The court had trouble listing Voldemort's crimes against humanity, the charge sheet of which ran to two hundred and fifty pages, but little difficulty in deciding on a sentence. In the years to come, Voldemort would often wonder whether his punishment was a form of vengeance for the hours of tedium the Wizengamot had endured as they listened to the details of every petty theft and murder he had committed since 1943.
"These crimes are so appalling," Madam Marchbanks read out the judgment in a calm voice, "that we have no hesitation in sentencing you to be buried alive in a steel coffin, the coffin to be sunk a mile under the ocean, a source of oxygen placed in the coffin such that you will not die, but have an eternity to repent your crimes. Your..."
The rest of the judgment was obliterated by machine-gun applause; even had Voldemort not been gagged and caged, he could never have made himself heard. He looked idly round the courtroom and amused himself with the absurdity that his turncoat ex-Death Eaters were frantically applauding, while the remnants of the Order of the Phoenix sat silent and grim.
The bushy-haired woman looked devastated. Voldemort wondered whether Potter was dead yet.
Madam Marchbanks touched the button, and the cage sank back down to the dungeons; Voldemort watched the floor slide upwards, past his eye level, as if the world were being drowned in metal.
An indefinite period in a coffin, for a man who can never die. How can that be fair? Death might be kinder. Muggle murderers only get life in jail.
Actually, the length of the average life sentence in England and Wales is thirteen years.
Unlucky for some. But how can this be right; from the "light" side, what's more? How can eternity in a coffin be appropriate for anyone, regardless of what you think of them?
Initially he was unafraid of the coffin. He had survived twelve years as pure spirit, in intolerable pain, unable ever to sleep or relax; lying in a padded box seemed most comfortable by comparison, and this was the crux: he would still live. A thousand years in a coffin would be preferable to death. Sooner or later, some curious wizard, some burrowing magical creature, some Muggle miner would find him, and the Dark Lord would rise again.
In practice, however, the coffin situation was problematic. As the Wizengamot had said, he was placed beneath the ocean floor, a mile under the Atlantic. There was no light source, and the blackness was a comfort; as long as he pretended he was in a vast cavern, he felt calm. At other times he knew that there was pink upholstery a couple of inches from his face, and steel and wood beyond that, and an incomprehensible weight of seawater and rock pressing down on it; and he began to panic. Within a week, the upholstery was scratched, torn; and Voldemort's fingernails were hanging off.
He had no clock or watch. At first he didn't care, but presently he found himself wondering in which unit of time his sojourn could be measured: weeks, months, years? Perhaps he had already spent a hundred years down here and it would be a further millennium until his escape; his total lack of knowledge was very vexing. He couldn't even keep a tally by making scratches in the coffin, because not only had he no way of calculating when a day had elapsed, he kept making accidental scratches during his fits of frantic clawing, so that was no good.
The eventlessness of his existence made normal thought difficult. He slept a dark sleep and awoke in a dark box, and it became remarkably difficult to tell which was which. There were no sounds to hear except those he himself created; no light to see by, no tastes, no scents, except that of the coffin and his own dusty body. He could no longer tell whether his eyes were open or closed; he tried to open them as wide as they would go, then clench them tight, but discovered he had forgotten what the muscular movements were.
Dreams and wakefulness began to blur into one; and soon there were hallucinations, which made life more complicated still.
But this coffin could be anywhere: under the North Sea, or the polar ice cap; maybe nowhere near Britain at all. And there was no excavation, no mining; the coffin was Apparated to its place under the ground, so there's not even a spoil heap to give the location away. A team of surveyors could search for a lifetime without finding it.
"Life," he said to himself. "Call this a life?" But there was no death.
Then there were emotions: humiliation at his defeat, and cynical humour ditto; contempt for the Death Eaters who had deserted him, and schadenfreude as he wondered what sort of trust they were enjoying from their friends on the Light side; and a crisis of doubt as to whether his plans had been as brilliant as they seemed, his authority sufficiently frightening, his whole ethos even justified. He began to miss the pain that had been his world when he lacked a body: concentrating on the agony and the hard work of staying alive, he had had no time for such luxuries as emotion. He had been a minute, impossibly bright ball of twisted, tortured hate; now he was an ill-defined, oleaginous glob, a trickling pool of shamefully weak feelings.
