Black As He's Painted

Author's Note: This was originally the ending scene I'd planned for Secret Keeper I'd written months ago, but it really doesn't work with everything I'd planned out, so I thought I'd put it up on it's own. I know in the book Fudge (it WAS Fudge, wasn't it?) paints quite a different scene of Sirius's response to his visit, but somehow, it wasn't how I'd envisioned. And, after all, can we really trust the Minister not to try to make himself look good? ("Yes, our facility is humane. No madness or horrible living conditions whatsoever. What? Another award and large sum of money? Well, if you insist.") It's open to interpretation. Short and experimental.


It was the jarring rattle of the bars that woke him, and he immediately realised that the voice he heard now had probably been bugling at him for some time. His limbs jerked once as he awoke, possibly a remnant of a dream he couldn't remember; he debated feigning sleep still longer, but told himself that not only would he be permitted back into that blissful dreamlessness, but that any break from the monotony of the days was a welcome one.

The cot groaned as he sat up slowly, ancient material giving warning creaks. The round, cherubic face on the other side of the bars smiled at him beatifically. "There we are." said the man warmly, adjusting the absurd lime green bowler on his head. He had a battered newspaper tucked under one portly arm that rustled as he moved. "And how are we feeling today?"

Several responses came to mind. None of which seemed appropriate.

Farther down the hall, someone shrieked.

When the silence had stretched to an uncomfortable length, the visitor removed his bowler long enough to slick down the tight curls on his head. "Well," he said, "I understand you've been behaving yourself lately. No biting at the guards, eh? There's a good man. Don't want the papers getting any more ammunition for you . . . after all, it's the Prophet that has to deal with all the Howlers . . . " He shook his head. "Masses of them, really. Most of them explode before they can be opened, of course, and it wrecks absolute havoc with the owls' nerves . . . droppings and feathers everywhere."

"What d'you want, Cornelius?"

From the way he jumped slightly, it was evident he hadn't expect any sort of response. The newspaper slipped from his arm and whispered through the bars of the cell as he adjusted his bowler unnecessarily. "Hah . . . well, it isn't against the rules for the Minister of Magic to check up with the residents while he's making his annual checkup, is it?"

Fudge half expected Sirius Black's skeletal limbs to clatter audibly when he leaned back against the wall. His mouth was slack. He seemed to be through conversing, and his eyes were unfocused, staring at a point slightly off to the left. Disgruntled, Fudge shifted in front of him only to find Black's eyes were now staring at the ceiling, although he hadn't seen them move.

A movement from the floor caught Fudge's eye, and he looked down to see the picture on the front page of his paper -- the Daily Prophet, in fact -- waving vigorously at him. He crouched down and thrust one short arm through the narrow bars. The paper remained out of his reach, and the photo continued to beam cheerily at him. "Look," he said crossly to Black, "you couldn't be bothered to . . . ?"

Black offered no response. His eyes were closed now, and one thin-fingered hand toyed with the remaining button on his grimy shirt. His lips worked soundlessly to himself.

"You know," Fudge snapped, "you don't do much for your reputation, Sirius. The press keeps painting you as an animal. And I must say, if the image fits . . . " he trailed off meaningfully, before spinning about to stride off.

The grim specter of a Dementor passed him, and he shuddered involuntarily, quickening his pace. The cowled head turned slightly towards him, tattered cloak fluttering in some unseen breeze.

Fudge was never so glad as when he passed beyond those doors each year.

The Dementor itself continued to glide down the corridor. From every cell, silence fell, and pairs of large, frightened eyes stared out as it passed. Even those sleeping or long past the ability for sight stiffened and moaned restlessly.

Outside Black's cell, it paused briefly. The head swung around to gaze in at him, posture unreadable, aided by the ripling darkness of it's cloak. It's head was narrow enough for the bars to admit it to it's shoulder,s and for an instant the small cell was filled with the sibilant rattle of breath being drawn into a long parched throat.

A single shudder ran through Black, almost painful to watch, but the Dementor only continued to lean inwards, seemingly suspended in space, for a long moment before it silently withdrew and continued onwards, motives private and unknown.

Unless you counted the plaintive moans and fitful whispers of it's occupants, Azkaban was largely a silent establishment, as even those contained within tended to realise before long that the only ones to hear their cries were their own ears, uncaring for anyone's plight but their own, even if theirs had been the hand that had placed them there. Sirius Black had never really bothered to contribute to the sound after his initial nigh-hysterical laughter had tapered off and the reality of the situation had set in.

He leaned forward abruptly when the shadows in his cell were long with the approaching night several days later, having hardly changed position himself, and plucked the newspaper from the floor finally, unable to tolerate the constant peripheral movement from the front page any longer. His skeletal hands clenched, meaning to twist the paper into as small pieces as he could manage before scattering them out the window . . .

. . . and paused.

For a long time he sat, head bowed over the photograph, not stirring when the nervous, small-eyed man came again to shove the small bowl of lukewarm broth through the narrow slat at the bottom of the cell door as he did each day. When Black finally did move, it was to clutch the paper against his chest in a rattle of noise that caused a soft moan of alarm from the neighbouring cell. His eyes were open and far away, fixed on some point beyond the pitted and scarred stone ceiling.

"There." he gasped, voice dead. "There. There.

"He's at Hogwarts."

And, farther down the narrow corridor, a Dementor paused in it's rounds.