Title: When Sleeping Feels Like Dying
Author: cathedral carver
Spoilers: AU past Deathly Hallows
Disclaimer: These characters do not belong to me.
Summary: Of infatuation, insomnia and the lost ones. A companion to I Am Not A Goldfish.
A/N: Thanks to csinut214, for providing the inspiration.
I'm not asleep... but that doesn't mean I'm awake.
I've never been, what you might call, a good sleeper.
Of my childhood it's not the beatings I remember best, the verbal and physical lashings, but the nights: the seemingly endless nights filled with darkness and shadows. I remember closing my eyes and willing sleep upon me, only to open them later to a deeper darkness, to the long, still shadows of the middle-of-the-night hours, or too-early-morning hours. I count hours.
I learned to count because I can not sleep.
I try to sleep, oh, how I try! I long for sleep, for I understand, even as a child, how resting my mind and my body can only make me stronger, wiser, more receptive to the knowledge I desire to ingest. But, whenever I approach the abyss, whenever my toes reach the edge and I take that last leap over and down, I do not float into the blessed, welcoming void: I plummet. I fall like a stone, at a great speed, face down, arms flailing, fingers scrabbling for the sides of a black, bottomless pit that are not to be found. Falling and falling, screaming without sound, and I know if I reach the bottom, I will never awake. This thought alone brings me back from the edge night after night, lurching awake in a cold sweat, heart pounding against my ribs, fingers tangled in dirty, damp sheets that smell like my own fear.
Despite loathing my life, I do not want to die.
What does a child do at that time of night? I have no books, no toys, no siblings to offer even a modicum of security or companionship. I have only myself, my mind, my racing thoughts. Praying is out of the question; religion has been banned from the house but for the daily worship of alcohol and abuse.
I listen to the night sounds, the occasional passing car, the drunken voices on the street, mattress springs creaking in the next room as my father thrusts into my mother, or rolls over to yell at her, or rolls over in his stupor to vomit on the floor. My mother, also prone to sleeplessness, often prowls the house, weary floorboards moaning beneath her weight, but I don't dare join her.
I listen to her footsteps.
I do not sleep.
I plan my escape.
As an adult at Hogwarts, I find the insomnia — for after years of research that is how I eventually term it — is actually conducive to my chosen way of life. I can patrol the long hallways night after night and actually be rewarded for it! Dumbledore continually praises my vigilance, my faithful volunteering for night duties. Little does he know, and I certainly never tell him, though sometimes, now, I wish I had.
All my life I've told myself — or attempted to convince myself — that I like being alone, that these long nights are merely a necessity for my brilliant and introverted mind, my solitary personality.
I'm a very proficient liar, it seems, a skill that has served me well over the years. But as it turns out, even the finest liars eventually grow weary of the sham they have perpetuated and long for a relationship of substance.
But, at the time, I am quite content in my role. Dare I say happy? No, perhaps not, but despite my outward appearance — and I am well aware of how the students perceive me; greasy, miserable, sadistic — I am living the life I had dreamed of, so many years before. Yes, my Lily is dead and my heart, I have come to accept, is also dead, but my mind is alive and thriving and I am content.
Until you barge in and change everything.
I see it a mile off: The dark, haunted bruise-like eye-circles. The trembling fingertips as they push against the eyelids. The certain yet unmistakable weary angle of the neck when bent over the desk. The quiet expulsion of breath.
An insomniac can always spot a fellow, or in this case, female, sufferer.
Why am I surprised? How on earth could you have managed to accomplish all you do if you haven't forsaken the one tool required to remain sane and productive? Sleep. Sleep. Once sleep is abandoned, all those other useless emotions come bubbling up to replace the void. And yet, the fateful day you sit weeping pitifully at the back of my classroom is the first day my heart stirs a bit. Something delicate, pushing through. Unfurling, perhaps. A small, sweet awakening. I've certainly never hated you — despite common perception, I've never hated anyone, including Potter — but I have considered you with intense dislike, for you are, after all, Potter's crony. You are smart, of course, everyone knows it, but intelligence alone is not enough to make me view you in a different light. It is the connection that draws me to you, the knowing, the understanding, the sudden flash of insight that we are alike. For how many times did I crouch at the back of my own dorm room, or in the stall of an empty bathroom, in the cool shadows of the dungeons, fighting angry, frustrated, lonely tears for want of one good night's rest? I have long since lost count.
When I take your hand in mine, when I pull you up, when you look at me, really look at me, I like to think you know, as well.
I like to think we form a tiny bond, just then, and maybe, just maybe, you realize you don't loathe your loathsome Potions Master quite so much.
If I'm wrong, I don't particularly want to know.
And, so the nights pass.
