5.  The Snow Feast.

To her great relief, Tonks and Leroy came through with the things she needed most. Several weeks after their visit, the Dementor opened her cell after another new prisoner was delivered to the prison.

'The one called Leroy was here,' the Dementor sent. 'He delivered this.'

He handed Hermione a small package wrapped in brown paper., and she let out a whoop of joy. She had hoped one of them would be able to come, but considering how long it had taken them to arrange their initial visit, she hadn't been sure if, and when, it would happen. Apparently it had been easier to arrange for one of them to come than for both of them to come together.

Feeling eager like a child at Christmas she opened the small parcel, taking care with the paper as she didn't have any of it either. She could use it to write on at some point in time.

The parcel was carefully made up to include as much as possible, packed small. The first thing she saw was a pair of panties, plain cotton but sturdy and clean. They were wrapped around the other items: a small hairbrush, one of those travel toothbrushes that came with a plastic cover and was small enough to fit in the tiny package, a couple needles and a small spool of thread, a plastic bag with salt, and two potions bottles. Everything was there, albeit in small amounts.

The labels on the two bottles identified one as an anti-pest lotion, and the other as a vitamin and mineral supplement, both highly concentrated. She was pleased to recognize the neat handwriting of Professor Snape, while he was hardly pleasant he was definitely the best Potions Master she knew, better even than her Professor at the Wizard University. It was unusual for potions to be concentrated and diluted with water later, but if Professor Snape had brewed them, she knew she didn't have to worry about their effectiveness.

Even though nowadays she always shielded her emotions to some extent, the Dementor was well aware of her happiness. Of course in a way, it was sad it took so little to make her happy. Few people outside would ever think twice about any of these items. But she absolutely refused to let this bring her down. With a broad grin, she invited the Dementor to share in her joy, then grabbed the anti-pest potion and went out. The sooner she got rid of the lice and mites the better.

She mixed the potion in a bowl she had retrieved from the kitchen, carefully measuring the correct concentrations to treat her mattress. She didn't have anything to spray it with but she wiped it on using one of the rags. Then she went in search of an empty shower stall.

Since it was much later than her usual bathroom visits, she had to try a few different places before finding one that was free. She met several Dementors, some leading prisoners to and from the washing facilities. One of the reasons she did not usually go out at this time of the day. It was hardly a pleasant sight to see the emaciated prisoners in their rags, eyes staring and haunted. Those who were still sane were no more pleasant to meet; slightly cleaner, their clothes in slightly better state, they looked at her with a mixture of shock, horror and confusion. She never spoke to any of them, ignoring those who called out to her, but she still rather avoided them altogether.

Finally she found a free shower. She washed herself, her clothes and her blankets with the potion, knowing that if she skipped anything she risked re-infection. She also snatched one of the towels for her own private use. She wrung her clothes dry as well as she could, then went to the kitchen to dry by the fire. The cold hardly bothered her anymore, but walking around in clammy clothing was still a stretch.

She slept well that night and when she woke up the next morning she felt better than she had in a long time. It didn't surprise her that her skin had cleared up completely, magical potions always worked quickly. She imagined she felt better overall, too, although the food supplement would take a little longer to replenish all the vitamins and minerals her body lacked.

She showered and went to the office as it was time to send the weekly report. The Dementor wasn't there yet, but he came in soon after. As always, he told her what was needed and she wrote the note to the Aurors. On occasion there would still be items missing, with the excuse the note had been unclear. They were sure it was on purpose now that Hermione made sure the reports were legible, but they couldn't complain without giving her situation away. At least it didn't happen as often anymore as when there were real unreadable entries on the report.

Afterwards, she went with the Dementor to his quarters. Now that her own skin was clean, she noticed the sores and scabs on his all the more.

'That isn't natural, is it?' she asked. The impressions she'd got from the older stories and legends never included anything like it. The stories held a different kind of description than the stories of sighted people would, and they always included sensations of touch. There was a chilly, scaly feel, and scars in the more violent ones, but never sores and scabs.

'It's the damp and muggy conditions here,' he replied. 'It clears up in a colder climate. Actually, mine haven't been as bad as they were.'

The side effects of their sharing had gone both ways, where she could stand the cold better, he had less trouble with what, to him, was the warm temperature in the prison. She had wondered if he had received anything else from her as well, any of her magic, but he deemed that rather unlikely. The sharing for the teaching was mostly one-way, and it mainly enhanced abilities that already existed. She had countered no Dementor ever tested using a wand, or was even allowed to use one, and they were magical by many standards, but they'd soon stopped discussing it, there was no way to find out. She went back to the topic of his skin.

'I'm sure it would be possible to find a potion against it. If only I had the resources to work on it,' she sighed. She felt truly frustrated. She'd always been inclined to tackle any problem she came across, and even when she was still at Hogwarts she had often been successful, making up with sheer determination what she lacked in experience. Now, almost finished with her studies at Leeds, she should be able to do much better. Yet she was stuck here, unable to do anything and losing her skills for lack of practice.

'You have too much control over your mind to lose your skills,' the Dementor told her.

