeed... and a reckless courage, oh my! Such a lust for adventure. Although there is cunning, too... a real ambition for a worthy cause, yes, and with that legacy, that name... Slytherin would be a fine fit for you indeed.'

Merlin wanted to roll his eyes. Not you, too? It’s just a name! he thought, completely forgetting to be frightened at all in his annoyance.

To his surprise, the hat chuckled in his ear. 'Ah, but of course. The fire. The dragon roars within; faintly still, but I hear it now. Although you possess many traits, I see there is but one place for you, young one. Listen closely when it calls you, and do not hesitate - call on that bravery and tenacity, which can only make you a GRYFFINDOR!'

Merlin heard the applause and knew what it meant: the last word the hat had spoken had been out loud, and his House had been decided. He removed the hat with slightly shaky hands, not noticing anything as he made his way to the table underneath the bright red and gold banners in a daze, sitting down next to Lancelot DuLac.

The dragon roars within? he wondered, looking up at the House banner in confusion, spacing out of the Sorting ceremony as another new student was called up to the hat.

The Gryffindor symbol was a lion, not a dragon. Had the hat got it wrong? And what else had it said? Listen closely when it calls you. When what called him?

So wrapped up in his own thoughts was he that he didn’t even notice the boy sitting opposite him, trying to get his attention, until he reached across the table and waved his hand directly in front of Merlin’s face.

‘You’re Merlin, right?’ the boy had reddish-brown, curly hair, and a friendly smile. ‘I’m Leon. Second-year. Welcome to Gryffindor!’ he proclaimed magnanimously, as though he owned the place – as he should; after all, he was a second-year. Merlin felt honoured he was even speaking to him at all.

‘Oh, yeah, thanks,’ Merlin said gratefully, collecting himself enough to shake the proffered hand.

Lancelot, who was sitting in between Leon and Merlin, had been watching the group still waiting to be sorted, but turned to Merlin after Leon had returned to his group of friends. ‘I didn’t have a chance to introduce myself before, on the train. You were with that girl, right? I’m Lancelot, but my friends call me Lance,’ he said, shaking Merlin’s hand as well.

Merlin blinked at the boy’s very wide, very white smile. ‘Er,’ he said eloquently. Lance had olive skin and big, brown eyes, and though his hair looked like it was in need of a cut, it was very shiny, reflecting the light of the candles – which Merlin only just now noticed were floating in mid-air. ‘Yeah,’ he managed finally, smiling as he focused his attention back on Lance. ‘I mean, hello.’

Their eyes were drawn to the high table again, where Merlin noticed that Morgana’s sister Morgause had now donned the hat. When it immediately called out, ‘Slytherin!’ Morgause didn’t seem to be surprised at all; she removed the hat gracefully, and shared a smug smile with Morgana before sauntering off towards the Slytherin table.

Another boy, ‘Green, Gwaine,’ soon joined Merlin and Lance at the Gryffindor table. Gwaine’s hair was even longer than Lance’s, but less well kempt, and he was grinning like a Cheshire cat as he sat down next to Merlin, introducing himself to them both. So far, Merlin was overwhelmed by how nice everyone was being – for the first time in his life, he didn’t feel like an outsider; he was simply treated as just another new student. It was a nice feeling.

The Ravenclaw table cheered as a tall, dark-skinned boy named Jack Lynn was sorted into their House. When he reached the table, an older girl who might have been his sister rushed out of her seat to hug him.

The next name Professor McGonagall called was, ‘Malfoy, Lucius.’ Merlin saw the platinum blonde boy from earlier step forward, after exchanging a nod with the other boy, the rude one.

Lucius Malfoy was sorted into Slytherin, and swaggered across the hall with a smile as smug as Morgause’s had been, and Merlin saw him exchange greetings with several students as he took his place next to her.

A pretty girl named Mithian Nemeth went to Ravenclaw, sitting down between her fellow first-years Freya Brook and Jack Lynn, who both greeted her politely.

Next up was a petite blonde girl, ‘Olsson, Vivian,’ who became a Gryffindor – Merlin noted that some of the older boys wolf-whistled as she sauntered towards their table, a little smirk on her face.

‘Owens, Percival’ was called forward next. A tiny blonde boy even smaller than Vivian stepped timidly up to the hat, picking it up and putting it on. He was so small, the brim almost reached his chin. After a short pause the hat called out, ‘Gryffindor!’ and Merlin clapped along with the others as Percival joined them, looking around with big, wide blue eyes.

‘Um, can I sit here?’ he squeaked, jumping up to sit in between Merlin and Gwaine, tiny legs dangling about five inches off the floor.

‘Sure,’ Merlin smiled, ‘I’m—’

But just then, McGonagall called out ‘Pendragon, Arthur,’ and Merlin trailed off as his eyes were drawn as if by magnets back up to the (much smaller) crowd of students still waiting to be sorted.

The blonde boy stepped forwards. Merlin couldn’t see his face, but his back was straight and his head was held high as he walked towards the hat with a sure stride.

Pendragon, he thought. He must be related to Morgana! Merlin never would have guessed; they looked nothing alike.

As Arthur Pendragon placed the hat on his head and sat down on the chair, waiting, Merlin realised something else: he wasn’t the only one who had ceased conversation when this boy’s name was called. In fact, the hall was suddenly almost completely silent, and every head seemed to be turned towards the chair where Arthur was still sitting, waiting for the hat’s judgement.

What’s so special about Arthur Pendragon? Merlin thought, annoyed. He’s just a rude, spoiled… well, alright, so Merlin had only met him about an hour ago. But he hadn’t made a good first impression at all.

The silence stretched. Someone coughed. A few students at the Gryffindor table began to whisper, and Merlin caught snippets of conversation:

That’s Arthur Pendragon?’

‘It is him, isn’t it?’

‘Pendragon’s son, yeah, it must be!’

‘I can’t believe he’s here.’

Even as he listened to the other students, trying to make sense of what he was hearing, Merlin didn’t take his eyes off Arthur. The hat was covering his eyes, but Merlin could see the boy’s jaw move furiously, as though he was trying to prevent himself speaking out loud, just as Merlin had done.

The chatter slowly died down, and the silence stretched. Just as the students were beginning to fidget (even a few of the teachers had begun to look around) and Merlin started to wonder if the hat might just not shout out a House at all –-

GRYFFINDOR!

The word seemed to ring even louder in the suffocating silence, and after the hat had finished, there was a brief moment where no one moved – then Merlin saw Leon bring his hands together, clapping hesitantly, and a moment later, most of the Gryffindor students had joined in, although they were sharing confused looks and whispering more intensely now.

Merlin clapped politely, too, wondering why everyone seemed so bewildered by Arthur’s sorting.

Meanwhile, Arthur had removed the hat from his head, and Merlin was surprised to see that he had gone almost completely white – his expression was neutral, but he was pale as a sheet, and for a moment, Merlin worried that he might pass out flat. But Arthur simply walked, with the same straight back and high head as before, to the Gryffindor table, sitting himself down at the very end of the bench, facing the teachers’ table and the remaining unsorted first-years.

Then, as though reminding everyone that there were still students left to be sorted, Professor McGonagall cleared her throat pointedly before reading, ‘Pendragon, Morgana’ off her list.

Morgana, Merlin noted, was almost as pale as her brother when she stepped up to the hat. She did not meet anyone’s eyes before placing it on her head, but when Merlin glanced around, he saw that both Arthur and Morgause were watching her intently from their respective House tables.

‘Morgana Pendragon,’ Merlin heard someone whisper, ‘that must be the sister.’

Once again, the hat took a while to ponder its choice. Not as long as with Arthur, but long enough that Merlin had time to realise how tough this must be for Morgana. She now had a sibling in both Slytherin and Gryffindor, and no matter what, she’d be pushed towards one and away from another. Unless, of course, she ended up in Hufflepuff or Ravenclaw.

Suddenly, separating the students up into Houses didn’t seem like such a great idea to Merlin at all.

Then, the brim of the hat opened, and Merlin’s heart sank – somehow, he thought he knew what Morgana’s house would be before the hat had even spoken the word.

Slytherin!

Merlin’s eyes went to Arthur automatically, but once again there was nothing but a straight back and a proud, blond head, expression unreadable.

He looked back to see Morgana removing the hat, and he could suddenly see the family resemblance between the Pendragons clear as day; the same expressionless mask as he’d seen on Arthur a moment ago was firmly in place on her face as she walked, without meeting anyone’s eyes, to the Slytherin table. She sat down next to Morgause, who was actually smiling (the first smile Merlin had seen her give), but Morgana did not acknowledge Morgause in any way, or even seem to hear any of her sister’s whispered words.

Merlin wasn’t sure why – he hardly knew any of them, after all – but this entire situation made him feel a little sad.

Without him really realising, his eyes had strayed to Arthur again, and he found himself wondering what was going through the other boy’s head. Merlin didn’t have siblings, but he knew enough about being the one left out that he knew it couldn’t feel good to be Arthur right now.

While he was busy thinking about Arthur and his sister, Merlin vaguely noted that a plump boy, ‘Seward, Tyr,’ became a Hufflepuff.

And then it was Gwen’s turn. She was one of the last few students left, standing next to a short girl with dirty blonde hair, and Merlin saw her inhale sharply when McGonagall called, ‘Smith, Guinevere.’

Gryffindor, Merlin thought pleadingly, Gryffindor, Gryffindor. He looked to Arthur again; Arthur, whose sister had been sorted into Slytherin. Merlin had only known Gwen for a day, but he already knew he wanted her by his side in this new and scary place. Gryffindor, please, Gryffindor.

And sure enough. ‘Gryffindor!’ was called after only a short pause, and Merlin let out a relieved breath he hadn’t even realised he’d been holding in.

As Gwen approached the table, heading straight for him and smiling widely, Merlin actually rose from his seat to applaud her, not caring what anyone else might say. Next to him, he noticed that Lance was also clapping rather enthusiastically.

‘We did it!’ Merlin exclaimed, forgetting Arthur Pendragon completely in his excitement. ‘We’re in the same House!’

‘Thank goodness!’ Gwen exclaimed, squeezing herself in between Merlin and Percival. ‘The hat seriously considered putting me in Hufflepuff, but I really wanted to be in the same House as you. I’m glad it chose Gryffindor!’

‘You should be, Gryffindor’s the best House!’ an older student with bright red hair called to her from further down the table, and a few other students around him hooted their approval. Gwen ducked her head shyly, but she was still grinning.

And as ‘Tirmore, Sophia’ became a Slytherin, Merlin looked around at Gwen, Lance, Gwaine, Leon and Percy… and thought that the older student just might be right.

Chapter Text

As the final student took her seat at the Slytherin table, the elderly man sitting in the center of the head table got to his feet. He had a long, ginger beard streaked with grey, and small half-moon spectacles perched on his nose.

The man’s robes were bright purple and had yellow stars on them, a combination which clashed brilliantly with his hair and beard. Out of all the witches and wizards Merlin had seen so far, he was the one who looked the most like the ones he’d seen in storybooks. His chair, Merlin now noticed, was very ornate; it looked almost like a throne, and Merlin’s first fleeting thought was that this man was some sort of king, and this was his castle. But that would be silly, obviously he must be the Headmaster of the school.

The man stretched out his arms widely, as though trying to embrace the whole hall at once. ‘Welcome, and welcome back,’ he proclaimed, in a voice that spoke of strength and youth, despite the fact that he must be at least seventy years old. ‘Another year, and another adventure awaits. But before you scamper off to the land of dreams, eager as I’m sure you are to sleep and begin nourishing your minds with new knowledge –’ he paused, and several students giggled, although Merlin noticed that the Ravenclaws all seemed to sit up a little straighter, ‘- I know you must first nourish your bodies. So without further ado, let me stop occupying your ears with pointless chatter, so that you may instead occupy your mouths with the best that Hogwarts has to offer: the food.’

As the old man finished, there was an elated cheer from the students as mounds of food appeared out of nowhere on the tables, filling up the empty trays and bowls; the smells were overwhelming and made Merlin’s mouth water as he realised just how hungry he was.

Magic,’ Gwen muttered, shaking her head and looking around in amazement, ‘I’ll never get used to this.’

For his part, Merlin was delighted with the display; the more magic he saw, the happier he seemed to be, like he was being filled up with something he hadn’t even realised was missing.

He took his cue from the students around him, who had eagerly begun filling up their plates with the delicious-looking dishes. He went for the roasted potatoes first, drenching them with a thick brown sauce, and sliced off a generous piece of the nearest meatloaf. After a beat he added a small helping of mushy peas, knowing that his mum would be proud that he remembered to eat his greens.

