"See that toady woman at the Head table?" I muttered to Fred whose only response was, oddly, a loud hiccup. "Harry reckons she was at his hearing. Voted against him and all." Fred looked livid, and hiccupped again angrily. If hiccupping can be done angrily. I watched my twin curiously. "Why haven't you cured yourself of those already, mate?" I asked.
"I-hic-tried!" Fred crossed his arms and scrunched his nose, looking like a petulant child. Just then Dumbledore stood up and raised his arms, quite unnecessarily, for silence. His speech was much like it normally was. I was just about to tune it out and start lazily dreaming about my warm, soft four poster bed when an interesting and annoying development occurred.
"Hem, hem," came annoying cough-like sounds from the pudgy woman sitting at the Head table. I nudged Fred, who hiccupped his disapproval.
"Thank you, Headmaster," she began, "for those kind words of welcome."
"Hic!" Resounded loudly through the Hall. Fred, who never looked mortified when he actually meant to disrupt, looked slightly red about the ears. The Umbridge woman ignored the interruption.
"Well, it is lovely to be back at Hogwarts, I must say!"
"Hic! Hic!" I watched Fred's face turn purple with amused concern.
"And to see such happy little faces looking back at me!" What are we, five? And even when we were five we were never addressed as innocents, let me tell you that much. "I am very much looking forward to getting to know you all, and I'm sure we'll all be very good friends!"
"Hic! Hic! HIC!" Fred, his face resembling a tomato, pulled at my arm frantically and gestured towards his uncooperative esophagus. I tried to cast the charm Mum always did to rid us of annoying hiccups, but it didn't seem to work, if anything they got louder and more obnoxious. By this time most of the other students were laughing and giggling at us as though we'd planned this. They weren't even concerned about the new teacher's speech, having already given her up as a bad job. At the Head table Umbridge was looking flustered and annoyed, the other teachers were sharing little grimaces and glancing at the ugly face of their coworker, and Dumbledore, inexplicably, was watching the Hufflepuff table with amusement. Eventually Fred's hiccups grew so frequent that they blocked out Umbridge's speech entirely. I thanked my lucky stars, watching the now dark purple-blue face of my twin brother, now with some concern.
"Hic, hic, hic, hic, hic, hic, hic, hic, HELP, hic, hic, hic, hic, hic, hic, hic, hic!" Dumbledore finally spared a glance at Fred, his twinkling eyes taking in the uncontrollable hiccups issuing forth with increasing rapidity. Suddenly they stopped altogether. Fred took in a rush of air and Umbridge continued to drone on and on.
"What do you reckon?" Lee nudged us, gesturing towards Fred's gasps vaguely.
"It's him!" Fred exclaimed loudly, several people looked towards us. Apparently Umbridge had just finished her dull speech and everyone had heard Fred's random claim. If possible Dumbledore looked even more amused. Almost as though he knew something we didn't. "It's that mystery prankster," Fred lowered his voice to a whisper.
"I thought you guys were going to catch him," Lee looked between us in question.
"We tried," I admitted.
"And failed," Fred sighed, "and now Mystery Prankster strikes again."
"Oho, someone's finally gotten the better of you two! I've been waiting for this day for years!" Lee grinned. I looked at him oddly.
"Aren't you supposed to be our mate?" I asked, feigning a face full of hurt. Fred did the same.
"Yeah," Lee chuckled, "but it's still nice to hear you admit some bloke you don't even know got the better of the two of you, who are supposedly Hogwarts' greatest pranksters. But I suppose you'll have to relinquish that title now, if only you knew who to relinquish it to!" Lee broke down into hysterical laughter, clutching the side of the table for support. I exchanged looks with Fred and, smirking, slipped a fainting fancy into his pudding.
"I don't want to keep you from your beds any longer," Dumbledore said and we stood up, all three of us eyeing Lee's pudding in disappointment but for different reasons. "But," Dumbledore continued, "I need to share some important news with the older students. So, everyone but the Seventh years may trundle off to their nice warm beds." The other students needed no second prompting, they scurried off almost before Dumbledore had finished, I positively drooled in anticipation myself. Lee took another bite of his pudding just as Dumbledore said, "Marriage is a wonderful institution," Lee took another bite, "even among those who are still at school," Lee fainted. I felt a bit dizzy myself, and I hadn't even had one of the fainting fancies. As inconspicuously as he could while being watched from people all over the great hall, Fred nonchalantly forced a purple chew down Lee's throat.
"As I was saying," Dumbledore continued unperturbed, "even among students marriage can be a wonderful thing. The ministry," here he inclined his head towards a smug looking Professor Umbridge, "has seen fit to provide you with just such a happy companionship." The hall was silent, unsure whether this was some sort of elaborate joke or cruel reality.
"Hem, hem," Umbridge interrupted, "before He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named was completely and irrevocably defeated fourteen years ago there was a war which depleted the wizarding population. People who should now be raising families are dead and useless in that function. We now are operating at unsafe levels. Therefore, the Ministry has seen fit to instate a set of guidelines. These are for the good of the wizarding world, and as such should be followed to the letter. Hem, hem," she hacked unpleasantly before pulling out what was obviously the 'guidelines' written on official looking parchment. "Every unmarried person who is over seventeen, or who will be in the month following the passing of these guidelines (September 1st), and who is under fifty, is subject to their stipulations. These people may only marry the partner designated by the Ministry, or," Umbridge cast a dark look at Dumbledore who smiled benignly back at her, "those who are still students may be 'sorted' by the sorting hat. Once the 'couples' have been assigned they have one week to pledge themselves in holy matrimony. The resulting marriages cannot be annulled and the couple cannot apply for divorce. This applies for the lifespan of the couples, not the guidelines. If the guidelines were ever to be repealed or pronounced anything other than their very deserving 'just,' the marriages would still stand. As this is a very serious matter, the punishment for defying these guidelines is life in Azkaban," she paused, the silence in the usually rambunctious Great Hall was stifling. "There are more, less consequential guidelines you will need to follow, but, for now, I need to retire to my offices. Very busy morning, tomorrow." She left the hall.
