Albus Dumbledore is unsettled. He has been anticipating this specific sorting ceremony for many years, but he has not anticipated this specific twist.
The last time a child was sorted into Slytherin without known magical parents had been 1938. Albus still doesn’t know what lies that surly orphan had told his house to silence any questions. And yes, certainly, other children without a Wizarding surname have been sent down to the dungeons - its current Head of House for one - but they were half-bloods. All the ones he can remember. This child is different. She is bright-eyed and curious and desperate to prove herself, and she has Muggle ancestry on both sides of her family. This child, he thinks, could be trouble.
Albus Dumbledore exchanges a quick look with Severus Snape and sees very little in those dark eyes to give away the man’s thoughts. Later, he extracts a promise from him to keep an eye on her and warn of any trouble brewing. But months pass and then a year and the Granger girl does not show any sign of a troublesome disposition. She’s an isolated child who buries her loneliness in her books. She is rather too precocious and she attracts some teasing from her peers. But she doesn’t seem dangerous. Albus Dumbledore lets his attention slide away, back to more important things, and forgets about the aberration.
Hermione Granger doesn’t know why she was put in Slytherin. She knows what the Sorting Hat told her and she knows what she’s read but she doesn’t really get it.
It’s made abundantly clear from her first night she is unwelcome. The lesson is repeated regularly. Variation keeps it fresh. She never knows where the humiliation will come from, never knows whether it will be words or spells or or feigned friendship or destroyed belongings or disturbed sleep. She is given salutary lessons about blood, but when they make hers run it is rich and dark red just the same as anyone’s. Only Crabbe is stupid enough to have expected it to be brown.
At first she fights back, just like her parents told her. It’s hard when there’s seventy of them and one of you but she squares her small shoulders and tries to look them in the eye.
But Hermione Granger is made to realise pretty quickly that standing up to primary school bullies and standing up to people who can inflict agonising damage and vanish the traces, people who don’t just find her annoying but a threat to their very way of life, who really hate her for what she is, those are not the same. This is not bullying. It’s something else. It is implacable and fundamental.
So she learns to survive. She keeps her head down. She learns everything she can. She keeps her hand down in lessons. She spends most of her time in the library. She earns house points for her essays and when she’s called on. But she vanishes into the background. And she watches. Eventually Hermione Granger becomes boring.
Draco Malfoy turns his attention to Harry Potter, and Pansy Parkinson turns her attention on Draco Malfoy though not, exactly, in the same way.
Second year is worse. It has hardly started when the caretaker's cat is petrified and someone writes a message on the wall that both terrifies and delights the worst of her house.
“You’ll be first in line, Mudblood,” Malfoy tells her. His pale face is flushed with excitement and not a little fear. “Sure you don’t want to go back where you belong?”
Hermione Granger has cowered silently for a year. She had thought she knew what it was to be scared. But as she stares at the cat dangling on the wall, she thinks this is different.
The next one is a Mudblood just like her. A first year. She doesn’t even know his name. She goes to the library and every step is an exercise in courage.
One day she trips over something outside the Slytherin dungeons and it turns out to be Harry Potter and his ginger friend under an invisibility cloak. It’s late, probably past curfew. She can’t believe they have a cloak. It seems monstrously unfair when she, Hermione, is always in need of a way to vanish.
“What are you doing here?” she asks, as disdainfully as she can, as she gets up. Harry Potter is the number one suspect for most of the school since he spoke to that snake in duelling club. Hermione supposes it’s possible, certainly it has annoyed the Slytherins endlessly not knowing who it is. But she also thinks he goes around looking almost as beaten down as she feels and he doesn’t seem very interested in murder.
“None of your business,” spits the red-head.
“Are you trying to break into the dungeons?” she asks, working it out. “Looking for the Heir are you?”
Harry Potter looks surprisingly relieved at this.
“Yeah,” he says, “will you let us in?”
