< >“WHERE IS SHE?” Percy Weasley shouted in Colin Creevey’s face.
< >Harry Potter was standing right behind Percy, but said nothing.
< >“I DON’T KNOW!” Colin yelled back. “SHE LEFT!”
< >The whole floor had come out of their offices and cubicles to stare at the screaming match between small Colin and tall Percy. No one could tell who was winning - yet.
< >“LIAR!” Percy shrieked, sticking a long, bony finger in Colin’s face.
< >Colin had an impulse to bite him, but did nothing of the sort. He narrowed his eyes at Percy and smacked the finger away with a light wave of his hand. “Can you prove that, Mr. Weasley?” he asked quietly. “I can assure you that I am not a liar when I tell you that I do not know where she is. We parted after your departure. I believe, however, she went on a much needed vacation, but that’s just an opinion.” Colin smiled sickly sweetly at Percy, looking innocent, yet deadly at the same time. “Can you accuse me of lying for voicing my opinion?”
< >Percy was beat red. “TELL ME WHERE SHE IS!” he roared.
< >“He doesn’t know where she is, Percy, damn you,” Harry hissed angrily.
< >Percy swung around to face Harry who had been standing behind him. “He can talk for himself!” he yelled at the younger man, furious. He was nearly shaking with rage; his hands in tight balls at his side.
< >“And so he did!” Harry snapped. “You called him a liar!”
< >“Are you accusing me - ”
< >“He’s not accusing you! You said it yourself!” Colin shouted, stamping his foot on the ground impatiently. “I have no idea where Ms. Granger is and no one else does either! She left! All right? DO YOU UNDERSTAND!” It was obviously not a question - in anyone’s mind.
< >“Quite,” Harry said darkly, glaring at Percy. He stormed out of the office, Percy following slowly behind, muttering, “Damn her, damn her, damn her,” as he left, head bowed in angry thought.
< >Colin turned around to face the others, staring after the two men. They all looked slowly to Colin in amazement who snapped, “Get back to work. Hermione left us all in charge and she wouldn’t want us to stop the presses over an idiot red-head, got that, people?” He took a glaring glance around, then stormed away, many people staring after him in shock.
< >Draco felt aches in his arms and legs and back as he walked and pushed through the forest. It was cold and the clouds that he could just barely see past the treetops threatened rain. He knew he didn’t have enough strength to get out of the forest, much less light the night’s fire. Of course, he had matches, so . . .
< >He rested twice during the long hours of walking, for a sip of his limited water supply, and kept going and going and going, feeling as if he had been walking for many, many days, and many, many miles. He didn’t stop walking, however, until the skies darkened with promising rain and nightfall, in a small grove, surrounded by thick trees and shrubs and a few boulders, concealing him.
< >The Dark Thing kept close behind him and by dusk, he was sure he wasn’t crazy - at least, crazy enough to imagine something following him. He knew he was being watched, pursued, even chased, if you could put it that way, but by what? He could hardly be sure. Man? Beast? What?
< >Of course, the Dark Thing knew what it was, and it knew by the way the man acted, looking behind him every few minutes until he stopped for the night in a small clearing, that the man wondered what it was. He, the man, was now sure he was being followed, but the Dark Thing he knew not what.
< >The man collapsed in front of a pathetic excuse for a pile of firewood with a dreadful groan. He was obviously sick, famished, dehydrated, and fatigued, the thing thought to himself without the slightest bit of mirth.
< >Finally, the man fell asleep in front of a small fire, having not eaten a thing, and the Dark Thing emerged from its hiding place behind a thorny bush, sure enough that he would have to help the man if the man wanted to survive.
< >The Dark Thing took the shawl from around its own shoulders and laid it over the sleeping man, then went to collect more twigs and bark for the fire. Its simple mission was to help the man, against his wishes, though.
< >When the fire was lit to a full roar of flickering embers and snapping twigs, the Dark Thing kneeled in front of it, looking hard into the flames, as if it was willing the fire to jump at him, or do something else besides burn. It didn’t and it sighed, standing to its full height.
< >As the fire warmed him more, the man stirred, and awoke, looking drowsily around, dazed. His eyes widened with fearful surprise when he saw the figure, standing above him, in front of the fire. The man could not see the figure’s face, for the light of the fire was to its back, and a shadow covering his front.
