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Manticoria — Chapter 01

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“What we are experiencing,” said the Unspeakable, “is unlike anything the Department has come across in recorded magical history.”

Harry watched the man’s face, looking for some identifying feature, but every time he thought he noticed one, it would shift and fade into something else equally vague and unrecognisable.

“The New Ministry believes that transparency in our operations and with national threats is in the interest of all citizens. We also believe in the power of the people, therefore with approval from the Wizengamot, the Department has developed two new certification programs for all seventh year and—in this case, eighth year—students: Advanced Wizardry and Advanced Witchcraft. For this first year, our eighth year students will have a particularly exciting assignment: Save the wizarding world.”

It was apparent that this was meant to incite laughter, but there was none. The Unspeakable was unlike Fudge in every way. He exhibited a number of qualities, each unique in their oppositeness to everything the previous Ministry embodied. His eyes were shrewd and unafraid, and that, Harry thought, was the most definable difference. Though the official’s physical strength was apparent, and his back straight and confident, it was the lack of fear that flashed like a Lumos to Harry. Even the man’s voice was made of sterner stuff than Fudge’s.

This was the rumoured New Ministry of the Commonwealth, then. Whispers of it had been all over the streets in the summer after Voldemort’s fall, but the government itself had been particularly quiet—and there was a strength in that, as well. The New Ministry was not afraid of the people, nor of Harry. It was a confident Ministry, a determined one. Those of strong character would be put in high positions, and those without would be demoted, or otherwise removed. Harry was not sure if this was a good thing or a bad one. He’d often wished for a government with a backbone during his fight with Voldemort, but this infant Republic was worryingly toeing a line; dictatorship and tyranny were never far away, but it was difficult to know what to think when there was no Minister yet, and wouldn’t be until after the first elections in January.

“For three months, the Department of Mysteries has been working en force with the Aurory and the Department of Secrecy & Security to solve a problem that you have no doubt heard mention of in the papers and the streets. Our commonwealth wards are indeed deteriorating—rapidly. This is believed to be caused by the magical backlash from the defeat of the wizard called Lord Voldemort.”

How long, Harry wondered, would that particular act last? Not once had he heard or seen the epithet You-Know-Who in either paper or official use since the battle. It was a clever piece of political manoeuvring to be sure, to be so contradictory to Fudge and Scrimgeour’s Ministries. Even going so far as to demand help from schoolchildren—the very same ones who’d been condemned as liars in the years before—was genius. Even Harry would admit to that. The morning’s Daily Prophet indicated high national approval for the plan, though he very much doubted that the schoolchildren themselves were surveyed.

Would they even make it to the elections in January before corruption started seeping in again like old rot? It might not matter, though. If the eighth years failed in their task, there might not be a Ministry to corrupt. This Unspeakable was a refined politician, and he’d only been speaking for ten minutes.

Slytherin, Harry thought of the man. He was not upset about it like he would’ve once been. There were too many contradicting events for him to believe that now—he’d seen too much, especially in the three months since the war’s end.

“The Department has identified a number of potential leads for both the cause and the solution, but I won’t coddle you with sugar-floss-coated words: This is a serious threat to the security of Wizarding Britain, and we have a serious wizard-power shortage. There is simply no way that with the diminished forces available to the Ministry after the war with Voldemort that we will be able to fully explore each of them in time. Even given approval for escalated Time Turner use, we are behind. Our Arithmantists calculate that, at most, we have until May to diagnose and repair the wards. Already, the wards of wizarding London have flickered before muggles, briefly exposing the truth beyond. This cannot continue.

“Simply—we need help. While the seventh years will work on service projects to strengthen our community and bring us together again after a war that rendered us apart, the eighth year students’ NEWT task. Completing it will guarantee a NEWT in the topic assigned to your team. Finding a solution and participating in the fix will add another NEWT for each subject involved in the event. As you can see, the reward could potentially be great, and that does not even include the continued secrecy of our lives.

“I will be honest with you,” the man continued in his unrecognisable voice. “We are not hopeful for a solution. The New Ministry will be taking this time to solidify the few contingency plans we have in case the wards do indeed fall, and our world is exposed to muggles. We are in discussion with the governments of Norway and Spain, with whom we are establishing refugee agreements as a last case scenario. They would not be able to take in all of us, however. Many would be left to blend amongst the muggles as best we can. This is not a result that any of us wish for, and so I can say only this: Put everything you have into your efforts; it is our very lives that depend on it.”

When he stepped down, the Great Hall remained silent. All of the gathered seventh and eighth years sat staring at the Head Table, hearts probably beating just as fast as Harry’s. McGonagall came up after a moment, and cleared her throat. It echoed throughout the Hall.

She said, “You will be put into groups, each assigned with the task of finding or recreating a spell of lore that the Ministry thinks could help. The teams will include four members, one from each House, chosen by the Goblet of Fire based on your relative strengths and weaknesses. It is imperative that each of you look beyond house rivalries now and forever—we need the expertise of each house, and we cannot afford to waste time on petty squabbles or past political differences at all. Each of you will be required to take part in order to receive a NEWT certification. If any team finds a solution in time to implement it, each team member will additionally be awarded a twenty-thousand galleon prize.”

“It’s like the Dark Ages,” Hermione murmured, but she was no stranger to fear, and tentatively agreed to its necessity. “We ended the war just to live in fear that the wards will fall and we might turn a corner in town and be burned as a witch.”

“Why’s this happening now?” Ron said. It wasn’t really a question. The timing was too suspicious, the results too nefarious. And in the back of all their minds was the question—how could Voldemort have taken all the magical wards down with him? That he was that powerful was staggering. In Harry’s mind, he saw Voldemort as a hundred times more powerful than before, and he was so very grateful that Voldemort had never figured out how to disable the wards while alive.

“If he couldn’t have the world,” Hermione guessed. “He didn’t want anyone else to have it, either.”

A new breed of wizard was emerging, even in these eerie, cautious months after Voldemort’s fall—a stronger, smarter, harder, less frightened wizard. Or at least it felt that way to Harry as he looked around at the gathered seventh and eighth years. Though not on its own; not without obligation, it seemed. But Harry had seen this new thing in the streets over summer, and on the grounds as he helped to repair the damages to the castle. It was new, but it was very real.

“I do not condone the method,” McGonagall said, and hesitated briefly. “—But I cannot find fault in the necessity for something. Without some change, the wards will fail all over Britain, and we—we will have nowhere to hide.”

The Headmistress looked out at them; her throat bobbed as she swallowed down the bile of what she was about to ask from them. The Daily Prophet had not been compassionate in its reporting when the story was leaked that morning—

Boy-Who-Lived to be among first class of students required to save the world—again

“This will be our only chance,” said McGonagall. “Do not let Hogwarts down. Now, Professor Sinistra will call out the assignments.” McGonagall stepped down from the dais, and Aster Sinistra replaced her.

“Hannah Abbott, Hermione Granger, Pansy Parkinson, Padma Patil.”

Hermione let out a sigh of relief at Hannah and Padma’s names, though she did cast a worried glance at the Slytherin table. Over half, at least, were here under duress. No doubt they would have preferred to scarper off to Durmstrang or even one of the smaller schools in Austria or Belarus—but the New Ministry had put paid to that idea, and quickly.

No British school-aged citizen were exempt from Advanced Witchcraft or Wizardry. Even the coven-schooled students would be taking on more studies if they hoped to ever hold a job besides shopkeeper, since the New Ministry required all wizards and witches born 1975 or later to complete Advanced Witchcraft or Wizardry to receive or renew employment licenses.

It wasn’t just advanced charms or potions, though. It was a gruelling year-long test—a test of skill, magic, knowledge, character, and ingenuity…a test designed to create this new breed of wizard, come Hell or Aqueous Maximus.

“Terry Boot, Lavender Brown, Justin Finch-Fletchley, Gregory Goyle.

“Mandy Brocklehurst, Tracey Davis, Ernie Macmillan, Ronald Weasley.

“Draco Malfoy—”

Here it comes, thought Harry, already feeling his heart ache from it. It never happens any other way—not in real life nor in dreams.

“—Morag McDougal, Harry Potter, Zacharias Smith.”

And there it was. Across the Hall, Draco Malfoy’s eyes met his, and Harry knew that they’d both been thinking the very same thing. Malfoy looked away first, and Harry was grateful, if only briefly, for it. How in the world were they going to work together after everything?

When all of the teams were put together, the Great Hall was heavy with silence. Harry looked from table to table and saw that there were as many determined faces as there were horrified ones. “We’ll either get stronger,” Harry murmured, “or we will wipe ourselves out.”

Ginny’s eyes cut to him, though her face remained still. He saw her mouth part, and then close again as she chose not to reply.

“For the best, either way,” Harry added. No one said a word.

ɤɣɤ

“In the Founders’ time, there was a spell,” said Tracey, “that would reverse a great wrong. Even a death.”

“What wrong do you have in mind?” Theo asked, but no one needed to be told. Snape’s absence weighed on House Slytherin like little boulders on each of their chests; a new one added by the day until they were crushed under the weight of being alone, with no one to fight for them.

“He was a Slytherin,” said Pansy, “and he was never the master of the wand.”

“I was,” Draco said. He’d said it many times before—barely believing the words even as they left his tongue. The Elder Wand had been his, and he’d not died for it. Snape could have said he never mastered the wand, that Draco had been the one to defeat Dumbledore—but he did not. “It was me.”

Enough, Draco,” Blaise growled. Then more softly, “Enough. It was a cunning death.” He said it as a Hufflepuff might have said, ‘It was an honourable death,’ or a Gryffindor might have said, ‘It was a brave death’. It was a good death, in any case.

“But what if it didn’t need to be a death at all?”

“There’s no way to bring anyone back from the dead, Tracey,” said Theo.

“But what if...” said Tracey, and because Snape had been so good to them, none of them could help thinking, ‘What if...?’

ɤɣɤ

Professor Slughorn called Harry’s team to his office after dinner on their second night back. The waning September sunlight filtered through the lake water and cast sickly yellow-green glows across the grey stones of his office floor. The colour matched the roiling feeling in Harry’s stomach when the door opened and Malfoy walked in. Harry met his eyes briefly, but was the first to look away this time.

Morag was the last to arrive, and she shut the door too hard behind her; the sound reverberated in the deserted, dungeon room. Chairs were conjured—Slughorn made Harry’s gold-tinted, basilisk skin; the others plain green. They sat.

“I had hoped,” he said, his voice filling the cavernous room like a lethal green potion once filled a bowl in an inferi-infested cave: harsh, unusual, and unceasing, “that these dark times would have ended with You-Know-Who. But, it seems, they have not.”

No one said anything. Slughorn waved his wand and distributed a rolled parchment to each of them. “You are one of two teams who will be working on a potion. This is everything we know of the ancient potion Manticoria. It is believed to be only legend, but—we are desperate enough to rely on legend now. I am sorry for giving you so little to work with...,” he shrugged, trailing off.

“Please schedule a time to meet with one another before the end of this week, and report your plan of action to me. You may go.”

Outside, they huddled in the dying green light of a wall torch well overdue for a refreshed igniting spell. The term in session for only a few hours, and Hogwarts was already like a completely different place. The parts of the castle that weren’t too damaged to inhabit were frightening in the way they didn’t change—and yet there were crawling, skittering sounds in dark corners, and rushing sounds that made the hair on the back of his neck stand up. That he was not convinced these sounds were real made it all the more terrifying, because Harry was falling apart, had been for a week now, and he was sure his mind was going first.

Zacharias was the first to speak. “The library tomorrow night?” he asked.

“Fine,” said Morag. Harry and Malfoy echoed her.

“Good,” said Zacharias. He left without another word, and Morag followed, rushing off to the stairs leading up to Ravenclaw. Malfoy made to go back to the Slytherin common room, but Harry, on impulse, stopped him with a hand around his wrist.

“Draco. Wait,” he said.

Malfoy paused, but did not look back at him. “What is it?”

“Did you—feel it?”

Malfoy hesitated a moment too long. “Feel what?” he asked coolly.

Harry swallowed around the words, I know you did. I know you felt it, I know you remember it. He said instead, “I have your wand. I can—I can bring it tomorrow night, if you want it back.”

If I want it back, Potter?” Malfoy snarled, only now turning back to look at him. The green flame of the torch reflected oddly in his grey eyes, and Harry was overcome with deja vu—he’d seen this before, he was sure of it. “If I want it back? It’s my wand, you Philistine, of course I want it back!”

“Right, yeah,” Harry said, dropping his wrist. “Sorry, I—I thought you’d got a new one.”

Malfoy sneered at him. “It’s a wand, not a quill. Getting a new one out of necessity doesn’t mean the other one is suddenly redundant. It’s an heirloom.”

Harry nodded. “I’ll bring it tomorrow.”

“See that you do,” Malfoy snarled. He left without looking back. He’d done that before, too. Harry was well acquainted with the sight of Malfoy leaving. It was a scene he had replayed in his head everyday for the last seven—then he played many more back and tried to figure out where he’d messed up. He never did find anything.

He swallowed heavily, feeling a lump in his throat. Left standing alone in the empty un-ruined dungeon corridor, he vividly remembered what being alone had come to feel like.

ɤɣɤ

It wasn’t the same, Hogwarts.

He hadn’t thought it would be, not really, but—it was so very different. His bed was still the one next to Ron’s, and Seamus and Dean still had theirs bunked one atop the other, and Neville’s was still surrounded by plants and vines crawling up the trestles of his canopy. But now, next to Ron’s bed there was a wardrobe with two new robes in it, courtesy the reward money from the New Ministry for defeating a domestic terrorist. Seamus bunked on the bottom now because, after taking a blast over a banister in the final battle, he was afraid of falling. The plants surrounding Neville’s bed were far more likely to be carnivorous now than the fancy species he’d favoured before—they stood guard around his bed with chomping, gaping maws full of fibrous, cellulose-teeth. And Harry—

Harry slept with his invisibility cloak beneath his pillow, and couldn’t say why.

But tonight—tonight he wasn’t sleeping. Tonight, Harry lay back with his head on top of his hands. This night, his second back at Hogwarts, he lay on his back, watching Malfoy’s wand twirl lazily in the air above him. He’d had this wand for six months, but it felt more like six years. It was closer to him now than his own holly wand had ever been. Why?

He asked himself daily, and still, months later, there was no answer forthcoming.

The sun rose before he thought of falling asleep, but there wouldn’t be any structured classes for the eighth year students, so he had nowhere to be anyway. Dean was the first to rise, as usual, and that same sense of unreality overcame Harry once again as he tried to feign sleep and stillness behind his bed curtains. Harry listened to Dean crawl down the wooden ladder to whisper at Seamus, telling him to get up, get dressed, it was breakfast soon.

“Du’wanna,” Seamus muttered, the words hazy from his sleep-addled brain and the bed curtains around their respective beds.

“Gotta,” Dean murmured back.

Harry knew that word well. His whole life had been defined by things he had to do. Gotta survive the Dursleys, gotta save the stone, gotta rescue Ginny, gotta defeat Voldemort, gotta die doing it…gotta fight with Malfoy, at least on the outside. He would do all the others over and over again if only the last one weren’t there…once, he hadn’t minded.

Once, he’d been perfectly content to row and brawl with Malfoy all the time. But that had been before the wand, and the dreams—but they weren’t dreams if they were real. He had wondered how mad he was going for months, and then he began wondering how he was okay with it, because he wasn’t going mad, and it wasn’t just dreams.

In that strange place between wake and sleep, he shifted on the bed, and felt Malfoy’s phantom weight shift on his chest, felt his ghost fingers clench briefly in Harry’s pyjama shirt. For the briefest, most precious of seconds, he felt Malfoy’s breath against his collarbone.

It jolted him fully awake again. This needed to stop. Maybe it would when he gave the wand back.

Frustrated and a bit disgusted with himself, Harry snatched the spinning wand from the air and hurled it away. It smacked against the heavy curtains depressingly softly. Dean heard anyway; he said, “Mate, you okay?”

“Fine,” Harry said. After a moment, Dean’s paused breathing resumed, as Seamus began rustling around like he might, possibly, in the near future, get out of bed—soon.

He felt Malfoy’s fingers clench phantom-like against his shoulder.

Then again, maybe it wouldn’t.

Maybe he’d be stuck like this forever, with some false memory of a relationship he never had, invading every waking moment of his life. It had long ago moved past dreams. He hated this wand—

—And he did not want to give it back.

ɤɣɤ

Though Hermione did her level best to distract him with the likely doom of his entire world—which was something that typically held interest for him—and Ron tried to cheer him up by beating him at Chess, his first morning back at Hogwarts was a gloomy affair.

Ron left straight from lunch to meet his team, and Hermione hadn’t been around since breakfast. There were no younger students in the common room until just before dinner, since they all had classes. A fourth year glanced at him nervously throughout the evening, and Harry desperately wished he hadn’t been so self-absorbed in prior years that he didn’t bother to learn any of their names. He would have liked to tell the kid to bugger off, but it didn’t feel right when he didn’t know his name.

After dinner, he walked with Hermione up to the library. Ron’s group wasn’t one full of obstinate people like Harry’s, nor people with something to prove, like Hermione’s, and so they’d finished up for the day already.

“Are you doing a potion, too?” he asked her.

“A runeflow,” she said. “The Department of Mysteries believes that the Wizards’ Council used Arithmancy to determine the flow of runes from ward linchpin to linchpin. They think that if we can figure out where all the pins are and the order they were warded, we may find the fault in the major wards. The only problem is that no one has any idea what pattern might have been used, or if there even is one.”

“Sounds complicated,” he said.

“It is…But I’ve grown to like complicated over the last year.”

Harry was silent for a long moment. By the time he spoke, they were at the library door. “Me, too,” he said. Hermione’s mouth edged upwards on the sides, but she didn’t reply. She left him there to find her team in the runeology section; he made his way to the back of the library, where the potions books were, with a feeling reminiscent of dread.

As he cleared the aisle and found the table, his stomach gave a weird twist—Malfoy was the only one there. Harry put his satchel down hesitantly across from him. “Hi,” he said. Then, “Draco.”

“Still assuming we’re familiar enough to be on given names?”

Harry bit his lip as he slid into the chair. “We were—once.”

Malfoy looked away, mouth pressed firmly together. “We were not. Not ever.”

“Why did you leave?” asked Harry. “You were wrong. It didn’t need to end.”

Malfoy slammed his hand against the table, hard. His eyes narrowed spitefully when he hissed, “It was a bloody fucking dream! It wasn’t real.”

Morag came then, thumping her books down on the table next to Malfoy with Ravenclaw austerity. She tossed her dark hair out of her eyes as she sat, eyeing them curiously. Harry was stuck on the words he’d been about to say—that it had been real and they both knew it, but Morag was already flipping pages, and Zacharias bloody Smith rounded the corner just after. He couldn’t not say anything—he couldn’t just leave it at that.

In the end, he settled for, “It was as real as anything,” said under his breath. Malfoy heard him. The stiffening of his shoulders said as much as needed saying.

“So,” said Zacharias. “Where do we start?”

Harry summoned his copy of the parchment Slughorn gave to each of them and read, “Manticoria: The only known written references to this potion are in the story of Merlin at Cymry, where it was allegedly used to guard the Holy Grail. Because legend claims that the grail later became the family relic of the House of Galahud of Powys, magihistorians have proposed that the grail is in fact the magical Cup of Hufflepuff, citing etymological evolution and related periods as the reasoning: Galahud of Powys, or Hud o’Poffs – and later House Hufflepuff. However, this is unsubstantiated, and there is no evidence that Helga Hufflepuff was a descendent of Sir Galahad, nor that the magical Cup of Hufflepuff is the Holy Grail. However, as all of the main legends regarding the raising of the wards reference beasts, and often specifically manticores, the Department must tentatively conclude that the potion Manticoria is likely to have been involved in the guarding of itself, if not necessarily also Hogwarts relics. The Department prioritises Manticoria as a 1.”

“If even the Department of Mysteries can’t figure it out,” Zacharias said, “then why are we even bothering?”

“No time for it when they’re so busy focusing on everything else, I guess,” said Harry, but inside, he agreed. This was a fool’s errand. They should be spending this time trying to develop new wards, not refreshing old ones.

“The wards are failing all over Britain, and the New Ministry would rather concern itself with whatever subterfuge they’re currently planning,” said Malfoy. He sighed. “At least we have a place to start, with the Grail.”

“Well, I’ve never even heard this version of King Arthur,” Harry said. “Raised by muggles, remember? Does it say anything else?”

“No,” said Zacharias. “I don’t even remember the potion being named in it. Only that there was a potion used.”

“I found another mention of it in Armes Pocyon by Baron Sivis Mortagne.”

This caught Malfoy’s attention. “I didn’t know the Bloody Baron published.”

Morag gave him a cool look. “I expect you didn’t. The only copy is in the Ravenclaw library.”

“What?” Zacharias said. “It should be in the main library where everyone can use it.”

“Just like a Hufflepuff to want everything shared with everyone,” said Morag. “Here’s a hint, Smith: important, one-of-a-kind books are only safe in Ravenclaw hands. I had to barter research assistance with Professor Flitwick to even take it out for a few hours. I wouldn’t trust a Slytherin like Pince to take care of it, not when she’s more concerned about the status of her library property. Besides, half the pages are filled with melodramatic asides about the great beauty of Helena Ravenclaw. It’s not like it’s high art.”

This was going to go even more poorly than Harry had expected. Malfoy, Zacharias, and he—he could admit it about himself—were volatile, even more volatile together. Morag had been an unknown factor, but she didn’t appear to be intimidated by the three of them.

“We’re all about to die painful, experimental deaths at the hands of muggles, and you’re worried about books,” said Zacharias.

‘Go poorly’ was apparently going to be an understatement. Harry no longer had patience for this sort of thing, but really, when had he ever? “Bloody stop it,” he growled. “The wards aren’t going to fall, you melodramatic ponce.”

Zacharias rolled his eyes. “Yeah, I’m the ponce. Okay.”

“They probably will fall,” Morag muttered.

Harry cut her a cool look. “Are all Ravenclaws this pessimistic?”

Morag seemed to think. Her finger tapped thoughtfully against her bottom lip; she hummed. “No,” she finally said. “No, thinking back on it, it’s only the ones who have to be around you. Cho Chang comes to mind...and poor Michael Corner never had a chance with little swooning Weasley. Then there’s Marietta’s spots because she was fool enough to join your illegal club instead of practising with us in Ravenclaw—,”

“Oh, fuck you, McDougal,” Malfoy said snidely. “I don’t recall any of you happy geniuses saving the world from the Dark Lord.”

“Mmm,” Morag said, smirking at Malfoy. “Still calling him the Dark Lord, eh? My—it is getting hot in this old library, isn’t it. Why don’t we all get a little more comfortable?” She began pulling off her robes, leaving her only in her shirtsleeves. “How about you, Malfoy? You look a bit hot. Take off that robe and roll up your sleeves so we can get to work.”

“Leave off him,” Harry said lowly. All three pairs of eyes cut to him, displaying varying degrees of surprise. Harry knew what they would find if Malfoy’s sleeves were rolled up. The Dark Mark was just as black against his skin as the day he got it. Harry’d never seen it in waking hours, but he’d seen it somehow—and he’d already forgiven Malfoy for it. Neither of these two had anything he needed forgiving for. But that was not what made him speak up; it was that Malfoy had spoken up for him first.

“Just—leave off,” Harry said again. “We need to work.”

They all looked down at their own books, uncomfortable. Morag sighed, and spelled Armes Pocyon to duplicate on the tabletop, where they could each read it.

“‘Of the goode wyzard Merlyn,’” she read. “’who frede ws from Muggles, ande puryfyde the elyment of Magicke in Albion ande Lloegyr, precyouse was the pocyon Manticoria.’”

“Merlin spare me,” Zacharias sighed. “Precious was the potion ‘Manticoria’? Really?”

“It can’t be that easy,” Harry said.

“It isn’t,” Morag agreed. “It only says that Manticoria was used in freeing us from muggles—which might mean the wards or might not. It doesn’t say how it was used.”

“Does it say anything else on it at all?” asked Malfoy.

Morag shrugged a bit. She read, “‘By owr own creacyon, the very fownders of the school of Magicke did combyne wyth the Wyzard Cownsyl ande the Magicke of the wyzard Merlyn, who was wyth deth, ande stopt the Muggles.’—That’s it, really,” she said.

“It’s a place to start, at least,” said Harry. “Did Merlin make the potion?”

“It doesn’t say anything at all about how the original wards were set?” Malfoy asked doubtfully. “I find it hard to imagine the Baron would leave out such a vital piece of information.”

Zacharias rolled his eyes. “Why don’t you just go ask him? He’s your house ghost.”

Malfoy sneered. “I can’t,” he said. “He hasn’t spoken since the battle.”

This gave them all pause. “Neither has Helena,” Morag said thoughtfully. “I thought she was just grieving.”

“For what?” Harry asked.

Morag gave him a withering look. “For the last earthly relic of her mother, you troglodyte. Did you not set it on fire during the battle?”

“I haven’t even seen the Friar,” said Zacharias, for once ignoring the possibility of a conflict.

No one asked about Nearly-Headless Nick, and for that, Harry was grateful—and ashamed. If they had asked him, he would have been forced to say he didn’t know. He hadn’t bothered to even say hello to Nick since coming back in July for the restoration.

“Well, regardless,” said Morag, “that’s all the book says. No instructions, hints, or anything. It just goes on about the sanctity of power runes for several pages, and then moves on to a section of prophecies about Britain, then another few pages on Helena’s delicate fingers.”

“I hate prophecies,” Harry muttered. The other three rolled their eyes. He firmed his lips together; it would seem that to get on with this group of cold, sarcastic, arrogant people, he would need a very stiff upper lip indeed. Instead of starting a row, like he wanted, he said, “Well, we do know one new thing, and that’s that the Manticoria potion was definitely involved. We only thought it might be before.”

“Gryffindors, always a fresh ray of shining sun,” said Zacharias, but it was without rancour.

“As bright as a thousand Lumoses against a midnight sky,” Morag added.

Malfoy did not pick up the joke. He was looking at Harry thoughtfully—in a way that Harry had not yet seen in waking hours. He looked away to summon his copy of the scroll from Slughorn. “I think I have heard of Manticoria before,” he said as he scanned it.

He paused to summon another book—this one Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them—from his satchel and flicked his fingers, sending the pages shuffling open until they stopped on the one he wanted. “’...The body of a lion, the wisdom of a sphinx, the bite of a wolf, and the strike of a scorpion—quick and deadly.’ – I remember my father saying that once, but I can’t remember what for...I wonder if he knew about the potion.”

Morag carefully closed Armes Pocyon and slid it back into her bag. “Okay, fine. We have somewhere to start. I’ll report this to Slughorn, and we’ll meet again Saturday night, same time. In the meantime, let’s split up the research. Potter—you find out everything you can on Manticores and their use in potions; Smith, see if you can find any truth to that fable about Hufflepuff’s Cup—it may be useful after all. Malfoy, can you get in touch with your father at all? See if he knows anything else about the Malfoy wards? Those are pretty old, aren’t they?”

“Yes,” Malfoy said tightly. Lucius Malfoy was in Azkaban, and would be for another five years, at least. The likelihood of Malfoy being allowed to visit was lower than that of Trelawney predicting something optimistic. Still, Malfoy said, “I will see what I can do.”

Morag nodded, already standing. “Good. Then I’ll check the Ravenclaw library and the Restricted Section for everything I can find on ancient warding techniques and traditions. Hopefully, among the four of us, we’ll come up with some sort of direction.” She was gone before any of them could respond, and Smith left right after.

Again, Harry found himself alone with Malfoy, facing off against him from the gaping divide of the library table. If he held his hand out, Malfoy would be close enough to take it—but this was real life, and Malfoy would not take it. There was something totally disarming in that realisation, something that nothing quite righted. He swallowed heavily. “I’ve your wand, like I said.”

“Good,” said Malfoy. He held his hand out, and the thought of taking it flashed across Harry’s mind like a lightning storm, and just as crushing. “May I have it?”

Harry pulled it from his sleeve, and held it out. “But—just one thing,” he said quietly. “Just—tell me you remember. Please.”

Malfoy sneered at him and reached for the wand. His fingers closed around the handle and nothing had ever felt like this before—not exhilaration of catching the Snitch, nor even the hot heat of kissing Malfoy in all of those memories that were both real and not-real. Magic flooded him; he saw Malfoy’s eyelids fall closed and his mouth part in exactly the same breathless way it had done a hundred-thousand times in Harry’s dreams.

He watched them all play before his eyes at Snitch-speed, and then slow on the very first one Harry had ever had, the night that he took the wand—the night that he knew that Malfoy was Marked, but was too tired to care. Then it rushed forward to the moment Malfoy said, ‘This will never work—we have to stop,’ and Harry’s dream had cut to Malfoy walking away. He’d woken up gasping, covered in a cold sweat, and burning with shame and something deeper at how utterly undone he was by a dream. Nightmares from Voldemort had never come close. All of the sudden, it ended. The retreating tendrils of warm magic left him feeling empty all over again.

“Tell me you felt it,” Harry whispered.

“It isn’t real,” Malfoy said softly.

“But it could be.”

Malfoy looked away, pocketing his old wand. He left the library, and did not look back.

-----------------------

Manticoria — Chapter 02

------------------------

At night, Harry walked the halls, and felt the dying wards of Hogwarts cling to him as they never had before. He wore his invisibility cloak like armour, and thought of flying to keep out the sounds of skittering creatures that now sneaked into the castle through the chinks in its own armour. He crossed corridors he’d never seen before, each one opening up before him as if solely for his use. Stairways swung towards him in quiet suggestion, and wavered uncertainly when he ignored them. Several times, he passed the same portrait of Hufflpuff in Combat, each time in a different place.

Each night since returning in July for repairs, this had been the case. He was not certain why the castle clung to him so fiercely, but he was pleased by it. He needed the distraction. He did not want Draco Malfoy, but he could not remove the presence of him from his mind. In the eighteen years of Harry’s life, only now did he learn what it meant to both hate and desire something at once.

Sometime after two, the castle guided him back to Gryffindor Tower. As it had every night since his return, the Fat Lady’s sleeping portrait swung open of its own accord, without waking her. He entered to find Hermione bent over a table in the quiet corner by the window, a single sheep-fat candle burning sullenly next to her. She looked up when he entered, and the candlelight illuminated the heavy circles beneath her dark eyes.

“You should be sleeping,” he said to her.

She set her quill aside carefully, as if even the sound of a dropped feather quill would wake the whole of the tower. “As should you.”

Neither of them took such advice. He folded his cloak and moved quietly to sit across from her. Over the burn of the candle, he asked, “Have you learned anything yet?”

“Only that Pansy is smarter than I ever gave her credit for,” Hermione said ruefully. Harry smiled, but it was bitter, remembering her self-serving suggestion to throw him to the Dark Lord. Had he been in her shoes, he would like to think he would have acted differently—but he had not been, and the lives of Hermione and Ron would certainly have been worth more to him than any other student’s. Had he not been the Boy Who Lived, he couldn’t guarantee it.

Hermione said, “Ley lines. The Department of Mysteries thought that there might be wardstones buried beneath cross-lines. If we find them, we might discern the original runeflow.”

“That sounds promising,” Harry said.

Hermione nodded, biting her lip. “I—maybe. And you? What have you found?”

He shook his head—nothing. “Manticoria, have you heard of it? It’s a legendary potion that may or may not be the basis for modern warding. It may or may not, in fact, have even existed.”

“We are flying blind,” Hermione observed.

“Yes,” said Harry. “But we’re used to it.” Across the table, her hand reached out and took his. They did not move or speak for a long time.

ɤɣɤ

The Manticore is the man-eater, and as such has a body the colour of still-bleeding blood. Though some muggles believe it has the head of a man, a Manticore actually features a long, greyhound-like snout, but when seen from head-on, has an uncannily humanistic visage, including strange blue eyes and expressive eyebrows. Their dragon-like tail distinguishes East Asian Manticores, but British wizards will take care to note that the common European breed does have a stinger barb at the end of their tails, and strike from it is usually fatal.

Near the Restricted Section, he could curl against the wall at the end of an aisle with his cloak wrapped around him against the library chill, and work undisturbed. His research hovered next to him, covered in the childish scrawl of a man who’d never benefited from handwriting lessons in primary school. Without the seventh years already cramming for NEWTs, it was quieter than he ever recalled it being. Even the rustle of paper was hushed.

Footsteps approached, and he bent his head to discourage conversation. They paused at the end of his row, and he gritted his teeth, already annoyed. But then he heard, “Potter,” and annoyance evolved into something entirely different.

Malfoy was wrapped in his travelling cloak; his hair was dishevelled from port-key travel. “Draco,” Harry murmured, even as the man approached him. “You went to see your father.”

Malfoy paused mid-step. “How—yes,” he said. He stopped before him; the look on his face was hard for Harry to interpret—somewhere between curiosity and hatred, and there were so many possibilities between those. “I need to speak with you. Can we—?” he indicated ‘away’.

Harry shrugged. “It’s been quiet here all day. Good a place as any, with a privacy spell.”

“Of course,” said Malfoy, as if it were his idea. He cast a Muffliato around them, and Harry thought, Of course Snape would teach his own House that spell. He sat across from him, brushing wispy hairs from his forehead. “The wards are failing at Azkaban as well,” he said right away. “It isn’t just Hogwarts and London. It’s everywhere.”

“Yes,” said Harry. “I figured it would go that way eventually.”

“Why?”

“It would be strange for it not, wouldn’t it? Hogwarts has some of the oldest wards in Britain, according to Hermione’s Hogwarts, A History. Wouldn’t other major ancient wards be modelled after it?”

“Yes, probably,” admitted Malfoy. He looked down at his hands, while his forehead crinkled thoughtfully. When he looked back up, the red lines remained across his brow, and that, Harry recognised with a sudden ache, was the very same look of lines he’d seen before Malfoy kissed him for the first time and again before the last time. He could measure his whole life between those two dreams; it had not started until the first and it ended abruptly after the second.

“The warden wouldn’t let me see my father,” he said. “But I could feel the degeneration in the wards—it felt like the wards at home, the ones tied to me.”

“Can you ask your mother about it?” Harry asked, instead of getting into a row about the relative disgustingness of Lucius Malfoy—which was a solid possibility any other time. Before, anyway.

“I sent an owl,” he said. “But it won’t arrive for another week at least. She’s still in Italy. We didn’t have time to settle our affairs before the New Ministry summoned me back and required I enter Hogwarts for NEWT levels.”

There was something very morally ambiguous about that, Harry decided, but he didn’t know what to say about it. He was so very tired of fighting other wizards. Let him fight something new this time. The others could deal with the potential corruption of their fledgling republic. “I’m sure McDougal will understand,” he said, though that was a lie worthy of a jarvey.

Malfoy didn’t go away right away, and Harry pulled his book on manticore lore back to his lap to continue his own research. It was easier when he didn’t have to look at him.

“My wand,” said Malfoy suddenly. “The hawthorn one, I mean. It doesn’t work the same.”

Harry’s confusion showed. “Obviously?” he said. “I won it from you...”

“It works better,” Malfoy said. He pulled out his new wand and the hawthorn, one for each hand. He swiped them through the air, and green sparks emitted from both, but the hawthorn’s were noticeably brighter. “Even in my off hand,” Malfoy added, switching it to his right hand. Still, the sparks were much brighter than the new wand’s.

Curious, Harry reached for it, and was both surprised and unsurprised when Malfoy actually passed it to him. He’d never thought of trying both wands at once. He retrieved his new cedar and phoenix feather wand and swished them together. Even in his hands, the hawthorn wand’s gold sparks shone more vibrantly than his own wand’s.

“We both own it,” Malfoy said. “Its loyalty is divided.”

Harry shook his head, filled with sudden insight. “Not divided,” Harry said. “Unified.” As he passed it back and Malfoy’s fingers came around it, that same surge of magic hit them both. Harry closed his eyes painfully. This was dangerous territory. “Just try,” he said before he could stop himself. “Merlin, I miss you.”

Malfoy stood abruptly, severing the connection between them. Its loss, palpable. “No,” Malfoy said. “No. You can’t miss me if you’ve never had me.”

“But—the wand,” said Harry, scrambling up after him. “When I took it from you that night over Ostara hols, do you remember? I dreamt of your Dark Mark that night, and—”

Shut up!” Malfoy yelled. The sound rippled across the barrier of the Muffliato desultorily, and disappeared. “It wasn’t real, Potter! Why can’t you understand this? They were dreams that neither of us had control over. They were not our real feelings. They were nothing. To me, you are nothing.”

How many times now had Harry watched him walk away? This was the third, surely. The third since he’d started caring, anyway.

It would be the last, as well. This wasn’t healthy. He couldn’t keep clinging to daydreams, no matter how real they were.

If he wanted to pretend it never happened, fine. Fuck Draco. No—fuck Malfoy.

ɤɣɤ

Ernie Macmillan was sprawled across his bed when Harry returned to his dormitory. Between the five beds arranged circularly around the tower room, a small sphere of glowing gold light hovered and pulsed slowly. Ron leant back against the trestle of his canopy, holding one of four wands at the glowing sphere. The other two belonged to Mandy Brocklehurst and Tracey Davis now. (Neville once might’ve wet himself at the thought of lovely Tracey Davis lying on his bed, but Neville was a war hero, and it was hard to rectify the plump little boy from first year with him)

Ernie made to stand when Harry came in, but Harry waved him off. “Don’t bother,” he said. “There’s enough room for both of us.” Ernie shot him a grateful smile and slid to the side a bit. Harry settled in next to Ernie, transfixed on the undulating lights coming from the globe.

“What are you working on?” he asked.

“Before Obliviate,” said Ernie, “there was wisp light.”

“According to legend,” Tracey added pointedly. “But it’s just a myth.”

Ernie ignored her, staring intently at the sphere. It reflected off his hazel eyes in an alarming shade of green. “Wisp light was placed around wizarding villages to lead away muggles who travelled too near. It’s believed that it was used as part of the muggle-repelling charms installed in the national wards.”

“Is that it?” asked Harry, who couldn’t seem to look away from the light or its reflection in the others’ eyes.

Ernie dropped his wand, and the light dimmed, then fell. “No,” he said, with an easy smile. “Just a facsimile. It’s called fool’s fire. Real wisp light comes from Will-O’-the-Wisps, but they’re most likely extinct now.”

“I’m telling you,” said Ron. “I saw one outside my house the summer before first year. They aren’t extinct.”

“Well, that’s enough for one night,” Mandy said. “We made good progress, I think.” Ernie slid off the bed and started gathering his things with the rest of them. Harry spread out in the absence of another person, soaking up the warmth of another body after a whole day in the chill of the library. When Ron’s team was gone, and it was only the two of them left, Harry rolled to his side, and regarded his friend.

“Do you ever feel like—” he said, but cut himself off, shaking his head.

“What?” Ron insisted.

Harry bit his lip. “Do you ever feel like,” he said, “the weeks you and Hermione were together, after the battle I mean, weren’t real? Just a dream?”

A look of hurt crossed Ron’s face before he smoothed it away. Guiltily, Harry said, “Nevermind. Forget I asked.”

“No,” Ron said. There was a long pause as Harry turned back over to him again. “It didn’t last...but it felt real...was still real.”

“I know it was,” Harry said quietly. “It’s just that sometimes, everything that happened feels like a dream. I don’t remember how to tell the real from the dreamt.”

Ron shrugged a single shoulder. “I don’t know, mate. There’s a lot to wild magic that can make unreal things close enough to real.”

Harry knew they were both remembering the hateful projections put on them by the horcruxes—but for Harry, there was something else, a different kind of projection. If he’d dreamt of Draco every single night, and felt his presence every time he used the hawthorn wand, did that mean it was real, or just a very elaborate nightmare? He wished he knew more about their joint ownership of the wand; he wished he knew where to look for information; he wished he could ask Hermione about it.

“It’s over now, though. Do you really need to be able to distinguish anymore?”

“No,” said Harry. “I suppose not.”

ɤɣɤ

“Theo,” said Draco, into the shadow between their beds. Theodore’s gold eyes blinked open, reflecting green from the dark light of lake water outside their window. “Why didn’t Professor Snape have antivenin on him? He always had antivenin.”

“It was the blood loss, Draco. Not the venom.”

“If he’d taken antivenin,” Draco insisted, “he would’ve been able to spell closed the wound and take a blood replenisher. The venom would have made his hands shake too badly too cast nonverbally.”

“How do you know he didn’t, and just failed anyway?”

“Snape never failed.”

Theodore was silent for a long time. “No, he didn’t.”

“Then,” Draco said. “Why did he die?” Theo didn’t answer. “What if he didn’t?”

“He did,” said Theo.

Draco rolled onto his back, staring at the dark emptiness of the canopy above him until he began to drift off, into that strange time right before sleep. All around him, he felt a second presence in his bed, a presence that had occupied it every night since Ostara. Damn that wand, he thought muzzily. He should burn it.

But he did not.

ɤɣɤ

“There was no way Hufflepuff’s Cup was the Holy Grail,” Zacharias said on Saturday. He conjured up two well-used parchment notebooks and shuffled through pages of tight handwriting. “I checked family records about Helga—my great, great et cetera, et cetera aunt—and even went to the National Library in Cardiff to be sure. I don’t even know how these historians are published. It’s absolute codswallop. Look—here:

“‘The Holy Grail of King Arthur lore is sometimes confused with Hufflepuff’s Cup because of their marked similarity in size, shape, and construction. However, Madam Hepzibah Smith, a distant relative of the Founder, submitted the Cup to Oxford University in the year 1945 for magio-luminescence dating. At this time, the Cup was proven conclusively to have been spelled into being only in the year 993, the same year that the school Hogwarts opened. Without use of hundreds of thousands of Time Turner spins, the Cup could not have been present during King Arthur’s reign, five centuries previous.’”

Zacharias closed the book with a smug snap. “So, I do hope you three came up with something more promising.”

“Maybe,” said Harry. “It looks like manticore parts were only used in three potions, ever—two of which were invented and used only by Merlin. The other one was an experimental anti-aging potion made from the stinger of a European Manticore in 770, but it killed the drinker immediately, so it was only made the once.”

Morag’s brow scrunched in shocked confusion. “Someone actually tried to drink a potion made from manticore stinger?” she said.

Harry shrugged, but he couldn’t help grinning at the absolute stupidity of such a thing. “Apparently so. But then, for some reason, the manticore population dropped sharply in the late tenth century. There probably would’ve only been a few dozen left by the time the Ministry was formed from the Wizard’s Council and Hogwarts was built and warded, and those would have been concentrated near Glasgow, where the Manticore Trading Company was based.”

“Well—hmm,” said Morag. “That’s disappointing, but not a total loss. Keep looking, Potter. There’s got to be something else to it, something you missed.”

Harry nodded, pointedly ignoring her barb. He wasn’t the world’s best cross-referencer, to be sure, but he wasn’t stupid. He could at least ask Hermione about it.

“I suppose you didn’t find anything either, Malfoy?” she asked.

Malfoy sneered at her. “Surprisingly, the Azkaban warden is disinclined to let another Malfoy on the grounds. I can’t imagine why.”

“Me, neither,” said Zacharias. “You would think he’d be gasping for the other two. How is your mother, by the way?”

“Warm and happy in Italy, I’ll tell her you asked after her,” said Malfoy.

“Do,” Zacharias grinned.

“The last time I saw your mother,” said Harry, feeling spiteful, “she was falling all over herself to save her poor little Malfoy. What did you do to make her abandon you up here with the big, bad New Ministry?”

“I told her I fucked Granger, and she was so disgusted that I’d touched a mudblood, she had to take a holiday to repair,” he sneered.

“You fucking shit, Malfoy,” Harry snarled, jumping up. “I will kill you.”

“Not likely,” Malfoy sneered. “Unlike the Dark Lord, Expelliarmus isn’t a spell I find fatal, and I’m not convinced you even know another one.” Harry lunged at him. Malfoy ducked out of his reach just in time, knocking his chair back in the process. It clattered against the stone floor with a resounding echo. Then the sudden, ringing silence of a privacy spell going up around them and the whiplash-jerk of a Body Bind settled over him.

