Nora Winter hadn't always wanted to be a potioneer.
If somebody had asked her, when she was a child, what she wanted to be when she grew up, the answer would have varied from day to day. An inventor. A writer. A doctor - or an astronaut - or a lion tamer -
Magic had utterly upset Nora's ideas about what was possible and achievable. Who cared about the ordinary world when she had access to one that was extraordinary instead? She'd dreamed her days away that summer, wondering what she'd learn when she stepped through Hogwarts' doors. Her textbooks hadn't helped much; Nora almost felt like she was trying to puzzle her way through her mother's copies of Shakespeare, every other word a mystery to her. What was a bezoar? Why were wand movements so important, and why were there so many of them? What was a Venomous Tentacula - a plant, surely, given it was in her copy of One Thousand Magical Herbs and Fungi, but then why was it venomous, and not poisonous?
And Hogwarts itself didn't seem to answer any of her questions. Nora got a House ("Hufflepuff!"), and a schedule, and a tour around the castle, and a series of classes that raised more questions than they answered. And Nora's professors didn't help. She was pretty sure that they liked that she was thinking about the material, but every answer came with a reminder to hold her wand differently, stir the cauldron faster, listen carefully to the pronunciation of the spell, be a little more careful with that plant you're handling, dear.
All it did was remind Nora that this wasn't her world.
So she buried herself in the library instead, doing her best to focus on the practical parts of magic when she was in the classroom. That didn't seem to help much; it was obvious to Nora that some people had a gift with spellwork, an instinctive understanding of transfigurative principles or an easy way of picking up new charms, and that she wasn't one of them. Maybe she never would be. Maybe that was something you just had to be born to, something she'd never pick up. Maybe she'd spend the rest of her life blotting spilled ink off every essay she wrote with an unfamiliar quill and holding her wand so awkwardly she constantly feared she'd drop it.
Her dorm-mates saw how much time she was spending studying and started joking that maybe she ought to have been a Ravenclaw instead. Nora smiled and pretended she wasn't biting her lip to keep from shouting at them. Didn't they know Ravenclaws were supposed to be smart? Couldn't they tell that she barely knew anything about this new world, and that every new discovery left her grasping for explanations nobody seemed to realise she needed?
So she studied. She stalked up and down the library's aisles, collecting anything that looked even remotely useful, and did her best to struggle through it. It didn't go as well as she'd hoped.
The hardest part was the seeming lack of logic in the magical world. Nora tried to tell herself that was reasonable - who said magic had to be logical? - but she couldn't help but keep searching for meaning, and failing to find it. How did incantations and wand movements encode spells? The answer to that was buried in spell theory textbooks she couldn't understand. How did brooms fly? That might be runes, assuming she'd understood the introductory text correctly, but all the really interesting books were in languages she couldn't read and the real answer was probably 'trade secrets', anyway. Why did seemingly random collections of ingredients create potions? That was -
There wasn't much logic to it, after all that. But there was enough - enough for Nora to dig through her herbology reference and determine how one ingredient worked, and through a much more advanced potion theory text and understand another, and before she knew it the whole puzzle lay before her, one complete picture. One she could modify if she wished.
Hogwarts - and the magical world - seemed much less intimidating after that.
It had only been natural for Nora to continue her potions studies into her NEWT years, and then past them; she'd been experimenting with changes to potion recipes for years at that point, carefully adjusting recipes little by little and keeping a careful record of the effects, and in any case it wasn't like she'd found any other kind of magic that interested her as much as potions did. With an O on her Potions NEWT and a letter of recommendation from Professor Slughorn, her path had seemed easy. Assured, even.
Nora had had one interview at a prestigious research lab, right after she'd graduated from Hogwarts. The researcher who'd interviewed her had seemed happy to have her there, had been delighted by her marks and glad to answer her questions... right up until she'd asked, innocently enough, whether they used the Muggle scientific method to help with their research.
They did not, she was told. Muggle science had no business being anywhere near magic. It was illegal to mix Muggle technology and magic, in fact, which was something she'd do well to remember if she really wanted a career in research. It was understandable she'd be confused, given her unfortunate birth, but she really ought to have learned that by now. Perhaps she wasn't as good a fit for their institute as they'd thought.
Since then, nobody had given her anything but a polite refusal by owl.
Nora wished she could believe that one, disastrous question wasn't why. But the reality of her situation stared her in the face. Magical society was both small and small-minded; it was hardly a surprise they'd have a gossip network.
If nobody would take her on, she'd have to teach herself. So she would. She'd achieve something greater than any of them could have dreamed of, and in the end, they'd regret refusing her.
Nora's old Potions teacher at Hogwarts, Horace Slughorn, had liked to say that potions required exactness and certainty. It was true, to a point. What he did, teaching hordes of indifferent students how to brew useful potions without killing themselves, required that he taught them to do each step with deliberation, to measure carefully and stir precisely, because learned carelessness was something that would sooner or later kill. Professional potion-brewers worked on the same principle; it was their job to turn out identical potions by the dozen, and a failure to do so would doubtless lead to a new brewer being hired in their place.
For researchers, however, the opposite was true. Oh, there were some recipes that couldn't be changed too far without risking the creation of toxic fumes, and of course it was important to keep track of what you'd changed so you could replicate it later... But more often than not, creating a new potion or improving an old one required reckless experimentation. Would halving the proportion of sloth brains in a potion change its effect, or merely its consistency? What about using fresh rosehips instead of hips dried for a year and a day? Was there really anything special about morning dew collected from a daisy, or would any dew suffice?
And creating an entirely new potion required an even more reckless level of experimentation. Oh, there were plenty of reference tables available for the aspiring potioneer, with lists of ingredients that must never be combined or those that could provided it was done only in a specific fashion, but those would only take you so far.
The real question wasn't what not to do, after all.
Nora stared down at the empty page before her. Here was something else she would have been denied in a 'proper' lab: ordinary lined Muggle paper and a ball-point pen, still far easier for her to use despite seven years of practise with a quill.
Perhaps she was being too cynical. The Ravenclaws had been only too happy to adopt those sorts of innovations, after all, excluding those who felt the need to turn their nose up at anything that didn't have a pureblood pedigree. Maybe there would have been others there who saw the practicality in using paper that lay flat and a pen that didn't break or leave splotches of ink everywhere at the slightest provocation.
She shook her head, trying to focus on the real problem. That being: how was she going to create a potion that defied death itself?
Potions ingredients fell into a few categories. Some were purely therapeutic, and would have been equally useful on their own if prepared properly. Willow bark and turmeric, for example, or poppy, or ginger, or peppermint. Others derived their effect from the belief and the magic of the brewer; feverfew did nothing whatsoever for fever on its own, but centuries of belief in its properties meant that it took pride of place as the primary ingredient in Febrile Fluid. Still others were there for the effect they gave to the brew itself; ground bicorn horn strengthened a brew's inherent magic and also helped to thicken and stabilise it, while unicorn hair purified potions of any toxic byproducts that might have been created earlier in the brewing process.
Creating a new potion from scratch was half art, half science. It required choosing ingredients that would work well together to create the desired effect while avoiding potentially dangerous combinations, and then... well, playing, really. Allowing yourself to become so attuned to the potion's inherent magic that you could feel it, as surely as a practised dueller could sense the magic coming from their opponent in time to block or dodge it, and then using that sense to determine what was missing. Not enough magic? Too thin or thick? Stirred too vigorously, or for too long, or not long enough?
And, of course, it was going to be quite difficult figuring out where to start. If Nora had chosen to start with something simpler - a healing potion, for example - her choices would be obvious. Since she'd picked something unusual and unprecedented, however, it would be a great deal harder.
What properties would a potion designed to overcome an unblockable curse need?
She could try a healing potion. Most were designed for treatment, and would thus be useless against something that caused instant death, but there were a few classes used for prevention. Immunisation potions, the potions given to pregnant women at risk of early birth to protect their children should it occur, so on and so forth. The difficulty there was that, while there were plenty of theories about how the Killing Curse worked, none of them were proven. How could she protect against something she couldn't identify?
Alternately, she could create a potion designed to be applied to skin or even clothing, like Burn Balm. That seemed simpler - Nora didn't know the recipe, which was a carefully-guarded secret, but there was a particular potion that was applied to Aurors' protective gear that could turn aside some curses - but, since she didn't have a formula to use as a starting-point, she'd probably have to waste a lot of time coming up with ideas.
... Or maybe not. She needed ingredients that would lend themselves to protecting against magic, and it wasn't hard to come up with ideas. Manticore skin repelled magic, as did Acromantula skin, and dragons were known to be highly resistant to spellwork. Possibly not to the point of turning aside the Killing Curse, but wasn't that what potions were about? Taking an ingredient that had a desirable property and making it potent enough to be useful?
Nora began scribbling ideas for potential combinations, heedless of the potential danger inherent in some of those mixes. She could put in the time to dig through her references and rule out the risky ones later, when she didn't have the fire of creation tearing through her. Now was the time for ideas.
The problem with a potion like this was that any combination of ingredients Nora tried would almost certainly blow up in her face.
She needed ingredients with a protective quality - well, that had been easy enough once she'd put her mind to it. The issue was that the bulk of them came from magical animals, which gave them an inherent magical quality. If she could get them to form a stable brew, that would make the finished product very strong, which was exactly what she was aiming for.
