1945

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While Hermione was made anxious by the prospect of upcoming exams, she agonised over the letter she sent to her mother regarding her unexpected engagement to Tom Riddle. Because it was, well, rather unexpected. One moment he was kissing her, the next moment she was kissing him back to "let lips do what hands do", for they had been holding hands for so many years, and she'd been reading Shakespeare for even longer than that, and as a little girl had wondered—Complete First Folio open on her lap—what it must feel like to taste the mannerly devotion of the good pilgrim's prayer.

It tasted... good. Tom was gentle, unexpectedly patient, and unlike other boys she knew, brushed his teeth without needing to be reminded of it, so there were no mossy teeth and furry tongues intruding into the memory of her perfect first kiss. For it was perfect, that brief moment of voiceless dialogue, a communication of lips and hands devoid of the untidy ambiguity of spoken English. Then the moment after the moment had happened, and Tom had decided they must be married at once, and Hermione, confronting him afterwards, and the day after, and the day after the day, had been returned again and again to the same patient argument Tom had used from the first:

"I would have no one else... Only you."

Tom had appended a second question to that.

"If not me, would you have another?"

Her response of "No" sent Tom into wild paroxysms of unsuppressed triumph, because if she agreed with him on this count, then she must agree with him on the next one: marriage. It was only logical. Hermione was logical. Therefore, Hermione must concur.

It wasn't even that she disagreed with the idea of being married to Tom Riddle; she simply found it most peculiar that no one else at Hogwarts saw the oddity that was two eighteen-year-olds getting married of their own volition, without even a long-standing betrothal contract or threat of National Service hanging over their heads to expedite such a consequential decision. Tom had dismissed it as her middle class sensibilities, for it was a known historical fact that upper class youths, both Muggle and wizard, married young when their station allowed them the security of income to keep their own homes. Tom's mother had married at eighteen, his grandmother was engaged at nineteen—and still happily married, at that—so he felt certain, being genetically predisposed to knowing what he wanted and how to have it, that there was no use in putting it off.

To deny him his rightful place at her side was equivalent to denying a bird the joyful expression of the open air. They were both seeking what was in their nature to be and do. Melodramatic as always, was Tom. And persuasive as ever.

"When you're a Riddle, you won't be middle class anymore," Tom reminded her. "So it doesn't matter what the middle class milieu of Crawley think of it, if they assume you're in a family way or dodging your citizen's duty. That includes your parents, by the by. You're a witch, they're not. That middle class society is theirs, not yours."

.

Dear Mum, wrote Hermione.

Is there ever a wrong or a right reason for marriage? How do I know if my reasons are wrong or right?

With Tom, I can't say I have ever experienced passions so potent to make me feel like I could split the Earth's crust asunder with the bursting weight of my heart. Nor have I felt as if I could glide on moonlight from an unfathomable lightness of being, borne aloft by the soft wings of love's bliss. But I accepted Tom's proposition anyway, because he is as close an entity as someone could be without being part of my own self, and though I tried to imagine it, I couldn't begin to envision a future where he is not somewhere within my reach. He is a constant in my life, my constant companion, and fortune willing, a companion for life.

I don't think Tom understands love the way I understand it. He calls our mutual connection an "inevitability" instead, and believes I am his pre-destined counterpart, the most precious of gifts bestowed into his arms by fortune's favour. If it isn't love, what is it? Is this the sweet-smelling rose by another name? As a husband, I know that Tom will be as steadfast as any other, possibly more, and I fear that my protests, outside of the realm of rational grounds, may be grounded on factors irrational and insensible. One finds herself asking: Doth the lady protest too much?

.

She received a reply delivered by her owl several days later.

.

Dearest Hermione,

Wrongness and rightness, as you should know, are lines drawn by the standards of your own integrity. I could not make such a significant judgement in your stead; you must look to your own soul and decide where it stands, and what could or could not be borne by the weight of conscience by which all of life's decisions must be balanced. As your mother, I can only advise you to trust your own judgement, and define what it means for you to be happy and content in your envisioned future.

Not all happiness is coloured in the same shade, and likewise, not all love is scented of the same bloom. If you trust in your judgement, and in Tom's, well enough to put faith that he will guard your happiness and secure your contentment into the murky and unknown years of your future, then that is as firm a reason to marry as any bride's. Sometimes, however, a decision is not simply based on rational or irrational grounds of the present, but a willingness to shoulder the seen and unforeseen outcomes of the decision as they arrive in the coming days.

Life, I have learned from experience, is defined by choice, and moreover, consequence.

From the Bard's lips: "The course of true love never did run smooth".

.

Hermione had to smile while reading the letter; no one else appreciated Shakespeare as much as Mum did. Tom, chin resting on her shoulder to read her mother's message, could only volunteer a quiet, "Hmm."

She shrugged him off and folded the letter paper, hiding Mum's advice from his perusal. "Does the phrase 'private correspondence' mean anything to you?"

"No," said Tom. "Not really. 'Private', from Latin 'privus'—meaning singular or individual. I don't really see us as two separate individuals. In body, perhaps, for now we are separate. But in mind and spirit, we are one."

"Ugh," groaned Nott, making an unpleasant face from the opposite side of the breakfast table. He shooed Hermione's owl away from his black pudding, but Gilles wasn't discouraged by Nott's flapping hands; Nott ended up Levitating a round of the blood sausage a way down the House table, to the dismay of the Fifth Year girls' graceful show of mealtime deportment. "We know you studied Classical Latin—not that it's much of an achievement when half the boys in our House were set to translating Marcus Aurelius as soon as we'd learned to hold a quill properly. You show it off at every turn, and one does begin to wonder why the showing off is always in the form of such brazen overtures. Don't you think they're rather brazen, Granger?"

"How could it be brazen?" Hermione asked sweetly. "Tom is a master of subtlety. I know this because he told me himself."

"She's right," Tom said, nodding in agreement. "If there was a Mastery of Subtlety, I'd have an official certification."

Nott shook his head in disgust. "The two of you are perfectly deserving of each other."

"That's what I've been saying this entire time," said Tom, and brought Hermione's be-ringed hand to his lips. For reasons unknown, he had his eyes fixed on the High Table at the front of the Great Hall, a soft and knowing smile pasted on his face.

After breakfast, Hermione headed straight to the library, the location she was most often to be found on weekends when not supervising a gathering of the Homework Club. The Hogwarts library was her favourite place in the castle, and the Ravenclaw Common Room, with its own library, came a close second. Travers trudged along at her heels, arms full of duplicated scrolls containing past exam practice questions for their N.E.W.T. written exams. It was a duty of Seventh Year Slytherins to write down the questions in the evenings after their N.E.W.T. exams, while it was still fresh in their memories, to pass onto the oncoming cohort of Sixth Years below them.

