FIC: "A Lonely Road" for the HP Beholder Community Recipient: The hp_beholder Community Author/Artist: ??? Title: A Lonely Road Rating: R Pairings: Severus Snape/Aberforth Dumbledore Word Count: 4,800 Warnings/Content Information (Highlight to View): *anal intercourse, age disparity, angst, alcohol, violence towards an animal, reference to a canon death (Albus Dumbledore's).*. Summary: Two men. Dark times. Conversations which fail to communicate; communication through silence. Author's/Artist's Notes: Many thanks to my beta, E.
Outside, the clouds covered most of the moon. It might have been full or it might have been almost full. Inside the pub the candles kept being blown out by the draughts which the wind pushed through cracks in the plaster and loose-fitting windows. The fire glowed and smoked, but blazed no light. As ever, there was only one man working there. When he had nobody to serve and no barrels to change and no glasses to polish, he relit the candles. His movements were unhurried.
An old couple sat in silence at their usual table. The witch shuffled her tarot cards and laid them out in sevens on the table; the wizard stared into the bowl of his pipe between puffs on it. Their drinks sat ignored on the table between them.
Near the door stood a man in a wet cloak, the hood low over his eyes, a small leather-bound book in his hand. He sipped firewhiskey and read. The smell of the wet wool drifted further into the room every time the door was opened. He relit the candle on the shelf beside him himself rather than wait for the barman to notice.
Sitting at the bar, two toothless men held a muttered conversation which inspired such disgust in them that they spat tobacco onto the floor every few minutes. They slouched low on their loose-jointed stools. One was black, the other white, but other than that they were indistinguishable. The barman kept their glasses filled with thick, dark liquid, and chalked up their tabs accordingly.
The man in the corner was not a regular. He was drinking elderflower gin and grimacing at each sip, yet he had managed half a bottle already. So far he had only spoken to order his drink by its brand name. He was young, but not as young as he had once been when he had first come in here as a schoolboy. His pale face was expressionless, much of it obscured by his lank, black hair; his dark eyes were lowered.
The barman set off on one of his slow tours of his establishment, aiming a limp wand at the candles to relight them wordlessly. He scratched at his chin under the long, grey beard. He reached the young man in the corner, who was startled from his thoughts by the presence of another and made the mistake, hastily rectified, of making eye contact.
"You going to tell me what he's done now?" asked the barman in a whisper.
The young man shook his head, making the lank curtain of his hair swing in the newly refreshed candlelight.
"Thought not." The landlord exhaled as he bent forward to wipe a grimy cloth over the young man's table. "Knew it would be my no good brother."
"I can't say anything." He spoke through gritted teeth.
"Ready for another?"
The old barman opened his mouth to speak. Instead he exhaled heavily into his beard. He picked up an empty glass and returned to the bar to refill it. The young man walked up to the bar to collect it. The toothless old men stopped talking to watch him. Then the black man spat onto the floor and as he crammed fresh tobacco into his mouth his companion turned back to him to mutter low.
"You know how he is," the young man said quietly as he took his drink.
"Better than most do," agreed the barman with a nod. "Looks like you could do with talking." He coughed. His chest rattled up beneath the cough.
"Wish I could. Just got to carry this."
"Don't let him…" the old man started. He wiped at the counter.
"You should –" he took a drink. "You could – I mean I think he could do with—"
"He's to come to me. I'll not go to him. He knows why."
They stood in silence as the young man finished his drink. Then he returned to his corner with another.
When he left at the end of the night the barman said to him, "I hope it helps you sleep."
"So do I," replied the young man.
They met next in brighter light, in a corridor at the school. The walls were stone; the old man rested his head against it. His long grey hair and long grey beard lay against the grey stone.
"Have you seen him yet?" asked the Potions master, all dark work robes now which made him look a little older than he had done at the pub.
The old man – out of his element, less sure of himself now – shook his head. His fingers stretched for the grimy bar cloth which was not there. "What is he going to tell me?"
