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...and throughout the centuries, the Malfoys have been steadfast in their efforts to preserve magical traditions and the inalienable rights and privileges of wizardkind as the superior race born to rule above the lesser creatures and Muggles.

The velvet-curtained window was the only witness to the succession of emotions on her expressive face as she read: outraged anger, wistful sadness, and interest much deeper than curiosity. The table wobbled when she leaned her elbow on it, its legs making an aggravating clanking sound against the wooden floor.

Through generous use of their wealth, and political cunning that would have impressed Salazar Slytherin himself, they have done more than any other family to advance wizardkind towards the freedom to practice magic without unnecessary, misguided restrictions aiming to shelter the weak.

Maybe she was a little obsessed. Just a little. Any research project, school or self assigned, deserved nothing less than her best effort, but this project was special. And top secret. Ron had teased her horribly about Lockhart; this would be much worse.

A million times worse.

She was Hermione Granger, top student in the fifth year class at Hogwarts. It was her intention to absorb all the knowledge she could find about the wizarding world, and to practice every spell and potion until she could do it perfectly (but she usually got it right on the first try). She wanted to become the best witch it was possible to be, even if to some it would never be enough to prove she belonged in this world.

To some it didn't matter how good she became at magic or how many times she demonstrated her skill by getting better marks than her pure-blood classmates. To some in this world she would always be unworthy of magic.

Unworthy of life as well, to some in this world.

It only made her study harder. No amount of work was too much to prove to them that she could be just as much of a witch as any pure-blood. To prove it to him, who like all the Death Eaters thought her unworthy of magic, of life, of any trace of respect.

She had been blindsided when her own emotions had mutated and snuck up on her like a stealthy, venomous snake. Without her noticing, her motivation had changed. Proving them wrong about Muggle-borns had turned into proving him wrong about her. And since he was probably the most prejudiced of all Dark wizards, it was a completely hopeless endeavour.

Why did she continue trying? She couldn't give up, even as she cried behind closed curtains in her dorm at night, almost hating her Muggle origins. It was so unfair to be judged by who her parents were when she wasn't even close to them; how could she be? She hardly ever saw them, and it was so awkward when she did... They lived in a whole other world!

Every day she covered her doubts with a mask of confidence bordering on haughtiness and worked tirelessly on her spellcasting and theoretical knowledge. It was all she could do: to be the best and make sure everyone knew it. Make sure he knew it. Gryffindors did not give up, no matter the odds –

She rubbed her stinging eyes.

They believe the practice of all types of magic, including what some refer to as the Dark Arts, is as natural and essential to wizards and witches as breathing, and it is criminal to restrict the learning or use of magic in any way 

The door creaked, opening.

She hastily closed the folder and tapped it three times with two fingers, activating her security spell. The contents would maintain the appearance of Arithmancy notes until unlocked with the password. She had taken the idea from the Marauders' Map and chosen a password no one would ever guess. These were the lengths she had to go to hide her secret, because of who her friends were. If one of them found out, all hell would break loose.


"Hi, Ginny." She cursed herself for the guilt leaking into her voice. Thank Merlin she hadn't been Sorted into Slytherin. She would've been eaten alive, and not only because she was Muggle-born.

Hi, Ginny. I was just indulging in the urge to know everything about the worst enemy of your family, the wizard who almost got you and Harry killed. And me too, but that's the last thing I care about. By the way, I like him almost as much as you used to like Harry.

She winced.

"Are you studying? If I'm disturbing you, I can –"

"No, it's all right," Hermione said, pushing a coil of bushy brown hair away from her eye. "This is your room too."

Seeing Ginny settle on her bed with schoolbooks, Hermione considered it too risky to go back to the reading she had been doing. Instead she pulled a heavy leather-bound Defence textbook out of her trunk.

The room was insufficiently lit, giving it an air some would have described as gloomy or eerie. Hermione, however, didn't mind the tarnished chandelier glimmering weakly over her head and creating moving shadows on the walls, or the snake-shaped candelabra on the table in front of her, with its flickering, greenish glow. As long as they provided enough light for her to decipher the writing on the dog-eared page, she was happy with them.

