Chapter 9: Gas Light
Returning to Hogwarts was really not all that much fun. Specifically, I had to grapple with undone homework, lost items of uniform and all the usual start-of-term rubbish, while also plotting desperately to release a top-security prisoner and coming to terms with the fact that my girlfriend had been impregnated by a woman. This was not terribly easy. Just to bang the last nail into the taking-things-seriously coffin, Hermione and McGonagall kept discussing our future careers. Careers. I wanted to stare at them incredulously and shriek that I had no future career apart from playing hide-the-snake with Voldemort and counting Knuts, but decided it would be inadvisable.
"I suppose it's possible I could be a Healer," Hermione said doubtfully, "but only if I got more than ten NEWTs..."
"You will get more than ten NEWTs, so sign yourself up for it," I said irritably.
"I'm not sure I want to," she said calmly. "All Healers essentially work for the Ministry, and we've already established that we don't like them much."
That silenced me, because it reminded me that she thought we were a team working against the evil Ministry, whereas in fact I was about to vanish without telling her where I was going; unless, of course, I successfully pursued Snape that Wednesday and caught him with a smoking torture device in his hand, and the thought of that still made my knees wobble.
No, something had changed permanently: I was now a temporary resident at Hogwarts. I was only going to stay until the opportunity arose to de-Azkaban Voldemort. This made me sad. I'd been so happy and overawed when I entered Hogwarts as a first-year, and now I was going to sneak out of it in terror and, it appeared, in a state of general irritation with everyone who lived there, and possibly with the entire Witzyworld as well. Why, you ask? Because my goblin-enfranchising exploits had not gone unreported in the Prophet, and that, on top of my pre-existing reputation as a left-wing firebrand, had apparently confirmed the general opinion that I was a Loony Lefty/Muggle-loving scum. From my perspective, this was less than delightful. It hadn't actually occurred to me that anyone would think the Muggle Rights Act a bad thing (with the exception of Scrimgeour, obviously), and it was infuriating when student after student interrupted my Voldethoughts by just marching up to me and launching straight into a speech about the benefits of segregation. Ron finally put a stop to this by forcing me to wear the Invisibility Cloak at all times, well, except when I was actually in class.
Even that didn't solve the problem completely, because wandering through the corridors I saw that some person unknown, most amusingly, had put up a big poster with me on it. The caption said, "Derek Dungworth, innocent father of three, had HOT COFFEE spilt on him by sadic Aurors during his brutal interogration. He also got a SPLINTER IN HIS LEG, while imprisoned in Azkaban for eight months. All hail the heroic Harry Potter, human rights activist extraordenere." It was a bit of a pathetic effort (was the paint supposed to be flashing red and white? Is that why it was a kind of wriggly pink? Or was it meant to be guts?), but I ripped it down and strode off, fuming, towards the nearest window, from which I soon defenestrated lots of little bits of paper.
Fred and George's jokes had always been loads funnier than that, I reflected sadly. And Voldemort had been a much better maniac than Snape. Standards were falling.
So. Wednesday night. I slunk through the corridors, tailed Snape as he marched grumpily across the grounds. There were loads of younger kids playing rounders and making daisy chains and whatnot in the atypically balmy evening light, which made his swooping scowls seem even sillier; a rook adrift in a field of wrens.
The gates at Azkaban, I was sure, detected the people who walked through them; or rather, they registered that someone was entering, but not, I hoped, how many people. If I was invisible, and sidled through at exactly the same time as Snape, I should be all right. I hoped. Yes. That was assuming, of course, that I even managed to Apparate to Azkaban without Splinching myself.
We reached the boundaries of Hogwarts; Snape Disapparated with a crack. I took a deep breath: now or never.
Swathed in the Invisibility Cloak, I followed Snape through the horrid tunnels of Azkaban. He was carrying a box. A box that clinked. He was sinister and noisome and evil. The box must contain torture implements.
