6. The second and third year.
She used the wrapping paper of her parcel to write a brief note to Tonks, thanking her for her package and sending her her new requests. Paper, first of all. She instructed her to find the thin paper Muggles used for their airmail, rather than the bulky parchment common to the Wizarding world. She could use a quill and ink from the office, but the Aurors would likely notice the parchment missing. Stingy as they were, it was delivered in small stacks of ten sheets only.
She also requested for any information on Animagus training. She didn't need it to survive Azkaban, like Sirius had, but she thought she might need it afterwards. She couldn't hide her mental state for ever after she would be released, and Fudge would not be happy when he found out. Also, it was a form of wandless magic, meaning it was one of the few things she could do here, and she longed to work on something new.
The Dementor slipped the paper to Leroy the next time he came, which was a good two months after the Snow Feast, and the reply came three months after that.
The paper was included, folded small but enough to last her, as infrequent as their correspondence had to be. There was a primer on Animagus training, not an entire book by a long shot, but a summary of the first exercises. There also was a letter from Professor Dumbledore, asking her to speak to the Dementors and find out what it would take were they not to join Voldemort. The letter was carefully worded and Hermione knew the Headmaster wasn't altogether comfortable with the idea of working with the Dementors, but it was a start.
Hermione started to work on the Animagus training and found it much easier than she had expected. It consisted mainly of mental disciplines, to remain in control when the instincts and mental processes of the animal body would otherwise take over. With the Dementor's abilities she now had she only had to read through the instructions once, then simply did whatever it said. She regretted not being able to go further, but there had not been enough room in the package for all the information and there had been a very, very stern note as well, warning her not to try an actual transformation without anyone with a wand present. No matter how easy it all seemed, that was a sensible precaution –she could not know for sure she'd be able to use her full mental abilities once she transformed, and there would be no one to help her here.
She spoke at length with the Dementors, with the one and with others who were not too adverse against a better relationship with some of the humans. Yet when it came to writing the Headmaster she was caught in a dilemma. She wanted to tell Dumbledore in more detail about the Dementors and their culture, but she was well aware of the risk if the letter were to be intercepted. That would definitely be the end for her, and it could easily cause serious trouble for the Dementors as well.
Finally, in early fall, one of the Dementors solved the problem. It was rare for any of them to leave Azkaban. They might not be prisoners, they certainly were not welcome anywhere else in the Wizarding world, so there was nowhere else for them to go. There was little contact between those who lived abroad and the Azkaban guards, since travel through the Wizarding world was discouraged by the Ministry as well. Yet this time, a Dementor Hermione had little contact with planned to spend the Snow Feast in Russia for the coming of age of her youngest brother. She readily agreed to carry a letter and ensure it reached Professor Dumbledore. The Aurors always demanded to know where any of the Dementors were going and where they had been, but they did not search them. Likely they couldn't conceive the idea of one of them carrying anything for one of the prisoners.
The Dementor took the letter and returned a couple weeks later with a reply, and with several new items. Even a Dementor couldn't carry a bulky package into Azkaban without raising suspicion, but there were several essentials; more food supplement, a Muggle pen, toothpaste, more instructions for Animagus training, and a set of clothing the Dementor wore underneath her robes. Black, so it wasn't too obvious, but not worn like Hermione's old ones.
Dumbledore's reaction was more favorable than Hermione had previously thought. His greatest worry seemed to be not the Dementors but the reactions of the rest of the Wizarding world. Too many wizards would not look favorably upon contact with the Dementors, especially not at a school. It would be just the excuse Fudge would need to take Hogwarts from him. Yet the Headmaster wanted to prevent the Dementors from joining with Voldemort, indicating he would be willing to provide a place to stay and people to feed on if he got enough time to arrange those two things.
Their own Snow Feast came later, of course, but early for their area. It was the first week of November when the first snow fell, and like last year, the Dementor took her outside for the celebration.
The ritual story was at least as impressive as it had been last year, perhaps even more so. Last year there'd been the shock of the strong, almost overwhelming sending, but this year, now she was prepared as well as even more fluent in the Dementors' language, she could appreciate more of the detail. Every smell, sound and feeling was included in the telling, as if one were truly there.
When the story was done, they found a quiet place and sat down like the previous year, enjoying the fresh snow, the sun which had come through, the crashing of the surf and the screaming gulls.
They sat there for a long time, longer perhaps than was safe, but the Aurors did not show up. Like last year, Hermione got chilled after a few hours, but she sat close to the Dementor and she drew her feet up under the long robes. Finally, when almost everyone had gone back to the prison, she knew they couldn't wait any longer. Reluctantly, she went inside for another year.
'A year from now you'll be free,' the Dementor sent.
Of course she had though of that, but he was well aware of the fact that she didn't see herself leave Azkaban alone. Until now, they'd taken it slow. The other Dementors had been accepting when she'd moved down to live with them, staying in her own room instead of the cell upstairs. That had been a year ago and by now Hermione had become a part of their group. She was free to go where she liked, within the confines of the building, and no one questioned her presence among them, or her actions.
