With apologies to JK Rowling and thanks to faithful beta reader RenitaLeandra.
"Whatever happens to oneself happens to another." -Oscar Wilde, De Profundis
Once Ron had drawn her attention to the fact that she had failed to read (or even want to read) a single book during the weeks of her confinement in Hogsmeade, the idea began to bother Hermione profoundly. She could come up with no reason for it and found herself unreasonably angry that she had failed to notice or care about it for so long.
The problem was that even trying to analyze the reason for such a thing seemed to suffuse her with the same empty heaviness that she felt at the mere mention of a book. Had she asked herself even a few days before what the reason for that heaviness was, she would have cast about for a more natural explanation. Perhaps she had finally reached her limit after spending her entire life swotting. Perhaps she was still drained from malnutrition and the sure vitamin deficiency caused by a diet of moldy bread, water, and darkness. Perhaps she was simply bored.
Now, though, she began to take notice in small ways of how really wrong she felt. Four consecutive hours of simply sitting in a chair and staring at the fire or out the window would have been unimaginable before this. Even in the Forest of Dean with a horcrux around her neck, she had always had her hands on a book, always been looking for an answer, a next step. But even trying to consider why things were different now made her feel stupid and tired, as if her thoughts were gummed up with paste.
At the sleepiest times, even the sensation of something being wrong at all was difficult to hold on to. The alarm she had felt so strongly when Ron had first pointed it out to her sometimes drifted away into nothingness and she could not remember what had bothered her so, or why. It took hard work, hard thought to even recall and examine the sensation of dismay.
She blinked wearily at the fire and stood up. Sitting made her feel as if she was gradually being enveloped by a cold fog. At least when she paced the room her blood flowed and thought came a little more easily.
"Hermione," she said aloud, in the stern voice that she had previously reserved for Ron and Harry when Exploding Snap was taking precedence over revising for exams, "you must think. There's something magic happening to you, that much is obvious, and you need to figure out what it is."
She chewed on her lip, momentarily galvanized by her own lecture. What would she do if this were happening a few years previous? If they were back in school, when problems still somehow seemed to keep themselves contained to the boundaries of Hogwarts castle and did not spread all over Britain like enchanted briers?
"The library," she murmured in answer to her own silent question. "I ought to go to the library. Surely there must be a book."
But how would she get there? Ron had made it clear, without ever explicitly saying as much, that she would not be permitted to leave until it was deemed safe by whoever it was making such decisions. It would be easy enough to write him a list of titles, to be sure, but how would she know what title she wanted unless she could look for herself? Not for the first time, she found herself wishing that Madam Pince had ever been willing to provide a comprehensive catalog of all the library's resources.
Although, she had to concede, that would require Madam Pince to know all of the library's resources, and she was fairly sure that the library of Hogwarts functioned along very similar lines to the Room of Requirement.
Another excellent reason to go there herself. The Hogwarts library shelves had never failed to yield their treasures to her hand when she sought after wisdom.
"I could ask Ron," she reasoned, still aloud. "But what would I tell him to look for? Curses and enchantments? But which type?" As had happened every time in the past few days, the more her frustration and curiosity grew, the harder it seemed to be to think.
Trying to muster up some enthusiasm for the topic, she began to pace the room, lecturing her hearth as if it were Harry or Ron. "I have to know if anyone else is affected. Specific curses and general curses won't be likely to be in the same book. If it is a curse, and not just-" she didn't let herself finish. Admitting, even when she was alone, that all of this might just be her new lot, that Cruciatus might have begun to do to her what it had done to Alice and Frank Longbottom, was more than she could manage to do.
She brightened the tone of her voice as if that would somehow make things feel less frightening. "At any rate, I could start with a few books on each type of curse and enchantment and see if any match. I'll send Ron for…" but before she could finish saying it, a terrible thought struck her. So terrible that it took the wind out of her, forced her to sink into her chair to grapple with the mental blow.
Did Ron already know?
He obviously had no intention of letting her leave. She was cut off from using the Floo, from sending an owl, even from taking a walk, let alone venturing into Hogwarts. He had gently redirected or outright dismissed her anxious requests to see Harry until she had given up asking-and when had she decided to give up asking? The very thought of doing so now seemed preposterous, when she turned her limited energy to considering it. But Ron had not seemed to think it strange that she stopped asking.
How voluntary was this period of confined rest? Had the Order decided for some reason that she could not be trusted with freedom?
"If it's the real Order," she breathed. That sudden, treacherous thought came hard on the heels of the last. She felt herself reeling, spiralling into territory completely unknown to her.