It all tasted amazing – even the peas. For a few minutes, the hall was filled nothing but the clinking of knives and forks on porcelain, and it took an embarrassingly short amount of time before Merlin had cleared his plate and was reaching for seconds.

After his second helping, Merlin began to feel sated enough to start paying attention to his surroundings again, and his eyes returned to the head table, where the teachers were talking quietly amongst themselves.

‘So who is that man? The one with the purple robes?’’ Merlin leaned across the table to ask Leon, who was spooning up a thick, golden soup that smelled heavenly.

Leon looked up from his food and grinned. ‘Oh, him? That’s Professor Dumbledore, he’s the Headmaster. He’s brilliant, and apparently much better than the old one, Dippet? My dad told me about him, he was really getting on by the end. Dumbledore’s only been Headmaster for a few years, but people are already saying he’s one of the best there ever was.’

‘So you’re a pure-blood then?’ Merlin asked, eager to show that he already knew the terms.

‘No,’ Leon shook his head, ‘well, not really. Both my parents are Muggle-born, they met here at Hogwarts. I always say I got the best of both worlds, growing up with both Muggle and magical traditions. How about you?’

‘Half-blood, technically,’ Merlin shrugged. ‘But then, I never knew my dad, so I might as well be a Muggle-born.’ He couldn’t help the slight trace of bitterness that laced his words. There’d been a whole world out there, one that he would one day be a part of, and he’d never even known.

On his other side, Gwen shifted awkwardly.

‘Oh, Gwen, no, I didn’t mean…’ Merlin sighed. ‘It’s not that being a Muggle is bad. I’d just like to have known him, that’s all. Known about all this.’

Gwen shook her head quickly, giving him a reassuring smile. ‘It’s fine, I understand. I just… I know how you feel, I suppose. It’s all very overwhelming here because it’s all so new, for all of us. But everyone who’s grown up with wizards, they’ve all got a leg up on us, haven’t they?'

On Merlin’s other side, Lance leaned in to join the conversation, glancing at Gwen as he swallowed down the piece of broccoli he’d been chewing. ‘Nothing wrong with Muggle-borns. I’m half-blood, and my mum says the Muggle-borns usually end up doing better in their first year because they work harder to catch up.’

Merlin glanced at Gwen, and saw that she was trying to hide a smile behind her glass of pumpkin juice. He decided that he really liked Lance and Leon, who seemed to have no problem answering what must seem like really stupid questions to them.

Just then, as he was reaching for another small helping of peas (just because he felt like he should), the remaining food vanished before his eyes. He heard a few students begin to voice their dismay, only to gasp in surprise when a wide variety of desserts appeared on the tables instead. Merlin saw ice creams and cakes in all sorts of colours, fruits he’d never seen before, shortbreads and biscuits, cheeses and crackers, and bowls of custard and creams to go along with it all.

‘Jammie Dodgers!’ Gwen exclaimed happily, helping herself to a handful. Merlin couldn’t help but laugh at her relief at finding something familiar in this sea of new and strange things.

As the puddings disappeared about half an hour later (just when Merlin felt as if he’d explode if he ate another bite), Professor Dumbledore got back on his feet, and the Great Hall fell silent once more.

‘Now that you have satisfied your stomachs and are more likely to pay attention, I have a few start-of-term announcements to make,’ he said, eyes scanning the hall as if he could whittle out the troublemakers by sight alone. ‘First-years, note that the forest at the edge of the grounds is forbidden to all students. Likewise, our caretaker Mr Pringle has asked me to remind you that if he finds anyone wandering the halls after curfew without express permission, there will be… dire consequences.’

Dumbledore’s voice had dropped on the last few words, and he frowned slightly under his beard as he looked towards a stooped, grim-looking elderly man standing off to the side of the room, in a dark corner, his face in shadows. Merlin noted that the expressions of the older students had darkened, too, and shuddered; Mr Pringle did not look like a man he wanted to cross.

Just then, Dumbledore continued, in a somewhat brighter tone, ‘Quidditch trials will be held in the second week of term, and are open to second-years and above. Third-year students, notices detailing your visits to Hogsmeade will be put in your Common Rooms, but please remember that you need the signed form of a parent or guardian to go.’

‘Oh, I can’t wait to go to Hogsmeade,’ Merlin heard Gwaine whisper to Percy. ‘I can’t believe they don’t let us to go ‘til third year!’

‘And finally, before I release you to the sweet land of feathers and downs,’ Dumbledore continued, ‘I have a surprise for you all!’ He clapped his hands together. ‘Please join me in singing what from this year on will be our new school song! It is of my own invention, with the help of the Sorting Hat, of course. I am afraid I accidentally occupied his mind all summer, but I am sure you will forgive the lack of a sorting song this year when you hear our masterpiece.’

Merlin noticed that a few of the teachers – including Professor McGonagall, who had taken the seat next to the Headmaster’s chair after the first-years had been sorted – shifted uncomfortably in their seats as Dumbledore took out his wand and waved it in the air.

A ribbon appeared out of nowhere, and began twisting itself before their eyes to form a string of words. As Merlin began reading them he sniggered, and so did many of the other students; a few outright laughed. But it did not seem a cruel laugh at all – in fact, Merlin was beginning to suspect that he’d find very few people who did not like Professor Dumbledore.

‘Off we go then, everybody,’ Dumbledore announced, clapping his hands together, ‘one, two—’

‘Wait!’ one of the older students, a Slytherin girl with long dark hair, waved her hand in the air to get Dumbledore’s attention, ‘what’s the melody, Professor?’

Dumbledore paused for a moment, frowning. ‘Oh,’ he said, sounding dejected, ‘I knew I had forgotten something. Thank you, Andromeda. Hmm, how about everyone just pick their favourite tune, and we go from there?’ He did not wait for an answer, and simply counted, ‘One, two, three!’ and they were off.

This, Merlin realised as he sat between Lance and Gwen, singing along tunelessly to a nonsense song his new Headmaster had made up, was definitely the happiest he’d ever been.

★☆~~~~~~~☆★

After the song had ended, Dumbledore made good on his promise and sent the students to bed. The Gryffindors were led out of the Great Hall by one of the Gryffindor Prefects, a fifth-year boy named Matthew.

Merlin somehow got separated from Gwen, and ended up walking next to Gwaine, down a long stone corridor with large arched windows overlooking the dark grounds below.

‘So, I hear ye’ grew up with Muggles,’ Gwaine said in his thick Irish accent, pushing his long dark hair out of his eyes and giving Merlin a curious, lopsided smile. ‘What was that like?’

Merlin shrugged. ‘I dunno. Normal, I suppose. Boring.’

Gwaine laughed. ‘Normal? Please, with all your bizarre devices? D’you have, what’sit, a telephone? And what about this tele-vision device everyone’s talkin’ about, does it really trap goblins and make ‘em dance? Because that just seems cruel.’ He shook his head, looking forlorn.

Merlin gaped. ‘Are you serious? You really don’t know what a television is?’

‘I grew up in a wizarding family, didn’t I?’ Gwaine said, throwing out his hands as though this explained everything. ‘Why would we need to trap goblins?’

‘I- it doesn’t- I don’t--’ Merlin shook his head, completely lost for words. He was starting to realise that wizards lived very differently from Muggles, but he’d never have expected that Muggle life would be as foreign to wizards as their lives were to him.

‘He’s just teasing you,’ Leon laughed, coming up to walk next to Gwaine as they rounded a corridor and found themselves ascending yet another staircase. ‘You know what a television is!’ he added to Gwaine, knocking his arm with an elbow.

Gwaine rolled his eyes. ‘You always gotta spoil me’ fun, Knight.’

‘Don’t mind Gwaine, he’s always been like this,’ Leon said, leaning across Gwaine to talk to Merlin as they walked. ‘I don’t think he’s ever actually spoken to a Muggle before. I’m sure the novelty will wear off.’

‘Oh, so he’ll just start teasing me about other things?’

‘You got it in one!’ Leon grinned, ignoring Gwaine’s protests. ‘Anyway, he’s been over to my house loads of times, and my parents like to hold on to some of their Muggle traditions.’

Merlin opened his mouth to reply, but then the tiny boy called Percy elbowed his way in between him and Gwaine, looking up at them with big, frightened eyes. ‘Um, I think I saw something,’ he whispered.

‘You mind narrowing that down for us, pipsqueak?’ Gwaine asked, raising an eyebrow. Gwaine wasn’t as tall as Merlin, but he was still a good head taller than Percy.

Percy flushed. ‘It’s… I think it was… AHH!’

The boy jumped about a foot in the air, and a moment later Merlin saw why: right in front of them, a pearly white, translucent figure had appeared, floating in mid-air and studying them curiously.

‘Is that a ghost?!’ Merlin gasped, stopping dead in his tracks, causing whoever was walking behind him to bump into his back.

‘Oh for Merlin’s sake, not again!’ the person exclaimed; several people laughed. Merlin turned and met Arthur’s eyes, which widened upon realizing who he was, and then narrowed to stare daggers at him as though all of this was somehow Merlin’s fault.

‘Well,’ Gwaine said, penetrating the awkward silence, ‘guess we can’t use that phrase anymore.’

Arthur rolled his eyes, ignoring Gwaine. ‘Yes, Emrys, it’s a ghost. Ghosts are real. Now can you please move so we can all get to our beds?’

Merlin opened his mouth, then closed it, looking between Arthur and what he still couldn’t quite believe was the ghost of what looked like a medieval friar.

The friar cocked his head, watching Merlin and Arthur’s exchange. ‘Huh,’ he said. And then, with a pop, he was gone.

‘I… er,’ Merlin said, turning back to Arthur, ‘sorry. Why don’t you go ahead?’ And he stepped to the side, allowing for Arthur to move past them. He did, with a final scowl in Merlin’s general direction.

‘What’s with him?’ Percy asked quietly; he seemed to have recovered from his initial shock at seeing his first ghost.

Merlin shook his head. ‘I wish I knew.’

‘Wait, that’s Arthur Pendragon, isn’t it?’ Leon asked, as they all turned to watch Arthur stalking down the corridor, following behind at a slower pace. ‘Uther Pendragon’s son?’

‘Who’s Uther Pendragon?’ Percy squeaked, almost trotting to keep up with them on his short legs.

‘Used to be Minister for Magic,’ Leon shrugged. ‘Got kicked out of office a few years back, some shady illegal trading or something like that, I heard my parents talking about it. Of course they were all excited, because the new Minister is Muggle-born like them.’

‘The first,’ Gwaine added, nodding.

‘So… what happened to Uther Pendragon, then?’ Merlin asked, eyes still on Arthur’s back.

‘Dunno. Went back to whatever he was doing before, I guess,’ Leon said. ‘I do know he was pushing hard for his children to be sorted into Slytherin though, that’s apparently where all the Pendragons have gone in the past. He probably won’t be very happy when he finds out that Arthur ended up in Gryffindor.’

‘I’ll say,’ Gwaine said darkly. ‘The Pendragons don’t live too far from us, up in this big mansion protected by all these anti-Muggle wards. They don’t want anythin’ to do with us, either, because we’re all Gryffindors.’ He seemed to walk a little taller at that, and Merlin couldn’t help but wonder how Gwaine would have reacted if the hat had put him in Slytherin rather than Gryffindor. Probably not too differently from how Arthur was reacting right now.

They were the last to catch up with the group when they finally stopped, in front of a large portrait of a sleeping woman in a pink dress.

When the lady in the painting opened her eyes and asked the prefect for a password, Merlin was getting so tired, he couldn’t even muster up the strength to be surprised, although he did see both Gwen and Percy’s mouths drop open in shock.

‘Hinkypunk,’ Matthew declared, and the portrait swung aside by itself, revealing a large round hole in the wall.

Matthew let all the students clamber through (Percy was so small, he needed Gwaine to hoist him up) before following along. Merlin climbed through after Gwen, and found himself in a cozy-looking circular room with plush armchairs, several large tables, and a roaring fire. A few older students were sitting in front of the fireplace, playing some kind of card game, and a white cat was curled up on a sofa.

‘Welcome to the Gryffindor common room,’ Matthew smiled. ‘Girls’ dormitories are up the stairs to your right, boys’ on the left.’

Next to him, Gwen pushed her hair behind her ear, looking around at the group of boys that were still hanging back waiting for Merlin.

‘Oh, this is Gwen,’ Merlin said, turning to Gwaine, Lance and Percy. ‘She’s… my friend.’

Gwen’s smile widened at his words. ‘Hi, nice to meet you all.’

‘Pleasure,’ Gwaine nodded, and Lance smiled, giving an awkward little wave.

