delphi: Mod icon for the HP Beholder exchange. (HP Beholder)
[personal profile] delphi posting in [community profile] hp_beholder
Recipient: [personal profile] pauraque
Author/Artist: ???
Title: Elegy for a Goat
Rating: PG-13
Pairings: Severus/Aberforth, background hint of Aberforth/Albus
Word Count: 17,460
Medium: Fic
Warnings/Content Information (Highlight to View): None.
Summary: Ab has never been fond of his brother's protégés, but he's always had a weakness for goats. He's not sure what to make of Severus Snape.
Author's/Artist's Notes: Thanks beyond measure to Delphi, who is the most encouraging and kindest of mods and has more patience than a thousand saints put together.



"You're for market," Aberforth grunted as he severed the sticky, stringy clumps of twittering bindweed that tied the potbellied kid by the hocks. He tore another skein from its thrashing muzzle, ignoring the creepers that latched onto his sleeves.

Stripped free, the youngster kicked off across the yard, bleating. The mild, demonic eyes of the entire herd, heretofore fixed on Aberforth, swung to follow it. The smartest of them, however pushy or curious, knew to ignore the bindweed's inviting chirp or to rip and trample fast enough to keep it from sealing their jaws shut. Selling off those that lacked the wit to save themselves was a good way to thin the herd. The Ministry's Trace against underage magic, adapted to send him a prickle when a goat panicked, made up for the advancing deafness that dulled the raucous bleating out back.

Scythed and slicked in a poppy seed ointment, the weed could be plaited like hemp and used to tame the most ornery billygoat. Ab had fobbed off some rambunctious beasts in his time, old goats lulled into good behaviour by this little trick. Pity it only lasted until the harness came off.

He'd just spelled the kid's stumpy tail red to help with later culling when he felt the twang of a ward behind him. With a brusque shooing spell—one he'd recommended often to Albus, to no avail—he penned the little brutes, silencing their blats and brays. In the west, the orange yolk of the sun cracked and ran down the slanted Hogsmeade roofs, burnishing Ab's hair and beard with a colour better suited to Albus in his glory days.

He reached the back door in three quick, quiet strides.

Being tall and solid as he was, Ab had a fine stomp that he used for intimidation. But the farther the world fell into dark times and the more his ragged custom came to include not only the dodgy but the downright criminal, the softer he learned to tread. Better to get the drop on troublemakers than have the Hog's Head turned into a lawless zone unsafe for his old clientele.

He peered at the small, dusty window before going in. A wand tap showed him the bar room's interior. Ah, goat piss. Foul luck for sure, but not much in the way of danger. It was only his brother's latest bit of—

Well now, calling him "rough" didn't quite do it proper. It missed the innate snobbery of the thing.

Ab shouldered inside and kicked the door shut, straw flying from his boot cleats. He smiled grimly when the boy couldn't quite hide his flinch. Had to hand it to the skulking little bastard; he'd taken some pains to file down the raw edges of his sordid past. Not that you'd call him polished, no. Ab doubted he'd lay claim to that. The irregularities were still there, sharp enough to draw blood, the sort of thorns as should make a randy old goat in lilac robes think twice before taking a liverish bite. (Not that Albus would bite. He'd probably arrange for the little snake to bite him—the young sneak had the teeth for it—and then make such a sorrowful production of forgiving him the boy would feel guilty he ever agreed to it in the first place.)

If the boy could feel guilt.

Nay, he wouldn't lump the lad in with the sort of frisky tail Ab himself occasionally took to his bed. Or the hay bales, if it was more convenient and his knees weren't giving him grief. He was rough himself, at least by comparison to his family's firstborn, the dandified book-sniffer whose hands were so clean you'd never guess how often he got them dirty.

Right, then, not a bit of rough. Say instead, his big brother's bit of dirt.

The interloper—and if it weren't for Albus' patronage, Ab would have put him out the door like a sack of rubbish for eavesdropping and tale-carrying—stood furled at the bar, upright and narrow-shouldered, with the air of an old-fashioned ferrule temperamentally extruding a sharp finial, his black robes spiralled tight around his spindly frame. He watched expressionless as Ab stamped behind the counter and spread his gnarled hands on the wood.

Up in the rafters, the light wavered, smoky and tarnished. The straw on the floor hadn't been changed in days and stank of beer puddles and unscraped boot soles. Up the stairwell, Ab fancied he heard Ariana singing to herself.

After a protracted silence, the little snot insinuated his fingers inside his robes and withdrew a sealed parchment. "I was told— "

"Shut it," Ab growled and slammed a glass on the bar. "Your poison?"

Finally, a sign of life: an unsightly flush covered the boy's face like a birthmark. After a brief pause, he forced out the words, "I don't drink," with an emphasis that clearly implied 'swill.'

"More fool you," Ab said, reaching under the counter for a bottle. "You come in here bearing a message from my sainted brother, you'd best be subtle about it. Don't just haul it out and flap it in my face, you careless twat. If you want to be taken for one of my regulars, you order first, make yourself at home, have a casual look around. Don't march up and hand over the goods in public."

Hooded eyes swept the empty room with exaggerated concern. "Yes, I can see you've got your hands full catering to the hordes."

"Sure of that, are you? Poked your nose upstairs where it don't belong, did you?" He splashed rye in the glass and slid it across, waiting until the rigid fingers digging nail marks into the parchment unclenched and the letter dropped curtly to the bar. "At least hold it like you know what to do with it."

The boy sighed through his nose and picked up the drink. His knuckles and the deep beds of his nails bore the stigma of the potioneer's trade, and Ab almost made a nasty comment about damned spots that wouldn't scrub out. It would keep, though; he didn't want the wretch running home and whining to Albus about his lack of cooperation. Sniffing dourly at the contents of his glass, Albus' treacherous bedmate waited, his wand out on the counter, cradled in a deceptively loose duelling grip. He was the right age—smooth-skinned and marred only by inherited homeliness—but that inheritance was what made Ab suspicious. Usually the only redeeming feature of Albus' reprobates was their beauty.

He wished he'd spilled the glass of rye in the boy's lap. Yes, his brother was a prig and much too given to playing God, but he deserved better than this.

"You must have been a rubbish spy."

The sullen eyes in the whey face blazed balefully for a moment before dimming to coldness again. Well, now. That bore looking into. What dark thing lurked behind the seeming servitude? Ab considered the possibility that Albus' relationship with his fetch-and-carry Death Eater included a prurient touch of Imperius. Perhaps that was the boy's thin-ribbed soul he'd seen put up its wings, fleetingly rebellious. Eh, no. Too fanciful. Not that he'd put an occasional Unforgivable past Headmaster Up-His-Arse if the cause were great, but for such a trivial errand? If there was one thing Albus was conscientious about, it was his reputation.

Ab flicked his wand, giving the parchment a once-over before picking it up. The charm was pure Dumbledore, no doubt of that, familiar to Ab since boyhood. He licked his thumb—pah, it tasted gamy—pressed it to the wax seal, and gave a sharp twist. The red crest popped off like an undone button. The top half of the note uncurled with a wave typical of Albus' airs and graces, and two lines of attenuated script wandered rapidly across the page.

If the seal has been tampered with, write 'Aye' and send it back to me by the same hand. Otherwise, let 'gobstones' be your guide.

So the old fool hadn't put his entire trust in his messenger boy. Ab snorted in grudging approval. "Silly lot of tomfoolery for nothing special. Why didn't His Extreme Cleverness just have you tell me yourself?"

He caught the flicker as Albus' catamite absorbed the irreverence aimed at his master. Disappointingly, all that emerged from the thin lips was, "Is this an example of your subtlety? It's obvious the headmaster wants to keep the contents of the letter from me and is testing how far I can be trusted."

"I've forgotten your name," Ab said, not because it was true but because it was more insulting than merely asking and he didn't want this upstart thinking he'd made an impression.

"It's of no consequence. Neither of us is here to socialise." Stained fingers set the glass down with a sarcastic click. "Just consider me the means of delivery."

Ab leaned on the counter and hardened his stare. He knew damn well he had the accusing eyes of a Dumbledore who'd lost his way in the dark wood, a wild man's stare that saw fault in everything. After a moment, Albus' bit of dirt looked past him to the wall of dingy bottles and shrugged. Under the tallow candles that smelled of cooking fat, a shadow of exhaustion stained his sallow face, rising from the same burned-down coals as the dark thing Ab had poked out of hiding.

"Professor Severus Snape," he muttered, defending his right to the title, and Aberforth knew to his bones: this one wasn't destined to die of old age. It was almost as stark as spotting a Grim, the startling flash when divination saw true.

He offered the boy nothing in return, not even a hand to shake.

Feeble chirping broke the silence, a ghost of the chorus that covered Ab's back fence. A few tattered shreds of bindweed had fallen from his sleeve and crawled across the bar to cuff Snape's wrist, coiling in a tight spool and reaching out to entwine his thin fingers.

Snape watched until the grassy shackle was secure, the barest straggly outline of a glove netting his skin. The faint rhythmic chirp rose in volume as more leaves rubbed together. A crease deepening between his eyebrows, Snape raised his hand. "Incendio." Fire spun hotly around his wrist and shot upward along the offending strands. For a moment his translucent fingers leapt with light, and Ab had his wand out to quench it before he realised the hand was unburned and unmoving, as clean as a corpse candle.

Just as quickly, the fire died without leaving a mark, only a ragged twist of ash raining down on the scuffed wooden bar. Soot on the flowing sleeve of his robe, a flake of black on black, nothing more.

It was the act of a show-off, and Ab said as much. The boy merely dusted his fingers together to loosen the last bits of charred weed. "I was brewing for the infirmary earlier. My hands and robes are covered in flame-retardant." His pedantic drawl softened to a snarl. "I don't suffer malicious jokes lightly." —as if Ab had done it on purpose.

The little bastard's cheek—knickers in a twist over his precious dignity!—tickled Ab for some reason. He tugged at his beard to stifle a rude remark, then for good measure hefted the rye and drank straight from the bottle, drowning the budding chuckle with a cough and a chest-thump.

Snape's face soured instantly, and he twitched his ashy fingertips away from his barely sipped glass. "I'll leave you to ponder the hidden contents of the headmaster's letter," he sneered and stepped back.

Ab shook his head at the lad's apparently uncontrollable urge to prove he wasn't someone to underestimate. To be fair, he'd suffered under Albus' damnable superiority and maddening indifference himself and could imagine how gently, how jovially his brother overlooked the young sinner's efforts to please until, Ab would bet his finest malt, it drove the Snape-goat to misbehave outrageously. Because sometimes negative attention was better than none.