She wished there were more books in this house. Useful, edifying books, not like Nature's Nobility: A Wizarding Genealogy, which only contained a few interesting sections. She had just been reading one of these sections, which she had torn out of the book and password-protected with the rest of that research project.

She couldn't hate this house like Harry did. It was just so... different. There was nothing like it in the Muggle world. Instead of repelling her as they did Harry, the serpentine relics and dark atmosphere fascinated her. It was exciting to be in an old wizarding house, the second one she had the opportunity to stay at and the most intriguing by far. The Burrow wasn't full of arcane magic and mystery like this house.

The Burrow wasn't the ancestral home of an old Dark family.

If only this house wasn't in such poor condition, she thought sadly, her gaze lingering on the paint peeling from the walls. The windowpane was incrusted with grime and the shabby street behind it was not pleasant to look at. It was obvious Grimmauld Place was located in one of the poorest, most neglected districts of London. As for the dusty green curtains that refused to close fully, they could have looked fine if they weren't so visibly moth-eaten.

Hermione, who had completed all her homework on the first two days of the Christmas holidays, looked down at the book in her hands (Know Thine Enemy: Defence from Dark Forces). Not only did Umbridge teach nothing about practical defence, but even the theory learned in class was useless and quite rudimentary for their O.W.L. year.

This year's textbook, Defensive Magical Theory, was the most boring reading material Hermione had ever had the misfortune to look at. Oh, how she hated that foul, evil, twisted Umbridge woman and her horrible pack of Slytherin attack dogs! Nothing could be more reprehensible than what they were doing: trying to limit other people's access to knowledge.

But of course Hermione had taken it upon herself to read what the Ministry didn't want them to learn at Hogwarts. The D.A. was good for practice, but it was always useful to know more advanced spells. There was always more to learn. Especially in Defence Against the Dark Arts, the only subject in which she wasn't top of her class.

Harry had been consistently outscoring her in Defence since third year. Not being the best at something despite all her efforts was a hard pill to swallow. No matter how many times she tried, her Patronus was only half as bright as Harry's, when she could produce one at all. She had to work harder; she had to be the best. She was already at a disadvantage as a Muggle-born in a world controlled by pure-bloods.

And Harry beat her without even trying! It simply wasn't right. Some of her classmates worked hard to compete with her academically, but none of them got past second place. Draco Malfoy was frequently in that spot, a fact Hermione had conflicted feelings about. Oh, it was satisfying to show the bigoted bully she was more clever than him, but what if –

She shut the book with a brusque snap.

"Done with your reading, Hermione?" Ginny chirped from the other side of the room.

"I can't concentrate." Irritably, she brushed rebellious strands of hair out of her face. "Are you sure you don't need any help with Transfiguration? I remember fourth year; the theory wasn't easy."

Ginny shook her head. "Thanks, but I'm doing all right."

"If you're sure." Hermione hesitated. "Has Ron been bothering you about seeing boys again?"

Ginny's face brightened. "Of course he has, but since when has that stopped me?" She winked. "Did I tell you I went to Hogsmeade with Michael just before the holidays?"

Hermione shook her head.

"It was so romantic with the snow and the pretty lights... you know? We went to this lovely teashop..." Ginny grinned. "He's a nice boy. He's not Harry, but... he's fun. He bought me a pretty dress and flowers. Don't tell Ron! You know how he would react."

"Yeah, he would combust of paranoia."

Maybe Hermione was getting cynical, but for a Ravenclaw, Michael Corner didn't seem to take school very seriously, or life in general; relationships would probably be no exception. He seemed like a boy interested only in fooling around and having a good time, and he was probably under the assumption that the way into Ginny Weasley's pants was through buying her things she wanted but couldn't afford. Hermione would never admit it, but she was tempted to agree with Ron on this: Michael Corner's intentions might not be as innocent as Ginny thought. Did Ginny realise how pretty she had become?

