July 27, 1993

It is a stormy, blustery afternoon, unseasonably cold for July, and there is an ominous towering bank of dark storm clouds out to sea, a great grey harbinger of yet another violent storm laying its plans to pound the Scots coast once again. Minister of Magic Cornelius Oswald Fudge shivers a bit in his warm cloak, shifts his briefcase and his folded newspaper importantly under his arm, and thinks about the dignity of his office.

He is thinking that it hardly befits the dignity and august authority of the Ministry of Magic itself that its chief executive should be scuttling like a frightened mouse through some dank stone corridor in Azkaban Fortress - hands shaking and heart in his throat and left boot soaked from a misadventure with a puddle outside – utterly demoralized by nothing more terrible than the simple sound of distant laughter.

On the other hand, Fudge points out to himself; it is not exactly the most cheery, jolly laughter he has ever heard. This laughter is a bit cracked and a bit creaky and a bit demented and more than a little bit spooky. It is abundantly clear that it is not FatherChristmas laughing his head off down there at the end of the hall.

But none of that is what has unnerved Fudge so badly that he is seriously considering faking a sudden attack of lumbago and scuttling right back out of the prison and off the island at once.

No. What really has his wind up is that he knows this laughter; it is familiar to him. He has heard this voice, laughing in precisely this way, once before.

Twelve years earlier, when he had been a junior minister with the Department of Magical Catastrophes, he had stood in a blasted street in Muggle London, strewn with Muggle dead and – so far as anyone could tell – the remaining bits of a brave, foolhardy wizard called Peter Pettigrew. And he'd seen a squad of Hit Wizards close in on the madman who had killed them all.

Sirius Black.

Black had been laughing on that day too. Laughing as though he'd never stop.

And, for all Cornelius Fudge knows, Black never has stopped. It is twelve years later now, and Fudge has come up in the world and things are very different today from what they were then. But that laughter – that hasn't changed very much at all. A bit more ragged, perhaps, a bit more hoarse, a bit more shot through with the chilling cadences of deepening despair, but still more or less the same, after all these years.

What in the name of God does Black have to laugh about? This may be the one question that disturbs Fudge most of all.

Just as he is making a firm decision that he really doesn't feel the need to find out, and is beginning to clutch at his lower back theatrically, he hears Black stop laughing for a moment and call something out.

"Oi, hang on," it sounds like. "Did I ever tell any of you about the time Reggie got a peanut stuck up his nose? It was horrible! You'll love it!"

Is the murderous loony actually talking to the dementors? Surely not. Fudge asks himself what in the world ever possessed him to make this inspection tour of the island prison himself, when he has six perfectly good lower-level assistants whom he could have sent in his stead. Just as he rubs his back even more dramatically and starts to bend himself into an unlikely angle, a pair of dementors comes gliding toward him on either side and sway to a stop once they have him flanked.

No use faking illness with them. And not at all a good idea to let them get the impression that there is any fear hiding anywhere at all within the Minister of Magic, who is, at least theoretically, their boss.

Fudge rattles his paper a bit and puts a nervous hand to his tie and tugs at it. "What's all that, then?" he asks briskly, nodding in what he hopes is a suitably boss-like way toward the cell at the end of the corridor. "Isn't that Black down there? What's he on about?"

He has, of course, forgotten that dementors do not have eyes, and cannot see whether his body language is magisterial or not. And this nervous forgetfulness does send them a message that Fudge would hardly choose to communicate, if he knew he was sending it.

But he doesn't know it, and then one of them answers his question, in any case.

Sirius? He is laughing at us. He does that sometimes.

Fudge simply hates it when the dementors talk to him. Their weird not-voices are almost unbearable. But the idea of a prisoner actually laughing at the dreaded Azkaban guards - and after twelve years among them at that - is even more disturbing to him. Once again, the ghoulish and fanciful notion of a mad mass murderer laughing continuously for over a decade blossoms like a grotesque bud in his mind, and he tugs at his tie again to cover a small shudder.

Shall we visit him, then? Perhaps he will have a few more…stimulating…things to say.

And now Fudge is even more chilled, and his wet boot feels like a block of ice that has his foot in a frozen vise grip. Because he can sense the cold gluttony in the dementors at his side as they speak of their prisoner, and he can sense the undertone of forlorn longing in them too.

There are other times, many of them, when he will not talk to us at all. But surely he will speak to you, Minister.

