A/N: This story is complete in seven chapters. It was written for Somigliana and posted in the 2011 round of the SSHG Exchange on LiveJournal. Somigliana's prompt will be included at the end of the story.
I owe a big debt of gratitude to my wonderful betas, refya and JunoMagic.
I don't own any of the characters or anything you might recognize. I only play in JK Rowling's sandbox.
I stumble forward and fall to my hands and knees, gasping for air.
The floor is dull and grey. Concrete, is my first thought, but it's not. It's smooth and almost slippery; I have to struggle to stay more or less upright, if upright is the right word for someone on all fours. Thinking about it requires effort, so I stop and close my eyes and focus on breathing.
The air tastes stale and sterile. And dry. It's sticking to the back of my throat, making it itch.
I scramble onto my feet. It's harder than it should be, and by the time I'm standing, I'm exhausted.
I blink a few times, resisting the temptation to rub my eyes. They itch, too. In fact, now that I think about it, my whole body itches. It must be the air.
I look around me for the first time since – well. It occurs to me that I have no recollection of before. I mean, I know who I am. And I know that I should be … Where? At work? Home? What day is it? There is something in the back of my mind, something that I should remember, something about what happened, but it's eluding me. Something that I shall have to think about later, when my brain is feeling more like it should.
I look around me. And then I turn and look behind me, and my legs, still shaky from the effort of getting up, give out on me and I find myself on the floor again, gasping for air and blinking and trying to make sense of what my eyes are telling me.
This isn't the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. I'm quite certain it's not the Ministry at all.
There is a row of … of something, behind me. Boxes, or compartments, with glass doors, stretching as far as my eyes can see in both directions. I'm in a corridor with greyish walls melting into the greyish floor, and I cannot see any other doors. Apart from the one right in front of me now, an opening to the …
This must be where I was.
I stare at the chamber, the edge of its semi-transparent door still visible from where it slid into the side of it. There are tubes and wires hanging loose inside it; the space is barely large enough to accommodate a person of average size. Something is swirling near the bottom of the space. I want to lean closer and touch it, find out what it is or at least what it feels like, but I know that would not be a smart thing to do, so I don't.
There is a small plaque next to the opening. Hermione Granger, it says. A**, 0116398.
I swallow; my throat is still dry and it's painful. I want to know what those numbers and codes mean, but there is nothing here that offers any clues. I wonder if I can find something to drink soon.
Am I alone in here? My brain is finally catching up with me, and I realise I'm surrounded by silence. Only when I close my eyes again and concentrate, there is a deep, low hum underneath it – so low that I feel it in the palms of my hands when I press them against the ground.
I look at the long line of boxes, all of them closed from what I can tell, and the thought makes me panic. I know that I should stand up again and take a few steps to the left – or to the right, it doesn't seem to matter – and look inside the ones next to where I was. The glass doors are frosted, so from this angle on the ground I cannot see anything, but it would be reasonable to assume there are people in them. Some of them, anyway; I refuse to consider the possibility that they are all in use.
I'm still sitting on the floor – it's lukewarm and gives a little when I poke it; I don't think it's metal … unless it's an alloy of some sort that I haven't encountered before, or some kind of extra strong plastic? Why am I even thinking about this? – when my ears pick up something coming from further along the corridor on my right. I struggle to my feet again and stumble towards the noise, which gets louder the closer I get. There is banging, and something that sounds like someone shouting, but I cannot make out the words.
One of the chambers is half-open, and an arm is sticking out, clad in a black sleeve. The banging is coming from inside it, as is the shouting.
I step closer, my throat drier than before, afraid of what I will see, but not to look would be inconceivable.
The glass is hard to see through, but the little I see of the shape of the man inside is enough. I don't need to glance at the plaque next to the door – Severus Snape, ^AX**, 0126174, Handle with care– to recognise him.
He's pushing at the door with one hand. Without thinking, I join him in his efforts. The door is stuck, and it takes all our combined strength to force it to slide further into the side of the compartment. Once he has enough space to turn around, he rips off the wires still stuck on the left side of his neck and wrist and stumbles out. I step aside hastily to avoid colliding with him. Only then does he look at me.
The way he says my name makes it sound dry and scratchy, and his Adam's apple bobs as he swallows the last syllable. I guess he must feel as parched as I do, especially with yelling so much before I got here.
At least that is what I try to say. What comes out, barely above a whisper, doesn't sound much like it. I try and clear my throat, realising that it was the first word I've tried to speak in this place – the first word I've tried to speak in … I don't know how long. But it feels like a very long time. Especially if these boxes are what the vague, insistent thoughts at the back of my mind are whispering to me …
'Stasis chamber,' I say. I want to say more but I don't trust my voice enough yet, not with the way my throat and mouth are feeling.