This was what constituted the "Slytherin Common Room library", which Hermione judged to be only barely passing her standards of proper moral conduct through the fact that it couldn't be cheating if the examiners changed their questions each year. Except for the History of Magic exam, which she found rotated the same question bank on a fifteen year cycle. This, apparently, was how Tom justified skipping their History classes without taking a blow to his marks; Professor Binns always assigned the same essay topics, and Tom, having known the questions beforehand, had finished his work weeks before the submission date.

The subject for today, however, was Defence. Without Madam Trombley's words of advice, she wouldn't have known about the bonus marks given for the Defence practical demonstration, and was eager to learn more about these advanced skills that the examiners regarded as an "Exceeds Outstanding" level of magical competency.

She'd read of the subject of Patronuses—or Patroni, for the grammatical zealots—as supplementary reading for Defence Against the Dark Arts. The Seventh Year textbooks stopped at the more dangerous Dark creatures (XXXX ratings and higher), with the spellwork component focused on advanced curses and theoretical scenarios requiring proper precautions and responses to encountering an unknown cursed object. DADA was a generalist subject. The amount of material covered was broad and intended to be practical for the average adult wizard; the Ministry exam standards did not expect to turn out students ready to fight for their lives. Why should they be, living in a calm and peaceful Britain?

Hermione and Travers consulted the library's card catalogue, Hermione flicking through the expandable little shelves for the book cards, duplicating them whenever she found a relevant book. Or an interesting book, which was many of them, and led to Travers fumbling with a thick stack of reference cards that took two hands to hold on to... poorly. Travers' hand slipped, trying to hold onto the stack while attempting to secure the new cards Hermione had floated over to him, her head buried in one of the card drawers that shot out four feet when she'd tugged open the shiny brass handle.

"Ah," Hermione breathed, flipping through the rack of cards, "it appears the theoretical information on Patronuses is in the Defence reference section. That'll be the information on the educational and historical details behind the spell—when it was invented, precedents of its use, famous feats performed with the spell and who did them, and so on. The practical information on how to actually cast it is in the wizarding law and justice section, in one of the many volumes of Auror training manuals. It's a charm, not a curse, so it shouldn't be in the Restricted Section. That's where they put the training manuals on how to recognise and counter dark curses, like the ones that get you sent to Azkaban."

"Oh, good," said Travers, tying his robe ends together into an apron pouch. The cards were dumped into the pouch space. "Now where is that section, exactly?"

"You've never looked into the wizarding law section?" asked Hermione incredulously. "Didn't you want to work in wizarding law after Hogwarts?"

"Er... yes," said Travers.

"How do you expect to enforce the law if you don't know what it is?" she asked.

"Well," said Travers, "I'd only be expected to enforce the law, wouldn't I? The rest isn't part of the job description of the Auror Office. That's the job of the Wizengamot division: to charge, sentence, and convict."

"To enforce the law, one must be able to interpret the law," said Hermione. "And to interpret the law, one must know the law—its original intent, its historical context, and its relevance to current administrative policy."

"Oh... does one?" Travers blinked at her. "Yes, I suppose so. I never thought of it that way, but I think you're right."

"I am right," muttered Hermione, and realising that she sounded eerily reminiscent of Tom, caught herself and cleared her throat. "Come on, let's go. The wizarding law section is down the end there, next to the literature and culture section. The tables down there should be empty; legal studies, unfortunately, isn't a Hogwarts class subject so few students have reason to look into it during the peak exam periods."

The wizarding law section was not, in fact, empty.

It was occupied by Nott, whom Hermione assumed knew that this would be the quietest spot in the library for private exam study and had taken advantage of this knowledge, until she looked at the stack of books Nott had gathered at his table and realised that he was using the wizarding law section... for wizarding law. He had one hundred and fifty years' of Wizengamot proceedings open on the desk, crackling leather covers and yellowed pages spotted with mildew and the powdery, decaying dust of worn-out preservation charms. Nott's left sleeve, which held open one hefty tome, was grey with the dust of eroding parchment, and the other hand, scribbling furiously on a weighted-down scroll, was black with spattered ink.

And to top off it all off, Nott had on his book pile the Auror instruction manual she'd wanted to read, the one about casting Patronuses. She could tell because it had an illustration of an owl erupting from a wandpoint, silver foiled with wriggling, animated lines to suggest a halo of radiant light, stamped on the front cover.

Hermione, grabbing hold of Travers' elbow, marched them both over to the study table and sat down. Travers sat quietly down next to her, stacking his armful of reference cards on the desktop.

Nott, without comment, continued with his writing. He yawned, turned a page, and scratched his nose. His quill flicked back and forth on its impertinent journey across the unrolled parchment.

"Excuse me," demanded Hermione... politely.

Travers coughed.

Nott sighed heavily, still writing. "Let's see if we can deliver the lines in double-time. 'What are you doing here, Nott?'. What does it look like I'm doing? Here I am, in the library, with books and parchment. I must be studying, Granger. What else would it be?" He spoke alternating lines in a high and girly falsetto voice. "'Oooh nooo, but this isn't on the exam, why would you study something that won't be tested?' Only an idiot allows Ministry functionaries to determine for him what is or isn't worth learning. 'But I'm not an idiot, Nott! Riddle thinks I'm terribly clever!' Then you should understand what I'm doing and leave me alone, thanks.

"There," said Nott, "how good a job of it was that, Travers? I couldn't get the pitch high enough, but I'm pretty sure I had the rhythm and character spot on."

"It was closely done," Travers answered. "I liked the 'Oh no!'. That was a good touch, but you drew it out a titch too long. If you have one for Riddle, show me when we're in the dormitory alone. Not in front of Lestrange or Avery; you know they'll go running for the badge whenever they catch a crime going unpunished."

Hermione glared at him. "I thought you were friends with Tom. How can you speak about him like that?"

Travers and Nott exchanged a meaningful look with one another.

"He's a great wizard," said Travers. "Of course I respect him. I admire him, too. Who wouldn't? But in an effort to be polite about it, I'll admit to looking forward to sleeping in my own room next year, instead of sharing with him and the rest of you nasty louts."

"Lèse-majesté died after the Statute, but Riddle's of the sort who would single-handedly try to bring it back," said Nott. "He has the one redeeming quality, at least, of not being the individual responsible for The Sock." Nott shuddered. "I'm very sure it wasn't Riddle."

"Couldn't be," agreed Travers. "Wouldn't waste it on a measly sock, I think."

"What's 'The Sock'?" asked Hermione. "No, no, that's not important right now; I'm sure it's an irresponsible secret Slytherin initiation ritual or something. What's so important about the Wizengamot that you'd waste valuable exam revision time for it?" She flipped back the cover of the book Nott was reading, quickly snatching her hand back before Nott could slam the cover flat. "You're looking at sentencing precedents for successful criminal convictions. On another day, I might have assumed you were going to file a civil suit against someone, or someone was filing against you, because that realistically is the most serious legal business a school student might be involved in, even if he's an adult. But these are actual criminal proceedings... Oh no," she gasped, and winced a little, internally, because Nott's satirical impression honestly hadn't been that far off. "You've done something, haven't you?"

