< >When Draco stepped out of the train early the next morning, he breathed in deeply and took in the view of rolling hills. The sweet smell of the countryside tickled his nose lavishly and the sun warmed his cold skin. He sighed and left the small station, in search of a realty office he knew was in the vicinity.
< >He found it, but discovered he had to wait a few hours for it to open. Draco, just a bit depressed, walked into a small restaurant serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner - "At any time, day or night!" according to a sign in the window. He noticed, ironically, that another sign said "5:00 A.M. to 9:30 P.M, Monday through Saturday."
< >The diner owner, a woman who introduced herself as Pena Andrews, had a rosy kind face with big and lavish brown eyes. She was plump and jolly and enjoyed speaking with him, since he was her only customer other than her grandson and granddaughter who ran around the room giggling and playing, occasionally stealing embarrassed glances at Draco.
< >"Aren't you a little young to be out here on your own?" Pena teased.
< >Draco shook his head. "No, not particularly," he replied with a mysterious smile. "I may be young, but not that young!" He chuckled despite himself. He liked Pena. "I am looking for a place to stay for about a month. Just for a long rest."
< >Pena smiled broadly. "I know just the place!" she exclaimed, clapping her hands together.
< >Draco regarded her with surprise. "Where?" he asked.
< >"With me! I own this quaint little cottage outside the town . . ." She lowered his voice so her grandchildren could not hear. ". . . and I'm a little short on money," Pena admitted, dropping her eyes to the counter for a moment to thoughtfully trail a finger along the wood. "I think you might enjoy it!" She looked desperate, especially when she softly added, "Business hasn't been really booming . . ."
< >Draco smiled at her. "Of course. I would love to!" His luck was wonderful. He was able to get a train ticket easily, a smooth ride out, and an offer to live in a cottage in less than twelve hours.
< >Pena was immediately ecstatic and she gave Draco a small peck on the cheek. "I live there with my daughter - Olivia - and the youngins', but we have an extra room . . ." She smiled kindly. "It gets very quiet out there despite the children's occasional antics and I am sure you will love it."
< >Pena's grandchildren showed him the way to their home, which turned out to be a long yet enjoyable stroll amonst green-yellow knolls on a thin dirt path. Each child held onto one of his hands, skipping through the lush, green grass of the surrounding hills. The little girl was only five and the boy was seven, but they adored Draco.
< >Draco felt awful about this, though, because what if they found out . . . ? He smacked himself in his mind. As always, he decided, he wouldn't let them know. He couldn't. It would be extremely painful on them and it would tear him apart. Draco, himself, had already fallen in love with the little children, and couldn't bear the thought of hurting such wonderful children.
< >Their names were Mikaela and Peter. Both had mops sandy blond hair like their grandmother and their forever sparkling sapphire eyes were full of life, almost if happily lost in a perpetual dance. They sorely reminded Draco of himself at such an innocent age; but, he chided himself, had he really ever been innocent?
< >Pena's "cottage" was more like a farm house. It was two stories high with an old, thatch roof in need of repair, but it was obviously put there for the old look; there was shingling poking through the gray of the thatch. The hour had a small porch and reminded Draco of the house in the American movie The Wizard of Oz. The house would have looked out of place, but it was the only house he could see, so it didn't, strangely . . .
< >Beyond the house were almost endless fields and hills. He saw a shepherd with a dark figure and a dog tending to them. Serenity, he thought to himself. Quiet, beautiful - just what I need. Exactly what the doctor ordered, if I had a doctor . . .
< >"That's our house!" Mikaela squealed, letting go of Draco's hand and running ahead, crying, "Mummy, Mummy! Come meet Mr. Jennings! Grammy's invited him to stay with us!" She was very fast for her age and in just a few seconds, she was forty meters ahead of Draco and Peter, and thirty from the house.
< >Peter let go of Draco's hand, but did not chase after his sister. He was trying to mimic Draco's serious face and his careful, straight walk. He stumbled a bit, but said nothing. He turned red when he saw Draco looking at him. Draco smiled and ruffled the little boy's hair. Peter grinned up at Draco appreciatively.
< >Draco and Peter reached the Andrews' house a few minutes later. Olivia Andrews stood on the porch with Mikaela at her side, smiling and giggling. Olivia, however, looked slightly suspicious and very strained. Her mouse-brown hair fell limply around her shoulders, her skin was sickly gray, and her brown eyes wore bags. She looked ill and extremely tired.
