[16]

The Red of Dusk


"Well, this places us in a difficult situation, does it not Severus?"

The headmaster glanced up at the Potions Master, something dark dimming his bright blue eyes. His jaw clenched in reply, and gave his employer a stiff nod. A difficult situation indeed – and perhaps that was putting it too mildly. True, it was a feeling, a suspicion that could merely be wild speculation but Severus Snape knew better. And if Dumbledore shared his same sentiments then he was certain.

Quirrell was in league with the Dark Lord.

How, neither of them really knew. But Dumbledore thought it likely that the professor had encountered the wizard while on his year sabbatical – the imbecilic Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher had ignored all caution against going into the forest of Albania. But, there was no way to prove that Quirrell was really in cahoots with him. At the moment, the only real thing they had to go on was the startling change in Quirrell's behavior and a few half-heard conversations with thin air and neither were compelling evidence. But that didn't change the fact that there was someone possibly dangerous within Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

And Snape knew Dumbledore detested the very thought.

"We don't know anything for certain yet," Snape said, his tone clearly in disagreement with his own words. He was too wired to continue sitting. He got to his feet and clenched the back of his chair, looking down at Dumbledore who now brought his hands together in a steeple. "But it might be a prudent idea to keep a close eye on that blasted stone – it was a brilliant idea to bring one of the only objects in the world that could return the Dark Lord to his former glory into a school full of children."

Dumbledore sighed and shook his head. "No, the stone is safest in my possession. Lord Voldemort wouldn't dare take it from under my nose."

Snape raised his eyebrow. "Well, it seems that Quirrell just might."

"Yes, you've done a wonderful job keeping tabs on him so far, Severus – thank you." Dumbledore got to his feet now, that same darkness still muting the usual glimmer of his eyes. It sent a chill through Snape, that look of old power. Dumbledore paused on the edge of his desk. "It seems necessary to reactivate you as a double-agent, we need more evidence if we hope to bring this to the Wizengamot."

It was with difficulty that Snape kept himself from snarling. He had known this moment would come, even if he had hoped it never would. But, there were a few aspects to the assignment to brighten its prospect. Namely taunting Quirrell. "As necessity demands it," Snape said with stiff nod.

Dumbledore nodded. "See if you can get him to confide in you, and do all you can to make sure he does not succeed in his aims. But, it might be prudent that you do not let him know that you are blocking him. And, try to find out how Quirrell is in contact with him, I'm sure Lord Voldemort will be keeping a close eye."

Snape nodded again, his clench on the chair growing tighter. The Dark Lord must be desperate to use such a pathetic man, though Snape had to remind himself not to underestimate his quarry. Though he was a squirrel, he had known him during his years as the muggle studies professor and he knew Quirrell was at least somewhat intelligent.

"With any luck—" Dumbledore cut off mid sentence as someone knocked with quick urgent hands. He glanced toward Snape – who was now turning to look at the door. There was another urgent bang on the door. "Come in," the headmaster said and Madam Hooch strode into the office looking somewhat pale and flustered.

It wasn't a look Snape saw often.

"I'm sorry to interrupt," she said in her gruff voice, which made her sound like she wasn't really all that sorry. "But, there was an incident at the Gryffindor and Slytherin flying lesson that demands both your attention."

Dumbledore merely looked curious, but Snape had gone rock still. He was fairly certain he knew who had been involved – that idiot boy was somehow always at the center of excitement. "What has Evans done this time? He hasn't knocked over a castle wall, has he?" he ground out very sarcastically. The entire staff had given him an earful for the bookcase incident – especially the librarian.

Madam Hooch made a funny little noise though, and to his horror, her face drained of the little color it had left.

"Do explain what happened, Madam Hooch," Dumbledore put in softly and he conjured one of his purple armchairs for her.

"One of the school brooms exploded," she said hoarsely and she collapsed into the armchair.

An awful silence followed her words.

"I'm sorry, did you say one of the brooms broke?" Dumbledore asked his brow furrowing. He walked slowly over to her and conjured another of his chairs so that he could sit opposite her.

She shook her head. "Not broke. Exploded headmaster. I was on the other side of the field a the time so I didn't see it myself, but Miss Granger said that Mr. Evan's broom started—"

"Evans?" Snape's mouth went very dry. "It was his broom?"

"Yes, and well apparently it started jumping and then there was a bright light and it burst into a thousand pieces." Here she glanced up at Snape, and her face suddenly adopted a grievous expression. Almost like she was about to break some very bad news to him. She took a deep breath, "The splinters hit the three students closest, Miss Granger and Mr. Malfoy sustained only minor injures." She swallowed.

"And Evans?" Snape couldn't explain the sinking feeling in his gut, the way his heart seemed to jump with panic.