“Yes, very amusing,” said Morag, sliding her wand back up her sleeve, “but we are on the verge of, as Smith so delicately put it, painful and experimental deaths via muggle, so if we could all just tuck our pricks away for a moment and focus, thanks.” He and Malfoy glared at her from frozen positions until she released the bind.

“You first,” Harry muttered to her, but he did sit back down next to Smith, as far away from Malfoy as he could get.

She grinned toothily at him, then said, “And Malfoy, do lay off the mudblood jokes. They are so gauche these days, don’t you find?”

“Not quite as gauche as your entire family,” Malfoy said. Morag ignored him.

She said, “In the Restricted Section, I found a book on late medieval warding. It was written about three-hundred years after Hogwarts, and we were already back to weak wards. We’d lost the knowledge—the sixth to tenth centuries were truly the Age of Warding. We’ve never made anything near as good at any time before or since.”

Quiet came over the table as this sunk in, each of them contemplating the colossal scope of what they were set to do. If the process of large-scale warding was lost a thousand years ago, and no wizard had recreated it since...how were they supposed to do it?

From his new seat, he could see the library doors. Hermione slipped in, followed by the other three women from her team. She saw him and changed directions toward his table, with Hannah and Padma; Pansy, he saw, was reluctant to follow, but did anyway.

“Granger,” said Zacharias pleasantly. “We were just talking about you.”

With his back to the women, Malfoy smirked at the table. Harry felt his fingers clench, aching to punch the smug look off his smug face. How could he have ever thought spending more time than necessary with Malfoy was a good idea?

“Oh?” she said. She smiled hesitantly. “Good, I hope.”

“Always good,” Zacharias said, the smarmy little bastard.

“Harry,” said Hermione, “I was hoping I’d see you today—you asked if I’d heard of the potion you’re working on, and I didn’t think I had before, but I remembered this morning: Waleran Widdershins mentions it in his 604 essay on the life of Merlin. It’s in the History section. He was a contemporary, so it might have an added chance of truthfulness.”

Harry grinned. “You’re wonderful, Hermione.” He craned his head around to make sure Madam Pince wasn’t looking, before summoning the document to their table.

Morag was eyeing Hermione speculatively. “What does the New Ministry have you lot working on?”

“Runeflows against ley-lines,” said Hermione. “We’re trying to find the original wardstones.”

“Made any progress?”

“Hannah has,” Hermione said, smiling again. “She’s really knowledgeable about ley-lines, so we already had a map she’d been working on since third year. It’s quite accurate.”

“Except for the part where nothing is matching up,” Pansy said.

“We should work together,” Morag said. “I think there’s something to Manticoria, but I obviously won’t make any progress with these three idiots, and Hannah and I were Arithmancy partners for three years. We did well together.” At this, Hannah blushed, and Harry, Malfoy, and Zacharias sneered at Morag, which she didn’t appear to notice.

“Great,” Malfoy and Pansy muttered together.

With those two together, Harry had no hope of a peaceful, painless year. He’d never learned how not to harbour resentment; it was a skill he sorely missed now, seeing Pansy and Malfoy sitting together and smirking.

Her features were unusual in their geometry; every flicker of the wall torches hit her face at sharp angles, making her look more sinister, more severe than she actually was. He wondered if Malfoy found her attractive, if they’d slept together, if they still slept together—she was Malfoy’s Hermione, but just because Harry and Hermione hadn’t didn’t mean they hadn’t. He focused on Waleran’s essay instead of watching them.

“This is all about warding!” Harry said excitedly. It had taken two tries at the translation spell to make the Old English readable, but he did find the page that mentioned Manticoria. Hermione slid into the seat next to him and peered over the indicated page.

“Merlin is said to have invented the modern ward,” Hermione said. She skimmed for a few lines, and then lifted her eyebrows. “And here’s the part about Manticoria—but it’s so vague. I can’t tell what capacity the potion has to the wards around Arthur’s court at Cardiff.”

“That’s close to our family home,” Zacharias said, as if anyone actually cared that he was from the same place as Helga Hufflepuff.

“Let me see,” said Pansy. Hermione handed her the document, and the other woman read it quickly. Seeing the translation spell over it, she grimaced and then ended it with a muttered ‘Finite’.

“This isn’t Manticoria-the-potion,” Pansy said reading through the original Old English. “This is Manticoria-the-beast. You can tell by the syntax. It’s lost in the translation.”

“Oh,” Harry said. His disappointment was echoed on every other face in his team.

But Pansy shook her head, and pointed further down the page. “No, I think there’s something to this. It says they were ‘bound with care by the alignment of god. This could be our ley-lines!” Hermione squealed a little bit at this pronouncement, and rushed off to some barely-used section of the library for more books, leaving Pansy looking after her oddly.

“Manticores positioned along ley-lines...” Padma said thoughtfully. “I think that’s something with Divination—Parvati would know.”

“Then what if our Manticoria isn’t a potion, either,” Harry wondered.

“If it’s the beast, we’re fucked,” Zacharias said. “Even spells can’t get through their hide, and I’m not getting close enough to one to slice its tail off with a sword. Maybe Longbottom would...”

Harry rolled his eyes. “Neville’s braver than you’ll ever be, Smith.”

“Obviously. And more expendable, too, if you ask me. Do you think he would?”

“Oh, sod off.”

Hermione came back then with a stack of books in her arms and two floating behind her. She dumped them on the table, partially obscuring Morag’s own notes, but Morag only sneered a little at her. It didn’t even have any feeling behind it. Harry took a moment to wish that the sneers he got were that weak. Around them, the torches flickered on as the sun set outside, casting the papers and their bodies in firelight.

“I brought Hogwarts, A History, too, because I remembered reading about beasts being used for guarding before the wards were established. It didn’t say which kind of beasts though...” she trailed off, flipping pages in two books at once.

“Probably mudbloods,” Malfoy said.

Hermione gasped, but Harry had already stood up, his wand pointing straight at Malfoy’s forehead. “Take it back, Malfoy.”

“I don’t believe I will.”

Draco!” Pansy hissed.

“Malfoy,” Morag growled. “I thought we already discussed the mudblood jokes. Untwist your knickers and start helping, or I will start helping you into a new pair...with new bits to fit.”

“This is hippogriff shit,” said Malfoy. “I go all the way out to Azkaban for this assignment, and I get mocked for it. Mudblood Granger goes to get a book, and she’s a hero.”

“Jealous you can’t read?” Zacharias asked, smirking.

“Oh, fuck you,” Malfoy snapped, and then his wand was in his hand, too, pointing at Smith even as Harry still had his levelled at Malfoy. “You sit around trying to be posh, dropping reminders of being descended from Hufflepuff in every other sentence, but I guarantee you that no one gives a shit about Helga Hufflepuff or her fucking bloodline. She took all the rejects, remember?”

“Hey!” Hannah said. “That’s not true!”

“Malfoy, you piece of shit,” Smith growled. “You think you’re so witty and clever, but it’s just a show to cover what a cowardly deserter you are. You couldn’t even pick a side and stay on it.”

“And yet, here I am, still in one piece...unlike your fat sister. Poor Salome Smith: wrong place, wrong time, right Cutting Curse...she was just so loyal to defend her friend from three lashes by Professor Carrow. I’m sure she was glad to give up three fingers for such a righteous cause.”

“You fucking prick!” Smith yelled, and leapt over the table at Malfoy. His hands wrapped around Malfoy’s throat as the chair toppled backwards, sending them both flying to the ground. “Take it back,” Zacharias snarled.

Malfoy spat in his face. “I’d rather fuck your ugly mother.”

Zacharias howled with rage. His fist came down hard across Malfoy’s jaw, snapping his head to the side.

“Draco!” Pansy screeched.

Both he and Smith ignored her and all the others scrambling to them. Smith rained hits down on Malfoy with ferocious speed and cold viciousness that Harry had never seen in a Hufflepuff, but Malfoy was not defenceless—was, in fact, a remarkable fighter. He managed to get hold of Zacharias’ robes and hurl him over, switching their positions. Zacharias only grinned up at him through a bloodied mouth. “Remember the last time we did this, Malfoy? After that Quidditch game when I beat your ugly face to a pulp? Was worth every minute of detention.”

Draco growled and tightened his grip around Zacharias’ throat. “Won’t happen again,” he said, but even that brief hesitation was enough latitude for Zacharias to get the upper hand again. He kneed Malfoy between the legs and tossed him over, rolling both of them out of the silencing spell. Malfoy lay gasping, curled around himself, even as Smith punched him again. Malfoy pushed back against him. It slammed them against the nearest stacks, and they wobbled precariously. Neither noticed. Zacharias pulled Malfoy to him and slammed him against it again.

The shelves rocked backwards violently, then, apparently stabilised by some magic, rocked forward again just as violently. Books slid off the shelf and fell—

“Impedimenta!” Hermione and Morag yelled together, and the books stopped just before burying the two men beneath them.

“What is going on here!” shrieked Madam Pince, rushing around the corner. Her face was red with anger. “What is the meaning of this?” she howled.

In that briefest of moments, Malfoy took advantage of Zacharias’ distraction. Harry saw it coming a mile away, and watched it unfold with ever increasing horror. Malfoy flipped them once more, and then he was hauling Zacharias back, and throwing him into the shelves. This time, the magic didn’t hold them upright—no, the shelves rocked back, and kept on falling, knocking down row after row of books. The sound as they crashed was horrisonorously loud.

Madam Pince made a horrible noise in the back of her throat.

Then there was a small flash as Malfoy snatched Zacharias’s wand from him and levelled it at the Hufflepuff. “Fuck you, and your family,” he said lowly.

But Zacharias wasn’t staring at the wand in fear; he was looking up at Malfoy in wonder. Malfoy seemed to notice something strange then. His eyes widened, and locked on Smith’s. They stared at each other for a fraction of a second, but it felt like a millennia to Harry—

Then Malfoy leant down as if to help Zacharias up, and Zacharias reached for both his hand and the lost wand. As his slim fingers wrapped around the end of the rowan wood wand, there was another small flash, and both Zacharias and Malfoy shuddered against it.

Madam Pince found her voice again. “Get out!” she screeched into the shocked silence of the library. “Get out, get out, get out!”

They all ran, and did not stop until they were out the doors of the Entrance Hall and halfway to the Green Houses.

Outside, they stared at each other wide-eyed in the dark chill of late September evening. “That—” Zacharias started to say, breathing heavily. He looked to Malfoy, and ran his fingers over his wand in a strange, manic movement. “That’s never happened to me before.”

Malfoy looked horrified. He said, “It has to me.”

Six other faces turned to Malfoy, but not Harry’s—he knew exactly what Malfoy meant. Since that day he’d been aware of the other owner of that wand in a way that he definitely did not want Zacharias sharing.

Then, the others noticed who among them was looking at the ground, and gasps went up around their circle. “Harry?” Hermione asked him, her voice high with her anxiousness.

“At Malfoy Manor,” he said. “When I took Malfoy’s wand.”

“When you defeated him, like he just defeated Zacharias...” Padma said, ever the philosopher.

“But...why now, and not any other time a wand is won?” asked Hermione. “Look at it, it’s working fine for Zacharias,” she added, as he cast a number of healing spells over his face and shoulders.

“And it will,” said Hannah. “They’ve neutralised each other. It’s old magic...came up when families fought for lands and magical children. If two heads of family were to duel twice and each win one and lose the other, then they were considered equals, and were forced to stop duelling by way of becoming joint owners of each other’s wands. It prevented unwinnable feuds from persisting.”

“And you knew this the whole time?” Pansy asked Draco. “That you’d neutralised your feud with Potter? Draco, how could you let such a detail go by without—?”

“I didn’t think of it,” Malfoy admitted. “I—I never realised.”

“How could you not realise—”

“I don’t know, Pansy!” Draco interrupted. “I wasn’t thinking about it. I had other things on my mind.”

She looked away, shamefaced. None of the Slytherins’ families had had it easy over the summer, but the Malfoy name was so high-profile that they’d been harassed constantly. Every day, the papers had shown an increasingly grim picture of their lives until the verdict came for Lucius, and wife and son had left for Italy.

Draco’s dreams during that time had been especially grim—Harry had tried to comfort by dragging them both to brighter locales, but inevitably, Draco’s depression darkened it again.

“But when did you beat Harry?” asked Padma.

“Fifth year,” Harry answered for him. “Quidditch. He won—everything.” The punch had been a cheap shot, but Harry had already been defeated by Draco’s slur at Harry’s mother, how it made him lose control.

“But the Snitch,” Smith grinned.

Silence reigned for a moment. The chill of the breeze helped to cool Harry’s temper, and apparently those of the others, as well. It was a long moment later before anyone spoke.

“Damn it,” sighed Morag. “We were finally getting somewhere, and now we’ll never be able to use the library again.”

“Ah, well,” Hermione said, wincing. She opened her cloak and pulled out a little purple, beaded handbag that Harry knew all too well. He grinned at her as she reached in all the way to her shoulder and pulled out the essay from Waleran Widdershins. “I’ve got all the ones from our table in here...when Madam Pince wasn’t looking.” She shrugged, a bit sheepishly.

“And that reminds me,” she added. “I was just about to say, before Malfoy insulted my parentage, that Hogwarts, A History indicated beasts used for guarding before the wards were set. What I didn’t get to was that it hinted the beasts were important to the wards when they were put in place. What if they were used in setting them, somehow?”

“Merlin,” Draco whispered suddenly, as if remembering something long forgotten. “That’s what we were talking about...when my father described a Manticore, he wasn’t talking about the creature, he was talking about the wards at Malfoy Manor. That’s how they work: body of a lion, wisdom of a sphinx, bite of a wolf, and strike of a scorpion—quick and deadly.”

“Malfoy,” said Morag into the silence that followed. “You’ve got to talk to your dad.”

“Yeah,” Draco said slowly. Harry could see the rush of emotions over his face, and pitied him for it before remembering that Draco hated pity.

“What in the name of Circe is going on!” screamed McGonagall. They all turned to see her striding up to them, not at all hindered by the darkness or her age. Three old candles hovered before her, rushing to light the way. She didn’t bother to care where she stepped, she was so infuriated. “Never in all my years have I ever—! Rows and rows of library shelves destroyed, thousands of books scattered to Stonehenge and back. Every one of you! To my office! Now!”

-----------------------

Manticoria — Chapter 03

------------------------

When the Headmistress finally let them go, and all eight of them were trundling down the spiral steps feeling worse than they had in a very long time, they found Ron and his team waiting for them. “Harry! Hermione!” Ron said, in relief when he saw them. “Merlin, we heard about it from some sixth years an hour ago—are you okay? Are you expelled?”

“Not expelled,” Harry said. He tried on a smile, but it was too difficult to maintain. “We’ve got to clean up the library, on top of our research projects.”

“That’s not too bad,” Ron said consolingly.

“No,” Harry agreed. All things considered, it was really not bad at all. That it would take them weeks to get that end of the library usable again didn’t need to be said. The dressing-down from McGonagall was enough to make him even think twice about even sneaking food from the kitchens again.

“And we made a lot of progress, too, so it wasn’t a total loss,” Hermione added.

“Oh?” said Ron. “Your teams are working together?”

“Only since this afternoon,” Hermione assured him, but it didn’t work, and soon they were off in a corner, arguing in hushed voices. The others started leaving.

Ernie came up next to Harry and looked on with the good-natured amusement that only Hufflepuffs who weren’t tossers like Zacharias could manage. “Shame they didn’t work out,” he observed. “Always arguing like that, they’re practically married.”

“Yeah,” Harry said, because there wasn’t really anything else he could say in such an awkward situation. He and Ernie stood there in continuingly awkward silence, watching both Hermione’s and Ron’s faces get progressively redder and angrier. A silencing spell went up around them before they could attract any other attention.

“I’ve never been in the Headmistress’ Office before,” Ernie continued. “Heard rumours, though. All those old Headmasters, looking down at you. It’s enough to set anyone on the straight and narrow.”

“Yeah,” said Harry. “It’s creepy.” Feeling Dumbledore’s blue oil-based eyes on him the whole time McGonagall was tearing into them had been disconcerting to say the least—sad, to say more. Next to Dumbledore’s frame, Professor Snape had glared down in a lifeless dour glare. How long after their subject’s death did portraits wake up? Harry wondered. He would’ve thought it would’ve happened by now.

“Say, Harry,” Ernie said. “Would you like to come down to the Hog’s Head for a pint? You look like you’ve had a hell of a day, and these two will be at it for yonks, if history is any judge.”

Harry was going to say no, he really was, but in the moment that he turned to do so, he caught a glimpse behind Ernie. Off on their own a bit down the corridor, Malfoy was deep in conversation with Smith—and they were looking very close indeed. Jealousy flooded Harry. Malfoy would have absolutely nothing to do with Harry, even after all those months, but now he had a connection with Zacharias for two hours and they were practically snogging.

“Yeah,” Harry said to Ernie. He couldn’t watch this happen. “Yeah, that’d be nice.”

“Great,” said Ernie. “Shall we?”

No one noticed them slip away out the Entrance Hall door. Ernie was quick with a quality warming charm over the both of them, which was grand since Harry was bollocks at them.

“Hard to imagine that all this could be exposed to muggles,” Ernie said, as they wound their way down the path to Hogsmeade. “What would they do to it, do you think?”

Harry shrugged. “I really don’t know,” he said, but he was imagining a horde of Uncle Vernons and Aunt Petunias, but with political and military power. Overdramatic, probably—but maybe not. What would Uncle Vernon have done to him if he could have got away with anything? Harry wasn’t sure he wanted to know. “I would hope they’d leave us be.”

“As would I,” Ernie said quietly.

“They wouldn’t, though,” Harry said after a moment.

Ernie gave him a tight smile. “No, I reckon they wouldn’t.” He was quiet as they passed through the gates and into the road to town. “Justin’s family’s muggle, you know. Real stand-up people, but...”

“But what,” Harry prompted.

Ernie shrugged, a little embarrassed, or perhaps the red on his cheeks was just from the cold. “But they were quick to tell all his aunts and uncles and cousins about his magic. Every summer holiday, he gets tellyphone calls from family all over asking for the muggle lottery numbers or a spell to make their automobiles run on nothing.”

There wasn’t much Harry could say to that; his experience was exactly the opposite, but he could easily imagine the appeal of a magical cure-all.

The Hog’s Head was warm and Aberforth served them without a hint of recognition, for which Harry was grateful. They took a table in the back, near the fireplace. “So I take it you lot teamed up with Hermione’s group,” said Ernie.

“Yeah,” said Harry. “It was sort of unexpected, but it looks like our assignments might be linked somehow, so it’ll be good. Who knows, maybe we’ll save the wards.”

Ernie smiled at him. “I don’t suppose you’d be interested in having the four of us with you, too? We could make a hell of a team, I bet, and this Manticoria sounds wicked interesting.”

“Ron’s probably talking Hermione into that very thing right now,” Harry said with a small grin.

Ernie chuckled. “Good,” he said. “I want to solve this thing, and I want to do it soon.”

Harry took a long swig of his ale. “You and me both, mate. I’ve had more than my fill of adventure.”

Ernie smiled at him again, ever the Hufflepuff. “I doubt that,” he said.

“Well, maybe not,” Harry admitted, and Ernie laughed again. It was such a nice, pleasant sound—and Ernie was such a nice, pleasant fellow. Harry found himself laughing again, without a trace of fakeness.

Hours later, they were three pints down, and deep in a discussion on the finer points of basilisks—of which there were none, in Harry’s opinion. “No, no,” Ernie said, laughing, “They’d make good guardians for dark places.”

“They aren’t very smart,” Harry said, chuckling.

“Do the Parseltongue again,” Ernie pleaded. “The one that sounds like you’re saying ‘super silly sex slime’.”

Harry snorted in laughter. “Hello, I have four nest eggs,” Harry repeated dutifully, which came out more like ‘soofa sell sesks sliiiime’, and Ernie burst out laughing.

“It really sounds like it,” he said between gasping breaths. “Snakes actually talk about ‘nest eggs’ to one another?”

“I guess so,” Harry said. “Not like they follow Quidditch. Must get boring.”

Ernie was laughing so hard he was clutching his stomach. Harry worried he might choke, but in truth, he was so tipsy he couldn’t help laughing himself. Ernie fell against his shoulder, practically crying with laughter against Harry’s neck, and it was such a strange feeling—such a new, warm feeling. He thought he might like it.

The door jangled open and two blonds stepped in. They looked up to deposit their cloaks on the cloak rack by the door, and Harry stiffened. Malfoy—and Zacharias. Ernie felt it and looked up, tears still streaming from his eyes. “Heard you’ve got a shared wand with Malfoy now,” he said. “Must be tough, sharing a wand connection with those two—what a pair!”

“What do you mean? Both?”

“Expect it hasn’t manifested with you yet,” Ernie said. “Or didn’t you disarm Zach in the DA after that time he smarted off?”

“Yeah, but...I don’t get it.”

Ernie shrugged. “You disarmed Zach once, and then Malfoy. Now you’ve got neutrality with Malfoy, and he’s got one over on Zach—so now you’ve got one over on Zach. Mind your wand around him, now that he’ll have neutrality with you, too—little bugger’s got the stickiest fingers I’ve ever seen on a Hufflepuff.”

“All three of us can use one another’s wands now,” Harry said, just to clarify.

“’Fraid so,” Ernie said.

“What other sort of side effects are there with this sort of thing?” Harry asked carefully.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Ernie said, but he was considering it. “Could be that you’ll feel more protective over them—the magic was meant to end feuds, you know. But it wasn’t always used that way. Once was, friends used it during dark times, so they’d always have a working wand between them, if ever they lost one. Could be that it’ll make your magic a bit more compatible when you use it together, but I wouldn’t count on it. It was never meant as anything but a punishment; was only that enterprising wizards found ways to use it otherwise.”

“It’s definitely a punishment,” Harry said with feeling. His eyes were glued to the two blonds sitting down with glasses of whiskey at a table by the door, though. He didn’t think they’d noticed him and Ernie at their table in the back, but then they turned and looked right at him, each lifting a blond eyebrow in smug question. It was creepy and off-putting and Harry utterly hated the both of them in that moment.

“Does it tell them I’m nearby, too?” he asked Ernie.

“Nah, you were just really obvious about it. I doubt a flobberworm would’ve failed to notice you glaring.”

“What are they doing here?” Harry asked.

“Probably trying to establish boundaries. Never seen a pricklier pair of pompous arses—” which was saying something, coming from Ernie Macmillan “—They probably want to draw lines in the sand or some such, now that they’ve neutralised one another.”

“They didn’t do that with me,” Harry said.

Ernie grinned at him. “You’re a bit different. Smith is just like Malfoy in many ways, only he was lucky enough to be sorted into Hufflepuff, and instead of having to fight for respect from the rest of the school, it was given to him automatically. They understand how the other works, and they know what to offer each other to get what they want. But you—you’re different. You don’t react in ways they understand. They’ll create a united front, and then they’ll come for you,” Ernie said.

Harry grimaced. “That sounds—horrible.”

“Might be,” Ernie agreed jovially. He slung his arm around Harry, just like a mate, and added, “But I know how to deal with pompous arses. I’ll help you muddle through.”

ɤɣɤ

In the days that followed, Harry spent a great deal of time cleaning the library instead of making use of it. Hermione had, in fact, invited Ron’s team to merge with hers and Harry’s, and Ron had agreed with a sheepish grace only recently learned. Their team of twelve was making progress at night after sorting books during the day. At their team meetings, now held in a classroom in the abandoned Theology wing, Ron sat on one side and Ernie the other, making insightful observations all the time, and generally impressing Harry quite a bit.

Zacharias Smith and Malfoy still sniped at each other, but not nearly as much as they had before. Occasionally, Harry would try to draw Malfoy out with a pointed comment, but Malfoy rarely responded now, and when he did, it wasn’t nearly snide enough to warrant a row. Harry felt distinctly disappointed.

Since Zacharias joined his and Draco’s wand-connection, the dreams had stopped altogether. He wondered if Draco was having them with Smith now, and hated it.

Before he knew it, September was October, and even that went by; there was something to be said for the passage of time. It in no way healed all wounds, but it made the pain of them throb more dully.

The day before Halloween, Malfoy announced to the group, “The New Ministry’s finally processed my request to see my father. Five Aurors interviewed me to make sure I didn’t have a nefarious purpose to the request, and even then they were hesitant. Smith’s mum had to come in and explain it was really for the Advanced Wizardry certification project and it was really a matter of saving the world. They ate that right up like a hungry hippogriff.”

Harry burned with resentment at Smith and his mother both. If Harry’s mum were alive, would she have worked at the Ministry and been able to pull strings for Malfoy? Would he have talked to Harry then?

“Your knickers are getting a bit twisted,” Ernie leaned in and murmured to him. Harry forced himself to relax.

“Sorry,” he whispered back. Ernie shrugged.

“So when are you going?” asked Morag. “Before the end of the world, hopefully.”

“Tomorrow,” said Malfoy.

“Well good,” she said. “Then maybe you’ll have contributed something to the group besides weeks of library clean up.”

“I pray to Merlin for it every night,” Malfoy said. Which set him and Morag off on a five minute exchange of witty rejoinders, each more impressive than the last. It finally ended when Hermione put her hand on Morag’s arm, and she aborted whatever cutting remark she’d been close to making. Her eyes fell heavy-lidded as they regarded Malfoy coolly without saying anything.

“If we could return to the task at hand?” Hermione said mildly.

And that was new, too. On more than one occasion, he’d come back to the Tower from a pint with Ernie to find Morag sitting in his favourite chair in the common room, bent over a rune chart with Hermione, their dark heads closer together than Hermione’s had ever been with Ron.

Things were changing again, and he hadn’t even had time to get used to it last time.

But even now, even without the dreams and the wand, and the constant feelings of Draco being his, it felt like there was something missing that hadn’t been missing before Ostara. There was something of him in that hawthorn wand, and he’d given it back to Malfoy only for Malfoy to give it on to Smith.

ɤɣɤ

Draco only used the hawthorn wand in the dormitory. He didn’t dare take it out in the school where Smith could get hold of it—or worse, Potter. But in the sanctity of his dormitory, where Slytherin secrets were as sacred as any god, he could use it without fear of interruption or anyone questioning his motives.

Though that didn’t mean he could also use it without fear of mocking. Theo sat watching him from his own bed, faintly amused. “How many times are you going to refold those trousers?” he asked. “They were perfectly fine when the laundry elves dropped them off.”

“I didn’t like the crease,” Draco muttered.

“Or maybe you do like using the wand,” Theo offered.

“It was my first wand,” Draco said. “Of course I like it.”

“Mmm,” said Theo. “Still get that feeling that Potter’s nearby when you cast with it?”

Draco spun to him, snarling. “What?”

Theo held his hands up in surrender. “Just wondering.”

“That doesn’t happen,” Draco insisted.

Theo shrugged. “Not like I care,” he said. “I’ve been dating a Hufflepuff half-blood since fourth year, remember?”

“Hannah’s good with runes,” Draco said, as he returned to refolding his laundry with the hawthorn wand. What was Potter good at, besides dying?

“She’s good with a lot of things,” Theo said. “Runes, Charms, Potions, Herbology...”

“Snogging,” Draco guessed.

“That too,” Theo admitted. There was a smile in his voice that Draco envied just a bit. There was a rustling as Theo stretched out on his bed. Draco could feel his eyes still focused on the back of his head. Of course he wouldn’t be able to get out of this conversation that easily. Theo was like a niffler on the scent of gold. He never stopped and he was never distracted until he found what he wanted.

“But it does make it feel like Potter’s nearby when you cast with that wand, doesn’t it?” he asked softly.

Draco didn’t answer for a long time. When he did, it was the barest of shrugs.

“Not the same with Smith though, is it? You don’t get the feeling he’s near, do you?” Draco shook his head, which was enough of an admission to any question Theo had or might ask this night.

“I wonder why,” Theo mused, “you’re more closely connected to Potter and not Smith.”

“Potter kept the wand,” Draco said. It was his current working theory. “It’s more attached to him. I didn’t keep Smith’s wand—it never got attached.”

“Suppose that makes sense,” Theo allowed.

Draco finished his laundry and moved on to tidying his potions kit. He hadn’t looked at it all year, what with there being no defined classes for the seventh and eighth years. Opening it now was harder than he expected. He saw his sack of rare thrushweed and was reminded of Professor Snape telling him, in third year, after detention for the Dementor stunt,

“Don’t ever mix thrushweed with holy basil, Draco. It will create fumes noxious enough to rival the Draught of Living Death. The real value of thrushweed is in making the antidote to the Draught—but the slightest of missteps will render the antidote poisonous.”

Which was obvious and something even a first year would know, but Professor Snape had seen Draco’s love of potions, and had allowed it, encouraged it, let him experiment in his own lab in fourth and fifth year because Lucius wouldn’t let him have one at home. ‘Potioneering is a commoner profession, Draco,’ he’d said. ‘Do not get attached.’

He pushed that aside with careful fingers, and beneath it laid his near-perfect Draught of Living Death, still potent enough to put someone to sleep for a few years or more. Potter had beaten him then, in sixth year—in the one thing Draco excelled at. It was probably for the best that he hadn’t won the Felix Felis.

But he’d dreamt of Potter in May, shortly before the final battle, before Potter had turned back on his broom and saved Draco and Greg—he’d dreamed of that class, and in his dream, Potter had come to his table and taken the stirring rod from him. His fingers had brushed against Draco’s and magic had surged through him, so warm and exhilarating it left him trembling, his toes curling within his shoes.

“This is how,” Potter had said. “Seven stirs counter-clockwise, like in the book...but then one stir clockwise.”

In the dream, his potion had turned dark current-black, faded into lilac and then perfectly, crystal clear. He’d woken up slumped over the work table in Snape’s old laboratory, stirring rod in his hand. On the table, a perfect cauldron of Draught of Living Death sat beneath a stasis charm.

“Who are you grieving for?” Theo asked quietly. “Professor Snape or Potter?”

Draco stared into the potion kit for a long time, unable to move. He could have saved that potion. It was perfect. Would have killed anyone with a single drop. He could have used it on his father to save him from the fate he suffered now. It would have been kinder.

“I don’t really know,” he said.

He’d not saved the potion—instead flung the cauldron halfway across the room in a fit of rage...because when he’d woken, it had still felt like Potter should be there.

And it felt like that now.

Merlin, the absence of Potter weighed so heavily sometimes.

He was unprepared for how that one confession made him feel completely, utterly helpless.

ɤɣɤ

In the morning, on Halloween, Draco set out for Azkaban, not at all at ease.

The guards let him through this time, which was not exactly something he was thrilled about. He checked his wand at the front, and waited on a rickety hard-backed chair while they ran checks on it, his name, and his Hogwarts records. A shrill buzzer sounded and the iron door leading into the prison proper swung open.

“Draco Malfoy,” called the guard who stepped out, as if there were anyone else in this manky waiting area.

He followed the man through, down corridor after corridor until he was sure that he would never find his way out again if this guard left him behind. He could feel Dementors around every corner, and it was terrifying. Maybe miles later, they arrived at Section 12B, where they were buzzed through another iron door, which clanged behind them rather more ominously than Draco was prepared for.

“Prisoner M-1955-42A,” said the guard. He unlocked a sliding door that slid back to reveal a one-by-three foot grated window looking into his father’s cell. Then he retreated back down the hall and took up position waiting by the iron door—far enough for the illusion of privacy, but not far enough to fool anyone that he wasn’t in fact listening.

Draco peered into the cell, looking for his father. “Father?” he called. The crumpled grey rags on the bed were surely not large enough to hide him, but then they shifted, and the top of a white-blond hair was exposed to the prison chill.

His father pushed himself up slowly. His eyes were sunken and purple-rimmed. His hands were bony; the veins stuck out prominently, green as the Killing Curse beneath his skin. “Dra—” he said. His voice cracked on the first syllable, and he had to start over, and say it again: “Draco?”

Draco wrapped his fingers around the grates, and pulled himself as close as he could. “It’s me,” he said.

“Why are you here?” asked his father. “What are you doing here? You can’t come here. They’ll keep you—they won’t let you leave! You’ll be trapped, miles and miles of Dementor-infested tunnels. They read your mind, just like Severus, take every happy thought and turn it into potions.”

“Potions?” asked Draco.

His father grinned at him through the bars. His teeth were yellowing, even in these few months. “Severus made potions,” he said. “Draught of Living Death—it’s Azkaban! Azkaban is Living Death, it’s—”

“Father!” Draco said quickly. “Father—I need your help.”

“Anything,” said Lucius. His hands came up and wrapped around Draco’s fingers. They were cold and calloused. His overgrown fingernails dug into Draco’s skin, and Draco did not care. “Anything for my son.”

“The wards at the Manor—how do they work?”

“Like a manticore,” said his father at once. “Especially the stinger.”

“Good—good,” Draco said. “But when were they installed?”

“They were built with the Manor. Every brick, every stone, every pane of glass forged in manticore. Like Azkaban, made with Dementors; they’re in the bed and the blanket and the food and the guards—”

“And how did we get a manticore in the wards?” Draco interrupted.

“Make the manticore,” said his father, “and you make the wards. Like Azkaban, make the Dementor—”

“Time!” yelled the guard.

“What? Not yet!” Draco said. “It’s barely been three minutes.”

“The New Ministry only authorised three minutes,” said the guard.

“But—it’s my father.”

“Not my concern,” said the guard. “Come or stay—your choice.”

Draco looked back at his father, desperate. Lucius tipped his head to the side and smiled cockily. He’d used that look on Draco’s mum hundreds of times. It looked so manic and out-of-place now. “Good son,” he murmured. “Good heir.”

Draco squeezed Lucius’ hand, and hurried after the guard, his heart now residing somewhere below his stomach. Draught of Living Death, he thought. He should try again—his father needed it now more than ever.

ɤɣɤ

The matter of the ghosts was brought up again on the afternoon of Halloween, shortly before the Feast, when the waning sunlight was still light enough to show off the red and gold leaves on the trees outside, but grey enough to cast a depressing filter over the world. “Nick didn’t say a word over the summer during the rebuild,” Ron said. “And I haven’t seen him around much since, but he didn’t even clap during the Sorting this year.”

“The Fat Friar waved to me last week,” Hannah said. “But he’s been really quiet, too. I’ve been so worried about him.”

“Do you think it has something to do with the wards?” asked Ernie.

“I think it might do,” Ron said.

“If it is,” said Hermione, “then tonight is our best chance at finding out. If the wards are draining their magic from them, they’ll be strongest tonight, before midnight—and then maybe we can ask the Baron about the Manticoria potion.”

“We need to do that then,” said Morag. “Where’ve they been lately? Even Helena’s been infrequent around the Tower.”

“I saw her float by the Great Hall on the way to dinner last week,” said Zacharias.

“And you didn’t stop and check on her? After how strangely all the ghosts have been acting?” Morag asked archly.

Zacharias shrugged. “Not my ghost. Not my problem.”

“You are, truly, the worst Hufflepuff in the entire history of the world,” said Morag.

“Thank you,” Smith grinned.

“Well, we should split up and search for them tonight during the Feast, when no one else will be around to scare them off; if they’re weakened, being around a lot of students might be draining for them,” Hermione said. “We can use the DA coins to notify the rest of the team if someone spots one.”

“And for those of us without coins?” asked Pansy.

“Then she’d make a coin for you?” Harry said, annoyed. Malfoy was sitting entirely too close to Zacharias today for his liking. “It’s just a Protean Charm; it’s not like Hermione can only cast a finite number of them over the course of her life.”

“Always such a delight to be in your esteemed presence, Mr Potter,” Pansy sneered.

“Same,” Harry said, but his heart wasn’t into the verbal sparring. Without Malfoy during the day, and dreams of him at night, it was beginning to feel as if all those months had never happened. He didn’t want that—for a time, he’d been happy, at least in sleep. He’d felt the comfort of another person’s body alongside his own; he’d learned the quiet secrets of another person. In sleep, he was not anchored by the moral high ground, disapproving friends, or a turbulent past. While dreaming, he had been allowed to not hate, to become familiar with Draco as he so easily did with Hermione and Ron, until the concept of Draco Malfoy had been so unerring and solid that he was hard-pressed to remember, during the day, that they were not actually lovers—not even friends.

He still remembered the startled, shattered feeling of hoisting Malfoy up on his broom with him amid the Fiendfyre flames, feeling his chest press solidly against his back. It had been both familiar and surreal. Then the next afternoon, when he’d finally been allowed to sleep, and that warm presence had been there again—less solid, but no less real to Harry.

Often, during the rebuild of Hogwarts, he’d sat at dinner and half-expected Malfoy to sit next to him...though Malfoy never came. Malfoy was in Italy by then. The new school year approached, and with it came the heart-thudding realisation that Malfoy might return as well—then the Daily Prophet had arrived with the feature story of the new legislation requiring all previous Hogwarts students who were British citizens to complete their schooling here, instead of abroad. And he’d known Malfoy would come then, but how sour the taste was in his mouth at the thought of him only doing so out of legal obligation.

In sleep, Harry had experienced the painful intimacy of falling in love—how exposed it made one. Exposed was, perhaps not, the most apt word for it—vulnerable maybe, weak, perhaps. No—there was a better word for how love had affected him: shattered.

And Malfoy pretended as though it had meant nothing, as though because it occurred in their minds, it wasn’t real. There were many unreal things, in Harry’s experience, but love had never been one of them. Maybe that was because he’d never felt it before. Nowadays, it was an ideal destroyed. And as he watched Draco and Zacharias sit at the furthest end of the table from him every time, quietly sniping back and forth at one another, he understood, finally, the magnitude of heartbreak.

How could something that felt like this not be real?

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean it is not real?” Dumbledore once told him.

“I can’t tonight,” Harry said. “Parkinson can use my coin.”

Conversation stopped around him. Apparently, they’d moved on to another topic in the meantime. But then Hermione’s face crumbled, and she said, “Oh, Harry. It’s Halloween.”

“I know,” he said. He really just could not deal with his traitorous feelings on the night his parents died.

“Of course, we can manage without you,” she said.

Their team meeting lasted another hour at least, but he spaced out completely sometime during a desperate discussion on the merits of having Trelawney attempt a séance with one or more of the Founders, or, perhaps, Merlin. It was a credit to the ever-increasing atmosphere of impending doom, not at all helped by the sensationalist articles the Daily Prophet ran daily.

When they started breaking up, Harry took his things and left without bothering to continue the charade that he’d been listening at all. He was useless to them in this state anyway. On his way down to the Entrance Hall, he summoned his autumn cloak and broom, jumping into the air as soon as he left the castle.

He flew up and up until the air was damp and frigid, then circled around the grounds, and for the first time since arriving, wondered exactly where Hogwarts was. South of Inverness, surely, but still within the Highlands. The presence of the squid hinted at Loch Ness—were they near there?

As the last of the setting sun fell past the horizon, the light caught against something and flashed bright against Harry’s eyes. Oh—Dumbledore’s tomb. He hadn’t visited it once since the final battle; how had he forgotten? He angled his broom down and jumped off on the shore of the Black Lake, just as twilight settled over Hogwarts. There was just the white marble tomb, inscribed simply with Albus Dumbledore and the year 1997. He ran his hand along the edge, feeling the cold stone and beneath his fingertips.

Then something caught his eye; barely visible in the fading light were footsteps. They were heavily indented in one spot, facing the tomb, as if the person who left them had stood for a long time, unmoving, before the last earthly remains of Albus Dumbledore. Then, they turned and led off towards the path to Hogsmeade.

Harry jumped back on his broom and followed them as far as he could, if only for want of distraction. On the gravel path into town, he lost them, but was able to pick them up again on a narrow path that led off from the town, looping back towards the forest. Just past a copse of trees, he found something wholly different—a graveyard.

This one was full of hundreds of headstones, each older than the last. He flew slowly over them, searching for the footprints again, when he realised that there were a great deal of familiar names: Dexter Fortescue, Dilys Derwent, Armando Dippet, Phyllisa Spore—Harry sucked in a startled breath; these were the former heads of Hogwarts. And if the Headmasters and Headmistresses of days past were buried here, then did that mean he would find the Founders? He dismounted his broom, walked carefully between the old graves, squinting against the dying light to make out more names. He only vaguely recognised many of them from trips to Dumbledore’s office. Then, finally, at the very back, he saw them: three graves, side by side—they were not any larger than the others, but subtly, somehow, different. There was more detail in the engraving, more care put into the protective spells on the headstones. Even then, it was difficult to read them.

On the far left was Godric Gryffindor; slightly newer and made in a different style, was Rowena Ravenclaw, and even younger, on the far right, was Helga Hufflepuff. There was no sign of Salazar Slytherin. How small he felt to stand before the Founders’ graves—and how amazed.

For a long time, he stood and stared at Godric Gryffindor’s headstone, trying to make out the date on it, long worn away, even through protective spells. 1001 maybe—or possibly 1007. Almost thousand years ago, either way. It was hard to imagine people living that long ago. Had he lived up to Godric’s standards, or was his fear of letting go of dreams of Draco cowardice?

When it became too cold for even his warm cloak to handle, he picked up his broom and began winding his way back through the graves by the light of his wand. It was near the front, just off to the side, that his Lumos illuminated those footsteps from before. He shone his wandlight at the headstone nearest, and felt a strange stirring of something he didn’t like to identify—because the headstone read Severus Snape 1960-1998, and feeling remorse and grief for his Potions Master was an uncomfortable thing.

He wasn’t even forty, Harry thought. In wizarding years, that was hardly anything. Snape should have had another hundred years at least. Maybe even some happy ones. “You loved my mum,” he whispered dumbly. What did it even matter now, he thought. She was dead, he was dead—anyone who mattered was dead.

Malfoy wasn’t dead. But that hardly counted.

But he couldn’t get out of his head the sense that he owed this man something for everything he gave up for Harry—it was a lot, least of which was breathing. There was more to life than losing it, Harry knew. Twenty years a prisoner to two masters, Professor Snape had not had much of one to give up, but when it was asked of him, he’d done that, too. Harry was not stupid enough to think it had been an accident.

Snape always planned ahead; always had a contingency plan...he would have known what Voldemort wanted from him, and known, too, that it was Draco who mastered the wand. The realization that Snape allowed his own death, did not try to Slytherin his way out of it spoke volumes on the wretched misery of the man’s life. How readily he gave it up, Harry thought. He was abruptly and powerfully embarrassed by his potions performance.

“I will brew you a perfect potion,” he vowed, because it was the only thing left he could do. He would make the time Snape spent trying to teach him worthwhile.

Set with this new resolve, he threw a leg over his broomstick and jumped into the air, speeding over the Forbidden Forest and the gates of Hogwarts beyond, with a single purpose in mind. He bypassed the end of the Feast, though he would sorely love a caramel apple, and ran up seven flights of stairs to the Gryffindor common room, breathless. There were a handful of younger years working on homework on the couches, but he paid them no mind (as per usual) and continued up the stairs to his dorm.

Upon opening the door, however, he was met with a remarkable sight: Draco Malfoy and Ernie Macmillan reclined on his bed. It was—not off-putting. Perhaps just unexpected. He stopped abruptly, only one foot in the room. Taking in the rest of the dorm he found Hermione, Morag, and Ron sharing Ron’s bed, and Smith thankfully far away from Malfoy on Neville’s bed, with Padma and Tracey Davis on either side. The others from their three combined teams were arranged comfortably around the dorm. Dean’s top bunk was especially popular.

“Harry!” Ron said, when he saw him. “We found Nick!”

“And Helena, the Friar, and the Baron,” Morag added dryly.

Harry came the rest of the way in the room, shutting the door back behind him. He looked for a place to sit, and found none, but then Ernie pushed on Malfoy’s shoulder until he slid over a bit. Ernie patted the bed beside him, and said, “Can I offer you a seat on your own bed?” He asked.

Malfoy made a strange face at that—had he not known it was Harry’s?—and looked away. It was weird sitting on the same bed as him. Weird to have Ernie between them. But the memories it resurfaced were sharp and raw. They were bruises on his heart that wouldn’t seem to heal, just purpled and yellowed and stayed there, only to thrum agonizingly whenever he bumped them with eye contact or an un-hostile word from Malfoy.

