Chapter Ten

Snape was really beginning to freak Merlin out.

It had started a few days ago, quite out of the blue, as he'd been walking up to the Owlery to post a reader's response letter to the Daily Prophet about their article on Woksprouts being used as part of a cure for Wanditis, a nasty joint problem caused by constant wand waving. He'd been outraged by the article, and when he'd showed it to Professor Sprout, so had she. Together, they'd decided to launch a crusade of knowledge against the ignorant reporters at the Prophet who didn't seem to realise that Woksprouts were irritant plants, and could cause a series of nasty and painful rashes and boils on the skin when applied liberally.

Humming an old North American folk song under his breath, Merlin had just made to ascend the hazardously slippery steps to the tower when he noticed it out of the corner of his eye.

A shadow.

One which was suspiciously hook-nosed and billowing in shape.

Over the course of the week, he had quickly reached the conclusion that Snape was following him.

Not only was Snape following him, but he was doing a rather terrible job of it. Merlin had come to realise that the Potion's master obviously thought that he wasn't worth the time or effort to spy properly on; he clearly perceived Merlin as an idiot, which frankly, offended him somewhat.

In fact it offended him a lot.

He'd been around in the time when espionage had been at its peak after all, and had even had a go at it himself, quite fancying the mystery and romanticism of being a Secret Agent. Needless to say, as soon as he realised that being a spy actually meant running around a lot, being responsible for many important things and being prepared to hurt other people, he decided to pack it in and hang up the bow tie. Merlin really was terrible at Responsibility, he'd always known that, and he'd had more than enough of it to last several lifetimes.

Yet here he was once again, this time a teacher, responsible for the tutoring and mental wellbeing of children.

Merlin had never had a stalker before though, that was new. He wasn't entirely sure that he liked it though. He should probably let Snake down gently.

That was for later though, he decided. It didn't matter why the man was following him, there was no way he'd suddenly just leapt to the conclusion that Merlin was actually a long-suffering creature of the Old Religion based on a midnight stroll and his assistance in a few of the Weasley Twin's practical jokes. He was much too professional for that.

Merlin tied his yellow, floral-patterned apron closed and rolled up his sleeves with a flourish. He'd decided to clean his classroom manually and save the house elves a job, after all it would be rather unfair of him to expect them to clean up the mess that Seamus Finnegan had made trying to cast a simple jinx.

He hadn't known it was possible to blow a table up with such a basic spell, but he was intrigued; Merlin resolved to ask the young wizard how he became so talented with explosive spells. In the meantime, it was left to him to make sure his pristine floor wasn't damaged too badly. He got down on his hands and knees and started scrubbing, relishing the physical chore after years of laziness and taking advantage of his magic. He was actually beginning to remember his life as a servant. Ah yes, the burning feeling of being over-worked and exhausted, it really brought back fond memories of life at the castle. He could almost hear Gwaine thudding across his newly scrubbed floor in a pair of muddy boots which left a trail through the whole castle.

Muttering to himself about inconsiderate Knights, Merlin dipped his cloth in the bucket of soapy water and worked harder. As his mother always said, a bit of elbow grease never did any harm to anyone.

After half an hour of solid scrubbing, he stood with a weary sigh and leaned back to observe his work. As was always the case when he worked really hard at something, he'd hardly made any difference. Swearing under his breath, Merlin quickly checked around the classroom to ensure it was empty and with a brief flash of gold, his floor was as good as new. Shame, he'd hoped to use the labour as a moral message for his students on the value of hard work and how rewarding it was sometimes to take the hard route. Well, he shrugged, maybe the real message here was that you should always take the easy way out and save yourself the effort of trying.

Ironic really.

The Fwooper bird was looking at him expectantly again. Since setting the fossil up in the classroom, Merlin felt that it had become much more demanding, as though being in plain view of the students had gone to its bony head. With a sigh, Merlin flicked his hand and polished the bones to a gleam.

