Disclaimer: I own nothing you recognize! Please don't sue because all you'll be able to get from me is a wholesale package of Top Ramen noodles. I'm a broke college student; I have nothing for you except my dignity (and even that's been compromised).
Summary: When Hermione Blackwell's true Muggleborn heritage comes out, her childhood friend, Draco Malfoy, ceases all contact. But when they are both appointed Heads in their seventh year, they quickly learn that unresolved tension doesn't just dissipate over time. It combusts.
A/N: Long intro chapter! I doubt the other chapters will be this long but I didn't want to ruin the flow and make things confusing just for the sake of dividing this chapter up. With that said, enjoy! It's going to be quite an angsty ride (you'll find out for yourself in a sec) so don't say I didn't warn you. Also, this is going to be a multi-parter and trust me when I say I am trying to crank out as many chapters before school starts. Eep!
Power is being told you are not loved and not being destroyed by it.
"It's a big sad, isn't it? To find out you aren't who you thought you were. That you've been living a lie."
The murmurs and whispers weren't new. Even the looks of pity and even, on occasion, loathing and disgust that her peers endeavored very little to hide. People treated her differently now, all shifty and nervous, and she was now learning just how easily affected people could be by secrets – even when the secrets weren't their own.
But now as she saw her face, everywhere, splashed first all over Witch Weekly and then soon every single gossip magazine, she knew better than to call it a secret. It ceased to become something "kept hidden" once people could purchase it for a mere five sickles, therefore cheaply buying a peephole into the most intimate details of her life. She was sick of seeing her own hiding, embarrassed face peering back at her in the hallways and in the great hall. Even worse were the captions pertaining to her mom and dad, accusations of fakery and crude names, fabrication of stories told by "trusted sources" or unnamed "close family friends."
Wealthy Family Harbors Pureblood Phony!
"No offense, but I never thought either of you would be more famous than me," Harry said to both she and Ron at breakfast. She'd piled her plate with food she hadn't even touched. She could tell he was trying to seem unaffected by the whole thing. He couldn't even look at her for more than three seconds before having to turn away and distract himself with something else. "It's a bit of a relief to see someone else on the papers, frankly."
He was only trying to be funny. But the look on his face afterwards made it obvious it hadn't come out the way he intended. "Sorry. That was a bit insensitive."
"We'll find out who did this, Hermione," Ron said. His knuckles were white on the table. "I swear it."
From across the way, she spotted Pansy Parkinson smirking at her. Most of all the Slytherin table had decided to buy the paper today – that is, except one. Draco Malfoy sat at his typical seat between his pureblood cronies, wearing his usual expression of boredom and annoyance. She had a silent wish that he would look up at her and meet her eyes. But she already knew – just like how she knew that finding the culprit that had spilled her family's greatest secret would do little to no good – that he wouldn't.
There had been a few times when Draco had broken character, but she knew him well enough to know this would not be one of those times. She knew better than to hope otherwise. Draco Malfoy, her dear childhood friend, would not be surprising her today.
"Don't waste your time, Ron," she muttered. Why had she shown up to breakfast? Her appetite had never shown up. After all, all she'd wanted to do was show them that she wasn't the type to hide away – that pure blood or not, she was still her. It was the Gryffindor in her that insisted she get out of bed, put on a brave face, and show them that their petty whispers and looks couldn't break her. Maybe her name was a lie, but her integrity wasn't.
Ron stared at her, confused. "Aren't you angry, Hermione? I thought you believed in justice."
"I do," she said. "But finding out who did it – it still wouldn't change things, Ron."
She knew the nature of secrets. The more you tried to hide something away, the more you could be sure it would show up to make sure you were sorry for ever thinking the truth could be buried forever.
She had been sixteen when they'd told her. According to the Department of Unwanted Magical Children, this was the age considered appropriate for revealing the true origin of their birth. She remembered sitting there with her parents looking at her, fearful and worried and sorry, with her mother gripping her hand so tightly – as if she would already start to slip away from them, that very moment. That was the thing with secrets. They had the tendency to change everything, even love. Her mother knew that.
"We don't want this to change anything," her mother was saying. "We love you so much. You are our daughter. You belong with us, always."
She must have looked shocked, but on the inside she couldn't help but feel a little bit relieved. In the most unexpected way, it had made sense. She loved her parents, but something about this life never quite fit. At least now she knew that she wasn't crazy.
