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The light that filtered in through the window was weak, the first pale glimpses of proper morning. The boy paid little attention, for he could not discern quite how long he had spent pacing the length of his bedchamber, his stride wooden and his body tense. He inhaled slowly through his nose as he once again passed the antique mahogany bureau which adorned the right side of his room. Yet, despite his best efforts to regain some semblance of control over his thoughts, to keep his frustration in check, Draco Malfoy could still feel the swell of molten anger and distaste bubbling in his veins like a lethal toxin.

 

You don’t know what hate is, you only think you do.

 

His gaze narrowed, the skin around his eyes tightening, as the words echoed in his head, seeming to dance around the silent room. An endless taunt. She knew nothing. It wasn’t merely the words, but the vehemence with which Granger had said them, which sent a quiet fury through him. How could she presume to speak to him of hatred? He knew what it was. He had seen it burning across the faces of those who stood against the Dark Lord, against himself. It was not fear that flashed in their eyes mere seconds before the light fled them. It was hatred, the very purest kind.

 

It was the look Granger gave him when he touched her – unadulterated, burning hatred for the fact that, for once in her life, she was not in control of everything. And more importantly, not in control of herself. He knew. The expression in her eyes in those few stolen moments reflected every thought of her that consumed him. How could she think he didn’t know what hatred was?

 

She was hatred. The epitome of every trait or idea of a person or thing that he disliked most, all combined and encased in her slight frame. She was deception. He hated her mass of curls, all messy and spiralled, uncontained, and yet so unexpectedly soft. He hated the very scent of her which seemed to hover precariously in the back of his mind, waiting to drown him in its cloud. She was intoxication.

 

Yes, the young man knew what hatred was, knew it with an intensity that seemed to burn away the layers of his skin. Inside, then out. He longed for that time when her presence was but a mere irritation, a scratch to be itched, but only when she was before him, impressing upon him her need to be all that was right and just in the world – in her world. She did not haunt him then. She did not follow him to his dreams, his nightmares. Her image was not seared into his brain, did not flash before him each time he closed his eyes, even only to blink.

 

But she did now. He longed for that indifference, and it only made him resent her even more. Draco stopped walking and stood before the large gilt frame of his mirror. He stared at the reflection for an indistinguishable amount of time. His expression, stoic. He looked unaffected, but he wasn’t.

 

Draco raised his hand and pressed his palm against the place where his face had been reflected. His fingers left a faint mark against the cool glass. Then, pulling back his arm, he allowed his fist to collide with the mirror with a sickening crack. The broken shards of his reflection fell, staggered around the floor. All the many tiny fragments of him that made the whole. Draco was not sure they would ever fit back together the way they once had.

 

He gazed down at the crimson river splashed over pale skin. He was entranced as the deep red ink seeped in, absorbed into his skin like dyed cloth. Blinking suddenly, he muttered scourgify under his breath and, with the wound now clean, inspected the damage.

 

The skin over his knuckles was torn like ribbons, wafer-thin and transparent. Fortunately, his moment of spiralling lack of control hadn’t done any more significant damage. Conjuring some bandages, Draco set to work wrapping them around the injured hand. This was not the first time he had done this.

 

His ears pricked up as he heard a sudden disturbance in the still air of his common room. Walking out of the bedchamber and into the main room, he spotted a sleek black owl with watchful amber eyes, perched on the window ledge. Taking the neatly wrapped scroll from the bird, he recognised the seal immediately. It was blank but for a small indentation that had been made into the wax before it set. Draco swiftly moved back into the bedroom to retrieve one of the shards of reflective glass that was scattered across the floor.

 

He pressed the glass firmly into the skin of his forefinger and held it over the seal, allowing one drop of blood to fall into the small indentation. The wax flashed black before unsealing itself. It was a message from his father, one that could only be unsealed by the spilling of pure Malfoy blood, willing given. It was an ancient magic.

 

Draco,

It is time for you to report any findings to the panel. You must come at 12:30 to the usual place. Your escort will be waiting there.

Your father.

 

His thoughts quickly flashed back to Granger, and all that had happened – all that would have to be concealed.  Then there was the small matter of the ring, which had, amid everything else, somehow become a secondary concern. He had yet to decide exactly what to do about that. Revealing that he had discovered it, had been discovered himself, and then subsequently lost the ring would not be well received. Time will tell, he decided. Time will tell.

