Author's Note: Please be aware that this story contains graphic violence, torture, strong language, character death, explicit sexual situations, and non-consensual sexual situations. Read at your own risk.
The night seemed endless. The slow rattle of Dementors' breath and the consequent high-pitched whimpering of their victims were Hermione's constant companions; always close, but, by some grace, never so near that she was affected. She did not know which was worse: the draining, suicidal feeling of their nearness, or the threat of it.
She supposed it was because she was silent. The other prisoners howled and moaned constantly. They screamed and ripped at their clothes with reckless abandon. At least, she thought it was clothes they were tearing at. But when she heard a wet ripping sound accompanied by an almost inhuman scream…well, she could only assume the worst.
Possibly worse than the tearing was the scratching. She had hardly arrived and already she knew the pattern. Someone would start scratching at the stone walls of a cell, lightly at first. The intensity would slowly increase. Soon, all that could be heard throughout the hall were the echoes of a desperate man trying to escape, literally trying to claw his way up or through the thick stone walls. Eventually, his nails would break. Sometimes Hermione could hear the snap, other times only the man's wail of pain. Either way, it conjured an unwelcome image: that of dirty and broken bits of nail stuck into a bloodied chunk of scarred wall while a man, hunched over his sanguine flesh, crying and cursing, slipped slowly into insanity. It was nauseating.
But their noise was what attracted the Dementors. Hermione wanted to be strong for them, to tell them to be quiet. But as soon as she would summon the nerve to crawl forward from the corner of her cell and send a quick warning through the cold, black iron bars, she would hear the soft swish of an ethereal cloak and the slow rattle of air. She knew it was too late.
It was always too late.
She got no sleep. She could not stop thinking about the day prior, the day she single-handedly consigned all of humanity to a grim fate through a series of foolish but almost unavoidable mistakes. Whenever she closed her eyes, jarring and disjointed scenes from the battle flashed before her eyes: Voldemort choking Ginny, her red-headed, fair-skinned friend turning blue from the limited oxygen supply, Harry's look of rage and raw fear, the slow arc of his wand hitting the ground, two thin beams of green light. The bodies of her best friends falling stiffly to the ground in death.
Her heart wrenched and she was nearly overcome with the urge to sob. Hermione wanted to stop thinking about it. But the train was in motion, and there was no getting off until it completed its journey.
Next came Draco's vague and mystifying words in her ear: I had no choice, I had no choice, this was the only way. Hermione, I love you. It was the last one that confused her. He acted so cold, so heartless when he talked to Voldemort. He sneered and spat and it was like he had never changed. But to say he loved her? To repeat it like a mantra as he pinned her to the ground to stop her interference, to stop her from saving her friends?
Then he sentenced her to Azkaban with only a moment's hesitation. He hit her across the face – she could still feel the unforgiving sting of his hand – and apologized before stunning her.
No, he did not simply apologize. He begged her forgiveness.
What did it all mean?
For the life of her, Hermione could not figure it out. Draco's actions were full of contradictions. Was he glad she was in pain or was he sorry for what he did? Did he want her dead or did he love her? Nothing made sense.
It was this discrepancy that kept Hermione sane that first night. Instead of blindly accepting what Draco had done, she thought about it, mulled over it, obsessed over it. She thought about it from every angle, using every possible scenario she could imagine until she was mentally exhausted. But whatever she came up with always had a few unavoidable flaws that would leave her suspicious and full of doubt. She believed there was more to what he did than what she saw. And, in some convoluted and complex way, this gave her hope.
One hand cupped the self-made pouch she fashioned out of a bit of cord and a scrap of her old clothing. The other cradled her head. Tears of frustration snuck from her swollen, red eyes. Resisting the urge to cry out loud, she reduced her sobs to barely audible murmurs of true pain. Hermione did not know how long she cried, nor did she care. But she was physically drained after the ordeal. With eyes wide open and trained to the bars of her cell, she stayed awake all night, accompanied by the screams-turned-whimpers of the nearly departed.
The hope Hermione found on her first night remained with her, although it was becoming admittedly hard to keep. Each day she spent in her dark little corner of Hell felt like two. She had nothing to do but think and, when she was lucky, eat the rotten food the guards passed through the iron bars.