"You really are high maintenance, you know that right?"

He took the silence as confirmation.

Sighing, he retreated to his office, where the √°beran stone he had used in a demonstration during a previous lesson was sitting innocently on his desk beside the Mer token. He'd been forced to remove it from the box upon realising that a large and very obvious crack had appeared, which cut through the centre of the smooth surface like a chasm. It was annoying because the stones were so expensive, but what else could he have done? Refused to show them? He'd made absolutely sure to hold back before trying, reigning his power in before reciting the spell, but it seems the stone just wasn't having it.

The weather had turned quite nasty overnight, the air was frosty even though Christmas was months away and Halloween was the holiday that was fast approaching. Merlin loved Halloween, particularly the trick-or-treaters that used to come to his house when he lived in America, but this year was something special. The Triwizard Tournament champions would be named in a few short weeks, and Merlin was quite excited about the whole thing. He had half a mind to put his own name in the goblet and see what would happen, fancying himself prancing around an obstacle course and fending off vicious man-eating plants. Just like his trip to the magical oasis of plants found deep within the Amazon rainforest. He remembered being quite badly burned on that trip, his pasty skin never really got around to embracing the healing properties of vitamin D or tanning to a nice olive colour. Despite his longing for the warmer climates, Merlin quite enjoyed walking around the school grounds on such a frosty day.

He walked leisurely down his familiar path past the Forbidden Forest and towards the Quidditch pitch, his boots crunching on the hard earth. Wrapping his usual red scarf tighter around his face, he extended its reach so that it could comfortably cover the exposed skin, and of course his highly exposed ears.

As Merlin walked closer to the pitch, he realised that it was in use. Three people soared through the air on broomsticks, performing incredible somersaults and dangerous manoeuvres with a large degree of skill. He slipped into a seat at the back of the stands on a icy rickety bench and tried to hunch in on himself so he could have a nosey in peace without them noticing. Now that he was closer, he realised that Harry, Fred and George were flying while Ron and Hermione stood on the pitch and watched. It was clear that the three were in a competition as to who could out-perform the others with Ron and Hermione judging. From the indigent yelling, Merlin got the impression that Ron was biased towards his best friend rather than his brothers.

Laughing at the Twins complaints, Harry increased his speed, heading straight up until he was a tiny figure in the clear sky before suddenly launching into a frightening dive to the ground. Merlin's eyes widened, he felt his muscles tense in preparation to stop Harry breaking his neck, but at the last minute the boy pulled from the dive with ease to a round of applause from his best friends.

Merlin smiled. He had tried flying by broom on numerous occasions, each time ending in a larger disaster than the last until eventually, he'd had to admit defeat.

Just as Merlin had made up his mind to leave, he heard his name called from across the pitch. Fred had changed course and was now flying in a lazy circle above the stands where Merlin had taken refuge, while his twin almost crash landed in front of him. Harry had landed, and he, Ron and Hermione soon joined them, taking the stairs two at a time, their breath misting in the frigid air.

Fred lowered his broom handle and vaulted from it as soon as he was close enough to the seats, landing heavily beside Merlin in a burst of laughter.

"Sir, we didn't see you! Have you been here long?" Hermione gushed excitedly, her cheeks pink from the sting of the wind.

Merlin beamed at them, his eyes just visible above the scarf. His voice was slightly muffled against the thick cotton. "No, no. Just admiring your flying skills. And your dedication, its a bit cold to be flipping about in mid-air isn't it?"

Harry shook his head with a slight smile. His hair, which was normally messy enough, looked as though it had been coated in anti-gravity gel with clumps sticking in every direction. He felt a prang of sympathy; they all looked freezing.

Merlin reached into his thick, fur-lined cloak, which he had "borrowed" from a Canadian wizard about a century ago and still meant to give back some day and, after some rummaging, withdrew a flask and a stack of plastic cups.