‘So, um, I’ll see you tomorrow for breakfast, right?’ Gwen asked, turning back to Merlin. ‘Unless you’d rather…?’ she glanced towards the boys.

Merlin shook his head, smiling. ‘Let’s meet in the common room and walk down together. You can help me make sure I don’t get lost.’

‘Great! I’ll see you tomorrow then,’ Gwen exclaimed, before bounding off towards her own dormitory, a new spring in her step.

‘Oooh,’ Gwaine batted his eyelashes at Merlin as soon as Gwen was out of earshot, bringing his hands up to his face dramatically, ‘is that your girlfriend, Merlin?’

‘Shut up, she is not, ’ Merlin muttered, ears reddening. He pushed past the boys, who roared with laughter all the way up the staircase.

When they entered the first-year boys’ dormitory, Merlin saw that his trunk was indeed already there like Matthew had said, sitting in front of one of the five four-poster beds aligning the circular wall.

Gwaine took the bed on the right of Merlin’s; the curtains were already drawn on the bed to the left, and Merlin realised that that one must be Arthur’s, as he’d come up here ahead of them.

He remembered what Leon had told him earlier about Arthur’s father, and felt a little bad for not having made an effort to speak to Arthur after their unfortunate encounter earlier by the boats. But it wasn’t his fault that Arthur had been so rude to him. And besides, he was sure it’d all be forgotten by tomorrow anyway.

Everyone was so tired by now, they immediately got ready for bed in silence. Merlin pulled the thick maroon curtains closed on his four-poster and lay back, staring into the darkness. As the room slowly filled with the sounds of the four other boys’ heavy breathing (and in Gwaine’s instance, light snoring), he wondered what tomorrow would bring.

Merlin’s last thoughts before drifting off to sleep were of the Sorting Hat, and the words it had spoken to him in the darkness:

The dragon roars within; faintly still, but I hear it now. Listen closely when it calls you, and do not hesitate.

He dreamed of roaring fires and white cats that grew wings and flew upwards, up and away, disappearing across a vast lake reflecting the bright yellow stars of the purple night sky above.

★☆~~~~~~~☆★

Merlin came down to the common room the next morning, yawning and stretching, to find Gwen already there, talking to Lance.

‘Merlin!’ Gwen called, breaking away from Lance mid-sentence in her rush to greet him. ‘Oh, your tie!’ she tutted, reaching up and straightening it before he’d as much as said good morning. ‘I used to do this for my dad all the time. There, it looks good. Red suits you.’ She stepped back, admiring her work.

‘Hey there, Merlin,’ Lance smiled, stepping up next to Gwen.

‘Morning, Lance. You want to walk down to breakfast with us?’ Merlin asked.

Lance grimaced. ‘I wish I could, but I told Gwaine and Percy I’d wait for them. I was just keeping Gwen company until you arrived.’

‘Well… see you later, then,’ Gwen said, waving at Lance. ‘Shall we, Merlin?’

Merlin had no choice but to follow Gwen, giving Lance an apologetic shrug as he passed. But Lance was too busy looking after Gwen to notice.

‘Lance seems nice,’ Merlin remarked after they’d clambered out the portrait hole and began retracing their path from last night.

‘Yeah, I suppose,’ Gwen shrugged. ‘It was nice of him to answer all my questions about the magical world, anyway. It’ll be nice for us to have someone around we can ask about those things.’

Merlin was pretty sure that Lance’s interest in Gwen didn’t just come from a desire to teach her about wizarding customs, but he thought he should probably keep that observation to himself.

‘So, are you happy with the House?’ Gwen asked as they walked down a staircase. Merlin didn’t answer right away; he’d been distracted by a pair of kittens rolling around with a ball of yarn in a painting on the wall. As he watched, the kittens rolled all the way out of the frame, only to reappear in the next painting over, where an elderly lady was knitting in a rocking-chair. When she noticed him watching, she shook her head indulgently, smiling.

‘I think so,’ Merlin said, tearing his gaze away. ‘I mean, most of the other Gryffindors we’ve met so far seem nice. And Gryffindor is supposed to be about bravery and stuff, right? Can’t be all bad.’

‘I like it,’ Gwen smiled. ‘And my dorm-mates are great. Well, I only actually spoke to Elena, but she’s a Muggle-born like me, so we had a lot to talk about.’

They’d emerged on the landing, but although Merlin was certain they’d gone up that staircase last night, this corridor did not look familiar at all. ‘Um, I’m not sure this is right,’ he said, looking around.

‘What? Oh, but of course!’ Gwen palmed her forehead. ‘The staircases change sometimes! Lance did tell me this.'

‘They change?! How on earth—’ Merlin stopped himself, shaking his head. ‘Never mind. How do we find the Great Hall then?’

‘I don’t know, maybe we should—’

Lossssst, are we?’ a grainy voice spoke, and Gwen and Merlin jumped, turning to see the caretaker, Mr Pringle, hobbling towards them down the corridor. As he approached, Merlin saw that his teeth – the ones he had left, anyway – were all dark and rotting, and his skin was the colour of ash. His eyes were pits of grey so pale they were almost white, set in deep, sunken pits.

‘Um,’ Merlin said, ‘no, we were just—’

‘You’re first-years,’ Pringle interrupted, so close now that Merlin could smell his foul breath, and fought the urge to recoil. ‘Of course you’re lost. And now, I’ve found you.’ He leaned in even further, and leered at Gwen, who tilted backwards so far, Merlin had to grab her arm to make sure she didn’t fall over.

Merlin gulped, thinking of a way to assure the creepy caretaker that they really did not need his help, when a new voice, high and melodic in a complete contrast to Pringle’s, called out, ‘Pringle! Not terrorizing first-years again, are we?’

Pringle jumped and turned, as a beautiful young woman Merlin vaguely remembered seeing at the teachers’ table last night strode down the corridor towards them with long, sure steps, eyes flashing dangerously in Pringle’s direction.

‘No, of course not, Professor Numair. I was simply showing them the way,’ Pringle said in his hoarse voice, trying for what was probably meant to look like a friendly smile, but which came out more like a frightening grimace.

The woman, who must be Professor Numair, shook her head. Her beautiful face was set into stern features, which made her look almost like Professor McGonagall for a moment. ‘I hope so. Because mark my words, Pringle, Dumbledore won’t see through his fingers with you much longer. Dippet’s time is done, and things are changing around here.’

Pringle’s grotesque imitation of a smile had melted away into a much more appropriate scowl, and with one final, almost regretful look at Merlin and Gwen, he slinked away down the corridor.

‘Thanks,’ Merlin said gratefully, turning back towards the witch.

Numair shrugged, her expression clearing as she turned back to the two first-years. Her hair was black as night and her eyes were a clear, deep blue. ‘I did nothing, really. Pringle couldn’t possibly have found anything to fault you with. But he likes to trick new students into doing something wrong just so he can then hold them accountable for their wrongdoings, I’ve seen him at it.’

Gwen shuddered. ‘He sounds horrible!’

‘He is horrible,’ the Professor agreed, nodding grimly. ‘But he was employed by Dippet. As much as he might want to, Dumbledore can’t just dismiss him without concrete cause, it doesn’t work like that.’

Merlin frowned. ‘How do you know all that? Who are you, anyway?’ Despite her young age, the teacher seemed to emit a certain authority that surprised him. And the way she spoke so openly about her dislike of a colleague… he wasn’t sure whether he should feel scandalised or impressed.

The woman looked at Merlin, smiling. ‘I’m Nimueh Numair, the Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher. I believe we will be meeting each other officially tomorrow for our first lesson.’ She arched an eyebrow conspiratorially, as though they were sharing a private joke, and much to his embarrassment Merlin found himself blushing. Next to him, Gwen coughed pointedly.

‘Could you show us the way to the Great Hall, Professor? We’re going to be late for breakfast,’ she said.

‘Of course,’ Numair said, indicating her head in Gwen’s direction, eyes still on Merlin. ‘I still remember what it was like being a first-year myself, but I promise that these corridors will be easier to manoeuvre once you get to know the castle.’

Getting to know the castle, Merlin liked the sound of that. The way Professor Numair spoke about it, and how the staircases moved; it was almost as if it were alive.

‘Thank you again, Professor,’ he said, as they fell into step next to the tall witch.

‘Don’t mention it, Mr Emrys,’ she said kindly, touching his shoulder. Her eyes were very, very blue, looking into his own.

‘But Professor, we didn’t tell you our names,’ Gwen said, on the other side of Numair, and when Merlin managed to wrench his eyes away from the teacher’s face he saw that Gwen was frowning.

Numair laughed a tinkling laugh, shaking back her long, flowing dark hair. ‘I was at your Sorting, Miss Smith, and you are to be my students. Don’t you think I do my research?’

She winked at Merlin and he couldn’t help but grin back at this kind woman, suddenly convinced that Defence Against the Dark Arts was going to be his favourite class.

★☆~~~~~~~☆★

‘She’s very nice, isn’t she?’ Merlin said absently, gazing up at the teachers’ table where Professor Numair was engaged in conversation with a large, elderly man with a walrus moustache, who guffawed happily at something she said.

Gwen huffed as she reached for the toast. ‘You would say that,’ she grumbled, but Merlin didn’t have a chance to ask her what she meant by that before the other first-year Gryffindor boys came storming into the Hall as if they were being chased by a ghost (which, for all Merlin knew, they might be).

‘We didn’t miss it, did we?’ Gwaine asked, breathless, throwing himself down next to Gwen and grabbing the plate of toast out of her hands and shoving a full piece into his mouth. ‘Fanf Merfin,’ he exclaimed blissfully through bits of bread; Gwen scrunched up her nose and moved closer to Merlin to put some distance between herself and the reckless chewing.

‘We thought we’d be too late and the food would already be gone like last night!’ little Percy piped up as he took the plate from Gwaine. ‘This castle is a maze!’ He took a piece of bread and passed the plate to Lance, who tried to offer it back to Gwen, but she was resolutely looking away from them all and carefully chewing her own piece.

Merlin looked around their group, frowning. ‘Where’s Arthur?’ he asked. The boy had been in such a foul mood last night, but he’d hoped that a good night’s sleep would help him get over that; he’d assumed he’d be walking down to breakfast with the other Gryffindor boys.

Gwaine shrugged, spreading marmalade on his second piece of toast and reaching for the cheese. ‘Dunno. We waited for him for ages, only to realise that he’d already gone.’

Merlin scanned the hall, and sure enough – two tables over, Arthur was standing off to the side of the Slytherin table, waving what looked like a letter around while engaged in what looked to be a heated argument with his sister Morgana, who was sitting next to Morgause Gorlois. As Merlin looked, Arthur happened to glance up and catch his eye – and his expression hardened. Merlin quickly diverted his gaze.

It’s none of my business, he told himself firmly. With all the wonders of Hogwarts, he wasn’t sure why he was even spending time thinking about Arthur Pendragon at all, but he couldn’t help it. He resolved to try and talk to the other boy as soon as he could, and hopefully convince him that he didn’t have to be friendless here.

‘Well, just in time, weren’t we?!’ Gwaine exclaimed in dismay, and Merlin looked down to realise that all the plates had cleared right in front of them. ‘That’s gonna get annoying real fast, I tell ya.’

Merlin snorted. ‘Well then, we should probably hurry up and find our way to our first class, shouldn’t we?’

‘Charms!’ Gwen exclaimed, more happy now that she was in no danger of being sprayed with bits of soppy bread, ‘I’m so excited to start learning spells!’

Merlin caught Gwaine’s eye behind Gwen’s back; Gwaine rolled his eyes and Merlin fought back a grin as he hurried up to follow Gwen.

He threw one last look behind him, intending to see if Arthur was trying to catch up with them, but instead found himself locking eyes with the Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, who was looking right at him.

Those eyes really are astonishingly blue, he thought dazedly, vaguely aware that he had forgotten to move and follow the others out of the Great Hall, but unwilling to let go of Nimueh Numair’s gaze.

‘Merlin, come on!’ it was Gwen, pulling on his arm; he looked down at her in confusion for a moment before realising where he was, and where he was meant to be going.

‘Right, yeah, sorry,’ he mumbled. When he looked back at the high table, Professor Numair was already up and out of her seat, no longer looking his way.

★☆~~~~~~~☆★

The Charms professor was a tiny man called Professor Flitwick, who had to stand on a stack of books to reach his desk.

But if anyone should be tempted to think that this made him weak in any way, that notion was quickly dispelled when they noticed the giant trophy sitting in a display case, which read: Duelling Champion 1962: Filius Flitwick.

