She had been traveling for a long time now. That was the amazing thing about trains, Helena was discovering, the way that you could keep travelling for what felt like forever, and yet never seem any closer to your destination.
Still, nearly there now she hoped. She stood up as the train neared the station, heaving her bag back onto her shoulders, and got ready for the stampede that seemed to ensue every time people needed to get off. Everyone seemed to have a place to go, and everyone seemed to know how to get to it. There was only her left behind, staring at a timetable as though it were written in a foreign language, trying desperately to understand its hidden secrets. Even aparecium didn't seem to work on these cryptic instructions, or any of the other puzzle solving charms she had learned over the years..
"Excuse me!" Sometimes it was easier to give in and just ask for help. If she'd realised that earlier, she might not have even have had to make this awful journey, but hindsight was always 20/20. "Excuse me, I'm trying to get home. Can you help?"
The old lady she had hailed turned to look at her, revealing a wrinkled face, and eyes that had turned milky white from cataracts. "Where is it you're trying to get to, dearie?"
"Just... just home." Helena displayed her ticket, which was by now looking somewhat the worse for wear from being clutched for so long.
The old woman peered at it, though surely there could have been no way for her to see through those eyes. "Dear, dear me. Well, I can only say that if I were trying to get there I wouldn't start from here."
Helena felt her heart sink. "There's no direct train then?"
"Not from York, dearie." The lady studied her, her expression not unsympathetic, and gave a cackling laugh. "Hell of a journey, isn't it?"
"You could say that." Helena sighed, and shifted her bag more firmly onto her shoulders. Her back was starting to ache again. "I'm not used to travelling on trains. I didn't know it was going to be so complicated."
"It can be hard to find your way when you've gotten lost," the woman agreed, and patted her arm. "You could try from Leeds. All sorts of trains go from there."
It turned out that the train to Leeds had been cancelled and replaced by a bus due to a tree on the line. This seemed a little excessive. Previous delays at stations had been said to be due to leaves on the line, upping this to a tree seemed to Helena to be a definite step in the wrong direction.
Still, it wasn't as though there was any option, so she waited resignedly in a crowd of grumbling people as the rain drizzled down on them. Occasionally frantic people in florescent jackets would reassure them that the bus was on its way, and would arrive sometime, probably, they hoped.
"This is ridiculous," she complained finally. "And Muggles actually choose to travel this way regularly? Even the horses they used to use in my day would be quicker." She shivered. "Warmer too."
"Awful, isn't it?" The woman next to her smiled sympathetically. "But I think it's always like this, one way or another. The last time I came this way they said lightening had hit the signal, and we were all stuck for hours."
"You've been this way before then?" That was enough to make Helena look at her hopefully. Surely someone who knew the route could show her the way.
The woman nodded. "To see my husband." She looked serious suddenly. "I shouldn't have gone. And he shouldn't have asked. We both knew better really."
"Why not?" Helena asked, intrigued.
Her fellow traveller looked at her hard for a moment. "You know when you're boarding and getting off the train, and they tell you to mind the gap?"
"We didn't," the woman said simply. "We forgot that the gap existed, either of us, and we fell right in together. And let me tell you that when you're lost in the gap, it takes a very long way before you find yourself again."
"I don't understand." Helena stared at her, confused. "What did you do?"
The woman sighed, and gestured to the ticket which Helena still clutched tightly. "I forgot I wasn't carrying a return. And don't you forget that you aren't either, sweetheart. We're only meant to go one way."
"Oh." Helena looked at her, then down again at her ticket. "I don't... there's nothing for me to go back for anyway, though thank you for the advice. If I can just find my way once, I'll be happy."
"Doesn't it say on the ticket?" It was the woman's turn to look at Helena with curiosity now.
"I was meant to use it a long time ago. I don't think I can go that route any more now." Helena admitted. "In fact, the way it's going, I'm not sure I can go any route. Every time I try it feels like I end up in circles." She bit her lip, looking anxious and miserable. "Do tickets go out of date?"
