< >Draco did not know why he had taken to running to the forest. He could have just easily Apparated to the trees and have been gone in the blink of an eye, but the heat of the moment caught up with him and something in him wanted to leave an impression on Helena to be quiet, kept him from using magic until he reached the forest where he turned himself invisible, a trick most did not know.
< >Of course, the Ministry could not track magic - yet, anyway. They had been lying, pressing for some answers, when they had said up in the house they had tracked magic. That was what Draco had found so uproarious about the whole conversation, and would still have been laughing back at the house, if Whitney hadn’t seen the ring, of course.
< >Draco fingered the ring as he hurried along the through the woods. It was a silver ring with an oval, sharply cut ruby encrusted in the top of it. The ring was almost as notorious as Draco was, but he never took it off, even though it gave people a clear recognition as to who he was. The sharp edges of the ring’s jewel had kept him from being arrested in the Muggle and the wizard world; he would resort to physical defense instead of magic most of the time to protect himself, and the ring left nasty cuts and scars in many who dared toil with him.
< >Many thought the ring was a symbol of evil, besides just a savage way of defense. Or, the ring symbolized his greatness in the world of brigands and baneful doers and followers. Draco never told anyone anything about the ring, not even in the nasty letters he wrote to the press every once and a while, or to anyone he dealt with.
< >He decided not to Apparate anywhere. What was the point? It was a waste of energy and he had no idea where to go, except to . . . Venice, of course, but not. He didn’t want to go to Venice. He didn’t know why; he just didn’t feel like wanting to go there, so he didn’t.
< >Draco broke suddenly into a run, feeling as if he had to run, as if someone was after him. The brush and trees seemed to get closer and closer together as he went deeper into the huge forest. He finally stopped, dropped his invisibility and shook his head at himself, in a silent curse. He was running from nothing and he knew it.
< >With a sigh, Draco muttered a few words, and disappeared from human sight, unbeknownst that a huddled figure had been hiding in a bush, not five feet away from him before he disappeared.
< >Hermione arrived at the house first, by Apparation. The Ministry would go by Apparation, as well, but they would stay back a few minutes, so they could calculate and plan, because they were idiots, but also not fools. If Draco was still there, he would use his defenses in any way to escape the clutches of Ministry officials.
< >The house was old, obviously, with a thatch roof, though it was obvious the thatch had been added to make it look more old and desolate, and the rest of the house was like that of a farm house.
< >She walked slowly up the steps and knocked on the door. A girl answered.
< >“May I help you?” she asked, smiling in greeting.
< >“I demand to see Draco Malfoy!” Hermione shouted to her blatantly, breathing hard. Apparation took a lot out of you if you were stressed.
< >The girl blinked with a little surprise as she stared at Hermione. “Draco? His last name is Jennings, not Malfoy . . . Do I know you?” she asked blankly, cocking her head slightly to squint at Hermione.
< >“Is?” Hermione demanded sharply. “He hasn’t left yet?”
< >The girl stepped back defensively. “I think he must have fallen asleep upstairs. Why would he leave? If he isn’t sleeping, he must still be in the bath . . . Do I know you?” she repeated.
< >“Ms. Granger?”
< >Hermione whirled around and came face to face with Percy Weasley. There were a few men and a woman behind him on the steps, looking around suspiciously. She saw a few more people on the hills around the house, looking out into the distance.
< >“What are you doing here?” he asked in a hollow, but cold tone.
< >“Do I know you?” the girl demanded more sharply, getting annoyed. “Who are you people?”
< >Hermione turned around to her, eyes cold, but said pleasantly, “We are looking for your friend, Draco - ”
< >“Boarder. He is staying with my family for about a month. What is this about?”
< >“Fine - boarder. We are looking for him, to answer a few questions for us. You say he is still in the house?” Hermione demanded harshly of the girl, looking at her in irritated anticipation.
< >“Yes, he is,” the girl said slowly. She looked past Hermione to Percy. “He was still in the bath when I came back into the house after talking to those guys out in the fields . . . if he isn’t there, he’s probably asleep or something.”
< >One of the men and the woman pushed past Hermione and the girl, and ran up the stairs, each one going down one hallway, one right, one left.
< >The girl stared after them for a moment, then back to Hermione. “Is he in trouble?” she asked innocently. “What did he do? He’s only been staying with us for about five or six days.”
