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Chapter 3 : A Chance Encounter
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As she straightened up, she had a hint of a smile on her face. “Thank you-” she began, before her voice cut off as her eyes travelled up to her helper’s face. Her eyes narrowed and she took a step back, brushing her robes off. “Malfoy.”
Draco noticed a glisten on her cheeks. He realized that she had been crying too, and he felt sudden sympathy for her. He had never been much of a one for pity, and certainly not for Granger, but… hadn’t he only just been tearful himself, while he thought no one would see? And if Granger felt even half as bad as Draco did… well, he wouldn’t wish that on anyone. Not even her.
Then he saw the sudden ice in her eyes, and the way she had changed her posture. She was putting aside her sorrow, replacing it with all of her fury and frustration, and getting ready to throw it at him. His pity for her vanished- she could take care of herself now. It might end up being him who needed help. But he was, after all, Draco Lucius Malfoy, and he would never allow himself to reveal weakness to a Muggle-born like Granger. So he drew himself up, though it was difficult, smirked, and replied frostily, “Yes, Granger?”
Her eyes flashed, and for a moment he thought she was going to slap him. “I know what you did.” Her voice was low and absolutely furious. “It was you, just like Harry always said it was.”
Draco felt a stab of panic despite himself. How much did she know? Still, he managed to maintain his composure and simply raised a mocking eyebrow. “Me what, Granger?”
She took a step forward, her eyes trained on his with a look of total disgust. “It’s your fault that they came, it’s your fault that Bill was bitten, it’s your fault that Dumbledore- that Dumbledore’s dead.” Her voice shook slightly, and Draco felt another momentary pang of regret, only for it to be replaced with a white-hot wave of anger. Who did she think she was, to come here and accuse him like this, as if he didn’t already feel terrible enough? She had no right, not when she didn’t have any idea what kind of pain he was feeling. The self-condemnation, the disgust, the total and overwhelming fear. She had absolutely no idea.
“Oh? Know-it-all Granger has got it all figured out, has she?” he spat at her. “Well, Granger, you’ve got another thing coming to you. Because you don’t know anything, anything at all.” He heard the bitterness in his own voice, and maybe she could too, but she didn’t seem deterred by it.
“I don’t know anything, do I? No, you’re wrong, Malfoy. Because I do know one thing, one very important thing. You’re one of them now,” she hissed viciously. “And really, I think that’s all I really need to know.”
Draco felt himself reel back, as though she had slapped him. She might as well as have, because that would have been far less painful than the words spilling out of her mouth. She was echoing the deepest, darkest, most painful thoughts he had only just been thinking himself. To hear them from another, from Hermione Granger no less, was unbearable. Because she was right, he was absolutely terrible… a truly despicable excuse for a human being.
And yet… he wasn’t as bad as all that, was he? If he were really one of them, then her words wouldn’t have struck him so hard. In fact, he would be proud of them, instead of on the verge of panic. He wasn’t one of them. He wanted out more than anything in the world. He wouldn’t be a part of it anymore. He was many things, but a Death Eater? No. He would not be remembered by that name if he had any say in the matter. He realized now, with horror, that it wasn’t just others who would hate him, and have no respect for him. If he remained a Death Eater, and continued to do the terrible things that the Dark Lord’s followers so delighted in, even he would never again be able to respect himself.
She needed to know that. It was suddenly the most important thing in the world to him, that Hermione Granger understand that he regretted everything.
“Granger, please listen to me.” He heard the defensiveness and the pleading in his voice, and winced slightly. He hadn’t meant to sound so pathetic, but it was too late now. He had already begun, and now he had to follow through.
“I didn’t mean to, Granger. And I couldn’t kill Dumbledore. I just couldn’t.”
“Oh, well, that does make things all better now, doesn’t it? Can’t kill in cold blood, you think that that suddenly makes you a good person?” Her scathing voice pierced him straight in his heart, but he tried to shake it off as he forged ahead.