‘Yes,’ Flitwick said in a high-pitched, but proud voice, ‘I know you noticed the trophy, but pay it no mind! It is mainly to impress my older students, some of whom did not believe my tale when I first began teaching here at Hogwarts.’ Flitwick smiled wryly, and a few students giggled. ‘None the less, it serves as a nice reminder that size does not matter when it comes to magic, as you shall soon discover,’ the Professor added, eyes lingering on Percy for a moment before continuing to sweep the classroom.

In their first Charms class, Professor Flitwick set them the task of making a feather float above their desks. ‘It is all about the intent,’ their teacher informed them, ‘and when you are more accomplished, the weight of the object will not be as important as it seems now. But to start you off, it is easier with an object that feels light in your mind. Because all you need to do to be able to raise this feather from your desk is to believe that you can do it, and then say the incantation. Everyone go on now, give it a whirl!’

The students all scrambled to produce their wands. Merlin gingerly grasped his own, noting with some disappointment that it did not emit the same warmth as it had the first time he touched it. None the less, it felt strange, this idea that he was holding the key to his magic in his hand.

Under strict instruction from Uncle Gaius, Merlin hadn’t tried to do anything with his wand before coming to Hogwarts. Now, he would have a chance to do magic on his own for the very first time – and a cold panic suddenly swept over him. What if he couldn’t do it? What if whatever magic had brought him to Hogwarts wasn’t enough to actually do spells with? For some reason, it wasn’t the idea that he had magic that felt strange, it was the idea that this tiny stick could somehow help him use it.

‘Wingardium Leviosa,’ Gwen mumbled next to him, swishing and flicking her own wand before her. Nothing happened, and Merlin felt an odd mixture of relief and worry. But when Gwaine did not manage to make his feather as much as shift, either, his stomach began to settle – it seemed like none of the students were having much luck, and perhaps Flitwick didn’t expect them to be able to do this at all on their first try. The teacher certainly did not look worried or put out as he moved about the room, correcting wrist movements and pronunciations.

Right, Merlin told himself, eyes back on his own feather, which was lying in front of him. It’s just a feather. If I really have magic – and I do, that’s why I’m here – this will not be difficult. I can do it. And if he couldn’t, he’d just try again, like Gwen was doing now.

But a strange sort of calm was settling over Merlin as he continued to focus his energy on the feather, and his fingers twitched on the wand. I can do it.

Wingardium Leviosa!’ Merlin cried, pointing his wand at the feather; there was a flash of golden light and he watched in astonishment as his feather not only flew upwards into the air, but also shimmered gold, then started smoking, and suddenly exploded into a million tiny golden particles, raining down over the classroom like confetti at a birthday party.

A stunned silence followed, as the golden glitter continued to fall silently down on the gob-smacked students. Next to him, Gwen was staring at him with wide eyes, her own feather forgotten.

‘Er, very good!’ Professor Flitwick clapped his hands together, breaking the spell; his hair was full of the golden feather bits, and sparkled as he turned his head. ‘Maybe not as, ehm, enthusiastic next time, Mr Emrys, there’s a good lad.’

Merlin’s cheeks reddened; he was caught between feeling proud of his accomplishment, and embarrassed about making such a spectacle.

Around the room, students were beginning to take up the chant again, with more vigour after having seen one of their own actually make it (somehow) work, but Gwen continued to stare at Merlin. ‘Even your eyes shone gold,’ she whispered, shaking her head in awe. Merlin wished she’d stop looking at him like that.

On Gwen’s other side, Gwaine was surreptitiously blowing on his own feather, trying to make it move.

And as Merlin looked beyond Gwaine, he realised that Gwen was not the only one staring at him. Arthur Pendragon was sitting, white as a sheet, looking at Merlin as if he’d seen a ghost.

★☆~~~~~~~☆★

They had the stern Professor McGonagall for Transfiguration, a class they shared with the Hufflepuffs.

The art of transforming one object into another was supposedly very difficult, a fact Merlin and the others quickly discovered was true when they were set the task of turning a piece of yarn into leather string.

This time, the magic did not come as easily to Merlin; where in Charms he had felt a surge of magic spill out of him through the wand, almost like an uncontrollable force, this time it felt like his wand was almost hindering him, acting like a cork in a bottle. It was a strange feeling and he certainly wouldn’t know how to explain it to Professor McGonagall… but then, he supposed that doing magic was going to feel strange for quite some time. Like learning how to swim, or ride a bicycle; his body needed to learn how to move in a whole new way, with this brand new instrument he needed to learn how to tame and wield.

It was Arthur Pendragon who first managed to produce something resembling leather. But by the time class had finished, Merlin’s piece of yarn had at least turned a dark brown, which was more than most of the other first-years could boast; McGonagall nodded her stoic approval at his progress as she came to collect the strings, and Merlin took that as a good sign.

‘I’m rubbish at this!’ Gwen complained as they left the classroom, her piece of yarn only having gotten slightly harder after an hour’s worth of waving her wand above it.

‘You’re not,’ Merlin insisted. ‘Loads of people didn’t make their yarn change today. I don’t think magic’s as simple as just doing it or not, I think there’s loads of stuff to learn before we can just wave our wands and make them do whatever we want them to.’

‘Oh, and you’d know, being such an expert?’ someone snarled in his ear; Merlin jumped, and turned to find Arthur Pendragon walking behind him. ‘Just because you made a feather float doesn’t make you heir to the kingdom, Emrys.’

‘I never said I was.’ Merlin didn’t understand the other boy’s vehemence. They’d hardly spoken at all, but every time they did, Arthur did nothing but insult him.

‘You’re not even supposed to be here,’ Arthur snarled meanly. ‘But I suppose your daddy wasn’t around to tell you that, was he?’

How dare he?! Merlin thought. Next to Merlin, Gwen gasped. But Merlin waved her off; in his growing fury, he had eyes for no one but Arthur.

‘Well at least I don’t need to worry about what House my daddy wanted me to be sorted into,’ Merlin snapped back angrily, watching with a mix of satisfaction and regret as Arthur’s expression turned from anger to something else – something stricken, which was quickly tamed into cold disgust.

‘Merlin!’ Gwen whispered urgently. A few other students had stopped in the corridor to see what was going on; Merlin ignored them all.

Well,’ Arthur parroted, his voice eerily quiet. His eyes were cold, an expression of pure hatred on his face. ‘Maybe he would, if he wasn’t dead.

This time, it wasn’t just Gwen who gasped. Merlin’s eyes narrowed and he hoped he looked as spiteful as Arthur. Fine, he thought. If that’s how you want it, Arthur Pendragon, I’m done trying to be nice to you.

A million comebacks ran through Merlin’s head then. At least my father wasn’t shamed. Illegal tradings, was it? Must feel hard being such a disappointment.

But whatever else Merlin was, he wasn’t going to stoop to Arthur’s level. So all he said was, ‘Maybe you’re right. But whatever he thought of my House, I certainly wouldn’t take my bitterness out on everyone else.’

And with one final look at Arthur’s stricken, furious face, Merlin turned and walked away.

Chapter Text

After lunch, they had Potions with the Ravenclaws. The first-years all walked together from the Great Hall to the dungeons, moving down through dark and dank corridors before emerging in a long, low room with rows and rows of shelves along the walls holding vials full of liquids and other things Merlin tried not to look too closely at.

Gwen had caught up with Merlin shortly after he walked away from Arthur. But to his relief, she hadn’t said anything about what had just happened, seemingly understanding his need to brood.

He didn’t know what Arthur’s problem was. Sure, Arthur was upset about being sorted into Gryffindor, that part was no mystery. But Merlin was sure he didn’t imagine that Arthur’s anger seemed to be mainly directed at him. Your father this and your father that… did Arthur somehow know something about Merlin’s dad that he didn’t? It seemed unlikely. Arthur was probably just thinking about his own father, and transferring those thoughts onto Merlin; he could easily have overheard Merlin telling the others about his father being dead, after all.

Merlin really didn’t want the childish behaviour of his housemate to ruin his first day at Hogwarts though. He had sulked all through lunch while Gwen went to speak to Lance, and in that time he’d decided on two things: one, Arthur Pendragon was a bully, and two, Merlin had spent way too much time thinking about him already. It was a big school, and Arthur was just one boy. If they never spoke another word to each other, it’d be no skin off Merlin’s back.

Merlin followed Gwen to a table near the back of the Potions classroom, while Gwaine and Percy took the one next to theirs. Lance, Arthur, Elena and Vivian took the two in front of them, while the Ravenclaws all paired up at separate tables.

‘Good afternoon, class!’ the balding, round man Merlin had seen speaking to Professor Numair at breakfast boomed as he entered the room, clapping his hands together as he surveyed the gathered students. ‘I am Professor Horace Slughorn, the Potions Master. But of course, some of you know me already! How is your father these days, Miss Olsson?’ He winked at Vivian, who giggled.

‘Oho!’ Slughorn exclaimed, his eyes moving from Vivian to Arthur. ‘And you must be the Pendragon boy, there’s no mistaking that face! You’ve got your mother’s looks, aye, what a waste. Ygraine was such a lovely girl.’ He shook his head in dismay. ‘I heard you and your sister would be joining us this year. I know your father of course, nasty business, yes... but still... I shall hope to see more of you!’

But by the way Arthur’s hands were gripping the desk where Slughorn couldn’t see, Merlin guessed that the sentiment wasn’t reciprocated. Slughorn had already turned back towards the teacher’s desk, however, and didn’t notice.

‘Now, normally I ask my new students to pair up and prepare their first potion together,’ Slughorn said, ‘but this year, I want to try a little experiment I’ve been toying with. I hope you don’t mind being my subjects.’

He paused, looking out across the sea or nervous faces, clearly enjoying having a captive audience.

‘Now, can anyone tell me the properties of the Animus Compativera potion?’ Slughorn clasped his hands behind his formidable backside, his eyes crinkling in a self-satisfied smile.

Silence followed his words, and Slughorn tutted, still smiling widely. He had just opened his mouth to continue, when one of the Ravenclaw girls tentatively raised her hand.

‘Yes, Miss…?’ Slughorn asked, raising an eyebrow.

‘Brook, Sir,’ the girl said, her voice slightly accented though Merlin couldn't place it. Aside from the accent, she spoke so quietly that he subconsciously leaned closer to hear her. ‘Freya Brook.’ Her voice was shaking and her eyes were wide, as though she couldn’t really believe that she had decided to speak up in front of the whole class.

‘Hmmm, not a name I recognise. You a Muggle-born, Miss Brook?’ Slughorn frowned.

‘No, Sir,’ she whispered, eyes widening to almost impossible proportions. ‘I’m a pure-blood, but I was—I was raised—’

‘Never mind that!’ Slughorn’s voice suddenly boomed. ‘Do you know the properties of the Animus Compativera potion or not?’

Merlin thought that was a bit rude, and the girl Freya looked shaken by his abrupt tone, like a frightened animal that had ventured out of the woods and now found itself desperate to retreat back there.

‘Um, well, I know what it means,’ she said. ‘‘Animus Compativera’ means something to the effect of ‘compatible soul,’ Sir, so I assume this potion—’

Slughorn waved his hand at her and she immediately clamped up, sinking into her chair as though hoping it would swallow her whole. ‘Yes, yes, that’s what it means.’ He sighed as though disappointed she knew the answer. ‘I am not surprised none of you know of the potion, however, as it is of my own invention!’

Ah, Merlin thought. He wanted her to get it wrong. That fact annoyed him, but he couldn’t help but be curious none the less.

‘This is a potion I have been working to develop for years!’ Slughorn exclaimed proudly. ‘Not on my own of course, no,’ he chuckled. ‘I have been working with my close friend, the acclaimed potion-maker Libatius Borage. I’m sure some of you will have heard of him!’

Silence followed his words, and Slughorn frowned underneath his walrus moustache. When he continued it was with a bit less vigour than before. ‘We finally completed the potion together over the summer, and to celebrate its certification by the Ministry of Magic, this year, you are all going to learn how to prepare it here at Hogwarts! Now, I want you all to do this in your first class, because one of the many benefits of the Animus Compativera potion is that by comparing them all, we can determine which person in this room is your closest match. Hopefully it’ll all add up nicely, and you will keep your match as your Potions partner for the rest of the year.’

Slughorn beamed at them all, clearly very proud of his invention - but when Merlin glanced around, he was glad to see that he didn’t seem to be the only one a little uncomfortable with this way of being paired up.

‘But it’s only our first day!’ Gwen whispered to him. ‘This sounds really difficult. What if I get it wrong? What if I get someone horrible?’

‘Yeah, but maybe we’ll get each other,’ Merlin smiled, hoping he sounded more reassuring than he felt. Gwen was right, this was a terrifying idea. But they were Gryffindors, wasn’t that supposed to be all about being brave?

