The Search for Life and Death

The Vanishing

THE SEARCH FOR LIFE AND DEATH

VIII

The Vanishing

Severus Snape sat in the room of St. Mungo's Hospital, alone but for the unconscious form of his godson. He knew that both Kingsley Shacklebolt and Alastor Moody stood outside of the room, acting as guards, as he had passed both of them on his way in, after being forced to undergo a test for Moody. Apparently, as far as Moody was concerned, no one else could craft a glare capable of masquerading as Snape.

Although Severus' own dark past had once put him at odds with Shacklebolt and Moody, he had a great deal of respect for the both of them. Mad-Eye came off to most people as nearly-mad in his paranoia, but Severus knew that there was no such thing as being overly cautious as long as someone like Voldemort existed. Shacklebolt, while Severus didn't know him as well as he did Moody, was a fair man with a brain he wasn't afraid to use. That in itself was a rarity, and not something to be taken for granted.

Severus also knew that the respect he had for both men was reciprocated. Knowing that the two men respected him assured Severus that they would not turn to the idle peeking and gossip of lesser people. Here, in the privacy of the hospital room, Severus was allowed a moment to be himself. Here, safe from prying eyes, he was allowed to care.

Severus trailed a hand gently down the side of Draco's face that was layered with scars. The warmth of the boy's skin relieved some of Severus' trepidation, but the fact that the boy didn't even react to his touch still bothered him. Severus had to be careful at all times to keep in character, to never let anyone on the wrong side realize exactly where he stood. Only when they were at school, in the privacy of Snape's office, was he ever allowed to be himself in front of Draco. Severus had cherished those moments, just as he cherished the moments at home with Conan, when he didn't have to hide and was free to just be Severus, a husband and a father, and a godfather.

Severus reached down and gripped Draco's hand in long fingers, squeezing the limp limb lightly, but still failing to get a response. He sighed.

"Draco, I'm sorry about your mother," Severus said quietly, holding Draco's hand tightly in his own. "She loved you very much, and she didn't deserve what happened to her." Severus sighed and leaned back in his chair. "The headmaster told me you were protecting her from being hurt more."

Severus knew that Draco had been injured while protecting Narcissa's body from being further mutilated, and that she had already been dead, but he didn't want to mention that. If Draco could hear him, and it was always possible that his unconsciousness was loose enough to allow outward stimuli to slip through, he didn't want to remind his godson of that horrifying fact. No doubt he couldn't escape it as it was.

"She would be proud of you, Draco." He trailed long fingers over his godson's forehead and down his cheek. "She was always proud of her little dragon."

A knock on the door stopped Severus from saying whatever else he might have. He pulled his hand from Draco's and swiftly rose to his feet, turning to the door as it opened and Kingsley Shacklebolt stepped inside. He closed the door behind him and moved swiftly to where Severus was standing.

"We have an unwanted visitor," Shacklebolt murmured, glancing at the door. Severus followed his gaze, but Moody was standing in front of the window and prohibiting any views from either direction from getting through.

Severus reached up and grabbed the privacy curtain, pulling it around Draco's bed and turning to Shacklebolt. "Who?"

"Scrimgouer, the Head of the Auror Department. Someone let slip that the Malfoys were attacked." He gave Severus a wary look. "He believes Draco knows where his father is being kept."

"Kept?" Severus nearly snarled. Leave it to Lucius to get a story out quickly enough that people would think he was just another victim. "I take it you were prepared for this?"

Kingsley reached into an inner pocket of his robes and pulled out a green and gold silk handkerchief. "Courtesy of Albus."

Kingsley lay it on top of Draco's arm, and Snape reached out and touched it. "You're coming with us?"

"I was told to remain with Draco, as his guard." Severus nodded and Kingsley and he both gripped the handkerchief over Draco's arm. The sound of the door bursting open and feet bustling into the room was the last thing they heard, before there was a jerk behind their navels and they were gone.

Ginny didn't feel well.