Had they really given her any proof that the Order were on her side? That they were even the proper Order? Yes, Ron had mentioned the deluminator and had brought up certain private and tender memories which made her suppose it was really Ron. But even Ron could be put under Imperius, could he not? Or interrogated until he broke? Perhaps especially Ron, if the caster were someone he trusted. She had willingly, gladly taken Arthur and Molly's word for it that their side was in the right and things were truly as they described because she could not have countenanced any other possibility.
But now, with three weeks of confinement past and the fourth rapidly going by and not so much as a glimpse of Harry's face? No visit from anyone but Ron and once from Arthur? The cold, heavy listlessness that wrapped itself into the deepest recesses of her thoughts like devil's snare? Could she be sure that the members of the Order she had seen on that first night really were who they said they were? Polyjuice was undetectable until and unless it wore off or the speaker gave themselves away by ignorance. Easier to practice avoidance. To keep one's mouth shut, as it were, and not risk giving oneself away.
To avoid contact altogether.
For the first time she felt not just galled by her isolation, but frightened by it. She was well and truly in prison, then, as much as she ever had been at the hands of the Death Eaters. Only now she was alone. They had cut her off even from Severus.
Was the whole thing some elaborate plot? Had she gone mad? Had they ever really escaped, or was she dreaming? Had she sunk into some delusion of magical proportions?
"No," she whispered, clenching her fists. She had to believe it was real, if she were going to muster the will to escape.
And it was very clear, at last, that escape she must.
0 0 0
Occlumency, he found, was helpful; at least to a point. Little by little he found himself able to will the misery out of himself, although it sorely taxed him. Within an hour he was soaked in sweat, his fingers stiff and aching from the way his hands clenched under the effort. To occlude for a few moments while the Dark Lord (or Dumbledore) attempted to pry into his thoughts was one thing. To occlude against an unseen, unknown force of mysterious origin and variety for a prolonged period of time was another thing altogether.
And yet he had succeeded in buying himself an hour of relatively clear, fresh thought. Having done it once, he believed he could do it again, given adequate rest and preparation.
This time, he gave himself a few days to prepare. He slept as many hours as he could, ate heartily, and tried to ignore the gray snow that crawled gradually up his window. Then, he carefully laid out a sheet of parchment and a freshly trimmed quill on the table beside his bed, made a note of the date and time, stretched out atop the blankets, and closed his eyes.
With each slow, even breath he felt out the shape of the enchantment that held him. It would be important to have a clear idea of it if he were to successfully wrest himself free. It was old magic, tinged with something so primal he could not name it, although he was sure it once had been possessed of a name. He found a spot in the magic that felt weaker and paused. What he was doing was not, strictly speaking, legilimency but he wondered if he could attempt to venture into the enchantment to get a still better picture of it.
Another pause and he decided to do it. After all, the worst that could happen was that it would kill him. He allowed himself a grim smile.
Severus could sense the unnatural pall laid over his thoughts like a cold, greasy film on polluted water. He breathed more deeply, willed his mind to move yet deeper into itself.
A memory of blackness, of fetid air and the smell of his own rank, unwashed body. The splinters that had got under his nails from the wooden floor. And the sound of Hermione's breathing while she slept. He let himself sink fully into the memory until the rest of the world receded, focused only on this: that first night (day?) that she had been there with him in his torment. The emotion of that night roiled up again in his chest. He had always known that eventually he would fail her, would fail that trio of indefatigable do-gooders when they most needed his protection. He had not realized that his destiny was to be locked in with his failure and forced to confront it so directly.
This was it. The bleakness of the memory, still so fresh and recent, was the very thing that gave it power over the sooty blanket of unnatural depression that rested on him. There was little that could be laid on this to make it worse, and so it resisted, the memory of torment pushing back the enchantment like a black patronus. Still aware of himself, deep within his own mind, seated on that cold remembered floor and suffused in a light of his own creation, he studied the weak spot in the enchantment for another moment, then raised his imagined hand to it and whispered, "Legilimens."
The magic resisted like a living thing. It seized hold of him where he had touched it and he felt the coldness of it deep within himself. This was old magic indeed, just as he had feared-magic that had a life of its own. Enchantments like this weren't meant to be used anymore. They were like Fiendfyre, too impossible to control, too unpredictable. This was magic from before the days of wands and latin spells, magic of Merlin or Gilgamesh. It was forbidden on all sides; even the Dark Lord had never dared to stir it up.
It was impossible to read or get the shape of it fully, nor had he any idea who was casting it, but it was there, and it seemed that it was everywhere else as well. He could feel the immensity of it. As he probed, it began to writhe in protest, rising up over him like a wave. When it crashed down over him, he fell below it and knew no more.
0 0 0
Once made, the decision to escape proved more difficult to execute than Hermione might have expected. Ron had told her repeatedly that the door of her cottage was not locked, and yet in three weeks' time she had never so much as tried it to see whether he was telling the truth. Now, she sat in her chair and stared fixedly at it. Could she touch it? Would it harm her? Worse, would it alert them (whoever them turned out to be) that she was trying to get away? She clenched and unclenched her fingers around the handle of her wand and willed herself to get up and try the knob.
