Title: A Slant-Told Tale
Genre: Drama, romance
Warning/s: Explicit sexual content; violence; abuse; alcoholism
Disclaimer: All characters, settings and other elements from the Harry Potter franchise belong to J. K. Rowling.
31 May 1998
A chill that had little to do with the wind sweeping through the room passed through Minerva as she surveyed the damage to the formerly impressive room.
Despite the collapse of part of the second-level library, Minerva could see that Snape hadn’t changed much about the Headmaster’s office during his months in residence. She’d expected the Head’s desk and chair to be as they had always been, and so they were, but the presence of the many magical instruments Albus had collected over his long life surprised her. They would have been a constant reminder to Severus of the man he had killed and the devil’s bargain he’d made with him.
Of course, Albus’s magical portrait would have been an even more pointed reminder. She glanced up to where the most recent portraits had been hung. Many were missing, casualties of the enormous, jagged hole that had been blasted through the Head’s tower when the battle had taken to the air, and those that remained were askew.
Albus’s portrait was gone.
Minerva approached the damaged area. She could make out fragments of broken picture frame scattered among the heaps of broken stone and glass that filled that part of the room; flashes of gilding glinted like hope in the sunlight despite the dust that coated everything.
After casting a charm on her hands to protect them from broken glass, she began to pick her way carefully through the detritus. The first recognizable portrait she came across was Dillys Derwent. Her frame was broken on two sides, and a ragged tear marred the centre of the canvas, right through Professor Derwent’s abdomen.
Minerva was startled when the painted Derwent opened her eyes and coughed.
“I’m so sorry to have left you this way, Headmistress,” Minerva said, brushing the dust from the canvas. “I’ve only just been able to get in here.”
“It’s all right, child, it doesn’t hurt. It’s just a bit draughty. And my knitting is gone,” Derwent said sadly.
“I’m going to put you in the far corner for the moment, out of the wind, then I’ll take you to a safe place while we see about having you repaired.”
It occurred to Minerva that she had no idea if either of the two magical portrait-painters in Britain had survived the war. The Death Eaters had rounded up seemingly everyone with special magical skills, and many hadn’t been heard from since.
Put it on the list of problems to deal with when I come to them.
Minerva’s next find was Brutus Scrimgeour, whose frame was cracked, but who was otherwise unharmed. He joined Professor Derwent in the sheltered corner.
Minerva’s heart fell when she found Armando Dippet’s portrait. Shreds of canvas hung from the painting’s upper half, obliterating the round, kind face she remembered from her school days. There would be no repairing it; whatever wisdom of Professor Dippet’s the portrait-painter had managed to capture was gone forever. Like so much else that was good in the world. And Albus’s portrait had hung directly under Professor Dippet’s …
She put the damaged painting gently aside and dug a little further.
Oh, no …
She stared for a moment at the charred remains of a large canvas that lay face-down on the pile, partially covered by crumbled masonry. She forced herself to turn it over swiftly. The image had been seared away, and there was no telling who it had been.
She hadn’t seen Albus’s portrait many times. It had just been hung the day before the Ministry fell to Voldemort’s forces and Snape had been summarily installed as Headmaster of Hogwarts. The portrait had been sleeping on the few occasions she’d been summoned to the Headmaster’s office during Snape’s tenure, and she’d wondered if Albus’s portrait really hadn’t wakened or if he were feigning sleep to avoid speaking with his murderer.
Except he wasn’t a murderer.
She pushed the thought away.
The work of clearing up the human destruction wrought by the final battle had taken weeks, and by the time she’d had a chance to turn her thoughts towards the Headmaster’s Tower and getting into the office, she’d almost forgotten the portraits, but once she had in hand the board of governors’ hastily ratified decree confirming her as Headmistress, she’d thought immediately of Albus’s portrait. When the gargoyle had bowed its head and acknowledged her right to enter the office that was now hers, she’d tried not to let herself hope the portrait would be awake.
She peered at ruined canvas, looking for a hint of who it had been. But the blackened chips of paint that flaked off at her slightest touch revealed no clue.