When she looked at her parents, she couldn't help but feel a little bit sorry for them. All they'd wanted was a little pure-blooded child. So why had they settled for her? It was a question she wanted answered but one that she didn't want to ask. But as she looked at them, unable to formulate complete sentences and hence deciding to keep quiet until she could, they begged her. "Say something," her mother said.
"Didn't you care? That I wasn't like you?" Pureblooded, she meant. That I wasn't pureblooded like you. She didn't look at them when she asked it. She traced circles in the table with her eyes.
Her father shook his head. When she thought herself brave enough, she glanced up. She saw that his face was gentle and real. "We loved you the first moment we saw you."
"After that," her mother said, "there was no turning back."
She left breakfast early, having been summoned to the Headmaster's office. Professor McGonagall escorted her. Even the Head of Gryffindor House seemed unsettled from the news. She could tell what she was thinking – that it was unnatural for her to seem so composed, so calm, so unaffected. But it was the only way she knew how to cope with it. Lamenting about life and its injustices in public never helped anyone. After all, she'd had a good life. Not all of it had been dishonest.
"There have been worse secrets," her professor tried to reassure her after. Even the portraits and castle ghosts had heard, offering advice and occasionally unwelcome comments. "But I'm afraid people have not yet evolved from gaining simpleton entertainment from salacious gossip."
"But it's not gossip, Professor," she'd said. "It's true."
A quick flash of pity crept through her professor's face. They halted at Dumbledore's entrance. "Be strong, Blackwell. You're a brave girl. You've always been." And then she turned to the portrait and said the secret password.
They entered his office to find her parents sitting down in front of his desk. Her mother quickly rushed over to her, burying her in her arms, apologizing in her ear. First just once, then over and over again. Her father, on the other hand, stood in the corner, looking very serious. He was still in his business robes. He must have dropped everything just to come see her when the news broke.
"Is it still safe for her here?" her mother was asking.
"I have yet to see any serious threat over your daughter staying at Hogwarts," Dumbledore said. "But if the petty whispers escalate, believe us when we say we will take your daughter's safety as first priority."
Her father was looking at her. He was a tall man with jet black hair and muddy brown eyes. He wore such a serious face so well that she was certain she and her mother were the only ones that ever got to see him laugh. She used to love that because it had made her feel special, like they were in on a secret that nobody else knew about.
"Hermione, do you want to stay? We could just as easily find you the best tutors and you continue your studies at home. But this is your choice."
"I want to stay," she said. Her mother squeezed her hand and her father nodded.
"Then she's staying," he sighed. The hard lines of worry on his face only dug themselves in deeper. "For now."
Her mother didn't look quite as convinced. "I can take care of myself," she said to her. "It's all just talk. It'll be old news soon enough."
"I just worry. . ." She was biting her lip, something that Hermione had gotten from her. Not by biology, but perhaps by habit. There was something she was thinking, but not saying. Her mother turned to Dumbledore. "If things get worse, Albus… Hogwarts, I know, has top security but they're not impenetrable."
For some reason, Hermione knew that her mother was no longer just thinking about whether her daughter would be able to weather the storm that was the unveiling of her true Muggle-blooded ancestry. She tried not to let on that she knew what she was talking about. She thought it would just make things harder, if they knew that she knew about the Dark Lord's steady re-accumulation of followers. It would also only prove her mother's point about keeping her at home.
"If that happens," Dumbledore said, grimly, "I'm afraid none of us will be safe, neither at Hogwarts nor in our own homes."
When Dumbledore left them alone to attend to some business, her mother checked again.
"Are you sure this is what you really want?" she asked her, peering into her eyes. "Because you could come home, with us."
"I want to finish up here." She swallowed hard, looking at both her parents. In Dumbledore's office, she had seen a crack in her father's armor. She knew the toll this was taking on the both of them. "I'm sorry you have to go through this."
"We're not," her mother said, firmly. "We don't regret a thing. We love you more than anything in the world, Hermione."
She remembered when they had told her about the real circumstances of her birth. She had been found by the DUMC – Department of Unwanted Magical Children – at the ministry. Their job was to find, collect, and relocate magical children to other families. Normally they weren't allowed to step foot in the Muggle world, but once in every while they would get a sign, or their magic barometer would point to something in the other world. It was in that instance they found her. They called her extraordinary when they could have easily called her other words.
