Hermione was thoroughly depressed over the next few days. This was not helped by the fact that she had no one to talk to about what was bothering her. She had sent a letter to her parents weeks before, explaining about the new decree, and now sent another to tell them the news of their future son-in-law, but they couldn't possibly understand the predicament she was in. The only person who would be able to properly sympathize was Ginny, and Hermione hadn't yet found the courage to tell her. Every time she tried, her voice failed her and her face went hot, leaving her to mumble about having a headache when Ginny asked what was wrong.

She knew she had to tell Ginny soon. Ginny was still asking constantly about the Ministry's response, and it was only a matter of time before she stopped believing that McGonagall had told Hermione the Ministry was just running behind. To make matters worse, she was now receiving almost daily owls from Harry and Ron, asking her if she'd found somebody yet. Whenever she saw their familiar handwriting, she felt sick with dread at the thought of telling them about Snape.

Three days after becoming engaged to her Potions professor, a letter arrived from the Ministry. If she'd had any hope at all that they might be able to find her someone else and she could march down to Snape's office to tell him in person, that hope was crushed when she read the letter. The Ministry's decision was final, it said, and she would have to make do. Resigned to her fate, Hermione ripped up the letter and tossed it into the flames dancing in the common room fireplace. A sort of vindictive pleasure filled her as she watched the bits of parchment smolder and turn to ash.

It seemed one good thing, at least, had come of the agreement made between her and her soon-to-be-husband: Though Hermione had been sure Snape would ignore the suggestion she'd made before hastily fleeing his classroom, or perhaps even be crueler for her impertinence, he hadn't been nearly as horrible. True, he often still ignored her in their lessons, but on the occasions when he did speak to her he was much kinder than before – kinder by his standards, anyway.

"This potion is slightly runny, Granger," he said one lesson as he peered into her cauldron. "But it is... passable."

Even this meager compliment seemed to cost him a great deal; he looked as if he'd swallowed a bottle of bubotuber pus. But "passable" from Snape, who usually ignored her good work, was almost like an "outstanding."

The bell rang ten minutes later, and during the usual bustle of movement as the students rushed out of the classroom, no one saw Snape beckon to Hermione, whose step slowed so everyone had to go around her. Once the last student had gone, Snape pointed his wand at the door, which swung shut with a heavy thud.

"I have arranged for the ceremony," he said, once the sounds of the last footsteps had faded away down the corridor. "It will take place tomorrow afternoon down in Hogsmeade, and then we will leave for my home outside Hogwarts."

"Your home, sir?" Hermione asked, uncomfortable at the thought.

Snape stood from his desk and walked around it, his arms folded over his chest. He surveyed her with a faintly annoyed expression as he replied, "As I'm sure you are aware, there is a cohabitation law. It was part of the Dark Lord's decree. We must share a home or else be subject to the same curse that will affect those who are unwed. It was the Dark Lord's way of ensuring that we... ah... become close enough to reproduce. Which is why we will also have to share chambers at the start of next term."

A sudden, horrible thought struck Hermione. "Sir... you mean... we'll have to... to...?" Hermione felt herself blushing furiously as she trailed off, unable to finish the question.

"No," Snape said sharply, immediately understanding her question. "Fortunately, that was one thing the Dark Lord could not keep track of. He had to rely solely on base human instincts on that matter."

"Oh," Hermione breathed, trying not to show just how relieved she was. "But why can't we just stay here over break? Why leave?"

"Professor McGonagall," Snape began, mouth tightening as he said the name, "suggested this morning that it might be best for us to spend a few weeks entirely in one another's company to... become accustomed to each other." He scowled for a moment, then added, "I suspect she thought it would be easier to do so outside Hogwarts, where it would only be too easy to... escape."

"Pardon me, sir, but couldn't you... refuse her?" Hermione asked, her stomach clenching unpleasantly at the thought of spending Christmas break alone with the Potions master.

Snape stared at her for a moment, as if debating how best to answer.

"She has made it more of an order than a request," he finally said.

There was an awkward silence, during which Snape watched Hermione intently and she fidgeted with her bag, refusing to look up at him. Then she heard the rustling of robes as he returned to his desk.

"Have your trunk packed and ready by three o'clock," Snape said. "I will be waiting in the entrance hall."

Taking this to be her dismissal, Hermione quickly exited the dungeon and headed for dinner. As she neared the Great Hall, she took a deep, steadying breath and released it slowly. It did nothing to ease the sudden nausea that gripped her as she thought about what she must do next.