“No,” she says. She doesn’t explain. Slytherin might bully Hermione and loathe Hermione and make her feel like she doesn’t belong but the older Slytherins - who freely turn their wand on her - also protect her from other houses sometimes. Life is bad, but it could be worse, and letting Harry Potter into the dungeon is about as bad a betrayal as she could make. Besides this stupid boy isn’t offering her anything in return.
“But it’s Malfoy right?” he asks excitedly. “Have you seen him. Has -?”
“Malfoy? ” she asks scathingly. “You think Malfoy would be the heir without going around and telling everyone? Go and look at the Genealogy books in the library if you want to find out if Malfoy’s the heir you idiot.”
“The what books?”
“Genealogy. Books of lineage. None of the kids in Slytherin can claim any sort of direct descent.” It’s so nice to be able to let her sharp tongue out on these two blockheads. Hermione wonders if she’s the only logical person to have ever entered Hogwarts.
Ron Weasley starts to snap back but she interrupts.
“It’s not Malfoy, I wouldn’t still be walking around if it was. You should both be in bed. Now go away so I can get into the dungeons.”
Naturally they refuse to be dismissed so easily so Hermione puts them both in a body-bind, levitates them into an empty classroom, covers them with the cloak, and leaves them to enjoy a cold hour or two lying on the stone floor to regret being rude to her.
She doesn’t work it out until halfway through May. Despite Draco Malfoy’s warning, Hermione is not the first, second, or even third Muggleborn to be petrified. She isn’t petrified at all. By this time there’s talk of closing the school and even the Slytherins are thoroughly fed up with the attacks. No one wants Hogwarts to close except, perhaps, Hermione herself, who thinks longingly that being forced to go to Beauxbatons or Ilvermorny without admitting defeat at Hogwarts would be quite nice. But she does not want to be petrified - or worse - and so she has spent hours in the library looking up causes of petrification. There are, in turns out, hundreds of ways to petrify someone using magic. Several of them even require mandrakes to reverse the effects.
But only one cause of petrification involves a rare snake that lives for hundreds of years. Snakes are everywhere in Slytherin House and if you look closely at the tapestries and engravings and lamps and other reptilian decor, they’re not all ordinary snakes. Some are the King of Serpents.
A basilisk’s stare: the only thing that can petrify or kill.
And Harry Potter can talk to snakes.
“Potter,” she calls out. She’s been trying to get to him for days. She doesn’t know what she thinks, but she knows she needs to see his face when she says the word basilisk.
She has followed him into a bathroom. It’s disgusting, much worse than the girls bathrooms, and she wonders why magic isn’t better applied. But any moment now a boy could come in. She must be fast.
He turns, surprised. She’s pulled her wand out and he mirrors her.
“It’s a basilisk,” she says without explanation. He looks baffled and lowers wand a little. “Honestly don’t you read? A basilisk. That’s what’s hurting people. A great big snake and you’re the only one who can talk to them.”
Her wand is at his throat now. She’s been angry, she realises, angry all year. Angry that she’d be a target just for who her parents are. Angry that the useless teachers can’t protect them. Angry that she’s so alone and so scared all the time.
Potter glares at her.
“It’s NOT ME,” he yells. “I don’t know why I can speak to them, but it’s not me. I’m not the heir. I’m trying to stop it!”
Hermione believes him. He looks frustrated and helpless and scared. Any minute now a boy could come in and see her talking to Harry Potter in the loos and then she might as well stare straight at the basilisk.
“Fine,” she hisses and throws the page she’s torn out of the library book in his face before turning around and leaving the room. She calls back over her shoulder, getting a mirror out of her bag. “Don’t tell anyone I was here.”
She feels awful for having ripped the page out, but she’d hardly have been able to carry Fantastick Beastes around with her for days while she tried to escape the new restrictions and get him alone. The basilisk isn’t in the modern edition. She’d found it in a first edition of the extended encyclopaedia, in vol. i (a-d). It’s illustrated and weighs as much as all her schoolbooks for a day of classes put together.
