Author Notes: This fic is finished. New chapters will be uploaded every three days. Thank you to my betas silverbookworm, vexiphem and elinevere for their help. :) Reviews are very appreciated.

Chapter 1

The Daily Prophet, December 22, 2005

"Jack Corley was inaugurated last week with few opposing this new Minister for Magic.

"'Perhaps, finally, we'll get someone useful in office. A person who can match and maybe even surpass Fudge the Great,' a wizard was heard commenting to a friend.

"Corley has had a long and distinguished career working in the Ministry. Most recently, he has been working as an Unspeakable in the Department of Mysteries. He says that he has high hopes for his term as Minister. In a speech earlier today, he was quoted as saying that he would 'transform wizarding Britain' and 'ensure peace and prosperity'.

"The Daily Prophet also congratulates him on his recent marriage. His wife is reported to be 'very happy' about her husband's new job."

Hermione let out an exasperated breath of air as yet another person threw away one of her leaflets. She could read the bold scrolling script from here: Protest the conditions of Azkaban! A worthy cause, she told herself resolutely as she remembered the haunted expression on Snape's face during his testimony. As she looked at the set lines of his mouth and his clenched fists, she promised that she would try her best to get him released or at least get him better conditions.

However, it seemed that she was the only one interested. People hurried past, their arms full of Christmas shopping, eager to forget the past. They simply weren't interested in hearing about the atrocious conditions in Azkaban, nor did they want to hear anything else about the war.

After seven long years of war, it was over and most simply wanted to forget it had ever happened.

Not Hermione, though. Ever since she'd had sat there, still numb from the pain of watching former classmates die, listening to the Wizengamot pronounce Severus Snape guilty and then hearing about the terrible conditions in Azkaban, she had been campaigning for the rights of the prisoners. "Even Muggle prisoners have better conditions than our inmates!" she had tried to tell the Minister. But Fudge had simply looked at her and Hermione remembered, with a shiver, her strange impression that he hadn't seen her at all.

Hermione handed out yet another leaflet to a harried looking middle-aged witch who was dragging along two youngsters.

The witch looked at the piece of parchment. "But my dear," she said to Hermione, with a slight frown. "Don't you know? The war is over."

Hermione wasn't sure what that had to do with her message, but apparently the witch was satisfied as she hurried off, children in tow. Everywhere she went, everyone seemed to have the same opinion as the witch. People were just so relieved that it was over and that they had won, that they simply wanted to get along with their lives. They didn't want any more trouble.

Too bad, she thought grimly as she began to walk towards The Leaky Cauldron. It simply wasn't right or fair that Snape, who had risked his life in the war, had been sentenced to ten years in Azkaban. And all because of what somebody had decided was "overly zealous use of the Imperius Curse where other methods would have sufficed".

The Wizengamot had considered itself very fair and judicious in its judgment of the Snape case. After all, as one of its members later pointed out to The Daily Prophet: "We could have sentenced him to life imprisonment for the use of an Unforgivable. But we were lenient as all of his victims were Death Eaters."

How ironic, Hermione thought. She remembered the battles well. The Death Eaters were throwing around the Killing Curse, yet Snape was punished for using Imperius as a non-lethal way of disabling the enemy? The Death Eaters he had performed Imperius on were told to go and hide themselves and await Ministry Aurors, which they did dutifully. He had even saved her life once by sending a Death Eater on a wild goose chase around Diagon Alley.

Hermione folded her lips tightly. She was determined to get him out of Azkaban if it was the last thing she managed to achieve. It wasn't simply because of the life debt she owed him; it was also a matter of principle. He shouldn't be in there and since nobody else seemed willing to do anything about it, she would have to.

Currently, however, she seemed to be having no luck in even promoting public awareness about the issue.

With a sigh, she pushed open the door to The Leaky Cauldron and stepped inside the small pub. She unwrapped her scarf, took off her coat and sat down, placing her pile of leaflets beside her.

