Chapter 1: A Convenient Arrangement
"I don't believe it."
Harry watched his friend turn a queasy shade of green as she lowered the parchment from her face.
"What is it, Hermione?" He leant forward, touching her arm reassuringly across the breakfast table.
"You'll never guess what they've gone and done. Oh, Harry, it's too terrible!"
"No, we probably won't if you don't tell us," Ron said irritably, striding into the room with his briefcase in one hand and a half-eaten piece of buttered toast in the other. "Oh." He stopped dead when he saw the Ministry of Magic envelope lying open in front of her. "Is that what I think it is?"
Hermione nodded slowly, biting her bottom lip. "They've only gone and sent me a Marriage Contract. Twenty-two years old and they already want me married off and breeding!" she finished derisively, brandishing the offending document under his face.
Ron took a seat at the table, his early morning meeting with the Bulgarian Undersecretary for Magical Games and Sports temporarily forgotten.
"Does it say who they want you to marry?" Harry prompted.
"Only the usual specifications; a pureblood wizard under the age of sixty of healthy mind and body," she quoted from the small print in a disdainful voice. "Oh, and that I have thirty days to find the particular gentleman."
"You should count yourself lucky, 'Mione - Penelope Clearwater's Marriage Contract was already filled in when she got hers. Married within twenty-one days of receiving her letter."
"Lucky? Lucky?" she shrieked, crimson spots appearing on her cheeks as she raised her head to stare disbelieving at Ron. "Oh, yes, aren't the Ministry ever so compassionate? Fancy that, allowing me to choose which ageing pureblood I am to submit myself to."
"Hermione, it says here that this is your final warning. You didn't tell us you'd had other letters." Harry looked at her questioningly.
"Well you try finding your 'one true love' when everyone knows you're desperately searching for a husband so you don't get assigned some dried up old vegetable by the Ministry. I thought I had plenty of time to find a candidate myself, I thought…" she trailed off, embarrassed.
Had it really come to this? She'd thought vanquishing Voldemort would be the last great trial in her life over, that finally she could start living again and acting like a normal witch her age. She hadn't counted on the new Minister for Magic, Dirk Cresswell, introducing a Marriage Law before the celebratory confetti had even cleared from Diagon Alley. 'This is a vulnerable time for the wizarding community,' he had announced pompously to the Daily Prophet, 'a time when we all need to take stock of our future. So many promising young wizards and witches destroyed in the war - whole generations of families wiped out.' He had gone on to note the rising number of Squibs born to pure-blood families and concluded that the only way to ensure the wizarding world's continued existence was to enact a repopulation programme between pure-bloods and Muggle-borns to ensure healthy, magical offspring.
"I'm sure it will all work out in the end. We'll see to it, Hermione." Harry promised, giving her hand a tight squeeze.
"But what if – what if," Hermione let out a strangled hiccough, "what if I don't find someone in time and they marry me off to some awful geriatric?"
Ron looked uncomfortable as she started to cry - great heaving sobs over her breakfast bowl.
"It won't come to that. If worst comes to worst… well, we'll find someone for you, won't we Ron?" He shot his friend a meaningful look across the table.
"Yeah, erm, of course, Hermione."
"I – I better get to work," Hermione said, suddenly embarrassed as she dragged her robe sleeve across her tear-stained face. "Thank Molly for a nice weekend."
Harry and Ron watched silently as she flooed out of the Burrow.
"Well?" Harry raised an eyebrow at Ron questioningly.
"Well what?" he replied irritably.
"Are you going to ask her?"
Ron groaned. "Look, that was all over a long time ago. She made that perfectly clear," he muttered into his toast. "To be honest, Harry, I'd rather not talk about it.
"What happened between you two?" Harry mused aloud, with no real hope of an answer. That Hermione and Ron's relationship had failed to mature beyond sexually fraught but essentially pettish arguments had remained a source of eternal mystery to Harry. Hermione remained aloof to suggestions that their friendship had ever been anything more than platonic, while Ron merely responded to any such probing by thrusting his hands grumpily into his pockets and maintaining a stony silence.
"It was a long time ago," Ron said shortly. "I better get going. I'm already running late."
He followed Hermione's exit, only to be replaced by another redheaded Weasley the instant his robes whipped out of sight. Harry smiled; it was like that in this house, living proof that nature hated a vacuum.
"Alright, George?" It had become a lot easier to distinguish between the twins since they had left Hogwarts and been allowed to develop as separate entities instead of a one-headed, multi-limbed whirlwind running along the school corridors.