Over the years, she had learned to distinguish the different types of sicknesses she occasionally felt. A child, especially a wizarding child growing into her magic, would, of course, suffer a common cold or the types of illnesses that occurred when magic built up over time. The first was cared for by mothers, naturally, and the second was dealt with by a release of accidental magic or, once one was equipped with a wand and permitted to use it, by casting spells in class or in practice (or, in the twins' case, in pranking unsuspecting individuals).

This other sickness, though – the one that now made her stomach churn and her chest ache – was one that she had not felt until after her first year at Hogwarts. It was the sensation that was in her blood and bile, when she woke from the nightmares about red slit eyes and hissing and a big nothingness within herself, her will, her own abilities. She would dream about this massive emptiness that was buried in her body, where Ginny was supposed to be, but something else had taken her place. Something else was in that part of her, and so foreign and cruel and un-Ginny, that there was no place for her there.

And though that something else had been banished, sometimes the dreams were still enough to call back those feelings as though she were reliving them in real time. When Ginny would wake up from those nightmares – those memories – it would not be fear that caused the sickness, loneliness, or self-hatred like her parents had believed for a time, and possibly still believed. No, it was the realization, the understanding, the knowledge, that life was unfair, people were cruel, and the world was wrong. Corrupt. Painful in its truth.

It was a burden she realized that adults bore so fully that they didn't even acknowledge it as anything but maturity. It was so normal for them that they viewed it as adulthood, rather than a loss of innocence. But that's what it was – a loss of that naivety which was all that kept children from being adults. It wasn't age, but truth.

The burden, that same sickness that had haunted Ginny so much, and still sometimes haunted her in the early hours when she woke, was back now. As she sat with her family in the Hogwarts Infirmary, quiet on principle alone, she knew that the reminder of the unfair-cruel-wrong-corrupt-painful truth of life had returned to her, because Harry was lying asleep in a hospital bed, and his uncle had put him there.

Harry had been awake when they arrived. He had been quietly watching a discussion between Mr. Lupin and the woman that they had briefly met in McGonagall's office – Elena. Ginny and the others had been informed, after Elena left, that Harry could not speak, and he could not hear them, and the lot of them hadn't really known what to do. Mum had looked like she wanted to cry, and Ginny was sure that later, she would let herself, but she had held back while they were in the Infirmary, and Ginny was glad.

Ron had surprised all of them, really. She had seen the stunned look on her parents' faces, before Mum had gone all teary-eyed and quickly left the room, and her father had looked so – so proud. Because Ron had spared just a moment to study Harry, lying in the hospital bed watching them, before he pulled over a chair, moved the table next to the bed to fit between them, then pulled a collapsible chess set out of his pocket and set it up. He hadn't said anything, but Ginny had watched the smile that curled over Harry's lips, teasing and grateful in turns, before he'd moved himself into a better position and began to lose spectacularly. Ron never said anything but, watching the two of them play, Ron determined and Harry content, it was clear that he didn't need to.

Eventually, Harry had fallen asleep after being beaten multiple times by Ron. Normally, Harry would have given up after getting so thoroughly trounced and let someone else play, but he had seemed to be enjoying himself. Ginny thought it might have been the normalcy in the action, but she hadn't asked what anyone else thought. She had simply watched as, after Harry had dropped off in the middle of the fourth game, Ron packed up the chess set and simply sat there in the chair, watching Harry sleep. It occurred to Ginny that Ron was taking Harry's predicament hard, and part of her wondered what the exact reason was – if it was because he could do nothing to help, that there might be nothing that could be done, or if it was because Ron had borne witness to the cause, and had been incapable of doing anything to stop it. Ginny had, for a time, thought she was to blame for Tom's actions through her. Did Ron blame himself for what had happened to Harry?

"How bad was it, Poppy?"

