Part 1 — The Letter
When the post-owl landed in front of her and dropped the letter from its beak, Hermione sighed and sat up, her back letting out an alarming series of cracks. The chairs in the Ministry archives were punishingly uncomfortable, and she'd been hunched over her notes — a brief summarizing the distinctions made by Wizarding law between the rights of creatures brought to the United Kingdom and those born here — for four hours. She stretched, gave the owl a treat and, as it launched itself into the air, turned the letter over to see who it was from. She recognized Ginny's handwriting immediately. Wondering what Ginny could possibly have to say that couldn't wait until they saw each other the next day, she slit it open to find a clipping and a short note:
Dear Hermione, I know how you are when you're working on a case and figured you probably haven't seen today's Prophet yet. Well, here it is — READ IT!! And don't waste any time getting your petition in (I'm sure Snape has sent his in already). You need to get your life back.
Puzzled, Hermione turned her attention to the clipping: two short paragraphs under a photograph of the new Minister of Magic, an imposing-looking woman with grey hair and fierce dark eyes. The caption read, "Minister denounces PIMP Law, issues memo providing loophole."
Madam Jessica Valerian, the new Minister of Magic elected by a landslide last week, today signed a Ministerial Memorandum opening a path to freedom from the Marriage Law passed two years ago under her predecessor. The law, officially known as Pro Incremento de Magicis Populo or PIMP but commonly referred to simply as the Marriage Law, is 'tantamount to slavery,' the Minister said. 'I don't care how badly we need to grow the Wizarding population, this law was complete twaddle from start to finish. Everyone who voted for it ought to have their head examined.' When reminded she was speaking on the record, Minister Valerian laughed and said, 'Good.'
According to the Memorandum, couples may petition to have their relationship evaluated via something called a 'Know your Mate' quiz, the results of which will determine whether or not their marriage will be annulled. When questioned, a Ministry official declined to provide further details, saying only 'I hope you'll all be satisfied when British Wizardkind becomes extinct. Next thing you know, we'll have to start importing sorcièrs and Hexen.'
Hermione laid down the letter and the clipping, her heart thumping painfully, her mind a confusion of emotions. There was relief for both their sakes, she supposed, but also regret. It hadn't been all bad, being Severus Snape's wife. In fact, it hadn't been bad at all. And if a certain nascent intuition had proved unfounded, well, maybe it was best they get on with their separate lives.
Many witches and wizards had simply left England when the PIMP law was passed, but Hermione had hesitated. She'd just been taken on at the Department of Magical Law Enforcement and was reluctant to endanger her career. And while she deplored the Ministry's tactics, she understood their anxiety. The Wizarding population had been declining for decades; her own year at Hogwarts had had only forty-five students, spread amongst the four Houses. In the end, though, she'd decided she simply couldn't stomach being told what to do in her personal life, so she had mapped out an extended tour of Magical archives in Europe, packed her bags, kissed her parents goodbye…and then had come the letter informing her that she had been paired with Severus Snape. She'd read it three times, admitted certain things to herself, slept on it, and then written the Ministry confirming her willingness to comply with their request. She'd given her friends all the practical reasons, but of course that hadn't been the whole truth…
"You're going to do WHAT?" Harry had demanded. "I mean, sure, I respect the man for what he did, he's a war hero and all, but…marry him?"
"Severus isn't the sort of person to make someone do something they don't want to," she said, ignoring his startled look at her use of Snape's first name, "Nor am I. I think we can agree it will be a marriage in name only."
"Oh, so you're not going to sleep together."
She flushed. "Of course not. I'd never force — I mean, the Ministry can force us to marry, but they can't force us to do that."
Harry gave her a suspicious glance. "What's the point, then?"
"Well, this way neither of us has to uproot ourselves and leave, interrupt our careers. I've only just started with the DMLE and Severus has finally found work he enjoys with that new potions firm in Derbyshire. If I turn him down they might give me, or him, someone worse, and besides, the law—"
"Oh, sod the law," Harry said rudely. "If you're going to violate the spirit of it, what's the point of complying with the letter of it?" He frowned. "You're not just doing this to get back at Ron, are you?"
She had given him a withering look. "Don't be stupider than usual, Harry."
It was true that leaving would have been a serious setback to her career. It was also true that the Ministry might have given her someone horrible if she turned down Severus. But deep inside, hidden from everyone — almost, even, from herself — had been a flicker of something that was less than knowledge but more than hope, that whispered he might care for her. That was a chance she'd been unable to pass up.
Part 2 — The Choice
Severus, seated at the kitchen table in the house they had shared for the past two years, was so deep in thought that he barely noticed when the door opened and Hermione entered.
"So you've heard," she said, coming to stand next to him and looking down at The Daily Prophet, which was open to the picture of Minister Valerian.
She was close enough that he could smell her hair, a fresh floral scent that was peculiarly her own and which he would have recognized anywhere. A sensitive nose was an asset in Potions, but more and more these days it was proving a distraction. "Yes." He turned the paper over to hide the article. "Would you like a cup of tea?"
"That would be lovely, thank you." She dropped into the chair with a sigh, watching in silence as he busied himself with kettle, tea, bread and butter, cups and saucers. His hands were sure and graceful, and Hermione was reminded of watching him brew potions in his workshop. She wondered, as she had before, how it would feel to have those hands moving on her body with the same confidence and gentleness. She'd thought, once, that she might find out. Too late now. "So, what do you think?"
"I think a quiz seems a peculiar way to determine who is entitled to a divorce and who is not," he said neutrally. "What sort of questions could they possibly ask?"