He looks around, leaning heavily on the side of his box with one hand, his face inscrutable, and nods.
'Looks like it.'
Questions burn in my mind. I want to ask what is going on. Where are we? What has happened? But I can't get the words out, and besides, I doubt he would know anyway. He looks just as lost as I feel.
He's running his fingers over the plaque with his name now, as if he's hoping to find answers there. I wonder if he knows what the codes and numbers stand for.
'Anyone else around?' he asks at last.
I shrug. 'Haven't seen anyone.' I feel stupid, sounding like a child, but if I don't get something to drink, I don't think I will be able to formulate proper sentences any time soon. It even feels strange to move my mouth; foreign, like the muscles have forgotten how to work.
I wonder again how long it has been since … since whatever happened that brought us here.
He pushes himself away from the wall and sways on his feet. Somehow that's a relief: the way I remember him, he's always been so graceful. To see that he's having the same problems I did not half an hour ago makes me feel better about myself.
'When are we?' he asks, then.
I start. Not where, when. He's obviously come to the same conclusion I have, that we've been stuck here for a while. And it took him a lot less time to work that out.
I shrug again. 'No idea.'
He looks down his long, crooked nose at me without saying a word – he doesn't have to; I know that look, the one that lets a student know how stupid they are – and turns around sharply. This was a mistake, which I could have told him. I almost catch him before he falls, but his weight drags both of us down on the floor instead. I feel a nervous giggle bubbling up, but I manage to suppress it before it escapes.
He sits up and massages his legs. I do the same, glancing at him while his head is turned away. I haven't seen him since the battle; he was still too unwell to attend his trial, and after he was acquitted, he disappeared from the public eye. That would have been just over three years ago, by my reckoning – who knows how long it's really been. Three years, thirty years, three hundred years by now?
He looks good – for Snape, anyway – or as good as a man who has just stumbled out of a stasis chamber can look. About the same as he used to, but less … pinched. There's a slightly sour smell to him. I sniff the shoulder of my jacket surreptitiously and realise the same odour is attached to me, too – must be whatever was inside those compartments, keeping us going.
I realise something else, too. I'm wearing a jacket, one I wear only when I go out to Muggle London, not the robes I wear to work. I don't know if that's significant or not, but I file the information away anyway.
I'm just glad I'm wearing something at all. That we weren't stuck inside those things naked.
He's rubbing his temples now. The air is making my head ache, too. It must be a closed ventilation system, which would make sense if we're in some kind of … I look around again. Super-secret research facility? It must be, because the only other thought I have is so ridiculous that I refuse to contemplate it.
'Wand,' he mutters.
'Have you got your wand?' he asks, enunciating each word clearly, disdain evident in his voice. I suppose some things never change.
I realise that it didn't occur to me to check, so I pat my sleeve where I usually keep it. No wand there. Not in the wand holder inside my jacket either. And it's not in my jeans pocket, or I'd have felt it already.
I look around, realising immediately how pointless that is. It's not likely that I had it earlier and dropped it when I got here.
Panic rises inside me. I don't feel as useless without my wand as I know some of my friends from magical families do, but it's become such an organic part of me, and ever since losing my original wand at Malfoy Manor, I don't like to be parted from my new one.
I look at Snape. His hands are empty.
'I take it you don't have yours either.'
His dark look is enough of an answer.
The more I speak, the easier it becomes, even with my mouth still dry. Not that I particularly relish the idea of trying to have a conversation with this man, but we're both adults; and as far as I can tell, we're stuck in this, this thing together, with no one else around.
'I think we should take a look around,' I suggest. 'We cannot be the only people here. We need our wands, and we need – I need, anyway – something to drink.' And we need to find the loo, I add to myself, but I'm not going to say that out loud. Whatever this place is, it's got to be a public building of some sort, and public buildings have toilets.
He nods slowly. 'I agree. Have you … How long have you been awake?'
'I'm not sure. Not long. Half an hour at the most.'
'And you haven't seen anyone else?'
I think of the long row of compartments – stasis chambers – I stumbled past on my way here. I didn't have the time, or the desire, to try and look inside them, or to check the names. I don't know if I want to know who else is here.
'No. I was still trying to get my bearings when I heard you and came straight here.'
Snape looks at his box. 'I don't think it worked properly. The door shouldn't have got stuck.'
Now he's stating the obvious. Even his mind, in spite of his unquestionable brilliance, needs some time to warm up, it seems. I refrain from pointing that out, though.