"He was closest to the explosion. Some of the splinters stabbed his side and back—Madam Pomfrey said he'll be fine!" she quickly added when Snape made a beeline for the door. He turned and glanced at her then at Dumbledore. The headmaster gave a very small nod and he dashed down the stairs into the hallway, doing his best not to run but also get there as quickly as possible. The concern he felt at this moment was so alien to him. Sure, he was always worried about his snakes – they were his responsibility after all – but, and maybe it was because he had actually admitted that he had a certain fondness for Evans' charm, he had to see him with his own eyes.

He had to see that he was all right.

And he needed to find out what exactly happened from the witnesses. He skidded to a halt just outside the infirmary, taking a deep breath. It wouldn't do to enter looking winded after all – if Evans, or even worse Draco, thought he had run here he was sure he'd never hear the end of it. So, he took a moment to compose himself, and pushed open the door.

Draco was sitting up in bed, wearing a very loose open shirt that revealed several bandages on his right shoulder and arms. He had a few smudges of dirt on his face and Snape had never seen the young Malfoy's hair so disheveled. One bed down laid Miss Granger, though she bore very few bandages. She was curled up in the blankets, ignoring her dirty school robes. Even from this distance, Snape could see her shoulders shaking and as he watched she sniffled and attempted to wipe her very red eyes. And, in between the pair of them, the subject of their frequent eye flickers, was Evans.

He wasn't sure what he had expected to see – the boy sulky and ready to leave probably. But what he saw was so opposite from that that it made his heart clench for a moment and it took every ounce of willpower not to cross to the boy's side.

Merlin Evans was unconscious, and an even worse sight than Draco. Madam Pomfrey had removed his shirt, revealing layers upon layers of bandages – particularly around his left side, just above his ninth rib. Snape was sure that the boy's entire back was covered in bandages as well. He had a cracked lip and hair that would make James Potter envious. The complete picture was one that smacked Snape in the face like a stone slab, causing him to stand frozen for several moments.

"Professor?"

Madam Pomfrey had seen him. At her word, both Granger and Draco glanced over at him, though they didn't say anything. The girl sniffled again and feverishly tried to wipe her eyes.

"How is he?" Snape asked the nurse in an undertone. He tried to bury his feelings of panic and concern, this strange possessiveness he felt over the wellbeing of Evans. God, if he wasn't careful he really would turn into the boy's father.

"He'll be fine Severus," and Madam Pomfrey gave him a very knowing smile. Damn her. "A few of the splinters went a little deeper than expected, but he's strong and in good hands." Yes, her hands were some of the best when it came to this sort thing. He had always wondered why she hadn't gone to the trauma ward at St. Mungo's Hospital. She was certainly skilled enough, but then he'd always be grateful that she's opted to stay with them instead. "His magic is aiding the healing as well, to a shocking extent even. He should be able to leave tomorrow, though he'll need to take it easy next week."

Sweet relief managed to quell some of his worry. He nodded and asked, "What of Miss Granger and Mr. Malfoy?"

"Mr. Malfoy had a few splinters in his right shoulder and arms, but he'll be fully healed in a few hours and Miss Granger only sustained a few scratches and could be discharged now." She paused a moment. "However, I will be keeping them both overnight with a few calming and de-anxiety potions. They were both very distraught after the incident and seeing Evans' injuries up close like that have left them likely to develop Acute Stress Disorder and I'd rather that didn't happen."

Snape nodded in agreement, though his jaw clenched at the thought of what they must have seen up close. "It's probably for the best," he said. "I need to ask them what happened."

Madam Pomfrey gave an aggravated tut. "Of course you do. But not for very long, they need their rest."

"Of course, Poppy."

Snape gave her one last nod before making his way over to the injured students. As he neared, Draco immediately gave him his full attention and a very ugly frown took command of his face. "My father will hear about this," he spat when Snape finally came to a stop at the end of Evans' bed. "Those brooms were always an utter disgrace."

Hermione made a small choking sound, as though trying to stop her hiccupping tears but unable to. "Professor Snape—sir—it wasn't—wasn't our fault—"

"Of course not, you silly girl," Snape snapped though his words didn't have the venom they usually did. "I do not think this was your fault at all."

He glanced at Evans for a moment, wondering whether or not it might really have been the cause of his ridiculously turbulent accidental magic. Perhaps it would be a good idea for Dumbledore to run a few diagnostic spells, figure out what on earth was going on—was he just another dark lord in waiting to go off like a time bomb?

"It wasn't Merlin's fault either, sir," Draco added, correctly guessing his godfather's thoughts. Snape turned to him now, and raised his eyebrow for him to continue. "It's those bloody—blasted," he quickly amended, "brooms!"

