The seven days following the conversation with his parents, Draco spent mostly in his room doing not much of anything.

He managed to read half a book before he got bored, reply to Pansy's letter she'd written him two months before, take unnecessary showers every five hours, and meanwhile start on another book, but generally he just lay sprawled in his four-poster-bed, staring at the silver canopy above him. The only times he left his room were basically at mealtimes, which obviously turned out to be quite an awkward affair, considering he only answered his parents' questions with indistinct grunts, or with a simple "yes" or "no", and otherwise didn't speak at all.

If his father was angry about his outburst and the name-calling the week before, he didn't show it in any way – so far, at least. Draco thought his mother had probably told him to forget the whole thing or something along those lines, but he couldn't be sure. The last time Draco remembered cursing at his father was when he was about thirteen, and that action gained him a backhand to the face, along with a few days of nasty looks thrown his way.

Nevertheless, for the time being, he was allowed peace. With nothing to disturb him and with no Death Eaters around to keep up appearances for, Draco used the blissful moments of privacy to think.

That fateful breakfast discussion with his parents had put him in a very foul mood that hadn't diminished ever since. He was just so frustrated with his father admonishing him, and his mother tiptoeing around him, and with them both planting unwelcome ideas in his mind, making him question his reasoning. He felt like some animal whose cage had just been opened, but outside there only was another cage, just bigger. No matter what, he still felt trapped, he hadn't slept well in weeks, his head was throbbing practically all the time, and there was the stress, the fear, the guilt, and the deadness. But mostly, it was his parents suddenly meddling with his life, because for once, he wanted to be left the fuck alone.

He felt very much thrown off balance, and although his resentment only seemed to deepen the more he recalled that morning, he couldn't bring himself to stop.

While he believed the idea of returning to Hogwarts to be a rather poor plan to keep his sanity intact all along, Draco also came to a startling conclusion, one he hadn't considered before. He decided his mother was wrong in assuming he wouldn't have listened to her reasoning had she tried to talk him into returning to school earlier – he would have listened, and he felt inclined to think he would have possibly caved in as well.

There was just no denying it; he'd been absolutely desperate at first, constantly on the edge and terrified out of his wits, all of a sudden cornered in the new world of killings, torture and consuming madness, with no exit door at all to turn to. It was a vicious, never ending circle of fear, violence and blame. He'd just wanted out. Even one and a half months or so ago, Draco would have probably gone anywhere and done nearly anything if it meant getting away from the Dark Lord without bearing any consequences.

However that was in the past, and while hope was an abstract notion from the start, there had to come a time when he stopped dreaming. There could be no more wishing for things to happen; in the long run he had to face reality, even if it was looking grim. He was growing numb, becoming detached, striving to block it all out. Now there could only be constancy – but . .. But now he was growing troubled.

For some reason or another, Draco felt thrown off balance, and he wasn't sure what it was that he wanted anymore. The concept of constancy suddenly began to seem suffocating.

He had presumed he'd successfully rid himself of the persistent thoughts of freedom, but apparently he misjudged the workings of his own mind. It was confusing and disconcerting, and his ability to sort out his feelings was failing him, and it was all because of a single conversation with his parents. There was just so much insecurity that emerged out of the blue, catching him unawares . . . His own unexpected uncertainty made him feel like crying, but he would be damned if he gave in to a display of such a strong emotion again. Slowly, he drew in a deep breath and exhaled. There were boundaries he daren't cross anymore, or else all his efforts to hold himself in check would prove to be in vain.

This was why he hated thinking about those things – his bad mood was steadily getting worse, and he was developing a headache as well. Muttering darkly, Draco rolled off the bed and onto his feet, strode over to the bookcase in the corner of the room and grabbed the nearest book off the shelf, before backtracking to his bed again. Only when he flopped back on the mattress did he actually pay the title any heed. Dark Activities and Illegal Practices since Ancient Times; Draco narrowed his eyes as he took in the words on the cover. For someone who wanted to occupy himself by reading just to create a distraction from his "dark activities", it truly was ironic to be met with a book on that subject. In the end, though, he decided it would have to do. Taking care not to damage the old, fragile pages, Draco opened the tome and focused on the first page.