< >"You are Mr. Jennings?" she asked, raising her chin a bit, trying to steady herself.
< >Draco stopped at the bottom step up to the porch and Peter ran up to his sister, grabbing her hand. They both ran back down the porch and away from Draco and Olivia, giggling excitedly.
< >"Yes." Draco nodded respectfully at her and held out a hand. "Draco Jennings."
< >Olivia shook his hand feebly. "Olivia Andrews-Malcot."
< >Draco did not question her last name as he dropped his hand, suspecting either she was a widow or her husband had just left. "I told your mother, Pena, of my interest in staying out in the country for about a month and she surprised me with offering board. Is that all right with you, Ms. Malcot, I hope?"
< >Olivia nodded. "She telephoned me about twenty minutes ago. It is a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Jennings," she said listlessly. Her lifeless manour made her seem, almost, as if she was dead and being controlled like a robot by someone else.
< >"And I you, Ms. Malcot."
< >Olivia smiled gently at him and walked to a small rocking chair on the porch. Draco walked up the steps and leaned against the rail.
< >"This house . . . it is a little odd, is it not?"
< >Olivia smiled again, more broadly and proudly this time. A bit of colour came to her face. "My late father grew up in Kansas, out in America, but fled to Europe to escape being drafted in the war. Vietnam. He was an architect and built this house."
< >"I would have guessed that," Draco said, smiling. "My first thought when I saw this house was 'Auntie Em, Auntie Em!'" He chuckled softly.
< >Olivia laughed, but the laugh ended with a horrendous cough.
< >"Are - are you all right?" Draco asked, concerned. He made a hesistant step forward.
< >Olivia recovered and nodded weakly, gently waving him off. "Yes, yes, quite all right. I am just a little sick." She smiled as best she could manage and he did not press her, since he tried to be a gentlemen in the company of anyone, unless he was doing business. "A month, did you say?"
< >"If that is all right, of course. A month, yes," Draco replied hurriedly.
< >"Of course it is all right!" Olivia laughed. "I need some company out here when the children are with Mother." She leaned back and sighed; her eyes looked a little forlorn, Draco noticed. "It gets rather lonely out here all day, with just Helena and the chickens."
< >"Helena?" Draco asked, confused.
< >"My older daughter. She's fourteen years old. You might have seen her tending to the sheep when you were coming down," Olivia said, thumbing backward. "She tends them for about four hours every day during the summer and tends to the rest before and after that. It hurts me that I cannot help her, but the children will soon be old enough to help . . ." She coughed again, just as worse as the time before, into a handkerchief.
< >Draco swallowed nervously, thinking that Olivia must be diagnosed with cancer or some other God awful disease. "I thought that was just a shepherd's boy, but I was too far away."
< >Olivia nodded, agreeing. "It is hard to tell." She took and deep breath and rose to her feet. "Let me show you your room. It's near the back of the house with your own bathroom, so you should be comfortable." She stopped and stared at him, realizing he had no bags. "Have you no suitcases?"
< >Draco shook his head. "I travel light; my things are coming in the next train tomorrow morning," he added quickly, lying. He could buy some clothes when he supposedly went for his bags. "I don't like having to carry things if I don't have to."
< >"Ah," Olivia said, gesturing to the door. "Come on in."
< >Draco followed her into the house and straight up a flight of narrow stairs. Olivia had to hold the shaky banister to keep her balance. They turned down a hall and walked the full length to a single door. She opened it and walked straight across the room to open a window.
< >He understood why. The room was mildly dusty and smelled of mothballs, as if no one had slept in there for a while. It was, actually, apparent that no one had for at least a few months, or even a year at best, Draco realized as he glanced around. There was so much dust, it almost seemed to hang from the ceiling.
< >Olivia dusted off the bed and fluffed the pillows. "I'm sure you'll be comfortable here," she said smiling. She wiped her hands on her apron. "Well, I'm off to do the only thing I can do. Lunch will be ready in an hour. Why don't you sleep for a while?"
< >Draco still had a crick in his neck from the train ride. "No, that's all right," he replied, rolling his head around to get rid of the pain. He looked at her and smiled warmly. "Would you like any help?"
< >She was about to shake her head no, but she stopped, and peered out the window where Peter and Mikaela were playing with a mangy looking, brown dog. "Actually, I'd love some help with watching them. Would you mind?"
