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survival is a talent

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Draco intends to go back to sleep. What actually happens is he spends about forty minutes curled into the blankets trying to will himself to sleep in between thinking of the edits he has to make to his patronus containment article and failing to effectively do either.

He sighs, giving in to the inevitable and rolling out of bed and onto his feet. They should have just spent the night in the chamber of secrets where no one would have bothered them. Well, the snakes would have, but at least Ginny probably wouldn’t have been able to interrupt their sleep. Something really interesting better be happening at that Weasley family meeting.

He messily pulls his hair into a bun, already having decided to spend the morning finishing his essay so he can drop it off with Flitwick and Pomfrey and be done with it. They can fight amongst themselves whether he’s submitting it to a medial journal or the Charms Review because he refuses to have an opinion about it.

Well, obviously he has an opinion on it, mostly he’s just refusing to get involved because he doesn’t have any strong opinions on it and they definitely do. On one hand, if he’s published in a medical journal, he’ll be a published researcher in two different fields before graduating, which would be pretty cool. On the other hand, if he submits and is accepted to Charms Review again, this will be his third article published before graduation, which has a nice ring to it. He supposes he could try and have another magical breakthrough before his seventh year, but the chances of him doing that, writing it up, and submitting it in time for it to be peer reviewed before graduation are pretty low.

It’s too bad that everything they’re doing to replicate Gryffindor’s sword has to remain a secret. They’ll almost definitely be able to squeeze a couple good articles out of that, except they definitely can’t do that, because replicating it hast to be a secret.

Ron and Hermione could probably scrape something together about the giant tree the made in the department of mysteries and that time they liquified Ollivanders if Ron was willing to do math or admit that he knows alchemy. Actually, Ron could probably write a really good introductory alchemy book. His writing style is way too casual for most academic papers, including for Hogwarts, but it makes it fairly accessible for everyone else.

He’ll never do it on his own, but he and Hermione could probably trick him into by just asking him basic alchemy questions and then writing down his answers. Ron probably wouldn’t even notice until the royalty checks hit. It’s not like he walks into a bookstore without Hermione.

Hm, maybe as a summer project. Their schedules are a little full currently.

Draco digs through his drawers for a pair of cuttoff shorts that are a little bit too baggy for their intended purpose but are too comfortable for him to throw out. He hesitates as he’s reaching for his shirt. He was going to grab the hot pink Quiberon Quafflepunchers hoodie Harry had gotten him last year, but there’s something else in his closet that he could wear, that he kind of wants to wear, but circumstances had prevented him before now.

Fuck it.

It’s not like everyone doesn’t know about them anyway.

Draco takes out Harry’s quidditch jersey from last year and pulls it on. He and Harry are pretty much the same size, except Harry likes his clothes looser than he does and this jersey was intended to be go over several layers of padding, so it’s perfectly too big on Draco.

It’s a shame that Harry’s not here to see him in it. Hopefully his housemates fulfill their roles of being a bunch of gossips so Harry can hear about what he missed. Although that would require Harry actually paying attention to the gossip, which isn’t likely to happen. If he’s lucky Ron will hear about it and complain about him being gross while Harry is around.

It’s still far too early for anyone to be up, especially since they’d thrown a party the night before, so he’s expecting the common room to be empty of everyone except possibly Millie who’s notorious for just never sleeping. Considering their friend group and their sleep schedules, that’s saying something. Probably not anything good, but Millie does tend to be the sensible one, so they don’t have much room to call her out on it.

Draco steps into the common room, and there is someone there, but it’s not Millie.

It’s Blaise. Who has what looks like every single dress shirt he owns piled in front of him as he methodically polishes the each button on each shirt. He must have summoned them from his closet since Draco knows he hasn’t stepped foot in their room since last night. Unless he’s brought them from home, which is even more concerning.

Draco drops his mostly finished essay and his notes onto a side table. He feels like he’s probably not going to be getting to those for a moment. He sits down in the armchair across from him and says, “So, this is weird.”

“They’re not going to polish themselves,” Blaise says.

Well, they’re wizards, so they literally could. Or if he was suddenly that concerned about his buttons and didn’t want to charm them himself, Draco could have asked Winky to do it for him. It would have taken her about three minutes if she was being lazy about it.

Blaise knows all that, obviously, so Draco lets the silence stretch until it snaps. Blaise sighs, finally looking up from his shirts. “I think I’m having a crisis.”

Draco doesn’t think Blaise has had a crisis since he refused to talk when they were kids, and that mostly a crisis for other people rather than Blaise himself. “Okay.”

“What do you do when you like someone?” he asks.

He can’t laugh, because Blaise would kill him and also never forgive him, but he’s a terrible person to ask. He’s only ever liked one person and that’s Harry. Or, well, his childhood crush on Blaise’s mother. “Is this about Neville?”

“I told you that we weren’t talking about that,” Blaise says automatically, looking around to check if they’d been overheard even though they’re the only people in the common room.

“Right, sorry,” he says. It’s probably for the best, really. In a fight between Ginny and Blaise he doesn’t know who would be the victor and he doesn’t want to find out. His one other guess would be Lavender, who’s the only person Blaise has even sort of dated, and that’s a generous definition of the word. It’s definitely not her because Blaise has never seemed more than blandly friendly towards her, even in fourth year when they were theoretically together for a few weeks. “I don’t know. You tell them? You get kidnapped and wait for them to rescue you and then you fight a giant snake and a dark lord together? Or just play chess, we did that for a while, but we were, you know, twelve.”

Blaise stares at him for a moment then looks to the ceiling. “I don’t know why I’m talking to you.”

Draco would be offended by that, but he might have a point. “You could ask Hermione? She dated Viktor for a while.”

“That’s no use, she just sat around being beautiful while he asked her out,” he says.

Also true. “Well, you’re really good at sitting around being beautiful, so maybe you should try that?” Blaise has a look on his face like he’s considering hexing him, but Draco doesn’t know what he expected. “I don’t know, all our friends are disasters. What about Cho? She has a normal and healthy relationship with her husband. I think.”

“Stop trying to be helpful,” Blaise orders. Draco makes a wounded noise and presses his hand to his chest. Blaise was the one who started this by polishing his shirt buttons at the crack of dawn for no reason like a psychopath.

“What do you need help with?” He turns to see Millie coming out from the door that leads to the girls’ dorms. She still has some eyeliner smudged on her face and her hair is in an approximation of a ponytail. She’s in leggings and an oversized bright yellow crochet sweater that Pansy made for her by hand for her last birthday. There is, of course, a muggle book in her hands, although these days she doesn’t bother to charm the cover to hide that. “I’m surprised you guys are up this early.”

Maybe Millie can help. She’s always reading those romance novels and there has to be something useful in there. “Blaise-”

“Buttons,” he says, his hand twitching in a way that makes it clear he wants to reach for his wand, which shuts Draco up. Blaise wouldn’t hurt him but he would make him suffer. “I need help polishing my buttons.”

“Wand not working?” she teases. She’s not even leering and they’re both acting like that wasn’t a hysterical exchange, so Draco keeps his laughter to himself, but he makes a note to tell the rest of the group about this later.

“My wand,” he says, gravely enough that Draco’s pretty sure they’re at least aware of the joke they just made, “is working perfectly fine.”

“Well, I suppose I could give you hand polishing your buttons, anyway,” she says, taking a seat on the other end of the couch from Blaise, putting her book on the table and then holding out her hand for a polishing cloth.

Draco has no idea what’s happening. Is this how Harry feels all the time? How exhausting.

~

Harry shows up for his bagpipe lesson with Minerva and says, “I have more questions about Snape.”

“Professor Snape,” she sighs, but has at least become resigned to this rather than actively refusing him.

She hadn’t said anything useful when he’d questioned her about Snape’s career trajectory per Draco’s request, but he thinks this might have a better success rate. Actually, maybe he should come at this sideways. “Wait, I have some other questions first. Can you perform the unforgivable curses wandlessly?”

