He cannot remember what his name is.
The darkness chafes, burns, itches; whispers along his skin like wire wool over exposed nerves. There is no up, no down, no day or night; time is meaningless. He doesn’t know how long he’s been in this place; days, weeks, hours even. Stuck in a void of nothingness so heavy he might suffocate. They say the surest form of torture, the quickest way to turn a person mad is to isolate them, deprive them of their senses. This fresh hell does it in abundance.
He doesn’t know where he is.
He knows it is cold, so cold- bitter and numbing until it isn’t. Sometimes it’s so hot the sweat sits slick on overheated skin, salt burning in cuts he doesn’t remember getting. He has no clothes, did he wear them once? He scarcely knows what he’d do with them if he had, rags of filth to adorn his flesh prison. To touch is to hurt. He feels inhuman, unreal, he is nothing more than a writhing ball of pain in a mass of blinding darkness.
He cannot remember how old he is.
There has to be another life outside of this candyfloss madness, the sticky mist-like nothing of his existence. There has to be a solid world, a world away from this.
Sometimes he tries to remember, as he scratches the walls, remember if there ever really was another place. If he ever really was another person. Scratch scratch scratch. Are the walls even there? Some days they’re not, some days even the rough stone is gone, fallen away to nothingness. He cannot see what it is he touches, cannot know what is in there with him, waiting and watching in the dark.
He is alone but someone watches.
He sucks bloodied fingertips and tries to remember what he knows. There is a swirling black mass where his life used to be. Nothing has ever existed outside of this place. Torn fingernails split what skin is left on dry, chapped lips. Warm blood slick on a chin matted with untamed hair. Sometimes there is, sometimes there isn’t; sometimes it disappears at random- hair one minute, gone the next.
He never seems to eat in this place, never drinks though his throat grows parched and sore. He must, he cannot be alive without and yet and yet and yet.
Some days there is water, the cold dry stone grows wet, odourless liquid pooling around his body. So cold it hurts, aches in his bones until they feel so brittle they could snap. The worst days are the ones when he is immobilized, a sensation not unlike floating, unmoored from everything yet stuck in his own body in the freezing water. He hopes its water. The drip drip drip that he cannot escape. Bores burning holes in his head, flaying him alive, stabbing sharp and deep into his insides. Ice-picks of pain peeling away his sanity.
A man visits sometimes. The man with the smile that looks like madness. The man who calls himself a friend, who says he can be trusted. He asks about the other life, about the things that grow further away all the time.
He has strange eyes; not kind. They don’t fit, nothing fits, the smile and the eyes and the voice that laughs harsh truths. And the talking. The stranger makes him talk even though he doesn’t want to, even though he spent so long screaming he can taste nothing but blood and bile. The words bubble out slick and red, fall apologetically from raw bitten lips in terrible bouts.
There is pain too. If the man is displeased- or if he is jovial- he brings pain. Relentless, unending pain. It starts from nowhere, from his soul maybe, runs razors down his nerves, sticks pins into every millimetre of his body. Aftershocks wrack him long after.
He cannot remember what his face looks like.
Sometimes he touches the peaks and valleys of his body to check if it’s even real. It doesn’t feel real. Papery skin stretched taut; too thin, too delicate, too ready to tear straight from his bones. He runs ragged fingertips over his face, maps out eyes and nose and mouth, knows they have an order but cannot picture them in his mind.
There is no sleep in this nowhere place. No rest. The darkness is too bright, the silence too loud. If he tries hard enough to reach the brink, he is awoken though he knows not how. Maybe it’s the writhing shadows that follow him, crowd the corners of his eyes and perch on his shoulders. They speak to him in whispers, tell him everything he’s done to deserve this nonexistence.
A smell like burning, rotting flesh. It comes and goes and comes and goes, assaults his senses and leaves its cloying presence for hours, days. A heaviness that sits on the tongue, clings to the back of the throat, the smell of decay and death. And something else, underlying it all, something dark and terrible, something that makes the shadow faces weep with joy and cower in fear.
They jibber to him about a boy, as he paces the cell, round and round and round though his feet bleed winding trails in his wake. Did someone from before know this a boy? Does he know people other than the man? He supposes he had a family once, a long time ago wherever his name went. He thinks maybe he loved them in his own way. He might have had friends, he doesn’t remember.
Sometimes he sees death in the bloodstains on the wall. So much pain and death and fighting, a war perhaps. A war, a great war, a war to end all wars. So much death.
