King's Cross station seemed empty when you were looking for someone who was not there. There were many people fetching their children from the Hogwarts Express, guiding them safely through the barrier back into the Muggle World, but Severus ignored them.
Even Timothy's last attempt of getting his attention, presumably for a short goodbye, passed by the black-haired second-year unnoticed. As though in a dream he searched the station for someone to fetch him. Anyone. Father had sent an owl, only a few days ago, that urgent commitments would be keeping him away from home a bit longer than expected, but surely his mother would be waiting for him around the next corner? Behind the barrier, perhaps?
It took Severus a little while to realise that he was, yet again, all alone on the station, and even when throwing a help-seeking look in the direction of his other relatives he had to realise, with a sting of pain inside his chest, that they were all gone already.
With a pensive look at his large trunk Severus decided that, alone or not, he had to get home somehow. Around him, most of the racketing families had vanished through the barrier by now, and Severus realised that he would have to do the run at the solid-looking brick wall all by himself.
'Just like in the old days,' said Skein.
Severus nodded. 'Just like it used to be.'
'Pity no one's here to help you with that trunk,' Skein went on.
'You suppose father will come for me if I just stay and wait?'
'He is in Africa,' said Skein coldly. 'Of course he will not come.'
'I passed the exam,' said Severus reminiscently. 'I got a 'B'.'
'A 'B' in Transfiguration,' sighed Skein. 'You bet he'll be pleased.'
'Not if I linger here all day and have mother worried where I am,' replied Severus, suddenly directing his attention at the barrier and his trunk again.
'I hate telling you,' remarked Skein on, 'but you won't be able to run with all your luggage.'
Severus nodded again. 'I have to try, though.'
'Yes,' said Skein quietly. 'You'll have to try. Always have to try. Never stop making an effort.'
And Severus did. He shouldered his trunk, swayed slightly, took a few staggering steps towards the barrier, and then put his trunk down again, sweat glittering on his pale face. Glancing around unhappily he realised that the station was completely deserted now, except for Skein, who was leaning against the barrier, watching him calmly.
'You might as well help me,' he mumbled, knowing that Skein wouldn't. Then, very suddenly, an idea sprang to his mind. The station was part of the London wizarding world. A geographically unfixed world that had emerged in-between today's all-Muggle London as a result of the Ministry's decision to go into hiding a few centuries ago. All parts of this world, 'Londinium', as it was sometimes called, or simply "the meta world", were linked in a complex system of connecting channels and with a number of Portkey stations. Severus doubted, of course, that there was a Portkey station at King's Cross, but now he thought about the matter it became obvious that the doors on the other end of the station had to lead somewhere, if only into each other, as door sometimes did in magically disconnected places.
After another moment's hesitation, Severus started walking towards the apparently deserted arches of the station until he reached one of the grilled iron doors at the end of a long row of pillars.
'Looks hopeless to me,' said Skein. 'It's locked, isn't it?'
Severus did not reply, but tried the other doors, all locked as he found out to his great dismay.
'What am I supposed to do?' he whispered. 'Skein, what am I supposed to do?'
'Try the window,' suggested Skein, pointing at one of the top windows high up above the grilled doors, closed to the huge station clock. 'You could fly up there and...'
'No!' said Severus quickly. 'No, there... must be a better way.'
Skein shrugged. You might try and ask for help. Or use your wand...'
'No magic outside school,' said Severus promptly, getting angry at Skein's useless suggestions. 'You know that, Skein.'
'But you'll have to get out somehow,' said Skein coldly. 'You're allowed to use your wand when there is an emergency.'
There was a short break.
'What do you suggest?' said Severus eventually, his gaze fixed at the iron bars in front of the door that promised freedom.
'Alohomora,' said Skein matter-of-factly.
'I can't just open that door. It's probably locked for a reason. What if people don't realise this was an emergency?'