She laughed. "I can make an educated guess," she said. "Muggle women take quizzes like this all the time. What's your mate's favorite color, favorite song, favorite sexual position—" She broke off, a faint color in her cheeks. "You know. Silly things like that."
He set a cup of tea in front of her and ruthlessly quashed the thoughts that had sauntered boldly into his mind at her last words. "But why?"
She shrugged. "Because it's easier than actually talking to your partner, I suppose."
"Or perhaps the results are more believable if an alleged expert tests you?" he suggested.
"Maybe." She took a sip of her tea. "I do wonder, though, if forcibly dissolving marriages is not just as bad as forcibly imposing them."
Was there the faintest hint of uncertainty in her tone? He couldn't tell. "If it was wrong in the first place, then initiative in undoing it ought to be applauded, surely."
"Yes." She sat in silence for a moment. "I suppose we should request this evaluation. I mean, we neither of us wanted this marriage."
Her words catapulted him back two years. When the letter from the Ministry had arrived notifying him that he, Severus Snape, had been paired with Hermione Granger under the PIMP law, he had been so shocked that he hardly knew how to think about it, let alone deal with it. They had seen each other infrequently since the war, and there had been moments, here and there, when…but no. He deceived himself.
His first impulse, therefore, had been to refuse — the very strength of his desire to accept told him that it was a mistake. There was nothing so ridiculous as a lopsided love, especially when one party was some twenty years older than the other. Had he not had enough of making a fool of himself with Lily? The last thing a young woman like Hermione needed was the Dungeon Bat hung round her neck like some sort of sooty albatross.
Then he had hesitated. Would she take it as an insult? A foolish thought, perhaps, but he was reluctant to have her think he was so arrogant that he would deem a witch as intelligent, capable, and (yes) attractive as herself unacceptable. Perhaps he should let her do the declining. If they did marry, of course, then he could at least ensure that she suffered no restrictions on her freedom, was not compelled to…well, to do anything she did not wish to do. If he declined, Merlin knew who might be inflicted on her. Hermione Granger, Co-Savior of the Wizarding World, would be a prize for any wizard, and he knew that some would be unscrupulous enough to take full advantage of the situation.
Finally he had decided that there was no need for him to act at all. Hermione would doubtless feel that anyone would be more acceptable than himself; she would decline and take her chances with the next person the Ministry had in mind. He had held onto this assumption like grim death — right up until the very moment they were standing together speaking the words that would make them husband and wife. So, although he could not say he had wed her by accident, he had certainly done it unintentionally.
Alone together on their wedding night, his first concern had been to make it abundantly clear that he had no wish to take advantage of their situation, awkward as it was…
She laughed briefly. "We are married, you know. I think you can call me Hermione."
"Hermione, then." She looked so lovely that it took all his strength to keep his face and voice impassive, but he had to tell her the most important things first. "You must consider yourself free of any obligation to me. I will make no demands on you." Then, summoning all his courage and thinking to tell her part of what was in his heart, Hades take the consequences, he said, "I know neither of us wished for this marriage, but—"
She raised a hand to stop him. "It's all right, Severus," she said. Instead of the relief he had expected at his words, she only looked tired. "You've spent most of your adult life forced to do things — by Dumbledore, by Voldemort, by your own sense of guilt. I'm sure this must be just one more in a long series of undesirable events." She moved towards the stairs. "Please don't worry. I won't be party to doing it to you again. You need not pretend…We need not pretend that we love each other."
He had promised himself then that she would never know. He had kept his promise, though at times it had seemed inhumanly difficult.
"Yes," he said now, in answer to her question. "I suppose we should. After all, as you say, we neither of us wanted this marriage."
Part 3 — The Questions
The packages arrived by owl post on Thursday morning. Hermione left the one addressed to Severus on the table where he would find it when he came home, and took the other with her to the office. Closing the door behind her and hoping for a few uninterrupted minutes, she opened the packet to find two sets of parchment, each clipped together, and a letter.
Thank you for requesting an assessment of your relationship, pursuant to PIMP. In this package you will find two copies of the assessment. One requires you to answer a series of questions about your partner; the other requires you to answer the same questions about yourself. You must complete both sets (as must your partner) for the evaluation to proceed.
Hermione laid down the letter and looked at the two sets of parchment. One was headed "Applicant version: Please answer the following questions about yourself" and the first question was "1. When is your birthday?" The other was headed "Partner version: Please answer the following questions about your partner" and the first question was "1. When is your partner's birthday?" Flipping through the sheets, she saw that the rest of the questions were likewise identical. She turned back to the letter.
Upon completion, please return both sets of questions to the Ministry Law Office, Attention PIMP Division. Your answers about your partner will be scored by comparing them to your partner's answers about himself or herself. Your partner's answers about you will be scored by comparing them to your answers about yourself. Mutual failing scores, signifying that no substantive progress has been made towards knowing one another and building a relationship, will automatically result in an annulment. A failing score by one partner will automatically result in a divorce awarded to the other partner.
She wondered what was to prevent two people simply agreeing to answer all the questions incorrectly, thereby quickly achieving an end to their marriage? Then she saw the note at the bottom of the page:
Please note: All sheets have been imbued with a Probitatis spell to enforce honesty in your responses. This does not mean your answer must be correct — it may indeed be quite wrong — but you will not be permitted to provide an answer you know to be false. A response of 'I don't know' will be accepted only if you genuinely have no idea.