'Mine didn't,' I say. In fact, I don't remember it at all. 'I think the wires and everything must have withdrawn from me on their own, too.'
He looks thoughtful but doesn't say anything. Finally, he takes a deep breath and stands up. 'We should choose a direction. Left or right?'
I start to say that I don't have a preference, but then I realise I don't want to go back to where I was, so I point in the other direction. 'Perhaps there's a door at that end.' And we can check on the others while passing, I suppose. Then an idea occurs to me.
'Could we open the doors ourselves? If there are others stuck here, that is?' I squint and see a plaque next to the door just left of Snape's. The lettering is too small, but I'm sure there's a name there. I get off the floor, dust myself off – for there is dust here, if not a lot of it – and read the writing aloud: Aloysius Kennel, B*, 01174012. I see a somewhat overweight human shape inside – some of these chambers are obviously larger than others – but not well enough to make out any features.
The name is not familiar to me, but Snape nods. 'He was a few years ahead of me at Hogwarts. A Hufflepuff, I believe. Used to work in the Ministry. I don't know him well.'
I raise an eyebrow at this. I didn't expect him to volunteer information, not to me, but perhaps he's also decided that if we're in this together, then it would be best to avoid undue animosity.
He runs his fingers along the edge of the frosted panel of the door. There are no handles, no knobs, no buttons to push. He tries to nudge the door open, but I can tell his effort is half-hearted at best; his fingers find no purchase between the panel and the side of the wall.
He gives up a few moments later. 'It's probably best we don't force them open,' he says, pursing his lips. 'For all we know, we might do more harm than good.'
I agree, and we start moving along the corridor, towards the far end. It's slow going – my legs are feeling steadier now than before, but I'm already exhausted, and I need to hold on to the wall for support every few dozen steps and rest for a few moments. Snape never stops first, but as he isn't complaining, I assume he doesn't mind the breaks, either.
I glance at the names as we pass the chambers. Some I recognise, most I don't. I've spotted some of my MLE colleagues and several names I recognise from Hogwarts. No Ron or Harry, yet. I should feel relieved, but this only makes me more anxious, and eventually, I stop looking at the plaques. I don't want to know.
We keep walking.
We keep walking.
We keep walking.
Will this corridor ever end? I want to slump down on the floor and rest my back on the wall, but if I do that, I will never get up again.
So we keep walking.
The row of chambers has turned into a blur. I don't look at at the doors or the names anymore; I've stopped imagining the faces of people I know well behind these panels. I don't know how many we've passed – hundreds, certainly. I don't want to think about what this means.
Snape, who is walking a step or two ahead of me – his hearing must be good, as he always stops when I do, without looking back at me – suddenly halts, putting out an arm to stop me from walking right past him. Annoyed, I push his arm away.
I wish I hadn't, not when I see what made him stop.
One of the chambers has malfunctioned. The door is half-open, and I see enough of the contents inside that I double over and throw up right there on the floor. It's mostly bile, I think numbly; I wonder when I last ate some actual food … But the thought of food is not a good thought to have right now, so I banish it and take hold of the hand that has appeared next to me and use it to pull myself up again. Snape lets go of me as soon as I'm standing; his face looks mildly green, too, and he's keeping his mouth firmly shut.
Wordlessly, he moves away from the chamber and walks on. I follow him, but not without taking a look at the name: Miles Bletchley, B**, 01295881.
The name is familiar. Wasn't he in Slytherin, a year or two above me? That would mean … Oh. Damn. Snape would have been his Head of House.
I won't ask him about Bletchley. The sight was enough to give me nightmares – as if I didn't have enough of those already – for years to come. I don't want to know how it may have affected him.
We keep walking.
I really want some water.
We keep walking, and I keep my eyes on the floor. It's completely uniform. Seamless. I wonder if it's been cast in one piece, or if the seams are there but so narrow that I cannot see them.
'There is a door ahead.' Snape's voice shatters the silence, so loud that I jump. I raise my eyes and yes, there is indeed a door. Two doors, even. I cannot see any handles, but if there's a door, there must be a way to open it … Unless it's fully automatic, I think, but I'd rather not consider that possibility.
Snape, with his long legs, reaches the door first, and he's already looking at the keypad on the wall next to it when I catch up with him. His head is tilted and he looks thoughtful.
'We need a passcode,' he says. 'Any ideas?'
I don't have any. Except … 'Try 0116398,' I suggest. It's the number that was next to my chamber, with my name. I seem to have memorised it without any effort. I don't think it will work, but it's the only thing that occurs to me.
He puts the code in and presses a green button.
The doors slide open. We're free to leave.