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Hermione Granger was not an impatient witch – in fact, one could say she was anything but. Never had she had any trouble talking to the most reluctant and apprehensive first years, or had any complaints about being appointed to tutor even the least capable students. By no means had she ever lacked dedication, precision, or endurance. She could spend hours on end writing series of laborious essays and not even come close to growing bored. When faced with a mystery, she worked diligently yet efficiently to solve it, and she'd always succeeded. She'd always known she would succeed.

Patience was, therefore, a virtue Hermione had always prided herself in.

But this . . . But this now was different. This was pure insanity.

Hermione flicked frantically through the old, fragile pages of the massive book that lay on the table before her, her eyes gliding rapidly over the words. Nothing . . . nothing . . . nothing . . . Nothing of importance. There was just no information she needed to find, and the fact was slowly making Hermione edgy. Here was yet another awful book she compelled herself to read, to study closely, and the effort was, once again, proving to be fruitless, as she didn't learn anything she hadn't already known. She wanted to cry at the unfamiliarity of it all, but she hadn't lost all hope just yet. Dark Activities and Illegal Practices since Ancient Times was a large tome and there were still many pages left. She turned the next one.

Next one. Next one. Next. Next. Next, next, next . . .

Researching Horcruxes turned out to be a much, much more difficult task than she had initially imagined. In most of the books she'd come across, the mentions of the nefarious objects, if any at all, were scarce and largely unhelpful, often merely worded as "too gruesome and too dark to speak of". So far, this upsetting notion was the reason Hermione was for the first time rendered unable to prove that books had answers to anything and everything, and such a predicament, in turn, was basically what brought her to the state she currently found herself in – hunched above a massive book on Dark magic, impatient and in denial, biting her nails in frustration. Horcruxes. She'd spent half the summer delving into the subject, and still the term hardly meant anything to her at all.

So engrossed was Hermione in Dark Activities . . . that momentarily she'd forgotten she wasn't alone in the room; only a voice from somewhere to her right brought her back to reality.

"Got anything interesting?" asked Ron, smothering a yawn. Hermione exchanged a glance with Harry, who sat opposite her, stooped above another book, before both their shoulders sagged dejectedly and they turned back to Ron, shaking their heads no. Wordlessly, the three of them went back to reading, each hoping to stumble upon some relevant information.

After July 27, when the plan of "Seven Potters" worked faultlessly and Harry was moved from Little Whinging without incident, the Weasleys, Hermione, and the Chosen One himself were all back in The Burrow. It was now almost four weeks since Bill and Fleur's wedding on August 1; the initial air of careless merriment that surrounded the household following the celebration had gradually started to dissipate, and things were going back to normal. The carelessness grew to be caution and determination to lend assistance to the Order of the Phoenix, while the cheerfulness changed into grim awareness of the war which had already been announced with Dumbledore's assassination.

Hermione took a surreptitious look at the bespectacled boy in front of her as she allowed herself a moment of distraction. Although they were all affected by the Headmaster's departure, it was unsurprisingly the Boy-Who-Lived whom that event damaged the most. He was still grief-stricken and bent on exacting revenge not only on Snape, but mostly on the creature responsible for unleashing the very war that had only just truly begun raging around them, but he was no longer looking for a chance to slip out and go on with the mission he'd been entrusted with.

Hermione remembered how in the first month after Dumbledore passed away Harry insisted on setting out immediately to hunt down Voldemort's remaining Horcruxes, claiming it was only steps away from the Dark Lord taking the reins of the Ministry and, subsequently, reigning the magical Britain. However, as they soon found out, that turned out to be just a pessimistic assumption; the Order of the Phoenix, with Kingsley Shacklebolt as the new leader, managed to take enough control of the situation to ensure the Ministry wasn't going to be overthrown any time soon. After Shacklebolt contacted Rufus Scrimgeour and guaranteed him extra protection, the Minister, having seen no alternative other than pretending the war had never begun, grudgingly agreed to start secretly cooperating with the Order.

