Stepping into the entrance of the ancient and marvelous library inside the Hogwarts castle, Hermione Granger inhaled the aroma that came from inside, letting the scent reach down into her chest and make her intelligent heart flutter wings. A blissful smile stretched her lips.
"I love the smell of books in the morning," she whispered to herself, brown eyes opening wide and glittering with the prospect of feeding them millions of words scattered on millions of pages.
"Oh, no you don't. Not this year." Before Hermione could take that one delicious step towards her personal heaven, a hand reached to grip her arm and yanked her back. It was Ginny Weasley and her expression of thou-shalt-not-cross-me.
"Wait! Madam Pince added a new section this year!" Hermione protested as she attempted to sink her nails into anything as to halt the redhead from further pulling her away from the doors of the library.
Ginny did not seem to notice or care about Hermione's efforts. "Honestly, Hermione," she sighed casually, as if she was not effortlessly dragging the brunette as if she was a feather, "the books won't be going anywhere. I doubt there are any students who will be checking out books on the first day. Besides, you are the only one that reads in this castle—aside from the Ravenclaws, but even they aren't thick enough to cross you."
To retain the last shred of dignity Ginny had not taken from her, Hermione gave up on trying to escape the redhead. Sure, Hermione had an incredible physique from all that time on the run, and she was very much equipped with wandless magic (or any magic in general), but Ginny's strength was beyond compatible. While Ginny spent all summer training for Quidditch rigorously, Hermione had spent all her time sleeping, eating, and lounging about with her parents. So what if she lost her muscle and put on ten pounds, Hermione had just won a war she'd been fighting since she was eleven.
Making a mental-note to start running around the Quidditch pitch on the weekends, Hermione felt Ginny slow down in her rushed path. They were by the doors of the Great Hall, and at the entrance, looking angry and unstable, was a very familiar redhead.
"Took you two long enough," grunted Ron.
"Had to find Hermione before she got lost in a book," said Ginny.
Hermione frowned at the two as her arms were back to being handled by her. She rubbed the spot where Ginny had been gripping her. "You two don't have any respect for my love of education. Need I remind you that if it wasn't for my brains, there are several subjects you two would have failed—"
"Yeah. Okay," interrupted Ron with another grunt. "Let's get a move on. I'm bloody hungry, and there are too many Gryffindors this term. I will not start the day without food in my belly."
The two girls followed Ron's angry pursuit. Hermione was glaring at the back of his unkempt head, but Ginny was frowning at everything: her eyes were narrowed, a powerful look of disliked glittered in her gaze.
"It irks me to know how many people are now in Gryffindor," offered Ginny before Hermione could ask. "What's not to be courageous and brave about now? Voldemort is dead and all his Death Eaters imprisoned. Where the hell was this bravery when the Order needed recruits? Or when no one believed in Harry?"
"Like you've got anything to be upset about," Ron looked over his shoulder, clearly having heard the conversation, "you weren't even there for half of the things we went through. Only Hermione, Harry, and I know what it was to be without any bloody allies."
"I don't know what it's like? Me? Me who was possessed by Voldemort?" Ginny hissed through gritted teeth, her fists shaking at her sides as she looked at her brother like she could murder him.
Before Ginny could launch herself onto Ron and beat him senseless, Hermione wedged herself between them. "Ronald," she said in that tone that the redhead was aware meant a serious scolding, "eat your breakfast."
Ron glared at the two, but still turned to the Gryffindor table and sat himself down at the center section. He reached for a full plate, stealing an unsuspecting girl's silverware, yanking back a goblet of Pumpkin Juice that splashed. He used his stolen fork to stab his eggs, his cheeks turning the color of his hair as he fumed with unspoken thoughts.
"Never mind him, Gin," Hermione said calmly to the redhead girl, sitting down with her and pushing a plate of toast to her.
Hermione understood perfectly: Ginny Weasley had been in love with Harry Potter from the first moment her eyes spotted him in the middle of King's Cross Station—before he ever became the Savior, the Chosen One, that everyone currently loved and adored. Ginny hated how mostly everyone had turned their backs on Harry, unwilling to believe his warnings that the Dark Lord was back and a war was coming. She could never forgive that, not when it had meant leaving Harry defenseless and alone. Then, Harry slayed Voldemort, and no one had anything bad to say about him, and it really pissed Ginny off. Her boyfriend wasn't a fucking parade, a holiday to celebrate, he was just a teenage boy trying to save all their arses.