He had never known how to deal with emotions. One could boast about having endured twelve years of pain, but hardly about panic, humiliation, contempt, schadenfreude and doubt. Oh, and excruciating boredom. Occasionally he succumbed to what he regarded as his greatest weakness, and composed poetry; but he couldn't even write it down.
Dates. Had I the power they once thought I had, I would abolish the calendar. Anniversaries are cruel things. At first they tear; then they recur long after the pain has gone, an old scar aching in winter.
Ten years is a long time; and so, so inconvenient. All those other people, the ignorers, register the anniversary when you yourself have long since settled into a grim, hard slog; a prison of your own, that of knowing how unlikely it is that anything will ever be found, but unable to let go.
I expect the Prophet will have an anniversary edition: "Ten Years On From The Fall Of The Monster", or something equally crude and emotive, and then various features packed with inaccuracies and bad poetry.
Voldemort knew many exercises for concentrating his mind, and he tried all of them. This kept his mind healthy, in the same way that rye bread and callisthenics keep the body healthy; it was deathly dull. He meditated, counted, recited formulae; periodically he tried to Apparate in the hopes that the Anti-Disapparation Jinx would have worn off the coffin, but it remained as strong as ever, and after enough time had elapsed he was no longer quite sure he was performing the spell correctly.
Eventually, he began to realise that it probably wasn't going to work. He wouldn't make it. He still didn't know how long he had been down here; he only knew it had been too long. He couldn't bear it. Something would have to give.
A while later, he realised that nothing could give. He could not die; he could not sleep forever; he could not escape. A second, more fundamental fit of panic arrived: he was trapped in his own mind, which didn't even have walls for him to claw. He tried to scream but found that, after so many years of disuse, his voice wasn't up to it; he sounded, he decided after some hours of reflection, like a bittern with a head cold.
He thought wistfully of "insanity", and wished it were possible to "go mad". He wondered how one would go about doing so. Perhaps if he banged his head hard enough on the coffin he would damage his brain; but the padding would make that difficult, and besides, the thought did not really appeal.
It occurred to him that not only was he in a coffin, he was in a padded cell.
The coffin has an oxygen source. Madam Marchbanks said so very clearly at the trial. What kind of source? Because oxygen can't appear out of nowhere; or, if it did, the waste products of breathing, the CO2, would have nowhere to go, and would eventually burst the coffin.
Therefore, the coffin has a wormhole, a passage connecting it to some above-ground location; a tube allowing air to flow in, and waste gases to flow out. And if someone were to find the other end of the wormhole; why, then, they would have found the coffin.
So, all his endeavours had failed. He was trapped underground, conscious, sane; his eyes would be open for all eternity. There was nothing left.
He thought about Potter.
He had destroyed him, wounded him mortally; and to what end?: the end. A strait hole below a cold ocean. He thought back to his trial; Potter had been the only one with anything sensible to say. A small silence, a small grave. He wondered if Potter's philosophy had been the right one after all, but when he thought about it he couldn't recall Potter ever having had a philosophy. All he had was anger and love and confusion.
Definitely right, then.
There was a ghost in his coffin; a skinny ghost that fitted neatly in beside a skinny man. Their ribs jibbed; they rustled together.
"Good thing it's you haunting me, boy," he told Harry. "Imagine if it was Crabbe haunting Horace Slughorn." He wondered if Potter could genuinely be counted as a seventeen-year-old boy. He wasn't gangly in the least, his personal hygiene was good and his feet were not the size of boats. He was catlike and compact and neat. He and Voldemort might have been divinely designed to fit into a coffin together, which seemed a trifle unfair, not to mention morbid.
But perhaps they had always been in a coffin together. Beats a handbasket, Voldemort thought.
"Cathy. Is that her name, her from Wuthering Heights?" he asked Harry. "Welcome back, Cathy Potter. You were missed."
Harry rustled at him again, didn't speak. Harry was always quiet.