If she couldn't get them to form a stable brew, the multiple strong sources of magic would react in a way that boded poorly for anything in the blast radius.
It was for that reason that Nora had spent more time rearranging her lab and setting up runestones she'd purchased from a potions supply shop, designed to create a strong and stable Shielding Charm that wouldn't interfere with nearby brewing, than she had actually doing any brewing. As much as she'd wanted to start working immediately, it just wasn't worth risking the loss of her notebook. Or the lease on her lab. Or herself.
She was ready now, though.
"Experiment one," Nora murmured, watching out of the corner of her eye to ensure her Dictaquill was scribbling away. "Plain water base, boiled in a rough iron cauldron. Ingredients: Manticore hair sliced as small as possible and shredded Acromantula skin, one sixteenth measure each, with one sixteenth snail solution added as stabilising agent and thickener. Additional snail solution kept on hand to be added if potion shows signs of instability. Plain clockwise stir used for stability, starting at half a stir and increasing as necessary."
She paused to begin adding ingredients to the bubbling water. It hissed angrily as the Acromantula skin went in, but didn't show any immediate danger signs.
"No signs of instability so far. Snail solution has produced an acceptably thick potion. Starting stir -"
Violet fire roared up out of the cauldron, singeing Nora's fingers as she leaped away from the danger zone. It hit the upper limit of the runestone shield and stopped, flames licking at the protection, before sullenly dying down as the magic in the potion ran out.
The lab seemed very quiet in the aftermath.
Nora glanced over at her notebook, a reflex born from prior failed experiments at Hogwarts that had absolutely ruined her records, and sighed. The book itself was fine, but the Dictaquill's animation charm seemed to have failed. It wasn't much of a surprise. The shield did an excellent job at keeping any explosive or other reactions contained, but failing potions often let out a small wave of uncontrolled magic immediately before the major reaction, which tended to disrupt enchanted items in the area. The Dictaquill would probably reanimate in time. If it didn't... well, she had a few more. And if worst came to worst Nora could take her own notes.
She fished a pen out of her pocket and began scribbling away.
As suggested by Cracknell's On Reactions, the beginning of the stirring cycle created high volatility by allowing the magical ingredients to contact one another before the stabilising agent was fully mixed in. Probably no way around that other than adding the Manticore and snail solution, mixing, and then adding the Acromantula skin, though that may reduce potency. May be worth considering this technique for future experiments, too, if only for the sake of my Dictaquills. Can use more traditional mixing techniques after confirming whether the potion actually has any utility in its reduced-potency state.
Manticore hair and Acromantula skin, as it turned out, didn't do what Nora wanted. If she added both ingredients first, it'd inevitably explode when she started stirring; if she added the thickener before the second ingredient, it most often created an inert mixture, though on one memorable occasion it created a violent green slop that ate through the bottom of the cauldron before Nora had the wits to vanish it. Not quite what she was going for.
Though Nora did have to admit that the few drops that had hit the floor had left it remarkably clean-looking, far better than she'd been able to manage with a Scrubbing Charm. Perhaps a diluted version might be usable as a heavy-duty cleaning potion? She wasn't in the mood for that kind of work, though, so she scribbled a note and moved on. It'd be there when she started to worry about the rent.
Her second set of experiments, using Manticore hair and ground dragon scales, went somewhat better. Possibly because of the scales - dragon-based potions were rare and mostly focused on more potent agents such as blood, but the few potions Nora could think of off the top of her head that used the scales were quite stable. Association was on her side here. Acromantulae were viewed as dangerous and volatile; scales were part of a strong, interlocking pattern, something that suggested the very opposite.
Unfortunately, 'somewhat better' in this case only meant 'won't explode immediately'. A solid half of Nora's test batches failed the Toxicity Charm, and all of the remainder were, again, inert. It wasn't a total surprise; it was a long-held truism in the potioneering community that potions which derived their effect from multiple magical animal ingredients would more often than not react in a way that made them useless. Nora had tested them anyway, since on the rare occasions that those potions did have an effect the ingredients would react synergistically and create an effect far stronger than expected.
It would have been nice if that had happened. Still, Nora wasn't too disappointed. She'd known going into it that this would be a difficult task, after all; she could hardly expect that she'd solve it this early.
The next step, if she wanted to keep working on the same kind of potions, would be to try to find an adjusted recipe that would make the potion less likely to become inert. The traditional solution here would be to add something highly magically potent, which would theoretically increase the power enough to prevent the other ingredients cancelling out. The ingredients traditionally used for this purpose... well, that was a problem. Dragon's blood, ground unicorn's horn, phoenix ash, and half a dozen other animal-based ingredients; they might work, but it was also entirely possible that they'd interact badly with the Manticore hair and dragon scales.
The obvious solution would be to find something else especially magical she could add instead. The easiest answer would be to use a magical plant, but most of those had a much lower magical quotient than animals did. There were ways around that, of course - using a concentrated essence, or something specially grown in an environment that would increase its power... Mandrakes were quite powerful, come to think of it, though that would bring with it the risk of side effects...
Nora pushed herself back from her desk, closing her notebook firmly as she did. She needed a break.
Maybe now would be a good time to look into that acid potion she'd made earlier.
With her acid potion adjusted and sold - to Mrs Skower's Cleaning Company, a bigger achievement than Nora had expected - she went back to the drawing board reinvigorated. Her shield potion idea was a good one, she was sure of it. She just had to come up with the right adjustment to make it work properly.
The longer she thought about the mandrakes, the more she wondered if it might just work. Mandrakes provided a powerful animating force which made them the backbone of every antidote, reminding the body of the life it still ought to hold. It was a difficult ingredient to add to other recipes, since it tended to cause odd and unpredictable side effects, but that might play in her favour this time - what was this potion supposed to do but continue life in the face of a sure and certain death, after all?
The difficult part would be sourcing it. Fresh mandrake had the greatest effect, but it could only be grown at certain times of the year, and given its use in antidotes there was quite a high demand. Dried mandrake would be much easier to get, but might not have the effect Nora was looking for. She might not have a choice; if there wasn't any fresh mandrake on the market, that would be that. There wasn't any point using up all her money owl-ordering it from Australia.
And of course that raised the question of how much she would need to add. The barest sliver? The whole plant? Perhaps it'd be simpler starting with dried mandrake after all. If it worked she'd know the fresh would too, and there were well-established formulas for converting between fresh and dried mandrake of various ages.
Another advantage to starting with dried mandrake: it gave Nora a lot more room to experiment without having to worry about her bottom line. Since dried mandrake was so much weaker than fresh, potions that used it often couldn't be made in reduced-quantity versions without losing potency. If she'd been making something that had more expensive ingredients that might have been a problem, but not in this case.
A week of scribbling out theories and calculating quantities later, Nora started brewing once more. She was using dragon scales and manticore hair again, since that had been her most successful potion so far; she added them separately, pouring in a large measure of dried mandrake alongside the snail solution, and waited to see the reaction. It was promisingly active - though Nora had to admit she'd flinched a few times as sparks flew up from the roiling surface of the potion.
It hadn't blown up so far, though. That was comforting.
Nora began stirring, glad for her thick dragonskin gloves. It was common, when making unstable potions, to charm one's stirring rod so the brewer could stand back with wand in hand in case of an explosion... but it was bad technique to do that for a new potion. She needed to feel the thickness of the potion, the way it resisted stirring or encouraged it, the vibration of bubbles and roiling magic travelling up her stirring rod - in short, the signs she counted on to tell her whether the mixture of ingredients worked together, or whether something needed to be adjusted.
The potion didn't feel stable, which was unnerving - but at least, with this amount of magic agitating her stirring rod, Nora knew the potion wouldn't be inert. She switched to a figure-eight stirring pattern, hoping it'd stabilise things a little more. There didn't seem to be an obvious change, though.
Except that there was. Little by little she could feel the press of magic on her skin strengthening, as though she was walking towards a bonfire. That... was probably not a good sign. But if it were going to explode the risk would be higher if she stopped stirring - at least this way she had some kind of control over it - so Nora gritted her teeth and kept stirring. Just a few more stirs, that was all she needed, figure-eight stirring always needed to be done to a multiple of eight and she'd done twenty so far. Three more - two - one -
Nora jerked back as the magic came to a crescendo, covering her face with one gloved arm.
Something went blup.
She uncovered her face, cautiously, and saw a thick, pearlescent bubble rising towards the ceiling. It hit the rough stone and bounced slightly, rolling until it hit a divot and coming to a halt.
Nora glanced at the potion. It was much the same colour as the bubble - maybe slightly darker? - and still simmering gently. As she watched, a second bubble stretched at the surface, ballooning out further and further until it fought its way free. It came to a halt on the ceiling next to the first one.
"I suppose it could be worse," Nora muttered. She cast a few diagnostic charms at the potion, frowning. Manticore hair and dragon scales weren't ingredients that usually went into potions for consumption, and this really just reinforced her thought that the potion would have to be applied to something; she didn't want to ask someone to drink something as thick as that. The potion almost looked gelatinous. Surely it hadn't been that thick when she was stirring it?
Possibly the figure-eight stir pattern had been a mistake.
Nora raised her wand to point at the two bubbles bobbing above her, biting her lip. She hadn't ever cast the Killing Curse, and in any case that might be too dangerous a spell to start off with. Maybe... "Stupefy!"