< >"No, no, of course not," Draco said. Olivia trusted him and he was slightly bothered by this. He knew he was already too emotionally involved in this family by just adoring the children, he liked Pena, and he was beginning to like Olivia. "They are wonderful to be around!"
< >Olivia smiled and sighed, her eyes slightly watering. "Yes, they are," she agreed. She looked down at her clasped hands and realized they were shaking. A lone tear rolled down her cheek.
< >Draco put a comforting arm around her shoulders and led her downstairs silently, not wanting to perturb her by asking questions or trying lamely to reassure her that "it," meaning life, was "all right." Sometimes, he knew, people hated that sort of fake reassurance or pestering and the pressure made their conditions worsen more quickly than if they had just been left alone. Olivia stood out like that sort of character in Draco's mind and he took careful mind of that fact.
< >He left her at the kitchen table, giving her a smile, and left the house to chase after Mikaela and Peter who looked delighted to see him again; unfortunately, so did the dog, who had never seen him before.
< >Draco was brought to the ground as the dog literally jumped into his arms and excitedly licked and sniffed at him. It was a medium sized mutt, a chocolate Labrador mixed with something else. If that wasn't the case on why the dog was a mousy brown, and just dirty, Draco would have called him a golden retriever, but he had no idea, and forgot about it as he carefully pushed the dog off him.
< >Mikaela giggled and playfully scolded the dog, "Anna, you bad girl!"
< >Anna the dog whined protestingly, wondering why she was bad, and clamped her mouth softly around Draco's hand. She looked up at him pitifully and he laughed. "No, Anna's a good girl," he teased, pulling his hand out of Anna's mouth. Anna wagged her tail and ran off to chase a wandering, lone chicken.
< >Peter grabbed Draco's hand and pulled on him. "Let's go!" he cried, running off with Mikaela right on his tail.
< >"Where?" Draco called, chasing after the two children.
< >They didn't answer and disappeared over a hill. Draco reached the top of the hill a split second later and watched the two roll down the hill. Despite himself, he followed and quickly reached them, picking them up by their middles, and carried them a ways. They giggled and laughed until he set them down on the side of a another hill.
< >Draco fell into the grass on his back, head in his arms. He sighed, staring up at the sky. It was a beautiful day. He felt he could lay there forever and closed his eyes, relaxing in the warm sun.
< >He heard Mikaela and Peter playing a few feet from him, giggling with the childish innocence that he had lost forever and even questioned himself if he'd ever had the luxury of ignorance that children normally had . . . Draco opened his eyes and sat up.
< >Mikaela and Peter were gathering wild flowers and frolicking in the tall grass. After a few minutes, they ran up to him, and Mikaela thrust a bouquet of flowers into his hands.
< >Draco looked at them for a moment, a smile growing across his face. He set down the flowers and drew his legs into him. "Come here," he said in a low voice, still smiling.
< >Peter and Mikaela leaned in anxiously.
< >"Have you ever seen magic? Like in fairy tales?" Draco asked them.
< >They shook their heads, looking intrigued.
< >"Would you like to see magic?"
< >"Real magic?" Peter asked doubtfully.
< >Draco nodded vigorously. "Real magic, Peter, but not like 'Abracadabra' or 'Hocus Pocus' - real magic. Would you like to see some?"
< >"Yeah!" the two children chorused.
< >"Sit down and be amazed!" Draco said enthusiastically. He took a flower and delicately pulled off the petals as the two children sat on either side of him, forming a small triangle.
< >Draco held the dark pink petals out in his hands for them to see. "These are just ordinary petals, right?" Mikaela and Peter nodded and Draco smiled mischievously. "Not any more."
< >To their amazement, Draco blew softly on the petals, uttered a few words, and the petals rose from his hands. They formed themselves into a sort of slow tornado and spun around idly, rising high above Draco's out-stretched palm.
< >Mikaela laughed and clapped her hands together. Peter stared, openmouthed.
< >The petals slowly fell back into Draco's outstretched hand, then blew away down the hill in a cool summer breeze. The two children stared at Draco and he smiled at them, drawing back his hand.
< >"Magic," he murmured to them softly, nodding. "But we mustn't tell anyone, now! This is our secret!"
< >Mikaela and Peter nodded, looking excited, but Draco shook his head. "You have to promise - no, you have to swear to keep this a secret. For as long as you live! There are people after me who want to take my powers away!" he cried desperately. He hated having to lie - his wand had already been snapped - but having to if he wanted to protect himself and the children. Despite the danger at hand, he had still wanted to give them a gift.
