She didn’t mean to notice him.
When Headmaster Dumbledore announces that Hogwarts is hosting the Triwizard Tournament and students from Durmstrang and Beauxbatons will be visiting the school to compete, Hermione can’t help but be curious. Apparently, the event has been under discussion for the last two years, all the way back in Hermione’s Fourth Year, but the negotiations had fallen apart due to ideological differences between Dumbledore and Headmaster Karkaroff.
Harry and Ron both say they don’t care about the tournament, mostly out of bitterness over the age restriction limiting entries to Seventh Years, but when the doors fly open and the student delegations enter, everyone turns to stare.
The Beauxbatons students enter first, a flutter of airy blue. They are as French as can be, effortlessly elegant in their silk robes as they stride forward in unison behind their Headmistress, a towering woman with a sleek bob. But the poise fades as they begin shivering and a number of rapidly transfigured shawls and scarves appear as Headmistress Maxime is being welcomed by Dumbledore. As they huddle together tucking scarves around each other, they are suddenly rather charmingly relatable.
The Beauxbatons students have barely started finding seats for themselves when the doors of the Great Hall swing open again and the Durmstrang delegation enters.
They’re so different from Hogwarts and from Beauxbatons. As if they’re from a different world entirely, as removed from Magical Britain as the Muggle world is from Hermione. There’s a coldness about the students filing in, a dark allure and intensity that is so foreign and interesting when contrasted with Hogwarts’ atmosphere of whimsy and cheerful oddness or even the elegance of Beauxbatons.
Hermione suspects it’s because Durmstrang is a Dark Arts school.
She’s read about the schools before, the little that’s known given that the magical schools are excruciatingly secretive about their locations and the magic they teach. Beauxbatons is somewhere in the south of France, and although their location is unknown and some subjects secret, the Ministries of France and Britain often coordinate.
Durmstrang, on the other hand, operates alone and by their own rules and standards. Hermione isn’t even sure which country the school is in. The one thing she does know is that they don’t restrict themselves to solely learning defensive magic, they study the Dark Arts, not just theory, they use them. And it’s not only Northern European Dark Magic, unlike Beauxbatons and Hogwarts whose admissions are strictly national, Durmstrang accepts students throughout Europe.
Dark Wizards like Grindelwald studied magic at Durmstrang.
At the front of the delegation, nearly shoulder to shoulder with Headmaster Karkaroff, is a boy who’s startlingly blond. Pale skin, even paler hair, and sharp features set with icy grey eyes. Everything about him stands out starkly against the fur-trimmed scarlet of his uniform. He stands out. He’s self-assured and almost insolent. Unlike the rest of the Durmstrang students who look around the Great Hall with its enchanted ceiling with at least a degree of wonder, his eyes sweep across the room and the student body before him with an air of indifference that’s almost forced. As if he refuses to be impressed by what he sees.
Hermione doesn’t know why out of all the students in the crowd, he’s the one she notices first. There’s just something about him that’s hard to look away from.
“Bloody hell,” Ron says from beside her. “I think that blond tosser in the front is a Malfoy.”
She tears her eyes away to stare at Ron. “A who?”
He laughs and points at the blond boy. “A Malfoy. I dunno his first name, but he’s definitely got to be a Malfoy. Old pureblood family from here in Britain. Bastards, the lot of them. Always Slytherins here at Hogwarts. Heard his dad sent him to Durmstrang because he didn’t want his son near any Muggle-borns.”
The offhand comment catches Hermione like an unexpected blow to the chest. Her lungs contract as if the wind’s been knocked out of her as she looks back again across the Great Hall towards the advancing Durmstrang students, her sense of curious wonder as sharp and empty as a hunger pang.
Of course. Durmstrang’s final distinction. They accept magical students from any country throughout Europe, except the Muggle-borns.
Durmstrang is pureblood only.
She looks at Malfoy again with less fascination now, and he seems to notice her stare because he turns and his grey eyes lock with hers. Pureblood. Muggle-born. Somehow, she feels like he knows it instantly, that he can see it in her face, that in a world built upon lineage hierarchies that span centuries with a society woven of sociopolitical connections, that she does not belong.
She lifts her chin and refuses to drop her eyes or look away. Whoever this Malfoy may be, he isn’t going to make her feel small.