Snape sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Why don't you begin from the beginning Draco. What happened?"

The young snake didn't delay for a moment. He jumped right into the story, explaining how he had seen Evans shaking when he first climbed onto the broom. "But sir, all week he had been excited to fly. Not a worry at all – I thought it was a bit strange."

"Yes!" Granger seemed to quail beneath his gaze – even though he wasn't giving her his Gryffindor glare. "I noticed that too, and it just got worse the higher he flew in the air. I thought he was just scared of heights."

"And then," Malfoy glanced toward Granger for a moment, something strange in his expression. It was though he hated her, but knew that his reasons for doing so weren't right. "Well, we had a small fight. I baited him to fly higher and he was going to do it! But then the broom just started jumping and once it did it just got worse and worse."

"We managed to pull him onto our brooms," Granger added, sniffling again. "And then his just started to glow with light and—"

"Boom."

They all jerked toward Evans, startled. "Merlin?" Draco croaked turning to him with one of the most unguarded faces Snape had ever seen him with. A swarm of fresh tears ran over Granger's cheeks and she hiccupped his name as well.

Those brilliant blue eyes cracked open for a moment before closing again, a groan on his lips. "Draco, if you keep looking at me like that I might actually drop dead," he mumbled and Snape felt the relief sweep over them all. Evans blinked open his eyes again and Snape saw them lock onto himself. "Professor, I'm touched. Were you worried about me?" he said as he sat up with just a glimmer of a smirk.

"Believe it or not Evans, but I do care about the students in my house," Snape countered with a roll of his eyes. "Or did you think you were special?" He caught Granger staring at him out of the corner of his eye before she quickly turned back to Evans, shaking her head.

"And here I was thinking I was your favorite," Evans continued with a smile. He gave a small chuckle and immediately winced, some of the color draining from his face.

"Hey, take it easy," Draco said. "The broomstick came after you with a vengeance."

"Don't I know it?" Evans took a shallow breath and brought a hand to his side for a moment, before lying back in bed. Snape clenched the bed frame, aware of how they were all watching Evans carefully. After a moment, Evans brought his hand to his chest, right above his heart. He sat up so abruptly that Granger gave a small squeak.

"Merlin, what—"

"Where's my—" Evans looked around his bed, still rather pale. "I had a chain around my neck with something important on it." Snape blinked, recalling the moment they had walked out of Gringotts Bank. He'd seen a glimpse of that chain, but it was interesting to see the boy so worried about it.

"Oh." Granger reached into her pocket and held out a very simple silver chain. "It fell off when you hit the ground. I held on to it for you." As Evans took it back, she added, "That's a very pretty ring."

Snape caught only a brief glimpse of it before Evans covered it with his hand. Something about it struck his memory, though he didn't have the faintest idea why. Draco leaned over to try and get a look at it too, and seemed more than a little disappointed when he couldn't see it.

"It's a family heirloom," Evans explained quietly. Granger nodded, as though in understanding, and turned to Snape, hesitant though seeming to be doing her best to not appear so.

"We're not in trouble, are we? This wasn't our fault."

"We better not be!" Draco shot, now turning to Snape as well. "Merlin almost died because of that archaic contraption! Those brooms should all be destroyed, sir!"

"I'm sure the committee will reconsider buying the school new brooms, in light of this unfortunate incident." Headmaster Dumbledore had arrived, and they all glanced toward the doorway. Right behind him was Madam Hooch, who had regained some of the color in her face since Snape since had last seen her.

"They will be hearing from my father for sure!" Draco continued, though he seemed to lose some of his boastful energy as the headmaster came to stand beside Snape. Dumbledore smiled in reply, nodding.

"I would expect nothing less," he said before turning to Evans. "Are you all right, Mr. Evans?"

"Could definitely be better," the boy replied with a cheeky smile. "But, I'll live."

"I know that you might not want to recall the incident, but I need to know what happened. I've never encountered an exploding broom before, and it's important that we take precautions so that this doesn't happen again."

Evans nodded in reply, and Snape noticed that he didn't seem particularly upset by the idea of having to reiterate everything. His story was very similar to Granger and Draco's, except that it was a great deal more elaborated. When he got to the broom jumping up and down, he glanced toward Snape. "I panicked, a little," he said slowly, "but lucky Hermione and Draco were there to grab me."

Snape nodded, indicating that he understood. Yes, accidental magic could do a lot, but he'd never heard of it exploding a broomstick – and it seemed that he still hadn't.

"Yes, very lucky indeed. If they had not been there I shudder to think of the state of you." Dumbledore glanced at Snape for a moment.

"Sir?" Hermione asked, her voice panicked. "Have we failed the class?"