"I don't know. I never heard of it happening before, at least on this line." The woman studied her for a moment. "How long ago, if you don't mind me asking? I'm sure that if it's just a matter of a few years..."
"Oh, about a millennium or so. Give or take a decade here and there." Helena shrugged unhappily. "I... didn't want to go when it was time to, so I went somewhere else instead. Now I do want to go, and I just can't seem to work out how to get there."
"That does sound like a bit of a fix," her travelling companion agreed. "Have you tried Birmingham?"
"Pardon?" Helena blinked at her for a moment.
"Birmingham," the woman said more confidently. "Lots of trains from there. You'll get home from there, no doubt about it."
Another station, another timetable which seemed to have been written in code, and yet another train - this one apparently headed for Liverpool. Helena stood shoulder to shoulder as more people crowded on, each pushing and shoving for enough room to breathe.
"If we were cows traveling in conditions like this, the RSPCA would step in," someone complained, and a general murmur of unhappy agreement went up. Helena found herself wondering absently just how cows did make that last great journey. Was there a mystical cattle-truck somewhere out there?
"You've got a lot of baggage." The voice came from behind her, and she twisted to look back to see a young blond boy eying her quizzically. "Doesn't it make your back hurt?"
"A little," Helena admitted, trying to shift the weight a little, heaving it higher onto her back. It really did start to make your back ache after a time, and every spell she could think of that might lighten the load just didn't seem to work here. No matter what she tried, it remained as heavy as ever, always slowing her down.
"Put it down then," he suggested, as though that were obvious.
"There's no room." Helena glanced at the floor, not seeing even an inch of room there. "Besides, with this many people on here it's likely to vanish if I set it down for too long." And the idea that she might lose it after heaving it along this far and this long seemed horrifying, even if she couldn't remember quite what was in there right now.
"Huh." The boy scowled, and rather pointedly ducked out of the way as the train turned abruptly and he narrowly avoided being hit in the face with her bag. "Isn't room for you to carry it either more like. Don't see why you have to shove it in my face, just because you don't want to put it down."
Helena flushed guiltily, but before she could apologise the train abruptly halted with a jerk, and people began to pile off. She followed, a little dazed, still struggling under the weight of her bag. "Wait! Are we at Liverpool?"
The blond boy glanced back at her for only a moment, expression impatient. "Didn't you hear the tannoy? We haven't got a driver any more. That one can only take us this far if he's to stick to his contracted hours. We have to find another way of travelling if we want to go any further."
Of course. Why would anyone ever assume anything so stupidly naive as that a train might actually bother to take them where they wanted to go?
Following the crowd, she found her way to another platform, and sank down on the nearest bench, fighting back weariness. Traveling seemed to sap energy in a way that should be impossible when you considered that most of the time was spent sitting down.
Nearby, a young woman, her distinctive white hair streaked with a lock of black and swirled up into a precise no nonsense bun, corralled a large group of children in what seemed to be a school trip. Helena watched, mostly because it took less effort than getting back up and trying to find another train.
"And can anyone tell me who decides the final destination?"
Yes, definitely a school trip, Helena decided, as the woman picked from the sudden forest of raised hands. She'd floated through enough classrooms to know that tone of questioning, even if the question itself was unfamiliar.
A small dark-haired girl wrinkled her forehead in deep thought. "Is it... the passenger, Miss?"
"Can anyone tell me why it would be the passenger?" Again, the forest of eager hands.
"Because.... because no-one else knows where they ought to be going?"
"Well done." The teacher strode down the platform, to fetch something from a cupboard which Helena was fairly certain hadn't been on the platform only a moment ago. One of her pupils, however, had grown bored with the lesson.
"Hi!" He plopped himself on the bench beside Helena with a grin that promised mischief. "I'm Jason. I see dead people."
"Really?" Helena looked at him wearily. "That's... nice."
Evidently this was not the reaction the youngster had been hoping for. He frowned, and tried again. "I bet you don't even know you're dead, right?" he asked hopefully.
"Jason!" He'd caught the attention of one of the other children now, and a slightly squint-eyed little girl came to tug at him. "You know Miss Susan says we're not meant to bug people on our school trips, 'cept if they come in special like that bogeyman."