“Mr. Potter!” she snaps, genuinely taken aback, which he hadn’t been expecting. “Why are you asking that? Tell me you haven’t tried it.”

He wonders if it should be concerning to him that she thinks he’s just casually out here performing unforgivables, but considering all the morally questionable things he does spend his time doing, it’s probably not to his advantage to get upset about it. “No. But can you?”

Her lips press into a thin line, but then she says, “Yes. Why are you asking?”

“Really?” He honestly had thought that the answer would be no. That’s what the book seemed to be saying. “But doesn’t it mess with your magic?”

“I’m an old woman,” yeah, right, “and it’s been a long time since my magic did anything that I didn’t want it to do. You, however, have the magical control of a particularly excitable first year, so I very much do not recommend that you attempt the same.”

Hm. “So it’s a control thing, then?” Could Draco do it? Or Hermione or Blaise? All their control is pretty good. Well, assuming they can cast unforgiveables in the first place, but it’s not like any of them have ever struggled with difficult spells.

Well, Blaise has, but if it’s control rather than power based – but, no, that’s just casting it wandlessly, not casting it at all, but Hermione definitely can. Maybe Ginny, she has a knack for combat magic, and he thinks these count.

“Of a sort,” she says slowly. “Why are you asking me this, Harry? It’s making me nervous.”

Harry’s pretty sure that Minerva has never been nervous a day in her life, but he says, “It’s nothing bad. It’s something I asked Snape but he didn’t really answer me.”

Minerva stares at him for a long moment. “You asked Severus if he could perform the unforgivable wandlessly?”

Her reaction is making him nervous. He nods. 

“And what did he say?” she asks in a perfectly neutral tone that’s triggering his fight or flight response.

“He told me to check out a book,” he says. “It’s mostly equations that I don’t understand. Hermione and Draco are busy, so I haven’t been able to get anyone to explain it to me.”

He’s already having them work on the equations from the necromancy book, not that he’s going to tell Minerva that. At this rate he’s really going to have to learn to do his own mathand that’s not going to go well for anyone.

“I see,” she says.

Harry doesn’t. “Well, do you know if he can perform them wandlessly? He has good control, doesn’t he?”

“Of a sort,” she says, then grimaces like she hadn’t meant to say that.

He waits to see if she’s going to explain further, but she doesn’t. “I don’t understand.”

“Do you know why the unforgivable curses are unforgiveable?” she asks.

His eyes narrow. “Snape asked me that question too.”

“It’s an important question,” she says.

“Well, I said it was because they did unforgivable things, but he didn’t tell me the answer,” he scowls. “Are you going to? If I have to figure it out by unscrambling the equations in that book, it’s going to be a while.”

The look Minerva gives him lets him know he’s pushing his luck, but he’s tired of this. He just wants a straight answer!

She sighs, but says, “It’s not what they do, Mr. Potter, but how they do it. For example, whether I strangle you or use a suffocating jinx, you die just the same.”

A terrifying thought, but an accurate one. “Okay.”

“But the unforgivable curses don’t attack the physical body,” she continues. “It affects your magic. They turn the victim’s own magic against them and it kills them, or pains them, or controls them. A sufficiently strong confoundus charm is impossible to break because it affects the victim’s brain and someone can’t out-will or out-stubborn physical changes to their brain. However, imperio controls someone through their magic, and can be broken by someone with sufficiently strong will or someone with a strong control of their own magic.”

That – that makes sense. That makes so much sense. Why couldn’t Snape have just told him that?

“But Blaise has really good control and a strong will and he can’t break imperio,” he says, and it’s only after he’s spoken that he wonders if that’s something he shouldn’t have said.

“Yes, well, Zaira won’t let anyone perform it on her son besides herself, so that’s only to be expected,” she answers. Just how well do Zaira and Minerva know each other? Maybe she just heard that from Snape, or – well, most of the Slytherins seem to know that, so maybe it’s just a well known fact, for some reason, but Harry’s suspicious. “Additionally, the type of control that’s needed is different. Mr. Zabini has excellent control on his external magic. His mother is an expert on manipulating small amounts of external magic without tiring herself out.”

Harry thinks back to his trial when Zaira had performed magic several times and had hadn’t once reached for her wand, instead wordlessly and wandlessly performing those tasks.

“What’s the difference between external and internal magic?” he asks.

Based on the look Minerva is giving him, that’s something he should probably know. “External magic is manifesting your magic outside of your body in order to complete a spell. The vast majority of magic is external. However, there are those forms of internal magic. Occlumency is the most basic and universally used, and while it’s a difficult art, things such as overcoming imperio or, for example, astral projection are internal magic.”

“I haven’t done that since last year!” he protests.

Minerva is unimpressed. “The point is, Harry, that your internal control of your magic is much better than your external control. However, most internal magics have an external component, which is where your control falters. Astral projecting is internal magic. Interacting with your surroundings as an astral projection is external magic. If your out of balance in one of these, you put yourself in grave danger, Mr. Potter.”

Oh no, she’s calling him Mr. Potter and looking at him over the rim of her glasses. He needs to change the subject. “So, Snape can do that then? He has good internal control?”

Minerva takes out her bagpipes and starts playing, getting louder and louder whenever he tries to ask her another question. It’s so funny he can’t even pretend to get mad and in the end he just joins her.

He can’t wait to go back home for Yule with his new extremely dubious bagpipe skills. Sirius and Remus are going to hate it.

~

Of the many amenities they’ve added to the shrieking shack, a forge isn’t among them.

Draco has a solution. Sort of.

“This is seeming inadvisable,” Winky says dubiously. Her vocabulary has been expanding ever since she started hanging out with Kreacher and always she deploys it at times when he shouldn’t laugh. It’s happened often enough that he’s starting to think that it’s on purpose.

Her fingers are poised to snap the moment it looks like he’s in danger. Well, more danger. Too much danger.

Theophania is watching him from curled along the edges of the chamber with Abigail sitting on the crown of her head. Nagini is wrapped around the stool Winky is standing on, her head raised as she stares into the bright flames. She likes fire so much that sometimes he thinks that she might be part ashwinder, but even she’s keeping her distance.

Personally, he thinks that asking Winky to transport a forge to the chamber of secrets isn’t even that high up in the weird things he’s asked her to do.

“I’ll be fine,” he says instead of saying that it’s not dangerous, because Winky does not tolerate him lying to her. The dragonscale apron and gloves he’s wearing that are splattered with varying levels of enhanced silver makes it pretty obvious that there’s some risk involved.  

That’s one of the hazards of working with silver. He’s layered several protection charms over himself, but considering he’s specifically trying to figure out a way to forge silver in a way that enhances its magical properties, one of which is cutting through wards and protection spells, relying solely on his charms seems like a good way to get himself burned. He could probably heal himself if that happened, but it’s not worth the risk of having to explain himself to Pomfrey. Whenever she thinks he’s hurt himself in an unnecessary way – a vague description the parameters of which they’ve argued about more than once – she makes him do the boring bitch work or has him write up a boring essay on one of the strange but effective changes he’s made to his personal healing spellwork.

The point is that he can’t get hurt. A little bit because getting hurt is bad, but mostly because he’d never hear the end of it.

He wishes he could mix the silver with something that would enhance it for him, like copper, or something he could store it in to magnify its effects without destabilizing it, like obsidian. But anything he adds has its own kind of magical energy, making it different than the one they’re trying to replicate. They’re trying to make an extremely complex magical sword out of three things, more or less, and they’re not goblins, so it’s seeming more and more impossible. It’s not like he can bind the silver to the griffin claws or the rubies –

Wait.

“I am not liking that look on your face,” Winky says warily.

“Can you clean this up for me? Stabilize the silver before letting it cool,” he orders.

“Perhaps it would be better to just start from scratch,” she suggests, but he’s already hurrying towards the exit. Silver is cheap, relatively, and if Winky decides that it’s too volatile to keep, that’s fine too.

