Harry Potter stood with company on the doorstep of a nice semi-detached house in Kent. He knocked on the black lacquered door and tried to look innocuous. He was too tired and too aware of the paucity of their welcome to manage the appearance of respectability. Newchurch Road was an anonymous clone colony of middle class homes in the commuter belt. Someone would notice three men arriving on foot at quarter to ten at night. That someone probably had the Residents' Association and the police on speed dial.
Hermione answered the door wearing a set of plaid flannel pyjamas; a statement she was making precisely zero effort. She did let them in however, shutting the door with a slam and a glare. The front hallway merged into an open plan lounge and kitchen, making a large rectangular space that would have been inviting if there had been more furniture. There was exactly one table, one squashy love-seat and one cushion. Bookshelves covered every inch of wall, framing the windows and touching the ceiling.
"I have lodged an official protest with the DMLE." Hermione informed Auror Potter. He nodded. She'd told him she would. She'd refused, objected, requested, demanded and finally outright shouted in the streets.
"I know." Harry agreed on a sigh. The witch had limited the vitriol she had directed at him for the sake of their friendship but she had left him in no doubt as to her opinion of the Ministry's Integration and Mentoring Program. He held out a red trimmed scroll and when she refused to take it, Harry tapped the parchment on her right hand. It transfigured itself onto two rings on her forefinger, a match to the bracelets on the wrists of the two wizards behind him.
"This is little better than extortion. There's insufficient oversight." She hissed, clenching her fists. "The parole criteria are farcical."
"I know." He agreed again. "But there's nothing we can do about it right now." Harry met her furious stare. "Give it time. Once the Reconstruction's complete, the Ministry will be in less of a panic about their bottom line."
"They've got their heads up their bottom line." Hermione snapped though she gave him a reluctant nod. The appeals process had been stymied but there were still avenues to pursue. Patience not passion was necessary for progress. She knew that, didn't like it and did not intend to sit on her hands a moment longer than needed.
"Can you manage or would you like me to stay?" Harry asked. Ginny had just got home from touring. They hadn't seen each other for weeks. He still asked, though. Hermione shook her head. She'd manage and the Aurors had been run ragged providing security and transport as well as their standard duties. He Disapparated, leaving her with two Ministry mandated house guests in Azkaban grey.
"Right." The witch drew in a deep, slow breath. "Malfoy, Nott, welcome to my home." They stared at her, dazed and uncertain after a long day of prodding. The aftermath of the suppression rituals had probably drained them of any impetus to do anything, Hermione presumed. She moderated her tone. "Would you like to eat or bathe first?"
"Eat." Malfoy said dully.
"We're clean." Nott seemed to be more aware. "They made sure."
"I bet they did." Hermione relaxed her mouth from its grim line. "A nice hot bath is better than a Scourgify." They stood there, eyes on her and waiting. Watching for the first twitch of aggression or non-verbal cue to how they were to behave. She deliberately slowed down her movements so she didn't startle them, conjured two chairs and pointed to the table. "Sit down there. I'll bring you dinner."
She hadn't made soup for them. She'd made it because chopping things into itty bitty bits had been soothing. Hermione had Silenced her kitchen and gone at the carrots with a cleaver. There was probably something Freudian in that but the transferred violence had helped rein in her temper. But cream of vegetable soup was easy on stomachs accustomed to the calorie and nutrient deficient slop they'd got in prison.
There was no conversation over dinner. The two wizards ate mechanically, scraping every last drop out of their bowls but not asking for more. Hermione wouldn't have given them a second serving until she was sure they could keep it down. She planned to feed them soup, bread and fruit for a couple of days until they were used to normal food again then she'd let them loose on whatever they wanted. Neither had been bulky before their incarceration. Both looked gaunt now.
"Bath?" Hermione asked when they'd finished eating. They shook their heads. She escorted them upstairs to what had been her office and spare bedroom. Small rooms, both. "I've visited Azkaban. I know how cramped the cells are. I don't want to shut you away." She tried to look them in the eye. Malfoy's gaze was on the floor. Nott stared blankly at her.
Some bruised sense of compassion or displaced camaraderie prompted her to take them to the large and airy master suite. She transfigured her bed into two singles then cast Warming Charms on them. Her guests tucked themselves in. She charmed the ceiling with a night-light spell so the room wouldn't be pitch black when she turned the light off. Hermione shut the door quietly.
The bed in her repurposed office was comfortable. Her parents had urged her to never skimp on mattresses. Hermione slept poorly however, which was not unusual, and woke at dawn to Crookshanks staring down at her in the classic 'slave, make breakfast' posture of hungry cats. She got up, used the guest bathroom down the hall then went downstairs to appease her feline overlord.