She snorted. It showed just how frustrated she was, letting those last thoughts come through without meaning to send them. 'Some control.'

'Don't be hard on yourself,' he replied. 'I meant that. I don't think you forgot much before coming here and you certainly don't now.'

He had his mental shields down, as he often did when they spoke, so she could feel he was sincere, and she smiled. 'Thank you.'

It was too good a day to let herself be upset for long. Although she would give it some thought, she could come up with some things to try, so she'd have a place to start when she got out of here.

It didn't take her long to come up with several possibilities, and she regretted not being able to put her theories to test. She couldn't ask for outside help either, it was hard enough to contact anyone at all. Professor Snape was hardly the most open-minded person she knew, it would be difficult to convince him to help the Dementors. On the opposite side of the spectrum, Professor LeRoi, her teacher at Leeds, was so open-minded she didn't dare trust him with the secret of her situation here. She stored the information away and carried on.

Not much later she was down in the lower levels with the Dementor when one of the others came rushing in.

'It's snowing!' the new arrival broadcasted, excitedly.

Hermione knew the Dementors had all been waiting for the first snow, the Dementor had mentioned several times that the snow was extremely late this year, but she hadn't understood the full significance of the first snow to him or any of the others. Now, she could feel the excitement in him and she was puzzled. Even after a year, she didn't know everything about the Dementor's culture.

'What is so special about the first snow?' she asked, as waves of exhilaration came from all around her.

'Traditionally, the first snow marks the beginning of the new year,' the Dementor explained. 'We've long since set a more definite date, even before we came down from the north there would be great local differences, but the first snow is still celebrated. It is the real start of the winter, the real start of the new cycle, the new year. There will be a celebration tomorrow.'

Hermione was struck again by the opposites between the Dementors and the humans. For humans, winter stood for a time of darkness and death, with spring being the time of new life. It wasn't a great surprise even those whom the Dementors didn't feed on would see them as cold, dark and scary creatures.

'Come outside with me tomorrow, if you wear one of our robes no one will know,' the Dementor suggested.

'Outside?' Hermione asked. That did take her by surprise.

'Only on the island, and it isn't much, but it wouldn't do to celebrate the Snow Feast inside. The Aurors never come; they only showed up the first time when we were here at Azkaban. I don't remember all the details, I was only five at the time, but our gathering scared them badly. They demanded to know what we were doing, tried to tell us to go inside, but they were too afraid to do anything. They haven't come since then, although I suspect they watch us from a distance. If you keep your hood up and stay close to me, they won't be able to tell you aren't one of us.'

'I'd love to come,' Hermione replied. The Dementor didn't feel nervous about it, and it fit what she knew of the Aurors, they would worry only about keeping an eye on the general happening, not pay close attention to any particular Dementor. It would be wonderful to go outside, and she was also curious as to the nature of the Snow Feast. The excitement from the Dementor and the others around her was contagious, and she could hardly wait for tomorrow.

The next morning, Hermione was up early. She took her shower and unlike most days, Azkaban was already buzzing with activity. The Dementors were feeding, taking prisoners to their showers and finally handed out the food well before the usual hour.

Hermione had grabbed a bite to eat in the kitchen so she would be ready when the Dementor came to pick her up. Mindful of the snow, she put on her shoes. She'd decided to save them for emergencies some months ago when, after the sharing, she no longer needed them to protect herself against the cold stone floor, and she'd realised there would be no way to replace them when they wore out. But she didn't think she could stand the snow barefoot, even now.

The Dementor brought a large robe, long enough that it dragged the ground. Almost all the Dementors were taller than she was, but it was a good thing for the robe would hide her shoes and would smudge her tracks. Some of the others would swoop low enough to make some smudges in the snow, too. She pulled the hood up and followed the Dementor outside.

It was no longer snowing, but there was a good layer on the ground and the sky was grey, promising more snow later on.

For the first time since her arrival, she saw Azkaban from the outside. Most of the prison was underground, and the weathered stone building that was showing above ground belied its actual size. It looked almost more depressive and forlorn than imposing and intimidating, which fit its current situation with the Dementors quite well, but which still surprised Hermione. Hadn't Azkaban been in use for centuries before the Dementors took over as guards? She'd think with human guards the people who built it would have gone for a more impressive look.

But perhaps the island itself made up for that. It was all rock, huge boulders dotting its surface, steep slopes dropping down to the sea along the shore. Hermione doubted there would be any vegetation at all hidden underneath the snow, which did little to soften the harshness of the surroundings.

Every last one of the Dementors came outside. As usual, they were silent except for their rattling breathing. The only other sound was the screaming of the gulls and gannets as they whirled overhead, annoyed at the rare disturbance of their nesting grounds. Hermione could understand the Aurors would have been scared, faced with hundreds silent, black-robed figures.

She, of course, could pick up the true mood of the Dementors. More so even than the previous evening, the excitement flooded all around her. The three boys rushed ahead of everyone else, rolling in the snow wherever there was a spot big enough in between the jagged rocks.