She recognized the rarity of unconditional love, especially in the world they lived in now.
"How are your friends? Harry and Ron?"
"They're fine. Still supportive – loyal to the Gryffindor camaraderie." Even though it had come as a shock to them, too, she knew she could count on them. Matters of blood meant very little to either of them, unlike some of the others. "I could be part troll and neither of them would bat an eyelash."
Her father nodded. "And Draco?"
She shifted her eyes down. "I haven't talked to him yet." He hasn't even looked at me once. She wanted to tell them this – or anyone, for that matter – but she knew she couldn't. Saying it would have meant that it mattered. She wasn't ready to admit that yet.
"Everything will be fine," her father told her. He gripped her shoulder, tenderly but firmly, and leant down to kiss her on her forehead. She closed her eyes, trying not to think of how this very statement often ushered in the very worst.
"I love you," she said. She could tell they were the words they needed to hear.
The first memory she has of him is always triggered by the smell of roses.
She gets catapulted – her first steps into the lush Malfoy garden, with their majestic yet eerie Greek marble statues peeking out like ghosts over the exuberant green. She remembered seeing Draco and his mother for the first time, too, waiting for them at the heart of the garden, standing on flat white stones. Even then she'd thought they bore an uncanny resemblance to the statues they had scattered around, straddling the line between breathtaking lawn décor or tools of intimidation. Pale and cold and graceful. Almost like cousins.
Her mother greeted Narcissa with cordiality, which she returned with barely lukewarm affections. Their husbands worked together now. They'd gone to school together when they were young, but now that her father had moved their family from India, they realized the importance of important families being important together. She was still so young – barely eight – so adult social politics were beyond her. But she did get the feeling that this was more out of obligation than a genuine desire to get to know the Malfoys. It was in the way Mrs. Malfoy's glacier-like eyes flickered over both she and her mother – it reminded her of when she turned in her exams to her tutor and her eyes would narrow when she was assessing her.
The eight-year-old boy in front of her with white-blond hair just like his mother was subtly frowning. He held out his hand. His palms were a little bit pink, and were perhaps the only color she could see on him aside from his steely gray eyes. They were the color of leftover rain puddles on the street. "I'm Draco Lucius Malfoy."
She shook it. His hand was cool and soft. "I'm Hermione."
They settled down and had tea beside their mothers, listening to their small talk and not offering any conversations amongst themselves. Mrs. Malfoy and her mother reminisced on the limited period they'd shared of their girlhood, while Hermione sometimes allowed her eyes to study Draco when he wasn't looking. His pale, smooth skin, the fineness of his blond hair, the regality both he and his mother seemed to exude. They were like living apparitions. There was a strangeness to them, too, that she couldn't really put her finger on.
Finally, they were dismissed. "Go on and get to know each other a bit," Mrs. Malfoy told them, whisking her words with her long, slender fingers. She had stone-colored eyes just like her son. "You can show her around the garden, Draco." And then, to her: "I do think you'll like our garden, Hermione."
Draco didn't look too thrilled about it, but slid out of his seat and began to walk down a cobble path. She silently followed after him, keeping one step behind him. He led her into a maze, stretching out his arm and letting his fingers graze against the bushes that shuddered and recoiled as he walked. When she touched the bushes herself, they seemed to breathe out against her fingers, as if sighing.
"Mother said our fathers work together," he finally said, in a bored drawl.
"And that you're from India."
"I've read about India. It's hot there, and there are too many Muggles."
She thought hard about it. She had never thought of India as hot, but when she moved here, she couldn't take one step without shivering. And the sun was different here. Not vivid like it was back home, or tinted like mangoes in the summer. The sun here reminded her of the Malfoys: distant and lukewarm at its best. "It seemed like a perfectly nice place to me. There were so many colors everywhere in India. Not like here. It's so gray, like everything's dead."
"You'll get used to it. I'm sure it's better than having to sit in a puddle of your own sweat," he grimaced.
Hermione shook her head, getting a little annoyed with his very incorrect – not to mention condescending – assumptions of India. "That never happened."
He ignored her, and they passed underneath a few suspended vines. There were blood-red flowers attached to them, and they hissed and shook when they got near. "I go to Paris a lot with my mum. She has a sister there."
