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This story was my entry for the 2016 [community profile] hoggywartyxmas fest. I've always wanted to write about Tom, the landlord of the Leaky Cauldron, and I really enjoyed looking at the magical world through his eyes.

Title: So Bracing
Author: [personal profile] kelly_chambliss
Characters: Tom of the Leaky Cauldron, Hannah Abbott, Severus Snape, Minerva McGonagall, with cameos from Argus Filch, the Giant Squid, and a cheeky mirror
Rating: PG-13
Word Count: ~9300
Summary: "Oh, there's a lot to be seen and learnt in a pub," Tom said. "Like a textbook of life, a pub is."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

"Professor McGonagall! How good to see you!" Hannah Abbott's cheerful voice floated into the back room of the Leaky Cauldron where Tom Weatherbroom was tapping a new keg of mead he'd just fetched from the cellar.

McGonagall! Finishing the tap quickly, Tom hurried out to the bar, straightening his apron and running a tidying hand over his totally bald pate, a gesture left over from the days when he'd actually had a full head of hair. He'd worked at the Cauldron as boy and man these eighty-five years at least -- owned it now, in fact -- but old habits died hard. In his mind, he was still young: cheeky and curly-haired and, yes, just a bit of a lad.

Ah, well, the years caught up with everyone -- if they were lucky enough to have a lot of years -- and at least Tom still had his wits and his magic about him. Not to mention his eye for a pretty girl. He flashed Hannah a grin and stepped up to serve Professor McGonagall himself.

It wasn't every day that the Headmistress of Hogwarts visited his pub, and Tom was always glad when she did, not just because her presence raised the tone of the place, but also because talking to her usually tickled him no end. Her sharp, witty tongue was well-known and great fun to listen to as long as you wasn't the one on the end of the lashing.

"Good afternoon, Professor," he said, reaching for a glass and wanding open a bottle of gillywater. She never took anything stronger in public, though Tom clearly recalled her pre-Hogwarts days, back when she worked for the Ministry. Just a girl, she'd been then, but she could hold her own with her hard-drinking Ministry colleagues when they'd all pack into the pub of a Friday evening. That'd be her Scottish blood, he supposed; whisky was like mother's milk to them people.

"Thank you, Mr Weatherbroom," the professor replied, placing a neat pile of sickles (payment and substantial tip) on the counter and nodding to Hannah. "Miss Abbott."

"What brings you to Diagon Alley this fine summer's day?" Tom asked as she sat down at the bar. "Something fun, I hope." He doubted it, though. He knew that in the three years since the Battle of Hogwarts, she had left school grounds only to attend funerals and Wizengamot trials.

"In fact, I am about to leave on a brief holiday," the headmistress said. "I've arranged a portkey at the Ministry."

"Glad to hear it," Tom said, genuinely pleased. If anyone needed a break, she did. She looked as collected and confident as ever in a neat Muggle blouse and skirt, her hair still as dark as it had been forty years ago, but Tom could see the tired lines around her eyes. And she was much too thin.

"Tom is taking a holiday soon, too!" Hannah piped up. "We all insisted -- the rest of us bartenders, I mean. He hasn't had a rest in. . .well, I don't know in how long. We convinced him that he's trained us well enough that the pub will still be standing when he gets back."

"Aye, professor, they're a force of nature, these kids," Tom said, gesturing towards Hannah. "Once they get an idea in their heads, they're like one o' them tornadoes. You just gotta go where they blows you."

Hannah laughed. "A rest will do you good. You, too, I'm sure, Headmistress."

McGonagall's stern face relaxed into a small smile. "My staff was insistent, too," she said to Tom. "For my own good, they said, but I'm certain they can all use a rest from me as well. I'm afraid I was rather dictatorial about restoring the castle."

"No, just dedicated," Hannah protested. "That's what Neville says. They're all worried about you overworking yourself." Hannah was affianced to young Longbottom, and "Neville says" formed a lot of her conversation.

The headmistress's smile widened. "Neville has been a brick during the reconstruction, Miss Abbott," she said. "I don't know what Pomona or I would have done without him. I'm looking forward to welcoming him permanently to the staff eventually." She turned back to Tom and toasted him with her glass of gillywater. "Here's to relaxing holidays, Mr Weatherbroom. And now I'll wish you both good day."

She finished her drink and with a final nod stepped through the main door into Muggle London.

"Fine woman, the headmistress," Tom said as she disappeared.

"Yes," Hannah said. "Scary, though. As a teacher, I mean. At first, anyway. Neville says that during his first few years, she made him horribly anxious."

"I thought it was Snape who sent your Neville round the twist," Tom said. He really should have been stocking the butterbeer cooler in preparation for the evening rush, but the temptation to spend a lazy few minutes chatting with friendly Hannah was too great to resist. The fact of the matter was, he was tired. Happen she and the rest of the staff was right -- a rest would do Tom good.

"Oh, Snape, for sure," Hannah agreed, nodding energetically. "I know he was a hero and everything, and I guess I'm sorry he's dead, but he was just awful to Neville. So unfair and unkind. Much worse than McGonagall ever was. I mean, with her, it's just her stern way that's scary. Not her herself, if that makes sense. She was actually pretty encouraging to Neville in the long run. He really likes her now."

"Not still scared of her, then?" Tom asked with a twinkle, and Hannah laughed.

"Well. . . maybe just a little," she admitted. "He feels a bit shocked when he hears the other teachers tease her or say something personal. He says he doesn't think he'll ever get to that point with her."

"Age do make a difference to familiarity," Tom observed, settling his backside more comfortably against the counter. That was another benefit to Hannah's employment: being engaged to Neville Longbottom meant that she was a grand source of gossip about Hogwarts. Nothing mean-spirited, now; no, she weren't nothing but kind and good-natured. But young Longbottom told her loads, and she didn’t mind passing it on to Tom.