Interesting. She glanced down again at the first question. She knew the answer perfectly well — Severus' birthday was January 9 — but out of curiosity she wrote "April 1" instead. For a moment nothing happened, then the ink slowly faded and the words "You know better. Try again." appeared. She laughed. When this was all over she'd have to find out who the clever person was who had designed it.
She set the two questionnaires in front of her. It would be easier to go through both sets in parallel, answering each question for herself and then for Severus. She sharpened her quill and began.
2. What is your partner's favorite food?
Severus had begun by working his way through the version about himself, but he found that with each question he couldn't help but think how he would answer it for Hermione, so he gave up and set the two questionnaires side by side, to work back and forth between them.
He scribbled his own favorite food on the left-hand sheet and then turned to the right-hand sheet. Pasta, he wrote without hesitation, then added, Specifically, penne with vodka sauce. Into his mind came a memory of the first time he and Hermione had gone out to dinner. It had been shortly before they were married; her superior at the DMLE had assigned her to investigate the ingredients in a particular black-market potion to see if it contained mermaid tears, and she'd wanted to consult him. They'd apparated to Venice and had dinner at a small bistro where he'd recommended the penne alla vodka. Hermione had taken one bite and nearly swooned. Since then, whenever it was on the menu he could be sure she'd choose it.
Hermione thought of Severus engrossed in a Potions journal, his fingers absently searching through a box of chocolates on the table beside him until they landed on the darkest one; Severus at a dinner trying to choose between chocolate torte, chocolate souffle, and chocolate mousse; Severus handing her a creamy-brown Dairy Milk while opting himself for a bar so dark it was nearly black, and so high a percentage of cocoa it was nearly dusty. She shook her head with a half-smile. Everything about the man was bittersweet.
Chocolate. The darker the better, she wrote.
3. What is your partner's favorite color?
Having answered the question for himself, Severus leaned back in his chair to consider Hermione's favorite color. Gryffindor colors were red and gold, of course, but one's House colors, while remaining meaningful all one's life, were not necessarily one's favorite. And he couldn't judge by what she usually wore, because what she usually wore were her black robes with the DMLE badge. He tapped his quill thoughtfully against his nose. What did she wear when she wanted to be comfortable, when she was most herself? He pictured her curled up in the chair in their tiny library, wearing…yes, an old sweatshirt, somewhat ragged, in a lovely shade of blue-green that set off her eyes. Another memory tugged at him and he followed it: how many times had she been leaving for an important case, only to pause and hand him a certain necklace saying, "Here, fasten this on, will you?" He could see it clearly: a tourmaline in a delicate lacy setting on a fine silver chain, like a captive spoonful of seawater. And finally, a photograph kept on the mantel… Blue-green, he wrote. The color of her mother's eyes.
The intense fragrance of peonies seemed to steal through her dull Ministry office as Hermione considered the question. The garden of their little house was edged with peony bushes, from purest white to a magenta so deep it was almost purple, and from the moment they began to bloom in early summer their scent was everywhere. During the weeks of their flowering, Severus kept the vase in the kitchen filled with fresh blooms — but he always chose those of a single color, a bright, hot scarlet that seemed to glow with its own inner light. It was also, she recalled with a smile, the color of his favorite pair of wool socks.
4. What is your partner's favorite/least favorite body part?
Somewhat to Severus' surprise, the paper refused to accept "My voice" and he was forced to think of another answer for himself, which took some time. The answers about Hermione came more easily. He recalled vividly (and with some shame at his own callousness, necessary though it had been to keep up appearances) the episode of densaugeo; it had come up one night in conversation and she had laughed it off and said it didn't matter — it had given her a chance to make her teeth as perfect as she'd always wished they were.
When it came to her least favorite, here he was less certain. What could she possibly dislike about herself? Hair, eyes, figure, all were lovely. Assuming — against all logic — there were some physical aspect of herself she disliked, were they close enough that she would tell him such a personal thing? Again he felt the irony of being married and yet not intimate. He thought of what he knew of her. Although she enjoyed dressing up for a Ministry gala or a friend's wedding (that clinging emerald dress she had worn to the Ministry Christmas party had left him speechless for a good five minutes), she displayed no nervousness or anxiety in her preparations. He had never heard her, for example, lament the size of her thighs or bottom; both struck him as quite perfect, but they were, he had heard, common areas of dissatisfaction for women. Really, she was a remarkably confident and well-balanced person, who did not fret over trivialities. In the end, he wrote None.
Surely there could not be any question on either of these, Hermione thought. Severus' least favorite was, and always had been, his nose. Much though she grieved for Harry's loss of his godfather, she couldn't forgive the cruelty that Sirius and the other Marauders had inflicted on Severus, even embedding it in the Marauders Map to rise up and taunt him years later. As for his favorite, his voice was almost like a second magic wand; silky, smooth, compelling, he knew its power, both to cut and to caress, and enjoyed using it. Listening to him sent tingles down her spine and once or twice — when Crookshanks had died the year before, and most recently following that painful conversation with her mother — she had heard such tenderness in it that it had near taken her breath away.
To her surprise, however, the paper refused to accept it, saying (rather smugly, she thought), "Voice is not a body part." Which left her somewhat at a loss. She herself found any number of things about Severus attractive — his hands, the swirl of his robes, his (rare) smile, the curve where his neck joined his shoulder — but he had a much lower opinion of himself. His youthful enmity with Sirius and James had not been helped by the fact that the two Gryffindors had been remarkably handsome. A good thing Harry had gotten his mother's eyes; that must have cut the resemblance to his father and helped a little. She frowned. Hadn't she and Severus talked about that one night, sitting by the fire not long after they were married?