One second. Two. Three. Four. He doesn’t break eye contact and neither will she.
Another Durmstrang student bumps into Malfoy, who Hermione realises had stopped walking for their... staring contest? Malfoy stumbles and nearly trips, his concentration breaking as he catches himself, and he sneers as he straightens, glaring at the student behind him before shooting a black look towards Hermione, like it’s her fault.
She just lifts her chin higher, still not looking away.
More Durmstrang students file in, blocking him from view.
“I don’t know why Dumbledore couldn’t have put off the tournament for one more year,” Harry says for the umpteenth time, sulking in the Gryffindor Common Room once dinner’s over and he’s setting up to play a game of wizards chess with Ron.
The Durmstrang and Beauxbatons students have returned to their respective ship and carriage but the castle is still buzzing with excitement from the day.
Hermione doesn’t even look up from her essay, already quite familiar with Harry’s diatribe about why the Sixth Years should be allowed to compete. “Champions have died during the Triwizard Tournament, it’s a sensible rule. Just imagine if the Goblet chose a fourteen-year-old.”
Harry shakes his head, expression mulish. “Isn’t the whole idea of the Goblet of Fire that it chooses the worthy champions? They should let the Goblet do its job and choose and not add a bunch of extra rules only allowing Seventh Years.”
Harry doesn’t care that the only reason that the Triwizard Tournament has been resumed is because it’s now restricted to students who are legal adults. He’s being forced to miss out on a chance at eternal glory by one year and he intends to make sure everyone knows how annoyed he is about it.
Hermione had thought he and Ron had finally stopped belabouring the issue, but seeing the students from the other schools has Hogwarts’ competitive spirit swirling again like a tempest. Despite Dumbledore’s repeated reminders that the Triwizard Tournament is about unity, the schools have been separated from each other and isolated for over two hundred years. The students only see each other as potential opponents.
In Harry and Ron’s case, there seems to be something about that Durmstrang student, Malfoy, in particular, that’s got them brassed off.
“All I’m saying is that if the Goblet’s as amazing as they say it is, I don’t see why they can’t just let it do its job. Let people who want to enter, enter.” Harry moves his knight forward and it’s promptly beaten to death by one of Ron’s pawns.
Hermione sighs, tired of being the voice of reason on the subject. “Probably because if someone dies, people aren’t going to blame the Goblet, they’ll blame the school. It’s a ridiculously dangerous tournament, Harry.”
Harry just looks at her with an expression of disappointed disgust, and then turns away from her, back to his game of chess with Ron.
Hermione looks back down at her essay without another word, her chest tightening.
It’s fine. Harry and Ron are her best friends. This is how it is with friends. They’re not always supposed to see eye to eye on things. For them, rules are made to be broken.
Harry and Ron are both from Wizarding families, old Wizarding families. They’ve known each other since they were in nappies; but since First Year, Hermione’s been gradually included into what they jokingly call their trio.
It had actually started because she was trying to stop them from breaking rules. Instead, she got dragged along, and in the process concluded that if they were going to sneak out, at least she could make sure they didn’t get caught or cost Gryffindor any points. Both Harry and Ron have always been better at getting into trouble than getting out of it.
Despite being Muggle-born, ever since First Year, Hermione’s had a larger repertoire of spells and known more secrets and details about the castle than either of them had ever bothered to learn.
They need her. It’s nice being needed.
Hermione was even invited to visit the Burrow in the summer before Fourth Year, and attended the Quidditch World Cup with the Weasleys. She’s met Harry’s parents at King’s Cross Station several times. Lily Potter is Muggle-born too, although she hasn’t been back in the Muggle world in years and doesn’t talk to her family there anymore.
A lot of the Muggle-borns drop out of Hogwarts after a few years. A boy in the year below Hermione named Colin Creevey left after the First Year because he got so lonely.
The magical world is often a lonely place for people without any Wizarding family. It isn’t that people openly treat her differently than other witches with magic. At least not to her face. For a long time, Hermione thought she must just be doing something wrong, or imagining the way the conversations died when she joined, but as she’s gotten older, she’s begun to understand that it doesn’t matter what she does or how good a student she is, or how carefully she studies Wizarding history and culture. She is an outsider. Being Muggle-born is the only thing that people see about her.