Of the many fearsome beasts and monsters that roam our land, there is none more curious or more deadly than the Basilisk, known also as the King of Serpents. This snake, which may reach gigantic size and live many hundreds of years, is born from a chicken’s egg, hatched beneath a toad. Its methods of killing are most wondrous, for aside from its deadly and venomous fangs, the Basilisk has a murderous stare, and all who are fixed with the beam of its eye shall suffer instant death. Spiders flee before the Basilisk, for it is their mortal enemy, and the Basilisk flees only from the crowing of the rooster, which is fatal to it.
“The pipes,” Potter exclaims as the door swings shut behind her. “It’s in the -”
She doesn’t know what he’ll do. Hopefully go and tell Dumbledore and take credit for the whole thing. She goes to lunch and slides into her seat right at the end of the second year section, next to Tracey Davies the half-blood, and hopes no one else gets hurt.
The next day Ginny Weasley disappears, and by that evening Harry Potter has saved the day in some sort of baffling adventure that warrants a last-minute feast, wins four hundred points for Gryffindor, and makes Draco Malfoy so angry he can’t see straight for days.
She corners Potter again a few days after the celebration. He’s been visiting the groundskeeper. She puts her wand at his throat - again. He is so exuberantly happy he doesn’t bother drawing his own one this time.
In the soft golden light of the summer evening, his eyes are very green. She tells hims that if he ever lets anyone know she told him about the basilisk she’ll find one to set on him. She lists a complicated and well-rehearsed range of other threats including detailing just how easy it would be to make him confess his undying love to Malfoy in the middle of the next Quidditch match before setting his own broomstick on fire.
“I won’t tell anyone, Granger. But aren’t you glad it’s all over?” Potter asks, curiously.
“I wish they’d closed this horrible school,” she says. “Maybe they would have if that girl had died.”
She doesn’t mean that, not really, but it’s satisfying to see the joy bleed out of his face anyway.
In the summer before her third year Hermione sees a cat. It is bowlegged and orange and beautiful, and she knows if she takes it back to Hogwarts it will end up hurt. She leaves it in the shop, regretfully, and goes to buy her textbooks.
Third year is boring. Slytherin has become accustomed, if not reconciled, to its mudblood aberration. She can do most of the spells in the OWL textbooks already. She has no friends at school and just a few outside. All she ever does is study, even in the holidays. She gets perfect marks on her essays but she never puts her hand up in class. Magic is the only thing that makes sticking out this terrible place worthwhile.
But she knows now there’s nothing they can do to her to make her leave, and the Slytherins seem to mostly know it too. Besides there are first years to bully and she is a boring target. She learned not to cry or fight back a long time ago. Outside her own year they simply pretend she doesn’t exist.
Hermione hates Hogwarts. But she loves magic and so she stays. She is desperately, desperately unhappy. It’s a dull ache that grows with every passing day. She hardly even notices when the dementors are near.
Remus Lupin asks her to stay behind one day. He gives her back an essay, tells her she’s very clever, and then asks her why she’s hiding. She says, without elaborating, that she’s a Muggleborn in Slytherin. The lines that make him look so much older than he is (she knows how old he is; she’s looked him up in the yearbooks, in other archives, she’s not making the Lockhart mistake again) deepen.
“Sometimes,” he offers thoughtfully, “snakes bite when they are trodden on.”
She eyes him warily, this shabby former Gryffindor with his kind, sad eyes.
“Is that what you did? I know what you are, you know, Snape’s been trying to get us to notice so subtly he might as well have just told us. I know why you miss every full moon.”
He looks floored for a moment.
“No, I found strength in numbers worked better for me. But if that’s not an option… well, you’re the brightest witch of your age I’ve ever met Hermione. I’m sure you can come up with something to make your days a bit easier than just keeping your head down.”
Hermione thinks she might burn up with the praise. She can feel it seizing her. She knows it’s weak, knows she shouldn’t be so easily flattered. She’s spent two and a half years trying to stamp the need out of herself. But it hasn’t worked, not completely.
“Th-thank you,” she stammers.