"Easier? Perhaps. Certainly it helped to remind me of my promise. As if I needed reminding." He was silent for a moment, then added, almost shyly, "I have my mother's eyes, too, you know."
"I've seen her picture," Hermione said, surprised and pleased by this small confidence. "You look very much like her."
He turned his glass slowly so that the firelight sparkled through the ruby depths of the wine. "For years I thought of my eyes as one-way glass: I could see out but no one could see in. I was safe behind them. Whenever I looked in the mirror and saw her eyes looking back at me, I felt as if she were protecting me. A foolish conceit, but it…comforted me."
"No," she said gently. "I don't think that's foolish at all."
He had been alone for so long behind those eyes.
5. What type of magic is your partner best at/worst at?
He wasn't sure if it was what Hermione enjoyed most (it was perhaps not challenging enough for her), but certainly she had a gift for original charms. The astonishingly useful Point Me, for example, or the jinx that had punished Marietta Edgecombe for revealing the existence of Dumbledore's Army. And only last week she'd come up with a charm to prevent static electricity building up on his robes, so that when he flapped (as he said) or swirled (as she said) down the hall, they wouldn't cling so annoyingly to his legs. As for her worst — he couldn't help but chuckle…
"What do you mean you can't?" He stared at her in bafflement, broomstick in one hand and directions to the Ministry conference in the other.
She crossed her arms and stared at him. "I just…can't. I never could."
"Who ever heard of a witch who couldn't fly?"
Her chin lifted. "You go on ahead. I'll meet you there."
"You can't, you've never been there. I haven't either, so I can't take you Side-Along."
"When you get there you can send a Portkey."
"They're not allowing them for security reasons. Why in Merlin's name didn't you mention this earlier? We—" He broke off at the look on her face, realizing that she was close to tears with anger and embarrassment. He turned away to give her a moment, put his broomstick back in the closet, then turned back to her. "Let's take the Underground."
The tension in her face eased and she raised an eyebrow. "What, travel like Muggles? Are you quite sure your dignity can stand it?"
He tucked her arm into his own. "I am always dignified," he said with mock severity. "Surely that cannot have escaped your notice."
Hermione didn't even have to think about the first part — she'd written Potions, of course before she'd even finished reading the question. The second part was more of a puzzle. Was there anything he wasn't good at? Charms, wandless magic, non-verbal spells, Legilimency and Occlumency, Patronuses. It was almost unnerving how good he was at everything. But no, there was something. She nibbled the end of her quill, frowning. Something about…the garden?
Hermione opened the back door into the garden to see if Severus wanted tea, and stopped dead. "What on earth are you doing?" she said in astonishment.
Severus straightened up from where he was bent over a barrow of compost. He wore gardening gloves and held a trowel in one hand. A pair of secateurs weighed down his left pocket and a reel of twine his right. Piled at his feet were various bags of plant food, and in a dish lying on the ground—
"Is that a dead fish?"
"Yes," he said shortly. "For the roses."
She wrinkled her nose. "Why are you doing this?"
"I like working outdoors," he said, a bit defensively.
"Yes, after so many years in a dungeon, I could see where you would," she agreed. "But why are you doing all of this by hand? I mean, you don't need sixteen different kinds of fertilizer. Just use a modified Effloresco."
He bent over the compost again, turning it with the trowel. "I cannot do Effloresco."
"What do you mean you can't? We learned it as first years."
"I didn't. Or rather, I did, but it does not work for me. Spells involving living things have always been…difficult for me." He picked up the fish. "And now, if you don't mind, I would like to bury this before Crookshanks decides it would make a suitable dinner."
Yes, that was it: spells involving living things. She had felt badly for him at the time, wondering if his ineptitude with that particular type of spell was due to his being so solitary and cut off from others. He'd certainly compensated for it by mastering non-magical methods — their garden was the envy of the neighborhood. She thought of the satisfied tiredness in Severus' face when he came in from an afternoon spent tying up dahlias or pruning the witch hazel, of her father and his pleasure in "pottering about" in the flowerbeds. Maybe Severus had the right of it after all; perhaps natural means were as good for the gardener as for the garden.
6. What household chore does your partner do best? Worst?
He is an excellent cook, Hermione wrote. Which was both unsurprising, since it was essentially no different from Potions, and fortunate, since she herself could barely boil an egg. Harry and Ron had gone so far as to say that she could ruin takeaway just by bringing it home. She had to admit that the past two years had seriously raised the bar for her dining-in expectations. Mournfully, she imagined herself with Severus gone, sitting down to a meal of boil-in-bag curry and artificially-flavored raspberry jelly. Was twenty-five too old to ask one's mum to pack a lunch? And perhaps a dinner?
On the other hand, despite the fact that his Potions lab was immaculate, the man was utterly incapable of tidying up. Left to his own devices for two days, the rest of the house would look like a herd of Nifflers had stopped by for a long weekend.
She has a gift for tidiness. A bit of an understatement, if anything, Severus thought. Clothes seemed to fold themselves when she walked past them, the kitchen and bathroom fittings lost their tarnish and shone like stars. He had to admit that over the past two years he had gained a deep appreciation for clean dishes in neat stacks and a floor that didn't stick to one's feet — though not, sadly, the ability to produce such miracles himself. He shuddered for a moment, imagining what the house would be like a month after her departure. Perhaps he'd move back to Spinner's End; that way the contrast between the mess without and the mess within wouldn't be as glaring.
On the other hand, despite his best efforts to teach her, she was still unable to boil an egg. It was lucky his Potions skills extended to food, otherwise they'd both have been done in by ricketts, scurvy, and general malnutrition.