Among other things, the Minister's new stance hugely influenced the press; the articles in the Daily Prophet no longer kept up the pretense of peace, but instead aimed to ensure the readers were aware of the danger, yet the mentions were subtle as not to stir unnecessary panic. Meanwhile, Alastor Moody had been selected to be in charge of interrogating any wizard or witch known to possess knowledge of the enemy's plans, whilst Shacklebolt himself became Scrimgeour's personal adviser.

These changes hadn't instantly brought peace to Wizarding Britain, but in three months' time they turned out to be changes for the better, as well as precautions for the future. In consequence, the Order seemed to be a step ahead of the Death Eaters. This notion had a significant impact on Harry's decision to prepare for the war beforehand, instead of recklessly rushing out to find and destroy the Horcruxes. Although both Hermione and Ron assured they would have followed Harry whenever he had decided to leave, the three of them agreed they still had a lot to learn. The fact that Voldemort believed himself to be the only one who knew about the Horcruxes also worked to their advantage, and they planned to leave it that way, at least for the time being.

All the same, Harry, Ron, and Hermione continued their research steadfastly.

Currently seated at a makeshift table in Fred and George's former room, they huddled together in a small space with a heap of books Hermione had summoned from Dumbledore's office at the end of their sixth year. The table was really a transfigured flowerpot, and the chairs they sat on had been nicked from other rooms and creaked with every movement, but they had decided it would be safer to have everything in one place – that way it was easier to hastily stow the books back into Hermione's handbag in case they heard somebody approaching.

Which brought to mind another issue: the Order was still oblivious to the existence of the Horcruxes. The matter had been rather thoroughly considered by the trio, however Harry was adamant about not letting anyone else discover the Dark Lord's secret. "Nobody but us can know," he'd told Hermione and Ron when they mentioned it. "Look – if we tell Kingsley or Moody, the whole Order is bound to be on it in no time. They'll want to make sure it's true first, so they'll be making some extensive research, and when they finally start digging, Voldemort's already going to be aware of it – think about it, the more people know, the higher the chance Voldemort will figure us out. And besides, I don't want anybody else in danger because they'll be doing my job – Dumbledore entrusted me with it."

After that, they hadn't addressed the subject anymore. Upon receiving letters from Hogwarts in mid-July, they had consented to continue their quest there, whilst subsequently preparing to face the Dark Lord in the imminent future. Although the reopening of Hogwarts in the circumstances of incipient war had initially been something of a surprise and alleviation to them, Harry, Ron, Hermione, and Ginny were still in a rather privileged position when it came to information. Staying at the Burrow, which was the Order's new headquarters, they had occasionally come across Professor McGonagall, at which point they wasted no time in proceeding to ask her about any changes that might occur in the upcoming school year, considering the conditions. Despite her reluctance to divulge any details, the Headmistress did eventually reveal in clipped tones that safety measures had been reinforced, and that a more practical approach was going to be taken in lessons so that the students could exploit their knowledge during the times of war.

Hermione couldn't help at that instant but think they were going to undergo some sort of a brief soldier training starting September. That impression more than anything had made her realize how seriously Professor McGonagall was taking the situation if she wanted to prepare children for what was indubitably to come – granted, nothing drastic could have been planned, but Hermione expected an emphasis was going to be put on self-defense, and maybe some extra courses like healing would be held.

In spite of everything, she awaited the beginning of school as she had each summer in the past six years. Despite the pressure caused by the Horcruxes that weighed down on her like a bag of bricks, she had managed to finish all homework, and she also found a moment to acquaint herself with some of her seventh year textbooks in spare time. She wasn't exactly sure how Harry and Ron were coping with their homework as they never seemed to give a distinct answer whenever she asked, but then, she had a few guesses.

A tapping sound could be heard across the room, and Hermione's thoughts drifted back to reality. As she looked towards the source of the noise – an owl perched outside the window – she leaped from her chair and walked over to it, Harry and Ron peering over their books.

"It must be today's Evening Prophet," Hermione explained to them, opening the window. She slipped a knut into the pouch tied to the owl's leg, and the bird flapped its wings before flying away; Hermione retreated to the table with the newspaper in hand.