As the boy turned away, surreptitiously hiking his black robes out of reach of the damp straw, Ab felt an unwelcome pang of loss for his brother, that he should be reduced to this. He remembered, as he did all too often these days as the darkness drew nigh, Albus as he'd been before his fatal mistake, Albus fine-boned and focussed and passionate for every scrap of knowledge within reach, flying on his wits with a genius he never exhibited on a broom. (And thank Merlin for that. He'd been swell-headed enough without dazzling them all at Quidditch, too.) Watching this ghastly excuse for a potions master navigate the shadows as if steering a path around each well of light, as furtive as any dealer in Dark artefacts who sought anonymity within these walls, he itched to hex the heavily draped and not very apparent backside. Anything to diminish the lad's appeal and persuade his fool brother to stop trying to redeem himself by salvaging boys who'd done worse.

And why the devil couldn't Albus have come here himself? After that stupid business interviewing the poor addled fortune-teller at the inn rather than, as common sense would have it, at the school where such things ought to be conducted—thus affording that bit of dirt over there a chance to destroy lives—Albus had made himself even scarcer than usual. He'd probably claim it was a cautionary measure, but Ab reckoned it was cowardice. Of course, the less he saw of Albus, the less occasion they had to rub each other the wrong way—since rubbing each other the right way had become a thing of the past.

Nostalgia always ended with him wanting to curse the pants off someone. Compromising, he threw a small, specific Lumos at Professor Snape's head.

The boy didn't quite jump, but he did take a longer stride forward in a bid for freedom. Ab had plenty of time to say, "He likes a nice round bum, does Albus. The younger the better, as long as it sits this side of legal. And he likes it hard." Snape had frozen two paces short of the door, and Ab took a leisurely pull off the bottle. "Not that you need worry, as it seems to me you haven't much to offer in that department."

The boy's eye over his shoulder was wide, a reminder that he was barely out of nappies when measured against the extended yardstick of Ab's own life. Likely most of his practical experience was confined to a few pulls of his hand, one or two fumbles in a crowded dorm or among the weeds and sweets wrappers under the Quidditch stands. Sod Albus' unerring instinct for singling out youngsters who seemed superficially unspoiled but were bruised, even rotten, beneath the surface.

"You can tell him that," he said to the wary, almost wounded eye. So this unsuitable young cock was priggish enough to believe one didn't speak of such things, however many old arses he licked. "Tell him that's my answer."

The eye narrowed suddenly, suggesting a knife turned edge-first, and Ab remembered that Albus' protégés tended to be unnaturally adept at mind magic. Occlumency not being his forte, he pushed the memory of a shining, arrogant, school-age Albus, not a stitch on him, to the front of his brain.

Shying to one side, Snape thrust the black knife of his Legilimency elsewhere and drew the hood of his robe over his greasy head to hide what Ab was pretty sure was a blush. Then he faded out the door like a stain that passes through walls, letting in a draft that set the candles streaming and blew straw into bristling drifts around the table legs.

Ab stood for a while mechanically passing a bar rag back and forth over the counter, rearranging bottles, going through the motions. A wisp of mouth-watering fragrance trickled down from the sitting room and broke his trance. Right. Dilsy from the Three Broomsticks must have been by to deliver the evening meal. Straightening, Ab tried to grind the ache out of his back with arthritic knuckles. He fended off thoughts of Albus poncing about with his bit of dirt before giving in to his snit and vanishing the contents of the rye bottle. He kept a few American brands of distilled spirits tucked away to perturb the British palate, but it appeared the so-called potions master hadn't even noticed the difference. Waste of an insult.

After spelling every entrance to alert him if he had company, he collected the Snape-goat's glass and carried it and the parchment upstairs. A serving of rabbit pie mixed with stewed prunes, a heap of boiled new potatoes, and a spoonful of chutney waited for him on the table. There, under Ariana's benevolent gaze, he lit a candle and dropped the red wax seal into the flame, muttering, "Gobstones," as it sputtered and flared. Then he sat down to finish his drink as Albus' mild, impersonal, temper-ruffling voice leaked out with the smoke, and something in Ab's chest ran as red and molten as the melted wax. He deliberately snuffed it out by lifting the glass and putting his lips where Snape's had been, swallowing liquor touched with Snape's saliva. And where Snape's lips had been—well, so had Ab's, once.

But that had been long ago, in the days before Albus developed his taste for dirt.

~~~


"Oh no you don't."

Rotating the staff in his left hand, Ab tapped a bucking kid back in line, his eyes cutting away from a face he recognised as they passed in the street. He never acknowledged his customers in public; a slip like that would only ensure they found somewhere else to wet their whistles and wag their tongues.

A brief uptick in furtive activity around the Hog's Head had lately put Ab in the way of a few grains of gossip spilled by the Dark Lord's demoralised minions. Nothing his brother didn't know, he was sure, but it might interest him to hear some of the bottom-feeders believed Voldemort's disappearing act wasn't permanent.

The heavy staff landed with hollow thunks on the packed dirt, and his boot leather creaked with every step. Twelve times a minute, one of the goats bleated or farted or tried to skip away. The brindled blue-white morning stretched coldly around them, the sky overhead pleated with pale cloud. Sunlit window frames and wooden shingles still hoarded glimmers of frost in the cracks. Ab's lips and cheeks and the rims of his ears felt the bite, and his gloved hands ached. Robes flapping, he shepherded his culls down the north side of the Hogsmeade lane and with intermittent waves of his wand sent the dust of their passage curling behind them.

At this hour, the bar was generally at its emptiest, and any lost profit would be more than covered by whatever he made today in trade. As a security measure, the "closed" sign concealed a pretty stiff knock-back for any patrons who tried to force the issue.

Locals were coming out of upstairs flats to start their morning rounds, and Ab swung his staff to punt a kid who'd darted out to nibble at an old dame's handbasket. It was no trouble making them behave: one billy, three red tails, and the nanny goat whose presence helped pacify the others. Only the billy, a shaggy, aggressive fellow who'd once gone for his bollocks when he'd had his kit down, was fitted with a bindweed halter. Ab kept the lead wrapped firmly in his fist. The kids he left to their own devices. If they didn't fuss and show gumption, potential buyers would reckon they were ailing.

Thin daylight illumined the floating dust, and the highest facing windows brimmed with wintry reflections. The dirt paths around Godric's Hollow had been pale like this, the air dry as cider in a cold snap, in those days when he and Albus used to tramp for miles, Albus fashioning fine curlicued phrases about his latest course of study, a windbag even then, as Ab scanned the sweet pea tendrils and frilly buttons of fleabane or pointed out the hooded crows and scampering coneys skimming the woods and fields. On warm days, they shared a swim and a wank in the sheltered pond a league out from the village, two tall gangly easily sunburned lads in naught but their skin. Albus always pulled a book from his pocket, and Aberforth fetched home wildflowers for Ariana.

A scuffle ahead shook him out of his reverie. The witches and wizards who'd been minding their own business suddenly took it into their heads to cross his path, making for the row of shops opposite. Ab huffed. Silly overreaction to five shambling goats and one old duffer. Then he caught the oncoming noises—damn his old ears—and saw another dust cloud breezing down the road from the very direction he was headed. Chattering voices ricocheted off the nearest walls, as shrill as any of his horned and hoofed devils but with a more elaborate vocabulary. And they had numbers on their side, not to mention wands.

Merlin have mercy, students on a Hogsmeade weekend.

Their laughter and juvenile catcalls cracked the calm air. Already restless, his kids promptly pitched fits, and the billy pricked its ears and dug in its hooves, riveted by the hullabaloo. Ab pinched the tip of his nose until it warmed, then wiped it roughly. He supposed he could give the little buggers right of way. He probably ought to. But his assessing squint lighted on what first appeared to be a black-draped pillar with a dead crow on top, whose wings blew back to reveal a stupendously aquiline profile. Well, now. He decided to stand pat.

It was just about then the billy slipped its halter.

Ab had been quieting the kids with a mild befuddling charm as he watched Albus' dark, fuming bullyboy try to euthanise his charges with a basilisk glare. Several of the students flinched toward the protection of their second chaperone, a short, opulently upholstered witch that Ab's groin recognised before his brain caught up. Eh, no surprise his prick had a better memory than he did. It was many a year since he'd had the pleasure of filling Pomona's fanny, but the sight of her well-padded bum always cheered him right up. There were few things better for getting on with than a woman whose sense of humour lived up to the earthiness of her physical perfume, which owed something to compost in the same way Ab's late-night pong spoke of brewing beer and mucking out goats.

Then the lead went slack. The halter flopped to the dirt. There was a snort and a rough slam against his legs, and the billy went hurtling up the street, straight at the crowd of children.

Hogwarts' finest shrieked and scattered, tripping every which way, a dizzy windmill of half-cocked wands that didn't, thanks be to Merlin, go off. A brace of boys hooted and ran in arm-flapping circles, driving the billy back and forth until it wheeled and butted first one, then the other, bowling them over. Dust curled up in spreading plumes, and onlookers who'd hurried up, wands drawn, changed their minds and stayed clear. Of course, the calming charm on the three kids gave way, and up the street they bounced to join the chaos, single file like pygmy deer, red tails raised in exclamation.

Ab nearly busted a gut holding back his laugh.

He didn't see the swirl of black until a second too late, when a hand seized his wrist and Snape yanked the dangling halter free. "I'll just take this, shall I?" he said silkily and strode back toward the ruckus, voice raised just enough to freeze the nearest students in their tracks. "Swackham!" A whooping, swooping, grinning boy wearing his tie backwards, high-jumping over the kids as they rushed through the fray and riling the billy with his prodding wand, swung around at the sharp summons, his bravado fading.

Snape raised his arm, and the boy's wand flew to him. He caught it and threw the halter in exchange. "Since it was your spell that unleashed the creature, surely you won't object to being the one to catch and return it to its owner. Wandless," he added as if in afterthought. An insinuating, insufferably smug afterthought.

This would make up for being late for market. Leaning on his staff, Ab fossicked one-handed through his pockets until he turned up a flask. He sucked down a stiff nip, careful not to scald his tongue; the stuff did for mouthwash when he overslept some mornings. Resting the flask on the nanny's withers and breathing out steam, he watched without sympathy as the hapless young wanker chased the billy from one end of the street to the other, getting himself near trampled in the process. Bystanders took refuge inside the nearest shops, while students gadded about as if it were all some ridiculous game. The combined racket of two-footed and four-footed bleating so pierced the ears Ab reckoned there might be a benefit to going deaf after all.

Merlin knows how long it would have gone on if Pomona, out of patience with the lot of them, hadn't put an end to the business by motioning the mooncalves firmly aside and snapping, "Incarcerous!"

Goat and boy went down in a flail of limbs, slither of ropes, and flurry of dust. Egged on by his mates, the unfortunate Swackham rolled over in the road to grab the billy's muzzle and, under the amused eyes of half Hogsmeade, wrestled the halter over its struggling head.

Ab helped himself to a few more swallows and blotted his damp moustache as the frisky red-tails trotted back to dance on his toes. Tucking the flask away, he hand-fed them shrivelled apple slices from a frayed pocket and watched the mopping-up.

It didn't last long: a Finite Incantatem, a limping and determinedly cocky Swackham reclaiming his wand and wiping it pointedly with a pocket square, and Snape confiscating the billy's lead without a word of thanks or concern for the bruises attendant on goat-tackling. The children split up into gossipy clumps, drifting off to Zonko's or Fortescue's or any other Hogsmeade establishment that catered to immature tastes. A goodly number of the more forward lads sneaked two-fingered salutes Snape's way as they passed, and Ab smirked. All the swaggerers sported red and gold, and his smirk faded. Aye, Gryffindors. Dearest to his brother's heart, they were.

Scarcely older than the oldest student there, the boy dearest to other parts of Albus' anatomy stood fingering the braided bindweed and frowning with interest. The billy stood docilely beside him, swivelling its ears at the students giving them both a wide berth.

Then the Snape-goat raised his head and remarked with the soft exactitude that made his voice carry over distances, "Pity the school bans the use of these on the student body. It would make the process of educating them so much more … rewarding."

"I do hope that's a joke, Professor," Pomona said reprovingly.

Instead of ignoring him, every fool student within earshot reacted with juvenile horror. One didn't need Legilimency to guess the collective wish to turn the tables on their hated professor and see him haltered. Ab half-fancied the idea himself. But no. The young were Albus' preserve, and he'd rather drink rotgut than waste time wondering if this petty little bastard would live long enough to be cured, like leather, by personal experience. Ab preferred tarnish and hard use, scars and sweatstains and the shiny spots left by years of firm handling.

Then the boy stalked over and curtly offered him custody of his own goat. "I assume this has some value to you?" He dropped the lead into Ab's palm with the barest civility. Nothing in his body language acknowledged their prior acquaintance. Maybe not such a rubbish spy after all.

"Obliged," Ab grunted, waiting for Snape to turn his back. "I could show you other uses for the halter. If you're interested."

Bloody hell. That had to be the whisky talking. The young sneak pivoted, robes billowing hard enough to spook the kids nosing at the nanny's dry teats. His eyes darted from Ab, who suppressed the urge to make a joke of it, to the gently swinging line of bindweed, and a flare of passion reddened his face. Whether rage or hunger, Ab couldn't tell.

"That reminds me." The words were drawn out in a soft hiss. "Your message. You remember?"

Was the surly little bugger going to drag personal linen out in public? Ab bunched the billy's lead in one fist and readied a sharp Silencio. Snape's attention had flicked to the wandering students, taking note of their relative positions along the store fronts and their levels of excitement. Pomona smiled kindly at Ab and tried to shoo her colleague onward, but Snape raised his palm to signal that she should go away.

Pomona retaliated with a tart, "Don't dawdle, Professor Snape. We've had more than enough delays for one Hogsmeade excursion already," and bustled off with a shrill, "Mr. Tidmarsh! Please stay with your classmates!" leaving Snape glaring in her wake.

He held back until she was out of earshot, then turned his waspish glare on Ab. "I have a reply from the headmaster. If you're interested."

A sudden swirl of white grit spat up from the street and hit Snape from behind, dissipating like puffs of flour that had the goats sneezing. Swearing, Ab beat dust out of his beard and thumbed his spectacles clean. Snape merely furled up parasol-fashion, robes so tight Ab fancied he could see his heart beating through the fabric. If the boy had a heart.

"I can come by later to deliver it." Thin fingers picked a twist of windblown hair off his face and held it pinned to the side of his head like an ivory comb, stained nails buried in the black, fluttering, too-shiny strands. He repeated, his voice low, "If you're interested."

In full daylight, his face had a strained ugliness contoured by forces Ab would bet his eyeteeth the boy didn't understand: the quicklime of grief, the corroding effects of exhaustion. And he knew from experience that for certain things one didn't turn to Albus for help.

"Tonight. Tomorrow." He twitched the billy's lead. "Makes no difference to me."

He didn't hang about for an answer but shouldered past Snape and walked on, his little flock—so much smaller than his brother's—bumbling along at his heels.

At the end of the day, he had three Galleons more in profit than he'd expected, four fewer goats, and an uneasy sense that he'd played a bad hand.

The boy didn't show.