How was it possible to desire someone so asymmetrically?

How could he feel this much for someone who felt so little? Then Ernie shifted and slung his arm around Harry, and that was—disconcerting. It was so mate-like, so Ron-like, but he and Ernie had only been getting close for a month, not seven years. Ernie’s arm was warm though, and having someone touch him felt—good. He relaxed into it, and let the excited chatter of his teammates’ progress wash over him.

“—And then Pansy suggested we try the ward room—”

“Ward room?” asked Harry. “What’s that?”

“Of course Potter wouldn’t know,” muttered Malfoy. “It’s only the cornerstone of warding magic.”

“Oh, lay off, Malfoy. You always get so tetchy when Potter’s around,” said Zacharias.

Harry tried not to be obvious about how utterly shocked that made him. Maybe Ernie felt him stiffen—his hand squeezed Harry’s shoulder a bit, and Harry relaxed again, put on a cocky grin, and tried not to look like that one, meaningless statement hadn’t just sent him on a pathetic spiral of ‘What if...? Could he...?’

“I do not,” Malfoy said.

“You’ve been so nice all night though!” said Hannah. That guileless look had to be an act. Harry narrowed his eyes at her, thoughtful. There was something very Slytherin about the blank set of her mouth. “Until now, anyway.”

“Hannah, bugger off,” said Malfoy.

“Draco!” hissed Pansy.

“Oh, Hannah, is it?” asked Mandy Brocklehurst.

“Yes, Hannah,” Tracey put in. “No one asked for your arch comments, Brocklehurst. Hannah’s ours—can we get back to the ghosts now?”

“Great idea,” said Hermione, who didn’t much care for interesting developments among Slytherins, which was a terrible shame at the moment, as Harry was greatly interested in the current goings-on.

“The ward room,” Tracey prompted.

“It’s beneath the Great Hall,” said Pansy. “Weasley’s got this special tool that he won’t let anyone but Granger see—” there was a round of sniggers here “—and it showed him where the ward room was in the castle. There’s a portrait in the Entrance Hall that opens to the stairway down.”

Harry grinned at Ron, and Ron grinned smugly back. And thank Merlin Ron’d had the foresight to kick the others out before checking the map.

“How were the ghosts, though?” asked Harry.

A gloomier atmosphere settled over the students. “Not good, really,” said Hannah, after the silence stretched too long. “We did find out—from the Friar—that they’re being drained to maintain the wards. Hogwarts is pulling magic from everything it can right now, just to keep them up. They’ve been staying down in the ward room because it’s less exhausting for them.”

“Oh,” Harry said, stunned. “Did the Baron know about Manticoria?”

Morag grimaced. “He wasn’t talking, not even to the Slytherins.”

Harry had really hoped for some good news. “But it’s definitely connected at least,” he said, trying to get something positive out of it.

“Obviously,” Malfoy muttered.

Harry had had enough. “Dr—Malfoy, just fucking shut up, will you? I promise no one will forget you’re here if you fail to speak for five minutes.”

“Especially not you, though, right, Potter?” he sneered back.

Merlin, how it still hurt to have that sneer directed at him. A month later—he should be used to it by now. How long did it take other people to get over break-ups? How long did it take if the relationship existed only in the realm of sleep? Longer? Shorter? Harry didn’t know.

“Leave,” Harry said, leaning around Ernie—this was quickly becoming more and more awkward. There was no bloody way he was going to sit here with Draco bloody Malfoy on his own damned bed trying to drive the dagger in deeper in front of ten other people. “Get off my bed, get out of my dorm, and get fuck away from my House.”

“What! You can’t kick me out!” Malfoy said. “We have to work on the project.”

“And it’s almost midnight, and as this isn’t Astronomy class, I don’t think I fucking care. Get away from me.”

Malfoy still didn’t move. Harry shoved him. He tumbled sideways off the bed and banged his head on the wood floor when he hit—or at least, Harry thought he did. He didn’t bother to check before getting up and walking around the other side of the bed. The others were scrambling to help, but Harry grabbed Malfoy by his smug collar and hauled him up before they could. “Go,” he said, again.

“No!” Malfoy said, sneering. “We have things to get done, Potter! We can’t just stop what we’re doing just because you’re acting childish.”

“Harry, stop this!” Hermione said. Harry ignored her.

I’m acting childish? Me? Me? You do nothing but try to bait me, after—after everything, you prick! I don’t need you anymore. I don’t need you at all!”

Was it just the sound of Harry’s own heart shattering, or had the breaths stopped on the inhale at that? Possibly both, Harry didn’t take time to consider or care because Malfoy was slowly grinning—his lips stretching out and up in such a mocking grin that Harry could react to nothing else.

It was such a nasty thing, such a horrible, gut-wrenching sight because it was so very different from, and so very similar to, another grin…one that Harry associated with everything good. How, Harry wondered once again, could Draco feel nothing? Nothing.

“You needed me before though, didn’t you? Poor Potter, fancies himself in love after bunch of silly little dre—”

Harry punched him. Malfoy fell backwards onto Ron’s bed, where both Ron and Morag scooted away in mocking disgust, but Hermione was moving to help him up, and Harry would—not—have—that. Accidental magic had never served him better; it held her back and Draco down. Harry jumped on him, punching him again and again. “I hate you!” he yelled between hits. “I hate everything about you! You are the vilest, most hateful person to ever walk the planet, and I am counting Voldemort in that list!”

Malfoy staggered back, aghast. Harry lunged at him again, but it wasn’t even necessary. Malfoy held up his hands, his head shaking slowly. “I’m going,” he said softly. “I’m going.”

He went. Seeing ten shocked faces staring back at him was more than he could deal with.

“All of you! Out!” Harry yelled.

When they left, he opened his trunk. With his breaths still ragged from the adrenaline, his shaking fingers closed around the old book, and he pulled it out. Advanced Potion-Making, once owned by the Half-Blood Prince. Harry had saved this book from a fire, with no thoughts of ever opening it again, but now he knew it was only right that he use the Prince’s advice for brewing Snape a potion. The man had spent years trying, unsuccessfully, to teach him potioneering, and even more years, successfully, saving his life. Harry wouldn’t let it be for nothing.

Professor Snape’s life was worth more than that.

But which potion should he brew, he wondered. Snape’s favourite, he decided immediately. That would be easily distinguished by the book’s desire to open to that page, if Harry’s Quidditch books were any judge, for they always fell open to the section on Seekers. He laid the spine of the book on his desk, and then pulled his hands away. The covers fell outward, and the old parchment pages fanned open. One-quarter of the way through, it settled on Wiggenweld Potion.

But surely this could not be Snape’s favourite potion of the book—they brewed this in first year. What was it even doing in Advanced Potions? He skimmed the overview, and with surprise, continued on to the ingredients list. This was not the same Wiggenweld Potion that they brewed in first year—it was considerably more powerful. Perhaps it could even wake someone who’d imbibed a great deal of Draught of Living Death.

The instructions looked complicated. Well, all potions instructions looked complicated to Harry, not to put too fine a point on it. He desperately needed a distraction from Malfoy and the impending failure that was soon to be Manticoria. This was something with clear instructions, something he could systematically follow. He would prove to himself that he could do this, and then, just maybe, he would have the wherewithal and the focus to save the world again. This, however, he would do for Snape—and if Wiggenweld was what Snape wanted, then Wiggenweld was what he would get.

Determined, Harry set about gathering supplies from his forgotten potions kit.

-----------------------

Manticoria — Chapter 04

------------------------

On the first night, impounded behind the heavy dark door of a disused Potions lab, once used by first year classes, but now set aside in deference—Headmistress McGonagall was soft at heart for Snape, though she would admit it to no one—he failed.

He followed the instructions exactly. He simmered the sloth brain for seven minutes. He crushed carefully the valerian roots, powdered the dried sopophorous bean (Do not juice under any circumstances! said the Prince). The sloth brain soured in the water and turned it a tired, heavy grey, just like the book said. He added two fingers of moondew (A ‘finger’ indicates the standard unit of 1.9 centimetres, NOT the breadth of her finger [1.64 centimetres]. She should know better), a quarter-ounce of slim-shaved wormwood.

But it did not work. It was thick, snot-coloured, and unusable. He cleaned his cauldron and went to bed. The disappointment almost overcame the smallest bit of his regret that Malfoy—

No.

ɤɣɤ

On the second night, the castle gave him candles. Hundreds of them in torches on the wall and hovering around his workstation, though well out of the way. He felt Hogwarts’ struggle to keep itself warded, and was overcome by love for an inanimate thing...that it would give much of the little it had left to light his pathetic attempts at resolving his debt.

Hermione had once cornered him and asked him about his fight with Draco, and What had he meant? and a million other things Harry could not handle. He retreated to the disused laboratory instead.

With the light, he saw that he had forgotten asphodel. This night, he added it, but the potion fell limp in his cauldron—though it glowed, almost sated-like. Kind of like Malfoy after they—

No.

ɤɣɤ

The others in Harry’s mixed group read everything from his argument with Malfoy—but they had not reacted quite as he expected. There was a certain sense of pity about them whenever he met their eyes, and he hated it. Even from Tracey and Pansy...even from Morag, who whispered quietly to Hermione constantly, and between small, secret smiles, they would glance at him and their eyes would be so very sad.

Ron did not know how to react around him, but that was to be expected. Instead of talking about it, his friend threw himself into finding a living wisp. Harry was grateful that they were still friends, still speaking. He was grateful Zacharias Smith was leaving him the bloody fuck alone about it. He could not ask for much more, save that all ten of them forget it ever happened, and that he and Draco hadn’t admitted their former connection to them during a brawl.

“Dreams about Malfoy?” Zacharias had said, suspiciously. “Just from the wand?”

“I did keep it a long time,” Harry had replied.

“I don’t want dreams of Malfoy,” said Zacharias. “He’s a prick.”

“You won’t have them,” Harry said. “They stopped after I gave the wand back. Then he beat you, and—everything stopped.” The feeling of nearness anyway. Not the feelings themselves—those, Harry suspected, would be with him for a long time.

“Oh...good.”

He’d left Harry pretty well alone after that.

“There’s nothing wrong with having a crush,” Ernie said to him as they walked the blistery cold path up to the Hog’s Head. “But if he never comes around? Then what?”

“He won’t,” Harry assured him.

“Then why wait for him?” Ernie asked, and his hand squeezed Harry’s arm, slightly more than mate-like. There’s was some kind of magic in it...or maybe Harry was just lonely, and tired of sleeping alone after learning what it was like not to.

“I don’t know,” Harry said.

Ernie reached over and brushed Harry’s fringe back from his eyes, where the wind put it. His fingers were warm from a well-done warming charm; but his smile was warm, too, and that was all Ernie.

“I would love you for him, if I could,” said Ernie.

“I know,” said Harry. And it wasn’t everything, it wasn’t much of anything really, but Draco Malfoy wasn’t the only man in the world. Harry could move on. He could try, anyway. Why wait? Harry asked himself. He smiled at Ernie and didn’t brush him off when he slid his warming-charmed arm around Harry’s shoulders.

ɤɣɤ

Like the uncomfortable alchemy of falling in love, there was a certain transformation in infatuation.

Harry knew it doubly. On the fourteenth night, he pulled at the bruised tendrils of his desire for Malfoy as he stirred in the asphodel. He examined their frayed edges and tried to feel something other than regret, regret, regret.

September’s first sharp sting of loss was duller now, only flaring into life when he could not avoid Malfoy’s presence—the scent of his robes as he walked behind Harry’s chair during group meetings, the low sound of his voice at the far end of the table when he made a smart remark to Morag. But even that gave him regret. It was softer now, but Harry didn’t want it to be, didn’t want to forget the agony of love because then, he thought, he might forget himself.

Ernie stayed close to him, gave him those terribly Hufflepuff looks of concern. Ron spent a great deal of time trying to stare at Tracey Davis without being noticed; she spent a great deal of time politely not noticing. Harry spent a great deal of time trying to figure out what he was doing wrong with the Wiggenweld.

The pain of failure was much easier to bear than pain of another kind. Harry stirred and stirred and stirred. The sloth brain turned tired, heavy grey; the moondew and wolfsbane went in. He added the asphodel carefully, watched by the warm light of a hundred candles as it was absorbed. He changed to counter-clockwise stirs, three minutes of them.

At the first minute, the potion turned dead-moss green. He lowered the heat.

The door opened. Harry startled, and nearly dropped his stirring rod. By some miracle, he did not lose count when he looked up. Malfoy stood in the door, backlit by the dying green flames of the dungeon wall torches, his face lost in shadow like that time when they walked the halls of Hogwarts, everything silent around them, and Harry pressed him against the chilled wall of the bell tower stairwell and kissed his mouth and—

“No,” he said, not sure if he was speaking to himself or to Draco. His throat worked to suppress the sound—“Don’t,” but Malfoy never listened to him anymore, never slanted his eyes coyly at Harry before he slid his hand up Harry’s stomach beneath his shirt, never—

“Don’t stop stirring,” Malfoy said lowly, eyes fixed on the potion. He was walking in on careful feet, his hand out conciliatorily, as if Harry were a deer near to startling. “Keep going.”

Harry looked down at his cauldron, and the potion was orange, but going gold, and that...that was exactly what it was supposed to do. Malfoy was so close now, so warm and near, Harry felt the presence of him against his body like a phantom memory. This close, he could hear him breathing, could see it go faintly white in the cold dungeon air.

“I know this potion,” Malfoy whispered, stunned. His eyes now followed every rotation of the stirring rod. Harry fairly vibrated with tension from his nearness. “Professor Snape made it.”

“When?” Harry asked quietly.

“Always,” said Malfoy. He shook his head, as if confused.

Harry completed the last stir, and the potion settled into a shimmering, translucent white. “Why did you make this?” said Malfoy.

Harry shrugged, uncomfortable. “Amends,” he said.

“He’s dead,” said Malfoy.

“I didn’t want to have been a waste of his time. He didn’t have much of it. It wasn’t right.”

“In the Founders’ time, there was a spell,” said Malfoy, like he was reciting something, “that would reverse a great wrong. Even a death.”

“I know,” said Harry, who knew this fable from Hermione. Draco looked at him askance. “But it wasn’t a spell. It was sleep. When you sleep, you dream; when you dream, you can make everything right...for a little while anyway.”

Malfoy paled, and before Harry could react, he’d startled, like a deer, and was leaving. Harry watched him walk away, already quite accustomed to how it would feel.

He bit his lip as the door clicked shut. Alone with his potion now, it did not seem as perfect as it did a moment ago. The colour was right, but the consistency was all wrong. He bottled it anyway, and cleaned his cauldron. Then he slipped out of the dungeons, and the castle, and walked all the way to the Headmasters’ graveyard where he left it, as a gesture of goodwill, atop Snape’s headstone. By the time he made it back to his bed, it was well into the small hours of the morning.

ɤɣɤ

The wards around Diagon Alley were the first.

Morning was too bright now, so accustomed was he to the gloaming hours now. Still dry-eyed from only three hours of solid sleep, but unable to try any longer, he levered himself from the bed and stumbled into a pair of trousers. Then breakfast in the Great Hall—he caught the tail end of it, walking in just before the platters disappeared to grab two slices of rye toast and shove them in his mouth before noticing the stunned looks on his friends’ faces. He looked up and saw that the ceiling was still stuck on the hesitant grey light of predawn, not the cold brightness of November. The castle had stopped responding.

“Muggles saw it,” Ron said to him, eyes big and round like a baby niffler. “Came right in the Leaky Cauldron and ordered a coffee, tried to pay with a debby card.”

“What?” said Harry. Possibly, his confusion was due to lack of sleep; possibly because of the utter absurdity of such a statement. “The wards fell?”

“For at least an hour,” Hermione said. She passed him the paper. A repeating clip of Tom holding his forehead as he shook his head played again and again. “They’re up again now, supposedly. The New Ministry’s got Obliviators stationed all over London in case they drop again—a hundred Obliviators have been working since before sunrise with mass Obliviations. They’ve even had to use Time Turners to adjust reports made on the telly and radio.”

“Merlin,” Harry breathed. “The wards fell.” The ceiling of the Great Hall suddenly stuttered into morning, but it was still only the purple of dawn, not yet the sunlight of nearly nine. Gasps echoed throughout, and the three of them tried their hardest not to look and see the effects the waning wards were having on the magic of the castle. It drained everything, just to keep it hidden.

“Yeah,” said Ron. “Yeah, they did.”

“I didn’t really think they would.”

“Neither did I,” Ron said.

“But...” said Harry. “But they’re up again now, right? Everything’s okay?”

“For now,” Hermione said quietly.

Harry swallowed. He felt eyes on him, boring into the back of his spine with familiar intensity. Slowly, he turned, and met Malfoy’s eyes.

Malfoy’s sharp face held still, quite grave—the purple cast of the ceiling made it look sadder than it really was, if Malfoy had ever been sad in his life. Harry turned away, back to pitying looks from Ron and Hermione. It was more than he could take, seeing them watch his every move, their eyes flicking from him to Malfoy and back again with that damnable compassion. He could not stand that, not now.

“I have to go. I need to—I have to go.”

He sprinted as soon as he was clear of the doors, feeling the castle beg for his attention like a baby crup. It lit torches, moved corridors, stopped stairways—wasting enormous amounts of magic it couldn’t spare, and Harry had no idea why. He ran and ran, just to get away before either of his friends tried to chase after him.

In Snape’s old classroom, he filled his cauldron with water and lit the fire. Puréed sloth brain heated until sour yellow. Two fingers of moondew; slim-shaved wolfsbane; asphodel. He knew the recipe by heart now. Stir, stir, stir, then switch directions. He was so angry he vibrated, but forced himself to keep his stirs even and precise.

Voldemort had caused this, somehow. He was sure of it, though he knew not how. Every small piece of hate he’d ever felt was bundled inside him, intensified and illuminated. He stirred, stirred, stirred, and pretended each was a slice into Voldemort’s alien-grey skin. At three minutes, the potion turned milky, pearlescent white—almost perfect.

Almost – fucking perfect.

The door opened; Malfoy came in. “I thought I might find you here,” he said. “The wards in Diagon Alley; did you s—,”

“Go away,” Harry said.

“I really think we need to work on—,”

I said, go away!”

Malfoy paused in the doorway, suddenly hesitant. There was only one other time in Harry’s memory when Draco had been hesitant—and it was the time Harry had fallen asleep and into his arms, lain atop him and kissed his mouth, his neck (head thrown back), felt the cool skin of his ribcage beneath his fingers, listened to the unsteady palpitations of his heart, and felt the exhilarating heat of his prick pressed hot against Harry’s stomach as he slid down, kissed a slick line down his belly; how Draco’s hand had curled into Harry’s hair, his fingers kneading and—

Malfoy waited uncertainly. “I remembered something Snape told me about the Wig—,”

“No!” Harry said desperately. “Please go.”

“I don’t want to be around you anymore than you want to be around me, but—”

“I don’t want to be around you?” he said. “Me? I—I have been aching for you to look at me. Three months since you left me, two since you neutralized Smith. I had thought—” he stopped, swallowing heavily around the throb in his throat. “I’d thought it would go away then, after you took back the wand, and then again after you and, and Smith, but...it hasn’t and—it’s real, Draco. It’s real.”

At once, Malfoy shook his head. “It can’t be real, Potter, they were just dreams, even if ones we both ha—,”

Harry screamed in rage. “Stop saying that—why are you denying—”

“No!” said Malfoy. “They can’t be real. My father would never—”

Fuck your father!”

Malfoy’s eyes narrowed spitefully, which was nothing new for Harry. He took a menacing step forward, and Harry lashed out with his hand and his magic, sending the pathetically not-perfect potion airborne. Malfoy jumped back, barely dodging the mixture. It spilled on the floor and pooled, spreading out in slick white arms that reached for Malfoy like Inferi.

“What the fuck is your problem?” said Harry. “Why do you keep torturing me? You’ve won, Malfoy! You’ve won. I have noth—nothing left; you have it all.”

“I don’t want it—,” Malfoy began to say.

Every bit of wild magic within him flared out from Harry, shattering vials, splintering tables—the leaded window fissured, and murky green water started trickling in from the lake outside.

The repulsive smell of fish from the lake water pouring in faster and faster settled slowly in the air. On the floor, the imperfect Wiggenweld potion covered the whole front half of the classroom—and still, Malfoy had not moved. It inched towards his feet, and he only stared. Harry snarled, hurdled over the table, with one intention only, and that to strangle the fucking life out of Malfoy.

Instead, he landed atop him, sending them both heavily to floor; one hand wrapped around his throat, one in his hair (it wanted cutting)—and Harry could not bring himself to hurt Malfoy. He felt himself leaning in, knowing that he shouldn’t, but lacking the willpower to not try because there was just so much he missed, and— “Tell me you don’t want this,” he whispered harshly. “Tell me.”

“I—,” Draco whispered, but he threw his head back, baring his neck just as Harry remembered. Harry pressed his mouth to it, kissed it open-mouthed. His eyes slid closed, and he inhaled Draco’s skin; it smelled the same as he remembered, felt as warm as he remembered. He ran his fingertips over Draco’s cheek bones, felt his eyelids shutter closed and his breath puff against the palm of his hand.

Harry dipped his head, touched his mouth to Malfoy’s. Their lips met warm and humid...and the taste of Draco’s mouth—the smell of his skin as it began to sweat. These things, Harry remembered as if they’d only happened yesterday. He slid his hand down Draco’s side and felt Draco’s hands come up around him, hesitant and unsure (just like before) and he curled his back, concave and desperate for a single touch, a single connection. Draco lifted his head, attached his lips to Harry’s neck, and his tongue swirled against Harry’s pulse, which beat all the more frantic for him. “I have needed you always,” Harry whispered. “I can’t stop needing you. Please—,”

There was a time when this wasn’t so—when Harry could be alive and not feel as if he were dying. That time was well before Draco, was when it was still ‘Malfoy’ and Harry could willingly die to save them all from Voldemort, but not give a toss about Malfoy. Now, he could not live if Draco was just Malfoy and he barely gave a toss about the self-destructing wards.

He felt Draco’s cock harden in his trousers and press against him—and it was all so familiar, all so amazingly as he remembered that he could have cried for hours and not felt spent. If he could have just this one time, maybe he could—maybe he could learn to live again. Just this once, when things were real and Draco could not deny them, could not deny Harry, or his cautious fingers as they brushed against the sharp planes of his ribcage and his hipbone, jutting out from his stomach and perfectly kissable.

“Stop,” said Draco.

Harry stopped. Here, looking at him, with his erection pressing against Draco’s thigh and the heat of him pressing back, Harry’s heart throbbed achingly. “Why?” he whispered hoarsely.

Draco pushed him (gently) off. “It was real,” he admitted. “But it can’t continue.”

“We fit,” Harry said. “The thing between us, it fit.”

“Nothing fits the Boy Who Lived,” said Draco. “Least of all a failed Death Eater.”

“I forgave you for that,” Harry whispered urgently. “On the first night, you showed me.”

Draco shook his head, this time more adamant. “What we had in sleep was never strong enough for real life.”

“Then give me the wand back,” Harry pleaded. “I’ll take dreams. I’ll take them gladly. Please.” I could love you forever, he thought. Like none other. I could show you, tell you, I could—

“I—,” said Draco. “I can’t. No.” He pushed himself up, dusted off his trousers.

Was it four times now? Five? The sight of Malfoy leaving was becoming more familiar than any other. The snick of the door as it shut was so loud, so final. Harry couldn’t stand it. His eyes burned hot and wet and he blinked furiously but it didn’t stop the tears.

The Wiggenweld potion began congealing in the frigid dungeon air. It was sticky on the floor. Lake water drizzled in, threatening to overwhelm the old window, with its weakened wards and its defeated glass. Harry took a moment to listen to the silence of the room, how deafening it was without the unrestrained pants of Draco’s breath. He could take many of those—those breaths—and he could compose himself and clean his potion and go to bed, but—

Draco’s words rang hollowly in his head. Could it really be that nothing fit the Boy-Who-Lived? How much sense it would make if that were true.

He threw his hand out and sent the worktable flying. It crashed into the blackboard and shattered it and itself, not quite satisfying enough. The pieces flew in a thousand directions, but not his. He wished, for a fraction of a second, as he watched the wood shards scatter, that they would come for him, and take him out, and end his misery. He wished that he could forget, that he’d never won a wand from Draco, even if it meant losing to the Elder wand because anything—anything—would be better than this burning, piercing attack on the little bit of himself he still had left.

But they did not, and he was left standing there—cold, wet, defeated. He could not live like this, he decided. No—vowed: he would not live like this. He would not spend his life devoted to someone impossible, like Professor Snape. It was no way to live—but there was a part of him that replayed Draco’s words repeatedly and wondered how much truth there was in them.

-----------------------

Manticoria — Chapter 05

------------------------

In December, when Harry was finally learning to wear the melancholy of separation, and they’d made no more progress on establishing the meaning behind Lucius Malfoy’s words, or how manticores fit into potion-making or warding, Hermione’s team discovered the mystery of the ley-lines, and Ron caught a Will-O-the-Wisp in a potion vial. Like Manticoria, like Draco, his Wiggenweld remained unattainable.

“It’s the Golden Mean,” said Hermione excitedly, though she didn’t stay long enough to elaborate more than, “Hannah figured it out last night!” before rushing off to join their group inside the classroom.

“But we have an actual wisp,” Ron called after her. Then, to Harry: “It’s small, but it’s definitely a wisp.”

“Aren’t they extinct?” Harry asked. Ron held the potion vial up pointedly. “Okay, okay. But, you sure it’s not one of those scrumdiddlyorcas or whatsawiggles Luna’s always talking about?”

“It’s a wisp,” Ron said flatly.

He looked to Ernie for confirmation, and Ernie nodded. “Pretty sure it’s a wisp. We caught it near Ron’s house.”

“But...will a wisp save the wards?” Harry asked, genuinely confused. “Do you make wards out of them?”

Tracey Davis sighed. “Potter, I don’t see any vials of Manticore around here, so unless you’ve discovered the long-lost recipe for Manticoria, I believe you can bloody-well bugger off. We have a Merlin-fucking wisp in a Merlin-fucking jar. What do you have? An unrequited crush on Draco Can’t-Shit-Without-His-Father’s-Approval Malfoy.”

“Leave off his father,” Harry said, though he hadn’t meant to.

Tracey’s blonde eyebrows rose. “Still white-knighting for him? My, you are a martyr, aren’t you?”

“Sod off, Davis,” said Zacharias. “Take your wisp and your jar and your Weasley and go hang out in the winners’ circle with Granger’s mathematical swirl.” He pointed over his shoulder with his thumb, a smug smirk on his mouth.

“It’s Hannah’s swirl,” Tracey muttered, but she left, and Ron, reluctantly, followed.

Inside, Harry took the seat Ernie saved for him, just in time to hear Hannah start on their explanation of the so-called mathematical swirl.

“We were looking for a rune flow matching typical ley-lines,” she said, “but that was wrong. Nothing was matching up. On a whim, I superimposed each of the sacred geometrical shapes—those didn’t work either but it made me think of the Golden Mean, and when I overlaid the spiral, rotated widdershins about a hundred and twenty degrees, we got a match.

“The tail hits Azkaban in the North Sea, then curls into London, Cardiff, the centre of Ireland, and up to the Hebrides Islands, then crosses exactly over Hogwarts, curls back down and finally, resolves around Glasgow and Arran. Here, I’ve made a map,” she said, passing copies to each of them.

“Azkaban, Diagon Alley in London, the library at Cardiff, and Hogwarts are places we know to be having ward failures. I’m sure if we mapped along this line, we’d find other key places—places where wards were set with those of Hogwarts...maybe places that help hold all the wards of Britain up, even lending power to the smaller, younger ones around houses. If this is the order of the rune flow the Wizards’ Council used during the Founders’ time to raise all the British public wards—then it could lead us to answers on how they were erected!”

“That’s Dumfries,” Morag said immediately. “The central curl hits it after coming down from Hogwarts. Rowena Ravenclaw was from there.”

“Oh!” said Hannah excitedly, marking it in.

Beneath the table, Ernie’s knee touched Harry’s, and didn’t move away. He cut his eyes to the other man, felt himself blush at the secret smile he got in return. Maybe he could move on with Ernie; maybe he could move on, period.

It was easier than he expected to pretend ‘okay’ these days. He’d had lots of practise, and Ernie was a kind companion in the absence of Ron and Hermione, who were both too excited about their projects to notice Harry’s pathetic love life.

And he could learn to move on—he was learning to move on.

ɤɣɤ

Late in the evening, when it was clear they would be making no further progress, or any progress at all, Morag suggested (demanded) that they take the evening off from research and go have dinner and a few pints together in Hogsmeade, just the four of them.

“We are highly incompatible,” she said. “And it’s a liability. Even Weasley’s made more progress than us. If the wards fall and it’s due to you three pricks being too absorbed with strutting about and acting macho to discover the recipe of Manticoria, you can bet I’ll make sure the muggles know who the three most dangerous wizards are.”

“And getting drunk together will do this,” Harry said dubiously, ignoring her threat altogether.

“I’m given to understand it can help,” she said.

Zacharias’ furrowed brow suggested the same amount, if not more, of scepticism that Harry was currently feeling. Getting drunk with that tosser, Morag McDougal, and Malfoy of all people sounded like exactly the worst thing he could participate in at this stage in his life—or really, any stage. “Are you buying?” asked Smith.

Morag rolled her eyes. “Please. Like I would contribute a single sickle to your continued survival. Summon your cloak and let’s go. You, too, Malfoy—you aren’t exempt.”

Harry went without further protest.

Though he’d later learned of Malfoy’s semi-success at Azkaban, he learned also of Lucius’ dementia, and because he knew Draco like none other, he knew also of how deep a scar that would be. Some scars were not battle wounds, not trophies—they were a burden to be born; this, Harry knew all too well. His eyes had met Malfoy’s across the wide expanse of the abandoned Theology classroom, and in that moment, they had both been thinking of that one night when Draco had told him everything

“Family is always first. No one will ever have my back like they do, and I’ll always have theirs first, as well.”

—And then he’d made a cruel remark about Harry’s obsession with him, and the moment had ended. And Harry had thought of how he’d said, ‘Fuck your father’, and he was sure, in that moment, that they both regretted something, but he wasn’t sure if those somethings were compatible. However, he didn’t dwell on it then, when he would have before.

Instead, he just summoned his winter cloak and followed Morag like the good Boy-Who-Lived that he was. The Hog’s Head seemed to be the default for the seventh and eighth years, which was fine with Harry. Fewer townsfolk frequented it; a harder clientele preferred it, and that was something the eighth years were all learning to be—exactly what the New Ministry wanted, he was sure.

They ordered chips for dinner since nothing else looked edible. When they had that and drinks at hand, Morag said, “If you were a ward, why would you be failing?”

“I wouldn’t be,” Harry muttered at once.

“Thank you Gryffindor scion,” Morag said. “Anyone with valuable input?”

“Overextended,” said Zacharias.

“Damaged,” said Malfoy.

“If they were damaged,” said Harry, “it happened with the death of Voldemort.”

“Yes, I agree,” she said, much to Harry’s infinite surprise. “The wards at home in Glasgow didn’t feel right when I came home from school this summer.”

“Neither did the wards at the manor,” said Malfoy. “I thought it was because my father was—away, but that isn’t right. He doesn’t need to be home for them to work, obviously.” He swallowed, and added, “Or even alive, so long as a Malfoy is at all.”

“That’s true,” she said. “Modern wards only need one of the casting bloodline to be alive to stay in place.”

“The wards around Hogwarts and the rest are too powerful to be based on blood alone,” said Malfoy. “It’s got to be our potion.”

“Or our beast,” Harry said, at a fair attempt at normal dinner companion. “Might not be a potion, remember?”

Two rounds later, Malfoy was almost being nice to him. But then he said suddenly, “Why are you making Professor Snape’s Wiggenweld?” and the effect was ruined, in Harry’s opinion. Two other pairs of eyes turned to him, intrigue evident. “It’s not the normal version, is it? It’s Professor Snape’s modification.”

You’re brewing?” asked Morag. She was grinning. He couldn’t remember seeing so much teeth from her before. “You?”

“Are you sure that’s safe?” asked Zacharias.

Harry sneered at them. “It’s none of your business.”

“It is if you’re going to blow up Ravenclaw Tower eight stories above,” Morag said, shaking her finger at him.

“I won’t,” Harry insisted.

“Then why are you doing it? You hate potions.” Really, did everyone in Hogwarts know about that?

“Only because I’m shit at them.” That was at least partially true. He also hated potions because of Professor Snape, but it wasn’t really appropriate to talk about the dead that way.

“You’re only proving my point for me,” Malfoy said, but not nearly as nastily as he might’ve.

“I just wanted to do something for him!” Harry finally said. “He was in love with my mum, and his whole life was miserable, and he spent six years trying to keep me alive and teach me how to keep myself alive, and I never cared. I just wanted to brew a perfect potion so all that time wouldn’t have been a waste of his life. Happy?” Immediately, he felt his face heat. It was time to put down his glass if he was speaking so freely of Professor Snape of all people.

“What a sop,” Morag muttered. She took another long swig of her firewhiskey and rolled her eyes in his general direction.

Malfoy sat back, eyes heavy-lidded and thoughtful as he stared back at him. It sent shivers down Harry’s spine. He was getting over Malfoy—learning to accept they weren’t meant to be, anyway—but sometimes, he wasn’t quite prepared for how just looking at Malfoy could give him goose pimples.

“You’re never going to make it perfect, though,” said Malfoy.

Harry looked away, pressing his mouth firmly together to avoid screaming at Malfoy. Unfortunately, this put him looking directly at Zacharias, which was really no better. He turned back, swallowed down all the hateful things he wanted to say. “Thanks for the vote of confidence.”

“No, no,” said Malfoy, and for the first time, Harry noticed a very slight slur to his speech. “No,” Malfoy said again. “It’s not because you’re doing it wrong. It’s because you’re missing an ingredient. Professor Snape never wrote it down anywhere. Nowhere.”

“What ingredient?” asked Harry.

Malfoy smiled, and it lit up the whole pub, in Harry’s well-informed opinion. “I’ll show you. We can brew it for him and we can...we can...what can we do?”

“Give it to him.”

“He’s dead,” drawled Zacharias, who looked pleasantly smug in his alcohol-infused state.

“Where’d he go when he died?” asked Morag. “No, wait. I meant, was he buried? My uncle said the New Ministry banished a lot of bodies so they wouldn’t have to pay for the funerals.”

“I didn’t think Ravenclaws were so gullible,” said Malfoy.

“We aren’t,” said Morag. “No, I thought he was banished because he was an arsehole and a right wanker, and no one gave a fu—”

“He wasn’t!” said Malfoy.

“I know where he’s buried, though,” Harry interrupted, before this could devolve any further, or perhaps because his brain hadn’t moved forward with the conversation fast enough.

“Where?”

“Show me the last ingredient,” said Harry, “and I’ll show you the grave.”

Malfoy eyed him shrewdly. “Okay,” he said. He stood abruptly, knocking his chair back in the process. “Let’s go.”

On the way back to Hogwarts, Harry used the bite of the wintery wind to hide the fact that his face was red from drink, and possibly the thought of spending more time with Malfoy, even if Morag and Zacharias were coming, too. There was something very intimate about brewing with Malfoy, and the opportunity left him excited. Ernie, he thought. He should think about Ernie, and how nice he was, and rather handsome, too—

“Merlin, Potter,” said Zacharias, when they arrived. “You brew in the old first year classroom? I don’t know if this is creepy or ballsy.”

“Both,” said Morag. “I bet Snape’s ghost will haunt you for it.”

“He would’ve already if he was going to,” Harry murmured, as he collected his cauldron and potions kit. He set the Prince’s potions book out on the worktable, opened to the annotated Wiggenweld. Morag came around and read the instructions, dark eyebrows hitching higher and higher at Snape’s adjustments.

“Professor Snape wrote this?” she asked. “In school?”

“Yes,” Malfoy answered for Harry.

“He was brilliant,” she said.

Harry filled the cauldron with water, and as he lit the fire beneath it, the castle gave him candles again, even more than usual. There was an abbreviated moment where the three of them inhaled and forgot to exhale, eyes wide and fixed on Harry, who was, by now, accustomed to this.

“How did you—?” asked Zacharias. He had a strange look on his face.

“I didn’t,” said Harry. “The castle.”

There was very little outside light, but what did filter through the repaired window was lake water green, and it made the shock on Zacharias’ face even stranger. “It likes you?” he said, not really a statement, not really a question.

Harry shrugged. “I guess,” he said. “It moves the corridors and the stairs for me sometimes, but that’s really it—other than the candles when I’m brewing.”

He looked up from checking the water temperature in time to see the three of them exchange incredulous looks. Malfoy’s throat bobbed once as he swallowed, and Harry distinctly remembered a time when he’d

“But...” said Morag slowly, “but that’s not normal.”

Something inside him must have known that, must have realized, and yet—for someone who knew magic, there was another kind of magic in normality, and he knew little of that. Still relatively new to the wizarding world, it was hard to know what was supposed to be beyond even wizards’ ability. “Oh,” said Harry.

Instead of saying more, he busied himself with shaving the fresh wolfsbane, his fingers working automatically and methodically now with over a month of practise. Draco came up behind him; he could feel the warmth radiating off his body, ever more apparent in the chilled dungeon air. It warmed his back, his face, his belly. He tried to take a steadying breath, but it hitched.

Possibly the drink had not helped his self-control.

When he thought he could surely take no more of it, the presence moved, and then Draco was standing beside him, looking at him from the corner of his eye as he conjured an expensive silver potions knife and pulled the asphodel towards himself.

And this was new, something neither of them had ever dreamed. It was raw and fresh at once, excruciatingly intimate for being something that potions students did every day at Hogwarts. Preparing a potion with Draco Malfoy was as personal as kissing him—perhaps more, if Draco were asked. He felt Morag and Zacharias looking on, quiet. He heard their quiet spellwork as they conjured another firewhiskey and settled in to watch from a few tables away. But there was very little that entered into Harry’s consciousness, in that moment, that wasn’t focused directly on the proximity of Malfoy. It was so very hard to move on when Malfoy was always around.

Beneath his breath, Harry murmured, “You’ve a scar on the pad of your right thumb, from picking up a hot stirring rod, summer before fourth year.”

Malfoy paused. His fingers flexed as he hesitated over the asphodel, and Harry knew he was itching to rub his index finger against that scar, as he often did when he was thinking. A heartbeat later, he finished the chopping, carefully dumped the pieces into the mortar and began grinding it.

“And inside your elbow—the right one—you have a tattoo of the Juventus Quidditch Club crest. You got it in Italy, after the war, because you thought it would make the other one less important,” Harry added quietly. “But you were wrong.”

Draco’s grinding hesitated for only a moment. Then Harry said, “You make it less important, not another tattoo, because you were strong and frightened all at once, and that’s what makes a hero.”

“In no way am I a hero,” Draco scoffed.

Harry shrugged. “Maybe not,” he said, “but neither are you a villain.”

“It doesn’t mean we should,” Draco said. “Or that we even could.”

“If we don’t,” Harry said, and swallowed heavily. “Then I’ll accept it—but at least tell me it’s because you don’t want it. Look at me and tell me I mean nothing. I still dream about you, even without the wand. Whatever that was ended, but to me, you never did. We might not have an active connection anymore, but I’m still connected to you, and I can’t make that stop. I tried, I—I don’t know how. I’ll live without you if I have to, but I don’t want to.”

Malfoy flicked his wand (the new one, not the hawthorn; not the one Harry loved more than his own) and called a dark green, bristly bunch of herb. “Thrushweed,” he said. “It’s the last ingredient.”

Harry swallowed around the disappointment of being left wanting again, but nodded. “What,” he said stiffly. “What does it do?”

“Makes it truly great,” said Malfoy, clearing his throat. He began chopping it into impossibly fine bits. “It can be the difference between Snape’s Wiggenweld and that weak version approved by the Ministry. It’s so close to Draught of Living Death that it blurs the line between harming and helping.”

“Really?” said Harry.

“It depends on two factors,” said Malfoy. “Freshness and preparation. If the weed isn’t preserved under quality preservation charms, it’ll spoil, and it reverses the effect of the herb, often making the entire brew poisonous—when it’s only a little spoilt, it makes Draught of Living Death. They have almost exactly the same ingredients, and the change in thrushweed makes up for the differences.”

“I wonder what potion Snape took, if he didn’t take this one,” Harry mused.

Draco stopped very suddenly. “What do you mean?” he said.

“I just wondered, because he obviously took something. There was an empty potion vial on the floor. Hermione used it to put his memories in. I always wondered why he didn’t carry a bezoar.”

“Professor Snape never needed a bezoar,” said Malfoy slowly. “His Wiggenweld was much better; he carried that instead.”

“I guess that’s what was in the vial then,” Harry said. “It’s too bad it didn’t work...how could Snape have made a bad potion?”

Draco had a faraway look, and it was affecting his stirring. He was going so slowly that he was tempting ruining the potion altogether. “You have to switch to counter-clockwise!” Harry said, when Draco almost added in an extra clockwise stir. “Three minutes, Malfoy!”

Startled, Malfoy reversed direction. With his sleeves rolled back and his forearm muscles straining against the thick potion, Harry could make out every line of muscle, and those he couldn’t see, buried as they were beneath his shirt sleeves, he remembered—the heady half-memories of humid summer dreams and Draco’s hot breath panting against his neck, with his head thrown back, eyes closed, no room in his head save for

Malfoy’s wand buzzed, an alarm Harry hadn’t even noticed him set. He stopped stirring; they both leaned over the cauldron, and then Zacharias and Morag came carefully over, peering in.

“It’s—black,” Morag said, brows scrunched.

“Yes,” said Malfoy quietly. “It’s perfect.”

“It’s supposed to be white,” Zacharias said.

“Not Snape’s version—it’s so close to Draught of Living Death that it almost is, and that’s what makes it so amazing.”

“But—,” said Harry. “How can you tell if the thrushweed was fresh enough?” Put side by side, Harry was not sure he could tell the two apart—the Wiggenweld was black and thick like Guinness, not at all translucent, not at all like any healing potion he’d ever seen. “It actually cures poisons?

“Cures almost anything, if you take it in time,” Malfoy said quietly. He slipped the ladle in, beneath the thick congealing skin along the top; when he lifted it out to pour some in a vial, it flowed like lava—slow, thick. “It’s darker than Draught. Wiggenweld lets no light through; Draught will, given a bright enough light.”

Harry whistled. “I wonder if Snape just made a mistake. What if his thrushweed wasn’t fresh enough and he made that instead?”

“He might’ve made Draught instead,” said Malfoy, “but there’s no chance he made a mistake. Professor Snape never made a mistake.”

“Then...” said Harry, and trailed off. His eyes met the others, and he saw the same realization reflected back at him. “Is—is he alive?” he asked, almost fearful of the answer.

In answer, Malfoy cast a stasis over the cauldron. “Summon your brooms,” he said, his own hand already thrust out with a wordless Accio.

“Hermione has mine,” Harry said. “They went to check out a possible ley-crossing in Hebrides Islands.”

“Come on mine,” Malfoy said, without a moment’s hesitation. Harry’s stomach dropped, a mini feint in his gut . The broom whooshed into the room, followed immediately by Zacharias’. Malfoy swung a leg over and slid up on the handle. Heart beating a mile a minute, Harry slipped on behind him; there was a very real moment like this once before, one in the waking world, when even Draco couldn’t deny it.

They didn’t even bother to walk to through the castle; Zacharias and Morag zoomed off on his broom, and Malfoy followed at breakneck speed. Belatedly, Harry wrapped his arms around him, and he was so warm and solid and—he closed his eyes, and memorized everything.

They flew and flew, and Harry could think only, ‘He’s a part of me, but I still have to give him up.’

ɤɣɤ

In the cemetery, Morag, Zacharias, and even Malfoy walked reverently between the graves, mouths parted, eyes wide and white in the dark. Harry moved on careful feet to Snape’s grave, confident enough by now to traverse the expanse of past Heads and find this one grave, even in the darkest nights. Atop his particular stone, there were five imperfect Wiggenweld potions, lined in their vials, and mocking in their almost-perfect whiteness.