Is that what this place is? Is he dead and gone and buried? Purgatory would suit him well he thinks, endless nothingness waiting for the fire and brimstone punishment that surely awaits him. He doesn’t think he has died, though, that would be too easy. His sense of what is real and what is not shifts so very often, turns on a dime.
He cannot remember.
He beats himself bloody against the walls, yells and cries and hit hit hits the unforgiving rock-wood-metal until his voice is gone and his hands and feet are a mangled, bloodied, mess. Sometimes the man fixes them. Sometimes he doesn’t.
He’s been there so long, with the silence that screams too harsh in his ears and the unrelenting darkness so dazzling he cannot see. If this is all there is to the world then so be it. If there is more out there, if there are friends and family and people who sit so far away in the broken synapses of his brain then he rejects them, rejects it all.
Nothing exists outside of the here and now. He is but a few misfiring synapses in their last spasm before death. He is dead. There is nothing else. There is nothing else. There is nothing.
He cannot remember what his name is.
They tell him his name is Graves. Percival Graves. It fits him, he thinks, in much the same way as second hand shoes.
Magical hospitals are strange places- empty in a way that is neither cold nor sterile, nothing like the wards he half remembers in the echoes of that far off place. They are places so deeply entrenched in magic that it practically shimmers in the air, warm currents of healing. Graves is a bum note in the symphony, a black hole sucking in all the warmth and light, and spitting back nothing but darkness.
No one will tell him anything about the Incident, not directly, though he has overheard enough whilst drifting in and out of his welcoming fugue state to piece a story together. It took a team of Aurors little over a week after the “incident in the underground” to find him, a week since they arrested the Wizard that imprisoned him and stole his life.
The finer details elude him, things carefully not let slip even in front of a vegetable. They found him- that much is obvious- locked away in an ancient wardrobe, already bathed in the reek of dark magic from days of yore. Locked by key and magic alike, it was further transfigured by a harmless extension charm to make the otherwise small space unfathomable. It would be a further half week before they discover the clever little charm they’d previously overlooked, the one which bent and compressed time in the bubble universe it created.
It was a young Auror he heard it all from, still wet behind the ears and eager to gossip. They found him crouched in the corner of a cell, bloody and bruised and scratching idly at deep gouges in the walls. Naked, though it didn’t seem to bother him, chest and legs streaked with grime, hands caked in blood.
He doesn’t remember their approach, mind distant, gone, hands still idly scratching, although his fingers were little more than bloodied lumps of flesh, fingernails long torn away. The pain haunts him now, stiff joints and taut skin pulling at him, aches from deep within twinging even when he lies carefully still. He’s been in hospital for two weeks, though they say it’ll take twice that again before they let him go, and even then the recovery could take years.
He was never the type of man to take idleness well, that much he knows about himself. The idea of spending the next however long conscious but as good as not is an unfathomable cruelty that he’s not sure his mind can take. He’s not sure it can take much these days, still shaky as he is on the finer points of his identity. Still, his skin will begin to crawl before long, a restless itch to join the ache pulling and twisting and tugging at his bones, too heavy by far.
It is almost two months before they let him go. Time left to trudge by relentlessly, a gruelling carousel of doctors, nurses, orderlies passing by outside, or bringing forth their medicines, their diagnoses, their ceaseless chatter. The tediousness helps at little, though the hours are long, they are also marked. By the end of the first week he has come to expect food, though it is still a relief every time a tray is presented, every time he is able to eat. By the second he has started to trust that the clocks tell time correctly, they aren’t trying to trick him. By the third he allows himself to see faces, though that is when the blow of what he’d lost hit him most; when he realised he barely knew what their varying tumultuous expressions meant.
By the time he is discharged he is almost ready to face the world again, though he still aches down to his bones, and his skin- once a soft, fawn-white, now so pale it nears translucency- feels too raw, clothes harsh and abrasive like his shirt is made of wire wool. He had had painfully few visitors during his hospitalisation, scarcely more than the Aurors saddled with his case. They ask him questions, so many questions, the same things over and over and over again, each word scrutinised until every last scrap of meaning has been wrung out. They interrogate him as if is the one who has done something wrong, he knows it is protocol but it feels like persecution. He doesn’t quite remember, but he thought he had friends before all this, perhaps not close ones, but surely somebody missed him? Surely somebody believes he’s not to blame for his own suffering?