There were few things Tom enjoyed as much as a good gossip. A barkeep had to be able to keep secrets, o' course, and Tom could be as closed-mouthed as the best of them, but that didn't mean he didn't enjoy being in the know. One of the main perks of his position, if you came right down to it.

He needed to ask his next questions delicately, though -- didn't want Hannah thinking he was a dirty old man. And he weren't. . . just curious, was all. The professors all tended to keep their personal lives to themselves, which made Tom all the more interested in learning who -- or what -- their romantic partners might be. That Gilderoy Lockhart had once been rumoured to cohabit with a centaur.

"It's a good thing you and Neville found each other afore he went off up north to teach," Tom began carefully. "I imagine it's not easy to find a love life there, Hogwarts being so isolated and all."

Hannah dimpled. "Yes, I'll never have to worry about some other girl stealing Neville away. As if he'd let her, anyway," she went on loyally. "Neville and I trust each other completely."

"Wonder how the other professors manage?" Tom hinted. "Marriage and things like that."

"Good question," said Hannah. "Neville hasn't actually said much. Professor Sprout's family is the only one I know about, really."

Tom nodded. He'd seen Pomona Sprout and her grandchildren in Diagon Alley during the summer hols. The whole Sprout clan -- the professor and her husband, her grown daughter and the daughter's family -- lived in Hogsmeade, but they still came to town from time to time. Tom doubted that there was a kiddie alive who didn't enjoy a trip to the Alley.

Then Hannah leant forward with a conspiratorial whisper. "And don't tell a soul, Tom, but Neville thinks there's some sort of heartbreak associated with the headmistress. He overheard Sprout and Flitwick talking in the staffroom right before the end of term. Professor Flitwick said, 'well, you know it's always very difficult for her this time of year,' and Professor Sprout said, 'Poor Minerva, she lived such a lonely life all those years as a widow, and then when she finally found some new happiness, it got snatched away from her just like that!' and she snapped her fingers. Then Neville made sure to cough or something, he didn't want to eavesdrop, and of course he was right."

She looked disappointed, though, and privately, Tom agreed with her even as he said aloud, "He's an honourable lad, your Neville."

"Oh, he is! But I do wish he'd learnt the rest of the headmistress's story."

"Ah, well," Tom said. "Maybe next time." He tended to take the long view of such things. The Hogwarts staffroom was probably very much like the bar of the Leaky Cauldron. . .sooner or later, all the stories got told.

"Well, at least Professor McGonagall will have a nice holiday," Hannah said. "And who knows? Maybe she'll get lucky at the beach!"

"Miss Abbott! For shame." Tom pretended to be shocked, and Hannah giggled.

"Okay, probably not," she said. "But what about you, Tom? Are you going to look for companionship on your holiday? What fun things do you have planned?"

"Oh, just go to the seaside, I reckon," Tom said. He hadn't really given it much thought. "Take in some ocean air, stop in a few pubs."

"Pubs?" Hannah was aghast. "You spend your entire life in a pub! Why would you want to spend your holidays doing the same thing you do every day?"

"Oh, there's a lot to be seen and learnt in a pub," Tom said. "Like a textbook of life, a pub is. And I'll be on the other side o' the bar this time, don't forget."

Hannah wasn't listening. "First holiday in thirty years, and the pub landlord is going to spend it going to go to pubs, he says," she moaned, shaking her head. "Tom, you're hopeless."

"That I am," said Tom, smoothing his nonexistent hair and grinning.

He hadn't thought he wanted to go, but now he couldn't wait for his holiday.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

As far as Tom was concerned, when it came to trips to the seaside, there was only one worthwhile destination: Skegness.

They'd gone there when he'd been just a wee lad, he and his mother and father and older sister Elba (rest them all). He'd taken the Muggle train for the first time in his life, and the excitement had been almost too much. His mother had had to give him a stomach-settling potion.

If he closed his eyes, he could still see the enormous, soot-blackened engine, steam pouring out of it to curl around the brightly-coloured posters lining the station walls: blue water and yellow sand and white clouds and big letters promising, "Skegness is SO bracing." There'd been a picture of an old sailor being blown happily along the beach, and Tom could almost feel the wind lifting him off his feet.

It had been cold, far too cold for bathing, but his mother had let him and Elba take off their shoes and stockings and wade into the biting water. Even after his toes turned bluer than the blue of railway poster, Tom hadn't wanted to come out.

The Muggles had fascinated him as much as the ocean and the train did, and Tom had to be reminded several times not to stare. They'd seemed so clever to him, these Muggles who had come up with non-magical ways to live their lives: the train porters pushed suitcases on trolleys instead of Levitating them; the fish-and-chip man used a little basket to lift the fish out of the hot oil instead of just accioing it.

They'd all eaten piping hot battered fish out of cones of newspaper, and Tom's father had made him and Elba each swallow a tot of whisky, to warm their bones after the cold of the sea. It had tasted like the worst medicine, but Tom came to think of it as a good omen, this first visit to a pub on this most fun day of his young life.

The poster had been right: Skegness was bracing, and in the eight decades since that first visit, Tom had returned several times: to mourn after his parents died, for his wedding trip with Julina, to clear his head head after Julina left him ("I need a life outside a pub, Tom!") He'd come to Skeggy, too, after the defeat of Grindelwald and the first defeat of Voldemort; he'd needed the cold salt air and the calming expanse of sea.

Of course, much had changed over the years: it was full of tourists now, and gaudy shops, and sprawling holiday camps, and caravans. The old pier had been washed away.

