Chapter 1: The InfernoWeek 13
It took me a long time to wake up. I was caught in those dreams, viciously wrought dreams that segued into one another like some epic television series, sometimes fading slightly but always returning more vindictive still. I woke up, and found that the dreams continued.
Not for a few hours, though, which was pretty convenient. I woke up in St. Mungo's and was immediately the centre of the biggest party of all time. Streamers, fireworks, singing, crap dancing; the Healers eventually ordered everyone to be quiet so I could have a rest, but that didn't work because Ron, Ginny, Hermione and Tonks then arrived, sat on my bed and gave an incredibly long, garbled, intense and repetitive account of everything that had happened since I'd left them for the last time. I was so glad to see them all alive and well I couldn't bring myself to tell them to shut up because they were hurting my head. I had been unconscious, they informed me, for a little over three months.
I'd slept right through the anniversary of Sirius's death. That was the nicest thing Voldemort had ever done for me.
Then, that night: lava in my brain. Shaking, screaming, bones smashing into the floor again and again and again and... well, you get it. I noted, detachedly, "I remember dreaming about this."
And the same place: an infernal pit, a bowl in the ground made of pure black stone, ringed with fire to keep me shut in. I felt feeble there, numb, and there was this horrible figure; a tall, black-robed person, a man, I thought. He (or maybe she) was the one controlling this, the torturer. His wand was trained on me and there was acid down every nerve, and my face was hitting the floor and breaking my teeth and I was shaking and shaking and shaking and
I woke up in the morning sunshine, still in St. Mungo's; in agony from all the muscles I'd pulled while thrashing on the floor and the bruises from where I'd bashed my head on the bedside table. I registered, with great interest, the different uses of the word "agony". Category 1: I am all covered in sprains and bruises: I am in agony. Woe. Into Category 2, presumably, falls this unknown victim in the black pit, with their teeth smashed to pieces.
Even at that stage, though, the victim wasn't all that unknown. It could only really be one person.Week 14
Dumbledore's face was ashen.
"Harry," he said quietly. "Alive, I see."
"Yeah," I assured him. "No worries."
"A very great deal of worries," he said. "I don't like to imagine the possibilities, myself. A nice irony it would have been if you'd survived Voldemort, to be unwittingly killed by your own side."
"They were Crucioing him," I concluded.
"They were. Of course, that wasn't the first time he had been tortured since your victory – for which, incidentally, I don't think I have yet managed to congratulate you – but it would appear that the link you share with him is occluded when you are unconscious. When you are awake, you suffer."
Well. The dreams hadn't been too great, but I didn't want to tell him that. "Are they going to do it to him again?"
"Definitely not," said Dumbledore. "All his jailers are under very strict instructions not to use any offensive magic that might travel down the link. So, in general, I think you are now finally safe from Voldemort, Harry."
He smiled. I grinned like a loon. It didn't take much effort to deduce that there might be escaped Death Eaters around, and one of them might try to finish me off; but at least Baldy was out of the picture. The rush of relief was so heady that I wondered if I had genuinely survived, or if I'd ascended to Paradise.
Paradise, however, was balanced by Hell.
Due to my three-month absence from the land of the living, there were relatively few problems for me to deal with. I adjusted so well that my main emotion, at first, was delight at having missed the summer holidays; it was now mid-August, and the Weasleys assured me that, in the event of my being discharged from St. Mungo's, I could stay at the Burrow until the start of term. The endless stream of visitors passing my bedside informed me, among other things, that I could probably start my seventh year on the first of September as normal, although I might need a bit of private tutoring to get me up to speed; that they were planning a spectacular late birthday party for me; that Rufus Scrimgeour was trying to give me the Order of Merlin, but not to worry, if he came near me they would drop a cartload of Dungbombs on him (Note: this last was contributed by Fred and George)... which was all very nice, but they'd had three months to find out what had happened to all the Death Eaters, and I hadn't, so I really wanted to find out quite urgently; and at length I was visited by Remus, who always had a grim temperament anyway, so I persuaded him to give me an update.
The news was:
- Draco really did have the Dark Mark, it transpired (HA!!!), but had not been sent to Azkaban. In fact, he would probably be back at school in September. I was not pleased about this.
- I'd seen Bellatrix Lestrange die; she'd been killed when the ceiling fell in. She was still dead.
- Lucius Malfoy and Fenrir Greyback had been killed in a lengthy battle with the Aurors.