Blinking back tears, she placed it with the other badly damaged pictures and forced herself to go on digging through the rubble. The bloated and warped shapes of several books that had suffered from exposure to the Highland mists that crept in each morning obscured the bottom layer of the pile. She cleared them away with her wand and lifted the corner of a small, filthy tapestry that lay under them. Her hand met something hard, and she flipped the tapestry back to find Albus Dumbledore blinking up at her.
“Albus! Thank Merlin.”
She knelt and ran her hands over the canvas. It was dusty but otherwise unharmed.
“Is it over?” he asked, his painted eyes seeming to search her face.
“And the boy? Harry?”
A smile broke over the portrait’s face.
“Wonderful. Wonderful! And you, Minerva, you are well?”
The portrait’s face darkened. “And Severus … is he …?”
“Ah. Poor boy.”
“Yes. Poor boy.”
Long-banked anger at Albus mingled with Minerva’s relief at finding his portrait unharmed.
The portrait seemed to be waiting for her to say more, and finally, she did.
“How could you?”
His brows knit together. “How could I …?”
“Severus. What you made him do. I could have stood the rest. War is a bloody waste, but I could have stood it. But not what you did to him.”
It occurred to her that the portrait might not have any idea of the terrible sacrifice Albus had forced on Severus Snape. It would only know what the painter had known and been able to Charm into the painting. And whatever Albus’s portrait had seen once it had been hung in the Headmaster’s office.
She struggled to explain. “You … Albus … made him kill you … Albus. Made everyone believe Severus the worst sort of traitor and coward. But he wasn’t. He—”
“I know,” the portrait said quietly. “Before the real Albus died, he woke me and told me the things I would need to know in order to guide Severus.”
Fury filled her mouth, and she could barely get the words out.
“Albus told you what he was going to do? You, and no one else?”
“Yes. And I’m sorry, Minerva. The circumstances were less than ideal. Severus had to stay close to Voldemort, to slow him while Harry did what he had to do. I did try to help him. All this past year … we spoke frequently, and I guided him, where I could. No one could know. Severus insisted upon it.”
Yes, she thought, he would have done. Severus had never been someone, boy or man, to accept help, no matter how much he needed it. His terror and remorse back during the first war must have been intolerable to have asked Albus to protect the Potters. The brilliant, bitter man Minerva had known would almost have savoured the isolation of those final hideous months of the late war as just punishment for the boy he’d been, a boy who had made a terrible mistake out of those too-common adolescent scourges of neglect and bullying and envy.
Her anger gave way to unutterable sadness.
“He must have been so very lonely,” she said.
“Yes,” said the portrait. “In the end, I think that’s all I was really able to do for him—provide a sympathetic ear and remind him that there was someone who knew who he really was. I’m sorry he’s dead.”
“So am I,” she said. “Even after Harry saw him kill you on the Astronomy Tower, I wondered about him. He knew you were dying—why would he kill you? But when he returned as Headmaster with those … those creatures in tow, I thought, that’s why. He was still so angry that he wanted to utterly negate everything you had built, everything about the place that should have been a home to him. But now I find it was just another lie. And to preserve it, Severus died without comfort in that horrible shack, his throat torn out.”
The portrait had the good sense to look ashamed. It cleared its throat and said, “How …?”
“Voldemort set the snake on him.”
Albus closed his eyes for a moment, and she was savagely glad to have caused him this grief.
“But Severus told the boy what he must do?” he asked.
“Yes. Harry walked right into the forest to let Voldemort kill him.”
“But he returned,” the portrait said.
“Yes. No … I’m still not entirely sure what happened—Harry has been understandably reluctant to speak publicly on the matter, other to tell anyone who will listen about Severus.”
“Ah. I’m very glad he is all right.”
Minerva’s eyes narrowed. “You knew he would not die.”
“Oh, I believed he would die. But I also had a reasonable hope that it would not be a permanent state of affairs.”
The painter had done an admirable job of capturing Albus’s penchant for drawing out a mystery, she thought.