But the Jubilee Clock Tower still stood, the fish-and-chips were still hot and crisp, and the air was as bracing as ever.

Tom's portkey, a thick newspaper, brought him to the north end of town, near the Muggle holiday camp that he still thought of as "new," though it had first opened before the Grindelwald war, if he remembered correctly.

The pages of the portkey paper now glowed with golden letters and arrows: "Twenty yards forward, then turn right to Bradley's Wizarding Caravan Camp!" it read.

Tom's heart thrilled with anticipation; he hadn't been to Bradley's since just after the first Voldemort war, and in his mind, he could already see the trim caravans, tiny on the outside and spacious on the inside. Bradley's was quiet and old-fashioned and just the ticket for a man who still found Muggles fascinating, with their donkey rides and their fun fairs and their raucous game arcades, but who preferred soft, candlelit peace when bedtime came.

He spent the first day strolling along the sand and watching the Muggles at play, and by teatime, he had worked up a fine appetite. A pint or two at an out-of-the-way pub, he decided, and then some classic battered fish. For old times' sake.

It took him a bit of walking to find a pub to his liking -- the White Oak. No touristy horse-brasses or obvious Victorian-reproduction snugs and fake gaslight. Just a straight-forward workers' watering-hole, a place meant for drinking and low-key company.

The bar was almost empty when Tom pushed through the door, just a middle-aged man lingering over a ploughman's at a table near the window, and a dour-looking bartender stacking glasses behind the bar.

Perfect.

The barman looked up silently, waiting for Tom's order.

"Pint of Bateman's," Tom said, taking a seat at the bar. A good Lincolnshire brew, made by the same firm since Tom's dad had been a lad.

The bartender drew the pint with just the right amount of head and slid it along the worn wooden counter. He had sallow skin and long, dark hair drawn into a tail at the base of his neck; what looked a tiny silver cauldron dangled from one ear. He stared at Tom until the old man began to feel a wee bit uncomfortable. The look wasn't hostile, exactly, but assessing and just. . .unsettling.

"You'll have to be moving when old Billy Goslin shows up," the barkeep said finally, his voice raspy. "That's been his seat for thirty years."

Tom nodded. It didn't do to mess with the regulars' routines.

"Been in this line of work long?" he asked.

"Long enough," the man said. Then, after a moment, "You're not a local."

"No," Tom agreed. He wanted to talk to this man, figure out what had been behind that long stare. That's what he liked best about the pub trade, learning people's stories. Like reading a good storybook all day long. "Not local to these parts," he added. "Local to pubs, though. I'm a barman myself. On holiday."

This brought a flicker of amusement to the dark man's face. "And you're spending it sitting here? Bit of a busman's honeymoon, what?"

"There's a lot to be seen and learnt in a pub," Tom said, just as he had to Hannah Abbott.

And that's when he felt it -- the lightest of feathery brushings in his mind, just a whisper of feeling. . .but unmistakable all the same. Once you've felt the touch of Legilimens (as Tom had done more than once during the wars), you never forgot it.

The bartender's face remained inscrutable, but Tom had little doubt that the invasion came from him. He pushed a simple memory to the front of his mind, just a holiday-maker walking on the beach, and as quickly as it had come, the tendril of Legilimency disappeared.

Tom finished his pint as quickly as he could without seeming to hurry, but he no longer wanted to linger. Counting out his Muggle money, he paid for his beer and stepped out into the long summer twilight. The bartender did not speak further.

Well, Tom thought, as he headed towards the town centre and his dinner, here was a pretty mystery. A wizard hiding himself as a Muggle barkeep in an out-of-the-way pub in Lincolnshire. . .and suspicious enough to risk illegal mind-reading. . .

"Musta felt my magic," Tom reasoned, "but he wouldn't know I knew Legilimens. So maybe it didn't seem much of a risk to him."

Still, he decided, as he ate his fish and chips from their paper cone and watched the sun set over the water from the end of the new version of Skegness Pier, the bartender of the White Oak would bear watching.

It would be an adventure.

"And what happened then, Tom?" he could hear Hannah Abbott's breathless voice asking in his head.

He was looking forward to telling her and the rest of the staff all about it.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

That evening, Tom stood in front of the mirror in the bedroom of his caravan, practicing glamour charms so that he could follow the bartender tomorrow. Incognito, like.

"That's the idea," said the mirror encouragingly. "Go with a full head of hair. No one could possibly recognize you then."

"I know you're just being cheeky," Tom said. "But you're right -- some blond hair and visible teeth, and. . . "

"And your own mother won't know you," finished the mirror.

"Nay," Tom laughed. "She's probably the only one who would know me. It's how I looked in me young days."

"Why don't you get some teeth for real?" the mirror asked. "It'd look better, and you could actually eat."

"Oh, I got teeth," Tom said, conjuring a fedora and tilting it over his brow to see the effect. No. . .too rakish. "I just cover them with a spell."

"Whatever for?" the mirror asked incredulously, and Tom supposed he could see its point.

He tried to explain. "You got no teeth, people think you're old and harmless. They tell you more."

"You in the blackmailing business?" The mirror sounded more interested than it had all evening.

"No!" Tom was affronted. "I'd never use people's stories against them! No one keeps better secrets than a bartender, and I'm a professional!"

"Sorr-eee," muttered the mirror.

"So you should be. I just like to hear people's tales, that's all. And it helps 'em to tell me. To get it all out."

"Cheaper than therapy?"

"I reckon it is therapy," Tom said, adding a pair of horn-rimmed glasses to his glamour spell. "There. What do you think?"

"I think I don't even know you," said the mirror.