"Oi, mate, where have you been?" Ron asked with a full mouth as Harry reached the Gryffindor table, bits of sausage flying out.
"McGonagall summoned me," Harry replied before pressing a kiss on Ginny's head and directing a careful smile at his best friends. "She just wanted to make sure I was all right and up to doing this again. She wants me to finish my schooling, yet she thinks I might have needed more than two months of holiday to be perfectly sane."
Ron scoffed. "Doesn't McGonagall know that Mum made sure you were coherent enough before we even left to the platform?"
Harry simply shrugged.
Trying to wedge in optimism amongst her friends and the bubble of tension they had wrapped around themselves, Hermione said, "this is going to be a great year." She smiled at them reassuringly, hopeful. "No more Dark Arts business means no worries of being murdered. Now we can finish our schooling and have a normal year."
Harry didn't look as chipper as his best friend was hoping. Somehow the idea of living in silence sounded a bit ridiculous considering everything he'd been through. Peace just seemed so easy now, and Harry Potter was not used to things being easy at all.
"It will," Hermione said confidently. "Everyone thinks so. I mean, look at them! Everyone is back."
Her eyes left a path for the others to follow: Padma Patil talked animatedly with Neville Longbottom; Seamus Finnegan and Dean Thomas chatted with one another, roaring with laughter; Parvati Patil and Lavender Brown were gossiping, their eyes flashing to a group of Hufflepuff boys as they giggled along with their teenage girl hormones. There were no worries amongst their group of friends, everything seemed light and possible.
Ron narrowed his eyes and took a look over Hermione's head, passing the Hufflepuff table until he reached the furthest one: the Slytherin table.
"Seems like the Death Eater lot came back, too." He nudged his head. "Parkinson, Nott, Zabini, Goyle, and Malfoy."
The disgust that Ron used to call out the Slytherins made Harry groan. It was not like Ron wasn't in the right to be upset with that gang of Slytherins, considering how often they clashed and wanted to kill each other (aside from the war thing), but Harry just couldn't handle that nowadays. After everything that had transpired, petty rivalry with petty people was just not on his list of things to accomplish in his Seventh Year.
"We really don't need a feud with the Slytherins," he grunted to Ron. "If we stay out of their way, they'll stay out of ours. We will just pretend Slytherin House doesn't exist, okay?"
"Harry's right, Ron," said Ginny as she reached to hold Harry's hand, running an agreeing thumb over his knuckles. "Besides, I doubt that any Slytherin is up to getting into trouble. Not with everything that has happened. We can't ignore that most of them are in mourning, too. The teenage rivalry isn't worth sending to hell our last school year."
Instantly, a fire made of fury lit up inside Ron's chest. "Now we're supposed to be sympathetic?" he growled at his younger sibling. "Did we not lose people because of them? Aren't we in mourning?"
Ginny's face was tensed into a frown, but it was so much more than anger written across her freckled complexion; there was worry, heartbreak, and outrage.
"We all lost people because of Voldemort," she said in a dangerously low tone. "We are now in a time where we have to learn to stick together. We have to adjust to this new life. It's hard, I bloody well understand that, but we can't accuse them of what their parents did. They suffered—"
"Suffered?" Ron repeated furiously, cutting his sister off. His very apparent anger called in the attention of nearby Gryffindors, who now hushed conversation to stare at the redhead end of the Golden Trio. "We lost Fred, Ginny!" Tears welled up in his bright blue eyes at the horrid memory flooding him in like a nightmare. "Mad-Eye, Sirius, Tonks, Lupin—people of good!"
Ginny was shaking in her seat, looking like she had been repeatedly slapped across the face by her brother; Harry put a hand on her shoulder, squeezing her tightly into his side. The dark-haired boy glowered at his best friend.
"That's enough," Harry warned Ron.
Ever the concerned and the mature one, Hermione's first instinct was to grab Ron's arm and restrain him. The redhead was so easily unsettled, she didn't want to risk him blowing up the Gryffindor table, let alone ruin something that he'd later regret.
"Everything's fine," she whispered to Ron, pulling him back onto his seat, getting him away from the eyes of nosey Gryffindors. "Just keep it together."
As Hermione rubbed comforting circles on Ron's back, a ding, ding, ding echoed through the Great Hall.
