Sunday was a write off as far as being productive went. Andromeda replied to her letter and included an envelope for Draco from Narcissa. He left his breakfast half-eaten to rush upstairs to read in private. Theo ate half a bowl of porridge then spent the morning prostrate watching TV as his stomach punished him. Hermione reread what Andromeda had written while sitting in her armchair, then continued to sit while she thought.
Draco rejoined them before lunch. His eyes were red but his face was set in an expressionless mask. He thrust his mother's letter at Granger. When she hesitated to take it, anger loosened his tongue.
"Read it." The Ministry allowed parolees correspondence on the condition they have the permission of their custodian, which included inspection and possible censorship of their letters. Narcissa had begged him not to put a foot wrong.
"Do you want me to?" Hermione asked, not touching the delicately scented notepaper.
"The rules." Draco got the words out around his teeth, feeling voiceless as though Azkaban had stolen every power or suffrage from him. His own mind wanted him to be quiet, to go unnoticed, to avoid confrontation so there would be no more pain. Granger's fingers touched his and he flinched as though stung.
"Why don't you read it to me?" She suggested. "What you share with me should be your own choice."
"I..." He swallowed, hating himself for his fear. He'd paced his cell frantic for something to do, knowing he should do something, anxious to keep busy, not to think but there was nothing to do, no way to escape his own head.
"How about a trade then?" Hermione said softly. "I'll tell you something personal so when you share your mother's letter you won't lose anything." She looked his chest, not ignoring him but not pushing the confrontation by staring him in the eye. George had shied away from eye-contact for years. He'd tried to laugh about how vulnerable he felt standing alone under someone else's direct gaze. She'd had a lot of chats to his jumpers.
"You first." Draco dredged up some arrogance. It was a pallid ghost of his previous self-confidence. The effort made Hermione smile though.
"Ron kisses like an over-enthusiastic puppy." The confession got a quiet chuckle from Theo and a fleeting smile from the wary blond.
"Mother is well." He began then stopped abruptly, hands clenching on the letter. "I can't."
"Then don't." She offered Andromeda's letter to him. "I plan for the three of us to go to Mrs Tonks's house and lounge on a beach. Her place is on the residence list for custodians so once I pay the fees, we can stay there." Hermione would've preferred to rent a cottage but Perpignan didn't have a wizarding settlement nearby so there would be no buildings already warded. Getting a house prepped to custodial standard would involve both the British and French Ministries and more time than she was prepared to expend.
The two wizards raised no objections. Hermione sent a request for travel forms to the Ministry, all permutations of which arrived in a great ream obviously dispatched automatically on receipt of the charm. Theo and Draco watched Brother Cadfael solve mysteries in the 12th century while Hermione wrangled with 21st century red-tape.
Dinner was the last of the vegetable soup and some experimental dry toast. Neither wizard felt like moving much with unfamiliarly full stomachs so they sat outdoors rugged up again, staring at green things as though they had forgotten the colour. Crookshanks joined them after his witch cast a warming charm. The half-kneazle parked himself on Theo's lap, his low purr rumbling in the stillness.
Draco eyed the cat then tentatively reached across to pet the orange monster. His fur was ridiculously soft, slightly fluffed in the humidity like his mistress's hair. He pulled his hand back when the cat opened one eye but when no clawing wrath was forthcoming, he resuming petting. The slow resonant purring was very soothing.
Once she realised it was past nine o'clock, Hermione went to check on her guests. She found all three males dozing. As she lifted Crookshanks off Theo, the cat protested by going boneless, forcing his witch to lug him all the way to his cushion. He stared reproachfully until she charmed his bed warm then he curled up in a huff of marmalade indignation.
Hermione hesitated before rousing the Slytherins. She didn't want to alarm them. They looked so peaceful. Terribly young and wrung out. Delicately, she touched Theo's hand, patting it when he didn't rouse. He blinked, jerking in the chair before deliberately relaxing. The patio light was on. He could see clearly where he was and who she was. He let his breath out.
"It's late." Hermione told him quietly. "You should go to bed."
Theo nodded foggily, getting up and dragging his blanket with him as he stumbled inside. Hermione repeated her hand touch with Draco but he didn't stir. She coughed loudly then shook his shoulder. It was her own fault, she conceded to herself later. Theo's war had been one of keeping his mouth shut and doing what he was told while trying to avoid notice. Voldemort had Marked him as a matter of protocol. Draco had been a show-piece.
