Hermione eyed her breakfast with disfavour. The scrambled eggs had congealed into an unappetising mass on one side of the plate, the rasher of bacon had been overcooked and had come to rest in a dried-up patch of ketchup that looked like it was welded to the plate, and the sausage was covered in a thick layer of grease.
The view was unattractive, but it was still an improvement on watching Ron stuff his capacious mouth with food. He had, after constant nagging, mastered the art of chewing with his mouth shut so she was no longer treated to the sight of his food being moved round his mouth after the manner of a cement mixer; but he couldn't be persuaded to stop over-filling his mouth, and he would sit there like a dormouse, cheeks bulging, as he masticated.
She poked mournfully at her breakfast. God, she was hungry. How she yearned for muesli, for yoghurt, even some fruit, but the house elves could not be persuaded to provide her with anything that might possibly be characterised as healthy. She suspected that they were still punishing her for SPEW.
She still found it hard to understand why any sentient being would chose to be other than free. She supposed that, after years of being treated like servants, they had come to believe that this was all they were fit for, and found the thought of anything else frightening. The idea that you could become accustomed to slavery worried her, because now she found herself on the brink of that condition herself.
Hermione watched the owl glide along the breakfast table with idle curiosity. She wasn't expecting any post herself, so she was grateful for the distraction from her gloomy thoughts. It took several seconds for the fact to sink in that the owl was proffering its leg to her.
She had a nasty feeling she knew what the letter was going to be. She felt like the Lady of Shalott – the curse had come upon her. She fixed the owl with a deadly glare and said, "Go on, bugger off!"
"Hermione Granger, I'm shocked to hear such language from your delicate lips," teased Ron. He caught the tail end of her hostile stare, looked at the owl, paused for the penny to drop, and then turned back to her in dawning horror. "Oh shit!"
"It won't go away Hermione," said Ron heavily. "We'd better face up to it."
Hermione was strongly tempted to point out that there was no 'we' involved; it was just her, and an unwelcome marriage offer. Fudge's latest insanity: compelling Muggleborn witches to marry Pureblood wizards in some half-brained attempt to save the wizarding world from squibs and mental abnormality. A little too late for him, she thought sourly, on both counts.
She had been aware, once she became a teenager, that she had a marvellous ability to repel boys. If there was such a thing as sexual magnetism, she had it in abundance. Unfortunately, her magnetism worked strictly in reverse. It was as if there was something in a boy's psyche that found the idea of a girl with brains deeply frightening; the only time they spoke to her was to borrow her notes, talk about quidditch or ask her if another girl liked them.
She was one of the boys; she was invisible.
Hermione, being sensible, knew that one day she would find someone who actually appreciated her intelligence – or maybe that was bring romantic – but in the meantime she resigned herself to a life devoid of valentines, dates at Hogsmeade and snogging in deserted classrooms.
After all, there had been Victor Krum, and the boy she met on holiday, so she wasn't entirely hopeless, whatever Lavender might say.
She had hoped that this invisibility would work to her advantage. She had hoped that a reputation for intense scholarship, coupled with the body count of Deatheaters she had taken out during the final battle, would mean that she wouldn't receive any unwelcome offers, but it seemed her hope was in vain.
Married; at 18; before she finished school; reduced to mere breeding stock. She shuddered.
Professor Snape had recognised the Malfoy Owl as soon as it entered the Hall, and had expected it to head towards the Slytherin table. When it had headed towards the Gryffindor table, he scented trouble; when it arrived at Miss Granger, it was confirmed.
He had put down his cup of tea, turned to his neighbour and said, "Minerva, I'd say Miss Granger is just about to receive her first marriage proposal."
"Good god," she said. "Who on earth can it be?"
"Malfoy," he said grimly.
They watched as Hermione reluctantly took the letter. The patented Hermione-glare that worked on errant schoolboys had had no effect whatsoever on the owl, which had an immensely self-satisfied air about it. If the owner were as smug as the owl, there was no way she was even going to consider marrying him.
"There's no point hanging around," she said sharply, pushing at it with her fork. "You'll be getting no treats from me. Now FUCK OFF." The owl left in a huff, all ruffled feathers and outraged sensibilities. It had never been treated so rudely in its life, but what could you expect from a Mudblood?
A horrified silence descended over the table, as the Gryffindors realised what was going on. Hermione was aware that hundreds of eyes were looking at her with varying degrees of shock, horror and sympathy. Some of the girls, being muggleborn themselves, were looking at their future.
It made you wonder whether there had been any point in defeating Voldemort; the pureblood families were still running the magical world to suit them, with no regard to lily-livered concepts like freedom, like human rights, like equality.
Yet, she couldn't bring herself to give up this world, to give up the, well, the magic of magic, not unless there was no other choice; and she didn't think obliviating her and her family and popping her back into muggle life qualified as a choice. Rumour had it that the wizards performing the obliviate were none too careful and that there was the occasional 'accident'. Of course, it could be propaganda put round by the Ministry, but she wasn't sure she wanted to risk it being true.
