Harry's eyes flew open as he came awake with a choking gasp, a jerking start of his prone body. He couldn't remember any dreams, maybe his brain had been too exhausted to dream, it seemed like he'd only closed his eyes and then heard that word spoken a moment after.
"You must awaken," said the voice of Quirinus Quirrell. "I gave you as much time as I could, but it would be wise to reserve at least one use of your Time-Turner. Soon we must go backward four hours to Mary's Place, appearing in every way as though we have done nothing interesting this day. I wished to speak to you before then."
Harry slowly sat up in the midst of darkness. His body ached, and not only in the places where it had laid on the hard concrete. Images tumbled over each other in his memory, everything his unconscious brain had been too tired to discharge into a proper nightmare.
Twelve terrible voids floating down a metal corridor, tarnishing the metal around them, light dimmed and temperature falling as the emptiness tried to suck all life out of the world -
Chalk-white skin, stretched just above the bone that had remained after fat and muscle faded -
A metal door -
A woman's voice -
No, I didn't mean it, please don't die -
I can't remember my children's names any more -
Don't go, don't take it away, don't don't don't -
"What was that place?" Harry said hoarsely, in a voice pushed out of his throat like water forced through a too-thin pipe, in the darkness it sounded almost as shattered as Bellatrix Black's voice had been. "What was that place? That wasn't a prison, that was HELL!"
"Hell?" said the calm voice of the Defense Professor. "You mean the Christian punishment fantasy? I suppose there is a similarity."
"How -" Harry's voice was blocking, there was something huge lodged in his throat. "How - how could they -" People had built that place, someone had made Azkaban, they'd made it on purpose, they'd done it deliberately, that woman, she'd had children, children she wouldn't remember, some judge had decided for that to happen to her, someone had needed to drag her into that cell and lock its door while she screamed, someone fed her every day and walked away without letting her out -
"HOW COULD PEOPLE DO THAT?"
"Why shouldn't they?" said the Defense Professor. A pale blue light lit the warehouse, then, showing a high, cavernous concrete ceiling, and a dusty concrete floor; and Professor Quirrell sitting some distance away from Harry, leaning his back against a painted wall; the pale blue light turned the walls to glacier surfaces, the dust on the floor to speckled snow, and the man himself had become an ice sculpture, shrouded in darkness where his black robes lay over him. "What use are the prisoners of Azkaban to them?"
Harry's mouth opened in a croak. No words exited.
A faint smile twitched on the Defense Professor's lips. "You know, Mr. Potter, if He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named had come to rule over magical Britain, and built such a place as Azkaban, he would have built it because he enjoyed seeing his enemies suffer. And if instead he began to find their suffering distasteful, why, he would order Azkaban torn down the next day. As for those who did make Azkaban, and those who do not tear it down, while preaching lofty sermons and imagining themselves not to be villains... well, Mr. Potter, I think if I had my choice of taking tea with them, or taking tea with You-Know-Who, I should find my sensibilities less offended by the Dark Lord."
"I don't understand," Harry said, his voice was shaking, he'd read about the classic experiment on the psychology of prisons, the ordinary college students who had turned sadistic as soon as they were assigned the role of prison guards; only now he realized that the experiment hadn't examined the right question, the one most important question, they hadn't looked at the key people, not the prison guards but everyone else, "I really don't understand, Professor Quirrell, how can people just stand by and let this happen, why is the country of magical Britain doing this -" Harry's voice stopped.
The Defense Professor's eyes appeared to be the same color as always, in the pale blue light, for that light was the same color as Quirinus Quirrell's irises, those never-thawing chips of ice. "Welcome, Mr. Potter, to your first encounter with the realities of politics. What do the wretched creatures in Azkaban have to offer any faction? Who would benefit from aiding them? A politician who openly sided with them would associate themselves with criminals, with weakness, with distasteful things that people would rather not think about. Alternatively, the politician could demonstrate their might and cruelty by calling for longer sentences; to make a display of strength requires a victim to crush beneath you, after all. And the populace applauds, for it is their instinct to back the winner." A coldly amused laugh. "You see, Mr. Potter, no one ever quite believes that they will go to Azkaban, so they see no harm in it for themselves. As for what they inflict on others... I suppose you were once told that people care about that sort of thing? It is a lie, Mr. Potter, people don't care in the slightest, and if you had not led a vastly sheltered childhood you would have noticed that long ago. Console yourself with this: those now prisoner in Azkaban voted for the same Ministers of Magic who pledged to move their cells closer to the Dementors. I admit, Mr. Potter, that I see little hope for democracy as an effective form of government, but I admire the poetry of how it makes its victims complicit in their own destruction."