- Wormtail and various minor DEs had surrendered and made grovelling confessions, and were currently in Azkaban.
- Ollivander claimed he had been acting under Imperius. The authorities weren't wholly convinced, but he was let off with a fine.
- Snape had been fully exonerated and was back at Hogwarts, teaching. DAMN!!! What was Dumbledore thinking?!
- Stan Shunpike was still in Azkaban. WTF?!?!?!?!?!
- Nobody knew what had happened to Lord Voldemort. He was in a secret location and Remus surmised that he was being tortured. Thank you for that insight, Remus.
Altogether, the scoreboard was looking decidedly dodgy. I counted at least three guilty men who should have been punished, one innocent man who was still in prison, and then there was Voldemort...
Rufus Scrimgeour arrived at my bedside. Very cunning of him, taking advantage of my feeble state; I couldn't run away. He oozed and gushed and practically flooded the ward, and generously assured me that I had the eternal gratitude of the wizarding world and if there was anything he could do –
"Freeing Stan Shunpike might be a good place to start," I said sarcastically.
Scrimgeour's flow was abruptly dammed. He made shifty eyes.
"Oh, and Voldemort, what's all that about?" I demanded. "Why are you torturing him? Why d'you want him alive at all, and if you're not going to kill him, you should treat him humanely!"
"We're very sorry about that," he said quickly. "Your – ah – our operatives had no idea that the Cruciatus curse would travel through the – "
"That's not what bothers me!" I said. "Why are you doing it to him? Why are you keeping him in a stone ampith – amphi – theatre thing with flames round it? Like some sort of circus animal?"
Halt. Stary eyes. "How did you know about that?"
"I can read his mind," I said. "Didn't you know that?"
Frantic cogitations. I could practically hear his devious little brain cells chattering away to one another. "Can he really read You-Know-Who's mind?" "He must do, or he wouldn't have known about that." "Is he serious about wanting us to treat the horrible creature well? He must have finally gone wacko." "Possibly, but let's play along."
Well. This Legilimency business was a lot easier than it looked.
Finally he beamed. "The mercy you show to your enemies is commendable, Harry, though of course we expected nothing less. You-Know-Who will be moved to a top-security cell in Azkaban."
"Can I see him and talk to him?" I demanded.
The beam vanished. "Really, Harry, that would be most inadvisable – "
"I am the Chosen One," I announced, insofar as one can announce between gritted teeth. "I vanquished Voldemort, and you just offered me any reward I wanted. Now, when all I want to do is visit the fucker, you're playing silly buggers."
Suaveness returned. "Now, now, Harry, do calm down. Of course there's no question about your getting your reward. You will be permitted to visit You-Know-Who in Azkaban, subject to Dumbledore's approval, of course. We will put Mr Shunpike on trial as soon as may be. Is that everything?"
Well, it wasn't over much, but it would have to do. "Thank you so much," I said sweetly, and we had a brief Fakest Smile competition and went back to our tedious lives.Week 16
The Dementors had not returned to Ministry control. Azkaban was staffed by human guards instead; or, rather, the bit I was allowed into was. I had a strong suspicion that it was the most sanitised bit. The air was inescapably dank. My trousers stuck to my legs. There were distant, indefinable echoes. It was like a sewage works.
All the time, I was gritting my teeth, trying fruitlessly to prepare myself for the moment when I would have to see that chamber, the ring of fire, the infernal caldera where Voldemort screamed. I knew it was pointless. As soon as I saw it I would be transported straight back to torture and nightmares. I tried not to puke.
The guard stopped, and nodded me through an enormous, studded metal door. The handle chilled my hand.
...And then after all it was just a cold, grey concrete room, not the terrifying hole in the ground. The anticlimax was unspeakable. The curtain of flame, however, was still there. It drew a neat, surreal line across the chamber, burning silently in mid-air to cut Voldemort off from the rest of the world.
"How do I get into...?" I began uncertainly, but turned round to find that the guard had already gone.
It didn't matter, because that voice replied from behind the fire, "Ih you'h got 'he proper clearance you can hust ssstep hrough."
That brought me up to the flames very quickly, but I stared at them with a great deal of residual doubt. If Voldemort tells you to jump into a fire, then, as a general rule, you shouldn't. Still, the guard wouldn't have left me here if she knew I couldn't get in... I stuck a finger through the flames. I couldn't feel any heat at all. I stepped through.
Concrete box, single bed, Dark Lord, suppurating stench.