Breakfast was muesli and yoghurt. Vast fry-ups with all the trimmings were a relic of the Burrow. Now she had her own place, she could start the day as she wished; gently and quietly. Crookshanks ate with her in the kitchen, crouched by her feet as she stared out the window at her neglected garden. She really should do something with it. The front of her house had been paved by some past philistine but the back had scope for horticulture.
And now she had plenty of time and help for gardening, Hermione thought bitterly.
At eight o'clock, she padded upstairs to knock on her bedroom door. When no one answered, she peeked inside. Malfoy and Nott were curled up together in one of the beds with all the blankets from both. Hermione crept over to her chest of drawers to pull out some clothes for what looked like a blustery early spring day.
"What are we to do here?" Nott's voice was hoarse and soft, from disuse and intent to allow Malfoy to continue sleeping. Hermione turned around slowly but the dawdling for time didn't give her any more wit.
"I don't know. Whatever you want." Her mouth twisted into a wry smile. "As per Ministry guidelines. Those arse-holes sent over a streamer of conditions and guff. I'm supposed to make you read it." She had read it and could only recommend the documentation as a sedative. "Basically, you're my pets until I can prove you've reformed yourselves." Hermione noticed he shrunk a little into the bedding at the harshness of her tone. "I'm sorry. I tried everything I could think of to get them to reconsider the IMP but they wouldn't listen."
"We were told we couldn't leave the house." He had tried to pay attention to the po-faced bureaucrat who had read the terms of their release but the words had dribbled together into meaninglessness. Theo remembered standing there shaking as Unspeakables cast spells on him he didn't recognise then being shoved through a Floo. Potter had been there. "How long has it been?"
"Three and a half years. It's the seventh of March, 2002." Hermione supplied then told herself to grasp the nettle. "You can't leave the house without my permission or presence, and I cannot give my permission until you've fulfilled at least half of your parole criteria. Which I have to submit to the Ministry for confirmation." She consciously relaxed, rolling a stiff neck. "The current waiting list for approval is nine weeks."
"But we can leave with you." Theo concentrated. It had been so long since he had to pay attention to anything that it was a challenge. He had endured Azkaban by ignoring everything, letting himself drift into his own thoughts. He had never been particularly sociable so being in his own company was no penance. Now though, he needed to notice things. "In your presence, you said."
"Yes." She confirmed. "The two of you are on the Restricted Access List, which means there is a whole raft of places we can't go but I thought I could show you around the neighbourhood when you're up for a stroll." Hermione thought her offer sounded feebly wet and shrugged. "Although I doubt you believe me, I would like to help you and Malfoy."
"Draco." He said, sharing his friend's name as a precious possession. "Call him Draco. Call me Theo. In that place it was always 'Prisoner Nott' or 'Prisoner Malfoy'. Our names spat like curses." The words came out in a rush before he could stuff them down.
"In that case, I'm Hermione." Hermione said, holding out her hand. "Pleased to meet you."
Theo looked at her hand then cautiously extended his own. They shook on it, being wretchedly civilised. He subsided into the cocoon of blankets. The witch fell silent. He could read her like a scroll. She was feeling awkward now as though she had intruded on something.
"You and Draco." She didn't hesitate over the personal name. "I can put the bed back together, if you'd prefer." Solitary confinement was standard policy at Azkaban. There were no conjugal visits and advocates were limited to one meeting a month. Relationships between prisoners were non-existent. Hermione didn't want to stand in the way of them rebuilding whatever they'd had.
"We're not." Theo looked down at the blond curled against him. His fingers strayed to Draco's hair, brushing it off his forehead. "We're the same." He'd forgotten too many words to explain properly.
"I understand." Hermione thought of the months in the tent, of the misery after Ron left. She and Harry had huddled together for warmth and for reassurance that the endless bloody slog would cease some day. "I bought you some clothes. Tracksuits, t-shirts and pants. I wasn't sure of your sizes. I'll put them in here."
She left before Theo could find something to say in reply. He slid down into the nest of warmth, shuddering at the exertion of an ordinary conversation. He was sweating. Wiping a hand across his forehead he stared at the moisture on his fingers before blotting his face in the soft cotton of the pillowcase. All the linen smelled of violets and the sunshine charms Granger used to dry them. He closed his eyes, meaning only to compose himself but sleep ambushed him.
Hermione spent a pleasant day pretending she was alone in the house. Crookshanks assisted in this by napping on his cushion, disinterested in the guests or the parchments his witch had spread across the table. When the sun had moved so it shone on the polished oak he would investigate it but that would be later. By then she would've capped the inkwell and finished her tea, which meant it was time to adore him.