Ginny's attention was drawn from her thoughts at the sound of her father's voice. Sitting on the hospital bed closest to Madam Pomfrey's office, Ginny turned her head just slightly to see her father standing in front of the mediwitch. Madam Pomfrey, Ginny had observed earlier, looked tired and a little worn down – more than Ginny had ever seen her. She was much paler than usual and the wrinkles on her aging face that often aided in her stern looks were stark against the skin, making her appear older, and possibly frailer. It was a startling change from the usual bustling lioness she was when caring for patients, but no one had commented upon it.

Madam Pomfrey sighed, averting her eyes from Mr. Weasley's for a moment, gazing at something within the office. Eventually, she turned back to him, the expression on her face uncomfortable.

"Honestly, Arthur, I am…" She lifted a hand to touch her eyes, as though thinking of rubbing them but choosing instead to sigh again and lower her hand. "As a healer, I should never express anything less than the utmost hope that a patient recover, for even the smallest of doubts can lead to the patient themselves losing faith in their own magic's ability to help them recover – in their own strength. I should never let myself doubt, Arthur, but I cannot help it. When we lost him that second time, I did not think we would be able to get him back. I had thought that he was too far gone to return and I very nearly released my hold on Aceso's magic."

"You called upon Aceso?" The clear shock in her dad's voice made Ginny frown. She tried to think of who Aceso was, but the name had no meaning for her. Clearly, it was a person, but it was an unfamiliar one. Perhaps a healer from St. Mungo's? But why would Madam Pomfrey have a hold on someone else's magic?

"It was necessary. Mr. Potter was injured far too much for his magic alone to heal himself before more damage could be done. It is probably for the best, however. Aceso was generous, and her magic healed more of Harry's injuries than I had thought it would. I had planned to keep him here for at least a few days after stabilizing him, but there is little reason to. I have been keeping a close watch on him all day. Beyond his inability to speak or hear, he is almost in perfect health." She sighed again, bowing her head slightly. "Almost."

"The Dementia—"

"It's unclear," Madam Pomfrey interrupted gently, shaking her head. "Mental afflictions are as difficult to diagnose as they are to heal. However, if you're asking if it is still a possibility, then the answer is yes – unfortunately, a high one. He has a number of the symptoms." She glanced at Arthur. "You've seen the tremors, of course."

"Yes," Arthur admitted. "They weren't so noticeable at first, but when he was playing chess with Ron, it was hard to ignore how he shook. Is it constant?"

"Frequent. It comes and goes in waves, and aggravates him."

"It probably frightens him," Arthur admitted softly.

"It does all of us. The implications… I hope I'm wrong – horribly wrong, Arthur. I hope we might look back on this one day and realize I was being a complete idiot, but I fear my own track record. What does the future hold for him if I'm right? Can you imagine him in a few years? Trapped in a wheelchair, unable to move, living life as a cripple no more powerful than the weakest muggle?"

"You don't know that you're right," Arthur said gently, but it was clear he was only trying to reassure.

"But I fear I am," Madam Pomfrey said sadly, "and that's enough."

They were silent for a time, before Arthur moved toward the door. "I suppose it would be in Harry's best interest if we removed ourselves before we woke him. It would probably be best for you to rest, as well."

Madam Pomfrey smiled gently at this. "Such advice sounds familiar, Arthur. I do believe I once said something similar to you, years ago."

"So you did. And you were as correct then as I am now. I know how exhausting it is to bear the Summoning, Poppy. If there's anything I can do—"

"Rest assured I will let you know." Madam Pomfrey smiled gently at him in gratitude. "My thanks, Arthur. Now, off with you. Perhaps things will shine in a different light in the morning."

Ginny turned her attention back to Harry, as her father made his way from Madam Pomfrey's office, the door closing behind him. He paused next to her and reached out to squeeze her shoulder lightly. "Come on, Gingersnap. It's time to go home."

Ginny looked up at her father and nodded, but couldn't bring herself to ask if they could come back and visit Harry the next day. Madam Pomfrey looked exhausted and her father had even commented upon it. Ginny didn't understand what had happened, but she figured if they were home tomorrow, she could try doing a little research – just enough to find out who Aceso was, and what her father had meant by a Summoning.