"Why so glum?"
"This." Harry slid the letter across the table towards George.
"Ah." He paused, rummaging through his pockets for something before pulling out an identical piece of parchment. "Snap."
Harry's jaw hit the floor. "Seriously?"
George nodded his head. "Never more so - painful experience has taught me never to joke when it comes to the fairer sex. I won't reveal the gory details but let's just say that they teach things to those Beauxbaton girls that go way beyond the realms of proportionate force."
Harry grinned despite himself. Only George could try to find humour in the situation.
"I got my final warning yesterday. I guess six red-haired siblings are enough to ensure that no Muggle-born sees me as a nice safe option. Probably rather take their luck with a former Death-Eater than submit to the famed Weasley fertility. Although the faces of the few girls who have signed Marriage Contracts for me would prove contraception enough," George said, pulling a face.
"At least you've had offers. Hermione's scared she's going to be have to marry the Ministry's default option - and we all know what that means."
George grimaced. He had heard enough insider information from his father and Ron to know that compatibility had very little say in the selection process.
"I expect she'll get some liver-spotted, wrinkly-assed old man wheezing over her every night until his heart finally gives out, and you'll get some snaggle-toothed witch who nags you non-stop to get a proper job. Fancy that; you'll both be placed with total strangers who'll make your lives misery." He shot a sneaky side-ways glance at George as he pretended to read the small print at the bottom of Hermione's letter.
"Yeah, thanks for that heart-warming picture. You should take over Trelawney's job."
"I'm just saying. If it was me I'd probably try to find a friend in a similar position – you could always dissolve the marriage in a few years time citing lack of issue, by which point you might have found someone you actually want to marry."
George grinned slyly at Harry. "That stupid sorting hat got it completely wrong about you, mate."
"Oh, George, it's a brilliant idea!" Hermione's eyes lit up as George leaned back in satisfaction, taking a well-earned slug from his Firewhisky. He had Owled her to meet him in the Three Broomsticks straight after work, intent on formulating Harry's proposal – well, his proposal as it turned out. "But, are you sure you don't mind? You'd be sacrificing an awful lot to help me out."
"I stand to lose just as much as you from this," he pointed out. "Merlin knows that I have no desire to settle down and renounce a perfectly healthy sex life just yet."
Hermione eyed him speculatively while his attention was diverted to his drink. Yes, she could imagine that George was perfectly content with the status quo – and why wouldn't he be? He had built up a successful business whilst still young enough to enjoy the accolades and profits thereby gained. The only real surprise to his suggestion was that it should be directed toward herself. Truth was, despite sharing a mutual interest in Ronald Weasley for many years the two of them had rarely interacted on a personal level - unless one counted the occasional heated exchange about the twins' elastic ethics in the Gryffindor Common Room, and she personally preferred not to, sparing herself the cringe-worthy memories of adolescent fervour. She wondered if this was why they had never progressed beyond the realm of comfortable but inane small talk, relying on outdated notions of one another's characters instead of bothering to take the time to get to know one other. With this in mind, she raised the obvious objection.
"We're hardly the most conventional couple though, are we? And any speculation others make is likely to be public. We'll be wide open to Ministry scrutiny."
George considered her words before placing his tumbler carefully down on the soggy cardboard mat. "I don't see why our partnership should be so incredible."
Hermione snorted before catching sight of George's expression. He frowned into his drink – Merlin's beard but she didn't have to make her distaste for what she clearly considered an inferior match quite so obvious. Ever since he could remember it seemed that he had failed to live up to her lofty ideals, evident in some belittling remark or derisory glance. Fred had only laughed off his concerns on the one occasion he had sought to broach them, questioned why he even cared what she thought and told him that he was worth ten of her 'or two at least, anyway.' He was not so easily convinced but he pushed the uncomfortable thought away in order to deal with the present.
"We've known each other since Hogwarts, and we've always been part of the same extended social group. People will simply assume you've been carrying a torch for me all these years – well, you're only human," he added, with a twinkle in his eye.
"I suppose you're right," Hermione said uncertainly, "but in spite of all that I don't feel like I know an awful lot about you," she admitted, blushing as she said it.
"We can soon sort that," George grinned optimistically, assured that he could act perfectly charming when the occasion required. "Although it will require dispensing with the soft drinks."