"I'm only talking to her!" Jason shrugged the restraining hand off. "Do you know you're dead?" he demanded again of Helena.
It was hard to resist. Helena allowed herself a small smile. "Well, I must admit that being a ghost for a few centuries gave me a bit of a clue."
She hadn't spoken loudly, but that didn't seem to matter. Every young head turned towards her as though drawn by a magnet. Suddenly the bench was crowded with children, all pushing for a better look.
"Do you have to wear a white sheet to be a ghost? Only all the ghosts I've seen have to have a white sheet and chains and go 'oooooo'. Can you go 'oooo'?" a small boy asked eagerly.
"Don't be stupid, Patrick, that's only what ghosts do in stories!"
"Yeah, well, Miss Susan says that all stories have to start somewhere!" Patrick retorted, turning to glare at his detractor.
Jason seemed more interested in the gory details. "How did you die? Was it very bloody? I saw this thing about this woman who got to be a ghost, and this man cut all the bits off her and then put them all in a sack and then buried them all in different places so no-one could ever find all of her and her ghost had all this blood, and organs showing and brains..." He peered at her more closely at that as if brains might suddenly make an appearance. "I can't see your brains," he noted, sounding disappointed.
"Yeah," Patrick chimed in at that. "If you show us your brains, we can draw 'em later for our reports."
"I wasn't that type of ghost." It was a little discomforting to have someone staring at your skull as though they could make brains burst out of it just by looking, and Helena shifted away, moving to stand up. She wondered privately just what type of school these children went to. Certainly, Hogwarts had never been set up to be an ordinary school, but even there no child had never approached with the demand that she show them her brains. Unless they were talking metaphorically in which case technically speaking they did that all the time in the Ravenclaw Tower.
"But you were murdered, right?" Jason persisted with more hope than really seemed appropriate in the situation. "An 'orrible bloody murder?"
Helena hesitated, that question coming closer to the truth than she liked. The memory was clear still - the running, the desperation to run just as far and fast as she could rather than face her mother's inevitable disappointment, the argument when the Baron had found her and she refused to go back, all passion and defiance and crackling magic...
And then that moment of relief at being right that he had been bluffing, that of course he wasn't really going to hurt her, before she realized that actually he had and that was her own body at her feet. There had been a man, she vaguely remembered, and a horse and cart, and they had wanted her to get on for a journey, but she had been afraid that her mother would be at the end of it, so she hadn't gone, couldn't go.
She'd headed to her mother's school instead, reasoning that if her mother really had wanted to see her than she could find her rather than the other way around. But she had waited and waited for centuries and no-one had come, so it seemed that her mother was still too angry for that after all and each passing second had been a barrier building higher, mortared with secrets and silence...
"I bet it was a murder," Jason said with some satisfaction. "A really awful one. Look, she's gone all quiet."
"Yeah, but that's what lots of people do when you talk at them, Jason," the squint-eyed little girl pointed out. "Right before they start crying and run away." She reached to tug tentatively at Helena's hand, and Helena realized with a start that the child actually could touch her here. It felt odd, after so long simply floating through people and things to have a hand - albeit a small and suspiciously sticky one - grasp hers firmly. "Are you okay, Miss? You ought not to take any notice of Jason."
"Are… are you dead too?" she queried tentatively. Perhaps there'd been a terrible accident or… Her brain went back to the battle at Hogwarts, the battle that had damaged the school to such an extent that she had felt unable to use it even as a temporary home any more. But surely children this small couldn't have gotten caught up in a war?
The question seemed to cause general amusement though. "Naw, not us!" Patrick reassured her easily.
"We're just visiting," the squint-eyed girl reassured her, still clinging to Helena's hand. "We visit lots of things."
"Most of them more interesting than you." Jason sounded somewhat accusing about that. "What's the good of being a ghost if you're not going to wear a sheet, or yodel, or show us any gory stuff or anything? Even the Soulcake Tuesday Duck was better than that. At least he brought cake. And he was a duck."