But Hermione knew better than to try talking some sense into her friend right now. Her honest opinion would hurt and offend Ginny, and Hermione had too few friends to carelessly provoke fights with them when it wasn't absolutely necessary.

Was Ginny really her friend? Could she consider Ginny a genuine friend when she was sure the younger girl would want nothing to do with her if she knew her best-kept secret?

The sixteen-year-old prefect took a deep breath. To be completely honest, she envied Ginny. Ginny didn't know how lucky she was. Hermione would give anything to have feelings for someone like Harry instead of – of – being unable to stop thinking about a Death Eater no matter how hard she tried (and you can bet she tried her hardest). She had no control over these feelings, and it horrified her to no end.

Sure she had felt something similar for Gilderoy Lockhart, though never so intensely. But a Death Eater of all people? It was worse than forbidden. It was unthinkable.

The knowledge of how he treated house-elves made her seethe with fury. People like him were the reason she had created S.P.E.W. She couldn't stand such callous cruelty toward those who couldn't defend themselves; she couldn't do nothing about it... And yet...

How could she have fallen in love with someone like him? How could she have been so stupid?

She had tried reminding herself of the horrible things he had done, all the people and creatures she personally knew whom he had harmed. Because of him, Ginny and Harry had almost died, as had Buckbeak; Hagrid had spent months in Azkaban; Dobby had been cruelly abused for years. The knowledge should have helped fight against these awful feelings. Why didn't it? What was wrong with her?

Had Ron been right about her in fourth year? Was she in fact a weak-minded, shallow girl who was attracted to good-looking men?

But no, she knew Ron had been wrong. She hadn't been attracted to Lockhart only or mainly because of his good looks, but rather because after reading his books, she had believed him to be a brilliant wizard, and when she had found out he was anything but, her feelings had fizzled out like a candle doused with cold water.

It hadn't been a first-sight thing with Lockhart, nor with him. When she had first met him, in the bookshop in Diagon Alley, his icy hate had scared her parents witless. Hermione had been shocked and upset by such hostility from someone she had never done anything to offend.

Oh, it had been impossible not to notice how handsome he was, even when he had been in the same room as Lockhart. But she had felt anger rather than attraction as his chilling gaze had swept over her and her Muggle family before attacking Mr Weasley as if he had committed the foulest crime by bringing them into a wizarding shop.

Later, as she had learned more about him, seeing his crafty mind at work behind the shrewdest schemes, she had failed to hold on to that bristled indignation.

Lockhart had turned out to be an inept, idiotic fraud. But he, despite his arrogance, had a truly brilliant mind. His plans were as clever as they were vile. Getting Ginny blamed for opening Slytherin's Chamber of Secrets and attacking Muggle-borns had been a horrible, spiteful, but ingenious plan to discredit Mr Weasley and prevent his pro-Muggle law from passing. And somehow he had even convinced the Board of Governors to sack Dumbledore of all people!

As far as undetectable murder methods went, Devil's Snare disguised as a get well present in the form of a bedside plant had been pure genius. It had been terrible but brilliant. It saddened Hermione to see so much cleverness misused for evil. What great things could he do for the wizarding world, if only he'd chosen the right side?

It truly bothered her that someone so clever thought so poorly of her. It made her want to be so good at magic that even he wouldn't be able to deny it. When this had become her main goal in life, she had known she was in trouble.

And when they had met again, at the Quidditch World Cup, he had openly stared at her for what had felt like an interminable moment, making her blush deeply. But then he had turned away with an expression of disdain, not deigning to speak to her, as if she was too insignificant even to taunt. It would have hurt less if he had insulted her.

She had been stunned by how much it had hurt. There were many others in the wizarding world who scorned her for being a Muggle-born, but their opinion had never ruffled her. She scorned them right back for being narrow-minded bigots who couldn't see past a book's cover.

What was different about Lucius Malfoy? Why did his contempt feel like a knife in her chest? Why did it make her feel as though she had failed everything, as though the Boggart again stood before her in the shape of Professor McGonagall announcing her expulsion for failing every exam?

