Hell was, Snape decided, a crowded railway platform. If any more people joined them, he wasn't going to be able to breathe, and if he ever found out who'd just trodden on his foot, that child was going to be very sorry. The station was packed to the brim, children and teachers alike squashed uncomfortably together as they waited for the train to arrive.
And it was raining. Bloody British weather.
A tinny voice came from the tannoy, and he raised his head to try and make out what it was saying. A hush fell over the assembled travellers for a moment – no-one wanted to miss the announcement.
"We regret to announce that the train from platform nine-and-three-quarters will be delayed by approximately-"
The rest of the announcement was drowned in the groan that rose from the crowd. People started to move en-masse, pushing their way towards benches, looking for somewhere to shelter from the rain. A small boy, clutching a camera tightly to his chest, almost ran straight into Severus. Catching sight of the man's expression, he backed off hastily, disappearing back into the crowd.
"Don't think I don't know that face, Colin Creevey!" Snape bellowed after him, "Five points from Gryffindor!"
It made him feel slightly better, but didn't do anything to improve his general situation. Shouting wasn't going to make the station any less crowded, and he was still getting wet.
Well, he could do something about that second part at least. He looked about, finally spying a shop doorway that seemed to hold some potential for shelter, and started to make his way towards it.
It wasn't as easy a plan as it had first seemed. He was elbowed in the chest on the way by some Weasley or another – he didn't get time to see which but there was no mistaking that red hair – and barked his shins on an owl cage someone had decided to carelessly abandoned in the middle of the platform.
He recognised that owl too. Harry Potter would get a detention for that as soon as Snape saw him again. It would be him, wouldn't it? It was always him.
When he finally reached the meagre shelter the doorway provided, he noted with displeasure that he wasn't going to even get to enjoy that alone. One of the Station guards had wisely decided that it was better to be hiding over here than in the midst of a crowd of unhappy people who'd just been told that their train was going to be late.
Not that that stopped people coming to find him. Snape scowled at him, leaning back against the doorway, "Just what is the delay?"
The Guard's face turned towards him, and if Snape had been anyone else he might have shivered, or stepped back. Once you'd faced Voldemort, it was unlikely you'd scare easily at anything else. Still, it was an uncommonly thin face, one might even say skeletal.
LEAVES ON THE LINE. He said calmly.
"It's a magical train!" Snape snapped exasperated, annoyed by the people, and the rain, and the whole stupid situation. He was a wizard, he didn't have time to wait around for trains that turned up whenever they felt like it, and never mind the timetable.
MAGICAL LEAVES. The Guard regarded him calmly, and Snape was conscious that some part of his mind was whispering urgently that there was nothing for the man to regard him with. There were no eyes in those eye-sockets, just…
He blinked, and looked again. Don't be ridiculous. Of course he had eyes. Blue ones.
Some things even a wizard's brain cannot handle, and a seven foot high skeleton in a Guard uniform is one of them.
"I see." He said sharply, "Well, do you have any idea just when this train might face down the truly formidable problem of leaves, and actually arrive? Some of us have somewhere we need to go."
Even as he said it, he was aware of an oddness about the words. Of course there was somewhere he needed to go, but… where was it again? It wasn't Hogwarts – he'd just been there! It was –
The tannoy sounded again, a voice announcing through crackling static that a train was now arriving at Platform Nine-And-Three-Quarters. The crowd started to move again, surging towards the doors this time.
IF YOU DON'T HURRY. YOU'RE UNLIKELY TO GET A SEAT. The Guard offered, IT'S A LONG JOURNEY IF YOU'RE STANDING.
"But I don't know where I'm going!" Snape's voice suddenly sounded not at all like his own. The terrifying, commanding air he'd spent years practicing in the mirror deserted him for a moment.
SURELY YOU DON'T WANT TO STAY AT HOGWARTS? The Guard's gaze – through eyes, Snape reminded himself again, and certainly not empty eye-sockets – was not an unkind one. THERE'S ONLY TWO PLACES THE HOGWARTS TRAIN GOES, LAD, AND ONE OF THEM'S HOGWARTS.
He gestured again to the train. The platform was emptying quickly now as people scrambled on. BEST HURRY. YOU DON'T WANT TO MISS IT.
"Long time before you can get another, is it?" Snape asked, aware that he was delaying. There was nothing at all that felt safe about boarding a train to an unknown destination and just trusting that everything would be okay.
The Guard's expression grimaced into – was that a smile? With his face, it was hard to tell. IT CAN BE YEARS. SOME PEOPLE NEVER GET ANOTHER.
He started to move towards the train, and Snape found himself following, moving on legs that didn't seem quite as long as the ones he was used to, having to double his strides to keep up.
He hesitated again at the door, and the Guard nodded to him again. QUICK NOW, BEFORE I BLOW THE WHISTLE.
Snape glanced back, looking over the now empty station, eyes fixing on a solitary red-headed figure, now slumped on one of the benches. "He's not going!"
The Guard followed his gaze, and shrugged calmly. HE'S WAITING FOR SOMEONE. HE'LL GO WHEN THEY GET HERE.
"But you said it could be years!" Snape protested, aware even as he said it of how childish he sounded.
YES. The Guard agreed simply, and propelled Snape onto the train as though he weighed nothing at all, closing the door behind him.
The whistle blew, and the train started to move, pulling slowly out of the station. Snape sat down quickly, staring out of the window at the Guard who waved cheerily to him, as though they were old friends.
It wasn't an unfamiliar position to be in, and he leaned back in his seat, remembering so many other journeys like this. He remembered the rush of exultation he would have felt at this once, knowing that he was leaving, pulling away from Hogwarts at the boys who tormented him there, going home to a glorious summer where Houses didn't matter and there was no-one at all to prevent a Slytherin boy playing with a Gryffindor girl. There'd been problems with his father, and Petunia of course, but it had never been too hard to avoid them. Not when they'd really wanted to.
"Is this seat taken?"
He looked up startled by a voice he hadn't heard in years, and met the gaze of a pair of brilliant green eyes.
Oh. Of course. Of course.
"Not for you." He responded with a smile in his voice that would have startled his students , sitting up a little straighter suddenly.
There were only two places the Hogwarts train went after all, and they had already been to Hogwarts.
Laughing, chatting, lost in conversation in a way he hadn't been in decades, Snape – no, Sev - went home.