~~~


However, as any barkeep can tell you, bad Knuts turn up again.

One Sunday late, Ab was closing up for the night when he noticed a shadow move in the corner of his eye and a few wisps of straw quiver, disturbed by a silent tread. A cool draft had curled in from the back just minutes before, which, blast it, he'd put down to the inn's sagging structure and loose joists. Like him, it was getting windy in its old age. He extinguished all but one candle and continued checking the tables and chairs for slime, tobacco flakes, unidentifiable powders and identifying runemarks, forged coins, Extendable Ears, singed scraps of parchment, delayed-action jinxes, Dungbombs, and any stain more incriminating than ale or brandy. The smoke from burnt wicks smeared the air above his head with a shifting, charcoal haze.

"I've no doubt the ritual of trash collecting is a high point of the evening, but if you could spare me a few minutes of your time," a voice remarked drily behind him, "I'd like to return to the castle before sunrise. The more sleep I get, the less the dunderheads will suffer tomorrow."

Ab spotted and Stupefied a rat in the far corner, summoned it, wrapped it in a few greasy sheets of the Daily Prophet, and floated the parcel back to the rubbish bin. Only then did he heave himself around to point his wand at the entrance. The tumblers clicked into lock position, and the letters on the window's placard re-formed into a drab, cobwebbed "Bugger Off."

"Read that," he said, extending a grimy finger, "then we'll discuss who's more inconvenienced." The very marrow of his bones throbbed tonight, and he was in no mood to jump through Albus' flaming hoops.

Across the room, the Snape-goat was leaning against the bar's framework, his head tipped back against a support post. In the feeble flicker of a single candle, he looked oddly like an effigy hung on a pole—or perhaps a manifestation of Ab's own weariness. The shelves of bottles on the wall behind him shimmered with single points of flame like rows of yellow eyes. Surrounded by darkness, Snape gave Ab the impression of a stubbed and snuffed-out wick, right down to the charred emotion that drifted from him.

Albus must be using him hard. Scowling, Ab wondered if the boy hoped to be offered a bed.

"Deliver your message and get home before your master misses you."

There was a curious silence. Then the shadows around Snape fluttered, and something sailed across the room, indistinct until its splotch of red caught the light. Ab grabbed for it and missed, and his brother's lad emitted a grim, satisfied huff as the letter hit the floor.

"In payment for your hospitality," he said. "My first class of the day will be delighted to know they owe my good mood entirely to you."

The shadows eddied briefly as he spun on his heel, and the crack of his Disapparition left the wineglasses rattling.

Ab bent, feeling brittle, to scoop up the letter and spell it dry. He wedged it under one strap of his braces and fetched a cordial to serve as a nightcap.

Upstairs, he put off opening the missive until he was ready for bed. It turned out to be all Order business. Not a word of the reply Ab was really waiting for. Well, piss on the little prick. Hunched on the edge of the mattress, his nightshirt redolent of goat after a quick jaunt outside to find out why his ears were burning—sod the little brutes and their false alarms‐it occurred to Ab to wonder if the boy had been flirting; if this educated thug, employed on sufferance in Britain's foremost magical academy, entertained hopes of acquiring the lesser brother as a fallback once the fickle headmaster cut him loose. The very idea made Ab suck his teeth. Pah. As if he had any desire to inherit Albus' sloppy seconds.

In the next room, Ariana sang a random lullaby, the same thread of melody that floated Ab into sleep most nights. He stretched out atop the coverlet, his head crowded with all the scolding he wanted to do regarding his brother's latest bit of dirt. It troubled him that these days all his Albus-related thoughts cast corresponding shadows of Snape.

Whatever the sexual goings-on between those two, he had no doubt his brother remained fully clothed and so emotionally distant he might as well be in France. For a moment an unwelcome image of the boy, splayed on Hogwarts sheets and awkward without his concealing robes, crossed his mind. That this sorry specimen should be Albus' last attempt at performing the rites of— Ab frowned. Not affection. He curled a hand around his cock and tugged. Merlin forbid it should be affection.

Still, in this deluded reclamation of the damned Ab recognised a spark of hope, and in hope lies love.

Snug in a cloud of goat hair and apple brandy, he eventually drifted off, too weary to wank, just cradling himself for the warmth of it. Partway through the night, he started up from a dream of—well, good question. He'd been trying to warn Albus, surely? About Snape. Yes, that made sense. As if Albus would listen. It wasn't his way. What didn't make sense was opening his eyes to moonlight through the curtains and a weight of sadness on his chest, and thinking he'd just dreamt the opposite: that it was Snape he'd tried to warn against his brother. Only the boy had refused to hear it. No one would ever hear a word against Albus.