A quivering ache of loneliness sits hard and cold in his gut. It follows him from the hospital to the front door of a house that used to belong to him. Madam President had assured him it had been investigated thoroughly, picked over with a fine tooth comb until the air was so thick with magic he could choke. She told him he would be able to move back in as soon as he was discharged. They were friends once, or so he gathers, but even she hadn’t been able to meet his eyes either; face a mask of false joviality over crippling pity.
Left on the doorstep with a name too large, clothes too small, and a crutch he would be reliant on for the rest of his days, Graves, it seems, is to reacquaint himself with his life alone. The house looks like a tornado had torn through it, destruction draped over every surface like doilies in an old widow’s bungalow. The air thick with the pungent stench of dark magic, bitter black treacle and a copper tang at the back of the throat, throttling the life out of anything still living. Everything had been infected, the madman had rubbed his grubby little hands all over Graves’ life and left nothing behind but ghosts.
The first time he catches sight of himself in the bathroom mirror, he throws up the thin porridge he had choked down at breakfast. That man stares back at him from glass thick with dust; though the face is haggard and the eyes lacked that cold, hard gleam, it is still undeniably him. President Picquery had told him about the assumed identity, a brief brushing over, but not this, not how Grindlewald- because the man had a name and a face of his own, and he was too old to be scared of the bogeyman- had stolen more than just his life. He had tortured him with his own face. He sits shaking on the cold tile, hands fisted just a little too tight in hair which- if he’d looked close enough- was growing out at the sides. Fingernails bite deep into the skin, as if he could tear the thing straight off if he tried hard enough, remove the foul face which mocked him from the mirror. He would have too, would have sat there as long as it took to remove every trace of him, if his torn fingers hadn’t caught on firm bristles, a testament to how quickly he had wanted to leave the hospital. The stubble calmed him, the prickle of it against his fingers proof that he was neither the clean faced spectre of his nightmares, nor the bearded madman he had become inside that place. It softened the curve of his jaw, made him think that one day he’d be able to face his reflection once again. One day maybe he would be able to look himself in the eye and not feel the surge of revulsion that hung hollow in his belly. One thing’s for sure, he cannot stay in this house, this museum of misery airing his shame to all and sundry. He would keep his stubble because what use is propriety when the scratch of cloth against his flesh is so painful some days he wants to cry, wants to make it go away- sit naked as a babe because that is what has become of him. That is what that man has made him into.
He needs a change of scenery- not just the house, everything. He needs to leave the wizarding world behind and discover himself anew, figure out who is has become. Baby steps toward normalcy.
He left the house that very afternoon, with nothing but a reclaimed wand- unused thank Merlin, merely left to gather dust- and someone else’s shirt on his back. The house and all that lay within may have meant something to him once, he probably overpaid for the clothes and sought nothing but the finest finery; and he was sure they would all be there if, when, if he returned, but they would not be coming with him.
Percival Graves, Director of Magical Security, Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, and- so they say- a descendant of one of MACUSA’s original twelve, was dead. He died in that infernal place, all that is left is dust, bones and the echo of what once was.
The flat he chooses is a nice one, though nothing when compared to the life he had disowned. The top floor of a squat, brick building; the kitchen stretches into the living area, the bathroom scarcely disconnected from the bedroom, but it is clean, and the dust of its previous settlers is pure in its ordinariness. In due time he would begin to sell off extraneous furnishings from the past, maybe use the money to buy himself better lodgings, but for the moment it is all he needs. Even the neighbourhood he chose is nothing alike, for one there are no grandiose houses filled to the brim with the most ridiculous opulence scattered up and down the street, and of course it is almost entirely non-magical.
It’s not that he wants to turn his back on the wizarding world forever, though if anything it seemed to have already turned its back on him. The visitors during his hospital stay were few and far between at the best of times. In a sickening moment three and a half weeks into his stay he realised they hadn’t even been looking for him. His discovery was no more or less than an accident- he had been written off as dead from the start. He might as well have been, after all what good was an old reputation when he had been so thoroughly bested. To make matters worse, his magic remains conspicuously silent. He tries and tries to re-connect, to reach into that beautiful current that once blazed so bright in his core and coax the embers back to life; but alas there is nothing but whispers. Performing a simple lumos takes an entire afternoon, and when achieved leaves him hopelessly drained and in need of a lie down- and that was with his wand. Old, crippled and all but useless, that’s what a lifetime in MACUSA has left him. He had always hoped to die in battle, taken out in the line of duty not left to wither and rot.