Fudge has the cold, sudden realization that he's being used as some kind of bait. He's also aware he can't get out of this: his best – his only – course is to see Black and then get out of this hellhole.

"I felt really terrible about it afterward, you know," Black is saying clearly. "Because I told Regulus that if the peanut didn't come out, it would just work itself all the way up his nose into his brain and get stuck in there. And then he'd never be able to think of anything but peanuts for the rest of his life."

The dementors drift down the hall toward this voice that is speaking the most arrant nonsense almost, but not quite, randomly, the way some sentient bit of flotsam might drift in a tide. And they are herding Cornelius Fudge along with them; though now it seems to him almost as if they have forgotten that he is even there.

"There aren't many professions for wizards who can think only of peanuts," Black continues, "Not even government jobs. So of course Reggie was very worried."

As they come toward the end of the corridor, Fudge can see that many more of them are gathered around outside the barred walls of the cell, so thick all around it that he cannot see past them to the prisoner within. All of them are swaying to and fro much like his own two escorts are doing – toward the bars and then away from them and then back once more. It is very like the movement of the tide.

Attraction and repulsion. They don't seem to really like what they are hearing, but in another way, they seem to want nothing more. Fudge wonders what it is that could tether these baleful creatures so fast to their places, like shivering waifs around a fire.

"The thing was," Black goes on, hoarse voice dropping into a clearly confidential register. "I was lying to him. I made the whole thing up."

Another outburst of creaky laughing follows this last dubious confession.

The man is mad, Fudge tells himself, and puffs himself up a bit as he passes through the throng of black-robed spectators to look at the man inside the cell.

Black is an unsettling sight. He's like some sinister scarecrow; all sharp bony angles and sunken eyes and masses of pitch black hair. There is no color anywhere on him, neither in the colorless, ragged robes he wears nor in his bone-white face. He is a monochromatic study in shades of black and white and grey. He might be a corpse - killed by a long season of neglect, perhaps, and then embalmed in magic as an object lesson in the dangers of the Dark Arts.

But what may be the most unsettling thing about the way he looks is that Fudge can still see the outlines of the striking young man he once watched laughing unstoppably as Aurors led him away through the field of carnage that he himself had created. A street full of shattered bodies and a young, darkly handsome wizard laughing amidst the wreckage. The too-prominent bones of the face are still pleasingly arranged. The gaunt body still retains a hint of its former grace. The skeletal hands are still beautifully formed. There is still something sensual and obscurely fascinating about the masses of matted hair.

Black is still weirdly beautiful, in the same disturbing way a specter or apparition might be. It seems a deeply perverse miscarriage of justice to Fudge that this should be so.

"Why, Cornelius Fudge," Black says, and comes to the perimeter of his narrow enclosure as though he were greeting an unexpected guest in his parlor. "How long has it been? You haven't changed a bit."

He's smiling pleasantly, but the planes of his face have become a bit too harsh to hold such an expression for long. And his eyes, glittering away down in their great dark hollows, are not friendly in the least.

Fudge is so horrified to learn that this wizard, whom he has not seen once in all these years and who was raving mad on the last day they met to boot, actually remembers him, that he cannot think what to say at all and squeaks out an inane "Good morning. Er…so you remember me then?

"Well, we did meet during a particularly memorable occasion. Department of Magical Catastrophes, wasn't it? You were a …clerk…or something?"

"Junior minister," Fudge corrects a bit testily. Not only is Black still compelling looking, he is also apparently still a snotty pureblood berk who can make Fudge feel like an insignificant ass with a single phrase.

"Ah. Of course," he is saying now, and not making much of an effort to keep the tacit mockery out of his eyes or his voice, either. "Quite a lot of water under that bridge. My memory may be faulty in spots. It's just that you looked so incredibly petrified, last time I saw you, I imagined you must surely be new on the job."

This is too much. Fudge is not the Minister of Magic for nothing, nor did he come to this great, filthy pile of rocks out here in the middle of the sea to be insulted by a walking, talking, human haunted house.

"I'm surprised you remember me at all," he snaps. "Seeing as how you were very busy at the time. Thirteen people with one curse. I'd have thought you might have been a bit fagged out."

Black reveals a set of teeth like a row of yellowing headstones as he chuckles unpleasantly.

