A gift for: lazy_neutrino
Length: 3,000 words
Characters: Aberforth Dumbledore, Neville Longbottom
Summary: Aberforth thinks he's finished with fighting -- until Neville Longbottom falls through the portrait door and into his life.
Notes: Hello, lazy_neutrino, I very much hope this is to your liking!
Until the boy stumbles through the door behind Ariana's portrait, the day is like any other. Aberforth's served breakfast to a couple of fools who were stupid enough or desperate enough to rent a room for the night. He's checked the barrels: plenty for today; perhaps even for tomorrow. Business is slow, although normally it would be picking up now along with the weather. People are staying home, out of sight, out of trouble.
He's eating an early lunch when he notices Ariana is missing, but she often goes a-wandering, and it's not as if she can get far. He'll check on her later, before his shift starts in earnest.
Then the door swings open and a boy collapses onto the floor, filthy and flustered, already stammering apologies. Behind him, Ariana is smiling from her painting.
So that's where she's been; he should have expected it one of these days. He turns to the boy, cuts off his apologies.
"You'll be hungry."
The boy nods. Under the grime he's broad, not too tall, maybe seventeen or so. "Starving." His voice is hoarse but heartfelt.
Aberforth reaches for the last of the goat's cheese, stuffs it into a bun and looks around for the lettuce, but the boy's already claimed the sandwich. He wolfs it down faster than Aberforth believed possible, wipes his hand on his robes (much good that does), and sticks it out.
"Thanks." He's still swallowing and there are crumbs on his chin. "My name's--"
"No need for names," Aberforth says sharply. "The less anyone knows the better these days. You in hiding?"
"Yeah." The boy coughs. "They were going to kill me." His voice is calm, not shocked or scared, and for a moment Aberforth is gutted, because this is what the wizarding world has done to another generation of kids. They've let this happen, all of them, and now the younger generation will bear the brunt.
All he says is, "Have you got a safe place to go?"
Head jerking towards Ariana, the boy nods again.
"Right." Aberforth gathers up the lunch remnants, sweeping the crumbs onto the floor. "Come back at ten tonight and I'll have some dinner for you. Do you have a clock?"
The boy grins. "I've got just about anything you could name. Except food," he adds wistfully.
"Do that, then. You need anything else? Not that I'm promising, or anything."
"No. Thanks." The boy lingers by the open door, opens his mouth, but doesn't say whatever he's thinking. For a moment he looks frightened, young, alone, and perhaps that's why Aberforth says roughly, "No need to ask your name anyway. I can see both your parents in you."
"Really?" The boy's face lights up. "Both of them?"
"Aye." Aberforth regrets his impulse; the boy's clearly starved for company as well as food, and Aberforth has neither the time nor the energy to spare for this sort of thing. But the boy doesn't push it, only offers another heartfelt 'thank you' before clambering up into the passage and disappearing.
After he's gone, Aberforth puts down some fish for the cat and allows himself a finger of Firewhisky which he drinks slowly, staring into the depths of the bottle. Another generation going down under the shadow of war. Harry Potter is out there somewhere, on some futile quest no doubt inspired by Albus. Only yesterday, his terrified face stared out of that mirror, screaming for aid. Now here's the Longbottom boy, the image of his mother but built on his father's fame; he'll be a fine figure of a wizard some day, if they let him live long enough.
They were going to kill me.
Ember springs onto his lap and settles herself, purring. Aberforth remembers Alice Longbottom in her heyday, all blond curls and curves. The others danced the day Voldemort died, but she and Frank didn't. They emerged from hiding, clutching their little boy tight, because they knew it could've been them. It might've been, if they'd been betrayed instead of the Potters.
He remembers Alice in this very room, holding Neville close, with Frank at her side. The kid was just about toddling. By the time he was walking properly, his parents were gone.
Aberforth visited them a few times after it happened, partly because he couldn't believe it was as awful as he'd heard. He bumped into Augusta once, leading the kid by the hand. Those big solemn eyes followed him down the ward and haunted him for days.
Of course, he of all people should have believed it.
There's a reason he never had kids, and it's nothing to do with those rumours about his sexual proclivities. Why bring children into a world like this one, which will gobble them up and spit out their bones for the jackals to fight over?