'The other option is to leave your luggage and make your run through the barrier without that trunk,' stated Skein. For a while, Severus seriously considered this. Eventually, however, he shook his head again. Another moment's hesitation made him aware of the looming silence around him and slowly, at a snail's pace, he turned.
The station was dissolving as he was talking to his best friend. Slowly, but inevitably, the giant arches, platforms, and rails were dissolving into nothingness, leaving only a vague, unpleasant-looking mist where once King's Cross station and the Hogwarts Express had been.
'Skein,' whispered Severus, 'where's the station going?'
But Skein was gone, all of a sudden, leaving Severus alone with his fear - and his doubts. He did not take long to decide now.
'Alohomora,' he heard himself say, watching his wand opening the old, rusty lock on the right side of the grid nearest to him. The lock sprang open.
With a great deal of panic now, Severus shoved himself and the trunk through the gap between the grid and the stone wall and pointed his wand at the iron door, looking back every now and then, to see if the mist was coming any closer.
The door opened slowly, with a creak. Again, Severus pushed himself through as quickly as possible, pulling his large trunk behind him, and turned. What he saw made him gasp and blink a couple of times before turning again, in panic, realising that the door through which he had just come, had turned into a tree.
There were trees all around him. All of a sudden, it seemed to have got dark everywhere, and a chilly breeze was tousling Severus's black strands of hair. He pulled the collar of his uniform up, just a bit, and started re-doing his ponytail while gazing around cautiously. Where was he? What on earth had happened to that door?
Very suddenly, he felt a heavy grip on his shoulder. With a start, he turned, and looked into the eyes of a man who seemed vaguely familiar. One of the soldiers, he recalled, working near the Scottish border, who had often visited his father in the old days. Not so often now, he also remembered. The man was quite big, square-jawed, and wore his thick, blonde hair in a short ponytail. Instead of everyday robes he was wearing the blue uniform of the medical squads up in the North. Severus recognised them instantly, as he had asked his father once, why some soldiers were wearing blue, whilst the common colour for all uniforms within the wizarding army was still the old imperial red.
'What are you doing here?' said the soldier now, scrutinising Severus cap-a-pie. 'I don't think children are allowed in the Forbidden Forest.'
Severus stared. The Forbidden Forest? How in the name of Merlin had he come to be in the Forbidden Forest, which he clearly remembered to be up in the North around Hogwarts and, partly, the village of Hogsmeade.
'Hey,' the soldier went on, recognising Severus's face only now, as it seemed. 'You're the Colonel's boy. Snape? Severus Snape?'
Severus nodded. Mutely.
'That's all right then,' said the soldier, a smile suddenly spreading at his square face. 'I am Sergeant Sturgis Podmore. You might not remember me...'
'Yes,' said Severus hesitantly. 'I do.'
'All the better,' said Sergeant Podmore, still smiling. 'You been playing around with that clock, have you? Wonder how you got past that security spell.'
'No,' said Severus simply, but then, considering that it might not be wise to let everyone know about what had happened at the station, 'I mean yes. I don't know... there was no spell. I just... fell through.'
He blinked, hoping that his lie was in any way coherent. Podmore nodded and shrugged.
'Let me help you get back then,' he said firmly, drawing a wand from his pocket that looked a bit like his hair - light and unduly short.
'Porta Orologio!' he said in a quiet and very firm voice, drawing a vertical line into the air. 'There you go,' he pointed as, without a sound, a small gap opened into the very familiar hallway of Severus's home. Severus stared, hesitated then smiled thankfully. He was going home at last. Looking up, he saw the square face pulling into another broad grin.
'Nice to meet you again, Severus. Take care from now. And - stay away from that clock, you hear me?'
Severus nodded. Podmore shook his hand and helped him push his trunk through the gap. Then, all of a sudden, Severus was alone again, standing in front of the old grandfather's clock in the hallway, rather in doubt what to do or where to go now.
A deafening silence awaited Severus when he took a few steps into the hallway and, after a short silence, switched on the small oil lamp hanging from aside the window still.