< >Percy stepped up beside Hermione, looking intently at the girl. “You say, girl, that you only remember talking to the detectives here once?” he asked the girl. “Only once?”
< >“My name is Helena Andrews and yes, only once, right?” Helena looked at the detectives who must have nodded, because she looked satisfied, but when she looked back at Hermione and Percy, her eyes were suspicious. “Who are you people?”
< >“The law, Miss Andrews,” Percy replied promptly, holding himself up to look dignified. “We are looking for Mr. Jennings. Did you know his real name was Malfoy, Miss Andrews?”
< >Helena looked at him blankly, confused. “No, but what does that have to do with anything? And why are you looking for him? He’s upstairs; I could have gotten him for you if you wanted to talk with him. Isn’t it illegal for you people to barge into my mother’s house?” she demanded.
< >The two who had disappeared upstairs returned to the landing, shaking their heads. They shrugged.
< >Hermione looked Helena deep in the eyes. Her eyes were angry with confusion, but said nothing else, except . . .
< >Percy muttered to Hermione, “He wiped her memory already, Hermione. He’s gone. Long gone.” He stepped inside the door and motioned for the two on the landing to come back down. “Miss Andrews, could I speak with you privately for a moment?” He started to reach toward her.
< >“Let me do that, Percy,” Hermione snapped idly, pushing him lightly out of reach from Helena. She glared at him. “I am just as qualified; I worked under you for a time, you know,” she hissed, “and I will not say a word to her, all right? I just don’t want your filthy claws on her. And I’ll talk to you later about The Magic Times. ”
< >Percy paled, but a faint smile brushed across his lips. Hermione glared at him angrily, then took Helena’s arm, and led her into a room, a living room of sorts, closing the door securely behind them, so Percy couldn’t listen in.
< >Helena sat down on the couch, folding her arms, ready for an explanation. Hermione sat on the edge of the coffee table in front of her, just as determined for answers.
< >“So,” Hermione began, “where is Draco?”
< >“Upstairs, isn’t he?”
< >Hermione shook her head in dismay and sighed. She threw up her hands angrily. “Oh, for God sakes, Helena, just tell me where he went! Draco Malfoy is a dangerous man and - ”
< >“Dangerous?” Helena asked skeptically, rolling her eyes dubiously.
< >Hermione leaned forward and glared into Helena’s eyes. “Don’t mess with me, girl. You’d be a fool if you screwed with me anymore than you are. I can see Draco didn’t even touch your memory. He warned you not to breathe a word, didn’t he?” She shook her head again. “He told you that the Ministry would wipe your memory, if you did tell them anything, right?”
< >“That’s what you are going to do, though, right?” Helena snapped bitingly at Hermione, dropping everything that protected her from getting her memory wiped. “And you think you have the right to do that! How dare you! You’re insane! All of you! You have no right to wipe another human being’s memory! And you probably all think you’re more humane that us, don't you!”
< >“I won’t do that, but that red-headed man outside the door will,” Hermione said darkly. “I am trying to find Draco to protect him.” Her eyes watered slightly and she looked up at the wall, past Helena. “I don’t know why, but I need to find him! He . . . oh, for Pete’s sake, damn it! I - DON’T - KNOW - WHY! That idiot has cursed me, probably!”
< >Helena stared at her, but then her face turned into a suspicious, menacing sneer. “Don’t tell me . . . you’re the love of his life that he lost?” she scoffed rather snidely, looking extremely doubtful.
< >“Did - did he say that?”
< >Helena said nothing.
< >Hermione grabbed Helena’s hands and held them in hers, looking at the young girl urgently. “Draco is in danger of being murdered by my own government, if they catch him, though they won’t call it murder, of course.
< >"Even if he goes to trial and gets dropped of his crimes of theft, conning, and more, Helena, he will not be able to shake the rumors that he killed men, women, and children. The Ministry will make sure of that and he will be put to death, just to please my society - and yours - and to set their minds straight. Don’t you understand, Helena? You are securing his death if you do not tell me where he went!”
< >"I don’t know where he went!" Helena cried, shaking suddenly. “He - he ran toward the forest, then disappeared into it! He’s gone! I don’t know where! I’m telling the truth! I don’t know!” She burst into tears. “Are they going to hurt my little sister and brother? Draco showed them a bit magic, but they won’t remember in a few years, and - !”