"I didn't know you were getting the evening edition," said Harry, rubbing his neck to rid it of some stiffness.

Hermione's fingers were already browsing through the pages. "I thought we should keep track of Voldemort's moves this year at Hogwarts, so I subscribed to all three editions of the Prophet," she said absently, making herself comfortable on her chair again. "And seeing that it's only days from school, I did it beforehand – oh, and by the way, if you still haven't done your homework yet, I feel obliged as—"

"Any news in the paper?" asked Ron hastily. Hermione fixed him with a haughty glare, knowing full well he was intently trying to change the subject, but she refrained from reminding him of the importance of school duties – the admonishment would obviously fall on deaf ears. As she turned another page of the Prophet, a small picture of a young woman caught her eye, a headline above it saying, GONE WITHOUT A TRACE – DEATH EATERS STILL ON A PROWL!

Hermione read through the article quickly, feeling a blanket of melancholy and gloom settle over her heart. In those dark times, it was nothing new for Hermione to experience such emotions – the war was brewing throughout Britain and it was starting to collect its toll. It was only just a beginning; more violence was to come.

"Hermione? Anyone we know?" said Ron, indicating to the paper she was still holding; she put it away on the table.

"Yes . . . well, I suppose," she said slowly with a one-shouldered shrug. The boys frowned, and Harry leaned over the table to take the Prophet in his hands. "If you remember over a week ago there was an article about another kidnapping – Polly Clithrow, a Muggle-born – she'd been assaulted in her own home. It's been many days, and now they just announced she still hasn't been found, so they assume she's already – dead," she paused for a moment. "I remembered her from Hogwarts."

"Oh . . ." said Ron, looking uncomfortable. "So you . . . knew her?"

"I can't really say I knew her per se," said Hermione, shrugging a little again. "She was a few years ahead of us, in Hufflepuff or Revenclaw, I think, and I don't think I ever actually spoke to her. But I remember her face – and it's really sad to know someone you went to school with may be . . . no longer here – or that something terrible can be happening to her right now."

"I don't really recognize her," frowned Ron, looking over Harry's shoulder at the woman's picture.

"No, I suppose you wouldn't," said Hermione. "Like I said, she was older, and in a different house."

"You said her name's Clithrow? Yeah, I think Dad's mentioned it – there's a man called Clithrow in his Department whose daughter's gone missing. Dad said they've got a lot of work these days at the Ministry, 'cause Mr. Clitrow asked for a leave, and they're short a person."

"The entire Ministry in general's been rather busy, though, hasn't it?" remarked Harry, thoughtfully. "I mean, with Voldemort planning to overtake it, they haven't really got a choice – but the Death Eaters are getting bolder, too, the raids are becoming more frequent . . ."

Hermione was staring gravely at Crookshanks who had just curled up beside the fireplace; the light was making the cat's ginger fur glow. "They probably just want to appear as though they're in control of everything, and not on the losing side of the war. And it is quite effective, isn't it? People are terrified for themselves and their families, even if Voldemort is really on a disadvantage at the moment. I suppose Hogwarts is going to be quite desolate this year because of it all."

"Yeah," said Ron, "Harry and I actually talked about it some time ago, all that's been happening recently, plus Dumbledore's – well, you know . . ." he glanced uneasily at Harry, knowing Dumbledore's death was still a sensitive matter for The Chosen One. But Harry merely shook his head exasperatedly, saying, "Oh, go on, I won't burst out crying . . ."

"Right . . . Well, if you mix all that together, obviously not many parents will want to send their children back to school. We wondered if half will return."

They fell into a pensive silence, only disrupted by the flames crackling merrily in the fireplace. Then Hermione raised her head haughtily and lifted an eyebrow, "While we are on the subject of school," she began, strongly resembling Professor McGonagall; Harry and Ron both groaned, suspecting what was coming. "I really advise you two to get down to your homework, as I'm fairly certain you haven't nearly finished it. As the new Head Girl, I do feel responsible for our house's presentation this year, and as such I wouldn't want the teachers to take points from you, if it can be avoided."

