The delightful Catherine Morgenstern beta'd this chapter for me. Thanks, dear.
The last thing Hermione remembered was a bright light. Bottle green and edged with silver sparkles. And then pain. Intense stabbing pain that had filled her body with pins and needles, before turning her muscles into stone. And after that; nothing. Not a sound, or a feeling, or even a thought. Just, nothing. She floated in this nothingness for endless days. Days that turned into weeks, that turned into months, that turned into years. Three of them to be exact.
Then, quite unexpectedly, she felt something. A small something that started to pull her away from the nothingness she'd sunk into. She wasn't aware enough to know what that touch was, but she felt it all the same. And from that moment, her concentration narrowed, all of her awareness focusing on feeling that something again. She would feel a light brush across her skin that ripped her from the darkness. At other times she wouldn't feel, but hear. Strange, distorted sounds that made no sense. It was like trying to listen to a foreign language, underwater and with her ears stuffed full of cotton. But she heard it nonetheless.
After that, she started to become more aware of things. She even started to have dreams that were full of twisted memories. She dreamt of the final battle. Screams, blood and terror filled her mind in a never ending circle. Hogwarts a broken down mess around her. And then she'd see Harry and Voldemort. Hatred twisting their features as they threw deadly curses at each other. The worry for her friend made her heart thump inside the cage of her ribs. And then a sound to her right. Her head turned and...bottle green light, edged with silver sparkles. And then nothing.
It was when the pain came that she was most aware. It pulled her out of the nothingness faster than anything else could. So she began to crave it. That pain. That sharp delicious pain. But in the end it wasn't the pain that pulled her free of the nothingness. It was the voices.
"I think she's waking up," a female voice said, soft and lilting.
"Floo Potter." This one was male and clinical.
The sound of retreating footsteps reached her ears. Hermione then felt her eyes being forced open and blinding light filled her vision.
"Miss Granger? Can you hear me?"
She wanted to shout out that of course she could hear him, but she couldn't make her lips shape the words. Her mouth felt dry, itchy, like it was filled with cottonwool. She tried to remove the fingers from her eyelids, but she couldn't move. Her body wouldn't do what she wanted it too. Confusion began to creep up on her, muddling her already befuddled thoughts. All she could see was white and then the blurred outline of a head.
"Uuh," was all she could say.
He moved his hand and she shut her eyes. Blocking out that harsh brightness.
"You're at St. Mungo's." He shuffled about beside her. "You've been unconscious since the battle." The sound of bottles clinking and then the cool press of glass against her lips. "Here, drink this. It's a restorative potion."
She opened her lips to let the thick syrupy potion ooze into her mouth. It coated her tongue unpleasantly, the sharp minty taste stinging her throat as it slid down. She coughed, choking on the viscous liquid.
"Slowly, Miss Granger." He pulled the bottle away and began to fuss with her pillows, adding another one which caused her neck to cramp.
Her body felt as though it was filled with lead and jumbled thoughts gave her a headache as she lay there. She licked her lips and tried to lift her arm. It wouldn't move, not one millimetre. She thought that maybe her finger might have jerked a little. But she wasn't sure. Her eyelids were more co-operative. They opened at her command, and blinked when she wanted them to.
Her vision was still blurry and she kept blinking, hoping to sharpen the edges a bit and make the man come into focus. It would have helped if he hadn't had been moving about so much. But he continued to wander around the room, adjusting the sheets and rattling the potion bottles. She wanted to tell him to stop, but when she tried to speak, all that came out was a feeble puff of air.
The sound of rushed footsteps came from beyond the door. Her eyes flicked towards the noise, just in time to see it thrust open.
Her heart clenched when she recognised Harry's voice. It was deeper though, with a mature timber that had not been there before. But it was Harry all the same.
He rushed towards her and she felt him grasp her hand. "We've been so worried about you."
Hermione blinked her eyes as she tried to force her vision to work. Harry came into view for the briefest of seconds, but he was different from her Harry. This one was older. He had stubble peppering his jaw, shorter hair and more defined features.
Panic rushed through her. "Harry?" Her voice was raspy and weak from disuse.
"Yes!" His hand squeezed her fingers. "Mione it's me."
Her head shook. No.
"Mr Potter, if I may have a word?" said the Healer from the foot of the bed.
Harry looked reluctant but nodded, leaning down to plant a soft kiss on her forehead. His stubble scratched her skin and it was such an odd sensation that she grimaced and tried to pull away. They left the room, leaving Hermione alone with a nurse. She wore a pale blue dress that brushed the floor and a white apron and cap. She was avoiding Hermione's gaze and tidying the various bottles on the table next to her bed. She wanted to tell her that the doctor had already done that, but worry had sealed her lips shut.
All she could do was lay there, look at the ceiling and try not burst into tears. She didn't understand why the nurse wouldn't look at her. Or why Harry and the Healer were talking about her in the corridor. Because they were, she knew they were.