“How?” she asked.
“Albus told me he had come to believe that Harry was protected by some of the oldest and strongest magic in existence. A magic I believe you know something about. His mother’s love.”
Malcolm’s face flashed into her mind, followed too quickly by Molly Weasley’s, wrung out with grief as she knelt over the body of her son.
“But what of all the other sons and daughters who died that day?” she asked “Did their mothers not love them too? Why were they not protected?” Her voice sounded shrill in her ears.
The portrait gave her the look Albus had given her in school on the few occasions on which her work had disappointed him.
“The kind of protection Harry had was only possible through his mother’s enormous and deliberate sacrifice. Unfortunately, most parents are not able to foresee their children’s moments of greatest peril, and those who are rarely have the magical ability to channel their love or know how to make the sacrifice at just the right moment. Were it not so, I’m certain few Muggle children would ever have died of diphtheria, and even fewer magical children would have succumbed to magical accidents. I have no doubt that Lily Potter, knowing that Harry would be targeted by Voldemort, researched blood magic and made some arrangements of her own.”
“She would have endeavoured to put herself between Voldemort’s Killing Curse and Harry at exactly the right moment, with a complete willingness … an intense desire, in fact … to die in his place at that moment. Even for the most doting parent, that sort of … self-hypnosis, if you will, takes practice. I believe she would have practised making smaller physical sacrifices in anticipation of an attack. Severus told me that when he found her body, there were scars on it that he did not believe came from Voldemort’s attack. She was missing several toes—”
Minerva put a hand up to stop him from telling her any more about Lily Potter’s corpse.
He said, “That was what led Albus to believe that it was imperative that Harry have the Resurrection Stone just before his death.”
“The Resurrection Stone? Isn’t that a fairy tale?”
“Oh, it is real enough. Albus found it among the possessions of Tom Riddle’s grandfather. Unfortunately, he could not resist trying it out, which is how his hand came to be cursed.”
“But that is a tale for another time. The important thing is that Harry had the stone when he ultimately faced Voldemort. If he used it, as Albus believed he would, Lily Potter’s spirit—and James’s, too, probably—would have been with him once again, recreating that willingness to sacrifice for Harry at the moment Voldemort cast another Killing Curse. It was Albus’s hope that he would not actually have to die to defeat the Dark Lord.”
“But he didn’t know?”
“Not with any certainty. And, of course, the entire plan could have gone amiss at any crucial point. Which is one reason I am so very delighted to see you here, Minerva, as well as for your own dear sake, and to hear that Harry is alive and well.”
She wasn’t so certain about “well,” but she left that for the moment.
“And you, Minerva. Is your family— are Malcolm and the children all right?”
“Yes, thank Merlin. Malcolm was here. He came to fight. He used his Invisibility to act as a spy for the Order and led a contingent of villagers on brooms during the battle. They managed to Stun several of the giants and keep the castle from being totally destroyed.”
“There were losses.”
“As there are in any war. I know you and the others did what you could to prevent them.”
“Alastor is dead.”
It was the first time she’d said it aloud since Apparating to Paris in the middle of the night to deliver the awful news in person to Malcolm. She’d thought she’d never want to say it again, but it felt good to tell Albus—even this painted facsimile—something of what this war had cost her personally. She realised she was still angry with him, not just for Severus, but for leaving her alone to watch a new generation of children, friends, and lovers die.
But incredibly, Albus’s painting broke into a smile.
“He isn’t dead,” he said.
Minerva’s brain seemed to fog over. She reached out for support and found herself grasping at thin air for a few moments before her mind cleared enough to speak.
“He is dead. Voldemort killed him. Order members saw it happen.”
“They saw him cursed. But he survived the curse.”
She shook her head violently. She couldn’t afford to allow a single tendril of hope to penetrate her armour. Not now, not after everything.
“That’s impossible. He fell— it had to be a thousand feet, Bill said.”
“But someone was there to arrest the fall. Severus.”