Malfoy came up beside him. “The Founders are here,” he said, stunned into quietness. “There, in the back.”

“Not Slytherin,” Harry said.

“No,” said Malfoy. “He died alone, I suspect.” Then, “We all do.” We Slytherins.

There was something about that one small statement, so offhand and final, that set his heart on edge. It didn’t have to be that way, he wanted to say—I would be with you always, he wanted to say; but he didn’t, because Malfoy wanted to move on, and Harry would give him that.

“Do you think he’s really alive down there?” Harry asked, almost fearful. How could anyone survive six months beneath the ground?

Malfoy was a long time answering. At last, he said, “I don’t know if he’s alive—but I do know he never made mistakes. If he’s dead, he meant to be.”

“What do we do?”

“Dig him up,” said Zacharias, behind them. Even Morag was too overwhelmed to offer more than a perfunctory eye roll.

“Seriously?” said Harry.

“If he’s alive...” Zacharias said, swallowing. “Is he alive?”

“He must be,” Malfoy said. There was an unusual quality to his voice, something like anxiety. “If he took a Wiggenweld with bad thrushweed, it would put him in a living death—we can just open the coffin, and if—if—if...”

“If he isn’t rotting,” Morag supplied.

“Rotting, yes. If he isn’t, then—”

Harry transfigured a nearby stick into a shovel. “Let’s just do it,” he said. The first skritch of the blade slicing through the crisp winter ground set all their teeth on edge. A moment later, Morag dug in beside him, and then the other two followed. They worked without speaking, feeling the cold sweat of work in winter become sticky on their faces and forearms. Minutes, maybe hours later, Morag’s shovel struck something solid, and Harry was fairly certain all of their stomachs roiled.

“Almost,” Zacharias whispered. They dug carefully after that, maybe anxious of damaging the coffin—maybe just afraid of uncovering it at all. When the coffin was uncovered, their transfigured shovels dropped from their hands, reverting as they hit the frosted, dead grass.

“I’ll do it,” Zacharias said. “I don’t give a damn.” Even to Harry’s ears the words rang false, completely at odds with the nervous tenor of the man’s voice. Still, Smith leaned over, tapped his wand to the clasp at the edge, and it creaked open, as eerie as any Blodwyn Bludd nightmare.

“Fuck,” said Zacharias. “Fuck.”

“What?” Draco said. “What is it? Light your bloody wand, Smith!”

“Fuck,” Zacharias said again, and stumbled back, dropping his wand on the ground as he raced off. Harry heard him sicking up in the trees, a horrible, wet, retching that went on and on.

“Is he rotting?” Morag asked anxiously. “Is he?”

Malfoy snatched Zacharias’ wand up and swished it into a vivid Lumos—then tossed it into the casket. It landed awkwardly beside Snape’s neck—

—In precisely the right place to illuminate the very obvious—very new—huge, pink and jagged scar running across Professor Snape’s ashen neck.

“Oh my god,” Harry said, but somehow the words got caught in his throat and came out broken and hoarse. “Fuck, he healed.”

“Holy Helena, he’s fucking alive!” Morag said anxiously. “Oh Merlin, oh Merlin—what do we do?”

“Get him out!” Malfoy said. “Fuck, move!”

Somewhere in those minutes, even Malfoy forgot he was a wizard. Between the two of them, they managed to half drag, half lift, Professor Snape from the casket. They laid him out on the ground, and Morag danced around as if she needed the loo, unsure of what to do, and eyes so wide Harry wondered if she remembered how to close them.

“Smith! Get over here, you fuck!” Malfoy yelled frantically. Harry pressed his ear to Snape’s chest, then his mouth, but there wasn’t any evidence of breathing, much as he suspected.

“The potion?” Harry asked as Smith stumbled back, white-faced and reeking of sick.

Malfoy shook his head worriedly. “Yes—fuck. But he’d still need a spell to restart his heart.”

“Madam Pomfrey—,” Morag began to say.

“She isn’t strong enough,” Malfoy said.

“Then St Mungo’s,” said Zacharias.

“Are you mad?” said Malfoy. “We can’t take him there! There’s no telling what the New Ministry would do to him! If they don’t arrest him, they’d exploit him!”

“Okay, okay.”

“What about the wand?” said Harry. “Remember you said it was working better for you.”

The look Malfoy gave him was almost bright enough to light up the cemetery. “Brilliant,” he said. From somewhere deep in his robes, he pulled out the hawthorn wand. Harry would know it anywhere.

His knees trembled as he knelt, Harry saw. And his fingers, too, as he uncorked the fresh vial of Wiggenweld and stared down at their professor. His free hand made some complicated gesture of placation to a god or goddess Harry didn’t know, and then he bent over and slid his fingers against Snape’s mouth; it parted easily, and Malfoy tilted the potion into his mouth.

“Okay,” he said. “Be silent.” Malfoy’s closed his eyes, mouth firm, wand pointed at Snape’s supine body. Minutes passed, and Malfoy turned the wand in an intricate movement. Nothing happened. He opened his eyes—equal parts dread and distress in them. “It’s not enough,” he said. “I—can’t.”

“You can,” Harry said. Like in a dream (he couldn’t remember this one, but maybe, maybe) he took Draco’s offhand in his own and let his magic go. “Use me.”

When Draco cast again, it was like nothing he’d ever felt, like nothing that even magic could make. He felt his magic leaving through his left hand, felt Draco’s own magic absorb it and direct it, felt the wand as if he were holding it himself. And it was almost enough—it was almost life-giving.

But not quite—and it was that not-quite that truly made Harry realize that he and Malfoy weren’t meant to be or anything as supernatural as all that. There was no underlying magic holding them together. They were just dreams and weird magic.

But then—Zacharias slipped his hand into Harry’s free one, and there was another surge of magic—a brighter, more solid, surge—and this time, when Malfoy cast, Malfoy succeeded. There was a part of Harry that hated him for that.

Professor Snape’s chest jolted, and his eyes flew open, rolled like a startled thestral’s, seeing everything at once and nothing at all. He gasped a wretched, terrified noise. His fingers made childish grasping gestures, too weak to be meaningful. He fainted.

Zacharias stepped away, back to the forest edge, hyperventilating. Harry stayed, hand still clasped in Draco’s, whose was slick with sweat and hot with anxiety. “It worked,” he said. “You did it.”

“We did it,” Malfoy said, but Harry shook his head just a little. “With our wand.”

Your wand,” he said. “What’s between us is just magic, and even that wasn’t enough without Zacharias.” He pulled his hand away, felt the winter air chill it right away. “Let’s get him to Pomfrey.”

“Can we get a third on one of these brooms?” asked Morag.

“No,” said Harry, “but we could carry him between us, if we’re careful.”

“We’ll have to be,” Malfoy said.

They cast a weightless charm on him anyway, then convinced Zacharias to hold Snape’s legs and let Morag steer his broom. Once again, Harry climbed on behind Malfoy, but this time he kept his eyes open and focused on Professor Snape. Malfoy was the same person Harry dreamt about, but that didn’t make it fate, and he was learning better each day how to deal with that.

----------------------

Manticoria — Interlude

----------------------

Madam Pomfrey fainted at the sight of them. Zacharias had the foresight to run down to Professor Sprout’s quarters and fetch her instead. Snape remained dead to the world while Harry, Morag, and Malfoy settled him onto the bed, each shaking and trembling in something not unlike fear.

By the time Pomfrey was roused and McGonagall flooed in, Professor Sprout had thing well under control. It wasn’t until Snape’s black eyes blinked open an hour later that she, too, was overcome with the situation. Zacharias managed to catch her before she crumpled to the floor.

Harry was certain that Malfoy slept in the Infirmary that night, and for every night thereafter until Snape woke.

----------------------

Manticoria — Chapter 06

----------------------

“Amazing,” Slughorn murmured. “Simply amazing.” His beady eyes looked up from the cauldron and into Professor Snape’s glittering, hateful eyes. “And you developed this potion in my class?” Snape continued to glare, unable as he was, to speak.

“Marvellous,” Slughorn added, as if Snape had smiled instead.

“So he’ll be okay?” Harry asked. Snape’s hateful glare slid to him. Harry watched his pale fingers clench and unclench the hospital bed sheets with mild fascination. He’d never seen such uncontrolled gestures from this man.

“Appears that way,” said Slughorn jovially. “Never can be too sure with things like this, but Severus is a strong lad and clever to boot. We’ll have you up and about in no time, won’t we, son?” He patted Snape’s thigh or thereabouts and Snape’s clutching fingers went positively bloodless with fury. Harry took a step back from the infirmary bed. As a Ravenclaw, Morag was less of a target; it was better she was closest.

“Will he recover his voice?” asked Malfoy.

“Hmm,” Slughorn said. He shared a look with Pomfrey and then leant down in front of Snape. “Let’s have a look at that throat, Severus. Open up!” Snape bared his crooked teeth in a snarl instead. “Well, perhaps when you’re feeling more yourself.”

“Professor Snape has a great deal of damage to his voice box,” Pomfrey said. “He will likely never recover one-hundred per cent of his former voice, but he may yet regain the ability to speak. Only time will tell.”

“You must be very grateful to young Potter and his friends!” Slughorn added.

“It was Malfoy actually,” said Harry. “The thrushweed—I never knew.” At this, Snape finally gave him a look not filled with disgust and abhorrence. It was—considering. “I tried for months, but,” he trailed off, shrugging.

“Professor Snape needs his rest,” said Madam Pomfrey. “And you don’t want to miss the train.”

Harry had nowhere to go for winter holidays though, so it mattered not where he was now. In the uneasy weeks since Professor Snape’s rescue, while they waited for him to wake—or if he would wake—their group got just a little more comfortable with one another.

Morag and Zacharias were leaving on the train for winter holidays, but both he and Malfoy were staying at the castle. Harry was becoming more okay with this; moving on, he thought, wasn’t as bad as he made it out to be. Maybe he hadn’t realized that Draco was a whole person before; maybe he’d only thought of the person in his dreams and neglected all of the other pieces. After that night rescuing Snape, he saw those pieces, and they fit together—filled holes in Malfoy that Harry had not been able to see before to even know were missing.

“Potter!” Slughorn called. “Just a moment, please.”

“Professor?”

“I wondered if you had made any progress on Manticoria,” Slughorn said. “Ms McDougal has not made a report in three weeks.”

“Not really, sir,” Harry said. “We got as far as hypothesizing that it wasn’t a potion, but then we couldn’t decide if it was a spell or an actual Manticore.”

“I think, Mr Potter,” said Slughorn, “that we get ahead of ourselves. The Unspeakables did rank Manticoria the highest among all possibilities; it would be a shame to make no progress. Do you have no leads at all?”

Harry shrugged. “That wards are made of Manticores, and somehow like Manticores. Malfoy’s dad told him that. And then he said Azkaban was made of Dementors. We thought there might be something to that, so we’ve been looking for wards in history being described as magical creatures.”

“Ahh, that old fable,” Slughorn said, nodding. “Yes, yes, I remember that from my youth. The merlins of Boora Bog, my old mother used to sing me a song about the bog being made of merlins and partridges...that just walking through it felt like flying.”

“Do you think there’s anything to it?” Harry asked. He’d never heard of Boora Bog, nor that it was made of birds, but it was intriguing.

“Hmm,” Slughorn said. “It is one of the most magically concentrated places in Ireland...absolutely bogged down in ley-lines, heh heh!”

There was too much there to be coincidence. Hastily muttering a goodbye, he ran off towards the Entrance Hall and then out to the courtyard where the first set of thestral-drawn carriages were just pulling off. He found Hannah several carriages back, helping Parvati fix a poorly cast lightening charm on her portmanteau while Theodore Nott waited to board behind her.

“Your map,” Harry huffed, catching his breath. “Is Boora Bog on it?”

“Boora Bog?” asked Hannah. She turned from Padma to rifle through her trunk, but Nott had already popped it open and summoned her stack of maps from within. She flipped through the parchments, bottom lip between her teeth. “In Ireland, right?”

“Near the middle,” Nott said, and Harry was almost certain it was the first time he’d ever heard the man speak in his life. Almost a head-and-a-half taller than her, he leant over Hannah’s shoulder and pointed. “There,” he said. “My aunt lives near.”

“It’s right on the outer curl of the golden spiral,” Hannah said thoughtfully. She looked back up at Harry, eyes wide. “Is it important, do you think?”

“Slughorn mentioned it,” Harry said. “We were talking about Manticoria, about the wards maybe being made out of magical creatures. He said he’d heard a story about Boora Bog and merlins.”

“Bird merlins?” Nott asked.

“The ones,” Harry affirmed. “And then there was Malfoy’s dad—he said Azkaban was made of dementors, and Malfoy Manor’s wards were made of manticores, and then Pansy said our potion was mistranslated, and maybe was not a potion after all—what if our Manticoria and your rune ley-lines are connected somehow?”

Hannah bit her lip again. “Harry, we really need to know what the ghosts say, then. Baron and Helena are the only ones who were here during the Founders’ time—you have to find a way to help them speak again.”

Reluctantly, Harry nodded. “I—I’ll look into it, over hols. I’m staying here.”

“So’s Draco,” Nott said. “You should both focus completely on finding out what the Baron knows now. This really sounds like a promising lead.”

Harry looked at him curiously. “Don’t you care that my team might win the assignment?”

Nott’s brow furrowed. “Did you forget I wasn’t sorted Gryffindor, or—? Glory means nothing to me. On the other hand, keeping the muggles from finding us means everything. I highly doubt my team’s research on the uses of divination in ward-setting are going to prove useful.”

“Right,” Harry said, after a moment. “I’ll talk to Malfoy about it tonight.”

He hadn’t volunteered to do such a thing in ages, but with the castle deserted of all but a handful of students, there was little else he could do. Even Ernie was going home for break, and with Ron and Hermione off looking into sightings of Will-O-the-Wisps across the isles, he couldn’t very well waste the next two weeks.

The Great Hall tables were reduced to one again this year. The quiet of dinner during holidays was always so disarming. Somewhere beneath the dangling feet of a first-year Ravenclaw, Voldemort’s body had fallen. Harry slid into the seat across from Malfoy at the other end, and smiled at him, only a bit hesitantly.

Malfoy gave him a cautious nod, and that was good enough for Harry to launch into his conversations with Slughorn and Hannah. Malfoy picked at his mince meat pie with only half a mind; he was completely focused on Harry’s theory, which was a nice change in Harry’s opinion.

“What we did for Snape,” Harry said. “Do you think it might work for the ghosts?” he asked.

“Just me and you?” asked Malfoy. “We had Smith last time.”

“Yeah, but surely bringing someone back from the brink of death takes more power than giving a ghost enough energy to talk...” Harry countered.

Malfoy was thoughtful. “I suppose it might work,” he said. “But if we try it, we should definitely do it on the solstice—there’ll be more wild magic around to help us out.”

“Right, of course,” Harry said. That was tomorrow night, and it didn’t give them a lot of time to prepare. “Meet outside the portrait to the ward room?”

“I’ll bring the hawthorn wand,” Malfoy agreed.

That, Harry thought, should not make him as excited as it did.

ɤɣɤ

On the evening of the solstice, when the night was longest, Harry stood without the portrait in the Entrance Hall, and waited. The flicker of candlelight was becoming more and more comforting to him; in daylight, Hogwarts felt almost foreign, but at night, it made time for him. Still, the stairs moved with him, and the torches lit for him. He sensed Malfoy approach by the staggered lighting of torches in the wide stairway leading up from the dungeons.

“I didn’t know the castle lit up for you, too,” Harry said, surprised by the echo of his voice in the hall.

“It only started after the final battle,” Draco replied. “I don’t know why.”

The large torches on either side of the castle doors flared alight for them. The light from them glowed fiery against the brass plate of the portrait before the wardroom staircase door, illuminating the druidess’ name—The Warder. Harry gasped.

“We never saw this the first time,” Malfoy said, surprised. “There wasn’t enough light.”

She turned away from her contemplation of the forest at twilight and regarded him solemnly. “The warder,” he murmured. She dipped her head in acknowledgement, and Harry thought it couldn’t be this easy, and yet—he had to ask. “Do you know Manticoria?” he asked.

“Druid priestesses often took vows of silence to better unite with nature,” said Malfoy. “She may not speak.”

She did not—but she flung her arm out wide and spread her fingers. From the tips, birds erupted—merlins flying in all directions.

“You warded Boora Bog,” Harry said in wonder, but she shook her head. She lifted her other arm, fingers clutched around a tall hardwood staff, and stomped it down again; the trees glowed silver-white and illuminated the heretofore-invisible strings of magic interconnecting them. The natural wards of Ireland, he thought—and knew the thought was not his own; once all encompassing, now only relegated to the treeless bog that was once a great forest.

“Natural wards,” Malfoy whispered. “They were modelled on these, weren’t they?” The druidess smiled at him, and bowed low. The portrait swung inwards, and all along the walls, the torches flared to life and lit their passage down.

All four castle ghosts were huddled around the ward stone, a tall standing stone covered in ancient glowing runes, most of them the half-diamond of Kenaz. Some were brighter than others were. Likewise, the ghosts seemed to fade in and out of existence with the pulse of the runes, forced into giving up their own life-force magic to keep the castle well hidden. Helena noticed the first, then the Baron shifted into view from behind the stone, somehow even more fearsome in this weakened, solemn state.

“Baron,” Malfoy said. His voice caught on the single word. “Helena.” Neither Nick nor the Friar had so much as stirred from their vegetative states. “We need to know about the wards. We think we can loan you enough magic to speak again—for a few minutes anyway. Which of you knows, and is willing to tell?”

“It might be dangerous,” Harry added, because really, they had no idea what would happen.

They seemed to communicate silently, and a long moment passed before their gazes broke and the Baron floated forward. The silvery, dripping blood from his fatal wound was but a trickle now—a disappearing spot of ghostly blood beneath him on the floor, when once it had been a continuously oozing stream. The death throes of even a ghost were sombre, Harry thought.

Malfoy took his hand, startling him. He pulled the hawthorn wand from his sleeve, but surprised Harry when he handed it to him. “You’re stronger,” he said.

The hawthorn wand felt so natural in his hand; he’d missed casting with it almost as much as he missed the dreams that came with it. He gave it a cursory flick to get reacquainted, but it wasn’t even necessary—he knew this wand better than he knew his own.

He incanted the spell to enchant another object with temporary magic, and held it steady as it channelled. The Baron grew less translucent; his blood started pouring more vigorously again. The ghost shook himself as he gained strength.

“Baron Mortagne,” Malfoy said, dipping his head politely.

“Young Lord Malfoy,” said the Baron gravely. “And Mr Potter, too. I wondered if I would ever see the day the two of you cooperated.”

Privately, Harry thought the same. The Baron continued. “I feel that there is little time. You found my private research that I left with Madam Ravenclaw when I went in search of her daughter. You wonder about the section on Manticoria.”

“That’s right,” said Harry. “What can you tell us?”

“Only this,” said the Baron. “It is indeed a potion, and it was indeed created by the wizard Merlin. I read of it in the personal journal of Sorcerer Waleran Widdershins, who noted that Merlin began the national warding using a magical alignment, and left it unfinished at his death. The potion was believed lost, but came the muggles, and the unsettled nature of the magic was such that it caused mayhem throughout Albion and Lloegyr. In our dark hours, we feared destruction. Clever Rowena was the one to recreate it from the old recipe. When combined with the wards of Ireland, and those set by Merlin, Britain’s wild magic stabilized long enough for the rest to be filled in. There were seven wards, then twelve, but there should have been ten.”

“Which did Merlin set?” Malfoy asked. “How many?”

“Four,” said the Baron. “I—can’t remember which.”

“But what’s the recipe?” asked Harry. “The one Rowena used?”

The Bloody Baron’s chains clanked as he shrugged. “I know not,” he said. “She was ever guarded of her research, especially after Slyth—.” His silvery eyes shifted to Helena, watching silently, chained to the wardstone, and he added, abruptly, “Neither was Helena privy.”

“Do you know how she was able to recreate it from the lost recipe of Merlin, at least?” asked Malfoy.

“There was a fable,” said the Baron. “A spell that could reverse a great wrong, made of the embodiment of humanity—the Unicorn guards our hearts, the thestral guards our heads, the Dementor guards our fears, the Merlin guards our spirits, the Manticore guards our lives.”

“How does a manticore guard lives?” asked Harry. “Don’t they attack?”

“How does anyone do anything?” said the Baron, dismissively. “Like wards, Manticore demands loyalty and dedication. Fail to provide it, and you will lose its protection. Was there I can tell you this—Rowena and Salazar and Godric and Helga needed all of their power to channel Manticore into the potion, and the potion needed the essence of Manticore to bre—,”

Suddenly, he flickered, and the channelled stream of magic from their wand severed. The Baron went mute mid-sentence; Helena floated forward and took his hand. She dimmed, but the stream of magic was restored. The Baron said urgently, “Above all, you must find the alignment; the potion is the embodiment of Albion and Lloegyr, once called Manticoria to the druids. Begin with a base like a lion, add the wisdom of a sphinx—find the bite of a wolf and the—”

Then the stream of magic guttered again, and this time, the Baron went with it. A wavering phantasm of confused magic swirled awkwardly—the wardstone sucked it in, and in the echoing silence of the wardroom, Harry felt the castle panic, felt the wards flash and dip violently low before the castle itself dragged them back up again by sheer force of will. Beside him, Malfoy inhaled sharply, and his blunt fingers dug into Harry’s forearm.

“What’s going on?” he whispered.

“The wards just fell,” Harry said, heart hammering. “Hogwarts brought them up again.”

“By taking the Bloody Baron,” Malfoy whispered hoarsely. It was almost a question.

“Yeah,” Harry said, not even bothering to hide his terror. “Yeah, it took the Baron. Merlin, fuck.”

“Why can we feel it?” asked Malfoy.

“I—don’t know.”

Across the room, Helena looked impassively back at them, before floating away, back to the other side of the stone, where the Friar and Nick still hid.

ɤɣɤ

Snape found them as they were slipping from the Druidess’ portrait. The castle gave them half as many candles this time, and given the circumstances, Harry thought that wise. Even so, there was enough light to highlight the pallid tint of Snape’s skin. He was incredibly weak, even now, and the spark of magic all around him hinted at how many spells he’d used just to keep himself upright getting from the Infirmary to the Entrance Hall.

His eyes pierced into Harry’s, and he said, “Follow.” Harry heard it, but the man’s mouth had not moved. Legilimancy, he realized, but couldn’t spare the effort to be startled. Snape turned and carefully picked his way down the stairs to the dungeons, and both Harry and Malfoy followed immediately.

Harry tried not to notice how the man’s hand trembled as he pressed his palm against the wood of his old office door to unlock it. It swung open into the dust of a forgotten room. Malfoy was subtle with a banishing spell.

Sit,” Snape said, again without opening his mouth. They did.

“Professor,” said Malfoy. “Should you be—,”

Shut up,” said Snape. “I felt the wards fail just as you did. We must determine why that is so.”

“They’ve been weakening since the battle,” Harry said. “Voldemort did it, somehow.”

Imbecile!” Snape growled, somehow even more frightening when spoken directly to his mind. “The Dark Lord knew not such power! Do you not think he would have exploited it if he had done so?

“Can you feel the castle, Professor?” Malfoy asked curiously. “Before just now, I mean?”

Snape nodded. “It is especially accommodating to me of late. At first I thought it was because I was once Headmaster, but it is lately even more obliging than before.

Harry absorbed this. “Why only the three of us? No one else has mentioned anything unusual.”

Snape grinned at him; it was a sinister-looking sight. “That is the question, isn’t it, Potter? What is it that the three of us have in common?

“A magical link to Voldemort,” Harry said immediately, “but that’s gone for me at least.” He lifted his fringe to show his forehead—the scar on it was white and docile, no longer magical at all. “It must be something else.”

Snape considered this, seemingly surprised by the appearance of Harry’s normal, faded scar.

“Why are we assuming that this is something the Dark Lord did to the wards, and not something the wards are doing to themselves?” asked Malfoy.

Harry scrunched his brow. “Why would the wards want to self-destruct? Hogwarts certainly doesn’t seem to want it.”

“It could be built into them—the Baron said Manticoria demanded loyalty and dedication. If it lost that, it might not be able to sustain itself any longer.”

“What loyalty?” asked Harry.

Ah,” said Snape, nodding. “Yes, this makes sense now. If the Dark Lord was the keeper of the wards, then his death, without issue, would begin to break them down. They will need to be recast with an appropriate wardkeeper to stay up.”

“Why would Voldemort be the wardkeeper?” asked Harry. “Who would allow that?”

“Wards aren’t sentient, much as they sometimes act that way,” Snape said, rolling his eyes. “As the last of Slytherin’s line, his portion of them would revert to the Dark Lord. With the Grey Lady’s death, Ravenclaw left no wardkeeper. Throughout the years, they have stayed in place with the descendents of Slytherin, Hufflepuff, and Gryffindor. Now there is none of Slytherin blood to maintain it—it seems, Potter, that you are once again in the thick of things. The wards are surely only intact because of your continued existence.”

“The castle’s trying to get your attention, so you’ll take up the wards,” Malfoy realized. “That’s why it’s being so helpful.”

Harry sat back, mouth parted, but unable to think of anything useful to say. At last, he settled on, “But Zacharias is a descendent of Hufflepuff. He hasn’t got any help from the castle yet.”

Snape’s lips twisted into a simulacrum of a smile. “Mr Smith is far too sly for your average Hufflepuff. I would bet my last galleon that he is indeed receiving notice from the castle, but that he is holding that tarot card very close to his chest, for now.”

“What about the two of you?” asked Harry.

In reply, Snape rolled up his sleeve. Just like in his dreams of Draco, the Dark Mark was as black and vivid as it was when Voldemort had been alive. “The Dark Lord’s magic is in our own veins. Perhaps, in the wards’ mind, we are now the descendents of him.”

“What will happen if we don’t get the wards up before Hogwarts gets too weak? It won’t feed off us like it did the Bloody Baron, will it?”

“The Baron?” Snape said, surprised. “What’s happened to him?”

“Gone,” Harry said.

“The wardstone just...consumed him,” said Malfoy. “It used him to reinstate the wards when they fell only a few minutes ago.”

Harry didn’t think he’d ever seen Professor Snape so surprised in all his years at school. “If the castle feels we are sufficiently linked to it, it very well may. It has really begun to sacrifice the ghosts—? The Baron...! This is considerably more serious than Poppy and Minerva led me to believe...”

“We really need to figure out how Manticoria is brewed and used before that happens,” said Malfoy. “Do you know it?”

“No,” Snape said. “It’s not mentioned in any of my own books. I can check the Cardiff library—”

“The Bloody Baron knew of it,” Harry said. “He wrote about it. Wards are like a Manticore—Draco’s father thinks they are the Manticore. The Baron told us how it’s brewed, just not how it’s used.”

“Have you recently become such a master of potions that you know how to brew an ancient recipe from a rushed explanation by a dying ghost?” Snape asked snidely.

“I brewed your potion, didn’t I?” Harry sneered back, and watched with cynical satisfaction as Snape’s eyebrows jumped. “All but the thrushweed, and I would’ve had that if you’d bothered to write it down.”

The man’s eyes slid to Malfoy, and Harry was supremely smug when he nodded in agreement. “I told him about the thrushweed. It was the same batch we gave you, when we found you.”

“I was buried...” Snape said, as if realizing it for the first time. “Five months?”

“Six,” Malfoy corrected. “And it would’ve been longer if Potter hadn’t got a wild hair to try brewing your potion. It would’ve been forever. You left us no clues, none at all!” I was worried, Harry heard unspoken. I thought I’d lost you, he heard.

Snape considered the both of them. “How did you know then?”

Malfoy looked away from him, and straight at Harry. Their eyes met over the still-settling dust in the air; Malfoy licked his lips awkwardly and looked away again. “You never make mistakes; you always have a backup plan.”

Perhaps death was my plan,” Snape said, barely a murmur even in their heads.

“It would have been pointless when you always carried a potion that can heal almost any wound and neutralize almost any poison, if taken in time. But this time, you didn’t have Wiggenweld on you, and you knew it, didn’t you? You knew the apothecary sold you old thrushweed, and you took the potion anyway, so the Dark Lord would think you were dead.” Snape merely nodded. Malfoy said, softer now, “How did you know someone would figure it out?”

“I knew you would figure it out,” he said. “I did not know how long it would take you, but I knew, eventually, you would again try to brew Wiggenweld, and when you did, you would remember everything we once talked of.

“Tell me what the Baron said,” he said abruptly.

“Begin with a base like a lion,” Harry said at once. “Then we add the wisdom of a sphinx, the bite of a wolf. He was—taken then, but I can only assume the last ingredient would be the strike of a scorpion, just like Malfoy’s father says of their wards.”

“And above all,” Malfoy added, “we have to find the alignment, as the potion is the embodiment of Albion and Lloegyr.”

“It has been an age since I’ve heard those terms for Britain. How old is the potion?”

“Invented by Merlin, the Baron said.”

Snape’s eyebrows, again, soared. He leant back against his chair, thoughtful. “Often, potion-making is incredibly metaphorical. The wards of magical Britain are the embodiment of our society, one might say. It certainly depends on them, and they represent all of our capabilities and needs. Suitably, the Baron has described a potion that is both the embodiment of Britain and of a Manticore. I seem to recall now that the druids once called the islands Manticoria.”

“The Baron said that, too!” Harry said excitedly. It was beginning to come together. “The alignment must be the golden ratio spiral that Hannah Abbott suggested. If that’s true, then we only need to brew the potion and...what? Pour it over the wardstones at the right locations?”

“Idiot,” Snape said. “What good would pouring a potion on a rock do? And you seem to have forgotten that we do not even know the recipe—”

“But you said it was metaphorical. You know how to brew it now, don’t you?”

“If any Potion Master could discern the recipe from the description of a Manticore, I assure you that the Department of Mysteries would not have needed the help of school children.”

“Not any Potion Master,” Harry said. “You, obviously.”

“You flatter me,” Snape said sarcastically. “It will take considerable research—time, effort, testing. I do not say that it’s impossible, only that it will not be easy. We will begin in the morning. Come to my lab prepared to work, both of you.”

“What if we don’t find it in time?” said Malfoy. He had a strange look about his face; a look of panic that Harry’d only seen on him once before.

“Then, it seems, we will become the wards.”

----------------------

Manticoria — Chapter 07

----------------------

With all but a few of the students at home with their families for the holidays, the dungeons were even more silent and eerie than usual. He heard the skittering of vermin in the darkened recesses of the walls, and smelt the fishy dampness left over from the final battle, when some of the high windows against the lake had cracked and flooded the lower level. Certainly, Harry’s outburst in the first year potion classroom had not helped.

Outside Snape’s office, Malfoy leant back against the stone wall and exhaled slowly. “We,” he said, “are fucked.”

“We’ll figure it out,” Harry offered.

Malfoy’s eyes slid over to him tiredly. “And if we don’t? Then what?” He pushed off the wall and came to stand before Harry. “You and I, and probably Professor Snape, too—we’ll go the way of the Bloody Baron. And of course it’s our ghost who’s taken, isn’t it? Never any useless half-severed Gryffindor ghosts, no.”

Harry swallowed down the anger that might’ve risen at that insult to Nick. It wasn’t like he was overly friendly with any ghost, even his own. Instead, cautiously, he said, “Do you want to go for a pint?”

This stopped Malfoy short. “I—what?”

“A pint,” Harry repeated. He cleared his throat. “As friends.”

Malfoy seemed to hesitate, but at last, he did say, “All right.”

They summoned their heavy cloaks and exited the castle through the dungeon doors that led to a narrow stone path running between the castle wall and the mouth of the lake where the first years came in. For a while, the castle shielded them from the Yule weather, but once they came to the road to Hogsmeade, they were buffeted by wind and an early snowfall. Harry tried desperately not to notice how Malfoy moved nearer to him to take advantage of the warmth of his nearness, or how much he enjoyed it. Once, in their dreams, there’d been something like this, only it was spring then, just after he’d won the wand: then Draco had led him from Malfoy Manor and to the rare woods around the house, so unusual in the Wiltshire landscape—probably magical. It was cold still. It was drizzling, as usual. Draco showed him the hawthorn tree his wand had come from many years ago, and Harry had held it in his hand and felt the warmth of its aliveness, of Draco’s spirit well-worn into it, and suddenly felt very connected. And after that dream, the ones following had changed into something infinitely more bright, and infinitely more uplifting—dreams that he recalled in the fear of the battle at Hogwarts and was made more determined by them.

“The Hog’s Head?” said Malfoy as they neared Main Street.

“Sure, fine,” Harry said. It would be quieter, though—more intimate. He wasn’t sure if that was good or bad. Aberforth looked up at the sound of the bell jingling—a tinny, broken sound, obviously a magical repair to a cracked bell. His old eyes took them in disinterestedly and went back to wiping down the bar top. They ordered their own drinks and paid separately. Malfoy chose the table by the window, with the wood ridged and ringed from old beer stains and one of the legs shorter than the others.

In silence, they sipped their ales. Harry was well into his glass and Malfoy had already returned from the bar with a second pint before either of them came up with anything worth saying.

“I can’t believe the Bloody Baron’s gone,” Harry said. He watched Malfoy’s expression in the window, unable to look at him head on just yet. Malfoy grimaced. A small group of merry-makers walked passed, drunkenly wassailing anyone who’d listen.

“As always, the other houses have something Slytherin cannot.”

“What else do they have?” Harry asked.

Malfoy glanced up at him through impossibly light lashes. “Respect,” he said lowly.

There were a number of things Harry could have said to that, such as ‘I respect you,’ or ‘That isn’t completely true,’ but neither of those would help. He settled for, “Oh. Sorry.”

“What are you sorry for?”

Harry shrugged. “A lot of things,” he said. Winning that wand, for one. Or at least allowing himself to fall for someone so unreachable afterwards. He changed the subject. “Do you think the Founders were a lot more powerful than wizards today?”

“Maybe,” said Malfoy. “Probably not...probably not more powerful than you or me.”

“They built Hogwarts,” Harry offered. “Put up all the original large-scale wards in Britain…”

Malfoy pursed his lips, thoughtful. “Maybe they were,” he allowed.

Harry sighed. “If they were so powerful, wouldn’t they be known around the world like Merlin? But they aren’t. Remember fourth year? The Beauxbatons and Durmstrang students hadn’t even heard their names. What if they just put all their power together?”

“Well obviously they did, but—” Malfoy stopped abruptly. “Have you seen the portrait of Hufflepuff in Combat?” he asked.

“The one by the kitchens?” asked Harry. “Yeah, she doesn’t talk.”

“Have you seen her sword?” said Malfoy. “It’s—”

“Got rubies in the hilt,” Harry said excitedly. He nearly knocked his glass over in his excitement. “I never even noticed! It’s Gryffindor’s.”

“There’s a portrait of Slytherin casting,” Malfoy added. “In the Slytherin common room. He’s using a staff, and even then, most wizards were using wands for all but the highest magic. I always thought he was just doing a complicated ritual, but I wonder—the staff was inlaid with sapphires.”

“Was it Ravenclaw’s, do you think?” asked Harry.

“Perhaps,” said Malfoy. “I only just thought of it now, when I remembered the portrait of Hufflepuff—and I always thought it was strange she was using a sword to cast with when she was known for having a darkwood wand.”

“If she could use Gryffindor’s sword and Slytherin could use Ravenclaw’s staff, then their wands must’ve been won, too. They could really use each others’ magical focuses, you think? They’d all really defeated one another?”

“Think of the amount of trust you’d need in someone to expend so much magic with them—raising Hogwarts alone would have kept them constantly drained and vulnerable for months, maybe several years.”

“But that makes everything so much easier!” Harry said. “All we need is to figure out how to brew Manticoria and then you and me and Zacharias can renew the wards.”

In a rare moment of openness, Malfoy smiled at him, all teeth and excitement. Harry hadn’t seen that look in months, and it took him by surprise. He drank heavily from his glass to hide the reddening of his cheeks. “On Manticoria,” said Malfoy, “I’ve had an idea. If it was created by Merlin to embody Britain, then the ingredients will certainly all be found within Albion and Lloegyr. The foundation of a lion—what is the foundation of Britain? Or was at the time, anyway?”

“I haven’t the foggiest,” said Harry, still smiling a bit from either tipsiness or Malfoy’s excitement.

“King Arthur, you twit,” said Malfoy.

“But he was a Pendragon,” said Harry. “Pen...dragon.”

“He was royalty,” Malfoy said. “The lion has long represented royalty.”

“Oh!” Harry said. “So how do we put King Arthur in a potion?”

This gave Malfoy pause. He said, “We don’t put him in it, obviously. We put something of his in it.”

“We don’t have anything of his.”

“The Grail, maybe…” Malfoy said, almost to himself.

“Zacharias said there was no way Hufflepuff’s Cup was the Grail,” Harry said. “And besides, Hermione destroyed that—well, mostly destroyed it anyway. It cracked, she said. Might still be lying about in the Chamber of Secrets, actually.”

Malfoy’s eyes cut to him slyly. “When have you ever known Smith to have all the facts, though?” he said. “He just read two paragraphs from some no-name historian and assumed it was fact. Just like a Hufflepuff.”

“You think it really was the Grail?” Harry asked.

“Dunno,” said Malfoy, and Harry was surprised by the loose pronunciation, something so unlike Malfoy. “But we should go get the Cup just to be sure.”

“It’s in the Chamber,” Harry said. “There’s a dead basilisk down there...it’s probably manky as fuck by now.”

“Bubblehead charm, Potter,” Malfoy said, rolling his eyes.

Harry was not at all enticed by the prospect of another go at the Chamber of Secrets, but the prospect of an adventure alone with Draco was another story entirely. Another story that sent a chill up his back, and not at all with cold. “Fine,” he said. “But not until I’ve finished this pint. It’s bloody cold down there, and I’ll need it.”

“Mm,” said Malfoy thoughtfully. “Fine.” He waved Aberforth over with an imperious flick of his fingers, and ordered two shots of firewhiskey. “Here—if it’s cold, this’ll help more.”

So would a warming charm, Harry thought, but he wasn’t one to argue if Malfoy was trying to be nice to him—or possibly get him drunk, but that was only wishful thinking. He accepted it with a smile, and when Malfoy held his own glass out to him, Harry tapped his against it, and grinned even more. “To what?” he said.

“Saving our arses,” Malfoy replied. “And the rest of the wizarding world, too, I suppose. Though I’m inclined to say fuck them.”

“We haven’t yet,” said Harry. “We might not.” Malfoy knocked his firewhiskey back with more finesse than Harry was comfortable with—Malfoy could even drink poshly; it wasn’t bloody fair.

“We will,” said Malfoy. “Are you ready? Finish that bloody pint and let’s go.”

“You sure you want to go down there?” asked Harry, but he was already tossing back his whiskey and moving on to quickly finish his pint. “You haven’t had enough adventure for today?”

“Is that your idea of adventure?” Malfoy asked. “No wonder Gryffindors have such short life expectancies.” Unable to tell if that was a dig at his parents of if he was just well on his way to drunk, Harry said nothing.

The snow had stopped by the time they left, so the walk back was only frigid, and not frigid plus snowing. Even with eighth years having no curfew and full run of the castle (within reason) they were careful not to wake any of the portraits on their way through the halls. Harry desperately hoped that Myrtle would be off in a pipe somewhere, but when they arrived at the girl’s second floor loo, her absence weighed heavily.

“She was nice to me,” Malfoy said reflectively. He was staring around the stalls as if he expected her to float out and greet him. Maybe he did. And it occurred to Harry then that Myrtle was a ghost of Hogwarts, and therefore probably weakened. “Annoying—but nice.”

“Did you see her in the wardroom?” he asked. “I never did…”

“No,” said Malfoy. “She would’ve been the weakest of the castle ghosts—her magic was probably the first used to sustain the castle. The most expendable, in its view.”

Harry felt his stomach drop. Myrtle—poor miserable, moping, moaning Myrtle. He felt unaccountably sad. The loo was so quiet without her. Even the rushing sound of water through pipes couldn’t detract from it. At the sink, they both bent low over the tap and Harry pointed out the little snake well hidden in rust.

“How do you open it?” asked Malfoy.

“Parseltongue,” Harry said. “Just tell it to open.” He focused on the engraved snake and hissed, ‘Open‘.

Malfoy peered into the hole. “Do we need brooms for this?”

“Probably a good idea,” Harry said. “Hermione’s still got mine, though.” When Malfoy merely summoned his own, Harry fought down a grin. When it zoomed into the bathroom and Malfoy mounted it, sliding further up the handle than he’d normally ride to make room for Harry, he had to bite his lips to hold it back. He threw his leg over behind Malfoy and hesitantly slid his arms around Malfoy’s ribs. He lit his wand and held it in front of them with his free hand.

“It’s practically straight down,” he said. “Careful at the bottom. There’s a wall collapsed.”

Malfoy nodded, and circled back around to give them some room. At once, he shot off, gaining enough speed before they entered the emptiness of the pipe to keep them sat on the broom during the steep descent. He’d forgotten how quickly it got cold going down this tunnel. Before, he’d been high on adrenaline and fear; he’d not had time to properly assess it. Now, every few seconds the temperature fell by degrees until they reached the bottom, and he was grateful for that shot of firewhiskey.

Malfoy slowed down and manoeuvred carefully between the rubble. The basilisk’s shedded skin was a deteriorated mess on the ground, like a shattered leaf in autumn. There was an unnatural green glow coming from the ceiling, too far up to distinguish easily, but the movement of the light suggested that it was windows looking out into the Black Lake. Torches flickered on at their arrival; Malfoy inhaled sharply, his broom slowing to a stop. Beneath his hands, Malfoy tensed.

Harry had forgotten how eerie this place was—how the torch flames highlighted and shadowed the snake-entwined pillars leading up to the statue of Slytherin. With the lake-water light, they looked as though they were writhing around the pillars—but perhaps they were; Harry did not want to get any closer to look. Neither, apparently, did Malfoy.

“Salazar,” said Malfoy, and Harry was not sure if it was an exclamation or an observation. And then a great shadow moved across the light source from the windows and when it was gone, eerie green light fell on a large, dark mass off to one side of Slytherin’s statue.

Malfoy looked away; Harry said, “I blinded it. The eyes won’t hurt you.” His voice was too loud; it echoed across the whole of the Chamber and reverberated back at them again and again, each time sounding more frightening, more sibilant than before.

“You blinded it?” Malfoy repeated dumbly, apparently too shocked to properly process it. “In second year?”

“Yeah,” Harry said. He nudged Malfoy in the ribs, gently. “The Cup will be over there, if it’s still here.”

Malfoy nodded sharply and slowly drew his broom into motion again. As they approached, it became clear that a Bubblehead charm wasn’t going to be needed. The basilisk was completely intact, preserved by the extreme temperature of the Chamber, and, perhaps, also Slytherin’s own magic.

“Basilisk parts are worth their weight in Philospher’s Stones—you could have matched the entirety of the Malfoy fortune harvesting a basilisk of this size...well, you could have before the New Ministry seized my father’s money.” Harry had read about that—and before that, he’d known about it from Draco telling him in a dream. His own inheritance had been spared, as had his mother’s dowry and the Manor itself—everything else had gone to reparations.

“Take some of it back then,” said Harry.

“No,” Malfoy said. “We came for the Cup, and it’s not as if I’m poor, even now.”

Harry rolled his eyes. “Then take some for Professor Snape. Maybe it’ll cheer him up.”

Malfoy quirked his lips. “I can’t imagine many things cheering Professor Snape up,” he said, “but if there’s anything that would, a basilisk is probably it.” Harry handed him a couple of small animal bones to transfigure into potion knives and vials, and then made his way nearer the statue, where the basilisk’s head was. The Cup sat to the other side of the massive head, cracked but otherwise intact. It looked old and sad now, as if all the magic had drained from it along with the horcrux.

He picked it up warily, but nothing tried to possess him, so that was a marked improvement. Along the outer rim, it was engraved with medieval knot-work, and the handles were as prosaic as he remembered them. Malfoy came up next to him, startling Harry enough to make him jump.

