They were leading captives out of the Malfoy dungeons. The war had ended abruptly, not even an hour over yet. The Chosen One, the Boy Who Lived, had died a hero's death, as Dumbledore had set him to do. Young Mr. Weasley had been rushed to St. Mungo's with little hope of a full recovery; at the very least, he would lose his legs.
Severus, Minerva, Arthur and Ginny Weasley, Kingsley, and Lupin had rushed to Malfoy Manor as soon as they'd caught their breath at Hogwarts. There were others at the school to begin clean-up, and while they weren't the ideal selection to free the captives, they were who was available.
Inevitably, the press and general population, who had all been mysteriously occupied during the fighting, had been readily available to gather on the Malfoy lawns and watch, trembling, as the war heroes, members of the mysterious Order of the Phoenix, braved the evil place in search of survivors. There wasn't much hope, really. Severus almost hoped they didn't find any survivors. Bellatrix Lestrange had had lordship over the manor for months, torturing her captives at will with only the likes of Fenrir Greyback to restrain her.
Luna Lovegood, Ollivander, nearly a dozen other witches and wizards—all dead. Then were the Muggles, too, nameless faces with dead eyes staring in blank accusation of deaths at something so unbelievable to them as wandpoint. There were nearly fifty of them. Malnutrition, festering wounds, frothing at the mouth, poisons, infections, fungus, animal-inflicted wounds.
Severus had long ago learned that there were many ways to go, and Bellatrix had once again proven she had known what she was talking about when she'd first begun to disgust him with her tales of torture and death. Not a single body was without its scars that spoke of long-suffering, of healing and beginning the torture again until, finally, Bellatrix grew bored and moved onto the next, leaving that first to die as it saw fit.
Bellatrix, mysteriously, hadn't been at the 'final battle.'
The six of them went cell by cell, floating the corpses onto conjured stretchers and attaching Portkeys the Ministry would have to approve after-the-fact. They would be transported to the morgue at St. Mungo's, as so many others would, sent from the battleground directly.
The very last cell was the largest and the emptiest. Severus and Lupin entered together while the others finished with the Portkeys in the previous cell. There was only one body in the cell, but that was only the first shock.
Bellatrix Lestrange lay in a heap next to the door, her fine robes smudged and wrinkled, loose on her too-thin frame. Her dark, glazed eyes were opened wide with the surprise and fury of her final moments. Her neck was snapped and there were several bloody dents in her skull. Her robes were torn in places to reveal bloody scratches from somebody's fingernails. Her wand was shattered beside her.
The bigger shock was the creature, the witch, in the corner. She wore a scrap of clothing that had probably once been a bedsheet but had been fashioned into a sort of toga with knots over the girl's shoulders. It was gray-brown, covered in filth and grime and blood, no telling what color it had been initially. The witch had no shoes nor socks, nothing but the sheet pulled tight around her as she squatted in the corner, pressed against the walls, arms wrapped around herself, rocking slightly.
Her hair was a mass of tangles and knots, matted to her head and uneven in length as though somebody had hacked it away on occasion. The toga was ragged in the back, stuck to her body by blood and scabs over slashes that could've come from a whip or Sectumsempra. Her legs were covered in blood and fesces, scratches and scuffs. Her toes were blue; she was missing at least half her toenails; the bones in her left foot were crooked. Her knees were a mass of thick scabs and pus. Her arms were pocked with burns and craters, her wrists marred by parallel lacerations as from claws, fresh cuts over scars over scars. The last two fingers on one hand were horribly crooked and the thumb hung uselessly, while the entire other hand looked as though every bone in it had been crunched in on itself. Her face was streaked with dirt and tears, smeared with blood. There was a slice across her forehead and through an eyebrow, down her cheek. Her nose was smashed and broken, her was mouth wide open and sucking in breath desperately, blood trickling out of both corners, sounding like a dementor's wheeze.
The way she was curled in on herself, Severus couldn't see her front, but he could only imagine the torture that had been inflicted.
Then she turned and looked at the pair of men in the doorway and Severus heard Lupin gasp. It was Hermione Granger in the corner of the cell, the final member of the infamous trio that had been missing for months. Nobody from the Order, not even Severus, had known where she'd ended up.