Tom was satisfied.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

He'd planned to wait outside the White Oak until closing time the next night and then follow the bartender home. But as luck would have it, as he was sitting over a cup of coffee in a Muggle café in Lumley Road next morning, he saw him -- the bartender himself, slouching along the high street with hunched shoulders as though it were the middle of winter instead of high summer.

He still wore his silver cauldron earring, but didn't have his ponytail today, and as Tom watched, the wind blew his hair over his eyes. The man jerked his head in irritation to clear his vision and raked his fingers through the dark strands.

Tom froze, his coffee cup halfway to his mouth. He recognized that gesture. How many times had he watched that scene over the years: an ill-tempered dark man stalking through the Leaky Cauldron, looking neither left nor right, tossing his head as he made for the door the led into the Muggle world.

He was wearing a glamour now -- a good one -- but that made no never mind. "They can hide their faces, but not their movements. By their gestures you shall know them" -- that's what old Mad-Eye Moody used to say, when he'd sat at Tom's bar and preached the gospel of vigilance, and Tom now knew who this dodgy dark bartender was.

It was Severus Snape.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

O' course it sounded crazy, and Tom would have tapped his head knowingly -- barmy! -- if someone had-a come into his pub with such a fool tale. And it might yet turn out that he was mad, or at least mistaken.

But he didn't think so. The gesture had been Snape's, no question, and it weren't so far-fetched to think that maybe the man weren't dead. They'd never actually found his body, had they? Once the dust of the Battle had settled, a whole team of Aurors had gone to the Shrieking Shack to fetch his corpse, or so the story went. . .only he hadn't a-been there. Just a big patch of dried blood and nothing else.

Nor Tom wouldn't be surprised to learn he'd gone into hiding, neither. Harry Potter had cleared Snape's name, officially anyway, but there was plenty of folk who was skeptical about the whole "Snape-the-double-agent-hero" story. Making himself scarce was not a bad idea, truth be told.

And a publican. . .well, that made sense, too. Beer-making was a potioner's art, after all, and Snape could easily have found a position for himself now that craft micro-brews were all the rage. (In fact, Tom was seriously considering installing a local-brew line at the Leaky Cauldron; he'd been thinking that maybe old Sluggie Slughorn wouldn't be opposed to making a few galleons as an artisan brewer.)

And it made sense for Snape to go to ground among the Muggles, too. He'd be able to fit in, having been raised with 'em. And that would explain why he'd been so unsettled when Tom had showed up at his Muggle hideaway, someone from his old life. . .must have given him a nasty turn, poor bloke. No wonder he'd been so swift with the Legilimens. Desperate, more'n likely.

Tom's coffee had gone cold, and he whispered a quick warming charm. His first idea had been to rush out into the street after Snape, but then he'd thought better of it. Snape was a crafty one, no doubt about it, and it was never a good idea to challenge any Slytherin without making a plan first.

Thus nightfall found Tom once again making his way to the White Oak pub. He didn't bother with his glamour, though; obviously Snape had recognised him, so they might as well just be direct about it. He'd decided it would be best to confront Snape while he was on duty at the bar in a room full of Muggles; less chance of hexes and Disapparating and whatever. Give Tom a chance to show he meant no harm.

As to what he did mean. . .well, Tom wasn't sure. But they were mates now, of a sort -- one always shared a bond with another bartender, no matter how different one's pubs -- and Tom had a sense of wanting to show Snape that fellowship.

He watched through the pub window for a few minutes before venturing in. Snape was behind the bar as expected, his hair tied back again, a white towel slung over his shoulder. He kept the bar queue sorted with no difficulty at all -- not an easy skill to master, that, but Tom figured that a man who had kept control of classrooms full of rowdy youngsters would have no trouble managing a crowd of drinkers. Like baby unicorns, drinkers was, really: once they started suckling their ale, they were docile as lambs. The odd brawl aside, o' course.

He entered unobtrusively as he could, but he could tell from Snape's momentary stillness that the man had registered his presence. Magical signatures would be strong in a Muggle place like this. So he took a seat at the far end of the bar (avoiding the chair of old Billy Goslin the regular), and let his wand peek out at the end of his shirt cuff. Might as well at least let Snape know he'd been rumbled as magical. Fair was fair.

The dark eyes narrowed as Snape drew a pint of Bateman's and slid it along. "Directio lingua," he muttered, and Tom knew that his next words would be audible to Tom's ears alone. "Wait for me after last call, and don't even think about trying anything. I warn you: I duel to kill."

Well! Tom ran a hand over his head and took a gulp of beer. A big one. This might end up being more of an adventure than he'd bargained for.

In the event, though, it turned out to be just the sort of adventure Tom liked best: a conversation.

And a story.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Snape waited until the last of the Muggle drinkers -- Billy Goslin, and what a garrulous old codger he'd turned out to be -- had stumbled out the door before he threw the lock and spoke his next words to Tom.

"What do you want?"

Tom spread his hands in supplication. "Just a chat, is all, Mr Snape."

The pale jaw tightened. "I don't know who you're talking about," he said. "My name is Wilson."

Tom shook his head. "It's no good, you know. You can change your face, but not your self. The real you is in your moves. Old Mad-Eye Moody taught me that."

The jaw continued to work. "What do you want?" Snape repeated.

"I told you, nothing but a chat. I didn't come looking for you, you know. I told you the truth: I'm here on holiday."

"In Skegness?" Snape's tone suggested that he couldn't imagine anyone would come to Skeggy except under duress.

Tom grinned, hoping that his obvious toothless state would show him as the harmless old duffer he really was. "For sentimental reasons, Mr Snape."

"I told you, my name is Wilson. And I suppose you just happened in here by coincidence?"