The Potions master shook his head. "Who knows? I couldn't tell you if I knew. He needs to tell you himself."
"Just a hint. I swore I wouldn't be part of his manipulations again. He's too clever at it. Too clever for all our goods. If you tell me first then I can decide on my reaction and he'll not surprise it out of me."
Long, black hair swung another shake of the head, looking dirtier in the brighter light. "I can't tell what he'll tell you and what he won't. You know how he is. I don't know which parts he wants you to know, nor how much of that he's hidden from me. Just go up there. Listen to him. Let him have his—"
"No. I don't care how impressed the rest of the world is now. I knew him. I've known him too long. I'll not let him play me."
"Then just listen. Don't react. Don't look in his eyes and don't reply. But listen to him. He hasn't summoned you in all these years—"
"Wouldn't kill him to come to the pub, to talk to me there. Would it? All the galleons he's put Rosmerta's way all these years, when he knows what he owes me."
"Knowing Albus, it couldn't be repaid in coins anyhow," muttered the Potions Master.
The old man, the Headmaster's brother, pushed himself away from the wall, stood upright and tall, ran a hand through his long grey hair and another through his long grey beard. "You'll not tell me?" he checked.
Clear blue eyes met shuttered black ones.
"Only he knows what he's going to tell you."
He swept his teaching robes about him and strode down the corridor. The old man stood at the gargoyle, silently mouthing the password, preparing to speak it. His hand squeezed the dishcloth which was not there.
Months later, Aberforth sat at the back of the congregation at his brother's funeral, glaring at every speaker, lost in his own thoughts.
The young Potions Master was not there, for obvious reasons.
Headmaster Snape threw open the front door of the Hog's Head. Aberforth backed out through the door behind the bar to encounter Neville coming down the stairs. He placed his palm against the boy's chest and jerked his head up the stairs. Neville silently moved back up. Aberforth walked back into the bar and said loudly, "Good afternoon, Professor Snape. Without your companions today? Is it the ginger mead or the elderflower gin today?"
"A small ale if you please."
"A half pint of our finest ale for the Headmaster," the landlord muttered in his more usual, quieter tone.
The Head cast a suspicious glance around the bar as he reposted, "Your customary rancid swill will be fine. I'm sure that's what I'll be given anyway."
"I don't want no trouble," said the Landlord. When Snape came to take his change, however, Aberforth grabbed him hard by his bony wrist and spoke close to his ear. Snape's dark eyes sharpened and checked the room as Aberforth whispered, "I don't know everything, but I'm not stupid. It's a lonely road you're walking."
Snape jerked backwards; Aberforth let go of him. For a moment their eyes met: clear blue and deep black.
Snape drank a mouthful of ale. He grimaced. "An occasional cleaning charm on the pipes wouldn't be too much to ask," he sneered as he swept away to the corner table.
The old woman slapped seven more tarot cards onto the table. She looked over to the empty seat opposite; her husband had been taken in by the Ministry as an unregistered Muggle-born.
It was more than a fortnight later that the knock came on the back door as the last remaining Mr Dumbledore tidied up for the night. The black toothless old man looked up sharply; his companion was slumped on his shoulder.
"Best sup up," Aberforth advised him. "I'll see who it is."
A cloaked figure stood in the dark alleyway. Black eyes met blue. Snape drew back his hood slightly but Aberforth had already identified him.
"You are closed for the night?" Snape checked.
"I've a few finishing off. You'd best wait in the shadows."
The two old men were shuffling towards the Floo when Aberforth came back into the bar. They looked over to him.
"Just a neighbour. One of me goats got out again," Aberforth muttered.
They nodded and sighed relief, their shoulders relaxing down in unison.