He twiddled round spiral staircases and clattered down some steps. Then he went through a few creaky portcullises. I wondered how I would get out of here if the portcullises shut behind me. The whole scenario was ghastly.
Then there was a weird, dusty old set-up that looked like an apothecary's circa 1890. It had a dodgy melamine front desk, on which was a sign saying Potions And Unguents. Sat in a cage was a bird resembling a huge, moulting turkey, which was clearly immune to Invisibility Cloaks; it swivelled its head around to look at me from different directions, but didn't say or do anything, which was a relief. I festered in a corner and watched as Snape swept up to a gangly, grumpy creature in a hard hat and handed him the box.
"Thanks," the creature said, not sounding much interested. It peered into the box and switched on the light on its hard hat. Thus aided, it evaluated the contents and said, "There's two missing."
"I know that. I'll bring them next week."
"Righto, sign here," it said, producing a clipboard and slapping it onto the desk. Snape signed. Snape left. That was it.
I stood frozen for some moments until the turkey started turning its head upside-down at me again, and the bloke trundled off to put away his box. I scuttled forwards and read what the two of them had written on the clipboard. It said, "27 (crossed out) 25 Blood-Replenishing Potions. Severus Snape."
After that there was nothing to do but try to find my way back through the prison. Those portcullises were a total pain in the arse.
Getting into Voldemort's cell now posed a considerable challenge. I stared at the gigantic metal door in speechless frustration; tried Alahomora, and various other Opening Charms, but I wasn't very good at them and was unsurprised by their bootlessness. I didn't think Accio Key would get me very far, and I couldn't just sit there and wait for the real torturer to turn up; he might take all week.
In the end I got so angry I kicked the bloody thing. It swung open; they'd forgotten to lock it.
So. Voldemort. I barged through the curtain of flame and stared at him, at a loss for words. What to say?
"Harry?" he whispered incredulously, his head creeping forth from the blankets like an ancient tortoise emerging from its shell. "It'sss Wednesday."
"Yes, honestly..." I'd forgotten he might be frightened. I advanced towards the bed; he ducked warily. "Polyhuice," he said suspiciously.
"No, it is me," I pleaded. "You, er... let me think. You use your left hemipenis."
"Eheryone knows hat. He knows hat."
Oh, euck. I tried not to think about this. "OK, the first book I brought you was the Inferno. Then there was Snakes Of The World, er, what was there after that... OK, Lud-In-The-Mist, I Will Not Serve, Othello, that Genet thing..."
"Harry lohes me," he said with quietly befuddled pleasure.
"I love you," I assured him, cuddling up to him and ruffling his scalp, "but we've got to be quick."
He thought, and said "Why are you here?"
"I broke in. I followed Snape."
"He delivers potions. I've been banned from coming here again for the time being, but I needed to ask you some stuff."
He stared at me, bewildered, and nodded meekly. His resemblance to an octogenarian tortoise increased.
"Your Occlumency is still OK, isn't it?" I said abruptly. "They can't read your mind?"
"Don't hink so," he said, squinting at me worriedly. He was obviously wondering whether he was in trouble. I hoped they couldn't read his mind as easily as I read his phizog.
"What about cameras?" I said. "Is this cell being watched?"
There was a silence while we both wondered why we'd never thought of that before. He answered in Parseltongue, "I suppose it might be."
"Doesn't matter," I replied in that tongue. "As long as we talk in Parseltongue the mammals can't listen in. Now, listen. Suppose I was to rescue you."
His eyes widened so far I thought they might devour his face, like a serpent swallowing its tail.
"I can't risk you doing something wrong, even with no fingers and legs and no wand, so would you swear an Unbreakable Vow not to hurt anyone?"
He jerked violently, eyes remaining gargantuan. "You can't phrase it like that! I might die from spilling a cup of tea on somebody!"
"It sometimes takes months to draft Unbreakable Vows. For the love of all that's Dark, Harry, read the drafting manual in the Hogwarts library!"