Professor Slughorn wrote out the instructions for brewing the Animus Compativera potion on the blackboard, and the students set to work in silence.

Although they were not allowed to help each other because it might skew the results, Merlin did glance over at Gwen's potion several times to try to work out what colour it was going to be. But that didn’t help him at all; her potion seemed to be changing colour all the time, going from red to orange to yellow and back again as she stirred and chopped and mumbled to herself. His own potion was no help; it was still just a putrid brown, and he began to worry that this was actually going to be his colour - surely that couldn't say anything good about his personality.

Focusing solely on his own cauldron now, Merlin carefully ground the nightshade leaves into a fine powder, adding a pinch to his bubbling potion. With the wooden spoon he stirred it three times counter-clockwise, then once clockwise, just as the instructions read... and then he waited.

‘And where are we at over here?’ Slughorn boomed, suddenly standing right behind Merlin. ‘Oho!’ he exclaimed, ‘but this is interesting!’

Merlin grimaced; his potion was now approximately the colour of vomit.

‘Let it simmer, boy, it's still changing,’ Slughorn said more quietly, as if sensing Merlin's concern. He moved on to Gwen, and let out another, more enthusiastic ‘Oho!’

Merlin looked over, and saw that Gwen’s potion had gone smooth, and was no longer bubbling. It had turned a deep, dark red, the colour of rubies.

‘Well, it looks like we have our first match! At least it is very close,’ Slughorn exclaimed. He pointed at the table in front of them, where Arthur and Lance were still bent over their respective potions. ‘That boy’s potion is also red, isn’t it?’

Arthur and Lance both looked round in confusion. Arthur’s eyes swept over Merlin coldly before settling on Gwen’s potion. He nudged Lance (who had been busy looking at Gwen) in the side, and the other boy looked down as well. ‘Oh!’ Lance said, expression brightening. ‘Yeah, they're very close! Mine is a little more postbox red, though,’ he added, shooting an anxious look at Gwen as though worried she might disapprove.

‘Well? Any other reds that come closer?’ Slughorn turned to the room at large, but was only met with a few shrugs.

‘I have pink,’ Vivian offered, eyeing Lance.

‘Mine’s sort of purpley... green... ish,’ a red-haired Ravenclaw boy whose name Merlin thought might be Adam-something piped up.

‘Looks like it’s settled, then! DuLac, you’re with Miss Smith,’ Slughorn said happily. Lance and Gwen caught each other’s eyes and both blushed deeply, matching the shade of their potions. Merlin snorted, which made them both look his way; Merlin quickly averted his gaze, only to catch Arthur’s instead - the other boy had also been quietly laughing at Gwen and Lance, but both their smiles immediately fell away when their eyes met.

Merlin turned back to his cauldron with a scowl. He was happy for Gwen, but his own potion now looked a pale, sickly green. It definitely wasn’t turning any shade of red, which left him solidly without a partner.

Slughorn had moved across the room, and upon discovering another pink potion, he promptly paired Vivian up with Jack Lynn, one of the Ravenclaw boys. This prompted quite a few sniggers from the boys in the room, but Merlin thought Jack looked quite happy with his match.

Gwaine and Percy’s potions, it turned out, were both shades of deep orange, although Gwaine’s was streaked with green. It was still closer to Percy’s than Adam’s though (his was now a dark brown, which Slughorn said might have to be matched with Mithian Nemeth’s midnight blue if they didn’t find anything closer), and Slughorn proclaimed them a pair.

Merlin was just beginning to worry that his potion would never settle on a colour, or that perhaps it’d take so long that he’d just end up with whoever else was left without a partner at the end, when something finally happened.

His potion began to shimmer, and before his eyes the bubbling ceased, and the pale green faded into white, which shone and deepened its shade like bread slowly baking... and before he knew it, his potion had turned the colour of thick, liquid gold. And it wasn’t just golden coloured, either - it seemed to be emitting an actual golden light, which bounced off the sides of the cauldron, making patterns on Merlin’s awe-struck face.

‘Wow,’ he breathed, staring at the potion as if enchanted. The shimmering was mesmerizing; he was sure that none of the others’ potions did that.

He looked up to catch Gwen’s attention, or Slughorn’s, or anyone’s, but he noticed that everyone’s eyes were now on Arthur’s cauldron - which was emanating the exact same golden, shimmering light as his own.

‘Oh, come on,’ Merlin cried, then winced when everyone turned towards him. Arthur’s mouth dropped open incredulously as he looked down at Merlin’s cauldron, then back at his own, then back at Merlin’s again, and finally up at Merlin himself.

Merlin met Arthur’s look unflinchingly, setting his jaw and willing Arthur to comment. Go on, he wanted to say, tell Slughorn you don’t want to play his stupid match-up game. I dare you.

‘Well,’ Slughorn said, voice a little less booming than before. ‘I never... this is quite extraordinary, I have to say.’

‘It’s beautiful,’ Elena breathed, eyes still on Arthur’s potion.

‘What? Yes... quite,’ Slughorn said distractedly, but he was still looking between Merlin and Arthur with a look of mild wonder on his face. But after a moment he shook his head, jovial smile sliding back into place. ‘I think it’s safe to say we won’t find a closer match for either of these two gentlemen than this! So let us just settle this now, yes, Miss Smith, if you would move up here to Mr DuLac... and Mr Pendragon, take Miss Smith’s place... good, very good...’

Arthur and Merlin very carefully did not look at each other as Arthur set his things down next to Merlin’s at their table, both fuming quietly at the unfairness of this entire exercise. So much for staying away from Arthur Pendragon, Merlin thought sullenly.

By the time class was over, all the students had been matched up into pairs, some more closely matching than others (Mithian’s dark blue ended up paired with Elena’s azure, while Freya Brook’s murky green-brown became the closest match for Adam’s brown). As the students began shuffling around the room, cleaning up their cauldrons and potions gear, Arthur and Merlin still had not said a word to each other.

To Merlin’s surprise, it was Arthur who first broke the silence.

‘I still think this was a load of rubbish, you know,’ Arthur grumbled without looking at him, as they both began scraping bits of toad’s eye off their chopping boards.

‘Oh, good, we do agree on something then,’ Merlin quipped, and he thought he saw Arthur’s lip quiver in an almost-smile before it was replaced by the by now familiar scowl.

‘It’s not like this has to matter, anyway. It’s just one class,’ Arthur said after another silence, eyes still stubbornly trained on his chopping board. ‘It’s not like Slughorn was pairing us up for life, or anything.’

What did I ever do to you? Merlin wanted to ask. Instead he said, ‘Thank god for small favours. Who’d want to get stuck with you?’

Arthur’s head finally snapped towards him, and Merlin saw a flash of something that might have been anger or hurt in his eyes - but it was quickly tempered, probably as Arthur realised that Merlin had been (sort of) joking.

‘Right,’ Arthur said wryly. ‘Exactly. Glad we’re on the same page.’

‘Hey Merlin, Arthur,’ Gwaine called from the next table over, ‘congratulations! You went a whole class without killing each other! I think some kind of celebration is in order. What d’you think, Perce?’

‘Oh, yes,’ Percy grinned. ‘I’m thinking... gold medals?’

Gwaine laughed, and Merlin couldn’t help but crack a smile - he saw Arthur fighting to keep a straight face too, but the other boy was back to very carefully avoiding catching Merlin’s eye. Probably didn’t want anyone to think that they were sharing a joke.

It doesn’t matter, Merlin reminded himself. After all, as Arthur said, it’s only one class.

★☆~~~~~~~☆★

Merlin watched Arthur catch up with Gwaine and Percy, while he hung back to walk with Lance and Gwen.

‘Well, that was... interesting,’ Gwen remarked, indicating Arthur’s retreating figure. ‘Of all the people to be paired up with, right?’

Merlin shrugged. ‘It was just a stupid experiment.’

‘Right,’ Gwen said, glancing at Lance. ‘I’m sure it doesn’t mean anything.’

Lance didn’t say anything, and an uneasy silence fell over the little group as they walked to their next class, each lost in their own thoughts.

That night at dinner, Merlin noticed Arthur sitting with Gwaine, Percy and Leon, laughing about something Gwaine had said. The smile really transformed his face; Merlin realised that it was the first time he had seen Arthur look so relaxed.

Well, it looks like it really is only me he doesn’t like, Merlin thought, stabbing at his baked potato and trying not to feel too bitter about it all.

‘Can you believe it?’ Gwen asked suddenly, breaking Merlin out of his gloomy thoughts, ‘our first day at Hogwarts, we made it.’

Merlin smiled weakly; he tried to recall his elated mood from last night, and wondered why, of all the amazing things he had experienced today, it was Arthur’s hate-filled expression he couldn’t shake out of his mind.

Slughorn and his potion-maker friend surely must have made a mistake; there was no way Merlin could ever have something in common with Arthur Pendragon.

Chapter Text

The first-years soon found that there was more to life at Hogwarts than feasts and classes: there was also homework.

Professor McGonagall easily assigned them the most, although they had a staggering amount of reading to do for Defence Against the Dark Arts, too.

But despite the workload, as Merlin had predicted, Defence was easily his favourite class. They shared it with the Slytherins, and if he hadn’t already thought favourably of Professor Numair after she’d saved him and Gwen from Mr Pringle on their first day, he soon discovered another reason to like her: the Pendragons really didn't.

It was not obvious in their first class, nor in their second; Professor Numair simply instructed them as the other teachers did, and she was far more light-hearted and informal than he’d ever known any other teacher to behave in front of their students. She’d even told them with a wink that if they did well in her class, she might let them call her Nimueh.

This attitude naturally meant that she was soon a favourite of most of the students – except Arthur, and more surprisingly, Morgana. Merlin probably wouldn’t have noticed this at all, had he not been so in tune with Arthur’s moods as he was, but once he did notice, both of the Pendragon children’s scowls and narrowed eyes in Numair’s direction were hard to miss.

Still, this in itself would hardly be noteworthy, considering that it was Arthur Pendragon, and however friendly he’d grown with Gwaine and Percy, he was still prone to sulking. It only got uncomfortable when, during one afternoon lesson, the siblings' blatant lack of respect for the young teacher became painfully apparent.

Merlin hadn’t noticed Morgana’s hand go up at first – she sat on the right side of the room, he on the left, and her desk (which she shared with Morgause, of course) was in the row behind his own.

Standing in front of the blackboard facing the class, Professor Numair was in the middle of telling them about the different ways the Ministry of Magic worked to limit the populations of magical species in Britain. So enraptured was Merlin in what she was saying, he hardly noticed anything around him – and it wasn’t until Gwen’s third poke in his arm that he finally looked round, feeling a little dazed.

Gwen said nothing, merely widened her eyes and inclined her head fractionally. Merlin followed the movement with his eyes, and saw it: Morgana had her arm raised stoically in the air, eyes locked on Professor Numair.

Merlin glanced back at Numair, but she just continued speaking, outlining the complicated laws and restrictions placed on some dangerous magical species.

Morgana cleared her throat. At this point, several of the students had turned to watch the dark-haired girl as she continued to sit, back rigid, looking like she was trying to reach the ceiling with her outstretched fingertips. She paid the other students no mind, simply continued to stare at Professor Numair, unblinking.

Arthur sat in front of Morgana, sharing a desk with Lancelot DuLac. Merlin was surprised to see that he wasn’t watching Morgana like most of the rest of the class; rather, he was staring down at his desk as though trying to bore a hole in the wood with his eyes.

Another couple of minutes passed. Then, perhaps realising that none of the students were paying attention to her any longer, Professor Numair finally turned to face Morgana, eyes twinkling oddly for a moment before she spoke.

‘Yes, Miss Pendragon?’ she said, smiling kindly as though Morgana had only just raised her hand.

Morgana’s tone was clipped as she replied, ‘That’s not how it happened.’

Numair blinked, her smile slowly melting into a concerned frown, eyebrows furrowing together. ‘I’m sorry, dear? How what happened, exactly?’

Morgana’s eyes narrowed; next to her, Morgause shifted in her seat, though her expression remained as impassive as ever. ‘The ban,’ Morgana finally said. ‘On experimental breeding. You said the former Minister--’

‘Ah,’ Numair interrupted, her smile now back in place and wider than ever, ‘yes, as I said, the ban on experimental breeding was put into place earlier this year, following a series of complaints made against the former Minister for Magic, Uther—’

‘That’s not what happened,’ Morgana insisted, shaking her head; several students began to whisper, but Morgana ignored them, keeping her eyes locked on Numair. Arthur was still staring down at his desk, his jaw moving furiously. ‘Father says the ban was put into place years after he was Minister, and he hasn't done anything—’

‘Now hold on, Miss Pendragon, I appreciate your concern for your father, but we all know that the truth has not always been… clear-cut, where Uther Pendragon is concerned,’ Numair said, laughing lightly. Merlin saw Morgana open her mouth to reply, but Morgause nudged her sharply in the side and she shut her mouth, eyes blazing.