He summons the chimera map, far too impatient to wait, and follows it to a room he’s never noticed before on the same level as the great hall. He squints at a door that he’s sure he’s never seen before in a hallway that he’s passed through approximately a hundred times, shrugs, then pushes it open.

“Filius, what happens to an object’s magical signature once it’s transfigured? Specifically if you’ve charmed it beforehand,” he asks, then blinks, looks back down at the map, notices all the names surrounding Filius’s that he’d been too excited to process, then adds, “Sorry for interrupting.”

McGonagall is staring at him in a way he can’t exactly place while Sprout affects an expression so deeply scandalized that Draco is certain she’s faking it. Snape just pinches the bridge of his nose. “How did you get past the wards, Mr. Malfoy?”

“What wards?” he asks, then looks down at himself and his silver coated clothes and considers that at least one of the configurations had been more successful than he thought. Unfortunately, since he’s covered with the effects of multiple experiments, he doesn’t know which one it was. Whatever, this is why he writes things down now. Or, well, that’s why Winky writes things down for him now. “Why are you all in here? I thought the professor’s lounge was on the fifth floor.”

There’s a beat of silence and all of them exchange a series of looks before Filius says, “Why are you asking about the affects of transfiguration on the stability of charms?”

“No reason,” he answers. He hadn’t really been thinking about it in terms of stability, but maybe he should have. Could he layer them like he layers his healing spells? Would it even help or would it not matter at all? Would it change the possibility of backlash? Can a spell backlash if its already settled, even if that object is altered? He’d think it could, except he’s literally never heard of that happening before. Granted, he’s never heard of a lot of things happening before, up until they happen to him.

“You’re thinking so loudly I can practically hear you,” Filius sighs. That would be a concerning statement if Filius were a better Legilimens or Draco was worse at occlumency. “Also, for someone who’s asking this question for no reason, that’s some interesting clothes you have on.”

Oh, right, he’s still wearing the protective gloves and apron. That plus his line of questioning is a bit incriminating, but it’s a little late to be worrying about that now. He’s known for experimenting with the melding metals and magic, after all, and if they figure it out after they’ve stolen the sword, that’s fine. It’ll be too late for them to do anything about it after all.

“Don’t ask questions you don’t want to know the answers to,” he says. If it were just Filius he’d just admit the obvious, which is that he’s experimenting with the properties of silver using a forge he’s smuggled onto school grounds, but that’s because Filius isn’t a snitch. He can’t trust the rest of them. Up until recently, Snape was a professional snitch, after all. “So are you going to answer my question or not?”

Filius rolls his eyes. “It depends. Can you get more specific?”

“Say, theoretically, you wanted to enhance the property of one thing with another but the thing you were using to enhance the property would taint the other material it was being combined with. Could you combine to get the enhancing effect and then transfigure it to be the same material without losing the enhancing effect? Would that work?”

There’s a long silence. Sprout frowns while Snape starts tapping his fingers against the table, and innocuous but unnerving gesture since Draco’s never seen him do it before.

“Minerva?” Filius asks, his bushy eyebrows pushed together.

McGonagall stares off into the distance for a moment before pushing herself to her feet. “One way to find out, I suppose.”

“No,” Sprout says urgently while Snape pinches the bridge of his nose.

“Excellent, excellent,” Filius exclaims, nearly running to keep up with McGonagall. “We’ll discuss this on Wednesday, Draco.”

“I’m going to get Poppy,” Sprout announces, wringing her hands in a way that sets off alarm bells in Draco’s head before hurrying out the door. She once cheerfully flung both herself and her students head first into a plant monster. She’s not a woman that rattles easily.

Now it’s just him and Snape alone in the room. “Okay, neat. Bye, Professor Snape.”

“Please understand, Mr. Malfoy,” he says with a gravity that Draco can’t be totally sure is faked, “that whatever happens next is your fault.”

“I don’t take responsibility for other people’s decisions,” he says snootily, then leaves before Snape can give him detention for it.

~

Harry hears from Millie that Tonks messaged Pansy about making her wedding dress the next day, before she’e even gotten back from vacation. Pansy is thrilled and accepts on the spot. The downside is that while she’s working on the design, she’s far too busy to hang out with them, so there’s a solid week there where Pansy practically disappears. They only see her in class if they’re lucky. Pansy is nearly late to their next meeting, but since she isn’t late, she just glares at the rest of them when they start making fun of her for it.

They’re supposed to talk about the progress they’ve made for the griffin sword, but instead Hermione pulls out the necromancy book she’d borrowed, slams it on the table, drops a stack of parchment thicker than the book itself on top of it, and says, “Great news. I have no idea what this spell is supposed to do.”

“How is that great news?” Ron asks.

“Why are these in so many different languages?” Blaise asks, flipping through her notes.

“Because I’m not stupid enough to cast Dead Man’s Tongue,” she answers. “Even if I was, I’m not even sure that would work on a necromancy book.”

Harry frowns. When Hermione has asked for the book, it hadn’t occurred to him that she wouldn’t be able to read it. “Why didn’t you ask me to translate it for you?”

“Because it just looks like English to you,” she says. “You’d already translated the equations into English for us. Or, well, Arabic, since that’s what our numerical system is based on. That wasn’t what I was looking for.”

That doesn’t make any sense to Harry, but Pansy’s spine straightens. “Is that how you solved the directional problem?”

“Oh, that’s clever,” Draco says. “Damn. I wish I’d thought of that.”

Hermione flushes even as she beams. “Yes. It was the only way I could think to figure it out.”

Neville raises his hand. “Directional problem?”

“The equations as written didn’t make any sense,” Pansy explains. “They’re just nonsense. But if they’re done backwards, then there are three viable interpretations, but we couldn’t figure out which one it was.”

“Pansy was the one who thought to do solve the equation backwards,” Hermione adds proudly.

Pansy smirks, but it melts off as she shrugs. “That was about as far as I could go with it. I could kind of follow it as it was written, even if it was kinda bullshit, but once we reversed it the whole thing just got too complicated.”

Just hearing about this sounds too complicated for Harry. He’s completely sympathetic to Ron’s aversion to math.

“What does that have to do with languages?” Millie asks. She’s leaned to the side so she can read over Blaise’s shoulder and by the look on her face they make as much sense to her as the original had to Harry.

“Whenever I looked at the equations, they were a different language that I couldn’t read,” Hermione explains. “So I just copied them down as I saw them and then translated them. Since the book’s translations are accurate, just unreadable by the person trying to read it, I just needed to see which of the possible three paths were replicated in other languages. After the fourth translation, it was obvious.”

Fourth? She copied down and translated this four times? He owes her something nice. Or possibly his first born, but that seems like the type of thing he’d have to discuss with Draco first.

“Clever,” Draco repeats. “But you said it’s nonsense?”

She makes a so-so gesture. “I went through the equations, then I looked up what a spell with those corresponding answers would actually do, and well. It doesn’t make any sense. I redid the math and triple checked the interpretation, but I just kept getting the same answer.”

“Which was?” Luna prompts.

“The killing curse repels a soul from its body,” Hermione says. Harry doesn’t want to interrupt, but he wonders if it’s that it’s the person’s own magic expelling the soul which kills them, since obviously disconnecting a soul from a body does not automatically result in death, otherwise dementors wouldn’t make any sense. Unless they do something different. Damn. He’d ask one, except he’s killed most of them and also he hates them. Maybe Hagrid would know. “That’s how it kills. Once the connection between a soul and body is severed, the body dies, and once the body is dead the soul can’t reenter it. Well, usually, of course there are times – well, anyway, you get the idea. This one does the same thing, but even though the incantation is the same, it just uses the killing curse as a base. The wand movements correspond to the astral projection retrieval spells.”

They all stare at Hermione for a moment before everyone turns to him.

He understands the impulse, because he’s the necromancer here, but that doesn’t make much sense to him either.

“So,” he says slowly, as if that will make it click, “It’s a killing curse that calls the soul back. But the soul can’t reenter the body, because it’s dead. And even if it could, what would the point be in ejecting the soul from the body?”