The red jet of light hit the bubble and bounced off it at an angle, ricocheting around the room. Nora ducked beneath her lab table and waited for it to fizzle out, hoping it wouldn't take out any of her ingredients in the process.
That wasn't really an effect she wanted. The Killing Curse was dangerous enough without a ricochet attached; ideally, her shield potion would've absorbed the spell, preventing it from hurting any bystanders. If her potion was being used by one person surrounded by enemies it'd be an acceptable enough reaction, she supposed, but it wasn't a good one.
Well, she'd known mandrake might introduce unexpected side effects; the real question here was how to counteract it. If Nora had just been looking for a potion that created any kind of shielding effect, the obvious choice would have been to reduce the amount of active ingredients she added, but given that in this case she needed to create the strongest shield possible, that wasn't a viable option.
She could go back to the drawing board. Try to find something else that'd create a shielding effect without reflecting spells. But that assumed she'd be able to find something else that would be able to block spells - or that the reflectivity wasn't an inherent side-effect.
Nora began tugging books off the shelf, flicking through them in search of one particular passage she vaguely recalled. Something to do with the nature of offensive magic vs. shields, written by someone who'd actually tried to put it into Muggle terms - aha.
If spells are considered in the context of science - that is, as energy, albeit a type of energy completely foreign to scientific understanding - then the failure states of shield spells become much more understandable. The simplest means of deflecting energy with energy is to change its direction, and so shields that use reflection are the least prone to failure. Those that absorb spells are more difficult to cast and to maintain under spellfire, as the sudden influx of energy tends to disrupt the caster's control and make the spell more vulnerable to breaking or backfiring. Duellists who expect to need to fight alongside companions are therefore advised by most sources to practise their shield spells under heavy fire, so as to improve their control over the spell. This treatise would suggest instead that long practise with a simpler spell might enable the caster to control the reflection of spells that strike it, and -
Nora closed the book slowly, mind racing.
If the author was correct - which he might not have been, it wasn't like Nora knew enough about magic theory to tell - then there might not be a way to make a potion that would absorb spells instead of reflecting them. The magic it absorbed would have to go somewhere, and the most likely destination would be into the person the potion was supposed to protect, with unpredictable results. If it could be set up some distance from the user - say, painted onto a wall - that might be safer, but it would also be harder to stay in the safe zone where their attacker couldn't target them. Even then, the backlash from a spell as powerful as the Killing Curse might destroy what the potion was painted on, or burn the potion to ash, or something else equally destructive. There just wasn't any way around it.
She stared up at the bubbles, still bobbing around on the ceiling, and sighed. What on earth could she do to fix this potion? The ricochets might be more predictable if the potion were painted on a flat surface rather than being a bubble, but that didn't mean they'd be entirely predictable, not by someone in the middle of a fight. If only there were some way to -
Nora blinked. There was an idea there, dancing tantalisingly just out of reach. She needed to change the way the bubbles worked. She needed... something.
The solution came to her as softly as a snowflake.
A Venus flytrap.
Not useful for potions under ordinary circumstances. They had too many side effects, ones that were often dangerous for the drinker, and no real use anyway. If a potioneer wanted a plant that gave properties of movement to a potion, mandrake was much safer. But to make something that wasn't intended for ingestion anyway - something that she wanted to move, to snap closed around a spell and hold it - yes. That would work very well indeed.
After her previous shield spell experiments, Nora had half expected her Venus flytrap addition to cause problems. She'd thought it might change the way the potion worked too much, that she'd have to waste time playing around with quantities and brewing methods. Instead, it had gone easily. Every charm she cast at the cauldron seemed to indicate its magical properties were precisely the same as her last brew. It made her a little nervous - what if the Venus flytrap hadn't had any effect at all? - but that was fixable. And what was the harm if it hadn't worked? She'd just have to make sure to cast her test spell at an angle and be ready to shield herself or leap out of the way if the spell didn't ground itself on one of the walls.
Her testing setup was fairly simple. She'd braced a plank she'd found in the lab's basement against the wall - better not to risk damaging the walls themselves, or contaminating the test with outside magic - and daubed its surface with potion. It gleamed under the lights, providing her with a target that was more than large enough for her to hit.
"Test one," Nora said, loud enough for the Dictaquill she'd set up on a nearby table to catch her words. "In three - two - one -"
Nora took a deep breath, and cast the spell.
Her Stunner hit the circle of potion dead-on. For a moment, nothing seemed to happen; then, as the spell began to ricochet, the potion wrenched itself free of the plank she'd painted it onto and snapped closed around it.
Nora took a cautious step closer. The spell was still ricocheting inside the bubble of potion, just enough red light filtering through its surface to show the movement inside, but it didn't seem to be affecting the outside of the bubble at all. As she watched, it began floating towards the ceiling like the others had.
"Note to self," she muttered, prodding the splintered bits of wood on the floor with one foot. "Paint the potion on something else. Maybe fabric?"
A quiet hum from the ceiling caught her attention, and she glanced up. The bubble containing the Stunning spell had begun to vibrate. As she watched, the glow through its surface became brighter and brighter, and the vibration sped up to the point that the bubble was visibly shaking, and -
When Nora woke up, head aching and the afterimage of a violent red explosion still imprinted on the back of her eyelids, all she could think was that she should have seen that coming.
Nora put the idea of a shielding potion to the side. She still liked the idea, and she suspected there were advancements to be made there, but she wasn't on the right track to find them. Instead she filled her time with odds and ends - small-scale brewing for healers, writing up a few potion modifications for submission to the Guild, and writing up her shield potion experiments for future publishing. She'd rather have had a success to crow about, but experiments and small advancements had their place in academia too. Maybe her failures would lead to someone else's success.
Still, while she puttered around, she couldn't help but dwell on where the shield potion had gone wrong. Just because it hadn't done what she'd wanted it to didn't mean that it was a failure; look at the acid potion she'd made during her first failed attempts at the same result, after all. That was bringing in enough to almost cover her rent. She just had to work out what it could be useful for.
There were already simpler existing potions to create magical bubbles, ones that came with a variety of effects ranging from glowing to dropping a sort of enchanted glitter. There wouldn't be much point trying to break into that market. The one thing that Nora's potion did that they didn't was contain a spell, but as she'd already learned, it would only hold them for so long; sooner or later it'd pop, and the addition of the potion's magic to whatever spell it'd captured would make the spell significantly stronger, and therefore more dangerous to bystanders. Whatever use she put it to would either have to be something where it'd stay a long way away from people, or with a spell that couldn't be dangerous even if it was overpowered. And judging by the Cheering Charm incident that'd put two of the Ravenclaws in her year into the Hospital Wing just before OWLs, it'd be quite difficult to find a spell that'd meet that criteria.
The thought sat in the back of her head, bubbling away, as she worked on one thing and another. Essence of dittany for a Quidditch team that was between brewers and had a bad habit of injuring themselves; a demonstration of her minor changes to the Wart Wort she'd submitted to the Guild; a series of alterations to magical dyes for Zonko's research arm, which they apparently wanted to use for fireworks -
She sent that one in with a hastily-scribbled note about her bubble potion, wondering if anyone would actually read it. A week later, they owled back asking for a sample.
Nora had hoped she'd find something a little more useful she could do with that particular potion. Still, a sale was a sale - and she had to admit, watching their test demonstrations of their new enchanted fireworks bursting out of her bubbles, it was rather nice to have made something so fun. That wasn't an opportunity that came up every day in this business.
Several weeks later, refreshed and ready to work, Nora went back to the drawing board.
How else could she oppose the Killing Curse?
Opposition. Nora tapped her fingers on the table, thinking it through. She'd dug up some old research papers written by people who'd been trying to develop a shielding spell that could hold up against it; most of the theory had gone over her head, but she'd picked up enough to know that one of the popular theories in that small field might be applicable here. They'd called it Elemental Opposition - not a particularly accurate title, since it had very little to do with the old theory of the elements, but it described what they were working with well enough.
In short, it said that particularly powerful spells could only be undone by an equally powerful opposing force. Fiendfyre, for example; it was common for the cursed flame to run out of the control of the wizard who'd summoned it, or to kill them as they attempted to rein it in, and in those cases the most successful way to put it out was for a Charms Master to summon an enormous quantity of water and hold it in place until it suffocated the flames. The same principle was used in the development of shielding charms, apparently, though in that case it was usually a more abstract type of opposition, finding an arithmantic formula that worked on a different... something. Possibly something to do with light. That was about the point that Nora had fallen asleep.
Elemental Opposition hadn't gone anywhere for the spell developers who'd been trying to solve this problem. They'd gone through the complicated arithmantic bits, and then they'd tried to find an obvious opposition, presumably because they knew that sometimes the most obvious solution was the right one. But there wasn't an obvious solution there. The Killing Curse was driven by hate, so they'd gone digging into emotional manipulation spells like the Cheering Charm, but that too had ended unsuccessfully.
But that was an area where potions had the advantage. Potioneers had been creating brews that manipulated emotional states for centuries. There were dozens upon dozens of love potions - which, true, was a misnomer, since none of them created genuine love. That didn't mean they wouldn't work for this.
Nora grabbed one of her reference books off the shelf, flicking rapidly through the pages. The section on love potions was... rather thicker than she remembered. Had there really been that many more invented since the last time she'd glanced through this part of the book? She turned to the front, finding the loose-leaf section at the front labelled New Additions Since Last Opened. It was also rather thicker than she remembered.