At her exit the Hall burst, once more, into loud conversation. Several people looked ready to strangle her, I among them. The Gryffindors were planning a revolt, the Ravenclaws looked ready to join them. The Slytherins looked scared but bored as ever. And the Hufflepuffs were staring at their now cold pudding without seeing it. Dumbledore stood.
"Settle down, settle down," Dumbledore projected over the students' babbling, many incoherently.
"How," drawled one particularly nasty Slytherin, "are we supposed to calm down? We just found out that we're all getting married. And, unless I'm wrong," his tone expressed extreme doubt in the possibility, "to people in this room." I looked around, as did many others, the future Mrs. George Weasley, which was weird to say, could be any one of these girls.
"Students," Dumbledore roared over the uproar, "I know this is difficult on all of you, I know too that this is an unpleasant shock. That is why I used what little influence I have left to allow Hogwarts to pair its own students. The Sorting Hat, let me assure you, will pair you with the person who most suits you. I'll remind you that it knows exactly who you are once its on your head, it can pair you with the person most suited to you amongst your fellow seventh years. However, if any of you would prefer to be paired by the Ministry, be my guest. I hear they have a method involving taking blood, the alphabet, and random wand waving." He paused as though expecting people to jump at this opportunity. "Well then, let's get started, shall we?""What? Now?" I shouted. I wasn't the only one, but I was the loudest.
"Yes Mister Weasley," Dumbledore chuckled lightly before reverting quickly to his somber expression, "the law passed yesterday, so you only have another six days before you all have to 'tie the knot,' as I believe the expression goes." McGonagall took the hat back out once more and stood it on a stool in front of the Head Table. Most of the teachers were still there, eyeing the hat and the students as though they were simultaneously something to be greatly pitied and as entertaining as a soap opera.
"First," Dumbledore explained, "everyone will get in line and try on the hat one by one, Professor McGonagall will check you off the list so no one can escape…er…sneak away to bed…once everyone has been evaluated the hat will think a few minutes before announcing all the happy couples," he paused, "I want all of you to think of this as an opportunity rather than a hindrance. After all, you will be paired with the person most suited to you."
For once in my life I was shocked beyond words. Why the Ministry, even as stupid as it was, could think this was a good idea is beyond me. No one made a move towards the Sorting Hat. Actually, everyone was eyeing it as though it had sprouted fangs. Finally, the Slytherin boy who'd mocked the entire procedure stood and marched to the head of the line.
Not to be outdone by the Slytherins in anything remotely concerning bravery, which rightly fell to us, the Gryffindors followed suit. The Hufflepuffs, Ravenclaws, and the other Slytherins lined up behind us. The procession was a silent affair. No one spoke to one another in line, not even the friends standing next to one another. Occasionally a couple would whisper to each other reassuringly, but not often. Mostly everyone was avoiding everyone else's gaze. There wasn't even the usual shouts of Sorting to break up the silence. The teachers were still watching us sadly. Fred went up after the Slytherin, eyeing the hat warily. His face was an impenetrable mask as the Hat evaluated him. I was next.
"Ah," it said after I had placed it gingerly on my head, "the other Weasley twin, how lovely. You both are so similar, and yet so different. I see that surprises you, surely you don't want to be exactly the same…oh, yes, you do yearn to be noticed, to stand out apart from the other, I see. You want to be known for yourself, not your twin-ness. Ah, and you're a prankster, not that I didn't see that when I Sorted you the first time. Oho, and what's this? Hmmm…I'll have to keep all that in mind. All right, you can go, and I'll do my best to match you.
Back at the Gryffindor table I sat in a state of shock. It all happened so quickly, from the hints this Summer that I now know to link to this to all the strange ramblings of the Sorting Hat. The Gryffindors were all done with the hat now, and so were half the Ravenclaws and Slytherins. In nearly no time at all I'll be hearing the name of the girl I will have to spend the rest of my life with. What if she's ugly, what if she's mean? Now the very last of the Hufflepuffs were getting Sorted. The last girl looked just a little shell-shocked by what the Hat was telling her, but I was in no mood to identify her nor to sympathize with her pain.
"Now we wait for a few minutes," Dumbledore informed us unnecessarily. Actually, I wouldn't mind waiting longer, a few more years if that's what it takes.
"Headmaster," said one of the Ravenclaws, ever eager to learn, "what was that woman talking about earlier? More specific guidelines?" Strangely, Dumbledore began to squirm uncomfortably.
"Well," he began after a long silence, "you see…" he trailed off uncomfortably.
"Dumbledore," interrupted McGonagall, "look at the Hat." Every eye in the Great Hall looked at the Hat. The Hat was shaking strangely, quivering on the stool. If it had eyes, or a face for that matter, they would have been wide.
"George Weasley," it called out loudly, I froze, "and Isabel Bell." Before anyone could start whispering the next name was called out. But all I could wonder, when faced with my future, was who the hell is this 'Isabel Bell' person?