She'd heard of Paris. Her father often went on business trips there, bringing her back things like ribbons and fancy dresses. He'd always said that he'd take her one day, when he wasn't so busy with the company. "What's it like?"
She caught a glimpse of his haughty smirk when he glanced over his shoulder at her. "Probably nothing like India."
Finally, they reached the center of the maze. There was a large marble fountain, and golden cages with colorful birds around them. The birds began to peer and squawk at them. Draco leaned in close to a cage holding a vibrant yellow and red bird. It bowed its head down, closing its dark beady eyes, as he gently stroked it on the forehead.
"I've heard they've got elephants there. You know, those big gray things with the big ears and the long snout."
She knew of elephants – her father had taken her all the time to see them. She was just surprised he knew what they were. Once, she'd overheard her parents talking about the Malfoys and the company they kept – they hated Muggles and Muggle things – in hushed tones. And now she was here, in the center of the Malfoy labyrinth, with Draco asking her about elephants.
"They do," she answered, keeping her hands behind her back as she slowly inspected all of the birds. Some were asleep, but a few cocked their heads at her with unfamiliarity. "I've ridden one."
"You have?" When he looked at her, she could have sworn he looked envious. Then his pale little face was eclipsed with a familiar taunting smirk. "Well, I've heard they're filthy. Basically just live transportation for Muggle diseases. Awfully stupid things, too."
She pressed her lips together, reaching out to stroke a particular bird. It was white with wings that changed color when it flapped them. "Wrong again," she said, under her breath. She wasn't sure if he heard her. If he did, he didn't show it.
She looked around at all of the creatures they kept in their garden. The Malfoys had practically equipped themselves with their own private zoo. Draco knew them all by name, and warned her which ones were poisonous. She couldn't tell if he did this begrudgingly, because he knew if something were to happen to her his mother wouldn't be too pleased. She was familiar with most of the magical creatures, and observed that most of them were kept here for their beauty. Those with sharp, poisonous teeth or talons had them shaved or had their beaks magically bound. Some of the more dangerous small creatures had magic protection spells to keep them from sniping or biting off fingers.
On a few of the bushes, they had roses as big as her face, blooming ethereally with petals as soft as silk. Even their thorns were large, and almost as long as the span of her finger. She stood in front of them and stared, wondering how many layers there was to a single rose. And whether it was still so beautiful, all stripped down.
She was petting its petals, running her fingertips on the waxy leaves, when she heard him bark from behind her.
"What are you doing?"
She jerked her hand away, but in her surprise it had grazed against one of the thorns. She drew back, wincing. It had sliced the tip of her finger and there was blood quickly seeping from the wound, spotting the ground.
He appeared next to her. "Let me see," he said, grabbing her hand. She watched as he held it close to his face. Then, without warning, he suddenly licked the blood off of her finger.
She pulled her hand back. "What are you doing?"
His expression was unperturbed, matter-of-fact. "I'm cleaning it. Unless you'd rather do it yourself. The way you were staring at it, like you'd never seen blood before. Thought you'd bleed to death before you finally came to your senses."
She stared at her finger. A cloud finally passed overhead, and from a random slant of light, she could make out the glisten that shone on her skin from his saliva. The blood had begun to pool again, leeching out from the cut. It was dark and angry against the pale skin of her throbbing, tingling finger. When she spoke, her confusion showed. "You're not afraid?"
But when she looked up, he was gone. He must have walked away when she had inspected her finger, alarmed by what he had just done.
She had lost him amongst the green and the birds. In the back of her mind, she could not help but take back what she'd said before. Not everything was gray here.
He called out to her from somewhere else, unseen. "Afraid of what?"
She waited for him to contact her that day. A look in the hallways, a secret owl delivered – a sign of some kind of sympathy, or acknowledgement of the misfortune that had fallen upon her and her family. But in the classes they shared, he never looked her way. When they had to fetch supplies for Potions, he either avoided being near her and when he could not, passed by her without so much as a glance. But even through it all, she dared to hope this was all just a charade. After all, she knew how Lucius was. She knew just how superficial his worries were, and how eager Draco was to please him.
So later on that night, when she sent him an owl to meet her at the Astronomy Tower around midnight and received no response, she thought it was still part of that. Draco was playing a part in public, and when he committed, he was in it completely. She accepted that.