The Leaky Cauldron was near to empty nowadays. It seemed to be the unspoken message around the streets that there were just too many memories of the war in the old place. So these days, it was simply used as a thoroughfare for traffic into Diagon Alley. There was even news of building a new pub somewhere else.

"Not much luck, eh?" Tom said as he handed her a warmed butterbeer.

"About the same as yesterday," she replied absently as she sipped the sweet drink. "Perhaps after the Christmas period."

"Perhaps." His tone was non-committal. "Maybe you'll get more luck in the Ministry with that new chap in charge."

Hermione shrugged. "I hope so," she said. "But more likely than not, I'll just run into more bureaucratic red tape." She gave a wry smile. "One thing that Muggles and wizards have in common."

Tom gave a crooked toothless smile. "Have you met the new Minister? The word on the street is that he's quite progressive. Wants to change things around here."

She tilted her head to one side and looked the old barman in the eye. "I hope so," she said quietly. "We could do with some change and if Jack Corley is the one to do it, then so be it." Hermione lifted her mug and drained the contents. She handed Tom a galleon. "Keep the change." You'll need it, was unsaid.

"Thank you." Tom gave her a genuine smile as she left.

Hermione mused over what Tom had told her. She hadn't really been following the succession of new Ministers after Fudge's resignation. As far as she could tell, each Minister simply built on Fudge's legacy of bombast. But perhaps… she let herself feel a sliver of hope. Just maybe Corley would be different.

She passed a street vendor and picked up a copy of The Daily Prophet. The cover proclaimed: Jack Corley: our new progressive Minister!

Quickly, she skimmed the article but couldn't see anything new in it. The same old empty promises. The same old lies. The same old proclamations that every new politician made. "Rubbish," she muttered and threw the newspaper into a bin.

-

Hermione looked at the little memo fluttering on her desk with surprise and no small amount of trepidation. In the year or so she'd been working at Research and Development, she had never been contacted by the Ministry. Despite the fact R & D was officially a Ministry department, they were given a fair amount of leeway to do their own work and were rarely ever contacted by the Ministry proper. Even when they were contacted, the messages usually went to the Head of R & D. In fact, Hermione could not remember a single instance in the past year that she had been singled out by the Ministry.

She grasped the small flying message firmly and opened it.

Miss Granger,

Please report to the Minister's office immediately. This message will turn into a portkey in five minutes.

Her feeling of trepidation grew. What on earth did Jack Corley, a man who she had never met, want with her? Perhaps, she thought, with a feeling of icy fear, he wanted to stop her from campaigning for better conditions in Azkaban. She nervously smoothed out her hair and re-tied it. It was best to look presentable, regardless of what the meeting was about.

She felt the familiar tug of the Portkey as the five minutes were up. When the world re-orientated itself, Hermione found herself standing outside the Minister's office. She could smell the paint on the new, bright and shiny Jack Corley that was emblazoned on the door. With a last adjustment of her robes, Hermione knocked on the door.

She jumped slightly when the door opened. Her first impression of Corley was of a tall, dark-haired man who, although not conventionally handsome, had a certain distinguished flair about him. There was something arrogant in his expression, Hermione decided as she held out her hand to shake.

"Pleased to meet you, Miss Granger," Corley said, the arrogant tilt of his chin belied by his smile

Hermione was perturbed by his voice. It was … believable. A politician's voice had no right to be like that. He spoke as though everything he said was the truth and that he could never speak anything else. When he spoke, she felt that he was truly very glad to see her. "Thank you, Minister," she said, inclining her head. "And congratulations."

He held up his hand. "Please, congratulations are a little early, don't you think?" he said with another easy smile.

She couldn't think of a reply to that so she simply gave a rather nervous smile. A very good politician, she thought decisively. She was already off her guard. Remember, Hermione told herself sternly, regardless of how charming he may be, he will still follow the Ministry's rules and regulations. He won't change anything. "This is a lovely office," she said, breaking the awkward pause that had fallen.

And indeed, it was a beautiful office. Corley had obviously chosen his designers well. The windows let in the morning winter sun, which illuminated the huge room. There were hanging plants on the wall. Hermione squinted at one wall and recoiled. There seemed to be a Devil's Snare on it.