“That’s astral projection, isn’t it?” Luna asks, brow furrowed. “Could it be just another astral projection spell? Pushing the soul of the body and then calling it back is all that astral projection is.”

Harry shakes his head then shrugs, because what does he know? He can’t read the equations, and even if he could, he wouldn’t know what they meant. “Maybe. But I don’t think so. When you astral project, your soul is still connected to your body. That’s how you find your way back – if you do it right, you never really leave in the first place. But using the killing curse to remove a soul from a body would sever that connection, so at that point you’re not really astral projecting. Or, well, you are, but only until you die. So if the caster uses the killing curse to push their soul out and then immediately call it back so they don’t actually die, then they’re only going to have a few moments to astral project. I’m not sure what the point of that even is.”

“I thought the killing curse killed instantaneously,” Millie says. “If that’s true, wouldn’t it be impossible for the soul to reenter the body, since it’s already dead? Unless this is one of those exceptions that Hermione was talking about.”

“I don’t think so,” Hermione says dubiously. “But it is just the base of the spell. So maybe it – doesn’t kill the caster? Why would it kill the caster?”

“Is it trying to ensure the caster becomes a ghost?” Ron suggests. “If it kills you and then calls your soul back, but your soul can’t enter your body because you’re dead, you’d become a ghost, wouldn’t you?”

Everyone thinks about that for a moment. It doesn’t sound totally right, but it’s a better idea than the rest of them have come up with so far. He really needs to find some time to go to the Ministry and talk to Percy about this book business now that he’s back from vacation. He still doesn’t understand the political implications about all of this and he wants to talk to the Mothers about the pages. They have to have a better idea of what it is.

“Would that explain why none the other Mothers could find Slughorn?” Neville asks. “If he was a ghost? Maybe this is the spell he used on himself.”

“No,” he says. “He cut his head off. I guess he could have used this spell on himself after, but if he was already dead and could perform magic and casting an astral projection retrieval spell does make someone become a ghost, then he would have just used that instead of whatever this is. Besides, being a ghost makes someone easier to summon, not harder. If Slughorn were out there haunting someone or something, he’d be easy to find. Even a normal necromancer could do it, never mind Mothers that have worked with him for decades.”

Ginny leans forward. “Well, okay, but we don’t know that Slughorn performed this spell at all. We just know that he wanted you to know about it, but that doesn’t mean he used it himself.”

“That’s true,” he says, but it comes out reluctantly. It is true, but it doesn’t sound right. None of this fits.

“You know what we really need?” Pansy asks.

“Better hobbies?” Blaise offers.

She ignores him. “A complete breakdown of the killing curse, equations and history and all.”

“That would help,” Hermione agrees. “But how are we going to get that? That’s something that’s not going to be even in the forbidden section of the library. We’d need access to the department of mysteries or maybe a very specialized healer.”

This time, everyone turns to Draco.

His boyfriend scowls and puts his hands on his hips before he says, “Okay, okay, I’ll ask.”

One step closer then.

He could do with a little bit less math in their lives, honestly. This is a lot harder than having to fight a dragon or sneak into the ministry.

~

“It’s very concerning to my that you’re asking for this,” Asim says.

Draco rolls his eyes. “What do you think I’m going to do with it?”

“I don’t know,” he says. “That’s what worries me. I don’t know if anyone’s ever told you this, but you’re a very worrying type of person.”

“I got it from my mother,” he says honestly. “It’s not for anything bad. I think. Probably? We just need a little background information.”

Asim frowns. “For the house elf issue?”

What on earth. How could the killing curse even be a little bit related to the house elf problem? Ridiculous. “If I say yes, can I have it?”

His eyes narrow. “What could you possibly be working on that’s related to this? Aren’t you working on the obsidian design issue? And don’t you have several papers to write and submit for publication?”

His papers are with Poppy and Filius for review and designing the container for the magical collection and distribution system has taken a back seat to designing a replica of the griffin sword so they can steal the real thing from Dumbledore’s office, but obviously he can’t tell Asim that. “Look, if you don’t give it to me then I’ll just go rifling through my family’s library for it instead. They definitely have something on this in there, it’s just a matter of how accurate it is. Whatever I’m doing has to be less dangerous if I have accurate information, right? Accurate information that you have and you could give to me.”

Asim frowns. “I feel like I’m being manipulated.”

“It’s because I’m manipulating you,” Draco says.

He shoots him a look that’s a cross between irritated and fond. Poppy looks at him like that a lot. Filius mostly skips the irritation, but Draco’s pretty sure that’s just because Filius is excited to have someone else who’s just as willing to test terrible, dangerous charm theories as he is. “You’re not going to be performing it, are you?”

Draco waves his hand dismissively. “There are easier ways to kill someone. Besides, if I just wanted to know how to cast it, I’d ask my parents. Er, theoretically.”

Asim snorts. “I’d recommend your mother over your father.”

Okay, actually, this wasn’t even a little bit what he wanted to talk to Asim about, but while he’s here. “What is it with you and my dad? How did you two know each other?”

“You’re very different from your father,” Asim says, and Draco’s eyes narrow. He knows a lot people would consider that a compliment, but he likes his dad, actually, so. “But in some ways you’re very similar. Your father made a choice once and I helped him deal with the consequences.”

“Voldemort?” he guesses, although he doesn’t know how Asim would have gotten involved in that. He wasn’t a pureblood, after all.

Although, come to think of it, Voldemort’s creepy ritual to get his body back would have had probably gone a lot better if he’d had a healer on hand to consult with, especially Asim who’s had experience with almost every weird and complicated medical malady.

Wait, actually, “What would you use centaur bone marrow for?”

Asim raises an eyebrow. “What does that have to do with Voldemort? And is the connected to why you want the breakdowns to the killing curse?”

“No,” he says, then frowns. So much had happened with their run in with the centaurs that Draco hadn’t really had much time to worry about it. But surely someone took it for something. On second thought, he should probably be more concerned that someone snuck through the Hogwarts wards to commit murder. Granted, it happens probably more than it should at a boarding school, but usually they know who and why and this still just seems … random. “Well, maybe. I don’t know. That’s why I’m asking.”

“Centaur bone marrow,” Asim repeats slowly. “I’ve never treated one, but a transplant can be used to treat several diseases in humans and other human like creatures. I suppose centaurs could do the same, but disease isn’t typically a problem for their species. So I’ve heard.”

“I don’t think that’s it,” he says. It could be? Maybe? Another centaur sneaking onto the herd’s territory to steal bone marrow? Except that wouldn’t explain what happened with Slughorn in the past or why the head was stolen.

“Draco,” Asim says, sounding a bit desperate. “How’s school? How are your classes? You still go to those, don’t you?”

What a strange question. “Hermione’s starting to edge past me in my practical potions grade. Which, I know she knows more than me, but she doesn’t have to rub it in. I think Neville and Blaise are making some sort of sentient plant child for their final project, but I’ve just seen some out of context plans and I could be wrong. I’m a little bit too scared to ask, though, so I’m just letting it be a fun surprise. Becoming an uncle to a plant child won’t be the strangest thing that’s happened to me, after all.”

Asim orders another drink. Draco bullies him into talking about the more interesting cases that have come through since the school year started.

The next day, he receives a sealed and warded copy of the equations and theory behind the invention of the killing curse.

~

They’re old enough that they can go to Hogsmeade without it being a designated weekend, but Harry asks Draco out on date on an official Hogsmeade weekend anyway.

He’s fantasized about being able to go on a public date with Draco with Hogsmeade for years. He’s not going to go quite as far as Hermione and Fleur did by making out with him in front of a storefront or ten, but he has to seriously talk himself out of that idea.

Lavender overhears him talking about it, which isn’t difficult considering she’s literally sitting Ron’s lap. “We can go on a double date!” she says excitedly.

“Oh? Am I allowed to take you on a date this time?” Ron asks.

Ron shows up late to the dorms – or doesn’t come back at all – so consistently that even Seamus has gotten bored of making fun of him for it.