The new Headmistress of Hogwarts stood tall and regal, hushing the conversations going on all around the Great Hall. All eyes were on her. Minerva McGonagall pushed back her half-moon spectacles closer to her face, showing a few flashes of careful optimism written all over her elderly face.
"I trust that all of you found all of your belongings in their rightful place and your dormitories welcoming," began the Headmistress. "Seeing as the first day of lessons commences today, I would make a suggestion that none of you begin to put off any work you may receive today for further days. Remember that time catches up, and teachers are not required to offer extensions on deadlines for your lack of responsibility. This is a year of hard work, not a holiday for returning students."
"Well, there goes my plans for this year." Seamus Finnegan chortled with a few Gryffindors, seeming far more relaxed than he'd been in the previous year of war and havoc. The atmosphere around him was equally as calm. "I wanted a whole term of chasing skirts."
As Seamus sent a wink at a few Gryffindor girls, Hermione noticed Lavender Brown throw her spoon at him. When the Irish student glared at her, Lavender made a gesture that she was going to slice his head off if he didn't quiet down.
"On behalf of all the staff at Hogwarts, we are pleased that last year's Seventh Years have decided to come back and finish their education. It is a decision none of you will regret, I can promise you that," continued McGonagall, though there was an apprehensive glint to her wrinkled expression. "It goes without saying that the events that transpired a few months ago have left us with difficult wounds to heal, just as reevaluations on what we thought right or wrong. This year more than ever we encourage interactions between all Houses. Your rivalry with one another will not be tolerated. Times are changing and we are seeking to make most of you united for the possibility of a brighter future for our world. We are all a part of it. And if you hurt one, you hurt all."
Leaning into Hermione, Ron whispered, "I wouldn't mind if they gave Malfoy a go. I doubt I'll suffer one bit for it."
Hermione rolled her eyes and said nothing to further add to Ron's clear anger.
"We need all Sixth and Seventh Years to stay in their respective tables for an important announcement." McGonagall's optimism faded away, now replaced by a blankness that covered up a worry she was now feeling painfully in her old chest. Her small eyes narrowed from behind her spectacles as she waited for the Great Hall to clear out, her fingers tapping at the inside of her palms.
Once the younger students cleared out, some mumbling with curiosity as to why they were being excluded from whatever the Headmistress had to say, McGonagall asked Filch to shut the doors and make sure there weren't any lingering students. She whipped out her wand, said a loud Silencing Charm as she pointed her wand at the grand doors of the Great Hall. She was silent for a few moments, staring at the students like she was staring at them for the final time in her lifespan. It put many of her beloved students on edge.
One of those being Neville Longbottom. "What's this about, Professor?" he asked, speaking without permission. Completely changed from that pudgy, frightened boy who was painfully awkward to be around, Neville was now a very handsome, brave, carefree, heroic young man. And though he had been calm and collected since his arrival back to the castle, the Headmistress' silence made him instantly nervous.
"I'm getting to it, Longbottom," McGonagall assured stoically, which did nothing to ease Neville's anxiousness.
McGonagall continued to say nothing for another few minutes. She took the chance to reminisce, to sulk in the nostalgia she had been feeling for so long. Minerva remembered all of them, all the students before her, since they were nothing but small, curious First Years. She couldn't believe how much they have grown, how much they have all gone through in the past years, and how much the war had taken from them. It pained her, truly, that she knew there were missing students among the throng—students that had been viciously murdered in her own castle not a few weeks back. It tore McGonagall's seemingly cold heart, but she was determined to have those lost students remembered.
Having enough of her own sentiment, McGonagall cleared her throat to say, "There was an urgent meeting this morning between the Minister and members of the Wizengamot. It seems that—"
"You're going to blame something on us, aren't you?" Surprising the Great Hall with her loud, shrill voice, Pansy Parkinson shot up from her seat amongst the Slytherins. "Well, we didn't do anything. We are innocent!"
Being the closest to the dark-haired witch, Draco Malfoy looked up with disgusted silver eyes at his housemate. He didn't say anything to her, but it was clear that he was utterly embarrassed and ashamed by sitting beside her.
"Sit down, you idiot," Daphne Greengrass snapped at her fellow Slytherin. "You're making a fool of yourself—and us!" She reached a manicured hand up to pull the dark-haired girl down by the sleeve of her robes.