"Oh…oh, well, yes…I suppose you're right. That must have been a job of work after all, now that you mention it. I suppose it would have taken a lot out of…anyone. But, you know, I really do remember you – rabbity, timid expression and amusingly puffed-up attitude and all. I actually remember everything about that day – every smallest detail. I may not be all that clear on what year it is or how long I've been in here or what rubbish I had for breakfast today, but I certainly remember you, Cornelius Fudge. And you haven't changed all that much, at that."

"You have," Fudge answers, a bit vindictively.

Black responds with another jack-o-lantern grin and waves one of his startlingly white hands toward his own face airily.

"Ah. The Azkaban Total Disaster Diet? Very effective, obviously, but I can't honestly recommend it. I keep telling them," he stops and waves his hand toward their audience of swaying, snuffling dementors. "To bring some quails eggs and hummingbirds' tongues, but they just won't listen to me. Not in regard to the menu, in any case."

"What on earth were you saying to them before?" Fudge asks before he can stop himself. "Some nonsense about peanuts and brains?"

Black glances around at the host of his jailers, all of them rattling faintly while they listen to, and perhaps consume, the emotional nuances of this conversation. Fudge suddenly realizes that it must be a very rare thing indeed for them to observe their charge engaged in interaction with a fellow human. The expression on Black's pared-down face is an odd mixture of horror and contempt as he looks at his ghastly caretakers.

"Oh, they have an enormous …appetite…for stories," he explains, very softly. "But their sense of humor could do with some work. Every now and then, when I'm feeling up to it, I provide them with a few lessons."

He lowers his voice even more and winks at Fudge conspiratorially. It is one of the most horrible, malevolent expressions Fudge has ever seen on a human countenance.

"They just hate it when I tell them ridiculous anecdotes, you know. And they can barely stand it when I laugh. But they can't… quite… bring themselves to stop listening, greedy things that they are."

He chuckles nastily again and looks once more past Fudge to the hideous gallery of spectators, ranged around outside the bars.

"Isn't that right, mates?" he calls to them. "Reggie tried to charm the peanut out of his nose, after I told him that story, did I mention that? He put his own training wand up his snoot and performed an Expelliarmus on the spot. He dripped continuously for six days straight. Our parents were livid!"

All of the dementors almost cringe backward in response to this postscript to the tale of Regulus Black and the inconvenient peanut. But at the same time, they all almost yearn forward as well. Fudge watches this eerie internal tug-of-war playing out in their shifting postures and wonders why in the world Bartemious Crouch didn't just have Black executed when he had the chance. It appears that even the dreaded dementors of Azkaban are not quite safe in his general vicinity.

If he has them on the run after twelve years, what will he have done to them in another five or six or ten?

Black disrupts Fudge's unsettling train of thought with a question.

"What's that you have under your arm?" he is asking, pointing to the newspaper Fudge carries. "A copy of the Prophet?"

Fudge had quite forgotten the he even had a paper, and takes it out of the crook of his arm with one hand and stares at it a bit stupidly. He feels as though perhaps, somewhere between one end of the drafty stone hall behind him and the other, he may have taken a wrong turn into some waking, profoundly disturbing dream.

"Umm…yes…the Daily Prophet," he answers, a bit vaguely. Maybe he's the one who needs to get himself out of Black's sphere of influence - and that right soon - he is thinking.

"Ah," Black says quietly, and with more intensity that he has yet shown at any earlier point in their dialogue. "May I …see the date?" he asks.

"The date?" Fudge replies, still a bit at odds and ends.

"The date, the date," Black barks impatiently. "Don't be so thick, Cornelius - honestly. What's the date?"

"Oh. Oh, I see. Er…" Fudge finds that although he was reading this paper over a breakfast of tea and porridge quite comfortably just a few hours earlier this morning, he now has no foggiest notion of just what today's date might be. He glances at the heading on the front page and reads it aloud.

"Mm …it's July twenty-seventh – er - nineteen ninety-three," he says.

Black sways a bit himself in response to this news, in unconscious imitation of the rows of dementors all around them, and his waxy, white face goes even more bloodless than it already is. Fudge would not have believed that would be possible, had he not seen it for himself.

"Nineteen…ninety…three?" Black breathes faintly. "Twelve years? Are you …are you quite sure?

As awful as the man's gruesomely supercilious former attitude has been, Fudge thinks, it was far preferable to his current stark horror. He tries to imagine, for a moment, how he might like to be imprisoned in hell so long that he would come, in time, to forget exactly how long it had been. It proves to be an utterly incomprehensible concept and Fudge sets the horrid train of thought aside abruptly.