Nor was anyone shocked to see them together anymore, and few would be if they took it any further. They already had, as far as they could since he was mostly energy, but to the Dementors that was not the final step. The Sharing was what sealed a relationship. When he'd used the other kind of sharing to teach her, it'd only been accepted because that was all it was, but she did not worry about the reaction of the others now.
Yet there was still the outside world. Neither the people nor the Dementors who lived abroad would have such a long time to get used to them, and wherever they'd chose to live, it wouldn't be easy if they were together. Well, so be it.
'We'll make it work.' She showed her full conviction and determination. She didn't have to ask whether he wanted to, but she could feel his concern for her and the consequences of their actions.
'It can never be undone,' he sent. Of course she knew that, but it had to be said.
'I know,' she replied. 'I'm sure.' She made no attempt to shield her thoughts, and he could not possibly miss her feelings.
'Then we will Share.'
There was no ceremony, like a wedding or hand-fastening. It was just between the two of them. He took her in his arms. It was akin to the sharing for the teaching, but it was much deeper and much more intimate. Part of her was torn lose, and in its stead she could feel his essence settle deep inside her. Of course only he could initiate the Sharing, her learned abilities didn't go that far. When two Dementors shared, they would both perform the exchange, and take it further yet. But he was a part of her now, and she was a part of him.
There was nothing to compare it to in her experiences beforehand. She'd been close to people, to her family and her friends in school and in the University. This went deeper. In spite of the cold, she felt a warmth of belonging and love. She was always aware of him, and she could read his emotions even when he was on the other side of the building. He had told her it would be less when they were a greater distance apart, to where it would feel like an emptiness, uncomfortable to be too far apart for an extended period of time. Here, of course, that was never an issue.
The last year passed while little remarkable happened. New prisoners still arrived every few weeks, and only one, a panhandler who'd never seriously hurt anyone, was released after a sentence of five years. Hermione had seen the man several times but she knew she wouldn't have to worry about him giving her away; he was too far gone.
Contact with the outside world was increasingly difficult. Tonks never returned, and Leroy only came twice in the entire year. The last time was in early fall, and he carried a note ensuring her she could stay at Hogwarts when she was released. They'd keep the pretense of her madness even after her release, so the details about the Dementors wouldn't come out immediately.
The Headmaster also agreed to meet with some of the Dementors, although not while school was in session. Regardless of whether he trusted the Dementors among the students, there was the matter of the students learning they were there. Hermione knew all too well some would always poke their noses into forbidden places and if the Dementors were found at Hogwarts, Fudge would undoubtedly jump at the opportunity to have Dumbledore removed from his position as Headmaster.
Hermione tutored several of the Dementors in writing legibly, and as she'd expected they didn't take long to learn. The notes Professor McGonagall had sent about Animagus training had said nothing about how to chose one's Animagus form, and she couldn't be sure she would be able to return at will.
To her delight, the first snow came early again, early enough that she was still at Azkaban. But her delight was nothing compared to that of the oldest boy, who had turned twelve this year and would now be celebrating his coming of age.
Long before, when he was just starting to prepare, he had asked her to participate in the ceremony. No human had ever taken part and that it would've been unthinkable a couple years ago did nothing to diminish his excitement at having such a first. She'd been hesitant, unsure she would be able to do what was required. The twelve participants would hold a mental tug-of-war with the boy so he could show his skills. But it wasn't a true fight, not anymore, and she was pleased he'd asked her.
So after the storytelling she took up a place with the others –the boy's uncle, the elder who every year took the lead in the sending of the story, and more of the boy's friends and relatives. They gathered, forming a small group in the middle of the crowd, who formed a circle around them.
Before they started, she'd felt the boys slight nervousness, but now he had his thoughts under tight control and she felt nothing from him. She put her own shields up, as strong as she could make them.
She still couldn't actively probe into his mind and she could not take thoughts or feelings away. But the others could, and did.
The boy took them on one by one, first, pushing and probing until one broke through the shield of the other. Of course he broke through her block, but it wasn't without effort, and as she felt him enter her mind she felt a flash of respect before he strengthened his own shields, pulled back and moved on to the next person.
When he'd taken everyone on, holding out long even against the elder, they all joined in. It was strange to see, as they all stood still, unmoving in spite of the obvious effort. The other Dementors would try to penetrate the boy's shields while he shook off every attempt as quickly as a good Chaser would on the Quidditch pitch, and tried to break through their own blocks.
He broke through her shield and she stepped back. Three others joined her before he couldn't hold any longer and his own barriers broke under the onslaught. Hermione had nothing to compare his performance with, but the spectators, who'd shielded their own minds so as not to interfere or distract, now let down their shield and cheered.
After the initial round of mental applause, the crowd grew silent for the sending of the elder. In the language of the Dementors, the image of the young boy among the adults blended with a feeling of pride.
When the elder finished sending, Hermione congratulated the boy, truly happy she had been able to be here and be a part of his ceremony.
Afterwards she got together with her partner, and they sat as long as the previous year, not knowing when the next opportunity would come to be outside with just the snow and each other. If all went well, it would be at Hogwarts over the Christmas holiday, less than a month from now, but it all depended on how close they would be watched. They couldn't let Fudge and the Aurors find out about anything that had taken place here, not until they'd reached a workable agreement with Dumbledore and found a solution that wouldn't harm the Headmaster or the school.