She was pretty much free to move around after that. She showered daily, and made herself walk those halls with the least prisoners every day so she had a little exercise. She avoided the halls were most of the cells were filled; apart from the smell and the screams of the prisoners she could now feel their madness and despair when she came too close, and the hatred of the Death Eaters.
Sometimes the Dementor who'd shared with her, his sister, or one of the others would take her to their quarters on the lower level, where at least there were chairs to sit on. She didn't ask for one, there were hardly enough to go around. She soon got used to the sound, or lack of it, as she picked up more of their mental conversations. She continued to learn the Dementor's language, becoming quite proficient eventually.
Even with her daily showers, she couldn't get rid of the lice and mites. She washed her clothes and blankets regularly, as she was no longer cold in the cell –she knew for sure it was part of the Dementor's abilities, now- but the critters were hard to get rid of. She tried wandless magic, which should be possible –almost every witch and wizard did some wandless magic as a child, she had once healed her ankle overnight when she'd sprained it the day before she was to go on a school trip, back in third grade. But once you learned magic with a wand, the wandless variety was pretty much suppressed, and she didn't manage to get rid of the bugs consciously or unconsciously. She tried asking the house-elves, but their magic included no useful spells, and sleeping without the mattress only resulted in a painful back and neck.
The Dementors who hated her and her privileges didn't come often. Only when there were no new prisoners at all would they come feed on her, otherwise they avoided her and acted as if she didn't exist, even if they met in the halls. They made it clear they came only when there was no one else to feed on, and she was sorely tempted to block them completely, but no matter what her privileges she was still a prisoner. So she allowed them to feed like the others.
New prisoners were brought in regularly, usually every three or four weeks. Almost all were Death Eaters although there was one man who had killed his wife and an alcoholic who'd gone on a drunken rampage in Diagon Alley. Few left; most who came here received a life sentence. In all the time she'd been here, there were only two prisoners released. Neither of them had cast an Unforgivable, and both were transported to St Mungo's.
This was also the only time she was locked into her cell, when the Aurors came with a new arrival or to take someone away. Sometimes they would just leave the prisoner in the care of the Dementors as they had done when they'd brought her in, but at other times they'd walk around, checking on the condition of the prisoners. She'd store her extra blanket and bucket in the small supply closet near the wash room and the Dementor would lock her in. When the Aurors came, she'd lay curled up on her cot with her back towards the door, drawn back from them.
It wasn't hard to pretend, she could easily read their emotions, and they disgusted her. Loathing and some fear, of course, but the Aurors also felt clear satisfaction at seeing the prisoners in these conditions. She couldn't read their thoughts literally, that was clearly beyond even her enhanced abilities, but sometimes the Dementor would send through what he got from them. There was no way she could be mistaken. Part of her tried to be rational, pointing out that those who would be disgusted by the conditions here likely avoided the prison. She even knew some of the Aurors personally, certainly not everyone would actually approve of the conditions they were held under. Yet a part of her grew more bitter every time she picked up the mental sneer of a visiting Auror.
So it came as a surprise when she was once again waiting in her cell for a possible Auror inspection, and the Dementor sent to her. 'These two are thinking of you.'
'Of me?' she sent back, not sure she'd heard him correctly. She could send and receive all through the building if she focused, at least with the Dementors, and she'd been listening for him to tell her whether or not the Aurors would want to go through the prison, but it wasn't as clear as speaking over a shorter distance. 'Who are they?'
She knew the Aurors never gave their names, but that was hardly necessary.
'The one thinks of the other as Leroy, and that one calls the other one Tonks.'
She drew a sharp breath. Last she'd known, Tonks still worked for the Ministry, in spite of Fudge's misrule. She had remained specifically at Dumbledore's request, even though many people were suspicious of her, knowing she'd been with the Order of the Phoenix before the 'final battle'. She'd likely be okay. Yet she didn't know anyone named Leroy.
'Show me what they're thinking?' she asked. She didn't expect anything extreme, if they came to take her out she'd have heard and if they came to break her out he'd already have picked up on it, but she was eager to know nonetheless.