I doubled up, wiping my eyes in agony and holding my nose. "WHAT DE FUCK IS DAT SBELL?"
"Don't shout," Voldemort said.
"I can't stand dis sbell," I said, muffling my face in my sleeve.
I thought he was swearing, but he said "Shit," slightly louder, and I realised he was imparting information.
"Can I ask the guard to cleab it up?" I said, edging as far away from the bed as possible.
"Please do," he said in the same toneless voice, staring up at the ceiling.
So that was the second climactic meeting between the Dark Lord and Le Pot. It didn't have much of a ring to it, I thought as I pottered through the corridors trying to find the guard. At last I got all the way back to the front desk, asked sheepishly for some help, initiated a long, surreally matter-of-fact discussion between all the different staff as to what was the best way to deal with this problem, and was finally handed my wand.
"Are you joking?" I said, horrified. "I can't take my wand near Voldemort."
A cool glare as a punishment for saying his name. Clearly they were still afraid of him. "You can't take it into his room, but you can use it from the other side of the curtain."
Back to the concrete box, and a hell of a lot of Aguamenting and Scourgifying. At last I passed back through the curtain, counterintuitively leaving my wand in the middle of the floor, and he said in that flat voice, "Hanks."
"Is that it?" I said, bemused. "'Thanks'?"
Silence, then again, "Hanks."
After all the time it had taken to clean the bed, we had hardly any time left. I stood there, watching him.
The bed wasn't a normal one at all. It was an odd brown sofa thing, with only a couple of dodgy blankets to keep him warm. I wondered if it had some special significance or was just a standard-issue Azkaban bed. He had a huge chunk of iron round his neck, too; looked uncomfortable.
I said, "After all this..."
He said, "Yesss."
"What's wrong with your teeth?" I said mildly.
He bared them, or what was left of them, and in doing so confirmed my visions; it was indeed him that I'd seen in my dreams, bashing his teeth out against the stone as he was Cruciated. The sight maybe should have been satisfying, but in fact it was sickening. My stomach jolted.
He said, "Is 'he guard still not 'here?"
"I don't know. Why?"
"Will you ressscue me?" he asked.
"Will I hell," I said, unable to believe my ears. "You're pathetic."
He twitched one eyebrow indifferently; gave a minute shrug. Clearly he'd never expected me to do it in the first place.
After a long pause, I said "I came to see if there was anything you wanted."
"I said, is there anything you want?"
There was what I can only describe as a spherical silence.
I suggested, "Food. Books."
"Booksss," he said.
"How should I read hem?"
He withdrew his hands from under the blanket, and silently held them up. They were no longer arachnoid and spindly. Every finger had been severed at the last joint.
I said, "I'll turn the pages."
"Hanks," he said for the third time, in the same flat, lifeless voice.
"What book d'you want?"
"'He Inherno," he said.Week 17
Term started. I had hardly dared to believe it would take place. At King's Cross I kept my wand ready to shoot down marauding Death Eaters. On board the train, I talked to the others in monosyllables and waited pessimistically for it to break down. When it in fact pulled out of the station and set off to Hogwarts, my astonishment was extreme. Then I started to smile and the others all sighed in relief.
"I can't believe I'm going back," I said joyously. "I still can't believe I'm alive."
"That might be a Scepticatory Horngobbler," Luna said solemnly, and I dutifully recited "I do believe in fairies" to drive the thing out of the compartment. Ron turned brick red and made small explosions, and eventually excused himself just to get away from us, saying vaguely that he was going to meet someone. I wouldn't have minded, but the corridor soon filled up with gaping people, and I had to hide under a coat.
As it turned out, this was a helpful forewarning of what would happen when I arrived at Hogwarts, viz., complete mayhem. Students stampeded towards me and I was crushed under their ungainly hooves. Everybody, apparently, wanted to gawk at me, congratulate me, touch me or applaud me, or sometimes a combination of the above. McGonagall shouted herself hoarse getting everything under control, thus winning my eternal gratitude, and then Dumbledore had to ruin everything by toasting me and giving a little speech, which was so embarrassing I hid under the table. The rest of the year, I decided, was going to be appalling.
Dormitory. Seamus, Dean, Neville. I kept blinking at everything for a long time, unable to credit that Voldemort was defeated and I was still alive. For some reason seeing the Gryffindor dorm the same as ever brought this home to me in a way that nothing else had. It was quite peculiar. The others were embarrassed and diffident, but I wasn't arsed, it was just nice to see them again.