In daylight, Ab had no truck with dreams. And this time when his ears prickled, he pinched them irritably and got on with making breakfast.

~~~


Four months passed before the Snape-goat paid him another visit, sliding in on a Friday when Ab had settled down to a long night of babysitting six customers, two of whom were Disillusioned. He couldn't recall if the two had come in together, and for the moment they were seated at different tables. Conducting business? Holding whispered conversations? Or getting ale into their bellies by sitting with strangers and stealing sips from their pints?

Just past ten, a seventh customer in the requisite cloak and concealing hood insinuated himself onto the barstool nearest the door. A cloud of cold air wafted off him, a slight taint of graveyard, and Ab's wand slipped into his hand as he went to take the newcomer's order. He didn't see the nose until he was practically on top of it.

Bristling, he leaned forward, more to cover his surprise than in reaction to the sardonic gleam beneath the cowl. "You again," he grunted, with a quick glance past Snape's head. No one appeared to be showing an interest in anything but drink, so he blew air through his moustache and fetched a glass. "The usual?" When he reached beneath the counter, though, Snape frowned.

"No more mouthwash, barkeep. I want an unopened bottle this time." The boy's wand poked over the rim of the bar, and a dusty Sandeman's sailed down, landing with precision. "This will do."

Ab uncorked it with a practised twist. "You want one of my better labels, I expect you to pay."

"A Dumbledore who expects payment," Snape said softly and rested his elbows on the counter. "Imagine that."

With admirable economy, he produced a Galleon from the depths of one sleeve and placed it in front of Ab. Bared by the pushed-back cloth, his exposed wrist flashed with lean delicacy. Stains dappled the long fingers the colour of bruises. Perhaps they were. Ab didn't ask, merely transformed the pint glass into a goblet and poured an inch of fragrant, gurgling red.

Snape picked it up and Ab did the same with the Galleon. In his hand, it changed shape: a neatly folded parchment. He squinted at his brother's servitor, then turned to rattle the coins in the till and stuff the note in his pocket as if it were a bar rag. When he turned back, Snape was just setting down the empty glass and licking his lips, having polished off the port as if it were fruit juice. When he slid from his seat, Ab said gruffly, "That's it? Nothing else?"

"I've already paid once," Snape replied with mild affront. "I don't fork over all my secrets for a single posh drink." He nudged the goblet toward Ab with the tips of his fingers. "Too sweet." His hand lingered on the counter: thin but tough, not afraid to get banged up while doing its job. Ab could find a use for a hand like that.

The boy lowered his head then until the hood effectively blocked Ab's view, and his voice hissed out at a pitch almost too soft for him to hear. "That older witch at the back. She's a poor relation of the Lestranges. Earns a pittance by rooting out bits of mischief and gossip she fancies will benefit her rich cousins. Harmless, but a tattletale even so."

"You'd know all about that, of course," Ab said, finding the irony too sharp to leave alone.

He couldn't see Snape's face, and the hand atop the bar betrayed nothing, but for the next few seconds a patch of skin over his heart tingled the way his ears did when he was deaf to the goats' panic, and he knew the little bastard was holding him at wandpoint.

In rough apology—not that what he'd said wasn't true—he curled his large, horny fist around the hand on the counter. The boy twitched, either because those really were bruises or because he wasn't partial to being touched. Or to Ab touching him, maybe. But Ab felt the tension start to ease back to normal, and he reckoned his old ticker was safe for now.

"Buck up, lad. Put your pisser back in your pants and your mistakes to good use. No way else to make up for 'em. Ask Albus—he'll tell you. Now," he squeezed the unresponsive fingers again, "here's a thing. Those dolts over there under a Disillusionment charm."

Snape was silent. There was no detectible pulse in the narrow hand, no ripple of breathing. A fine layer of cemetery chill seeped from the threads of his robes, and the cowl hung inward, masked in shadow. The dark, hooded figure could have flown up at that moment and transformed into a Dementor, and Ab would have been ready for it.

"I do not need," Snape finally said under his breath, with only half the bite Ab expected, "another Dumbledore coining platitudes at my expense and making snide allusions to repentance." The stained hand withdrew smoothly from under his, like a snake gliding off into the grass. "I'll leave the Disillusioned duo to you. They've tried this on before. A pair of underage Hufflepuffs with confused ideas about what it means to go slumming."

"You're having me on." Ab angled his spectacles and scrutinised the delinquents. So many children risking their necks to grow up overnight, not realising that once adulthood had you over the table, you were going to get fucked and there was no getting out of it. "You'll not take the opportunity to kick their silly arses back to Hogwarts?"

The Snape-goat's snort said don't tempt me. "Only a rubbish spy would storm over there and blow his cover, don't you think? So, no. I'll let you do the honours."

The hooded head turned just enough that candlelight fell yellowly upon his mouth, pinched wryly at one corner. Dregs of port had painted tiny threads in the seams of his lips, and in his mind's eye Ab couldn't help but see Albus drawn irresistibly to the sweetness, restraining Snape's head as he nuzzled his fill. If he hadn't been standing in full view of two children and a potty Lestrange, Ab might have pulled the boy forward himself and snogged him himself before sending his brandy-soaked message back to Albus. For a long second, he let himself imagine the two of them passing Snape back and forth like a goblet; into his open, willing mouth, each might spill his taste for the other.

The splash of heat low in his loins was startling.

He put that thought away for later and forced himself to stand swabbing out the glass, ignoring the door as Snape pulled it soundlessly shut behind him, one skulking anonymous customer among many.

The rest of the night was uneventful, even with the ousting of the mortified and protesting Hufflepuffs. Ab described the good bits to Ariana as he did most evenings, keeping the unsavoury details to himself, such as his thoughts about his brother's bedmate.

The letter, crinkled from its long ride in his pocket, concerned Albus' plans for recruiting new Order members, enlivened by a few mildly phrased but nonetheless wicked jabs at the pompous sheep-faced Minister. He hadn't really been expecting an answer to his now-stale attempt to get a rise, but someday Ab would have to pin Snape down and choke Albus' reply out of him, if only because he suspected the boy would enjoy a pair of warm hands around his neck. After such a long build-up, he doubted the message would amount to more than bland nostalgia over happier days.

Or perhaps, he mused as he lay back on sheets that needed changing, he was going about this the wrong way. Grunting, he bent one leg up and propped it with a pillow to accommodate a persistent twinge. It would pay to remember how guarded Albus was about showing sentiment that might afford anyone, even a brother, a keyhole through which to spot his weakness.

Ab assumed Albus had taken Snape on precisely because he was so much the opposite of everything Albus admired, and it was just like him not merely to deny his lusts but inflict on himself a burden of pity. Of course, since Albus also liked a reward for doing the right thing, he would doubtless have the perplexed young sinner crawling on his knees asking for forgiveness, baring the frail vertebrae on the back of his neck, pulling out his pecker so that Albus might raise his hands in feigned dismay and bid him cover himself.

So Ab might have put the boy in bad odour by betraying that the untouchable Dumbledore had once been as physical as any other able-bodied rogue. Albus had probably made it plain that Snape wasn't to discuss the past with Aberforth anymore. No tale-carrying. Having been present for some of the little sneak's shenanigans, Ab couldn't really blame Albus for insisting the boy stick to playing post owl. Merlin knew, the Supreme Mugwump had done a bang-up job keeping historical truths out of the hands of the press. After reading some of the fawning drivel The Daily Prophet printed as legitimate news, Ab sometimes had to go sit with Ariana until the urge to send unsigned corrections to the Dumbledorean record passed.

~~~


Just before term, with the pine needles of the trees sapless in the shimmering heat and the hay all bleached and prone to splintering, Snape caught Miles MacDuffy sauntering out of Ab's improvised haymow, with Ab right behind him belting up his britches. Miles was soaked and ruddy from exertion even though Ab had been the one doing all the work; the MacDuffy had a bottom you could dam a ditch with, and it always took some huffing and puffing and hard delving to make the old sourpuss feel well-fucked.

Snape, looking fresh as a corpse in his masochist's black, was inside the gate, leaning against the latch with his arms sullenly folded. The goats, useless little turds that they were, wandered about the yard, unfazed by his presence. The bindweed hanging in masses along the fence chirped and buzzed in the sun like a choir of insects. As Miles loitered to a stop, Snape swatted aside a few clambering tendrils and then lifted a boot heel and ground down on a presumptuous creeper, crushing it with unnecessary force.

Baffled by the occurrence of an academic in the Hog's Head goat pen, Miles carded hay spikes out of his greying curls and gave the lanky boy a sceptical once-over, conveying with a hitch of his bristled chin that modern youth offered nothing a MacDuffy didn't have in spades, schoolmasters in particular being known for stubby wands. In response, Snape took his obnoxiously feline time getting out of the way, moving languidly and eyeing them both with predatory boredom.

"Pleasure," the MacDuffy allowed at last, carefully wiping at both corners of his mouth. Ab knew he had plans to lay his sore and substantial arse down for a nap the moment he got home, and envied him for it.

Snape watched Miles go with avid contempt. As he turned back, the keenness still glittered like frost in the shadows around his eyes, but the dislike had dissolved into petulance. Ab almost voiced the rebuke that no one was interested in fucking boys who sulked, least of all him, only now Snape had Miles as evidence that Ab was a liar. Besides, Snape's ability to brood for England was the least of the reasons Ab ought to keep his knob clean in that respect.

The boy lounged against the gate again, his glance dipping to Ab's trousers and travelling back up. The concentrated smugness of every slowly shifting limb was like a goad.

Ab didn't bother asking how long a confirmed voyeur like Snape had been hanging about. "The headmaster must be hard up for news these days if he wants the lowdown on two rutting old goats. Unless you're here to tell me he's related to the Lestranges?" Bugger. He needed to get washed up and the inn open. The muck of sex was shortly going to glue his smalls to his groin if he didn't do something sensible about it. Bloody annoying to have his post-shag routine interrupted, especially when it involved pouring a basin of cold water over his head and a warm, soapy slosh between his thighs. "Your message?"

"There isn't one," Snape said shortly. He squinted into the sunlight. "Although I suppose that in itself is the message. I'm relieved of the necessity of delivering love tokens between absent brothers." He pulled a smirk, but Ab could tell his heart wasn't in it. A bright, salty drop trailed down from his hairline and trembled atop an eyebrow. Snape jerked his head irritably, and it flew. Ab would have refreshed his cooling charm for him, but he enjoyed seeing the boy wilt. "You know what happened earlier this summer during the Triwizard Tournament, I presume."

"I do," Ab said. "It's something we're better off discussing inside."

Snape shook his head again. Locks of hair straggled into his flushed face and got stuck there in lank, feathery shapes, like decorative flourishes. "I simply mean the headmaster has other uses for me now."

Ab wondered if he imagined the tremor in those words. He waited a moment. "Come inside, lad."

Snape focussed intently on a chirping spiral of bindweed crawling up his arm like an affectionate snake. "I'm due back at the castle."

"Well, come for a drink when you're free, then. You don't need an excuse." Behind Ab, a spurt of tiny hoofbeats approached as one of the kids sprinted up and head-butted his calf with all its might. As it stumbled between his legs, he scooped it with a boot under its belly and lofted it into the air. Landing, it went off like a firecracker, bucking joyously around the yard. "I'll even open a new bottle for you," he threw in, the kid's high spirits somehow inclining him to a spendthrift gesture. He scratched his wand through the unpleasantly wet space beneath his beard, drying it. "No harm in a drink now and then between friends."

The boy hesitated, his smugness melted by the heat and his indecision exposed in flush and sweat and the grey hollows beneath his eyes. A thirsty look if ever Ab saw one. Ultimately, though, he simply turned on his heel, gripping the straining threads of bindweed and yanking them out by the roots. The gate shut behind him with a clack.