< >"We swear!" Peter said, Mikaela nodding.
< >Draco smiled at them. "Good. Now, go have fun."
< >Mikaela and Peter, delighted to have a secret - just their secret! - ran off down the hill. Draco watched after them, smiling. Not one of them saw a figure standing at the top of the hill above them, staring down at Draco.
< >"You followed him out of the Leaky Cauldron - and you didn't find him?" Percy Weasley demanded sharply. "How - what - why - ?" He was getting even more hysterical and angry - and directing it all on her, as if she was to blame, that she hadn't caught Draco.
< >Hermione Granger jumped to her feet. "I was far behind him and shocked out of my mind, you ingrate!" she shouted angrily. "He could have Apparated anywhere as soon as he left the Cauldron! He could be in America by now, for all we know!"
< >Percy put his head in his hands miserably, took them away, and dropped his head on the desk. "We have to alert my father," he groaned dolefully. He hit his head on the desktop a few more times until he let it rest there, not moving at all.
< >"No, let's just not tell anyone," Hermione sneered, dropping back into her seat.
< >Percy looked up and glared at her.
< >"Sometimes I enjoy moments like this," Hermione said, smiling bitterly. "It takes a con man - and a possible murderer - to get your ass kicked by your father. I think I'm going to rather enjoy this, Percy. You're father will cut off your arms!" She laughed uproariously. "You won't be able to carry around that ridiculous stick anymore and poke criminals with it anymore!"
< >"Shut up," Percy moaned, hitting his head on the desk a few more times. "Damn it! What am I going to tell Arthur? God only knows what he'll do to me when he finds out I got him angry, not to mention that I even saw him! I can't believe I didn't recognize him! No one in the Leaky Cauldron did, either, not even Tom! And his picture has been plastered all over the newspapers and wanted fliers for years! Oh, Lord!"
< >"Stop your moaning, you idiot," Hermione snapped, kicking the desk with her foot. He looked up at her. "You are so pathetic it makes me want to spit. Get off your high horse and tell your father you screwed up before I tell the rest of the world what you did. Your whining and moaning isn't going to catch Draco Malfoy."
< >Draco and the children returned to the house forty minutes later, carrying even more flowers that Draco had suggested giving to Olivia as a nice gift.
< >When the walked into the kitchen, they found Olivia at the stove and a brown-haired girl with blue eyes sitting at the kitchen table, wearing dusty jeans, and a muddy - or, at least, Draco thought it was mud - shirt. She reading an old yellowed newspaper (which Draco thought was odd) and drinking something dark and steaming. Her eyes looked up at him suspiciously. Draco, confused, mirrored the image for a split second, then looked away.
< >"Hello," Olivia said to Draco absently, taking the flowers from her cheery, red-faced children, and thanking them graciously. She then turned her attention to Draco. "I see you had a good time."
< >Draco nodded, smiling condifently - almost prouldly. "I thank you for letting me watch them. They're wonderful, as I told you." He smiled and held out another bouquet of roses, but held it out to the younger girl. "Here. I thought the other lady of the house would like some flowers." Draco smiled at her with his casual tranquility - almost with an air of superiority - and handed her the wild flowers.
< >The girl accepted them slowly and looked away from him. "Thank you," she mumbled.
< >"You are very welcome, miss."
< >"This is my daughter, Helena," Olivia said softly as she turned away. "But I suppose you knew that. She will be in charge of the children for a few weeks . . ." She sighed as she cut a vegetable on the counter in front of her.
< >"Oh?" Draco regarded Olivia and Helena both with some surprise as he sat down at the table across from the strange girl. "And why is that, might I ask?"
< >Helena's eyes glared at him for a second bitterly, as if he had no right to ask.
< >"Mother is taking me to the hospital in London in a few days and closing the restaurant for the while she stays with me for about a week. Helena will have to watch the children for the time she's gone," came the soft, weak reply.
< >"I will be able to watch them," Draco offered.
< >"I don't like to impose - " Olivia began, turning around.
< >Draco held up a hand. "I do not mind whatsoever. It would be a pleasure."
< >Helena gave him a sarcastic look that clearly said, "That's makes things all better now, doesn't it? Don't do me any favors." Draco returned the look with pure poison in his eyes, then they looked away from each other.
< >Olivia did not notice of the look and smiled at him. "Thank you, Mr. Jennings."