There was only one possible explanation. She found it hard to admit even to herself. She was in love with...

A Death Eater. A Dark wizard who looked down on all who were not of pure blood.

He was married and older than her by twenty-five years, not that age difference had ever mattered to her. Lockhart had been older and a professor, yet these things hadn't stopped her from being smitten with him. She had always got along better with adults than with her peers.

Lockhart hadn't looked his age and neither did Mr Malfoy. It was a wizard thing. Because of their longer lifespan, wizards and witches aged more slowly than Muggles; she had seen pictures of Dumbledore in his seventies with his hair still fully auburn.

At least Lockhart had been no Dark wizard who enjoyed torturing Muggles.

The terrifying possibility of Harry, Ron or Ginny finding out her secret was always present at the back of Hermione's mind. She knew what would happen if they found out: her only friends would turn their backs on her.

She could never forget Ron's reaction to Viktor at the Yule Ball and his accusation of "fraternising with the enemy". Oh, if Ron found out about this...

The worst was that while Harry and Ginny hadn't begrudged her going to the Yule Ball with Viktor, she was sure they would shun her for her feelings for someone each of them had personal reasons to hate. She would be alone and friendless again, like she had been in Muggle primary school.

She had never felt like she belonged in the Muggle world, but did she belong in this one? She desperately wanted to belong, but would she ever? Could she really belong in the magical world when wizards like him thought she was just a Muggle interloper who could do magic because of some freakish accident of nature that shouldn't have happened? Oh yes, she had researched pure-blood supremacist ideology. She knew exactly what they thought of people like her.

Ginny chose the wrong moment to start a conversation on a topic she didn't know was a minefield. "So you and Viktor... How is it going?" she asked, her eyes twinkling mischievously. "When are you going to visit him?"

"How many times do I have to tell you Viktor and I are just friends? Are you as thick as Ron?"

"Whoa, Hermione, no need to bite my head off!" exclaimed Ginny, waving her hands apologetically. "You went to the Yule Ball with him, you still write to him, and you aren't going out with anyone else. People kind of assume..."

"Sorry. But I thought you knew why I accepted to go to the ball with Viktor," said Hermione hotly. "It wasn't as if another boy had asked me before he did and I had no idea if anyone was going to ask me at all! If I refused, I risked having to go to the ball without a partner. Parvati and Lavender would have laughed their heads off, and Parkinson and her bully club would have absolutely loved it!

"As for our correspondence, it's mostly academic. Viktor knows so many things we don't learn at Hogwarts..."

Hermione envied the students of Durmstrang the opportunity to learn a whole branch of magic that not only wasn't taught at Hogwarts, but was entirely banned in Britain, making it hard to find unbiased books about it. From Viktor's letters, she had learned there was much more to the Dark Arts than the Unforgivables. Dark magic could do loads of things other types of magic couldn't, and a lot of it wasn't more harmful than the spells taught at Hogwarts. The jinx she had used on the D.A. member list for example...

"Couldn't you have asked someone to the ball yourself?" asked Ginny. "You didn't have to go with Viktor."

"Who? Neville?" Hermione shook her head. "He can't dance. And even if Ron had decided to ask me earlier, I'm not sure I would have said yes. I mean, I'm sort of glad he didn't ask. I – do you remember his dress robes? I know it wasn't his fault, but goodness, Parvati and Lavender would have laughed worse than if I'd gone alone."

She looked at Ginny, whose eyes were no longer twinkling. More calmly, Hermione continued:

"And I've got to say... I was flattered when Viktor invited me. I mean, he had a whole club of girls following him everywhere, some of them very attractive, but he didn't ask one of them – no, he chose to ask me instead. Me, the plain bookish girl. The Muggle-born. I didn't even think about saying no, Ginny, because I thought about them – Pansy Parkinson and her crowd. It shut them up. They couldn't believe the famous Viktor Krum would take someone like me to the Yule Ball," she said with a bit of satisfaction. "Yes, I was very happy, but from that to actually fancying Viktor..."

