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Factor Z

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Hermione Granger dipped her quill into the pot of ink and then brushed the feather against her lips. She almost had this equation balanced. What if I move the x factor to the right and then add in the moon phase formula, she thought before she reworked the last part with the adjustment. She was concentrating so intensely her nose was only a handbreadth away from squashing against the desk as she jotted down the new sequence of numbers.

Hermione was a lead Arithmancer for the Ministry of Magic. However, they paid her as if she were a cleaner because, as others reminded her often, she was only a Mudblood.

After the Dark Lord had killed Harry, Hermione had been lucky. She was put in chains while most of the Weasley family and other known Undesirables had been tortured and then executed.

Hermione languished in Azkaban for almost three years before she was released. Draco Malfoy, of all people, had spoken on her behalf. He made a case to the Dark Lord that every able-bodied witch and wizard available would be needed to help rebuild wizarding Britain.

And so, Hermione had been freed and given a job in the Ministry of Magic Research Center under the supervision of Severus Snape and Draco Malfoy. Hermione had also been lucky enough to find the remaining Weasley family. She now lived with George, Percy, and Ginny above Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes. It was astonishing that the joke shop was even allowed to stay open, but even in dark times, wizards loved a good joke product. It seemed strange to Hermione, as joke stores weren't that much of a thing in the Muggle world.

Ten years had passed since the war ended, and wizarding Britain remained mostly the same. The Dark Lord had eased the restrictions made during the war so Mudbloods were no longer being rounded up, but he did further separate the Muggle and wizarding worlds. Wizards and witches could no longer have one foot in each world. They could either stay in the wizarding world or be killed. It was an easy choice for most.

All communication and entry into the Muggle world were cut off. No longer could a wizard get to the Hogwarts Express or Diagon Alley through the Muggle world. A wizard had to either travel by Floo powder or Apparate directly onto the platform or shopping district. Heavy anti-Muggle charms were installed around all former entrances from the Muggle world and the entrances themselves bricked over.

Any wizard or witch found consorting with a Muggle was executed. No questions asked. Any wizard or witch found to be living in a Muggle area and not one of the all-wizarding villages or districts was given twenty-four hours to find proper accommodations, or they would be executed.

The Dark Lord did not believe in leniency for disobedience. It was a miracle Malfoy had been able to argue on her behalf, but she suspected Snape may have had something to do with it as well. However, the official version was that Malfoy had been the instigator, and he did have quite the clout being the son of the Minister for Magic. The Dark Lord wasn't so gauche to be the Minister, No, that's what a minion was for. The Dark Lord was the Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot, a more behind the scenes position and a position that allowed him to be judge, jury, and executioner.

Hermione wasn't given the privilege of knowing what she was working on. She only knew that something wasn't improving and that it was her responsibility to turn the numbers around. It was frustrating; she could work the equations as many times and in as many ways as she wanted, but without a deeper knowledge of what she was working on, she knew she would never come to a satisfying answer.

"Granger," Severus said silkily from behind.

Looking over her shoulder, Hermione gave him a small smile. "Sir, hello." She understood he was doing what he could to get along in the world, same as her. And she rather thought he was easier on her than he needed to be. She was grateful for that.

"It's almost midnight. Whatever you are working on can wait until morning." He then swept away from her cubicle and out of the department entirely.

Hermione sighed. She really should have gone home hours ago, but she had been at a finicky spot and wanted to continue. If she solved this equation, then maybe she would figure out why this project was so important to the Dark Lord. And it was. She knew because she had been called into his office six weeks ago, and he had been the one to tell her what was needed. It wasn't the first time she'd had an audience with him, but she did hope it was going to be the last.

The Dark Lord had changed since the final battle. Hermione didn't know if it was glamour charms or something more permanent, but he looked handsomely human—except for his red, snake-slitted eyes. Those showed him to be the monster he was.

Deciding to follow Snape's advice, she packed up her things and headed for Diagon Alley through an exit now directly connected to the Ministry. Yet another small change. Begrudgingly, Hermione did have to admit it made sense to have wizarding Britain's two largest employers, the Ministry and St Mungo's, directly connected to Diagon Alley.

