Billowing black robes whipped out behind him, unfurling in angry snaps as students threw themselves out of his way. Severus Snape was angry and no one wanted to be the scapegoat.
Through the hallways he stalked, fist clenched around a paper at his side. Past classrooms, past portraits, past fellow professors who asked him what was wrong-to no avail. All of his attention was focused on his eventual destination. He was headed straight for the Headmaster's office.
Snapping the ridiculous password at the gargoyle, Severus stomped up the stairs, throwing open the Headmaster's door and shouting through its reluctant groan, "There had better be some sort of explanation, Albus."
As the Potions Master stood fuming, stance rigid, fists clenched, Albus Dumbledore glanced up from behind his half-moon spectacles with a twinkle in his eye. "Ah, Severus. Have a seat."
"Don't toy with me, old man. I haven't time for trivial niceties. What the hell are we going to do about this?!" With a dramatic flourish, the dark-robed wizard threw the paper down on top of the Headmaster's desk.
"Of course, Severus," Albus answered, unaffected. "Sit down. Sherbet lemon?"
"Oh, to hell with your bloody sweets, Albus! This is a disaster! Haven't you seen today's Prophet?"
Albus only sighed. "Not yet, but I did anticipate that you would react violently to the news."
It was as if the old man had smacked him across the face. "You knew!?"
"I tried to dissuade them, of course…"
"You're Albus Bloody Dumbledore! You 'tried' to dissuade them? You could have stopped this with your left pinky finger, if you had bothered to so much as lift it!"
"Now, Severus, we must choose our battles wisely…"
"And you didn't think this merited the effort?!"
"Forgive me for considering Voldemort a more pressing concern."
"They're completely unrelated, Albus. The two are not mutually exclusive."
Albus twiddled his fingers. "Yes, well, Cornelius gets touchy when I appear to have too much control."
Severus fumed silently, glaring fiery hatred into the other man's cool blue eyes. "You're putting me up on the auction block like a fattened summer piglet just to keep up appearances!?"
"If I had had a choice…"
"A choice!? Albus, this is insane!" the young spy threw up his hands, pacing the office restlessly. "What purpose could it possibly serve?"
"The Minister believes that the best way to counteract impending war is with a show of solidarity. By returning to this old tradition, they hope to appease those who believe we are losing our ways while simultaneously uniting our population across blood-status lines."
Severus stared down at his employer for a long moment, glaring like a petulant child. "Surely they could have come up with something… else."
"Yes, well, Cornelius often does act rashly on these matters, but what's done is done. It would be better for us to focus on what we can do about it now. Actually, I had been about to send for you…"
"Really? Thought to include me, did you? Thought maybe I'd like a say in my own bloody future?" Without waiting for Albus to respond, Severus dropped himself gracelessly into the chair he had been offered earlier and folded his arms across his chest.
"Now," the Headmaster began, everything else having been merely introduction, "the Marriage Law itself is not the issue." Severus snorted in disbelief and Albus raised an eyebrow, but continued. "You are my primary concern. After all, as a half-blood you will be eligible for petitioning. All it will take is one pureblood to decide she'd like to get her hands on you, and you will have no choice in the matter. Of course, if more than one pureblood witch petitions for you…"
"Bloody likely…" Severus scoffed.
"…then you will have the choice. Alternatively, as a half-blood you are also eligible to petition for a witch half-blood or less. Obviously, I need to ensure that my spy is matched to someone who already knows your secrets… as you will have to live with her."
Severus groaned, pulling a hand down his face in defeat. "And to whom, may I ask, are you planning to bind me?"
Albus's eyes twinkled. "I should think it would be obvious."
Severus narrowed his eyes at the old man. "You can't… I know you can't mean…"
"I am sorry, Severus. There is no other choice."
"Please, Albus. You must know someone else. Anyone at all."
For once, the old man's crystal blue eyes seemed sincere in their apology. He shook his head, willing his spy to understand. "I'm afraid not, Severus," he sighed. "It must be Nymphadora."
Hermione was jolted out of slumber as a solid mass landed hard at the foot of her bed. Bolting upward, her forehead very nearly collided with something bright and pink before the object in question suddenly launched itself onto the other girl's bed.
"Wake up, sleepy-heads!" Tonks shouted happily, pulling Ginny's pillow from beneath her head only to smack her in the face with it. "It's CHRISTMAS!" And just like that, she was gone, sprinting through their open bedroom door and down the stairs as loudly as she could manage.
The twins appeared in the doorway bearing expressions of admiration for the bubbly Auror's display. "Good of old Remus to finally come around," Fred commented, taking a bite of a Christmas plum.
"Yeah," George agreed, "that Tonks is a right trip when she's happy."