Fred turned to his twin with a questioning expression which was returned. Sharing a synchronised shrug, the two turned to watch as Merlin poured some of the golden brown liquid equally into six of the cups, which he had balanced precariously on his knee. Or rather, they looked precariously balanced, but in truth he knew that they wouldn't fall, even if he started shaking his knees up and down. Merlin felt like he really had a gift for balancing, he had been in several circus acts during his time after all. And if sometimes he cheated a little bit to keep them upright.. well.. who would know?

After tucking the flask back in his cloak, he handed the cups out.

Merlin didn't miss Ron's doubtful expression. Instead of giving reassurance, he grinned and took a long gulp of the hot chocolate, sighing happily at the spread of warmth through his body.

The twins had downed their drink in one gulp without a moment of hesitation and were gazing in awe at the bottom of their cups with matching expressions of glee. Harry finished his own with a gasp of surprise.

"Wow" he whispered, his face so shocked that Merlin couldn't help but laugh. "What is that?"

"Its like a home-brewed hot chocolate thingy. I like to call it 'makes-you-warm-hot-chocolate'. What do you think?"

"I think you need a new name."

The twins snorted.

"Oh." Merlin took their cups back, stacking them neatly before tucking them back in his cloak. "Well. You can think of one if you want. I'll give you the recipe, its quite easy to make."

"Really?" Hermione breathed, her eyes bright. A comfortable warmth settled through him and Merlin knew it wasn't just from the hot chocolate. Not for the first time, he congratulated himself for deciding to leave the solitude of his lonely cottage and get involved with the world again; if he hadn't made that step he wouldn't have had the pleasure of meeting such exceptional students. That hadn't been the only reason he'd left of course. He'd caught himself talking to his own plants out of boredom on far too many occasions for his liking.

"Sir?"

He looked at Hermione, who had taken off her gloves and stuffed them in her black school robes. Maybe he'd brewed the chocolate to be too warm for this time of year.

"I was just wondering.. Professor Dumbledore mentioned that you'd travelled a long way to get here? Were you working abroad?"

Five pairs of keen eyes settled on him.

"Hmm?" Merlin buried his hands in the folds of his cloak, deciding that he would tell them as much of the truth as he could - he'd always hated lying. "Well. I've just been travelling around everywhere, you know? I haven't had a home in a long time." Yeah, understatement of the century.

"Travelling where?"

She was too curious, her eyes so bright that Merlin found himself questioning whether she was really asking in innocence. He knew the young witch was intelligent far beyond her years, but even so he had played this game too many times to give anything away.

"All over the world." He settled with, in all honesty. "There aren't half some weird and wonderful people on this planet. Did you know there's a roaming community of witches and wizards in the Savanna desert? They've developed their own methods of using magic because they've been isolated from the rest of civilisation for so long - like their wands for instance, they're more like twigs than anything else. Its really amazing. Of course, you have to wear the traditional dress when visiting, otherwise they just take you for barbarians. Weird at first, but I have to tell you that I really do look stunning in a loincloth. Its actually quite liberating."

Ron's eyes were wide with barely concealed horror. Merlin really needed to get around to installing a verbal filter. He had an awful tendency to ramble when he was excited about something. He figured that was probably because he had nobody to reprimand him anymore but himself.
Fred and George didn't seem to mind, they took one look at Ron's face and doubled over, wheezing. "Do you still have it, Sir? Can we borrow it?"

Merlin chuckled. "Lets not traumatise your brother any more." Looking past them, he noted with a start that it was getting dark very quickly. If they didn't hurry, they would miss the feast and Merlin's stomach just wasn't willing to compromise on that.

"Alright whippersnappers. The feast calls." He stood, bones protesting slightly at the sudden movement. Over a thousand years later and he still wasn't in shape, Arthur would tease him relentlessly when he returned.

Merlin made his way down the stairs, the children following him closely like a group of ducklings with broomsticks. He guessed this made him the mother duck.