The Malfoy heir woke suddenly, felt a grip on his arm and reacted almost before his eyes were open. One hand lashed out to push his attacker away as his other hand went to his wand. Which wasn't there. He thrashed, trapped by something, staggering to his feet ready either for a curse or a blow. Neither came.
Hermione dabbed her mouth. Draco had caught her on the cheek and she'd bit her lip. He'd probably been going for a man's throat or collarbone if he'd been thinking tactically at all. Likely not, she guessed from his shocked face.
"It's alright." That seemed the conventional thing to say. Draco shied back, his eyes darting as his chest heaved. Hermione stood still, waiting for his adrenalin rush to abate. It took a while, quite a while before he lowered his arms and unclenched his hands. She ventured a smile. "We'll call this even for Third Year."
"I'm sorry." Draco rasped. Granger stepped over to him, picking up the fallen blanket. She kept her hands where he could see them, the bedding in a bundle against her. Showing him she was no threat. Showing him, the Death Eater, he didn't need to be frightened.
"It's fine. You woke suddenly, that's all." Hermione reassured, trying to add some normality to the situation. If he could rationalise his response as ordinary surprise at waking unexpectedly then maybe next time he wouldn't be so alarmed.
"You." He inhaled shakily. There was a smear of blood on the corner of her mouth. Not quite aware of what he was doing, Draco reached out and touched a finger to her lip, wiping the red away. He looked at the colour on his skin then licked his fingertip. Iron and salt. No different than his. But he knew that, didn't he? Alone in his cell all the lies had withered.
"That's unsanitary." The scold was automatic. Hermione heard her mother so many times say the exact thing whenever she had done something mucky. A smirk flickered across his face.
"Know-it-all." Draco spoke without thinking then the recollection of the schoolyard insult spat so often chilled him, jerking him out of the idyll. She'd stomp off and leave him. She would. She'd spin around, her mad hair bouncing, stalking away like a lioness faced with prey too puny to eat.
She smiled at him, her chocolate eyes crinkling showing him the expression was genuine. Granger eased forward, handing him the wadded up blanket. So close he could smell her; violets and lemon from her tea and female and clean warm soft home scents that told him more than the soup or the garden that he was out of prison.
"Not yet." Hermione said, her mouth curving with mischief. "But just you wait."
Draco went to bed feeling warm, sleeping neither lightly nor with the pole-axed heaviness of exhaustion. An everyday sort of slumber that was a balm in itself. He rolled over to see Theo next to him also awake. They'd pushed their beds together, sharing blankets, wanting closeness but better able to last the night huddling together with atavistic fear.
"Do you think we've gone mad?" He asked the dark haired wizard, toying idly with the manacle on his left wrist. The guard who had held him down when his magic was bound had dug his fingers into the Dark Mark, twisting the skin as though he wanted to rip it off. There had been a Healer there, who had vanished all the bruises. Didn't want any awkward questions.
"Perhaps." Theo had been thinking about it, lying on a soft mattress in a pleasant room with the sun peaking in around heavy curtains. "Would you hallucinate Granger if you had lost your mind?" He idly thought that he might. She'd been in all his classes. Insanity might well twist her image in his head into an Erinys. But the provision of hot chocolate and fleecy garments did not seem apt punishment for an oath-breaker.
"I don't know." Draco had waited in his cell to lose his grasp on reason. Would you know? He wasn't sure if he wanted this to be a happy delusion, the last defense of a fractured mind, or real. If it were real then it could be taken away.
"I tried to keep myself occupied." He had recited books and argued logic and worked through complicated Arithmantic equations, taking refuge in his intellect as the world had succumbed to lunacy. "I could have constructed this reality. More plausible than being released to Nott Manor." Theo wondered whether the Ministry had even paused before ransacking his family home. Doubtful. "I like this dream."
Draco thought about the way Granger moved, the fire in her eyes. She had said they would go to France. He could bear to drowse in the sun drinking red wine and eating croissants. Eating everything. His stomach growled, as insistent as it had been in the early days of his sentence grumbling like an disgruntled house elf.