Christmas breakfast was an arrangement of communal plates and bowls haphazardly situated around, beneath, and on top of gifts in various states of unwrapping. Colorful paper and ribbons and bows covered everything, including the floor, and excitement seemed to hum in the air to the tune of Christmas carols. Before meeting the Weasleys, Hermione had never seen anyone so excited to receive a sweater. Packages and sweets alike flew through the air from one ginger to another as she sat nibbling her bacon and eggs. And above it all, Tonks seemed to preside, tearing through a mountain of gifts and tossing them out to their respective recipients. When Remus Lupin appeared in the doorway, the Metamorphmagus unabashedly leapt onto the table, tripping her way down the length-and upsetting a bowl of figs in the process-to tackle her beloved werewolf from above.
"Easy now," Remus admonished, smiling tenderly at her even as he rubbed his freshly-cracked spine. Hermione had to shake her head at the odd couple, but glanced away when their mouths met, embarrassed by the sincerity of their passion. She caught Ginny staring openly at the tender display with an expression of hopeful longing. Seeming to sense the other girl's study, Ginny met Hermione's eye and smiled knowingly. Just last night, Remus had asked their opinion regarding a certain ring that he hoped to place on a certain witch's finger in the very near future. Even Hermione eagerly anticipated the announcement.
But as they all settled down to the table once more, Albus Dumbledore appeared in the doorway with a grim expression. Immediately, the merriment ceased and a murmur of dread descended upon them. Whatever the Headmaster had come to impart, it couldn't be good.
"I am afraid I have some unhappy Christmas tidings," he informed them, withdrawing a folded copy of the Daily Prophet. Tossing it into the middle of the table, the old man stood back as the others present scrambled to get a view of the title. It was Remus who unfolded the paper, holding it out for the others behind him to read.
CONTROVERSIAL MARRIAGE LAW TO TAKE EFFECT. 'RETURN TO TRADITION,' SAYS FUDGE.
There was a moment of shocked silence before the twins broke it with a murmured "Bloody hell."
Tonks ripped the paper from the werewolf's hands. "Ridiculous! Is this some sort of joke?"
"Oh, they've done it this time," Mrs. Weasley said.
"Now, now," her husband consoled, "I'm sure there's a perfectly reasonable explanation."
"Well," said Remus, standing from his place at the table, with some effort, and turning to the pink-haired witch, "I suppose this is an appropriate time," he grasped the back of her chair to help himself kneel, but was stopped by the Headmaster's hand on his shoulder.
"I'm afraid, Remus," the old man began in a weary voice, "that I need to speak with you and Nymphadora… alone."
A half hour later found Hermione sitting on the stairs, paper in hand, as Ginny paced outside the door to the little study. She had read the article a dozen times and still could make no sense of it. Why would Fudge want to do something like this? How could the Wizengamot just allow it? And perhaps most distressing, what if someone petitioned for her?
"Uggghh!" Ginny articulated, throwing up her hands in impatience. "What could they be talking about in there?" Hermione only shrugged. The redhead had been asking the same question every two minutes for the past half hour. "It can't be good, or why would Dumbledore have looked so grim? And why did he stop Remus from making his proposal? We all knew that was what he was about to do."
"I don't know, Ginny, but it's out of our hands."
As far as she could understand it, the Marriage Law, as it had been termed, pertained to witches and wizards between the ages of 18 and 65. That included her. Most of their year was still 17, but Hermione Granger was nearly a year ahead of the rest of them, and that was not including her Time-Turner days. Basically, the way the Law was set up, the Purer your blood the more options you had. No one could petition for someone with Purer blood than themselves, which meant anyone could petition for her. Telling herself to breathe, Hermione made a mental list of all the Pureblood men in her life who would jump at the opportunity to save her from her fate (ah, the benefits of living with Gryffindors). If she was petitioned by another-and that was a big IF-she could simply have Ron petition for her and marry him instead. Now, of course that wasn't ideal, she cringed and pinched the bridge of her nose, but it also wasn't the end of the world.
More terrifying was the vague allusion to 'forced breeding,' as one of the sections of the law was said to detail. Hermione's hands itched to get her hands on the official paperwork. Until she did, the actual contents of the law would remain unclear.
The Study door opened with a bang and Tonks tore past them, brushing away a stream of tears. Ginny and Hermione were frozen with shock, staring after the other witch. Fear burned across Hermione's skin as she turned back to see Lupin in the doorway. The werewolf seemed to have aged a decade. Lines of worry and despair pulled at his sharp features as he rubbed his forehead with weary resignation. "Remus?" Ginny breathed, reaching a hand out to touch the man's arm.
Remus brushed her off of him and shook his head. "Not now," he murmured, sounding broken. Then he brushed past her as well.
The door to Twelve Grimmauld shut with a weak, unsatisfying click and the girls were left in silence. Ginny's eyes turned up to hers, wide with fright and confusion. Then she, too, hurried up the stairs, presumably in pursuit of Tonks. Hermione was torn between following her friend and remaining on the stair, contemplating her own worries and her feet.