'Are you saying that my father is a liar, Professor?'

The classroom went very quiet at Arthur Pendragon's words, although they had hardly been more than a whisper. Merlin glared at Arthur, hardly believing - even after everything he knew about Arthur - that the other boy would dare talk back to a teacher. Merlin noticed that while Arthur's voice had been calm and his expression remained impassive, his fingertips were white where they were gripping the edges of The Dark Forces: A Guide to Self-Protection.

Professor Numair stood frozen, wide eyes blinking rapidly as though she was trying to hold back tears; Merlin immediately felt terrible for her, and an odd surge of anger towards Arthur seemed to swell in his chest. 'No, of course not,' she said at last, voice quiet; looking vulnerable and nothing like the happy and outgoing teacher Merlin knew her to be.

In the row behind Arthur, Morgana now looked vaguely embarrassed about the scene she had created, looking anywhere but at Professor Numair.

But next to her, Morgause was looking at Numair as though she wanted to throw her own textbook in the Professor’s face. Merlin narrowed his eyes in her direction, feeling suddenly very protective of the poor, young teacher who was only trying to do her job. Morgana could just have kept her mouth shut in the first place, he thought angrily.

'Shall…' Numair took a deep, slightly shaky breath, 'shall we continue the lesson?'

None of the students made any reply, and after a moment the professor continued her lecture - making no further mention of Uther Pendragon. Merlin was sure that he wasn't the only student wondering what exactly it was that the former Minister had or hadn't done which had his children so sensitive about the issue.

★☆~~~~~~~☆★

When the bell rang to signal the end of the lesson, Morgana and Morgause were the first two students up and out of the classroom, whispering furiously to each other as they so often did.

‘Oh, Mr Emrys?’ Merlin turned, halfway down the length of the classroom; in front of him, he saw Arthur halt in his steps.

It was Professor Numair, smiling kindly and beckoning him to her with one long, elegant finger. ‘Stay back a moment, if you’d be so kind.’

Gwen looked between Merlin and the door for a moment, where Lancelot had hung back to wait for them, but when Merlin gave her a soft push she rolled her eyes and threw up her hands in mock surrender. 'Fine. I'll wait for you outside, yeah?' she whispered, and he nodded his reply.

Merlin shuffled back through the throng of students scurrying out of the classroom, reaching Professor Numair’s desk just as Arthur – the last student to leave – closed the door behind him.

‘Professor?’

‘I am so sorry you had to witness that, Merlin,’ Professor Numair said, eyes widening sorrowfully. ‘Oh, I can call you Merlin, can’t I?’

She touched his arm gently.

‘Er,’ Merlin said, glancing down at her arm, ‘I guess.’

Her expression cleared. ‘Good! This last-name business is so formal.’ She rolled her eyes; a gesture which made her look much younger than she was.

Merlin smiled. It really was so easy to smile with Professor Numair, he mused; like all his troubles almost seemed to melt away.

‘Anyway,’ Numair continued, removing her hand from Merlin’s arm. Merlin frowned, feeling suddenly cold where her hand had been. ‘I don’t want to talk about that nasty Pendragon business with you, Merlin. I can't blame the children for… well, let us not worry about that now.’

Nasty, Merlin thought, Pendragon. Yes.

‘I would much rather talk about you,’ Numair continued, giving him a warm smile. She really was pretty when she smiled. Sometimes she hardly looked older than a seventh-year, and Merlin found himself wondering how old she actually was.

‘Talk about me,’ Merlin repeated, and immediately wanted to slap himself for how dumb he sounded. ‘What about me?’ he shook his head, trying to sound a little more coherent.

Numair gave a tinkling little laugh. ‘I want to know how you’re settling in here!’ she enthused, sitting back in her chair and folding her hands as though she could imagine nothing more exciting than hearing about an eleven-year-old’s first month at school.

‘I'm… it’s good,’ Merlin said quickly. Then, suddenly wanting nothing more than to impress the kind teacher, he added, ‘I’m doing really well in Charms. I made the feather float on my first try, before anyone else!’

Somewhere inside him, a small voice said, Why am I bragging? That’s not like me at all. But he ignored it.

To his relief, Nimueh looked pleased, her eyes crinkling. ‘How wonderful, Merlin. Of course, I would expect nothing less.’ And she winked at him, as though they were sharing a secret.

Merlin blushed, but he couldn’t help but feel pleased by her praise. Hoping for more, he added, ‘My feather even glowed golden. Nobody else’s feathers have done that.’

Why am I telling her this? Again he ignored the voice. It wasn’t important.

If the Professor was surprised by this information, she didn’t show it. Instead her smile merely widened, looking almost feral for a moment; but Merlin blinked, and it was back to the same kind, warm smile he liked so much. I must have imagined it.

‘And what of… other things?’ Numair asked him, her smile fading somewhat. ‘Do you have anything troubling you? Remember, I’m here to listen.’ She sounded concerned for him then, like a mother would be. Like whatever problems he had, she could make them all better.

Merlin frowned. Anything troubling him? But everything was so wonderful right now. He couldn’t think of a single thing. Except…

No, the voice in his head said, I don’t want to talk about him. That’s got nothing to do with this.

But that’s stupid. The thought came unbidden to him. Maybe she’ll understand. Maybe she can help.

‘I can help you, Merlin,’ Numair said imploringly, as though she could read his mind. She leaned forward in her chair, looking concerned. After a beat, she sighed heavily. ‘This is about Arthur Pendragon, isn’t it?’

Merlin blinked. ‘How… how did you know that?’

She shook her head sadly.

‘It always seems to come back to the Pendragons, doesn’t it? No,’ she quickly added, ‘don’t answer that. I probably should not talk about this with you at all. What happened in class...’ she sighed heavily. 'No one could blame the poor children for wanting to defend their father.'

‘What did Uther Pendragon do?’ Merlin blurted out. He couldn’t help himself. Immediately, he felt foolish, but luckily Numair did not seem put off by his question.

‘Merlin, there are things you need to know,’ she said, leaning forwards. ‘Things I must—’ she cut herself off, wide blue eyes looking wider and bluer than ever. ‘No. It is really not my place.’

Merlin had never felt more curious in his life. ‘Things I need to know? What things? Why do I need to know them, Professor?’

She sighed heavily. 'I promised myself I would not speak of this to you… but oh, Merlin, I feel as if there's a bond between us. I simply can't sit by while that awful boy treats you that way.'

'Treats me…' Merlin frowned. It was strange; he wanted to feel comforted by Numair's concern for him, but for some reason, a small part of him felt uncomfortable with this conversation. It felt wrong, somehow, but he couldn't put his finger on why. 'No, no, he's not-- I can handle it,' he finally said. I don't want her to think I'm weak.

But Numair reached out and touched his arm again, and when she spoke her tone was strangely urgent. 'I could speak to Dumbledore, you know. A few words from me would certainly alert him to the problem, and if you spoke to him as well... privately of course, no one would need to know…'

'I… no, I really don't think--' Merlin began, but she tightened her grip on his arm, and he trailed off, uncertain of what he had been about to say.

'You would never need to worry about Arthur Pendragon ever again, Merlin,' she insisted. 'Bad enough he's in Gryffindor with you, let alone here at Hogwarts, but it doesn't have to be this way. Imagine, the thorn in your side, gone from this school for good!'

For good. I would be free, the voice in his head whispered, tempting him.

Yes, he agreed, finding himself lost in Numair's eyes; swimming in the blue he found there. Free.

'I…' his breath caught in his throat. Yes. I will. 'I…' he tried again, but the words wouldn't come. Arthur's eyes are blue too, he thought, then immediately wondered where that thought came from.

His head was throbbing, and Numair's grip on his arm was suddenly painful. He wrenched his arm free, ignoring the way her hurt expression seemed to physically hurt him. 'I can't,' he finally said. 'It wouldn't be right.'

Numair said nothing for a long time, merely studied him, her eyes uncharacteristically sharp - but she didn't look angry, as much as calculating. Merlin shifted, uncomfortable under her scrutinising gaze.

'On the contrary, Merlin, this would be exactly the right thing to do, for you and the school,' she said quietly. 'But I don't want you to do anything you don't feel comfortable with. I fear you will learn the truth about Uther Pendragon soon enough.'

She leaned back in her chair, and it was as if Merlin could feel the distance between them growing with every millimetre she moved. He felt strangely light-headed.

'I think I should probably get going,' he said uncertainly, as though the words were not his own.

In an instant, Numair's face transformed into the familiar, easy smile. 'Of course Merlin, it was lovely chatting to you. We really must do it again.'

'I… yes, yeah of course, Professor.' Merlin found himself returning her smile, unable to stop himself.

She giggled. 'Why don't you call me Nimueh?'

Merlin's smile widened, feeling giddy again in the way he often did in Professor Numair's presence. 'Yeah. Alright. Thanks.'

He gave her an awkward little wave, then immediately wanted to hit himself in the face for how stupid she was being. He turned quickly and walked out of the classroom, not wanting to see her laugh at him.

★☆~~~~~~~☆★

Merlin closed the door to Professor Numair's office, leaning against it for a moment. Wondering why he felt so groggy, as if he’d just woken up from a deep sleep.

‘What’d she want with you?’

Merlin started; having forgotten about Gwen, he’d assumed the corridor would be deserted, but now he saw that someone had indeed been waiting for him – but it wasn’t Gwen.

‘Arthur,’ Merlin said, startled. ‘What are you—’

Arthur Pendragon was on him in a moment, grabbing him by the sleeve of his robes and dragging him down the corridor; Merlin was too shocked to do anything but follow.

Once out of sight of the door to the Defence classroom, Arthur rounded on him, pushing so close that Merlin was forced to back against the wall. ‘What did she want with you?’ he repeated through clenched teeth.

'I-- I don't know,' Merlin replied, realising as he said the words that it was true. What had they talked about in there? 'She, er, wants me to call her Nimueh,' he said, grasping the first thing that came to mind.

Arthur let go of him so suddenly, Merlin's legs almost gave out from under him. He looked disgusted. 'What?'

Merlin raised his chin defiantly. 'Yeah, that's what she said. I guess maybe she appreciates the fact that I don't harass her in front of the whole class. And she didn't even give you detention for it! You're lucky Professor Numair is such a kind person, otherwise--'

'Kind?' Arthur spluttered. He opened his mouth as if to say something else, then closed it, looking torn between anger and embarrassment. 'She was lying,' he said finally, voice tight. 'Look, whatever she's telling you…' he cut himself off, suddenly looking around as though he was worried someone would hear them, and taking another step away from Merlin. 'You know what, forget it. It's not like I care what you believe, anyway.'

He turned on his heel before Merlin could ask anything, striding down the corridor in the opposite direction from the Great Hall.

Merlin was left alone in the deserted hallway, leaning back against the stone wall and trying to piece together the events of the last hour. Everything that had happened since he'd walked into Defence class seemed suddenly very hazy, and he wasn't sure he understood the bits he did remember.

All he knew was that Arthur Pendragon was an ass, and that whatever the disagreement about Uther Pendragon had been about, Merlin was much more likely to believe Nimueh Numair's version of the story - if she ever chose to share it with him.

Chapter Text

It was the first week of October when the Gryffindor first-years finally had their first flying lesson.

When they first received their timetables on the first day of term, flying lessons had been struck from the schedule, and a harried-looking Professor McGonagall told them that the instructor Madam Hooch had been called away to referee a Quidditch tournament in Yugoslavia.

Now, Madam Hooch was back, and so on Tuesday morning, the Gryffindor and Slytherin first-years headed outside into the castle grounds together, pulling their cloaks tighter around them to ward off the brisk autumn wind.

Merlin could hardly contain his excitement. Of everything he had learned so far at Hogwarts, nothing could compete with the elation he felt at the idea that he would actually be learning how to fly.

For as long as he could remember, Merlin had dreamed of flying. Never on brooms, mind, but he wasn’t going to complain.

Gwen and Lance did not share his enthusiasm. ‘I like my feet firmly planted on the ground!’ Gwen told him, shuddering, while Lance merely made a face when Merlin asked them about it at breakfast.

Merlin had been spending a lot of time with Gwen and Lancelot over the past month. Ever since Arthur had become friendly with Gwaine and Percy, it was like the two groups had drifted apart, much to Merlin’s chagrin. He really liked the other boys, and it wasn’t that they were no longer friends – but it seemed like the other first-year Gryffindor boys had come to an understanding about Merlin and Arthur: to keep them separate as much as possible.