"I've done nothing worth getting myself arrested, else I wouldn't be sitting here right now," said Nott mysteriously. "But if I had done anything, I wouldn't hesitate to say that Riddle's done worse. Let's just say that I'm taking sensible precautions. With the duelling practice we've had, I know you believe that precautions are sensible to take. This is simply my personal variant on them."

"What is there to take precautions for? Doesn't the fact that the Ministry's been rounding up dangerous wizards mean that the necessary precautions have already been taken?" said Hermione. "If anything, that means you might look to post-cautions."

"Unless you think wizarding justice is inept," Travers observed. "Might this have anything to do with the trial next month? I noticed you had the trial announcement from The Prophet laying on your bedside table."

"I think wizarding justice lacks a unanimous voice, even if public favour swings in a certain direction," said Nott. "If you look at the way the Wizengamot has voted in the past, what they hold as 'Britain's best interests' doesn't always align with what the British public actually want. They're nominally an independent body, but functionally, they walk hand-in-hand with the Ministry. Without the Ministry's power of execution and enforcement, the Wizengamot's laws and convictions would be nothing more than ineffectual pages floating in the wind."

"'Right lives by law, and law subsists by power; disarm the shepherd, wolves the flock devour'," quoted Hermione. "Madam Trombley, one of Aurors we had tea with the other day, mentioned that line, and I looked it up as soon as I could, naturally."

"Naturally," scoffed Nott.

"It's from the poet John Dryden, written three hundred years ago, before the passing of the Statute," said Hermione, graciously overlooking Nott's interruption. "If the Wizengamot is the law, then the Ministry is the power. Your theory about a corrupt government is tepid news, if a Muggle thought of the idea and wrote it down three centuries past. I'm afraid you've wasted your time if that was the shocking revelation you'd discovered after all your studying. You might as well move onto exam revision and let us have those books." She nodded at the Auror manual sitting on Nott's book pile. "Travers and I were actually planning on studying, you know!"

"Ministry corruption conspiracies weren't the subject of my study," said Nott. "Nevermind that they're not a conspiracy—they're true. I was simply thinking about how far they'd go before it would actually begin affecting me, as a member of the British populace." He turned to Travers. "You know your way about the Ministry, don't you, Travers? As I understand it, your father has the honour of the plum robe."

"I might know," said Travers. "And yes, Father was given his seat as a consolatory award for resigning his post quietly and not making a fuss afterwards. For a lifetime's service to the Ministry, that was the official explanation. Though it's rather vague as explanations go; I happen to know for a fact that Orion's father, Arcturus Black, got a seat as well last decade for 'Ministry services'. Which, in his case, meant a few generous donations in the right pockets."

"Oh," said Hermione eagerly, "a few years ago, Tom was interested in the Order of Merlin, so we looked into how they were awarded. I read that Arcturus Black earned one in 1937, First Class honours. That's how he got the Wizengamot seat; just like with retired careerists of distinction, a life appointment goes to First Class awardees, for demonstrating a contribution of great significance to wizarding society."

"A great 'contribution'," Nott said disdainfully. "The Ministry took it literally. Do you know how much it cost to buy the award committee, Travers?"

"When it happened, I heard that a number of people had an unexplained windfall land in their laps. Charitable bequests in their family's name, a research endowment for their son's apprenticeship project, a business investment for a dear old uncle's shop. That whole year was dosed with Liquid Luck," said Travers. "I'd hazard it cost ten-thousand Galleons passing through the Minister's office to catch the nomination, and a further twenty-five thousand to win over the committee majority."

"It's frighteningly common how many wizards lack self-respect these days," sniffed Nott. "A thousand Galleons for a nod is a pittance. Personally, I wouldn't even entertain an argument for anything less than fifteen thousand." With audible indignation, he continued, "But that's most people for you, these days—terribly mercenary. Chasing after the next Galleon as if it's the last one they'll ever see. Does wizarding blood count for nothing these days? If you're going to sell yourself in the name of cheap materialism like that, you might as well give up your wand and call yourself a goblin. Absolutely disgraceful."

"Not everyone has as much of an inheritance as you do," said Hermione reasonably. "Some people need money for purposes beyond greed and materialism."

"Are you scraping up a moral justification for government corruption, Granger?" asked Nott, raising his brows. "Perhaps I've been a bit too hasty in judging what Riddle sees in you. Nonetheless, the problem I currently have with the Ministry is their tenuous custody over a dangerous criminal who may be let loose on the public sooner than I'd prefer. They've caught themselves a Master Metallurge, an uncommon species these days when most wizards who undergo the certifications for professional enchanting do so as generalist warders. Granger, as the brains of our little club, why do you think that is?"

"Is it money?" said Hermione. "A generalist enchanter can complete all sorts of jobs around a wizarding home, indoor and outdoor. People are always needing to have their home wards maintained or else they'll get nifflers digging in through the cellar floors. But what does a Metallurge do, other than enchant metal? It would be more useful in the olden days when wizards—and Muggles—carried swords around, but the closest most people get to that these days is preparing ingredients for a potion. What do modern wizards need, exactly, that requires enchanted metal in lieu of regular metal? The newspaper article on the arrest mentioned that the enchanter was a farrier for racehorses, and other than that, the only example that comes to mind is the Hogwarts Express, and it's used only a handful of times per year."

"It's a rare specialty," said Nott. "The skills aren't particularly high in demand on a daily basis, but when it is demanded, it's irreplaceable. Few wizards would suffer the inconvenience of going years between major contracts, when the same amount of effort could earn them a more consistent job enchanting trunks or broomsticks or even chocolate frogs."

Hermione recalled a dinner conversation she'd had with Mr. Pacek, the previous summer. He'd mentioned his fascination for magical academics, but conceded the importance of practical magic. Theory was well and good to learn, but there were limitations to what magic could do, and it could not create food or gold. She understood that few people wanted to be a disciple of Diogenes, content to live a beggar's life in a wine jar on the street, philosophising on the nature of true happiness beyond property and possessions. Some wizards were content to be ascetic cave hermits, Seers and Astronomers and the like. But not the type of wizard who studied physical enchantment, a discipline that required not only skill, but expensive magical ingredients and materials.

"I know a Master Enchanter," said Hermione. "He specialised in enchanting glass, like the glass art in the Prefects' Bathroom. When my family had him do up a few windows in our house a few years ago, he told me that most of his regular work was standard household warding. It must be awfully disappointing after so many extra years of studying, sort of like assigning a Mediwitch to changing bedcovers and cleaning chamber pots instead of anything more useful or important."

"And that's the essence of my suspicions," Nott pronounced. "Would the Ministry shove a Master Metallurge into the pit that is Azkaban Prison and leave him there to rot until he expires? Given that Britain only produces a handful of enchanters in that specialty per century, because not only is there a dearth of relevant high-profile projects for such skills, anyone who is good enough to qualify would have to compete with the goblin-smiths."