"You didn't ought to have pulled those feathers out of his tail though, Jason," the squint-eyed girl said severely. "He didn't like that, 'specially when you said you were collecting them for a pillow."
"I don't have any cake, I'm afraid," Helena said apologetically. "And I'm for… well, I was a House ghost." She'd enjoyed that too. Generations of small Ravenclaws had passed by under her watchful eye, each one learning the tricks of working of the password just as they learnt all the other tricks of Hogwarts – twice as fast as any of the other students, she sometimes thought. Her mother would have liked that, would have enjoyed watching her legacy go on as one bright child after another grew into a gifted young wizard.
It had been one of the reasons she had stayed at Hogwarts, long after she had realised no-one was going to come to look for her again. Sometimes she had felt as though if she watched over each student enough, each one could be like a tiny apology to her mother, a way of trying to make up for the wrong she had done.
"The question is not what you were," a calm voice interceded. "The question is what you are now" Helena startled from her thoughts to find that the teacher – Miss Susan? – was standing in front of her, having seemingly returned from whatever quest she had been on.
The woman clapped her hands before Helena could reply though, voice turning brisk. "Children, what have I told you about bullying supernatural beings?"
"That we didn't ought to do it, because even if you have got a poker it's not right to abuse it?" the squint-eyed girl volunteered.
"Very good, Cecilia. Now, everyone sit down, please. Hands on knees!" And quicker than Helena could have imagined possible, the entire crowd was sitting cross-legged on the floor – no, on a carpet, and Helena was almost certain that there hadn't been a carpet in the station a moment ago. There couldn't have been. There was no chewing gum embedded in it for a start.
"Now, can anyone tell me why ghosts would be using the station?"
Hands shot up, and one was picked. "They're travelling, Miss?"
"That's right," Helena admitted cautiously, unsure if she was actually meant to be taking an active part in the lesson. "But I keep getting lost."
"My Dad says that if you get lost, you ought to ask one of the Watch," Patrick advised. "Except if it's Nobby Nobbs he says, 'cause he'd get you home but steal your shoes before you got there. Did you try one of the Watch?"
"I haven't seen any of them," Helena admitted. "I kept trying to read the timetables, but I must be reading them wrong somehow. I never seem to end up where I think I should be."
"Where were you trying to go?" Cecilia smiled up at her from the carpet.
"Home." Just the word made her throat tighten a little. "It's… well, it was a little village in Scotland. It was a long time ago, I guess. I don't even know if it exists any more. Maybe that's why I can't find it." It would explain why the trains kept taking her around the country to strange towns, cities which hadn't even been built when she had been alive. How could they take her to a place that no longer existed?
But Hogwarts was gone, or at least so damaged that it would be a long time before young Ravenclaws set foot in the place again, and she had no place else left to go. No home save somewhere gone forever and surely logic dictated there was nowhere to go. It was hard then not to despair just a little, just privately, even in a crowd of children who belonged somewhere at least.
"Miss?" Cecilia tugged at her skirt anxiously. "Miss, don't cry. Jason, did you stick a pin in her leg again?"
"Home always exists somewhere." Miss Susan spoke over Jason's indignant denials, her eyes a piercing blue as she focused on her. "If you can't find it, it sometimes means you're looking in the wrong places."
"Where would I look except for Scotland?" Helena asked, confused. "Scotland is where it is. Or was."
"What made it home?" Miss Susan was watching her closely now.
It was a teacher thing, Helena knew that. They were good at that trick of never quite giving you the answer but making you find it yourself. It didn't make it any less annoying when it was done to you though, even though she had done it to thousands of Ravenclaws over time. She groped after the answer helplessly. "Well, it had my room…" she managed. "And there was the tree, which I used to climb…"
She'd worked her first bit of magic falling out of that tree, floating in mid-air before she managed to split her head open on the ground beneath. "And the gardens where we used to play hide and seek, and the swing where Mother used to push me when I was small, and – oh." She broke off abruptly, finally understanding what the other woman was implying. "It had Mother."
Miss Susan smiled slowly, and nodded. "I think that deserves a gold star."
