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Chapter one: the letters...
It was barely mid-morning but already the temperature had reached 30 degrees. It was one of those rare days in the British summer that seem to define that summer in everybody's memories for years to some.
Hermione Granger stretched and yawned lazily. It was too hot to care about anything much. She had been reading but felt her eyes beginning to close as she read the same sentence for the 4th time so she gave up and instead rested the open book on her face as a kind of sunscreen. She could hear Harry and Ron playing exploding snap as quietly as they could, just to her right and Ginny heaved a deep sigh as she tried in vain to escape the heat that affected her so badly.
The peace was perfect, they had lounged around all morning and, when it cooled this afternoon, she and Ginny planned to go swimming in the nearby lake. They made the most of the time they spent together nowadays, just the four of them. Their careers and lifestyles pulled them all in very different directions and it was a rare moment that they could all spend together. Especially now, the awful marriage decree had been introduced by the ministry, despite all of their best attempts to fight it and it seemed it would remain, for now at least. Hermione could still remember every word of the awful letter she had received the day before yesterday:
'Monday, 19th of June
I am sure you have been aware of the ministry's plan to introduce new legislation concerning marriages in the wizarding world for some time. I am pleased to inform you in this letter that the legislation has been passed by the Wizengamot with a majority of 52%. This means that, from midnight tonight, any unmarried witch or wizard between the ages of 19 and 40 must marry.
The legislation also means that divorce or annulment will not be possible for at least 5 years and that, during those 5 years, the couple must have at least one child. Please kind enclosed a booklet containing all further rules and regulations that you will need to be aware of.
The ministry will be matching you to your marriage partner based on whom we feel would be most compatible with your present situation. You may expect our owl by midday on Friday, enjoy your week.
Internal Affairs Office
Ministry of Magic'
Being 22 Hermione fell well within the ministry's planned age bracket. It was true that she had been aware of the proposed legislation for quite some time but she still wasn't prepared for the utter fury that bubbled inside her and threatened to erupt. She had apperated to the Burrow immediately as she had been told to do if she received a letter like this.
The scene that confronted her on entering the kitchen temporarily stunned her. Charlie Wesley sat at the table looking furious; several pieces of broken cutlery lay around him. The twins hunched over the table, brooding, no smile graced their faces. Opposite them Ginny wept into Harry's shoulder, he just sat there looking astonished, Ron just sat there too, pale and unmoving. For once Mrs. Weasley seemed as a loss for what to do.
For Hermione this was a godsend. She hadn't been sure how to handle the situation but now she found an outlet in dealing with everybody else's fears. She made cups of tea, repaired the cutlery. She assured Ginny that she would be matched with Harry, soothed the twins and Charlie, finally reaching Ron. She shook him, she called him and she put her face right up close to his, yet she could not make his eyes refocus. Eventually, she heaved a sigh and then pinched him, hard. He jumped and looked at her reproachfully
"Ow" he frowned, rubbing his forearm furiously. The twins began to laugh, albeit slightly hysterically, and this eased the tension somewhat.
That was her mission over the next few days, to take care of everyone. When she wasn't at work, she was at the Burrow soothing, cajoling and occasionally brandishing her wand, as the situation required. This way she could be of use but, at the same time, she could avoid having to deal with her own feelings of terror and indignation. She and the twins had been doing their best to keep everybody calm and as cheerful as possible.
It was now Wednesday and for the moment in which they all led under the tree; they were as peaceful as they had ever been before that day. The silence was shattered by a crack by Hermione's left ear as the twins and Charlie appeared.
"Well, you're all rather lazy aren't you?" Charlie grinned at them as Hermione peeked out from under her book. He flopped down beside them. Hermione smiled and lowered her book back over her face.
"It's too hot to do anything much right now" mumbled Ginny, shuffling closer to Harry.