And yet she did not touch the door.
Hermione looked at the clock on her mantel. She had spent an hour trying and had not even made it out of her seat while the intention of exiting was fixed in her mind. Magic it was, then. Possibly the same magic that was dulling her mind in other ways, that made her thoughts skitter away from the idea of action no matter how she tried to focus them. Perhaps, though, it was a different magic altogether, a spell within the spell. Ron was probably telling the truth about the lock, she realized bitterly. What need to lock the door when one could lock up the mind?
She jumped to her feet, twisting her fingers together anxiously. If only she could talk to Snape about this. Surely he would have some ideas. He knew so much about curses and curse-breaking; he would know how to help her. If only she had a way to contact him.
Her eyes fell on the empty rolls of parchment they had provided her, back when they were pretending she would be allowed to be useful. Ron had offered to carry a letter to Snape for her. If she could come up with a way to ask without asking, to communicate in code such that only he would understand…
Hermione drew her chair up to the table and unrolled a piece of parchment. It was still fresh and the smell of it rose to her nose, faint and familiar. She almost smiled. Instead, she reached for a quill and gazed down at the empty expanse of the scroll, wondering what on earth she was going to write that would allow her to communicate freely and clearly without risking exposure.
Before she could even begin, Ron banged on the door and let himself in a moment later, shouting "I've brought you something!" before he was even all the way through.
"I haven't even finished the last tin!" she muttered. Molly had taken to sending more biscuits than Hermione could possibly eat, all of them laden with chocolate and beneficial herbs; delicious and restorative, to be sure, but eventually one did get tired of chocolate.
"Not biscuits," said Ron in a tone that suggested he found the very idea of biscuits absurd. "Clear off that table, Hermione. Have you got a towel?"
She was so surprised that she looked around for a towel before she even thought to ask why. Before she could do anything he swept half of the parchment onto the floor with one arm and, with the other, began to perform a bizarre sort of dance, as if he were wrestling with himself.
"What on earth do you think you're doing, Ronald?"
"This - dratted - thing!" was the only response she got. A moment later, though, her answer came, as he snaked one hand through the collar of his jumper, under his own armpit, and pulled it free again grasping a very small, very wet, and very cold-looking kneazle kit by the neck. He sighed with relief. "I'll have you declawed, you menace," he muttered.
"But where did it come from?" Hermione asked stupidly, staring at the scraggly creature now trying to scale Ron's arm. When it reached the summit of his shoulder (much to his evident chagrin, going by his face) the tiny thing stared at her, opened its mouth, and mewed.
"Found it in the snow, argh!" This last was uttered as the kit's claws dug into Ron's shoulder for support. He grabbed it and pulled it free, setting it instead on her table.
Hermione swooped in and gathered the kneazle into her arms. "Poor little thing," she murmured, stroking it gently between its tufty ears "lost in the snow and all by yourself. What are we going to call you, I wonder?"
"Call him Martin Miggs," said Ron, smirking.
Hermione raised her eyebrows. "As in the Mad Muggle?"
"I always thought that would be a funny name for a cat. Y'know, Martin Miggs, the Mad Meowgle."
She almost laughed in spite of herself but managed to allow only the politest smile before she rolled her eyes. "That is terrible. I'd never saddle a cat with a name so terrible."
"Well, you'll come up with something good, anyway." He kissed her cheek quickly. "I can't stay though, I was only passing through when I saw it and I thought you might like the company and something to do, you know. Oh! And I brought you a book as requested-your favorite." He reached into a pocket and produced a much-battered library copy of Hogwarts, a History.
"You're leaving already?" In spite of her mistrust, she felt somehow crestfallen. When Ron was there she often felt she could almost pretend things were normal, like there wasn't a war on and they weren't playing some strange dance around the fact that she was clearly being locked up. It was when he left that she could brood over the strangeness of it all.
"I've got a meeting with Kingsley, I'll tell you more about it later. With Harry gone and you convalescing, there's a lot more falling on my shoulders," he added, his hand already on the door.
"Gone?" she whispered, feeling the blood drain from her face.
"Oh Merlin-no, not like that!" He hurried back to her, wrapping her and the kitten both into a tight embrace. "I just meant, well, with this curse he might as well be. He hasn't woken up in months. But he is… you know… alive."
The sudden spike of fear and sadness gave way to relief and the nausea of a bad adrenalin rush. "Ronald Weasley," she muttered, "you are terrible."
"Sorry," he said with a half grin and a shrug of his shoulders. "But don't be upset, Harry will pull through and you'll be tip-top in no time, especially with Sir Nicholas de Meowsy-Porpington there to keep you company."