For the first week, Hermione attempted to contact the prisoners in cells adjacent to her own. So far, she had little luck. But that did not deter her from trying. She waited until the Dementors were far off and shuffled closer to the bars. Her keen brown eyes, now well-adjusted to the perpetual darkness in which she lived, spotted a slight shift in the shadows across the narrow hall.
That meant the occupant was still alive; the first requirement of her mental checklist was fulfilled. She had not tried talking to this particular man yet. For an insane minute, she thought he would be different.
Pressing her face directly against the filthy, cold metal, she whispered over to him. "Hey. Hey, you there! Psst!" Per usual, she received no response. She expected silence. Undeterred, she continued. "My name is Hermione Granger. What's yours?"
"No matter." She waved off the silence with an impatient gesture. No one ever talked back. At first, it was disconcerting: she was not used to being ignored. But after repeated attempts, she had come up with a monologue. She continued with it now. "Do you know why you're in here? I know why I am: I was betrayed. That's why I'm here. I don't really believe my betrayer, though. Isn't that silly? I don't think he meant to throw me in here…I know, you must think I'm crazy. But I know him and I think there was something else going on. I can't know until I get out of here, though."
There was a soft swish – a Dementor was close. Hermione shifted quickly to the back of her cell and hugged the wall, keeping her wide eyes trained on the hallway. She watched the Dementor drift by and once it was out of range, reassumed her position at the bars. "Hey! Hey, are you still with me? Because I have an idea! We need to escape. You and I! We can get out of this place. We can formulate a plan – we have the time! Just think about it…to be free again! Can you help me, please?"
She thought she saw him move. Taking this as a positive sign, Hermione spoke more frantically, the volume of her voice increasing; she had never gotten this far before. "Please," she begged. "Please, we can escape together. I just need to get out of here. I need to see if my family is still alive." Tears welled in her eyes as her words became desperate. "I need to see if my friends are okay. I need to kill Voldemort! Please! Make some sign that you hear me!"
By this point, her words were nearly drowned in quiet sobs and tears streamed freely down her face. Just as she thought that her efforts were in vain, the man across from her moved closer to the hallway separating them. Her knuckles were white as she gripped the bars in anticipation. Who she saw nearly made her shriek.
It was Neville Longbottom. But it was not the Neville she remembered. This Neville looked like he had been put through a shredder. His face was bloodied and broken. The majority of his teeth were missing. One wide, white-rimmed eye looked out at her while the other was merely a puckered socket crusted over with dried blood. She held back her gorge as he ran a dirty hand, which was missing three fingers (she could see the bones barely poking through the bloodied stumps), through his matted hair. They lifted an entire flap of skin from his head, like his flesh was some sort of unnatural wig.
"Neville," Hermione said, her voice cracking. "Neville, it's me. It's Hermione. Talk to me, Neville. Talk to me!" She did not notice, but she was shaking violently.
For a moment, Neville looked thoughtful and sane. But that moment passed quickly when he opened his mouth. Instead of words came the most hideous scream Hermione had ever heard. It was loud and deep but somehow screeching, sending needles coursing over her body. She jumped and scuttled to the back of her small room, unable to tear her gaze away from Neville's grotesque visage. His eye was open wide and he gripped the bars of his prison, pressing his face against them, trying to force it through. The loose flap skin and hair bunched and moved backwards, exposing his skull. Blood poured from the agitated wound, coursing down his face like a crimson waterfall. Spittle flew from his open mouth and dripped down his chin as he held his haunting scream.
The Dementors came with merciful quickness. At least ten of them swarmed Neville's cell, their rattling breaths taking all the heat out of Hermione, forcing her to relive her most painful days. She clutched her head and screamed with him, inhumanly, the sound coming from some primal being within her. It was instinctive, high-pitched, loud, and terrible. Hermione was terrified. She just let go.
Somehow, through the screams and the memories, she was able to keep consciousness. Through the icy chill of the Dementor's presence, she watched in horror as one leaned close down to Neville. The rattle intensified and Hermione knew what had happened.
Neville's screaming instantly stopped. She heard a dull crack as his body hit the floor. Then, all was silent, save for the gentle swish of the Dementor's cloaks moving away from the soulless shell.
Hermione shook violently from the back of her cell, her teeth nearly biting through her tongue. Neville's body lay on the floor where the Dementors dropped him. His one eye was open in almost comedic surprise. It was trained directly on Hermione. From the angle at which his head was tilted, Hermione knew that he was dead.