Harry's recently cohered self was threatening to shatter into fragments again, the words falling like hammerstrikes on his consciousness, driving him back, step by step, over the precipice where lurked some vast abyss; and he was trying to find something to save himself, some clever retort that would refute the words, but it did not come.
The Defense Professor watched Harry, the gaze reflecting more curiosity than command. "It is very simple, Mr. Potter, to understand how Azkaban was built, and how it continues to be. Men care for what they, themselves, expect to suffer or gain; and so long as they do not expect it to redound upon themselves, their cruelty and carelessness is without limit. All the other wizards of this country are no different within than he who sought to rule over them, You-Know-Who; they only lack his power and his... frankness."
The boy's hands were clenched into fists so tightly that the nails cut into his palm, if his fingers were white or his face was pale you couldn't have seen that, for the dim blue light cast all into ice or shadow. "You once offered to support me if my ambition were to be the next Dark Lord. Is that why, Professor?"
The Defense Professor inclined his head, a thin smile on his lips. "Learn all that I have to teach you, Mr. Potter, and you will rule this country in time. Then you may tear down the prison that democracy made, if you find that Azkaban still offends your sensibilities. Like it or not, Mr. Potter, you have seen this day that your own will conflicts with the will of this country's populace, and that you do not bow your head and submit to their decision when that occurs. So to them, whether or not they know it, and whether or not you acknowledge it, you are their next Dark Lord."
In the monochromatic light, unwavering, the boy and the Defense Professor both seemed like motionless ice sculptures, the irises of their eyes reduced to similar colors, looking very much the same in that light.
Harry stared directly into those pale eyes. All the long-suppressed questions, the ones he'd told himself he was putting on hold until the Ides of May. That had been a lie, Harry now knew, a self-deception, he had kept silent for fear of what he might hear. And now everything was coming forth from his lips, all at once. "On our first day of class, you tried to convince my classmates I was a killer."
"You are." Amusedly. "But if your question is why I told them that, Mr. Potter, the answer is that you will find ambiguity a great ally on your road to power. Give a sign of Slytherin on one day, and contradict it with a sign of Gryffindor the next; and the Slytherins will be enabled to believe what they wish, while the Gryffindors argue themselves into supporting you as well. So long as there is uncertainty, people can believe whatever seems to be to their own advantage. And so long as you appear strong, so long as you appear to be winning, their instincts will tell them that their advantage lies with you. Walk always in the shadow, and light and darkness both will follow."
"And," said the boy, his voice level, "just what do you want out of all this?"
Professor Quirrell had leaned further back against the wall from where he sat, casting his face into shadow, his eyes changing from pale ice into dark pits like those of his snake form. "I wish for Britain to grow strong under a strong leader; that is my desire. As for my reasons why," Professor Quirrell smiled without mirth, "I think they shall stay my own."
"The sense of doom that I feel around you." The words were becoming harder and harder to say, as the subject danced closer and closer to something terrible and forbidden. "You always knew what it meant."
"I had several guesses," said Professor Quirrell, his expression unreadable. "And I will not yet say all I guessed. But this much I will tell you: it is your doom which flares when we come near, not mine."
For once Harry's brain managed to mark this as a questionable assertion and possible lie, instead of believing everything it heard. "Why do you sometimes turn into a zombie?"
"Personal reasons," said Professor Quirrell with no humor at all in his voice.
"What was your ulterior motive for rescuing Bellatrix?"
There was a brief silence, during which Harry tried hard to control his breathing, keep it steady.
Finally the Defense Professor shrugged, as though it were of no account. "I all but spelled it out for you, Mr. Potter. I told you everything you needed to deduce the answer, if you had been mature enough to consider that first obvious question. Bellatrix Black was the Dark Lord's most powerful servant, her loyalty the most assured; she was the single person most likely to be entrusted with some part of the lost lore of Slytherin that should have been yours."
Slowly the anger crept over Harry, slowly the wrath, something terrible beginning to boil his blood, in just a few moments he would say something that he really shouldn't say while the two of them were alone in a deserted warehouse -
"But she was innocent," said the Defense Professor. He was not smiling. "And the degree to which all her choices were taken away from her, so that she never had a chance to suffer for her own mistakes... it struck me as excessive, Mr. Potter. If she tells you nothing of use -" The Defense Professor gave another small shrug. "I shall not consider this day's work a waste."
"How altruistic of you," Harry said coldly. "So if all wizards are like You-Know-Who inside, are you an exception to that, then?"
The Defense Professor's eyes were still in shadow, dark pits that could not be met. "Call it a whim, Mr. Potter. It has sometimes amused me to play the part of a hero. Who knows but that You-Know-Who would say the same."
