I felt them as soon as I had Apparated.
The Dementors. They sucked the warmth and happiness from a place, and this was the place where they were most abundant. I couldn't imagine what it would be like to live here. As Minister for Magic, I had many duties, some pleasant, some… less pleasant, but performing routine checks on Azkaban was my least favourite.
I hated seeing the prisoners, crouched up against the wall, rocking back and forth in anguish, staring at me with dull yet accusing eyes, muttering things only mad people understood, their thin limbs wrapped around their gaunt bodies to preserve whatever little body heat they had left. I hated seeing them suffer, no matter what they had done. They were my fellow witches and wizards, and they were being punished in a way that I thought far too harsh. I hated the Dementors. They were Dark creatures by definition, and secretly I agreed with Dumbledore that the Ministry may have been… misguided in our alliance with them.
Sometimes I considered cutting them loose.
Ha, as if I could. Most of our kind only felt safe because the prisoners were guarded closely in Azkaban by the foul things. The press would have a field day. "Minister shows disregard for civilian safety," they would say. "Security in Azkaban drops dramatically." Then I would be the one to be cut loose, the Dementors would be reinstated, and it would all be for nothing.
No, it was better to continue putting on a brave face and assuring everyone that the Dementors were fine, that they were our allies now…
I straightened. Right, the check. Chin up, Fudge, I reminded myself. With as much dignity as I could muster, I walked into the prison. Checking the walls, the bars, the prisoners…
The prisoners. I couldn't bear the vengeful looks they sent me. Half of them in there didn't deserve to be. They had done terrible things, yes. They ought to be isolated from society, yes. They should be punished, yes. But not like this. Never like this. I knew I deserved every dirty look they sent my way. It was my fault they were in there. But not because I wanted to put them there! Didn't anyone understand that I was under pressure?! Especially Dumbledore, the blasted man, patronising me in that irritatingly calm way of his. He wasn't the Minister. He didn't understand the political pressure being pushed upon me every cursed moment of my day.
I walked past each cell, and gazed at every hunched body in every cell. As I passed, each head raised to look at me. I averted my gaze.
Then I came across the last cell.
I knew something was different as soon as I walked up to the barred door. Yes, he was hunched over, like every other prisoner. But instead of simply raising his head in acknowledgement of my presence, he struggled to his feet. He stood.
No other prisoner had been able to muster up the strength to stand in Azkaban. Not with the Dementors around. But he stood. And he inclined his head politely but coolly in my direction.
"Good day, Minister."
I noticed he didn't say, "Good morning." Of course not. There was no perception of time in Azkaban. It was always dark and cold.
"Good day, Black." Well, if he could remain civil.
"I'd love to invite you in for a cup of tea, but as you may have noticed, there are rather slim pickings here."
Sarcastic as always. I was surprised he could manage it. "Thank you, Black, but I'm in rather a hurry, anyway."
"Of course. But I wonder if you could spare your newspaper. You see, I miss doing the crossword." He looked at me inquiringly with those sunken eyes.
What a strange request. But then, Black had always been a strange man. "Yes, of course. Would you like a quill to complete it with?" Why not humour him?
"Oh, no thank you, Minister. I can remember the answers. There isn't much to do in Azkaban but train your memory. Besides, I suspect you lot at the Ministry would believe that a high security prisoner like me would somehow turn a quill into a mass-murder weapon."
There was that dry humour again. He was right, of course. There would be uproar if I so much as gave the man a toothpick. I couldn't see any harm in handing over the paper, though. What could he do with that, make an origami swan?
"Thank you, Minister. Enjoy your day."
"I will, thank you, Black. Good day to you." I walked away, thoroughly rattled. I never thought I'd see the day when I was disturbed to find someone far too normal.