Lavender pretends not to hear him. “I want to go on a double date with Harry and Draco. For clout, to be clear.”

Harry hesitates. “Well-”

“Don’t try and give me any romantic bullshit,” Lavender says sternly. “I know you’re just taking him out because you want to show him off to everyone. You don’t need privacy for that.”

“I can want both,” he says sullenly, but doesn’t argue further. As nauseating as Lavender acts around Ron, he’s pretty sure if he ever complains about it then he’d die of the hypocrisy. He likes to think that he and Draco are a lot less gross than they are, but Ron has definitely dealt with a lot more of it. Ron likes to loudly complain about how difficult fourth year was for him.

However, because Ron is his best friend, he rolls his eyes and suggests, “Why don’t we go with Ginny and Luna instead?”

“I said it was for clout not company,” she corrects, scowling, but then she pauses. “Wait. Are you telling me that Ginny and Luna are dating?”

Harry is also interested in this answer. A great thing about Lavender is that she’s always willing to ask questions that everyone else wants answered.

“Well,” Ron starts, then frowns. “I was going to say yes, but now that you’ve asked in that tone of voice, I’m not sure.”

Lavender rolls her eyes and grips Ron’s shoulders to pull herself up so she’s kneeling on his thighs. He winces but doesn’t do anything besides hold down the edge of her skirt so she doesn’t accidentally flash half the table. “Oi! Ginny! Are you dating Lovegood?”

Harry tilts to the side to see Ginny pause in her conversation with Romilda and Hermione to glare at her. “Keep your nose out of my business and go back to sucking face with my brother.”

“Well!” Lavender huffs, spreading her thighs and sitting back down so she’s effectively straddling Ron in the middle of the great hall. Ron’s whole face is red but he’s given up on propriety at this point. “Did you hear that? She’s so mean to me.” She pauses, then adds more seriously than Harry is comfortable with, “That’s hot.”

“Lav,” Ron groans. He grips her waist in his large hands and lifts her up enough that he can resettle her in his lap in a pose that isn’t quite so scandalizing.

Lavender blinks a couple times before grinning, the dimple on her left cheek coming out like it does when she forgets to keep her smile a certain size. “Don’t worry Ronniekins. Your whole big strong nice boy thing is pretty hot too.”

“I aim to please,” he says sarcastically.

Lavender’s eyes light up and she opens her mouth.

Harry books it before he’s forced to hear Lavender say something about Ron that he can’t unknow. There’s some time before class and he hasn’t visited Dobby in a while, so now seems like an excellent time to do that.

~

Draco shows up to Filius’s office to grade the latest batch of essays, confident that he’ll be able to avoid harassment now that he’s submitted his paper for his review.

Instead he’s no sooner stepped inside than Filius is saying, “If you combine two materials to enhance one of them and then transfigure the enhancing material, the property remains and the magical signature adjusts to match the new material. However, it degrades fairly quickly, so it’s not a permanent solution.”

Damn. How had the goblins managed it? Maybe he should just give in and talk to Ron about to use alchemy to enhance the sword as well. If he does that, Draco thinks it would have to be in liquid form, which is going to make casting it extra interesting, since enhanced silver will be immune to most of the techniques he’d used so far. Being able to combine them as a semi-solid would be a lot better from forging standpoint, but he thinks being in an in between matter state will just make alchemizing it even more difficult, and he’d prefer to get through this without too much property damage.

“Are you going to tell me why you needed to know that?” he presses.

Draco seriously considers it for a moment. It’s not like he has to tell him why he’s doing what he’s doing, after all. However. “I could, but you’re probably better off not knowing. I can fill you in after it’s complete.”

He raises a bushy eyebrow. “And how long will that be?”

“A few more weeks?” Draco guesses. Millie and Blaise had apparently had a very productive discussion with Ollivander and Hermione seems really excited about whatever she and Ron are working on with the rubies. If they were trying to make this sword functional then they’d probably need something closer to a few years, but a decorative copy that just gives off a vaguely similar magical signature is pretty firmly in their wheelhouse. They made the Chimera map when they were in third year, after all. “Give or take.”

“Chances of death or serious harm?” Filius asks, because he’s known Draco for far too long.

“Low,” he says honestly. Unless Ron does something really fucked up with the alchemy. Or if they start another goblin war, that will definitely lead to some death and serious harm, but the reason they’re doing all of this is to avoid that, so.

Filius gives him a long, piercing look that reminds him a little bit too much of Dumbledore, but he says, “Very well, Draco. Grade the second year essays.”

Draco groans and flings himself onto his fainting couch. He’s only exaggerating a little bit. Second year essays were the worst because after a year of schooling they think they know things and they really don’t. At least they’re wrong confidently.

~

Harry suggests the Three Broomsticks for their double date because Madame Pudifoot will only tolerate a certain amount of touching in her café before going out of her way to embarrass them – a much more effective way to get teenage couples to put some space between them than yelling at them for it – while Draco has been overtipping at the Three Broomsticks for so long that he could probably murder someone in the middle of the restaurant and Rosmerta would just offer him a refill.

Lavender is, as expected, in a very short dress the same color as her name, but her hair that she normally keeps straight is in loose curls around her face. Ron is in his standard date outfit of a button up and jeans, which is to be expected, but his shirt is a light purple to match his girlfriend’s, which isn’t. Most of Ron’s clothes are altered hand-me-downs from his elder brothers. They used to be just normal hand-me-downs but these days Ron has the widest shoulders of his brothers. Their old clothes stopped fitting him last year but it took Molly a while to notice because for a long time Ron would just ask Pansy to fix them for him rather than asking his mother to do it.

“This is new,” Draco says, plucking at the material in interest. Harry’s only sort of paying attention to what anyone is saying or frankly anything that’s happening at all. Draco is wearing his old quidditch jersey and that’s pretty much the only thought in his head currently. It’s a very distracting thought. He thinks Draco might be doing this on purpose and he doesn’t know if it’s a reward or a punishment.

“Doesn’t it look good?” Lavender asks, reaching out to smooth the shirt down Ron’s stomach. “I said it was a present for him, but really it was a present for me. And anyone with eyes. I’m a philanthropist and this is an act of public service.”

“Lavender,” Ron says, aiming for it to come out as a warning but he’s smiling a little too much for that to be believable.

Harry intends to make a disgusted face at them like Ron always does to him, but he’s too distracted by Draco’s collarbones peaking out from the neck of his jersey.

“It looks good,” Draco confirms. “Can I ask why you’re using us for clout? Because you’ve never used Harry for clout before, and you certainly could have considering you’re in the same house and year as him.”

It hadn’t even occurred to him to ask. He’s generally made it a habit over the past six years not to question Lavender.

“No,” Lavender says cheerfully. “We should get going, don’t you think?”

Draco rolls his eyes but doesn’t ask further. He does slip his hand in Harry’s so they can walk to Hogsmeade holding hands, and that’s pretty great.

There aren’t any reporters that he sees, which makes Lavender’s claim that she’s using them all the more confusing. Harry had intended to stick to butterbeer, since technically that’s all he’s allowed to order, but both Lavender and Ron order firewhiskey and Rosmerta doesn’t even bat an eye. Lavender is of age, but Ron isn’t, and it’s not like Rosmerta asks for her apparition license to prove it. Which, Harry’s not even sure she has yet. Draco asks for something with a name that Harry doesn’t recognize. “Would I like that?” he asks, nudging his boyfriend in the side.

“It’s sweet,” he answers, which means yes.

The drink ends up being bright blue and ice cold and tastes like mint ice cream. Harry pushes the glass across the table for Ron to try and his face lights up at his first taste. “What is this?”

“No idea,” Draco says. “Rosmerta has as potions master who designs custom liquor for her. It’s that, which is some sort of alcoholic blue mint syrup, and milk.”

Harry blinks and looks down at his glass in concern. Unless he’s remembering his herbology incorrectly, which he very well might be, blue mint has hallucinogenic properties. Which, it’s not like he really had anything important to do for the rest of the day, but still.