Of course, almost no one says that outright, but Hermione knows that in the past Muggle-borns were regarded as filthy and freaks of nature. The collections of classic fairy tales in the Hogwarts library are filled with precautionary stories about greedy disgusting Muggles craving magic. Witches and wizards burned at the stake after making the mistake of trusting Muggles. Of Muggles stealing wizards’ magic and then foolishly destroying themselves by abusing their ill-gotten power.
Nowadays the attitudes are more subtle than that. No one goes to war about it the way they did occasionally in the past. Slurs and comparisons of Muggle-borns to animals are unacceptable. Instead, it’s an undercurrent.
People just avoid her. Her invitation to house parties or school events are always the ones that get lost in the post. She’s the last one partnered in class projects even though she’s one of the best students in her year.
It’s impossible not to notice all the ways she’s carefully left out. The precision is almost surgical.
Of course, not everyone’s like that. That’s what makes her lucky. She has friends. Harry and Ron both come from families that have made a point of flouting tradition and befriending and associating with Muggle-borns. They don’t care that Hermione isn’t like them.
Headmaster Dumbledore is also a staunch defender of Hogwarts’ policy of accepting Muggle-born students, opposing the regular attempts by the Ministry of Magic to have Muggle-borns be sent to their own school. However, at times, Dumbledore’s support seems like it’s entirely ideological. He doesn’t actually associate with Muggle-borns, he just defends the idea of them.
But even with Harry and Ron’s friendship, Hermione still feels as if no matter what she does, she’s perpetually regarded as an interloper and it eats at her, some days more than others.
The Wizarding World is where she belongs, she’ll make things work. She has to. There isn’t anywhere else to go. Because no matter how out of place she feels in the Magical World, it doesn’t compare to the stifling discomfort of returning to the Muggle world where she never felt she belonged at all, even before she got her letter and realised why.
But ever since she started making serious plans about her life after Hogwarts, she’s grown increasingly aware that she has to constantly fight to exist there.
It’s not that Muggle-borns are specifically targeted for exclusion since that’s illegal under a Ministry reform from back in the Fifties, instead, libraries and establishments and even entire schools are ‘pureblood only’ or have policies of only accepting new clients by private recommendation.
Hermione wonders sometimes what it would be like if she could pass as a pureblood just for a day; whether the world around her, which seems to keep her constantly locked out, might suddenly open.
During her Fifth Year career advice meeting Professor McGonagall gently explained that although Hermione was one of Hogwarts’ most advanced students and would undoubtedly do well in her exams and easily earn the prerequisite NEWTs, all the careers that she had expressed interest in required special letters of recommendation. Letters that didn’t come from staff at Hogwarts but from tutors with specialised masteries who taught students privately during the summer.
During the summers, when Hermione was required to go back to the Muggle world where she was unable to legally use magic.
Hermione had sat in McGonagall’s office, gripping several pamphlets and absorbing the revelation that all her efforts for acceptance were once again, not enough. Even with a perfect academic record and all the prerequisite NEWTs, that wouldn’t be enough to open the doors specifically built to ensure that people like Hermione stayed out.
Without at least one letter of recommendation, the job opportunities she’d have wouldn’t even require NEWTs. Her options will be service jobs, working as a sales clerk or in a restaurant, or possibly a position in the Ministry of Magic’s maintenance and cleaning department.
As she sat there, fighting back tears, McGonagall grew visibly discomforted and added quickly that there was still a way forward. If Hermione maintained her academic record and prefect position, she’d be a candidate for Head Girl in her Seventh Year. Head students receive special letters of recommendation from the Headmaster of Hogwarts; a higher commendation than any tutor.
It's the only chance Hermione has and she is determined that no one will take it from her.
After the meeting with McGonagall, when she explained to Harry and Ron that she’d be busier in order to be eligible for Head Girl, they were understanding but as Fifth Year progressed, they gradually started leaving her out of things more and more, only coming around when an essay’s due or when there are exams coming up.
The day after the Durmstrang and Beauxbatons students arrive, Harry and Ron keep shuffling off, whispering between the two of them. She suspects they’re planning something. She waits, hoping that eventually they’ll tell her, but when they get a package in the post, they slip away from breakfast without a word.