"Oh my dear, quite the contrary. Both you and Mr. Malfoy will receive full marks." Draco's brow rose at that but he didn't say anything. Dumbledore chuckled and turned to Evans. "In your case, you have the option of retaking the class or opting out of flying entirely."

"The second one, definitely," Evans answered without hesitation. Then he paused and added, "But only on broomsticks, right?"

Draco and Granger both stared at him. "What else would you fly on?" Draco asked rather sarcastically.

Evans merely shrugged, but Snape caught the look that passed between him and the headmaster. What, did the boy intend to fly a Thestral or something? Dumbledore smiled in reply, his eyes twinkling.

"Yes, only on broomsticks." He cleared his throat, glancing toward Madam Pomfrey who was glaring at the lot of them from her office doorway. "Now, I do believe that Poppy is about ready to usher us out." As he spoke, the woman in question started walking toward them, several potions in her hands. Dumbledore nodded to her and after giving Evans one last curious glance, strode out of the wing. Snape paused before following him.

He wondered if they knew how strange the three of them looked together.

Snape shook his head and quickly followed after Dumbledore, finding him waiting for him outside the infirmary. The headmaster gave him a surveying look before beginning the walk back to his office, Snape in step beside him.

"Quite an interesting lad."

"You don't know the half of it."

Dumbledore chuckled. "Yes, how are those accidental magic lessons going?" He said as they turned the corner and into another corridor.

"Utterly exhausting. The boy has one of the most insolent tongues I've ever encountered." Snape heaved a sigh, as he recalled the less than pleasant remarks he'd had to endure. "I had considered that this unfortunate incident was due to his inability to control his emotions."

"Oh, I don't think that Mr. Evans has the ability to do that. Broomsticks are one of the wizarding world's greatest inventions, and it'd take more than accidental magic to interfere with them." He surveyed Snape from behind his half-moon spectacles, his tone gentle and yet matter -of-fact. "He's only a boy, after all."


Only A Boy


The jolt back into awareness left her motionless for several seconds, wondering why she had been wrenched out of sleep when Hermione heard conversation. She had half a mind to turn and snap for silence – they all needed rest, particularly Merlin. But as she lay still in her bed their words washed over her, curiosity kept her faking sleep while she listened to her friend and her enemy converse together.

Especially since hearing Draco Malfoy apologize was unheard of.

"I told you—" Merlin was saying, in whispered emphasis. "It's not your fault!"

"I'm the one who got you to fly higher!" Malfoy paused a moment and Hermione's eyes widened when she heard his voice crack. "If I hadn't this mess wouldn't have happened! Your broom wouldn't have exploded and—"

"Draco," Merlin interrupted, sounding a little startled. "It's okay."

"It's not. I mean, I was angry at you sure, but I didn't want anything bad to happen to you."

"Your right cross says differently," Merlin put in with a chuckle.

"Yeah, okay. But you almost died and—"

"Hey," Merlin shot. "Snap out of it. Despite your best efforts I'm still breathing"

"That's not funny," Malfoy said very quietly.

Hermione's head was spinning. She hadn't expected that the two of them were friends. She'd seen their curt replies beside the Gryffindor table and how they'd fought at the flying lesson – but they were friends. She might not have believed it if she hadn't heard them talking together. And how? How could Merlin stand to be friends with that boy? He'd called her a Mudblood, he'd bullied Neville, and the whole school knew of his spoiled arrogance. Merlin wasn't anything like him!

So how come hearing them talk felt so natural?

"If I hadn't—" Malfoy tried to continue, but Merlin suddenly spoke over him.

"I was talking to Hermione when Ron came at me."

There was a very pregnant pause, and Hermione felt her heart thud in her chest. Hearing herself being talked about was perhaps the strangest thing she'd ever encountered. It made her slightly uncomfortable, but she strained to catch every single word.

"What?" asked Malfoy, stunned.

"I was in the library, like I told you. But, I ran into her and then we were studying together." Merlin sounded firm, though Hermione could hear a touch of apprehension bleed into his tone, as though he was aware of just how Malfoy might take his confession. "Ron saw us and, well, thought I was trying to manipulate her or something."

"Wait, you were studying?"

There was a pause and a ruffle in the sheets, as Merlin no doubt turned to stare at Malfoy. "Out of everything I just said, that's what caught your attention, seriously?"

"I'm sorry, but you seem to be allergic to parchment and ink."

"Yes well, I find I learn best by doing, not by regurgitating information." Merlin quipped back. "And as Quirrell is little more than an imbecilic squirrel, I'm surprised no one else has dropped their books."

A soft smile touched the gentle contours of Hermione's face. Merlin certainly had a vendetta against Quirrell but instead of irritating her, she found herself amused.

"Okay, so the blood-traitor caught you taking to his girl. Now that makes sense." Malfoy paused a moment. "Is she really your friend?"