And while Merlin still thought it was all awfully unfair, he supposed he understood. Most of the time when he and Arthur were forced into close proximity – including all of their Potions lessons – they would end up arguing, usually about the smallest of things, and before they knew it their sniping had developed into shouting matches, which in retrospect Merlin always felt really embarrassed about. But something about Arthur just brought out such anger in him as he’d never felt before, and Merlin wasn’t going to just lie down and take the other boy’s abuse.

Professor Slughorn despaired at their behaviour at first, but like the rest of the class he soon came to expect it, sighing mournfully and letting them squabble in their corner of the room until they became a disturbance for the rest of the class. And while the old Professor would then be forced to interfere, to Merlin’s surprise, Slughorn had never once put them in detention for their behaviour. Nor had he suggested to split them up and pair them with someone different, despite the fact that Merlin recalled at least one pale yellow potion brewed during that first class. Surely that could be a passing match for one of them?

Merlin suspected that maybe Slughorn was simply trying to get into Arthur’s good graces; the teacher seemed to find something to compliment about Arthur’s late mother in almost every class, and had started hinting that Arthur join him in this thing he called the ‘Slug Club,’ whatever that was. Or maybe he simply had such faith in his Animus Compativera potion, he was determined that Arthur and Merlin stick it out until they became friends. Well, fat luck there, Merlin thought bitterly.

But now, Merlin was going to learn how to fly, and there was no way Arthur could ruin that for him. At least, that’s what he thought.

When they arrived at the Quidditch pitch, Madam Hooch was already waiting there with a collection of old, tattered-looking broomsticks.

Madam Hooch was a formidable-looking witch, much younger than Merlin would have imagined. She had long, silver hair and eyes as thin and slitted as a cat’s.

‘They say she takes a dip every morning in the lake, swimming with the giant squid. Naked,’ a voice said in his ear, low and seductive; Merlin snorted.

‘Right, Gwaine, I’ll believe that one after you prove your theory about McGonagall and Slughorn’s illicit affair,’ Merlin whispered back, and heard Gwaine chuckle behind him.

‘Would you really want proof of that, Emrys? Think about it,’ Gwaine called back to him, waggling his eyebrows as he moved back towards Percy. Arthur was standing a few feet away with Morgana, Morgause and Lucius Malfoy, saying something to Morgana which had her in a fit of silent giggles.

Merlin turned his head just in time to see Gwen rolling her eyes. She didn’t care much for Gwaine, Merlin knew, which was a shame. His fast friendship with Gwen had been invaluable to him, and Lance was the kindest and most loyal person he knew, but sometimes he wondered just what it was that always had Gwaine, Arthur, Percy and sometimes Leon laughing so uproariously at mealtimes, or coming back to the common room just at the brink of curfew, sniggering about something or other. Not for the first time, he really wished that there didn’t have to be this divide between them.

Madam Hooch clapped her hands together, and the students all gathered around her. Merlin noticed a mix of apprehension and excitement on almost everyone’s faces, except for a few who just looked downright terrified.

‘Welcome to your first flying lesson,’ Madam Hooch called out. ‘I trust by now you are all well settled in at Hogwarts, and have at least mastered a few spells.’

Merlin glanced at Gwen, who bit her lip – she was one of the few students who still had not managed to make her quill float off the table in Charms, or turn her piece of yarn into leather in Transfiguration. But in their most recent Potions lesson, Slughorn had commended her on her remarkable forgetfulness potion.

Madam Hooch continued, ‘Now, it is time to turn your attention to another important part of your wizarding education: flying. As you all know, flying lessons are compulsory for all first-year students at Hogwarts, to ensure that every wizard has at least a passing grasp of the concept. After first year, should you be so inclined, you can try out for your House Quidditch team, or alternatively borrow one of the school broomsticks to advance your skills further. But today, a lot of you will merely try sitting on a broom for the first time, so do not burden your minds with thoughts of the future!’

The assembled students nodded, some looking a bit less worried than before.

‘Each of you, grab a broom and set it on the ground, in two lines… go on now, hurry up,’ Madam Hooch commanded. Soon all the students were standing next to a broom, and Madam Hooch gave each of them in turn a very stern look. ‘This next part is very important,’ she told them. ‘Hold out your hand, and command the broom to rise. Go on, do it.’

‘Rise,’ Merlin told his broom, feeling it shake under his hand. ‘Rise!’ he tried again, and it flopped on the ground. ‘Rise,’ he repeated, and to his surprise, the broom actually rose from the ground and soared up into his outstretched hand.

Around him, the other students were having mixed luck trying to command their broomsticks. Arthur, Morgana, Gwaine and Lancelot (seemingly much to his own surprise; he was staring down at the broom in his hand in confusion) all had their brooms in hand, and soon Elena, Morgause and Percy’s rose from the ground too. Gwen, Lucius Malfoy, Sophia Tirmore and the other Slytherins’ broomsticks followed suit, until only one remained firmly on the ground.

In the end, Madam Hooch told Vivian Olsson to simply pick up her unmoving broomstick, and the small blonde girl did so, looking close to tears. But when they all held out their brooms, and Madam Hooch declared them ready to move on, Merlin felt a thrill shoot through him, forgetting all about Vivian Olsson.

‘Mount your broomsticks,’ Hooch called out, ‘and raise yourself a few feet – no more, mind you – off the ground.’

Merlin mounted his broomstick, grasping the hilt of it, and glanced around to make sure that everyone else was doing the same. Arthur, Morgana and Gwaine were the first to push off from the ground, and Merlin found himself watching Arthur’s easy movements as he began gliding slowly through the air. Complete control, he had, which was no more than Merlin had expected – he’d heard Arthur and Gwaine at supper, talking about flying about the fields around their houses, even spotting each other from a distance a few times.

‘Emrys! What are you waiting for?’ Hooch called, and Merlin started, realising that while he’d been watching Arthur, everyone else had begun raising their own broomsticks off the ground. What am I doing? he wondered, shaking his head to clear it.

Merlin grabbed a firmer hold of his broomstick and looked up. He pushed off – and then he flew.

A thousand old dreams seemed to pass before his eyes in flashes as he rose up, up; he felt like he’d done this a thousand times before, a hundred different ways; his body was on fire, exploding with that same energy he’d only felt a jolt of when he’d made that feather rise off the desk in his first Charms class.

‘Look, look up there!’ he heard someone shout from down below, their voice sounding very far away.

‘What’s he doing?’

‘Is he glowing?’

‘Merlin’s beard!’

‘Shut up, Gwaine, that’s not funny!’

‘What in the – Mr Emrys, get down from there!

Merlin looked down – and there, far below him, he saw Madam Hooch and his fellow first-years, looking like tiny little dolls he could pick up by the fingertips and shake. He saw Arthur’s shock of blonde hair reflecting the autumn sun and imagined doing just that, picking Arthur up and shaking him. The thought made him laugh.

‘Mr Emrys, this is—oh for Merlin’s sake, Sonorus. MR EMRYS,’ Madam Hooch’s voice suddenly boomed, ‘COME DOWN THIS INSTANT OR YOU’LL HAVE DETENTION FOR A MONTH!’

But I don’t want to. Merlin bit his lip to keep from shouting the words aloud, grabbing a firmer hold of the broom as he looked out across the landscape. From up here, he could see everything – out across the shimmering lake there were mountains, their peaks coated with snow. And there was the Forbidden Forest, vast and dark and imposing, and far beyond it, rivers and valleys and even more mountains, cutting through the horizon.

Merlin had never flown in an aeroplane before; he and his mum had never gone anywhere further away than the Isle of Wright, and certainly could not afford such an expensive journey. He always imagined that flying would be amazing... but nothing could have prepared him for this.

There was nothing but him and the broom, nothing but space and air and freedom. All of his worries were down below where they couldn't reach him, and above him there was only the sun and a clear, bright blue sky; the wind was stronger up here, ruffling his hair lovingly and bringing fresh and exciting smells to his nostrils.

And there, he saw as he turned slowly, was all of Hogwarts laid out before him, with its turrets and spikes, towers and bridges. He recognised Gryffindor Tower, the windows of the Great Hall, the owlery, and the Astronomy Tower where they went every Wednesday night to observe the stars.

But where are the battlements? he suddenly found himself wondering, the thought popping into his head unbidden. Where are the flags? And the colour is all wrong.

‘MR EMRYS, I MEAN IT, GET DOWN FROM THERE!’ Madam Hooch’s voice was more shrill now, sounding almost panicked.

For the first time, Merlin seriously considered ignoring a teacher’s command. For a brief moment he imagined himself just taking flight, him and the broomstick, leaving all of this behind and disappearing, out beyond the valleys and mountains, looking for something he suddenly felt like he’d lost.

But it’s right here, he thought. Isn’t it?

His eyes swept down over the castle and its grounds, until they settled on the group of students gathered below him; he was so high up, it was hard to make out who was who. He was looking for someone, he realised, but he’d forgotten who it was. A flash of gold caught his eye; reflected sunlight shimmering like a beacon in a storm.

MERLIN, a deep, booming voice suddenly sounded inside his head, and Merlin was so shocked, he started and almost fell sideways off the broom. MERLIN? IS THAT YOU?

I’m going mad, Merlin thought wildly, heart pounding as he gripped the broomstick harder than before, his knuckles turning white. Maybe it was the high altitude.

Suddenly, after his close brush with gravity, he was eager to have his feet on the ground. I can’t really fly, he reminded himself.

He tipped forwards, feeling the broom give in easily to his silent command, and circled downwards slowly, wondering fleetingly why anyone could ever think that flying was difficult.

When he landed, it was to find himself practically nose to nose with Madam Hooch, whose face was ashen, her lips pursed so tightly it looked like she had no lips at all.

‘I have never seen – ever – I can’t believe – detention, Emrys, for a week!’ she managed to splutter in her fury.

‘That’s not fair, Professor, you only said he’d get detention if he didn’t come down,’ Gwaine interjected (bravely, in Merlin’s opinion).

‘One more word out of you, Green, and you can join him!’ Hooch called out, eyes flashing, and Gwaine clamped his mouth shut. ‘That’ll be quite enough flying for today, Emrys. One more trick like that, and I’ll make sure you never sit on a broom again!’ She snatched the broomstick from Merlin’s slack hands and marched off towards the broom cupboard at the edge of the field, leaving Merlin frozen in shock behind her.

Could she really make sure I never fly again? he wondered fearfully. Of everything that had just happened, this was by far what worried him the most.

‘Merlin, are you—’ Gwen began, but she was interrupted by Arthur Pendragon, who strode towards Merlin looking almost as white-faced and furious as Madam Hooch.

‘Damn you Emrys, why do you always have to show off?!’ Arthur demanded, pushing himself right up against Merlin, who was still too shaken to even move backwards. ‘Did you really think it was worth risking your life just to prove that you’re better than everyone else?’

Merlin’s jaw dropped at Arthur’s words, the unfairness them shaking him out of his shocked state. ‘As if you care about my life!’ he said scornfully, forcing out a laugh; an odd, strangled sound to his own ears. ‘Ever since we got here, you’ve done nothing but insult me, put me down, and why? Because I’m a Gryffindor? No, that can’t be right, because you’ve gone and befriended every other Gryffindor but me!’ Merlin swept out his hands, indicating their classmates, and out of the corner of his eye he saw Gwaine scratch the back of his neck, looking peevish. ‘But not me, no, I’m not good enough for the likes of Arthur Pendragon!’ Merlin was picking up steam now, the elation from his flying experience rushing back to him and filling him up like a drug. ‘Is it because I’m a half-blood? Surely not, seeing as you count a Muggle-born amongst your friends!’ This time it was little Percy who averted his eyes. ‘So what is it about me that makes me so repulsive to you? Tell me that, and then you can start pretending you care about me falling off my broom.’

When Merlin finally stopped for breath he felt as if he’d run a mile. During his little speech he’d watched with satisfaction as Arthur’s eyes had widened and the anger had slowly melted from his face; now, for the first time, it was not disgust that the other boy was looking at him with.

‘I don’t—’ Arthur began, uncharacteristically lost for words, ‘my father—I—’

‘And there we go again, my father,’ Merlin mocked, feeling like he was rolling downhill and only picking up speed as he went, ‘that’s always your excuse. Well, fine, let’s play it that way. Your father is why we're not friends. Your father is why you're such a rude, arrogant, stuck up--’

‘YES!’ Arthur screamed out, so loudly that Merlin wondered for a brief moment if he’d covertly cast a Sonorus charm on himself. Arthur’s eyes widened and he immediately shook his head. ‘I mean, no. Don’t flatter yourself, Emrys,’ he said, trying to inject some of the familiar hardness into his words. ‘Have you never considered that maybe I don’t want to be your friend because I just don’t like you?’ he spat, and it almost sounded genuine. Almost. Merlin frowned.

