Men are not prisoners of fate, but prisoners of their own mind. ~ Franklin D. Roosevelt
“I’m sorry, Minister, I know how you hate these visits,” Sidney McDowell murmured. He ran a hand over his heavily waxed hair, smoothing back any rebellious strands of dirty blond and scratching at his receding hairline with an expression of reluctant sympathy.
“No, no,” Cornelius Fudge, the Minister for Magic, sighed, waving an airy hand, though his sternly featured face didn’t quite match the breezy way in which he spoke. “It’s a necessary procedure, I know that. We all have to do things we’d rather avoid, once in a while.” He seemed dissatisfied with his own answer, but kept silent as McDowell began gathering papers from a drawer in his desk.
They were standing in the cramped secretarial office of Azkaban Prison. The walls had been painted a creamy brown colour, but the paint was peeling and grubby, and no-one had deemed a redo of the job worth their time; the space was taken up mostly with filing cabinets, all stuffed with records of various prisoners, listed in order of security measurements, highest to lowest. Fudge had spent the first half hour of his visit perusing through them at random, checking all the dates had been logged and signed correctly, and was now preparing to make a more thorough inspection of the prison itself.
“We’ve been a bit understaffed, to be honest,” McDowell hinted in a casual tone as they made their way to the main gates. “What with Letwith getting promoted and Holsten going off sick.”
“I see your point,” Fudge admitted, knowing the meaning behind the informal statement. “But I’m afraid there’s not really much I can do, McDowell. We simply haven’t enough spare people to be shipping them off here. We can hardly send in trainees, not when there are Dementors all over the place. You have to be properly trained to work here, as you well know.”
“Hmm,” the young man said, his thin lips pressed together tightly. He could easily recall the vigorous training exercises he had undergone, wanting nothing more than to be an Auror, only to get stuck babysitting all the people brought in by those elite forces instead.
“I’ll see what I can do,” Fudge took hold of the man’s arm for a moment, nodding reassuringly, and McDowell did his best to smile appreciatively before extracting his wand and turning to the complex locking devices attached to the gates.
Fudge shuddered, though the chill of Dementors had no power over him, thanks to the hawk patronus circling around the heads of the two men. He gazed at the silvery creature for a moment, the only sounds the whistling of the wind outside the heavily guarded walls, and the muttering of McDowell beside him.
Taking up his clipboard, Fudge eyed the man sternly as he scratched a few notes down with his peacock feather quill, muttering quietly, “Nonverbal would be best, don’t you think?”
McDowell blushed, his cheeks turning a blotchy red and he mumbled an apology, nodding.
The gates swung open, revealing a dark corridor, the very sight of which, for one brief moment, filled the Minister’s heart with dread. Taking a deep breath, Fudge rearranged his robes with a single hand and stalked inside the main holding building of Azkaban, hoping very much that his expression displayed none of the fearful anxiety that jittered in his stomach like flesh eating butterflies.
“Right this way, sir,” McDowell held out a hand to allow to Minister to go first, having replaced the locking charms – this time nonverbally – and slid his wand back into his pocket. “These are the lower security vaults.”
“Yes, yes, I know,” Fudge said impatiently, his eyes on the unlit end of the corridor, where lay a second gate. It was behind this gate that his fears lay.
His eyes brushed over various cells, stopping at intervals to speak with the occasional prisoner, in particular a small woman with black hair and a small, wonky nose; she surveyed the Minister with large, cerulean eyes, explaining how she considered ten months in ‘this wretched place’ to be far too long a sentence for smuggling.
“My dear,” Fudge replied in a weary tone, he glanced down at her file, which McDowell had handed to him, “Given that you were smuggling Japanese Fork-Tail eggs, I think you should consider yourself lucky. Most found guilty of smuggling rarities, especially dragons, find themselves here for well over a year.”
“So you’re telling me I should have let me-self starve to death instead of getting the only job available?”
Fudge, flustered by the question and uncomfortable under the stare of both the woman and McDowell, muttered something incoherent and moved swiftly on to another cell.
He stalled and he delayed as long as he dared, sometimes making notes on his clipboard, adding a tick or a cross every now and again, but he knew the dreaded task was inevitable, and all too soon they arrived at the second gate.
“Now the high security,” McDowell said in an unenthusiastic tone, wand out again as he nonverbally unlocked the gate.
Perhaps it was his imagination, but Fudge was sure that the sound of their footsteps echoed louder on this floor than the floor of the previous corridors. His breaths sounded harsher in his throat, and a droplet of sweat trickled down the back of his neck. He reached up to wipe his brow with a hand, waiting for the sound of dark mutters that could always be heard in the higher security cells.
He took a left, striding down a series of steps purposefully, attempting to replace nerves with unfound confidence. McDowell followed him at a leisurely pace, perfectly used to visiting the more dangerous criminals and enjoying the sight of the Minister’s discomfort very much indeed.
Clipboard to hand, Fudge finally reached the furthest depths of the Azkaban prison, here the cells were spread far apart and Dementors were stationed at alarmingly short intervals. He glanced at McDowell’s patronus, still circling them overhead and glowing brightly, before looking down into the first block.
The man was sitting in the middle of his cell, legs stretched out in front of him as he leaned back onto his palms. His greying prison clothes were filthy and ripped, and from behind long black waves of grimy hair, Sirius Black’s pale face seemed to shine brightly in the darkness, silvery eyes that once glittered with mischief now sunken and glittering with malice.