< >“‘Lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloom,’” the figure recited in a loud, obscuring voice. “‘Lead thou me on; the night is dark, and I am far from home. Lead thou me on. Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see the distant scene; one step enough for me.’”
< >“Is this the first step,” the man whispered hoarsely, “to my death?”
< >“To your life, Draco, to your life.”
< >Hermione left the forest and headed back home, six days gone. She dragged herself through her small house to her bed when she arrived home at sometime after midnight - she wasn’t quite sure the time - collapsing onto her bed in a heap.
< >Hermione showed up to work a little late, looking slightly disheveled, but very dignified. Colin barely had to even glance at her to know that she had been unsuccessful in her search.
< >“Welcome back,” he muttered hollowly to her as she walked past him. “Have a good vacation?” he asked dryly after her, indignant for getting nothing in response, or, at least, a simple thank you.
< >Hermione turned around slightly and sent him a dark look of contempt.
< >Colin held up his hands defensively and taking a step back. There was a definite air of cynicism around him as he snarled in a bitter tone, “Fine, Hermione,” stalking off to sulk.
< >Hermione turned on her heel, stormed to her office, and slammed the door.
< >“Take this,” rasped the figure, handing Draco a steaming mug.
< >The figure was a man, a few inches taller than that of Draco, though from the ground, Draco thought he could have been a giant. The man’s eyes were dark, the color of wet mud, like his hair, which was cut strangely and raggedly around his ears and neck. His mouth curved slightly even as he spoke or not, as if a sneer was about to pop out at any second. His nose was slender and slightly long, as if his had been somehow stretched.
< >“What is it?” Draco asked the man suspiciously, with as much strength and dignity as he could summon. The man had been bent over the large fire for a few minutes, making a concoction of some sorts - which Draco held a cup of in his hands - with his own, surprising large food supply.
< >The man looked at him sternly without reply, like a strict professor looking at a rambunctious student.
< >Draco obediently took a sip of the hot liquid - at this point, he didn’t care if he died, but his mind was hysterical, and he was just conscious enough to know it. As the liquid went down his esophagus, he felt a hot, burning sensation down his trachea and back. He did his best to ignore it while it passed, then looked objectively up at the man who sat down a few feet from Draco with his own cup. “Hot chocolate,” he managed to whisper hoarsely.
< >The man nodded. “The very best.”
< >There was silence for a few minutes.
< >“Why?” Draco demanded quietly, too weak to speak loudly.
< >“Why what?” the man asked carefully, sipping the warming liquid from his mug. He looked directly into the fire, away from Draco’s suspicious, dark, but also confused eyes.
< >“Don’t patronize me, sir,” Draco snapped fiercely but painfully. He clutched his heaving, pained chest, withdrawing farther into the shawl wrapped around his shoulders, and managing to croak, “You know what I mean.”
< >“Yes,” the man agreed solemnly, taking another sip.
< >Draco said nothing more to the man, staring down into his mug, seeing a distorted image of himself in the brown water.
< >“It amazes me,” the man said, after a few minutes of complete silence, “that a man of your status and stature would be here - in the forest!” He chuckled softly to himself, as if it was all a big farce.
< >“With a rabid beast at my heels?” Draco demanded.
< >The man laughed loudly, throwing his head back with mirth, laughing at the trees who shook in the breeze, mocking Draco into shame and anger. “I assure you, I am not a rabid beast, Draco,” he said, sobering.
< >Draco stared at him. The man merely glanced at him over the rim of his mug, then averted his eyes back to the large fire. He sighed after a moment, realizing that Draco was speechless. “Your name, Mr. Malfoy, is known the world around. You shouldn’t be surprised that I know it.” He looked at Draco. “Or do you define recluses as savages who don’t read the papers?” the man demanded sharply, catching Draco off guard.
< >Again, Draco stared at him. “Is that why you have been following me?” he asked.
< >“Partly,” the man replied.
< >“What is ‘partly’ supposed to mean?” Draco demanded.
< >“Partly,” said the man simply, shrugging his shoulders with a mischievous smile.
< >Draco fumed in silence and the man rose to his feet. He drank the last bit of his drink, then regarded Draco with a slight, fleeting smile of dark amusement. He threw the unwashed, plastic mug into a small bag. “Get some sleep, kid,” he told Draco in an almost mothering, but stern voice.
< >“I’m not a kid.”