"A basilisk?"

"Um… yes?" Ron ducked his head a little, looking at Sirius with no small amount of fear. The man's grey eyes were gleaming, but his already fair skin had been leeched of all color. Ron was reminded of that day when they had first met him, when he had looked dangerous, mad, and so… so ready to hurt someone.

"Now, Sirius, don't take it out on Ron. He didn't do anything." Remus was standing in the middle of the hospital wing, facing his friend, his hands held up in a placating gesture. His tone was the same as one used to try to calm a wild animal, and Ron admitted he couldn't see much difference between the two where Sirius was concerned.

His father had told them all that they would be returning home, but Ron had been talking to Sirius while watching Harry. In hindsight, he probably should have been more careful about what he said, but Sirius' helpless anger at the situation had drawn Ron's own emotions to the forefront, and he had started something of a rant about how unfair it all was. After everything they had faced, the most damage Harry ever received came, not from Voldemort, but from his uncle. Now, sitting in a chair and wishing Sirius wasn't between him and the door, Ron wished he had refrained from saying anything.

The rest of his family was out in the corridor. Sirius had asked him to stay behind for a few minutes, while the others left the room and Madam Pomfrey was in Dumbledore's office, giving a last update to the headmaster before she settled down to rest. As soon as the doors had shut him inside, Remus had cast a series of silencing and privacy spells about the room. Knowing how proficient the man was with a wand, Ron was pretty sure his family didn't hear anything, despite Sirius' loud tone.

"Remus, we weren't told about any of this!" Sirius paced back and forth between the beds, his lips curled up in a snarl and his grey eyes icy. "Harry never said a word, but he shouldn't have needed to. We should have been told by Dumbledore ages ago, but he said nothing. A possessed professor, a basilisk, the ghost of Voldemort the younger! Dementors, which we did know about, of course, and then last year, that damnable tournament, and then Voldemort himself! Isn't this school supposed to be safe? Why the hell didn't Dumbledore do a better job of protecting Harry?" Striking out, Sirius kicked the side of an empty bed, making the frame shake. "Remus! If it was so easy for Voldemort to get in here years past, why was that fucking Tournament ever allowed here?"

"I don't know, Sirius, but yelling about it isn't going to get us answers, and it certainly isn't going to do anything to help."

Sirius swung around to face the werewolf with a snarl. "Damn it, Lupin! At least act like you give a fuck!"

Remus raised his eyes to meet his friend's, and Ron swallowed sharply at the sight of his eyes. The grey-green color that usually permeated his irises had been entirely overrun by gold, and Ron couldn't help but sink a little in his chair at the predatory gleam in that gaze, so very, unmistakably wolf.

"I assure you, Sirius. I am far from calm, considering the circumstances."

He spoke so softly, his voice was almost a whisper. It was more effective than a scream in making Sirius react. The ex-convict halted his pacing abruptly and turned to stare at Remus, his entire body freezing to a halt as their eyes met. A moment later, he let out a shuddering breath as he raised a shaking hand to cover his eyes. "Rem…" He shook his head slowly and sank down onto a bed, closing his eyes as he hands rested limply at his sides. "I'm sorry."

Remus watched his friend for a moment, before turning to Ron and nodding softly in an attempt to reassure him, inwardly sighing at how the paleness of his skin made his freckles stand out so prominently. "Thank you, Ronald," Remus said quietly, and was unsure if he was able to put any warmth into his voice. "Please tell your father that I will let him know when Harry has been relocated."

Ron paused, giving Remus a curious look. He knew that Harry was supposed to be going with the both of them to a secret place, and that the others would be able to visit him once they were all settled in. So, relocating was precisely what they would be doing, upon Harry's release from the Hospital Wing later today. Except, the way that Remus said that didn't sound quite right – not like they were just taking Harry home, but rather, somewhere… else.