The next morning I got 282 letters and parcels, which was awful, and we sorted out timetables. DADA with Snape again; lovely. On the one hand it appeared the Curse of the DADA Teacher had been broken, but on the other, what on earth was Snape supposed to teach me about defeating Dark wizards? Post-Voldie, the idea seemed... stupid. And he would hate me more than ever. Best not to think about it. I didn't get the chance, in any case, because I was collared by a million teachers who wanted to congratulate me, and they weren't as easy to shake off as the students. Hagrid hugged me so hard he almost throttled me to death, cried into my hair, and said my mum and dad would have been proud of me. (He also assured me his killer pink bats were harmless, but we'll draw a veil over that.) Just while I was recovering from this, Slughorn cornered me and invited me to more parties, filling me with horror like a moustachioed petrol pump.
"Professor, it'll be full of people trying to make money off the back of me!"
"Fair amount of money to be made for yourself, you know," he pointed out, waistcoat buttons glinting with greed.
"I don't need that! I've got plenty for myself and they'll just try to make me talk about everything that happened – and – "
I let this trail off drearily, aware that even Slughorn wouldn't try to force me into loquacity. I was correct. He mumbled disappointedly about grief and trauma and withdrew to eat some oysters. McGonagall immediately collared me and demanded to know when I wanted to hold the Quidditch tryouts.
"Any day is fine, and Professor, how am I getting to Azkaban to visit Voldemort?"
Stunned pause. "Pardon, Potter?"
"I'm going to Azkaban. Regularly. The Minister of Magic gave me permission. I'm taking books to Voldemort; he's bored."
Her eyes narrowed in a chilling way. "And has Professor Dumbledore given permission for this?"
"Erm. No," I said, honestly bewildered. "Do I need permission? I mean, should I bother him about..."
"Students aren't allowed to leave school during term-time, Potter," she said very sternly. "If these visits are to take place, I expect them to be authorised by the Headmaster. Once you've got his permission, come and see me again," and I walked away feeling highly disgruntled and thinking, Dammit, what kind of saviour needs to get permission from his headmaster?Week 18
The next week, Dumbledore sent me a note asking me to come to his office. This was a great relief and, as far as I was concerned, not before time. I knew I was being unfair, since he was a headmaster, after all, not a prison warden; but it seemed to me that the situation vis-á-vis me and Voldie was a lot more important than ensuring the first week of term went smoothly for a load of dribbling brats.
Especially when I woke up slippery and shaking at 2am, my mind charred.
"Faeces Fancy," I told the gargoyle, and stomped upstairs to ask permission to visit a twisted madman in a top-security jail.
Dumbledore, astonishingly, said no.
"I'm sorry, Harry," he said, "but I can't possibly permit this idea to go ahead. Voldemort is still extremely dangerous, even in his present state. He has to be kept alive – " Then he stopped and looked at me enquiringly as I gave a burst of incredulous laughter.
"Dangerous? Professor, he's got no wand, he's stuck behind a wall of fire and he hasn't even got hands! How much less dangerous could he be?!"
He gazed at me silently until I became contrite and mumbled, "Sorry, Professor."
"Thank you, Harry. I believe I shall finish that poor, truncated sentence, as it was actually quite important. Voldemort has to be kept alive, but he must at all costs be prevented from escaping Azkaban and from exacting revenge. The chances of those things happening increase in direct proportion to the number of people who have access to him; especially, Harry, when one of those people is you. We know Voldemort can possess you. We know he wants revenge on you for defeating him. Whatever plans he may have – and believe me, Harry, he will have plans – you are the person they are most likely to involve. On no account are you, of all people, to visit him in prison."
I sat in wild confusion. At last I said, "So you're saying he wants, that if I visit him in jail, he'll kill me."
"Does that surprise you?"
"No, but Professor, how is that a risk? I mean, it'll only kill me. If I'm dead, it won't help him to escape. I leave my wand outside. So it's not dangerous."
There was a long pause. I think he reckoned my idea of "dangerous" was a bit crap. At last he looked at me over his glasses and said gently, "I must say, this is quite a change in your personality, Harry. You've never shown any inclination towards humanitarian work before."
What a stupid thing to say. "Sir," I said angrily, "it wasn't like I was reading Amnesty International leaflets and I thought, Oh, I should do something for torture victims in Azkaban. It's personal. It's the most personal..." I ran out of words.
He asked quietly, "Am I to take it, then, that your newfound mercy extends only to Tom Riddle?"