“What are you two planning?” She catches them that evening while on patrol, their bodies half-hidden under Harry’s cloak of invisibility in one of the hallways near the Great Hall.
Ron has the grace to look guilty, but Harry’s caught up in the scheme and proudly shows off the two pills in his hand. “Ageing pills, Fred and George made them for us. Should get us through the barrier around the Goblet.”
Hermione stares at the pills and feels a quick stab of hurt at being left out. Again. It feels like everything they’ve done this year, she only finds out about afterwards. If they’d told her, she wouldn’t have reported them, even though she probably should.
She’s certain there's no way an ageing pill will outsmart the precautions that Dumbledore has in place, so attempting to sneak past it is just a bit of good fun.
She’s missed the thrill of getting in and out of scrapes with them. She studies the pills and forces a smile, hoping that maybe if she goes along with this one, they’ll remember to include her the next time.
“You should have told me, I would have ordered one too.”
They just stare at her. Then Ron bursts out laughing as if it’s the funniest thing he’s ever heard.
“You Hermione? As Hogwarts’ Triwizard champion.”
Of course, that wasn’t what she meant, but the incredulity in Ron’s tone is cutting. Her stomach twists as he claps his hand over his mouth and keeps laughing. It’s not even a mean laugh. He’s not intending to be unkind, which makes it even worse. He and Harry are taking their entries seriously, but she is unimaginable to consider even as a contender. So much so that it’s funny to even think about it.
“Can you imagine if you got chosen? What would you even do, bore a chimaera to death by reading Hogwarts: A History to it?” Ron looks as if he might start crying with laughter at the thought and Harry’s laughing now too.
The blood slowly drains from her face, leaving her head almost hollow but she can hear her heartbeat pounding in her ears. She opens her mouth to retort, wanting to say she’d be just as good a champion as either of them, but every word stays trapped in her throat because she thinks they’d probably laugh at her even more if she says it.
“I just meant you didn’t need to leave me out,” she says stiffly when they finally stop laughing, trying to hide her hurt.
“Sorry, Hermione, the cloak only fits two nowadays,” Harry says, patting her on the shoulder. “You said so yourself, the tournament’s dangerous. Keep an eye out for us, in case a professor shows up. Alright?”
They pop the pills into their mouths and shuffle back under the cloak again. Leaving her in the hallways as they sneak into the Great Hall.
The pills don’t work. Of course they don’t.
They’re kicked back across the barrier before they can even slip their names into the Goblet. They head back to Gryffindor Tower with Hermione, howling with laughter over the facial hair they’ve somehow sprouted, trying to come up with excuses for it.
“See?” Harry says, pointing to his face again as he’s heading up to the boys dorm with a beard and eyebrows so overgrown they nearly brush his cheekbones. “It’s a good thing you didn’t try.”
Hermione doesn’t say anything, but once they’re gone she sits alone in front of the fireplace for a long time, staring at the ravenous flames and wondering if the life she’s in pursuit of really is enough for her.
There are illicit bets running about who will be chosen as Hogwarts’ champion. The top contenders are Cormac McLaggen, an utterly boorish Gryffindor, and Cho Chang, a popular Ravenclaw who plays Quidditch.
The Beauxbatons champion is selected first. The Goblet turns an ominous scarlet as the name is spat from the flames, flying upwards into the enchanted sky overhead. Timothee Bisset. His classmates all clap wildly when Dumbledore reads his name out.
Then Durmstrang. The parchment flutters down into Dumbledore’s hand, and even from her seat at Gryffindor table, Hermione catches a glimpse of the name’s calligraphy flourish.
Durmstrang roars with delight.
Dumbledore seems displeased, but his disapproval is quickly masked as Malfoy stands, smirking and moves towards the front of the room.
The Goblet roars to life a third time. For Hogwarts.
Hermione watches, her pulse racing as a tiny slip of parchment, torn impulsively from the end of a scroll, shoots up and spirals down to fall into Dumbledore’s hand. He unfurls it and then stands staring in silence at the name rather than immediately reading it aloud.
Finally, he looks up.
“The champion for Hogwarts is…”
He pauses for a moment.