Corley, obviously seeing what she was looking at and the expression on her face, hastened to reassure her. "It's contained by magical energy fields. Quite a new creation by some of our Herbologists. The man who masterminded the whole project, perhaps you know his name, a Mr. Neville Longbottom."

Hermione blinked. Neville? "Indeed, we used to attend Hogwarts together."

"Splendid!"

She expected him to clap his hands or make a gesture of excitement, but he didn't.

There was a long silence.

"I expect you are wondering why you have been called here," he said, motioning for her to sit down.

She sat down on the proffered chair. Corley also took a seat, not behind the desk, but on the chair beside her. Smart, she thought. Very smart. "I have been wondering," she said coolly and then decided to be blunt. "I hope that the Ministry isn't having problems with my campaigning for better conditions for the prisoners of Azkaban."

To Hermione's surprise, Corley looked shocked. "On the contrary, Miss Granger," he said. "During the last few days, I've been reading through some of your submissions to the Minister and I'm astonished that my predecessors have refused them so bluntly. You say that one of the prisoners actually fought on our side during the Voldemort Wars?"

She blinked. "Yes, Severus Snape. He spied for the Order, fought for us, risking his own life. He also saved my life during one of the battles. I'm sure I wrote it in one of the submissions."

He shuffled a few papers on his desk and plucked one from the pile. "Indeed you did." He looked at Hermione intently. "You are a very astute young lady, but I'm sure you already know that."

A part of Hermione's mind was screaming flattery, but she was pleased to hear the comment nonetheless. Despite the Death Eaters being locked away, Muggle-borns still had a difficult time in the wizarding world. "Thank you," she said, more out of a sense of obligation than out of any real pleasure in hearing the words.

"It's the truth," he said with another disarming smile. "And that is why I have a project for you, one that only you can undertake. If you agree, I plan on making this public next week." He leaned forward and looked her straight in the eye. "I plan on removing the Dementors from Azkaban."

"That's an excellent idea," she said, after a pause, trying to recollect her thoughts. It was certainly a surprise and she wasn't entirely sure she had kept all of her astonishment off her face. "But what does it have to do with me?"

"With the previous caretaker wanting to take a leave of absence, and the Dementors gone, we will need somebody, or several people, to look after Azkaban. You were the first person who came to mind."

Hermione blinked rapidly. "You want me to be a caretaker?" she asked. She had to admit, the idea of the Dementors away from Azkaban sounded excellent, but she wasn't sure whether she wanted to be demoted to being a caretaker because of it.

Corley gave an easy laugh. "A caretaker does sound pretty awful, doesn't it? No, what you will be given is full control over Azkaban and its inmates." He gave an easy shrug. "Some of your suggestions on improving Azkaban's conditions sound intriguing and I would like to see how they would work out in our society. Of course, you will be fully compensated for this. Your salary will be doubled and you may have visitors whenever you wish." He looked serious. "There is a slight downside unfortunately, and that is you must remain at Azkaban Island for a minimum of 300 days every year. You may hire other people to help you and their salaries will be funded by the Ministry."

It all sounded rather surreal to Hermione and she said so.

Corley smiled and said, "I'm sure somebody as intelligent and as up-to-date as you has read yesterday's Daily Prophet. I don't blame you for being a non-believer, but I assure you, I will change wizarding Britain."

For the first time since she read the article, Hermione thought that she might actually believe him. There was something about his honesty that appealed to her. It was refreshing from Fudge's rhetoric. "I have to think about it," she said. "It's a huge decision to make."

"Perfectly understandable," he told her. "However, I must stress that time is of the essence here. I'm afraid you only have three days to make you your mind."

She nodded and stood up to leave. Suddenly, a thought hit her. "Where will the Dementors be sent after they leave Azkaban?"

As she watched, Corley's expression became icy and frost edged his words. "I'm afraid, Miss Granger, that that information is classified. Good day."

"Good bye," she said, and opened the door.