< >Hermione hugged her awkwardly. "No, no, of course not, Helena, trust me. I won’t let them.” She pulled away and looked Helena directly in the eye. “When I leave here, do not follow me. The men and women will be gone and it will only be Percy and I - for only a minute. You are supposed to be under a sort of spell for a few minutes, so about five minutes after I leave, go to the kitchen, and do something. Someone will be watching for a while, to see that you don’t remember a thing, or if Draco comes back, so be calm. And don’t speak to anyone about this matter! Understand?”
< >Helena nodded numbly. "Yes," she whispered.
< >Hermione smiled at her, rubbed her eyes, rose to her feet, and left the room.
< >"He’s long gone, Percy," Hermione said as they hurried along from the house; Colin, who had arrived late, nearly having to run beside Hermione. “That girl knew nothing of why we were there or anything, and now she doesn’t remember anything.”
< >"Good," was all Percy said.
< >"Good," Hermione mimicked. "Now, about that article - ”
< >"Oh? Did it offend you, your highness? Does the truth offend you?” Percy demanded, stopping, and glaring at her. “The Ministry hates the truth, but I would think that you, of all people, would love the truth. You are the press, aren’t you? And wouldn’t the public love it if they knew that you actually once loved a mad man! They think you went on just a couple of dates, off and on, but I know what you hate me to know from Ginny and Ron told me in innocence, years ago. You loved Draco Malfoy and that will be the end of you.”
< >"My end is far from near, Percy," Hermione growled menacingly.
< >Percy laughed.
< >Hermione slapped him across the face as hard as she could. "Bastard." He had rehearsed that whole spiel. She and Colin then walked past him, Colin trying hard not to laugh until Percy had disappeared to go back to the Ministry office.
< >"Colin, go back to the office. There’s nothing here," Hermione told him as she stopped to get positioned onto her broom that she had brought with her to the house. She looked him directly in the eye. "I’m going after him, Colin.”
< >"Good luck," Colin said solemnly, disappearing.
< >Hermione launched herself off the ground and into the Muggle sky, bound toward the north, hoping her intuitions were right, or help her.
< >Draco walked through the forest for days on end, it seemed, though it was only about four all together. He never stopped, except to eat a ration or two, and to rest. He felt ill; his stomach growled for food and drink, and he had dark circles under his eyes.
< >He knew very well that at that exact moment, he could be reclining in a Venice cafe, watching the tourists go by, or that he could be on a beach in America, bathing in the sun, if he was so whimmed, of course. He wasn’t. Something in him told him not to.
< >His quiet pursuer thought this quite odd, indeed. The man had magical powers, that was to be sure - he used them to light fires at night and keep himself invisible at dawn till dusk, in case of hermits or campers spotters spotting him, but he never did anything else with his powers.
< >Of course, it was easy to follow the man, after that. He left behind careless footprints in the mud and the crunching of leaves and twigs he stepped in were almost louder than a gunshot to the pursuer’s sharp ears.
< >The man looked lonely and angry - and also pitiful in the pursuer’s eyes when he was able to see his face during the evening hours of the day, and sometimes even late into the night. The man fingered the ring on his finger many times in the hours after dusk, under the red glow of the firelight, looking lost as he did so. The ruby would sparkle in the light, looking like a laser wherever it hastened to shine.
< >On the fourth night, the man sat with his back against a tree, staring directly into the fire. The pursuer sat in a dark shadow, across from him, watching him attentively. The man was still and the only movement he made was an occasional, slow blinking of his eyes.
< >The man, after a while, spoke. "Lead kindly light," he rasped hoarsely to the dark night, "amid the encircling gloom . . . Lead thou me on . . . ; the night is dark, and I am far from home. Lead thou me on. Keep my feet . . . ; I do not ask to see the distant scene; one step enough . . . for me." He snapped his head up and looked past the fire, to the pursuer, or at least in the place where he thought the thing would be, watching him . . . "Show yourself, or be gone!" he shouted with all of the strength he could muster. "Why do you torment me?"
< >The pursuer did not answer and the man slumped back against the trunk of the old tree, tears running down his cheeks. "Kill me now and I shall rest in peace!" he yelled with a mix of animosity and fright. "I would rather be killed now by my own hand, but if I must be murdered by someone besides myself, I’d rather have it done here and now! Where I cannot be tortured anymore by the agony of society and their inherit greed!”