'Mother?' he said carefully, as if scared of breaking the unusual mood that was in and around the house - in every piece of furniture - in every feeble draught of air around him.
No one replied.
Severus glanced around the corner into the kitchen and finally opened the living-room door.
But again, no one answered. Instead, he noticed that the room was less orderly than usual and a lot of old bottles were lying around, giving the impression that someone had either forgotten or left them there for some strange, nonsensical purpose. Though Severus could not imagine either. Otherwise the room was empty, just as he had guessed. He felt his hands getting sweaty and wiped them on the insides of his school robes. The situation started getting unbearable. Where could his mother have gone?
He left the living room again, carefully closing the door behind him, stepping out into the dark hallway once more, looking around. His stomach cramped. Something was not right. Not at all. His mother would not have gone out on the day of his return. It was just not her to do so. And she had known he would return. He had written her every week for the past five months, enquiring how she was and what the doctors had said.
Then he remembered his father's letter. Remembered how he had told him, in unusually shaped, black letters, of mother's disinclination to even get up sometimes, not to mention leave the house or come to visit him, Severus, on parents' day at Hogwarts. The longest letter his father had ever written to him. One of very few letters Severus had received in six terms at Hogwarts.
Why did that letter come to his mind right now?
He turned, as though in a dream, and made a few steps towards his parents' bedroom. There was no sound coming from inside and when Severus opened the door just an inch he noticed that it was dark inside.
He could not go in. He knew as much. The room was forbidden. At any time of the day - or night. Strictly forbidden, ever since father had returned to stay for good. Ever since Severus had stumbled into a scene, which he had preferred to forget afterwards. That had also been the last time he had been seeking shelter of nightmares on his mother's side. But something told Severus that he should go in now - had to, if he wanted to find out what was wrong - and there was something wrong. He felt it in every fingertip - in every limp of his body that something was not as it was supposed to be.
A creak and a few steps. Severus was standing in the middle of a dimly lit bedroom and staring at a small something under a pile of blankets. A something, which radiated neither the warmth nor the usual fractions of thoughts and memories of a normal person.
Severus pulled away the blanket and stared at his mother with an unmoving expression, although his insides had started pulling together as soon as he had set foot in this room. What was this supposed to mean? There was something decisively wrong about this situation, but it took a few moments for him to realise what this lifeless body in the shape of his mother actually meant. The fact that she was not breathing, cold and stiff, a dried bloodstain, small and hardly visible, between her barely opened lips.
It was the end.
She would not wake again. Would not talk, not laugh, not embrace him - ever again. Never ever.
The lump in Severus's throat dissolved into something wet and salty emerging from his eyes and onto his school robes. Again, it took him some time to realise what it was.
Hastily, he started wiping his face with one sleeve while continuing to stare down at his mother. She was lying beautifully on her pillow, almost seeming to smile at him, though her eyes were closed.
The lump continued to grow. Seemed to choke him. Reduce him to something he did not want to be - a nasty little whiner. A wimp. He grabbed his throat and pressed. Firmly. Not breathing. Not thinking. That helped. It always did. The tears went back down again. And yet - something in Severus made it impossible for him to move - deprived him of the ability to think. Or act. The lump was growing heavier every minute. He sank down helplessly, next to his mother's body, not sure whether he had the strength of ever getting up again, not sure whether he wanted to.
He sat there for what seemed an endless amount of time. There, on his mother's bed, holding her dead body's icy hand. How long had she been lying here? A day? A week?
With effort he remembered that this was impossible. That father must have been here only four days ago, checking on his wife's health, as he always did, always, always, as was habit with him. Never telling his son that mother had been about to die. Severus gulped. Thinking of his father was painful. Stirred a hatred that he knew would make matters only worse. With a last, tiny bit of clarity in his mind he rose from his seat, leaving his mother's hand next to her lifeless body, gulped, closed his eyes, gulped again... and turned around with a start.