At five to midnight, she still put on her robes and snuck out to the Tower.
She must have waited for twenty minutes when the realization began to sink in. She had done nothing but pace back and forth, staring at the flickering torches, fooling herself into thinking that every passing shadow was him. At forty minutes past, she began to feel incredibly stupid. She imagined how he must have reacted when he got her owl. How he must have thrown his head back and laughed. Had he been alone when he'd ridiculed her naïve belief in the endurance of their friendship, or had he been with the other Slytherins, passing it around like it was some sick trophy? She felt queasy at the words they must have called her.
At forty-five minutes past, she bent over one of the pillars and threw up. She'd eaten nothing all day, so most of it had been stomach acid and dry heaves. Her stomach convulsed and her eyes burned, feeling the hot tears run down her cheeks. Afterwards, she straightened herself up, wiping her mouth on the sleeve of her robe. With a quick flick of her wand, she cleaned up the mess on the floor.
The disappointed, wretched part of her felt like crumpling into a ball in the corner of the room and waiting until morning. Just to be sure. Just to be sure it was really over – because Hermione had never been the kind of person that closed doors only to peek into them again, after the offenses had lost their sting, to try and see if things had changed. Once she closed a door, it remained closed. She banished it to the farthest, darkest corner of her mind. So she wanted to be sure Draco really wanted out. Because once he was out, he was never coming back in.
She waited five more minutes before she left the Astronomy Tower and silently headed back to her dormitory. She snuck back in and was greeted with a symphony of snores from her housemates. She was grateful for the noise; it made for an excellent cover when she went back into bed, curled up into herself, and cried herself to sleep.
It was the next day when she finally caught his eye. She did so non-intentionally – or maybe not, she wasn't quite sure afterwards. All she knew was that something had drawn her gaze in the corridor and so she'd casually looked up, shifting the weight of her book bag on her shoulder.
It was him. That same pale-eyed stare she had grown so familiar to, one that she could trace backwards in so many of her memories. She thought he'd immediately look away, as if embarrassed, but he didn't. He let his gaze linger for a long yet finite moment, with other students bustling and weaving all around them, before he turned away. But his gray eyes had been empty, like looking into the windows of barren rooms. She watched him: his towering, elegant stature and broad shoulders as he walked away without acknowledging her, as if she wasn't even worth a second glance. The revelation sank heavy inside her like a dead weight yet again, despite having had all night to accept it. Now that her secret was out, she wasn't worth knowing. She was nothing.
There was nothing that could compare to watching someone walk away, of having to watch their figure getting smaller and smaller in the distance, until it was indistinguishable – becoming, in a matter of seconds, the simple holding cell of a stranger, a meaningless body. The expanse of his back became a mirror — a projecting screen — of how her every worry had finally preceded her, and had been waiting for her at the finish line this entire time.
She hated the power that she gave him in that moment. That, by his own conscious design, they would be strangers from then on. But she gave it to him; she resigned to it. Because when he hadn't shown up to the Tower last night, he had sealed things between them. He had let everything change. And now she hated him too much to contend with it.
The eerie thing is how silently it all happened. She'd expected more fanfare. The sound of crashing and groaning foundations and wreckage. But it was a quiet death that she witnessed, ties cut without so much as murmur of grievance. It was so full with its disappointing nothingness that it landed solidly and rottenly at the bottom of her gut.
Someone nudged her, softly. It was Harry, his tie still undone and his collar crumpled.
The look in his eyes told her he had seen everything. She almost couldn't stand it: his expression orchestrated by the softly-muted pity. She thought of the times she'd braved standing up for Draco when Harry and Ron vented about his arrogance, his vileness, or his general disrespect for other human beings. She resented that now he'd made her out to be a liar. But perhaps his worst offense had been that he'd also made her out to be a fool.
"Hey yourself," she said, succeeding in sounding detached, as they started walking towards their first class.
"Everything okay?" His voice was low, almost a murmur. If his question had been a physical person it would have been treading very carefully.
"Of course," she said. She knew how you were supposed to answer these types of questions. She knew you were never supposed to tell the truth. Not that she'd even wanted to. Not that she'd even have the words.
He nodded, pursing his lips. And then, in one fleeting second, it was as if something clicked, and they moved on. Harry began talking about last night's Quidditch practice, and as she laughed at his story, she realized this was what she liked about him: his ability to mime instant amnesia. Just like that, and it was all in the past, buried.