"Well, here it is in the paper, after all, in black and white," he snaps, angry with himself and with Black too, for frightening him so much. "Read it for yourself!"

He holds the front page up toward the bars between the two of them abruptly.

But Black is not looking. He is raking a shaking hand through his great cowl of black, tangled hair and steadying himself by grasping at his bars with the other hand. His pale, gleaming eyes in their nests of shadows are blinking and he looks vaguely nauseated. But he is also clearly making an enormous effort to get back in control of himself.

"July …July…twenty…twenty-seventh…" he is stammering to himself. "That's …let's see now… that's very close to …" he continues to sift his damaged memory for a significant date as Fudge watches, both spooked and fascinated by the visible mental struggle.

"Close to …ah, I have it," Black murmurs, nodding his head jerkily. "I have it now. July thirty-first. A …a birthday."

It is clear that as he has seized on the carefully memorized date that has been eluding him, he has also found a way to damp down his own distress a bit too. Slowly, he is forcing himself to stop shaking.

"A birthday?" Fudge asks, still fascinated, in spite of himself.

Black, rather incredibly, laughs again. And this laughter, unlike anything Fudge has heard here before, is clear and whole and oddly infectious.

"He'll be thirteen, then…" he is saying to himself, smiling. And this one is a beautiful smile too, one that recalls the lively, handsome young man Black once was vividly to Fudge's mind. It completely transforms his whole wasted face. "Thirteen. How perfectly marvelous…"

"Who's thirteen?" Fudge asks a bit snappishly. He feels that, once again, this maniacal but still brilliant lunatic has taken a mental turn that he can neither understand nor follow.

Black laughs again. "A pudgy baby with sore gums and a vast, if eccentric, vocabulary," he answers, uninformatively. "A tiny boy with ridiculous hair. May I ask, have you finished reading that paper?"

"Have I ..?"

"The newspaper? Those sheets of paper you have in your hand with all the ink on them? The Daily Prophet? Have you finished reading it?"

"Oh. Oh, yes, I think…" Fudge has no idea whether he has finished reading the paper or not.

"May I have it? I …I rather miss doing the crossword puzzle."

The crossword puzzle?

The man is clearly as mad as a hatter. Certifiable. Fudge tries to tell himself what a great and good thing it is that this homicidal loony is currently behind bars rather than running about loose, but he can't quite shake the lingering impression that Sirius Black may not be quite as mad as all that. Certainly the peculiarly elegant inclination of his head as he waits for Fudge to answer looks perfectly sane and reasonable.

But it's absurd. Of course he's mad, of course he is. How could he not be, after so many years in this terrible place?

And after all, why not humor him - what harm can it do? Why not?

Fudge refolds the newspaper and silently pushes the crackling pages through the bars. Black takes them in his bony white hands.

"Thank you," he says politely, gazing steadily at Fudge, this time with no hidden hint of mockery in his eyes. "It's very kind of you. I appreciate it."

And I'll appreciate the chance to get the hell out of here, Fudge thinks vehemently. This has not been a satisfactory tour of inspection at all.

Cornelius Oswald Fudge, Minister of Magic, somehow manages to find it in himself to get a bit puffed up again as he makes his somewhat hasty farewells. As he leaves Black's cell and hurriedly retraces his steps down the corridor that he came up, he is satisfied that he has upheld the dignity of his office successfully in the odd interview just past, despite a few admittedly patchy spots. After all, he is leaving, while Sirius Black is obliged to remain.

Just before he gets aboard the boat that will take him back to the mainland (both Apparating and traveling by Floo are impossible to or from Azkaban; the presence of the dementors disrupts the flow of the magics too much), he instructs the inhuman prison employees in his purview to triple their guard on their most high-security prisoner. The man, clearly, is still very dangerous indeed.

As Fudge is just sailing off the stony shores of the island and heading out to the open sea, Sirius is just unfolding the newspaper Fudge gave him and beginning to read.

His attention wanders past a photograph he finds near the front page, and then snaps back to it, wholly riveted. It's an all red-headed family on holiday in Egypt, and there is a tall boy among them - a boy, Sirius thinks, that he may once have seen on some Halloween night in the past - on one of those nights when he has tried to cast his sight out beyond his physical boundaries.

The boy in the picture has a … pet on his shoulder, Sirius sees. A shockingly familiar pet.

A rat

The End