"Bloody auto-updating books," Nora muttered, batting at the loose pages as they rose out of the book to hover in front of her. "Surely someone could come up with a design for them that's not utterly obnoxious."
Your subscription will expire in 33 days! Renew today to continue your access to our valuable Potion Auto-Update system! one of the slips of paper helpfully informed her.
"Come back and tell me that when it's actually expired, please." Nora slapped them out of the air and turned back to the love potion section.
Each potion had a small blurb describing its intended effect. Of course, since love potions were intended for commercial sale, their blurbs were fairly useless to someone who just wanted to know how strong they were; every single one was doing its best to describe its potion as the best and strongest on the market, without making it sound as though it crossed a line that might end with a user or its creator arrested for Imperius-Like Mental Manipulation. The end result was that the blurbs were incredibly similar to one another, and boring enough that Nora could barely make herself focus on them.
The recipes were more helpful. Not the be-all and end-all - there were certainly potions out there that had a much stronger effect than a reading of its ingredients would suggest - but love potions were a fairly well-trodden path, and many of the recipes in front of Nora were similar enough in composition that she felt safe assuming they had fairly similar effects too. In fact, it appeared that some of the 'new' patents were nothing more than old recipes reworked to have a different length of effect, ranging from a five-minute infatuation to a whole week starstruck.
Nora lingered over some of the newer additions, a set of potions designed to give the drinker a temporary increase in charisma or perceived attractiveness... but really, they weren't useful for her purposes. An interesting innovation in the field, but they didn't create love any more than the others did; they just reflected the drinker's desire to be loved, even if only briefly. Nora supposed it was possible that she could adapt one of them to increase the user's charisma so much that they were able to order a potential attacker to stop, but that ran into the free-will problem, and the Aurors' dim view of potioneers who created brews that would affect it. And a potion that did that would certainly be abused. Better not to release it into the public sphere at all, ethically speaking.
Eventually she found herself at the back of the section, in amongst the oldest love potions. The ones that'd survived the test of time.
Amortentia couldn't create genuine love any more than the other potions could. But it was generally agreed to come the closest to it, and there were plenty of stories about potioneers marrying someone they'd first met after unconsciously following a smell they'd caught brewing Amortentia. That had to count for something.
The potion would need adjustment, of course; it'd be utterly useless if it kept its primary property of causing the drinker to fall into infatuation with the first person they saw, since that would likely be the person who was attempting to kill them. Though she couldn't adjust it too far lest it lose its potential potency against the Killing Curse...
Nora pulled her notebook over, doodling idly as she thought. The rose petals had to stay; they were far too important symbolically. So did the pearl dust. The moonstone... maybe she could change it out for another stone? It was associated with love too, but having three symbolic ingredients might be too much. Though if she removed it that might alter the base property too far...
Amortentia was a thin potion. Watery, almost, though it tended to thicken upon sitting. Maybe if she added something to thicken it further it'd give it a greater protective effect? Unicorn horn might do it - unicorns were viewed romantically, but the horn was their most dangerous part, the thing they used to fend off attacks. And there were legends of unicorns protecting innocents from harm, too.
Or... maybe asphodel. Nora snatched a reference book off the shelf - yes. Asphodel root had historically been used to make glue, so a less-potent version of it ought to make a perfectly good thickener, and its associations with death might be helpful. Perhaps she could trial both, and see which had a more helpful effect. Unicorn horn first; it was a more commonly used ingredient, so it'd be easier to tell if she was adding too much or too little. The asphodel root would be tricky, too. When used in potions, it was usually only in small amounts, since potions intended to be drunk obviously couldn't be too thick - but in this case, it actually had a symbolic use, so she'd probably need to add more. Without turning the whole potion into an unusually magical glue. It'd be a difficult balance.
Half an hour later, Nora was beginning to regret having chosen the unicorn horn as her first experiment. She tended to treat potioneering as more a science than an art - an unusually artistic science, true, but most ingredient reactions could be predicted to a degree. She'd hoped her animal-based shielding potions would be stable, but she'd known they might not be. The same had been true for many of her other experiments in Hogwarts.
However, sometimes a potion came along to remind Nora that she couldn't predict everything with carefully-mapped reaction tables and references galore. It felt essentially the same as that glorious moment of just knowing a potion was going to work - except in reverse.
In short, Nora knew that this potion wasn't going to have the effect she'd wanted.
It would have bothered Nora less if it had felt as inert as water - as inert as something with unicorn horn in it could get, anyway. It didn't. There was undeniable magic bubbling away in the small golden cauldron in front of her, and she had absolutely no idea what it was going to do.
Not explode. It would have done that already if it were going to - and, say what you would about love potions, they rarely reacted in that way. Their ingredients were chosen to be harmonious, reflecting the desire of the user, rather than the opposing ingredients found in more potent or dangerous potions. Nora also doubted that it was going to turn into acid or anything else potentially dangerous. It just wasn't in the nature of the ingredients.
Even so, when its magic took on a quality Nora couldn't describe as anything but done, she took a few moments to cast identification charms on it. Given what it was, she suspected the only way to really test it would be to feed it to one of her lab rats, and she wasn't about to accidentally poison them. Even if she did have rat-size bezoar pieces to hand. It just wasn't right.
The charms all came up clear, so Nora fished a rat out of the terrarium on the other side of her lab. It squeaked and wriggled as she cast the detection charms on it, and she sighed.
"I know it tickles, but we need those charms in place, remember? I need to know what effects this potion has if it ends up being publishable, and you need me to keep an eye on you just in case. Not that I think this potion is dangerous - it's not like the magic feels like a poison, or anything like that - but better safe than sorry, right?"
There was a reason to be glad she'd struck out on her own: the big commercial labs would probably frown on one of their researchers befriending the lab animals. Nora knew it wasn't a good idea, really. What if she came up with a potion that really might work against the Killing Curse, and needed to test it, and it turned out she'd done it wrong?
It was a pity potions didn't usually work well on spiders. Nora was pretty sure she could kill one of those without feeling too upset about it.
She sighed as she picked up a phial of potion, cooled and ready to use. For all she knew she wouldn't ever find a potion that'd be able to stop the Killing Curse; there wasn't any point in worrying about how she'd cross that particular bridge until she was actually there.
"Here we go," Nora said coaxingly. "Just one drop - there. Now, how do you feel?"
Nothing was lighting up on her panel of monitoring charms just yet. The rat hadn't changed its behaviour, either, which was interesting. If Nora recalled her theory right, the potion ought to have had a fairly quick effect - magical rats tended to react that way, which was part of why they were so common in research - and it ought to have been fairly immediately obvious, too. It either ought to have made the rat fonder of her, indicated by suddenly sniffing at her hands and trying to cuddle against her, or made it try to wriggle out of her hands to get back over to the other rats in the terrarium. This rat wasn't doing either.
Of course, that assumed that the potion was actually acting as a love potion, which wasn't guaranteed. Nora frowned down at the rat. It stared back, whiskers twitching.
With a sigh, Nora began prodding at the monitoring charms. She hated this part, mostly because adjusting them was a pain; she was a great deal better with her wand than she'd been when she'd started at Hogwarts, but it would never be her forte, and these charms were as delicate and finicky as you'd expect from something that potioneers had borrowed from Healers. It'd taken her almost a full year to get a decent grasp on them. Even now, she couldn't help but worry she'd muck them up and lose the information she needed.
The charms obeyed her, though, cycling through a rainbow's worth of colours. Each was clear and steady, without the intermixed colours or variance in brightness that would indicate a change from normal. No change in mood - or temperature - or alertness - or fertility - or general health, or in any of the more specific scans -
Nora couldn't help but scowl as the charm faded away. The only change she'd seen was a slight flicker in the overall magic reading, and that was entirely expected given the rat had recently consumed a potion.
"That's your part done," she said with a sigh, slumping onto her chair and letting the rat go. It scurried across the table, pausing only to sniff at the miscellany scattered across it.
The potion had to have done something. It wouldn't have given off that sense of magic otherwise. Surely adding unicorn horn oughtn't have changed it enough that its magic could be expressed without ingestion? It just didn't make sense. There had -
A sudden scraping sound drew her attention back to the rat. It was still happily exploring the table. Behind it, the crystal vial she'd decanted her potion into was slowly but steadily following.
For a moment, Nora couldn't quite understand what she was seeing. Had the rat managed to catch it in something? A... piece of string? That she hadn't left on the table to begin with?
Then the rat paused to sniff at her tea, and the vial caught up and tipped onto the rat's back.
Nora frowned, perplexed. It was almost like it was attracted -
Oh. Oh, no. Surely it hadn't...
Nora set her head on the table and laughed hysterically.
After a few minutes, sides aching, she managed to calm herself. Clearly she'd needed that. Now -
Looking up, she caught sight of the rat walking across the table with the vial of potion stuck to its back, and collapsed again.
"I think," she choked out, "I'm going to have to call this one the Attraction Potion."
The Attraction Potion didn't make much of a stir on its own when Nora patented it. She had a few inquiries - a builder, an artist hoping to buck the current trend of sculptures that fell to pieces once the Sticking Charm wore off, a charms lab - which might in the long run give her a decent amount of money, if they liked it enough to recommend it to their peers.