"See you tomorrow, sir," said one of them. It was impossible to tell which one. Aberforth nodded to them both. He scanned the room; it was empty. Best to check. Some of the regulars became such permanent furnishings that some nights he forgot to chuck them out. He bolted the front door before heading through the bar and upstairs. There was no movement around the portrait in the sitting room now. He sealed it for safety and went back to open the back door. They exchanged no words, but Aberforth jerked his head and Snape walked in.
"You'll want a drink," said the landlord.
"That's not why I'm here."
"Have one anyway. On the house. The elderflower?"
"Not tonight. I can't face that tonight."
"Sit yourself down. A shot of apple brandy to warm you?"
Snape shuddered. "My father would drink that at Easter."
Aberforth eyed Snape, who side-stepped the spat tobacco on the floor to settle onto a bar stool. He examined the pale face and read its expression.
"Pastis and redcurrant," he diagnosed, then poured out a glass without waiting for confirmation. "Why have you come? Why now?"
"It is a lonely road."
Aberforth grunted agreement as he pointed his wand at the broom in the corner, wordlessly ordering it to begin sweeping. Snape watched it, fascinated.
"I had no idea that you actually cleaned in here." His eyes scanned the room. "Nobody would ever know."
Aberforth poured himself a firewhiskey instead of replying.
"I suppose it creates the appropriate ambience for the deeds done here," Snape said softly.
Aberforth moved round to sit on the barstool next to Snape's. "Can you not stop them from torturing the children?" he asked.
Black eyes stared into the red liquid in the smeared glass between his fingers. "Not without spoiling everything."
"Don't need to ask whose plan you're following, do I?" Aberforth curled the lips under his beard. "Just like him to consider Crucio-ed children part of the price worth paying. I suppose it's for the greater good again, is it?"
Snape's eyes rose to examine the other man's face, then he looked directly into his blue eyes, but found them were carefully shuttered.
"I don't miss him a bit," Aberforth grunted. "Not a bit. The last family I had and I wish he'd gone years ago. You'll chide me for that, will you?"
"Are you forgetting who killed him?" The bitter tone was undisguised.
Aberforth snorted. "Nothing ever happened to my brother which wasn't within his own control. Too bloody clever for any of our goods."
"You miss him as desperately as I do." Snape drank heavily. "That's why I'm here."
"Too many nights among that lot?"
"Too many nights alone. Too many more to come."
Aberforth hummed and nodded. He poured himself another drink, and then summoned the redcurrant cordial and the pastis, standing them beside Snape's glass which was not yet quite empty.
"The ideal taste for the occasion. Well chosen." Snape finished his drink and poured another. "Just this one then I have to head back. Can't let my defences get numbed."
"I don't suppose he wrote you in a happily ever after, did he?"
"What's that noise?"
It was a muffled knocking from upstairs. Aberforth sprang from the stool. His knees cracked. "Be one of the goats," he muttered.
"Of course it will," replied Snape drily. "I'll go stare into the fire shall I?"
"If you would. Better still, a darker corner." Aberforth strode to the stairs, closing the bar door behind him as he went.
He cast a muffling charm before unsealing the portrait. Neville stumbled through it with the Irish one limp in his arms. Aberforth swore.
"Out the back way. I've got company in the bar. Not the sort of company you'll want, nor the sort I can see off the premises at closing time."
"We tried, but even Lavender's Healing Charms—"
"Try Puddifoot. Be subtle, but not too subtle, the deaf old bat'll be asleep by now. I'd Patronus a warning to her, but I don't want to alert—"
"Yeah, we'll manage. Can you keep this open, though, so we can get back in? Also, Hannah might be following us through—"
"Give me five minutes then I'll reopen it. Get going now. He's getting greener round the lips."
The old man helped the teenage boy carry his human burden as far as the back door, then resealed the portrait before going back into the bar.
"Do we have a situation?" asked Snape. "Do I need to leave?"
"No. You need company. You'll not leave yet." Aberforth shook his head. "Forever cleaning up my brother's spills."
"I can't stay in the bar, though?"