7. Who is your partner's best friend?
Most people, Severus reflected, would say that Hermione's best friend was Ginny, on the (mistaken) assumption that the best friend was usually of the same gender. They did spend a good deal of time together, usually involving wine and giggling — rather a lot of both. And yet Ginny hadn't hunted Horcruxes with Hermione, hadn't fought Voldemort with her, hadn't been a fugitive across England with her. Or bonded with her as mutual victims of an abusive potions Master, he thought with a certain black humor. Too, Ginny's brother was Ron Weasley, and he sensed a lingering awkwardness there.
"I think, deep down, she's still a little angry with me that I hurt Ron," Hermione said through a yawn. It was late, and she'd just gotten home from a night out with Ginny. "So I can't ever be completely sure that she won't tell him something I said. She'd only do it out of wanting to help, or because she thought it was the right thing to do, but still."
"It is difficult to be completely open with someone when their loyalties are divided," he agreed.
"And also of course that means she definitely would not want to hear how I feel about—" She stopped suddenly and looked away.
"About nobody. Nothing. And it doesn't matter, there's always Harry. I don't think he'd be too horrified." She kissed him on the cheek — by which he knew for certain that she'd had one or two more glasses of wine than usual — and went up the stairs to her room.
No, not Ginny. All things considered, it had to be Harry. With a twinge of something that felt distinctly like jealousy, Severus wondered where that friendship might lead Hermione and Harry, once the Ministry granted their divorce.
Severus had colleagues, of course, especially now that he was working again — NovaPotio had, she gathered, turned out to be a surprisingly congenial environment — but friends? She shook her head. Such a private man, it was hard to imagine him opening up to anyone. He and Lucius Malfoy had been friends for years, of course; from various snippets he'd dropped over the past two years she knew that Lucius had welcomed him into Slytherin, invited him frequently to Malfoy Manor ("He taught me what fork to use. You'd be amazed how awkward it is not to know," Severus had once said ruefully), defended him against James and Sirius, and generally been kind to him when no one else had. One of the hardest parts of his role during the war, he had once said, had been changing that true friendship to a false one, and there was no repairing it. So who…?
"Another letter for you from Draco," Hermione said, sorting through the morning's post and handing Severus a fat square of parchment sealed with a large ornate M stamped in emerald-green wax. "That's the third this month. Anything new since last week?"
"He's well," Severus said after a pause to scan the letter. "He has a fifteenth-century grimoire that he thinks I'd like to see. He found it at a second-hand Muggle bookseller in Torquay, of all places. I shall write him back this evening."
"I'm glad the two of you have stayed in touch," Hermione said. "No, really," she added at his skeptical glance. "I don't hold a grudge. He didn't have much of a chance, given who his father was, and I shudder to think what he must have gone through at the end."
Severus grimaced. "The sins of the fathers…" he murmured. "Well, he is my godson. And at first giving him whatever help and support I could seemed like an acceptable way to repay my debt to Lucius, self-serving as his assistance over the years might have been. But I've come to enjoy Draco for his own sake; he's learned some hard lessons, but he's learned them well. It was his idea, you know, to contact NovaPotio. I'd wanted to try for a post at one of the older companies, but he pointed out — quite rightly — that as a start-up it would be more forward-looking, less tied to the past. I'm very grateful to him." He looked up and smiled. "He asks about you."
Yes, of course. Draco.
8. What is your partner most proud of?
Snape drummed his fingers on the table, considering. Hermione's work for the Department of Magical Law Enforcement seemed the most obvious answer. She'd been thrilled at getting a transfer to their Public Defender Service, where she'd have the chance to fight for those unable to fight for themselves. Last year's class action suit Dracones v Gringott's, for example — how she had loved battling the Wizarding world's most powerful bank, forcing them to pay reparations for their years of dragon abuse! The case had netted six million galleons in damages, and she'd donated half of her 10% fee to the new foundation for draconic research that the settlement had funded. He thought of how her face lit up whenever a new case came her way, a fresh chance to correct injustice, right a wrong, take up sword and shield for the underdog. Come to think of it, she'd fought for him, too — he'd heard from Harry how she had defended him during that last black year of the war, despite the evidence and against all odds.
And to think, it had all grown out of a short-lived club with the unfortunate name of S.P.E.W. He'd teased her about that, the day the DMLE had approved her transfer. She'd laughed and said, "Oh, I went about it all wrong — it wasn't fair to try to trick the House Elves into their freedom — but still, when I look back on it, I'm proud of it. It was the first time I'd seen something that I knew was wrong and tried to change it. This," she added, holding up the letter from the DMLE with a grin, "is nothing more than the logical extension of those little knitted hats."
He smiled. S.P.E.W., he wrote.
Severus had so much to be proud of; how could she possibly choose just one? Setting aside the plain fact that he'd been instrumental in Voldemort's defeat, if it weren't for him Harry would have died. More than once. He'd successfully deceived one of the most powerful Wizards ever, not once but for years; he'd served as a vital member of the Order of the Phoenix; he had voluntarily risked his life again and again; and he had kept his word to the end, protecting all of them by taking on himself the act of murder, serving as Headmaster to a school that could do nothing other than hate and despise him, and nearly dying at the hands of Voldemort.
And yet, thinking it over, she felt a grim certainty that none of it mattered to him. The price had been too high, and the past had left too deep a mark on him. Voldemort's trust had been bought with Charity Burbage's life. The Order of the Phoenix had accepted him not on his own merits but solely on Dumbledore's guarantee. To succeed at protecting Harry, he'd had to treat him with sneers and contempt. And so many had died while he had survived. No wonder that when the letter had arrived from the Ministry awarding him the order of Merlin First Class, he'd thrown it on the fire without comment. Slowly, reluctantly, knowing she was right although it broke her heart a little, she wrote, Nothing.