They followed him to the main entrance, chatting excitedly about the upcoming Triwizard tournament.

"Yeah, but we're obviously going to win, right Fred?"

"Right George."

The twins grinned with a hint of mischief.

"You do realise that you're underage right?" Hermione said sarcastically. "Remember Dumbledore's age line? They won't get past that, will they Professor?"

Merlin made to reply but he was cut off by Professor Snape as he emerged from the shadows in front of them, effectively blocking the doors which led to the Great Hall. His beetle-black eyes raked over the gaggle of students, resting on Harry with such a look of utter contempt that Merlin bristled, stepping in front of the boy protectively. With a great deal of effort, he managed to summon a polite smile.

"Can I help you?"

For a moment, Snape looked livid. It passed in a flash and his face turned carefully blank, betraying nothing. His tone was cold and commanding. "Follow me."

Merlin almost jerked back in surprise. He hadn't even expected an answer from the potion's master, let alone a request.

"Erm." He said, unravelling the scarf slowly and taking off his thick robe. "Not that I wouldn't love to, but I'm actually starving. Is it important?"

Snape glared. "Obviously."

Merlin sighed in exasperation. He could tell the man was lying, and his stomach was twisting painfully. He was a growing thousand-and-odd-year-old man after all, food was very important. Glancing at his pupils, he noticed with a flash of shock that they were surrounding him like a shield, glaring at Snape in evident anger. Not wanting to cause them any trouble, Merlin made his mind up.

"Alright then."

Snake moved out of the way of the doors and Merlin turned, winking at his self-appointed gang of merry men reassuringly before following the dark figure down the corridor.

He'd insisted on stopping to drop off his cloak first, which had angered Snape even more than Merlin had thought possible. After a few twists and turns, Merlin was beginning to wonder where the man was taking him. He was going in the opposite direction of the dungeons, which is where he'd expected to be ending up. Instead, they were walking past the library and towards a cluster of empty classrooms.

Merlin didn't ask where they were going. He was still mildly annoyed at missing dinner. Actually, mildly was putting it... well.. mildly. Snape had been following him around making him paranoid enough and now he was interfering with Merlin's daily food needs.

He barely noticed anything amiss at first, walking through the doorway of the empty classroom, his eyes barely open as he scanned the room.

And then he did.

The humour drained from his face in an instant, as he took in the wooden frame, the gilded writing and the large reflective surface which he definitely, definitely wasn't looking at.

"Something wrong?" Snape asked, his voice laced with triumph.

Merlin found himself wondering if the Old Religion would punish him if he turned the slimy haired potions master into a turnip.

He did not look at the mirror.

Keeping his eyes fixed on the ground, Merlin took a deep breath and began to count down slowly from ten, envisioning his mind as the perfect canvas of calm. A tropical water, lapping softly against the sand of time. At first cynical, Merlin had stolen the technique from a muggle 'spiritual guru' on daytime TV. He found that it worked wonders for his emotional well being, and he'd always had a vivid imagination. He'd also rather enjoyed the recommended follow up massage which, the guru had promised with a smile, would relieve years of pent up stress and ward signs of aging from his skin. Well, a thousand years of stress and suffering might take a while to work from the muscles, but after the hour long session had ended his skin was left glowing.

Merlin resolved to consider a more relaxed lifestyle after this mess with the Riddle boy was sorted. He would retire to a Himalayan mountain, rent a shrine and start a yoga club.

When he felt that he had moved out of the danger zone which would have resulted in turning Snake into a vegetable, Merlin glanced up at the man in question. He allowed his face to relax into a mask of perfect cheer. Snape's features twisted with loathing, clearly this wasn't the expected outcome of this encounter, and if looks could kill, Merlin would be... well probably still alive?

"The mirror of Erised." Merlin stated coolly. "Yes.. very impressive." He made a show of picking dirt from beneath his fingernails. Wow, he frowned, there actually was a lot of dirt under his fingernails, that was kind of gross actually. "But I was under the impression it was no longer in Hogwarts."

