"I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process."
C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
That night, piercing screams rent the night air. Moans and muffled cries of "no!" alerted Severus to Hermione's distress moments before the screaming started, but he had been unable to call out to her or reach her though she lay upon a couch just a few feet across the room. He'd thought he could manage the short distance, but that had been a miscalculation, and now he lay on the floor, listening to the screams that chilled his blood.
Thankfully, it was not long before footsteps pounded through the house. Harry reached Hermione first and he struggled to wake her. Ronald and George Weasley, who had arrived to Grimmauld Place that afternoon, hovered nearby looking pale and shaken.
"Harry?" Hermione called out. Her voice was raspy. And then she started sobbing low and broken. The sound was not much of an improvement over the screaming. Harry picked Hermione up and cradled her in his arms. Severus caught the smell of urine as he strode with her across the room.
"George, can you start the bath?" Harry asked quietly, nodding at the door ahead of him.
"Here, sir," Ron said. "Let's get you off the floor." George returned from down the hall and helped Ron lift Severus into bed. Sweat dripped down his face from the pain.
Severus tried to ask his question by looking pointedly down the hall where Hermione had gone, but the Weasley boys were not as adept at reading him as Hermione was. He hadn't appreciated or been alarmed by the fact that she read him so easily until Ronald looked at him with such puzzlement and the difference was brought home in sharp relief.
"What happened?" Severus rasped, adding to the pain.
Ron looked at him a moment. "Harry said he filled you in on everything. Did he tell you details of the night we were captured and taken to Malfoy Manor?"
Evidently, in the enormous amount of information he had been given, some things had been glossed over, and this had been one of them. Severus shook his head no.
"It was bad," Ron said sitting in the chair beside the bed. George listened intently as he took care of the soiled bedclothes and cleaned the couch.
The past filled Ron's eyes as he went on. "Snatchers caught us one night - the taboo, you know. One of them was Greyback...they held her immobile and he pawed all over her, said things...about as scared as I've ever seen Hermione, but what came next was worse. Not long after we got to Malfoy Manor, Bellatrix saw the sword and flipped...thought we'd gotten it from her vault...decided to torture information out of Hermione. They locked Harry and me in the cellar. We could hear her screaming as Bellatrix crucioed her...it went on and on forever, and we couldn't get to her…we couldn't. When Bellatrix finally lifted the cruciatus curse, she started cackling more madly than ever and Hermione started screaming again. That was when Bellatrix pinned Hermione down and carved the word 'Mudblood' into her arm with a cursed knife." Ron paused. "Hermione's strong. She never gave in; she survived, wHarent on and kept fighting...but there were differences. Of course there would be...don't know how she even kept her will and her mind intact, don't know exactly how close of a call it was. We almost lost her, I think. Would've done if Dobby hadn't shown up."
George looked as sick as Severus felt. He'd seen it more times than he could count, knew full well what Bellatrix's cruciatus curses did to a person. No one relished torture quite the way that mad witch had done, not even the Dark Lord. His evils had to do with dominance and control. With Bellatrix, it was more about the fun of it. Nothing made her more gleeful than to torture her victims until they lost control of their bodily functions, lost their will to live, lost their minds.
The Granger chit may once have annoyed him to the absolute limit, but Severus knew he would much rather deal with her at the height of her annoying, know-it-all glory, than enjoy her calmer, more tolerable self, if it meant she never had to pay that kind of price. Severus wondered how intact Hermione had really been when she was rescued, how close she'd come to losing the will to live.
This thought was broken with an answer that marveled and exasperated, but also brought relief.
The Weasley boys asked after Hermione when Harry came back.
"How is she?"
Potter answered, "She's embarrassed and wrung out, but mostly she's concerned about Professor Snape. Wouldn't settle down until I promised to come check on you and take care of you, sir."
She was the one reliving torture, yet she was worried about his tumble to the floor. No one was surprised by this. That part of Hermione had survived very much intact.
It transpired Severus had managed to tear the wound above his right hip open deeper.
"Hermione's gonna have kittens," Harry said as he cleaned the wound. "Well, feel really bad and have kittens." They worked together to fix what they could before Hermione saw the damage. Dittany at least stopped the active bleeding.