"According to Father, there actually is a big project at the Ministry for Master Enchanters," Travers put in. "They're re-doing the Atrium after that whole affair with the Prince. They had those metal grilles installed for the Floo connections a few months ago, but the enchantments were broken within ten minutes by a two-man team. Now they need to have the designs revised for more security, an additional cost to the thousands they already spent on them the first go around. It's an expensive undertaking, and they've already had to turn out their pockets after cutting this year's Quidditch concessions."

"Hm, yes, I heard about that Atrium affair. An unfortunate business, wasn't it," said Nott vaguely. "I went and looked up what the Ministry would be most liable to do with a villain of serviceable talents. In any ordinary scenario, they'd take advantage of it by ensuring that such an individual never makes it to a public trial. A quiet confession, a promise against recidivism, a reparative indentureship, a tiny footnote on the bottom of an incident report and everything else swept under the rug. Can't be accused of letting a criminal off the hook, if there was never a hook and he was never deemed a 'criminal' in the first place. The issue with this particular criminal, however, is that he was caught too publicly for this manoeuvre."

"That's good, then," said Travers. "Your paranoia is baseless and now you can move on to fretting about something else."

"My paranoia is as baseless as the Ministry is trustworthy," Nott said in a sharp voice. "No, I predict that they'll wait a year or so before calling for a 're-evaluation in cooler spirits'. Too long simmering in the brig and he'll be crazed and permanently tremoring. Won't do if your craftsman can't write in a straight line. And public memory is only so persistent; they expect people to forget about one headliner criminal when the papers need a headline every single day. But Ansgar Schmitz won't forget who caught him. I wouldn't." Nott breathed heavily, rubbing a tired hand over his eyes. "When the Ministry finds out too late that a man good at crafting harnesses is just as good at cracking them, it'll be bad news for the rest of us. For a national manhunt, no one covers ground like Dementors."

"So," said Travers, his frown deeper than ever, "that's why you're studying the Patronus Charm. You've come up with some outlandish theory that Britain will be overrun by Dementors in a year's time, due to an unlikely chain of events that hinges on Ministry incompetence. Which I don't disagree with, on a general level—Minister Spencer-Moon is not as brilliant as his backers claim he is—but the ground-level Ministry employees don't change with the reins, and many of them have been keeping the ship floating for decades."

"That, and the fact it's one of the extension questions in the Defence N.E.W.T. practical," admitted Nott. "That's two birds with one spell."

"Don't you mean 'one stone'?" asked Hermione. "I'm certain that's how the saying goes."

"No, it's not," said Nott. "Whyever would you throw a stone at a bird? It would just fly away."

"It would fly off anyway if you shot a spell at it and your aim was poor," Hermione retorted. "It's not that hard for a small animal to dodge a jet of light. Third Year Transfiguration, some students spent half the lesson on their hands and knees chasing around beetles that fell off their desks." She couldn't hold in the officious sniff. "It's beetles into buttons, not Care of non-Magical Creatures! Goodness."

"Have a little imagination, Granger," said Nott. "For a witch, you're sorely lacking in it. Not all spells are jets of light. If you Conjured a large net, you could catch two birds in one swoop. And it'd count as a single spell."

"I'm beginning to think that you have too much imagination," Hermione said. "The Ministry wouldn't allow a prison escape. It's never happened before! Not in the entire history of Azkaban Prison, which was opened in 1718 at the behest of Minister for Magic Damocles Rowle, elected on a platform for judicial reform, a necessary position post-Statute. Previously, wizards who defrauded or harmed Muggles could be penalised under the King's law, which created issues with enforcing arrests, and the codified punishments too, which were wildly inconsistent between England, Scotland, Wales, and pre-Union Ireland... Are you two even listening to me?"

"Um..." said Travers awkwardly, "I thought we were studying Defence, not History of Magic."

"I thought," said Nott, "there was no 'we' involved in the Defence studying. I was doing pretty well on my own."

"Oh," said Hermione grumpily, "well, if you're doing extension Defence spellwork 'pretty well' on your own, then let's see it."

"Yes, let's," Travers agreed. "If you can defend yourself against alleged Dementors, then you'd be qualified to give us some pointers. Come on, Nott, show us your Patronus. Or alleged Patronus."

"Alright," Nott said, sounding reluctant. "If you have the restraint to manage a few moments of silence, then I'll show you how it's done."

Nott drew his wand from his robe pocket, cleared his throat, and squeezed his eyes shut. Nothing happened for almost a minute.

"The incantation is 'Expecto Patronum'," said Hermione helpfully. "In case you forgot."

"Thank you, Granger. I haven't," Nott spoke through gritted teeth. "Expecto Patronum!"

A thin silver strand issued from his wandpoint, growing thread by thread like the winding bobbin of a treadle sewing machine. Its form coalesced into a shining blob that floated a few inches above the table's surface, shimmering with iridescence, outlines wavering like an image reflected in flowing water. Once it had reached the size of a bread loaf, it grew no larger, and pulsed with blue-ish light that warmed her skin like a finger of sunlight breaking through the grey blanket of the Scottish sky. And as she stared at it, trying to discern its shape, the itching, burr-like grudge she held against Nott's ungracious manners began to soften, and in her wonder at this novel demonstration of unfamiliar magic, she felt uncertain as to why he'd made her so tetchy in the first place.

"What is it?" asked Travers, eyes wide with awe. "I can see a head. And a tail, I think, at the back. Is it a cat?"

"I don't know," said Nott, his voice hoarse. The silver blob pulsed fainter, and its image dissipated. He had lost concentration, or casting conviction, or his hold on the focal intention, and the blobby Patronus faded into the soft yellow glow of the library's lamp lights. "I've never seen it truly corporeal. But I should earn at least half a mark extra for this in the exam. It may not be a distinguishable animal, but it's not the shield-mist that the book describes as a preliminary Patronus form. Either one is capable of repelling a Dementor."

"Father worked the Auror Office years ago," said Travers. "He did his stint in the Azkaban patrol, like all new blood Aurors are required to do. He mentioned that one trick to summoning the Patronus at short notice is having a good image of what it's supposed to be. Your intent is clearer that way. For first time summoning, you can concentrate on an animal that has personal affinity with your family. That's why Patronus forms tend to run in families—the Shafiqs, for instance, call tigers."

"The Defence books I read," said Hermione, "theorised that Patronus forms run in families because members of families share core values and principles, and the animal representation is a manifestation of personality. The values being inherited is what creates a 'family Patronus', not anything to do with genetics or blood."

"That makes sense," Travers said, nodding thoughtfully. "Nott's personality is a blob. I can see it."

"My Patronus is not a blob," snapped Nott. "It's just not fully corporeal at this moment, but it's most of the way there. It's... parbaking."

"Parbaked core values," agreed Travers. "I think your book was right, Granger. That perfectly suits someone who switched sides at the last minute during that duelling challenge the other week."