“Okay there, Potter?” he asked. Hovering beside him was an expansive array of ingredient vials, all already labelled in Malfoy’s sharp, neat handwriting.

“This place just gives me the creeps,” Harry muttered. “But look—see, here, the Cup is engraved with Hufflepuff’s device. Do you really think the Holy Grail would have a badger on it?”

“No,” Malfoy said, rolling his eyes, “but I think it might’ve been magically altered so that no one would suspect it.”

Harry tucked it away in his robes and said, “All right, fine. Let’s just get out of here.”

Malfoy called his broom over and they jumped on, but instead of heading for the exit, he flew upwards. “Where are you going?” Harry asked.

“I want to see where that tunnel goes.”

“That’s where the basilisk came out,” Harry said, alarmed.

“And like you said, it’s dead.”

But the tunnel was dark and dank. It was warmer than the Chamber proper, and the smell of years-old animal corpses was too strong to ignore. Harry retched at the stench, not quite quick enough with his Bubblehead. It didn’t end at a basilisk nest, though. Further in, the tunnel became narrow and geometric with the evidence of human design. It ended at a door, wooden with heavy iron hinges.

Harry tried the handle, but it wouldn’t budge. He half-heartedly threw a couple unlocking spells at it, but in truth, he was wary of what might be hidden behind it. Another basilisk, maybe? Something even worse?

Open,” said Malfoy. Harry nearly jumped out of his robes, already aiming his wand before him defensively and moving to stand in front of Malfoy before he even realized what he was doing. Malfoy pushed him aside as the door clicked open.

“I didn’t think that would work,” he said, obviously delighted that it had.

“You—you spoke parseltongue,” Harry said. “I thought you were a basilisk.”

Malfoy shrugged. “You said it up in the toilets. Wasn’t that hard to repeat.”

“Wasn’t that hard—?” Harry said. If it wasn’t that hard, then every Slytherin everywhere would have found a way to learn it by then, he thought, but didn’t say so. Malfoy was already stepping into the room with the light of his wand guiding the way.

Harry hissed, “Lights,” and the torches flared on. Beneath his breath, he could hear Malfoy hissing “lights, lights, lights,” as if to memorize it. It was a study. There was a desk to one side with a bookshelf nearby. A potions worktable took up the entire far wall, with cut herbs still lying atop it, magically preserved for a thousand years. Malfoy snatched them up into vials like any true potioneer. Harry bit back a grin and wandered over to the desk. There was a book on top engraved with ‘Scriptorium Powys’ along the front cover.

He opened it carefully, but found the words to be the same Old English as those of Waleran Widdershins’ essay, and he could not remember the translation spell.

Malfoy chuckled. The sound echoed. “Can you imagine the fines on that? It must be overdue a thousand years.”

“It’s a library book?” Harry said.

“From the National Library in Cardiff,” Malfoy said. “When it was still just a midsized scriptorium, apparently. Doesn’t Powys ring a bell to you?”

Harry thought back. “Oh!” he said. “Hufflepuff was from around there. What was Slytherin doing with it?”

“Reading it, obviously,” Malfoy said. “I wonder what happened to him that he left too quickly to even finish his potion or pack this book.”

“An argument with Gryffindor, wasn’t it?” Harry said.

Malfoy gave him an arch look. “And what kind of argument with you do you think would run me off?” he said. Harry immediately thought of a number of arguments that might make the sight of Draco too much for him to bear even a moment longer. Seeing his face, Malfoy paled. He said, quickly, “They weren’t lovers.”

“No,” Harry agreed.

More hesitantly now, Malfoy said, “What could it have been, I wonder. I never really thought a fight could’ve done that. Slytherins are proud—Salazar was proud...too proud to leave Hogwarts and disappear into obscurity.”

“Maybe he just died,” said Harry. “And never left.”

“He wasn’t buried with the others.”

“Who knows,” Harry said. “Can we just go?”

After a moment, Malfoy nodded—but not before grabbing the book and slipping it inside a cushioning-charmed robe pocket. Yet again, Harry slid on the broom behind him, this time with the hovering potion vials tethered to follow. The ascent was slower, but no less trying on Harry’s nerves, as he was forced, by several needs, gravity among them, to hold more tightly to Malfoy’s waist as they flew up. Halfway up, he became dizzy, whether from the quick change in atmosphere or Malfoy’s nearness, and he had to close his eyes, lay his head against Malfoy’s back. The smell of his robes was so familiar and so distant. He’d had a brief teasing of it that awful night in the potions lab, but he’d not smelled it properly for half a year. How easily the memory of it came back astounded him. He inhaled as deeply as he could, held it in his lungs as they cleared the sink, and only let it out again to whisper, ‘Close’—Malfoy murmured it again and again under his breath, committing the word to memory.

But Malfoy didn’t dismount then. He opened the bathroom door with a flick of his wand, and flew them straight out to the castle main. “Do you want me to fly you up to Gryffindor?” he asked.

Harry’s heart stuttered and he hated himself for it. He’d thought he was getting better, getting over it. Desire, it seemed, took a very long time to die. “Yes,” he whispered. Malfoy said nothing about how he’d not moved his face from the back of his expensive robes, nor that Harry’s arms were likely not making it easy to breathe. He navigated the corridors as if he did this every day, and knowing Draco, perhaps he did. Perhaps he took to the corridors and his broom every night after everyone else slept.

It was perhaps Harry’s imagination, but Malfoy was not taking the most direct route. It seemed like ages before they alighted on the seventh floor. The Fat Lady was sleeping. When Malfoy stopped before her, Harry held on for perhaps a second too long. The loss of Malfoy’s body heat was like an Aguamenti to the face. He swallowed, turned his eyes up to Malfoy’s and found the piercing look he was getting in return to be almost too much to bear.

“Thank you,” he said. The words caught in his throat. He cleared it awkwardly.

“Of course,” Malfoy said.

“I was thinking maybe we could ask Snape about that book.” Immediately, he flushed with embarrassment. What a stupid thing to say.

But Malfoy was still giving him that same strange look, and Harry recognized it now—remembered it from a dream many months ago. His breath hitched; he took an involuntary step forward. Malfoy closed the space between them; his lips were cold and winter-chapped, rough against Harry’s own.

He felt his lungs inhaled sharply, the movement involuntary and somewhat staggering—much like the taste of Draco’s mouth. He felt lightheaded, found himself leaning into Draco even as he hovered there on his broom, turned awkwardly towards him.

The poignant details of his months of misery rushed back at him a hundred-fold, reminding him of how much it hurt, how much it would hurt if this was a one-off. He heard a small, desperate sound and belatedly realized it had come from him.

Draco pulled him closer, and in his haste, he pushed him back against the wall. The broom clattered against the floor as Draco released it. The sound woke the Fat Lady, who squeaked in outrage.

“What in the name of Merlin—!”

Harry pulled away from Draco’s mouth long enough to say, urgently, “Dumbledore’s Army, Dumbledore’s Army!”

There was more squawking, but the portrait did creak open, Harry took Draco’s hand and tugged him inside, heedless of the potion vials and broom rushing awkwardly after them. One hand still wrapped around Draco’s, he released their spells somewhere near the couches and they fell harmlessly to the cushions.

Draco put his hand against the back of his head and pulled him in again. Harry pressed against him, felt his body heat and felt heat in response. Every one of Draco’s muscles was tense, anticipatory. “Upstairs,” he murmured into Harry’s mouth.

They fell back on Harry’s bed, robes discarded carelessly somewhere on the floor. “I remember this,” Harry said quietly, even as his hands and fingers moved restlessly over Draco’s back and sides, trying to take in everything at once.

“Beltane,” Draco said. After the Aurora Magialis, when the wild magic of the world realigned and dispersed, balanced itself again after a year of wildness. After they’d watched it together in their dreams and Harry had felt the balance of the world reflected in how harmonised he was with Draco’s wand. He’d woken in the morning to break into Gringotts, and barely a day later, he’d felt Draco’s hands around his waist as they fled for their lives from Fiendfyre.

“I remember,” Harry said again. He sat up enough hitch Draco’s shirt up, run his fingertips against his belly—contracted and trembling at the touch. He reached down to pull his own shirt off and toss it somewhere behind him, and leant back down, curled over Draco’s body, feeling the soft pants of his breath resonate against his lips before he captured them again. Draco arched into him; his hands came up and gripped his waist tightly, fingers clenching and unclenching against his sides. His hips came up and Harry pulled away, gasping.

Draco’s eyes were bright; he stared up at Harry with his mouth swollen-red and defiant. He ground his hips up again. Harry groaned. Somehow, he managed to get Draco’s shirt all the way off and moved to his belt, struggling with the buckle with his fingers trembling so—until Draco reached down to help him, and Harry could only sit back and try and fail to catch his breath while Draco unbuttoned his trousers and shimmied out of them as sensuous as any snake. Harry ran his hands over his thighs, and watched the Quidditch-toned thighs contract at his touch. I remember this, he thought.

The first time, there had been more terror around them than not. His dreams had been his only escape from horcruxes; he did not learn until later what an escape he’d been for Draco. This time, there was terror of a different kind. It was strange to theoretically still be a virgin while knowing intimately the sharp, fit planes of another man’s body, while knowing what made him writhe and how his prick looked aroused and heavy against his belly.

Harry curled his fingers over the band of Draco’s pants and slid them slowly down, watching Draco’s face for any sign of reluctance. There was none, and that alone nearly killed him. He felt the fabric give as it exposed him and his cock sprang free. He looked down. Seeing it here was thousands of degrees more arousing, more intimate.

“Are you sure?” he said.

Draco’s mouth parted; he bit his lip. “You asked me that once...before.” ‘Before’ was such a long, long time ago, Harry thought.

Like the slow and roaring acceleration of a panic attack, Harry’s heart thundered. “Yeah,” Harry said, unaccustomed to the strange huskiness of his own voice. “I—I have missed you constantly.”

Draco said nothing, but reached up and pulled Harry back down, and Harry went willingly—unable to endure the great ache of kissing Draco, how it made his chest feel full to bursting, but unable to endure the ache of absence either. Where Draco’s fingers splayed across his back, slid over the soft grooves of his ribs, his skin burned with want. He leant up and over the side of the bed to reach into the side table he shared with Ron for the last vial of slickening serum. It was half-empty, but it would do. He emptied into his hand and warmed it between his palms. Draco’s eyes went half-lidded; he said, “What are you doing?”

Harry took Draco’s prick in hand and ran his hand slowly up, coating his shaft with lubricant. “Exactly what it looks like.”

Draco gasped at the sensation, and Harry repeated the movement several times, fascinated by the arch of Draco’s neck as he tossed his head back in pleasure. When Draco’s writhing became too much for him to withstand, he reached back and slicked himself up. The angle was awkward; he’d only done this once before, and that asleep. He was trembling in nerves and want, maybe fear, a bit. There’d been that time when he’d done this to Draco, and the whole thing had been so hot and fast, chaotic and disjointed as dreams often were, and he knew Draco would let him again, here, now, but there was something so painfully intimate about having someone else within him. That, now, was what he wanted.

He spread his fingers, stretching himself. The aching burn of it was new but bearable. He bit his lip hard, watching Draco’s face redden as he realized what was going on. He pushed himself up on his elbows and watched, fascinated, as Harry slid his fingers in and out.

“Does it hurt?” he asked huskily.

“A bit.” An understatement if ever there was one.

His grey eyes cut back up to Harry again. “You don’t have to.”

“I want to,” Harry said. Then, “I’m ready.”

Draco took his hips and guided him forward. He felt the heat of Draco pressing against him; he pressed back, down, gasping at the shock of it, how it burned as he was stretched open. He clenched his fingers over Draco’s hands, and let himself sink down.

When he was there, he breathed. Draco twitched beneath him, and he grinned, smug with his accomplishment. He opened his eyes to find Draco smirking back up at him. He began to move; Draco inhaled sharply, his fingers dug into Harry’s hips.

“What was it like?” Harry said. “When we...”

“Transcendent,” said Draco. “Painful.”

“Even in a dream?”

“True to life, I think,” he said. He was breathing very rhythmically, very artificially. “What is it like now?”

“Those things,” Harry murmured. “More.”

He leant back to rest his hands on Draco’s thighs and yelped at a sudden new sensation. He canted his hips forward and did it again. “God,” he breathed. As he became used to the sensation and his body adjusted to it, it became easier to move. He thrummed with pleasure each time he slid up and sank down again. It wasn’t long before he lost himself in it and the feeling of this togetherness with Draco. He tossed his head back and closed his eyes, trying to remember every sensation.

So wrapped up in the moment, he didn’t immediately notice when Draco’s hand left his hip, until he felt it again wrap around his cock. He jumped in surprised pleasure, and Draco moaned at the sensation of him clenching around him.

“What are you doing?” Harry managed to get out.

Draco’s slicked fingers slid around his shaft with a little twist. He grinned at Harry’s panting breaths. “Exactly what it looks like,” he said, smirking.

“Oh, god,” Harry moaned. The dual sensation of Draco within him and without was almost too much to bear. His movements became unsynchronized and jerky. Draco brought him close and then slowed his hand, moving it back to Harry’s hip to guide himself more deeply in. Harry trembled on the edge, achingly close, as Draco moved within him. He bent forward, leaning over close enough to press his bitten lips against Draco, feel the heat of his breath panted against his mouth. Suddenly, Draco pressed up against him, slid his tongue in Harry’s mouth, and brought a hand around his back to pull him close. Harry thought he might die.

“I have thought of this,” he whispered into Harry’s mouth. “I know you thought I didn’t, but I have. I have.”

Harry shut his eyes fiercely, afraid to even look at Draco in case he lost himself completely. “Really?” he said.

“Relentlessly,” said Draco. “You are—just...more than I can endure.”

“Don’t leave again,” Harry begged.

“I—,” said Draco. Harry could feel him swallow down the fear of love. “I won’t,” he said. “Not again.”

“It was real,” Harry said desperately.

“Yeah,” Draco gasped. “It was. It is.” His hand came around Harry’s prick again and the achingly slow slide of it up and down was startlingly good. Draco’s erratic breaths signified he was just as close as Harry, but again he stopped, even slowing his hips to barely there thrusts.

“Please,” Harry bit out. “I’m so close.”

Draco pulled him close again. “Wait,” he said, breathing heavily against Harry’s hair. “Just...I don’t want it to be over yet.”

Harry shuddered. He moved his hips as slowly as he could manage, and tried to calm his body down. “Please,” he said again. Even this slowly, even without Draco touching him, he was close—too close. And then Draco was touching him again, and he nearly died from it. Every stroke of Draco’s hand was electrifying; every cant of his hips was startlingly fantastic.

All too soon, he felt himself tensing, close. Draco noticed, and thrust faster. “Fuck,” he panted. “Harry—god.”

“Yes, yes,” Harry panted. “Don’t stop—oh, god!” A final twist of Draco’s hand and he lost it, coming all over Draco’s fingers and belly. He’d been so tense, so worked up, from all of Draco’s stopping and starting that it was almost too much—a hundred times better than anything he’d ever felt. Draco pounded up into him harder and faster, and didn’t stop stroking him, and he curled his toes and clenched his fingers, gasping at the sensation overload.

Draco jerked and stilled, his fingers dug into Harry’s hip and stilled on his cock. “Harry!” he said.

Harry slumped down onto Draco, breathing heavily. Their chests slid against each other, damp and hot with sweat. The after-effects of sex were perhaps not the most romantic he thought, as Draco pulled out of him. Still, he would not trade it for anything. There was something very intimate in allowing this, in liking it.

He laid his head against Draco’s chest, eyes closed, and listened to his heartbeat slowly slow. He’d heard it before—many times—but those had been in his dreams, and nothing compared to this...to the collection of sensation and feeling that came with his body and Draco’s body, and the fact of what they’d just done.

He fell asleep and though he dreamt, they were not the dreams of before—and this time, the reality of the waking world was so much better.

ɤɣɤ

In the morning, they woke early, pushed their few holiday gifts aside, and dressed amid the dim light and intense reflections of their eyes in it.

The way to Professor Snape’s office was cold, except for the warmth of Draco’s hand in his, and his body next to Harry’s. They met no one in the halls, and the minutes between Gryffindor and the dungeons were almost enough to stabilize the heavy happiness pounding in Harry’s veins.

“The base of a lion,” Draco said as he held the Cup out for Snape. “It must be King Arthur’s Grail. It must be what Merlin tied his first wards to.”

Snape took it to his workstation and cast hundreds of spells at it, each giving the same questionable result as the one before. “Impossible to know,” said Snape. “There’s none of Arthur’s blood left alive. We can’t test for a familial match.”

“We could get it from his grave,” Harry said.

Snape’s lips curled. “And I suppose you know precisely where that is? When fifteen hundred years of scholars have been unable to locate it?”

Harry shrugged awkwardly. “Avalon?”

“Oh, Avalon, of course,” Snape said snidely.

“Avalon’s lost, Harry,” Draco said quietly. “It died before even the Founders.”

“No one knows where it is?” Harry said. “Really?”

“Really,” Snape drawled.

“Oh,” said Harry. “Not Glastonbury then?”

“Why on earth would it be in Glastonbury?” said Draco. “Nothing’s in Glastonbury.”

“I don’t know,” Harry said defensively. “That’s just where the muggles say it was.”

“Muggles,” Draco muttered.

“No...,” Snape said. “As much as I despise these words: I believe Potter may have just had an idea that was not entirely worthless.

“Really?” said Draco, a little too surprised for Harry’s liking.

In answer, Snape swept away, flicking his wand quickly over a half-dozen simmering cauldrons. The stasis charms settling into place just as his summoned cloak slapped against his outstretched hand. “Summon your cloaks,” he said. “We are leaving.”

ɤɣɤ

From Glastonbury Tor, they looked out over the moors, half-hidden by the low fog that lay to the south. Draco shivered against the wind and Harry ached to pull him close. A single look at Snape’s forbidding visage killed that thought as soon as it’d come.

“Fata Morgana,” Snape whispered in their minds. So quiet, Harry wasn’t sure he’d meant for them to hear it. “Look.”

“At what?” said Harry.

“The mirage,” Draco said, eyes fixed before him. Harry followed his line of sight, to the fog settled low over the village across the way, and the towered hill behind. “It isn’t real.”

Harry swallowed heavily; the words reignited memories he preferred forgotten. “The...the village?” he said.

“The hill,” said Snape. “The tower...It is a reflection of here.”

“What’s really there then?” asked Harry. He squinted, but couldn’t see through the dense fog. “A lake?”

“Only the village is real,” Snape said.

Harry squinted again. “Are you sure? That’s definitely water.”

“There’s a river running between,” said Draco.

“No, it’s not a river,” Harry said. “It’s a lake.” What was it about Slytherins that was just so determined to be disagreeable. Draco and Snape tried arguing with him for another minute, but he just mounted his borrowed school broom, disillusioned himself, and set off to have a look. There was a very Slytherin part of him that was bitterly smug that they both followed on their own brooms.

The fog thickened as they descended into the valley, but the further they flew, the more confused Harry became. The lake receded as quickly as he approached it, always just out of reach. Below him was damp grassland; before him a quiet village. “It was here,” he said. “I swear I saw it.”

Snape didn’t bother to rub it in. He was hovering above them, peering north into the fog. “We are very close to Cardiff,” he said. “I wonder...”

“Do you think a wardstone could be here?” Harry asked. “Are we on the line? The swirl?”

“Not quite,” Draco said. “It would cross a bit further north. Twenty or thirty kilometres, maybe.”

“Oh,” said Harry. “Well, where’s Avalon?”

“You’re the muggle,” Draco muttered, bracing himself against the wind. “You tell us.”

“Here,” said Professor Snape. He dipped his broom, and let his toes graze along the grass. Water splashed up from it, cold and bracing. “It is land for muggles, but the Lake to us. Potter, you’ll be going in.”

“What?! No!”

Snape wasn’t paying attention to him, though. He was busy casting a series of spells along the grass-illusion, frowning and sneering at the results he was getting. Finally something pleased him, and he shot a quick, but rather good, warming charm at Harry without bothering to even look at him. When he did, his eyes were glittering with dark amusement. “Do refrain from getting lost or drowning,” he said. “I cannot be bothered with the effort of explaining your death to the Ministry.”

“It’s the New Ministry now,” Harry muttered.

“I’ll go with him,” Draco said suddenly. Snape rolled his eyes, but cast a warming charm on him, too. “What do we look for?”

“A tomb, obviously.”

“I’m sure it will be right there out in the open,” Harry said. “We won’t have to search at all.”

“Don’t be pert, Potter,” said Snape.

Harry sighed. There was no winning this argument. He did three attempts at a bubble-head charm before Draco grew annoyed and cast it properly. Which was completely fine with Harry since he didn’t particularly care for drowning. Bracing himself, he slid off his broom, closing his eyes as he did at Platofrm 9 and ¾. He heard the splash before the shock of water registered. Even with the warming charm, it was cold.

There was another splash as Draco followed him in. The water was dark, but clear, and he could very easily make out the grimace on Draco’s face as he adjusted to the cold. They swam down and down, for what felt like hours. There were merfolk here of an unusal variety, perhaps because of an isolated evolution. They watched him and Draco with guarded eyes, blinking rarely. Harry chose to swim well away from them. Even being armed with a wand, he was not a man who enjoyed a fight with a mermaid.

As they swam past a clump of growing gillyweed, the mouth of a cave became visible. Draco tipped his head in inquiry, and Harry shrugged. Exploring an unknown, possibly dangerous, cave sounded like something he would do, and he wasn’t in a mood to disappoint. What little light there was disappeared completely as they entered the cave, and they cast Lumoses to light their way. Like their wand movements, the light was slow and watery.

The cave extended for some time in an unnaturally straight path. It began to curve up at some point and then they saw the faintest glimmer of light. Sharing grins, they swam towards it, and surfaced, shaking water from their hair. An island stood before them, with apple trees so numerous it was obsene.

Harry frowned. “This was supposed to be a myth, you know. Like the Philospher’s Stone, and magic in general.”

Draco gave him a sidelong look. “Are you really a muggle in your head? Is it a state of mind or a lack of magic? With you, I can’t be sure.”

Harry swam the last few few and then hauled himself out of the water. “Well even wizards didn’t know where it was, did they?”

“No,” Draco said as he made land. “But the wards weren’t dying before, either. It’s probably warded against even us normally.”

Harry glanced around, taking in the absurd beauty of it all. “Why?”

“Magic sprang from Avalon, my father says. Maybe it needs to be kept safe.”

The island wasn’t large, but they still wandered it for near on half an hour before they saw it: a tomb of huge slabs of limestone. Apples and horses were engraved all over it. On top, there was a statue of a man on a rearing horse, a sword lifted in one hand. They stopped abruptly, and Harry was sure that Draco’s eyes must have gone as wide as his own.

“I’m not looking in,” Draco said quickly. “I looked in the last grave.”

“But...but surely King Arthur wouldn’t still be alive, too...” Harry said.

“That’s not what I’m worried about,” said Draco pointedly. “I can only imagine what kind of preservation spells the druidesses here put over him. There’s no telling what state of decay he’ll be in.”

Harry grimaced. “Fine.” He marched over to the tomb with more determination that he actually felt. But when he got there, he found his stomach, too, was rebelling. Sliding the top slab over a bit was the work of minor magic. Looking in to get a piece of hair or something else was another matter altogether. He found that he couldn’t do it, so he just stuck his wand in, turned his face away, and said, Accio lock of King Arthur’s hair!

When something soft hit his palm, he didn’t know whether to be relieved or disgusted. He chose not to think about it, but curled his fingers around it and quickly withdrew. When he opened his hand again, a curl of brittle yellow hair lay there.

“Bloody hell,” Harry whispered.

“You got it,” said Draco. It was perhaps the dumbest thing Draco had ever said. He was never one for obvious observations.

“Yeah,” Harry said faintly. “Let’s get out of here.”

Draco nodded wordlessly. Together, they turned and disappeared, leaving the hidden island to disappear from the world all over again. What Professor Snape did with the hair, Harry didn’t want to know. He left the two of them to it, and sequestered himself in Gryffindor Tower—far from once-dead people and long-dead artifacts.

Though the following morning, Snape had a smile on his face that was stranger than Harry had ever seen.

ɤɣɤ

At night, when their work was done—or at least as much as they could do in the day—Draco would fly his broom up to the window of Gryffindor Tower and Harry would let him in, making a show of warming him up from a flight through a December night. He would pull at Draco’s slush-damp cloak and chilled robes. He’d manoeuvre him into the bed and rub his hands up and down Draco’s arms and legs.

And then he’d give up the ruse and just cover Draco’s body with his own, and heat it an entirely different way.

Sometimes, it was like those heated summer dreams, after the battle, whey they could both pretend it was just a dream when they were awake. But mostly, it felt entirely new and raw and like something Harry would never be able to replicate with anyone anywhere, no matter how he tried. At night, he was certain that he could lose his memory of his whole life, and still know that the place Draco carved into him was meant to be filled.

----------------------

Manticoria — Chapter 08

----------------------

In January, the students returned, and the rare, intimate time between them was lost. Across the breakfast tables, their eyes would meet, and the look in Draco’s eyes was so far from the cool looks of September that Harry could barely breathe. He felt his face heat, felt his body respond.

Though they’d worked with Professor Snape every day, practically all day, since Yule, the only progress made was that if the Cup was indeed the Grail, then it would work as the cauldron to brew Manticoria—the foundation, Snape had said—and if it wasn’t, they had exactly nothing to go on.

With the morning of the first day of classes came the news of the first elections for the Wizengamot and the Minister of Magic. Harry was frankly surprised that the wizarding world had gone as long as it had with no one in the post, but he had his suspicions about the Unspeakable and the Department of Mysteries as a whole. All 150 seats of the Wizengamot were up for election—a first in history. There were seven candidates for Minister, each running on a different, but surprisingly plausible platform. Harry knew none of the names, and that, he supposed was a good thing. Better to vote the new Minister in on platform than popularity.

Hermione was particularly bright-eyed as she sat down next to him. “We found another,” she said by way of greeting.

“Welcome back,” Harry said. “I had a lovely holiday, thanks.”

She gave him a wry grin. “You look as though you did.” She cleared her throat pointedly, gestured her quill towards his neck. Harry flushed and wrapped his scarf around his neck. More seriously, she said, “I take it you and he worked things out?”

Harry managed a nod. “You said you found another?” he hinted. “Did you check Boora Bog?”

“We did!” said Hermione. “We took a couple days after Christmas and went round. There’s a standing stone in the very centre of the bog, did you know? Absolutely inundated in runes. They were rather worn down but we believe it was Perthro.”

Harry scrunched his nose. “For vagina?”

“Honestly, Harry,” Hermione said, rolling her eyes. “That’s only one definition of it. For secrecy and uncertainty, obviously. Boora Bog’s supposedly a hub of fey portals.”

“Well,” said Harry, feeling distinctly inferior. “Good job.”

“And the standing stone at the southern tip of Hebrides Islands was a linchpin, too,” she went on, as if they’d never had that little aside. “But the runes don’t flow from Boora Bog to it...we think there must be another one somewhere between them.”

“Where?” Harry asked. “There’s northern Ireland and the Atlantic.”

Her excitement faded. “Yes...I know. We looked around, and we don’t think it’s in Ireland.”

“Well—bollocks,” said Harry stupidly. There were hundreds of miles of empty black water between the Hebrides Islands and Ireland. It could be anywhere, buried beneath all that frigid water.

Hermione sighed. “That’s about the sum of it.”

“Harry!” a jovial voice broke in.

“Ernie,” Harry said. “All right?”

“Grand,” said Ernie, smiling. “Zach said you made progress on your potion.”

“You did?” Hermione said. “Really?”

“A bit, maybe,” Harry said. “Malfoy thought there might be something to Hufflepuff’s Cup being the Grail. We fetched it to check.”

“And was it?” Hermione asked.

“Think so, yeah,” Harry said.

“Zach’s got his knickers in a twist about that, to be sure,” Ernie said, grinning. “He was sure it wasn’t.”

“What does the Cup have to do with a potion anyway?” Hermione said. “You can’t exactly use it as an ingredient unless you melt it down.”

“May have to,” Harry said.

“If so,” Hermione said, “then how would it have been used to set the original wards?”

“Maybe it was melted from the Grail for the potion and put to rights again for safekeeping,” Ernie offered.

“Ernie!” Harry said, jumping up. “You’re brilliant!”

“Harry, where are you go—”

“Later, Hermione,” Harry said. “I’ll tell you later.”

He rushed off before either of them could get another word in.

ɤɣɤ

Pansy was the only one willing to sit on Vincent’s bed anymore.

“I’m fairly certain that those wisps originate from the fey portals,” she said to Tracey. “Have you bothered checking those?”

“Didn’t occur to us,” Tracey admitted. “Weasley’s mum warned us there was one between theirs and the Lovegoods, though.”

“Might be worth looking into,” Pansy said, grimacing. “I think we saw one over hols, when Granger dragged us out to the middle of sodding Ireland—Merlin, there were fairies absofuckinglutely everywhere.”

Propped up next to him on his bed, Theo bumped his shoulder against Draco’s. “Heard from Macmillan you and Potter found the bloody Holy Grail. Why am I not surprised?”

Draco didn’t blush by sheer force of Slytherin will. “No sense in reserving any surprise where Potter’s concerned,” he said. “Luck loves him.”

“That’s not all that does, so I heard,” Pansy said, grinning. “Is it true you didn’t sleep in the dorms from Yule on? That’s how Graham Pritchard has it, any case.”

“Malfoy, you slag,” Blaise smirked. “I thought you were saving yourself.”

“For what?” Draco muttered. “Daphne’s sister?”

They all shared an amused look. “Well it’s about bloody time,” Theo said. “Your pent-up sexual frustration was starting to warp the wards in the dorm...all that anxious magic isn’t good for my tailoring charms.”

“How was it, though?” Tracey asked. “Is he any good?”

“Gag me,” Pansy said. “Too much todger in that mental image, to be sure.”

“Sorry I don’t have any quims-in-love stories for you, Pans,” Draco said.

“Not to worry,” she said smugly. “I’ve my own.” Draco was almost certain that he saw her blush, but it could’ve been the low light in his dorm.

“Pansy!” said Tracey, and Draco gave an internal sigh of relief that she’d been so easily distracted with Pansy’s theoretical lesbian exploits. “Do tell!”

“Not a word,” Pansy said. Her smile, however, said quite a bit. It was bigger than any Slytherin had right to display.

“You can’t tease like that and then not say,” Tracey said. “At least give us a name.”

Pansy sniffed. “As if. It’s my fun and my secret. Get your own.”

“Where, exactly?” Tracey said, disappointed. “Weasley’s the only halfway decent looking bloke around not already wrapped around some Hufflepuff or Gryffindor.” She gave Theo a pointed look; Theo shrugged, unconcerned.

“Well, there you go,” Pansy said. Tracey made a retching face.

“Is it true the Bloody Baron is gone?” Theo asked, and the mood of the room fell as quickly as if a Dementor had come in.

“Yeah,” Draco said. “He—the castle just took him.”

“Fuck,” Blaise breathed. “That’s terrifying.”

“Rather, yeah,” Draco agreed.

“We’ve really got to fix this,” Pansy said.

“Manticoria’s our best shot,” Theo said. “Draco, you’ve got to figure it out.”

“I know,” Draco murmured. “I really know.”

When the others had cleared out for bed and Theo and Blaise had gone to clean their teeth, Pansy stayed, hesitating by his bed. “Will he make you happy?” she asked.

Draco shrugged. “I think so. I hope so.”

Her lips pursed, and she looked away from him, eyes settling on the high window and the Black Lake behind it. “I hope he does,” she said. “But--I would do it again, Draco,” she added fiercely, looking at him once again. “If the Dark Lord were here, and he asked me to give up one person I barely knew, much less liked, to save you and Theo and Millie and Tracey...I’d do it quick as a snitch. I wouldn’t regret it.”

He couldn’t help smiling, just a bit. “I know,” said Draco. He held his hand out to her, and she came easily, wrapping her arms around his waist and pressing her head against his chest. “I would do the same for you...if the Dark Lord had asked for Granger.”

Pansy stiffened in his arms, and she let out a small, startled laugh. She leant back enough to look up at him. “You figured it out, did you?”

“I notice you,” he said. “You know that.”

“You must have also noticed that she isn’t interested. She’s quite close to McDougal.”

“Everyone knows McDougal’s asexual,” Draco said. Then added, considering, “Though perhaps not aromantic.”

Pansy shrugged. “What do I care anyway? There’s always a girl willing to experiment with me, especially if it leaves her pure for her future husband,” she added bitterly.

Draco hugged her tighter. What a pair they were, both besotted with mudblooded Gryffindors. It was enough to make their great grandfather roll in his magically-preserved grave.

ɤɣɤ

“Melted down,” Snape said, a mere murmur in their heads. “That would explain why magio-luminescence dating indicated it was formed four-hundred years after Merlin.”

“Do you really think it could be?” asked Morag.

Snape grimaced—something like a thoughtful expression on his sharp face. “Every source we have indicates that it should be. The wards were made to bind the land together, and Merlin was a master alchemist—he would have used gold, and surely something of Arthur’s, as well, to bind the kingdom.”

“Did the Founders add to his wards?”

“To make all of Albion and Lloegyr into Britain would have been close to impossible, would have surely required things of the land itself. I believe Merlin warded the foundations and the Founders built on that to create wards all over Britain.”

“Why didn’t he just finish them up then?” said Zacharias. Annoyance laced every word; he was still miffed about the Cup.

“Working alone, it would’ve taken years,” Hermione, who’d insisted on tagging along, said. “Maybe he just died before he could finish.”

“But it’s Merlin…” said Harry, as if that made a difference. He was a hero.

Hermione gave him a knowing look. “Even heroes die, Harry,” she said.

“Then the Founders took up the rest,” Morag said thoughtfully. “What are the ingredients coinciding with the wisdom of a sphinx, the bite of a shark, and the sting of a scorpion; and how do we ‘make a manticore to make a ward’?”

“Make the manticore, make the ward,” Snape recited thoughtfully. His voice had yet to show any inclination of recovering, but his Legilimency skills were growing even stronger, if such a thing were possible. “That sounds more like Albus than Lucius. Draco—are you quite certain that’s what your father said?”

“Quite,” Draco said. Harry could tell he was bristling at the comparison to Dumbledore, but was trying not to show it. “What progress have we made on the alchemical bases for Manticoria, professor?”

“Very little,” said Snape. “The basilisk parts you brought me did indeed come in useful; I am now almost certain that it will be the basilisk-scale and solstice water base.”

“Solstice-gathered water and gold are extremely volatile together…” said Morag.

“Precisely,” said Snape. “An endeavour this large will require volatile.”

Soon after, Snape kicked them out with strict instructions not to bother him again until they had something useful to say. Hermione called the others on their galleons and herded Harry’s group upstairs for an impromptu group meeting.

“It seems more and more likely,” said Hermione, when they were all gathered in the old Theology classroom, “that Manticoria was the key piece of the original wards. I believe it was used in a strict weaving pattern created along the golden mean leyline in a particular rune flow. I think we should all focus our efforts on locating the missing ingredients to Manticoria, and then determine the order the runes were cast.”

“Figures,” said Ron. He thumped the glass vial with the wisp inside it frustratedly. He’d taken to carrying it around everywhere, feeding it treacle and kippers three times a day. “We find a magical creature that hasn’t been conclusively seen in hundreds of years, and it’s still not important.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure about that, chap,” Ernie said. “Wisps are bound to be dead useful. If nothing else, we could find it a mate and breed a few for your garden. Don’t they keep out gnomes?”

“Yeah, a bit,” Ron conceded. “They’re supposed to anyway.”

“Well that settles that!” Ernie said jovially. “So, how can we help?”

“We need a ‘mind of the sphinx, bite of a shark, and sting of a scorpion’,” Harry said.

“Merlin’s balls,” Ron said. “You don’t ask for much, do you, mate?”

Harry grinned at him.

Hermione said, “We know that the first ward was pinned to Boora Bog, by natural magic. Why there? Why would magic ward that place first?”

“It’s the first major inflection point,” said Pansy, with an air of boredom. Several looked at her incredulously. “What? I took Arithmancy just like Granger. You think I’m as big an idiot as Smith?”

She scoffed. “Please.”

“But that’s brilliant!” Hermione said.

“Erm,” Harry said. “What’s an inflection point?”

“See?” Tracey Davis said. “This is what happens when the Board of Governors is so lax with the curriculum for muggleborns.”

“I’m not muggleborn,” Harry bit out.

“Might as well be,” Tracey said.

“It’s where a curve changes direction, Harry,” Hannah said, smiling.

“Dumb it down for him, yes,” Pansy said, rolling her eyes.

Hannah gave her an amused look, then returned her attention to Harry. She traced her finger along the curve of the golden mean on her map. “To draw out the spiral, you make a series of perfect squares, using the Fibonacci sequence. If you start across from Glasgow and draw a one-by-one square, then a second next to it, then a two-by-two box, followed by a three-by-three box, you’ve made a spiral all the way to the Isle of Arran, do you see?”

“Yes,” Harry said, feeling his face heat with embarrassment.

“The major inflection points are where the squares meet and the curve changes, like at Glasgow.”

“That’s the muggle way, though,” Pansy said to him. “Arithmancy does it outside-in.” She pointed to Azkaban. “It starts here with a thirty-four-by-thirty-four square. Above it, you draw a twenty-one-by-twenty-one square. Those two together make the first major inflection point, right on top of Boora Bog.”

“Oh!” said Hermione. “Really?”

“Really,” Draco said. Harry should not have been as affected as he was by the smirk that came with it.

“That changes everything...” Hermione murmured, flipping through her notes. “If Boora Bog was the first, and not the last, major inflection point, then it’s likely Merlin started warding with manticores in that direction, instead of from the inside.”

“I don’t understand,” Tracey said. “Why the focus on Manticoria if the Founders just made wards out of whatever magical creature was to hand?”

“They didn’t,” Pansy said. “Boora Bog’s were natural wards. The magic of the bog took the merlins and built them into the wards to protect it.” The ‘Obviously’ went unsaid. Hermione was giving Pansy a considering look, and when Pansy noticed it, her face became inscrutable. Harry wondered if Parkinson would ever come around to muggleborns like Hermione or if they would always be so prejudiced.

“That’s brilliant!” Hermione said, and Pansy’s face went red. “Then there must be other naturally warded areas to correspond to the rest of the axiom. Oh, that is so like wizards to put the truth down to a nursery rhyme...then perhaps it was Azkaban next, since Malfoy’s father mentioned it specifically? ‘Make the dementor, make the ward’, right Malfoy?”

“How could dementors be Azkaban if Azkaban wasn’t built until the Ministry was established?” asked Padma.

“The island was holy,” Hannah, Draco, and Pansy said together. Even Hannah smirked a bit at the synchronisation and Harry was sure he’d never understand just how and why the Hufflepuff was so accepted by seemingly all of the Slytherins. “A long time ago,” Hannah added, alone this time. “Warriors faced their fears there.”

“Holy to whom?” said Hermione.

“Druids, of course,” said Hannah. Then, hesitantly, “My father’s a priest.”

“Oh,” Hermione said. She blinked several times and Harry knew that this was not something she’d previously considered. Even amongst their own, religion was a private a thing for many wizards—so private that it wasn’t even studied at Hogwarts anymore. Harry’d learned that the awkward way when Arthur had taken him far out to a remote corner of the Weasleys’ property to broach the subject of a muggle religion he’d heard of. ‘It’s quite all right if you don’t want to answer,’ he’d said, ‘but could you explain to me why some muggles worship an invisible pink unicorn?’

“What I want to know,” Zacharias interrupted, “is where in Merlin’s name are we going to find a Manticore? They’ve been outlawed in Britain for centuries...I’m not sure we could even find one in Europe. You’d have to go to Greece, certainly, and foreign relations with them have been impossible since Minister Black asked the Queen if all Greek princes slept with their mothers.”

“That was four hundred years ago,” Hermione said.

“You are terribly good at maths,” Pansy said. “And yet, they don’t call them Greeks with Grudges for nothing.”

“Oh!” Hannah suddenly exclaimed. “I’ve got it. The first one was made naturally in Boora Bog, the first major inflection point. But the Druids held holy both the island of Azkaban and the Hebrides Islands, both of which are on the next major inflection points, on either side of Boora Bog.”

There was a heavy, thoughtful silence. Finally, Draco said, “Hannah, are you saying the Druids began the wards, not Merlin?”

She hesitated. A moment later, she nodded, decisive. “Remember the hymn?”

Draco went quiet, thinking. “The three sisters,” he said at last. “I remember.”

Pansy, however, surprised them all with a surprisingly melodic singing voice.

“There were three Sisters in our ancient land,

In our ancient land there were three.

And they did dispute which of them should be—

Greatest of all in the hearts of the free.

Oh, first spoke Danu, the Mother of All,

Her voice was as deep as the earth:

‘I give them my cattle, my grain, and mirth—

Freedom without spirit is of little worth.’

And then spoke Macha, the Goddess of War,

Her voice was the roar of the wave:

‘I give but courage, for fear will enslave—

Freedom's a gift given but to the brave.’

Now third spoke Rion, the Light of the Moon,

Her voice was as vast as the sky:

‘I give to their hearts fierce wings to fly—

Freedom is little without holding faith high.’”

“That’s right,” Hannah said, quietly. “I have never made the connection before, but it’s quite obvious now, isn’t it?”

“Azkaban was second,” Pansy agreed. “Then the Hebrides Islands, where the first dragons were born.”

“Why those places, though?” Harry asked. “The druids didn’t know about the sacred spiral, did they?”

“They wouldn’t have, no,” Draco said. “But they were much closer to the magic of the world than we’ll ever be again. The leys of Britain would have felt as tangible to the priests and priestesses as your broom does to you. They didn’t need Arithmancy to know where the ward pins would be strongest or Manticoria to place them.”

“Then where did Merlin start?” Hermione asked.

Hannah studied the map again. “He messed up,” she gasped. “He went first to Cardiff. He was obligated to first protect Arthur. He used the Grail to pin the ward to Arthur at court!”

“But Merlin would have known about the magical strength of inflection points,” Ernie said. “Surely he wouldn’t have been that foolish. Cardiff’s on the line, yeah, but it’s a meaningless point, magically.”

“Merlin was a cocky bastard,” Smith said, arms crossed over his chest as he leant back on two legs of his chair. “He would’ve thought he could make up for it by continuing the wards on the proper points.”

“So where would he have gone next?” Tracey asked.

“Probably to middle-of-nowhere Perth and Kinross,” said Morag. “It’s on the third northern inflection point and opposite the meridian line created by Boora Bog. It would have helped balance the magic. Then probably down to Dumfries at the fourth northern inflection, and back up to the Argyll Forest and back to Arran and Glasgow, and on until the inflections were complete.”

“But that skips London and Hogwarts,” Harry said. “And we know those are part of the ward pins.”

“Yes, they are,” Hermione agreed. “But like Cardiff, London is meaningless. We know the Founders installed those, and others. But—why? If Merlin completed the runeflow of the wards, then there wouldn’t have been any need for it. Hogwarts and London could have drawn on the ones he implemented.”

“Which means,” Pansy concluded, “that Merlin didn’t finish. And we know he didn’t, because we were still having trouble keeping from muggles at the time. The wards would have been unstable until each inflection was warded. He didn’t finish—and they knew it.”

“They tried to fix his mistake,” Hermione murmured. “To complete the wards...but they didn’t know where he stopped or where to start.”

“We need to find a manticore,” Zacharias reminded them. “Does it really make a difference where the pins are if we don’t have the potion to set the wards anyway?”

“Obviously it matters,” Draco said. “Idiot.”

“We should ask Professor Snape about this,” Pansy said.

“And Professor Slughorn,” Morag added, though she looked very much like she wished she didn’t.

“All right—in the morning then,” said Hermione. “Let’s get some sleep. We’ll need it.”

ɤɣɤ

Harry couldn’t sleep, though. In those short, amazing weeks during hols, he’d grown used to having Draco’s body next to his. He found himself staring up at the vacant darkness of his bed canopy, remembering the feel of it almost as clearly as those phantoms had been, when he’d still owned the hawthorn wand.