The kitten hissed at the name, and Hermione quite agreed. "I can't take puns like that Ron, what on earth are you thinking? I am an invalid."
"Quite right." He grinned at her unapologetically. "I'll see you later, Hermione." And with that, she was left alone with the cat and her thoughts.
"Really though," she said, looking down at the gray little thing in her arms, "what will I call you?"
0 0 0
"Severus! Severus, wake up!"
The voice of Arthur Weasley pierced his brain and brought with it the awareness of the worst headache that Severus Snape had ever experienced. He thought about opening his eyes but it seemed like an unconscionable amount of work, given the circumstances.
When Arthur slapped him full across the face a second later, opening his eyes no longer seemed like the worst available option.
He groaned, then realized he was going to be sick just in time to roll forward and heave over the side of the bed rather than down his own chest. It was only when he heard Arthur's hasty backwards scuffle that he realized he'd rolled in the wrong direction. When the spasms passed, he finally managed to pry one eye open and saw, not without some secret satisfaction, that he had been sick all over a pair of well-loved brown dress shoes.
"That," he said with as much dignity as any man with sick on his face could muster, "was your own fault, Arthur Weasley."
Arthur gave him a look that suggested disagreement, but pointed his wand at the mess and silently vanished it rather than arguing. Then he laid a hand across Severus's forehead and tutted worriedly.
"I've been trying to wake you for fully ten minutes," he said, frowning. "Have you been drinking?"
"Would that I had." Severus closed his eyes again. His voice was thick and scratchy. What had he been doing? Surely not drinking; he never drank.
"You don't seem sick," Arthur murmured, as much to himself as to Severus. Arthur, much like Severus himself, evidently ascribed to the theory that any illness failing to manifest itself in a hot forehead was likely not one worth worrying oneself about. He wondered whether that came of being responsible for the care of so many children. They were always picking up fevers here and there. His stomach churned and gurgled miserably.
"I am afraid you may be… mistaken," he murmured. Severus did not consider himself to be prone to theatrics, at least not in matters of health, but he felt unequal to anything more than staying and lying limp where he already was.
Arthur tutted. "Did you eat something dodgy, Severus? You haven't been trying to brew anything experimental, have you?"
At this, Severus did manage to open his eyes, if only to squint disapprovingly in Arthur's direction. He offered no other answer.
Arthur took the point. "You can't blame me for asking. Have you got any idea what's precipitated this? I mean to say, well, it's not every day that someone is sick on my best loafers."
"Magic," muttered Severus, allowing himself to settle more deeply into his pillow. He just wanted to sleep. Possibly forever.
He heard a shuffling noise at his right hand. "That's obvious," said Arthur, his voice lower and more urgent. "But what magic, Severus? Nobody's been doing magic around here, including you. I'm sorry, when I couldn't wake you I cast priori incantatem and I know there's nothing that could have caused this. We'd know about any magic in the village, Kingsley set a curfew and it monitors-" he broke off before he could specify what or who it monitored. Normally Severus would be keen to get the information but right now he only wanted Arthur to stop talking.
Besides, he didn't know what magic, or what to call it. With some effort, he lifted his hand from where it lay on his chest and waved it vaguely as if to indicate, well, everything around him. "This magic," he rasped.
"Severus, I don't... " Arthur prodded him sharply in the arm with his wand point. "Don't go back to sleep, Severus."
He forced his eyes open, though they felt heavier than he could ever remember them feeling before. Above him loomed Arthur's pale, worried, kindly face. He knew he had meddled in something extremely dangerous; what it was, he was too exhausted to remember. It went through his veins like an opiate.
When his lungs began to burn, Severus had to remind himself to breathe.
"Living death," he mumbled. That's what it felt like; he'd taken the draught once, just a drop, just to know. He knew, somewhere within himself, that his predicament might be urgent, but when he attempted to muster up the feeling all he could get was more of the same heavy, comforting warmth, inviting him to close his eyes and sink beneath it. Perhaps he could sleep forever. Perhaps his turn had finally arrived. He sighed and let his eyes flutter closed once more.
Arthur grasped his wrist, two cold fingers probing for his pulse. "Where did you get it? Why would you take it? You of all people know how dangerous, how risky-the potential for abuse-"
"Didn't," he managed to get out. "Similar." While Arthur held his wrist in the air, Severus managed to raise one finger and wiggle it in something that he hoped resembled a circle encompassing the room. "Magic."
He heard a hiss as Arthur sucked air sharply in through his teeth. "A curse?"
But Severus was too weary to answer, and Arthur's voice was muffled by the slow drumbeat of his own pulse in his ears. He gave in; a moment of sleep, he felt sure, would do him worlds of good.