Draco notices the look on all their faces and rolls his eyes. “Relax, the effect is tempered. It gets you drunk without the hangover. Which just makes it’s existence extra funny.”

Harry doesn’t get it and judging by the look on his face Ron doesn’t either. It’s Lavender who says, “It’s funny because a potions master can obviously brew their own hangover cure so they don’t really have a need to create an alcohol that doesn’t induce one. Rosmerta doesn’t seem the type to request something like that, so more likely they not they just created it to show that they could.”

“Oh,” he says and takes another sip. He also doesn’t have to worry much about hangovers. Not just because he rarely drinks enough for it to be an issue, but also because his soulmate is a pretty good healer, so if he ever was hungover he would just go to Draco and ask him to fix it.

Ron of course doesn’t react at all to the alcohol even three drinks in while Harry’s still working on his first and Draco’s switched over to something that Harry thinks is a butterbeer milkshake. Lavender gets about halfway through her second drink before crawling into Ron’s lap and resting her head on his shoulder. She’s rolling her drink between her hands and Harry’s pretty sure that the only reason she hasn’t dropped it is Ron’s been balancing the bottom of her glass on the heel of his hand, but she doesn’t seem to have noticed that.

Harry fully intends to give them a hard time about being embarrassing in public except Draco decides to take Lavender’s behavior as some sort of challenge and he hauls himself into Harry’s lap. He wraps an arm around Draco’s waist, because of course he does, and he leans forward enough to hook his chin over Draco’s shoulder. In the end he and Ron just end up sharing looks that are equal parts pleased and mortified.

They mostly discuss their plans for the holidays and complain about how hard Snape’s class is and then complain even more about how it’s actually good and then that dips into Quinn’s lessons and why they’re so much better than Snape’s. Which of course prompts Draco to discuss the weird things about Snape’s career that Harry can’t even pretend to care about, but Lavender seems interested, and she hasn’t heard this rant before, so Harry and Ron leave them to it.

The sun has just started to set by the time they settle their bill – by which he means, Draco settles their bill by paying three times the cost and Ron glares in a way that Harry knows means Draco will be getting an earful for it later. Based on several parties’ worth of experience drinking with Lavender and how articulate she’d been when dissecting Snape’s potential motives with Draco, Harry’s pretty sure she’s exaggerating her level of drunkenness so she has an excuse to stumble and cling to Ron’s arm as they make their way back to Hogwarts. Harry can’t even make fun of them because Draco’s arm is around his shoulders and both of them aren’t pretending to be anything but sober.

They’ve settled into talking about their astronomy papers that none of them have started yet since it’s been too cloudy to get anything useful when Lavender frowns and says, “Now what do you think that’s about?”

They all pause and follow her gaze. Up ahead of them Katie Bell is arguing with Leanne Connors, which is unusual. Katie will cheerfully get into a fight with almost anybody, but Leanne doesn’t like confrontation, and Katie doesn’t like doing things that Leanne doesn’t like.

“We could go the long way?” Ron suggests. Technically the long way is the short way and it’s going through the shrieking shack back to Hogwarts.

Draco shrugs but when Ron takes a step away, Lavender doesn’t move, forcing him to quickly shuffle back or risk dragging her along. “What if something’s really wrong?” she asks.

“I don’t think that’s our business,” Harry tries, because he’s known Katie since he was eleven and if she really is pissed off about something, he doesn’t want to get in the middle of it.

Lavender’s mouth curves into a frown. “You three go on. Katie’s held my hair back while I puked too many times for me not to go make a nuisance of myself.”

“If you’re sure,” Ron says, although he doesn’t look thrilled at the idea. Lavender nods then tugs on the edge of his shirt, so he obligingly leans down for a kiss.

Draco rolls his eyes and Harry looks up to squint at the setting sun which means none of them see the lead up to Katie screaming in a way that Harry’s never heard from her no matter how angry she got on the quidditch pitch.

All their heads turn to see Katie floating ten feet above the ground, convulsing and screaming, while Leanne ineffectually jumps up, trying to grab onto her.

“KATIE!” Lavender shouts, bolting away from them. She trips, catches herself on her hands, then pushes herself up and keeps running, now with two bloody legs.

The rest of them follow and Ron’s long legs get him there first. He takes out his wand but Draco shouts, “Don’t! Your magic could interfere and make it worse!”

“Well, what am I supposed to do then?” he bellows.

“Transfigure some rope?” Draco suggests as they all come to a stop underneath Katie. It comes out sarcastically but he’s pale and has a tight grip on his wand. “We could really use Tonks and her lasso.”

Leanne is sobbing, still reaching out to Katie, and Lavender has blood on her hands and down her legs and Katie looks like she’s being put under crucio.

“Give me a boost,” Harry says.

Ron doesn’t need to be told twice. He goes down on one knee and laces his fingers together. Harry steps onto his hands, grabbing Ron’s shoulders for balance, and straightens as Ron does so he can grab onto Katie’s cloak and yank her down into his arms. There’s resistance, like her body wants to stay floating, but not enough to prevent him from wrapping an arm around her waist and dragging her down. Ron is slowly lowering himself so Harry can get back on his feet without dropping her when he sees the pearl necklace clutched in her hands.

Katie doesn’t ever wear jewelry. She says it too annoying to have to take it off for practice.

Harry reaches out to yank it away from her, sure that it’s somehow connected to all of this. He doesn’t realize how bad of an idea that was until pain shoots through his arm, he falls sidewise, and he hears Draco shout.

Then he doesn’t hear anything at all.

~

Draco wants to panic but he doesn’t have the time to waste.

Harry is convulsing and screaming right along with Katie, both of them holding on to some necklace, and both of them floating. The only thing keeping them tethered is Ron’s grip on Harry’s ankle.

“Get them down!” he snaps. “Don’t just stand there! Ron, hold down Harry. Leanne, you hold down Katie. Don’t touch the necklace or so help me. Lavender,” he says, and she looks a mess, bloody and scared and for the first time out of place in her very short dress standing out in the middle of November thanks to the fear on her face. “Go back to Hogwarts. Get help.”

She doesn’t argue with him, thank merlin. She just nods and disappears with a crack, presumably apparating right to the edge of the Hogwarts property line to save herself the time it would take to run there.

“What happened?” Draco asks Leanne, who’s holding Katie down so she doesn’t resume floating. His wand is burning in his hand and he wants so desperately to do something, to fix this, but he can’t risk acting hastily and making everything worse. There’s no blood or wounds or anything obvious for him to heal and he hates it.

“I don’t know,” she says, still crying. “She was fine and then she went to the bathroom and was acting all weird after and she had a bag in her hands and she just walked out. I followed her and was trying to get her talk to me but she wouldn’t listen so I grabbed the bag from her and the necklace came out and then she touched the necklace and this happened! It’s my fault but I didn’t know – I didn’t mean – I just wanted her to talk to me!”

“How was she acting weird after?” Ron asks.

Draco casts a diagnostic spell first over Katie then Harry.

“She ignored me and her face was totally blank – it’s like she didn’t even see me! She didn’t react to me at all until I got in her way and wouldn’t let her continue walking,” she answers.  

“Sounds like the imperious curse,” Ron says grimly.

“A poorly cast one,” he points out absently, although most of his attention isn’t on them.

There are no physical wounds, but their nervous systems are lit up like a Diwali festival. Whatever the curse on this necklace is, he has to stop it fast otherwise both Katie and Harry are going to be in some serious trouble. Even if they live, regenerating a nervous system doesn’t come without a cost, when it’s possible at all. If this goes much further, they’ll be lucky if they just spend the next year in physical therapy.

He doesn’t know enough about the nervous system to do anything useful that doesn’t have the potential to make everything worse.

But it’s not physical. This is being caused by magic, not by a physical stimulus, so –

Can he trick their bodies? Maybe?

It probably won’t make anything worse. It’s really annoying how much of healing is just trying not to make anything worse.