“No, you don’t understand. Please just listen. The… the Dark Lord… he ordered me to… I had to kill Dumbledore, or the Dark Lord would have killed my family. Do you know what that’s like, Granger? To know that your family could die because of your actions… or inactions?”
The color had drained out of her face. The merest whisper escaped her; Draco thought it might have been the word, “Yes.” But he was on a roll now, and nothing, neither flood nor fire, could stop him. All of the pent-up emotions from the last year were spilling out, and even he had no control over them anymore.
“I agreed, of course. If I had said no, if I had stood up to him and refused the task, then maybe I would have been lucky enough to die quickly. My parents, though, would have been slowly tortured, maybe even by my own aunt. So yes, I did agree to kill Dumbledore. Only then… I couldn’t. I couldn’t. I would try, Granger, I really did try. The cursed necklace… the poisoned mead… and yet to some extent, I knew that they would never work. There were too many flaws in those plans, too many chances for failure. They were, even though they were perhaps the best I could do, extremely unlikely to succeed. And I knew all of that, and it relieved me. I should have been trying harder, Granger, but instead I was simply relieved that my murder plots wouldn’t really work.
“It’s a terrible and a strange life to lead, trying to balance your refusal to do what you know is wrong with your fear to do what is right. On the one hand, I could not bring myself to slay Dumbledore, but on the other hand, I had my parents’ lives to think about. When the Dark Lord gave me that terrible task, my parents’ lives became my responsibility, and that is a terrible burden to bear.
“I was caught in a limbo this entire school year. I couldn’t kill Dumbledore, but I couldn’t stand up to the Dark Lord either. So I just waited, like a rubber band stretched too far, for the inevitable snapping. The situation was like a seesaw, and I stood at the center. Eventually something would tip, one way or the other. So I just stood, balancing in the middle, trying my best not to fall. The consequences were too terrible either way to commit myself to either path. So instead, too cowardly to make a decision, I only braced myself for the coming storm. That wears on a person, Granger. It grates on you. I- I’m just seventeen years old, Granger,” he whispered, voice cracking. “I’ve always had to grow up too quickly, but this…. I couldn’t bear it. I’m just seventeen.”
Draco brushed his hand over his eyes, and was shocked to find that his eyes were wet. He quickly turned his face away, not wanting Hermione to see his weakness, but judging by the expression on her face, he was too late. Mentally berating himself, he leaned his forehead against the wall, only to feel a tentative hand on his arm.
“Malfoy…?” He turned, astonished, and her eyes dropped in embarrassment before flickering back up to meet his. “Malfoy… I’m sorry. I… you were right. I suppose I didn’t understand.” Her voice was soft as she added, “But then, as it turns out, I do, perhaps, understand better than you might think. You see… he might kill my parents, too. It’s incredibly dangerous for me to stay with them any longer. I’m going home today, and I’m going to be wiping their memories of me. That way if… if Voldemort comes for me, they won’t get hurt too. So you see, our situations, surprising as it might be, are not so different as we might expect.”
Draco shrank slightly at the Dark Lord’s real name, but for the most part, he was too stunned by her confession to react to it. Then, feeling a spark of protest, he said, “But Granger, our situations aren’t exactly the same. My parents are in immediate danger, and their safety depended on my exact actions. Completely, and without a doubt. Your parents’ location, names, faces are, after all, completely unknown to the Dark Lord. You don’t even know that he’ll come after them. You could be jumping to conclusions.”
As quickly as the sympathy in her eyes had appeared, so it vanished as she heard his words. Deliberately, she dropped her hand from his arm, and he saw that the cold steeliness had returned to her eyes.