"Coincidence, yes. I like pubs, you see. But not those plastic touristy things. Something real." He leant forward. "You have nothing to fear from me, Mr Snape. I'll leave this minute if you say the word, and you'll never hear no more about it." Tom was sincere, though he just as sincerely hoped that Snape wouldn't take him up on this offer. He was too curious.

Snape sneered. "If I were the man you seem to think I am, I'd call you a liar. You'll go straight to the newspapers -- "

Tom felt the blood rush to his cheeks, and he knew that his whole head was glowing red with rage. The very idea! He surged to his feet.

"The v-v-very idea!" he sputtered, indignation making his voice thick. "What do you take me for? I'm a barman! I live by the code, the brotherhood -- it's like them Muggle what-do-you-call-'ems -- confession-men, they listen to people's sins and never tell. I'm a man of honour, Mr Snape! And you a barman yourself now! For shame. Think you'd know better."

Snape stared at him with that dark-eyed stare, and slowly, gradually, like a candle melting, his very bones shifted, softening here, tightening there, nose lengthening, chin sharpening . . .until finally the movement stopped, and the real Severus Snape -- hook nose, stringy hair, knife-edge cheekbones, the lot -- stood motionless in front of Tom.

It was a brave act, to be vulnerable in this way, and Tom found himself unaccountably moved. Mind, probably Snape wasn't really risking much; if it came to a duel or something like that, there was no question who'd win. And in a pinch, Snape could. . .

Merlin! He could! Tom felt his mouth drop open.

"Here!" he said, putting his hand on his wand and speaking as sharply as he could over the fear that had suddenly knifed itself into his heart. "You're not thinking of trying to Obliviate me?"

Snape twisted his lip. "What do you take me for?" he asked. "Unlikely as it may seem to you, Weatherbroom, I live by a code, too. And breaking the Obliviation taboo is not part of it."

He turned away, weariness clear in the droop of his shoulders, and Tom felt a twinge of guilt.

"I mean it, you know," he said. "I'll never breathe a word of having seen you. So don't start thinking you'll need to be moving on or anything like that. You can spend the rest of your days anonymous in Skegness if that's what you want."

Snape retreated behind the bar and began tidying the usual after-closing clutter of empty bottles and tattered napkins. Tom understood; sometimes you just needed that solid wooden barrier between you and the world.

"What I want and what I get are usually two different things," Snape said, but he sounded more resigned than bitter.

Tom took the chance of sitting down again, and when he didn't get tossed out on his arse, he felt a little emboldened. "And you thought you wanted this? Life in a Muggle pub in Skegness?"

Snape loaded a glass into a dishpan, and then another. And another.

"My family," he said, just when Tom had decided that he probably wasn't going to say anything at all. "My family wasn't one for holidays. It was all my father could do to keep food on the table, once the mills failed. And once the drinking started. But before all that, there was one summer -- spring, actually. May. We couldn't afford high summer season. Da somehow saw his way clear to taking my mother and me to the seaside. I was about six. We came here. Skegness. We froze our arses off."

"Skegness is. . .so bracing," Tom murmured, and Snape snorted.

"In a word. Three days in a grotty little caravan. Cheap, greasy food. Saw a sad Muggle magic show." He loaded more glasses with a crash. "I loved it. Fucking loved the lot of it. "

Tom was touched. "And you've been in love with this town ever since?"

"Hardly," said Snape. "It's a shit hole."

"What? But. . .then why are you here?"

"And that's your business how?"

"Not my business at all," Tom said, as mildly as he could, and then lowered his eyes and stayed silent. In his long experience, nothing encouraged other people to talk more than sympathetic silence. If they wanted to talk, that is. If they didn't, well, no amount of supportive listening would make them. But if even a small part of them wanted to unburden themselves or justify themselves or even just rant, then the mere presence of a non-judgmental listening ear would usually do the trick.

So he waited. Truth be told, he fully expected Snape just to sneer at him and show him the door; the man's ability to keep himself to himself was legendary.

But maybe time and circumstances had changed him. Or maybe the world didn't know Severus Snape as well as it thought it did.

Because after a few minutes, he spoke.

"I stay in Skegness because no one from our world bothers me here. Most of the time." He stared at Tom pointedly. "And I also stay because I once told the tale of my childhood visit to a. . .friend. . .at Hogwarts."

Tom waited, for obviously there was more to the story, but evidently Snape had said all he intended to say. He'd finished cleaning up behind the bar, and now he took a set of keys from his pocket.

"Work awaits me in the back room, Weatherbroom. I'll see you out."

There was nothing for it but to leave, and Tom reckoned it was for the best, anyway.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

He thought things over on his walk back to his caravan and decided that Snape might be more comfortable if Tom just moved on. So he left Skegness the next day to finish his holiday in Brighton -- lovely lot o' pubs it had, Brighton did.

By the time he got back to the Leaky Cauldron, he felt as rested as he had in years. He'd relaxed in any number of pleasant bars, and had taken some walks along lovely beaches, and if he'd occasionally been rained on, well, it had been fun. He'd felt almost like a Muggle, learning to be out in a storm without a weather-bubble charm. He'd got some good ideas for business improvements, too; he was looking forward to talking to them Weasley boys about developing magical fruit machines.

And he'd heard any number of interesting stories.

None was more fascinating than that of Severus Snape, o' course. Tom thought about him -- and his Muggle pub and his childhood excursion and his cryptic comment about the "friend" at Hogwarts -- more times than he could count. But though he told Hannah and the others all about the rest of his holiday, he never even hinted that he'd seen Snape.

He'd been serious when he'd said that he'd never breathe of word of his discovery, and in truth, he was beginning to think of his silence as something like a sacred trust. Whatever Snape's flaws, he'd done the wizarding world a service that could never be repaid, and the least Tom could do was to keep the man's secret. Maybe he'd write down the truth on a charmed parchment, one that couldn't be read until a hundred years after his death. . .just to set the historical record straight.