He offers her some chocolate and tells her he’s stepping out of the room and absolutely not to borrow the book on his desk because he can’t be responsible for teaching students that sort of thing. He winks when he says it. She makes a copy of the book to leave behind. It’s blank of course, all books have charms on them to stop cheap reproductions. She writes Thank you inside the cover. She vanishes before he gets back.
The book is full of nasty little hexes and jinxes and their counter spells. There’s nothing in the library quite like it outside of the restricted section and that tends to leap too far from conjuring frogs to making people’s skin turn inside out.
This is different. Lupin has written a note on the title page. It’s a warning. It tells her that cruelty isn’t strength. But it doesn’t say what she saw in his face, what she knows in her heart. Magic makes the world more brutal, more dangerous, more wild. She feels a little shiver of excitement roll down her spine as she begins to read.
Hermione hasn’t spent two-and-a-half years in Slytherin House without learning a few things about power. She knows the quickest way to make things better would be to trounce the most powerful person and make everyone afraid of her. But she also knows the worst thing would be to fight a battle she can’t win. So she starts small. She starts domestic. She starts with Pansy.
Every time Pansy makes a cruel jibe in the dormitories, she gets a spot. She doesn’t link them to Hermione for days. She doesn’t, even when they move off her face and onto her chest. Hermione wants her face to look natural. Everyone can see that.
It’s not that Pansy’s greatest fear is that she’s ugly. She isn’t, but she isn’t beautiful like Daphne Greengrass. Pansy’s problem is that she’s weak and she’s afraid and she likes power. Mostly that comes out as her being mean. She’s the meanest girl in the year and meaner than any in the year above.
Hermione knows Pansy’s type of mean is smart but it’s also just swagger and bravado. She’s been watching and waiting and she’s seen the girl’s shoulders sag when she gets a letter from home. She’s watched her eyes follow Draco around the common room, watched her coo over him when he pretended his arm was hurt.
Hermione also knows that Draco Malfoy is a clever, crass boy who’s never seen someone else’s weakness without wanting to poke it, and so in the end he does all the work for her.
They’re in Potions with Gryffindor and Pansy’s been stuck with Millicent as a partner because she was late, trying to hide the pimples in the bathroom between lessons.
“Draco,” Pansy demands his attention with something only slightly less than her usual bravado. She’s got her chin up and if Hermione hadn’t heard her crying that morning she’d never know the spots were bothering her, never know she’d tried six different balms and four spells to try to hide them.
When Pansy is older she’ll learn not to try to wield her power over men publicly. But she’s twelve and she knows it’s weakened, and so she makes a stupid move.
“Make Goyle swap with Mille and be my partner?” It’s more of an order than a question.
Draco sneers at her.
“Not a chance, barnacle face.”
There’s a moment of stunned silence before the room breaks out into giggles. No one in their year has escaped Pansy’s poisoned tongue, and so there is no one there who isn’t glad to see her fall.
She glances around and because Hermione isn’t laughing, she pauses on her face, like a sailor finding shelter in a storm. Hermione tilts her head, and smiles.
Later, like any wounded animal, Pansy lashes out. She does it in the dorm. She still hasn’t worked it out, still hasn’t made the connection between her skin and Hermione. Why would she? Hermione’s been so very careful.
“Mudblood,” she hisses, “check my charms essay.”
Hermione has done this before, to buy herself peace. But now she ignores Pansy. All the girls are in the dorm, all ready for bed. It’s almost time for lights out.
Their beds are ranked by their importance: three against one wall and two against the other wall facing the gaps left in between. Pansy’s is furthest from the door, by the window to the lake. Daphne is opposite. Then Millicent, facing the same way as Pansy, then half-blood Tracey who has never learned not to yearn for Pansy’s approval next to Daphne but also near to the door. Hermione is last, right beside the door.
Hermione has her hand on her wand. Her bed hangings are open, but her face is hidden. She murmurs the familiar spell quietly. More spots slide onto Pansy.