Ron thought about saying something, but it was a brief consideration. Remus was watching him with an expression of gentle intelligence – the same expression he had given them in class, when he was their professor. It was a kind gaze that assured them that he would teach them of the Dark Arts, but they would be safe in his care. It was a gaze that both asked them to, and assured them that they could, trust him.

And, of course, Ron did trust him, because Harry trusted him.

So instead of calling him on what he heard, Ron simply nodded. He didn't have to say "take care of him," because he knew they would. And he didn't have to ask them to tell Harry he said to get better soon, because Harry knew Ron wanted that. So he said nothing, and quietly left the room, closing the door behind him. He met his family in the hall, but he didn't immediately say anything, because his dad was smart.

He figured he could wait until they got home, to see if his dad was as good at reading between the lines.

Still in the Infirmary, Remus turned back to face Sirius. The man was bent over, his fingers running through dark hair as he stared at the floor. For a while, there was nothing but an uncomfortable silence between the two of them that stretched on cruelly.

Finally, "I really am sorry, Remus. I didn't mean it." Sirius slowly lowered his hands, resting his elbows on his knees. "I know you care about him as much as I do."

Remus nodded. "And I know you're angry, Padfoot." He watched as the familiar nickname caused the tension in Sirius' shoulders to ease. "I am, as well."

"He was supposed to be safe here." It came out as a whisper, as though Sirius was pleading to the world for an explanation he would not receive. His entwined his fingers and leaned his forehead against them, gritting his teeth. "Is there anywhere he'll be safe from that monster?"

After a moment, Remus sighed. "This world has many monsters, Sirius. Some of them, it seems, do mean well."

"You and I both know where that road of good intentions leads, Remus."

Remus nodded. "Sirius." He paused for a moment, glancing to the side and thinking. He had always placed such faith in Dumbledore – such trust. The headmaster was the only reason he had been able to come to Hogwarts as a child; he'd fought for Remus' right to go despite the lycanthropy that cursed him. For years, Remus' gratitude had been paid back in loyalty.

But it wasn't just Remus now. He had Harry to worry about – a mere child who had faced more horrors than most aurors. It was cruel of life to have done such a thing to him, but crueler still that it had been aided. They had been kept in the dark, and Harry had been left in a dangerous home, thrown into disastrous situations, because of that. Remus had always trusted Dumbledore but, apparently, Dumbledore didn't trust them. Not enough.

And Harry's life – be it his physical well-being or his emotional health – was not worth the loyalty that Remus had given Dumbledore all those years. He was worth far more than that, and until Dumbledore realized that – realized what he was risking – he couldn't be trusted.

"You stayed under the radar of the Ministry, Dementors, and Dumbledore for a long time, Sirius," Remus said, and watched the ex-convict's head snap up to meet his gaze. "Do you think you could do it again?"

Sirius frowned. "Remus?"

"If no one else is willing to do what has to be done to protect Harry, Sirius, then we will." He stepped forward and held his hand out to his friend. "I know how to hide what I am, but to completely disappear is quite a feat, my friend. I don't suppose you have magic enough for three?"

Sirius lips turned up into a smile, and though the reasoning for what would inevitably be a grand amount of deceit was grim, he couldn't help the mischievous glint that flickered in his eyes. Remus was glad to see it.

"We're creatures of the night, Moony," Sirius said, clasping Remus' hand and hauling himself to his feet. "Becoming a shadow is no trouble at all."

When Madam Pomfrey returned to the hospital wing ten minutes later, it was to find it completely empty of other life. All of the beds were made and it looked as though no one had been there, save for the folded piece of parchment on the nightstand. It was addressed to Dumbledore.

When you're ready to trust us with the truth, we'll be waiting.

And though Dumbledore would spent the next month searching for Remus Lupin, Sirius Black, and Harry Potter, he would not find them.

Author's Note: ((shuffles)) Riiiiight... I'm gonna run away now.

Live long. Live well. Write. Read. Dream.

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