Arthur.’ Morgana’s voice was stern and hard, as she came to stand right behind her brother; Arthur’s face was so close to Merlin’s, Merlin saw the other boy’s almost imperceptive wince before he turned his head to face her.

What, Morgana?’ he demanded through clenched teeth.

‘It’s time to go,’ she said. She spoke quietly, but her words were iron, and Arthur obeyed without question – throwing one final look in Merlin’s direction, which he couldn’t decipher. This had just been one more of their by now infamous rows, sure, but… somehow, it had been very different.

Merlin watched as Morgana led Arthur towards the castle; she never touched him, but he followed her none the less. Morgause fell into pace with them, lagging a few steps behind.

Soon, more of the students began to retreat to the castle, realising that the show was over. In the end only Gwen, Lance, Gwaine and Percy remained with Merlin, the small group seeming even smaller in the centre of the vast Quidditch pitch.

‘We have to do something about the pair of you,’ Lance said, shaking his head as he came to stand next to Merlin. ‘You’ll end up tearing each other apart before the year is out.’

‘Lock ‘em in a small room, I say, let ‘em fight it out,’ Gwaine suggested.

Lance snorted. ‘Sure. Why not throw a mountain troll in there too, maybe a few goblins while we’re at it?’

‘Now you’re learnin’,’ Gwaine laughed, grabbing Lance’s head and rubbing his hair, making Lance cry with a mixture of laughter and derision as he tried to fight him off.

‘Merlin,’ Gwen said quietly, appearing at his other elbow, ‘are you alright?’

Merlin looked down at her; sweet, innocent Gwen looked on the verge of tears, and he couldn’t blame her after everything that had just happened. But Merlin himself just felt oddly numb, like he’d hit an emotional wall and couldn’t let anything else in, even if he wanted to.

He smiled at her, hoping she didn’t see through its emptiness. ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘I’m fine. I think I just want to walk back by myself, if that’s alright?’

Gwen looked anxious. ‘Are you sure you don’t want me to—’

‘You worry too much for your own good, you know,’ Merlin smiled, and this time it felt more genuine. ‘Just walk back with Lance and the boys, I’ll be fine.’

Gwen hesitated for another moment, then returned his smile with a small one of her own. ‘Alright, then, go brood it off. I’ll see you at dinner.’

Merlin left the others behind, walking all the way out of the Quidditch pitch in the direction of the castle, until he reached the tall towers that marked the end of the pitch, where the audience seats had been erected. It wasn’t until he reached beyond the towers, where he was sure no one could see him, that he turned and bolted in the other direction, running as fast as he could, blind to where he was going.

He ran as fast as he could, faster than he’d run in months, pouring all of his anger and frustration – at Arthur, at his stupid father, at Madam Hooch, at himself for almost falling off the broom, at own father for daring to be dead – into his arms and legs, letting his limbs propel him forwards at breakneck speed. It’ll never be like flying, he told himself, but still he ran, away from Hogwarts and everything within it, away from the voice in his head which had scared him more than he dared say; angry tears blurred his vision but the wind wiped them away, like a slap or a caress he could not say but it didn’t matter, nothing mattered. Everything is wrong.

Merlin did not stop until he’d reached the edge of the Forbidden Forest. And when he did stop, it was only because his lungs were screaming; he fell forwards and steadied himself on his bent knees as he wheezed for breath, his throat ablaze as though he was going to sprout fire.

His heart was in his throat and his legs felt like jelly beneath him when he finally steadied himself. He looked up – and frowned at what he saw.

He’d completely failed to notice that right in front of where he’d stopped lay a large, old brick hut, half overgrown with weeds and ivy. Its circular roof was straw and full of holes, and the windows – what little Merlin could see of them – were darkened by soot and dirt.

Merlin approached the hut wearily. It looked deserted, and yet… were those footsteps, on the ground? They looked too large to be footsteps, but what else could tread down the grass that way, all around the hut? Maybe an animal. He was on the edge of the Forbidden Forest, after all.

Shuddering, Merlin drew his cloak more tightly around him, suddenly a little cold. Well, he thought, it’s bound to be safer in there than out here. And I’m a Gryffindor, I’m not supposed to be afraid.

Even so, he still felt a little afraid as he walked up the wooden steps to the door of the hut, but no one needed to know that.

Grabbing the handle, Merlin pushed in on the door, and was surprised when it opened without a creak. Inside there was only dust and darkness where the sunlight didn’t reach, until Merlin’s eyes began to adjust to the gloom. He walked a few steps into the hut, seeing what looked like remnants of what had once been a home – a large wooden table with a broken leg, a few chairs thrown in a corner, a gigantic bed with covers that looked half-devoured by moths, a black fireplace full of old coals… and a lump, lying motionless in one dark corner. At first Merlin thought it was a pile of old clothes or bedding, but then, before his eyes, the lump shifted and let out a grunt, and Merlin gasped as he backed up against the wall behind him.

It was an animal! Some kind of gigantic creature with brown, leathery skin and a thick black mane – a horse? Some kind of bear? It grunted again, and Merlin clamped a hand over his mouth to prevent the animal hearing his loud, panicked breathing. He needed to get out of here before it woke up properly; luckily it seemed the sunlight and his footsteps had only made it stir.

Merlin crept slowly back towards the door along the wall, praying he would make it without making some kind of loud—

CLANK!

Merlin had found the pots and pans.

He closed his eyes, holding his breath, and for a moment, nothing happened. Had the creature really not heard him? But then, just when he was beginning to think himself safe—

‘Who’s there? Professor, is tha’ you?’

Merlin opened his eyes in surprise, and watched in astonishment as the gigantic creature rose to its feet – two of them – and the brown leathery hide fell away, crumpling on the floor like the jacket it was.

The creature’s black mane was not a mane at all, but hair and beard, and the creature itself…

Hagrid?’ Merlin gasped, eyes widening.

The giant man looked around in confusion before noticing Merlin, who would be a tiny thing to his eyes, hovering uncertainly in the doorway.

‘Er,’ Hagrid said uncertainly, scratching at his hair, ‘do I know yeh?’

‘No, I, um, I’m sorry,’ Merlin said quickly, ‘I didn’t realise anyone lived—I mean, was in here. I’m really sorry, I’ll… just go.’

He began to back out of the hut, but Hagrid held out a hand.

‘No, wait,’ the giant said quickly, ‘yeh don’t have ter go, or anythin’. Don’t yeh want some, er, tea or summat?’

And he sounded so desperate in that moment, Merlin felt his heart clench. ‘You live here?’ he asked, fearing he already knew the answer.

Hagrid shrugged, looking sheepish under his massive beard.

That settled it, then. ‘I’d love some tea,’ Merlin smiled, and Hagrid’s face lit up in delight.

Hagrid set about at once, bustling around the derelict hut. He lit a few lanterns, which, while offering them some light, was hardly an improvement; Merlin could see even more clearly how dusty and unkempt the inside of the hut was, and wondered how it was possible for anyone to call this place their home.

‘Can’t you stay up at the castle?’ Merlin found himself asking, wincing at the rude words. But Hagrid did not appear to take offence.

‘Dumbledore offered, o’course,’ he said, back to Merlin as he fiddled with the fireplace; a moment later, the flames were roaring happily, and Hagrid began digging through the pile of pots and pans for a kettle. ‘But I like it ‘ere, away from the bustle of students and everythin’.’

There was something sad in Hagrid’s tone, but Merlin didn’t want to pry. He hadn’t seen the man once since he’d taken the first-year students from the train to the castle, and now he knew why.

‘So what do you do, here at Hogwarts I mean?’ Merlin asked him. Hagrid was now prying open a rusty jar, and Merlin really hoped the giant wasn’t going to make him eat whatever was inside. He can’t be dangerous, Merlin reminded himself. Professor Dumbledore trusted him to bring us across the lake.

‘Mos’ly I help Ogg with keepin’ the grounds,’ Hagrid said, throwing a proud look over his shoulder, abandoning (thankfully) the jar and reaching for a couple of chipped mugs instead. ‘There’s plenty ter do, mind. It’s how I earn meh keep.’

But what keep? Merlin wanted to ask. Professor Dumbledore had struck him as such a kind old man at the welcoming feast, but how could he allow any of his employees to live in such squalor as this?

Hagrid sat down heavily on one of the empty chairs. It looked tiny under his considerable girth and creaked under his weight, but to Merlin’s astonishment, it held up.

‘So what brings an ickle firs’-year to the edge o’ the forest, then?’ Hagrid asked him, raising a bushy eyebrow. ‘Yeh’re a Gryffindor, I see. Not tryin’ to prove yer worth by goin’ in there, I hope?’

‘No, no,’ Merlin said quickly, ‘nothing like that. I just… needed to get away.’ He knew his voice was sullen but he couldn’t help it; now that his initial rush of adrenaline had faded, all of his anger and frustration was rushing back.

‘Aye, yeh sure look like yeh need it,’ Hagrid chuckled. ‘If yeh weren’t so young, I’d say it were girl trouble.’

For some inexplicable reason, Hagrid’s words made Merlin’s cheeks flush. ‘It’s not a girl,’ he assured Hagrid. ‘It’s…’ Arthur. Flying. Everything, he wanted to say, but thought that might be a little too maudlin, especially to a giant who lived in a tip. ‘It’s just... a lot, sometimes.’

Hagrid nodded sagely. ‘I remember my firs’ year, yeh know,’ he said, in a faraway voice.

‘You went to Hogwarts?’ Merlin asked, before he could stop himself.

The giant man smiled wryly. ‘Tha’ so hard ter believe? Yes, I went ter Hogwarts. Was expelled in my second year, but that’s another story. No, my firs’ year, tha’ was the best year o’ my life. My da saw me off ter school, he was so happy, tiny little man.’ Hagrid laughed softly, lost in memory for a moment. ‘An’ then I came here, an’ I realised something important.’ He looked at Merlin intently, small black eyes glittering in the light of the lanterns.

‘What was that?’ Merlin asked.

‘That eleven-year-olds are mean little buggers,’ Hagrid said grimly. ‘I came ter school, not much smaller than I am now, and yeh can imagine the looks I got. The laughter, and not kind laughter, either. The Slytherins were the worst, they’re a nasty sort, but my own House wasn’t much better. And I was in Gryffindor, like yerself.’

Merlin shivered. He could see it now, much too vividly, how groups of children his age all trying to make sure they didn’t end up at the bottom of the food chain might treat someone like Hagrid. ‘So what did you do?’

Hagrid shrugged. ‘I went ter my lessons. I minded my studies. I made a few enemies, aye, but in the end I made a few friends, too. Even after I was expelled, some o’ them still came ter see me, here in this hut. No one’s been back for years now, though, not since…’ he trailed off, shaking his head sadly. Then he suddenly exclaimed, ‘tea’s gotta be just about ready!’ and sprang to his feet.

‘Thanks,’ Merlin smiled gratefully as he was handed a gigantic, steaming mug a moment later.

Hagrid turned back to rummage in his pile again. ‘So,’ he called after a moment, ‘wha’ did yeh say yer name was?’

‘Merlin,’ Merlin said, sipping his tea. It tasted surprisingly good, and warmed his sore throat. ‘Merlin Emrys.’

Hagrid came back to the table holding a bowl of sugar in one hand and a jug of milk in another. He looked at Merlin for a long moment, an indecipherable expression on his face, before sitting himself down, and proceeding to pour half the contents of the sugar bowl into his own mug.

‘Milk?’ Hagrid asked him, holding out the jug.

‘Please,’ Merlin smiled.

Merlin ended up having a great time with Hagrid in his run-down hut. Hagrid had a passion for magical animals, and told Merlin all about the ones Professor Kettleburn, the Care of Magical Creatures teacher, was letting him look after. Merlin told him about his classes, and the teachers that had joined the staff after Hagrid had been expelled. Hagrid did not bring up his expulsion again, and Merlin didn’t ask.

By the time he left, it was just on the edge of dusk, and Merlin’s stomach told him that it must be about dinnertime.

Hagrid made him promise to come back and visit soon, and Merlin walked back to the castle in a much better mood than he had been an hour ago, the unexpected distraction just what he needed.

Walking into the entrance hall, Merlin did not see Morgana Pendragon until she was standing right in front on him, hands on her hips, a stormy expression on her pretty face.