Hermione's head broke over the water, gasping for breath. Her knowledge of books and practical survival told her that if she didn't get out, she would die of hypothermia within minutes. As she panted, her body still in shock from the freezing water, she looked up and could see where Pansy and her friends had thrown her wand, lodged in a tree branch.
"B-b-bitch," she could barely grit through her teeth, as she began swimming towards the bank. "I n-n-never liked h-her."
She was twelve years old and the moon was out. There were no lights out here on the Parkinson grounds, certainly none by the lake, but she could see the reflection of the moon shifting in the water. It was giant and luminous and had given her sufficient light to be able to see Pansy's cackling face as they had thrown her into the water.
She was almost to the bank, about to pull herself up, when she found a pale palm jutted towards her face. Knowing better than to think Pansy and the girls had come back to make sure she was okay, she looked up.
"Well, you were a big help," she snapped at him. Regardless, she slapped her hand into his, and he pulled, helping her out from the water. She began to shiver instantly, her teeth noisily chattering as she tried to rub her hands up and down her arms to warm up.
"I've known Pansy longer than you have. This is how I know that she wouldn't have stopped until she'd gotten you. It was going to happen, sooner or later," he drawled. He whispered something under his breath, and suddenly, she was dry. A pleasantly warm feeling crept through her skin. It was probably just her blood flowing again.
She glared at him before she went over to the tree Pansy had flung her wand in.
"I'll keep that in mind when somebody feels like accosting you and throwing you into a freezing lake." She reached up on her tiptoes, but still couldn't reach her wand. She began digging her foot into the bark, propping herself up. "They're absolutely evil. Probably all descendants of Grendel. Inbred, too, and everything."
Suddenly, she felt something solid behind her and watched as a long forearm reached up above her and plucked her wand out with ease. She whirled around and snatched it from his fingers. "I have half a mind to hex you for turning into a mere bystander. I could have died!"
"And yet look at you, not even remotely dead," he said, his voice so dry she swore it could have crackled. "Relax, Hermione. They were all just having a bit of fun. Besides, they do it to everyone, just the once."
She stared at him. Under the moonlight, he looked positively ghostly. His hair was a bit disheveled, which was rare, because Draco Malfoy was anything if not meticulous when it came to his hair.
"Not to you," she pointed out, her voice dripping with bitterness.
"That's because she knows I would hex her," he explained. "Without hesitation. Pansy knows better than that."
She rolled her eyes. "All that Pansy knows is that you're her territory. I bet she was hoping to come back later on tonight to find my dead body, blue and frozen, adrift in the lake. She'll be furious if she knew you came to get me."
Pansy had never exactly said it, but it was obvious from the very first moment Hermione had met her. The way she asserted herself and was constantly watching Draco, it was unnerving. Draco, on the other hand, thought nothing of it. That was the trick of it, really. If you pretended not to notice someone was in love with you, you had all the power. If Draco had asked Pansy to willingly fling herself into the water, she would have done so if it meant getting any special acknowledgement from him. But Hermione knew him too well to know that he'd never give it to her. Even as young as he was, the power already meant too much to him.
"Well, then, it's lucky I was never here," he said to her.
She shook her head at him. "I'll never see what she sees in you."
He scoffed. "What? After I just pulled you out of the lake? I may have very well just thwarted your death, Hermione. I'd expect to see a little bit of that Gryffindor gratitude."
"It's Gryffindor bravery," she sourly corrected. "It says nothing about gratitude."
"Yes, crying over a toss in the lake. Gryffindor bravery at its finest."
She looked over towards the large shadow looming in the distance. The Parkinson Manor was impressive on its own, but still couldn't quite compare to the Malfoy Manor. They did share one trait: underneath all of the cold elegance, there was something not quite pleasant about them. You always knew when a house was full of secrets. It had something to do with the number of rooms it had and the number of expensive things its owners had amassed. The rooms were for the secrets; the little golden trinkets were to distract anybody from noticing what all of the empty rooms were for.
Even her own family manor had its secrets. A large one that hovered over her some nights, sometimes jolting her awake from a deep sleep, only to find herself staring at a dark nothing.
"My parents were quite disappointed, you know. You getting sorted into Gryffindor."