"Ah, dear sister, you may be wrong there" grinned George
"Yes indeed" Fred continued "George and I have been devising a plan for how we may appropriately and maturely spend this afternoon"
The next thing Hermione heard was a shriek and a yell. She looked up to see Ginny soaking wet, Harry had been splashed due to his closeness to Ginny. The twins were grinning and holding what looked like hundreds of water bombs. Ginny took off her t shirt, leaving her in a bikini top and a skirt, to prevent any of her other clothes being soaked. The water bombs were duly divided between the group; even Charlie agreed to play, and the war began.
Hermione was surprisingly good at it, successfully dodging a lot of bombs and hitting several people. That is, until one of the twins caught her right on the chest, soaking her top. They all braced themselves, prepared for the explosion that they were sure would follow. She stared at her shirt for a second and then she just laughed. In the same way Ginny had done, she stripped off her shirt and chased after the offending twin in her bikini top and cut off shorts. She was totally oblivious to the stares she was getting from all the Weasleys, even the one she was chasing kept glancing over his shoulder to admire the plum coloured bikini.
Eventually Hermione found herself backing round the corner of the house, sure that she was being followed by somebody, she turned to look around the next corner and ran straight into Charlie Weasley who had, at some point misplaced his shirt. Her heart pounded with the shock as she felt herself pushed against Charlie's rather nice muscles. He looked a little startled too, he was holding onto her waist to steady her after their collision and he was blushing furiously.
She tried to catch her breath and find something to say but no words would come, he smiled at her briefly before reaching up and smacking a water bomb right on the top of her head. She paused for a second before a jet of water shot out of the end of her wand, hitting him squarely in face. She grinned and ran away.
"Hey!" he moaned, chasing after her across the grass "you cheated!"
"No I didn't" she grinned as she broke into a full sprint "And I won't play fair if you don't!"
When they passed the tree it was to find that Harry, Ron, Ginny and George were already sat under the tree having run out of water balloons. Charlie threw a bomb at her which whistled past her ear and instead hit Fred (who had also been taking aim at Hermione) in the face. There followed a furious three-way battle and nobody was entirely sure who had won when the three of them flopped on the grass next to the others.
Hermione pulled her shirt back on and the twins sighed. "What?" She raised an eyebrow at them
"Well, we were rather hoping you'd just hang around in that rather fetching bikini" explained Fred grinning at her.
She tutted at them and shook her head but smiled anyway. Clearly she didn't take them seriously although Ron and Charlie privately agreed with the twins, it was very flattering on her.
Two figures strolled across the grass towards them and Bill and Percy joined them, having come straight from the ministry. They didn't bring good news
"I'm afraid the letters will be sent out tomorrow evening rather than Friday" sighed Bill
"What?" Hermione gasped, her happy buzz evaporating in a second
"It seems that so many people were eloping to avoid the law that they've had to bring the date forward to limit it as much as possible" Percy explained, adjusting his glasses.
Everybody just stared at them. Everyone except Hermione, who looked around at everybody else; she took a deep breath as she saw looks of anger and misery returning to her friends' faces.
"Alright" she said in a soothing voice "This isn't that bad, no listen" she added as they looked at her incredulously "The worst part is the waiting, right? Once we get our matches we know how to deal with them, don't we? It can't be as bad as we're all imagining. We've got Kingsley on the inside and he'll make sure we don't get matched with anyone too bad"
Bill grinned "you know, Hermione, Mum asked us to come here to try and cheer you lot up but you seem to be doing a pretty decent job without us"
Dinner that night was an exceptionally strained affair. There was barely any conversation and they ate little. Hermione's stomach felt as though it was tied in knots.
Breakfast the next day was much the same, as was the rest of the day. Tensions ran high as hour after hour passed without any letters. Lunch passed and the whole of the afternoon crawled away, even Hermione gave up on trying to keep the peace. Eventually, as they were sat around the table for dinner and the sun was beginning to set, several dark specs appeared on the horizon. Ginny shrieked when she saw the seven owls swooping towards the kitchen, one after the other they flew through the window, deposited their letters and left again.