Other uses.

Ab cast a small cleaning spell between his legs, wincing as he uprooted a few hairs, and walked somewhat bow-legged toward the back door. He had a sneaking suspicion the boy had come for company, only to find Miles had got there first.

Inside, running water in the stuffy darkness, he wished he'd used his head and insisted Snape join him for a drink. Maybe even a bath, although that begged the question of why a professor with access to Hogwarts' superior plumbing would fold himself up to fit in an old enamel tub with a rusty drain.

Never mind. Other uses probably meant he was too old now for Albus to find him worth bedding, or whatever it was Albus did. The boy was in his thirties, so clearly the bloom was off the nettle. Besides, it wasn't Ab's look-out to always be cleaning up Albus' messes.

~~~


A week out from Christmas, Ab was just locking up when a voice at the threshold hissed, "Let me in." He edged the door open, wand cocked, and in the reflected snowlight saw hair darker than wine and a nose like a cracked bone. Snape came through, thin and cheerless, and a breathless sensation of evergreens and ice entered with him. The stars in the clear December sky pricked Ab's eyes. He shrugged and re-fastened the door.

His silent visitor prowled to the back of the room, Scourgified a table, and sat at it, shaking snow from his hair, winter robes steaming in the stuffy warmth. It had been a slow night for customers, and Ab happened to be on his third helping of Smoking Bishop, hot citrus and cheap port piping through his veins, nutmeg spicing his breath. Snape declined a cup and instead emptied his pockets of a silver strainer, a stash of sugar cubes, and a bottle of bitter, pale green liquid.

Ab summoned a glass and a water pitcher, scoffing, "So what was all that about not drinking?"

"I was young and naïve then." Snape measured intently and poured. "There's not a professor on staff who isn't a dipsomaniac in training."

He didn't object when Ab joined him at the table and rummaged out a pipe. They didn't speak again for another hour or so. Ab was content to let the talk lie, even though it was a fact that mulled wine loosened his tongue. He often sat like this in near-total darkness, alone with the greasy smell of the tallow candles; it took him back to his mother's kitchen, just as the smell of hops stirred faint memories of Mould-on-the-Would.

Leaning forward on his elbows, the Snape-goat sipped his wormwood and remained fixated on the candle flame as if trying to master the principle of burning. Near the bottom of his second glass, Ab wagered the candle flame started staring back.

Halfway through the third one, Snape put his face in his hands and laughed in that way people do when they're staving off hysteria, low and hopeless, trailing off with a whispered, "Fuck."

They were nigh on Christmas; a hand on his shoulder would be the decent thing. But it wouldn't change the fact that they were heading full-tilt toward another idiot war or that Albus was once more playing silly buggers with other people's lives. Neither would the way Ab's body pulsed right now, sluggish and sweet thanks to several lashings of the Bishop, or the fact that his mind kept returning to the bindweed halter.

He palmed the back of Snape's bent neck. Sure enough, bumps of vertebrae he could count with his thumb. "What is it, lad?"

"Not what," Snape mumbled, sounding peeved enough to spit. "Who."

Ab ignored the schoolboy impulse to joke about Dark Lords and their euphemisms. Jesting aside, it was as likely to be young Harry or Albus himself the Snape-Goat wished to spit on.

He scruffed the boy gently. "Why don't I just— "

Snape jerked out of his hold, suddenly bolt upright, electricity crackling off him as if his spine were a lightning rod and he'd just been struck. Ab reached out to steady him, but Snape knocked the chair over getting to his feet, panic flashing in his eyes. He pressed his left forearm to his face and bit it, groaning, "Fuck."

This wildness lasted barely a second, a scrabbling, instinctive urge to escape. Recovering, Snape motioned him to stay put, so Ab bent down to crush the dottle from his dropped pipe, smouldering under his chair. Snape stopped rifling through his robes and put a bulbous glass phial to his lips. Whatever the potion was, it forced him into abrupt sobriety. Ab waited, his own blood spiking in sympathy as Snape stood there panting and coughing, as he scraped himself together and then willed his way into anonymity, layer after layer of blankness progressively deadening his face until he looked like the coldest bastard on earth.

For the first time, Ab had an inkling of what his brother had done not merely to Snape, but for Snape. He'd saved the boy Snape had been from turning into this.

"Tell the headmaster," Snape started, and then gripped his arm again. Ab grunted to assure him he knew what to do, but it seemed Snape needed to talk. "Tell him I'm at a meeting," he said curtly, loudly, as if Ab were a servant. His voice sounded as if it had been rinsed in ice water to remove all stains of personality. He looked down his nose at the absinthe bottle and sneered. "Leave that part out."

"I'll keep it in a cupboard for you. No use letting it go to waste."

Snape made a disgusted noise and strode for the door. He yanked it open, and Ab remembered the sharp stars outside, the desolation of the buried street. The boy hesitated and glanced back over his shoulder, his dark eye giving nothing away, and Ab remembered another night when Snape had stared at him like that, only then he'd been a young punk no good at hiding his feelings. Apparently he'd learned.

The crack of Apparition echoed in the winter stillness. The door once more locked tight, Ab made tea. Then he blew out the candle and climbed the stairs with a heavy tread, nodding to Ariana as he entered the sitting room. The only light came from a bed of black and crimson coals on the hearth, and Ab went to stand at the frosted window, warming his lips in the vapours from his cup and staring down into the dark yard. Nothing stirred. He would almost have preferred to have his ears prickle. Hogsmeade glowed with a colourless, unearthly peace that disturbed his heart; the combination of snow and stars and moonlight made the world seem abandoned, as if wizardkind had vanished from this place long ago.

Joints stiff from standing stupidly in a draught, he turned from the sight and limped over to the chair facing the portrait. The ruddiness of the dying coals picked out the gold in Ariana's hair.

Ab ran a hand through his beard and wished he'd had the sense to cast his trace on the Snape-goat. Instead he'd sat there like a ninny, no help at all. Although what he thought he could do, an old tosser like him, once his ears started giving him hell—

He finished his tea and sucked on his bottom lip. "Boy's grown," he muttered, not expecting a reply. Ariana liked to sing, but only when there was no one else in the room. Ab knew she understood him, but she never spoke a word. But they'd never needed words to get along.

Low in spirits, he went next door and bundled himself into bed, fearing for the year that was almost upon them.

~~~


The war was breathing down all their necks, and Albus was in the thick of it, as always. Ab tried to keep out of it. He didn't attend Order meetings, and he didn't talk politics at the inn. In fact, it got where he went without talking for days at a time, unless you counted muttering and cursing at the goats. He wasn't sure what had become of the MacDuffy; probably taking his pleasure nearer to hand, or going without. People wisely stayed off the streets. Ab noticed that when his regulars did creep in, they drank more than they used to. Instead of swapping contraband and trading tips on surviving in the cracks and corners of society, they huddled in the Hog's Head on the dubious premise that it was too negligible a place for the purebloods to bother with.

He didn't expect Snape to show his face again, but there he was one night, the bad Knut turned up, his hood undone and his greasy hair all down his neck and flying around his sallow, smirking face. A few loiterers still nursed their single pints at the back, but apparently these were beneath his notice.

Snape had his choice of seats. It seemed everyone shrank into corners these days, uncomfortable with sitting like targets at empty tables in the middle of the floor. He alighted at the bar like a scavenging crow, his movements both sharp and dishevelled, subtly wrong in ways Ab couldn't pinpoint because he didn't know the man well enough. The dim light caught on something banked and burning in his eyes, primed to explode at the flick of a wand.

Since it was none of his business, Ab pulled a rag from his belt to wipe out a glass for him. Snape looked revolted and gave it a ringing tap with his wand. The streaks of grime on the inside disappeared, but the flamboyance of the gesture far exceeded the small offence. Maybe the fool was here to make a scene; somehow Ab doubted it was on Albus' orders, although Albus might be behind the restlessness that infected Snape's muscles. He didn't twitch, exactly, but his every move seemed to throw off the sort of scorched energy that lingers after a duel, especially in the crossfire of curses.

Several candles went out.

Ab frowned at Snape. At the back of the room, two customers stood up from their tables and quietly made for the door, heads down.

Shrugging, Ab uncorked a Spanish red, fixing Snape with a look that advised him to settle down. The bouquet was fruity, and the wine had a long finish. Snape might brew a faster-acting sedative, but Ab would wager his tasted better.

"That tattletale Lestrange hasn't shown her face in a while," he murmured, placing the full glass in front of Snape. The poor lady had been on his mind.

"And you'd better hope she doesn't," Snape said. "Unless you want your fine establishment to acquire a reputation for being haunted."

He tapped the glass again, turning the liquid clear.

"That's one of my better vintages," Ab growled. Bugger this. The fact that Snape was a bastard was Albus' problem, but the bastard's tone had been almost jaunty, and Ab didn't hold with treating some harmless old witch's death as a joke. He braced himself with a breath and peered at the colourless wine. "All right. What did you do to it?"

A swift, tight smile screwed up the corners of Snape's mouth. "Turned wine into water." He drank down half the glass in one swallow and ran his tongue over his lips. "My da was C of E, so I enjoy a bit of blasphemy now and then." He raised the glass in a mock toast, and another snap of tension flew off him. "Bugger all saviours."

Ab frowned. If this was a game, he'd eat Albus' socks. He decided to play along, Merlin knew why. Talk of fathers, maybe. "So you'd tup the Boy Who Lived?"

"Up yours," Snape said, toasting him again, but his cheeks hollowed like he was sucking a sore tooth.

"You prefer a withered old arse, then."

Snape emptied his glass with a flourish and stood up. "Depends whose it is." He leered at Ab, meanly. "What do I owe you?"