He sent her the thoughts he picked up from Tonks, not in words but relaying them directly, which was much faster.
*'Just take this filthy Death Eater to his cell already, I don't really care where he is put. It's Hermione we came to see. Merlin, but it smells bad in here! This is disgusting, I knew it was bad but I didn't know it was this bad. And she's been here for almost a year. Man, these creatures give me the chills just being near them, I can't imagine what they do to the prisoners. Damn, I don't dare to think of what she's gonna be like. Ron and Harry are going to kill Fudge. If I don't kill him first. This is inhuman.'*
'She isn't as bad as the others,' Hermione sent, defending Tonks' disgust at the Dementor. 'And I knew she doesn't like the Minister. I trust her, at least with the basics. The other name doesn't sound familiar. Can you look at him?'
The Dementor gave a mental snort at her evaluation of Tonks, but he didn't argue. 'I'll show you the other,' he sent, and she could see this Leroy's thoughts now.
*'Well, they do deserve it, they're Death Eaters. It's their own fault. And with so many Death Eaters running around of course Mr Fudge overreacts when anyone else uses a Dark curse. I do wish they'd clean here more often. No doubt they'll get to it soon, it's obviously way overdue.'*
'He doesn't believe an image of what he's thinking,' the Dementor commented as he interrupted his own relaying, knowing she couldn't feel the emotions at this distance. They were still a couple corridors away, well beyond her limit of reading another human.
'So the question is can we trust someone who isn't even sincere to himself.' She snorted. 'Damn.'
But she had to talk to Tonks, she wouldn't let her go back to Dumbledore, Harry and Ron thinking she'd lost her mind to the Dementors. If only she'd had more time to come up with a plan, she hadn't expected anyone to come for her anymore. She took a seat on her cot, legs pulled up and hugging her knees, not looking completely withdrawn but not letting on exactly what shape she was in until she had a better feel of the other Auror.
She felt them approach and the door opened. Then Tonks stepped in.
"Hermione! Oh, Merlin, Hermione."
The concern coming off her was so strong she had to shield against some of it, even though she needed to be alert to Leroy's intentions. She looked up. "Tonks," she meant to say but no sound came out, and she suddenly realised she hadn't used her voice for almost the entire time she'd been here. Even when she had gone to the house-elves she'd been so used to sending instead of speaking that she had not spoken aloud.
"Hermione, are you al right?" Tonks rushed forward and Hermione didn't need to feel her emotions to know she was beside herself.
She wet her lips and tried again. "I'm… okay. As much as I can be. Haven't talked much for a long time." She managed to speak now, although her voice sounded strange to herself.
Tonks looked at her intensely and she could feel relief quickly building. "You are… you're not.. you are al right?"
"I'm not insane," she said, ignoring the obvious way Tonks avoided the word, and her uneasiness when she used it. She glanced at the other Auror, a young man with short, dark hair. The Dementor could read both of them literally, but even he couldn't read two people and relay everything they thought all at once, so this time she asked only for a summary.
'He's as shocked as the other is,' the Dementor sent. 'He's still trying to rationalise it but he's no longer deceiving even himself.'
She sent a reply of relieved thanks, and reassurance. The Dementor did not hide the fact he was uncomfortable with the two visitors, but she was willing to trust both of them now. She sat up straighter and shook her hair out of her face.
"Hermione, this is Leroy Ferling, he's a new one but he's on our side," Tonks said. "Are you sure you're okay?"
"Yes, I'm fine," Hermione replied. "Do you have any news?"
Tonks was still stunned. She had gone from concern to relief but now she looked at her closer at her she could feel renewed concern, dismay, and anger, and confusion as she tried to sort it all out. Hermione knew she didn't look good. Regardless of her privileges she was pale from lack of daylight, thin from the inadequate food, and her clothes had seen better days as well.
"I wish I could take you out of here right now, it took us so long to get here, we didn't know how you, what you, how you would be. Albus tried, but it's all he can do to hold on to the school nowadays. Fudge would like best to take Hogwarts from him again, and he'd have Albus in here if he thought he could get away with it." Suddenly Tonks stopped talking with a stab of fear and glanced nervously at the Dementor.