The real sales, as it turned out, came from reworking the potion so it only stuck to specific things - like dirt - and then sending a sample to the saleswitch at Mrs Skower's Inc. who'd bought her acid potion. Nora hadn't expected that, less than a year after starting her lab, she'd be making rent money by accidentally developing cleaning products... but who was she to complain?
Bills paid, Nora decided to take a break. She'd been focusing incessantly on her quest to stop the Killing Curse, with only occasional pauses to refine potions she'd discovered for the market, and that wasn't something she could keep up forever. Sooner or later she'd miss something important because she was too worn out to notice it; better to avoid that, if she could.
So she slid her references back onto her bookshelf and allowed herself to rest. There were plenty of interesting articles in Potions Monthly that she'd missed while she was head down in her own work, and letters from friends she had to reply to, and a new restaurant in Diagon she hadn't noticed opening. Nora visited it, doing her best to avoid thinking about work, and of course came away with another idea.
Antidote brewing was a crucial step for most would-be potioneers; it'd driven more than one person out of the field before they'd even taken their NEWTs. They were difficult, fiddly things, easy to ruin, and utterly vital. Any brewer could accidentally poison themselves while working on a new potion, and it was vital that they knew how to save themselves, given the possibility that their new poison might not respond to universal cure-alls like a bezoar.
And what was an antidote but a cure for death itself?
Which begged the question of how one created an antidote for a spell - but Nora believed it was possible. Oh, maybe not the antidote idea, but the Killing Curse had to be beatable. The more research she'd done into spell researchers' previous attempts to create a shield that'd hold up against it, the more convinced she'd become. They'd written of other spells that had once been considered unbeatable, only to fade into obscurity once someone created a counter to them - and if those curses had eventually been beaten, what were the chances that this one wouldn't be? It had to be possible. And Nora would delve into every nook and cranny to find it.
Nora realised, as she flagged a waiter down and asked for a box to hold the rest of her meal, that she wasn't angry about the rejections any more. In fact, now that she thought about it, she hadn't been for a while. The desire to show them and their prejudice was still there. But it'd faded from a forest fire to the barest ember, long since overtaken by the joy of creation and the urge to discover something so groundbreaking that her name would be remembered far after her death. This was something she wouldn't have had in those labs, with their strict specialisations; she would have been stuck in a rut, pinned down to nothing more than improving medical potions, or inventing frivolities that'd sell well enough to appease her employer. She would have missed out entirely on this.
It was a strange feeling to have when she hadn't even spent more than a year out of Hogwarts. Who would she be in another year? Or two? Or ten? Who would she become if she succeeded at this mad quest - or if she failed?
Nora put those existential thoughts to the side as she entered her laboratory. Now wasn't the time to wonder about the future; now was a time for hastily scarfing down her half-portion of lasagne as she flicked through her old Potions notes to refresh her memory on antidote construction, and try to come up with an idea of how she'd create an antidote for something that wasn't a potion.
She'd need mandrake, of course. And... what else? Antidotes were a vast class of potions, and one that didn't adhere to the rules most other potions did; some antidotes were created with ingredients that directly cured the poison they were to treat, while others used a more random-seeming set of ingredients that didn't so much cure the poison as burn it out with sheer magical power. There was a reason that antidote research was a specialised field of potioneering, and one that boasted very few members: they were bloody hard to create. The books Nora had read about the field seemed to suggest that finding the right ingredients for a novel antidote often came down to intuition, rather than choosing ingredients logically and then iterating until they found a successful brew.
What did intuition tell her?
Nora slumped in her chair, staring up at the ceiling. It was stone, still the material of choice for potions labs despite innovations in anti-explosion runestones, and pitted with age. There weren't any epiphanies lurking up there for her.
How did you stop death? Dodging. Healing health problems before they became deadly. Not going near dangerous things, like people likely to start throwing the Killing Curse around.
But how did any of that apply to the problem she was trying to solve? Nora was fairly sure that most reasonable people would dodge if faced with the Killing Curse; applying healing to a corpse was pointless unless she wanted to start playing with necromancy, which wouldn't do anything but get her a visit from the Aurors; and it wasn't like she could use a potion to stop people entering into dangerous situations in the first place.
Nora closed her eyes, scowling. There had to be something here. Hadn't that been intuition? Thinking to use a potion to solve a problem researchers had been grappling with for decades?
Maybe it had been hubris.
No. She blew out a breath, hard, pressing her palms onto the desk in front of her so she could feel the wood under her palms. That was self-defeating thinking, and it wouldn't get her anywhere. She just had to - what? Did intuition come to people like this, on command? Should she try taking a bath like Archimedes had? Or try making another unrelated potion - except she'd already done that. So far, it hadn't brought her anything but Galleons.
Maybe she was going about this the wrong way. Maybe what she ought to do was just start brewing a potion and let her hands do the thinking - except that was a good way to get herself blown up. Maybe she needed to think harder about potions in general, or the Killing Curse in specific, or something, anything -
Nora swung out of her chair and began pacing the length of her lab, legs cramping with the sudden change. Clearly she'd been sitting down too long. The pain wasn't all bad, though; it distracted her from the useless cycle of thoughts dancing inside her brain, running around and around and going nowhere.
There was a solution here. Nora could feel it. All those researchers must have too, staring down centuries of allegedly unbeatable spells falling one by one, staring at their own equations and theories and finding nothing they could use - but it didn't matter that they'd failed, because she wouldn't.
She turned when she reached the far wall, striding back towards her workstation with deliberately loud footsteps. Was an antidote really the right choice? It felt a little like teaching a toddler to read using Shakespeare. Maybe it'd be better to take a run at something easier first before she went for the big leagues.
What, in this context, counted as 'easier'? Nora had already been through the obvious choices. Other than healing potions, she supposed, but most of those were designed to be used after an injury... though, come to think, not all were. There were potions to immunise against nearly every infection known, magical and Muggle. Not that the Killing Curse counted as a kind of infection, but...
"It really says something," Nora murmured, "when immunising someone against a curse is the easier idea."
Though she wasn't quite sure that it was. Most immunisation potions worked in much the same way that Muggle vaccines did, since the first potion in the class had been developed by a Muggleborn potioneer who'd been appalled to discover that wizards had completely ignored the recent, and groundbreaking, advances in Muggle medicine. There were a few potions that bucked the trend - largely those developed prior to Muggle vaccination - but for the most part, they worked on lines that'd be familiar to any doctor.
Looking at those older vaccines - now, that might be an idea. The potioneers who'd developed them hadn't known precisely how those diseases were transmitted, but they had known that those who survived infections were usually resistant to them afterwards. Their solution had been to create a potion that mimicked the effects of whatever 'curse' the illness gave its sufferers, in the hope that it'd teach their magic to overcome the disease. It hadn't always worked, but for some diseases - particularly ones that were more magical in nature, and only attacked witches and wizards - they had been a miracle cure.
Those potioneers hadn't stopped trying when it turned out only some diseases could be prevented using those potions, of course. The next attempt to end magical disease had been more purely practical; if they couldn't trick the sufferers' bodies into preventing the infection in the first place, they'd strengthen them instead, which would in theory allow their magic to burn out the infection before it could settle in.
It hadn't been a particularly good solution, in the end. That class of potions could be stunningly effective under the right conditions; the problem was that the 'right conditions' were extremely narrow. The drinker had to be reasonably healthy, the potion needed to be administered at precisely the right time, neither too far before the potential infection nor too close to it, the potions themselves tended to lose efficacy within weeks after brewing... That class had been almost entirely superseded by immunisation potions when they were invented.
Only almost entirely, of course. They were still used to prevent infection when the drinker needed to travel to an area where they were likely to be exposed to endemic disease they had no immunity to, since prevention was, as always, far better than a cure.
That might be a direction Nora could go in. Rather than trying to create a physical shielding effect, just... ensure whoever drank the potion would be able to withstand it. It probably wouldn't be a pleasant experience - part of the reason those potions were only useful in healthy patients was that burning out infection like that was a drain on both body and magic, and trying to prevent something like the Killing Curse would probably be even more so - but it might give the drinker an opportunity to escape, or let someone else take down their assailant while they were distracted casting a powerful and draining curse.
So. How would she burn out the Killing Curse? This wasn't something she could fudge by just throwing a garden-variety potion at it. No, she'd need something that was actually designed for the purpose. Something that'd work against it.
The Killing Curse was supposed to work by severing the connection between the body and the soul. Supposed to - it wasn't something that could really be studied in a lab - but that was what every study of it had concluded in the end. It didn't damage any part of the body. It killed magical and Muggle alike. What else could it be doing? And it wasn't as though souls were an entirely theoretical construct, either, given that ghosts very plainly existed.
Creating a potion that affected the soul would be... problematic.
Soul magic was not technically illegal, in much the same way that running a careful exchange-rate fraud through Gringotts and a few Muggle banks wasn't; which was to say that if anybody ever got caught doing it, they'd feel the full force of the Aurors' might, and find themselves up in front of the Wizengamot on any charges the Aurors could make stick. Nora was fairly sure the only reason soul magic wasn't entirely banned was that it was, so far, a purely theoretical field. She'd be surprised if it was actually entirely theoretical - humans were by nature curious and inclined to push the boundaries of what was considered possible just to see what happened, so surely someone must have tried it - but since nobody had ever actually been stupid enough to publish their results, there was no way of knowing.