“You’re right, Malfoy. Maybe our situations are different after all. But certainly not in the way you seem to think they are. My parents happen to be some of the kindest, sweetest, most hard-working people on the planet. But they are Muggles, Malfoy. Their lives mean less than nothing to Voldemort. He could dispose of them without a thought or a care. In fact, he’d be glad to do it, even if they weren’t my parents. It’s his sort of idea of fun. And because they are Muggles, they don’t realize what is going on in the wizarding world, They don’t know that every day their own daughter could be killed. They don’t realize that there are scum out there like you, who are so afraid of standing up that you just go along with the way the tide seems to be turning, and do terrible things anyway. It’s not enough to hate yourself for doing it. Those who stand by and watch evil happen are often crueler than those who cause the pain themselves. That’s why I fight him, Malfoy. That’s why we all have to. But because I’ve taken a stand, because I refuse to back down in the face of Voldemort’s ascent to power, because I’m willing to risk my life for what is right, my parents could be killed. They probably will be killed, because Voldemort would love to see me crumble, to see me in pain. He would love to see me lose my grip on everything. Their deaths would hurt me immeasurably, and seeing me in pain would anger and sadden my friends too. The people who are dearest to me would feel for me, because they actually have hearts, unlike Voldemort. Harry would hurt for me, which could only bring Voldemort even more delight.
“Their only crimes are that they are my parents, and that they are Muggles. But those are enough, in Voldemort’s eyes, to sentence them to death. So you are right. They are very different from your parents.
“The difference between you and I, Malfoy, is that even if your parents love you, they have very little love for the rest of the world. They chose this. They are the ones who joined Voldemort’s ranks, who swore to follow him. If they are in danger now, it is their own foolishness that got them there. Perhaps if they had had a little more wisdom, and a little less arrogance, then they wouldn’t be in such mortal peril, depending on their teenage son’s ability to murder as their only possible saving grace. A line is being drawn, Malfoy, and we all have to choose which side to stand on. You can be with him, or you can be against him. Either choice is dangerous, but only one choice, at the end of the day, can keep you from hating yourself. I’ve made my choice, and that is the reason my parents are in danger. Your parents also chose. They’ve made the wrong choice, but they have made their decision. So I’m afraid that in the end I simply don’t feel all that sorry for them at all.”
Draco stared at her, flabbergasted. Had she really just said that? And… could it all be true? Surely his parents were not such fools, such cowards as all that… Most of him was screaming that she was wrong, that she was cruel, that she knew nothing. The vast majority of him wanted to smack her for such insolence. Yet somewhere in a tiny, deep corner of his heart, a small voice was protesting that she might be on to something. Draco tried to squash that voice, but it pushed back.
With a rush, Draco felt all of the anger leave him. It was true. Here was Granger, one of inferior blood. Everything he had been raised to despise. He and his family were supposed to be better than her, and yet now Draco saw that she had been braver than they had. She had taken a stand, the very thing that Draco couldn’t bring himself to do. The Malfoys were allowing themselves to be doormats. It was inexcusable, not to mention utterly humiliating. A Muggleborn had bested them.
And if a Muggleborn had indeed bested the Malfoys, then there was only one course of action for this Malfoy. He had to confess to his failings, do his best to make amends, and hope for the best.
Mind racing, hardly aware of his actions, Draco captured her warm hand in his own two icy ones, and stared deeply into her eyes. “Granger, I… I’m so sorry for you. So, so sorry. You’re right. You do understand.”
He dropped her hand, then turned back and asked thoughtfully, “Granger… you say you’re wiping your parents’ memories tonight?”
Her eyes shone with wariness, and her voice was guarded as she replied, “Yes. Why does it matter to you?”
Hesitantly, he asked, “Well, where are you going to stay?”
Her chin came up as she answered frostily, “I’ll be staying with the Weasleys, Malfoy. But I appreciate your concern. Now, I’d better go, lest anyone should spot you conversing with a Muggleborn.”
Then, with a toss of her hair, Hermione turned away abruptly, striding down the hall. Draco watched her in amazement until she disappeared around a corner, but she never looked back. Not once.
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