Her friends were both looking pointedly away, seeming very interested in the cracks on the ceiling. Hermione rolled her eyes. "So I was going to offer to help you with it, since my position only starts taking effect on September 1."

Eyeing the boys, who were now grinning widely, Hermione sighed. She'd probably just signed up for writing one more dozen essays.

As she engaged in another friendly banter with Ron for some following minutes, neither of them noticed Harry reaching to his forehead and rubbing it absently. His scar had just prickled.

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In his bedchambers of Malfoy Manor, Draco almost dropped his book. Without thinking, he snapped shut Dark Activities . . ., tossed the antique tome aside, and swung his legs off the bed, all the while casting quick glances around his bedroom, searching. Having not found what he was looking for right away, he impatiently walked over to the closet cabinet on the other end of the room, and forcefully drew the biggest door aside with a loud clatter. His heart was beating faster than normal as he raked through the contents of the closet, and finally, after no more than a few seconds, he extracted a fine black coat, matching the color of his entire attire.

He slid the door back, trying to steady himself.

He was being stupid, he knew. There was no need to get so anxious like a ten year old. He forced himself to inhale and exhale deeply through his nose, and somehow his heart rate seemed to be slowing down, but still there was nothing he could do about the apprehensive feelings that suddenly started flooding his mind.

The semblance of peace had been shattered. He'd known it was going to happen one of these days.

The Dark Lord was back in the manor, and Draco's arm burned in response to his calling.

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I, Draco Lucius Malfoy, do solemnly swear that I will bear true and eternal allegiance to the Dark Lord, and that, as his faithful servant, I shall render unconditional obedience and unwavering devotion. I do further swear that, notwithstanding any circumstance or change of circumstance that may arise, in the Dark Lord's humble service I shall fulfill his will and execute his orders to the utmost of my power and abilities. I swear by my blood this undying oath that in my loyalty I shall not waver, henceforth, 'till the end of time.

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"Wormtail, I trust our only prisoner left is faring well?"

The voice that spoke was cold, smooth, and perfectly clear in the reverent silence that took up the drawing room of Malfoy Manor. The chamber was immersed in semidarkness, only illuminated by the flames dancing vividly in a fireplace, dipping the surroundings in a mixture of heavily contrasting highlights and shadows. In the centre of the room was a long table by which more than a dozen people sat, all dressed in black, currently glancing from the head of the table to a man sitting midway down it.

"Y-Yes, my Lord," answered Wormtail, instantly beginning to fidget in his chair. "Perfectly . . . Fed yesterday morning, my Lord . . ."

The Dark Lord acquired a contemplative quality to his voice as he said, "That may not have been very necessary . . . Although we will see for ourselves, will we not? Bring the vermin here, Wormtail."

The short, wheezing man hastily slipped from his seat and left the chamber, disappearing behind a heavy wooden door. The remaining occupants of the room all turned their eyes back to the tall figure of Voldemort, though nearly none of the Death Eaters seemed to be looking their master straight in his snake-like face.

"We shall see, indeed," carried on the Dark Lord in his thoughtful tones, "whether this parasite, which has been feeding on our knowledge and thieving us of our magic, even going as far as using it against us, will still dare to deny it and persist on talking nonsense. One would think the punishment during our last meeting was a sufficient lesson . . . though," he paused, the entire time looking somewhere at the ceiling, "one can never expect defective animals to learn where their place is. One can only rid the world of such animals before the defect propagates further. . ."

Draco repressed a shudder; he always found there was something strangely eerie in the way the Dark Lord talked at the meetings, as though he were only speaking to himself, all the while concealing some dark secret from the outside. It was in all likelihood an understatement, though – the Dark Lord was bound to have many secrets, and none of them were likely to be innocent. He had absolutely no reason at all to confess his thoughts to anyone, probably much to Bellatrix and Snape's disappointment, who, Draco supposed, both wanted to believe they were each an exception. Glancing towards the head of the table where Snape sat at the right-hand side of Voldemort, Draco put up his Occumency barriers, just in case.