Blast. There was that tug: the desire to haul Snape upstairs and give him a good seeing-to. "On the house," he said, waving the bugger off. Snape stared at him openly, that hot, dark, volatile thing all over his face, so Ab showed him naked Albus again just to be rid of him. Snape baulked like a Thestral, then turned and billowed grandly out the door. This time there was no pause to glance back. Which was just as well, since he'd made bloody damn sure every eye in the place watched him go.

~~~


The next time, it was long after hours and Ab didn't want company, but he didn't have the heart to tell Snape to get lost. To be honest, he'd welcome any word from Albus at this point.

The sneaky bugger let himself in through the back door. Ab's wards had alerted him, and the dusty spyglass had confirmed the intruder's identity, so he didn't greet Snape with a hex, no matter how tempting it was. Once inside, Snape passed him by without a word and extinguished most of the candles. He proceeded to wander back and forth, threading between the tables and keeping to himself. At first Ab thought he was searching for something, but he didn't seem to be paying much attention to his surroundings, colliding more than once with the angled edge of a chair.

Finally, having flattened paths in the scattered straw and paced out his nerves, he stalked up to Ab. It had only been a few months since they'd seen each other, yet he looked shockingly older, worn and yellowed and clearly in the business of digging his own grave. Ab had no doubt Albus was at the root of it. They were all feeling the Grim's jaws around their throats, and Snape had the look of a favourite bone that Death took out and gnawed at leisure.

What made it worse was the slow roll of excitement deep in Ab's belly. This was a boy no longer but an utter bastard, and he'd be damn hard to break. He'd been cast into hell for a cause, knocked about and thoroughly tarnished and twisted without mercy into a tool. The signs of rough use were all over him, and Ab wanted a go at using him. He'd watched for years as Albus handled his bit of dirt, shaped him, bent him, stripped away extraneous loyalties, applied layers of stain so the boy would think his essence was forever ugly, until he'd got the man he wanted. Now Ab wanted him, too. He wanted to go over every inch of the tired, bony body and judge his brother's handiwork and touch Snape in places he knew Albus never would.

Sheer lunacy. Pen an old goat up with nothing but his hand to distract him and apparently he started gagging for it.

"So, that image," Snape whispered, holding himself back in the shadows, forever playing the sneak. "That one of Albus naked. Which you've shown me twice." Ab raised his eyebrows belligerently. "Was it a real memory?" Moving slowly, Snape brushed past him as he walked to the bar, where he turned and leaned provokingly like a Knockturn whore displaying his wares. It was a competitive profession; Ab almost advised him to stick to teaching.

Smiling, the bastard said, "Did you and your brother fuck?"

"Not like that, we didn't," Ab snapped back. Now he had a better look, he could tell Snape had downed a few before barging in on his privacy. His gait and stance were looser than usual—ah, that explained the walking into chairs—and though his eyelids were heavy, he seemed suffused with a sense of detached amusement. On the scale of inebriation, he barely rated a Billywig-sting. "You already have proof I know how to pound a pair of buttocks, but any fool can see you don't approach Albus like that."

"Tell me, then." Snape tilted his head back and closed his eyes. "Tell me how you approach Albus."

"Nothing to tell," Ab argued, but that's what everyone always said, wasn't it? He grumbled and went to rummage in cold storage for a dry cider. Snape waited, still leaning back, as if he'd fallen into a light doze. Ab settled in a creaky chair and packed his pipe. "Not much to tell," he conceded, holding his wand tip to the pipe bowl and puffing. "We explored the fields and woods around Godric's Hollow, and we explored each other." His throat went suddenly dry, and an unwelcome ache crept up his sinuses. Well, he'd had a feeling; that's what the cider was for. He drank and then sat rubbing the fizz out of his nose. "We were two randy boys. Of course we shared our bodies. We shared everything else, at least until Albus' vanity ran away with him. Might as well have put his head in a bindweed halter."

He blew a stream of smoke and looked around at the interior of the Hog's Head, shabby and grotty and full of twenty years of memories, a sanctuary recognisable only to a few.

"He wanted to teach me what he'd learned. Most of the shite that got him excited made as much sense to me as convoluted theories for pissing in pots. I had no aptitude for it. But this one thing I was good at, and Albus was patient with me and my ignorance." He stroked his beard, reminiscing. Snape's eyes were open, unwavering, watching him with uncanny intensity, his face unreadable. Ab teased the cool lip of the cider just inside his mouth, his teeth clinking against the glass as he said, "He's a good teacher, as I'm sure you know."

"Only if he believes you're worth teaching," Snape replied in a flat, cold voice. "You are aware he's dying, aren't you?"

A wave of shock rolled up from Ab's gut, and he knew: this was why Snape was here. The pain crawled to the tips of his fingers and left him shivering.

He thrust himself out of the chair and pointed his wand. "Get out."

Elbows hooked over the top of the bar, body curved to distribute his weight in case he needed a fast defence, the bastard didn't move. His pose echoed paintings Ab had seen at the beginning of the century: a raven-haired, cloth-of-gold courtesan draped in the languid angles of an opium dream. But in paintings they were always beautiful, and they didn't exist only to rip your heart out.

"He's the last of your family, old man. Do you love him?"

"What right do you have to ask me that?" Ab bellowed. He had a couple inches on Snape in height and outweighed him by at least three stone. Marching forward, he pressed the bastard back into the bar's wooden rim, hoping it bruised his spine. Snape arched but otherwise stayed still, radiating tension, his eyes mocking and watchful. Ab sensed the brittleness in his body. He was pretty sure he could snap Snape's bones with his bare hands.

When Ab kissed him, crushing Snape against the counter, whiskers scratching his pale skin, it was like opening a cupboard: the rotting fragrance of a sherry cask with a slow leak, an odd mixture of wine-soaked woodiness and fermentation, turpentine and lime. If it was slightly rancid, Ab couldn't say he minded. Blame it on the fumigating effects of—Merlin's knickers!—twenty years of steaming cauldrons soured, as Ab now knew, by the dungeon-odour of old grief. It was a smell with which Ab was entirely at home.

He got a leg under and hoisted Snape's nethers, pushing him to lie back over the bar. Snape made a pained noise and butted determinedly into the kiss like a kid to the teat, selfish, sucking, using his teeth to get more of Ab into his mouth. One hand groped up his arm and pulled at his hair, the other swept down to paw Ab's arse as Snape humped him in an awkward, off-balance frenzy.

Then the frenzy reversed, and Snape scrabbled and pried and jabbed a knee up to shove him off. Ab staggered back as Snape's boots hit the floor. They glowered at each other, Snape keeping his balance by convulsively gripping the counter to either side. He inhaled through his nose like a tea kettle about to boil and snarled, "Do you?"

Ab would have Stupefied him then and there if he'd thought it might get him out of this conversation. Eyes front, because he wasn't about to trust the bastard again, he shuffled backward, one hand out for the cider.

"Love him? After all he's done?" He sat down hard at the table, wand over one knee. The grimy shadows of the room drifted consolingly around him. "How do you expect me to answer that?"

"Oh thank fuck." The stiffness drained from Snape, and he pushed himself wearily upright, one hand kneading the sides of his face as if his teeth hurt. "At least I'm not the only one."

Ab studied him. He was acutely aware of the ache in his bones, the old timbers of the inn groaning quietly around them, and his brother up the road dying, as Ab had never really believed he would. "Come to bed with me."

Snape tucked his wand away, adjusted his sleeves, and shook his head just enough that his hair rocked back and forth like a curtain in a draught. He started to say something, then reached for an empty glass instead and balanced it on his outstretched palm. A second later it shattered spectacularly, as if something inside its very molecules had exploded. Glass fragments spilled tinkling into the dirty straw around the barstools.

Snape didn't look at Ab, merely stretched his lips into a thin, viperish smile. "That's all the pleasure either of us will get out of it. Believe me, you'll thank me later."

Ab doubted it. He'd never pegged Snape for a coward, but perhaps that was missing the point. Snape had got what he came for. It was just like him to leave Ab wanting.

A week later, on a tranquil June night with a million and one stars in the endless sky, the news came down from Hogwarts.

~~~


Ab knew. He lurked at the back during his brother's funeral, peering at the solemn, tear-stained faces. He shook his head at the White Tomb and bristled fiercely at anyone who dared to approach him.

When he heard that Severus Snape had been appointed headmaster of Hogwarts to replace the late Albus Dumbledore, it didn't matter what he knew. It didn't help. He kept the inn closed all that day and spent it drinking in Ariana's room, speaking of Albus in short, angry bursts. The name of Snape didn't sully his tongue at all.

He had fewer and fewer customers as the year shrank toward the solstice. Most days the inn stood empty, and Ab fed his goats and frowned over the fact that none of them were breeding. No culls this year. No kids, period. Even so, the herd fussed and shat and gambolled and went about their business as if Voldemort didn't exist and Death Eaters hadn't taken over the Ministry. Ab tried to follow their example. His ears prickled sometimes, but since no one was allowed out after curfew, it was less of a problem than it had been.

Despite that, he knew what he knew, even though he didn't breathe a word of it to the Longbottom boy. When a cold breeze sighed through the bar one early January night, sweeping in from the back and carrying a whiff of goat and old wine barrels, it only confirmed that knowledge. Even so, the hex he'd been saving for exactly this moment flashed across the open space, glittering like a feather of flame across rows of decanters and bottles, a splash of colour in the candlelit dusk that flared twice as bright when it burst against Snape's Shield Charm.

As the dazzle faded and the drab room briefly revealed faded back into shadow, a quiet voice sneered, "Ah, the last remaining Dumbledore. I gather that's your way of saying you want nothing to do with me."

Ab thought he'd already made this choice and was surprised by how hard it was to face the truth. He clenched his wand but wasn't quite successful at unclenching his jaw. It was here the glass had shattered that night, and he wondered what degree of power was required to make a human being explode in the same way.

"I haven't much time," Snape said sharply, which in Ab's opinion was just begging to be hexed again. "I assume you've spoken with your brother?"

Ab closed his eyes, a stupid risk to take if he turned out to be wrong, but Snape merely snarled a humourless laugh. "No, of course you haven't. Misled again by a sodding portrait. I'll go to my fucking grave on the strength of Albus Dumbledore's dropped hints."

"Get in here," Ab managed to say. "We should talk. Although I'll go on record now as not liking these plans. Plans that take for granted the murder of innocents. The torture of children."

Snape dispelled his Disillusionment charm and waited to see what Ab would do next. When Ab kept his wand down, he snorted. "Didn't you know? Our opinions of the plans are irrelevant. We're simply expected to carry them out."

"Let's take this upstairs," Ab said.

Snape hung back and let him go up first, and he must have cast a Featherweight charm because his steps on the treads made no sound at all.

Ab led Snape into the sitting room. The winter was like iron in his marrow, and he needed the fire's heat. Snape stopped beneath the portrait and stared up, firelight climbing and falling over the bones of his face.

"Your sister?" When Ab grunted confirmation, he curled his lip. "So Albus could have come here any time he wanted to talk to her. He didn't need to put that blasted ring on his finger." He dragged a hand angrily through his tangled hair. "What a bloody hypocrite."

The curse was flying from Ab's wand before he even recognised the rage he felt. Snape cast Protego instantly as if he did this twenty times a day; the curse splintered a chair leg. Ab pointed his wand again. He hadn't shed tears for his brother, but he wouldn't stand there and suffer an insult to his memory.