< >Again, the pursuer was silent as he looked at the man. The man was miserable and frightened looking, but had brought all the courage he could muster to the floor. However, he lost it in seconds, when the pursuer did not show himself to the man. The man thought himself mad now, even more miserable, and slowly fell asleep to the crackling of the dying fire and his own tears of angst.
< >The man had mental stamina, the thing knew, and a high sense dignity - and much of it, that can be assured - not to be killed without knowing it, wanting to see his killer’s face before he died a death of dignity, without the shameful tears he had just shed . . .
< >Hermione saw nothing as she crossed over the forest during the days. Draco wasn’t stupid enough to light a fire, was he? she always wondered, but decided against looking for him at night. She would have to stay in the air until morning, for she would not be able to see much farther than five feet in front of her, and would have to sleep during the day, having the chance of losing Draco, if he had not already lost her.
< >She once saw a burned out fire pit, but no one was around, and the coals were cool from the morning air, so there was no telling when it had last been used. That morning, the night before, the week before, the month before? There was no telling.
< >Time and time again as she rode along, Hermione told herself this was stupid. She had left her job - to find nothing? She might as well go home and save herself the trouble, but . . . what if she did find Draco?
< >One night, she cried herself to sleep, thinking about Draco’s ring. He still bore it. It was amazing to Hermione that he still did. Locked in a small box, under a floorboard in her small house was an identical ring, except that it had a gold band instead of a silver one. No one knew about the rings, not a soul. And those who might - Ron, Colin, Harry, Ginny, Crabbe, Goyle - had no idea, had no memory of that day on the train home to London.
< >Draco, she thought to herself, why? Why wear the ring anymore? What does it symbolize? Nothing! She had to stop herself and ask why she cared so much. Was there actual hope that . . .? No, that was impossible, but she wanted to help Draco, no matter what he had become . . .
< >Hermione wiped away her tears and gathered her courage. Don’t cry, it’s pointless, she told herself sternly, shaking her head. What use are tears to us, except to wash out dirt and eyelashes? They don’t help pain one single damn bit.
< >Draco told himself he was going mad - but did an insane person know he or she was insane? He didn’t know. Sane people knew they were sane, so why couldn’t an insane assailant know he was insane? For the same reason, he told himself, that how could a sane person know they were sane? It was mind boggling and torturing as he slowly fell asleep, miserable, hungry, exhausted, and awaiting a certain death, whatever it be.
< >He doubted he could do much more magic to protect himself, unless he somehow gathered his strength - and you need to have enough energy and vigor to concentrate on magic itself, or perish in its undying wake.
< >Draco told himself to sober up so he could defeat the Dark Thing that he knew followed him, but was he just imagining it all? The Dark Thing - a figment of his hysterical imagination? Maybe . . . maybe not . . .
< >The Dark Thing watched the man fall asleep, then crawled toward the dying fire for a bit of warmth before he would have to disappear back into the forest at dawn, before the man woke, ate, and continued on his slow, going-nowhere trek across the endless forest.
< >It smiled to itself in self-satisfaction as its body warmed. It wanted to howl in laughter, for some odd reason, but collected itself. The young man’s life was at stake and there was no time to do anything except watch over the man until he could do nothing for himself anymore . . . and what then? The Dark Thing wasn’t sure, but it felt a pang of fear in its chest. Death? By starvation? Provoked insanity? Both?
< >Draco woke at dawn and stumbled to his feet. He knew there was a stream nearby and lurched toward it through the trees, carrying his only suitcase, and laying it open on a rock. He stripped off his dirty clothes that he had been in since he left the Andrews’ and dunked them in the rushing water.
< >He scrubbed at the clothes with a bar of soap and a coarse brush that he had taken with him. When they were clean, he laid them out to dry, and dived into the river, wearing only his underwear. He scrubbed at his hair and body, cleaning off the dirt and grime, and pulling out the burrs and needles lodged in his hair.
< >Finally, when the painful deed was done and his whole body red, but clean, from the excursion of the horrible brush, Draco emerged from the water, and dressed in dry clothes. He gnawed on a small, hard biscuit, had a bit of water that he had collected from the cold river, and trudged on through the forest, not evening bothering to conceal himself anymore.
< >What was the point? he asked himself bitterly. There was no point. If anyone of his society or the Muggle one was after him, they wouldn’t be looking for him there. He was alone with the Dark Thing, or not, and that was frightening enough for him.