Ron reached across the table to squeeze her hand. "You know, you've always got me to fall back on," he said quietly. His gesture of sympathy was nearly her undoing, and she blinked furiously to clear her eyes which had unaccountably started to water. There must be some dust in her eye.
The boys were looking at her expectantly; she had to open the letter.
She turned it over in her hand. It was expensive paper, and there was a grandiose seal attached to it. She peered at it in an attempt to work out the name, but it was smudged. At the moment she was only hurtling towards disaster, she wanted to draw out the moment before she actually arrived for as long as possible. Opening the letter would make the whole, stupid situation real.
Harry nudged Ron. "Look at the Slytherins. They know what's going on."
Hermione looked up, startled, and then followed his gaze. She hadn't thought that it might have anything to do with a fellow pupil, but suddenly she realised that someone on that table could be her future husband or, even worse, her future stepchild. She scanned their faces, looking for any sign of guilt or dismay. Which was foolish, she told herself, you may as well ask a Slytherin to paint himself green as suddenly develop a conscience, what she should be looking for was the tell-tale smirk, the look of glee, the triumphant glow of someone who knew he had won.
And there it was. "Draco is smiling," she said slowly. "It doesn't look like a random 'look-what's-happened-to-the-mudblood-now smile either. I have a nasty feeling about this."
Surely not. Surely not an offer from Malfoy, he of the purest bloodlines, the least desire to see them polluted, and absolutely no reticence in expressing his views on that point. He had survived the war by changing sides at the last minute, when he could see that all was lost; and by the application of bribery. She had expected that he would buy his way out of this law as well. Any joy she felt that here was something he hadn't managed to escape by the careful greasing of palms was more than tempered by the knowledge that she was caught in the trap along with him, and she had done nothing to deserve this at all.
She tore open the letter, suddenly anxious to see who was behind the marriage proposal.
You have received an offer from Lucius Malfoy in respect of his son Draco Malfoy under the Marriage (Muggleborns) Act 2000.
You have precisely two weeks to consider this offer.
If, at the end of this period you have no other suitor, you will be deemed to have accepted the offer. Marriage must take place by the time you have reached your eighteenth birthday.
You will be allowed to complete your schooling, but once that has been completed, you will be expected to cease taking all contraceptive potions or using contraceptive charms. The Ministry will monitor this, to ensure your compliance.
Minister for Magic.
The boys watched the colour drain out of her face; it was the worst possible news then.
Hermone felt as if someone had punched her. She felt something break inside her. It was the wall of hope and common sense and the belief that the things like this just didn't happen to people like her - good people, sensible people, hardworking, normal people; the wall that she had carefully built to hold back the rising tide of panic; the wall that allowed her to walk and talk and eat and sleep and learn and study as if there wasn't the sword of Damocles hanging over her head.
A wave of anger swept through her, leaving her shaking in its aftermath. She had never been so angry, not even when facing Voldemort, because then there had been something that she could do. There was nothing she could do about this, other than submit. She felt a visceral howl of outrage building within her; she wouldn't cry, but neither was she going to suffer in silence. There was no point in being nice, polite Hermione any more, so she lifted her head and allowed the almost intoxicating anger to have its way with her.
"FUCKING HELL. AS IF I'M EVER GOING TO MARRY THAT WHEY-FACED TOSSER. I'D RATHER POKE BOTH MY EYES OUT WITH A BLUNT WAND. THE ONLY WAY I'D EVER TOUCH HIM IS IF I WAS WEARING RUBBER GLOVES AND HAD A BUCKET OF DISINFECTANT TO WASH THE CONTAMINATION OFF."
Ron nearly choked on his sausage, and Hermione was treated to a good view of the offending item of food as Harry thumped his mate on the back.
There was absolute silence amongst the other students apart from the odd gargling noises that Ron was making.
Then the clamour of hundreds of voices started, asking what was up, explaining what was up, and speculating on the name of her suitor. The number of glances thrown the way of the Slytherin table showed that a fair few people had made the right identification.
Hermione was pleased to see that Draco wasn't smiling any more. Apparently her outburst had managed to pierce even that titanic ego; surely he hadn't expected her to be pleased?
"I don't think we need worry about who is going to be the boss in your relationship," said Ron.
"Yeah, Draco can look forward to a happy married life as a henpecked husband," Harry agreed. "Can you warn us the next time you're going to do that. My ears are still ringing."
"I'm surprised Snape hasn't been down to deduct points," said Ron. "Shouting at the breakfast table, uttering profanities and insulting the ferret – should be worth a couple of hundred points at least."
"I'll have to speak to Professor Snape," she said, not realising she was speaking aloud.
"What on earth do you want to speak to that greasy git for?" asked Harry.
"I thought he might have some idea what Lucius Malfoy is trying to achieve by making me an offer like this."