Hermione didn't look at Ginny. She stared down at her hands as she spoke. "I've never liked him like that, Ginny. In fact, I... sort of... love someone else."

"Oh," Ginny perked up. "Who's the lucky guy?"

Every now and then, Hermione wished she could confide in someone. But she was so ashamed of her feelings that she would never be able to look Ginny in the eye again. And Ginny would most likely never speak to her again. Ginny was one of the last people to whom she could confess this secret.

Ginny had never fully got over her first year. She never talked about it, but Hermione could see it in her eyes, how they flashed at the mention of the Chamber of Secrets incident... and the one responsible for it.

"I'm sorry, but I'd rather not say."

"Don't worry, I won't tell my git of a brother." Then Ginny's eyes widened. "Is it still Lockhart? Is that why you're embarrassed?"

"Merlin, no!" Hermione said. "I could never fancy someone so – so incompetent. Ginny, he could only cast one spell properly and it was the Memory Charm. If I'd known, I would've never..."

"I still can't believe you liked him like that, even if you didn't know he was a fraud. He was just so conceited! Mum fancied him too, you know. It was so embarrassing! But she never had him as a teacher so at least she didn't know what he was really like."

But conceit had never been a turn-off for Hermione. Lockhart's books had been more about him than about the deeds he had supposedly done, and this hadn't made Hermione think less of him. It made sense: quite a few people thought she was conceited.

But no one could honestly say she was incompetent. Incompetence, for her, was a deal breaker.

"If it isn't Lockhart, then who is it? Come on, Hermione, curiosity is killing me."

"I can't tell you," Hermione said with finality.

"Oh, a secret?" Ginny said mischievously, knowing it was futile to argue when Hermione had made a decision. "All right, all right. But you can at least tell me how long you've liked him, whoever he is?"

Hermione hesitated. "Since the summer before fourth year, I think."

"You mean you met him at the World Cup?"

"Sort of."

"What do you mean, sort of?"

I shouldn't have said anything! Hermione berated herself.

"We had met before." The words rushed out before she could bite her tongue at the thought of what that encounter had resulted in for Ginny.

"Do I know him?" Ginny asked suddenly. Hermione was acting really strange. It was unlike her to give such short, reluctant answers. Normally, she was eager to tell everything there was to tell about a topic, but right now she sounded as though she was being interrogated at her trial for a crime. "Have I met him?" Ginny insisted when Hermione still hadn't answered.

Hermione studiously avoided meeting Ginny's eyes. She turned away to examine the window, as though she found it painful to look at her. "I'm sorry."

The words were mumbled in such a low voice it took Ginny a few seconds to decipher them, and when she did, her confusion grew. "What are you apologising for?"

Hermione just shook her head.

There was a minute of silence, with Hermione looking everywhere except at Ginny, while Ginny watched her curiously, wondering who it could be that Hermione had feelings for and why she felt so guilty about it. She seemed embarrassed, so it was most likely someone Harry and Ron wouldn't approve of... Someone I wouldn't approve of?

Hermione broke the awkward silence. "So, you are finally getting over your infatuation with Harry?"

Ginny's freckled face flushed a deep pink.

"Yeah, your advice really helped. I've been doing what you said, trying to accept that Harry doesn't feel the same way and acting like I've moved on. Dating other guys. I think it's working. I think of him much less than I used to."

Hermione was well aware of how absurd it was for her to be giving relationship advice to anyone. But knowing personally the pain of unrequited love, she had wanted to help Ginny, so she had shared one of the tricks she had discovered for herself: distractions. It had almost worked for her, with Viktor. If only he didn't live so far away. If only she actually had time for a relationship.

There was no fixing her own love life, but she could at least help fix Ginny's. And who knew? Harry had liked Cho, and Ginny had a similar personality, but in the past Ginny had always been so debilitatingly shy and nervous around Harry that he had never seen her being herself. Ginny's crush on Harry wasn't completely hopeless like Hermione's feelings for... him. Unlike Ginny, the best Hermione could hope for was to distract herself well enough to be happy with someone else.