He called out from behind her. "The memo will transform into a Portkey to take you back to your office. The Ministry hopes you will take us up on this offer. And Miss Granger? Feel free to come back and visit anytime you wish."

Hermione couldn't see his face, but she thought that his tone was the same jovial tone that he had used throughout the entire meeting. It was a far cry from the cold, bureaucratic tones he'd used when she had inquired about the Dementors. Just what are the Dementors being used for, she wondered as she reappeared into her office.

-

The day was cold and Hermione drew her coat around herself in an attempt to preserve body heat. From where she stood on the peninsula, the winter winds blustered in from the ocean and seemed to freeze her much as a Dementor would. As she waited, Hermione tapped her foot impatiently on the dock, staring into the distance where she could see the mists enshrouding Azkaban Island and the faint impression of land

"Miss Granger?" a polite voice queried from behind her causing her to spin and almost lose her balance. The young man, who looked about seven years younger than herself, stuck out his hand for her to shake.

She shook the proffered hand. "You must be from the Ministry."

He nodded. "My name is John Davey." His face took on an eager look. "You are the same Hermione Granger who fought in the second Voldemort War?"

"Yes," Hermione said shortly. "I am."

"Tell me, was it really as the books say? I was only a sixth year at Hogwarts when it ended, and we weren't allowed out of our Common Rooms during the fighting." John's words tumbled out.

"I lost many friends in that war."

John looked abashed. "I'm sorry, Miss Granger." It was a rather stuttered apology; the man was obviously nervous. "I'm sure you're wondering how we get to the island."

"Actually, I'm not," Hermione said, a faint smile flickering over her face. She could remember the first time she read the information in Prisons in the Wizarding World, A History and was astounded at the utter stupidity of some of the wizarding world. "We take a Muggle boat, right?"

"Right," John said, after a pause. He frowned. "How did you know that?"

"It's in Prisons in the Wizarding World, A History."

He looked surprised and Hermione felt a faint surge of irritation. Was it such a surprise to him that she'd read the book? "Well, yes, we are taking a Muggle boat. The spells around Azkaban will block any magical vessel from docking but Muggle boats are safe."

She nodded, while resisting the urge to roll her eyes. She already knew this.

They walked down the dock when Hermione suddenly stopped upon seeing the boat.

He gave her a sheepish smile. "I'm afraid that is our boat." He pointed towards a small, hand-propelled vessel that was bouncing among the choppy waves. "The Ministry doesn't see fit to update the design. Not for ordinary visitors anyway."

"Too bad," Hermione muttered as she stepped onto the wobbling boat. "Muggles do have better boats, you know. Motor-powered ones."

John handed her an oar. "Well, this one isn't powered by anything but us." He looked at her. "You do know how to row, don't you?"

In response, Hermione took up the oar and began dragging it through the water.

"Passable."

She glared at him. "You're not supposed to be criticising my rowing ability. You're supposed to be taking me on a tour of Azkaban so that I can make my final decision."

"Ah, but the criticism is simply a fringe benefit of that," he said with a smile as he drew his oar smoothly through the water.

"Tell me," Hermione asked, frowning as she felt her muscles ache, "how did you learn how to row like that?"

"My grandfather, he's a Muggle. Every Christmas, Mum'd take us down to his little cottage by the sea and he'd teach me how to row, swim, and sail. Quite the man, he was." A flicker of sadness passed over his face. "Tell me, Miss Granger," he said, obviously ready to change the topic, "what makes you want to take over the guardianship of Azkaban?"

"It's complicated," she admitted.

"We have plenty of time," he said and jerked his head towards the far off island. "About twenty minutes rowing still to come before we dock." When there was a brief pause, he added, "I'm sorry if I'm prying."

"Oh no," Hermione exclaimed. "You're not." I'm just not entirely sure what I'm doing here myself, she added silently. "It's just a job opportunity," she said, rather lamely. "An interesting one."

"That it is," he agreed.