But otherwise, he would stay mummer than mum.

The summer turned to autumn and the autumn to winter, and one December day, not far from Christmas, Tom was adjusting the heat under a cauldron of warm spiced wine (one of his Yuletide best-sellers) when Hannah Abbott came in through the Alley entrance, bringing a swirl of fog with her. She'd had the last couple of days off so that she could attend the Hogwarts holiday staff party with her beau. Tom was looking forward to hearing all about it.

"Heigh-de-ho, Miss Hannah," Tom greeted her. "All is well in the frozen north, I hope?"

"'Frozen' is right," Hannah said, wanding her cloak into the staff cupboard and tying on her bar apron. "There were two-foot snow drifts in Hogsmeade. But Neville kept me warm."

Tom chuckled. "Now, I don't need to be hearing about that, Missy; that's between you and your young man. But I'm glad he's a-looking after you proper."

She waggled her eyebrows. "Oh, he is. And Tom, you'll never guess what he told me! Not in a million years."

"Well, I'd better not try, then. You'll just have to tell me."

"Remember last year, when I told you that Neville had overheard Professors Sprout and Flitwick talking about some tragedy in the headmistress's life? How she'd finally found some happiness and then it got snatched away from her somehow?"

"Yes, I remember."

"Neville finally got the whole story out of Professor Sprout. You know McGonagall is a widow. Her husband died in some sort of freak accident with a plant, a venomous tentacula."

"Oh, everybody knows that story," said Tom, disappointed.

"Well, I didn't. Neither did Neville. But that's not the new heartbreak. Apparently after her husband died, she just threw herself into her work and had no personal life at all. Or that's what Professor Sprout says. But then, the year before the Tri-Wizard tournament, she got into a new romantic relationship. Guess with who?"

Tom loved these sorts of puzzles, but this one wasn't much of a challenge.

"That's not hard," he said. "It would be the headmaster, no doubt. Albus Dumbledore himself. I'd heard some rumours about him preferring men, if you know what I mean, but maybe the rumours was wrong." Tom had always kept that story close to his chest, but he figured it couldn't hurt Dumbledore now. Anyway, such things didn't matter now as much as they once did. "Him and McGonagall was always really good friends."

"No, it wasn't Dumbledore."

"No?" Hmmm. Hannah clearly expected him to be surprised. So maybe it was the headmistress who was interested in her own kind. "Someone I would never expect, is that it? Er. . .Madam Hooch, maybe?"

"No, but that's a good guess. She is interested in women. Hooch is, I mean. Oh, you'll never guess, Tom. Never. Are you ready? It was. . .Severus Snape!"

She stood back and folded her arms on her chest, waiting for Tom's reaction.

He gave a long, low whistle. This was a shocker, right enough. "You don't say! Snape? You're sure? But he's a good thirty years younger than the headmistress."

"Thirty-five, according to Professor Sprout. It was a volatile relationship, she said, a lot of shouting and things like that. But basically, they were good for each other. And then Snape became headmaster, and everything was horrible, although Sprout is pretty sure that McGonagall knew he wasn't really a Death Eater. And then, just before the war ended and they could have been together again, Snape was killed!"

Hannah looked half sorrowful, half excited by the tragic romance of it all.

Before Tom could ask more questions, several patrons entered and put paid to further conversation.

He spent the rest of the evening drawing pints and pouring whisky and uncapping butterbeer, but his mind was only half on his work. His brain was buzzing.

Minerva McGonagall and Severus Snape! A romantic couple. His mind just couldn't bend to the idea, especially not to the inevitable notion of sexual activity.

Tom was not a man who spent much time speculating about other people's sex lives; it had been so long since he'd had (or for that matter, wanted) one of his own that the topic was just not much of a priority for him. Besides, he really didn't want the mental images of people he knew making the beast with two backs. It would be too awkward when it came to serving them their beer and bacon butties.

Still, he couldn't help spending a few minutes thinking about Snape sleeping with the headmistress. How on earth had they got together? Their differences would seem insurmountable. . .that big age gap, and Snape having been a Death Eater. Not to mention once being McGonagall's eleven-year-old student.

Then again, they were both private, prickly, smart people. They probably had a lot in common. Sharp tongues could no doubt turn people on to each other just as much as any other similarity.

In the end, he gave it up. Romantic attraction was rarely completely understood by anyone outside the couple themselves, and that was all there was to it.

"I don't suppose your Neville learnt anything further? About the headmistress and Professor Snape?" he whispered to Hannah during a lull in custom.

She shook her head. "No, that's all. Just that they'd been together and then he died. Sprout and Flitwick think it's such a shame. Not that Professor McGonagall talks about it or pines or anything, at least not as far as Neville knows. But she's alone now, and it's too bad."

Tom grunted acknowledgement and began to wipe down the bar; he could hardly ask Hannah the most important questions in his head: could the headmistress possibly know that Snape was still alive? And if not, would she want to? Would Snape want her to?

It wasn't until Tom was getting ready for bed in his small suite of rooms above the pub that the realisation hit him: Professor McGonagall would be the "friend" that Snape had told his childhood Skegness story to.

"And he stays there because he hopes she'll come looking for him!" he said aloud. Of course. It made perfect sense.

Except that it didn't. Why would Snape have to wait for her to look for him? He could just tell her where he was, couldn't he?

Well, for all his sneering superiority, maybe deep down, Snape was insecure? Maybe the only way he'd believe that the headmistress really wanted him was if she came to him? Or maybe he'd already talked to her, and she'd indicated that she wanted to move on?