She had recently noticed Ron was funny and sort of cute when he wasn't absolutely infuriating, and unlike Viktor, he was right here; he could be the distraction she needed, maybe even a permanent distraction. But it wouldn't be fair to him. Ron deserved to be more than just a distraction. Could she learn to love him eventually, if she tried?

But there was just no time! Her education would always come first. It had to. It was the best distraction. If she focused on the next essay, the next test, the next spell to teach herself, she was too busy to think about why she felt such a need to be the best. She could forget what she was trying to prove, to whom, and why.

"Ginny, you should be kinder to Harry. He's got a lot on his plate this year, and it wasn't his fault that you had a crush on him. He didn't make it happen. It's not right to blame him for it."

"I'm kind enough to him," Ginny said testily.

"You could've been gentler when reminding him about your possession by V–Voldemort. He almost died of Basilisk venom poisoning in the Chamber. You can't blame him for wanting to forget about it."

"Forget about it? How can anyone forget what happened? Did you forget too?"

"I wish I could."

"But Hermione, you were petrified! The whole thing was meant to get you out of Hogwarts."

"To get Muggle-borns out of Hogwarts, and discredit your dad," Hermione corrected sharply. "All Muggle-borns. Not me in particular."

"I think it was meant mainly against you," said Ginny.

Hermione stared at her. "What do you m–mean?"

"You're the best in your class, heck, the best of our generation. Malfoy's father," Ginny spat out with loathing, "has to be furious about that. A Muggle-born doing better than the Malfoy heir – got to be embarrassing for them. You're the only Muggle-born he really knows about."

Hermione blanched, looking stricken, to Ginny's confusion. Scarily bright as Hermione was, surely she had figured this out? But despite her brilliance, she could be strangely clueless about some things, for example the reason why Ron was such a gigantic prat to her some of the time. But even if this was news to her, why was she taking it so badly?

Oh! Maybe Hermione had taken what Ginny had said to mean everything that had happened that year was her fault, that she'd caused it by doing so well at school and angering the Malfoys. Oh no!

"Hermione! It wasn't your fault. Don't you dare blame yourself for what happened to me or the others." Ginny pulled her into a comforting hug learned from her mum. Hermione let her, but didn't hug back as she normally would. She stayed stiff and awkward, guilt written across her face, until Ginny let go. "Hey, it's okay," Ginny insisted. "It was a horrible year but it's over. Nobody died."

"Yeah." Negative attention was better than none, right?

"Anyway... I'm ashamed of myself when I remember how I used to act around Harry," Ginny confessed, trying to cheer Hermione up. She ran her hands though her mane of red hair. "The reason I was afraid to speak while he was in the room was because I didn't want him to think I was the loud-mouthed brat my brothers said I was."

Hermione considered her silently for a moment, then looked away. "You were lucky it was just Harry."

Ginny bristled. "And what is that supposed to mean, just Harry?"

"Well," Hermione offered with a wry smile, "it isn't like it was a Death Eater, was it?" she joked. "I mean, Harry's one of the nicest boys at Hogwarts."

Ginny let out a strangled laugh. "I suppose."

"You see? It could've been much worse. Unless you felt that way about the boy in the diary," Hermione suggested shrewdly. "Riddle."

"No effing way!" Ginny exclaimed, aghast. "It's You-Know-Who we're talking about! Who would fancy him? Tom was good-looking, yeah, but he's a heartless madman, him and his followers..."

"It doesn't work like that. People don't choose who they fall in love with."

"Well, yeah," said Ginny, "that's true – I definitely didn't want to follow Harry around like a lovesick puppy! But I mean, really, who would love You-Know-Who or a Death Eater? A girl would have to be completely nuts to be attracted to those evil bastards."

"I agree," Hermione said in a choked voice. "That's crazy."

Did I just admit I'm 'completely nuts'?

But Ginny is right. It is crazy.

The door opened and Mrs Weasley peeked into the room. She wore an apron and a cheerful smile, but there were dark circles under her eyes. Hermione suspected the poor woman couldn't sleep from worry about her husband's awful snakebite.