It's quiet later, just a couple of regulars who are satisfied when he slams down double rations for them both and disappears upstairs.
He feels Ariana watching him as he boils the veg and waits for the steak and ale pie to heat through.
"Don't you start," he mutters when he catches her eye. He's taking pity on a defenceless kid, that's all. It doesn't mean anything.
The boy, when he jumps down through the doorway, doesn't look so defenceless any more. He's washed his face and found some clean robes. Aberforth wonders where exactly he's hiding, but it's none of his business.
"I know who you are," the boy says when he's emptied his plate. "I worked it out."
He might be bluffing, but Aberforth suspects not. There isn't much guile in those brown eyes. Bravery and compassion, yes, but not guile.
"And what do you think you're going to do with that information?"
"Nothing!" The boy bites his lower lip. "I just...wanted you to know we're fighting in there. It's getting tougher, but we've got them rattled, just like your brother would have wanted."
"That how you ended up in hiding, with those great claw marks down your face? Doing what my brother wanted?"
The boy glances at the portrait behind him and smiles at Ariana. "I did what needed to be done. There are kids being hurt in there, and in the outside world people've been too busy staying alive to help us. So we stepped up."
Aberforth mentally translates that 'we' to 'I'. "Some would say you're just a kid yourself."
The boy meets his gaze. "I'm of age. And some would say I grew up a long time ago. Like the moment I realised what people -- ordinary people, not dark lords or evil legends -- had done to my parents."
"They were good kids, your parents," Aberforth says, because the boy ought to hear it. "They didn't deserve what happened to them."
"No." Aberforth can see it all boiling there for a moment: a lifetime of pain and fury at what the world has done to his family. Then the boy visibly pulls himself together.
"I can't help them, except by making sure they're comfortable. All I can do is help other people when they need it. I think your brother would have understood that."
Perhaps. When it was too late. Aberforth's eyes are drawn inexorably to Ariana, smiling down on them.
"I'm sorry about your sister," the boy says, and Aberforth nods. There's nothing to say to that. Albus would have said he was fighting for a kinder world, after that, so that what had happened to her -- to all of them -- could never happen again.
Aberforth didn't bother with that. And look at the world now; who was proven right? Not Albus, that's certain.
"You got any plans?" he asks.
"Just to keep fighting." The boy pats his robe pocket. "I had a letter from my gran -- she's safe. They'll never find me at Hogwarts. And they can't do anything to my parents, so they can't get to me."
Aberforth can think of several things that could be done to Alice and Frank, but he doesn't disabuse the boy of his assumption. Let him rest easy if he can.
"All right," he says. "There'll be food here if you want it. My only punters these days are bottom-feeding Death Eaters, and they don't come here for the grub."
The boy's grin of relief splits his face in two. "Thanks, Mr Dumbledore."
He wonders when he was last called that. Not in the past thirty years, that's for sure. "Better make it my first name."
"All right, then." The boy holds out his hand, and Aberforth shakes it. "Aberforth."
"Neville," Aberforth says with a nod, and the boy grins.
And so it goes. Downstairs, Aberforth tends the bar and turns a blind eye to the trafficking of potions and various items otherwise unavailable outside of Knockturn Alley in London. Upstairs, the boy turns up for food and conversation, although Aberforth shuts him up whenever he veers towards what's happening at Hogwarts. "The less I know about your business the better, and vice versa," he tells him, and Neville sees the sense of it.
He and Ariana have an affinity that flourishes without words. Aberforth is puzzled; he's never known anyone be so good with her since the days when he himself coaxed her to do things his mother and brother had given up on. Until he remembers the last time he visited Alice and Frank, and the silence that reigned in their hospital cubicles.
On the third day, Neville brings a friend, another quiet type like himself, still trembling from whatever those Carrow bastards have done to him. The fourth day there's a girl, too, and after that mainly Neville alone, collecting sandwiches or vats of casserole to carry back to the Room.
That's what they call it, with a capital R.
So it goes, and it works. It's stupidly easy. It's easily the stupidest thing Aberforth's done in decades.
One evening it's too much. Neville is talking about some attack his 'army' is launching on the morrow when Aberforth slams his fist on the table.