She knew it couldn't wait any longer now that everything was official: she'd have to tell Ginny.

XXXXX

As it was the last day before the holidays and most of the school would be leaving the next morning, the common room was much noisier and more crowded than usual that evening. Everyone was talking excitedly about their plans for the holidays – many of which included weddings – and playing rounds of Exploding Snap. It took much longer than usual for the room to empty, and it was well past midnight by the time Hermione and Ginny found themselves alone.

Hermione knew this was her last chance; she couldn't possibly wait any longer. She'd been staring at the book in her lap for more than hour without comprehending a word of it, trying to think of how she would tell Ginny, but every scenario she pictured in her mind ended badly. There was just no pleasant way to break the news that she was going to marry Severus Snape.

But before she could say anything, Ginny spoke up first.

"Hermione," she began seriously, "I think you ought to go to the Ministry yourself over break, to see what's going on. They still haven't written you back, and you have barely more than a week left!"

"That— That won't be necessary," Hermione said, her voice cracking. Her hand shook as she turned the page of her book, her eyes staring unseeingly at the text. She could feel the heat rushing into her cheeks again and knew she was blushing.

"What do you mean?" Ginny asked quickly. "Did you finally hear back from them? When? I didn't see you get an owl at breakfast— "

With a sigh, Hermione closed her book and set it on the arm of her chair. "Ginny, I heard back from them last week."

"What?" Ginny looked shocked, then a little hurt. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"Because... because it's... oh, Ginny!" Hermione was unable to stop the tears from forming in her eyes. "It's Snape!"

There was a long silence, during which Ginny stared blankly at Hermione.

"Snape? What do you mean?" Ginny finally asked, looking confused.

"Snape!" Hermione cried, the frustration, anger and sense of unfairness she'd been feeling over the last week finally reaching a breaking point. Hot tears burned her eyes and her hands clenched into fists where they rested in her lap, her nails sinking into her palms. "Professor Snape! I have to marry him!"

Ginny's mouth fell open. She stared at her friend for a moment, as if expecting her to suddenly laugh and say it was all a joke. When she didn't, Ginny shook her head, horror-struck.

"It— It can't be!" she said incredulously. "Snape? Come on, Hermione! This isn't funny!"

"I know it isn't!" Hermione stood up and started to pace in front of the glowing embers of the dying fire. "It's the least funny thing I can think of, really!"

"But— But can't you write to the Ministry? It has to be a mistake! Ask them to—"

"I did!" Hermione kicked the leg of her chair in frustration. "There's nothing they can do! They said the decision's final!"

She threw herself into the chair again and buried her face in her hands. "Why did that spell put me with him?" she moaned.

"I'm so sorry, Hermione," Ginny said, and she truly sounded it as she moved to sit on the arm of Hermione's chair.

Ginny put her arm around her. Hermione realized the cold weight that had been resting in the pit of her stomach for the last week had eased somewhat. Maybe it was because she'd finally told someone and no longer had to bear the weight of the secret alone. Or maybe it was knowing that someone was as horrified as she was – that there was someone who understood and cared – but a strange peace had settled over her, and she could think clearer than she had been able to for the past week.

Hermione's hands dropped away, and she looked over at Ginny. "It's all right," she said, her tone much calmer. "I've been through worse things than this, haven't I? I... I'll just have to make the best of it." She drew herself up straight and wiped the tears off her cheeks with the back of her hand. "It's only temporary, after all. Before long the Ministry will lift the curse, and I can get a divorce, and until then I— I'm sure I can manage. I have to."

"Spoken like a true Gryffindor." Ginny smiled as she squeezed her friend's shoulder.

"You can't tell Harry and Ron," Hermione said warningly.

"Hermione, they'll have to find out sooner or later."

"I know that," Hermione sighed. "But I want to tell them myself – when I'm ready to." When Ginny looked like she was about to protest, Hermione added, "I mean it, Ginny. This is something that has to come from me, not anyone else."

Ginny sighed and shook her head.

"Fine. I swear I won't tell," she said glumly. "But don't keep them in the dark for long. That'll just make it worse when you tell them. Especially Ron."

Hermione nodded in agreement and sank back in her chair, staring at the remnants of the fire. It felt as if the situation she was in was looming larger and blacker by the minute, enveloping her in its cold, despairing grasp.

But looking over at Ginny, Hermione knew that she had at least one friend who would help her through this mess.