As she stepped through the staff exit, she waved to Justin Finch-Fletchley, the night guard on duty. Diagon Alley was nearly deserted. It was a Tuesday so most of the pubs and clubs were closed. Not that there were many on Diagon Alley to begin with. Knockturn Alley, on the other hand, had quite a few that were still open, and Hermione had to pass its entrance on her way home.

As she crossed the entrance from the far side of the street—she made it a point never to walk on the same side—she drew her cloak tighter around her body. Just peering down the alleyway gave her the chills. She knew that's where the Ministry-operated brothel was located. It was the stuff of nightmares for witches in general.

Instead of execution, witches who disobeyed or displeased the Dark Lord on lesser infractions often found their punishment was life in the whorehouse. All anti-pregnancy charms were outlawed because of the number of casualties during the war and, from what Hermione had gathered from whispered conversations at the Ministry, getting a whore pregnant was richly rewarded by the Dark Lord. She hoped she could continue to deliver results to the Dark Lord. If not, he may banish her to the whorehouse just because he was angry. Hermione shuddered; she felt sorry for those women and desperately did not want to become one.

Almost past the entrance of the alley, she heard something that made her bolt into a run.

"Oi, Mudblood Granger," a man's voice sing-songed.

Merlin, how was I recognized, Hermione wondered as she whipped her wand out. As a Mudblood, her wand use had been severely restricted. She was allowed small charms and defensive shields but no hexes, jinxes, curses, and definitely no Dark magic, even in cases of self-defence.

She hadn't made more than a few strides when someone grabbed her left arm and yanked her back. Her assailant then shoved her against the nearest storefront.

Theo Nott stood over her, smirking, his hand still clutching her arm. Four other wizards flanked him, all of them wearing Death Eater robes. She recognized the two with their hoods down, former Slytherins, the lot of them. Wizards she had attended school with.

"Nott," Hermione said shortly and nodded her head, breathing hard. She didn't dare remove her eyes from the group. She hoped they would just tease her and be on their way. It wouldn't be the first time she was harassed. One time, Nott's father and his friends had caught her on her way home from a late night at the Ministry, and she had been raped. She was grateful that a child had not resulted from the assault. Her body trembled as adrenaline and fear coursed through her veins. This couldn't be happening again, she thought desperately, looking for a way out of the situation.

"Why so scared, Granger? I was just telling the boys I was looking for a spot of fun," Nott sneered at her. "Wasn't I?" There was a muttered general agreement behind him.

"I'm sure I wouldn't be any fun," Hermione said demurely and dropped her head, attempting to look as meek and deferential as possible. She still kept eye contact though. She couldn't afford to let them get one over on her: she would be done for if that happened. She battled against her panic, taking even breaths through her nose.

As Hermione called her magic forward ready to cast a shield charm if necessary, one of the wizards behind Nott broke from the group and began to circle around to her right side. Hermione tracked him from the corner of her eye and pointed her wand more in his direction.

"Come now, Granger," Nott taunted. "I hear from Goyle's father that you're loads of fun." It had been Gregory Goyle, Sr who had raped her. She hadn't known exactly who the culprit was until Snape had overheard Goyle talking and confronted her about it.

"He was intoxicated at the time. I'm sure he was only mistaken," Hermione replied calmly. She didn't feel calm, not even a little bit. Her hands were sweaty, and she fought to keep a firm grip on her wand as her wand arm trembled.

The wizard on her right side lowered his hood. It was Draco Malfoy. Hermione wasn't sure whether she should breathe a sigh of relief or not. She hoped he would help her. He had in the past after all. But she didn't know what Nott's position in the Ministry was or whether it was above or below Malfoy's.

"Alright, Theo. You've scared her. Why don't you continue on home?" Malfoy suggested, taking a step closer to Hermione.

"Why? So you can have her to yourself? She must be a good fuck, especially if a Malfoy wants to fuck her more than once," Nott quipped to the group, resulting in raucous laughter.