"As possible as it is to be with having had only two conversations."

Three, Hermione silently added. She considered the first time he spoke to her right before the sorting ceremony as their first conversation, even if had been only a few words.

"I'm serious Merlin. Why are you friends with that—"

"Look, just because she's not a pureblood doesn't mean that she's any less of a person."

There was an aggravated sigh and Malfoy said, "You and your muggle-loving ideas."

"Doesn't make me wrong. C'mon, you know that she has the highest grade of all the first years," Merlin said earnestly. "And you know me. We don't even know who my parents are. If you suddenly found out I was a muggleborn what would you do?"

Hermione blinked while Malfoy sputtered about how that was impossible. Merlin hadn't told him he was half-blood? She felt a little strange. Had she been the only one he'd told about his parentage? She felt both smug and shocked that he had shared that with her, but also guilty. She didn't want to cause a rift between the two of them.

She could see that Merlin was a good influence on Malfoy.

"No, what would you do?" Merlin pressured.

"I don't know! Okay, even though there's no possibility that you are one, if you were—" Malfoy paused a moment, pondering his answer. "I'd uh—pretend I'd never found out. Wipe my memory."

"That," Merlin said very slowly, "is the stupidest thing I've ever heard." He hissed in frustration and shot, "would you still be my friend, knowing me now and finding out I was a muggleborn later?" Hermione was a little surprised by his aggressive tone. "Would you? Would you?"

"Yeah! Okay?" Malfoy nearly shouted. He went very quiet for a moment, and Hermione knew they were both listening for sounds of movement from either her bed or from Madam Pomfrey's office.

"And why is that?" Merlin asked in a whisper.

"Because—" Malfoy dropped his voice to a mumble. "You're the only person who's not my friend just because of who my family is."

"Don't you think everyone deserves to be judged by their own merit?" Merlin asked him, and Hermione could hear the soft smile in his tone. "Maybe give the muggleborns a chance."

"Merlin I—"

"Then give me a chance." Merlin shifted in bed, and Hermione felt his eyes on the back of her head. "Because I have known several muggles in my time and just like wizards, some are good and some are evil. And just because they might not have come from magic that doesn't stop them from becoming a force to be reckoned with."

There was a long silence.

"I'm going to bed," Malfoy grumbled. "It's too late to be deep."

"Oh, one more thing. I'm having private magic control lessons with Snape. That's why I'm gone all the time."

"What?"

As Malfoy badgered Merlin for all the details, Hermione sighed and closed her eyes.

Maybe, just maybe there would come a time when Malfoy would accept her. When he'd judge her according to her skill and not to her lineage. And, she knew the only way he'd ever do that was if Merlin inspired him. She could feel the spirit that constantly surrounded Merlin. He was unique and amazing, and he drew people to him. There was something about him, something in his aura that made her stand in awe of his presence and also want to cling to him and never let go. In a way, it reminded her of when she'd discovered her magic. He had that same essence, brought forth that same desire to both protect and stand immovable.

And she was sure that he could bring not just Malfoy to see the truth, but all of Slytherin.

She couldn't explain her faith in him, or why she thought that he of all people could do it. Maybe she was biased because she had read so much about his namesake and of all the amazing things he'd done. Whatever the reason, she knew he could do it. And she would take a few steps back until he had.


Only A Boy


"How are you feeling?"

Merlin donned his most convincing smile, "Fine," he said though his side ached with pain. It was better than last night, but in all rights he should be at ninety percent – not fifty. The potions Pomfrey had given him were, while the correct dosage for a child, incorrect for him. But, as he didn't want to arouse suspicion – any more than already swirled around his character – he kept quiet.

He'd had much worse, after all.

Hermione didn't seem to believe him though, the worry still clouding her face. She opened her mouth to say something else but changed her mind when Draco stood up and stretched. She took a deep breath and suggested, "Why don't you head down to breakfast first?"

Merlin glanced back at Draco. She probably felt uncomfortable around him, especially after he'd called her a Mudblood. He had hoped that Draco would warm up to her by being around her more, but he didn't want to make Hermione feel uncomfortable either. "You sure?" he asked turning back to her.

She nodded and gave a small smile. "I'll catch up," she said with another glance toward Draco. "I want to talk to Madam Pomfrey for a moment, anyway."

Merlin was willing to bet that was just an excuse, but he nodded all the same. "Okay, let's go, Draco."

Draco didn't glance at Hermione as he walked by her bed, staring determinedly at the door. Well, he hadn't really expected anything – Draco wouldn't change overnight. He waved Hermione goodbye and then caught up with Draco in the corridor, walking carefully so that he didn't twist his torso and pull on his injuries.