Harry agreed to downplay the exacerbation of his injury. Severus didn't know if he was more amused or disgusted to note that he and Boy Wonder were experiencing kinship of sorts in the matter. Neither wanted to worry or burden Hermione over the incident more than necessary. Both loathed being injured and subject to overprotective mollycoddling. Severus remembered Hermione's ultimatum. He had no wish to take the risk that she was kidding when she said, basically, 'We'll do it Harry's way unless you misbehave and then you'll be facing a Molly Weasley - Poppy Pomfrey version of me.' Merlin save him from such a fate!
An hour or so later, Severus noticed Hermione standing by his bedside. Additional pain potion or no, he'd been unable to reclaim sleep.
"Sorry, sir. I couldn't sleep and Harry took my spot," she looked over at the couch and grinned. "I didn't mean to wake you."
Severus shook his head.
"Couldn't get back to sleep either?" she asked. "Sorry about earlier. That was the worst it's been since it happened."
Severus patted his chest.
Hermione gave him a small wry smile and shook her head. "It would've happened eventually anyway. It's been catching up with me for a while." She paused for a moment, looking uncertain.
"Sir, do you...would...would you mind if I sit beside you for a little while?"
Severus looked at her for a moment and shook his head. He assumed she didn't want to be by herself and he wasn't sleeping anyway. To his surprise, she didn't sit in the chair but beside him on the bed.
She sat quietly for a time, but he could see the wheels turning in her head. He bumped her with his elbow and willed her to spit it out as he looked at her.
"Really? You're encouraging me to ask questions? That has to be a first," Hermione kidded.
Severus rolled his eyes.
"I've just been thinking, that's all," she said quietly. "About a piece I read once written by a counselor. He did outpatient counseling for various kinds of chemical dependency...said you could tell the age that someone started using because when they started using, they stopped developing emotionally, and that's the age they acted and coped with things. Just made me wonder if anything similar happens with occlumency."
Severus gave her an angry look.
"No...I'm not talking about you. I'm talking about me...sort of. I've been putting off dealing...since. At first it was keeping busy, and then it seemed like, sometimes, I found a way to shut everything down. I wondered if it was something related to occlumency. But it won't fix anything, not really, and it doesn't work all the time. When things do break through, it seems worse than before, and overall, I feel kind of stuck if that makes any sense."
Severus nodded. He noticed Harry was watching and listening as he lay on the couch.
"I don't know what's worse: feeling stuck in place with the weight of a ticking time bomb that's about to go off, or the process of actually trying to work through it - which I'm afraid means letting it catch me and tear through me, and I'm not sure what'll be left if that happens."
Severus didn't have an answer to that conundrum either. And it struck perilously close to home.
Hermione sighed. "It helps having Harry around, and you and Ron."
Severus raised his eyebrow at her and thought sarcastically, 'You're putting me in the category of people you find helpful to be around in an emotional sense? You're joking, surely.'
Once again, Hermione read his intended message on his face. For someone used to schooling a blank expression at almost all times, he sure was getting an uncomfortable lot of practice emoting and expressing things with facial expressions.
"Yes, you," Hermione smirked. "You've all been around long enough to remind me of who I was, which is a good thing because I have a hard time remembering who that was sometimes. You know, you go through all that and fight so hard so you can get back to a good and normal world, and you have this idea in the back of your mind that you'll set normal down to fight and pick it back up again when you win, but it doesn't work that way. The world changes and so do you, and in the end, you're not sure exactly what's what or who you're supposed to be. Not sure if or how who you had to become fits into the new world you helped make. I trust you all enough to tell you the truth and know that you've been through similar enough to understand when I do."
They talked for a while, or rather Hermione talked and Severus did what little he could to respond. Eventually, fatigue encroached enough that Hermione leaned back and her chatter started tapering off. Her endless nattering and questions had always annoyed him, but now Severus found that it disturbed in a whole different way. If he didn't know better, he'd think she'd gone digging around in his brain and purposefully set about tugging on all the things that wrenched the most. Just before he drifted to sleep, Severus heard her ask perhaps the most disconcerting question yet.
"I know you have them too, sir. How do you keep the nightmares from winning?"