Creating a potion that was designed to strengthen the soul against removal might count as soul magic. Maybe. It'd really depend on the mood of whichever authority figure found out and came to deal with her, and on how well Nora could argue her case. It wouldn't be the first time a spell or potion that ought technically to be illegal ended up being shuffled into a different legal category because it was too useful to be banned. The Aurors would want something like that on the occasions they went up against someone prepared to use lethal force. Healers would, too, if it worked against any kind of death and not just against the Killing Curse -
- if Nora could create it.
Which would be the difficult part.
What would she need? She could start with a generalised healing potion, maybe, something designed to strengthen the body. But that might tip the balance too far away from the soul itself.
What was known to affect the soul? Dementors - but that was precisely the opposite of what she needed. Patronuses, then, though distilling one of those into a potion might be difficult. And phoenix song was said to touch the soul, too. Nora wasn't sure how literally that could be taken, never having heard one sing herself, but perhaps it could be useful somehow. If she could actually source any phoenix materials. Which would likely be easier said than done, since she vaguely recalled from Care of Magical Creatures that phoenixes were supposed to be quite difficult to locate, and as a result not particularly useful to the potions industry. Their feathers were used in wand-making, which suggested there was at least one source for phoenix materials out there. Though Nora had to admit she'd always thought Ollivander's insistence on only using three wand cores a bit ridiculous, given how few phoenix feathers he must actually have.
... Ash. Phoenix ash was on the market, at a frankly exorbitant price. It was only used in healing potions, for much the same reason as phoenix tears were: it was incredibly powerful. Ash created by the rebirth of an intensely magical creature, one that literally could not die, only be reverted to its youth? There wasn't a better source of healing symbolism out there.
So. Phoenix ash. Phoenix tears were a physical healing agent, so they'd be better left out. Maybe mandrake? Its liveliness would be helpful. Unicorns were viewed as creatures of purity and the antithesis of darkness, which ought to be helpful against an inherently Dark curse, but -
Nora bit her lip. Unicorn horn would make sense. Unicorn hair was typically only used for external applications, blood was obviously right out... but horn just felt wrong. Something about it wouldn't fit, for some reason her backbrain was refusing to tell her.
Hooves? No. What else did unicorns produce? Nobody used bone or flesh - they were every bit as cursed was the blood was, even if taken from a unicorn that'd died naturally. Unicorn tears were reputed to work in a similar manner to phoenixes' tears, if less powerfully, but they were so absurdly rare that it hadn't ever been tested in laboratory conditions. Unicorns were smarter than horses, but frankly that didn't say much, and they certainly didn't have the understanding of the human condition that phoenixes did. When a phoenix wept, it meant something.
Nora decided to put that particular problem to the side for the moment and consider her other ingredients. Or the base, perhaps. Most ordinary potions were brewed in plain water, but often healing potions used something else instead - for example, a Fever Reducer, which used water that had been steeped with willow bark for a minimum of three days beforehand. And she'd certainly need something more powerful than water for this potion. She wasn't sure what she could use - most healing potion bases used an ingredient that was otherwise therapeutic. Ginger for nausea, willow bark for its antipyretic property, mint to reduce stomach cramps... but what could she use that would affect the soul? A cup of tea?
Though perhaps that wasn't too far off. Maybe she could use something that had an emotional effect. St John's Wort was often used to treat what Healers often referred to as 'melancholia', though it was a difficult herb to work with, prone to interacting with other potions and herbs for no apparent reason. Which was more of a problem with something intended for everyday use than a one-shot protection potion, but if there was one thing Slughorn had drilled into her when he'd found out she wanted to become a potioneer, it was that she could never, ever assume a layperson wouldn't buy her potion and misread the instructions. Creating something that didn't need a Healer's scrip to buy that could be dangerous if over-consumed or mixed with other potions would come back to bite her, sooner or later.
Perhaps not St John's Wort, then. But then what -
Nora couldn't help the smile spreading across her face as she thought it through. Unicorn dew was more often used as an additive to potions than a base, largely because of its expense; it could only be collected using an archaic form of the Summoning Charm, before dawn, from the hide of a healthy unicorn that lived in a strongly magical area. The charm used to collect it stripped out any possible contaminants, leaving only pure, strongly magical water.
Merlin. It was a good thing she'd sold plenty of potions already. Bulk quantities of unicorn dew, phoenix ash, fresh mandrake... if she hadn't had money stashed away, that could have been enough to bankrupt her. Especially since she didn't have any idea yet what ingredient ratios she'd need.
Maybe it was time to break out the extra-small cauldrons.
Potions were usually simpler to create in larger quantities, due to the Stirring Principle: all potions needed to be stirred a certain amount in order to ensure the ingredients were mixed fully, all parts of the potion were heated equally, and any magic the brewer needed to add to activate it went through all parts of the potion. The smaller the amount of liquid, the less stirring needed to occur to ensure the potion came together correctly, and the higher the risk that over-stirring would ruin the potion. It was possible to calculate how many stirs a smaller potion would require, of course. Nora had practised it plenty of times at Hogwarts. But the smaller the potion, the more finicky those calculations became, and the higher the likelihood was that the stir quantity would end up being something ridiculous like one and two-thirds of a stir.
Luckily, Nora had spent enough time experimenting with small-quantity potions over the years that she could manage fractional stirring with ease. If she ever published she'd have to convert to full-cauldron quantities in case laypeople decided to try her potion out, but for the moment she was quite capable of making her new potion in the smallest - and therefore cheapest - quantity possible.
Which meant... how much? Nora dug through her storage cupboards, pulling out the smallest gold cauldron she had, and winced. It'd still require an uncomfortably large amount of unicorn dew. This potion had better have some kind of useful effect. She'd hate to spend that much money and end up with something utterly useless.
Still... she had a good feeling about this. It was worth trying, at the very least.
It had been easy.
That unsettled Nora, just a little. Everything hadn't quite gone to plan - the experiments she'd expected to take a few weeks had stretched out over months instead thanks to ingredient supply problems, and the gold cauldron had reacted poorly to the mandrake so she'd had to buy a tiny silver one to use instead, and working out the right quantities of ingredients to add had taken a lot of effort and a dive back into Arithmantic principles she'd hoped never to touch again after her NEWTs - but here she had it: a tiny crystal phial of potion, almost complete. The last step, she'd concluded, would be to sit it in a Patronus and see if anything changed.
Nora hadn't ever managed to create a corporeal Patronus herself. She'd had a good crack at it at Hogwarts, since it was supposed to be worth quite a lot of points on the Charms or DADA NEWTs, but all she'd ever gotten was a puff of fog. She suspected it was because all her happiest memories involved successes at the brewing stand, and as a result she couldn't think too hard about them without getting distracted thinking through how she'd gotten there.
She'd never been too upset about it. It wasn't as though Nora was actually likely to run into a Dementor or Lithifold, and if she did, Patronus fog would be enough of a distraction for her to Disapparate and find an Auror to deal with the problem.
Now, of course, that would be an issue. Luckily, 'find an Auror to deal with the problem' was still a viable solution.
"This is the weirdest potions-related problem you've ever asked me to fix," Colin Perkins informed her as he opened his flat's door, gesturing her inside. "Yes, I am including the exploding Flobberworm incident in that list."
"That wasn't actually my fault," Nora said, trying not to grin as she followed him in.
"If you tutor someone so badly they manage to explode Flobberworms? Yes, it is."
"It was the first session!"
Colin dropped into a armchair, flinging his arms wide dramatically. "They exploded again when I tried to Vanish them! I got Flobberworms in my hair, Nora! In my hair!"
Nora couldn't hold back her giggles any longer. She braced herself on the wall, trying to get out a retort, but lost the battle entirely when Colin Summoned the couch into the back of her legs, knocking her onto the cushions.
"You need to get out of your lab more often," he said once she'd calmed down. "If only so I have moral support when one of my sisters gatecrashes Saturday drinks and starts flirting with someone."
"Does it bother you that they inherited all the flirtation skills and you didn't get any?" Nora asked, lips twitching.
"I changed my mind. You're rubbish at being moral support."
"You're probably right about the drinks, though," Nora said, sitting up. "I just get distracted. And there's been a lot to be distracted about."
"Right. Your weird mystery potion that needs a Patronus." Colin drew his wand, watching as Nora set the phial on the carpet, and then cast with an ease that suggested he'd been practising. "How long do you need me to do this for?"
"How long do you think you can keep it up for?"
"What is this, a competition?" He settled back in his seat, rolling his wand through his fingers. "We've got to be able to keep a Patronus going for a minimum fifteen minutes to graduate, just in case we ever have to face down a Dementor. I suppose this is good practice."
They sat in silence for a few minutes. Colin's Patronus shifted occasionally, stretching its wings or shaking its head, but didn't shimmer into nothingness - yet, anyway.
"Do you really think you can do this?" Colin asked eventually, voice soft.
"No idea," Nora said, shrugging. "But there's no harm in trying. At the very least, I've gotten some interesting potions out of it."
"I guess you would've." He glanced over at her. "What happens if you get one that seems like it's going to work?"
"What do you mean?" Nora had a sinking feeling she knew what he was getting at.
"Well, you'll have to test it, right? Which means actually casting the Killing Curse."
"Yes." Nora had been trying not to think about that part. "I... I suppose it's not actually illegal to cast it on an animal. Though I expect your lot would think that was suspicious all the same. I just don't know if I could actually do it."