"You don't have to watch your words. You'll find very few people here who like the Minister," Hermione said.
Tonks nodded slowly. "I was surprised they returned here after the last battle."
Hermione sighed. "Look, why don't you sit down so we can talk. I'd recommend the floor, though, or you can turn over the bucket, I'll get more water later. Don't sit on the bed, the mattress is full of vermin."
"Vermin?" More dismay from Tonks, shock and a rather pathetic attempt at denial from Leroy.
She shrugged. It was hardly her main concern at the moment. Tonks sat down on the floor, Leroy remained standing. The Dementor leaned against the wall. He'd often sit with her, human vermin didn't bother the Dementors, but Tonks was already having a hard enough time without seeing the Dementor sitting so close to her.
Tonks glanced again at the Dementor. "You said, they don't like the Minister. They're not still supporting…" She trailed off again.
"They're for themselves. Most people don't like the Dementors so they don't like them. The Aurors who come here are hardly an exception, they dislike the Dementors as much as anyone."
A shudder made it clear Tonks felt no different, but Hermione didn't argue now. She still didn't want to give all the details if she could help it. It'd be a shock she didn't need, and also once anyone knew, word might spread. She didn't know what would happen if Fudge found out about her privileges, let alone about the sharing and what she'd learned.
"I hoped to find you… well," Tonks said quietly as she turned from the Dementor with obvious difficulty. "There's been a lot of pressure from the University. Your classmates and Professors have been working on the Minister, and Albus, Minerva and others have helped them behind the scenes. The Minister… he finally lowered your sentence to three years."
Hermione felt her breath catch. Truth to tell, she never allowed herself to think about how long she'd be here for. As a witch, she could easily live to be a hundred and fifty, and living here for hundred and twenty five years was just not something she could bear think about. Two more years was infinitely less than for ever, but still a very long time. Yet it was something she could survive.
"Thank you," she said with a smile. "That's great news."
"We will keep trying to get you released sooner, but I can't promise anything," Tonks said.
Hermione felt her expression harden. She might know she could manage for three years, but she also knew what it did to just about everyone else. She knew exactly what Fudge intended. Before her, the Dementors had cared little to find out what happened to the prisoners after they were released, but a few months ago the Dementor had picked up on an Auror's thoughts and relayed it to her. "He won't let me go, not unless he were sure I was mad already. That's what he wants. Only the Death Eaters were treated a little better and so they could still function after they broke free, but that's no longer allowed. The Dementors have been ordered to feed on the Death Eaters the same as anyone else now. And apart from them, no one but Sirius has been here for three years or more and has recovered."
Tonks hadn't known, she started at her comment.
"I'll make it," Hermione said quickly. "But don't let anyone know. Professor Dumbledore will be able to keep the secret, and if you don't tell Ron and Harry I'll manage, they'll probably do something stupid, but don't tell anyone from the university. None of the other Aurors know how I'm doing, when they come I pretend to be worse off. If Fudge learns of this he'll keep me here indefinitely after all, or worse."
Tonks nodded gravely. "I understand."
"So how is everyone? Professor Dumbledore is still Headmaster, are Ron and Harry still with Charlie in Romania?"
"Albus is under heavy pressure from Fudge, but Fudge hasn't succeeded in removing him from his position as Headmaster. Perhaps he doesn't dare, not after what happened last time. The entire staff is still there. Severus may have to go if Fudge keeps up the pressure, but Albus has resisted so far. Ron, Harry, Mundungus, Charlie, Bill and Ginny are in Egypt now, with Angelina, Neville, Katie –quite a number of them. Fudge has named them –except for Harry of course, he can't quite go that far since Harry was the one who 'killed' Voldemort- as enemies of the state, they're to be arrested if they set foot on British soil again. Stirring up unrest and invoking riots, according to the charges."