< >“Then stop acting like one and get some sleep anyway,” snapped the man, disappearing quickly into the forest, seemingly morphing into the shadows, as if he had almost become one with them.
< >Draco stared after the man. He did feel like a kid. A lost, confused, angry kid. What he often felt like when he had been younger. He also felt like an idiot and a complete, ignoramus fool.
< >The man had been waiting for him to weaken into humility and distress. It was embarrassing, having to be helped and nursed by a stranger who, in a strange, silent way, refused to give his name to Draco, or why he was really there. Draco knew the man thrived on it like a normal creature of the earth thrived on water and food.
< >That single fact sent shivers up his spine. The man could - no, must be an assassin, Draco thought to himself. Waiting for just the right time, knowing Draco wanted to see his murderer.
< >Draco didn’t know what he had been thinking when he had told himself that. He wasn’t sure anymore that he would want that . . . would he rather be stabbed in the back, not seeing his murderer, instead of in the chest where he could look into the spiteful, venomous eyes of his killer until he died . . .?
< >Draco woke himself up by throwing up. The man had turned him on his side to keep his from choking to death. Draco felt like he was vomiting up his heart and lungs. His throat burned and his stomach wretched and knotted within him.
< >“You drank the river water,” the man said knowingly as he cleaned off Draco’s face with a thin, white handkerchief. He still kept Draco positioned on his side in case he began spewing again.
< >“Yeah - so what?” Draco sneered, coughing.
< >The man chuckled quietly and patted Draco’s back gently and reassuringly as Draco begin vomiting and hacking horribly again. “This is what you get,” he said softly, shaking his head a bit.
< >Draco snorted, wiping his mouth off with the back of his hand. “Who are you?” he demanded angrily. He cut himself off by hacking out more vomit that clogged his throat. He then spat on the ground in disgust of himself.
< >The man was suddenly silent and wouldn’t look a Draco for a minute or two. Finally, he replied very dismissively, and looking at Draco very sharply, “Never mind that. Just keep throwing up until you’re through, Draco.”
< >Draco moaned painfully as his stomach twisted and knotted. “If you won’t answer me that, will you answer another, different question?” he asked the man softly, his eyes slightly wet with pain.
< >There was a hesitation, then . . . “Yes, you may.”
< >“Why?” Draco demanded hoarsely, looking up at the strange man. “Why are you here? Why did you follow me? Why are you helping me - someone who would have had you condemned many years ago, along with his father?”
< >Hermione sighed as she wrote an article on Draco, again, which mainly said no one had seen him since the farm house incident, griping about how the one of the Ministry workers should have stayed watch, while the other went for help.
< >Of course, Hermione would slap a name that didn’t exist in her office on the article when it went to print. She didn’t want to be criticized anymore for even writing something about him. She was fed up. Literally fed up.
< >She was fed up with all of it to the point she went out in the hall of her office, with a pile of papers, dumped them on the floor, and set them on fire. Her employees were mixed with feelings and said nothing as the flames burned out and the ashes disintegrated before their very eyes, and Hermione returned to her office, slamming the door behind herself.
< >Hermione had been disappointed to come home to more newspapers accusing her of knowing Draco’s location, having affairs with him, covering up for him, making a set up or lying about running into him in Diagon Alley, and so on, and so on.
< >Finally, she finished the article, and sent it up to typesetting. Hermione then dropped her head on the desk miserably. She was tired, still, having only gotten the lesser of five or so hours of sleep, and way too much coffee. She also had a raging headache that refused to go away, no matter how many potions or Muggle Advil she took.
< >The door to the room suddenly burst open and in stormed Arthur and Percy Weasley, each looking deathly malicious and horribly snide. Hermione barely lifted her eyes to look at them.
< >“We know you went after him!” Arthur roared at her, point his wand accusingly at her. “Tell us where he is, Ms. Granger, or you will face the consequences! Believe me, you will!”
< >Hermione snorted and put her head back into her arms. “I was on vacation, Mr. Weasley,” she murmured sleepily. She glanced at the two, red faced men with an exasperated sigh. “I do not know where Draco Malfoy is, nor do I care to know at this point in time.”
< >“LIAR!” Arthur shrieked.
< >“Is that my name now?” Hermione asked sarcastically.
< >“Tell us where he is!” Percy shouted.