Hermione eyed her lemonade wistfully. It wouldn't do for word to get out among her pupils that she regularly drank in Hogsmeade. Besides, he would have even more to say on the matter. She shuddered as she thought of the cold, snarky Potions Master who had attempted to make her teaching career as uncomfortable as possible ever since she had joined Hogwarts' staff as Arithmancy Master. But then desperate times called for desperate measures. She got up and followed George to the bar.
"So you, erm, like Whisky?" Hermione asked as she perched tentatively on the neighbouring bar stool.
"What's not to like?" George shot back, training his eyes away from the barman's ministrations and onto her face. "Taste – good. Feeling – good. Beer goggles - essential when you have red hair and freckles."
She smiled politely before lowering her eyes to the line of dubious coloured shots that had been laid along the bar top at George's bequest. "I don't know if this is such a good idea. I have classes tomorrow."
George sniggered unkindly. "And what, you have an overdue Potions essay?"
"It's not that," she replied, visibly bristling. Years had passed since they had left Hogwarts, and yet such comments almost perfectly transported Hermione back to the bottom of the playground hierarchy that the twins' had regally presided over. She responded coolly. "I have responsibilities now, a position of dignity to maintain."
"Bit late for that considering you've just agreed to become Mrs. George Weasley," George muttered as he picked up a shot glass. "To us?" he proposed sarcastically, raising his glass in a toast.
Hermione sighed, before following suit. "To us," she repeated wearily. "Oh my lord!" she choked, fanning her mouth ineffectually with her hand as the burning liquid seared down her throat. "What did you order, paint stripper?"
George grinned devilishly. "Go on, your turn to toast."
"To lost dignity?" Hermione suggested, trying to imagine introducing her new husband to the grey-haired academics who sat on the Arithmancy Board.
"Amen to that," George said raising his glass.
"Insufferable Weasley," Hermione muttered to herself the next day as she nursed a very sore head over breakfast in the Great Hall. Why did she always let them talk her into these things? It was a myth that redheads were naturally tempestuous; they merely provoked the tempers of everyone else around them.
"Are you feeling unwell today, Hermione?" Dumbledore turned towards her, a twinkling in his eye which pricked uncomfortably at Hermione's conscience.
"Slight stomach upset." She smiled wryly, rubbing her abdomen in demonstration.
A loud snort erupted on the other side of Dumbledore and Hermione leaned forward to encounter a sallow, humourless face.
"Something the matter, Severus?" she enquired sarcastically, ignoring Dumbledore's amused smile as best she could. He seemed to thoroughly enjoy the explosive effects of seating Hermione and Snape either side of himself at mealtimes. Mostly they managed to mutually ignore one another like an unpleasant but bearable odour, but other times Hermione suspected that Dumbledore deliberately strayed into controversial territory in order to provoke some free entertainment with his meals.
Snape resorted to his usual tactic of pretending that Hermione Granger had left Hogwarts the day she sat her final N.E.W.T. He glared at the Gryffindor table, willing it to spontaneously combust and rid the world of the next generation of little brats. He supposed this damned Marriage Law would put paid to that hope. In several years time there would be even more of the little shits running willy-nilly around the castle, disturbing his classroom and his sleep. Maybe it really was time to move on, he thought sourly to himself. 'Move on where?' a mocking voice answered in his head. 'Who would employ a former Death-Eater now?'
"Ah, morning post," Dumbledore announced, sounding outrageously cheery for so early in the day.
Snape averted his gaze back to his breakfast – it was not as though he ever received anything through the post these days, except the odd crank letter that had managed to slip through the detectors. He touched his face subconsciously as the unpleasant memory of the last letter bomb he had received resurfaced.
"Shoo, away with you!" He batted at a distinguished looking tawny owl, brandishing his spoon as menacingly as he could.
"Ahem," Dumbledore coughed quietly, pointing to the letter addressed to Professor Snape that was tied to the owl's foot.
Snape reached forward and clumsily pulled the letter free, causing the owl to give an indignant hoot as it flew off. He turned the letter over in his hand, trying to detect anything amiss.
"Go on, I'm sure it won't bite, Severus." Dumbledore seemed to be taking a inordinate amount of interest in his post this morning.
"Judging on past correspondence I'm not so sure," Snape replied testily, before gingerly lifting the flap of the sealed enveloped and pulling out the letter.
His shrill scream was reputed to have travelled all the way to Hagrid's hut.
Fic concept inspired by the WIKTT Marriage Law Challenge.