Now Tonks' face was hard, and so was her voice. She continued. "He hasn't dared arrest anyone in Britain yet, but he targeted those who joined Charlie easily enough, calling it proof they were starting a terrorist movement against their own country. That's why they left Romania, Fudge has asked the Romanian Ministry of Magic to arrest and extradite them. The Egyptians are rather more sensible and won't listen to the Minister's requests. I am under heavy scrutiny, as is anyone else who ever supported Albus, which is one of the reasons it took us so long to get here. Fudge doesn't know yet Leroy is on our side, and I traded shifts to come here today. I sincerely hope that information will not reach the Minister."
"Are you sure Fudge isn't a Death Eater?" Hermione asked, frustrated. She'd asked the Headmaster the same thing years ago, and he'd been sure he wasn't, then, but it was almost impossible to believe otherwise. He couldn't set it up better for Voldemort if he did work for him.
"He's not, he is just a stupid fool and a lackey."
"Any idea when You-Know-Who will make his move?" she asked.
"We can't be sure. This summer's elections have been postponed again because of 'harmful elements which would interfere with a fair elective process', and as long as Fudge is in power it is in You-Know-Who's advantage to sit back and wait. We're expecting him to strike either soon before any elections that will actually take place, or immediately after, when whoever will replace Fudge has just taken over and is still new in the position."
"Which could be a while if Fudge doesn't allow the elections to go through. Doesn't anyone protest?"
"Not many people dare, most have families. They'd rather be safe than speak up and risking arrest or having to flee the country."
Hermione snorted. Part of her could understand, but another part of her thought it was a stupid attitude. Especially since she believed Harry and Professor Snape, and knew they wouldn't be safe at all.
Meanwhile, Tonks was glancing at the Dementor. "When You-Know-Who does make his move…" she trailed off again. "Last time… we think… are you sure they aren't for You-Know-Who?"
Hermione felt her irritation flare. It wasn't that she hadn't worried of what would happen, but she disliked the way Tonks and so many others were afraid to speak about a problem. Just like that 'You-Know-Who' stuff, it wasn't as if a problem would go away if you didn't speak of it. "It's as I said, they aren't really for anyone," she said. "But it's likely they'll reach an agreement with Voldemort, as before."
'Twice now he let us feed on those who opposed him, he made sure there was enough for all of us and we didn't run into too much resistance. It was better then than now, more fresh thoughts to take. And if we don't, without Azkaban we'll have all wizards on either side against us. Most of us will agree to do as he asks if he gives us a place to live and minds to feed on,' the Dementor explained.
Tonks shifted uncomfortably as the Dementor sent to him. "Most?" she asked then.
'We're not bees, we don't act as a damn hive. Everyone will make their own decision,' the Dementor sent irritably, then continued in a softer tone. 'But we're not that much different from those humans you just described, we put up with people we don't like if it gives us a safe place to live.'
"It would be best if there were a viable alternative for the Dementors, but I don't know how that could be done. Few enough people will let them live among them, and even less will allow them the feeding they need," Hermione said.
Tonks was taken aback by her comment. "Certainly no one would allow that!" she exclaimed.
"It can be done without causing damage," she replied quietly.
Astonishment came off Tonks in waves, then an indignant rage. She veered up. "You mean, they have been doing that to you after all?"
"Tonks, please sit down. I'm fine, it's not a problem," Hermione reassured her.
'Typical,' the Dementor sent to her only. 'She hates us as much as the others.'
'She's okay, she really is. Give her a chance,' Hermione sent back.
"When you said you were okay I thought they hadn't touched you," Tonks said in a more calm tone of voice, but she could still feel anger, concern and disgust coming off her. She did not sit back down either.
"They can take thoughts so it doesn't do any harm," she said. She didn't really blame Tonks for her reaction, she was under a lot of stress. But it was a perfect illustration of why she was afraid that the Dementors would not be offered an alternative outside of Azkaban or Voldemort.
"The other prisoners?" Tonks asked. She glared at the Dementor, who had not moved.
"They hardly have a reason to be gentle with them. Humans hate Dementors, Dementors hate humans. I don't know whether even Professor Dumbledore will be able to convince enough people to make a difference for everyone."
She received a mental snort from the Dementor. She knew he didn't like the Headmaster.