The next week was full of nothing but the story of how Merlin's broom exploded. Everyone wanted to know why it had happened and all the horrific details included. Merlin did his best to ignore them, he found that most people lost interest after a few days anyway, but when rumors started spreading about how he'd had the entire shaft of the broomstick stuck in his gut, he found it difficult to let them pass by.

"Yes, that's exactly what happened. In fact, I think my kidney is still lost on the Quidditch pitch," he snapped when a particularly annoying group of second year Hufflepuffs shared a ridiculous fourth-hand story. "If you go now, you might be able to find it before the grass eats it up."

Draco chuckled as they walked away from the boys – who all looked rather startled.

"Absolute clotpoles," Merlin continued shaking his head. "How idiotic do you have to be to believe that Madam Pomfrey had to regrow my kidney because the broomstick flew away with it?"

"Duffers, the lot of them," Draco agreed. Then he chuckled again.

Merlin looked at him. "What?"

"What's the bet they're headed to the Quidditch pitch right now to find your missing kidney?" Draco said turning to glance back at where the group of boys had been. Merlin laughed and immediately regretted it, aching pain reminding him that he hadn't healed just yet.

"Shouldn't you be all healed by now?" Draco asked, having noticed Merlin's wince.

"I'm fine," Merlin tried to say, but Draco shook his head.

"It's been a week, maybe you should go talk to Madam Pomfrey," he said some concern in his tone. Draco had been oddly protective ever since the incident. He was still the same Draco though. He still made fun of him and matched Merlin's sarcasm with his own; he just worried about Merlin a little now too.

He had turned into a real friend.

"Ah, Merlin Evans. I had hoped I would run into you." Merlin and Draco came to a dead stop and turned around, recognizing at once the harsh gritty voice of The Bloody Baron. Draco gave a very stiff nod, his eyes at once fixing themselves onto the bloodstains on the ghost's translucent robes. Merlin on the other hand, smiled warmly and bowed his head – which the ghost returned.

"Baron, it's not often we see you outside of the dungeons."

Draco nudged Merlin's elbow, shooting him an incredulous look. "He didn't mean it, Baron," he drawled. "We'll just be going, now."

"Merlin, could you stay behind for a moment?" the Baron asked. When Draco looked nervous about this idea, The Baron turned toward him and assured – though his horrid guttural voice did little aid in this – "He will meet you in the common room in just a few moments, not to fret."

"Right." Draco shot the ghost a very sulky expression before meeting Merlin's eyes and heading quickly down the hallway.

"Why Baron, I think your manner makes people uncomfortable," Merlin quipped with a grin. The Bloody Baron raised his eyebrow and motioned for Merlin to walk with him in the other direction.

"It's fortunate that I should have a chance to speak with you, Merlin." The Bloody Baron said, and he dropped his tone to a conspiratorial whisper. Merlin glanced around the hallway out of habit.

"What is it?" he whispered back, his heartbeat quickening. What had happened?

"My contacts have informed me that Tom Riddle has left the Forest of Albania," The Baron said, a deep frown painting his face. Merlin stared at him, coming to a stop in the middle of the hallway.

"He's left?"

"Approximately during early July." The ghost shook his head. "It's difficult for the dead to pass messages along, as we cannot leave our places of eternal wandering." He paused a moment. "I am unsure Headmaster Dumbledore is aware of this – Tom resides between the land of the living and the dead, and as he takes to possessing animals it is difficult to realize his presence."

Merlin folded his arms, bringing a hand to rub his chin as his mind catalogued the new information. "So, Dumbledore is keeping tabs on him then?"

The Baron nodded, "Indeed. I fear I do not know more – the headmaster has charmed all the portraits in his office so that they keep his secrets." He gave Merlin a surveying expression. "I have been sitting on this information for several weeks, being unable to speak with you alone. Should I inform the headmaster of these developments as well?"

Merlin blinked. "Why are you asking me?" he asked slowly, his brow furrowing. "I'm just a snot-nosed first year," he added with a nonchalant shrug.

The ghost chuckled; a sound like nails banging against wood. "There was once a time when men traveled thousands of miles seeking your wisdom, and here I am having waited a thousand years to do the same."

Merlin frowned, his blue eyes flashing. "Why would you wait so long? You didn't offer any help during the first wizarding war?" People had needed the Baron's knowledge! "Why didn't you warn Dumbledore what was coming? You must have seen the signs in Tom while he was at school!"

The Baron rolled his eyes. "The ghosts of the world do not interfere in the affairs of the living – we care not whether the world continues or stops because our lives have come to a halt. I have kept my knowledge to myself these past centuries, allowing men to succeed or fail in their fight against the last heir of Salazar. I have my own mistakes to ponder over," here the Baron paused, his eyes dropping to the bloodstains on his shirt for a moment. He took a breath – though Merlin was sure he did not need to breathe. "I was angry at the world," he whispered. "It no longer concerned my life and I had no reason to provide my aid."