9. What two things does your partner most value in a relationship?
Autonomy, she wrote. And honesty. How could he not, after all those years when he had had so little of either? She had tried her best to give him the first, from the very beginning…
She hesitated at the door of the little house, wondering for a fleeting moment if she should wait for him to pick her up and carry her over the threshold, then shook her head in annoyance at her own romantic nonsense as he simply held the door open for her.
"Miss Granger —"
She gave a short laugh, "We are married, you know. I think you can call me Hermione." He followed her as she went into the kitchen to stand at the window and gaze out at the darkness. It was raining, and the garden smelled fresh and sweet.
"Hermione, then," he said, with a gentleness in his voice she'd never heard before. "You must consider yourself free of any obligation to me. I will make no demands on you." He hesitated, and she could tell he was trying to find words to tell her, without insulting her outright, that the whole situation was utterly distasteful to him. "I know neither of us wished for this marriage, but—"
She raised a hand to stop him, suddenly more tired than she had ever been. This could have been so wonderful, she thought bleakly. But it's all so wrong. "It's all right, Severus," she said dully. What had she expected? Hearts and flowers? "You've spent most of your adult life forced to do things — by Dumbledore, by Voldemort, by your own sense of guilt. I'm sure this must be just one more in a long series of undesirable events." She hesitated, but then her courage failed her. Whatever she had thought he might feel for her, she had clearly imagined it. "Please don't worry. I won't be party to doing it to you again. You need not pretend…We need not pretend that we love each other."
Despite its unpromising start, they had built a mutually satisfactory friendship. But she had deliberately done nothing to tie him to her, nothing to create a sense of guilt or obligation. She had left him as free as it was possible to be given the circumstances. So now that she had the chance to make him truly free, why did she find herself wishing so desperately that Minister Valerian had left well enough alone?
As to honesty…why did she suddenly feel as if all she'd given him was lies?
Intellectual companionship, he wrote. And honesty. The first was how he had known that her relationship with the youngest Weasley son was doomed from the start. Oh, Weasley was a decent enough young man. All the Weasleys were. He suspected they were genetically incapable of being anything else. But Ronald's talents lay in action, in snap decisions, in well-honed instincts (he would make a superb Auror, as would Harry); they did not lie in the use of the mind, in research and analysis, in the careful building of an argument or the reaching of a logical conclusion. Severus had been pleased beyond measure when, a scant week into their marriage, Hermione had challenged one of his statements, partly because it signaled that she saw him as an equal and partly because she supported her challenge with so much evidence. He had been surprised and gratified when she had fallen into the habit of bringing her legal arguments to him as a test case, using him as a sounding board to help her find any flaws in her reasoning. For his part, she had become an invaluable first reader of his own manuscripts, with a sharp eye for contradictions and inconsistencies. He wondered if she would be willing to continue doing so after they were divorced — and then wondered why the word should cause such pain when in fact they had never really been married in the first place.
As to honesty…had he given her that? Or had he been too afraid? And was it too late?
10. What is your partner's greatest regret?
Oh, he knew something about regret. If any man on earth was familiar with the diverse flavors of regret, the subtle distinctions and bitter taste, it was himself. But he would never have guessed hers, if he hadn't stumbled on it only a month ago.
Severus closed the door behind him quietly. It was late and surely Hermione would be asleep. But even as he did so he noticed the light on in the kitchen and he heard her voice. Pleased at the thought of being able to see her before she went to bed in her own room, he almost stepped in to greet her, then her tone of voice sank in and he realized she was near tears. He hung back, unwilling to intrude but not wanting to eavesdrop.
"Mum, it wasn't because I didn't trust you… I was afraid for you, and for Dad …yes but …I know …I'm sorry …if I could have thought of anything else you know… yes …yes, I know Mum… I know you do …I love you too …goodnight."
He heard a soft click as she set the phone on the table and then a single heartfelt sob.
"Hermione," he said hesitantly, stepping through the door.
She glanced up, hastily wiping tears from her cheeks. "Severus. I didn't know you were home."
"Are you all right?" he asked, feeling foolish even as he said it. Obviously she wasn't. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to listen in on your conversation, but I couldn't help hearing."
Her face crumpled and she dropped her face into her hands. "I don't know what to do. Mum is still so upset about the Obliviate I cast on her and Dad," she choked out. "I didn't know what else to do, I was so afraid for them, but she thinks it's because I didn't trust them to keep a secret. Most of the time she doesn't mention it but there's always a kind of… constraint when we talk, and sometimes… I've got into her mind once, she says, and it feels like it isn't all hers anymore, and she can't forgive that." Her voice vanished into tears. "I wish I'd never done it! I wish I'd done anything else."
"My dear, I am so sorry." He drew up a chair beside her and stroked her back, his heart going out to her. "But you did it for good reason," he said gently. "You were young, you were frightened and you wanted them to be safe. Your mother will understand. It will just take time."
She shook her head, her eyes red. "No, she won't. And she's right not to. You shouldn't mess with people's minds. The ends don't always justify the means."
He had held her as she cried, understanding her pain and grief at a level beyond words, and had come closer to kissing her then than at any time before or since. Only the memory of her words to him on their wedding night and of his own promise to himself had held him back.