The witch's eyes, hazel and honey, once filled with intelligence and determination, were slightly crazed. Severus could only imagine the tortures she'd had to live through—the curses and spells, the poisons, the Cruciatus, the barbed whips, the taunts, the blows, rape. He'd witnessed enough of it to have a fair idea of what left the human body looking the way hers did, particularly at Bellatrix Lestrange's hands.
It was the lack of madness in her eyes that worried Severus. Madness could be dealt with; it was an escape for the mind. But she was too bright a witch to give in completely. No doubt she'd tried Occlumency, probably succeeded for awhile as well. No doubt she'd fought back—Bellatrix's corpse was enough proof of that.
But to survive all of it was mentally as well as physically devastating. She would never be the same. Even after months in St. Mungo's, even after the physical wounds healed, the mental scars would remain, uneven, untreatable.
Before Severus could suggest otherwise, Lupin stumbled into the cell, ingoring the body and headed straight for the survivor. The girl screamed bloody murder, as was to be expected, flinching closer to the wall and holding up her pathetically broken hands to ward him off.
"Hermione, Hermione; it's Remus. It's only Remus, I won't hurt you," Lupin said, his tone soothing, calm.
A wave of magic burst from Granger's palms, blasting Lupin back head over heels, straight out the door and into the wall beyond. He hit it with a harsh crack and didn't get up. Severus, who had nearly been hit by his flying colleague, stood still. Granger's scream died in a shudder, the magic ceasing abruptly, revealing swollen red and chafed palms, which she curled into herself again. Her right wrist was broken.
"What's going on? Is there a survivor?" Minerva asked, rushing into the doorway, bending over Lupin. Severus watched Granger, who seemed to recognize Minerva's voice. Lupin groaned, coming around at whatever spell Minerva had cast. There were footsteps as the others came to see as well, then, "Oh Merlin; get her out of here, Arthur…"
"Hermione?!" Miss Weasley cried, but her father towed her away, protesting as they went. Severus listened as Remus limped after them.
"Granger," Severus said cautiously, taking a step closer to her, approaching her as he would an injured, caged-in predator. His wand was in his hand, but it wasn't pointing at her. Her eyes darted to him, slightly bloodshot, reminding him painfully of Bellatrix; she alternated between glaring into his eyes and watching his wand, waiting for him to make a move. "Granger, do you recognize me?"
She didn't respond, but she hadn't sent him flying out the door yet and he was nearly kneeling in front of her.
"Granger, it's over. Bellatrix is dead, Voldemort is dead," she didn't flinch at either name, but his words didn't seem to be registering with her, either. She didn't blink as she stared at him, now just looking into his eyes instead of darting to his wand. "The war is over. We've come to take you back home."
Again, no real response, but she shuddered at the word 'home' and he wondered why. Had she forgotten the concept of home? Had something awful happened at her home that he didn't know about? Where did she even consider home? Or maybe it was that she didn't want to face the familiarity of home when her reality had changed so profoundly? He could certainly sympathize with that last.
"Do you recognize me, Granger?" he asked, examining her face and trying not to flinch away. She hadn't been astoundingly beautiful before, but she hadn't been hard to look at in the least. Her eyes, her entire face, had shown with such life and tenacity of spirit that it had made up for any plainness. Now she was broken. The crazed look in her eyes, the blood and grime, the slices across her forehead and cheek, the many-times split lips, the smashed remnants of her nose. And her hair, oh her hair. It had once been frizzy, wild with magic and a life of its own. Now, it was a rat's nest of knots and curls, choppy, matted, pounded into submission.
"It's Professor Snape, Miss Granger," he said, now kneeling fully in front of her. If she struck out, he would be hit; if she struck out with magic, he would have the same fate as Lupin no matter than he had his wand in hand.
Instead of striking, she whimpered. The sound was so very pathetic and broken, it tore at his heart as nothing had quite managed to do in his practiced aloofness. He could hear Minerva crying softly behind him.
Tears flowed from her eyes, her body was wracked with great sobs, shuddering awfully. It didn't seem her body could take the strain of it. After a few seconds, she fell forward into him, leaning against his chest, broken hands grabbing the front of his robes, claw-like, latching onto him. Tentatively, as mindful of her injuries as he could be, he put his arms around her, bracing her against him, comforting her, scooping her up.
She cried herself out quickly, but she didn't let go of him as he stood, didn't flinch away, didn't try to harm him. He pocketed his wand, holding her more firmly. She didn't seem to be able to care if he was pressuring new or old injuries.