There was just no telling. It was a mystery. All he really knew, Tom thought, as he lay down and waved his wand to snuff his candles, was that Hannah was right: two people had evidently found some peace together, and then they lost it, and it was too bad.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Tom found himself thinking about Snape and McGonagall periodically over the next few months, or more specifically, thinking about his own possible part in their story.

Should he tell the headmistress that Snape was alive? And very possibly waiting and hoping for her to come to Skeggy and find him?

That was the question.

Yes, it was a question, all right, and one that he just did not know how to answer. One day, he'd say to himself, "Stay out of it, Tom, me lad. 'Tisn't your business, and besides, you gave your word." Then the next day he'd think, "They are two stubborn, rigid people who need a little nudge now and then, and you could help them." Then he'd remind himself that that no one likes a meddler. But a few days later, he'd be back to, "Most likely the headmistress don't even have any inkling that Snape might be alive, and so she'll never find him. Why would she think to go to look in Skegness for a dead man?"

Oh, it was a puzzle, and sometimes Tom's head ached just thinking about it. The worst of it was, he had no one to talk the problem over with. In the normal run of things, he'd spell out his dilemma to Hannah and Gregor and Belladonna and Gertz and the rest of the pub staff, who were like family to him, really. And together they'd come up with a solution.

But this time. . .this time, he was on his own.

It was getting on to late spring, and he still hadn't made up his mind what to do, although a little part of his brain whispered to him that by not doing anything, he was actually making his choice. Ah, well. Probably it was for the best. Because it was true -- no one did like a meddler.

Then Hannah came in for her shift one day looking troubled. Tom was a dab hand at spotting people's moods, but even if he hadn't been, it wouldn't have mattered. It didn't take a headhealer to notice when the bubbles went out of Hannah's champagne personality.

"Why so quiet, Hannah, lass?" he said to her, first chance he got. "Problems? Come on. . .tell old Tom all about it."

Hannah gave a small laugh. "Sorry. . .didn't mean to act glum. But. . .I went to Hogwarts on my day off, you know? And Neville's all depressed because he forgot he had agreed to take delivery of some rare magical plants that Pomona ordered, and the delivery man went and floo-called directly to the headmistress's office, and she was in a meeting with some of the Board of Governors."

"Oh, dear," said Tom.

"Yes, and then she was annoyed and was really sharp with Neville -- she just gets, like, super difficult at this time of year, around the anniversary of the Battle and of Dumbledore's death, and Snape's, of course, and, well, now Neville is convinced that McGonagall won't offer him the permanent Herbology position when Pomona retires in a couple of years, and he's all in a state."

Tom could understand that; Neville was a smart and kind young man, and very brave when it came to things like battling dark lords and their snakes, but for everyday things, he could be right timid.

"Well," he said to Hannah, "the main thing here is whether Neville could be right: is this business so serious that he actually might not get the job?"

"Oh, of course not. Pomona just laughed at the idea, and really, the headmistress wouldn't be like that. I mean, she can be totally terrifying when she's irritated, but she's not unfair that way. But Neville can't see that at the moment, and I just feel so bad for him."

"I understand," Tom assured her. "And I'm sorry he's depressed. But that's just temporary; he'll get over it, and in the long run, sounds like there's nothing to worry about. So why don't you just take tomorrow off and go back and console him, like?"

Hannah's face it up. "Really? Oh, Tom, thank you so much. I think that's exactly what he needs."

So Hannah went back up to Hogwarts, and Tom spent some time thinking about love and consolation. By the time Hannah returned, he had made up his mind.

"I'm going to be away next Saturday," he told the staff. "There's a ceremony at Hogwarts -- fourth anniversary of the Battle. Think I'll go."

He watched as they all exchanged surprised looks; Tom had not participated in the Battle, and he'd never shown interest in these memorial events before.

Well, let 'em wonder.

He had a job to do.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The anniversary ceremony was very nice, if you liked that sort of thing, which Tom tended not to. Best not to dwell, he always thought. Still, folks needed to remember what had happened, what had been at stake in the war. So maybe a tasteful reminder of how much they'd lost wasn't a bad idea.

He wandered around the grounds a bit afterward -- beautiful day, it was, and there was no talking to the headmistress at the moment, surrounded as she was by well-wishers and parents and Ministry bigwigs.

Tom hadn't attended Hogwarts himself; his schooldays had come before Hogwarts had been free to all magical British children, and the fees had been far beyond Tom's family's purse. But he'd got a fine magical education as a day student at Lincolnshire Wizarding College, so he had no regrets (defunct now, Lincs Wiz was, which was a pity, but time moved on).

Tom watched interestedly as several small children and their parents threw bits of cheese and bread into the lake, the children laughing and squealing every time an enormous tentacle arose from the water as the giant squid collected its treat. Now that were something he'd never seen at his school, he had to admit.

Finally the crowd thinned out, and Tom turned his steps to the castle. In the entry hall, he found Argus Filch and his cat. Filch must have attended the ceremony, for he was wearing a rather mouldy old tailcoat.

"Headmistress'll be in the staffroom, most like. Not 'er office," Filch said in response to Tom's question, though only after a moment. Filch always parted with information reluctantly, even his bar orders, as if words cost money. He waited a few more beats, then added grudgingly, "There's a big luncheon for visitors an' everyone in the Great Hall in a few minutes. No point in her climbing all them steps just to come right back down again."

He gestured towards an ancient carved door flanked by two stone gargoyles and then shuffled away.

Tom took a breath and knocked.

Professor McGonagall herself opened the door, looking severe but impressive in black dress robes with red tartan edging.

"Mr Weatherbroom!" she said, clearly surprised to see him, and why wouldn't she be? "Thank you for coming today. I hope you found the ceremony meaningful."