Given the life he had led, it was hard for her to imagine how many regrets a man like Severus must have — and he would not be likely to forgive himself for any of them, necessary though each of them had been. Dumbledore's death had perhaps been the most difficult, though the old Wizard had been dying, and surely a man had the right to choose the manner of his death. Severus had done it by the Headmaster's own request, and for the best of reasons; what his death had bought them had been truly priceless. But to Severus, it was blood on his hands and always would be. The lies he had had to tell, the people he had been unable to save. Charity Burbage's death still tormented him, she knew, though he had never said so and she had only discovered it by chance…
Hermione tiptoed past Severus' room, not wanting to wake him, but paused at a sound of a low, broken voice coming from within. Cautiously she opened the door a crack. Moonlight coming in the window showed a figure, tossing restlessly on the bed.
"No… please…" he muttered.
Silently she stole into the room and gazed down at Severus, deep in the grip of nightmare. His face was twisted in agonized denial of what his dreaming mind was showing him. "Charity…" he murmured. "No… sorry…"
Uncertain, she bit her lip. Should she wake him? Would he be ashamed that she had seen him like this?
A stifled groan escaped him. "Forgive me…"
The forlorn plea broke her. She was his wife, after all — he deserved her comfort, even if he didn't want to share her bed. Softly, she began to stroke his hair. "Sssssh," she murmured. "Hush now. Don't be afraid." Slowly his agitation calmed and his breathing slowed as her touch soothed him, until he was sleeping quietly once again. And then, her heart racing, she had bent over and kissed him.
At the door, she turned to give her sleeping husband one last look, knowing she would not have the courage next day to ask him if he remembered.
Shaking her head, she pushed away the memory of how it had felt to be in his room, in his bed. The question was about his regrets, not hers.
Everything he had done, she thought, all the acts he regretted, he had been driven to by necessity. Except the first, the one from which all the others had sprung: Lily's death. That had been a child of ambition and pride and a wounded heart, unintentional but nonetheless fatal. He had loved Lily Evans and his thoughtless actions had led directly to her death. That he could not save Lily was, she was sure, his greatest regret.
Which either complicated her situation or radically simplified it, depending on your point of view. Lily still held his heart, and how did you compete with a dead woman who would always be young, always beautiful, always perfect — especially with a man for whom the very act of forgetting her would only bring more guilt?
11. Why did your partner agree to this marriage? [This question is for statistical purposes only and will not be counted in scoring.]
"I have no idea."
"I have no idea."
Hermione set down her quill and pushed the two completed quiz papers away with a sigh. She'd been surprised at how easily she'd answered most of the questions, but of course that didn't mean the answers were right. What did she really know about Severus Snape, even though he was her husband? (How strange it still was to put the words "her husband" and "Severus Snape" in the same sentence!) And what did he know about her? After all, she'd held back, too.
Despite their odd situation, a tentative friendship had grown up between them. He always seemed to know when she needed a cup of tea and when a glass of wine, when she wanted to talk and when she wanted to be left alone. He was genuinely interested in her work, amusing her by his sardonic comments and sly barbs about her opponents; he poked holes in her arguments with pleasure, and then congratulated her when she found clever ways to mend them. He had become part of her life, her partner in all ways but one. The night that he'd comforted her after her mother's phone call, she thought she'd caught a glimpse of something more behind his kindness. The words, "Stay with me tonight, please" had been on the tip of her tongue. But she'd swallowed them, afraid to endanger the delicate balance they'd achieved.
What did she want the quiz to show? She honestly didn't know. If she failed, if the test showed that an insufficient foundation had been built between them, Severus would be automatically granted a divorce. He'd be free to live his own life, something he'd had little chance to do for the past twenty-odd years. Didn't he deserve that? If she loved him, wasn't that the greatest gift she could give him?
And she did love him. For the first time she admitted it, freely and fully, to herself. She loved him, and she had almost certainly lost him. Because even if, by some miracle, she'd answered enough questions correctly, what were the chances that he knew any of these things about her?
Impatiently, she folded and sealed the parchment and put it in her pocket. She'd post it on the way home.
As Snape flipped back through the pages, glancing at the questions, he felt more and more discouraged. There was no possible way Hermione could know these things about him. His favorite color — how in Merlin's name could she know that? Let alone his greatest regret, or what he was proudest of. After all, it wasn't as if he'd ever shared anything personal with her. It was his own fault really; he was too used to being alone and keeping secrets. Trust, openness, these were no longer part of his character, if they ever had been; it simply wasn't in him, he feared, to be the sort of partner that she wanted and deserved.
And yet, once or twice, there had been a look in her eyes, a tone in her voice that made him wonder if she might feel something more. He'd been hesitant to act on it, enjoying the novelty of a friendship based on mutual respect and shared interests; given another year or two, he might have found the courage, or the situation might have clarified itself somehow. But now it was too late.
He sighed, folded the parchment, and summoned a post owl. As the Muggle playwright said, If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well it were done quickly.
Part 4 — The Answer
"Hermione? Please, come in and sit down." The woman was tall, quiet, with a manner that inspired trust. The ornate diploma behind her desk revealed that she had an advanced degree in Psycho-Magical Analysis and Magico-Marital Relationship Counseling. "My name is Rue."
Hermione seated herself nervously on the edge of the chair across from Rue's desk. Other couples whom she knew had taken the quiz had received their results by owl several days ago, but a letter had come from the Ministry asking her to come in and receive hers personally. She hadn't mentioned the letter to Severus. "I… I don't really know why I'm here."
"Don't worry, it's nothing tragic," Rue said kindly. "It's just that yours is an unusual situation."
"In what way?"