Helena slumped in her chair. "Then I can't ever go home," she said, defeated.
"Why not?" That was Cecilia again, and Helena really didn't want to wonder what sticky substance the child was transferring from her hands every time she tugged on Helena's skirt.
"Because I did something awful, and she won't ever forgive me," Helena explained simply. "And I wouldn't know how to find her now anyway."
That brought howls of protest from the class however.
"She'll forgive you!"
"Mothers always forgive you!"
"My mother forgave me even when I smashed her best vase."
"My mother forgave me even when I set the cat on fire!"
"Jason's mother forgives him and he's Jason!"
(Jason looked just a little smug at the last one, and Miss Susan looked as though she might be trying not to laugh.)
"You see," Cecilia explained from the floor. "You can't believe them, mothers. Sure they'll say you've done something awful and they'll never forgive you ever but they don't really mean it. All they only want is for you to say sorry."
"It's true," Patrick agreed next to her. "Mine calls it taking responsibility." He beamed. "Sometimes if you look sad enough about it, they even forget they meant to stop your pocket-money."
"It's not quite as simple as that." But could it be? Could it be? Helena's heart beat a little faster with the thought that it might be a possibility. Had she really spent so many centuries running, when all she would ever have had to do was go back and say sorry? What a waste! "In any case, even if she would forgive me, I don't have the faintest idea where she is now. She's probably gone somewhere better a long time ago."
"So call the number!" Patrick pointed towards a phone-box – and Helena was certain that hadn't been there a moment ago – and a sign.
Helena squinted to read the sign. "Have you run away?" she said out loud, uncertainly. There was a phone number printed underneath. She stared at it, not quite believing. "This wasn't – did this just appear? I never saw it before."
"Miss Susan says that sometimes things exist only when you need them to," Cecilia volunteered. "Like the Tooth fairy, and the Hogfather exist until we won't need them any more."
"I reckon presents will always exist though," Jason added happily. "Because we're always going to need them."
"But…" It didn't make sense still, and Helena was still confused as she picked up the phone. "I've been lost for ages!"
"Sometimes you have to be willing to receive help before you can get it." And that was Miss Susan again, her voice calm. "Would you have called your mother before now, if you had had a phone?"
"Well… no." She had been too afraid before now, too guilty.
"Then there was no phone."
It took a few minutes to work out how to use the thing – Helena's knowledge of technology was roughly a thousand years out of date, and she was not sure whether she was hampered or helped by the many small hands willing to show her how to do it. Finally, she set it to her ear.
An odd, rather robotic voice spoke through the receiver. "Thank you for calling the Runaway Help Service. If you are calling because you have run away, press 1. If you are calling because you have seen a runaway, press 2. If you are calling because the train is late again, we do not care, please hang up now."
Helena pressed one, and waited. For a few moments scratchy music played down the line, before someone answered.
HELLO. HAVE YOU RUN AWAY.
Helena hesitated. There was something about that voice which sent shivers down her back, and it hadn't quite sounded as thought it were actually asking a question so much as making a statement. "Yes?" she hazarded.
GOOD. There was a pause before the voice added. NOT GOOD THAT YOU HAVE RUN AWAY, YOU UNDERSTAND, BUT GOOD THAT YOU HAVE IF YOU ARE CALLING THIS NUMBER. OTHERWISE YOU WOULD BE WASTING THE PHONE OPERATIVES' TIME.
"Right," Helena agreed weakly. "I can see that would be bad."
NOT THAT TIME MATTERS SO MUCH WHEN YOU CAN BE IN ALL PLACES SIMULTANEOUSLY, OF COURSE, HA HA HA.
Helena wasn't quite sure how to answer that. The silence stretched on for a moment or two before she asked meekly, "did you need more information?"
INFORMATION. YES. Paper crackled at the other end of the phone, as though the operator were leafing through a script before it started again. HAVE YOU RUN AWAY.
"Master, you're doing it all wrong!" And now there was another voice, this one male and rather elderly, interrupting the first. "I told you, you gotta do that emparthee thing."