He carried her out of the dungeons, out of Malfoy Manor, past the silent, gaping crowd gathered along the path. She had her face pressed into his robes. She was so broken nobody would recognize her until after she was on her way to fully healed. At least he hoped she could arrive at a 'fully healed' state. Minerva and the others trailed behind after simply burning Bellatrix's corpse where it lay, locking it in the cell where she'd died.
She'd cut out Granger's tongue.
Severus shuddered with rage, wishing Bellatrix had survived so that he could go kill her himself. After torturing her, of course. He could imagine a thousand things that he wanted to do to her, a hundred potions he wanted her to taste.
But it seemed proper, when he finally calmed enough to think, that Granger had been the one to do it.
As far as anybody could tell, Granger had finally taken too much. Emaciated, bleeding, broken in all but spirit, and that had probably been very near to shattering, Granger had beat Bellatrix's skull in with her fists, slammed her into the wall next to the door. The wand had probably broken by accident, keeping her trapped in the cell with the rotting corpse, starving.
They had gotten to her just in time. She'd been starving, bleeding internally and externally. She'd had lice and fleas. There had been three different slow-acting poisons in her bloodstream and it had been weeks before they'd realized what they were, then more time to pin-down and create an antidote.
Every rib was broken. Her right wrist, every bone in her right hand. Every single one. The last two fingers on her left hand had been shattered, her thumb dislocated. Her collarbone was broken, her left shoulder out of joint. Her kneecaps had been roughly the consistency of jelly. Her feet had been frostbitten; two of her toes had had to be amputated off her left foot.
The cuts, scrapes, tears, blisters, lashes, bruises, and pocks had had all manner of festering infections. Almost every single one of them would scar no matter the treatment.
The healers were good, but they could only do so much. Her bones were properly set and healed almost instantly, there were soothing salves that eased away bruises, dittany for cuts and scrapes. Infections were no match for the potions readily on-hand at the hospital. The toes couldn't be replaced due to the nature of the curse that had been on them, but she could live without toes. Her head was shaved, her shoulder put back in place. The curse was removed from her kneecaps.
Her tongue was slowly, carefully, painfully regrown.
It was the emotional and psychological healing that would take time. She flinched whenever anybody came near, whenver anybody spoke near her. She looked at them as though they kept her in a cage, as though they would turn on her at any moment. She refused to eat until she was weak with hunger, and then she inspected all her food, smelling it through her reconstructed nose that couldn't work as well as her original had, sampling and waiting before finally eating. Testing for poisons.
Mostly, she slept. She wrapped herself in a cocoon of sheets, put the pillow over her bald head, and closed the world out, knees pulled up to her chest in the fetal position.
Ron Wealsey, legless and with his left hand and wrist missing, never to return as Granger's toes, visited, but she couldn't look at him. Granger didn't look at anybody who visited her—her parents, retrieved from the distant continent on which she'd hidden them, her professors, her friends, her healers. She never spoke. She screamed in her sleep, but it was inarticulate, as though she still had no tongue.
Severus only visited once, a month after he'd carried her into the ward bellowing for assistance. She was asleep, or pretending to be asleep. Tucked into a ball beneath the layers and layers of blankets, head hidden beneath her pillow, shaking like a leaf, he'd understood, just a little bit, what she was doing. She was hiding from the world, under the blankets and pillow. Under those, it was as though she wasn't in the bed. She had disappeared.
In her mind, he was sure that Hermione Granger no longer existed. He was sure she felt so changed that she couldn't be herself anymore.
He hated to admit it, but he felt the same. Sure, he faced every new day, faced the crowds of hero-worshipping fans, helped rebuild the school that had been his home for so long, provided testimony against the surviving Death Eaters. He went through the acts of his life, but it wasn't his life anymore. He wasn't the person he had been at the beginning of the war, nor was he the person he'd been in the last years of the war.
He was done fighting.
By all rights, he shouldn't have lived through the war. He, of all people, should have been laid to rest by the fighting. He'd served too many masters, kept too many secrets, been altogether too treacherous and had too good of luck to scrape through things to even make it to any sort of culminating battle. He should have died.
Life on auto-pilot seemed little better than life in a bed, hiding beneath the pillow.
After a year, when Minerva asked him to return to Hogwarts to teach Defense, he hadn't been able to turn her down. Instead, he'd gone to see Granger again, still in the same room at St. Mungo's because she'd had a fit when they'd tried to move her, magically repelling anybody who tried to touch her.