"It's time to eat, girls!"

"Oh – right, Mum," said Ginny. "Hermione, are you coming?"

"Go on," Hermione said. "I'll be there in a few minutes."

"Hurry up, dear. The food will get cold," Mrs Weasley told her. "You look a bit pale. A good warm meal is just what you need to fix that."

Why did the Weasleys believe food was the answer to all problems? No wonder Mrs Weasley was... not slim. But Hermione would never say that out loud. She felt guilty for even thinking it. Mrs Weasley was a genuinely kind and generous woman.

But she wasn't quite the type of witch Hermione wanted to become. She couldn't imagine being a stay at home mother. She would go bonkers from the lack of intellectual stimulation.

"I won't be long," Hermione said with a smile.

"All right, dear. Ginny, come help me with the dessert."

Ginny sullenly followed her mother out of the room. "But Mum, I hate cooking!" Hermione heard her complain.

She watched them leave, then dropped her face into her hands. Oh, Ginny, if only you knew.

Harry might one day fall in love with Ginny after seeing her real personality instead of the shy love-struck fan he found off-putting. But Lucius Malfoy would never see Hermione as anything but a filthy Mudblood. He would gladly kill her just because she was a Muggle-born and a friend of Harry Potter. To him, she would never be a true witch, because her parents were Muggles. She was the cleverest in her year, but this was beyond even her intelligence. Nothing she did could possibly impress him.

Still she tried, unable to give up all hope.

What could she do other than make sure he couldn't not know how skilled a witch she was? Anything else would mean betraying her friends.

It would mean betraying Harry, and she could never do that. Not to Harry. Brave, passionate, generous Harry who never hesitated to risk his life to help others. In first year he had saved her from being beaten to death by a troll, and in third year, from having her soul sucked out by Dementors.

If at least she hadn't been a Muggle-born...

It couldn't have been worse. Or maybe it could: it could have been You-Know-Who. If she had been in Ginny's shoes...

Ginny hadn't known who Tom Riddle really was. But Hermione had known about Lucius Malfoy. His behaviour at their first meeting had screamed "pure-blood bigot", and she had been warned by the Weasleys and Harry that he was a Death Eater, though she hadn't wanted to believe the extent of it. Even after Harry had returned from his duel with Voldemort in the graveyard and told her and Ron pieces of the story, she still hoped, irrationally, that there were extenuating circumstances.

Hermione pressed her palm to her face and cursed her luck for the hundredth time. Why did it have to be him she had such feelings for when...

"I'm just a Mudblood," she muttered bitterly.

"Damn right," answered the portrait on the wall, making Hermione jump. But when she looked at it, it was still the same empty frame it had always been.

She liked this house, really. But not everything about it. The house-elf heads on the walls were horrifying and barbaric, as was the severed troll leg and the other body parts of sentient magical creatures used as furniture. Some Muggles adorned their homes with hunting trophies; it had always appalled her. But this was worse: these creatures were more like humans than like animals. And the living tragedy that was Kreacher, brainwashed to worship his and his species' abusers...

However, the intriguing mysteries of this house, such as portraits that could talk while empty (how?), were absolutely fascinating, and being insulted by portraits and by poor Kreacher was a small price to pay for living in a place full of such interesting magic.

The insults didn't bother her, honestly. Being called a Mudblood by Draco Malfoy hurt (but she would be damned if she ever let him see it) only because she was sure he was just parroting what he had been hearing at home his entire life.

All right, yes, she was obsessed.

Mrs Weasley would be disappointed, but she had more important things to do than eat.

She placed her palm on the parchment she had been reading before Ginny had walked in. She really hated the password she had chosen, but that was the point. No one would imagine a Muggle-born willingly uttering these words, for they were a declaration of pure-blood superiority. She wrinkled her nose. "Sanctimonia vincet semper," she muttered under her breath.

The Arithmancy equations flickered and dissolved into undecipherable swirls of ink, which rearranged themselves into a text on the history of the family whose motto she had just spoken.