"If you're going to have your fun at my expense, at least acknowledge that I have a Patronus," said Nott. "I haven't seen yours, either of you. Have you even tried casting the charm, Travers? If you don't even have a blob, then don't sneer at mine!"

Under Hermione and Nott's expectant gaze, Travers drew his own wand and cast the incantation. A dull dustball, without the brilliance of the silver glow of Nott's blob Patronus, swum reluctantly out of the end of Travers' wand. Barely the size of an orange, it faded away with a faint sigh within moments of its appearance.

"Your memory visualisation is too weak," said Nott. He grabbed the book, the one with the animated owl on the cover, and flicked to a page he'd marked at the beginning, then shoved it under Travers' nose. "Here, this is the advice they give about the most common visualisations beginner wizards use for their 'happy thoughts' casting intent, and the common pitfalls encountered. You can't just choose any pleasant memory. If it's your personality manifested by magic, it has to be personal."

Hermione peered over Travers' shoulder to read the text.

.

Most wizards begin their search for a positive sentiment by selecting a simple, uncomplicated, unambiguous memory: the arrival of the Hogwarts letter; the ceremony of being chosen by a wand at the age of eleven; walking toward the House table of their Sorting to join one's new brothers and sisters of the next seven years. These are fine memories, but their simplicity and generality results in a dearth of power needed for such a powerful spell as the Patronus Charm. They are too often associated with less happy memories, which muddles the clarity of intent necessary for casting. Namely, the happiness of a Hogwarts letter is inextricably linked to a feeling of relief that one no longer need fear the prospect of Squibhood; the fatigue and trepidation of trying a hundred wands and never finding the right match; the dread of being Sorted into a House away from one's blooded relations.

The talisman sentiment must be a pure concentration of joy and hope, untainted by any other feeling. It must be a defining evocation of the caster's soul. Not merely a moment of happiness that pleases the wizard or witch in retrospect, but one that defines him by the fundament of his character, the anima of his psyche. Although academic textbooks rarely concur on a single method of devising the "perfect memory", in practise, Aurors have reported that this perfect memory is not an absolute requirement. An unfulfilled vision may suffice in place of a true memory, if the caster's will and imagination are strong enough to visualise "hope" in the abstract. The Patronus Charm only requires of a wizard his pure intent, not an agreeable walk of life...

.

"Dash it," muttered Travers. "The book's examples were exactly the ones I used for my visualisation. No wonder it didn't work. Nott, what did you use for yours?"

"It's personal," said Nott sharply. "Mine wouldn't work for you. If it were so easy as copying someone else directly, there'd be no such thing as unique Patronus forms—everyone would have the same creature. And there'd be no purpose in bothering with vague Aristotelian theories about the nature of 'psyche'. Which, by the way, are cited in the appendix of this manual but are utterly unhelpful, if you wanted to waste your time on them. 'The soul is analogous to the hand; for as the hand is a tool of tools, so the mind is the form of forms'. Useless! What are you laughing at, Granger?"

Hermione couldn't keep herself from giggling. "You chide me for being the knower of irrelevant esoteric knowledge, but you're the one quoting 'useless' theories from Aristotle."

"At least I don't labour under the pretense that reading a bunch of useless Muggle books makes me intelligent," said Nott. "Nevermind that. If esoteric knowledge is irrelevant to summoning a Patronus, and what matters is a mental state of 'purity', then surely you should be able to cast the spell. You ought to have a go at it. Show us mucky Slytherins how it's done properly."

Hermione hesitated. She'd researched the spell after learning of its value in the exam, even experimented for hours in her dormitory bed, with the canopy curtains drawn. But she'd only used the theoretical description to guide her, not the practical guide written by and for Aurors, which warned that common visualisations did not work for typical reasons. And it appeared to be correct: she had used the memory of seeing the brick wall open for her behind the Leaky Cauldron, on her first visit for Hogwarts school supplies, her eyes bright with wonder at the world she'd never known existed. Just as the book had reported, it didn't work, because the memory was tainted.

Her childish wonder was darkened by the logical intrusion that crept unbidden in the days and weeks after discovery. This magical world she'd discovered had been deliberately hidden from her, unlike every other little witch girl and wizard boy across Britain, due to the circumstances of her parentage. Mum had to rely on the charity of other travellers passing through the Leaky Cauldron to open the gateway to buy things throughout the school year when Hermione was away, like the blue Ravenclaw scarf Hermione had received by owl mail not long after her Sorting. (Tom had received a green Slytherin scarf that Christmas from her parents. Without their generosity, he would never have had one at all.)

What was her happy memory, then? The first time she met Tom? That eight-year-old boy was a churlish orphan with cold mocking eyes. No, that wouldn't work. The first time she saw the castle aglow, looming magnificent above the rickety boats bobbing silently through the Black Lake? She'd wanted to share that with Tom, but he was off having his little temper tantrum for the first month and a half of First Year. Her first Outstanding exam score, Christmas at Hogwarts, Christmas with her parents, making Prefect and Head Girl, waking up in the morning sprawled over Tom Riddle's chest... None of these were unalloyed memories of pure happiness, and in the latter-most example, definitely not "pure" of intent.

She tried them anyway, and this sufficed to produce a pale wisp. Running through all them as quickly as possible to congeal the emotions into one large burst of happy feelings served to produce the shapeless dull ball that Travers had demonstrated. This strategy wasn't working. Perhaps she ought to try a new one.

Tom had always said that magic was a matter of wanting to make it real.

She chose not to dwell on the fact that she had no purely happy memory robust enough to empower a Patronus. The years of her short adult life had so far been prioritised for everything but personal enjoyment; her learning and studying had always been directed toward a higher goal. Until now, comprehension, textbook-guided rote repetition, and sheer conviction had raised her to the top strata of students in her year. Transfiguration came intuitively to her because she understood the principles of materiality in a way that her wizard-raised classmates struggled to grasp. There were few, if any, spells requiring emotion as the guiding intent, and of that few, the ones she knew most about were the Unforgivable Curses.

If she lacked a strong enough memory of happiness, could it be created from the imagination, instead? If not a true memory, but a strong visualisation, something meaningful enough to speak to the true essence of Hermione Granger? It should be feasible, in theory. Memory and imagination originated from the same source: the mind.

"As the hand is a tool of tools, so the mind is the form of forms."

Muggle philosophy from Aristotle may not be as useless as Nott had decried.

What was 'hope' to her, in the far-off abstract sense, uncontaminated by the harsh weight of logistics, historical inertia, and the faulty natural state of human instinct that prized self-benefit over common good? What was Hermione's image of an idyllic future, which had never before existed in her or anyone's memory, living or dead? What was the shape of her Platonic utopia?

It came to her with very little effort, once she'd set her mind to the task.