"And if I am? What are you going to do about it?" Draco replied in a bored tone.

Hermione's eyes widened. Is this what people thought? That she allowed Draco to sleep with her? That that's why he protected her? She'd suspected something along those lines but hadn't ever wanted to delve too deeply into it. She was just grateful for the small bit of protection he had offered.

Nott backed down, and he and the men behind him slinked off in the direction of the residential district, Domice Alley. Hermione breathed a sigh of relief as she watched them go. She turned back to face Malfoy. His face was shuttered, and his shoulders were tense. He looked angry, and Hermione wasn't sure if he ever would actually fight his friends on her behalf. She wasn't sure she wanted to find out.

"Thanks, sir," Hermione muttered and turned to leave. She didn't dare put her wand away now; she was too skittish.

"I'll walk you." He looped his arm through hers.

Hermione was shocked he would even deign to touch her but kept silent. Could Malfoy actually want to sleep with her? There wasn't much Hermione would be able to do if someone of Malfoy's station decided they wanted to. Hence why her rape had never even been investigated, let alone prosecuted.

It wasn't long before they arrived next to the joke shop near the stairs leading up to her flat. Taking a deep breath, Hermione studied Malfoy's face. He had saved her on more than one occasion. If he were only waiting for her to offer, it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world to sleep with him.

"Sir, if you want, we can go upstairs, and I can—"

"Gods, no, Granger!" Malfoy said with disgust and shock. He dropped her arm and paced away before coming back toward her while running his hands through his slicked back hair, not looking at her.

"I let them think that, but I would never... I'm married. I would never break my vows to Tori," Malfoy told her and finally met her eye.

Hermione was relieved and gave a small smile. "Good, I didn't want to. But if all your friends thought it, I thought that maybe…" She didn't finish her sentence, and she looked away before he could see the mortification in her eyes.

"Granger, I don't know why I keep saving you... Probably because some small part of me knows you don't deserve the life you're living. But I don't want to sleep with you." He awkwardly patted her shoulder, and she looked back up at him. His face was entirely sincere, and she could detect some embarrassment at the topic of discussion.

She gave him a full grin then, relieved that they felt the same way. "Thanks again, sir," she said, turning to unlock the door behind her.

"'Night, Granger," he replied as he walked off.

After climbing two sets of stairs, Hermione slipped inside her quiet flat. Someone had left a lamp on for her in the sitting room. She smiled softly as she turned it off and headed to the bedroom she shared with Ginny. It was smaller than the room they had once shared in Grimmauld Place but bigger than the one at the Burrow. It was comforting to fall asleep listening to Ginny's breathing as she had done for so many years.


The following morning, both Percy and Hermione were the first ones up. They worked at the Ministry, whereas George and Ginny minded the joke shop, which brought in most of their income. Hermione knew the Dark Lord had his fingers in everything, and he wouldn't allow any of them to find a different job even if they'd wanted to.

As Hermione waited for her tea to warm, she gazed out the window. The owl that delivered the Daily Prophet was late, which was odd. Its loud screech was what usually woke her up.

"Morning, Hermione," Ginny yawned as she shuffled into the kitchen, sitting down at the small breakfast bar. Still in her flannel pyjamas, she folded her arms on the worktop and laid her head on them.

"Hi, Ginny. I didn't wake you last night, did I?" Hermione asked as she finished buttering some toast and placed it on a plate in front of Ginny. She put two more pieces in the toaster for her own breakfast.

"Yeah, but I fell right back asleep. What time was it?" Ginny rubbed her eyes and grinned when she saw the toast. "Thanks!"

Hermione smiled and nodded. "It was about a quarter after midnight. I got lucky. I was almost ambushed near Knockturn Alley."

"Oh, no, Hermione!" When Hermione had been raped, she had stumbled home in the middle of the night, being careful not to wake any of her flatmates as she cleaned herself up. But Ginny had heard her crying in the shower and spent the night by her side.