Sometime after midnight, the castle, satisfied with the safety of its insides and outsides, refocused on him. He felt it first as a gentle but insistent yearning to walk the hallways. But he was tired, and tried to ignore it—he was near to drifting off half an hour later when Hogwarts realized it was losing him for the day and made his bed canopy glow. He thought he was imagining it at first, but no, the velvet drapings over his bed were indeed emitting faint light. Enough to keep him awake.

“Oh for Merlin’s sake,” he muttered. He reached under his pillow for his invisibility cloak and crept out of the dorm. His warming charm was crap, and he wished for Ernie’s superb spellwork as he struggled to adjust to the frigid stone floors beneath his feet. He wrapped his cloak more tightly around himself to ward off the draught.

He followed where the castle led him, by sadly lit torches and slowly moving staircases. Hogwarts took him the long way, seemingly unwilling to spare more magic than necessary on moving the closest stairs or lighting the biggest torches. It was a long time before he found himself in the dungeons by Hufflepuff and all the torches flared bright around a single portrait. He moved to it, exhausted enough to not recognise it until he was upon it.

Hufflepuff in Combat, the plaque read—but it showed more than that tonight. As he approached, the torchlight caught the edge of oil-painted metal, and flashed against his eyes. He blinked, and it changed—Hufflepuff lowered her ruby-hilted sword slowly to her side. Her eyes caught his and held, as serious as he’d ever seen anyone of her house. The unusualness of the portrait occurred to him then—that there were dozens of other people in the scene, and yet all but Hufflepuff were still.

Movement caught his eye and he turned, startled, to see Zacharias Smith walking hesitantly towards him. The torches at the end of the corridor were indeed lighting his way, one by one.

Harry wrapped his cloak more tightly around him and backed up into a nook across from the portrait. Smith stopped in front of the portrait and let out an annoyed huff of breath. “Well?” he said to Hufflepuff. “What do you want? You’ve dragged me out of bed again. Are you going to do anything useful tonight?” Hufflepuff merely regarded him.

“I knew it,” came another voice, just as quietly. Somehow, Draco had sneaked up on them both; the castle had not lit torches for him. Had it known he wanted to remain unannounced? “You acted so surprised when Potter said the castle catered to him. It’s been helping you the whole time.”

Smith jumped, but quickly recovered. “So?” he said, shrugging. “Who cares?”

Draco came into the flickering light around the portrait, his face set in a look of disinterest that few but Harry would know was faked. “No one would’ve,” he said, “if you’d admitted to it. Since you didn’t, I can only wonder why.”

“The same reason you kept quiet about its relationship with you, I imagine,” Zacharias sneered.

Before Draco could respond to that, Hufflepuff raised her sword again and swung it in a violent arc, getting all of their attentions. Her look was fierce, angered. It said, clearly, ‘Pay attention!’

It was then that the battle around her changed, and several cloaked figures turned their heads, their faces illuminated in the torchlight. One turned and her hood fell away; unusually long black hair flared out and caught in some unseen battle wind. Ravenclaw’s sharp blue eyes moved from Zacharias to Draco and settled on Harry, invisible and silent behind them. The other people around them dissolved into nothingness—the battle scene had become a forest, all the people now a dark army of trees.

Two others remained. They turned slowly, limbs heavy like branches dissolving into arms. Their cowls fell back like winter leaves, and Harry looked into the face of the Founders—not in battle, precisely, but certainly at war. Even without violence, it was apparent that the portrait had captured them amid a fight against something. What that something was, Harry didn’t know.

“Is that...hell, that’s them,” Zacharias said.

Helga Hufflepuff reached out with the hand not gripping Gryffindor’s sword, like a mother pressing her fingers to glass, with Zacharias on the other side. Harry watched as he lifted his own, as if to meet her there, and then changed his mind, his eyes cutting to Draco.

But Draco was preoccupied with something else altogether. Salazar Slytherin had moved around Rowena to get a better look at him. He was older here than in the unfortunately carved statue of himself in the Chamber. Perhaps fifty or sixty, he was still not a handsome man, but at least not an awkward one—he’d grown into the overlarge ears and the pretentious beard. Here, he was a man older, wiser, but every bit as sharp as his legacy.

Neither of his hands held a wand or the sapphire-studded staff like the portrait in the Slytherin common room. His hands, indeed, were completely empty. But a bigger man pushed passed him, not roughly, but in the manner of someone unaware of just how overwhelming their own body was to those around them. Gryffindor was half a head taller than Slytherin and Hufflepuff, with wild ginger hair and red, battle worn hands. He flung one of them out, finger pointing between Draco and Zacharias. Confused, they turned, looking right at Harry, though they still couldn’t see him.

He was loathe to show his cloak to Zacharias, but Gryffindor gestured again, this time more forcefully, and Harry let it slip from his head and shoulders.

“Should’ve known you’d be here,” Zacharias said. “Anything weird is bound to have you involved.”

But Harry wasn’t at all concerned with Smith. Godric Gryffindor was beckoning him—him!—to come forward. His house founder knew him, saw him even beneath the invisibility cloak, and wanted a better look. He did. Gryffindor’s dark eyes studied him, then, decisively, he nodded.

Helga stepped forward and drew the sword in a wide circle above her head. Vibrant shots of magic rained from the tip and seared the forest floor. A wide, burnt circle enclosed the four of them, and in the centre, a great stone grew from the ground, pushing roots and leaves aside without care. It towered over even Gryffindor when it settled. Though like the battle around them, it was not what it seemed. He thought his eyes were playing tricks on him, but—no. The stone was moving, writhing.

It elongated, expanded until it was animal-shaped, but somehow still anonymous. The wet grey stone brightened to the colour of freshly oxygenated blood, and dying vines rose up and lashed out angrily, nearly knocking Slytherin to the ground. He dodged just in time, and the vines attached to the edge of the morphing stone. The animal’s tail swished furiously, as if preparing to attack. The trees bent down and branches became horns, leaves became teeth, all seeping up the blood red hue of the stone.

The manticore roared, and it sounded through the corridor as if it had come from the forest itself. The Slytherin stepped up to the beast and any sense of weakness was gone from him. He held his hands up before him and slashed down violently. The beast reared back, screaming and struggling, but another decisive gesture from Slytherin had it pinned and still. It’s eyes rolled angrily and its snout huffed hot bursts of air, like a bull preparing to charge. It bared its teeth at Slytherin and Slytherin was not at all intimidated.

Rowena held a small vial carefully between her hands. She navigated the broken branches and bare roots on the forest floor to approach the manticore. It watched her warily as she neared its face. A sharp twitch of her staff and the animal’s jaws parted. She tipped the potion into its mouth and twitched her staff again, forcing it to swallow. Salazar released its body bind as she stepped away and it roared again, trembling in anger.

Salazar began chanting immediately, though like the portrait of the druidess, no sound emitted from him. Like all of the portraits of the Founders’ time, this one also seemed to have been painted without the magic of their voices. Magic gathered, coalesced from the atmosphere around them.

“Make the manticore, make the wards,” Draco said. “They made it from the forest.”

“No...that’s wrong,” Harry said. How was it that he, of the three of them, was the only one to see what was truly beneath this ritual. Was he that much more cynical than snarky Zacharias and bitter Draco? “You’re saying it wrong.”

“What are you going on about?” Zacharias said snidely.

“It isn’t a ward made like a manticore. It’s a ward made from a manticore. Not make the manticore and therefore make the ward—but make the manticore make the ward.”

“What the bloody hell does that mean?” Zacharias said.

Harry nodded at the painting, where even now the painted magic in the air swirled in blue and grey oil paint, gathering around Salazar and the three Founders supporting him. Suddenly, the manticore roared in agony, and Slytherin sagged heavily, before pulling himself up again. He continued the chant, the manticore fighting violently against its bonds, and then—

—bright red shots of magic erupted from the manticore, unravelling its flesh and essence into strings of magic that flew off great distances. It took a long time for the manticore to unravel, but when it was over, Slytherin succumbed to the exhaustion and slumped. Rowena and Godric fell away, becoming blurred scenes of battle, and leaving Harry strangely bereft. Helga looked down upon the supine form of Slytherin, Godric’s sword hanging limply at her side, and exhaled heavily. He saw the exhaustion in her every breath, and the grief in every moment that she waited.

How funny, he thought dizzily; Slytherin had only fainted. Why would she grieve?

ɤɣɤ

Harry caught Draco’s hand as the trees began changing back into the images of battle. “Do you want to go for a pint?”

“A pint?” Draco said curiously. Harry shrugged. “It’s gone two in the morning, Harry.”

“Oh,” said Harry. “Right. Of course.” How silly of him. He’d just wanted so desperately to hold Draco through the night again. Weeks felt like years sometimes.

A sudden smile lifted the corners of Draco’s mouth. He tugged on Harry’s hand and led him back the way he’d come. Away from the portrait and Zacharias’ retreating back—down the last flight of stone steps to the Slytherin dungeons, where the air grew thick with damp and the faint smell of seaweed.

Harry didn’t catch the Slytherin password beyond a vague recognition that it contained many sibilant sounds, but the hammering of his heart was clear enough in his ears. The common room was as low-ceilinged and desolate-feeling as he remembered it from second year, and just as empty. The silence stretched ominously; the only sound a faint sloshing of water moving against the great picture window looking into the Black Lake. It was terrifyingly claustrophobic, but Draco led him through without any regard to what would have felt like being drowned by any muggle.

The Slytherin eighth years had their own wing, with the boys’ dorm on one the left, and the girls’ on the right. Draco unlocked the door and it swung silently open. The extreme lack of soft snores coming from any of the bed curtains was more startling than if he’d walked in on them all awake. In Gryffindor, no one silenced their bed. He wasn’t even sure he’d be able to sleep without the sounds of another person in the room. Draco held open the curtains around the bed closest to the door and Harry slipped in, feeling the boundaries of the silencing spell pass over him.

“I would have thought you would demand the best bed in the dorm,” Harry said, when Draco crawled in and settled the curtains back in place.

“This is the best bed,” said Draco, brows scrunched.

“By the door?” Harry said, disbelief evident.

“Yes?” said Draco. “Doesn’t everyone want to be closest to the escape route?”

Harry fought a grin. “Oh, right,” he said. Before he could say any more, Draco was pressing a hand to his chest and forcing him down on his back.

“A pint, really,” he murmured as he leant down to trail his tongue against Harry’s lips. “Surely I deserve a better line.”

Harry arched into him, his fingers already clawing at the unnecessary buttons on all of Draco’s dandy clothes. “Yes,” he agreed. “Always.”

“My, you’re quick to agree,” Draco said. “I wonder what it would take to keep it up. It could turn out quite profitable for me, I think.”

Harry nipped at his lip. He somehow managed to undo the buttons on Draco’s trousers and slip a hand inside. “I wonder…” he agreed, grinning. He curled his hand over Draco’s bum and gave it a squeeze. “Why don’t you try and find out?”

Draco positively purred. His fingers started working on Harry’s shirt buttons right away, and he was certainly a better hand at it. The cool air of the dungeons rushed over Harry’s bare skin as his shirt fell away—all the more chilly for the heated state of his skin. Draco worked steadily down, but at his trousers, he looked up at Harry with a wicked smirk and bent his head to undo the buttons with his teeth instead.

He tugged insistently and Harry obligingly lifted his hips and let his trousers and pants be slid down his thighs. Draco tossed them to the end of the bed and bent down again but paused before taking Harry in his mouth. His breath ghosted hot and damp against Harry’s straining prick, and Harry ached to arch into that wet heat. He refrained by sheer force of will. When Draco finally lowered his mouth, it was to run his tongue along the crease where Harry’s thigh met his groin. He gasped, but even that was nothing compared to the hair-raising sensation of Draco softly blowing on the path his tongue had taken, leaving chills and tingles in his wake.

He trailed his tongue all around, but avoided the place he needed to feel Draco the most. His thighs clenched and trembled with restrained need every time Draco’s tongue circled his balls or he sucked one into his mouth, leaving it wet and chilled when it was released.

“Please,” Harry rasped. He lifted himself up on his elbows to watch, and was nearly undone by the sight of it.

“Please, what?” Draco murmured, barely pausing to get the words out before his mouth was again teasing everywhere but Harry’s aching cock.

“Anything,” Harry begged. “Please.”

Draco didn’t respond right away, just urged Harry’s knees up and settled in for what appeared to be a very long, very dedicated torture session. But then he dipped his head lower, and his tongue pressed against Harry’s perineum, making him jump.

“Wha—what are you doing?”

“Shut up,” Draco murmured before pressing his tongue even lower, circling Harry’s arse. Harry gasped, his whole body lighting up with tingles.

“You do like this, don’t you?” Draco said, pleased. “I knew you were a bit of a slag on the inside. Perfect Prudish Potter isn’t such a prude after all, are you? Tell me, do you like it, Harry?”

Harry whimpered. Draco slid a third finger in, curling them up to rub against his prostate.

“I didn’t hear you,” Draco said.

“Yes!” Harry managed. “I do.”

“Tell me you like it,” Draco said. “Tell me what you like.”

“I like your fingers in my arse,” Harry gasped, writhing against the movement of said fingers. He was so close—had been on the edge for positively eons.

“And?”

“And when you eat my arse,” he gasped. “And when you shove your prick in me and fuck me against the bed, and when you swallow my cock and suck me dry, and when you sit on my dick and wank yourself off while you ride me, and—,”

Draco’s mouth descended on him, swallowing him to the hilt. Harry’s head fell back, his chest heaving with the struggle to not pass out from overstimulation.

Three fingers in him and Draco’s mouth wrapped around his cock, Harry couldn’t take it any longer. He came violently. Draco suckled him gently as he came down, until it was too much to bear, and then crawled up Harry’s body. He straddled Harry’s chest and raised himself on his knees to present his hard, pink cock in front of Harry’s mouth.

“Take it,” he said. Harry did—with great enthusiasm. Draco slid his fingers into Harry’s hair, pulling his mouth further down onto him. Harry looked up through his sweat-soaked fringe, surprised to find himself getting hard again. Draco’s chest heaved delightfully. Harry slicked his fingers with a wordless spell and trailed them from Draco’s perineum up, then back down again, circling his hole. He slid one inside, stretching him.

Draco arched into it, fucking himself down onto Harry’s fingers, and back into his mouth again. Harry relaxed his throat, and let him slide into it the next time he came up. Breathing past his gag reflex became a thousand times easier when Draco’s eyes snapped open, wide with surprise. Harry met them, and began to hum, all the while fucking Draco’s arse with two slick fingers.

“Fuck, fuck!” Draco gasped. He came hard. Harry felt the thick spurts of semen sliding down his throat, and struggled not to choke. His eyes watered from it, but he held on all through Draco’s orgasm, only giving in when Draco pulled out.

Harry smirked at him. “Like that, did you?”

Draco flopped down beside him, smiling. “Yeah, a bit.”

“A bit?” Harry said, gaping. “A bit?”

Draco smirked at him. “Go to bed. We have a runeflow sequence to uncover in the morning.”

----------------------

Manticoria — Chapter 09

----------------------

The morning of Imbolc, the special edition Prophet came at breakfast, and with it, a stunned silence that rippled across the Great Hall with startling speed. Across the room, at the Ravenclaw table, Morag let out a little shriek, and jumped up from the table. She ran from the room before anyone could even react.

Hermione had yet to remove her hand from her mouth. Her other hand remained hovering over the toast platter as her eyes read the news again and again. “Bloody hell,” Ron whispered, leaning over Harry’s arm to read from his paper. He swallowed audibly. “I never thought.”

Harry was surprised to find his hands were trembling as he set the paper aside. “Nor me. I—we were supposed to find the runeflow sequence today. It was going to be fine.”

He spared a look at Ron and saw that his best mate’s hands were trembling very slightly. Unlike Harry, Ron had nowhere to run to if things became bad. He didn’t know how to operate in the muggle world. He knew nothing but this one. “It will be fine,” he said instead.

Ron gave him a shaky nod. “‘Course,” he said. Abruptly, he stood, and walked stiffly away. His breakfast remained unfinished.

Hermione’s gaze on him was heavy. He felt the weight of it as if it were tangible, and when he looked over and met it, some indefinable emotion ran through him; even during their year on the run, he’d never seen a look quite like the one she now wore. “We’re out of time,” she said.

“No,” Harry said, and was surprised at how he almost choked over the word. “No, it’s just Glasgow. We can fix this.” He pushed away from the table and she followed.

ɤɣɤ

The halls were deserted, the faculty and staff sequestered somewhere discussing the climaxing crisis. The students walked in groups, an undercurrent of anxiety ran through the castle like magic itself. Morag and Zacharias stood waiting for them by the stairs leading up to the towers, somehow anticipating them.

“I’m going,” she said at once.

“You can’t,” said Hermione.

Morag ignored her. “We have to find the wardstone. We have to find all of them.”

“She’s right,” said Zacharias. “We’re out of time.”

“Fine,” said Hermione. “But we’ll go in groups.”

“We?”

“Obviously it will take more than one person. We’ll split up into our original teams.”

Morag bit her lip, but was nodding. “Good,” she said. “That’s good. We’ll go to Glasgow.”

Harry waited for Zacharias to make some excuse and bow out, but he only nodded, just as solemn as the rest of them. The sound of footsteps alerted them to the Slytherins and Hannah arriving. “When do we leave?” asked Hannah.

“Right away,” said Hermione. “We’ll start in Perth and Kinross.”

“We’ll take London,” said Tracey. “It’s bound to be somewhere near the Wall.”

“Ron’s...” Hermione began to say, but stopped. “He’ll be down shortly. Why don’t we go get ready and meet in a half hour?” With that agreed, the others trundled off to gather cloaks and brooms and first aid potions and anything else that might be useful. Left alone in the echoing Entrance Hall with Draco, Harry found that he was beginning to panic—a wholly unusual feeling for him.

“I think I’m panicking,” he said. “I was fine a moment ago, and now I’m...”

“Surely that’s acceptable at this point,” Draco said. He swallowed heavily. Harry saw the Slytherin training of his youth kick in as he forced down his own anxiety.

“I just wanted to be happy with you,” Harry said. “I’ve waited forever.”

“Maybe after,” Draco said.

Harry forced a smile. “After, yeah. If there is one.”

ɤɣɤ

Excerpt from the special edition Prophet, 1 February, 1998:

Magical Glasgow exposed to muggles as wards inexplicably fail!

[Edinburgh] Non-muggleborn Wizards and witches are cautioned not to enter the muggle world at any time. Muggleborn are advised to remain vigilant at all time, regardless of how familiar they might be of muggle customs.

The New Ministry does remind muggleborns that as with wizarding trends, muggle trends they may have grown up with may have changed. It is vital that no witch or wizard be noticed by a muggle.

-- Tabby Llewellyn, Sr Staff Reporter, Daily Prophet

ɤɣɤ

They exited the floo at the Glasgow Wands, with the scent of haggis heavy in the air. Even Morag wrinkled her nose as she dusted off her travelling cloak. But there was an air of anxiety about the patrons. Most were gathered around the windows looking out into muggle Glasgow.

“Been there all morning,” said the landlord quietly. “I spelled a glamour over the window to look like the curtains was closed, but it ain’t stopped them, has it? Several of them were trying the doorknob before their Aurors came to rope it off. They’ve been hammering at the door since. Saw the chief come and tell them they had permission to arrest anyone who walked out the door.”

One of the patrons shuddered at that. “Why?” asked Morag. “On what grounds, did they say?”

“Dunno,” said the landlord. “Could be anything. Might try to drag us in on tax evasion.”

“Jimmy here was the first one seen this morning,” said another patron, pointing at a man sat far away from the window, pale faced and staring at the table. “Went out to fetch the muggle paper like he always does, and half a dozen of them came up to him demanding to know where he’d come from. The wards have always let us walk in and out without notice before.”

“Why isn’t the muggle Prime Minister doing anything about this?” Harry asked. “He already knew we existed.”

“There’s the question of the day,” said Zacharias.

Draco was first to turn away from the window. “Are there any other exits?” he asked the landlord, in the voice Harry had come to associate with Lucius Malfoy.

“Not a one,” said the landlord. “Suppose you could apparate out if you knew a safe place to go to. Not sure there is any of those in this city anymore.”

“We can go to my dad’s studio in the city,” said Morag. “I’ll have to side-along you one by one.” She took Zacharias first, leaving Harry and Draco still staring at the muggles milling around on the pavement outside the Glasgow Wands.

“What if we don’t figure it out?” Harry asked. Draco was silent for a long moment. Harry wasn’t sure he would even answer. When he did, his voice was pitched low enough to not be heard by the rest of the pub.

“Then we’ll become part of Hogwarts,” he said.

He suppressed a tremble of fear at that. He’d known, yes—but. Unbidden, the memory of the slick, warm feeling of Draco’s skin the night before, filled his thoughts. He could not give that up again, not even to die.

He’d done that once already, and thoughts of Draco had kept him from crumbling in fear then. Now, thoughts of Draco kept him from giving in to death at all. Morag returned, taking Draco with her this time, and leaving Harry with a new resolve.

This was not an unsolvable problem. He would solve it, for Draco.

“Ready?” said Morag, on her return. He gave her his arm and let that thought carry him through as apparation sucked the tangibility right out of him.

ɤɣɤ

Morag’s fathered hovered over them when they arrived, reluctant to let her go through into muggle Glasgow. Harry didn’t catch but a few words of their conversation, but he could pick out even a few Gaelic words when they were repeated again and again. ‘Don’t’ seemed to have been popular. He finally left, the green and black splotches of paint on his face making his scowl even darker.

“Why Glasgow?” asked Harry as checked over Zacharias’ attempts at muggling his clothing. “And you need to lower the heel on your shoe, Smith.” Morag did it for him, much to his displeasure, and slid her wand carefully back into the trendy navy jumper she now wore with her grey jeans.

“It’s so close to the centre of the spiral,” Zacharias said. “Maybe it’s the first ward pin.”

“No,” Draco said immediately. His muggle clothing was perfect, Harry noted. Perhaps better than Harry’s own, which was, in fact, muggle-made. “It can’t be the first ward. It doesn’t fit the maths.”

“Where then?” Harry asked. There was a brief moment when he regretted not taking Arithmancy and Ancient Runes like the others, but then he recalled that Zacharias had also taken them, and was still an arsehole, even while being incorrect.

“Likely closer to the Isle of Arran,” said Draco. “Maybe on the island itself.”

“We should go there, then,” said Harry. “See if we can find it.”

“We will,” Morag said. “But not yet. I want to find the ward here in the city first and see what we can figure out.”

“St Mungo’s Cathedral,” Draco suggested.

Morag smiled smugly. “I think so, yes. It’s the oldest building in the city and it was sponsored by a wizard.”

Mr McDougal looked up from angry brushstrokes as they approached the front door. “Are you sure, dearie?” he said. He sighed when Morag nodded. “Floo me as soon as you’re back at Hogsmeade.”

Glasgow went on as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened—on the surface, anyway. Mr McDougal’s studio was only a few minutes’ walk to the cathedral. People milled around Cathedral Square, some looking at the single tomb, others going about their days. A shimmer of magic, somehow still in place in Glasgow, hid another tomb from the muggles. Harry pointed it out to the others, curious, but there were too many people around to have a better look. They continued towards the church, and once they were among the handful of people who believed the appearance of a strange magical pub to be a hoax, they were able to slip inside without much notice.

They prowled the aisle warily, nervous of attracting attention. “Do you think it’s safe to cast a Notice-Me-Not?” Harry whispered.

Draco’s eyes flicked over the others in the church with them, and Harry could see what he was seeing: the people were going about their tourism and their wandering and their worshipping, but they were certainly not at ease. Their anxiety was almost visibly illuminating—it haloed them like an aura, so present was it.

“No,” said Draco. He strode off for the altar and carefully imitated a pose of worshipful genuflection from the person nearest. Harry, awkwardly, did the same. “Can you feel it?” he asked, low voiced.

Harry closed his eyes, lending to the ruse. And with it, his magical senses flared brighter, as they always did. “Yes,” he replied. “It’s here.”

Morag knelt down on his other side, her dark hair spilling around her face as she bowed. “It’s in the crypt,” she said. “Can you feel it?”

“Yes,” Harry and Draco said together.

“How are we going to get down there unnoticed?” Harry asked. A soft, rumbling laugh had them all looking up. Zacharias and the minister were getting on quite well indeed. Even as he thought that, Zacharias looked away from his conversation to wave them over.

“Minister Morris was telling me about the Chapel of St Peter and St Paul,” said Zacharias. “It’s closed for a leak repair right now, but I told him about your desire to pray at every site dedicated to your namesake, and he said he’d bend the rules just this once,” he added, with a wink at the old man and a quite subtle pointed look at Draco.

Draco smiled his polite smile and held his hand out. “Paul Malfoy,” he said. “How kind of you.”

“Not a trouble at all,” said Morris. “It’s always heartening to see such faith in the young. Zacharias has been telling me of your travels.”

“St Paul, Minnesota,” Draco said after a brief hesitation. “I’m just home from it.”

“And how was the States?”

“Mmm,” Draco said carefully. “Rather large.”

Morris chuckled. He waved them forward, leading them on stiff legs out a side door and down a narrow flight of stairs. “I suppose you’d like to get to your prayer,” he said. “Heaven knows we could use some, today of all days. Have you heard of the pub?” he added, as if ‘the pub’ was a recognisable reference to any given person. Today, perhaps, it was.

“We have,” Morag said. “Terribly strange, isn’t it?”

“A good time for prayer,” Draco added. Harry pinched him; he was pretty sure it was sacrilegious for Draco to be having this much fun doing this.

“Devilish, indeed,” Morris said, fishing a set of keys from his inner pocket. He fiddled with a lock for a few seconds and finally got it open. “I’ll leave you to it. Be sure to lock it on your way out. I must see to the new choir master.”

When the door shut again, Zacharias was looking smug. “It’s just on the other side of this wall,” he said, hooking a thumb over his shoulder. “I could feel it upstairs.”

“I could, too,” said Morag. “Is that weird? I think it’s weird.”

Harry and Draco shared a meaningful look. “We could, too,” Harry said. “But we’re linked to the Founders. You aren’t. You can’t feel them at Hogwarts, can you?”

“No,” she said. “Not at all.”

“Are you linked to these at all?” asked Draco.

She shrugged. “I live in Glasgow. That’s it.”

“So did the Founders lay this ward?” asked Zacharias. “Because this cathedral was built at least twenty years after Helga’s death. Morris said.”

“St Mungo is buried beneath,” said Morag. “That was here before. I know because my mother’s descended from—oh!”

“So you are connected,” Harry murmured thoughtfully. “The Goblet of Fire put us together for a reason. Is this it?”

“Could be...” said Morag. “Let’s worry about the wardstone first. Smith, do you think we could just apparate to the other side of the wall. Is it clear?”

“Don’t know,” he said. “Knowing muggles, they might’ve buried it. Could be filled up with rocks and dirt.” Uneasy looks passed over all of their faces.

Harry transfigured a sign indicating hours of worship into a cricket bat and tapped against the stone wall. He pressed his ear to it and tried again. “I can’t tell if it’s hollow or not,” he said. Smith snatched it from him and whacked the wall harder. It rang loudly in Harry’s ear, but he still couldn’t tell for sure. The stone was too thick.

“I dunno,” he said.

“We have to check,” Morag said. “If the ward’s down completely it could mean the others are going to unravel, too. “Let’s draw wands. Shortest apparates in.”

“No—,” Harry said quickly. “I’ll go. I’ll apparate.”

“Fine,” said Morag. “Hurry up.” Harry breathed a subtle sigh of relief. Draco’s new wand was a quarter inch shorter than his own and Zacharias’, and he didn’t want to risk it also being shorter than Morag’s. He gave himself a little mental pep talk, closed his eyes, and turned. As he disappeared, he could not overcome the debilitating fear that this apparation had been much, much too easy.

When he materialised again, it was to crushing pressure and overwhelming dizziness. He struggled to catch his breath, expecting to feel his lungs inhaling dirt and rock—but there was nothing but cold, damp air, thick with the scent of earth and crypt. He coughed, felt his body moving with the force of it, and realised that he was not trapped underneath thousands of pounds of dirt and rock. He was, instead, trapped within the wardroom of a violently dying wardstone.

When he could open his eyes, it was to almost blinding light coming from the stone. The air swirled angrily. The corners of the room were darker than black, darker than emptiness. Everything—everything: magic, light, air—had been taken from the outside of the room to sustain the wards of Glasgow. The central circle, where he now stood, was overwhelmed by a slowly circling current of magic, air, and debris.

He felt pulled towards the stone, and wanted to resist it, but knew he couldn’t. Still, he approached carefully. Since his arrival, the light had steadily dimmed to a more tolerable, though still migraine-inducing brightness. As he got close, he could see the stone beneath the light. It was perhaps eight or nine feet tall and vibrating with magical energy. Like a dying star, the wardstone was selfish with everything around it. It pulled at Harry’s magic with tiny annoying fingers as he studied the stone.

He closed his eyes again and tried to feel the wards—what was left of them anyway. It had a very unbalanced aura; there was a sense of magic leaving the ward, but none coming in. Harry wasn’t much of a ward expert, but magical imbalance was never a good thing, as far as he knew. On a ward the size of Great Britain, it was terrifying.

He wasn’t familiar with the rune carved into the stone. Draco and Morag would know. He was loathe to bring Draco in this room, as uncertain as the magic in it was. He took another careful step closer and reached out to trace the shape of the rune, hoping to memorize it for them. As his fingers touched the stone, a great shock of magic grabbed at him, holding him to the stone like fingers in an electrical socket. A stampede of hallucinations rushed his field of vision, like a thousand years of memories replaying all at once.

Startled, he tried to move away. His fingers stayed glued to the stone, and he could now feel the wardstone feeding off his magical core like a vampire. Dizziness hit him again with a ferocious suddenness. He stumbled, wobbly on suddenly tired legs. Still, the wardstone sipped from his magic, growing stronger with each second. He jerked back, but found his body slow to react. He curled around himself, trying to apparate, but couldn’t remember any of the D’s.

D like Draco, he thought, and that one memory gave him a brief moment of clarity. He gathered all of his mental and magical strength and twisted as fiercely as he could, disappearing into nothingness. He came out on the other side of the chapel’s door, gasping for breath. It opened right away, and Draco rushed out, and caught him just as he collapsed.

“What happened?” he asked. “Are you okay? Why are you so red?”

“Merlin!” Morag said, touching her hand to his face. “You’re hot enough to fry an augury egg!”

“Light,” Harry said, drowsily. “Was so bright. Like a supernova.”

“A supernova in a ward room?” Zacharias said, wrinkling his nose. “Are you going to die, Potter? Can you wait ‘til we’ve re-warded Britain?”

“It’s a wonder he didn’t splinch himself,” he heard Draco say, as if from underwater. “We need to get him to a healer.”

“He’ll live,” Zacharias said. “He always does.”

“Smith, I swear to Dagda, I will—,” Draco began.

“I hate to agree with Smith,” said Morag, “but we have to check the terminal wardstone. We need to go to Arran.”

“He’s barely standing—!” Draco whispered harshly. “He can’t apparate.”

“Then side-along him, obviously,” said Morag. “We have to get out of here. Even the muggles must’ve felt that surge of magic.” Even as she said it, Harry could hear footsteps rushing down the steps. Draco made a frustrated, terrified sound in the back of his throat. Drunkenly, Harry leant further into him and kissed his throat comfortingly. Draco only held him tighter.

“Fine,” he said. “Where?”

“Machrie Moor,” said Morag. “The standing stones.”

He felt Draco nodding, and then, yet again, he was twisting into the black abyss of apparation. And when he came out of that, somewhere on the Isle of Arran, he promptly passed out in Draco’s arms.

ɤɣɤ

“I see the stones,” said Smith, “and I see the grass. What I don’t see is a hint of magic anywhere.”

McDougal was kicking at the dirt as if it would scare up some magic. Harry—Harry was laid out on the grass, still out cold. What had he seen in there, Draco wondered. Briefly, he entertained the thought that Harry might die from this, like the ward might have taken enough of him that he couldn’t come back from it. Like the Bloody Baron. Angrily, he pushed that away.

“This is exactly the coordinates, according to our Arithmancy,” said Draco, refocusing. He cast another location spell to confirm. They were definitely in the right place. Smith snatched the list of sites from him and scanned it with a skeptical scowl on his nouveau riche face. Draco sneered at him, but he was too middle class to notice.

“Mary and Morgana,” Smith muttered sourly. “He’s bloody right.”

“Well, where the fackin’ hell is the fackin’ ward!” McDougal yelled. She kicked the grass, as if that would help anything anywhere at all.

“It should be this one,” said Draco. The stone he pointed to was taller than the others, though just. Moss grew up the sides, straining for the sun. At the top, well out of reach, was a rune.

“Can you tell what that is?” Morag asked. “I can’t see it clearly.”

“No,” said Draco. “Shall I levitate you?”

She bit her lip, hesitating. “I don’t want to risk magic out here,” she said. She tipped her head behind them, where Harry still lay. Draco’s fingers clenched around his wand of their own volition. Harry would be fine.

“Of course,” he said instead. “I’ll give you a lift.”

This she did agree to, and stepped into his interlocked fingers to reach up to the top of the stone. “Eihwaz!” she called down. He lowered her again. “Definitely,” she added.

“No manticores anywhere,” Zacharias said. “You’d think there’d at least be a hint of one.”

At this, Morag’s face fell. “Yes—you’d think. We’re nowhere closer to figuring out why Glasgow fell than before.”

“Let’s just go check the other one and go back,” said Smith.

“I need to take him to Pomfrey,” Draco said. “He’s been out for twenty minutes now.”

“Smith and I will go then,” said Morag, looking unhappy with the prospect. Draco, frankly, didn’t care. He gathered Harry up and apparated them back to the gates of Hogwarts without delay. He was only halfway up the gravel drive before McGonagall was rushing out, green cloak flying behind her.

“Mr Malfoy!” she yelled. “What is the meaning of this? Why do I look out of my window to see one student sneaking in with another student unconconscious?”

“It’s Potter,” he said. “He needs Pomfrey. Bad apparation.”

“Goodness me,” muttered the Headmistress. “Doesn’t he just have a knack for it?” Trouble, he assumed. “Well, get him in, get him in.”

ɤɣɤ

Manticores, always manticores. Big, red, fierce ones with keen eyes and swishing scorpion tails. They had long snouts like a greyhound that looked unnervingly human from straight on. Their lips pulled away in anger as they growled low in their throats. It was perhaps more of a subdued roar, for even their growls were deep and fierce. When they walked, their long bodies swayed liked heavy lizards, strangely poetic in their movements. Their tails curled up and around, stinger poised for strike. The blades along their spines oozed shiny, viscous poison.

All of them stared up, prowling back and forth, waiting. Fights broke out among them, but they were only brief scuffles. There was only one who could hold their attention right now—and that someone was Harry. As if from far away, he channelled magic continuously and knew that it was not enough. Others gave their own in help, and yet still…

...still, it was not enough.

----------------------

Manticoria — Chapter 10

----------------------

For a moment, when he woke, he saw red through the eyes of a beast, but when he blinked, it was gone. He groaned. Everything ached. He felt drained, quite literally. Someday, when he had energy, he would worry about that.

“You’re awake,” he heard. Then, belated, as if said to oneself: “Obviously.”

Harry rolled to face Draco. The smell of hospital sheets filled his nose. “I set the ward,” he said, surprised at the scratchiness of his voice. “And then I died.”

“What?” came another voice, startled. “Harry? Are you quite all right?” He thought for a moment that his eyes were out of focus, but it was only Hermione’s hair.

“Hi,” he said. She smiled tolerantly at him.

“Hi, Harry.”

“Did he say he died?” said Smith. “Again?”

“Not me, not really,” Harry said. “The Glasgow ward remembers. It showed me.”

“Who then?” asked Morag.

Harry grinned. “Salazar Slytherin.”

ɤɣɤ

Pansy and Theo were giving him sympathetic looks, as they were wont to do when he was being melodramatic. No Slytherin, Draco was quite sure, could do legitimate sympathy that overtly. Pansy’s nose wrinkled with the effort.

She said, “But you said he woke up.”

“He’s fine,” Theo echoed.

“Of course he is,” she said, patting him on the shoulder a bit. They both smiled at him. He’d never before realised how awkward it was for them. Or maybe he’d never had anything like this to be upset over before.

“I know,” he said. “It’s just...”

“He might not have been,” Theo supplied.

Draco cleared his throat uncomfortably. “Something like that.”

“And you didn’t get him to a healer right away,” she added. Draco’s lip curled and she held up two hands, placating. “All right, all right. It was just magical exhaustion, Draco. You and I got that in second year, remember? All those Serpensortias after curfew? We were fine after a night in the Infirmary.”

“He said...he said he died,” Draco said quietly.

Pansy’s mouth fell open. “Again?” Theo slapped her thigh and she shut her mouth.

“He said,” said Draco, “that he was Salazar Slytherin and...and he died.”

“Dear Dagda,” Theo breathed. “Are you quite serious?”

“I don’t know what that means,” Draco admitted.

Pansy and Theo shared another significant look, and Draco wondered at how he wasn’t sure if he could still interpret that look correctly. Harry and this blasted potion had taken up the last year of his life, leaving little room for his two best friends.

“How did he die?” asked Pansy, leaning forward. “How long after he left Hogwarts?”

“He never left,” Draco said, still absorbing the information for himself. “He was with the other Founders until his last day.”

“Then what happened?” asked Theo. “Why does everyone say he left?”

“They covered it up,” Draco said. “They didn’t want anyone to know.”

“Why?” said Pansy.

“Because,” Draco said, eyes focused on a snag in his silk bed sheets to avoid looking at their faces. “Revealing the truth would have put the wizarding world in danger. What they were doing was a secret, and how they were doing it could never get out.”

“Are you saying—?” said Theo quietly.

“They were setting the wards at Glasgow,” Draco said. “And casting the spell was too much for him. Something went wrong. The magic started fighting back. He used everything he had to set the ward, even himself at the end.”

“Why him?” asked Pansy.

“Because he was the strongest,” said Draco. He swallowed. He said, “Like Harry.”

ɤɣɤ

Ron and Ernie’s team arrived two days later, with two wisps in two jars. They were scraped and bruised. Tracey’s hairstyle had, inexplicably, become a rather modern bob, which was at least a foot shorter than she usually wore it.

“She’s been gone a week?” said Ron. “And you haven’t heard? Not even on the galleon?”

“We got a Patronus yesterday,” said Harry. “They’re fine.”

Ron looked doubtful. “Did you find anything?”

“Maybe,” Harry said. “I’m not sure what it means yet.”

Ron nodded thoughtfully. “We found the London wardstone,” he said. “Wasn’t much to look at; still working fine, but it was a small one.” He held up the second wisp jar and wiggled it before Harry’s face. “And another wisp.”

“There was something weird about it, though,” said Mandy Brocklehurst. “Between London and Cardiff, the ward magic should weaken, but it doesn’t. It was like there was another ward there, but we looked near Stonehenge, where it felt strongest, and none of those were wardstones. Wasn’t really anything else around.”

“Of course there’s something else around,” Draco muttered sourly. “The bloody Manor is right there, you idiots.”

“Brilliant!” said Harry, sitting up perhaps too rapidly. He was still a bit tired and woozy.

“What?”

“Your house!” he said, rolling his eyes. “It looks out on Stonehenge, doesn’t it? And your dad did say the wards were like a manticore. It has one of the major wardstones, doesn’t it?”

“But there was nothing there,” said Mandy.

“It’s unplottable, obviously,” Draco said. “Do you think Malfoys are idiot enough to leave our property out where any commoner could walk across it?”

“Idiot enough to get tattooed by a psycho,” she muttered.

“Why would Malfoy Manor be important enough to make part of the national wards?”

Draco gave her a dour look. “Why wouldn’t it be? If I were warding England, I’d certainly attach it to Malfoy property.”

“Draco, honestly,” Tracey said. “It’s a nice place but it’s not exactly on the National Registry.”

“It is, actually,” Ernie said. At Ron’s blank look, he added, “What? My dad’s on the board.”

“I just wouldn’t think it was, ah, important enough to house a ward,” said Hermione.

Even Pansy looked considering at this. “Draco, she has a point. You never even considered it before now. Don’t pretend you’re affronted that it might not be.”

“We should go and find it,” Harry said. “We need to see the stone.”

“No!” said Draco suddenly. Harry wasn’t the only one who looked at him askance. “You ca—we can’t,” he said.

“Malfoy if you’re worried about me knicking something from your bloody posh manor, you can rest assured that I wouldn’t. My mum doesn’t care for Ming vases,” said Ron.

“Nor me,” Hermione said, smiling winningly. “I assure you my muggle manners meet the minimum standards for being a houseguest.”

“No, no,” said Draco. “It’s...it’s not that. You can go, Granger.”

“Great,” she said. “Harry and I will—,”

“No!” he said.

“Are you quite all right?” Ernie asked.

“No,” Draco said. “I’m not. And Potter can’t go to my house.” With that, he stormed out of the Infirmary, leaving everyone looking after him, completely confused. Then Hannah and the Slytherins chased after him. And soon after, Harry found the area around his hospital bed rather empty. Hermione and Ron had gone off with Morag for research, and then only Ernie remained. He sat on the edge of the bed and gave Harry one of those unbearably charming smiles.

“What’s wrong with him?” Ernie said. He waited a beat, added: “Lover’s tiff?”

“Ernie...” Harry said. He felt so ashamed, and Ernie wasn’t even yelling at him. “I’m sorry,” Harry said, because, truly, he was. Ernie was so very handsome and so very kind, and Harry wanted to like him so very much...but instead, fate had given him Draco’s hawthorn wand, and he couldn’t bring himself to go back from that.

“It’s all right,” he said, but his smile wasn’t as wide this time. “Really,” he added. He patted Harry’s knee through the blanket. “Now, what’s this about you being Salazar Slytherin?”

“The wardstones remember being cast,” Harry said. “We just have to touch them, and they’ll tell us.”

“I’m not sure that’s quite right,” said Ernie. “I leant against the Hogwarts stone for fifteen minutes while Tracey and Mandy were fighting over which ghost to speak to. Didn’t matter in the end. None of them could talk at that point.”

“That’s weird.”

Ernie grinned at him. “What isn’t, when it comes to you? So, once you’ve talked Malfoy into letting you into his place, what are you hoping to find?”

Harry shrugged. “Not sure, really. I think it’ll will tell us the order. I think maybe if I hold on long enough, it’ll tell us how to make Manticoria.

“Is that safe?” asked Ernie.

“No,” Harry said. “But nothing ever is with me.”

ɤɣɤ

“Any luck?” said Draco.

Professor Snape barely glanced up from his cauldron. Barely a month out of the grave, and his hair was already back to the potion-fume limpness of his former life. “Perhaps,” said Snape.

Draco hesitated by the door. “I wondered,’ he began. Professor Snape eyed him with irritation. “Do you know anything about wandlore?”

“I know not to win one from a headmaster,” he said idly, more focused on the bubbling cauldron than on anything Draco might say. He laughed bitterly inside Draco’s head. “I know not to let a dark lord think you’ve won one from a headmaster.”

“I--,” Draco began. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

At this, Professor Snape did finally look up, already sneering. “Spare me your melodrama.”

Resolutely, Draco swallowed down the litany of apologies he still wanted to make, and instead said only, “When Harry won my wand--”

“What?” At this, Snape finally gave him his undivided attention. He cast a series of stabilizing and stymying spells over the cauldron with an absent wave of his hand and pushed himself up to his full height. “Potter won your wand? When?”

“At Ostara...” Draco said slowly. “I was home for hols.”

“When the snatchers brought the brats to your home?” Professor Snape asked.

“Yes,” said Draco. “Didn’t you know? Harry taunted the Dark Lord about it right before he--oh.”

Snape scowled at him. “Yes, oh.” Staring at Draco so intently, with his arms crossed over his chest, he looked as forbidding as he ever had, even if the greyish pallor of death still lingered on his skin in the right light. “Why did you not see fit to tell me before now?”