Right now, Hermione did not feel well disposed towards anyone. She had reread the IMP guidelines and had made a list of the suggested activities. Someone who had lived or yearned for an adventurous life had put a lot of effort into finding ways to spend Death Eater money. From abseiling to zoo excursions, all on the parolees' dime. That was a nice incentive to immerse the prisoners' in Muggle life.
Someone else, likely involved in the budgeting crisis, had included helpful pamphlets on the licenses and permissions fees required to junket about the UK with a felon. A tithe to the Ministry for providing such a wonderful opportunity to educate and enlighten the hidebound. Hermione did a quick tally of what it would cost to take Theo and Draco on a hypothetical daytrip to the Isle of Man.
Leaving the house they could do for free. Crossing the ten mile inclusion limit was a modest five Galleons. Crossing the fifty mile limit was one hundred Galleons, with a Sickle for each mile exceeding fifty. Per parolee. Due to a treaty with the Lords of Man, the island was considered legally overseas despite being part of the Union so that was another tidy sum for the Ministry. Hermione added it all up and got a little angrier.
The wizards came cautiously down the stairs at one o'clock driven by hunger. Freshly washed, tousled dry and changed into the oversized fleecy tracksuits, they looked like foundlings. Seeing them standing on the last step awaiting her reaction, ready to cringe or run back to their cell, made her rage curdle into something poisonous.
"Are you hungry?" Hermione asked gently. Of course they were but she wanted to converse with them, help them ground themselves. Theo stepped forward, holding Draco's hand to tow him along. They walked to the table to make an attempt at civilised discourse.
"The soup you gave us yesterday was good." Theo paused abruptly, disconcerted by the sound of his voice. His eyes strayed to the parchment covering the table. "From the Ministry?" Glancing up at her and seeing no threat, he picked up one of the missives. Frowning at the grainy, uneven finish he sniffed the sheet. "What did they dehair this with? Old beer and rotten vegetables?"
"Quite possibly. They're cutting costs wherever they can. The Ministry is switching to paper for everything but writs." The latest batch of parchment bought by the Logistics and Purchasing Department had been little better than rawhide. Employees had started bringing in their own supply from home. "Hence your early release. Without the free labour of the Dementors, the cost of running Azkaban has soared."
"We got two meals of gruel a day and a cold cell." The heir of the House of Nott spat the words, startling himself with his own vehemence. Wherever the money the Ministry was pouring into the wizarding prison was going, it wasn't to the comfort of the prisoners. Until the Aurors had hauled him out, he hadn't been clean in months.
"You can look this over yourselves. I'll get you something to eat." Hermione offered, rising slowly. They were like wild animals, defensive and easily alarmed. She couldn't blame them. If her magic had been forcibly suppressed and she'd been handed over to an enemy, she'd be skittish too. They tracked her traverse to the kitchen.
"Granger." Draco said as if noticing her for the first time. She straightened, regarding him with a neutral expression. The wizard seemed concussed. "My mother?" He asked fighting the gloom for his voice. "Is she?"
"Narcissa was released two months ago to her sister Andromeda. They're in France with Teddy." She didn't hesitate in giving him that information although 'custodians' were cautioned not to gossip with their charges. The unspoken suggestion to be economical with the truth didn't sit right with Hermione either. "Your mother's health was very poor but she is getting better. I saved your aunt's letters so you can read them."
"Aunt?" He asked, a spike of fear stabbing into his spine. He had an aunt. She was insane. He could hear her laughing, a high, shrill cackle like a Crucio. Draco trembled, his mind filling with echoes of Bellatrix's Occlumency lessons.
When the darkness cleared, he was lying on the floor with his head pillowed on someone's shoulder. He was shivering and someone else was tucking a soft blanket around him. Draco hoped he hadn't fainted in the Common Room. Zabini would never let him live it down and Pansy had done something terrible to her hair. He blinked at the girl who was wrapping him against the cold. She wasn't Parkinson.
"You are alright." Hermione spoke in a calm, even voice, repeating the mantra she told herself when she woke shaking at three in the morning with her scar burning. "You're safe. Bellatrix is dead and you're not. We won."
"We didn't." Theo said heavy.
"Honestly, I'm not sure we did either. No one bloody listened to me and the idiocy keeps seeping upwards." She sat back on her heels, not sure if she should be bitching to two former Death Eaters. They at least couldn't try to transfer her to Wales to shut her up. "We're down a lot of lunatics but we're well up on red tape." Hermione grimaced, the familiar feeling of ingrown wrath prickling under her skin. "I thought it would be different."