Hermione's idyll was an organised, tidy, efficient wizarding world where merit was rewarded, and those who broke the social contract were sanctioned and reformed. A clean, safe, and orderly life afforded to every magical child, no matter who his parents were, whether or not he had parents at all. A strong and incorruptible left hand on the scales of justice, a strong and merciful right hand on the gavel of judgment. An infallible leadership who peered into errant hearts and guided them to rise above their nature, like the crawling ape who walked forth into the shining reign of man.

"Expecto Patronum!"

Brilliant light burst forth from her wand, silver mist roiling in the air like a droplet of ink dispersing into a glass of water. The dazzling silvery cloud resolved into a vague shape the size of a dog, with a head and a tail and little blobby paws. Hermione stared at it, trying to identify the shape of the thing, and her concentration on her "perfect utopia" was broken. The creature dissolved back into the formless cloud, which dimmed in its light and, soon after, faded away.

"You appear to be on the right path," said Nott, not particularly happy to give her even this small semblance of praise. "You should revisit your Occlumency skills, if you're so easily distracted from your visualisation. Chapter Twelve in the book has a guide on meditation exercises for memory sorting that you may find helpful. No philosophy, just practice."

"Is your Patronus a dog?" asked Travers. "It looked like a dog. From the shape of its body, it looked like one of those badger hunting hounds. Do you not like Hufflepuffs?"

"I don't like or dislike Hufflepuffs," said Hermione.

"If you secretly hate them, I'm not going to tell anyone," said Travers. "I think my own Patronus might also be a dog, since Father's is an Alsatian hound. He can even call two at the same time! When you learn how to do it, I wouldn't mind a hint."

"Give me a chance to cast a corporeal Patronus first!" Hermione said. She flipped through the Auror manual to the table of contents, then at the appendix of references. She had only weeks left before graduation and the subsequent loss of the Hogwarts library, but if the cited books were as common as Greek philosophy, then they could be found in Muggle shops. Borrowing a piece of parchment from the stack of blanks piled in the centre of the table, Hermione began scribbling notes, ignoring the quiet conversation going on between Nott and Travers.

Organising her thoughts on paper helped her organise them in her mind. She felt as if she was standing at the cusp of a great revelation, following the thread of her idea. An abstract conception of the "paragon of happiness" that existed for someone of her attributes and disposition. It needn't be realistic in every sense. But it had to be, without question, exceptionally potent.

Were she to flesh out this "paragon", what else would it look like? It was incomplete, so her Patronus reflected it. She needed to find the missing a vital piece before she could finally see it become corporeal.

"...So you're taking eight N.E.W.T. subjects, six cores and two electives, average marks ranging from EE to O? That would put you on the Auror track," she heard Travers whispering to Nott. "Arithmancy and Ancient Runes, take it or leave it. But if you're getting O's in the core spellcasting classes, that more than qualifies you for candidacy!"

"You're assuming I want to apply," Nott replied.

"If not the Aurors, you could apply for the Law Enforcement Patrol. They only have two years of traineeship instead of three."

"I prefer to have as little to do with law enforcement as possible."

"Come on, man! Rosier's thinking of applying for this year's intake, after they cancelled his Quidditch career plans. Granger, too. If we have four people, we have an even number to partner up with someone we already know."

"Don't 'Come on' me, man. I have nothing to gain from working at the Ministry, and plenty to lose. My patience, for one."

"What else are you going to do, then? Record other people's family trees for the rest of your life? Even if you're not wanting for money, there's less and less prestige in it, you know," Travers' voice lowered. "They're not as popular as they were last century. Actually quite depressing to see how many lines have struggled to throw more than two children per generation. My Mum thinks the tradition of commissioning them as wedding or christening gifts rather gauche these days, and so do plenty of other quality families who've always found the 'sacred' list insulting. The Diggories—centuries of civil service to their name, even a former Minister!—the Smiths, the Fawcetts, the Blishwicks, the McLaggens, the Urquarts, the Belbies. Eugene Slughorn, old boy Sluggy's father, once remarked to mine on the importance of 'quiet dignity'. To boast is to wear the insecurity of the nouveau riche."

"I have plans after Hogwarts. You'll find out when you find out."

"Great and mysterious plans, I hope?" said Travers sceptically. "Riddle spouts the same lines, but unlike you, he's brilliant enough to be believed."

"Trust me on this one, Travers: Riddle's not as brilliant as he believes," Nott said, scowling fiercely. "Not an ounce of 'quiet dignity' to be had from him. Riddle is..." Nott trailed off. "Riddle is on the other side of the bookshelf. Talking to a girl."

This was enough to halt Hermione's frantic note-taking. "Do you know who it is?"

She, Nott, and Travers occupied a lesser-frequented area of the Hogwarts library, the wizarding justice section. The next section over, with its own study table, was the wizarding culture section. It included books about wedding traditions she'd noticed Tom reading at mealtimes, and also contained a selection of wizarding literature, which Hermione remembered had instigated Tom into behaving in an unusually salacious way, pressing her into a bookshelf and demanding that she bite him on the neck. The thought still made her blush.

"I don't recognise the voice," whispered Nott. "Which means she's not a Slytherin. But perhaps you might."

Quietly, he pushed his chair back and stood up from the table, flicking his wand in a complicated sequence of movements. He walked up to the shelf separating the two sections, and prodded his wand in the gap between two books, silently casting spells. Then he wandered back to the table, his wand held carefully in front of him like the participant in an egg-and-spoon race, a thin blue thread connecting the bookshelf to his wandpoint. Nott raised his wand above their study table with the grace of an orchestra conductor, murmuring the incantation, "Sonorus proiectum", and the thread detached from his wand, dancing in the air with the lightness and delicacy of a spiderweb in the breeze.

Tom's voice, reedy and warbling, was conveyed over the thread, which oscillated to and fro in a steady pattern... like an acoustic wave.

"I've been researching obscure aural-based spells for my Runes project," explained Nott. "Let me see if I can adjust the quality a bit." He pointed his wand at the wriggling thread, turning the handle of his wand in his hand ever so slightly, as if he was adjusting the dial of a wireless set. "There, that's better."

Now the sound of Tom speaking was clearer. Travers leaned in close to listen, his brow furrowed. Hermione set down her quill, curiosity piqued. Nott held his wand in a tight grip, concentrating on maintaining what had to be a tricky spell.

"—They always do those, 'activities', shall we call them, in the same order in the books which don't close the final scene at the chapel. Is it a convention of the genre, or is it what the readers expect to happen in realistic scenario? I can't say it seems all that appealing, frankly. Some of it is truly horrendous. Why would anyone put his mouth... there?"

"You're a boy," replied a high and girlish female voice. "Don't most boys fantasise about doing things like that? Or having those things done to them."

"I'm not most boys," Tom replied in a sharp tone. "I find entertaining even the thought of doing... that... extraordinarily repellent. Unhygienic. If I don't see the appeal of touching that area on myself, why would allowing anyone else to touch it be appealing? And we're talking about touching with hands here. The books go further than that!"