“Ponostamitisei!” he shouts, putting as much power behind it as he can and carefully angling his wand so it hits both of them at once. This is a spell that usually requires a light touch since it can cause numbness and reduce blood circulation if he’s not careful, but right now that’s the least of his problems.

The silence is almost jarring after several minutes of Kate and Harry screaming. They’re lying there, limp in a way that he hates but it’s still an improvement of their convulsing.

He quickly recasts the diagnostic spell and has to lock his knees to keep them from buckling. They still don’t have enough time to panic.

“Did you fix it?” Leanne asks.

Ron shakes his head, probably because he knows if that he’s still having to press Harry’s body down then the curse is still in effect.

“No,” he answers. He just got lucky that the curse is functioning at least a little like how he’d guessed. This particular spell works by preventing the brain from interpreting pain stimulus, which wouldn’t do shit normally, except that curse must be affecting the brain rather than the nerves directly. Meaning their nervous system was only freaking out because their brains had told them to. “I’ve just bought us some time.”

Based on the readings from the diagnostic spell, that will only hold for a few minutes before he has to reapply. Eventually he won’t have enough magic to cast it again and he can’t just have Ron cast a healing spell on their friends that affects the brain that he’s never cast before. He almost wants to try something else, to try and figure out a way to fix this, but the more magic he wastes doing that is less magic he has to recast the pain numbing spell, and that’s the one that he knows works.

Help better arrive soon.

~

“Sorry, that was stupid,” Harry says and then has to blink several times because everything around him is dark, but not like its night or like he’s back in the cupboard, but like light never existed in the first place. He looks down and he’s clearly standing on something, but he has no idea what.

Shit.

This isn’t good.

“So we meet again, Mother.”

He turns and there’s a familiar face, but the last one he expected to see. The ghost girl who’d given him the necromancy book is standing in front of him, the faint green glow coming off her skin the only light in the place, but it just looks they’re surrounded by nothing. She’s dressed just like she was before, her hair pulled back and her dress covered in pearls and round her necks is –

A pearl necklace.

There’s only so different a string of pearls can look from any other, but it’s too much of a coincidence to be a coincidence. “Mother,” he greets. “Were those your pearls?”

He realizes after he asks that the question may not make any sense to her, but she just smiles and says, “They were. Someone was either very clever or not nearly as clever as they’d hoped.”

She doesn’t offer anything else. He looks around again, but he still can’t see anything. “Where are we?”

“The Shadow,” she answers, like that’s at all useful and not just highly ominous. It also occurs to him the fact that she doesn’t have any accent is probably because they’re both speaking in Dead Man’s Tongue right now

“Okay,” he says slowly. “Am I dead? I don’t feel dead.”

She rolls her eyes. “Didn’t you read the book? I didn’t give it to you so you could use it as a doorstop.”

“I read it!” he protests. “There wasn’t any mention of any shadows.”

“Are you a Mother or aren’t you?” she asks, poking him hard in the shoulder. It doesn’t pass through him and kind of hurts. He’s not sure if that’s a sign for or against him being dead. “Come on. We might as well give you an education while you’re here.”

“Where’s here?” he asks. “An education about what? How do I go back? If I die there are some people who are going to be really mad at me.” Especially if he dies by touching something he shouldn’t have.

“You’re in the Shadow,” she repeats and he throws up his hands. “Come on. I’m here because you’re here and you used my necklace to do it instead of using my book like you should have. Although here in my case is relative, since I can’t do anything interesting like last time.”

“Does that mean Katie’s here too?” he asks, ignoring most of what she’s said because it doesn’t make any sense to him.

She sighs. “I don’t know who Katie is.”

“I don’t know who you are,” he points out, scowling.

She tilts her head to the side and says, “You can call me Anastasia.”

“Oh.” He blinks. “Well. You can call me Harry. Is my friend here? Is she alright?”

“Harry,” she says, reaching out to grab his hand. “It’s you and me and Mother here. Your friend isn’t here. Now show me what you’re looking for and I’ll show you how to find it.”

She raises a hand to his forehead, pressing against his scar just as he feels a pressure against his occlumency shields.

Well. He’s already made one stupid decision today. What’s one more?

He shows her his memories of the first copy of the book, of the centaurs, and of their attempts to decipher the missing pages.

She pulls back from him and gives him a look that he’s most used to receiving from Hermione. “Why on earth would you think my book had anything to do with centaurs? Are centaurs even mentioned?”

“Well, it had to do with Slughorn, and he had to do with the centaurs,” he points out. “It seemed to make sense.”

“What kind of convoluted,” she starts then cuts herself off. “It wasn’t because they were connected. It was so you could find him.”

He shakes his head. “The other Mothers have been trying to find him since he died but they can’t.”

“Because he’s here,” she says. “I guess. Somewhere. Probably. You’d think he’d be with us if he was here. Like attracts like after all.”

He stares. He’s sure he hadn’t shown her anything about the book Snape had told him to read. “What do you mean?”

“Less talking, more finding this Slughorn so we can get some answers,” she says.

“And how am I supposed to do that?” he snaps.

She raises an eyebrow. “By asking Mother, of course. We’re sitting in her shadow.”

Ice fills his stomach and crawls down his spine. His lips feel numb as he asks, “I thought – are you sure I’m not dead?”

“The dead don’t belong in the Shadow,” she says impatiently. “Come on. I can’t ask her because I’m not really here.”

He shakes his head, suddenly much more concerned with leaving than with getting any answers. Anastasia pokes him in the forehead and unbidden he sees a memory that doesn’t belong to him, an old man looming over him with a long beard and unkept hair and eyes like he’s just been electrocuted. “True power exits in neither life nor death,” he rasps, “but in the place in between.”

“It wasn’t just your book then,” he says, trying to push the image of the man’s eyes out of his mind.

“He may have had the ideas,” she concedes, “but I’m the one who made them work. He was terrible at math.”

This will be a really funny thing to tell his friends later if he ever sees them again.

He’s not sure what to say, so he falls back on what’s always worked in the past. “Mother, may I?”

“So formal,” Anastasia sighs. “It’s not like you’re at court.”

Harry is prevented from having any opinion on that by a tugging sensation in his navel not unlike taking a portkey. There’s the very disorienting sensation of feeling like he’s moving very quickly while their surroundings don’t change at all.

Except now in front of them is Slughorn’s severed head. That’s new.

“Wow!” Anastasia says excitedly. “How did you manage this?”

Slughorn’s eyes open. It’s probably messed up that that’s the thing that causes Harry to jump.

His head is faintly glowing like Anastasia, except he’s not see through. Harry isn’t glowing at all. He things that might mean something but right now it just doesn’t seem important enough to ask about.

“Harry!” Slughorn exclaims. “There you are, my boy! I was worried I’d have faded before you made it here.”

“How are you here?” Anastasia asks.

He sticks out her tongue at her, which seems both very immature and out of character until Harry sees a long equation spelled out on his tongue.

“Impressive,” she says, sounding like she means it. “But why go to so much trouble to be in her Shadow? You can’t even do anything like this and if you had something to tell him then you could have just had him summon you like a normal ghost.”

“I needed someplace we wouldn’t be overheard.”

At least Anastasia also looks confused by that. “Who would overhear you? Are the dead watching you? You’re a Mother. Send them away.”

“I can’t,” he says.

She winces. “You killed that many people who are still mad about it?”

“No!” he shouts. “It’s not like that.”

“Like what?” Harry interrupts. If he doesn’t say something it seems like they’re going to keep having conversations around him instead of with him.”

“You can’t command people you’ve killed,” she says. “Not easily, at least. Animals aren’t too picky, but people always give you trouble. You can either bring someone to death or from death, but not both. That’s why if you’re planning to do something like make an army out of the corpses of your enemies, it’s best to have a friend do all the killing for you.”

His eyes narrow. She looks his age, but that’s a strange thought for a teenage girl to have. Then again, most teenage girls didn’t write necromancy books bound in their own skin, even with the help of creepy intense mentors who are bad at math.