She wasn't bad at spellwork, exactly. But it'd never taken her attention the way potions had. And she had a sneaking suspicion the Killing Curse wouldn't be easy to cast.
"One of our trainers has permission to cast it," Colin said. He didn't meet her eyes. "Not that - it's sort of a secret - but we have to know what it looks like, right? And obviously she doesn't do it on people."
"Obviously," Nora echoed. It made sense. She'd bet the Killing Curse wasn't the only thing that Auror had permission to cast, either; an Auror on a mission getting caught by the Imperius had to be something they all dreaded, and she was fairly sure one of the treatises on the Unforgivables she'd read had mentioned something about it being possible to learn to resist it. That level of preparation would probably be considered paranoid by most people, but it wasn't like they'd have advance warning when some dark wizard with a flair for Unforgivables would come on to the scene.
"I could ask if she'd help test it," Colin went on. "I reckon she'd say yes. Maybe this potion of yours won't work, but if it did..."
"So far I haven't had very good luck," Nora said. "Just so you know. It's been interesting, though. I'm beginning to think all apprentices should be asked to try to come up with a way of achieving something impossible - it's awfully good practise in learning to think creatively."
"Please don't give the trainers any more ideas," Colin said, grimacing. "They really, really like trying to teach us to think creatively."
"I must be on to something, then."
"Or you're just as mad as they are." Colin let out a long sigh. His sparrow Patronus turned to look at him, cocking its head.
"Something wrong?" Nora asked.
"Oh, it's just... it bothers me a bit, sometimes. I still want to be an Auror - someone needs to be there to stop dark wizards, right? - but sometimes the way some of the purebloods in the office talk gets to me. I suppose you've been too head-down in your cauldrons to pay attention to the news, but there was a march not that long ago. Squibs wanting better protections under the law. And that's fair, right? They get treated like shit by the purebloods. And now they're getting all upset. Acting like the Squibs are all dark wizards or some such nonsense. Like that's what we're here for!"
Nora nodded, feeling rather useless. What was she supposed to say? Agreeing with Colin felt rather useless, given that they'd built their friendship in large part on rolling their eyes at the magical world's inbuilt prejudices. And he was right - she had managed to completely miss that there was anything unusual happening outside her lab.
"Surely they don't all agree?" she ventured. "It's not like they would have hired you if they really thought all that blood purity rubbish was true."
"No," Colin said, sighing again. "No, they don't. The higher-ups - well, they can't stop the gossip, but they don't agree with it. What they're worried about is that some blood purist with a taste for dark magic will take it upon themselves to crush the rallies."
Nora licked her lips. "The purebloods couldn't be that upset."
"I don't know. It's not like they'd tell me. But historically speaking - oh, don't make that face, I know you failed History of Magic but it's not like this is complicated - historically speaking, whenever a society makes progress in some area and there's a powerful faction that's offended by that progress, sooner or later there's a reaction. Not necessarily a violent one, but... it's a possibility. And there's been muttering, you know. A few people reckon that when it comes it might end up being more than just one person in the backlash."
Nora didn't answer him. She hated the idea that he might be right, but - surely it couldn't be that likely. Maybe there'd be one or two people, maybe someone conservative would try to run for Minister - who was it now? Jenkins? She knew it wasn't Nobby Leach, he'd left last year - but surely the Aurors were just being cautious.
Something shifted in the corner of her eye. Nora turned, surprised, and saw Colin's Patronus was gone.
"Damn." Colin shook his head. "There's no way that was fifteen minutes."
"Only nine," Nora agreed.
"That will never not be weird. You know that, right?"
Nora shrugged. "Do you know how many potions have specific timing requirements? Having a good sense for time is practically a requirement for serious potioneering."
"Nope! Which is why I'm an Auror, not a potioneer." Colin shot her a grin.
"Didn't you have to have a Potions NEWT to get into the program? I'm sure I heard you complaining about that, once or twice or a hundred times." Nora picked up the phial of potion, wondering if there'd be any way to tell the difference short of testing it. Did it feel more magical, or was that her imagination?
"Yes, and I forgot all that once I had my NEWTs done and dusted. I don't need to know how to brew a poison to be able to identify it, right? It's just one of those bureaucratic things. Like, my sister - the one who's a pharmacist - she had to do calculus for her degree, and she's never used it once! You'd think whoever sets the requirements for these things could think about what skills the Auror on the ground is actually going to use, right?"
Nora nodded and muttered something she hoped sounded encouraging. Colin had done a much better job than she had of keeping up with the Muggle world - probably because he had so many non-magical sisters - and she knew from experience that admitting she didn't know what he was talking about would just lead to detailed, occasionally incomprehensible explanations. She didn't really need to know what calculus was or what relationship it had to the work of a pharmacist to be able to nod along with his rant.
Admittedly, the horrified noises Colin usually made when Nora admitted to misunderstanding something in the Muggle world were usually pretty entertaining. Maybe she should try to make it to one of those drinks nights, sometime when she wasn't so preoccupied with a potion; she hadn't done an especially good job at keeping up with her old classmates after they'd graduated from Hogwarts. It'd be nice to see some familiar faces.
"Do you reckon it did anything?" Colin asked, coming over to her to peer at the phial.
"No idea. When do you think you could ask that Auror about the Killing Curse?"
Colin shrugged. "I'm pretty sure she's on duty today. Want to take a trip to the Ministry?"
Nora tucked the phial into a pouch on her belt. "Why not."
"Stand clear," Auror Johnson directed, voice steady.
Nora thought that was rather unnecessary. She and Colin were in a separate room entirely, watching Johnson and one of the rabbits the Aurors kept around for demonstrations through a pane of magically-enhanced glass. She supposed she couldn't blame the Aurors for wanting to make entirely sure there weren't any accidents, though.
The rabbit fell onto its side and lay still. The monitoring charms hovering in the air above it flickered madly for a moment, then showed what Nora had feared: death. No heartbeat, body temperature dropping. No breathing. No anything.
For a moment, she wanted to scream. This one had felt right. It had been going somewhere, and now - now - how was she ever going to do this? There had to be a way to beat it, she knew that, but -
"Hold on," Johnson called. She fetched another rabbit and cast the same set of charms on it that Nora had put on the first one, wand only faltering a moment as she traced out what must have been unfamiliar spells. Then she stepped back and cast the Killing Curse again. "Hm. Thought so."
"What is it?" Colin asked.
"Here -" She stepped into the observation room, casting a spell Nora didn't recognise on the glass and drawing up an image of the two rabbits at the moment of their deaths. "Watch the charms."
One rabbit died, and the spells died with it. One rabbit died, and the spells... did something else.
"I don't think that's what you were hoping for," Johnson said, glancing at Nora. "But it's definitely doing something. Might be worth taking it to one of the specialist potioneers in St Mungo's and seeing if they think they could make something of it."
"Oh," Nora managed. "I -" She'd been so ready to dismiss it. Hadn't she learned yet that every potion had some kind of use? And if Johnson really thought it was worth taking to St Mungo's, to the potioneers whose life work was finding a way to cure the uncurable and preserve life just one moment more - "Thank you."
"It's nothing." Johnson lingered a moment more, eyes meeting Nora's. "If you ever do find a potion that does what you're looking for - I'll test it for you. We might need it, sometime soon."
"Thank you," Nora repeated. She sank down onto a spindly chair after Johnson left. "I thought I was so close."
"Well, it did something useful, right?" Colin said, shrugging. "Come on. You can send a letter off to St Mungo's when you're back at your hidey-hole. And tomorrow night, you're coming out. Don't you dare forget. I'll drag you out of your lab if I have to."
"All right," Nora said, grinning. "I get it. I'll take a break, just for one night."
"How about one night a week? It's entirely reasonable. Won't affect your plans to change the world at all."
"I'll consider it," she said primly, ducking past him to the door, "if you agree not to make me take part in any drinking contests."
"That was once! And yet you've brought it up every time I've invited you out for years afterwards -"
So maybe the test hadn't gone as planned. But that didn't mean it had gone badly.
And after all, Nora had all the time in the world to find what she was looking for.
(Eight years later, a Muggleborn by the name of Lily Evans came to visit her lab.
It was Christmas holidays, the traditional time for would-be apprentices who were still at Hogwarts to go scouting for potential masters. Nora was surprised by the visit; she rarely got applicants for apprenticeships, let alone from someone with Evans' obvious potential. But here she was, staring around the lab with delight in her face.
"I didn't think there was anywhere like here," Evans said, one outstretched hand not quite touching a Bunsen burner.
"You won't find another." Nora watched her for a moment, and then decided it was worth asking. "How did you find me?"
Evans turned to grin at her. "I was warned off you by the staff at one of the other places I visited, actually. They said your 'dangerous Muggle ideas' might contaminate me. As soon as I heard that, I knew I had to come."
"They're not wrong," Nora said. "Working with me might be the death-knell for your career."
It wasn't all bad, of course. Only other potioneers knew what she was doing, and they were all too afraid to try to blow the whistle on her Mugglish ways for fear the Ministry might compare her achievements to theirs and decide that perhaps a little Muggle innovation wasn't so bad. So she floated along on recipe sales and the occasional contract for potion refinement, not making nearly so much money as the larger labs did but, as a result, able to fly under the radar.
An apprentice might change that. An extra pair of hands and another imaginative mind might let Nora compete with the larger businesses - and if Lily Evans' marks were any guide, she had the sort of brilliance that would take her anywhere she cared to go.