She remained close to the Dementor, and away from the edges of the crowd, just in case the Aurors would show up. But there was no sign of the small boat they used for transport to and from the island. The anti-Apparition wards extended well beyond the coastline.

For some time, the Dementors milled and spoke among each other, not unlike people did at other parties Hermione had been to. Then a silence fell in the mental hubbub. Even the excitement and anticipation lessened, not gone but shielded, and Hermione followed suit, shielding her thoughts so as not to interfere with whatever was coming.

No one physically stepped forward or mounted any stage, but when Hermione caught the first sending she knew it would be a story or performance of some kind. One of the elder Dementors started to broadcast so that everyone could pick it up.

The basic tale was simple. It was a tale of the seasons, as fit the occasion. Similar and yet completely opposite to the stories humans told during their rituals and seasonal celebrations.

It started in winter, in a place much colder than the island of Azkaban. The Dementors lived in a small group, savouring the unspoiled surroundings and the favorable weather. Small bands of humans were easy prey and the Dementors needed little, less even than here, for conditions were almost perfect. There was no visual imagery, no visuals of the humans' dress or housing, but Hermione got the impression the story was very old, from a time no human records existed.

Then the temperatures rose, the sun melted the snow, and larger and more aggressive bands of humans arrived. While the Dementors needed more energy to keep their bodies cool, it was more difficult to feed. Sometimes the humans would chase the Dementors off with strange Patroni, the shapes of which weren't included in the images but which felt so real Hermione had to remind herself she was no Dementor and they could not hurt her even if it hadn't been a story. And when the Dementors struck back at the people too hard, the people would flee and there was nothing for the Dementors to take. Far more than in winter, it was a conflict that, instead of achieving balance, grew worse as time passed.

Only the weather brought a solution; fall came and with it the stronger bands of humans left, only a few remaining who were not strong enough to chase the Dementors away. The Dementors, in turn, needed less, and never took so much they killed or seriously injured the people. The first snow was greeted as the hard times were once again in the past.

None of this did the story justice, of course. Dementor language allowed for even a simple story to have more than just words. Any story or even a conversation included mental images of emotions, sound, smell and occasionally touch. But this time the sending was strong, and although the elder Dementor sent the main story line, others joined in. The storytellers' sending blend together to follow a whole, as if you saw the story not just through the eyes of one person but through the eyes of the entire group.

Hermione had once tried Muggle virtual reality goggles, where images and sounds were projected in a 3D environment, and that came closer than anything else she could compare this to, but without the bulky equipment and appearing much more real.

When the Dementors finished the sending, the others let down their shields. There was no applause or cheering –none was needed as the Dementors could let the storytellers feel directly how their story was received. Hermione followed their lead again, unblocking her own emotions.

She felt the probing of the Dementor, his way of asking how she had liked the story. He could easily feel her emotions, but her human habits felt the need to say something.

'It was wonderful,' she sent. 'I've never felt anything like it.'

'I'm glad you liked it,' the Dementor replied. She could feel pleasure and relief. He'd hidden any worry she wouldn't like it, but his reaction told her it must've been there.

'Almost overwhelming, it was so real. Thank you for letting me see it,' she added.

'My pleasure,' he replied.

'What happens now?' she asked, as the rest of the Dementors started to mingle and talk among each other again.

'Nothing much,' he replied. 'If there were any children who were coming of age there would be a ceremony, but that will be two years yet.'

They took a short tour around the island, never completely leaving the protection of the crowd in case anyone was watching. Then they sat down against a boulder, watching and listening to the surf crashing on the rock and the gulls screaming overhead.

Hermione was glad of the heavy robe and her own cold tolerance, but after a while she still got chilled. She sat down close to the Dementor, his cool energy warmer than the cold stone. They sat there for a long time, alternately talking and silently listening to the gulls. It started to snow again. One by one the Dementors went back inside, until they knew it was time to go as well, before she would stand out to anyone who might be watching.

Taking care to avoid the fresh snow where she would leave shoe prints among the smudges of the Dementors' robes and making sure her own robe wiped out any tracks she still left, Hermione went back inside with the Dementor.

'I would like you to come with me and remain with us. You can have a room that is larger and more comfortable there, and after today the others will not mind,' the Dementor said as they entered the building.

'Thank you,' Hermione accepted his offer immediately. She didn't have to consider, she trusted his judgment and she had felt no hostility to her presence at the Snow Feast. It had taken a full year, but almost all the Dementors had accepted her. Even those who didn't like her had finally given up their protest and now only avoided her.

She didn't go back to her cell much after that. She returned to the upper levels only for her daily walk, the weekly report, and when the Aurors came. The lower levels were colder but that did not bother her, she had spent quite a lot of her time in the Dementors quarters even before the Snow Feast. Her room was about twice the size of her cell, the bed was not quite as narrow as her cot had been, and the screaming of the other prisoners did not penetrate down here.

A/N: Thanks to anyone who reviewed! Thanks especially to Lady S and Leaena Draconis, originality is a *very* great compliment. It's extremely hard to achieve considering there are well over 122,000 Harry Potter fics posted, but I will do my best not to disappoint!