"It was fine. Malfoy stopped them. You know the rumours about him and me..."

Ginny nodded yes, her eyes widening. "Did something happen...between you and him last night? Did he…"

"No, I asked him up last night, as a sort-of thank you. But he declined. Seemed perturbed at the idea, really," Hermione mused.

"Huh, that's so weird," Ginny replied.

"I can't figure him out. I'm just glad he doesn't actually want to shag. That would make department meetings awkward," Hermione laughed.

"Who doesn't want to shag?" George asked as he stumbled into the kitchen, scratching at his bare chest. He only ever wore pyjamas trousers to bed.

"Put a shirt on, George," Percy snapped from behind, already dressed and ready for work.

George covered his nipples with his hands, feigning coyness. Percy rolled his eyes, and when he looked away, George gave him the two-fingered salute.

Hermione hid her snort of amusement behind her hand and then turned her attention back to the window above the sink. "Daily Prophet owl is late today," she commented.

"S'not here yet?" George yawned.

Hermione shook her head, as she snagged one of Ginny's pieces to toast and ate it.

After finishing her toast, Hermione turned to grab her messenger bag and leave for the Ministry with Percy when she heard a pecking at the window. The owl had finally arrived. Ginny opened the window and offered the owl a bit of toast. Once Ginny had hands on the newspaper, the owl flew out, and George shut the window to keep the cold out.

When Hermione and Percy were about to head down the stairs, Ginny's loud cry brought them rushing back into the kitchen.

"What is it, Ginny?" Percy asked his eyes wide. He looked around the flat, searching for danger, an ingrained response after so many years of war.

Ginny held up the paper so Percy and Hermione could see the headline. Hermione gasped and snatched it out of Ginny's hand.

MANDATORY MARRIAGE LAW PASSED IN EMERGENCY SESSION

By Eliza Linton

Dear readers, as this reporter published weeks ago when I first learnt from an important anonymous source, indeed ambitious legislation has been in the works. In the wee hours of the night, the Wizengamot passed a mandatory marriage law: The Matrimonial Union Statute. It includes the following directives:

All wizards, regardless of marital status, must marry a witch of a different blood status. The wizards must petition the Ministry directly for a new wife, which will be approved or denied based on a formula that was discovered in the Ministry's very own Research Center. In cases when a wizard is already married to a witch of a different blood status, a child must be born within the next two years. If no child is born within that timeframe, the union will be dissolved, and the wizard must then petition for a new wife. The witch will have six months to accept a petition. If she does not accept, she will be taken into Ministry custody.

Witches will receive petitions and, in the case of more than one petition being received, may choose at her own discretion. Witches who receive no petitions will be taken into Ministry custody. Witches who are above childbearing age or incapable of having children will continue their lives as normal. However, if they are married to a wizard of the same blood status and the Ministry deems the wizard capable of producing viable heirs, the wizard will have to petition for an additional wife.

After ten years, each union must produce at least three children. If after that point and both parties agree, the union can be dissolved.

I must worryingly announce, my dear readers, that the population of wizarding Britain is precariously low. Unless there is a magical baby boom, we will dwindle to extinction. This law is to ensure that outcome never happens.

Our gracious Dark Lord has had the best minds of our age working on this problem, and he believes this is the optimal solution for all of wizarding Britain.

As the Dark Lord, Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot, was quoted as saying late last night, "The consequences of the wars we've faced to get our great nation to the point we are now were harsh and exacting for us all. We must rise together as a community to combat the problem of low population. I expect all citizens to participate with enthusiasm."

This reporter will eagerly await her petitions as she knows all witches in good-standing will. Wizards of wizarding Britain don't take too long to petition for the witch of your dreams: she may be snatched up before you know it.

"Oh, gods," Hermione moaned when she finished the article. She did this. She was sure of it. It was her equations that she had been working on for the last six weeks that made this law get passed. She paled as she handed the paper to Percy and headed down the stairs for work, dreading to see the kinds of petitions she would receive, but dreading more if she didn't receive any at all.