Snape's mouth curled.

"This mirror shows your deepest and most desperate desire, if I'm not mistaken. And I'm not. So I wonder why you wanted me to see it."

Snape stood silently, his eyes glinting in the dimly lit classroom, his face betraying nothing. Or so he thought. Merlin could read him like an open book.

"You're too late, I've already exposed this particular mystery." Merlin's smile turned quite savage. "My deepest yearning, that is."

A moment passed. Somewhere nearby, Filch shuffled through the empty corridor muttering to his cat, his incoherent rambling breaking the strained silence. The classroom had dropped a few degrees but the chilly room did not come close to the chill in his bones, a thick coating of ice and rot and everything wrong with Merlin.

Count to ten.

"And what exactly would that be?" Snape ground out, as though the words burned his throat.

Merlin exhaled harshly, the sound sharp in the still air. "A chocolate house."

Snape's eyes widened a fraction before he reigned himself in. "I beg your pardon?"

"A huge, whopping chocolate house with frilly icing windows and caramel curtains." Merlin shook his head forlornly, "I know it will never be, but every day I wake up and think 'what if?'. What if I could live in a place that was completely edible. I would never want for anything."

Snape stared. Moments passed.

Merlin grinned. "Alas. Life is long and cruel, we can't always get what we want."

The potion's teacher closed his mouth slowly.

"If you want to talk, you can always come to my office at a more reasonable hour. Like, you know.. after I've eaten."

He made to leave, but hesitated at the last moment, tilting his head slightly to study the other man closely. Merlin knew that Snape wasn't a bad person, he just enjoyed acting like one. A series of deep personal issues had left the man bitter and jaded; he took his frustrations out on his students and on himself. Merlin could empathise.

"Look. I don't blame you for not trusting me." He smiled warmly. "I know I'm a shady character, and you just want to protect your school per the headmaster's instructions." At this, Snake scoffed in distaste, but Merlin pressed on, knowing that he was right. "But believe me when I say, I'm only here to help. Nothing more. You don't need to use this kind of trick to get me to spill my secrets."

Nor did he want to know Merlin's secrets.

His hand darted out to catch Snape on the arm, his palm resting directly over the man's dark mark. Its aura oozed from the man's skin in a concentration of evil, a permanent brand to commemorate all the bad choices he had made. Snape seemed too shocked to register what was happening, he frowned and furiously tried to pull away, but Merlin held firm and his gaze didn't waver. He had no tolerance or sympathy for Death Eaters, but this man was no Death Eater and, as such, didn't deserve to be marked as one like a pig for slaughter.

"Listen to me." Surprisingly, Snape froze as though seeing Merlin for the first time. "I'm not the one you need to be worrying about, Severus."

"What do you mean by that exactly, O Wise one?" Snape spat sarcastically.

Merlin released him, walking slowly back towards the door and opening it. Before leaving, he turned his head knowing that, above all else, Snape would try to preserve the interests of the school and the headmaster.

"Keep your eye out for Mad-eye Moody. Pun not intended."

He allowed the door to shut behind him with a thud of finality.


A/N: Hey! Once again, I can only apologise for the length of time it takes me to update, jeez aha. So here is my offering *humbly presents chapter* I hope it was alright and not too terrible. You've all been so lovely with reviews and messages, I really can't live up to that haha, but thank you so much! You're all incredibly awesome. As you all probably know, it takes a while for the creative juices to start flowing and to actually write the chapters. I have a twenty page assignment to write in a few weeks among other things, and I don't wanna be making excuses in advance but just in case it takes a while, that will be why. I think I did alright making this chapter a lot longer than it usually is, so in case I don't make it before Christmas, I hope you all have an amazing time enjoying whatever you celebrate this month. :) And if you don't celebrate anything, I just hope you have an amazing month. Okay, thanks again