"Best not." A pause. "It's not palatial upstairs and the sitting room's currently out of bounds. I'm not being forward, but there's only the bedroom left."
Snape shrugged and followed Aberforth upstairs into a little room which smelled of goats. He sat carefully on the single bed to wait while Aberforth stepped into the sitting room for a few moments. When he returned he locked the bedroom door and cast a new muffling spell.
"You notice me not asking," said Snape, tense on the edge of the bed.
"And I appreciate it." Aberforth pushed his piled clothes off the only chair in the room – a fraying Lloyd Loom – and sat. "Anything you'd care to talk about or shall I not ask either?"
Snape had to twist to see Aberforth's face now. "I'd appreciate no questions." His feet stayed on the floor and his back did not relax.
Aberforth coughed. His chest rattled up beneath the cough. "You have any control over those goons pretending to teach?"
Snape sighed. "Very little. Even less because I have to avoid all suspicion." He looked at his long, white fingers. "I left my drink downstairs. I can't remember whether I had finished it."
Aberforth stretched sideways to open the bottom drawer of his chest. He pulled two pairs of long johns out to drop them on the floor among the other clothes, pieces of paper, bottles and miscellanea covering the carpet. The carpet might once have had a pattern but it was now too faded and caught through with goat hair for that to be distinguishable. "I gave those pipes a clean after your comment. Don't know how long it had been. Lose track at my age." He extricated a bottle of firewhiskey. "No mixers up here I'm afraid." He pulled the cork with his teeth. "No glasses neither." He took a swig then handed the bottle to his guest, the current Headmaster of Hogwarts.
With a lop-sided grin Snape used his sleeve to wipe the top of the bottle, then tipped back his head and the bottle for a long drink. After a swallow and a cough, he said, "Minerva McGonagall always keeps a bottle of this in her desk. Tin of shortbread for the kiddies, rough-as-fuck firewhiskey for the grown-ups." He drank again. "Hates me now, of course. No more invitations to afternoon tea to discuss pupil discipline and get rat arsed." He settled more comfortably onto the bed.
Footsteps clattered down the stairs beyond the door. Aberforth looked to Snape, but the greasy face was held carefully still, hooked nose pointing to the bottle. He swigged from it again and then passed it to Aberforth.
"Never trust a woman who can turn into a cat," Aberforth replied. The bottle's top disappeared between his beard and moustache. When he handed it back to Snape his lips were wet and Snape was looking at them. "Never trust any animagus, me."
"Rather a cat than a dog," Snape spat out. He lifted his arm to wipe the bottle, but then paused and didn't. He put the bottle straight into his mouth.
Aberforth watched him. "I couldn't do it. Tried for years."
"No need to guess which animal you were hoping to be."
"It's me Patronus. Reckon I could have had a good chance."
Snape's feet were off the floor now, his knees curled onto the blanket. "My Patronus is a bloody doe. It's love that determines that. Not the same thing. What is your fascination with goats anyway?"
"I like the smell." Aberforth took the bottle back. It was empty. "Plenty more where that came from."
"Not for me. Think I've overdone it a bit." Snape slumped forwards.
"Why don't you have a lie down while I check things out downstairs?" Aberforth asked.
Snape nodded and slid down further. By the time Aberforth returned, he was fast asleep, curled into the bottom corner of the bed.
Aberforth lay down, careful not to touch him. He whispered, "When my brother got too clever and my sister'd lost her wits, it was goats kept me company."
When he woke, Snape had gone.
The man in the wet wool cloak who usually stood near the door and read was sitting at one of the tables. His hand had been shaking when he bought his drink. There was no book tonight. He slipped his wand in and out of his sleeve. Aberforth kept an eye on him. Another man sat down next to the reader without buying a drink. His head was hidden by a cloak. Their hands met and something was exchanged, hidden within their wide sleeves.
The old wife had given up on the tarot. She held a vole on the table before her. Its little feet scrabbled at the air. With a silver knife she split it from throat to tail and pulled its skin apart to stare into its entrails.