It seemed to take forever for Harry to come back into the room and when he did, she wanted him to leave again. He was just so...different.
"Hey," he said, coming to the bed to sit beside her. It dipped under his weight and she rolled towards him.
Hermione fixed her eyes on him, demanding answers. He didn't start speaking until the doctor and nurse had left the room.
"Do you remember the battle?" he said.
"Well," he took her hand again before continuing, "during the fight you were hit with a curse. It knocked you unconscious and you were brought to St. Mungo's"
She frowned. That made sense. But she was awake now. So why did he look so worried? And why were the doctor and nurse so nervous? Was she damaged? Was that why she couldn't move her arms and legs?
Seeing her alarmed expression, he spoke, "You'll be fine. It'll take a while for you to recover though."
Her breath rushed out as relief swept through her. She had to close her eyes to stop the tears from falling. She was okay. Harry was okay. Ron. Her eyes flew open.
"Ron?" she gasped.
Harry dropped his gaze. "Ron's fine, Mione," he said.
She didn't believe him. He wouldn't look her in the eye and his foot was jiggling up and down. "Harry?"
"Umm...yeah. You've been out a while Mione."
"Ho..." She coughed. "How long?"
She froze. For a moment she thought he'd said three years. But that was impossible. She flicked her gaze back to Harry. His eyes were filled with pity as he watched her.
"Harry...?" she said, shaking her head in denial.
"You'll be fine. We're here for you, I promise."
She wouldn't be fine. She'd lost three years of her life. How the hell was that fine? She didn't realize she was crying until Harry brushed his fingers across her cheeks.
"We'll get through this, you'll be fine."
He kept saying that, but it would never be fine again. "Voldemort?" she whispered past the lump in her throat.
"Dead." He gave her a fierce grin that she couldn't return.
Hermione turned her gaze to the ceiling. There was a crack; tiny and directly above her head. The longer she looked at it, the more she was sure that it wasn't a crack at all, but a spider. But it hadn't moved so it couldn't be a spider, unless it was dead one.
"Where's Ron?" she asked.
"Ah...he's at Grimmauld Place, we didn't want to overwhelm you," he rushed out.
Too late. She was already overwhelmed. Ron visiting her wouldn't have made any difference. Harry was hiding something about Ron. He had that nervous look that showed his unease and he wouldn't look her in the eye.
"Where's Ron, Harry?" she asked flatly.
Harry shifted, "He's fine. I promise. We just thought..."
"Don't lie to me," she interrupted.
He sighed and shifted his eyes to the back of his hand. "Three years is a long time," he said.
"Not for me," she muttered, her voice beginning to weaken.
Harry winced. "Yeah, sorry." He drew himself up and stared at her in determination. "Ron married Lavender. A year ago."
Hermione frowned. Married? He married Lavender? But it seemed just minutes ago that he'd kissed her. That he'd looked at her so shyly and held her hand. And now he was married?
"Mione?" Harry sounded worried. "We didn't know if you'd ever wake up. Ron was devastated."
"Clearly," she bit out.
Harry was fidgeting beside her. "I'm really sorry. He didn't want to hurt you. He..."
"I'm tired," she said, cutting him off. She didn't want to hear him say another word. Not one. "Would you mind leaving me alone?"
An awkward silence fell between them, one she had no intention of breaking. Instead, she closed her eyes, feigning sleep. Of course Harry knew what she was doing, but he didn't call her out on it. He just sighed, pressed another kiss to her forehead and said, "I'll be back tomorrow."
Hermione waited until he was near the door before speaking. "Please, don't bring Ron."
"I...okay," he muttered.
Her eyes were closed as he shut the door. She counted to ten. Hissed in a breath and then burst into tears. Which in hindsight was a mistake, because everything fell to the back of her throat and made it hard to breathe.
Three years? How could three years have passed without her knowing. And Ron married? It just didn't seem real. Confusion battled with hurt as she lay there, a jumbled mess, until the nurse returned. She was desperate for an explanation that would make sense to her. But the nurse continued to avoid her gaze.
"Miss Granger?" the nurse said, focusing on her nose.
Hermione bobbed her head.
"Lippy has been assigned to assist with your recovery." She snapped her fingers and a tiny, thick lipped, elf appeared. Her large ears flopped down onto her shoulders and swayed when she moved. She was wearing the most stunning blue silk pillowcase, draped around her body and cinched at the waist with a green cord.
The nurse pointed to Hermione. "Lippy you will be looking after Miss Granger until she recovers."
Lippy regarded the prone witch. "Hello, Misss" she said.
"Please, call me Hermione."
Lippy curtsied. "Of course, Mistress Hermione."
The nurse clapped and the sharp noise caused Hermione to wince. "Now, I have my rounds to complete. I'll be back to check on you later Miss Granger."
"Thank you," Hermione said, pretending she hadn't seen the pitying look the nurse had given her before leaving.