“No,” she says calmly, and turns the page of her book. She can see Tracey’s disbelieving, scared smile across the room. Daphne lowers the magazine she’s reading. She can’t see the other two. Pansy gets up. Her wand is drawn and she is shaking and Hermione feels a strange sort of calm come over herself. She feels brave.
“What did you say to me, Mudblood?” she hisses. Pansy should know more about power, Hermione thinks, than to think trampling on her will restore hers. But Pansy is only a spoiled, insecure girl who’s been humiliated for the first time.
“I said, 'no I won’t check your charms essay,’” Hermione repeats cooly.
She’s expecting it and so she is so much quicker than Pansy with a wand that the shield charm is up before whatever lame hex the girl has cast can touch her.
“What’s that on your chest, Pansy?” she asks. There’s faux concern in her voice, but Pansy isn’t stupid enough to look down. Until Millicent, big, lumbering Millicent who’s been on the wrong side of Pansy’s particular brand of viciousness before echoes Hermione.
“What is that?” Just over the top of her old-fashioned white nightdress a new line of spots peek up. She can’t see them but the others can. Daphne gets out of bed, and crosses to her. She murmurs an exclamation and Pansy goes to the mirror and pulls her nightgown down.
The spots spell out a word. They are red and slightly blistered and stark against her porcelain skin: UGLY.
Pansy bursts into angry tears.
“YOU?” she screams at Hermione. “You did this? How dare you?”
“I think we’ve all had quite enough of you,” Hermione says. She relishes the moment, the power of it. “Shut up and go to bed, barnacle face.”
Pansy turns on her heel and runs out of the room. She doesn’t return that night. Hermione learns, later, that she spent it in the hospital wing.
Madam Pomfrey’s tonics help but they can’t get the marks to go away completely. Pansy tries threats and she tries reprisals and after a week of war she comes to Hermione when she’s alone in the dormitory. She’s learned one lesson, at least, about taking her on publicly.
“What do I have to do to get you to make them go away?” she asks. Her face is miserable and she looks beaten and her eyes are full of hate.
“Swear on your magic you’ll never call me Mudblood again,” Hermione tells her. “And that you’ll leave me alone from now on. And, trade beds with me.”
“No chance, Mudblood,” Pansy hisses.
Hermione flicks her wand, deliberately obvious. Her mouth doesn’t move. She’s practiced this. More spots appear.
“Look at your arms, Pansy,” she says. She is smiling. She is glad. She feels brave.The other girl stares down at them as more spots appear.
“They’ll be there forever you know,” Hermione tells her. “And they’ll spread everywhere. I’m the only one who can make them go away. And I know much worse things than this.”
She doesn’t actually think it is true about the spots. They’d fade in time and she’s sure St Mungo’s would be able to heal the girl. She’s not that powerful. But Pansy is panicking.
“Alright,” she says miserably. “You bushy-haired buck toothed bitch.”
When the other girls come to the dorm that night, Hermione is lying reading on the bed by the lake window. She has arranged herself casually, carelessly. Daphne comes in last, pauses, reads the room. The curtains around Hermione’s old bed are closed and Pansy’s muffled sobs are still coming from behind them. Just barely. But Pansy doesn’t know how to silence them. Hermione doesn’t look up from her book.
“Are you ready for lights out, Granger?” Daphne asks. Pansy is always the one who has decreed when the lights go out in the dorm.
“Not yet,” Hermione tells her.
Daphne is cleverer than Millicent and much cleverer than Tracey. If there’s going to be a challenge it will come from her. But Daphne gets into bed without another word and opens a magazine.
The next morning, when Hermione has finished getting dressed, the other four girls follow her to breakfast and, for the first time, they sit around her. Pansy’s skin is white and unblemished and her eyes are defeated. Hermione knows she’ll forget the lesson eventually and come for her in some way. But it won’t be easy now, not with the vow she’s made.
Theo Nott notices first. He’s the cleverest boy in their year and the quietest. Hermione meets his eyes and enjoys the slight gape of his mouth before it closes into a smirk. She’s tempted to order Pansy to pass her something, but she thinks she shouldn’t push her luck. She’s surprised, then, when Millicent offers her the dish of sausages first.
