There’s no telling how long he was unconscious. It could have been hours, or days. The final Avada that had emerged from his wand seems to have done more than killed Dumbledore; it all but separated Snape from his entire life up to this point.
He is lying on his back, bound securely, unable to move a muscle, unable to so much as flinch against the sharp agony of his wounds – three fiery tracks left in his chest by the Hippogriff’s claws.
Snape scowls, realizing that the cold, damp surface underneath him seems to be swaying and lurching now and then.
Can’t be: a thought, childish in its helplessness, crosses his mind, just as Snape opens his eyes.
The sky above him is charcoal-grey; clouds hang low, heavy with rain, ready to pour down any moment. A gush of wind throws a spray of ice-cold water into his face. He licks his lips, tasting the salt.
“... and just like that?”
“The orders are to take him directly to Azkaban. What else is there to do?”
The voices are coming from somewhere above him, but the people talking—guards, presumably—are just outside of his field of vision.
“Well, a trial is needed, no? At the very least, an investigation…”
“No need. Didn’t you hear me? Potter saw the entire thing. The Death Eaters, captured at the school later, confirmed it. His wand was examined…”
Snape shuts his eyes. To lose a duel to a mere sixth-year was… shameful, to say the least. Then again, he wasn’t exactly anticipating one of Hagrid’s monsters rushing to Potter’s rescue. Snape finds the corner of his mouth twitching slightly. Perhaps, it is Potter’s unenviable destiny: to be watched over by a monster of one sort or another…
The strangest thing in this entire series of misfortunes is that Potter didn’t finish him off in the heat of the moment, but did the proper thing – handed him over to the authorities. “Gryffindor to the very end…”
“Well,” the first voice continues to drone, “if it were me making the decisions, I’d want to speak to Dumbledore’s portrait. Just in case, you know.”
“Ah well, no chance of that now. Someone had a bright idea to cast Fiendfyre on the office. All gone now, and not just the portraits.”
“And the fire being elemental, no chance of restoration?”
“Exactly so. Lucky the rest of the school’s still standing…”
“Won’t stand long without Dumbledore. Who did they capture?”
“Bellatrix, Dolohov, Greyback. Someone alerted the Order that the Death Eaters were about to enter the school, thank Merlin for small favours.”
The conversation ends abruptly, as the boat is met with a rough patch of the ocean. Snape finds himself chilled to the bone as he realizes that not only the only proof of his innocence is gone, but likely any aid Dumbledore had left for Potter.
The question remains – what to do now?
Azkaban is an odd place these days, teeming with those loyal to the Ministry as well as those loyal to the Dark Lord, and it is quite impossible to tell which one is which.
Then again, Snape reasons, all of this is just a temporary setback. He knows that the Dark Lord is planning another breakout of his supporters from Azkaban, and that will be happening soon. It should be an easy enough task to endure a few months, not attract any undue attention, keep a low profile … though Merlin knows, the Dark Lord will not be pleased – he despises failure of any sort. What if…
What if he doesn’t appoint you the Headmaster?
The treacherous thought enters his mind, but Snape wills it away quickly. It’s too dreadful to contemplate – that all of this might have been for naught… and, when all is said and done, he won’t even get the chance to protect the school in the year to come.
No, Snape convinces himself, that will not happen. He’s needed out there, he will find his way back, somehow.
He’ll find a way to rejoin the ranks of the Order, he will do whatever it takes. He will find Potter, aid him in whatever way he can… and then, when the time is right, he will give him that one final message that will bring the war to its conclusion…
The boy must die.
The memory of that conversation burns a fiery track of its own across his chest; that he’s the one who will be delivering the message to Potter seems yet another Unforgivable… and perhaps, the fates thought so too, making him pay his dues in Azkaban before he can be permitted to do that.
So be it, Snape thinks. He will do what he must, it is only a matter of time.
Time in Azkaban turns out to have a strange quality to it – it stretches in segments that can be measured only in “forevers”. It takes them forever to lift Snape off the floor of the boat, remove his bindings, throw him face down onto the barnacle-covered pier, the sharp segments scraping his cheek raw and bloody. He remains silent, simply exhales through gritted teeth.
“Delivery accepted,” a voice is heard, “which one is this?”
“Snape. He killed Dumbledore.”
The voices above him sound indifferent, businesslike. Likely none of the guards cares one way or another – Azkaban is its own world, its own country, the affairs of the war must seem quite distant from this vantage point…
A moment later, Snape lets out his first howl since the moment he’d regained consciousness: someone’s boot comes crashing down on the fingers of his right hand...
“Begging yer pardon, sir,” the voice above him has a definite note of mockery to it. “So many fingers lyin’ around here, ye understand, stepping on some’s unavoidable.”
“Enough. You’re enjoying this too much,” another voice thunders, deep and loud. “Prisoner, on your feet. Follow me.”
It takes Snape a while to lift himself off the ground, to orient himself. The sky and the sea behind him merge together into a veil of dark-grey mist. There’s no horizon, there’s no mainland, there’s only the mist behind him, and the solid-rock walls of Azkaban ahead.