“Or just one reanimated corpse to start or someone under imperio,” Slughorn adds. “If they’re killed by someone under your control but not you directly then they don’t struggle against that too much.”

He thinks he hates this conversation, actually.

“Slughorn, what did you want to tell me?” he asks. “Was it who killed you? What’s going on with the centaurs?”

“Again with the centaurs!” Anastasia cries. “I told you my book has nothing to do with centaurs.”

“Not that was intended,” Slughorn says and her eyes narrow. “Centaur marrow can be used to stabilize a fractured soul within a body.”

“Barely. Unicorn blood would be better for that,” she says dismissively. “Besides, nothing in my book fractures a soul. Who would do that? Just get some sturdy rope if you want to die so badly.”

“Unicorn blood is cursed,” Slughorn says.

Anastasia stares. “If you’re going around tearing your soul apart, I think a little curse ends up being the least of your problems.”

Harry feels as if they’re getting off track again. “What does fracturing a soul have to do with anything?”

“What would happen,” Slughorn asks gravely, “if someone performed the spell in the missing pages but instead of pointing their wand at themselves, they pointed it at someone else?”

What would happen if someone performed the killing curse on someone else? “Uh. They’d … die?”

Slughorn blinks. “I – what?”

“He didn’t figure out the spell to get here,” Anastasia says. “Either someone really smart who’s trying to help him or someone really dumb who’s trying to hurt him exposed him to my cursed necklace and that’s how he got here.”

“How would a cursed necklace bring someone to the Shadow?” he asks.

“Well, for most people it wouldn’t,” Anastasia concedes, “but if you want to know how on a mathematical level-”

For fuck’s sake.

“Mothers!” he snaps. “Can we focus please? I’m assuming I only have a limited amount of time here.”

“Right, sorry Harry,” Slughorn says while Anastasia just looks put out. “This is just a little bit more difficult to explain than I’d anticipated, is all. I wish I’d been able to explain it before, especially when Albus sent us after the locket, but well, with the unbreakable vow it wasn’t really an option, you understand.”

“He doesn’t understand,” Anastasia says. “I don’t understand. What are you talking about? I don’t know who you were worried overhearing you if you’re going to be this vague.”

He sighs in a way that gives the impression his shoulders would slump if he had any. “Why, Voldemort, of course.”

“The mediocre dark lord?” Anastasia asks at the same time that Harry asks, “Why would you be worried about him? I know occlumency.” He pauses then adds, “Besides, if I didn’t, there wouldn’t be much point to this anyway. He’d just read my mind as soon as this happened.”

Slughorn manages to use the small amount of neck he has to shake his head. “That’s not what I mean. Voldemort can speak to the dead and even for Mothers there a chance for the dead to know too much. Here is the only place where it won’t get back to him, and if he knows that you know, it’ll just make things harder for you.”

“Voldemort’s not a necromancer,” he says, because he misses a lot of things but he would have noticed that.

“No,” Slughorn agrees. “But he’s not alive either. Or dead.”

Harry thinks of Voldemort in the department of mysteries, of how Ginny stabbed him in the shoulder and he didn’t bleed. “That makes sense.”

“It really doesn’t,” Anastasia says, leaning forward. “Tell me more.”

Slughorn does.

~

By the time Lavender and Poppy appear next to them with a crack, Draco’s gone lightheaded and he’s seeing double.

This is a really power dependent spell and it’s not exactly meant to be cast over and over again, Plus he hasn’t exactly been holding back considering it’s his soulmate’s life on the line and Katie Bell’s.

“Prognosis?” Poppy snaps, not snatching his want from his hand even though he can tell that she kind of wants to.

He just runs the same diagnostic spell he’s been using and expands the results for her read. “Cursed object. Haven’t removed it because who the fuck knows what happens when we do that. I’ve cast a neurological pain numbing spell four times, general directional application, and it seems to have halted the damage, so the curse seems to be indirect rather than direct.”

“Clever,” Poppy says, scanning the diagnostic spell and taking in and comprehending way more data than Draco than could. “Thank you, Draco. I’ve got it from here.”

“Great,” he says, waiting until Poppy has raised her wand to end the pain numbing spell.

Somehow, not casting magic more exhausting than casting magic, like how after a long run stopping can more tiring than just continuing to Ron. He doesn’t realize that he’s listing to the side until he’s got a faceful of curly hair and there are slim shoulders underneath his arm, propping him upright. “Easy there.”

“Thanks, Lavender,” he says. This is embarrassing. Four spells shouldn’t tire him out this much. Then again, he doesn’t know what he thought the outcome of him putting all his magic behind the spell four times would be. Usually when he’s healing he knows to pace himself, but, well.

Usually when he’s healing, it’s not his soulmate screaming and convulsing on the cold November ground.

“Are you going to pass out?” Lavender asks.

“No,” he says, but he does close his eyes.

When he opens them again, he notices several things all at once. He’s laying down, he’s in the hospital wing, it’s dark, and he definitely passed out. Great. That’s an automatic notice home.

He lifts his head and, small mercies, he’s in the bed next to Harry and it doesn’t take him long to find Katie lying across from them. He’s surprised none of their friends are here, but Poppy must have kicked them all out for the night. That’s comforting. If they let themselves be kicked out, Harry can’t be too badly off.

Draco pushes himself upright and notices two more things that he hadn’t notices before.

The first is that Harry is awake.

The second is that he’s angry.

Draco has seen his boyfriend mad. He’s seen him furious. But this – well, honestly, it reminds him of his own anger, of his mother’s, something cold and deadly and final.

“Harry?” he whispers.

Harry turns his head to look at him and the anger doesn’t shift but he holds out his arm, which is all the invitation that Draco needs. He still feels exhaustion pulling at him, but he rolls to his feet and slides under the blanket next to his boyfriend. These hospital wing beds were obviously not meant to be shared and there’s definitely not nearly enough room for them to lie side by side. Draco tolerates lying halfway off the edge for a moment before he rolls on top of Harry instead, resting his legs between Harry’s and digging his sharp chin into his chest.

Harry wouldn’t put up with that normally, but now he just reaches up to run his hand through Draco’s hair. It’s knotted from him sort of passing out, but Harry just slowly works his fingers through it, combing through the knots with a gentleness that’s at odds with the banked rage coming off him in waves. “You okay?” Draco whispers.

Harry nods. “Once they got the curse off, there wasn’t much damage to fix. You did a good job. Pomfrey gave us some sort of disgusting potion that I think was just an excuse to keep up here overnight.”

Probably. He turns his head enough to kiss the side of Harry’s hand. “Not what I meant, love.”

He should be relieved that Harry’s okay, and he is, because that was terrifying, but it’s tempered by the worry about whatever this is about. It’s tempered by the fact he hasn’t even been able to panic about it yet, even though now there’s nothing to panic about, because his soulmate was hurt and dying again and Draco didn’t have the time or the space to have any emotions about that because if he did then he wouldn’t have the time or space to save his life. He should probably process that, or at least cry a little.

But he’s exhausted still, and Harry is angry, and maybe if just stays laying on top him Harry’s body heat can melt away the terrible feeling lodged between his stomach and sternum.

Harry sighs. “Could you cast a patronus? We need to talk to the others.”

His whole body hurts and the idea of it make him sort of want to cry. “If you need me to. What’s going on? Why can’t you cast it?”

“Don’t think I can cast it right now,” he says, his lips pressed into a thin line.

Ah. This is an anger thing, not a curse complications thing.

Draco slides his body up Harry’s an extra couple inches so he can lean down and capture Harry’s lips with his own. He shifts beneath him, opening up his mouth and settling his hands on Draco’s hips.

He waits until his lips have started to go pleasantly numb to pull back, holding Harry’s bottom lip between his teeth for a moment longer before letting go. He kisses the top of his cheekbone and asks, “What about now, darling?”

“That’s cheating,” Harry says, and then there’s a burst of bright light behind them and then the sound of hooves.

A wandless and nonverbal patronus.

That’s hot.