Too stunned to cry, throat too raw to scream any longer, she crawled into the farthest corner of her tiny cell and faced the wall. She tried to block out the sound of the guards taking her dead friend away and their obtuse jokes about throwing him over the cliff, but they ripped at her anyway. Once they left, she curled into herself. She flinched as she imagined the splash of a body being hurled into the sea.
She never attempted to speak again.
Because of her silence, she was almost sure that the guards thought she was insane. And because of their assumption, and Hermione's constant wariness, she heard things that other prisoners may never have known.
For example, she learned that there were two main parts of Azkaban: one for the lower security prisoners and another for higher security. The distinction came when prisoners reached a certain level of magical ability, one them being Animagi transformations. Those who could transform were put into the high security wing, guarded both by Dementors and Death Eaters. The human contact must have kept them sane because Hermione often heard stories of questioning and subsequent torture when they gave up no information. Although what information the Death Eaters could possibly want was beyond her.
Another thing she could not grasp was why she was not with them. She was one of the first to achieve a full transformation. Draco knew this. More impressively, she was one of Harry Potter's closest friends. If anyone deserved to be in the high-security wing, it was her. Yet here she was, in low security with occasional visits from the Death Eater guards that lasted only long enough to give and take her food bowl. She did not mind the lack of attention (for the prospect of torture was not at all pleasant), but it puzzled her nonetheless.
She thought of Sirius often. Although she did not know the man well, he was the only one, dead or alive, who could possibly understand her position. She wondered how he was able to keep his sanity for so long. Even though he was innocent, this place sucked so much out of a person. She admired him for that and strived to live up to his singular achievement. In that way, he became her post-mortem inspiration. Whenever her hope began to fade, she thought of him and it returned. If someone else could do it, so could she.
Unlike Sirius, though, the thought that kept her sane was not her innocence. In her mind, she wasn't innocent at all. It was her fault that Voldemort had succeeded. The death of every person since his regime took over fell squarely onto her shoulders. And the guilt was suffocating. Sometimes, when the Dementors were particularly close, she felt smothered by her memories and fainted, hearing the high-pitched shrieks of those in pain as her world faded into blessed blackness.
Whenever this happened, she would have the most horrid dreams. She could see the dead, those faceless bodies just piling up in a mass grave before her. Some still twitched – maybe they were alive. But no matter what their state of existence was, they were slime: nothing but Muggles and Mudbloods, and they did not deserve to live. A Death Eater would point his wand at them, mutter a spell, and up they would go, consumed by flames. The smell was unlike anything she had ever experienced. The hiss and crackle of cooking flesh made her stomach churn so badly that she would wake up and vomit onto the floor.
No, there was no safe place for her. By all accounts, she should have been the first one driven mad.
Instead, hope kept her sane. Hope and suspicion. The thoughts always in the back of her mind were of Draco. After such a long time with only her thoughts for company, she often found herself reliving nearly every minute she spent with him, always looking for something that she may have missed, some clue that would provide some explanation of why he betrayed her so. But nothing ever came of it.
Since time disappeared inside of the heavily guarded walls, Hermione did not know how long it took for her to get acclimated to prison life. But oddly enough, she did. She grew accustomed to little or no food and learned to mostly ignore the icy grip of the Dementors' presence. She slept through the screams and moans of the other prisoners soundly.
Soon, it was not so much an issue of being imprisoned as it was finding something to do with all the free time. In the days of her old life, she would read or study or simply relax with her friends. But now that such activities were impossibilities, Hermione was lost. She had no visitors and there was no one else in the prison capable of intelligent vocalizations.
On good days, which occurred with surprising frequency, she would attempt wandless magic. She would stare at a plate or a spoon or a small piece fabric for hours, concentrating, stretching for that wonderful warming sensation inside her very bones that indicated that the magic she once possessed was still there. A few times, she thought she felt a shred of it. But as soon as she applied that feeling to make the desired object levitate or burst into flames, it left her as if on a stiff wind. At times, she felt like she was making progress. Most days, she was just fooling herself.
Other days, she recalled her textbooks, keeping fresh in her mind all the knowledge that she had gained. She knew the chances of her actually using any of the spells she had learned again were slim, but if there was a chance, even a small probability that she would ever lay hands on a wand again, she wanted to be prepared. If she ever got out, she would be ready.
If she ever got out…