"Who cares about careers when there's discoveries to be made?" Evans asked. But a moment later her bright smile faded as she stuffed her hands in her pockets. "Though I should warn you - I'm not at all certain I'll be taking on an apprenticeship at all. I want to, I really do - though I can't make up my mind between this and Charms - but..."
"There's a war on," Nora finished.
A Gryffindor, and a Muggleborn. It made far too much sense. Evans wouldn't stand aside, not when lives were at risk.
"You can save people with potions too, you know," Nora pointed out.
Evans met her eyes steadily. "I know. But there aren't enough people willing to stand up to them. Someone has to do it. And it's not like I'd be in much less danger - I've made myself enough of a nuisance to the would-be Death Eaters at Hogwarts I'd be surprised if one or two of them weren't planning on tracking me down once the teachers aren't watching them any longer. Honestly, I might be putting you in danger if you took me on."
Nora wanted to argue. But she'd never been any good at that sort of thing, especially not when she was arguing with a stranger.
"Don't give up hope just yet," she said instead. "And there's no reason you couldn't still do an apprenticeship." She didn't see any point addressing Evans' worries about her classmates. It wasn't impossible that she was correct - teenagers were quite capable of that kind of cruelty and pettiness - but Nora doubted the Death Eaters would be all that interested in a small-time potioneer. If they were actually aiming to make an impact on magical Britain, they needed to attack much flashier targets than her.
"Maybe," Evans said, sounding unconvinced. But then: "I did mean it in the letter when I said I was interested, though. You've made so many discoveries."
"Well, why don't I show you around a little more?"
Evans was far more familiar with Nora's Muggle methods and equipment than she would have expected from a girl who'd spent the past five years at Hogwarts. It made for a pleasant tour, full of insightful questions and quick-fire debates about the various methods they'd both developed to improve their potions. Nora became more and more impressed with Evans the longer they talked, despite the girl's insistence that many of her discoveries had been collaborative.
"There's no harm in that," Nora said, guiding her past a bookcase stacked high with annotated references and personal notes that Evans was eyeing. "Society likes to paint a picture of the lone creator driven by passion for the art, but in truth the experience is much slower and much more collaborative than anyone would like to believe."
"You work alone," Evans pointed out.
"Not by choice. I would have been happy to do a more traditional apprenticeship, if only my would-be teachers had been more open-minded. Now, I imagine you're wondering what this is."
She'd stopped them in front of a glass-fronted cabinet, filled with a mixture of potions bottles, notes, and reference photos.
"I am, a little."
"This is the Cabinet of Failures." Nora gestured expansively at it. "I'm sure Hogwarts taught you to view failures as pointless. You don't get good marks for them, after all. But in the real world, failures are useful. They can show you where you're going wrong, help you to work out where you should aim your next attempt - and sometimes they can even turn out to be useful in their own right. That list in the top corner holds all the potions that used to be in here, until I realised I could adapt them into something I could sell. It almost never turns out to be what I'd actually wanted from them, but that's research for you."
"There's plenty of examples of that in the Muggle world," Evans agreed absently. "There's so much in here."
"Well, I've been doing this for a while." Nora understood why most ordinary labs didn't bother keeping a record of potions experiments that weren't immediately useful - the average lab would turn out a lot of them, most with only tiny variations from the originating potion, and in her experience most people didn't enjoy having their failures sitting in plain view - but she couldn't help but love the Cabinet. Here was a map of her progress, of every thought she'd ever had and every experiment she'd tried, every step she'd made forwards.
Also, refining her old experiments into sale-ready potions made an excellent distraction when her progress towards defeating the Killing Curse seemed hopeless. And it made an excellent source of Galleons, too.
"What's this one?" Lily asked, tapping the shelf below a phial of thick, pearly potion.
"Love potion variant. Didn't do what I wanted, but I'll figure out a use for it eventually." Nora wasn't sure what she'd use it for, frankly; powerful love potions ran the risk of being regulated out of saleability, while weak ones were a knut a dozen and worthless as a result.
"What did you want it to do? Love potions aren't particularly useful."
Nora smiled at her, pleased at the insight. "Something quite different, actually. Before I continue, I should remind you of the contract you signed before stepping in here -"
Evans was already nodding. "Trade secrets?"
"Not quite. But if I actually succeed in this mad plan, I'd like it to be a surprise to everyone who doubted my methods." Nora took the phial down, hefting it in her hand. "I want to find a way to defeat the Killing Curse."
"With a potion?"
Nora snorted. "Every spell researcher in Britain has tried their hand at the job and failed. Why not a potion? Sunburn Solution does a perfectly good job of protecting the drinker, after all, even if the bulk of medical potions are used after the fact. And they say the extraordinarily protective effect of an Auror's gear is enhanced by a potion that's applied to the clothing before it's charmed, though I can't verify that, never having worked in the Ministry."
Evans frowned, looking less annoyed than abstracted. "We've been studying area-of-effect defensive charms this last term in Defence. You can strengthen them by linking them to runes carved in the area you're protecting, and you can strengthen those by painting a potion over them, or even just shortcut the carving part by drawing the runes in potion to start with, though that affects longevity... maybe you could do something similar with that."
"Maybe," Nora said. "That's not my area of expertise, honestly. But it's a moot point, since that particular potion was a dead end."
Evans flicked Nora a questioning glance, and at her nod took the phial from her hand, holding it up to the light. "What was the original base?"
"What do you think?"
Evans tipped the phial from side to side, watching the shimmering potion drip sluggishly, then cast a few well-executed diagnostic charms on it. Finally she uncorked the vial and sniffed it delicately.
"Amortentia? Though there's something flowery in there I don't recognise."
"Precisely. The flower is asphodel. It's acting as a thickener, among other uses." Nora took the phial back from her. "Any guesses why?"
"It's certainly not what I would have expected, but I suppose you've already tried the obvious solutions." Evans tapped a finger against her lower lip. "One of the reasons the Unforgivables are treated more harshly than other Dark spells is that the caster has to have a genuine desire to harm their victim. Shielding charms and counter-jinxes often work on a principle of opposition... is that what your thought was? Opposing hate with love?"
Nora sighed. "It was. Though perhaps Amortentia was the wrong choice. It doesn't create genuine love, after all, just a strong infatuation... not that there's a potion that does."
"But if there were, it would work."
"It might work," Nora said, amused despite herself. She'd been that confident once, hadn't she?
"It would work," Evans repeated. "It fits. I - haven't you ever had that moment when everything falls together and you just know something's going to work? It doesn't matter whether or not you've actually made the potion, you just know, and then once it's done it works out exactly how you thought it would?"
"Once or twice," Nora said slowly. It's a gift, that kind of insight, the sort that cropped up rarely. Nora, like most potioneers, did her discovery the hard way... but she'd occasionally been granted that gift, and it'd always worked out.
What a waste it would be for Evans to die fighting that maniac, with that kind of a talent for potions development.
"Here," Nora said, coming to an abrupt decision. She took down the much-amended recipe for the Amortentia variant and tapped it with her wand to duplicate it. "Take this. See what you make of it."
"Oh - I couldn't -"
"I'm not doing anything with it," Nora said with a shrug. "If you find something and publish it, it'll be both our names on the patent - and frankly, even if it weren't, it'd still be a win for the scientific method. That was all I ever wanted, really."
"If you're sure," Evans said. She was clutching the recipe tight despite her uncertain words, eyes roving over it greedily.
(Lily Evans never applied for an apprenticeship - not with Nora, or with anyone else. Nora saw her name occasionally in the Prophet and mourned for what might have been, and for the way the war was laying waste to a generation of potential innovators. It made a nice distraction from the anxiety spinning around her brain, growing worse and worse with every random, senseless attack she heard about. She wasn't a fighter, maybe she should leave - but it'd be nearly impossible to pack up her lab - but she could die - but if the Death Eaters raided her lab and found what she was forced to leave behind they could use it for themselves - where would she even go - did the Death Eaters even have any idea she was here, anyway -
Four years later, Nora received a letter.
It was, in truth, somewhat more than that. There was a cover letter from a man Nora hadn't met, presumably a friend of Evans', who wrote with a stilted tone she associated with grief; a recipe in her own hand; a journal full of notes, dissections of the recipe she'd given Evans, theories, experiments with changes ranging from minute adjustments to recipes that were so different they were nearly unrecognisable, lists of the potential advantages and problems with drinking the potion versus painting it onto a surface -
Lily left instructions asking whoever survived her to return this to you, should the worst happen, the letter read. She wanted to ensure it stayed in safe hands. I'm no potioneer, but given what little I read skimming through her notes, and what happened to Lily, I'm inclined to agree.
Evans had been right. The potion had worked.
Not well enough for Nora's tastes, though. Evans had still died, which means that however she'd used the potion in the end, it had either taken her life as price, or failed in one of two trials, or had some fault that had meant only Evans' son had been able to use it.
Nora flipped to the last page of the journal. There was nothing particularly useful there, no final recipe revision or record of a successful experiment. Still...
Perhaps someday Nora would publish the recipe. Perhaps it'd be successful enough to get her and Evans the recognition they deserve.
For now, though, Nora put the journal in the Cabinet of Failures, to wait until her back-brain had enough time to stew on Evans' amendments to her recipe and come up with an original thought or two. The war was over. She could afford to take her time.
She'd crack the mystery someday.)