 

****

 

No matter how many breathing exercises she tried, attempts at distraction, and her determination to focus on other things, Hermione could not manage to clear her mind of its endless stream of unwanted thoughts. Hermione shook her head in a futile attempt to keep the bombardment of images, all unwanted, at bay. While none of this was proving effective, she was grateful at least that while he haunted her thoughts, he wasn’t before her at present. The corridor outside of her dormitory was blissfully empty.

 

She sighed deeply and headed out of the corridor and into the main stairwell in the direction of the Great Hall for breakfast. She was exhausted, could feel the lack of proper sleep, the strain of everything, in the weariness of both her mind and body. She was quite certain it showed too. Hermione was good at riddles, thrived on finding the answers to the seemingly unsolvable questions, and yet this mess was beyond her ability to unravel. Her actions made no sense, and her reactions even less. No matter the hours of analysis and self-exploration, she simply could not handle the explosive mess that was the blueprint of her thoughts.

 

This had become rather a routine for her over the last week or so. Truthfully, she wasn’t completely sure of her place in time. It seemed as though she was putting all of her energy and effort into avoiding seeing him, talking to him, and attempting – rather unsuccessfully – to not think of him, trying desperately not to fall into that hole of mindless confusion. And yet she was stepping ever closer to the pit.

 

She awoke early every morning, convincing herself that this was only because it gave her time to clear her head of all grogginess in preparation for that day’s classes. She would spend an illogical five minutes staring at her door, reaching for the antique knob and then stopping to adjust her book bag or to run back for some unnecessary item which her deluded conscience convinced her she needed.

 

Stalling. And for what? She would spend the entire walk down to breakfast arguing with herself about her ridiculous behaviour and then, after realising she was once again conducting a heated debate with herself, would resort to meditative techniques to clear her mind. This was precisely that point in the cycle.

 

Breathe in slowly, she told herself. Inhale through your nose. Warm and spicy, he smelt of oranges and browns. He smelt of earthy vibrancy, but he was unearthly silver and grey. All the indefinable shades that seemed to fall between white and black. Stop, she thought again, just stop.

 

Keeping her gaze lowered, she descended the final staircase and walked through the smattering of early morning risers to take a seat on the brushed wooden bench at her house table. Another morning arrival completed without a hitch. She wasn’t really hungry, though she ate nonetheless. Her body was weary from sleep deprivation and frustrating training sessions. She needed to keep her energy levels up. She needed to drink in the oxygen around her. Inhale deeply, without fear of drinking in the toxins. Without drinking him in again.

 

Him. It was funny, she mused, how she deliberately thought of Malfoy in that way. She focused so intently on not using his name, even in her head, lest it conjure images she was unable to erase. Just as Hermione was in the process of pouring herself a second glass of pumpkin juice, a tightly wound scroll of parchment materialised in front of her. Looking around to see if anyone was watching, she deserted her prior task and broke the seal.

 

Miss Granger,

Please come to my office at 11:00 sharp this evening in order to discuss your studies. I am concerned your grades are slipping.

Sincerely,

Headmistress McGonagall.

 

Just as her eyes traced the signature, the piece of parchment melted into nothing more than stray air particles left to flutter listlessly above her. Hermione’s head buzzed for a moment. She was quite aware of which ‘studies’ the professor was referring to.

 

Lost in thoughts of the impending Order meeting – the first one of the year, she did not notice the presence of someone at her elbow. Looking up from her breakfast plate she saw Neville positively quaking with excitement and or nerves – she wasn’t sure which.

 

“Morning, Neville. Did you sleep well?” she asked with a slightly raised brow.

 

“Sleep? Oh yes. Yes, very well,” he said cheerfully, and leaned toward her. Lowering his voice in a conspiratorial manner, he continued, “did you get the… you know… about the thing?”

 

She looked blankly at him before processing what he meant. With Neville as such a stealth operator, the Dark side would definitely have trouble getting information from eavesdropped conversations. As she nodded her head, somewhat imperceptibly, she glanced up in time to see Him taking his seat at the Slytherin table.

 

“Well I have to go to the library quickly before Arithmancy. If I don’t see you at lunch then I will see you in Charms later,” she said rather hurriedly. She gathered her things and, in a rush to escape the suddenly claustrophobic air of the Great Hall, she left.