A cry from the portrait stopped him. Ariana was almost kneeling, her arms held out in mute appeal.

Ashamed, Ab lowered his wand and left himself unguarded. Snape tracked him, his narrow face bloodless with anger. "When we needed him most, he succumbed to a stupid, selfish impulse. It was absolutely fucking irresponsible, and I told him at the time what I thought of it."

"If you objected so strongly to him dying," Ab said, "then why did you kill him?"

Snape slanted an opaque glance at Ariana and softened his voice. "When one gets into bed with Narcissa Malfoy and Bellatrix Lestrange, it's inevitable that someone will die. Frankly, I had expected it to be me."

"So you threw him over for a chance at the Malfoy woman and you can stand there and call him stupid and selfish? After years of sharing his bed and his confidence?" To hell with wands. Ab would take pleasure in physically striking Snape to the ground. "The only thing stupid about Albus was the trust he placed in you."

"It's a metaphor, old man. I'd sooner masturbate with a Blast-Ended Skrewt than go anywhere near Bellatrix. As for Albus' bed and his confidence—those were your fantasies, not mine. Your brother never confided one bloody thing more to me than he absolutely had to. And he certainly never— "

Turning away, Snape held his hands out to the fire. They weren't completely steady. Ab wanted to take satisfaction in that, but he didn't need to look down at his own hands to know what condition they were in. He held them clenched tight, pretending they were under control.

"It appears you don't know Albus as well as you thought. I appealed to him as much as Bellatrix does to me."

Ab doubted that. Not that there was any way to prove it now.

"You wonder why I killed him? Because I've spent seventeen years doing everything he told me to do." Snape glanced over his shoulder, and the shadows in his face were like sediment in a cup, where the only future one could predict was death. "Everything."

No.

Ab understood, of course. If Albus had been there, he probably wouldn't have been able to keep himself from breaking the old deceiver's nose again.

"I had thought," Snape began, scowling, but then twisted restlessly away and walked over to the window. Ab waited. There wasn't much he could do for Snape except let him talk.

"Fuck dying," Snape blurted out. "I have no desire to die. But I don't really see myself surviving this war. And I always— "

He stopped again, looking deeply uncomfortable, and turned his back on Ab. The flames crackled in the silence. To Ab's surprise, he could hear Ariana humming softly. "As you know," Snape told the window, "both sides have reason to kill me. I could die anytime, anywhere. A bed in the infirmary or a floor in the dungeons. A ditch. A bloodbath. It doesn't matter. But I always… " He roamed back toward the fire's light and heat, and his lips twitched, teeth briefly bared like an animal bluffing in the face of oncoming attack. "I counted on him being there. I counted on him fucking saying 'thank you' or, God forbid, well done so I could fucking go in peace. The manipulative prick owed me that!"

He swung on Ab and grasped his arm. "You ask why I killed him? Isn't it obvious? Because there is no end to sacrifice. You can't suddenly stop and say you don't want to. You can't go only partway there. You have to sacrifice everything, and keep sacrificing, on and on. No losing your nerve. No turning back before the end. He taught me that. Albus fucking Percival fucking Wulfric fucking Brian fucking shitting Dumbledore."

With each obscenity, his wand sparked, and Ab touched Snape's hand to get his attention. Snape glared at him and then at his wand, and turned the tip of it inward, point toward his heart. "It reaches the point where sacrificing oneself starts to look like the only sodding relief left."

"Well, now," Ab said. "Suppose you put that away. I have another idea." He crossed to a cabinet, and by time he'd extracted a glass and a mostly full bottle of firewhisky, Snape's wand was nowhere to be seen.

With brusque competence, Ab transfigured a candleholder into a second glass and sloshed whisky into it. "No better time than the present, eh? If there's any time at all." He levitated the glass over to Snape and poured himself a shot, tilting it until the whisky glittered with firelight. "To my brother," he said, "who loved— " He meant to rattle off a list—socks, chess, boiled sweets, esoteric theory, the moulding of young minds, wizardkind in the abstract, and pretty boys in particular—but Snape's face was papered over with a thin-skinned anguish, and Ab regretted his attempt to be clever.

"Who loved," he repeated, "more than anything to be right."

The shot glass sailed back across the room, untouched. Thinking Snape had misunderstood his intent, Ab peered over the rims of his spectacles and from under his bushy eyebrows. Snape shook his head and counted off on his fingers.

"Monk's hood in my morning tea. Deadly nightshade in my evening wine. Poisonous toadstools in my midday meals. Ashwinder egg in my personal shampoo. You'll have to forgive me, but my paranoia forbids it." He produced a phial from his robes, examined the seal and popped it open with a quick spell, then raised the small container with a sarcastic flourish. "To Albus." As one, they slugged back their respective drinks, Snape coughing slightly as his went down. "At the cost of inflating his ego for all eternity, in this instance let's hope he was right."

Ab shelved his glass, then walked over, letting it be known with every step what he intended to do, and gentled Snape's head between his hands. The taste of Snape's mouth was unexpected; certainly not like any spirits Ab had ever drunk. He pulled back, frowning, and licked his lips.

"Sour grapes," Snape said drily and smirked. "An analgesic, actually. What better to drink in memory of Albus than a headache potion?"

A flush of colour showed in his waxy skin, and his deep weariness was smudged with the slightest touch of debauchery. Interest stirring, Ab reached down to get a feel for him, squeezing the soft, full sac through Snape's robes and rubbing the heel of his hand over rising flesh.

"Enough." Snape glanced up at Ariana and steered Ab's hands away from him. "I'm already late getting back. Besides, you're just looking for traces of your brother, old man. Those last moments I spent with him before he died."

It was true, of course, but Ab thought that if Snape didn't understand that a man can have more than one desire, one motive, one regret, it was probably too late to teach him.

He held up his hands to show he was letting go without a fight. "One last question, Headmaster. Do you remember that message? The one I told you to deliver to Albus?" Snape stared at him for a long moment, and Ab saw the second the memory dawned. "I don't suppose you still remember what he said."

Snape frowned down at the fire. "Merlin, I haven't thought of that in years." He continued gazing into the flames until Ab reckoned it was time to get him headed back to Hogwarts. Before he could break the trance, Snape said slowly, "It's not my place to apologise for my brother, but I'm afraid Aberforth is having his little joke. He's confusing his tastes for mine." The imitation was credible, and for a moment Ab choked up. Patches of blotchy pink crept over Snape's face as he continued, "Aberforth is the one with the stamina, I'm afraid. His pursuits are rather robust."

Out of respect for the attempt, Ab let a few seconds pass. Then he laid a hand on Snape's thin shoulder. "He never said that, did he."

A corner of Snape's mouth turned up. "No."

"You never told him, did you?" Snape remained silent, and Ab chuckled. "Coward."

It was the wrong thing to say. Snape pulled away and searched the mantelpiece for Floo powder. "I assume this is connected to the headmaster's quarters?" he said sharply.

Ab nodded. He wondered how often Albus had been tempted to smack Snape on the arse. Snape hesitated, a mound of green powder growing sticky in his palm "I didn't have that," he said suddenly. "The permission to be casual. Especially not the permission to be crude. I would have thrown away all the gains I'd made. I'd worked too hard to convince Albus I was worthy of respect." He pulled his robes tighter, as if in anticipation of the cold and danger awaiting him outside. "Now I wish I could have seen his face."

He threw the powder into the flames, saying, "The Headmaster of Hogwarts' private rooms." The second before he stepped through, bent over so the fire washed his skin in a vaguely demonic gold, he jerked a look at Ab and said, "By the way, today's my birthday. Thank you for not killing me."

Ab didn't sleep much that night. He lay awake in his single bed thinking of Albus and Snape and himself and mourning all the things that could have been and weren't, and cursing all three of them for going most of their lives without.

~~~


It was like living in a ghost town now, with the Ministry fallen and poor Harry constantly rumoured to be in Death Eater hands. Well, one way to look at it was that folks were merely ghosts who hadn't died yet, and that was how Hogsmeade felt: unsure of its status as a living, breathing thing.

Every now and then a horrible caterwauling broke out after curfew, and Ab wished luck and a bolthole to whatever brave or foolish bastard had brought the patrol down around his ears.

He closed up early of a night, since harbouring customers after the cut-off hour violated Voldemort's rule of law. This left him too much time to brood, but also time to help out Longbottom and his crew if matters got bad or bloody at school. Young Neville's staunchness made Ab hate Snape a little, although he supposed if Snape truly served his master, the boy would have long since been dead.

One evening he was in the kitchen putting together a sandwich that was more horseradish than beef when a wild prickling in his ears made him drop the loaf. He was already halfway to the door when the rims of both ears began to burn. Being prudent, Ab strode to a sightline where he could cast a heavier ward on the front door and then ran for the back.

When he threw open the door, he expected to hear turmoil and bleating and the confused drumming of hooves as the whole herd milled in panic. He expected dust and maybe shouts or barking from a possible intruder. Not dead silence.

It was quiet. He strode into the yard, wand out, and felt the dust get up his nose. Far, far off in the night, a goat nickered, or perhaps he only imagined it. The gate was off its hinges and stood wide open. All along the fence line, straggly heaps of bindweed had been torn down and trampled.

Pulling on his ears, he walked through the empty pen, the silent haymow. The prickling had started to fade, not all at once but in spots. He could tell the herd had been separated, scattered. Had they been chased? Led? There was no way of knowing. He went to the gate and hesitated. He could have picked one to follow and left the others, but he already knew it was a lost cause. The heat in his ears, the urgent summoning, went out bit by bit until there was nothing.

He stared out into the dark street, his heart still racing from the shock. As far as he could tell, Hogsmeade was deserted, but he knew if he stepped across that threshold the shriek of curfew would give him away. Hands trembling with delayed anger, he levitated the gate back across the gaping hole in the fence and decided not to give the Death Eaters a reason.

That was another night he didn't sleep. He never saw the little buggers again.

~~~


It was barely a quarter hour since Harry Potter and his friends scooted up through the tunnel to the school, spreading in their wake a brewing, boiling tension and the certainty that the battle was finally here. All of Albus' plans would either bear fruit tonight or they would destroy the best of a generation. Ab looked forward to the fight; he couldn't leave the children to do this alone, and he owed the Dark Lord for taking away the few last things he treasured.

Downstairs, he secured the bar and warded the bottles against random smashing, meanwhile trying to think ahead to anything else the children's army might need. He was so keyed up that he felt rather than heard the disturbance upstairs, vibrating down through the beams and planks of the inn. Worried that some of the students had come through and needed help, he Apparated directly to the corridor outside.