"Fine. If I draft it correctly..."
"We need a third person!"
"I know that!" I said, slightly nettled that he thought I was such a pillock. "We'll do it after I get you out of here. And now, if you've stopped making excuses, will you do it?"
He twisted; his spine rucked. He splayed out rigid and wild against the bed and hissed, as if in agony, "Yesssssssssss."
I was briefly silent after this. "Bugger me," I said. "You looked as if you were making a Horcrux."
"I might as well be," he said hoarsely. "I hate you, Harry, even though I know you're trying to help. They take my legs, my teeth, my wand, and now you milk my poison. I might as well be pure spirit for all the use I'll be."
"My heart bleeds," I said. "Now shut up and do as you're told. I'll bring the Invisibility Cloak next time I come. Do you know how to get rid of the wall of fire?"
"It's a simple Finite Incantatem, Potter." (I noted that he'd got his confidence back.) "You only need enough power. Try doing it now."
"I'm not doing it now!"
"Oh – well, I suppose they would notice..."
"I mean you might escape, you twat! And you say your Occlumency's holding out?"
Pregnant pause. "Er..."
"Shut your face, Potter, I'd like to see you do better! And my Occlumency's fine! It only gives out when I'm being tortured, and I can't remember anything then!"
Bit more shouting. Then I said into the silence, "I thought I knew who it was, behind the mask. I was sure it was Snape, but it wasn't, and..."
"Mm," said Voldemort with no apparent interest.
"Don't you care?" I said, astonished. "Don't you want to know – "
In retrospect, I suppose he must still have been in a bad mood from swearing not to kill anyone. "Oh, hor huck's sssake, Potter," he shouted, "'here is no mask. He doesn't wear a hucking masssk. It's all your imahination, because you don't want to see who it is. Anyone could higure 'hat out, you ssstupid bloody simpering ssspoilt hucking 'HILD!" he shouted at my back as I stormed out of the cell.
And I stormed back into the Gryffindor boys' dormitory at five to eight, and I employ the word in a very literal sense, since it was pissing down outside and I had become pretty wet. I was now angry about almost everything. I became angrier still when I plonked myself down on Ron's bed, began, "Ron," and was interrupted by twin howls as Ron and Draco emerged from the blankets. A lot of shouting ensued. When I stamped back down the stairs it was in fury that all my best mates had become sex maniacs just when I actually needed them.
I felt I was still in Azkaban. I'd tried to help my lover and he didn't want to be helped, and I didn't know what I'd done wrong and shouldn't be in love with him anyway. Wonderful. I rushed into the Gryffindor common room like a rabid bear and people ran away from me in terror. I sat in a corner and glowered.
We were still stuck in the horrid tunnels, me and Voldemort, and I felt we would grope down there for all eternity, never finding the way out.
Just when I was building up a really good head of suicidal ideation, Hermione pranced up breezily and said "Hello, Harry. I've been looking for you everywhere! Were you hiding from the conservatives again?"
I muttered something unintelligible.
"Luna's brought this package for you," she continued. "She tried to give it to you earlier but, obviously, you were invisible," and she slapped the parcel down in my lap and bounced off to her tryst with a muscle-bound Hufflepuff.
I stared at the missive. It was from Flourish & Blotts, but I couldn't think why, because, obviously, I hadn't ordered anything this week. The shape was rather odd; it was too thick to be a letter. It looked as though they'd included a catalogue.
It wasn't a catalogue. It was Gas Light, finally tracked down by their beleaguered Muggle expert after several months of searching second-hand bookshops. A calligraphically majestic note informed me that F&B were including it gratis in thanks for my patronage and that they were glad to be able to support risk-taking and freedom of thought in the magical community. (Yes, well, a bookshop might just have a teensy bit of a vested interest in supporting freedom of speech.) Feeling chuffed to have got hold of Voldie's lost book at last, not to mention flattered, I got started on the skinny volume. After all, it wasn't as if I had much else to do.