They rowed on in silence. Hermione stared out across the bay of choppy black waves and wondered how many inmates looked out of their tiny barred windows to freedom just in sight. The salty tang of the sea was getting stronger and she felt the wind whip her hair across her face with every motion of the oars. Wiping her eyes, Hermione felt the grit and sting of the ocean.

"If you don't mind me asking, what're you doing now?" John asked as they neared the tiny island.

"I'm working in the Ministry's Research & Development. R&D for short."

He looked puzzled. "R&D? I don't think I have ever heard of that department."

"Not surprising," Hermione replied with a smile. "We're only loosely affiliated with the actual Ministry. We do basic research and development of new spells and potions and then pass on our information to the relevant specialist departments."

"Sounds exciting." His tone was neutral.

"Not particularly," she admitted. "The lab work is pretty interesting, but we're rotated through the labs. There's a lot of paperwork to be filled out. I have a enormous stack on my desk that I have to do when I get back."

"Not if you take this job," he pointed out. "Although, I honestly can't see the appeal in living on a small deserted island with convicts."

"Oh, I'm sure it has its upside. I've always liked the ocean," she said with a faint smile. "Besides, Corley said that I would be able to import staff." She shrugged. "And the salary is decent."

"Aye," he said with a nod. "That is important."

With a rather large bump, the boat slid onto the rocky shores of Azkaban Island. Hermione looked up at the dark stone of Azkaban Prison and shivered. The prison seemed to take up most of the island, or at least as far as the eye could see. The black stone rose up, twenty metres from the edge of the island, and was at least ten metres high. In the stone were set tiny little slits; breathing holes, she suspected. From within the prison came the occasional scream, but most of the time, there was just the low moan of dying life.

As far as Hermione could tell, there were no trees or plants on the island. It was a bleak and barren landscape. Even the sand seemed to be washed a dull grey colour.

"Pretty depressing, isn't it," John said, echoing her mood.

"I suppose," she answered, looking around for something positive to say about the island. She did want to take the job, if only for her old friend—well, perhaps not friend, but colleague—Snape. "The sea still looks nice," she finally said.

He laughed. "Not a resounding yes if that's the only positive part you can find about it. Perhaps we should tour the place." They walked up to the large, rusted iron gates that closed off a flagstone courtyard. Taking out a key, John opened the gate and gestured for Hermione to enter.

As she walked inside the gate (into Azkaban , Hermione told herself with a mental shiver), she found her nostrils assaulted by a faint, but overwhelming stench. It smelled organic and rotting. "What is that?" she asked, trying not to breathe through her nose.

"The smell of death," he explained simply. Rather melodramatically, thought Hermione. "Now you know why we don't allow most relatives to visit Azkaban. Now as we enter the first building – I expect you want to look at all of them – I suggest you keep your wand at the ready. The Dementors know that we're coming and shouldn't attack us, but there is no harm in being cautious."

With a visible gulp, Hermione took out her wand. "Lumos," she whispered, and it began to shine with a bright light. John did the same.

They walked over to one of the doors set off the courtyard and he pushed it open. The smell was definitely stronger here. With difficulty, Hermione took deep breaths through her mouth and wondered how on earth Sirius had managed to stay here and still remain sane, the Dementors not even affecting him. She felt a prickling of cold at the back of her neck.

"Dementor," John said softly as one glided past them in the wide, low corridor. It turned its head and looked at them before gliding off into the gloom again.

They walked along for about five metres before Hermione could see a small light coming from a barred section of the wall. As they moved closer, she realised that it was a cell. "What section is this?" she asked.

"Minimum security," John answered, still speaking at barely above a whisper Aside from the occasional cries and constant whimpers, Azkaban held the same deserted atmosphere of a tomb; Hermione found herself unconsciously restricting her speech. "Most of these prisoners will be released within a year."

They neared the cell and Hermione peered inside. As her eyes adjusted to the dim torchlight, she could see a man sitting in one of the corners, his knees drawn up to his chest, rocking back and forth. He was wearing a tattered blue uniform – Azkaban issue – and from where she stood, she could see his Azkaban tattoo on his left wrist. When she listened closely, her ears automatically filtering out the other noise, she could hear the man's muttering.

