The Good Friend

Chapter 4

Warning: Language continues strong.

Chapter 4: Errand

I set down hard, knocking my breath out against a stone something. I crouched in chilly darkness, trying to get my breath and my bearings. It was too dark; I had left at ten in the morning, so it should only be early evening here. As my eyes adjusted, I saw a cool grey light somewhere above me. I cast Lumos.

I was in a filthy place, a landing on a narrow winding stone staircase, littered with bird droppings, feathers, bones, and trash. Well, Chuck certainly had chosen someplace out of the way; it looked as though no one had been here in years. I followed the stairs up a couple of turns to the source of the light, a crumbling narrow slot window choked with loose masonry and broken birds'-nests. I was in some sort of stone tower, I saw. I looked out on rolling green fields from far above, lit briefly by the setting sun. The raking light picked out each tree in their scattered rows bordering the fields and gave each distant sheep a long-legged shadow.

The look of those fields… I was hit by a sort of gutting nostalgia. Ridiculous, I might as well start belting out and did those feet, in ancient time, walk upon England's mountains green? The answer was no, in all probability. Imagining the past as a paradise was a fools' game. I knew exactly where that sort of thinking could lead. There never was any paradise.

As I tried to make out houses or towns, the sun sank behind a tall bank of clouds and the rosy light slid up and was gone, leaving the valley in a cool blue dimness. Nothing around, I was well out of the way indeed. It was an early dusk by the time I had picked my way down the half-ruined stairs and out through the broken barricade over the door. As I suspected, the tower stood alone, not attached to any building, looking absurdly like a gigantic Greek column which had wandered away from its temple. Some rich idiot's folly, no doubt. There was no other evidence of rich idiots in the vicinity; nothing but pastures dotted with stands of trees and sheep bleating somewhere below in the valley. A fine entry point, except that I was much further south than I needed.

I disillusioned myself, dug into my memories for my points, and began the long and sickening job of apparating north. At my fifth point, an abandoned woolen mill outside Bradford, I stopped to let my stomach settle. I took the time to reseal the plastic bottle around the portkey and hide it in a pile of rubble.

I had to stop several more times on the way north to let the effects of the long-distance apparitions to wear off. I finally landed in the forest outside Hogsmede at half ten. I had a little time to kill before last call.

I had thought about my course over my month of preparations. I didn't have any desire to let anyone know of my presence, but I had to approach Aberforth. It was a calculated risk. As the agent of my escape from England in the first place, he already knew of my survival. And he had already passed along certain documents that Albus had hidden for me including my identity papers. There was a chance, however slim, that Albus could have given him the contract as well. And if it would save me having to address the portrait, all the better.

I tried sitting with my back against a tree and waiting in the blue quiet of the woods. I was restless. The smell of the forest was bothering me. Or rather the familiarity of the smell. I used to come out to the woods at night sometimes as a refuge, but now the smell was bringing me back to everything I had taken refuge from. It smelled like June, the end of term, the final, all-night crunch of reviewing exam results and grading, of students and staff on the edge of breakdowns, of horrible House-cup switches, and the distinct air of impending battles. It made my guts clench worse than the apparitions. I strode aimlessly through the trees to try to unknot myself. It shouldn't bother me; I was past all that now. No more grades, no more battles.

The fifteenth time I cast Tempus it was finally late enough, half twelve, more than an hour after last call: all of the last of the weeknight sots should have given up nursing their pints and staggered away.

I took the narrow deer track that wound through the trees to the outskirts of town. I was still under my disillusionment, but it hardly mattered; the alley that led to the back of the Hog's Head was deserted. The Hog's Head still showed light at the back. The front was shut and dark, and worse, the wards were up. Damn, I shouldn't have waited so long. Aberforth laid a hell of a ward after all the break-ins he'd had over the years. I crossed back to the rear fence. What now, start throwing pebbles at the windows like some love-sodden teen?

Luckily, it didn't come to that. Aberforth was coming out the back, hauling a sack of rubbish to the bins. Sure enough, he dropped the wards to step out into the alley. I ducked through the gate while he was busy with the bins and waited until he was back through. I let him reset his wards before I dropped my disillusionment.

"You alone?"

"Bloody hell!" He stepped back against the gate, hard. The wards hummed in protest.

"Not so loud. You alone?"

He paused, peering at my face where the light from the rear window caught it.

"Bloody hell, Snape, haven't you heard of floo-calling ahead?" He was at least speaking more quietly.

"And give you a chance to go running to Shacklebolt? Are you alone?"

"Yeah. Why, d'ye want to curse me?" He stomped towards the back door.

"Obviously. I always stand around talking to people before I curse them."

"Whatever you want, just get on with it. I'm late enough closing as it is. Get in if you're coming."

I caught the door just before it slammed in my face. I could feel the locking charm catch as it closed behind me. Aberforth was already halfway down the hall.

"Is this about your estate? It's still there, most of it."

"Most of it?" I hurried to catch up.

"Thought I was going to executor it for nothing, did you? Bloody great pile of paperwork. Hell, I get something for my time."

He went through the kitchen's rear door. It was still cluttered from that night's service. I saw that bird settled on a perch in a corner near the sink.

"Isn't that unsanitary?" I said nodding at it in distaste.

"Dead handy is what that is. Anyone gets a grease burn on the chips or gets sloppy with a knife, the bird gets moist over it and everything's right as rain."

"That can't be up to code."