It was a fact that the Malfoys and all of their close contacts had the uncanny similarity of getting sorted into Slytherin House. Her own father had been sorted in Slytherin; her mum in Ravenclaw. She was the first Gryffindor in their lineage, but her parents had never shown any displeasure in it.
"I think Slytherin House can only accommodate so many," she said, rolling her eyes.
"It's not that," he said. There was something in the way he was looking at her, as if he knew something she didn't. He was still a boy then, his face not quite as angular and rigid as it would be later. His face then was still all smooth lines that crumpled or crinkled easily at the slightest doubt or question; transparent and bendable. Later on that would change, and Hermione didn't know it then – but she would watch it happen. As if over time, he would begin to train himself to pull away from everything. Until one day, he had locked it all away. Even from her.
But they were still twelve, and he had just pulled her out of the lake. She had no way of knowing the future. She was still so naïve then, so young. She shouldn't have been, because Pansy throwing her into the lake was the first sign that things were changing. So was his expression and the way his words had trailed off and his pale little eyebrows furrowed above his slate-gray eyes.
"Besides," she said, "nothing will change. If it did, we wouldn't still be here, would we?"
At the time she sounded so sure of herself, as if it was a fact she had pulled out of her books. Indisputable. It wasn't her fault, really. She was only twelve. She knew nothing about change, and even less about life.
It would be later on, after everything, that she looked back and counted it on her fingers – the symptoms of change; the first signs of a slow but irreparable drift, visible only to someone looking back and searching for the earliest cracks in the stone.
"Don't look so worried, Draco," she teased. "It's not a good look for you."
"I'm not worried," he insisted. "I'm glad, actually. I won't have to feel so guilty when I score higher than you at every single subject. I've been waiting to rub your face in the dirt publicly for years."
"Dream on, Draco," she said. She was already preparing herself, mentally limbering herself up. "How could you possibly beat me if you can't even catch me?"
And then she was off, sprinting down the grass, laughing. She knew that within minutes he would be at her heels. She could hear his footfalls in the grass behind her and knew he was quickly gaining on her. The truth was that she had never been faster than him, not even when they'd been younger. She just liked to see him sweat.
Hermione was no barbarian, but having heard the next Quidditch match was against Slytherin made her sleep a little bit better at night. She knew how much Quidditch meant to Draco; he practiced it like some people practiced religion. She also knew that every match they lost to Gryffindor sent him into one of his brooding moods. Even back then, after Slytherin would lose a match to her House, he would keep his distance from her. It usually took him a few days to get over it, but she knew better than to bring it up when he finally came around.
She'd overheard his father talking to Draco once, after one of his very first Quidditch games. She had been coming over to congratulate him on not getting maimed or killed – something she constantly worried about for Harry, even now – but as she had been approaching him and his family, she could hear Lucius' clipped words. "I won't accept failure into our family, Draco," he had hissed. In front of him, Draco was nodding, his jaw clenched. Her eyes had traced the single droplet of blood trickling from his forehead that seemed to go unnoticed by everyone else.
She'd understood one thing from the complex life of the Malfoys from what Draco told her: that nothing was what it seemed. That even great opportunities – like getting chosen as Seeker for the Slytherin Quidditch team – could be another strike against you if you failed to live up to expectations. Even then she had only begun to really gauge how much of Draco's life was entirely about making sure his father remained pleased with his only child, the sole heir to the Malfoy name.
But she couldn't see any of that now, walking across the courtyard a few hours before the big match. The Slytherins were laughing over something, like hyenas in the wild. Pansy Parkinson sent her a lewd gesture. Draco Malfoy, meanwhile, was in the center of them: King Hyena himself. When he caught her looking, she saw it. A barely perceptible smirk.
"Any special requests?" Harry asked in a voice only she could hear, as they passed.
"How does it feel, Hermione?" she heard Pansy yell at her. "To know even your Mudblood parents didn't want you? I sent my mum an owl, you know. To make sure the house-elves scrubbed every single thing your filthy phony hands ever touched in my manor. Twice!"
The Slytherins howled. She clenched her fist on the strap of her satchel, looking up at Harry. "Make him bleed," she said.
It was in the third week of her thirteenth summer when she'd first seen a bloody Draco Malfoy.