He shook his head. "But you are from my life, Emrys. I disregarded your advice once and will pay for it with an eternity of regret and isolation." Merlin felt something cold stir within his heart, some emotion of forgotten pity and anger that he didn't understand.

"What did you do, Baron?" he asked in a bare whisper.

The ghost shook his head, a sad smile on his face. "Now is not the time for sad tales and bloody deeds. I swore to offer you all the help I could, and I will stand by that until you cross into my realm – if you ever do, of course" he added with a wink. "But until then, I believe I have watched enough pass me by." He shook himself and stood tall, his stature reminiscent of a general ready for orders. "Shall I inform the headmaster that Tom is on the move? I will of course keep your involvement a secret."

Merlin didn't answer for a long moment.

They didn't know where Tom had gone, or what he intended to do. But what if sitting on the information caused a chain reaction that Merlin couldn't foresee? He chewed on his tongue, suddenly missing the times when he was the one seeking advice. He was eleven again, he wasn't sure he could clear his mind and come at this with the caution it required.

"Sit on it for a little longer," Merlin told the Baron finally. "I need to think this over. Inform me the instant you know anything else."

The Bloody Baron inclined his head and vanished through the floor, leaving Merlin alone in the corridor.


Only A Boy


Snape.

He needed to talk to Snape.

Merlin had been fretting about it all day, and he finally couldn't take it anymore. Back in Camelot he would have been able to talk to Gaius, to figure out whether or not he should act or if he was overreacting. He wasn't sure whether or not he should bare the weight of this himself, if he should solve this problem on his own or utilize the aid of those around him. He had always done everything himself. And now there were people and creatures swearing their allegiance to him. He couldn't remember ever having someone to lean on, to help him stand and bear the burden of his destiny. He needed Gaius. He needed someone to talk to that wasn't afraid to tell him he was wrong. And, the only person he could think of that could help him right now was Snape.

So, he barged right into the professor's office.

Snape blinked and looked up at him, irritation showing on the lines of his face. "Why yes, come right in Evans and disrupt my evening."

Merlin looked at him, opened his mouth and then closed it again. What was he thinking? He couldn't talk to Snape. Snape didn't know who he was and he couldn't risk exposing himself any more than he already had. His accidental magic incidents had probably made him suspicious enough. And, he couldn't just tell him that he had a destiny, that the goblins had sworn allegiance to him, and that the Bloody Baron was now his personal informant and that he was worried about whether or not he could trust Dumbledore.

Merlin gave a loud sigh of frustration, shook his head, and then walked right back out of the office, closing the door behind him with a snap. He didn't stop walking until he was in the entrance hall. Dinner had long since been finished, and he'd managed to shake off Draco in the common room. The castle walls felt claustrophobic all of a sudden. He couldn't think. Merlin frowned and looked around the deserted hall before he threw open the doors and ran down the steps and into the dark grounds.

Snape would kill him if he found out about this.

He skirted around Hagrid's cabin, and into the forbidden forest. There was only one being that might ease his troubled mind – or just give him a riddle that occupied all his energy into solving instead – and there was a very high chance that he was already long dead.

But it didn't hurt to try.

"O drakon, e male so ftengometta tesd'hup'anankes!" Merlin shouted to the skies as he raced through the darkened undergrowth, and deep into the heart of the forest. He knew most eleven year olds would be terrified, that the dark trees around them and the rustling of leaves by unknown creatures would drive them into a panicked frenzy. But, he wasn't like most eleven year olds.

He stood still, waiting with bated breath. Would Kilgharrah come? Was the old dragon still even alive? Merlin had no way of knowing, so he just took a seat on a rotting stump and waited, staring up at the beautiful stars that expanded across the black sky. And then, as he watched a patch of the stars disappeared in the wake of an enormous shadow, a roar sounding through the trees.

Merlin leapt to his feet, his heart pounding in his throat as tears welled in his eyes. The beast that landed before him, knocking over a young tree, glowed silver in the moonlight. She shook her great frame, a ghost that slunk through the bushes and greeted him with a warm nuzzle. His name was spoken from deep within her chest, half broken and harsh sounding – as if she only knew half the letters.

"Merlin."

"Aithusa!" Merlin wrapped his arms around her neck, her scales smooth and hot to the touch. "I can't believe that you're still around!"

She nodded her head, a dragon grin on her face. She poked him with her muzzle and chirped, clearly asking him why he was still around. Merlin laughed and patted her head again. "It's a long story. I don't have time to tell you everything tonight." Merlin glanced back into the sky, hoping to see another dark shape coming toward him though none did. "He's dead, isn't he?"