The toothless old men had stopped coming in. Aberforth delivered bottles to their homes during the day. They crouched in the dark two streets apart with the shutters closed.
The man without the book was the last to leave. Aberforth bolted the front doors and went up to bed. There had been little enough business that night; there was nothing to tidy.
Aberforth startled when he opened his bedroom door. Snape was sitting on his bed. They had not seen each other for weeks. Months. Snape's eyes were red and his lips white. He blinked hard. A single tear ran down his cheek. Aberforth moved carefully towards him, as he would with an injured animal.
"I'm so sorry," Snape said in a cracked voice. "I shouldn't have come."
"You've nowhere else to go," Aberforth said for him. He sat on the bed beside him, shoving to the floor the yew branch and knife which had been resting there. "It's a lonely road. Has something happened?"
"Nothing unusual. I have to be so strong all the time. Such a lonely road. I didn't even think that I had friends, but now that they hate me…"
Aberforth felt around under the bed and brought out a stone bottle with a cork top.
"Is that your piss pot?" Snape asked.
Aberforth laughed. His chest rattled under the laugh. "It's mead."
"I shouldn't be here. I'm pathetic."
"Every man needs his time and sometimes that time needs company. What my bloody brother does to people."
"But you do miss him." Snape took the mead bottle. After drinking his face screwed up. "You're sure it's not piss?"
"My piss tastes better than that muck. Eighty per cent proof by now, it is. I don't have to like him just because I wish he weren't dead. He knew why." Aberforth drank from the stone bottle.
Another tear tracked down Snape's pale and greasy face. "He was a great man. If he were still here I could bear it all. All of it."
Aberforth put an arm around the bony shoulders and the black robes. "You'll see it through."
"You're a wonder. I couldn't do it. Whatever it is. I hope it's worth it."
"I hope you'll live to enjoy the better times then."
"I won't." Snape drank again. He gagged. He rammed the cork back into the bottle and dropped the bottle on the floor. "It will be worth it."
"You keep believing."
Blue eyes met black eyes. Both men unshuttered for a moment, for long enough. Aberforth cradled Snape in both arms, held him tight like a baby and rocked him. Their cheeks lay against each other.
"So fucking lonely," Snape whispered.
"You know where to find me," Aberforth replied.
"I've found you, haven't I?"
"Well then." Aberforth touched Snape's neck with the back of his hand. "Let it go now."
The first sob was dry and it racked Snape's ribcage. He coughed it out onto Aberforth's shoulder. The second was wetter. Within a minute he was weeping and crooning. Aberforth held him and rocked him. By the time Snape was softly sobbing, he had laid them both down on the mattress. They fell asleep like that. By daylight, Snape was gone.
The next visit was only a few nights later. The kids had been clattering in and out of the portrait all evening, but luckily they had settled by the time Aberforth found their Headmaster on his bed again. This time he was holding a dusty bottle of brandy.
"I wanted to thank you." He held out the bottle. "It was Albus'. I liberated it from the cabinet in his office which I've finally managed to unlock."
Aberforth took the bottle and examined the label. "Ought to know something about this stuff, really, in my line of work. Looks old." He held it up to the candle flame. "Nice colour. Nothing but the best for the blessed Albus, of course. Thank you." He uncorked it. "I should get glasses."
"Not for me. I just wanted to say thank you." Snape stood.
"You're going already?"
"I've taken enough of your sleep. I have things to do."
Aberforth walked him down the stairs. At the back door he said, "You'll be in my dreams again anyhow. You might as well disturb my night in person."
Snape made no reaction; he walked off into the night.
Hagrid filled a whole table by himself. He'd not been in much recently. His gloom leaked out over the other customers; most of them left early. Headmaster Snape swept in just before Last Orders, with a clutch of his cronies. They laughed too loud and too nastily, seeing off the rest of the customers. When Hagrid staggered out, Snape jerked his head at two of the Death Eaters, who followed the giant. After twenty minutes the other two left, but Snape stayed. Black eyes held blue ones silent until the front door slammed behind them. Then Snape slumped forward onto the table.