“Obviously, you were dead until Yule,” said Draco, finally getting annoyed. Just because Professor Snape had been buried alive for six months didn’t mean...well, perhaps it did afford him some degree of bitterness and acerbity. As if he needed an excuse anyway.

“So,” said Professor Snape, after a long, tense moment. “You’ve let Potter neutralize you.”

“I’ve neutralized him,” Draco said. He liked it much better that way. Snape’s answering smile was hatefully mocking. He’d become jaded in his undeath. “And I’ve won Smith’s now.”

Snape stared at him blankly. The only sign he’d even heard was the faint twitch of his left eye. “You’ve what?”

“And I wondered, whether it would be possible for that ownership to carry over to Harry.”

“You are asking dangerous things,” said Professor Snape. “Why should you want to know such as that? Do you not realize how easily you both could be drained dry if you offered your magic to Potter?”

Draco swallowed. “I feared that could be true,” he said, and hesitated. “But what if it were necessary?”

“Necessary for what?” Snape said carefully.

“The saving of our world.”

Snape considered this for a long moment, ignoring the humidity of the arrested steam curling the ends of his hair and casting a light sheen over his skin. “It is possible,” he said at last. “Dumbledore was convinced that was how the Founders made the wards.”

“Yes,” Draco said. “I think he was right.”

Snape gazed at him narrowly, suddenly devoutly interested in Draco. He stalked forward, bent slightly to stare into Draco’s eyes. He could feel the extra push of Legilimency as if it were only an afterthought to his professor, and by now, it probably was. Never before had he heard of anyone strong enough to communicate solely and perpetually only through Legilimency.

Through some miracle, or perhaps because Draco’s anxiety had always been his best focus of Occlumency, Snape righted himself, mouth pursed at the lack of new information. “I don’t know how,” Draco said, answering the aborted question. “I know only that Slytherin was the strongest; Slytherin was the focus; and Slytherin was the one who died.”

This, perhaps, was the first time that Draco had ever shocked Professor Snape. This was certainly the first time that Professor Snape had ever shown in. “Harry cannot reward every major ward in Britain,” Draco said softly. “He has only me and Smith. He needs more.”

Abruptly, Snape snarled, all crooked teeth and fierce hatred. “Never,” he said. “I will never lose to Potter. I have given enough to this world already.” He turned back to his cauldrons, dismissed his stasis spells with an angry wave. Without turning back, he said, “I will find your potion...though to brew it may kill me surely once more. That is all I will give to you, or to this world. Do not ever ask me to give my magic again.”

But he will die, Draco thought, staring at the stiff blackness of Snape’s back. Then, Perhaps so will I.

With the latter, perhaps he could handle the former.

ɤɣɤ

Pansy convinced him of the necessity of bringing them all to his home that evening, when he was still rattled from his own revelation about the sacrifice inherent in warding and Professor Snape’s bitter outrage. She and Theo huddled on his bed, staring at Draco in concern only a brief breath away from horror.

“Hannah, too?” said Theo.

“It’s the only way I can see that might work,” Draco said bitterly. “And even then...Slytherin had months between wards to recuperate. This is the recasting of twelve at once. He might...he might still die. He likely will.”

“And you think the only way is to...to do this?” Theo asked incredulously.

“Granger could die,” Pansy breathed, eyes wide with fear. For the first time in Draco’s memory, she forgot that she, too, would be in the same danger. He shrugged, because it was true.

Theo sat up straight, jostling Pansy off of him. “Don’t you think Hannah’s been through enough? She fought in the war, Draco!”

Draco looked up at him then, finally recognizing the anger in his voice for what it was. It caused a similar surge in his own chest. He sneered at his best friends and said, “As did Potter. Don’t you think he’s been through enough? He fought in a war and died in a war, and he will go willingly into this one, as soon as he knows.”

Theo looked away, shamefaced, but then he pushed off the bed and strode out of the room. Draco did not seem him again before the morning, when they left for home.

ɤɣɤ

The last time Harry had seen the many forbidding, patina-tipped spires of Malfoy Manor in the living world, he’d been looking through swollen-shut eyes and the narrow, tunnel-visioned sight of a man in terror of his life. He could still feel the painful dig of the snatchers’ fingertips around his bicep, could still hear the echoes of Hermione’s terrified, tormented screams, could still taste the bile rising up to choke him and the tangy scent of hot blood on his hands as Dobby bled out against him.

And yet, he could also smell the antique velvet of Draco’s bedroom curtains—many generations old, but well-preserved; he could hear the ragged sounds of his panting breath as Harry loved him, and the wretched feel of Narcissa Malfoy barely existing in a haze of loneliness and despair that nothing could shake; it had permeated even Draco’s dreams then. He could feel the warm dampness of Wiltshire grass beneath his hands as they watched the Beltane sunrise and remember the singular rightness he’d felt that night.

This time, there was no horror, or loneliness, or lust, but something just as powerful, yet lower--a humid, simmering fear that settled into the skin of their group of twelve and just wouldn’t shake. He felt anxiety rolling off of Hermione almost thick enough to touch. Ron’s face was red with a rush of emotions, not all of which Harry could name. He felt his throat close up just a little, surprised at how much it was affecting him. He’d come here so many times in his dreams, after winning Draco’s wand. He’d never felt afraid then.

The front gate creaked with disuse when Draco spelled it open. The twelve of them came through, hesitant and wary in their steps. Malfoy Manor was like a ghost. Disused, lonely—it reminded him of a graveyard under stasis; the lawns were pristine, but there was a very palpable air of abandonment.

The house was the same. Narcissa had taken the elves with her to Italy. Malfoy Manor existed only in the way the rooms had once been used and lived in; they were now filled with sheet-covered chaise lounges and mirrors that reflected only the anxious faces of twelve students.

“The ward room’s through here,” said Draco, leading them down a hidden stairway off the second drawing room. He sounded like a man walking to his death, and Harry could not figure out why. They still had a chance to solve this; they had an even better chance than before—and Draco, for one, had never been tortured in this house.

“What are we hoping to find, exactly?” asked Padma.

Beside him, Morag rolled her eyes. “Since the Malfoy wards are still working, we might be able to deduce the warding from it.”

“Assuming it’s in the chain,” Pansy added.

“It is,” Harry said. “I’m sure of it.”

In the cellar, Harry’s unease intensified. Best not to think of it. The torches flared on when Draco opened the door at the bottom, just as those at Hogwarts did for Harry. In the centre of the room, the wardstone stood alone. The bare stone walls surrounding it were claustrophobically tight--perhaps only a metre on any given side and not more than fifteen feet in height. The wardstone nearly touched the ceiling; it felt more like the ceiling were sinking down on them. They all crowded into the room, careful to stay to the outside edges.

“Do you just...touch it?” asked Ernie. Draco made a strained noise that Harry wasn’t altogether sure how to interpret. He glanced over at him, only to find Draco looking pointedly away, his face tight.

“Yeah,” Harry said. “That’s what I did at Glasgow.” He approached the stone, but found that he was nervous to touch it. There was no dying-star feel about the Malfoy stone; it was in perfect working order. And yet, he vividly recalled the feeling of touching the last one...like sticking his finger in an electrical socket. Taking a deep breath, he pressed his fingers to the stone.

Nothing. A bit chilly, but...nothing. Drace exhaled.

“Great,” muttered Zacharias. “I spend the day at Malfoy’s for Potter to zone out looking at a rock.”

“I don’t get it,” Harry said. He closed his eyes, trying to focus on the stone. It was definitely still working; he could feel the faint, warm hum of magic radiating from it. But there were no visions; there were no answers.

“It’s still working, though...” Draco said. He squeezed past Pansy to get closer. Harry shifted to the side to make room, but it was still tight. Draco reached out to touch Harry’s shoulder as he moved past, and—

—the world exploded. On the plains behind Malfoy Manor, at Midsummer—they stood next to one another, barely breathing, as the sun rose above the heel stone in perfect alignment. “I do this every year,” Draco had said. “But always alone.” And then sunlight filtered through the stones and muggles, still oblivious of their watchers, cheered. Then he was dying, somewhere in there was Narcissa speaking to him and all Harry could hear was Draco’s name again and again. It was Beltane, and the scent smell of Draco’s skin as he gasped above Harry—he thought then that he would remember this forever, and so far, he had. Easter, or thereabouts: Hermione’s screams pierced his very soul; the smell of fear and blood and the damp chill of a dungeon; Draco’s wide eyes as his hawthorn wand slapped against Harry’s outstretched palm. The images rushed by so fast that he could not comprehend everything he saw.

And then a rush of darkness—unknown memories replaying so quickly that all the images faded into a blur of grey before he could begin to comprehend what they were of. All at once, he was hit with the smell of burning flesh and a roar so loud he shrank back. He felt a shudder run through him; his magic surged protectively, but he was struggling, and failing, and terrified. Another roar, and his vision cleared enough to see the snarling beast only feet in front of him. Its long snout was pulled back—long, fearsome teeth exposed. He thought his heart might’ve exploded in his chest from terror, but somehow he was still alive. He stumbled backwards but something was holding him in place.

“Be strong!” A voice he did not recognise, though it triggered some emotion in him that he did not have time to contemplate.

He tried, but the manticore was devouring his magic. He felt himself being consumed, beginning with his essence, and he fought—Merlin how he fought. His vision was beginning to go black; maybe he was losing consciousness, maybe he was dying. Then the manticore squealed, a dying yell, as of gasping for breath, and collapsed. It’s flesh shot apart, unravelling like yarn in a thousand different directions. In a blink of an eye, all evidence of the beast was gone, replaced by glowing red strings of magic that flared bright and then, too, disappeared.

He had only a moment to catch his breath before the scene was replaying again and again, each time as terrifying as before. He leapt from wardstone to wardstone, reliving each of their births—there was the breathtaking heaviness of Boora Bog’s merlins evaporating into the protection of its spirit; the frightening weight of dementors rising from the souls of fallen warriors to protect fear; the roaring lightness of the hearts of the druids when Hebridean Blacks took flight. There was a startling cacophony of sounds as Cardiff flashed by; then the woods above Perth and a blond-man’s sweat-soaked face in the dying light between the trees; the same man’s proud face looking at him across from the stone at Dumfries; Argyll Forest, and the well-disguised wardstone within it—and with each of those, a reverberating feeling of wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.

He shuddered into a place that was a thousand times warmer, more familiar, safer—Hogwarts’ wardstone and Godric’s crooked, exhausted smile as another manticore unravelled before them; a dozen unfamiliar faces in robes like the Wizengamot watching him nearly dying in London; the standing stones of Arran, and Helga’s fingers clenching his hand as her magic roared into him; the sense of Malfoy Manor; the warding of Glasgow, and—

—suffocating, struggling, flailing, gasping, screaming, dying, dying, dy— Blackness.

ɤɣɤ

Of all the terrors Draco had witness in his life...of all the times his heart had surged with fear...none compared to the abject helplessness that gripped him when his skin brushed Harry’s and the ward flared to life. He watched the lives of every ward take hold of Harry and refuse to let go, and he could do nothing, save watch. Harry became the Warder in all of its incarnations—he was the spirit of Albion and Lloegyr, he was Merlin, he was Slytherin.

The land warded itself with ease; Merlin warded the land with power. Slytherin tried pulling these pieces together with desperation, and the magic fought him until he had nothing left. Throughout these histories, there was a single theme that Draco could not unsee: the manticore was Britain. Its body was the valleys, moors, glens, and fens. Its wisdom was in the rowans of the Caledonian forest, where the best thrushweed had grown under the best rowans. Its bite was the wolves that once prowled the lands, and now did not. The sting of its tail, the curled spiral of the golden mean, swung wildly with every war, and was marked by the poisoned ground from the blood of fallen warriors. These things fused over millennia and what remained was the magic of Britain—wild, and deadly, and somehow viciously protective.

The man-eater, magizoologists called it—in history, manticores devoured people whole. Rarely had a wizard escaped one, once ensnared. But this manticore was different; it consumed magic—and it had drained Slytherin’s until his body could not even sustain its own vital functions.

Draco knew a thousand things in the brief moment when his fingers touched Harry’s skin and the connection was completed. He knew the lives of every wardstone. He knew the way the land had warded itself, and how Merlin and the Founders had done after. He knew how they failed, and how to fix it.

If they could bring forth the raw power needed to reset the wards, they could correct the mistakes of the past. But Merlin had been more powerful than even history gave him credit for, and Salazar had been at least as strong as Harry, if not more so—and he’d had the help of three Founders. The sense of hopelessness that filled him when the wards showed him why it had to be Harry, and him, and Smith, and Morag was iron-like in its heaviness. Briefly, he thought of letting the wards die, of giving up his way of life and safety in exchange for his own life and that of Harry’s, but the wardstone would not let him go until he knew that could not be.

It was over in seconds. He found himself slumping to the floor of his own cellar. Harry’s breath huffed as he collapsed against him. He struggled to keep himself conscious. A dozen faces peered down at him, yelling incomprehensible words. He could think of only one thing, and with it, he saw Harry dying again and again, hissing something in Parseltongue that neither he, nor any of the three Founders, could understand.

And there was something else, something he’d only seen in the briefest of flashes: the wardstone knew how its grounding potion was brewed. It had seen it, tasted it, passed it on. His wardstone knew Manticoria well...and so did his father.

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Manticoria — Chapter 11

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This time, the New Ministry did not delay his request to access Azkaban. He was escorted within the hour, still shaky from his visit home. Trying to focus on keeping his Occlumency shields up around the dementors was difficult; he could think of nothing save the pallid cast of Harry’s skin once again pressed against the white of a hospital sheet. Madam Pomfrey’s face had looked so grim...

“State your name and purpose!” came the scratchy magintercom at the gates.

“Head Auror Kingsley Shacklebolt, with Draco Malfoy, at the Minister’s request.”

There came a bitter screeching as the gates swung open. The island was even more frigid than it had been his last visit here in October. The harsh, February sea gales and the deathly cold auras of dementors permeated the entire island so thoroughly that no amount of warming charms truly took the chill off.

The desolation of Azkaban Island settled deep into his bones as they travelled the corridors to his father’s cell. When they arrived, Shacklebolt waited at the end of the hall, pretending, at least, that he didn’t have an eavesdropping spell placed on them. That was fine, Draco thought; he was grateful for at least the illusion of privacy.

“Father,” he said. Lucius turned abruptly. Draco swallowed down a breath of sadness and sad, “Hello.”

“Draco,” said Lucius, rushing to the bars. He looked just as mad as the time before. His deathly white hand stretched out through the grate and wrapped around Draco’s, squeezing. “You came. I knew you would, I knew you would.”

“Always,” said Draco, and in that moment, at least, he meant it. His father beamed at him.

“It’s the manticores,” he told Draco conspiratorially. “They’re everywhere! Have you seen them?”

“No, father,” he said. “How do I see them?”

“They will eat you,” Lucius sang. “That’s what they do. Eat, consume, devour...they are like dementors, you know...magic made them.”

“Magic made everything,” Draco said.

“No, no, no!” said Lucius, snatching Draco’s other hand in his. “No!” he said again. “Gods make magic, magic makes manticores, manticores make...make...” He trailed off, momentarily distracted by the pattern of Draco’s shirt. His fingers moved to run down one herringbone stripe. “Narcissa...”

“Yes, Mum,” Draco said, swallowing heavily. “She likes this pattern.”

His father’s eyes shot to his, suddenly vividly bright and aware. “Narcissa,” he said again. “Tell her...tell her...love.” Then his face split into that insane grin again and he cackled, and the moment was gone.

“Dad, how do we make the potion?” Draco asked softly.

“Hmm,” said Lucius, pretending to think. He tapped his lip thoughtfully, over-dramatically. “Secret!”

“Father!” Draco said sternly. “Tell me.”

“Merlin called Britain the Manticore,” said Lucius. “Merlin was very wise...”

“So it’s a metaphor?” said Draco. “Is the potion not real?”

“Oh, Draco,” Lucius recited, as if from memory. “So much like his father, poor dear.”

“What?”

“If only he had his mother’s keen eye.”

“Dad...” Draco said, both baffled and a little hurt. Who’d said that, for his father to be remembering it and reciting it now? “What does that mean?”

“Magic made manticores from sacrifices of protection,” Lucius said, nodding. “Magic made dementors from sacrifices of bravery. Eats all the fears left over, all the ones brave druids didn’t need, yes...”

“Keep going,” said Draco. “What does Britain have to do with the potion?”

His father rolled his eyes, as if Draco were the daftest person he’d ever met. “Balance, child! Everything must match! First lesson of magic, Draco?”

“Magic creates balance,” Draco recited.

“Second lesson of magic,” Lucius demanded.

“Wizards exist to correct the imbalance caused by pathetic muggles.”

Lucius shook his head. “No, no, no. Other lesson.”

Draco recited what was in fact the third lesson: “Magic hates meaningless nonsense, and therefore muggles.”

“Yes!” said Lucius. He leaned in, pressing his face between two of the bars and looking at Draco quite seriously. “Magic must balance, must be purposeful. No jelly-legs.”

Draco nodded; no jelly-legs. He remembered that lesson vividly. Frivolous spells could never last forever. Magic tired of them, and would eventually end them. It had taken four hours for magic to do it during his lesson as a child, but still, it had worn off quite without help. “Manticoria reflects Britain.”

“Britain to Merlin,” Lucius said. “Things change.”

Draco thought for a moment, feeling Lucius’ mad eyes on him the entire time. “King Arthur was the foundation then. Magic flourished only when he allowed it.”

“Yes,” said his father, sounding half-sane again. “And?”

“Merlin symbolized him with the Holy Grail, and disguised it by hiding it in plain sight among the family of Galahud of Powys, the family Hufflepuff...Then, wisdom?”

“England is wise,” said Lucius softly. “Magic is wise. Magic changes, and lets wizards create change.”

“With wands and staves,” said Draco, and his father nodded, his cheeks sliding against the iron bars.

“Some wands are wiser than others...”

“English Oak,” said Draco, “...and rowan?”

“Smart boy,” Lucius murmured. “Always remembers his lessons. Another...for change, dichotomy of life and death? Protection and vulnerability?”

“Thrushweed,” Draco said immediately.

Lucius smiled. “Yes. You know the rest.” He pulled his hands back inside his cell, turning away.

“No!” Draco said, desperately. “I don’t. Father—Dad, please. Help me.”

“Bite, tail, binding,” said Lucius, peering out of the tiny window in his cell.

“Bite, yes,” said Draco quickly. “Of a wolf. There are no wolves in England.”

“There were,” said Lucius. “Muggle hunters could not understand the magic of wolves...”

“They killed them,” said Draco, watching Lucius’s straight back. His hands were clasped behind him in the same manner as he’d so often done as a free man. From behind, he looked sane, normal. For this moment, he even sounded sane. Maybe it wasn’t too late for him, after all.

“Planted wolfsbane everywhere to poison them,” said Lucius. “But there must be balance. Where muggles destroy magic, magic will be born to destroy muggles.”

The destroyers of muggles, of course, thought Draco. “Basilisks.”

“Basilisks,” Lucius confirmed. He turned abruptly, and the wild look in his eyes was deep and unmoving. Draco’s heart sank again...no—no saving him. He should just send that Draught of Living Death. “Now leave me. I have a very important meeting with the Minister in fifteen minutes.”

Draco swallowed. “Yes, Father. Thank you.”

Lucius nodded imperiously. “And Draco?”

“Yes?”

“Tell your mother I have a business trip. I will be gone for a very long time.”

“How long?” asked Draco. And there—that brief, vivid flash of awareness again. Lucius stepped forward. His hand raised as if he were going to reach for Draco, but dropped again as he changed his mind.

“Forever. Please have the elves pack my things. Perhaps a potion for the port-key.”

Draco’s heart hammered in his chest. He knew, he thought. He ached for his father in that moment more than he ever had in his life. What must it have been like to be a man so proud, brought low enough to beg his own son for the release of death?

“I will,” Draco said, but he choked on the words. Lucius smiled at him, the briefest of genuine, sane smiles, and then he turned away again, and Draco was dismissed.

ɤɣɤ

This time, he woke very soon after arriving at the Infirmary. Draco was nowhere to be found, which left him rather glum. Instead, he had Madam Pomfrey clucking around him, and Zacharias and Morag looking boredly on.

“Overexertion,” Pomfrey declared finally, and passed him an extra-strength Pepper-Up potion. “Just rest, and you’ll be fine.”

“So, Potter,” said Zacharias when she was gone. He pulled out his wand and set it hovering between them, where it gleamed dark and freshly polished against the stone background. “Noticed anything weird about your wand lately?”

Harry pulled himself up to prop against his pillows. Zacharias had a very posh-looking wand. “No, why?”

Zacharias pushed the wand closer to Harry. “Try mine.”

Harry’s eyebrows shot up to his hairline. What kind of wizard offered the use of his wand to some random acquaintance? Clearly, Hufflepuffs were even battier than suspected. “Erm—”

“Don’t dally, Potter,” said Smith. “Just try it.”

“I am supposed to rest, you know,” he said pointedly, but it didn’t stop him from picking up the wand and feeling it come alive in his hand. Zacharias’ magic was so different from his own; it was feisty and irreverent and tended to get distracted. At Zacharias’ encouraging nod, he swished it, saying, “Florus.”

He’d once got a single flower from that spell. This time, a dozen white lilies bloomed from the tip of the wand and floated to the ground, looking almost afire in the light of gloaming from the window nearby.

“Do you see what I mean?” asked Zacharias. “I didn’t notice it at first, thought it was just a fluke, maybe I’d just got extra sleep the night before.”

“Having your wands won makes you stronger?” Harry asked. “It—that doesn’t make sense.”

“I’ve been doing some research,” by which he probably meant he’d asked around the Ravenclaws, “and it’s not so much that it makes our magic stronger, it just gives it a larger pool to pull from. When you aren’t casting, your magic is stagnant, but when I cast with a wand owned by us both, and Malfoy too, it automatically draws on you and Malfoy, so long as you don’t need it right then.”

“What!” Harry said. “I don’t want you using my magic!” He looked to Morag for support, but she had her head thrown back, staring at the ceiling as if nothing in the world could be quite this boring.

“Tough luck,” said Zacharias, shrugging. “Gotta share now. It’s the Hufflepuff way. But don’t worry too much about it. If you’re using it at the time, it won’t give me any extra.”

“What if you try to cast a really big spell, though?” asked Harry. “You could leave me drained for hours.”

“I don’t need to cast any really b—wait. Wait,” he said. He kicked the leg of Morag’s chair. “McDougal, you annoying twit, pay attention!”

Morag looked up, but wasn’t as impressed as Harry thought she might be.

Zacharias was fairly bouncing with excitement. “McDougal—remember when we were talking about sharing magic with the won-wands? What if—fuck, Potter, you’re amazing—,” here Morag’s eyebrows rose quite high. “—What if the more wands we have among us, the stronger the spells we could do? What if that’s how the Founders did it?”

“Finally figured it out, have you?” she said.

Zacharias deflated, annoyed and disappointed in equal measure. “You knew and didn’t say anything?”

“I suspected,” she said. “I didn’t know for sure until this afternoon, when Malfoy told us what he and Potter saw at the wardstone.” She still looked perturbed at the interruption to her day-dreaming.

“Where’s Draco?” Harry asked.

“Azkaban,” she said. “He said the wardstone once showed his father the recipe.”

“I know,” Harry said. “When Lucius became the master of the house, it told him how to repair it, if it ever needed it.”

“Well, there’s that solved,” Zacharias said. “Now, can we talk about the wands? Because I’m pretty convinced that we will all died horribly and painfully via muggle if any more wards fail. I think if Morag will let us defeat her—”

“If this is about having a witness to your pathetic testosterone-fuelled posturing, then spare me, please,” Morag interrupted.

“Posturing later,” Zacharias assured her. “This is important. We need a Ravenclaw. The Founders had one, so obviously we need one, too. Then we could reset the wards over Hogwarts, and then they would be stable. The ghosts would rejoice.”

She eyed him half-intrigued, half-amused. “You really think the castle would let you take down its wards just to set up new ones? If that were so, Voldemort would have done it ages ago.”

“I’m a descendent of Helga Hufflepuff,” he reminded them. How anyone could ever forget, Harry didn’t know.

“Voldemort, Slytherin,” she said pointedly. “Potter, Gryffindor.”

“Really?” said Harry. “I thought that was a rumour.”

“You are endlessly exhausting, Potter,” said Morag. “However, I’ll grant that the idea is interesting. I’ll look into it—” Zacharias grinned then “—but we need to prioritize the information Malfoy and the other teams bring back. Finding the linchpins Potter and Malfoy saw today is essential to saving the wards we have now, which is a better option than redoing them altogether.”

“Fine,” Zacharias muttered. “Can we defeat you now, just in case—?”

“No,” she said, standing. “I’m going to the library to look into a book Granger mentioned last week that might provide some insight. You can go try to convince your grandmother Helga to show you how to create a manticore. And as for you, Potter,” she said, rounding on him. “You will rest. I have a feeling we’ll need your magical power very soon.”

She was gone then, and Harry eyed Zacharias, who was looking glum and annoyed. “Where did everyone go?”

Zacharias waved him off. “Malfoy said it seemed like there was something off with the wardstone’s memory. The other teams went to check it out.” He sighed, and stood. “I guess I’ve got an exciting afternoon pleading with a mute portrait again. See you, Potter.”

“See you,” Harry said, but Zacharias wasn’t listening anymore. The hospital wing echoed with silence after he was gone. Even Pomfrey was nowhere to be seen. He curled up around his pillow, and fell quickly asleep.

ɤɣɤ

“Potter,” Snape whispered in his head. “Are you lucid?”

“Hmm?” said Harry. He rolled over in his hospital bed to blink up at Professor Snape. “Yes.”

“Good,” said Snape. “I grow tired of waiting for you not to die.”

“I’m glad you’re alive, too, Professor Snape.”

“Draco goes all the way to Azkaban and you still lie about being completely worthless. Will you let everyone else do the work while you do nothing?”

“No!” Harry said. “I’ve helped! Look at me. I’ve nearly died twice from these stupid wards.”

Snape rolled his eyes. “Nearly dying doesn’t mean you’ve done the work. It only means you’ve nearly died. Or did you mean, you’ve done the work of stupidly almost dying?”

Harry pressed his lips together angrily. Snape had been buried alive for half a year. Harry couldn’t really be snarky to him so soon. Could he? “What would you like me to do? Brew the potion?”

Snape smiled evilly. “Yes,” he said. It was so weird to hear him talking without his mouth moving. The grin looked even more evil because of it.

“What?!” He sat up abruptly. “Are you out of your bloody mind? Have you seen me in a potions lab?”

Snape grimaced. “Yes. And...I understand that I also have you to...blame...for being of the living world. Perhaps you are not...entirely hopeless.”

Harry grinned slowly. “You just complimented me.”

“I did not,” Snape said flatly.

“You did,” Harry said. “Just now.” He hopped out of the bed, a little woozy, but completely unconcerned about that since he’d just witnessed the impossible. He and Snape both ignored that his hand automatically shot out to steady Harry. “Do you know how to brew it yet? Is Draco back?”

“Shut up,” Snape said, already leading him out of the Infirmary. As they neared Pomfrey’s office, Snape peered around to ensure she wasn’t looking, then waved Harry by. Harry choked off a giggle as they exited, but couldn’t help the amusement that bubbled out of him when the Infirmary doors shut behind them. They were in the dungeons by the time Snape spoke again. His eyes slid to Harry briefly, and then focused forward again. He said, “I’ve recreated the stabilizing charm to allow the potion to be brewed in the Cup.”

“Really?” said Harry. “Are you sure?”

“Obviously.”

“Was it the basilisk?”

Snape startled. “Why do you say that?”

Harry shrugged, following Snape into the lab he’d reclaimed from Slughorn...not that Slughorn had seemed to mind overmuch. “Hermione said basilisk skin could stop spells. I thought it might’ve carried over to protecting things in general, like the gold of the Cup from melting.”

“Why did you never mention this?” Snape demanded.

“Seemed stupid,” Harry said easily. He paused, considering. “Is it stupid?”

“It is stupid that you make all of these decisions about to whom to release information or suppositions, and they always turn out to be the opposite of what you should have done.”

Harry’s face reddened, but before he could speak, Snape added, “You are correct. Mixing ground basilisk skin into a base of aqua regia...an alchemical reaction turns it to aqua vitae without losing the corrosive aspect necessary in consuming a manticore to reduce it to its essence.”

Harry considered this, and for the first time, found himself interested in something Snape was saying. “Do you think that’s why Slytherin bred the basilisk then?”

“He bred the basilisk to eat muggles,” Snape said bluntly. At his work table, three different cauldrons were simmering over a low heat. He checked the first two, huffed in annoyance at the third, and then turned to Harry with a piercing look. “Every Gryffindor knows that,” he sneered.

Harry moved to perch on one of the tables. He was still feeling rather weak after the trip to Malfoy Manor. And, guiltily, he thought he should probably be resting. He would have to help set up the wards as soon as they brewed this and Hermione’s team returned with the research on ritual patterns from the Library at Cardiff. “I don’t think he did, really,” said Harry. He shrugged again. “I was him for a moment, when I touched the wardstone at Glasgow...it didn’t feel like he hated a lot of things. It didn’t feel like he hated anything, really. He was just really tired...and really sad.”

Snape’s face tightened in a strange way. His mouth twitched. And at once, Harry realized that he wanted to ask about that, wanted to know, but couldn’t bring himself to actually ask anything of Harry. So Harry took pity on him. He said, “I don’t know why, for sure. I think he was mourning his own death.”

Snape hmm’d disinterestedly at that, but Harry could see the effect it had on him. So like a Slytherin to mourn himself; perhaps Professor Snape could empathize with that...but more than likely, Harry thought, Snape was distraught because he couldn’t empathize. He’d yearned for his own death enough to leverage the odds so heavily against himself. Did he now feel that he was not a true Slytherin?

While Harry watched, he began decanting the three bases into large vials. He was feeling incredibly tired, and he struggled not to yawn while Snape was looking. As the three bases were decanted and Snape left to retrieve a fresh cauldron, the torches dimmed dramatically. That was unusual. Hogwarts tended to give him more light, not take it away. He looked around for some clue, but as he did so, they flickered out altogether, plunging the dank laboratory into darkness. He heard Snape’s projected swear in his ears, saw the flash of a Lumos being cast in the store room. Belatedly, he remembered to cast his own.

He really should have stayed in the Infirmary to rest more, he thought. It had only been a couple of hours since Malfoy Manor, and if Ernie was correct, he’d been knocked out for well on fifteen minutes before they were able to come near him without getting shocked by latent magic. Madam Pomfrey’s Pepper-Up potion had helped tremendously, but...maybe not enough. He slid off the table, intending to tell Snape he would come back tomorrow, that he needed a bit more rest, when his legs gave out beneath him and he slumped to the floor.

“Fuck,” he muttered. He grabbed onto the table edge, and dizzily hoisted himself up. His Lumos had gone out. He wiggled his wand to reignite it. It sputtered and died just as Snape returned from his storeroom—without a fresh cauldron.

“Do you feel that?” he asked.

“What?” asked Harry.

Snape walked carefully into the room, his Lumos dimming with every step. His head was cocked slightly, as if listening, but there was no sound to be heard save the slosh of the lake around them. His eyes slid to Harry once more, and seemed to take in the state of him, for his mouth thinned noticeably. “Are you quite well, Potter?

“I think I need a bit more rest, Professor,” he admitted. “I’m really tired.”

Instead of mocking him, though, Snape’s face only tightened more. Suddenly, the windows near the ceiling spiderwebbed with a terrifyingly quiet sound, and murky lake water began dripping down the inside of the glass. Alarmed, Harry jumped back, towards the door, and felt his legs shaking with the effort. “What the hell is that?” he asked.

Snape only gasped, startled. He shook his head, disbelieving, though what he was disbelieving, Harry couldn’t dredge up the energy to figure out. He swung his wand in a huge arc, and potions ingredients flung themselves towards him, gathering in a compact collection of hovering supplies. “We must leave! Now!”

Harry did not need to be told twice. He turned and bolted for the door, but he was sluggish, and his initial rush of adrenaline only lasted to the end of the first corridor. The torches followed them, snapping off as they passed. Professor Snape, too, seemed out-of-shape, which was strange, given Harry had seen him running nearly every morning since his rejuvenation—and he’d not been knocked flat by 1500 hundred years’ worth of wardstone memories.

He found himself struggling to maintain a jog, and soon the torches were extinguishing well before they reached them. He flicked his wand, trying to call forth a new Lumos, but Professor Snape slapped his hand down, then grabbed it and tugged him fiercely down a side corridor.

“Idiot!” Snape said. “Do not use magic, you fool!”

They rushed through the dark, their footsteps falling heavily against the stones. Harry closed his eyes, unable to see in the lightless dungeons anyway, and feeling so very tired. Snape pulled him onwards, and he followed, unable to do anything but. Snape navigated the labyrinthine dungeons with a keen memory, born, Harry was sure, of necessity when he’d been forced to leave at a moment’s notice, without notice from anyone else.

He was out of breath, and at once it was more than that: at once, he could barely breathe at all, as if his lungs had shrunk. His thoughts blurred, and he stumbled on the second flight of stairs, losing hold of Snape’s hand. Snape swore again, rushing back for him. “Potter!” he said. “Get up, you imbecile! I will not have your death on my conscious again!”

“Not dying,” Harry murmured. “Just resting.”

“Get up!” Snape snarled again, but Harry couldn’t be arsed. He felt cold hands gripping him under his arms and hauling him up—but Snape was tired, too, and Harry was heavy from Quiddich training. He lost his grip and Harry fell to the floor again, barely caring that his head had knocked against the floor. There was an eerie, warm rush of magic and he was jerked upwards by his ankles; Snape made an irritated, gasping sound in his throat, and then Harry levelled out. He was jerked along again by his elbow; vertigo rose in him and he clenched his eyes and mouth shut to keep himself from sicking up.

At last, they reached the side exit of the castle, and Snape let go of him to push at the door. It was stuck. Snape huffed angrily, and slammed his shoulder against it. It still did not move. He held his wand out and swished it furiously, but only sparks came out. Once more, he tried again. Far away, the sound of windows shattering erupted, startling Harry out of his dizziness.

“My Slytherins!” Snape said, and Harry was quite sure he’d not meant to project it. He made a terrible, anguished sound that cracked in his throat, and when he appeared to make a decision, it looked as though he would rather die. He turned to Harry. “Disarm me.”

Harry nodded drowsily, at the point where he could not think past the consequences of his actions, and only did as he was told. “Expe—Expelliarmus,” he murmured.

“Like you mean it, you incompetent failure of a wizard!” Snape snarled. He hit Harry with a stinging hex. It was weak, but enough to snap some anger into him.

“Expelliarmus!” he yelled. Snape’s wand slammed into his hand, hot and angry against his palm. Even his wand hated him, even while it acknowledged Harry’s ownership of it.

“You must be quick,” Snape began in a hurried voice. “We will have but one chance before the castle figures out what we’re doing and stops us. I cannot cast this wordlessly, so you must do it. When I say, cast the spell.” A rush of images and knowledge flooded his brain, giving him a month’s worth of lessons in a single Legilimentic transmission. Snape’s cold fingers wrapped tightly around his free wrist, funnelling hot, angry magic into him, and Snape said, “Now!”

Harry cast. The door exploded outwards, a thousand tiny shards of stone flying away from them. Below, the Black Lake churned angrily in the dying, grey light. Only a narrow stone path built against the back side of the castle separated them from a fifty-foot drop into rocky waters.

Snape snatched his wand back. “Run to Hagrid’s. Have him take you to your family’s—”

“What?!” Harry said.

Snape growled brokenly; Harry would swear he could hear the man’s scarred vocal chords snapping. “Then to Granger’s parents’ house, or Merlin, even to mine! Get as far away from magical places as you can. Now, go!” He was shoved outward, and only a belated pull of magic from Snape saved him from stumbling over the edge. And then Snape disappeared back inside, running faster than Harry had ever seen him run.

He rushed down the stone path as quick as he could, feeling unaccountably stronger now that he was outside of the castle. When he reached the grounds, he sprinted. Hagrid was working outside in his pumpkin patch, completely unaware of Harry’s approach until he called, “Hagrid!”

“Jumpin’ jarveys, Harry! What’s the matter wi’ you?” he said. “Look like ye’v seen a vampire!”

“Hagrid,” Harry panted. “Can you, can you take me to Snape’s house?” Behind him, the castle began to groan—a sound that started low and slowly rose. Harry’s eyes went comically wide, staring at the castle.

“What’s goin’ on up there?” he said.

“Hagrid, we have to go!” Harry said. “Please!”

The sounds of the castle suddenly shifted; somewhere off to the west, the squid splashed wildly in the Black Lake, and let out a terrified shriek that reverberated through the valley. Then the roar of the wards around the castle grew to a fevered whine...a terrifying, horrifying bass sound like metal slowly grating against metal or a ship depressurizing.

Hagrid snatched Harry up over his shoulder, and rushed for his umbrella. The wards erupted into a deafening, unnatural boom that left everything trembling in its wake. Hagrid made a fearful sound, and spun them into nothingness. The last sound Harry heard before they disappeared was the deathly quiet of the loss of magic.

Hogwarts had failed to sustain its wards.

ɤɣɤ

Something was incredibly wrong.

Silence echoed where once the faint hum of major magic had filled an unknown void in his ears. He’d never noticed it while it was there—he only noticed now that it was missing. Draco carefully pushed the gate open, and found that it squeaked as it swung.

“Don’t!”

“Mr Malfoy, stop!”

He looked up, startled, and froze where he stood. Professor Snape and the Headmistress were running towards him, Snape looking perhaps even worse than the night they’d dug him from the ground.

“Do not enter the grounds,” Snape said to him, as clearly as if he’d been standing only feet away. As he said it, a horrible grating sound boomed from the castle, and echoed through the valley. It was the most terrifying thing Draco had ever heard. He scrambled back from the gates, eyes wide.

“Where’s Harry?” he called warily, but no answer was forthcoming.

They reached him red-faced and out of breath, but neither stopped. Professor Snape grabbed his arm, called an address to the Headmistress, and spun them away. When the darkness snapped away, he was standing before a sad, broken house that he knew all too well.

“Why are we at Spinner’s End?” he asked, frantic. “Where’s Harry?”

Another crack beside him signalled the Headmistress’s arrival. Professor Snape rushed them into the house and locked the door behind them the muggle way. From the kitchen, footsteps rushed towards them, and then Harry was barrelling into him, jerking him into a hug so fierce Draco thought he’d never be able to breathe again.

“Thank Merlin,” he said. “I thought it might try to eat you!”

Those words sent a terrifying chill up his arms and neck. “Eat me?” he repeated. To his surprise, Hagrid ducked through the door after him, looking just as unsettled.

“Mr Malfoy,” said the Headmistress. “I am afraid that Hogwarts...has fallen. We are no longer hidden from the muggles.”

“Dear Dagda,” Draco said. “But...” He couldn’t finish the sentence. He couldn’t think of anything to say, other than ‘How?’...but he knew how. It was a bitter thought that none of this would have been happening had the Dark Lord never died. Though it never should have happened anyway. He remembered the strange incomplete feeling he got from the wardstone that morning, and dreaded what that would mean for them. Could that have been the reason why the wards began to fail when the Dark Lord died? Magic creates balance, his father always told him; if the warding pattern had never been completed after Slytherin’s death, then it would have been a monumental imbalance...sustained only as long as it had been because of the innate magical prowess of each Founder’s descendants.

“Yes,” said Professor Snape, prowling around the house, disabling all but the most vital of the wards. “I noticed shortly before the fall occurred. Potter was with me in my lab, fortunately. It knew he was weak and it acted to save itself.” Here, he smiled bitterly. “A true Slytherin,” and this was meant only for Draco.

“I have verbally appointed Professor Flitwick to seeing that all students are evacuated,” McGonagall said to Harry. “Professor Snape and I were forced to leave immediately; the castle ward was still trying to bring itself back up when we escaped.” She shuddered. “I could feel it picking at me, testing me for vulnerability.”

“But what about everyone else?” Harry asked desperately. “What if it eats them, too?”

“It can’t,” said Professor Snape. “Only I, through my link to the Dark Lord, and the Headmistress, through her headmaster oath to protect the school, are compatible to its magic. It can’t take from anyone who is not bound by blood or oath.”

“Zacharias,” Harry said. “He went to find the Hufflepuff in Combat portrait.”

McGonagall swore fiercely, and shot off a Patronus, with a message for Flitwick and Sprout to find Zacharias immediately. Hagrid followed her into the kitchen to do whatever Gryffindors did in times of crisis before running headfirst into danger. To Draco’s consternation, neither that nor the Patronus helped the churning feeling in his stomach at the thought of Smith being sucked dry by the castle until he was nothing more than a squib. He hated Smith...but even being a Hufflepuff wasn’t reason enough to lose one’s magic.

“We must finish the potion,” Professor Snape said. “Draco, were you able to confirm the recipe?”

Shakily, Draco nodded. “Yes, I think so,” he said. “All but the last part. I have some ideas for that, though.”

“Good enough,” said Snape. “Come to my laboratory. Potter, you, too.” He led them through a hidden door behind a half-rotten bookcase, and down to the cellar, which was reinforced with a strange, elemental magic that felt like walking through cold water to Draco. But within it, the potions lab was quite pristine; small and dank and nowhere near as equipped as the laboratories at Hogwarts, but respectable just the same.

There weren’t any torches in Professor Snape’s cellar. Draco was still a little nervous around the electricity, but he managed not to jump when Snape flipped the switch on this time. From his cloak, Snape pulled out a bundle of shrunken things, and resized them on the work table.

“I’ve found three stable bases for the Cup,” he said. “Which one we use will, as you know, depend on the other ingredients.”

“Thrushweed,” Draco said, startling him. “Yeah—for the dichotomy of life and death, he said.” There was no need to elaborate on who ‘he’ was. Here, Harry made a strange, small noise, and Draco could no longer help looking at him. He was terrified, running only on the cold focus his father had long ago drilled into him to deal with frightening situations. But when he saw Harry’s pale face, saw him make the connection between Slytherin’s downfall, his own weakness, and the thrushweed, everything in him that held even the smallest piece of humanity or love crumpled, and gave way to abject fear. He could not lose Harry again. And if he ignored it long enough to brew Manticoria, he could use the focus to find a way to prevent it. Coldly, he pushed all thoughts of Harry away, feeling resolve settle into his skin and bones as it had that night on the tower with Dumbledore. This time, he wouldn’t allow himself to fail.

“And?” Snape prompted. He, too, pointedly ignored Harry. And then the most horrible, remarkable thing happened: Harry, too, pushed it aside, and moved to the work table.

“What else?” Harry asked, voice completely steady.

Draco swallowed, but would not let the strength of his love willing going again into death to crumble his own focus. “English oak and rowan,” he said. “The three together symbolize the wisdom of Britain.”

Snape summoned those things to the worktable.

“For bite, wolfsbane and basilisk venom—it symbolises the killing of the wolves and the killing of muggles in retaliation.”

Snape grinned evilly, and removed another carefully wrapped package from his cloak, which he then discarded over a spare chair. He summoned dragonhide gloves before carefully unwrapping the bits of basilisk Draco and Harry had brought him over hols. “I suspected basilisk,” he said. “Though I was loathe to experiment with it without confirmation. I am relieved that I did so. There is very little venom left in the fang.”

Harry laughed awkwardly. “Most of it went into my arm, probably.”

“I don’t know what symbolizes the tail,” said Draco. “And I don’t know what the binding agent is.”

“Isn’t the tail the stirs?” Harry asked.

Snape turned to him. “What did you say, Potter?”

Harry shrugged, looking back and forth between the two of them, suddenly unsure again. “You’ve seen the map, Draco,” he said. “The layout of the wardstones looks like a stirring pattern...three curly loops in, then three curly loops out.”

“That supposition...has merit,” Snape said, after a moment of thought. “The golden mean has been used as a stirring pattern in other medieval alchemical potions. There is contemporary precedent.” He thought for a moment more, and added, “We have little time to consider other avenues. We will go forward with it.”