"You don't have to do it if you don't want to," said the girl. "The authors use it show how physical intimacy is a symbolic extension of emotional intimacy."

"Couldn't the authors have written the emotional intimacy without having... that?"

"Well, I suppose they could, but where's the fun in that?" The girl tittered.

Hermione knew who it was in that moment. "Myrtle Warren, Fifth Year Ravenclaw. Why is Tom discussing this with her?"

"Shh!" Nott flapped a hand at her. "I'm trying to listen!"

"Besides," continued Myrtle, "have you tried thinking about it the other way around? Have you ever considered the idea that girls might have thought about doing things like that, or having those things done to them?"

"No," said Tom. "Why would I consider that idea? For that matter, why would they?"

"Because physical and emotional intimacy is expected of the covenant of marriage. Not to mention, your wife would enjoy it. Good heavens, Riddle, you'd score Outstandings across the board on schoolwork, but on being a human being, you're way low in the Trolls."

Travers nodded. "That girl has a point."

"Do you think she would enjoy it? But why, exactly? She's a logical and intelligent witch. Would she not find the idea of being inspected in such an intimate fashion offensive?

"Let me ask you this: do you think you might enjoy participating? You said you'd liked the kissing and so on. This is more like... kissing with bonus marks. It's not about what the authors decide is right for the characters and story, it's about what feels right for the two of you. Any determination of wrongness is between you, her, and God."

For several long moments, Tom fell silent. When he spoke, he sounded thoughtful. "I think... I wouldn't mind it terribly much, since it is Hermione, and she would be—she is—my wife. She's not just anyone, and I've never found any part of her to be in any way repulsive. In fact, I've always found Hermione's hair to be one of her most pleasant features. It's so soft and curly, and if it's that way there then I'd not expect any objection to it, on my part at least—"

"Alright, that's enough eavesdropping. Finite incantatem!" said Hermione, pointing her wand at the oscillating thread. "Stop listening!" she ordered Nott and Travers.

"Aww," Travers complained, "Riddle was just getting to the interesting bits."

"Granger doesn't want anyone hearing about her interesting bits," remarked Nott. "Quite understandable, really."

"How would you feel about someone talking about your interesting bits?" said Hermione, giving him a withering look.

"I share a dormitory with five other, oh, what did you call them, Travers? 'Nasty louts'? Rather apt, that," said Nott blandly. "If I were to hear commentary on that subject from your mouth, it would be nothing I hadn't heard before, and heard worse besides. Honestly, I imagine that Riddle would object to it more than I would. The only bits he likely wants you interested in are his own."

"Putting aside the subject of interesting bits for later. Or never," said Hermione. "Eavesdropping on such a personal conversation is wrong, but it's also wrong for Tom for to be discussing it with strangers." The careful, meditative mood enlivening she'd experienced while organising her thoughts for Patronus casting was crashing down, leaving her jittering and unbalanced. "He was using my name directly. It wasn't ambiguous in the least!"

Nott stared at her as if they'd only just met for the first time. "Oh, by Merlin's staff, you're not offended, Granger. You're jealous!" He stifled a hearty cackle. "If you had a moral proscription against eavesdropping, you'd have stopped me at the start. But you only stopped me when you heard something you didn't like. No wonder you associate yourself with our group, and not some self-righteous troupe of Gryffindors. You're just like us, aren't you? You don't believe in rigid morals; you follow your own code of what we in Slytherin like to call 'situationally-negotiable morality'. Ahahah!"

"I'm not jealous," huffed Hermione. She got up from the table and gathered her parchments. "If I was jealous, I would angrily confront Tom for his indiscretions. But as I'm not jealous, instead I'm going to politely remind him to be mindful of his reputation and mine, in the interest of sensibility and decorum. In fact, I'm going to do that right now."

"No, don't do it, there's no worthwhile benefit to upbraiding Riddle in public—"

"If Tom has the temerity to speak in public, then he can defend himself in public," said Hermione firmly. If she waited until later, she wouldn't get a forthright answer from Tom. An answer, he could give her, but it would be massaged into the implication that he'd committed no transgression; it was merely a friendly misunderstanding, which could happen to anyone who had stumbled across knowledge without context. She knew his motivation was kind: he didn't like seeing her unhappy, which he'd admitted to her before. But Hermione had examined the state of her own mind earlier, and understood clearly that equivocal consolations, no matter how well-intended, gained her little happiness.

She slung her bag over her shoulder and stalked around the bookcases, feeling the gazes of Nott and Travers burning into her back. They didn't want to be implicated when the gauntlet was thrown down.

On the other side of the wizarding justice section was a small study nook created between the shared shelf and the next one over, beneath the towering stacks that rose twelve feet tall. The long rows of books sat on gleaming hardwood shelves, interrupted by an occasional rolling ladder. Iron sconces from the ceiling above glowed with candlelight from morning to evening, and the study tables were lit by glass-shaded lamps that adjusted by simple wand commands. Tom Riddle and Myrtle Warren sat on opposite sides of the table in the wizarding literature section, a pile of books gathered between them, and from the look of the covers, it wasn't anything to do with textbooks and studying.

"—And I noticed this bit about her drinking that potion afterwards," said Tom, flipping idly through his book. "Is it true that the prophylactic potion is best dosed according to the stage in the witch's menses cycle? The N.E.W.T. Potions textbook never explained in so much detail. Should I ask Slughorn about it, do you think? I suppose I ought to keep a closer watch on Hermione from now on; exam stress sets her off her regular schedule so it's never the same days from month to month—"

"Tom," said Hermione. "This is a most unusual form of exam revision."

"Oh, hello, Hermione," replied Tom, smiling at her in greeting. He set his book down in such a fashion as to conceal the cover, but Hermione had already seen it. "I'm not actually doing revision, because that would mean I'm revisiting information I already know. At the moment, in fact, I'm learning new things."

"The Infallible Heart Ward?" Hermione remarked. "What is there to learn from that book? It's got nothing to do with school—it's a novel."

"Plenty of things. The spirit of academic inquiry burns hot, you know," said Tom airily. "It's been quite an education, I must confess."

"On that topic, why does that education involve Miss Warren?" Hermione sent Myrtle Warren a sharp look, which the girl didn't seem to have noticed, immersed in her own novel. "What exactly have you been saying to her? You're the Head Boy. She's underage. And you're in a library, not a tea salon. This is completely inappropriate, in so many ways!"

Tom turned his full attention to her. He pushed himself up from the table, which caused Myrtle Warren to drop her book and stop pretending she wasn't avidly observing the interactions between Hogwarts' two Heads. Tom neatened the hang of his uniform robe before he approached Hermione, taking her hand in his and stroking her knuckles with the warm pad of his thumb.

"Don't be upset at me, Hermione. Trust that I'm doing this for the welfare of the both of us," said Tom quietly, peering down at her, lamplight reflecting vividly bright in his dark eyes. "As your husband, it's my duty to take care of you. I only want to please my wife, ensure the fulfillment of every need... and every desire. Wouldn't you do the same thing for me?"