"Aren't we a sight, boy, trapped down here? Your life was too short, and mine, at this rate, is going to be much too long; and it's entirely my fault, because you're the one who would have been mad enough to save me. I see it all now. You would have thought the punishment a worse abomination than the crime, and I would have sneered at you for it; but there will be no more sneering from me.
"This is the end; the end of evanescence, the beginning of limbo. I killed the end. I killed mercy."
Harry rested his head on Voldemort's shoulder. Voldemort wondered for the dozenth time whether the boy's hair had independent life. The longer hairs tickled his cheek, tantalising.
"I thought you were 'weak as water'. That's how I put it. I think it's your emotions, boy. Your mind is messy, spills over, has no boundaries; you help your enemies and antagonise your friends.
"Of course, if I'd already been buried under thousands of tonnes of water at that point, I'd have phrased it differently. You're actually a bastard and hard as nails; and I'm the weak one and completely a pawn of circumstance, because here I am after only... however many years in the coffin, rambling and whining and indulging in emotion, and I can't seem to stop myself. When I was in a nice dry hideout with fawning lackeys I thought I would be strong in this situation; I would keep myself defended against sentiment and melancholy and would never cease to hate. Yet here I am talking to you, and I can't seem to help it."
Gentle, ghostly fingers were touching him, brushing his desiccated flesh. It was pleasant, comforting, to have his partner in Limbo. "My partner in the Limbo dance," he said absently, picturing himself in a tuxedo and Harry in a frock, ballroom dancing across an endless grey plain. Or perhaps it would be him in the frock. In any case, here he went again, indulging himself; using his imagination, giving in to whimsy; theoretically able to resist Harry's touch, but not wanting to.
"And why should I?" he asked the ghost. "Am I really going to deny myself a little affection? Ridiculous and embarrassing, is what the Dark side called it. A hackneyed, saccharine distraction for people who didn't know how to kill. Hah! What did we know? I admit it, Harry: I'm beaten, defeated, a mile under the sea, and I want some emotion. I forswear everything. Forgive me."
And the hair was rubbing gently against Voldemort's face, as though his ghostly gadgy were nodding.
"But this is too far. You can't pretend... Harry, this is way beyond duty."
"I know. Honestly, I know. But when we first started, I said that you could never leave anyone the way he was, regardless of how you felt about them; and if you remember, Hermione, you agreed."
"...And is that it? Is that what this is about?"
"No. No, it isn't at all. I don't know what it is... I don't know why I feel this way about him. It's... it's not him at all, it's what they did. He's become like an icon."
There was a breeze. Air was moving; it was cooler than his skin, and carried scents of fruiting quince and rain and autumn leaves. Voldemort didn't know anything about that sort of thing any more. He shied away; tried to hide. There was light, too, but fortunately not too much. It came from a lamp above an open door (what were these things? Where was he?), and for a while he sat and stared at the moths that bludgeoned the lamp's outer casing.
A small person was kneeling in front of him, its hand on his knee.
"There are bats under the eaves," the person said conversationally. "We'll go outside and watch them once the moon's risen."
Voldemort tried to remember what they'd been talking about before that, but couldn't quite manage it.
Harry's hair was going white around the hairline, and his skin was wrinkled, with a drab and dry look to it. His clothes were snowy, bleached-out flaps of rag, having come to fit so well over the years that they now gave the impression of having grown out of his skin. His body, too, looked worn out.
His eyes were just the same.
"How old are you?" whispered Voldemort.
"Thirty-one," said Harry, eyes widening as he gently stroked Voldemort's face. "Are you trying to remember things? Who's a clever boy? And talking as well."
Voldemort peered at him. This superannuated, dingy person didn't bear a great resemblance to Mr P; but, in all truth, nobody else would be doing such a crazy thing, so it must be him.
"My ghost," Voldemort croaked. "My boy."
Harry smiled as he stood up; he kissed Voldemort's shiny bonce. Look how far the old lad had come, he thought: three sentences in one week, though admittedly two of them didn't have a verb. In ten years or so he might be able to walk around and hold a conversation and stuff. That might seem a rather long interval to some people, but Harry was used to waiting for Voldemort by now; one way or another he'd been doing it for most of his life.
"My master," he agreed, and pushed the wheelchair out into the dark garden.