"I never… explosions normal… wasn't my fault!"

At Hermione's puzzled expression, John said, "They're almost all like that. Believe it or not, he's one of the lucid ones. I think…" he peered at a grimy wall chart stuck beside the cell with spellotape, "ah, yes, this particular fellow, a Mr. Bell, has been here for nearly a year now."

"Only a year?" Hermione couldn't help the gasp that escaped. The man looked like he had been in here for at least several.

"He'll be back to normal once he's out of here again," John hastened to reassure her. "Although I wouldn't be surprised if he has a fear of the dark for the rest of his life."

"What's he in here for?" she asked, curious.

John consulted the chart again. "For the 'accidental' explosion of a potion in one of England's premier potion labs. Unfortunately, the explosion was quite large and managed to kill several Muggles standing nearby and injure many more. Apparently several Muggle newspapers picked it up as a terrorist attack and it took much reassuring to the Muggle PM from our Minister that it was simply an accident. He was sentenced here for a year for the ensuing public relations nastiness with the Muggles."

"I heard about that explosion from my parents," Hermione said with a flicker of amusement. It always surprised her how many things crossed over into the Muggle world from the magical and vice versa.

"You're Muggle-born?" he asked with quite a bit of surprise as they walked on.

She raised her eyebrows at him, but wasn't sure they could be seen in the dim light. "Yes. I'm surprised that wasn't mentioned in all those books you read about the war."

He shrugged.

They passed another cell, this time containing a woman who was standing against the wall with her eye pressed against the tiny hole. She turned around in surprise as they passed. "Not another prisoner?" she said, her voice barely a croak.

Hermione was about to answer when John pushed her from behind so that they passed the cell. "Don't answer the prisoners," he ordered.

She glared at him. "Don't talk to me like that," she said angrily. "If I'm going to be in charge of this place from now on, then I will do what I think is right. What do you think talking to the prisoners is going to ferment? Goodwill?"

"It stops rebellion," he said shortly, their earlier rapport and friendliness gone.

"And, pray tell, how are they supposed to rebel if they're locked in, on an island and guarded by Dementors all the time?"

"Sirius Black escaped from Azkaban," he pointed out. "From the Maximum Security section."

Hermione bit her tongue. It was times like this that she wanted to point out that Sirius was an Animagus and normal rules simply didn't apply to him. That problem was now fixed with the Auror Department of the Ministry and all prisoners were tested for Animage powers before they were admitted. But it was top-secret information that Sirius was anything other than a traitor to the Potters and admitting knowledge of his Animagus status would prompt too many probing questions.

"See?" John said, after a minute's silence.

Hermione scowled. His voice sounded rather patronising.

They exited the first building, still silent, and back into the open-air courtyard. Hermione took a deep breath. "The stench is unbearable back there," she said, breathing in the salty sea air.

"It gets worse," was his only response.

They walked towards yet another door. As they got to it, he said, "Medium Security prisoners. Some of the lower order of You-Know-Who's henchmen and 'normal' murderers."

Medium Security Wing, Hermione remembered, was where Snape was being held. She obviously couldn't keep the flicker of excitement from her eyes because John gave her a quizzical look before he opened the door. "Looking forward to the smell again? I've heard that some get used to it and can't do without when they get out." The tone was sarcastic.

She blanched. The smell in this section was worse threefold than the smell in the last. As they walked down the long corridor, she looked in every cell. She saw that the people in some of them were simply lying on the ground, not moving. Others simply sat there and twitched, letting out the occasional whimper or moan. But none made a sound above that. Obviously the screams… Hermione shuddered. Obviously the screams came from the Maximum Security Wing.

As they rounded a corner, she noticed a discrepancy in one of the cells. Well, not so much as a discrepancy, but a difference anyway. The man inside the cell was upright and leaning against one of the walls.

"Snape?" she exclaimed as she ran to the cell, holding up her wand and peering in.