He entered the room and closed the door almost soundlessly behind him. She sat up slightly, her head appearing between the pillow and blankets. Her hair had grown back; it was down to her shoulders in ringlets that weren't so wild as they'd been before. Her skin was shiny with a thin sheen of sweat from staying beneath so many layers.
She looked him in the eye without flinching.
You know what I've been through, the look said. You don't try to judge me. You don't have to.
At the same time: You were never more than a peripheral part of my life before. You won't tell me how much I've changed since then. You won't remind me I'm not the same.
Her thoughts projected to him through the eye contact, as though she was willing him, the Legilimens even if he hadn't employed the spell, to hear her, to understand just that little bit so that maybe, maybe, she could crawl out from between the blankets and pretend not to be broken.
Of course, he was thinking the exact same things of her.
Severus had gone to Gringott's before St. Mungo's, and had closed his account. He'd gotten half in Muggle money, half in galleons.
Slowly, he walked to the standing closet in the corner and withdrew her robes—her belongings had been moved to her room after three months, when there was no place else to put them outside the hospital. She had crawled out from between the covers when he turned to her again, and she let him help her get dressed. The robes were too big, and it was a good thing the boots could be laced tighter, but they fit.
He disillusioned the pair of them and led her out of the hospital without looking back.
Hermione had once heard a story about survivor's guilt. Or at least, it was sort of about survivor's guilt.
In the story, a ship full of sailors had been attacked and a single sailor had survived, barely managing to secure himself a lifeboat before passing out and drifting across the sea. When he'd woken, he'd, being a sea-fairing man for some time, looked to the stars and charted his course for land, but time passed and passed and he did not hit land. He, the lone survivor, drifted farther from the wreck where his friends and his brothers had all died, yet still he did not find land. A day later, when land finally came into view, the sailor wrote his story in charcoal on the bottom of the boat and slid into the water, giving his body and his life to the sea as all those he had known on his ship had.
When she'd first heard that story, Hermione had been horrified. She hadn't been able to conceive of how the man, self-sufficient enough to survive to tell the story, had committed suicide like that.
That was before she'd been the lone survivor of the Malfoy dungeons.
Yes, she'd had the strength of spirit and the raw power that had won out against her captors in the end, but there was nobody left who knew just what she had been through. What Bellatrix Lestrange had made them do, made them watch, and done to them in those cells of hell. At the end, she hadn't wanted to live, but to die would've been to let Bellatrix win, and that hadn't been acceptable.
And so she had been the survivor; she had been the one to pummel Bellatrix with magic and fists and feet, to break her physically and magically, to end her, to end the torture and the death of friends. But even though Bellatrix was gone, the sea was still there, she was still locked in the dungeon without escape. But before she'd been able to give over and die as everybody her world had narrowed to include had, she'd been rescued.
Professor Severus Snape, somebody who had once been a Death Eater, who had known the horrors that those like Bellatrix Lestrange could perform, had crouched in front of her and, for once, looked at her as if she was a human being. A human being! She was broken, bleeding, humiliated, crouched in a corner smeered with her own blood and shit with the body of the woman she had killed beginning to rot across the room. How could he look at her like a human being?
He had carried her out of hell himself, even though it had hurt her for him to do it. She hated herself for being relieved to see trees again—Luna would never see trees again, nor Ollivander, nor those little Muggle girls who had screamed and cried from the cell across the hall whose names she'd never know.
St. Mungo's was clean and white, not a place for her. She was contaminated. So she hid herself, unable to leave her bed but not wanting to mar the room with her presence, putting her pillow and blankets over her to cover her even though it was so hot it was hard to breathe. Old friends visited, Ron with his legs and part of an arm missing. Harry missing. But it only reminded her that she was supposed to be missing, too.
Then Snape came back. Again, she was a human being to him. She wasn't a patient, wasn't a survivor, or a hero, or a friend. She wasn't required to be anything when he looked at her, just there. And if he saw her as a human being, through his eyes that had seen so much wrong, wasn't it true? When he looked at her, she could almost believe it.
He helped her dress, easing joints that still ached with phantom cold through the proper holes in the robe, lacing up the boots. She looked like a human being when he was done, he could make other people see what he saw.
He took her away, then. Away from the white and the too-clean smells, away from the people wondering what was wrong with her, that couldn't see what she was. The one who wasn't supposed to survive. The one who was too scared, too stupid to die when she was supposed to.