“No,” she said. “Someone would have found out. If Alastor were still alive, he’d—”
“Minerva, Severus swore to me that Alastor was still alive after Voldemort’s curse.” The portrait spoke patiently, and his eyes stayed steady on Minerva’s face.
She forced back the lump that was rising in her throat. “But he took a Killing Curse right to the face. Bill Weasley said so.”
“Yes, but Alastor was well trained in deflecting curses. It still might have killed him, but I believe Voldemort was distracted by his desire to kill Potter, and the wand Voldemort was using at the time was not his own. It was Lucius Malfoy’s, and it may have resisted doing the Dark Lord’s bidding. It was, in fact, destroyed later the same evening when he tried to curse Harry with it.
“Severus didn’t see the curse being cast, but he did see Alastor falling. He was able to arrest the fall at the last minute, but there were extensive injuries, he said. Nevertheless, Alastor was alive and remained so when Severus delivered him to a Muggle hospital.”
No. She refused to hope that it could be true. Alastor was dead, and that’s all there was to it. Her grief had been something feral, and she’d only managed to cage it at great cost. She could not afford to let a painting’s fairy story give it a chance to get loose again.
Only … if what the portrait was saying was true …
But she found herself asking, “If Alastor has been alive all this time, why didn’t he send word?”
“He couldn’t. Severus Obliviated him.”
Minerva’s mouth opened and closed, but no sound escaped.
The portrait continued, “Alastor was injured—Severus wasn’t sure how badly, but it seemed clear that he would be incapacitated for a long time, perhaps months. If, as Severus thought likely, he tried to escape the hospital, there was a great risk that someone—the wrong someone—would discover that he lived. Which would pose a danger not only to Alastor himself, but to Severus, who had told the Dark Lord that he had disposed of Alastor’s body. To prove it, he brought Voldemort Alastor’s magical eye.”
The room seemed to turn in slow-motion in front of Minerva’s eyes. Her knees gave way under her, and she sat heavily on the stone floor.
“Minerva, my dear, are you all right?”
“I … No, I’m …” Panic gripped her chest. “Where is he?”
“Severus took him to … wait a moment …” The portrait searched in his voluminous purple robes and withdrew a slip of paper. “St George’s Hospital in Tooting.”
Minerva got to her feet.
“I have to go—”
His voice stopped her as she hurried towards the door.
“Minerva, wait! He won’t be there. It’s been months.”
She turned back to him, eyes wide and alert.
“Where is he, then?”
“I don’t know… Severus didn’t know. He knew they’d discharged him, but they wouldn’t tell him where, as he wasn’t family.”
A feeling of awful impotence enveloped her, and her mind travelled back to the day her father had told her she was to marry Gerald Macnair. The sensation was eerily similar.
“I have to go.”
“Of course. Godspeed, my dear.”
4 June 1998
John slammed the cupboard door.
He was out of teabags.
The kettle sang out its merry whistle, but he crutched over and pulled the plug with a sigh of disgust.
His DLA payment wouldn’t be in for another four days, so he’d have to go without unless he wanted to live on two cans of Heinz baked beans until then. Maybe he could cop a couple of teabags from Mrs Cobb next door. But he didn’t feel like making his way over there and listening to her natter on about the bloody Princess Diana concert. Where a pensioner living in a council flat found the money for tea towels and commemorative plates with a dead toff’s face plastered all over them was a mystery John didn’t care to contemplate.
And of course, she’d offer him a drink.
He’d pegged her for a souse the first time he’d met her; she’d smelt of gin under the general odour of cabbage and diesel that seemed to permeate the estate. Sure enough, once she’d managed to get him into her flat for a cuppa, that cuppa had come with the offer of a bit of whiskey “to sweeten it,” despite the fact that it hadn’t yet gone 10 in the morning.
The fact that he’d wanted it so badly rang alarm bells in his head. The sudden thirst that had almost overwhelmed him suggested to him that a tot of Bell’s Original in his tea was a very bad idea indeed. Shaken, he’d demurred, and got through the visit relatively unscathed save for the scalded tongue he’d got when he’d gulped down the plain, but very hot tea Mrs Cobb had given him.