"Why are you still here? Why don't you just go?"
Neville sits back. "Go where?"
"I don't know; somewhere safe. Where did your gran go?" A low blow, since Neville's not heard a word from her since that first, treasured epistle. "What do you think you're doing in there?" The mirror glints on the mantelpiece; it's shown him nothing from Dobby or Potter for days. Aberforth makes his voice harsher. "What good do you think you can possibly do?"
A flush has spread across Neville's face. "It's all we can do. And it's important."
Aberforth wrenches back the grubby lace curtain that shuts out the world. "Look out there," he says, and Neville looks. In the alley below, two of Aberforth's regulars are tramping towards the front door, both of them Death Eaters.
"They're in charge here." Aberforth waves towards the window. "They're in charge of my pub, they're in charge of the Ministry, and they're in charge of the school. It's all very well and nice having your little rebellion, but the battle's already won. All that's needed now is a bit of clean-up, and if you don't watch out, you'll be one of the rags they wipe the floor with."
"Harry's still out there," Neville says, very quietly.
"Doing what? He's a kid," Aberforth says. "You're all kids playing an adults' game, and it's going to get you killed." The door slams downstairs and he lowers his voice. "I'm going to serve those bastards. You think about what I've said."
When he returns, Neville is gone, and so is Ariana.
After that, other kids collect the food. Aberforth is learning their names: Seamus, Michael, Lavender. They're good kids, and he knows some of their parents. But they're not Neville.
Ariana is absent most of the time, and when she's present she's sulking, which doesn't suit her. Even as a portrait, she's always felt things too deeply.
After their mother's death, she was found clinging to Kendra's robes. Albus smoothed it over; Albus hushed it up. Even Elphias Doge never knew the full truth, as far as Aberforth can tell.
That summer feels like a bad dream from which he's never quite awoken. Aberforth threw himself into caring for Ariana, because it was the only thing that overwhelmed his grief for his parents. Albus grieved as well, he supposes, but then along came his new golden boy, his equal, and everything else was forgotten.
Aberforth can look back now and identify it clearly as an infatuation. Albus was the type who didn't fall very often, but when he did it was all-consuming.
If that night had ended differently, they might yet have been friends. But it ended in Ariana's death, in Grindelwald's disappearance, and left the two brothers awash in new grief.
That is why Aberforth knows life is inherently unfair. He knows that however hard you struggle, you'll always be hurt. People are sheep, or they're bastards. Aberforth bought the pub, installed goats in a paddock at the back, and turned his back on the world. Ariana is all the company he's needed.
It's only now, missing Neville, that he realises how lonely he's been.
Three days later, Aberforth's drinking a toast to Dobby, whom he liked and respected more than he did most people, when the Weasley twins Apparate into the bar, followed by several others.
Aberforth cocks an eyebrow. "Upstairs and through the door over the fireplace. It's open."
They jostle through the doorway, all excitement and pent-up tension, while Aberforth stares into his Firewhisky.
When the Caterwauling Charm went off earlier, he was in the yard. The bar was empty as he hurried to the door and peered into the alley. It couldn't be Potter; surely he was sensible enough to keep away from here? The protection around Hogsmeade is nearly as tight as it is around Hogwarts itself. If Potter was here, he might as well walk up the main drive of Hogwarts and turn himself in.
But as the Death Eaters shouted and ran, spells ricocheting wildly, Aberforth's attention was caught by the odd patterns in the dirt, as if invisible footsteps were hurrying this way and that. And then there was the Patronus. That damn Patronus; was the kid trying to advertise his presence?
He inched the door open and put his mouth next to the latch to mutter Potter's name. And he was right: when he got them upstairs it was Potter, all right, him and those two friends of his. The kid and his friends sat in his living room for an hour or more, until he sent them on to Hogwarts with Neville.
More cracks of Apparition; more people putting their lives on the line. He waves them up the stairs, gazing into the mirror that saved Potter's life but killed Dobby.