Hermione glanced at the Slytherins carefully and noticed that all of them seemed to have a look of guilt and shame plastered on their faces as their house-mate, in fact, got them attention none of them wanted.
Ignoring Parkinson's outburst with a firm look, the Headmistress continued. "The meeting at the Ministry was to discuss a new motion that was being negotiated since the new Minister was appointed. Now, after several weeks with Kingsley Shacklebolt in his position, the Heads and the council have been working hard for this proposition to pass. And as of seven this morning, the proposition became law." There were skeptical whispers, and the Headmistress waited until they subdued. "The Minister is here to explain all of this to you."
At the furthest corner of the staff table, a dark, burly man stood and made his way to the podium by the Headmistress' side.
"Did you even see him before?" Harry raised his eyebrows, looking at the Minister as he whispered to the people around him.
"No," Ron and Hermione said in unison, looking equally as confused over Kingsley's sudden presence.
"This must be serious if Kingsley came all this way," Ginny commented, her eyes lingering at front with some wonder.
With a deep voice, the Minister began. "The Second Great War caused irreversible damage to the Wizard Community, as you all know. There were massive losses from both sides that have resulted in much pain and resentment. What has frightened the Ministry the most in these weeks since the conclusion of the war is that during the three year reign of You-Know-Who, the numbers calculated suggest we lost more than half of our population. Sixty-two percent of the Wizardying Community was wiped out, perishing at the hands of Death Eaters, the Dark Lord, and during battle."
Almost all the students in the Great Hall lowered their heads. Whether it was due to respect, mourning, or shame, Hermione hadn't a clue. But she did know facts and people, and there was a reason why this was going on when they were supposed to be in class. There was something important to what the Minister was saying, so up her hand went.
"How exactly does this affect us? Other than in the obvious, of course," she added when a few students frowned at her tactlessness or apparent uncaring comment.
"Ah, yes, my dear Hermione." Kingsley smiled at her, knowing that she would be the one asking the questions in a matter of seconds. He only hoped that Hermione's patience was able to spread onto others once he was finished explaining. "Well, you see, if our estimations are correct, a massive sprout of Squibs will be infecting the Wizarding families in the upcoming year. The fear of the magic running in our bloods becoming extinct is brewing among the Ministry and other active members of our council. It's something that should be important to all of us, actually. The possibility that in a few years we will no longer be dominate in our community is occurring. We must act now to preserve our magical-heredity. "
"The Wizengamot," Professor McGonagall rose again from her seat, aiding Kingsley in his speech, "has passed a law that will allegedly help solve this problem." She looked at all of them once again and sighed. There was just no other way to say this other than directly. "As of seven this morning, a Marriage Law was created and passed. All wizards and witches from the ages of sixteen to twenty-three are bound into this new action. This requires of you to be married under the decree stated by the Marriage Law with a person the Ministry has decided is best, by their method of choosing, within the following year."
Hermione spat her pumpkin-juice out, spraying the Gryffindor tabletop and a few students as soon as the Headmistress took the plunge to let it all out. She started coughing wildly that the nearest person to her started thumping on her back in panic.
"—Kingsley!" Ron roared.
"—You can't do this!" Seamus stood from the table.
"—Has all of the Ministry gone mental?" Pansy stood from her side of the Great Hall with evident shock passing through her system.
"—This is absolutely ridiculous!" Hannah Abbott, a Hufflepuff Seventh Year, shouted.
"Settle down!" Professor McGonagall scolded at the angry students, trying to calm them down as they shouted like bad-mannered children. "Silence!"
"Kingsley, how could you pass such a medieval law?" Hermione sputtered at the Order member and friend. "You were supposed to revolutionize the system as new Minister, Kingsley! Not send it all back to ancient times! How can you do this to us?"
Shooting up from her own seat, angry tears threatening to spill from her eyes, Ginny was an infuriated mess. "You can't tie my life—any of our lives—into a damn Marriage Law, Shacklebolt! You can't!"
Harry pulled on his girlfriend's arm, bringing her back down. He stared at her, his own worry gleaming in his green eyes. He knew what this meant, and so did Ginny. If there was a Marriage Law, if it was going to be forced and with someone chosen by the Ministry...
"They can't separate me from you, Harry," Ginny whispered in panic to him. "They can't."