Draco nodded. He couldn’t see a better option. “The binding agent will be something that brings all of Britain together.”

“Nothing does that,” Harry said sourly.

“No,” Draco agreed. “But there are things that brings most wizards together...are there things like that for muggles?”

“I dunno,” Harry said. “I didn’t get out much. The monarchy maybe?”

Snape made an awful face. “Absolutely not,” he said. He hesitated. “Though perhaps...a former monarchy?”

“King Arthur, you mean?” Harry asked. He shrugged. “Lots of people like the stories. Muggles—besides my family anyway—are intrigued by magic.”

“The Three Sisters for wizards,” Draco said. “That story is infinitely more popular than a muggle king.”

“Yes,” agreed Snape. “And yet, there is no strong correlation between the two.”

“There isn’t?” said Harry. “Weren’t they encouraging wizards to fight King Arthur?”

“No, of course not,” said Draco. “Completely separate history.”

“No,” Snape said slowly, grimacing. “I think perhaps Potter is, remarkably, correct...at least as correct as someone of such limited mental faculties can be.”

“They have nothing in common,” Draco argued.

“And yet, magical history means nothing to muggles. It is a matter of perception. Their perception of magic was only of its danger, and therefore they sought to destroy it. As Potter demonstrates, muggle perception of magical history is similarly skewed. I’m sure your father has taught you of the power of perception.”

Fifth rule, Draco thought. Belief was vastly more important than reality. “Yes,” he said. “But I don’t understand the similarity.”

Harry shrugged. “It sounded like a call to battle when Pansy sang it...as though they were sending people to war. I just assumed it was war against Arthur.”

“I...” said Draco thoughtfully. “I’ve never interpreted it that way.”

Snape was quiet for a long moment. At last, he said, “I do not know how to incorporate this into a binding.”

Draco’s stomach sank. “Neither do I,” he said.

And still, Zacharias was missing. What did it matter if they couldn’t complete the potion, really? Without his strength among their wands, they wouldn’t be able to bring up the wards anyway.

----------------------

Manticoria — Chapter 12

----------------------

With the notoriously volatile thrushweed, the only suitable base for Manticoria was the first: one part distilled water from a pure Scottish loch, one part aqua regia, and one part aqua fortis, to alchemically neutralise the regia; simmered in a stone cauldron over low heat for twelve days and filtered through a raw silk cloth to remove impurities. They had only one measure of the base. There could be no mistakes.

“Potter, pay attention,” said Professor Snape. “If the world lives through this fiasco, it will be a valuable lesson to you. When experimenting with an unknown potion, there are ways to slow the alchemical reactions to prevent ruination or explosions. It requires a very observant eye, which I am quite certain you do not possess. Still, you will humour us all by doing the best you can. We will be adding ingredients in the order of the axiom: body, wisdom, bite, tail, and the binding agent. Do you have any idea how the ingredients should be prepared or how many parts of each should be added?”

“None whatsoever,” Harry said.

Snape rolled his eyes. “I am not even remotely surprised. Draco? Would you care to enlighten your esteemed paramour while I get the cauldron to the correct temperature?”

Draco pushed the jar of English oak to Harry, as it was the least mercurial of the three wisdom components. “English oak bears one to four acorns per flowering stalk; magically four is the most stable of these numbers, but one is also stable. The variance here allows oak to also have a variance. For Manticoria, we need to prepare it in a way that is smartest. Oak is the wooden wall of England, a natural barrier and conductor of magic. The smartest way to prepare it, then, is to let it be as nature and magic would.”

“Then toss it all in?” Harry asked.

“No,” said Draco. “Let it rot.”

Harry made a little moue of surprise. “Oh. Can I use a spell?”

“Obviously,” Draco said, smirking just a little. He nodded to the wall beyond Harry. “Go find one. Snape will have a book on preparation techniques on that shelf.”

The rowan, too, would tolerate imprecision. Draco looked between the rowan leaves and the berries, and tried to make a decision. Every time he nearly did, the thought of the potion failing to disarm the manticore, and Harry’s magic being consumed, made him second guess himself where he once never would. With a frustrated, suppressed huff, he added the berries to the mortar and began smashing them into a smooth paste. With that done, he eyed the thrushweed warily.

“It is quite fresh,” said Snape, making him jump. “Prepare it in the usual way.”

“Wouldn’t you prefer to do it yourself? To make sure it’s done right?”

Snape rolled his eyes and returned to the cauldron, carefully tending its heat. Sighing, Draco pulled the thrushweed to himself and began the process of very carefully and slowly chopping it into fine bits. When Harry returned with the rotting spell and, upon only the third cast, made the oak rot, Draco spared him a grin before returning to the thrushweed. It was altogether more delicate than any of the other ingredients.

“Now, Potter,” said Snape, not bothering to turn around. “As you are arguably the most expendable in any given situation, and also have the added, ah, experience of handling basilisk fangs, perhaps you would be so good as to break into this one and scrape out the venomous jelly within.”

“I’m not exactly sure that nearly dying from a basilisk qualifies me for harvesting venom from one.”

“Nonsense,” said Snape. “I understand you harvested quite a bit of it in your second year. Do be sure to use a solid protective spell over your face. Wouldn’t want to blind yourself if any sprayed up.”

“Fine,” Harry muttered. “How do I break it open?”

“A chisel should work,” Draco offered. He cast his own protective spells just in case, and then at Harry’s dour look, cast several more.

They worked in silence for the better part of an hour; Snape came over to prepare the wolfsbane when the delicate temperature of the cauldron had been achieved and stabilised. The crack of the basilisk’s stone-hard fang made them all jump when it sounded, but to Draco’s great relief, none of the viscous yellow venom sprayed out. Harry scraped it into a mixing bowl. There was just barely two fingers’ worth left.

“Now, we must measure according to the medieval alchemical standards. It will be quite different from our own today. Arithmancy has evolved a great deal. The first stage is melanosis—we must add the thrushweed in exactly the measure required to turn the rotted oak and smashed rowen black.”

Harry nodded. “Shall I put the oak in with the rowan then?”

“Add them both to a fresh mortar in equal measure,” said Snape. With that done, Draco carefully swept the finely chopped thrushweed in little by little. Snape stirred it carefully with each addition, and when the mixture became a dark charcoal grey, Draco began adding only half a pinch of thrushweed at a time. The mixture turned black, and Professor Snape’s stasis spell over the mortar was immediate to prevent further reaction.

“The second step is leucosis, or whitening. As with Wiggenweld, thrushweed has the ability to transform another substance from one extreme to the other.”

“Should it not be fresh then?” Harry asked.

“Precisely,” said Snape. “I suggest you use the same spell as the one you found for the oak. Temper your magic, and feed it slowly.” This, at least, Harry looked confident about. If there was anything he was sure of himself with, it was his magic, Draco knew. It seemed to take an age before the mixture changed. The smell came first: a sickeningly sweet scent like dying flowers and flesh and despair. As the mixture faded into grey, it worsened, and by the time the mush was an unhealthy off-white, Draco had needed to cast a bubble-head over himself and Harry, just to keep Harry from sicking up in the bowl. Though he curled his lip, Snape had refused a charm of his own, which had been a good call, as the smell abruptly dissipated the moment the concoction achieved the correct state.

“Good,” said Professor Snape. He inhaled and exhaled several times, perhaps trying to clear the unholy smell from his lungs and throat. “Xanthosis is the next phase. As both the wolfsbane and the venom are already yellow, we must ensure that the wisdom mixture does not corrupt it, and instead takes on the yellow properties of them. Draco?”

“If we mix the wolfsbane and the venom separately and heat them until the parts boil down, we can strain it into the first mixture, stir it in, and then release the stasis spell. With the wolfsbane and venom remaining active while the other is frozen, it will have time to overtake the properties of the wisdom mixture.”

“Excellent, as always, Draco,” Snape murmured, making Draco smirk, pleased. Then they came to the brewing itself and Snape retrieved the Cup, cast several protective spells over it to keep the gold from melting, and then set it hovering above a controlled flame. “Now we must combine it with the base and brew. Per Merlin’s Law, Draco—what is the ratio?”

“Three to one, always,” said Draco. “Four parts create the most stable potion when alchemical transmutations are involved.” Professor Snape nodded, and Draco carefully combined them. When it was done, they each held their breaths. Harry took a step back, no doubt expecting an explosion, given his history with potions. Even Snape appeared nervous. He lifted the mortar with both hands, and very slowly began pouring it into the Cup. Draco half-feared that the aqua regia wouldn’t have been neutralised—that the golden cup would disintegrate and they would be left with no hope whatsoever...

But, somehow, it did not. The liquid poured easily into it, and sat complacently over the heat until Professor Snape released the stasis. It took up a simmer right away. “Now stir, Potter,” said he. “If iosis occurs, we will know it is correct.”

Harry didn’t bother to ask what that meant, though Draco was sure he had no idea. He took up the golden stirring rod and slowly copied the sacred spiral again and again into the brew. Three half-stirs inwards; three half-stirs outwards; repeat. At first, nothing happened, but on the tenth stir, the potion shuddered into a vibrant, wavering fuschia. Harry gasped, raised his eyes for direction, but Snape nodded for him to keep going. He did. Another stir in; another stir out, and a second pair—this time the fuschia stabilized, and Snape sharply held his hand out to stop him. Harry’s hand jerked to a stop, and Professor Snape quickly set another stasis spell on it. They all exhaled.

“We must now determine the binding agent. Likely a spell.”

Out of nowhere, Harry jumped, and reached into his pocket to pull out a faintly glowing galleon. He peered closely at the face of it, then pressed his lips tightly together. “It’s Hermione,” he said. “They found the missing wardstones.”

Snape sighed; it came out as a broken, breathy gasp. “Let us depart then. We are as likely to determine the binding agent there as we are here. Perhaps Ms Granger or Ms McDougal will have insight.”

“I thought...” said Draco. “I thought you weren’t coming.”

Professor Snape sneered. “Much as in my former life, my desires play little role in the actual actions I am forced to commit. It was necessary to neutralise my wand with Potter to escape the school this evening. He will draw on my magic no matter where I am, but perhaps if I am closer, I can limit the damage.”

Harry looked extremely shamefaced, but for a man likely walking to his death, he had the appropriate amount of unconcern about Professor Snape’s own fate. He offered a sincere, apologetic frown, and then left the lab without another word. His footsteps echoed in the kitchen above them, and voices, though muzzy, filtered down.

“Draco,” Professor Snape said quietly into the remaining stillness. Draco turned, swallowing heavily, because he knew that cold, flat tone and what it meant for a Slytherin: preparation for a sacrifice that would be painful now, but save you later. He held out a small vial, barely enough to contain a few swallows of the black liquid within. “For your father’s injuries,” said Professor Snape.

Draco took the vial, his fingers shaking only slightly. In this false, muggle light, it was hard to tell if any light was able to pass through or not. And still, what he murmured was, “Wiggenweld.”

Professor Snape did not hesitate, but his face might have tightened a fraction; it was hard to tell in this muggle light. “Yes,” he said.

And with that tiny-huge lie, something like peace fell between them—the sort of peace only a Slytherin could find, when things were very dark, and no choice would make things better. There were a lot of lies like that today.

Draco nodded, and pocketed the potion. He could pretend it was Wiggenweld, too. It was morning.

ɤɣɤ

Hermione’s hair was being buffeted a hundred different directions at once. At the end of a tributary of the river Clyde, just southwest of Glasgow, the higher altitude and absence of trees made the wind rise and the grey light of morning bleed into the equally grey landscape.

“We haven’t seen him,” said Hermione, biting her lip.

“But—,” said Harry. “But Flitwick and Sprout were supposed to look for him. They wouldn’t have just left him there, would they? No one’s heard from Smith at all?” A half-dozen sombre faces looked back at him, offering no answer. Ernie and Hannah looked near to devastation at the news. Even Draco, now reminded of it, was distraught. Harry could see that just by looking at the studiously blank set of his mouth.

A crack of apparation sounded behind him. He jumped, and turned, wand already raised. Zacharias gave him an alarmed look.

“What?” he said, hands raised placatingly. “I haven’t been sleeping with Malfoy, I assure you.” He gagged pointedly.

“You’re alive,” Harry said stupidly.

Zacharias’ eyes flicked from one shocked face to another, finally settling on Snape’s terrifying glare. He paled, and turned quickly back to Harry. “Yes...” he said slowly. “I do hope I haven’t disappointed you.”

“But Hogwarts...” said Harry, shaking his head disbelievingly.

“Oh, that,” said Smith, waving a hand. “Yeah, I got the hell of out there as soon as the torches started flicking off around me. No use taking chances.”

“You didn’t see the need to tell anyone?” Snape growled, and by the shocked looks on many faces, Harry knew he’d been so angry, he projected it to everyone around.

Zacharias looked genuinely confused. “No?”

“Smith, you cock,” Morag sighed. “Where the fuck have you been?”

“Oh!” said Zacharias, brightening considerably. “Helga gave me a hint after all. I decided to use the down time to visit the Library at Cardiff, since it’s so near my home, and try to figure it out. She showed me a memory of the original wardstone in Boora Bog. Did you know the Three Sisters blessed it for the wizards fighting the muggle King Arthur?”

Hermione, Pansy, and Morag gasped. “I knew it!” they said; Pansy looked extremely unsettled by it afterwards.

Harry felt his mouth parting in a smile that he couldn’t hold back. He looked smugly at Draco, more pleased with himself than he could remember. “Told you,” he said.

But Draco still looked unconvinced. “Did you find anything useful, though?” he said.

Zacharias rolled his eyes. “You are such an arsehole, Malfoy. I really don’t know why your mother puts up with you. But as a matter of fact, I did find something useful. Do you know what she blessed the wardstone with?” He raised his eyebrows, waiting.

“No,” Draco bit out.

“A manticore,” said Smith. “And did you know that only a true descendant and follower of the original druids could call it forth?”

Hannah gasped. Her eyes were wide when Harry looked to her. He recognised terror when he saw it.

“Which is Hannah,” said Zacharias, needlessly. “Good thing your father kept to his roots, hmm?”

“But...” she said. “But I can’t fight a manticore.”

“I’ll help you,” said Harry.

“Afraid not,” said Zacharias. “You’re the strongest one of us already linked to the wards. You’ll have to be at Azkaban where they beg—”

“Azkaban?” Harry exclaimed. “I can’t go to Azkaban! Have you seen me around a dementor?”

“Stop this nonsense at once,” snapped Snape. “Abbott, you will go to summon the manticore from Boora Bog, and you will not whine about it. I will send a message to Professor Sprout to aid you. And Potter, you will go to Azkaban to raise these blasted wards. As for you, Smith: if you do not cease this pettiness at once, I will petition the Sorting Hat to transfer you to Slytherin, and then we will see just how self-preserving you are.”

At this, Draco broke into a slow, evil grin that had Zacharias swallowing and nodding frantically.

“Yes, sir,” said Zacharias.

“Now,” Snape continued. “Did you find anything on the binding agent for the potion?”

“No,” Zacharias said quietly.

“Professor,” said Hermione hesitantly. Snape gave her a dour look that could have been taken for permission to continue. “I just wondered that...I mean, do you think it’s possible that the potion doesn’t have a binding agent?”

“Explain yourself, Ms Granger.”

“I just thought that the entirety of the British wards are defined by balance and stability. If the sacred spiral is the most balanced and stable composition of nature, then shouldn’t the actual balance of the wards be created by an unstable potion?”

“Astute of you, Ms Granger.” She beamed at him, but it fell at his next words. “I am grateful to see that your arrogance has not, after all, prevented you from some degree of intelligence.”

“Professor!” Pansy snapped. Snape lifted an eyebrow in her direction, and she subsided, but still looked mutinous.

“We don’t have much time,” Morag said. “Can’t you feel the atmosphere trembling all around us? The rest of the wards are going to collapse like a house of tarot cards.”

Harry could feel it, actually. He’d been trying to avoid thinking about it, which was stupid, but sometimes better for his state of mind. They discussed the particulars in stark detail, as briefly, yet fully, as they could. There had been thirteen linchpins when the Founders finished, but they’d added four wrong ones and missed the last two. Only ten were needed to stabilize Britain: Azkaban, Boora Bog, Hebrides, Perth, Dumfries, Arran, Argyll Forest, Glasgow, and the two just beyond it, that were never put in place after Slytherin’s death.

They sky was still grey when they’d covered it. Professor Snape apparated away to fetch what was left of the Order to help out where they could, and, perhaps, a few Unspeakables if he could find them. They were notoriously hard to find; even more so in the wake of the New Ministry.

“I’ll have to bring them down first,” Harry said quietly, and yet, somehow they all heard him over the buffeting of the wind. “They’re too unstable to save now. It will take a lot out of me.”

“Yes,” Draco agreed solemnly.

Harry nodded by rote. “And then I’ll have to bring them up right away, before the muggles see. And not having any time to rest will make it even harder.”

Hannah looked rather traumatized at this; then her face settled into resolve. “I will control the manticore for you, Harry. I’ll hold it as long as you need.”

He smiled gratefully. He took a deep breath. They could do this. He could do this. It was simple in design, really: Hannah was the only one among them with a direct ancestry of the druids, and she would call forth the manticore from it; all of Ron and Hermione’s groups would disperse to a wardstone each, to create the link.

At the end, near Glasgow, where her family had lived for years and she was therefore strongest, Morag would be the stopper on the flow of magic, and force it into place at the last stone, to stabilize it. And Harry would go to Azkaban Island with Draco, Zacharias, and Snape—among the fear and dementors and wasted lives—and he would destroy every ward in Great Britain before building them up again from the ashes.

Slytherin did it, he thought. Slytherin did it many times. Surely he could do it just this once. But inside, hidden behind the layers of himself he held open to Draco and Snape’s observant gazes, he did not really think that he could.

ɤɣɤ

When the moment came that they were as ready as they could possibly be, Harry began to notice a feeling of nausea in his stomach stronger than any he’d felt before. There was something altogether more terrifying than dying—Dumbledore had told him something like that once, that death wasn’t the worst thing that could ever happen to a person. At this moment, Harry knew that losing his magic was one of those things. He closed his eyes, sent a desperate prayer to Draco’s gods, and wished fervently for death instead.

When he opened them again, Azkaban Island loomed before him, dark and forbidding and hateful. His stomach was already roiling from the nearby dementors, even hidden as they were behind the walls of the prison. When the wards fell, he thought, would they attack? He laughed bitterly, terrified into madness: here was yet another fate worse than death.

The wardstone was located on the southernmost tip of the island, among the sharp rocks and fierce waves. A good place for warriors to die, he thought. And surely a great many had done so here, where the druids landed after swimming from the mainland to show their strength and conquer their fears. He spun slowly, trying to imagine what it would have been like to pull himself out of frigid water, miles and miles from England, and then be forced to fight for his life against another druid warrior who was just as terrified.

No wonder the dementors sprang to life here.

Snape’s footsteps crunched against the gravelly shore as he approached. “You are frightened,” he observed. It was for only Harry to hear.

“Yeah,” he said. There was no point in bravado around Snape. “Terrified, really.”

Snape was quiet for a long moment, and when Harry looked up at him, standing just beside him, he saw this his gaze, also was fixed on the rocks below them. “There is no shame in fear,” he said at last. His eyes fell to meet Harry’s, and Harry was certain he’d never seen anything quite this close to compassion in them before.

Harry chuckled. “I’m passed the point of shame and well into madness.”

Snape nodded thoughtfully. “That, too, is natural.”

“I was never this afraid facing Voldemort,” said Harry. “And I was rather terrified each time, to be honest.”

He held his hand out where the pre-dawn light barely illuminating his trembles. “Look, I’m even shaking. I never shook before. Going to my death wasn’t nearly as hard as going to a life without magic.” He swallowed down an insane laugh, and added, “I don’t think I could live without magic. It was the only thing that saved me.”

Two cracks signalled the arrival of Zacharias and Draco, back from organizing the others—at the correct wardstones this time.

“And now you have something different to save you.”

“Yeah,” said Harry, faking a smile as Draco and Zacharias approached them. “Maybe.”

“Hmm,” Snape said doubtfully. “Draco is rarely wrong about reading people, your youth notwithstanding. He has only made one misjudgement in my recent memory.”

“Me?” Harry asked.

“Me, said Snape. At Harry’s startled look, he added, “He believed I never made mistakes with my life or my potions. Yet, he was quite wrong about what happened the night of the final battle.”

“You didn’t mean to take the Draught of Living Death?” Harry asked.

“No,” said Snape. “I didn’t mean for it to fail.” He smiled bitterly, and then Draco and Zacharias were upon them, looking tired after a night of no sleep, and wary of the coming morning.

Harry’s pocket grew warm with Hermione’s signal. A heartbeat later, the wardstone glowed with the touches of Harry’s friends feeding their magic into each one to keep them stable. Draco handed him the hawthorn wand. It came alive in his hand, sending him memories of dreams and love, and he had to close his eyes under the onslaught. He inhaled slowly, focusing on the frigid wind and the smell of ocean instead of the hammering in his chest. He was glad, at least, that Draco would be here with him at the end.

His galleon grew hot, and Hannah had summoned forth the manticore. He raised his hawthorn wand, felt the magic in the atmosphere notice him and grow curious...let it feel his purpose and come to him, and slashed it downwards. A horrible, screeching moan thundered across the sky as every major ward in Britain, and those that were anchored to them, fell. It was frighteningly easy to destroy a ward if one had the blood of its creator in it. The combined wills of Gryffindor’s, Hufflepuff’s, and Slytherin’s remaining blood made this one crumble like ash.

In the echoing silence of a wardless island, he keenly felt the absence of his strength. It staggered him, and he was quite surprised to find Professor Snape’s cold hand at his elbow, steadying him.

The muggles on their way to work would be seeing the Leaky Cauldron now, perhaps stopping in bewilderment to stare at the sign, the door, inside the windows. Diagon Alley would be peeking through the narrow alleys behind take-away curry shops, somehow still managing to fit in the spaces that muggle London didn’t need. And Hogwarts—Hogwarts had been vulnerable for half a day. He did not want to imagine what his only true home would be like if the muggles descended upon it.

“Harry,” Draco prompted kindly. Harry nodded, a little too fast, maybe—but then Draco slipped his hand into Harry’s, and he could do this now.

He incanted the spell, and called forth the manticore from where Hannah had held it safe. The wardstone bent and squirmed and made sounds so loud and frightening that he was sure all of England could hear it. Almost at once, the manticore was too strong for him, and he felt his core drawing on Draco’s, and Zacharias’, and Snape’s magic for support.

The manticore settled into life, turning the wardstone blood red and angry. Its mouth was open when it formed, with dozens of razor sharp teeth gleaming wet with poisonous saliva. He staggered back at the volume of its roar, crashing into Zacharias. For a moment, the stream of magic among them was broken, and he went light-headed with weakness—but Draco made a terrified, determined sound, and then it was back again, at full strength.

Its mouth, caught mid-roar at Harry’s petrifying spell, simplified the administration of the potion, but Harry almost fumbled it anyway in his fright. The Cup was still warm from brewing, and when the potion poured onto the manticore’s tongue, it hissed and steamed as it slid down its throat.

The incantation to chain the manticore in place was long and archaic. Harry was only vaguely sure of its meaning, but it surely must have been working, for the atmosphere picked up on it. Wild magic pushed at his hair and cloak, tugged at his fingertips like an insistent crup. The wind grew and grew; it was a fever pitch of sound and wind and magic all around them. He felt the first stirrings of fatigue only a few minutes in. And this particular incantation had to be repeated one-hundred and twelve times.

He forced himself through. He would at least make the world safe for Draco, if he couldn’t be there himself. And he would give everything he had, even his last breaths, because living without magic would be almost as bad as living without Draco. Without magic, he would be nothing to Draco anyway, no matter what Snape said. With great shuddering breaths, he breathed in the cold Azkaban air and the restless, un-warded magic all around. Each repetition left him breathless; his fingers and toes grew steadily more numb. His thoughts were so heavy and blurry that when he was halfway through, he forgot how to count, and hesitated on what came after ‘fifty-six’ for what felt like an eternity. Then there was Professor Snape’s calm voice in his head, sounding just as he remembered from his first ever potions class, telling him fifty-seven and when he’d recited it again, fifty-eight, and on and on.

At one-hundred and twelve, everything illuminated. Not with light, exactly, but with the ineffable knowledge of being. Harry became twelve hopeful wardstones: Azkaban, London, Malfoy Manor, Cardiff, Boora Bog, Hebrides, Hogwarts, Perth, Dumfries, Arran, Argyle Forest, Glasgow, and two empty places where wards ought to have been but never were.

He pulled Azkaban up, and felt the supernova glow of its pride as it rose into place once more. He thanked them for their service, but pushed London, Malfoy Manor, and Cardiff away. They were not right. They did not belong. Then Boora Bog rose easily, more of its own accord than Harry’s: it had only waited to be polite. He could see Hannah and Professor Sprout sag in relief as the manticore hardened again into stone, but did not stop to wonder at how. Outer Hebrides was strong, too, and came up at Harry’s merest suggestion. Ernie’s presence flooded the stone, and Harry clung to his magic feeling into it for a moment before he knew he needed to push on.

But at Hogwarts, where Ron stood keeping the wardstone alive, Harry denied it once more. Hogwarts, great as it was, was not at an inflection point, and would only weaken the wards over time. Hogwarts would have to build its own, Harry told it; it would have to relinquish its hold on Britain. The loss of magic from the stone startled the castle, and its reaction startled Ron, who accidentally broke both of his wisp jars when he fell. There, you see? he told the castle. There are your own wards. Build again. I will help you, but you must do it yourself. He pushed a little of their combined magic to Hogwarts’ wardstone and then left it behind.

He felt Hermione’s smile as he brought Perth up. He felt Padma’s wonder at Dumfries. He felt the wonder in Tracey Davis, the consideration in Pansy, the relief in Mandy Brocklehurst as he brought Glasgow, finally, up again. Then Morag, waiting frantically at the end, just outside of Glasgow, who would have to stopper the magic at both stones and keep it from running into the ground, wasted. She apparated from the first to the last as Harry brought it up.

He felt her presence there and knew when she felt his as well. The relief in her demeanour was palpable. He pushed the manticore into the wardstone and they held firm as it struggled. It’s anger was exponentially stronger than any of the previous stones and the finality of this stone, the inevitability of its death, sent it into a furor of hate and desperation. Harry felt it as a souring on his tongue, a burning in his stomach, a thousand slicing spells against his abdomen...the manticore’s fury was all-encompassing and inescapable.

Harry fought with everything he had. He pushed all his magic into subduing the beast, and when that wasn’t enough, he fed from Zacharias, Draco, and Snape. Even Morag pushed more power into the ward, and...yet the beast still fought. Harry was barely hanging on. The strength to stand had abandoned him some time ago, and now he was not even aware of his own surroundings...whether he was standing or kneeling or crashed against the ground. All he could see was everything the wards saw. It was too much awareness, and still not enough. The manticore was a part of each of the stones, flailing and rearing and roaring. Its tail lashed out at Azkaban, and knocked his friends back at every stone.

And then he was alone: the sudden lurch as the ritual fell and nearly broke. He screamed, he thought. It pulled on him like each of his muscles ripping apart again and again. With it came the undeniable certainty that if he failed, everything would be lost. Even if it only exposed Britain, all of wizardkind would be exposed in turn. The knowledge of their existence would lead muggles to search, always, for them. They would have nowhere to hide; they would always be suspect. Draco, Harry thought; he couldn’t leave Draco with that kind of fate.

Desperately, Harry shoved everything he had into it, every last reserve, every hidden fragment of magic, every non-vital functioning of his body, and then, when it still was not enough: the vital functions, too. He pushed his breath into it, his thoughts, his blinks and digestion. Vaguely, he heard screaming, and was not sure if it came from him, the manticore, or England itself. When he’d forced all the magic he had into the spell, the manticore reared up, twisting violently and unnaturally. Its bones fractured and its veins severed. He felt the agony of its death a thousand-fold. He saw its many brief lives, each time it was called forward only to die for the birth of a new ward. He saw the sad way Boora Bog watched on, pitying but allowing it to happen. A hundred-thousand dead warriors, who died facing their greatest fears, rose up from Azkaban and wailed in sympathy of its misery.

The manticore unravelled, magic lurching from everything to sustain the new wards, and Harry—

ɤɣɤ

The sky illuminated with the red of death and heartbeats. A million strings of magic transversed the sky, flaring bright enough to blind, and then pulsing slower and slower, still too fast to count. Harry had been screaming for ages. It was only when he stopped that Draco felt the loss of him. Smith made a wretched moan, and fell back, clutching at his stomach. Draco felt the sickening emptiness in his own magical core. The painful illness of magical overexertion, the kind that took days to repair.

But there was something altogether stronger and more terrifying. For the first time in almost a year, he felt himself as the only owner of his wand. Harry slumped to the ground, his head banging against the wardstone and dragging a wet, red trail as he slid down. Draco screamed.

ɤɣɤ

If his life could have gone another way, Severus reflected, he imagined that it would have been with her. If he had begged the Hat to put him with her, or anywhere else; if he had tried harder to fit in—though Merlin only knew how desperately he’d already tried; if he’d never said that word or if he’d come to her instead of to the Dark Lord...

If he’d taken enough of that deadly draught to put himself out of his misery for good...

These were all what-ifs, and what-ifs, Severus knew, were inconsequential. He saw the flare of the sky and it was the exact shade of her hair for the briefest of moments. He felt the boy dying, and her with it. It was enough to bring him to his knees. Potter’s blood slicked the side of the wardstone, glistening vibrantly as all new blood does. Severus had seen a lot of it in his time.

The connection between them was barely there anymore—only a single string of magic holding desperately to life. Severus regarded it thoughtfully; it was only a fraction of a second, but time seemed altered, slower now. He had plenty left, he thought. He would not need it much longer anyway. Perhaps this would save him the trouble.

The part of himself that relinquished hold of his own magic and fed it into that pathetic little string between them, was detached. The part of him that had been waiting years to die, was relieved that it was finally here.

ɤɣɤ

The Bloody Baron did not return.

Some small part of Draco half-expected Professor Snape to take his place, but in the days that followed, he never showed. Slytherin, it seemed, was destined to always be set apart from the other houses. At night, when he could hide in the emptiness left over after the other visitors had gone, Draco would turn the black-liquid potion over and over in his hands, trying both to convince himself to send it to his father and not send it. If it were truly Wiggenweld, it would heal his mind and leave him with years and years of Azkaban to face as a sane man. If it were not, it would kill him right away, or perhaps only put him in a state near enough to death if it was not strong enough.

Which would be worse? Or better? He didn’t know. And he could not bring himself to hold it up to the light to see if any passed through because if he knew, then his decision would be even harder.

It had been a week since Harry recast the wards. He’d not woken. Pomfrey was not sure he would. Only McGonagall’s insistence had prevented the New Ministry from carting him off to some undisclosed location.

The castle had been catering to him even more than usual, and he hated it. He did not want any attachment to anything that would try to steal Harry’s magic in so Machiavellian a way. And yet, when he’d been sitting vigil for twelve hours, and his lids were beyond heavy, it dimmed the torches. Not much, not really—it was a subtle lessening of light, barely perceptible to Draco’s gummy eyes. He’d been awake for three days, and his observation skills were not what they usually were. The absence of firelight made him even more tired; he battled fiercely to stay awake, but sleep—and the castle—won.

ɤɣɤ

Harry dreamed.

It was the first time he’d ever dreamed.

In it, he ran through the halls of Malfoy Manor, lost in labyrinthine layers of ward magic and corridors. Each door opened unto a room exactly like the one before it, save the portraits above the mantel. Each room was cold, terrifying. He felt magic like a battering—an assault on his skin and bones and muscles. It hurt to feel it, to breathe it, to even be around it. A sort of bitter sting against his skin, or the feel of water in his lungs. He wasn’t meant to be here.

Then there was warmth. A slow burn that felt more like ice until it resolved into pleasantness. He tried to follow it, but he got lost. Malfoys past glared at him from strangely frozen paintings. His fingers trailed along the panelled walls in some vain attempt to follow this maze to its inevitable end—but the end never came. He then chose to follow the warmness instead. Where warms things pulsed, his heart would race in anticipation, and then fall again when he lost the trail.

He went up the central stairs for a fourth time—they were not unlike Escher drawings, Harry was coming to believe. The bannister grew warm under his fingers and he felt something like happiness, without knowing why. Down the eastern hallways, he stopped before the final door, warm enough that he considered curling up to fall asleep. He opened it instead.

“Draco,” he said, upon noticing the only occupant. The man was curled up over the quilts on his bed, staring quite desolately at the wall.

“Harry!” he said.

Harry paused, startled by the brilliance of his smile. “I’m lost in your house.”

“You want to leave?”

“Obviously,” Harry said, rolling his eyes. “How do I get out?”

Draco frowned. “The front door is just across from the stairs.”

“It isn’t,” Harry said. “I went by a dozen times.” Draco rolled his eyes. “Let me out,” Harry begged. “The magic here hates me.”

“I can’t, Harry,” said Draco said. “You have to accept it first. It’s yours now.”

“I don’t want it!” Harry said. “It’s dark and spiteful.”

“It won’t always be,” Draco said. “You have to take it, or you won’t have any left.”

“What?” Harry said, falling back. He landed on the bed, but it felt like he was falling for hours after. “I have lots of magic.”

“But you used it,” Draco said. “Don’t you remember?”

“No. Magic regenerates anyway, Draco. Let me out of your damned house.”

“I can’t,” said Draco again, shaking his head. “You would die.”

Harry pressed his lips together angrily. “What did I use it on?”

“The wards,” said Draco. “You rebuilt every major ward in Britain.”

Harry rolled his eyes. “Pull the other one.”

Draco bit his lip, looking strangely disheartened. It was a look wholly unfamiliar on the man’s face. He appeared to debate something, and then, with a sigh, sat back down on the bed across from Harry. “Take out your wand.”

Eyes narrowed, Harry slowly retrieved his wand from his sleeve, but it felt strange in his hand. Not unfamiliar strange, but exactly the opposite: incredibly familiar and perfect and right...but it wasn’t his wand. It was not the grey-white of his holly wand, and with a sudden, staggering lurch, he remembered that his holly wand was forever broken—but it was not his cedar wand, either.

“I gave this back to you,” he said.

“Yes,” Draco agreed. “And then you needed it, and I gave it back to you.”

“I—I needed it for the wards,” Harry said suddenly. “Like Slytherin.”

“Yes,” said Draco.

“And then I...” He paused, swallowing heavily. “I used all of my magic. I gave everything to the wards, to save you.”

Draco smiled at him, a little wobbly. “I know. I felt it.”

Harry looked away, blinking quickly to keep his eyes from watering. “No wonder the magic hates me. I’m a squib.”

“Magic doesn’t hate squibs,” Draco said softly. “And my home doesn’t hate you. It...loves whomever the master loves. And I—am the master.” He did not say anything further, but Harry noticed an odd catch in his voice that he would analyze later. Just now, he desperately wanted to melt into the bed and wrap up in the heat of Draco’s words and the unsaid things in them. But he could not because the hateful magic trapping him here was gnawing insistently at his fingers and elbows and toes.

“It’s trying to eat me,” Harry insisted. “Call it off, Draco. Please!”

“I can’t, Harry!” Draco said. “It’s not the Manor. There’s no magic here but yours!”

“But,” said Harry frantically. “But I lost mine.”

“Yes,” said Draco, leaning forward. “But you found more.”

“Where?” Harry asked suspiciously. He frowned at the dark strings and specks of it floating all around, just outside his vision. Like spots in his eyes, it was never where he looked, but he always saw it...hovering and waiting, like a snake poised to strike.

“It was freely given,” said Draco, “but you have to accept it.”

The magic took his advantage of his distraction and snapped at his shoulder. It stung his whole arm and back and he cringed and curled over himself protectively. “I’ve felt this before,” he said. “I know this magic, too.” It nipped at him again, always looking for a weak spot, but now that he recognized it, he expected it, and stopped further attacks.

He looked up at Draco, eyes tearing up from the sting of his shoulder, and said, “Snape.”

“Yeah,” Draco said.

Harry shook his head desperately. “I can’t. Not his. It hates me.”

“Like my wand would hate you if you never won it,” said Draco. “You have to take it, Harry, or it will fight you until you die.” And that won’t be long, remained unspoken.

A long moment passed between them, with only the absolute silence of dreams to be heard. At last, Harry said, “Help me? I don’t know how.”

Draco smiled at him, a slow curve of his lips that nearly had Harry undone by the softness of it. He leant forward, his fingertips grazing along Harry’s collarbone as his nose brushed Harry’s lips. “Of course, Harry.”

His fingertips trailed further down then pressed against his chest. Harry fell back for a million years, and when he landed, Draco’s bed was incredibly soft. And there was one time, he almost remembered, when they’d been together like this on Draco’s bed, and--

He arched against Draco when he followed Harry down, covering him with his own body. “It was like this,” he panted against Draco’s mouth. “The first time, it was like this.”

Draco kissed him harder, his tongue hot and insistent against Harry’s mouth until he opened it to him and he plunged inside. His hands were doing incredible things, one sliding beneath the hem of Harry’s shirt while the other curled into Harry’s hair as he propped on his elbow above him. Harry did not know how this was helping him, but he could not imagine a world in which it hurt him, so he allowed it eagerly.

All at once, Draco pulled away from his mouth, and began trailing nips and kisses against his chest--and where had his shirt gone? Or Draco’s, for that matter?--His mouth was unnaturally hot and pleasing. His fingers, when they curled over the top of his trousers, were like fire against his skin. Draco tugged, and he lifted his hips. There was something undeniably erotic in the magic of dreams, he thought. He was not sure if he had dreamt it or if Draco had, but in the space of a blink, Draco’s clothing had disappeared along with his own.

Draco dipped his head, running his tongue along the valley where his thigh and abdomen met, then up again. He arched against it, hoping for contact where he needed it most, but Draco only pulled away to do the other side. He pushed Harry’s knees up to continue along the backs of his thighs, leaving goose pimples and trembling in his wake. Harry was vibrating with desire, and still, Draco would not touch his cock.

As he moved down from Harry’s left thigh, he dragged his nose against the soft skin then moved enticingly closer.

“Please,” Harry begged.

He could feel the smirk against his groin. Then--warm breath against his testicles. He gasped, fingers clenching against the quilts. Draco’s tongue circled one, then the other. He--finally, finally--dragged it up the length of Harry’s spine, then back down again. Harry barely bit back a scream. But then he returned to his balls and took one in his mouth, sucking gently.

“Oh god,” Harry gasped.

Draco’s mouth was doing wonderful things to him, and he was barely hanging on. Then his tongue slid lower, pressing against his perineum. It lingered there for only a moment, and then Draco’s hands were coming up to push against the backs of Harry’s knees to better expose him, and then--Merlin!--his tongue was at his entrance, circling lazily.

Harry inhaled sharply and forgot to exhale for so long that it all came out in a rush when he did. His whole body shook with the effort of not dying right there from the sensation overload of Draco’s skillful mouth. He felt every flicker of his tongue, every circling tease. When Draco reached up to also wrap his hand around Harry’s painfully hard penis, he thought he might explode. It was only a well placed light squeeze that prevented it at all.

When he thought he could take no more, Draco understood it, as was the nature of dreams. He pulled away from his ministrations and crawled back up Harry’s body to pepper kisses along his neck and jaw, behind his ear. “Do it,” Harry said, tossing his head back. “Just...please.”

Draco did not need to be told twice. He pushed in as if he’d never left and Harry groaned with the startling mix of pleasure and pain. When they moved together, it was like the first time, maybe like the only time. He was already at the edge, barely hanging on. Harry felt the stark realness of it as he had with every other dream, and thought perhaps staying here, trapped in Draco’s house, might not be such a terrible thing after all.

“No!” Draco said, as if he could read Harry’s thoughts. He paused, leaving Harry squirming on the brink of orgasm. Though when Harry opened his eyes to look up at him, he thought maybe, beyond all reason, he could.

“Why not?” he said. He fidgeted, and Draco’s eyes slid closed in pleasure before snapping open again.

“You have to get out, Harry,” Draco said, softly but urgently. “You can’t stay here.”

“I like it,” said Harry. He ground his hips up, pulling Draco further in, and the slide of his cock against Draco’s slick belly sent otherworldly tingles through his body. “When you’re here, the magic isn’t cruel at all.”

“Harry, just accept it,” Draco said, gasping. He gave in and moved his hips again, achingly slow.

“How?” Harry asked again. He barely cared, though, so caught up in the feel of Draco inside him to find anything else of much importance at all.

Draco leant back down, balanced his elbows on either side of Harry’s head to nose at his neck and ears. “You have to take it into your magical core. If you don’t, it’ll stay in your body forever, poisoning you, and never letting you control it.”

Harry tried to take that in, but Draco was still moving slowly in and out of him, keeping him right on the edge and never letting him fall over. “I don’t know how to do that.”

“Just let it be open,” said Draco. “And accept the magic that comes in.” He licked a swipe along the rim of Harry’s ear, making him shudder, and added, voice low, “Just say, Open.”

Harry arched his back, gasping. He’d never understood the eroticism of Parseltongue until just this moment, but even as he thought the word, and hissed it back, he felt something in his solar plexus change dramatically. It was as if his whole body was turned inside out and then pulled back together in the blink of an eye. He felt infinite and miniscule at once. All the bitter magic in the atmosphere rushed into him, so much as to make him sick, but he knew this magic—it was familiar to him now.

He could feel Professor Snape in every breath of it. It settled into his body and took control of his breathing and digesting. It took over his heartbeat and his healing skin. There were spells keeping him alive, somewhere, but he didn’t need those anymore. With a feeling of incredible wonder, Harry accepted Professor Snape’s gift, and made it his own.

Above him, Draco arched his back. The rush of the wild magic set all of their nerves afire, and it was too much for two men so close already. Draco pushed into him hard and fast, and it was all it took to carry Harry over the edge. He cried out, fingers digging into the sheets, body tensing with his release.

When their breathing had returned to some semblance of normal, Draco rolled off of him. “Now what?” Harry asked.

“Just wake up,” said Draco.

Harry opened his eyes.

ɤɣɤ

“There was once a spell that could reverse a great wrong,” said Pansy. “But it’s been lost now.”

“I think,” said Hermione, “that there were once a great many spells that could reverse a great many wrongs.”

Pansy considered this. “Maybe,” she allowed. “I like my version better.”

In the way that alchemy changed manticores into wards, or, sometimes, lead into gold, there was something changing in Harry, too. He felt it in the mornings, right below his rib cage. It felt odd, out of place. It didn’t belong there, but some days it belonged better than others. Like wardstones in the middle of churches, things didn’t always fit, but life built itself up around them.

“I don’t think,” said Zacharias, “that they can see us at all.”

Morag peered intently from the grimy pub window. Muggles passed by on the street and didn’t give the Glasgow Wands a second glance. “I think they’ve forgotten,” she said curiously. “How could they have forgotten an entire week of their lives? My dad said it was all over the muggle news.”

“They haven’t forgotten,” Harry said quietly. “They’re only trying to move on.”

“Move on from what?” asked Pansy.

“Fear,” said Hermione. “They were scared. Something was here, and now it isn’t. They’ll call it a solar flare or a change in the atmospheric pressure, or some other thing, but they won’t forget what they saw.”

Draco pressed close against Harry’s side, tense, as he had been for weeks now. “Do you think they’ll come after us?” he asked, loud enough only for Harry to hear.

Harry shrugged as best he could with Draco so attached. “I don’t think they would know how, even if they wanted to.”

“So we’re safe,” Pansy surmised. Harry would swear she had magically enhanced hearing sometimes.

Harry allowed her a smile. “Yeah, we’re safe.”

She beamed at Hermione and Morag, and Harry was certain there was something unusual going on among those three, but he had no interest in finding out what it was. For now, all that really mattered, was that when Draco summoned a menu with Harry’s cedar wand, it came; and when Harry cast a warming charm with the hawthorn wand, it was warmer...and when Zacharias Smith tried anything with either of them, it didn’t.

He was smug enough about that that nothing else really mattered. Save, of course, that Draco was there with him, and not only in his dreams.

ɤɣɤ

End

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