Well, it was no great surprise that he’d been a drunk. The fact that no one had come looking for him in hospital told him all he really wanted to know about his former life. He only wondered if the scars had come before the whiskey or because of it. They were old, the scars, or so said the doctors who’d patched him up after his accident. And, of course, the leg and the eye had been gone long before St George’s trauma unit had ever heard of John O’ Connell, Mystery Man. John had known that without their having to tell him. His body’s memory was better than his own, apparently.
He poured himself a cup of hot water and sliced an anaemic-looking lemon into it. Sipping the water, he stared out the small, dirty window to the so-called community garden behind the house.
The telephone rang, and he cursed under his breath. Leaving his crutches leaning against the cooker, he hopped over to the tiny kitchen table and, balancing on his good leg with one hand on the ugly plastic table top, grabbed the receiver.
“Mr John?” came a cheerful voice on the other end.
“It’s Rafi. From the transport.”
“Hello, Mr John. I am calling to confirm that I will be picking you up tomorrow morning at 9:15. Is that still correct for you?”
“Yeah, Rafi, that’ll be fine.”
“Big day for you tomorrow. I hope you will be getting plenty of sleep tonight.”
“Okay, then. I will see you tomorrow at 9:15.”
“I’ll be here. Bye.”
John smiled in spite of himself. Rafi was one of the few people who had that effect on him. His chatter during the twice-weekly van rides to the hospital for therapy had become the high point of his days, and John had been fascinated by the young man’s tales of his family’s life in Bangladesh before they’d been forced to flee the massacres led by Pakistani forces during the liberation war. The stories took John’s mind off the pain that still clawed at his poor pinned-together spine much of the time. He’d be damned if he’d get himself addicted to pain-killers on top of everything else, so the bottle of tramadol sat in his bedroom drawer unopened.
Rafi, John had learnt, was supporting his aging father—who’d been a doctor and professor of medicine at the Dhaka University before the war—and three sisters, all of whom lived in a small flat in Whitechapel. Nevertheless, Rafi seemed to have endless patience and compassion for his crusty Irish passenger, and seemed genuinely interested in John’s rehabilitation progress. In fact, John could swear that Rafi was more excited than he was about the new prosthesis John was about to receive.
“You’ll be dancing again in no time, Mr John!” Rafi had declared when John had made the transport appointment for tomorrow’s fitting.
John rather doubted that. He looked down at the stump of his right leg. Would he really learn to walk with the new prosthesis? The therapists were optimistic. He’d had one before his accident, apparently, but it hadn’t been like any they’d ever seen, they’d said; it had no hydraulics, and no one could figure out how to reattach it. Getting it off John in the trauma room had been quite a chore, apparently, and in the mad attempts to save his life, no one had bothered to pay too much attention to how it adhered to the stump.
A man of many mysteries was John O’Connell. Half the staff at St George’s were fascinated by him and the other half were terrified. On the whole, he thought he preferred terrified.
As he started to hop back over to where his cup of hot water and lemon sat on the counter, a crack! from just outside in the garden startled him, and he lost his balance, going down hard on his bum and jarring his glass back badly.
He gritted his teeth and waited for his heart to stop its wild galloping. When it did, he struggled to get himself off the floor, but the pain in his back kept him down and panting.
He looked over to where his crutches leant against the scratched Beko, and suddenly, he was furious. Furious with the world, with the doctors who couldn’t help him, and most especially with himself for being a pathetic old cripple whom nobody cared about enough even to come looking for him.
A feeling of warmth rose in him, and his right hand started to tingle. A moment later he found himself holding a crutch in his lap. He blinked several times and shook his head to clear it.
It wasn’t the first time something odd had happened to him. Lights in the flat sometimes turned themselves on just when he wanted them, and once, when he’d been in bed and thirsty but too tired to struggle downstairs and get something to drink, an empty glass on the bedside table had seemingly filled with water right before his disbelieving eyes.