An hour later I felt paranoid. I felt trapped. I was imprisoned in a minute, pitch black cage, watched by a thousand eyes, which I assume was indeed the emotion Hamilton had aimed to induce. He had succeeded beyond his ambitions. Little tendrils of fear took root in my cerebral cortex, like heather growing into a crag; I felt that if I scrubbed for a hundred years I would never get them out of the crinkles.
There was no question by now that someone or other was gaslighting me. The book reminded me that I still had no idea who it was. The deception was so thorough that I felt encased by it, clamped like an eye in its socket; blind and helpless. Innocence and honesty, or what little of those I had left, couldn't protect me; someone had warped my world to fit their pretence.
But not Voldemort's: he didn't see the mask. What did he see, then? Did he know who the torturer was? And if so, why hadn't he told me?
When I finally finished staring into space and conducting my imitation of thought, I realised with a start that everyone had gone to bed. I should follow them, I supposed. Going to sleep, in the dark, with Gas Light still in my head, was the last thing I wanted to do; but there wasn't much choice and besides, the mental turmoil I was in might just trigger off another insight, or vision, or something that would reveal the torturer's identity.
I told myself this several times and wondered why I didn't feel more enthusiastic. The answer to that one, however loath I might be to admit it, was that I did not want to know who the torturer was. Voldie was quite right on that one.
Sore head, prickling eyes. I fell asleep and, seconds later, woke up again. I did this about fifty times. My body was trying to keep me from my dreams.
They came in the end, though, slipping in sideways; insidious and dreadful. They were troublesome and queasy even before the mask arrived, although I can't remember precisely what happened; I was trapped in some kind of underground complex, a serious of dark concrete tunnels, and then I came out into a courtyard and saw the mask on the floor, cemented into the ground. I tugged at it, kicked at it, but it wouldn't move; and then the dream changed and it was all downhill from there.
A little grey nonentity appeared, mask firmly across his face. I reached out for it, but couldn't touch it; but it didn't matter, because he took it off himself.
He took off his mask, and his face was made of some sort of putty or play-dough; and it moved. Sausages of face wriggled and dropped off and started crawling across the floor towards me, and I jumped back in disgust; his whole head disintegrated and his robe dropped to the floor, empty;
He took off his mask, and underneath there was a face that was sore and weeping and covered with burns; I was filled with disgust and sympathy and leaned forwards to help, but at the last minute I saw he was pointing a gun at me;
He took off his mask, and his face was made of water and it fell on the floor with a splash. I leant over to inspect it and suddenly the water was a pool, a round pool like a Pensieve, and I was looking closer, looking into it.
It was the atrium of the Ministry of Magic again, and I relived the fight as if I was actually there. Golden statues were running amok; Bellatrix was pinned down by a metal witch. Voldemort fired an AK at Dumbledore and it came so close to actually hitting him; my heart was striking my ribs like a fist as the security desk was ignited instead. Dumbledore responded with something that seemed to warp space and time, that pulled my hair up on end as if it were electrified, and Voldemort produced a moonlight-white shield to bash it aside.
There came a hollow boom like the tolling of a funeral bell. Present-day me, the seventeen-year-old, felt a sudden, terrible sense of dread.
"You do not seek to kill me, Dumbledore?" Voldemort said venomously, eyes slits of resentment. "Above such brutality, are you?" – and it seemed to me that he knew exactly what was going on, in a way that I didn't; neither younger-me nor present-day me, that is; and there was Dumbledore strolling calmly but relentlessly down the hall.
I felt that what happened next would determine, not just the outcome of the battle, but the whole course of the war; maybe the course of magical society long after that. I wanted to scream at Dumbledore, to tell him not to do it, but younger-me didn't understand; and I watched and listened helplessly as his mouth opened with glacial slowness and he said:
"We both know that there are other ways of destroying a man, Tom. Merely taking your life would not satisfy me, I admit..."