He’s mentally weighing up whether attempting to force himself to eat is worth the energy it takes to make food these days, when a knock at the door interrupts the ringing silence which permeates his flat. He struggles to his feet, disgust swirling in the pit of his stomach at the crutch leant against the arm of the ragged sofa, waiting patiently for him to use. Another knock comes as he hobbles less-than-gracefully to answer, accompanied by a soft voice telling someone to “behave and be patient now”. Hopelessly intrigued, Graves leans his battered body against the wall- forgoing the crutch when he can perfectly well use the doorframe to lean on- and cautiously cracks the door open.
It is almost the last thing in the world he expected to have a bright young women on his doorstep, a baby on her hip and four children at her side ranging in age from the cusp of puberty to barely out of their nappy. She turns as she hears the hinges whine their protest, a bright smile playing around wide brown eyes.
“Hello there” her voice has a lilting Irish brogue, as dancing and bright as the rest of her. “We’re your neighbours, or… well we’re the closest flat to ya”
He offers the name Percival Graves, though it still feels an awkward fit in his mouth. She doesn’t seem to notice, or if she does it isn’t mentioned; just hands off the baby to a young girl beside her- the eldest of the children- and proffers a hand.
“Aideen O’Hannigan at your service. These here are my little rabble, Siobhan”. She smiles fondly at the children, and coaxes forward her youngest daughter with a ruffle to her hair- not quite the flyaway curls of her mothers, but not without life.
“Bran” she continues, gently touching the shoulder of a small boy maybe a few years older, but buzzing with energy, and holding tight to a plate of cookies, still steaming. Kieran is small and ginger-blonde, with big doe eyes as large and dark as his mothers. Róisín is almost the spitting image of her mother, the same soft curls- though her hair is left to coil into long ringlets, not cut into the same youthful bob- and her skin an identical soft tawny-beige. The “wee babby Aiden” is all pudgy fists and drooling smile, with the ruddy cheeks of an infant- a constant raw pink under the tawny-white skin he shares with his brothers and sister. Graves supposes they take after their father, whoever he may be. They are a beautiful family.
With all the gravitas he can muster- not as much as perhaps he’d like, but maybe he looks as weak and emaciated as he feels because he sure gets away with it- he greets every one of the children with an overly formal handshake. Though shy, he gets at least a smile out of each child, if not an outright laugh, which warms something deep inside of him. He thinks maybe he wasn’t like this before, he cannot recall being around kids often but then again he cannot recall much these days.
“We’re going to feed the monster” Bran tells him in a loud whisper, almost sending the cookies tumbling to the floor in his excitement.
“Now little one, don’t go harassing the poor man.” Aideen chides gently as she empties his hands, and whirls to proffer the plate him instead.
“We thought we’d bring these by for you Mr Graves, a little “welcome to your new house” gift, though the good Lord knows this are hardly the sort of place you’d call a home. It looks like I came in time too, look at you you’re all bones.” She hands over the plate with grin, mirth biting deep lines around her mouth.
“I… yes I suppose I am.” Graves laughs, oddly touched, “It’s been a rough few months. Thank you.”
“That’s no problem, you look like you need a good feeding.” There is a softness to Aideen’s eyes, though not pity- a deep sadness for him. It feels strangely refreshing. She looks for a moment as if she wants to say something more, but decides against it, offering instead “Our door will be open to you whenever you need it Mr Graves.”
“We’re just being neighbourly, but you’re welcome.” The way she smiles makes him feel distinctly as if he has become someone she can mother, not pity but warmer than compassion. “Now it’s time we got you home before your pa comes back.”
“But ma!” Bran whines, eyeing the plate of cookies with an air of distress, like one who has just discovered his coveted goodies were meant for something else after all.
“You can go monster hunting with your pa after dinner now off we go, come on.” And with that Aideen takes back the baby, and attempts valiantly to coral the children down one flight and into the rooms just at the bottom of the stairs.
“Good night Mr Graves” she calls from her front door, accompanied by a children’s chorus of “goodnights”.
“Good night yourself Mrs Hannigan” he replies with as close to a smile as he can muster, slipping back into the relative peace of his flat before anything more can be said. It isn’t that he doesn’t appreciate the company, in fact her hospitality has left him touched so deeply it renders the trepidation of breaking the very laws he spent so many years working to uphold into something of an elicit thrill. Why shouldn’t he make friends with a one or two non-magical neighbours when he is left barely more than a squib himself?
When he bites into one, he finds the cookies are freshly baked and soft and leave an unidentified warmth burning in the pit of his stomach. It’s a dangerous thought, but maybe he could start to feel at home in this place.