'Dumbledore? He didn't allow us onto the castle grounds, left us out at the perimeter where we had nothing to feed on for the entire week's shift. Then he gathered hundreds of excited people outside, without giving us any kind of warning, and he gets livid when some of us couldn't stand it any longer and came in,' the Dementor sent, much like he had when she'd first mentioned the Headmaster, many months ago.
"He just doesn't know any better," she defended him, as she had done that time. "He's had a Werewolf, a half-Giant and an ex-Death Eater on staff, and he's paying one of his house-elves. Tonks, please try to talk to him, for what little good it will do."
At other times, she had shown the relevant memories to the Dementor, but he was still sceptical. Tonks seemed to have enough trouble with the Dementors herself, hardly the best person to persuade the Headmaster. It really was a small chance, but they had to try.
"I will tell him," Tonks promised reluctantly. "We can't stay much longer, if we don't get back on time the other Aurors will be suspicious. We will try to return when we can. I don't know how much we can smuggle in, but is there anything you need?"
Hermione looked around the bare cell and privately thought that was the most ironic question she'd ever been asked. But she did have a few things to ask. "A potion against the lice. A toothbrush, and a hairbrush. Salt, if possible some kind of other food supplements as well, we only get beans and some kind of horrible porridge here. I stopped caring about the flavour long ago but I know I have a salt deficiency and I doubt it has enough of just about everything else." She frowned. There were a thousand things she needed, but it would be hard enough to smuggle anything in. They couldn't shrink anything, even Aurors weren't allowed to take their wands when they came here, so there was no way to undo it. And they were limited to those things that she could hide from any other Aurors, too. "Fresh underwear," she said. That would not be visible, thank Merlin the Aurors never touched her. "A needle and thread so I can repair some of the tears in the less obvious places. That's it."
Tonks nodded grimly. "We'll do our best."
'If you can not come together, I can take the items from either of you if you lag behind on leaving,' the Dementor sent. Of course, the Aurors who came here never split up, but it would be possible to hang back a little.
Tonks started, astonished by the offer. "Yes, eh, that would be nice," she stammered.
"Perhaps you can slip something in the supplies?" Hermione suggested. "If they're not double-checked?"
Leroy frowned. "I don't know who packs them, but I will find out."
"Thank you, thank you both," Hermione said as the two Aurors made ready to leave. Suddenly she remembered something. "Oh, what happened to Crookshanks?"
"Tanya has taken him in. Ginny offered to take him, but Tanya blames herself at least partly for your situation and she wanted to do what she could. He's in good hands with her," Tonks told her.
Hermione sighed in relief. She felt guilty for not asking after the Kneazle sooner, he'd been a faithful familiar. He'd almost caught that dirty rat of a Pettigrew all those years ago; if only she'd caught on to what he'd been trying to tell her, then none of this would have happened. Well, it didn't do to dwell on the past.
The Dementor left with the Aurors, leaving her door open, and she went to retrieve the blanket and bucket she'd hidden in the supply closet. Hopefully there'd be a few more items in her secret stash before too long.
The Dementor returned soon after, somewhat edgy.
'They weren't much better than the other Aurors,' he remarked.
'They just need time,' Hermione replied. She noticed she'd switched back to sending without a second thought. She picked at her hair with her fingers, she had purposefully left it tangled and mussed it before she'd known it'd be Tonks who would come.
'You didn't need time.'
'I hardly had a choice,' she pointed out. 'They'll turn out okay, really.'
She could hear the other Dementors down the hall as they fed on the new arrival and called for everyone to join in. She knew now that it was indeed standard for them to feed on new prisoners together.
'Don't you want to go to the new one?' she asked.
'Not really. Your thoughts are better,' he replied.
It was a good thing Tonks wasn't around, no doubt she would have been shocked at the implied violation. Hermione no longer looked at the feeding like that. The two who disliked here were still rough and invasive, but when they went too far she blocked them and stopped them from taking what she didn't want them to take. The others were careful in how they treated her.
She could feel the Dementor reach out and she searched for pleasant memories. She allowed him deeper into her mind than most, perhaps all, others, trusting he would do no damage.