Snape stumbles forward, cradling his injured hand against his wounded chest.
It is a dark maze of seemingly infinite hallways, a labyrinth that is barely lit, reeking of human waste and decay. Scarcely able to see, Snape follows the guard; two others trail behind him. He privately wonders if he should have taken his chances back at the pier, jumped into the ocean, attempted to swim back to the mainland, no matter how slim the chance of success…
Had it been only him and his own life at stake, he likely would have tried. Yet now, he’s got no right to take chances of this sort. He needs to stay alive, to get out…
The cell they take him is small. It is also occupied – someone’s already lying on the narrow bed, blanket covering the emaciated figure almost fully. The someone doesn’t even stir when the cell door opens with a loud screeching of metal against the stone.
For the longest time, Snape simply stares at his motionless cellmate, wondering if they’d end up fighting over the bed, blankets, rations… and a moment later, it hits him – the stench. No, there will be no fighting, after all.
“I thought I told you to remove the body,” the first guard doesn’t turn around.
“Got busy. No matter, we’ll take it out now.”
The corpse is lifted off the bed and dragged out of the cell. Snape catches a glimpse of an arm, hanging limp, greyish flesh showing from under the tattered rags of the prison garb.
Nobody bothers to clean or change the blankets after the dead body is removed. Someone gives him a shove to his back, and Snape takes one step forward. Into the cell.
“Strip,” the next order follows.
Snape turns around to face the guards. There are four of them. The tall one, the one who’d given Snape the order to follow, the chubby one, a parchment and a quill in his hand, and two others, barely visible in the dusk.
The fingers of one hand broken, the other – numb, stripping turns out to be an impossible task. The guards grow impatient with his fumbling and take charge of the situation, two of them hold Snape by the shoulders, a third one removes his clothes. The shirt is as good as glued to him, caked blood around the torn flesh holding on to the fabric. When the shirt is ripped off his chest, the wounds reopen, and Snape howls again, going limp in the arms holding him up. He barely notices that he’s stark naked, trousers, underwear, boots, shirt and all gathered into a bag and sealed up. Blood trickles down his chest and belly and to the floor.
“Maybe we should take him to the infirmary,” the guard with the parchment and the quill suggests, as he makes notes.
Someone’s calloused thumb touches the injuries on Snape’s chest.
“No need to bother the medics with such nonsense. He’ll be fine.”
A grey prison robe is thrown on the bed.
“Get dressed or not, makes no difference,” he’s advised.
The one with the scroll makes a note and announces, “Prisoner number sixteen thousand three hundred eighty-four, intake complete.”
They exit the cell one by one.
Still naked, Snape leans against one of the walls, trying to catch his breath, then, his knees give and he finds himself sliding to sit on the ice-cold stone floor.
“Water,” he manages to utter a single plea, just before he’s left alone.
The tallest guard stops in the doorway.
“Food and water arrive in the morning,” he advises him. “That’s another twelve hours.”
It vexes him - having to beg, and yet… the need to survive and find his way back outweighs the pride.
“Twelve hours.” The door slams shut.
Despite the threat of twelve hours, the water arrives mere minutes later – a large basin someone shoves through the half-opened door and slides across the floor to him. For the longest time, Snape stares at it, then takes a deep breath and begins to examine his surroundings.
The floor space of the cell is modest, the ceilings are high, barely visible in the dark. No close-stool here, just a slop-bucket in one of the corners; it is covered with a heavy lid, and Snape doesn’t dare to lift it until absolutely necessary.
The narrow window, metal bars and all, is at least nine feet above the floor level. The small patch of sky showing in it is already pitch-black. The smell of salt hangs in the air, almost overpowering the stench coming from the narrow prison-bed and the blankets piled on it.
For a short while Snape wonders what will win over – the squeamishness or the need to stay warm. A long minute later he heads to the bed, shakes the blankets out the best he can, turns the thin mattress over and decides that this will have to do. The prison robe is long, and seems reasonably clean. Snape picks it up and heads to the basin with water.
Snape drinks first, then uses the rest of the water to clean his wounds. It takes all of his effort not to howl, or whimper – and there’s no pride here, just the fear that if he doesn’t hold back now, he’ll be a sobbing mess before nightfall and will not know how to stop.
He isn’t quite certain what to do with his broken hand, and eventually settles for tearing a thin strip from the only bedsheet, and using it to tie the fingers together to form a makeshift cast. It hurts like a son-of-a-bitch, but it’s the best he can manage, so he doesn’t waste any time thinking whether it will heal properly, or how soon.
He climbs into the bed and under the blankets, and resolves to rest.
The ocean roars and thunders outside, waves beating against the rock walls of the prison. Snape shuts his eyes, trying to focus just on that – and nothing else.
Not surprisingly, he dreams of Albus. The Headmaster’s hand is on Snape’s shoulder, holding tight, steadying him, directing him. But when he tries to catch a glimpse of that guiding hand, he sees the curse-blackened flesh, and a moment later, it crumbles into dust, leaving him with only the memory of touch and nothing more than that.