I woke up crying; literally in tears, which were slipping sideways down my cheeks and onto the pillow.
There had never been a mask. My mind had invented it to protect itself, to keep me from going to pieces; and Voldemort had known, had remained silent, had prodded and coaxed me in the right direction for eight bloody months. This from the man who broke all my bones.
It was odd, really, that he had battered me to bits when there was nothing to prove but some obscure moral point; when it was his own life at stake he had stroked me gently, with books.
So. The end of the mystery; and of my childhood, and innocence, and Dumbledore, I thought gloomily as I trundled in slow circles on the Astronomy Tower. And now I still had to research Unbreakable Vows, and find out how to break into Azkaban, and do so as quickly as possible while managing to conceal my machinations from everyone else. Wonderful. I could barely contain my joy.
There was a dull amber glow forming in the east, like gloomy brimstone. All else was heavy grey cloud, with a fine mist of rain. I sympathised; the sun, like me, was making an effort to get on with its job, but couldn't see why it should be arsed.
"Harry?" Hermione said uncertainly. "Are you all right?"
Once I'd finished jumping out of my skin, I turned to face the bushy one and tried to get my heart-rate back to normal. She, like me, was wearing her slippers and dressing-gown, and I very much doubted she'd just happened to drop by. "Er, Hermione," I said suspiciously, "what are you doing up here?"
Snort. "Oh yes, says the bloke who was already here before me. I wanted some peace and quiet," she said in a rather bunged-up voice, and blew her nose.
"Mmm, so your date didn't go very well," I said, resigning myself, yet again, to endless diatribes re: Hermione's man trouble; but I was quite wrong: she impaled me with a shrewd stare and said, "And yours didn't either, judging by the fact that you vanished for an hour last night and came back completely miserable."
Damn. Why now of all times did she suddenly have to regain her powers of observation? "I was talking to Ginny."
"Really," she said, raising an eyebrow. "Is this while she was snogging Luna, or did they stop for thirty seconds?"
"GINNY'S GOING OUT WITH LUNA?!"
"Don't shout, and yes, she is. She's had sex with a woman already, apparently," Hermione said with avid disapproval, "so she explained that she wants to keep her options open."
OH, GREAT. EVEN BETTER. Nobody would miss me at all. Friends? What friends? All I had were insatiably horny quidnuncs. Right; it was time to strike back. With the twin intentions of relieving my annoyance and distracting Hermione I said bluntly, "You know, it's a bit personal and everything, but I always wondered why, after I was in the coma and all that, you and me and Ron never seem to hang around in a group any more."
That worked. It worked a bit too well. Her face crumpled, and it was her turn to gaze mutely into the sunrise, with a grim air that scared me a bit.
I babbled, "At first I thought it was because you two had, like, gone out together. And broken up. But then, of course, with Draco... I mean, that was why you fought with Ron, right? Because Malfoy's a pain in the arse?"
From Hermione's deadened expression I knew that this guess had flopped. Then her lip began to wobble, which was awful. I made a helpless gesture towards her but didn't really do anything.
"Oh, Harry, it wasn't that at all," she said. "It wasn't anything to do with sex. It was because of your getting captured – and fighting Voldemort, of course –alone, because we weren't there to help. We're supposed to be your friends, and we weren't there. I know it wasn't our fault," she added just as I was opening my mouth, "and perhaps we would just obviously have been raped and killed and not achieved anything, but, I mean, when we're a hundred we won't remember what all the reasons and explanations were, we'll only remember that we weren't there."
Well. I'd been completely wrong. Again.
"You will be," I said, and I told her and Ron everything.
"This is so disgusting," Ron whispered, entranced, as we paddled towards Voldemort's cell.
"I think we've figured that out, Ronald. It's a prison, not a holiday camp," Hermione lashed him acerbically. I vaguely supposed I ought to tell them to shut up, but (a) it was wonderful to hear them bickering again properly and (b) they were keeping me from screaming or committing suicide. The number of things that could go wrong at this stage seemed to stretch off into the darkness to my right.