He Side-Along Apparated her and the compression of it woke her up, made her remember that she had survived, that she wasn't in pain anymore. It was very strange, feeling so normal, so human, when she wasn't anymore. They Apparated again and again, their surroundings changing more and more as they traveled farther and farther away from where people would recognize them, from where people would know how to look at them.
They ended on a beach. It was sunny, the Mediterranean glistened pristinely blue-green, the sand was white, there were cliffs off to one side and a staircase cut into the stone. Snape held her hand and guided her up the stairs, being patient with her, taking her slowly. The sea air and the movement reminded her that she was still alive, but it was a different sort of alive when there was so much water right there, reflecting their images.
Standing at the top of the cliff and looking down into the moving water, they could only see the rough shape of the cliff in the reflection. They weren't there. They weren't important. They could just be part of the landscape, insignificant. Nobody would know they had survived something they weren't supposed to because nobody would have to notice them.
The house was on the cliff, no more than a cottage. It was stone with red shingles on the roof and a squat chimney. There were gauze curtains in the open windows, blowing in and out on the sea breeze. Inside, there were two bedrooms, a kitchen, a bathroom, and a small living space in the middle. All the walls, except for in the kitchen and bathroom, were lined with bookcases filled with books. In the basement, there was a potions lab. Behind the house, there were greenhouses filled with dirt and weeds and plants.
Hermione wore the cotton pants and tanktops he had put in the wardrobe in the bedroom he'd led her into. She read the books he handed her and she worked the dirt with her fingers. She always smelled of earth and plants as he always smelled of potions ingredients and simmering cauldrons. When she ran out of plants to tend, because even sometimes the dirt needed a break from fingers that weren't supposed to remain, she walked on the beach, listening to the waves and ignoring the shadow of a man that followed her.
Severus always followed Granger when she left the cottage, he'd put wards in place to alert him when she did so. He didn't trust her not to try to commit suicide or bury herself in the sand or some other tactic for disappearing that would seem completely mental to anybody entirely sane. He wasn't entirely sane, though, and neither was she.
When they'd arrived on the island, officially a part of Greece though it was so small that it didn't have a name or a mark on the map, their neighbors—who lived a good distance down a road that winded through a wood along the beach—had been confused by them, as Severus had given them no explanation. He'd heard their gossip, though. They'd thought a father and daughter had moved to their island, into the abandoned cottage on the cliff that had stood empty for so long, since Severus' dear great-aunt Prince had died, in fact, and left the summer cottage empty.
After a week, they'd snuck enough of a look at the pair of them to know they weren't related by blood. The neighbors avoided them, though; they could tell they were different, damaged. Even the wizarding ones, and there were a few, stayed away without recognizing them for who they were. The women whispered about how awful the ordeal the young woman had been through must have been to have her looking the way she did, and the men wondered what his secret was that kept him so silent and so dutiful to the girl.
The neighbors thought it was sweet, endearing, the way he followed Granger when she wandered off. They thought it was nice of him to let her wander. They didn't know she could kill him if she felt threatened and she wouldn't even know she'd done it.
Mostly, Severus ignored the neighbors. He only interacted with them once or twice a month, when he went into town for the supplies they couldn't provide themselves. They let him have his peace and smiled at him when he made eye contact even though he didn't smile back. Granger always stayed in the cottage when he was gone, was always sitting in the window seat watching for his return, though she never spoke.
They found a routine. She tended the greenhouses, pruning and coddling and watching over sprouts, her fingers massaging the dirt, employing the watering can precisely as she'd always sliced and measured in his Potions classes. He used the ingredients she grew in the potions lab below, brewing things by mail-order under an assumed name—they were Gabrielle and Jonathan Prince. The ingredients that didn't go into his potions were also sold.
For all her near-insanity, she was functional. She tended the garden, read the books, and kept the house clean. She didn't seem to need her wand to perform magic, though he'd procured her a new wand, the old one having been broken in the dungeons. He'd put the wand on her bedside table the first day they'd been in the cottage and she had never touched it.
Sometimes, he could've sworn he saw a flash of the old Hermione Granger when she was returning from wandering and picking up a book, feet still rough with sand. But those moments passed quickly.
He never questioned why he had done it, why he had taken her with him when he disappeared from Wizarding Britain. All he could think was that she'd needed it as much as he had, and lonliness was much more tolerable when he was alone with somebody else.