Snape was standing in front of Ariana's portrait, his wand tracing lines of magic over its surface. Ab raised his wand, caught between guarding the students' secrets and concern over what Snape's sudden appearance might mean.

"Fuck." Snape lowered his arm. "He's already gone." He whirled on Ab, every line of his body taut, the tool become a weapon. "Potter's on his way to the castle, isn't he?"

"Probably already there," Ab said warily, once again doubting what should have been certain by now and wondering if he should try to disarm Snape.

"I need to see him." Snape's voice was smooth and controlled, trembling on the edge of Imperius.

"Can't help you," Ab said curtly, watching carefully for any tell that Snape was about to whip up his wand and cast.

"Ah, but you can," Snape said, and Ab saw that the dark thing he'd glimpsed in Snape that first day had been set free, had come forth and spread its wings, sharing its strength, the dark power of sacrifice that would stop at nothing. This was Snape ready to fight and die, and it seemed to have purged him of the bitter anger that was forever eating his guts out.

He walked up to Ab, both of them tense with the knowledge that the minutes deciding their world's fate were unfolding without them. "Listen to me. This isn't according to plan, but fuck the plan. At this point, I don't care. Albus' habit of keeping secrets has left too much to chance." For a fleeting moment, his eyes flickered as if they wanted to close, and it could be that his hands trembled, but Ab wasn't sure. Snape said, his voice almost inaudible, "Harry Potter must die."

Ab listened. He had no choice. With an opening like that, the fate hanging in the balance might even be decided in this room. If Snape was lying, it would be up to Ab to strike him down.

Snape gave the whole story in a hurried whisper: horcruxes and a mother's sacrifice, the boy's life tied to Voldemort, Albus' treachery in raising an innocent for the slaughter. He saw love in there, too, every time Snape hesitated and swallowed, the strain of the past wound tightly around his heart.

"I may not reach Potter in time to inform him of his fate." Snape tilted his head up, fierce, defiant, indifferent to Ab's judgement because he'd already judged himself. "If I don't, someone else has to. I consider it poetic justice that that someone be a Dumbledore."

He turned away to give Ab space and braced his hands on the table, leaning wearily forward. "Convenient, isn't it, that he timed his death so as to weasel out of telling Potter the truth. He should have been the one to destroy the boy's faith in him." He shuddered almost imperceptibly and massaged his closed eyelids. "It would have served them both right."

Ab scrubbed a sleeve over his wet eyes, once again brought low by his brother's carelessness with the lives of those who trust him. "And why should I believe you?"

"Because, putting aside your charming refusal to accept that Albus channelled his entire libido into his noble calling, you knew him. You know him. You know he would do exactly this, sacrifice one child to save a thousand, even if he loved that child above all others." The corner of Snape's lips twitched in a resigned sneer. "And although I don't claim to understand it, even I must admit that Albus loved Potter."

"I've seen that boy," Ab said fiercely. "My brother never touched him."

"Your brother never touched anyone," Snape exploded, then quickly collected himself. "He wasn't a degenerate. Unlike present company."

"What if I refuse?"

"Then I'm back to praying I find Potter before the Dark Lord does." He straightened up and crossed to the window, standing to one side and peering out. "I have to get back."

"How?" Ab demanded. "The Floo network is shut down. There are anti-Apparition wards all over Hogsmeade."

"Fly," Snape said simply.

"I've no brooms." That wasn't strictly true, but Ab reckoned the children might have a better use for them.

"How fortunate for me that I don't need one, then. I had a friend." Snape reached up and unlatched the casement, swinging it slowly open. "She taught me how to fly. It was my first real experience of happiness, Aberforth. Even now, when I'm alone and in the air, it's the closest I come to the sensation of freedom." He stared out at the sky, and the breeze that cooled Ab's skin fluttered through Snape's hair. "I like to imagine this is what death will feel like."

"After this is over," Ab said, approaching him, unable to stay away, "come back here and I'll rough you up so thoroughly you'll walk crooked for a week."

Snape snorted. "I can't imagine why I wouldn't jump at the offer, but I expect events will delay me."

"No need to always be so cold, lad." Ab reached out and pressed a hand to the back of Snape's neck. "I know a hundred and one ways to warm you."

"Don't touch me." Snape's voice was so furious it fended him off more effectively than a physical blow. Ab backed off, a sharp disappointment lancing his insides. Snape kept his eyes trained on the night sky. "You and Albus. You and your prurient assumptions. Both of you convinced I'd made some sort of sexual bargain with the other."

He muttered a spell and turned, wadding up the heavy material of his robes in clenched hands and pulling, and to Ab's complete shock they split down the middle, swishing open and exposing everything: Snape's sallow, naked chest, shadowy bare belly, heavy, hooded prick, wiry legs incongruous in black boots. Ab had an impression of hair in the usual places and nipples dark in the firelight (he was a nipple man, no reason to deny it), all of it quite ordinary, paler than some and skinnier than most. Ordinary.

Snape held his robes open and gazed down at his body as if baffled by it. "This is it, old man. All there is. All there's ever been." Behind the black, straggly veil of greasy strands, his eyes bored into Ab's. He said in a queer, uninflected voice, "I have not been touched since I was seventeen."

Ab's heart hammered painfully. He said harshly, "I've been a fool."

"And what does that make me?" Snape gave a sharp, snarling bark of laughter and yanked the black fabric shut, the robes melting together over his nakedness as if sealing a wound. A dim memory swam back to Ab of the boy who'd sat downstairs at the bar so many years ago. He'd been right about the boy being a sneak and wrong about nearly everything else.

"I have a halter," he said, knowing this just made him even more of a fool. "A bindweed halter. I always wanted to put it on you, lad. So you wouldn't have to do anything. So I could do for you."

"I know," Snape said. "I would have let you."

He crouched slightly, wand raised, and on wild impulse Ab cast the trace. To let Snape go was to refuse his brother's last gift. When Snape spun around, glaring, Ab rapped out, "For kids who haven't the sense to save themselves."

Snape craned to see down past his shoulder and said drily, "I suppose I should be grateful you didn't spell my arse red."

"I'll do for you." He waited until the sceptical face turned to him again. "I'll do for you what my brother can't. I'll be there."

"Is that a threat?"

"What it is," Ab glowered at him, "depends entirely on you."

Snape's eyes gleamed. "So you'd hold the hand of the man who murdered your brother and comfort him in death?"

"I'd go farther. I'd hold the hand of he who was faithful to one who did not love him."

"We had our chance," Snape said after a moment. "Neither of us took it."

"Merlin's left cheek, lad," Ab shouted. "There's no shame to loving more than one person in your life."

Snape turned his head and smiled nastily. "Did you? Did Albus?"

He braced his boot on the sill, bent forward, and leaped.

Ab reached the window with arms flung wide, hands grabbing hold of the cracked wooden frame to either side. Against a backdrop of stars, another kind of darkness rippled, suspended high above the town rooftops, flowing fast in the direction of Hogwarts.

Ab took deep, gulping breaths of the cool May air, delaying a moment longer as he watched this strange miracle recede until he could no longer distinguish it from the surrounding night. Briefly he pressed his forehead to his left biceps, nearly knocking his spectacles off and losing them over the sill. The pungent, faded reek of beer soaking the sleeve of his shirt comforted him and cleared his head like smelling salts. The urge to bellow like a mad bull passed.

Pulling back, he closed and locked the shutters and turned to survey the sitting room. Downstairs was already spelled as tight as he could make it. The Order would have to settle for it being a waystation, not a sanctuary, but it would serve.

Wearily he extinguished the flames in the grate.

"If only, through some fluke of the Sorting Hat's percipience, Severus had been placed in Gryffindor."

Above him, awash with light, Albus stood at the portrait's edge staring down, familiarly touching Ariana's shoulder and glowing with omniscience. Ab flexed his fingers, but the urge to hex or punch faded quickly. Aye, Albus didn't know a damned bit about his Snape-goat, and Ab could live with that.

"If yon Snape hadn't gone bad and betrayed his love, there'd be no boy saviour to die for you now," he said.

"It's not me Harry will die for," Albus chided gently, and then, with a curious, satisfied smile, "In fact, I don't believe Harry will die at all."

"But others will," Ab said. He couldn't stop himself from fingering the lobe of his ear, which he fancied already felt a bit heated. "Others will, damn you. Your lad's isn't the only life that matters."

"No, of course not. I'm— "

"Shut your gob, now. Shut it." He brandished his wand, and once more felt shame when Ariana shrank back. He swallowed. "I expect there'll be other members of your Children's Army coming through before long. I'll go down and see to it all's quiet and prepared." Ab stumped over to the doorway. He was used to being alone, had learned to prefer it, in fact, but he didn't welcome the return of that swollen, painful presence in his chest, a rock that would not be budged.

He heard Albus sigh. "I only meant to say I'm sorry."

Ab squeezed his wand's handle until he trusted himself to speak. "Don't be. He's not your sacrifice to make."

He glanced back, knowing it was a bad idea to yearn toward the dead when trying to save the living, but the heart-stabbing sight of his brother and sister standing hand in hand, matching expressions of concern on their faces, one wrinkled and one a child, one gracefully tall, one never fully grown, one whitened like the tomb that housed his remains, the other forever rosy and golden, smote him in a place that had never stopped grieving. It was a childish place, one he'd tried to leave behind. His earlier conversation with young Harry and his friends had stirred up the hurt over events he couldn't change and still couldn't accept.

"If Potter is your chosen one," he said gruffly, "then Snape's mine. If your boy doesn't have to die, I don't see why mine should, either." He pinched first one ear, then the other. Of course they were prickling. Snape had flown straight back to the danger zone. "Less talk," he muttered into his beard. "More speed."

"When you're ready," Albus said gently, "we will be here to help you through the tunnel."

Ab nodded, wishing it were truly possible to feel his old, rough hands in each of theirs, and descended the rickety, unswept staircase, to sit in dim squalor awaiting word from child soldiers, beside a candle that smelled like the fry-ups in his mother's kitchen. He had no choice but to wait. The night would pass, and evacuees would come through the portrait, and Ab would join the Battle of Hogwarts and run around like a mad old goat, and too many would die but Potter and his army of innocents would triumph. And through every second and every senseless death,Ab would wait for the moment, would stop and pay attention to the prickling in his ears, would feel them burn, but he would wait, and fight, hoping he could do for Snape what Albus failed to do, waiting for the moment when he knew at long last it was time to go.


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