A thin, skeletal and grimy hand grasped her wrist suddenly, with a harder grip than she imagined. "Who…" the person managed to choke out before he was overcome with a racking cough. The thin straggly lengths of hair fell over his face and covered the numerous red, festering sores and wounds. He let go of her wrist.

Hermione knew then and there that she would take the position as caretaker of Azkaban. "It's me, Professor Snape," she said softly, automatically reverting back to his title. "It's Hermione Granger. I've come to get you out of here."

There was a sound of surprise from behind her. "Get him out of here?" John spluttered.

"Read his chart," Hermione snapped as she reached a hand in between the cell bars and held one of Snape's in her own. "You'll be okay," she told him.

"Overzealous use of the Imperius Curse on Death Eaters?" he read off the sheet incredulously.

"Precisely," Hermione said, keeping her voice even and soothing because she knew that somewhere inside his head, Snape was listening. "He doesn't deserve to be in here. You know it. I know it. Unfortunately, the Ministry doesn't know it."

"But you can't mean to release him," John argued. "Surely that won't be allowed."

Hermione had to agree with that. It was highly unlikely her new powers would include the ability to release Azkaban prisoners at whim. "I'm going to transform this prison," she said suddenly, conviction in her tone. "To Muggle standards, at least. In this area, we have a lot to learn from Muggles."

"And Snape?" he asked.

"He'll have to remain on this island, of course, so as to not trigger Ministry sensors, but other than that." She gave a slow smile. "What the Ministry doesn't know won't hurt them." She gave him a pointed look.

John shrugged. "I know you mustn't think much of me, but I won't tell."

"It won't matter if you do. I'm sure my powers as caretaker here will extend that far," she said decisively. And then to Snape, she said, "I promise I'll be back soon. I promise."

They walked off, but not before she looked back and saw Snape staring out of his cell at them. It may have just been her imagination, but Hermione could have sworn she saw a gleam of hope in his dark eyes.

If the Medium Security Wing was bad, Hermione decided as they entered the last building making up Azkaban Prison, then the Maximum Security Wing was Hell itself. The stench of decaying bodies was overpowering even before they walked in.

"Oh my," she managed to get out before she doubled over and threw up on the flagstones outside. As she wiped her mouth on a handkerchief from her pocket (somehow the smell had gotten onto that too), she noticed that she hadn't been the only one disgusted by the smell. There were stains of dried vomit all around her.

"Disgusting," John agreed and wrinkled up his nose. They walked inside and Herminoe found herself bracing herself for the smell again. A quick look at John found him doing the same.

The first few cells contained similar circumstances to what they found in the Medium Security Wing, but as they walked deeper into Maximum Security, Hermione realised that some of the cells didn't seem to hold any people.

"Where are the people?" she asked John but he didn't answer. Turning around, she saw by the faint torch and wandlight that he was turning green.

Clamping a hand over his mouth, he pointed to what Hermione had originally thought was black sludge on the ground. Now that she looked closer…

… she felt bile rise up in her throat.

There were bones and clothing, all coated in the thick black slime. That…

… she put a hand over her mouth and ran.

That was the remnants of a human being.

She felt nauseated and immediately turned around and hurried back along the corridor from where they had entered. John was already ahead of her and he had opened the door. She could feel the fresh air whipping her hair against her face and this calmed her unsettled stomach.

Hermione joined John outside where he was wiping his mouth. "I don't want to see any more," she said.

He nodded. "I agree. Still want to take over this place?"

"Definitely." If anything, she was more sure than before. What a horrible death for those people! How repulsive that nobody had even checked that they were still alive. But, Hermione supposed, it was unlikely anybody had checked since the year or so ago that they dumped all the Death Eaters in here. The Dementors couldn't exactly tell anybody.

As they stood there, she saw a Dementor glide out of the Medium Security Wing. They must be adept at hiding, she realised.

"Let's go," she finally said.

As they got onto the tiny rocking boat once more, Hermione turned her head back and stared at the prison that was growing small in the distance. "I will change you," she said.

John sniffed at his robes. "But first," he said, "we both need a change in clothing."

She agreed.