"Yes," said Ron thoughtfully. "That's a good idea, Hermione. We need to know what's going on, before we can even begin to make plans to deal with it."
"We?" said Hermione, biting back hot words.
"Yes, we," said Harry, patting her on the hand. "We're in this together."
Hermione snorted. "Are you going to be there for the wedding night as well?"
Ron looked disgusted. "It won't get to that stage," he said confidently. "I'm sure we can find a potion that, you know, stops him performing. If all else fails, we'll just have to poison the little scrote."
Hermione realised that he wasn't entirely joking. Last year, she would have been shocked at the suggestion; this year, she was prepared to do what it took to survive, preferably without a trip to Azkaban though.
She looked up at High Table. The Headmaster wasn't at breakfast this morning, which was unusual; even more unusual was the sight of Professor Snape in animated conversation with Professor McGonagall. She caught them glancing at her, and realised that they must be talking about her.
Professor McGonagall had flinched as their surmise was confirmed by Hermione's outburst. "Poor Hermione," she sighed.
"Poor Draco," he countered. When she looked at him in shock, more than a little angry that he still showed such sympathy for Draco when Hermione was so clearly the wronged party, he continued, "Lucius is in for the shock of a lifetime if he thinks Miss Granger is going to make a 'proper' Malfoy wife, and he's going to blame Draco for not being able to control his womenfolk."
"I think I can bear that prospect with equanimity," Minerva sneered.
"The issue is whether Lucius can bear that prospect with equanimity. I suspect not."
Minerva looked at him in horror. "You don't mean …." she faltered; she couldn't bring herself to name any of the things an annoyed Lucius might choose to do.
"Nothing serious," Severus said impatiently. "Hermione is too well-known for him to be able to try anything too drastic. So that rules out poison, mind-numbing potions and Imperio. It just means he'd be subtler, that's all. Threatening her friends, for instance."
"So why poor Draco?"
"He's had eighteen years of being under his father's thumb. Before this law was passed, he was going to marry Pansy, produce an heir in fairly short order, and then they would both have been free of Lucius's interference. All they would have to do is turn up at family gatherings every once in a while. Now, he'll never be free."
Minerva almost felt sorry for the boy, only almost though. "I still think that Hermione has the worst of it, unless you think she's going to be impressed by the Malfoy money."
"Of course not, but I do know that no matter how annoying her friends are they will stick by her. I'm sure she'll give Lucius a run for his money."
Minerva smiled faintly at the thought of Lucius meeting his match in young Hermione, but it faded quickly. "You wouldn't be so philosophical if it was you being forced into marriage."
"Probably not; fortunately my father had the good taste and the good sense to die over ten years ago and therefore isn't in a position to make contracts on my behalf. It's probably the only decent thing he ever did for me in his entire life," he said bitterly.
Minerva felt guilty. She hadn't meant to bring remind him of his father, a nasty piece of work if ever she'd met one. Nastier than Malfoy even, who, for all his sins, wasn't a brutal thug merely a calculating and rapacious manipulator who always hired other people to do his dirty work for him. Diversion tactics were called for; Severus was perfectly capable of dwelling on the iniquities of his upbringing for days if he wasn't distracted. "Mind you, Severus, you aren't getting any younger, perhaps you should turn your thoughts to matrimony. This law could be the best chance for you to find someone to put up with your bad temper and nasty tongue."
He bridled a little, but then realised what she was up to. "But I'm saving myself for you, Minerva. Just say the word."
Minerva smiled again, but her heart wasn't really in it. She watched Hermione leave the hall in a hurry. What on earth could they do to help the poor girl? "I suppose I had better have a word with Albus, and see if there is anything we can do."
Severus looked at her quizzically. "In the first place, Minerva, there is nothing that Albus can do; and, in the second place, I'm not entirely certain he would do anything even if he could."
"You don't mean that Albus supports this stupid law."
"I'm not certain," he said carefully, knowing that he was treading on dangerous ground, Minerva was fiercely loyal to the Headmaster, "but Albus has been worried about the number of squibs for some time. I don't think that he was as firm in his opposition to this law as he could have been, that's all I'm saying. I'm sure his intentions were," he paused, searching for the least provocative way of expressing himself, "honourable – it's just he has always had a tendency to look at the bigger picture and gloss over the cost to other people."
His was the voice of experience; he knew what it was like to be a piece in a chess game moved around at Dumbledore's bidding. He felt a fleeting moment of sympathy for the girl.
Minerva looked thoughtful. "Yes, I see what you mean. Perhaps I'll wait; after all, I really ought to consult with Hermione and see what she wants to do."
"Yes. I imagine she would appreciate that courtesy." Their eyes met in mutual understanding; it was probably the last time anyone was going to ask Miss Granger's opinion on anything. She was trapped now; she either married or left the magical world. Mrs Malfoy or back to being a muggle again. Neither choice was attractive.