Rue folded her hands on her desk thoughtfully. "The information provided concerning the quiz was intentionally incomplete," she said. "For those who fail, their partners are automatically granted a divorce, this much is true. It is also true that if both partners pass with a reasonable score, the marriage is upheld and the Ministry asks that they continue for another two years to see if perhaps a successful relationship is possible." She paused. "But there is a third possibility."
Hermione swallowed. "Go on."
"The assumption behind offering the quiz was that anyone requesting it would do so because they knew on some level that their marriage was not working. That one partner or the other — or perhaps both — were not really invested in making it work. Offering applicants a divorce, or, if their answers showed a minimal level of care and interest in one another, encouraging them to try a little longer, were reasonable options. In your case, well…"
She opened a folder and from it took two sets of parchment which she placed side by side on the desk. Hermione recognized one as her answers about Severus; the other set, in Snape's handwriting, were his answers about himself. Rue tapped one, then the other, with her wand and murmured "Comparo." Instantly, the answers on both sheets glowed a cheerful grass-green. "Green indicates a matching answer."
Hermione reached out a hand and paged through the sheets of parchment. Every page glowed green. "I… I don't understand."
Rue smiled. "Hermione, you answered every question about your husband correctly. You know him in a way that few wives ever know their husbands. It's clear that you love him very much."
Hermione's eyes filled. "I do. He's…" She sniffed. "Yes, I do."
"Given these results, you have a choice. The Ministry can simply notify your husband that you passed, in which case your marriage will, by law, continue for another two years. Or, if you wish, we can tell him that you failed, and he — and you — will be free to move on with your lives."
Hermione wiped her eyes. The thought of losing Severus nearly killed her, but to hold him by law and not by love was equally unthinkable. "I don't need to think about it. He deserves to be free."
"Don't be too hasty," Rue said gently. "I'd like to show you something, if you'll give me a moment."
Severus flipped, disbelieving, through the two sets of parchment, his answers about Hermione on the left, her answers about herself on the right. Green, and green, and green. He had gotten every answer correct.
Rue was watching him closely from across the desk. "I submit," she said, "that you love your wife very much. Nothing else could explain how well you know her, despite the fact that yours is a marriage in name only."
His heart lifted, and then sank as he realized what this must mean. "You mentioned a third possibility," he said reluctantly. "I assume that is when one partner passes, not with the minimum but with full marks, and the other—" His throat felt tight. Hermione must have failed, not out of any fault of her own but because his self-protective armor had been all too effective.
"Certainly the Ministry did not consider that a marriage in which one partner, at least, had invested so much and knew the other so well would come up for review under this Memorandum," Rue said.
Severus gave her a wry smile. "It would not be the first time that the Ministry failed to consider unintended consequences of its actions."
She laughed. "Sad, but true. But you have a choice to make. One is that, because you have passed so thoroughly, the Ministry can require that your marriage continue for another two years, to give you a chance to—"
Severus waved a hand in dismissal. He would not tie her to him out of selfishness. "And the other?"
"If you think it best for her, we can tell her that you failed," she said quietly. "In which case you will both be free to do as you wish with your lives. It's a difficult decision, I know—"
"No. It isn't." He felt as if an iron band had locked itself around his chest. "She must be free. Obviously. I have no right to keep her, and if I love her—"
He took a deep breath. "Yes. And if I love her, the best thing I can do for her is release her from this charade, to make her own life as she wishes."
Rue smiled. "Before you make your final decision, there's something you should see."
"Severus, Hermione, I'll let these speak for themselves," Rue said, gesturing towards the four sets of parchment, all of them glowing green encouragement. "Look at them. All of them. And then I think you may have some things to discuss with one another. Take as much time as you need," she added with a smile, and closed the door behind her.
Tentatively, Hermione looked at the top sheet of her husband's answers about her. Her eyes widened. "You knew my favorite color? How?"
He smiled faintly. "Your sweatshirt. It's disintegrating, but you still wear it. And your necklace." He cleared his throat. "Mine?"
"The socks. And the peonies." She turned a page, then flushed. "How did you know what I was proudest of?"
"I am, as it happens, a very good listener," he said with a smirk. "A knack that stood me in good stead as a spy."
She laughed, and turned back to paging through his answers. Then she stopped. "Your greatest regret," she said, looking at him with an odd expression. "This one isn't quite a match."
"What do you mean?" Both his and her responses were green, as were all the others.
"Look," she said, pointing. Where she had written, "That he could not save Lily," Severus had written, "That I could not save Harry's mother."
He frowned, puzzled. "And the difference is?"
She shook her head with a smile, her heart lighter than it had been in many months. "Never mind." She continued reading, marveling at his perceptiveness. He had not, it seemed, missed anything she had said or done in their time together.
She heard a soft sound and looked up to see his lips parted in surprise as he stared at the paper in front of him. "What is it?"
His eyes met hers with a look she had never seen in them before. Without a word, he slid towards her the last sheet of her answers about herself, then laid beside it the last sheet of his answers about himself. She looked down.
11. Why did you agree to this marriage?
And beneath it, their answers:
Because I love him.
Because I love her.
Something was making it hard for her to breathe, and there seemed to be not enough air in the room. "Rue told me that we know each other in a way that few couples ever do," she whispered, wondering if the joy in her own face was as bright as the joy in his.
He reached out a hand to cup her cheek, sending a wave of heat through her. "In all ways but one," he said, his voice rough with desire, and then his lips were on hers and she could think of nothing but how much she wanted him.
When he released her, she took his hand and pulled him to his feet. "Maybe," she said breathlessly, "we should go home and take care of that."