"If I was seeking knowledge, I'd be reading textbooks, not fiction!" said Hermione. "And if I wanted to ensure your welfare, I'd consult you about it privately, not harry some random lower-year students who happen to be nearby."

"Do you want to discuss this with me in private, then?" Tom asked, arching an eyebrow. "I have a number of questions about how best to please my wife, and it would certainly please me to hear them answered. I'd hate to be found inadequate." He lowered his voice, bending down to murmur in her ear. "I know you want something of me. Why else would you have come to find me with so much urgency? Let me help you, Hermione."

"You can start by not telling other people about my menses! It's embarrassing!" said Hermione, aware that she sounded hysterical while Tom came across as even-minded and reasonable. A calm presentation didn't grant an argument additional moral substance, even if it convinced other people it was. "And... I know you've studied mind magic with Professor Dumbledore. I know that it's possible to review older memories while stripping the emotional weight from them. So is there a specific technique to enhancing the emotional significance of a memory?"

"I didn't think that having your cycle was a secret. Don't all witches go through it?" said Tom, who hadn't offered anything approaching an apology. "As for altering aspects of memory, if one has enough willpower, anything is possible with the Mind Arts. The difficulty depends on the emotion in question. Why do you ask?"

"I'm trying to cast my Patronus for the Defence bonus demonstration," explained Hermione. "I created a memory-like simulation to evoke the appropriate emotions, which is stronger than any of my natural memories, but not strong enough to produce a corporeal Patronus. Theoretically, it should be possible, were I to refine my simulation... but I don't know how to do it, exactly. Is there any advice you could give me to refine my thinking?"

"I would have to see it," said Tom. "If you bring that visualisation to the forefront while preparing to cast, and allow me to enter your mind, then I could refine it for you. If you trust me, of course. And grant me permission." He squeezed her hand, finger tracing the band of her silver ring. "I remember, back in First Year, you asked me to promise not to use my 'mind control magic' on others without their permission. Have you not accepted me as a man worthy of your trust? I would like to believe that you have."

Hermione hesitated. "Only the surface, and nothing more..."

"Nothing more than what you're willing to give me," said Tom, smiling indulgently.

"A-alright," Hermione stuttered. She felt Tom's hand lift up her chin, his fingers gliding up her jaw to cup the soft curve of her cheek. Concentrating on her artificial memory, she readied her wand to form out the correct movement.

"Look at me," whispered Tom, leaning over her and brushing his nose against hers.

She blinked, her vision blurring as she toppled into the Wizarding Britain she'd created within her imagination.

Her mythical Avalon of ivory towers, her green and pleasant homeland, it consisted of prosperous freeholds, an industrious society of crofters and craftsmen and mage-intellectuals, led and served by a competent corps of governance buried under the quiet gleaming London streets. 'A place for everything, and everything in its place' were the watchwords of her created nation; it was a structured community heeding to the dictum of order, because they knew and respected that it was for their own good...

Too abstract, came the hollow voice of Tom Riddle, ringing through the streets and steeples of her mind like an echo in a cave. Make it concrete, make it personal, make it real. It has to feel real to be real.

She felt the butterfly-brush of Tom easing his way into her visualisation, heard the drum of his footsteps on the timeworn cobbles, the tap of his white wand on the brickwork barricade that opened for him and welcomed him into her secret world of perfect order. He ushered her underground, several layers deep, into a burrow of dark-tiled floors, glittering glass office windows stacked one over another to a dizzying height, through throngs of uniformed officials who bowed to her when she greeted them and eyed her enviously, admiringly, deferentially as she passed.

He showed her a windowless, tiered amphitheatre occupied by learned witches and lettered wizards who rose to their feet in one dignified rustle of plum-coloured robes. And he led her to the front lectern where she spoke, whereupon those grave dignitaries nodded in unanimous agreement, and passed her a scroll upon which she placed her binding signature and her seal of office, thick gold wax imprinted with the authoritative M insignia. The wizards and witches in plum robes applauded as the seal stamp lifted away from the premium vellum, and in the roped-away journalists' box near the entrance, a tall and handsome wizard inclined his proud head in her direction, with that sly yet familiar quirk of his lips. A silver press badge shone on his chest, matching the silver shine of her laurel ring.

In the heady exultation of unequivocal success, slender, elegant hands popped a champagne cork and dropped the velvet window curtains of a luxurious executive office. A triumphant voice spoke words of congratulations, sparkling bubbles burst on her tongue, and she found herself lowered onto the Minister's desk, her own plum robe sliding down her bare shoulders, and the congratulatory voice turned from triumph to heat, as it whispered in her ear a single echoing command: "Cast the spell!"

"Expecto Patronum!" cried Hermione, swirling her wand through the air.

A dazzling silver otter burst from the wand's end, swimming languorously around the tightly pressed bodies of Tom Riddle and Hermione Granger, spiralling around their heads with a flip of its tail and a cheerful bob of its glowing little face. Tom held out a tentative hand, and the otter butted its head against his fingers; Tom laughed in wild delight at the brush of its whiskers and gripped Hermione even tighter, looking possessively upon the radiant silvery creature as if he had cast it himself.

The otter swam away from them, through a gap in the bookcases; Nott yelped in alarm as it flew into his face where he'd been spying on them from the next section over, and a wooden chair clattered to the ground. It was soon followed by Travers' awed cry of, "Whoa, that's not a dog!"

Then the otter glided back around, curled about Hermione's shoulders and shook itself off, flinging sparkling beads of illusory water that dissolved into the air. With a breath and a sigh, her otter's light faded, returning to mist and then to the un-being space where it waited patiently to hear her next call.

"I did it!" said Hermione excitedly. "I have a Patronus."

Tom rested his chin on its usual spot, atop Hermione's head. "And a fascinating focal visualisation. Not a true memory, but I'm certain we could make it one. I should look forward to that day. Hmm. Hermione Riddle, Minister for Magic. If there was an office in Britain that allowed you to do anything you wanted, it would surely be the Minister's."

.

.


Note:

— "The Sock": a past incident in the Slytherin boys' dorm where Travers stepped in a masturbated in sock, but no one knew who did it.

— Lèse-majesté: translation - "hurt or violated majesty". Historical law making it a crime to offend the ruling sovereign, monarch, or "Prince". Nott knows exactly what he's implying.

— "it looked like one of those badger hunting hounds": AKA, a dachshund. An otter is around the same shape and size.

— Aristotle: wrote "On the Soul" in 350 B.C.
In the setting of this story, art and culture created before the Statute of Secrecy (1692) is shared history between between wizards and Muggles. Post-Statute, the two worlds diverged down their own paths, but anything before that is acceptable for hardliner purebloods like Nott to know about. Eg, learning Classical Latin, Greek philosophy, Roman emperors, early modern English poetry.