He smiled pleasantly, lips curving upwards in a genuine expression, and he lifted a single hand long enough to wave before returning back to his original position.
“Hello, Minister,” he said amiably.
“Black,” Fudge said in a strangled voice.
“How are you?” Again that tone, as if exchanging niceties was an everyday occurrence in his imprisoned life.
“I-I’m very well, Black. And yourself?”
This seemed to amuse Black, because his smile widened until his teeth were just about visible between chapped lips.
“Oh, I can’t complain,” he sighed. “Not much to eat around here, but that’s alright. I’m watching my figure,” he confided, patting his starved belly, and Fudge caught a glimpse of protruding ribs.
An awkward curiosity keeping him from moving on, Fudge surveyed Black a little more closely, the scuffed, bloody knuckles – no doubt he was still working on his temper tantrums, taking out his fury on the walls and floor – the bruises along his limbs, the grubby skin, the high cheekbones that once finished off the aristocratic look to his handsome face, now only helping to accentuate to the gauntness of his features. But Fudge hadn’t the nerve to study the man’s eyes.
“That a newspaper?” Black gestured the print attached to the bottom of the Minister’s clipboard.
“Yes,” Fudge replied, staring bemusedly at him, shifting his shoulders as he felt another drip of cold sweat snake its way right down his back.
“Finished with it? Quite like to catch up on current events.”
Fudge frowned at Black, eyes widening in surprise. After a moment’s hesitation he unclipped the Daily Prophet and took a step towards the bars of Black’s cell.
“Ah, Minister,” McDowell, who had remained silent throughout the exchange, took the paper from Fudge’s grasp. “Let me.” He ran his wand over the newspaper in a routine fashion, and it glowed bright purple for a moment before he nodded. “Alright, Black, stand up and walk slowly to the back of your cell.”
“You’re kidding me, Sidney,” Black said in a deadened voice.
Fudge, not so distracted as to forget about why he was visiting in the first place, scribbled something down on his clipboard, mumbling so only McDowell could hear. ‘Prisoners know guards’ names.’
“Do it, Black,” McDowell ordered, ruffled that the man had shown him up in front of the Minister. He knew Black knowing his name wouldn’t go down well with Fudge.
Rolling his eyes in a surprisingly childlike fashion, Black stood shakily on his feet, plodding over to the back of the cell and leaning against the wall, his posture very much reminiscent of a teenage version of himself.
McDowell, who had been only a few years below the prisoner in his Hogwarts days, scowled at the cocky smile on Black’s face.
“Happy?” Black asked in a sweet, sarcastic voice.
“Arms up and against the wall.”
“Honestly? Sid, come on-”
“Alright, alright,” Black muttered mutinously, raising his arms so they were horizontally aligned against the wall, “Don’t get your knickers in a twist.”
Fudge, taken aback by the teenage sulkiness in Black’s voice, felt the corners of his lips twitch at the harassment being handed to McDowell.
“Palms flat against the wall,” McDowell continued, “And heels against the wall.”
This time Black complied without complaint, his eyes trained on the newspaper in the blond man’s hand.
“Spread your fingers.”
“I’ll spread my toes too, if you like,” Black offered sardonically, smirking, though it didn’t quite reach his eyes, which were hungry as they followed the Daily Prophet with an intense stare.
“Okay,” McDowell said reluctantly, and he pointed his wand at a small section of the bars, slipping the paper through and reinstalling the spells before nodding to the prisoner. “Go on then.”
Like a dog going after a bone, Black leapt at the black and white print. Opening the broadsheet wide, he muttered without looking up, “I hope you haven’t done the crossword puzzle yet. I love doing those. Always been better at them than Prongs.”
Fudge didn’t even bother asking who Prongs was, most likely a hallucination of Black’s. After all, almost every other prisoner in the place had delusions of some kind. He gave a small sigh of satisfaction. For a moment, he had thought Black would show absolutely none of the usual symptoms of prolonged Dementor exposure.
He turned to leave, but Black, eyes wrenching away from the front page of the Daily Prophet, spoke again, his voice almost melodic with causal amusement.
“Oh, and Minister? Say hello to my cousin for me, will you? She’s about ten cells down in that direction,” he pointed to his right, and his lazy smile appeared again, pleasant and charming, if not a little strained.
Fudge, bewildered by Black’s awareness and apparent knowledge of the prison, turned to McDowell and scurried away, quill on the clipboard again, muttering ‘Prisoners know location of other prisoners’..
McDowell, before racing off to point out Black was wrong – Bellatrix Lestrange was in fact eleven cells to his right – threw the prisoner a dirty look, pointing at him threateningly before drawing the same finger along his throat in a menacing motion.
Black, however, seemed unafraid as he lifted a hand to return the gesture with one of his own – a lot less mature than McDowell’s, but it certainly had a much better effect, as the man gritted his teeth angrily, storming away with his fists clenched by his sides.
He stopped beside Fudge, who was still writing on his clipboard.
“I want tighter security on him,” was all that the Minister said.
“Yes sir,” Sidney McDowell replied, his eyes wandering back to the previous cell, where Sirius Black lay sprawled in a leisurely position, examining some sort of photo he had found in the Daily Prophet.
Fudge paused for a moment, looking to where McDowell’s gaze had been drawn, before snorting to himself and shaking his head, muttering under his breath as a mystified expression creased his forehead. “Crosswords…”