Snape who wanted all along to steal his glory, Snape who put his family at odds with the Dark Lord, Snape who had usurped his father's position . . . Snape who was now looking back at him with dark, unreadable eyes. Draco kept the eye contact unblinkingly for three seconds before turning away.

His parents sat at either side of him, all three of them tense, pale, and trying to maintain indifference, but Draco couldn't stop his gaze from wandering in an act of nervousness. At last, the door to the room opened loudly, and in came Wormtail, dragging with him a young woman who was trying to pry his hand of her arm. Her clothes were torn and dirty, hanging on her lithe body like rugs, and her skin was smeared with grime, blood and sweat, a nearly wild expression twisting her face as she realized where she was. The Death Eaters at the table were gazing at her curiously, some leaning out of their chairs to see better, and some snickering under their breaths.

"Stop struggling . . . Keep walking, you stupid girl, keep walking," Wormtail urged the woman, pushing her forward; but as soon as Wormtail removed his hand from her upper arm, her knees seemed to give in and she collapsed in front of the table, looking haggard, forlorn, and frightened. Draco suspected she could be no more than three or four years older than him; technically, she might have been his schoolmate from Hogwarts at one point, but if that were true, he couldn't have paid her much attention, since he didn't remember her. She kept whispering something fervently to herself, and although Draco couldn't hear clearly because of the people around him who had erupted in jeers, he could make out some single words: "please", "not again", "monsters".

The Dark Lord waved his wand and the door closed behind her and Wormtail with a click.

"Enough," he said to the jeering crowd; they fell silent at once. "You may resume your seat, Wormtail . . . Now . . . I believe you all remember our guest from a little over a week ago, however brief and unmemorable encounter it may have been. This Mudblood, like many others, appeared to have had some rather absurd ideas about her place in our world . . . In fact, she claimed to belong in it."

There were a couple of derisive snorts across the table as the Death Eaters expressed their distaste. The Dark Lord rose lazily from his chair then, and noiselessly, he began to walk towards the young woman on the floor, making her wind her arms around herself in a defensive manner, her head tossing from side to side, as though looking for a way to escape. But Draco knew there was none. The girl would die today, and he would have to watch with a blank face – or even contribute to her death.

"Yes," continued Voldemort, stopping some twenty feet away from the prisoner; she instantly scrambled further away. "This filthy Mudblood insisted on lying and claimed to be a witch. Such disgraceful mendacity . . . A tendency, it seems, inbred for her kind, rather than taught, seeing that they never appear to let it go. But we shall make certain no more such absurdity leaves her mouth again, shall we not? Maybe . . ." his eyes wandered to the Death Eaters at the table, regarding them closely, cold and calculating; the air was immediately thicker with tension as half the Dark Lord's servants wished to be granted the honor of administering justice on the Mudblood, but Draco froze when he felt the gaze settle on himself. "Draco . . . Maybe you could see to it."

He didn't need to look up to know the Dark Lord was smiling. The breath he hadn't known he was holding suddenly left his lungs, but it definitely wasn't a sigh of relief. Belatedly, he said, "Yes, my Lord," and stood up, stiffly, not daring to look at either of his parents, fearing what they might see in his eyes if he did. He'd somewhat expected this to happen, he was used to his name being called by that cruel voice, but apparently not yet accustomed to what it did to his mind.

"Yes, come forward, Draco . . . And now, show this scum where it truly belongs."

It was that smooth, cold voice that made him numb again.

As Draco extracted his wand and approached her, the girl, still on all fours, was trying to back up as far as she could, but she was already up against the wall. Her head was shaking frantically the whole time, her cheeks flowing with tears, and her mouth mumbling the same words over and over again, the words he knew well . . .

"No, no, no, stop it, stop, please, don't do it, please, spare me, I beg you, stop, stop, don't come near me, don't . . ."

But he knew he had to, or else he would take her place on that stone, cold floor. It was a simple matter of survival at that point – torture or be tortured, kill or be killed. Follow the orders without a question. He was not noble, nor did he try or want to be. It was never in his nature to go against his better judgement, and anyway there was too much at stake to waver, to show indecision, to let any of his doubts take over his mind. His father's words resounded harshly in his head, "The Dark Lord does not have time to play games with you . . . his patience is waning . . . He won't hesitate if you anger him enough,"and he knew them to be true.