He laughed. "Where the hell do you think you are, Snape? If a sodding health inspector ever showed his nose in here, and not likely, someone gives a whistle and the bird gets chucked out a window. No problem. But you ought to show a bit more gratitude, the beast saved your life. Not that I ever expected you to show up and thank us."

He was putting a tub of fish batter into the cold cabinet and shoving a pile of potatoes into a bin. "Well, what should I think when you burned my letters and the transfer box? I thought you were washing your hands of the whole bleeding mess, cutting your ties and starting a new life for yourself. Not a bad idea for you, considering. Didn't think I would see your face round here again."

He was right, it had been exactly what I was doing, at the time. "Some of those ties haven't been so easy to cut. I wouldn't be here by choice, but I had to come back to finish the job."

He stared at me over the cutting boards he was piling in the sink. "That some kind of threat? Want to wipe my brain clean to tie up loose ends? You've got some sodding nerve."

"What? No!" I certainly wasn't about to Obliviate him when he might have information for me.

He snorted. "So long as we understand each other. Well, what is it, then?"

"I'm looking for a paper – a contract."

"Oh, Merlin, I had enough of that with your estate. You want contracts, use a solicitor."

Was he being intentionally dense? "Your brother's papers. He was to have left behind a contract."

"You had a contract with him?"

"Did he leave any papers at all?" I asked to skirt the question.

"Not a contract with you? Who, then?" He could be a canny bastard when he wanted.

"Did he leave any papers?"

"Don't you ever get sick of this cloak-and-dagger bollocks? I would have thought you'd've sworn off it by now. Well, there's no changing some people. No, he didn't leave me any bloody papers, he knew I hate paperwork. Only papers I ever heard of were the ones you left with those - what do you call 'em? – 'eyes' of yours."

"How do you know about them?"

"They, well, some of them anyway, went to the Minister with your papers right after the battle. On your instructions, I thought. Miss Bulstrode, she's working up at the school now, and I saw that the Nott kid was in with her. That's how I thought to bring him along as binder and witness when I went to talk to Shacklebolt about you. I reckoned he was loyal to you and you already trusted him."

"And just how did you reckon the same of Shacklebolt? He's been in my business ever since you decided to out me to him."

"Oh, come off it. You needed to know if your pardon was genuine, right? And it was, wasn't it? I'll be damned if Shacklebolt has done anything to harm you."

"It's not so much what he's done as what he could do."

Aberforth snorted. He pulled a couple of chipped mugs out of a cabinet and set them on the table, along with an unlabeled bottle. He poured us both a generous measure of amber liquid.

"No, it's not what he could do, it's what he actually will do, which is bugger-all, unless you make him. He has plenty of business of his own, without getting into yours. You think the Ministry wants to open that can of worms? It's dead simple, Snape. You don't want any trouble, just go back to wherever you're hiding and keep your head down and he won't bother you."

The drink was some kind of scotch, and very smooth.

"You can tell him that. Your brother didn't leave you any papers?"

"Not a one. Not a bloody bank draft, which I wouldn't have turned up my nose at. Some useless knick-knacks."

"Did he tell you anything? He must have told you enough to have that box ready, and the portkey that got me out. Did he give you instructions about me?"

Aberforth looked at Fawkes over the rim of his mug, as if the bird could advise him on what to say. "That was years ago, when he set up that room for you. All he said was that you might need it someday, nothing else. When the old bird came to get me and brought me to you after the battle, well, I thought I'd better help you. In my experience, animals know what they're about. More than people, half the time. I only spoke to the portrait once after the battle, just to tell him you'd pulled through. He pointed me to your false papers and the money you had stashed. I don't know if you consider him your friend, after everything is said and done, but if you hadn't made it, I think he would have regretted it."

I grimaced. I had heard "I regret it," from the Dark Lord, just as he tried to do me in, and it wasn't exactly a stellar endorsement of friendship.

"Anyway," Aberforth went on after a long drink, "I only went to talk with him the once. I'm not like those posh families with a hall of portraits. I don't hold with that, talking to them over every little thing. It just makes you think you've got something you haven't. Well, anything else?"

I looked down at the remains of my drink. "I'll have to go talk to him."

"Place is all locked up now. Everyone's gone home for the summer except for Minerva and a couple of the support staff."

Minerva, was it now? The last time I remembered Minerva mention Aberforth, it was as 'that man' with a look on her face as if she'd just stepped into the boy's locker room and got a good whiff. Minerva must have let her standards slip since the war.

"You going up now?"

I didn't answer.

"Suit yourself. What about your estate? You're more than welcome to the paperwork. You want the house?"

"God, no. The place is a tip."

"What, then, sell it? That's a job, you'd have to get rid of all the BNP graffiti for a start."

I sighed. It sounded like my old neighborhood hadn't improved any, and I hadn't come back to deal with house sales and property. Hell, I probably couldn't go near the place without Shacklebolt getting word.

"I have other matters to deal with first. I'll handle that later. I'll arrange everything with you when I'm done."

"Of course you will." He didn't sound convinced.

I stood, leaving my mug on the table. He stood also and groaned at the rest of the kitchen mess.

"Let yourself out, will you? Keyword's bunghole."

I stared at him. He was giving me his ward keyword?

"Go on, then. I want my bed."

Apparently, he was. I downed the rest of my drink. I had a feeling I would need it.

A/N: Continued thanks to my readers and reviewers! As always, I love to hear what you think.

"And did those feet, in ancient time, walk upon England's mountains green?" This is the opening line of William Balke's poem/hymn, Jerusalem.