< >Hermione jumped to her feet and pointed a finger at both the men. “I cannot tell you because I DO NOT KNOW!” she yelled spitefully. “And even if I did, I would NEVER tell you! NEVER!” She took a deep breath and lowered her finger. “Get out of here, both of you. You now do not have a right to come into this building without permission from me, do you understand that? I don’t care what power you may think you have over me, because there is absolutely none, I can assure you both. Now get out before I get you out myself!”
< >Arthur and Percy left quickly, knowing Hermione’s rare threats were usually real and she would hold to that until she was finished and beyond even that, if she felt desired to do so. She was the one of the most powerful witches of her generation and everyone knew that.
< >“So, you figured out who I am, now, have you, Draco?” the man asked softly.
< >“Professor Lupin?” Draco demanded sharply, trying to sit up.
< >Lupin wouldn’t let him and he didn’t try to resist, feeling ill. “How many Professor Remus Lupins have you met in your life, Mr. Malfoy?” he asked, smiling gently, but cautiously, trying not to provoke him.
< >“My father and myself would have condemned you a few years back, given half the chance,” Draco replied bluntly.
< >Lupin laughed calmly. “As you said, Mr. Malfoy, that was many years ago. My grudges against most people do not last long. As for why I am here and why I followed you, I’ll tell you straight. I live in this forest during the full moon. You’re lucky you came when you did. If you had come two and a half weeks sooner or a while later, I would have probably eaten you.” He chuckled. “I followed you, well, because I knew who you were.”
< >“Were?” Draco asked dryly.
< >“Are,” Lupin corrected himself.
< >“Are you going to turn me in?”
< >“That all depends,” Lupin replied, sounding slightly wistful.
< >“All depends on what?” Draco asked.
< >Lupin smiled at him. “I haven’t quite figured that out yet, Draco.”
< >“Oh? Tell me when you do.” With that, Draco fainted, weak from vomiting.
< >When Draco woke up, it was late afternoon. Had he really slept that long? he wondered to himself, having to force his body to sit up. He looked around feverishly. Where was Lupin?
< >“Have a nice sleep?” Lupin asked, emerging from the trees, carrying firewood.
< >Draco had to blink twice as his vision slightly blurred, saying nothing.
< >Lupin didn’t say anything again either as he dumped the wood into the dead fire pit. He kneeled next to the fire and took out his wand. He then muttered a few words and a straight line of fire shot out of the end of the stick, striking the wood into a blaze.
< >Draco stared at the wand.
< >“What?” Lupin asked, noticing.
< >“I don’t have a wand anymore,” Draco said softly. “It was revoked when I had a third strike - or at least they caught me for the third and last time since . . . Whenever I see one, now, though, it amazes me the power they have . . .” He sighed and moved a few feet away from the hot flames of the fire.
< >“But you can still do magic.”
< >Draco snorted dismissively. “Do you have Alzheimer’s, Lupin? You don’t need your wand for everything; that’s what potions, charms, incantations, and dancing rats are for,” he replied with a stubborn bitterness.
< >Lupin narrowed his eyes. “Many people feel lost without their wands.”
< >“And they’re idiots,” came Draco’s short response.
< >“You only say that because you have adapted more than anyone I’ve seen.”
< >“Yes,” Draco agreed thoughtfully, rubbing his chin. “I can do without my wand so much, that if I had one, it would be a nuisance, but the damned things are still fascinating. I can’t shoot fire out my finger, yet; it is merely all words and thoughts that I can use.”
< >Lupin twirled his wand in his fingers, thinking. “You asked me why I was helping you, Draco, did you not?” he asked, dropping their current subject, and going into a new one.
< >Draco said nothing, looking at the ground.
< >“Would you like to know why?”
< >Draco nodded, taking a deep, nervous breath.
< >“I am not going to tell you,” Lupin replied promptly, grinning broadly. Draco looked at him in shock and Lupin laughed, slapping his knees. “You will just have to figure that one out on your own, Draco, my boy, because I don’t know it myself.”
< >He then grew very serious. “In any other case, besides my intuition telling me not to, I would be dragging you back to the Ministry in seconds, and believe me, if my senses even slightly falter about you, I will turn you into Arthur Weasley.”
< >“That’s comforting,” Draco muttered coldly, glaring at the ground darkly.
< >“I thought so,” Lupin said with a small smile.