They had grown close and casual enough by this time that on lazy summer days they often went to each other's manors. Sometimes they'd practice spells or explore the forbidden section of Lucius' library or even take a trip to Diagon Alley. She hadn't told him she was coming over, because they had passed that formality long ago. She would simply appear at the front door of his manor, one of his house-elves would announce her, and then let her know which room Draco would be expecting her in.
Klaus, the house-elf, told her to go wait in his personal library. "Mr. Draco is busy for now. Klaus suggests Miss wait here for him."
"Wait," she said. "Where is he exactly?"
"He is in the practice room. He should not be too long." Klaus began to laugh, sinister and guttural. "Mr. Draco does not hold up too long."
"What do you mean?" she asked, narrowing her eyes.
"Miss is a guest here. Miss should not be asking questions. Miss might not like the answers," Klaus scolded, before disappearing. She heard the echoes of his eerie laugh down the hall. Knowing Klaus would not be back to check on her, Hermione left the library doors and began walking towards the other wing of the house. Draco had mentioned the practice room before, and she was sure she could find it.
The Manor was filled with hallways upon hallways, each more sinister than the next. There were rarely any windows except for the main part of the house, and Draco's wing. Every time she would reach for a door and try to open it, they were locked. And there was often a screaming portrait beside it to let her know.
Finally, after a bit of sneaking around, a pair of dark wooden doors caught her eye. She was deep enough in the house that everything was silent, like the way things get when you're at the bottom of a cave, and as she approached, she began to hear noises coming from inside the room. Grunts, sometimes, and then muffled thuds. And, on occasion, harsh barks from someone who didn't sound very pleased. She watched as the doors shook, reverberating from a hard impact. What were they doing in there?
And then with a large bang, the doors blew open. Hermione threw herself against the wall, hiding behind a suit of armor. She only got a quick glance before the doors promptly shut, once again locking themselves. Just a second, but it was enough: it was someone lying on the ground. She recognized that blond head anywhere. Even when it was stained almost pink with blood.
After that, everything in the room went still. Hermione began running back to Draco's wing in the manor, and waited in the library for half an hour before he finally joined her. When he did, she watched him, carefully. There were no bruises or cuts. From the way he was acting – his usual pompous self – it didn't seem as if he had just been hexed for the past hour by his father.
"Where were you?" she asked him.
"I was at dueling practice with my father," he drawled, taking a seat on his couch. "He's not happy with the little progress I've made with my spells."
"There's a reason they don't teach us those kinds of spells at school just yet," she said to him. He looked up at her, surprised, not saying anything. "I was curious, and I saw. Just a little. But he shouldn't be hurting you, Draco. There's a line between educational and torture."
Something flashed in his eyes, and his jaw stiffened. "That wing is forbidden. I've told you not to go there. Do you know what my father would have done if he'd seen you?"
She would never admit it, but she got a chill at the thought. "I'm not afraid of Lucius," she said.
"Right," he scoffed. "I'll believe that when you mean it."
She stared at him. "Why is it," she said, "that your Manor is full of secrets? And locked doors? And forbidden wings? What is so terrible that you need an entire place to hide it?"
He leaned his head back on the couch. From his mouth she could make out a tiny breath, a silent sigh. Then his gray eyes were back on her. "My family's been around for ages. If we didn't have secrets, I think I'd worry more."
"I just think," she said, "that we shouldn't have secrets at all."
He snorted at her. "No wonder you were sorted into Gryffindor. Full of idiotic ideals. What next – every Manor should have kitten farm? Nobody thinks that way."
"Maybe that's your problem. You think this is how things should be, and that they're impossible to change. So you just live with it. At least," she said, scowling, getting to her feet, "I dare to think about how things could be better."
He looked at her. "Where are you going?"
"Home," she said. "Have fun with all of your secrets."
He didn't stop her. But as she was leaving, he called out to her. "It's no use thinking that way! Sooner or later, you'll see!"
When she remembers this particular memory, she wants to grab him and shake him and ask why, if he so believed in the necessity of secrets, he would run at the first sign of one of hers. If he could accept his large manor with all its locked doors and ancient secrets, then why couldn't he at least stand in front of her and have the decency to say goodbye?
But she knew the man he'd turned into. Or at least the man he was trying to become; the shoes he had been groomed to fill since birth. She knew exactly what he thought of her now, and that she didn't deserve any of it. Not even a goodbye.