Aberforth's steps echoed and dust rose as he crossed the room to bolt them in. He added locking charms.
"That brandy was good."
"I found some fortified elf-made perry hidden inside a telescope. I'll bring it over for you." Snape didn't raise his head.
"I remember that Rosier when he was a pupil. Not so full of himself then. More acne than face and stank like he wet the bed."
"I expect you remember my frightful teenage years, too."
"Poor patched robes and a kitchen table haircut. And now look at you in your Headmaster's robes."
"I hated everyone." Snape sat upright. "Best head back then."
"You can stay if you like. You being so full of love and warmth these days."
Snape stood and gathered his cloak, about to put it on. He waved his wand over the glasses on his table so they floated over to the bar. He looked at Aberforth. "You don't want me hanging round like a bad smell. I need to keep my welcome fresh for when I need it. Thank you. For giving me times."
Aberforth shrugged a shoulder. "I might want you here."
"Nobody ever wants me anywhere." He walked to the door.
"I want you," Aberforth said.
Snape turned. "What does that mean?"
"What you think it means. I'll be here for company on the lonely road when you need your times anyway. But you should know that I do. Want you. You can go or stay. But don't be going on my account."
"I'm coping. This week has been manageable."
"I can't drink. I need a clear head in the morning."
"Good. Can I?"
"That's up to you."
"Well. You can let yourself out the back door, or you can come to the bedroom. That's where I'm headed. You know where it is."
Dust rose on the stairs as two pairs of feet climbed them. They both kicked their boots off before sitting on the bed. They sat still and silent, blue eyes gazing into black and black into blue. Aberforth's chest rattled with a deep sigh. Snape ran three fingers through the long grey beard. He parted moustache from beard with one hand to run his other thumb across the lips between. Aberforth's arms came round him. They lay back on the bed.
Slow hands explored over cloth and then under it, getting faster, shakier. Robes were dropped to the floor. Snape suckled at red nipples set in a mat of grey chest hair. Aberforth lay on his back to hold Snape with his legs as well as his arms. They rocked together.
"Severus," whispered the old man. "Severus."
When there was a clatter and whispers in the sitting room they held their breaths and froze still, their bodies burning for friction. They heard several sets of feet running down the stairs and out of the back door which slammed, vibrating out through the whole house. Severus started to move again, to kiss behind Aberforth's ears and behind his beard on the rough skin of his throat. Then Aberforth pushed Severus, wedging his hips between Aberforth's thighs. Aberforth pulled out the jar of grease from under the pillow. Severus took it with a nod.
Black eyes and blue eyes unshuttered as they held each other's gazes, their bodies holding each other safe. Severus pushed in. His arms shook with the effort to be gentle. They climaxed quickly and together then they slept. In the morning, Snape was gone.
Outside, the goats were feasting on Madame Puddifoot's daffodils. A weak sun set behind low clouds. The fire smoked inside the pub. As ever, there was only one man working there. His movements were unhurried. He choked on the wood smoke. His chest rattled.
The old witch laid her tarot cards out along the floor in sets of three, marking a path from bar to front door. She straightened her back and grinned. "Soon," she announced to the echoing room.
The man standing near the door wore a new, dry, velvet cloak. He looked up from the small leather-bound book in his hand. He stared at her with concern for a moment, rubbing at his left arm, before going up to the bar to order another firewhiskey.
Hagrid sat in a corner, counting up his coins ready to pay off his tab, separating out the price of a pint of stout to drink now. "Soon is it?" he asked. "Can't come soon enough."
The barman wiped at a glass with a dirty dishcloth, smearing it less clean. He heard the click of the back door opening, the snick of it being carefully closed. He heard quiet steps on his stairs and he smiled.