All these years, he's been picking up his brother's pieces. Because of his brother's spiderlike approach to relationships -- web 'em up, reel 'em in -- people seem to think Aberforth is the same. They think he cares; they think he's some sort of poor substitute for Saint Albus. And sometimes -- only sometimes -- he obliges them. So he joined the Order of the Phoenix, and helped its members communicate after Albus died. He befriended Dobby. He kept an eye on that mirror, and asked Dobby to help Potter. And now he's helped Potter himself.
It's Percy Weasley next, pathetically grateful for Aberforth's tip-off, followed by assorted others. He's lost count now, and it's heartening, if he was the kind of person to be heartened, to know that there are this many people out there willing to fight. Even if they haven't a chance.
"You haven't got a chance," he calls after the last lot, but they pretend not to hear.
So then. Does he join them?
It would probably be suicide. He heard Voldemort, his voice worse than that damn Caterwauling Charm. Ember the cat is not easily intimidated, but while Voldemort talked, she was a ball of black under the very back of his chair.
His mind is full of Ariana's death and its aftermath. What was it Potter said of Albus? He was never free.
Is that true? Does it matter if it isn't?
There's a commotion above; it sounds like a herd of goats trampling around his kitchen, but before he can reach the stairs, the first of them come scuttling down. Children, not goats, all of them in Slytherin colours, shepherded along by Horace Slughorn, who looks as if he's just been turfed out of his bed.
"Sorry," he puffs as he hurries the kids along, "must get this lot to safety. I'll be back."
"What for?" asks Aberforth.
Slughorn's eyes widen. "To fight, of course."
Another one caught in Albus's web. He watches them stream down the stairs and out into the alley, kids from all four houses now. He recognises a couple of younger kids as some of those he's been feeding for the past fortnight, but although he looks hard, he doesn't see Neville, Seamus, Lavender or any of the others who are of age. Which means they've stayed to fight.
When the pub is finally quiet again, he wanders upstairs, the mirror still in his hand. Potter gave Dobby a good burial. Maybe that's worth fighting for.
The pub is mercifully silent. Does he fight or does he hide?
Neville Longbottom's fighting. Dobby fought.
He meets Ariana's gaze. "What can an old man like me do?"
When she holds out her hand, he sighs and braces himself to clamber up to the passage. Ember follows, but he presses her gently back down into the living room, where she lands with a yowl and stalks to her food bowl.
Ariana is waiting on the other side. The passage feels like her territory, not his pub or Hogwarts. She flits ahead of him, somewhere between the second and third dimensions, and he knows not to touch her, because he knows how much it will hurt if his hand passes through her.
The Room is full of shadows when he steps inside, with no sign of the detritus that all the students who've been living here should have left behind. "You get back safe to your portrait," he calls to Ariana, but as he turns away she's still watching him, still waving and smiling, so that her warmth propels him across the empty room to the other doorway.
The corridor is teeming with people, all with places to go and people to follow, but he has to ask a couple of times before he locates Neville, out near the walls that extend way beyond the main body of the castle. He's calling orders amid the chaos -- bellowing, in fact, because he's wearing a pair of ridiculous ear-muffs. Aberforth catches his eye and he falters, just slightly, and looks down to check his handiwork. When he's satisfied, he strides towards Aberforth, pulling off the ridiculous ear-muffs before slapping him on the shoulder.
"Thought I'd see if you needed a hand," Aberforth says, and the catch in his voice is ridiculous. He is ridiculous. He's an old man; what can he possibly offer here?
"We need every hand we can get," Neville says, and lowers his voice. "We're buying Harry some time." When he raises his voice again, he sounds inordinately cheerful. "We're rendez-vousing downstairs now, if you want to come.
Aberforth falls into step, raising a hand to acknowledge greetings from Lavender, Michael, a few others. They pass squads heading off on other business: there are perhaps a hundred or so people in total, all fighting, all risking their lives, in the hope that they will make the difference.
It's probably still pointless. They still haven't got a chance.
Marching alongside Neville, Aberforth no longer cares. He thinks of Ariana in her portrait, and her little girl laughter before everything fell apart. He thinks of Dobby, who died a hero. He thinks of Harry Potter, prepared to die if he takes Voldemort with him. He thinks of Alice and Frank, and how proud they would be of their son. He thinks of Neville.
After all these years, he's found a reason to fight again.