"Does Mistress Hermione want a drink?" Lippy asked from the side of the bed.
Hermione nodded and watched as the elf clicked her fingers and making a glass of water appear out of thin air. There was a purple straw in it that Lippy bent and eased into Hermione's mouth.
"Not too much," the elf cautioned, "Lippy doesn't want to make you sick." She pulled the straw from Hermione's mouth and set the glass on the bedside table.
The cool liquid filled her stomach, but her mouth felt much better. Moist and not so painful to swallow. She could feel Lippy watching her and so she swung her gaze towards the elf. Anything to distract her from her churning thoughts.
"I didn't know elves worked at St. Mungo's," Hermione said.
Lippy nodded her head. "Lippy and friends work here now." She thumped her chest, "no longer have nasty Death Eater masters."
"Why not? What happened to the Death Eaters? Did they go to Azkaban?" The questions tripped out of Hermione's mouth one after another.
Lippy was shaking her head, ears swinging back and forth. "Oh no Mistress, Azkaban was blown up. BANG!" She swirled her hands in the air. "Death Eaters couldn't go there, so they replace house elves. Make good workers."
Hermione's eyes widened in alarm. "Workers? I think you mean slaves."
"Not slaves Miss, House elves," Lippy said.
"But it's the same thing," Hermione whispered.
Lippy patted Hermione's hand soothingly. "Rest now, Miss. Lippy will watch over you."
Panic seized her chest. "But what if I don't wake up again?"
"There, there, Lippy will watch." She clicked her fingers and conjured a chair. It was tiny and when the elf sat, Hermione could see the top of her head. She then began to hum a strange off key lullaby.
Hermione stared at the ceiling and fought the drowsiness that sought to drag her back down into the abyss. Her body was exhausted, but her mind was full of questions. How could this be happening? The world had turned upside down and they didn't seem to see how wrong it was. Her eyes fluttered closed and though she tried, she couldn't make them open again.
Hermione did wake up again. This time to a darker room and no Lippy. Instead, the same nurse from earlier was seated beside her and reading a copy of the Daily Prophet. For a moment Hermione studied her, taking in the soft brown hair and wrinkled skin. She wondered if this nurse had been taking care of her for the last three years.
"Could I have some water please?" The nurse jumped when Hermione spoke, dropping the Prophet and reaching for her wand in reflex.
As soon as she saw Hermione's alarmed look she sat back down. "I'm so sorry! You startled me." She reached across to grab the water glass. "Here."
Hermione took a long sip, nodding when she'd had enough. "Where's Lippy?"
"Oh. She had other duties to attend too. If ever you need her, just click your fingers and call her name."
"And your name is?" Hermione asked, whilst trying to click her fingers. She couldn't. They felt numb and heavy. Like they belonged to someone else.
"It'll come back." the nurse said. "Your muscles haven't been used in a long time. And my name is nurse Primrose."
Hermione nodded. "It's nice to meet you. Have you looked after me all this time?"
"No. Only the last year."
"I..." She moistened her dry lips. "Lippy said the Death Eaters were made into house elves. I don't understand how that can be."
Nurse Primrose settled back into her chair. "Yes. Azkaban was destroyed, so there was nowhere else to house them." She frowned as she spoke, "It began as a rehabilitation program. A way to integrate them back into our community. The ministry decided that it would be best if they lived alongside us, learnt the proper way to act and behave." Her eyes dipped to the floor. "It didn't work out very well as you can imagine. A way was found to bind them into servitude instead."
"Servitude?" Hermione said unable to disguise her disgust.
Nurse Primrose drew herself up defensively. "It was for everyone's safety, they just wouldn't change. No matter what we did or how we punished them, they continued to spew hatred." She lay her hands in her lap. "And now they can't."
Hermione looked at her in disbelief. Was she trying to justify turning the Death Eaters into slaves? And what the hell did she mean by punishment?
She narrowed her eyes at the nurse. "What did Harry have to say about this?"
Nurse Primrose blinked in surprise. "It was partly his idea. And he has a Death Eater in his employ at this time."
"So they get paid?" she snapped out. "And which Death Eater does Harry own?" She refused to use the word employ.
Nurse Primrose looked flustered. "No, of course they don't get paid. They get room and board. And Mr Potter employs Draco Malfoy."
Hermione gasped. "No! This is barbaric." She angrily at the ceiling. What on earth was Harry thinking? How could he? And Draco? He was as much of a victim as the rest of them.
The nurse shifted in her seat, sensing Hermione's outrage. She got to her feet intending to leave the witch in Lippy's care, but the moment she moved, Hermione speared her with a fierce glare.
"And would you happen to know if the Weasley's have a slave." She spat.
The nurse tightened her lips in annoyance. "I do." She marched to the door, "Bartemius Crouch, junior." She slammed it shut behind her, leaving Hermione seething and alone.
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