Harry opened his mouth a final time -
And found that he couldn't say it, he couldn't ask the last question, the last and most important question, he couldn't make the words come out. Even though a refusal like that was forbidden to a rationalist, for all that he'd ever recited the Litany of Tarski or the Litany of Gendlin or sworn that whatever could be destroyed by the truth should be, in that one moment, he could not bring himself to say his last question out loud. Even though he knew he was thinking wrongly, even though he knew he was supposed to be better than this, he still couldn't say it.
"Now it is my turn to inquire of you." Professor Quirrell's back straightened from where it had leaned back against the glacier wall of painted concrete. "I was wondering, Mr. Potter, if you had anything to say about nearly killing me and ruining our mutual endeavor. I am given to understand that an apology, in such cases, is considered a sign of respect. But you have not offered me one. Is it just that you have not yet gotten around to it, Mr. Potter?"
The tone was calm, the quiet edge so fine and sharp that it would slice all the way through you before you realized you were being murdered.
And Harry just looked at the Defense Professor with cool eyes that would never flinch from anything; not even death, now. He was no longer in Azkaban, no longer fearful of the part of himself that was fearless; and the solid gemstone that was Harry had rotated to meet the stress, turning smoothly from one facet to another, from light to darkness, warm to cold.
A calculated ploy on his part, to make me feel guilty, put me in a position where I must submit?
Genuine emotion on his part?
"I see," said Professor Quirrell. "I suppose that answers -"
"No," said the boy in a cool, collected voice, "you do not get to frame the conversation that easily, Professor. I went to considerable lengths to protect you and get you out of Azkaban safely, after I thought you had tried to kill a police officer. That included facing down twelve Dementors without a Patronus Charm. I wonder, if I had apologized when you demanded it, would you have said thank-you in turn? Or am I correct in thinking that it was my submission you demanded there, and not only my respect?"
There was a pause, and then Professor Quirrell's voice came in reply, openly icy with danger no longer veiled. "It seems you still cannot bring yourself to lose, Mr. Potter."
Darkness stared out of Harry's eyes without flinching, the Defense Professor himself reduced to a mortal thing within them. "Oh, and are you pondering now, whether you should pretend to lose to me, and pretend to humble yourself before my own anger, in order to preserve your own plans? Did the thought of a calculated false apology even cross your mind? Me neither, Professor Quirrell."
The Defense Professor laughed, low and humorless, emptier than the void between the stars, dangerous as any vacuum filled with hard radiation. "No, Mr. Potter, you have not learned your lesson, not at all."
"I thought of losing many times, in Azkaban," said the boy, his voice level. "That I ought to simply give up, and turn myself over to the Aurors. Losing would have been the sensible thing to do. I heard your voice saying it to me, in my mind; and I would have done it, if I had been there by myself. But I could not bring myself to lose you."
There was silence, then, for a time; as though even the Defense Professor could not quite think of what to say to that.
"I am curious," said Professor Quirrell at last. "What do you think that I should apologize for, precisely? I gave you explicit instructions in the event of a fight. You were to stay down, stay out of the way, cast no magic. You violated those instructions and brought down the mission."
"I made no decision," the boy said evenly, "there was no choice in it, only a wish that the Auror should not die, and my Patronus was there. For that wish to have never occurred, you should have warned me that you might bluff using a Killing Curse. By default, I assume that if you point your wand at someone and say Avada Kedavra, it is because you want them dead. Shouldn't that be the first rule of Unforgivable Curse Safety?"
"Rules are for duels," said the Defense Professor. Some of the coldness had returned to his voice. "And dueling is a sport, not a branch of Battle Magic. In a real fight, a curse which cannot be blocked and must be dodged is an indispensable tactic. I would have thought this obvious to you, but it seems I misjudged your intellect."
"It also seems to me imprudent," said the boy, continuing as though the other had not spoken, "to not tell me that my casting any spell on you might kill us both. What if you had suffered some mishap, and I had tried an Innervate, or a Hover Charm? That ignorance, which you permitted for purposes I cannot guess, played also some part in this catastrophe."
There was another silence. The Defense Professor's eyes had narrowed, and there was a faintly puzzled look on his face, as though he had encountered some completely unfamiliar situation; and still the man spoke no word.
"Well," said the boy. His eyes had not wavered from the Defense Professor's. "I certainly regret hurting you, Professor. But I do not think the situation calls for me to submit to you. I never really did understand the concept of apology, still less as it applies to a situation like this; if you have my regrets, but not my submission, does that count as saying sorry?"
Again that cold, cold laugh, darker than the void between the stars.
"I wouldn't know," said the Defense Professor, "I, too, never understood the concept of apology. That ploy would be futile between us, it seems, with both of us knowing it for a lie. Let us speak no more of it, then. Debts will be settled between us in time."