Hermione, as Ron and I had predicted, knew everything about Azkaban within a couple of trips to the library. She even knew that the "gates" must work by detecting density, and therefore if three intruders were to cast a Feather-Light charm on themselves, their density would be insufficient to set off the alarm. Oh, and if they wore an Invisibility Cloak, that wouldn't hurt... And then electricity could interfere with wand sensors, so if we cast a few localised Lightning Spells before going in, that should hide our wands. We had indeed done all this. Unsurprisingly, it had worked.
We rounded the corner. A silhouette moved against the wall. In my terror I punched Hermione in the stomach possibly a little too hard, but at least the bickering stopped. We all tried to be silent as the shadow scratched its ear; tried to be frozen statues, when in fact we were great masses of blood and flesh and subsidiary organisms, all of which were making far too much noise. I watched my endless string of noughts extend itself once again.
Footsteps splashed towards us. It was a bored-looking guard who I'd seen before, many times. He sauntered straight past us and carried on down the corridor.
His whistling, as he disappeared round the corner, was the most incredible benediction.
"Right," I said quietly. "Sorry, Hermione..."
"Sorry! I couldn't breathe for about a minute."
"Hermione, we nearly got caught!" argued Ron.
"We'd really have got caught if I'd screamed like I wanted to!"
The Door of Voldemort loomed. The banging of my heart was making it shake from side to side.
"Sssh, you two," I said abstractedly. "This is it. Listen, I want you to wait outside."
Ron and Hermione quietened down for the first time today. They looked very small all of a sudden. Were they really both eighteen? Was I seventeen? It seemed very odd.
"You won't be long, will you?" Ron said nervously.
"I can't see why I would be, unless he attacks me."
Hermione had researched and drafted Voldemort's Unbreakable Vow. I doubted he would be very happy about swearing it, but as for his attacking me... I felt more afraid of the bumps of moss on the walls, I thought to myself as Hermione tackled the lock.
Within a minute she had melted it into a little puddle of metal, the door had opened with a soft moan of its hinges, and the three of us were staring at the flames. I tried to swallow, but couldn't.
"Right, shut the door," I croaked quietly.
"Good luck, Harry," whispered Hermione, and closed it. Good luck, I thought, what a silly thing to say; we're past the worst bits.
I hurried forwards, wanting to let Voldemort know what was happening as soon as possible; he might think I was Dumbledore come to finish him off. I levelled my wand at the curtain of flame and said, "Finite."
And everything went wrong –
There was no Voldemort –
No snake-man –
He was not there.
Sitting sullenly on the bed, his arms wrapped round his knees, was a little Tom Riddle. A very little Tom Riddle.
He raised his head and stared at me with hatred.
"Well?" he said.
He was wearing clothes, thank god. That was the only thing keeping me sane.
I swallowed down incipient vomit and said, "Well, what?"
He snorted, his porcelain philtrum curving magnificently. "Don't give me that, boy. Don't drag your pathetic hang-ups into this mess yet again. Do I have to explain to you why I'm like this, and who did it? Or can you tie your own shoelaces?"
"I know who did it," I said woodenly.
"Well? So are we leaving, or aren't you interested now that you can't use me as your bicycle?" – spat out so bitterly that the "bi" nearly hit me in the eye.
I swallowed a sharp lump of anger; he needn't think he was the only bitter one. "Who's being used?" I said. "You only shagged me to piss him off!"
That brought forth a little facetious smile, and a playful shrug. "I was a good ride, wasn't I?" he said. "I liked picturing his face if he knew."
I wanted to tell him to fuck off, but I couldn't say that to a child; but who was the child here? I felt incredibly stupid, probably the thickest person alive, and such an immature baby; and very angry, too, at having wasted all this time. Couldn't be helped. Good people are so much harder to fight than evil people.
"We're leaving," I said, throwing the Invisibility Cloak at him. "Come on."