BUT ALBERT, I WAS USING EMPATHY, the first voice protested. I WAS INSERTING WARM HUMOUR INTO THE CONVERSATION TO CAUSE THE SUBJECT TO RELAX, AS THE INSTRUCTIONS SAY.
"Forgive me for saying so, Master, but your laugh isn't one that most people want to hear when they're trying to relax. Gives 'em the jitters, you see? No, no, what you wanna do, is…"
Helena took the phone away from her ear, and peered at it with some confusion as the discussion went on, apparently with no input needed from her. "I think they are arguing," she explained apologetically as the class looked at her curiously.
"I see." Miss Susan sighed, and stood up, easily cutting a path through the assembled children. "Excuse me, please. May I take that? Thank you."
The conversation that followed was all but incomprehensible to Helena. "Albert, what are you – I thought you were driving the trains now? Well, no wonder they're always late if you're in the office all the time. Yes, I do appreciate that you need your tea but… just go and drive your trains will you? Or clear the lines again, or polish your cap or something." She paused for a moment, listening. "No, Grandfather, you don't need a script. Yes, I appreciate you want to be realistic but… just put her mother on, will you? That's all she needs." Another pause before she spoke again, faster this time, keeping her voice down. "Yes, I am coming on Sunday, but don't let Albert fry the Yorkshire puddings again. Yes, I'll see you then."
Finally she handed the phone back to Helena. "It's for you now." She looked a little flushed, though not exactly unhappy, and for a moment Helena wondered what it was that made home for Miss Susan, a woman who could exist with a class full of children in a place like this.
She only had a moment to wonder though, because a familiar voice was speaking out of the phone, full of anxious disbelief and hope. "Helena? Sweetheart? Is it really you?"
"Mother…" Helena breathed, and there was a small hard lump in her chest that wouldn't quite let her cry, but made it hard to speak because her throat burned with emotion of terror and hope mingling together. "Mother, I… I'm sorry! Sorry that I stole it and… I would have come home. I would, but I thought he was lying when he said you were sick, just trying to convince me, and…!"
"Sweetheart, when I've waited this long, do you think what I want is an apology?" Rowena's voice was warm, but Helena could hear the tears in it. "Just come home, Helena. That's all I want."
"I can't!" Helena blurted. "The trains – none of them will go the right way for me! I tried, and I've been everywhere and asked everyone but I don't know which is the right one to get."
"You haven't worked that out yet?" her mother asked gently and it was that same tone from a childhood, when they were discovering how the world worked and different types of magic that would bind them together. "Helena, darling, any train is the right one, as long as you know where you need to go."
"Oh." Helena swallowed hard. So simple a solution. Somehow it felt like the answer should be hard and painful and yet forgiveness unfolded as naturally as a flower just given the chance to bloom ."I'll get the next one then. You'll wait for me?"
"Helena, I've been waiting a thousand years for you to come home now. I think I can wait a few more hours. Just be careful of the leaves on the line."
"Okay." Helena swallowed, trying to rid herself of that pesky lump in her throat that she might've said was her heart if her Ravenclaw logic had not rebelled and demanded anatomical accuracy. "I… I love you. I'll see you in a bit."
It took a few attempts to hang the phone up correctly, and she stumbled away towards the nearest platform, forgetting the class for a moment.
"Miss!" They had not forgotten her, however, and a dozen pairs of hands caught eagerly at her skirt, holding her up. "Miss, wait! You forgot your bag!"
"Oh…" Helena blinked at the bulky heavy bag, discarded by the phone, and shook her head. "It's okay. I don't think I need to take that with me any more."
"At least take this." Miss Susan smiled at her, a warm genuine smile, and pressed something into her hand. "You've more than earned it. Quickly now, the train is coming."
It wasn't until she was on the train, finally on the way home to her mother, the journey faster and smoother than any she had experienced before that Helena looked down at the object in her hand. There, glittering like a precious gift was a small gold star, with Kings Cross written inscribed at its centre. She was still smiling at it hours later, when the train pulled in - late of course, but who would expect otherwise? - and she looked out of the window and saw her mother's eyes, her mother's face, her mother's smile and above all … home.