There was silence for a time.
"By the way," said the boy. "Hermione Granger would never have built Azkaban, no matter who was going to be put in it. And she'd die before she hurt an innocent. Just mentioning that, since you said before that all wizards are like You-Know-Who inside, and that's just false as a point of simple fact. Would've realized it earlier if I hadn't been," the boy gave a brief grim smile, "stressed out."
The Defense Professor's eyes were half-lidded, his expression distant. "People's insides are not always like their outsides, Mr. Potter. Perhaps she simply wishes others to think of her as a good girl. She cannot use the Patronus Charm -"
"Hah," said the boy; his smile seemed realer now, warmer. "She's having trouble for exactly the same reason I did. There's enough light in her to destroy Dementors, I'm sure. She wouldn't be able to stop herself from destroying Dementors, even at the cost of her own life..." The boy trailed off, and then his voice resumed. "I might not be such a good person, maybe; but they do exist, and she's one of them."
Dryly. "She is young, and to make a show of kindness costs her little."
There was a pause at this. Then the boy said, "Professor, I have to ask, when you see something all dark and gloomy, doesn't it ever occur to you to try and improve it somehow? Like, yes, something goes terribly wrong in people's heads that makes them think it's great to torture criminals, but that doesn't mean they're truly evil inside; and maybe if you taught them the right things, showed them what they were doing wrong, you could change -"
Professor Quirrell laughed, then, and not with the emptiness of before. "Ah, Mr. Potter, sometimes I do forget how very young you are. Sooner you could change the color of the sky." Another chuckle, this one colder. "And the reason it is easy for you to forgive such fools and think well of them, Mr. Potter, is that you yourself have not been sorely hurt. You will think less fondly of commonplace idiots after the first time their folly costs you something dear. Such as a hundred Galleons from your own pocket, perhaps, rather than the agonizing deaths of a hundred strangers." The Defense Professor was smiling thinly. He took a pocket-watch out of his robes, looked at it. "Let us depart now, if there is nothing more to say between us."
"You don't have any questions about the impossible things I did to get us out of Azkaban?"
"No," said the Defense Professor. "I believe I have solved most of them already. As for the rest, it is too rare that I find a person whom I cannot see through immediately, be they friend or foe. I shall unravel the puzzles about you for myself, in due time."
The Defense Professor shoved himself up, pushing back on the wall with both hands and rising to his feet, smoothly if too slowly. The boy, less gracefully, did the same.
And the boy blurted out the last most terrible question which he had earlier been unable to ask; as though to say it aloud would make it real, and as though it were not, already, vastly obvious.
"Why am I not like the other children my own age?"
In a deserted side-road of Diagon Alley, where scraps of un-Vanished trash could be seen lodged into the edges of the brick street and the blank brick building-sides that surrounded it, along with scattered dirt and other signs of neglect, an ancient wizard and his phoenix Apparated into existence.
The wizard was already reaching within his robes for his hourglass when, in habit, his eyes jumped to a random spot between the road and the wall, to memorize it -
And the old wizard blinked in surprise; there was a scrap of parchment in that spot.
A frown crossed Albus Dumbledore's face as he took a step forward and took the crumpled scrap, unfolding it.
On it was the single word "NO", and nothing more.
Slowly the wizard let it flutter from his fingers. Absently he reached down to the pavement, and picked up the nearest scrap of parchment, which looked remarkably similar to the one he had just taken; he touched it with his wand, and a moment later it was inscribed with the same word "NO", in the same handwriting, which was his own.
The old wizard had planned to go back three hours to when Harry Potter first arrived in Diagon Alley. He had already watched, upon his instruments, the boy leaving Hogwarts, and that could not be undone (his one attempt to fool his own instruments, and so control Time without altering its appearance to himself, had ended in sufficient disaster to convince him to never again try such trickery). He had hoped to retrieve the boy at the first possible moment after his arrival, and take him to another safe location, if not Hogwarts (for his instruments had not shown the boy's return). But now -
"A paradox if I retrieve him immediately after he arrives in Diagon Alley?" murmured the old wizard to himself. "Perhaps they did not set in motion their plan to rob Azkaban, until after they had confirmed his arrival here... or else... perhaps..."
Painted concrete, hard floor and distant ceilings, two figures facing off across from each other. One entity who wore the shape of a man in his late thirties and already balding, and another mind that wore the form of an eleven-year-old boy with a scar upon his forehead. Ice and shadow, pale blue light.
"I don't know," said the man.
The boy just looked at him. And then said, "Oh, really?"
"Truly," said the man. "I know nothing, and of my guesses I will not speak. Yet I will say this much -"