"No. It's just proved the point. I can feel it in a way nobody else can, because I am him, when he's being tortured. I feel everything that happens. I know what it's like. That's how I know it's wrong."
I knew that sounded stupid ("Torture is bad!"), but I'd never been a great orator.
Dumbledore gave me a penetrating look and said "So it was experiencing his torture that caused you to change your mind?"
"No," I said truthfully. "It was when they'd got me – when they did it to me, before the fight. Sir, I know it didn't last very long, but, I mean, the thing was, was that they seemed so pleased with themselves... They kept going off into, like, the good versus evil philosophical stuff, and acting like, as if they'd proved their point. By torturing me. They kept acting as if they'd proved something really clever and they hadn't proved anything. It's not big or clever, it's just senseless and – "
My throat closed up and I couldn't tell him all the other stuff, about how I'd realised halfway through that evil was limitless and ubiquitous and it was all very well fighting evil but what you really needed to do was nurture good, create ways of being that didn't depend on or relate to violence in some way, and how obviously you had to start by forgiving dodgy people to create a reality for them where goodness was possible; which was possibly just as well.
At last he said, with finality, "I'm sorry, Harry."
So I'd lost. No books. No visits. I went through a brief confused period in which I was convinced that of course, Dumbledore was right; then I developed an uneasy feeling that I was a puling schoolboy who'd defeated Voldemort but couldn't stand up to his own headmaster. I tried to think what that morbid, amputated figure on the bed would say when I reported failure.
I had a horrible suspicion that he would say, in exactly the same tone as before, "Hanks."
Then I had a diametrically opposed voice speaking in my head, from, was it really only four months ago? – "And you feel that you have exerted your very best efforts in this matter, do you? That you have exercised all of your considerable ingenuity? That you have left no depth of cunning unplumbed in your quest?"
No, was the answer to that. Rather confused memories packed into my head, of human rights activists in Brazil and Nigeria who got raped and tortured and executed for trying to protect others. Fat lot of effort I'd put into this so far, and really, you can't very well leave people to get treated like that, even if they are old Scalyguts. Fortunately, the memory had already provided me with a possible answer.
Good old Felix Felicis. Ron and Hermione had used half of it trying to find me, but there was still a good-sized drop in the bottom of the bottle.
"Harry," Dumbledore said in a no-nonsense tone when he opened the door, "the start of term is a very busy time for me. I hope this will be quick."
"I hope so too, sir."
I drifted into the middle of his office and wondered to what extent I should bother lying. Dumbledore wasn't as good a Legilimens as Voldemort or Snape, I knew that.
"It's still about Voldemort. I need things explained, and there's no-one else who can..."
"Harry, we've been through this."
"It can't possibly end like this," I said as if I hadn't heard him.
The bottle of Felix Felicis hung, secret, in my pocket. I put my hand in there carelessly and stuck one finger inside the glass.
"Professor," I said, "I don't... The thing is... It's all over so quickly, and I've done it, defeated him, but it doesn't feel like I've... I'll never understand, at this rate, about... my parents."
The reply was quiet and incredibly weary. "You've suffered more than anyone has a right to expect from life... are doing, even now."
I whispered to the window, "I need to talk to him."
There was an awful pause. I decided now was the right moment to raise my hand, as naturally as possible, and lick the stuff off my finger.
I think he thought I was wiping away a tear.
He said, "Yes. Yes, of course, you need to talk to him..." He sounded disappointed, and it was agonising; but it wasn't as if I was being Crucioed and having my fingers cut off. Bizarrely, this felt worse. "I'll make arrangements for you to go there, once a month."
Not enough. Dilemma. "Do you promise?" I said suspiciously. "I mean, you let me go once, and changed your mind."
"Well, sometimes the facts change," he said gently, "but yes, I do promise."
Sorted. Thank god for that one drop. I only hoped there was enough of it left.
"Once a month isn't enough, Professor," I said, trying not to sound petulant. "I'll forget everything in between."
"True. But... How often do you suggest?"
"Once a week."
"Harry, that, apart from other things, will interfere with your schoolwork."
"Bugger my schoolw – ! Oh, sorry, Professor."
But it just amused him, to judge by his subsequent tone of voice. Obviously my luck was still working. "I suggest you avoid sodomising your schoolwork, Mr Potter, and visit Azkaban once per fortnight. That is, as I believe the bidders at auctions say, my final offer."
Fortnightly. Not bad. It would do.
"Hanks," said the dry voice in my mind.