Aithusa nodded sadly. "Long time," she croaked, her words difficult to understand. Merlin was a little disappointed to see that even after all this time she had barely recovered her speaking ability. He sighed and sat back down on the stump, she coming to a rest beside him.

"I could really use a riddle right now," he said with a laugh. "I have another dark wizard to stop, and I'm not sure if I should trust the people around me with the knowledge I have." He swallowed, remembering the pain of so many betrayals. And, everyone he'd ever trusted seemed to end up dead not long afterward. "I don't know what to do," he said putting his face in his hands. She crooned and touched his neck with her nose. "Can you help me, Aithusa?"

She shook her head and then she paused. She got to her feet, and looked back up at the sky, then back to him. "Stay."

Merlin was utterly bewildered. "What is it? Where are you going?"

Aithusa gave her wide dragon smile. "Egg."

Merlin could only stare as she took off into the sky with a might swoosh. Did she just say egg? How would that help him, hatching another dragon? Merlin frowned, but there was nothing he could do until she came back. He started pacing in the field, glancing up at the sky for the ghost dragon to return. She looked better than she ever had in Camelot, though the second time he saw her fly he noticed she still had some of the deformity in her wings.

Those men had deserved worse than death for what they did to her.

It wasn't long before her heard the wind of her return. He glanced up just as she touched back down onto the ground and laid a dragon egg before him. It was white, just like she was with glimmers of auburn around the top and bottom. Merlin raised his eyebrow. "How will that help me?" Merlin asked her. "I don't need another thing to worry about!"

She sighed and pointed to the egg again. "Kilgharrah," she said, butchering the name horribly. Merlin blinked.

"Wait, that's Kilgharrah?"

She gave him a look as though he was stupid.

"Oh, it's his?"

She nodded, smiling again. Then she pointed to herself and did her best imitation of a dragon blush. Merlin burst into laughter and picked up the egg. "Okay, didn't expect that." He paused, looking it over.

"Speak." She croaked. She pointed at the egg. "He speak. He help Merlin."

Merlin could not see how hatching a dragon capable of human speech could help him at all. "How exactly will he be able to help?" But Aithusa only smiled in reply nodding eagerly to the egg. Merlin heaved a sigh and put the egg back on the ground. Only a Dragonlord could hatch an egg with a dragon of ancient magic, so even if he didn't want to it was his duty. He took a breath and held his hand out over the egg, seeking the name of the creature within it.

"Korrizahar!" he called out in the dragon tongue.

Aithusa released a loud chirp of joy as the egg rattled and cracked. She jumped up and down, leveling a second tree. Merlin glanced nervously at her, hoping he was far enough away from the castle so that they couldn't hear her antics. The egg burst open and a pair of large golden eyes peered out. The dragon was red, a handsome maroon marred with blotches of black and charcoal. His eyes were fixed on Merlin as he crawled out of what was left of his egg, his dark wings smeared with blood stretched before curling back against his body.

Merlin smiled at him and held out his hand to the dragon. The creature looked at it for a moment, sniffing Merlin; before it spread it's wings and dashed up Merlin's arm. He winced as the thorn sharp claws clung to his shoulder, the small angular head nuzzling Merlin's ear and making him laugh.

Aithusa chirped and the dragon turned to her, cocking its head to the side. "Teach him," she said to Merlin, who nodded in reply.

"You're going to have to help me. I can't keep this thing in my dorm." The young dragon made a chirping noise, rubbing its face against Merlin's neck. He laughed and gently patted its head. "I'll be back tomorrow night," and he moved the dragon to his arm. "Don't let either of you be seen by the castle."

Aithusa nodded, and chirped again. Her son turned to her and chirped in reply, spreading his wings and gliding over to sit on top of her head, where he curled up. His golden eyes again fixed themselves on Merlin, more than just curiosity in their depths. Merlin could see the intelligence and the trust the young dragon bore. And, as Aithusa started trotting off into a darkest and most untouched part of the woods Merlin grinned.

He would worry day and night about the two of them, but they were his kin and he knew he could trust them completely. Dragons had the ability to see into the heart of men. Aithusa had aligned herself with Morgana for a long time because she had seen the once virtuous being she'd been, how she'd only ever wanted equality and safety for all who practiced magic in Camelot. It had been a noble cause, and when Aithusa had seen the darkest parts of man she had withdrawn in fear. But once Aithusa had been able to see that there were good people in the world, not just the bad she'd regained just a little bit of her faith in humanity.

Merlin shook his head and started trudging back to the castle, feeling both excited and nervous about the coming months. And he whispered, "How will you help me Korrizahar, The Red of Dusk?"