< >"Please, call me Draco, Ms. Malcot," Draco said cheerily.
< >"Call me Olivia, Draco," Olivia replied, smiling.
< >"And call me Miss Universe," Helena muttered under her breath, taking a sip of her drink and shaking her head angrily.
< >Arthur Weasley's mouth hung open in shock as he listen to his son's words.
< >"Father, listen to me!" Percy cried. "Don't you understand? Draco Malfoy - "
< >"Draco Malfoy was in Diagon Alley for hours, Percy!" Arthur Weasley screamed angrily, jumping from his seat to bellow at his cowering son. "Draco Malfoy was in Diagon Alley for hours! And you let him escape and - " He was cut off by the sound of giggling.
< >Hermione Granger was leaning against the wall, holding her sides and laughing hysterically.
< >"You," Arthur sneered, rounding his desk and advancing on her. "Were you a part of this? Did you just let Draco Malfoy prance around Diagon Alley?" he demanded accusingly.
< >Hermione immediately stopped laughing and narrowed her eyes at the Minister. "Hardly," she growled. "He ran into me and ran for dear life out of Diagon Alley, the Leaky Cauldron, and probably as far out of London as he could. For God sakes, if he had just kept running the way he was, he could already be in York having an early supper and a glass of wine!" She began laughing again. "I only saw him for a fleeting second, but your son here prodded him with his little cane for five minutes!"
< >Arthur rounded on Percy. "You what?" he screeched.
< >Percy shrunk back from his father. "God, are you on drugs?" he yelled back.
< >Hermione fell to the floor in laughter. "Just quite possibly!" she laughed. Arthur glared at her and she suppressed her laughter for a moment. "Well, the idiot's got a point. You've been acting like a Muggle-junkie for years!"
< >Arthur sighed and went to sit in his chair at his desk. "Life is hard now."
< >Hermione rose to her feet and dusted herself off. "Yeah, right, Arthur. You liar."
< >Percy sent a dark look at Hermione. He was an idiot, but not a complete fool. He was respectful of his father and would make sure everyone else was, despite the fact he had hated his father for some time now.
< >The whole Weasley family was at odds with each other and had been since half of them had condemned Hermione for falling in love with Draco. Unfortunately, even if she hadn't, the straight, friendly lines that family had once had with each other were bound to break sooner or later. They just found an excuse to come out sooner.
< >Arguments had been going on for a while since Ron and Hermione's sixth year and while that's to be expected with growing teenagers in the house, the Weasley's fights often grew more hot and bitter. (Howlers to Ron and Ginny were the worst heard at Hogwarts in twenty years.) Their modest living was getting to the Weasley family and they were stretched in every angle with each other, wondering why one person wasn't working hard enough on one job, or this, or the next. Fights would spring up many times, Ron had told Hermione, and the family wouldn't talk to each other for days. Ron and Ginny would often hide in their rooms or go visit neighbors when this sort of thing occured during the summer months.
< >It also didn't help that Arthur Weasley had gone through a lot about in the recent years. Five or six years before the new turmoil with Percy, the first year he had resided as Minister of Magic after Cornelius Fudge, his wife Molly had died of an untreated illness. No-one had known about it until it was too late and she died suddenly. Arthur rarely spoke of it or his wife - Ron said he felt guilty for not realizing Molly was sick - and when he did, he would become irate and shout at anyone nearby. Everyone suspected his anger just propelled him further into remaing the spiteful, bitter man he had been for years. His children both loathed and loved him, but at this point loathed him even more.
< >And the whole Weasley family, except the exception of two or three - it was never clear - hated Hermione with a certain passion for her once loving Draco Malfoy and would hold it against her until either she, or them, was to die, and probably long after that, as well. Hermione would not have hated them, if they had not had made her life horrible trying to find work and just been nasty to her . . . they weren't the Weasleys she had once known. Everyone, everyone was different.
< >That was why Hermione ignored Percy's warning glance with a hateful smile.
< >Arthur didn't look at her. "Alert the presses," he muttered. "Don't say anything senile about us, or I'll have your head." He looked up at her and smiled shrewdly. "That is, if you don't want that . . . ?"
< >"Maybe I should just write in the newspaper that you threatened me," Hermione suggested coldly, her eyes narrowing. She turned on her heel and stormed out of the room. "See you in the news!" she called over her shoulder.
< >Arthur slammed his fist down on his desk and looked menacingly to his son.