Malfoy sits down flanked by his goons. She eyes them. They were a stupid choice. She returns to her newspaper. Crabbe and Goyle were intimidating before anyone had learned any magic but now they’re just dumb muscle and they make him braver than he should be. One day, Hermione thinks, she’ll show him that. But not yet. She’s not ready yet. She’s good at magic - but she knows from DADA she’s weaker when she’s put on the spot.
Hermione watches him notice over the newspaper she is pretending to read. But Malfoy knows enough about Slytherin hierarchy not to interfere with the girls. Besides he’s too busy obsessively hating Harry Potter to care much for house politics. His eyes move around the group, register surprise, and then he turns away.
In a way, she supposes, it bolsters his own position: he weakened Pansy who could have been a threat to his overall supremacy in their year if she’d wanted to. But Draco Malfoy can’t be seen endorsing a Mudblood. So he ignores the whole thing completely and when he talks to the girls it’s to Daphne and Millicent. He rarely acknowledges Pansy. She has been bested by a Mudblood and everyone knows it. She’d have to do something very sly indeed to regain her footing.
Hermione becomes a little less invisible. She laughs along with everyone else when Malfoy imitates Potter fainting. She goes to Hogsmeade. She starts raising her hand occasionally in classes, especially in Defence Against the Dark Arts. She works harder for Professor Lupin than any other teacher, pushing herself to her considerable best.
Professor Lupin, she thinks, is the first and only person who has ever helped her in the magical world. She finds excuses to help him. She cleans his Grindylow tank and deflects attention from his regular absences. She writes the most brilliant essays.
It’s not enough. He’s respectful, even fond, of her. But he loves Harry Potter. And she can’t work out why. Harry Potter who gets special attention from everyone, even Snape even if she wouldn’t trade that particular brand of special attention for the world. Harry Potter who faints because of Dementors. Lupin tries to hide it, but Hermione survives by watching people and she can see it. Potter doesn’t even notice.
When that stupid little boy conjures a Patronus - a real, magnificent Patronus - at the Quidditch match later in the year and she sees the look of beaming pride on Professor Lupin’s face she realises that he had taught Potter that spell. That Potter has been getting special secret lessons with Lupin because Potter is pathetic enough to faint when a dementor goes near him. She is so jealous she thinks she’s going to be sick.
And it’s Potter’s fault - of course it is, of course - that the entire school gets disrupted over and over again that year. Some madman is trying to kill him, and Hermione wishes they’d get on with it so she can have some peace.
She tells him this one day in the corridor. He looks genuinely shocked and she wonders how he’s survived so much and remained so soft.
Something happens at the end of the year. It’s something to do with Potter and Lupin and Snape and whatever it is drives her Head of House wild with anger, wild enough to announce to the Slytherins what she worked out months earlier.
Professor Lupin is a werewolf.
“Just wait until my father hears about this,” Malfoy says as the Slytherins gather to head to Hogsmeade. He’s never liked Lupin. “Mind you I hear he’s already on his way out.”
Hermione didn’t care about going to the village that weekend anyway. She goes back into the dorm to wait until they’ve all left the Common Room and then rushes up to the third floor.
She bumps into Harry Potter on the stairs coming off the corridor that leads to Lupin’s office. She’s not crying. She’s learned not to cry in three years in Slytherin, even if she feels like her one ally in the school - in the world - is deserting her.
“This is your fault, Potter,” she hisses at him. He looks up, startled, from the raggedy old piece of parchment he’s holding.
“I don’t know what you did last night,” she says, thinking what a spoiled and stupid boy he must be, “but I know it’s your fault Lupin’s going.”
“He’s already gone,” Harry Potter tells her. There’s something bitter in his voice she’s never heard before and his emerald green eyes are blazing. “And it’s not my fault, it’s Snape’s, which you’d know if you weren’t a little snake just like the rest of them.”