As though summoned by his hunger, there was a knock on the door. A considerable pause as Theo and Draco remembered they could refuse someone entry lengthened into something awkward. Granger knocked again announcing she'd brought them breakfast. Admittance was granted quickly.
"Downstairs is a bit of a mess. There's laundry everywhere." Hermione lied casually, neither wizard heeding her remark as they hurried to sit up in bed. She levitated a tray to each of them. "I sent the travel request through last night and they've been approved. You stay up here and eat while I pack. We'll go directly. Before anyone has a chance to lodge an objection."
Theo noted her flyaway hair and the smudges under her eyes. He'd fallen asleep as soon as he'd reached his bed and couldn't guess when she'd gone to sleep. Late, that much was evident. She gave them a nod then strode out of the room purposefully. Her demeanour was not unusual so he didn't wonder at it over-long. Perhaps the modest witch simply didn't want them ogling her dirty undergarments.
The prospect of an injunction against them leaving the country was apparently real enough to have Granger bustle them out of the house as soon as they'd bathed and dressed. They Disapparated directly from the bedroom with Draco holding an owl cage and Theo a cat carrier, the occupants of which were most seriously displeased.
Their arrival was rougher than Hermione liked but she wasn't surprised she staggered on landing and the crack of their Apparition boomed. Six hundred miles was at the upper limit of her range. A Side-Along at that distance taxed her control heavily. However she was very determined not to go to the Ministry for a Portkey.
The thunderclap brought Andromeda and Narcissa into the garden. Draco staggered to his mother, embracing her with Sophia's cage still in his hand. Theo lowered Crookshanks's carrier to the ground then finding his knees bent sat down on the brick path trying not to shame himself by regurgitating his muesli.
Mrs Tonks's cottage was a two-storey box in buff brick with a terracotta roof. The back wall had five windows with shutters painted milky blue open to the morning sun. The building was old enough to have settled into itself, weathering into the hillside until it looked like a giant's toy block carelessly left. Most of the ground floor was a low ceilinged kitchen with a long refectory table, to which Andromeda herded them.
"Have some coffee, Hermione." The older witch gestured at a silver pot, which her guest poured with a lavish hand. Caffeine was a short term solution. It would get her to Switzerland, though. Hermione leaned against the sink and watched Crookshanks sniff the earthenware tiles around the pot-bellied stove. They had visited the cottage several times so the half-kneazle had preferred napping spots. Wedged behind the stove was a particular favourite.
"Thank you." Theo said when Draco's disowned aunt put a plate of pastries in front of him.
"I have been assured that you aren't as bad as your father." Andromeda studied the boy for a long moment. "That I can believe." When the young Nott winced, she shook her head. "Don't. What's done is done. What I lost cannot be replaced." She took the coffee pot from Hermione and poured for the group. "I believe I speak for everyone here when I say I just want it over with."
There was no conversation around the table. Narcissa sobbed quietly over her son while Draco hid his face against her shoulder and shook. Theo dismembered a croissant. Andromeda recollected a request and left the kitchen, returning with a large manilla envelope. She handed it to Hermione, who traded it for a beaded bag, finished her coffee and went out into the garden. At the sound of her Disapparition, Draco jerked his head up.
"She'll be back." Narcissa reassured. "Miss Granger has some errands to run, that's all." The sight of her only child's pallor made an angry knot in her belly. He was being treated like a chattel, a commodity. Her precious boy, trussed like a market goose. "She's going to Gringotts to transfer your vaults. She's very clever." The unspoken 'for a Mudblood' caused Andromeda to interrupt.
"Hermione is doing this at risk to her reputation and what remains of her career out of principle." The sharp edge of her tongue was pure Black. "If I hear one word, one murmur about her blood or upbringing, I'll turn you all out into the street." The widow smiled composedly, helping herself to a petit madeleine like a society hostess.
"What is it that she is doing?" Theo asked when Draco looked ready to crawl into himself. Their French Arcadia had thorns.
"It's complicated." Andromeda echoed Hermione, who had frowned when she said it as though reminded of something unpleasant. "She couldn't give me the specifics as it's between her and the goblins. But she's found a way to get around the Ministry hold on your vaults. It's much more than her simply transferring the money. Much more than you. Hermione thinks she's found a way to save wizarding Britain from bankruptcy."