"Oh, yes, grand speeches and such," Tom said. "Er. . .I was hoping I could have a few minutes of your time, if you've got 'em to spare?"

"Of course. Please, come in." She stepped back and motioned him into the room. "We'll be comfortable here."

Tom took a quick look around. It did look comfy -- a large fireplace, sun slanting in through leaded windows, soft-looking armchairs. A long conference table took up the far end of the room, but the headmistress led him to a sofa in the sunlight.

"What can I do for you, Mr Weatherbroom?" she asked, once they were seated.

Tom had given a lot of thought to what he wanted to say, and now he began.

"Remember last summer, when you came through the Leaky Cauldron on your way to your holiday?"

"I do indeed."

"Now, no reason you should remember this part, but I was about to leave on holiday, too."

"Yes, Miss Abbott mentioned it."

"Well, I went to Skegness. Ever been to Skeggy, Headmistress?"

He couldn't swear to it, but he thought her eyes sharpened just a bit behind their spectacles. "No, I can't say I have," she replied.

"Nice old town. Lots of touristy places, o' course, being right there at the seaside. But once you get off the high roads, there's just ordinary people going about their lives. Maybe dropping into their local of an evening. I stopped in one of them local Muggle pubs one night. The White Oak. Struck up a conversation with the bartender there. Interesting bloke."

"Was he?" She couldn't yet know where this tale was going, but Tom could tell that she was listening closely, her hands tightly clasped in her lap.

"Yep. Very. A brewer as well as a barkeep, he was. A bit unusual-looking. Long, dark hair and an earring. But here's the main thing: he was a wizard. His magic was strong. I could sense it, and he sussed me out, too."

Tom waited, but McGonagall was silent, so he went on, "Now, when a strong wizard chooses to spend his life among Muggles, I figure maybe he's deliberately trying to stay on the down-low, like. Know what I mean? It wasn't none of my business, but I went and asked why he was working in a Muggle pub, and he told me a little story.

"That's all, just a little story. About how his family had been poor, but once when he was just a little lad, his da brung him and his mum to Skegness. They only stayed a few days, in a grotty little caravan, he said, but he loved it. Remembered it all his life."

The headmistress was leaning forward now, her eyes fixed on his face. Tom gave her a minute to let the details sink in, then added, "Said he'd only ever told that story to one other person. An old friend of his from where he used to work."

"And did he say anything about this friend?" She might have been talking about the weather, so neutral was her tone.

"No, didn't say nothing about them particularly. Just that this was one of the reasons he'd come back to Skegness. Because his friend knew that story."

"I see," said the professor slowly.

And Tom thought that she did.

"Well," he said, getting to his feet with a bit of an effort. Squashy chairs could be nice to sit in but hard on old joints to get out of. "Just thought you might enjoy hearing a little bit about my holiday. Being as how we both took ours at the same time and all. "

"Yes. . ." She sounded distracted. "Tell me, Mr Weatherbroom -- have other people found this story as interesting as I do?"

"Oh, I've not mentioned it to anyone else. No one at all. We publicans, we know how to keep a close tongue in our heads, most of the time. Other times. . .well, we might tell a story or two. Here and there. If we think someone might appreciate it."

She stood up and smiled then, and it did Tom's heart good to see her look happy.

"I'll be on my way, then, Headmistress. Thank you for talking with me." He held out his hand.

Unexpectedly, for he'd never thought her a demonstrative woman, she clasped it with both of hers and squeezed gently. "Thank you, Tom. Thank you. "

Then she stepped away briskly, the professional headmistress once more. "Will you join us for lunch in the Great Hall?" she asked. "You'll be welcome."

"Thankee kindly, but I'd best be getting back to the Leaky Cauldron. Busy day, Saturday, you know."

He was back behind his bar within ten minutes. Hoping he'd not done the wrong thing.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

"Professor McGonagall! How good to see you!" Hannah Abbott's cheerful voice floated into the back room of the Leaky Cauldron where Tom Weatherbroom was uncrating the new shipment of Bateman's "Dark Lord" ale.

McGonagall! Leaving his case half-unemptied, Tom hurried out to the bar, straightening his apron and running a tidying hand over his totally bald pate.

"Good afternoon, Headmistress," he said, and he was pleased to see that she looked less pale and peaked than the last time he'd seen her. Had some roses in her cheeks, even. "Gillywater?"

"Hello, Mr Weatherbroom," she said. "No time for a drink, I'm afraid. I have a portkey to catch."

"Your holiday?" he asked, though her shrunken valise and Muggle coat gave him his answer.

"Yes," she said, and looked him in the eye. "I thought I'd try Skegness this year."

Tom felt a little surge of something in his gut and gave her a quick grin.

"Oooh, Skegness," said Hannah. "That's where Tom went last year, didn't you, Tom? Do you know, Headmistress, that he actually spent part of his trip visiting pubs? Can you imagine? Taking a break from your pub so that you can go to a lot of pubs?"

McGonagall smiled. "Whatever makes one happy," she said.

"Aye," Tom agreed. "Well, I hope Skegness turns out to be all you wish for, Headmistress."

"Thank you, Mr Weatherbroom. I hope so, too. And now I'll bid you good day. You, too, Miss Abbott."

She nodded to them both and stepped through the main door into Muggle London.

"Fine woman, the headmistress," Tom said as she disappeared.

"Fancy her going to Skeggy, though," Hannah said. "Isn't it kind of tacky and crowded and always cold?"

"Oh, I don't know," Tom said. "Lots o' folks like it. Skegness is. . .bracing."

All of a sudden, he felt the need for a little celebration. He poured out two tots of Ogden's, pushed one to Hannah, and knocked back his own.

"Not to mention," he added, "it has some of the most interesting bartenders you'd ever want to meet."

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