I really am mad, he thought. He hadn’t told anyone about these … incidents, afraid they’d lock him up in the local looney bin. They were just blips of the brain, that’s all. Jaysus knew his head had been scrambled enough to make it wonky as hell.
The doctors had said his scans looked as if he’d had some kind of “cerebral accident,” as they’d called it, in the past, but there’d been no sign of fresh trauma when he’d come in through A & E and they’d run him through the first of about a million CT scans.
He must’ve had quite a life, they’d all said, but he found he was glad enough that he didn’t remember it. Dissociative fugue, they called his amnesia. They’d seemed to expect that eventually he’d recover his memories, but as the weeks had worn on and he still had no clue about who’d he’d been or how he’d come to be so battered, they’d had to release him into the bosom of the UK welfare state with a made-up name and a new, but well used, NHS number.
Whoever he’d been, he guessed that being a disabled pensioner on a large council estate outside London was better. Although, at night, when he lay in bed, a strange wistfulness would sometimes take hold of him, as if there were something worth remembering, if only he could catch it before it shimmered away again.
He used the single crutch to support him as he got up, and hopped back over to the counter. He would have liked to take the not-tea back to the table, but carrying it without spilling would be nearly impossible, what with the crutches. He tried not to think about the new prosthesis and whether he’d finally be able to leave the crutches behind and get the free use of his hands.
The harsh buzz of his front bell sounded.
Who’d be at John O’Connell’s door at 5:15 on a Thursday afternoon? Mrs Cobb, maybe. She seemed to have taken a liking to him, Merlin only knew why. General lack of available men of the right age, John supposed, made even rude old codgers with half a nose and a missing eye and leg seem like a decent bet. Well, he’d best get rid of her if he didn’t want …
‘Merlin’? Where had that come from?
Strange words sometimes popped into his head. Another artefact of a head injury, he supposed.
The bell rang again, and he growled, “I’m comin’, I’m comin. Hold yer water.”
The familiar anxiety that always grabbed him when he was about to open his door came flooding in. Given the general state of himself, John figured it was even odds that eventually someone’d be coming to kill him. On his better days, he hoped it meant that in his former life he’d been a spy, maybe IRA, or some kind of informant, but more often he guessed that he owed someone money and hadn’t paid. Either way, he tried not to be too fussed about it.
He undid the chain and the deadbolt and opened his door to find two people standing on his doorstep. They didn’t look like assassins. One was a tall young-ish man with curly brown hair and a trim beard skimming his chin. The other was a woman, middle-aged, he guessed, tall and slim, with dark hair pulled back in a severe-looking bun. The man was dressed casually in dungarees and a black jumper, but the woman looked oddly out of place in this neighbourhood. She wore a grey suit with a tailored jacket and a skirt too long to be fashionable, plus black lace-up boots that covered her ankles. A silver-and-agate brooch sat at the high neck of her blouse.
Religious campaigners. They had to be, with her dressed like that.
He was about to tell them to sod off, but the woman said, “Alastor.”
Something about it—her voice, with its rolling “r”s, not the name, which he barely registered—stopped him.
She took a step towards him, but the man put a hand on her arm.
“Mum,” the man said in a low, warning tone.
“Please don’t be alarmed, Mr O’Connell,” he said to John. “The hospital gave us your address. We’re friends. From before your accident.”
“Friends,” John repeated, still in thrall to the mental echo of the woman’s voice.
“Yes. Here …”
The man reached into his jeans pocket and pulled out a small snapshot. He handed it to John.
It showed a younger version of the woman and a teenager who might have been the man. They stood on a beach in front of a sailboat with a bright orange-and-blue sail. Next to the woman, with one arm around her, was another man. A man with two eyes, an intact nose, and two pale legs sticking out from a pair of long shorts.
“Jaysus,” John whispered.
“It’s us, Alastor,” said the woman softly. “Alastor—that’s your name. Alastor Moody.”
Her voice broke on the last word.
The man gave her a worried glance.
To John, he said, “May we come in?”
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