 

*

 

Later that night Hermione sat quite rigidly in her chair, gazing at the almost rapturous looks of anticipation that lit the faces of her fellow Order members, fellow students. Her friends. She felt treacherous. She felt… sick. She was supposed to be focusing all her efforts on training, on helping the Order and more importantly helping Harry. This thing with Malfoy – whatever it was – was getting in the way. Her instructions were to study him, watch and learn about him.

 

Not to talk to him or touch him and certainly not to spend her hours thinking of how he had tasted when he kissed her or the way the pressure of a mere fingertip on her skin burned a trail she could still feel. She was supposed to study him objectively. No emotions involved. And yet she was positively swimming in emotions. She felt anger at herself and loathing for him, she felt guilt for her friends and fear for Harry and Ron. All she did now was feel.

 

She was supposed to be reliable, her thoughts uncluttered. But she was floating in the debris that Malfoy had created, and a small part of her knew that she wanted to swim in the messy, dirty sinfulness of it all just once more. Admitting that only made her angrier with herself and caused her to loathe the sight of him even more. She was smart and strong and would not allow herself to be made weak by him.

 

She wouldn’t.

 

Hermione closed her eyes for a split second before reopening them. Her focus was, once more, on the room.

 

“Now that everybody is here, we can start this meeting first with a debriefing.” McGonagall’s voice carried over any other noise in the room.

 

When it came to her turn she spoke with a confidence and clarity she was no longer sure she knew. She told them almost by verse what she had told Ginny some weeks ago. She spoke of Malfoy and of the ring. McGonagall’s lips were pursed throughout the whole speech.

 

“Very well. It is clear that Draco Malfoy knows something of the Death Eater's plans – otherwise his mother and aunt, both recognised supporters of Voldemort, would not have visited him.” She winced slightly when uttering the dark wizard’s name. “Continue with your observations but I stress be careful. I do not want you confronting him or talking to him unless on Heads’ business. We do not know how much he knows. In fact, we know very little.”

 

McGonagall continued on in this way, urging the others to band together. They were all to continue practising what they had been taught by Harry in their fifth year and, for some, fourth year. She also insisted that Hermione have some assistance during her training sessions with the ring. Seamus, of course, volunteered.

 

Just as the various young witches and wizards began to depart the Headmistress’s office in intervals, McGonagall stopped Hermione and Ginny, handing each of them a scroll.

 

“They are from Mr Potter and Mr Weasley… and yes, they are both safe,” she answered the question which had quickly clouded both girls’ expressions.

 

Hermione hurried back to her dorm in an eager rush to read her letters. So eager, in fact, that she did not notice the pale eyes darkened by the shadows that surrounded them, watching, intrigued. Nor did she hear the footsteps that signalled their departure as a boy slinked down the hallway in the direction she had come.

 

****

 

He did not sleep that night. Nor did he dream – a relief he had long been craving. Instead he let the moments sneak by as he reflected on that evening. Leaving the castle unnoticed had been relatively simple. The only disturbance on his journey had been a very near run in with Granger. That, however, had been a welcome intrusion. Her trekking back to her room at that hour and without the excuse of patrol duty only served to confirm his suspicion that she was involved in more than just her studies.

 

It made sense anyway. Neither Potter nor Weasley were at Hogwarts that year, a point he had not failed to notice and report. He seriously doubted Granger would have allowed the simpletons to miss out on graduating were they not working for a higher cause. It was quite laughable really. Potter was preparing for his defeat against the Dark Lord, and with Weasley assisting, no less. Besides, if all of this were true then there was no possible way Granger wouldn’t be equally involved.

 

As much as he hated to admit it, she was smart – too smart, in fact, for her own good. And definitely a lot smarter than her friends. Not, he mused, that that was a particularly difficult achievement. And then there was the situation about that ring. He was fairly certain he had never seen her wearing it before, not that he had studied her in particular detail in the past, but it was rather noticeable. And it was important. So important that she had risked meeting with someone she knew to be a follower of the Dark Lord at midnight to retrieve it. The ring was quite a powerful tool; he had felt that quite clearly. A tool for what? That was the question.