He just wished this girl didn't talk to him while he did the Dark Lord's bidding. Yet her pleading was growing louder, and so did her sobs.

"Please, please, don't, don't hurt me, please, don't do it, just leave me alone, please . . ."

I, Draco Lucius Malfoy, do solemnly swear that I will bear true and eternal allegiance . . .

"Crucio . . ."

The word had left his lips before he could realize he'd said it. But the girl was already screaming and writhing on the ground, her eyelids clamped tightly together, the tears still rolling down her pain-contorted face. Draco kept his eyes on her the whole time, but he was trying to see through her, rather than look at her; it was easier that way. It was doable, too. But then, there were the screams, and they made everything worse. The screams, the whimpers, and the pleading – shutting those off always proved to be more complicated, more challenging, since they echoed in his head even if there was no sound at all, even if everything outside of was quiet.

Currently, they were very much real, but that didn't help his case at all.

"Enough, Draco," the Dark Lord finally said from somewhere behind him, and Draco jerkily lowered his wand; the girl's screams predictably turned into soft whimpers. At that moment Draco thought she really did look like a hurt animal – dirty, broken, abandoned, and bereft of hope. He had caused this. He wondered briefly why that notion would make him feel anything other than satisfaction, but then he forced himself to stop thinking. The Dark Lord was now strolling leisurely some several feet away, and Draco knew even with his back turned that he was surveying the girl as if calculating the damage that had been done to her. Apparently it was not visible enough, "Continue."

And he did.

It took three turns before she started begging for death. It wasn't the first time Draco had been on the receiving end of such words, and so he just waited for the Dark Lord to make a decision: grant the Mudblood's wish or make her suffer further. He recalled ten days ago she hadn't begged, and thought that she must have hoped that she would escape or be saved. Obviously, she had been wrong.

"Yes, this is enough," Voldemort said easily, and started retreating to the table. "Kill this scum."

He ignored the fact that his stomach had just reeled in horror at the command he had heard many times before. He told himself he should feel relieved, thankful even – there had only been the Cruciatus while the Dark Lord could have ordered him to use so many other Dark curses on the girl, the effects of which would have been a lot more graphic. There had been no bloodshed, no smell of scorched flesh, no bones breaking, and no limbs falling off due to rapid decay. The torture hadn't lasted too long, and all that was left now was to get it all over with.

I, Draco Lucius Malfoy, do solemnly swear . . .

Looking in the defeated blue eyes of the girl curled on the floor, Draco swallowed back the bile rising in his throat. He would deal with the guilt later. He wouldn't reflect on what it meant.

So he did what everybody had expected him to do. There were two words said in a voice that was undoubtedly his, a quick flash of green light, and finally a quiet thud as the already dead girl's head connected with the ground. The torture was over, and, somehow, Draco felt as though he had just ran a mile. He could tell the session wasn't only meant to be agony for the Mudblood, but for him as well. Evidently his failure at the Astronomy Tower wasn't going to be forgiven easily since the Dark Lord still appeared to see it fit to extract retribution from him.

At some point when he was already seated back at the table with the rest of the Death Eaters, and when the girl's cold body had long since been disposed of by Wormtail, Draco started wondering whether coping with vengeful students at Hogwarts could actually amount to coping with the multitude of treacherous emotions he felt every time he was made to torture or kill a person. Perhaps it couldn't. Perhaps his father was right in thinking he was being deliberately stubborn in his refusal to accept the truth, but even so, Draco didn't find it so simple. It was a matter of whether he was willing to give up his realm of constancy, which he had worked long and hard to build, for a foreign land belonging to unfriendly people. It would be entering the enemy's grounds; was he desperate enough to resort to that?

But then, he already knew the answer. His desperation ran as deep as it had one and a half months ago, and he really did blame his parents for planting this mad idea in his head.

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A/N: Sorry for the delay! This chapter gave me some trouble, but now that it's finally up, we're nearing the main plot of the story :) Thanks for reading, and feel free to review, I love those!

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