The Minister sighed steadily, inhaling and exhaling patiently as he felt a little guilty from the clear hysteria on the youngest Weasley's face. He was prepared for the outrage of the Hogwarts students, after all it was no surprise that this was the way they were all going to react. But he had no choice: the Wizengamot, the Heads, the people deep within the political system of the, Ministry wanted this. His power as Minister only went so far; his hands were tied and he'd lost the voice of reason of not going through this.
"By the means of the Sorting Hat, the Ministry will conduct the pairings of this Marriage Law tomorrow. Be inside the Great Hall promptly by nine in the morning," the Minister said in the best ordering fashion he could through the commotion.
"But he's the Chosen One!" Ginny ignored that and continued to protest, shoving away Harry's calming hold from her arm. Sure, she was feeling immensely pathetic to have to resort to that excuse, because she did hate the fame Harry had developed for being the Boy-Who-Lived, but he was respected through the community for it. And if it would save her relationship with Harry, she would use it against Merlin himself if she had to. "You can't make him do this!"
Kingsley gave her a defeated gaze. "No preferences, Miss Weasley. Mister Potter is still a member of our Ministry, as such, he has to abide by the same laws."
"You can't do this!" Pansy Parkinson huffed, stomping her foot as many from her House agreed loudly with her. Even a few from the other tables.
Again, Harry pulled the redhead down before she could shout another curse or another blasphemy to the people inside the Great Hall. "Relax,Gin," he told her as he tried to seat her back on the bench, "it'll be fine."
"Harry, I swear if I lose you because of that bloody hat tomorrow, I will blow up this school without hesitation."
And through the clatter of yells, of protests, of curses, of threats, the Headmistress cleared her throat over the racket; trying not to be too scolding in this hectic moment for all of them. "You are dismissed to your lessons now," she spoke to them as simply as she could. "And I advise you not to speak of the Marriage Law to the younger students."
"Lessons?" Ron huffed, standing from his seat furiously as everyone else did the same. "How can the bloody woman think we're up for lessons after Kingsley dropped this whopper on us?"
In the history of being Hermione Granger, the brunette nodded and agreed with Ronald over missing classes. "I think I'm going to throw up," she muttered weakly, breathing in deeply as she caught Ron's shoulder for support. "Kingsley couldn't have possibly taken the audacity to choose our entire lives. I just can't believe that."
"—What if it's a Gryffindor?" Theodore Nott was heard by the Golden Trio, barking at his group of Slytherins as no one replied to Hermione's comment. Instead they perked their ears, trying to get a good listen as they continued down their path. "I knew I shouldn't have come back this year. I just knew it."
Pansy groaned loudly along with her housemate, a dramatic cry following after it. "I would gladly have someone kill me at this moment. I thought the whole point of ending Pureblood ways was to rid this damn world from all of it—including their daft ideas of arranged marriages and all that other subjective rubbish!"
"Think on the bright side, Pans," Blaise Zabini, a handsome dark-skinned Slytherin, said passing through the Gryffindor group without a look back at them, "maybe you'll end up with a nice, gentle, Hufflepuff."
"I'll be lucky enough to get Longbottom," Pansy huffed, taking the lead of her group as she disappeared when she turned the corner of the corridor.
"You know, Harry, I doubt it will be hard to ignore that Hogwarts has a fourth house—" Ron stopped, leaning against their Charms classroom wall and waited until his best friend kissed Ginny on the forehead, watching her head towards her lesson, and then continued when he got his focus back, "when you'll be married to them!"
Harry and Hermione rolled their eyes at Ron. "Yes, like there's a possibility of the Sorting Hat placing you with a Slytherin, Ron," Harry told him sarcastically. "You just continue ignoring them, will you?"
As Harry went into the classroom, Ron followed pursuit by saying, "I rather be hexing all of them, actually."
"Honestly, Ronald, can't you—OW!" Before Hermione could follow her friends into their Charms lesson, someone collided with her shoulder roughly. She turned and her eyes fell into a pool of cool silver; a deep and hallow pool of murky water. "Watch where you're going, Malfoy," she hissed, wincing as she rubbed her shoulder from the sudden impact.
Draco Malfoy opened his mouth, but shut it quickly before he could even say anything. He just shook his platinum-blonde hair at the witch, glared in his usual fashion, and with a snort continued his way.
Hermione narrowed her eyes at his leaving figure and swaying robes. "I pity whoever has to marry him."