Behind him, his red officer's uniform clearly visible against the light coming in from the half opened door, stood his father. His eyes flashing, his wand drawn and pointing at Severus, but lowering it at an instant as he saw whom he was facing. The next moment Severus felt himself being snatched and lifted a few feet into the air until he was level with his father's watery blue, flashing eyes.
'YOU!' he hissed, obviously taking great care of keeping his voice down, 'I've been expecting a burglar! Time-traveller! Criminal! What are you doing inside this -'
Only then he seemed to notice his son's wet face and the expression of horror on it. Severus expected him to frown, perhaps scold him for letting his emotions take control, but his father did nothing of the sort. He pushed Severus away and his eyes darted almost automatically towards his wife who was still lying motionlessly in the darkness of the cold room.
'What's wrong with her?'
Severus did not reply. A new kind of sensation was arising in him. A mad form of delight, unbelievable though it seemed in this situation. He watched his father bend down, touch mother's cold skin, his face blanching, his large hands cupping her cheeks with visible horror and disbelief about him.
'She's dead!' he said with some effort, well aware that his voice sounded challenging. Well aware that, knowing his father and his current state of mind, this was probably the worst thing he could have done.
But the soldier did not react to his son's remark. His eyes were fixed on his wife's lifeless body, stroking her face slowly, forming soundless words with trembling lips. His look was unfathomable, but the way his hands shook displayed clearly what was going on inside him. Severus watched him motionlessly and in silence.
Suddenly, the big soldier's legs seemed to give in and he sank down in front of his wife, as Severus had done, burying his head in her blankets, clasping her hand as if holding on to her.
Severus stared at this scene of complete misery, watching his father's shoulders twitch as he was sitting on the floor helplessly, holding the dead body's left hand, still burying his face in the dead woman's pink nightshirt.
He was crying.
It took Severus a while to realise this, and he knew that, if he made one false movement now, he would not leave this room in one piece. Nervously he stared down at his father, trying to read his thoughts. Trying to estimate what he would be doing next. But nothing happened for what seemed an eternity. Instead, after must have been an hour of complete silence, Severus's father raised gravely from his seat, staring miserably at the potions bottles and various items on the little table next to his wife's bed, took out his wand, and muttered a spell.
At once, the table with all that was on top of it, was caught in something looking remotely like a giant soap bubble, and vanished shortly afterwards with a small pop. So did the soap bubble.
His father was still staring at his wife, but now, Severus noted, with a new quality in his eyes. He checked her hands, cheeks, tried to open her mouth, and then, grimly, left the room, not without snatching his son's collar, dragging him along.
Severus did not dare protest. He was moving as though in a dream. Wordlessly, his father grabbed his trunk, still carrying his son under one arm, stomped up the stairs and, with a thud, placed both, the trunk and his son, into Severus's room. He then turned, as wordlessly, and, with a small hiss from his wand, locked the door from outside.
Severus stared after him, void of emotions, all concentration going into not thinking about the lifeless shape in the room underneath his own. Slowly, very steadily, he felt an emptiness spread inside him that he had not perceived before. It was numbing his senses, making him help- and defenceless, but he did not need help, as there was nothing he perceived that could have frightened him. No emotions, no clear thought. There was only emptiness.
Author's Note: Another year's end. I can see why Chamber of Secrets seemed so boring to me now. JKR's put about as much foreshadowing in it as I have put in here, and that is always difficult, as one knows so much more than the reader. That makes it complicated to convey certain matters believably and not get confusing at the same time, so I apologise for any reading inconvenience you might have had. This part was harder than I imagined.
I once again thank you all for your patience and very helpful reviews. I know I did not answer all your questions, but some things will get more understandable as we move into third year. (Incidentaly, I perfectly agree, Silverthreads. Minerva went too far. But I suppose she can be excused, considering the ordeal she has just gone through what with almost getting killed by a student. Teachers tend to try and get all educational about such situations, I can tell you.) Also, I'll have to think about what to do if HBP smashes any of my crucial plots. Ah well. The everyday worries of writing fanfiction. Thanks for staying with me. :)