 

The meeting had done nothing to clear his thoughts. Instead he had to listen to the incessant bickering between his aunt and his father and his aunt and Snape, for that matter. He had felt purposeless. Rather than being as exciting as he had visualised, it had, for the most part, been fairly mundane.

 

There was, however, one moment when Draco felt his body seize up. After he had shared his information he had been told to watch the “Mudblood” closer. To “break her” if need be. But he did not think Hermione Granger could be so easily broken.

 

His eyes had flashed at his father's comment. He didn’t mind the thought of Granger in pain, mental or otherwise – so long as he was the one to cause it. To make her cry and scream and kick and yell his name in hatred or in hunger. It seemed that when it came to the two of them this year, there wasn’t much of a difference between the two. He wanted no other name on her tainted mouth. As sick and twisted as that notion was, he knew it was unlikely to change anytime soon.

 

Rubbing his eyes and unfolding his tall frame from its position on the plushly-furbished chaise, he straightened up. Draco needed a scalding hot shower to scrub the thoughts of her away. He needed an ice cold shower to calm the blood that pounded through his body. And he needed them in quick succession.

 

*

 

Not long after freshening up, Draco strolled towards the Entrance Hall in the direction of much needed sustenance. His mission was halted by something hard, which collided with his chest. Draco focused his piercing gaze on the interruption to his thoughts. It was a boy, or man, depending on how one looked at it, roughly the same height as Draco. However, the boy with the scruffy hair and imperfect features was of a stockier build than the Slytherin.

 

“Finnigan. Did you want something or are you just so incompetent that walking straight is a challenge for you?” Draco queried, finding the Gryffindor to be quite tiresome. He really had no interest in the Irish boy.

 

The boy pushed him back rather aggressively. “Stay away from her. Do you hear me? If you so much as look at Hermione again I promise you won’t be looking in a mirror again for a long time.”

 

Draco laughed coldly. “Even if I were to heed your threats, they wouldn’t stop her looking at me. Did it never occur to you that the little Mudblood’s taste runs to darker things?” He smirked. “I doubt she’s even aware of your presence. I doubt that it’s you she thinks about up there in her private room. And I know for a fact that it isn’t you who makes her, well… let’s not go into the sordid details…’ He laughed at the look of blind murder on the stupid Gryffindor’s face.

 

“Oh yes,” he continued, “she might hate me, but she does see me as more than just a prop to hold her books.”

 

He knew he should not have pushed so far, but he had grown tired of seeing Finnigan walking around like a neglected puppy. It was quite tragic. Besides whatever madness was happening between him and Granger, indefinable though it was, had nothing to do with Finnigan. Draco had never mastered the art of sharing.

 

Neither did he get involved in brawls. He used his brain and his wand to overcome a foe – not his fist. Not that he was incapable; he clearly had no objection to punching inanimate objects in private bouts of uncontrolled rage and frustration. But an all-out brawl with a bloody Gryffindor, and in public? No. That was far too pedestrian. He believed in keeping his composure, and his frustrations in check, in public at least. It was too emotional, too exposed. Over Granger no less. He was a man who took pride in his impassivity. Besides, Slytherins did not stoop to getting their hands dirty.

 

It was a pity then that the moronic fool attempted to fight him for the Head Girl. Draco quickly whipped him around and pushed him into the wall, pressing his wand to the other boy’s throat.

 

“Don’t think for one moment that I will hesitate to kill you should you try something like that again. And don’t think you’d have a chance at stopping me. That would be a grave error on your behalf.”

 

He then muttered a much loved curse under his breath and stood back as the boy winced and clutched his heart in silent pain, before crumpling to his knees. Draco whirled around as the sound of a half restrained gasp filled the corridor. It was her. Staring. Her eyes wide as her plush lips formed a perfect ‘o’. She noticed his gaze move to her and she spoke more words in one look than she could have in an entire monologue.

 

He moved to stand directly in front of her. His hand blazing across the skin at the base of her throat as she croaked, “Don’t you dare touch him.”

 

He did not smirk or mock her that time, but just gazed at her silently. He then sighed before letting his hand fall to his side. “Tell your lap dog to stay out of my way or next time I’ll do more damage.” He leaned in closer to her ear, his breath tickling the soft flesh of her lobe. “And I assure you, I will enjoy it.”

 

With that he stalked down to breakfast, hoping rather desperately that he would make it on time. Such ordeals always made him hungry.

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