When the Headmaster emerged from the Study, looking as old as he probably was, Hermione couldn't help the question. "They aren't getting married, are they?"
Dumbledore looked up at her and hesitated before shaking his head. "I am afraid not," he told her in a weary voice.
Somehow, the hard certainty of that statement sent a fire of anger through Hermione's heart. It was the same fire that had ignited when she first learned about the Hogwarts House Elves, or when Umbridge had forced Harry to carve up his own hand. "Why?" was all she could say to sum up this feeling of righteous indignation. But though the Headmaster clearly had a world of knowledge to impart, he said nothing in answer to her question. In response, she stood from her place on the stairs and stomped down to stand before him. "I mean, why them?Why Tonks and Remus? Why can't they just be left alone?"
The old man's sad eyes stared down at her in understanding. "Oh Hermione," he murmured in such a patronizing, grandfatherly tone that the young Gryffindor visibly bristled. "You have always been so compassionate. The first one to triumph the underdog's cause." He lifted a hand to her shoulder with an air of breaking some terrible news. "My child," he said. "Nymphadora… is the only witch in the Order… who can marry Severus Snape."
So. Professor Snape was a half-blood. That certainly was a surprise, but more intriguing was the notion of the famously proud man stooping to accept charity from Nymphadora Tonks. It must have been quite a blow to his ego to have to turn to Sirius's cousin and Remus's lover to save him from this awful Law. For once, the austere Slytherin was the victim in need of saving. It almost made her like him a little bit more.
Hermione brushed her chin with the tip of her quill, having lost interest in the notes she had been taking. Wow. How embarrassing for him! And naturally, of course, everyone in the Order would only hate him more because of this. That was unfortunate. He was truly stepping into the Lion's Den. Which was ironic because Tonks was definitely a Badger.
The door to the Study opened and Hermione swung her legs down from the arm of the couch and oriented her body toward the door. It was Ginny, looking angry as an evicted Garden Gnome. "Tonks is inconsolable," she said. "You won't believe what Dumbledore said. She has to marry Snape! Can you believe it? The Greasy Git! Of all the terrible luck…"
"How is she?"
"Well her hair is brown again, if that tells you anything. Gods' truth, I was afraid to leave her alone."
"You don't think she might… do something rash?"
"Nah. I thought about that at first, but it wouldn't make sense. She'd sooner run away with Remus and leave Snape to his bloody fate than do something like that."
Hermione sighed with relief. "That's a good point."
"What are we going to do?" Ginny groaned, flopping down onto the couch.
"I don't know," said Hermione. For her, helplessness was the worst feeling in the world.
Tonks did not show up for dinner, but Mrs. Weasley prepared a plate for her anyway and handed it to Ginny. "Wait," Hermione was suddenly compelled to say. "Let me take it to her." For some reason, she felt like she needed to see the young Auror.
The landing outside of Tonks's bedroom was completely silent. Had she expected to hear sobbing through the door? Somehow, the absence of sound struck a chord far sadder than crying. She knocked on the door, expecting no answer and getting none. "Tonks," she called gently, "it's Hermione. Can I come in?"
Torn by the lack of response, the young Gryffindor decided that maybe Tonks had gone to sleep, and that she should leave the plate on her bedside table just in case. But the grimy hallway light landed on a face that was certainly awake, staring off at the far wall with unseeing eyes. For a moment, Hermione's heart plummeted, but the witch's body was slowly rising and falling with the living rhythm of breath.
"I've brought you something to eat," Hermione said, trying to sound persuasive. She set the plate on the little nightstand, but couldn't force herself to leave. "Tonks?" she whispered, sitting on the bed beside the other witch. "Are you alright?"
With those words, the Metamorphmagus heaved a heavy sigh, squeezing her eyes shut as tears leaked out from behind them. Her breath caught on a sob as she buried her face in her arms. The image broke Hermione's heart.
Some instinct drove the younger witch to run a hand through her friend's mousy hair. Even her skin seemed to have been leeched of color; drained to an unnatural grey. "It'll be alright. They'll overturn this law in no time. You just wait. I won't rest until I've seen it overthrown."
But Tonks's slender frame began to shake with sobs as sad sniffles told Hermione that she was holding back. Nothing she could say could make this better. Nothing she could do.
But no. She would not stand for it. She would not sit by idly and watch something so perfect fall apart. How could she allow two good friends and two of the best people that she knew to suffer if there was something she could do? And wasn't there? Fire seemed to inflate her chest with an uncomfortable sensation of restraint as she descended the stairs. Could it be coincidence that Dumbledore was there? He appeared in the doorway of Twelve Grimmauld just as she made it to the bottom, and Hermione knew immediately just what she had to do. "Professor Dumbledore," she said, facing him square on and looking him straight in the eye, "I need to talk to you."
The old man's eyes sparkled behind those half-moon specs, and he smiled down at her. "Yes, Miss Granger," he said. "I had a feeling you would."