Many nights have passed in my lifetime, but because we find one another one night in the darkness of the shadowed, echoing corridors, these nights now pass with a sweet companionship I have never before known.
All these nights, all these long, dark nights when I am no longer alone! We walk for hours and hours and we talk, but even now I recall only a few of the words spoken: A poem written by a highly precocious child, recited impulsively for my admiration, and admire it I do. I don't remember what we see, what shadows, what ghosts. I don't remember the sharp sounds of our lonely footsteps on ancient stone, the gradual metamorphosis of light from black to grey to the palest lavender. In the end and even now, I remember only two things:
Holding your hand.
Falling in love.
I am destined to die.
Once I accept this irrefutable fact, life becomes much simpler. I teach. I bellow. I berate. I eat. I prepare.
I do not sleep.
I walk and walk with you.
You've never known — not even now! — what these nights mean to me, for I am a condemned man and you become my respite, my reprieve, and, in my more maudlin moments, my glorious angel. And you never know. And if you do not understand, if you are angry, I will clarify: You are my student. My student! How can I sully that relationship, no matter how strongly I feel about you? I could not sleep, if you knew my true feelings.
Pardon the joke.
I leave you, that last night, by the Gryffindor common room, knowing I will not see you again — do you remember my eyes? Do you remember how I can not stop looking at you, for it is your face I want to see when I finally leave this earth — and my heart, the one I thought long ago shattered and dead, flutters and aches and pains me so that I am forced to brew an inordinately strong Pectus Pectoris Sedo potion for myself.
I leave you.
I do not die.
Another one of life's many, unfunny jokes.
What does one do when life, when death, does not turn out as expected?
Well, I languish, apparently — apparently, because I do not remember much of it — for close to a year in St. Mungo's, closed ward, closed from both worlds, magical and otherwise, until I am deemed "ready" to return to the land of the living. Weak and magically damaged — "beyond repair," or so the healers think for a long time — I can barely remember my Life Before.
I can not remember my name at first, isn't that odd?
I can not remember who I'd been, or how I'd ended up near death, damaged, strapped to a bed in a ward filled with screaming, incoherent lunatics.
But I remember you.
Hermione. Hermione Granger.
Isn't that odd?
I believe the first word I utter is "goldfish," but I could be wrong, and you'd have to contact Winnifred Q. on the "Dangerous" Dai Llewellyn Ward to verify.
If you want.
Time passes, as it does. Days and nights, more nights than days, as I recall. I recover, only because they work very hard to make sure I do not succumb, do not become a screaming, incoherent lunatic, myself. I am supposed to be grateful. I wasn't at the time, but now I am, eternally.
In the Muggle World they call it therapy. At St. Mungo's I refer to it as a kind of prolonged torture. The kindly yet clueless therapist probing my befuddled mind for childhood hurts — Dear Merlin! Hurts? Does she have a century to waste on me? — for my skills and special training, my deepest desires.
What do you remember? Winnifred Q. asks, day after day, and day after day I reply, Walking. I remember walking. Shadows. A poem.
I recite the same poem day after day:
I am not a goldfish.
No, Severus, she agrees kindly, stupidly. You are not.
I'm sure they all think me insane, but I can remember little else! Goldfish! I've never had a pet in my life, that I do know. And, will I ever get out of here? Time slows, stops. Autumn becomes Winter, then Spring.
Time continues to pass, as it does, both days and nights.
I have a new therapist (Pauline? Petra?), one who has heard my poem, but says there is something else, something else she needs to hear.
What do you want to do? she asks me as I sit in the weak Spring sunshine, my throat still swathed in thick bandages.
Do? I croak. Is she daft? The only thing I know how to do! I want to return to teaching!
But she only shakes her head and clucks sadly, for she knows — they all know — long before I do, that I will never teach again. For I have lost not only my place in the wizarding world, but I have lost my voice, as well.
What else, Severus? she says, over and over.
I am not a goldfish I say through tears I don't realize I am shedding.
She takes my hand.
Severus, she says.
I look at her.
Troubled, I say.
Yes, she says, pleased with my progress.
Troubling, I say.
Yes,, she agrees, nodding, nodding. I know it's hard. It's so hard. So troubling.
I laugh and laugh, even as they bring the extra-strength Calming Draught, I can't stop laughing.
Why, you ask? Because I love you more than I've ever loved anyone, but I can't articulate it, to anyone.
I'd die for you! I cry as the Draught enters my veins, lulls me to rest, over and down the abyss, falling, falling.
I would die for you.
And, you'll never know.
"Therapy" also includes attempts to revive my voice, massaging the vocal chords, ingesting any known, or unknown, variety of potions to repair the damage done by the damned snake.
But it's hopeless.
My voice! My voice. My one true beauty.
Sometimes, late in the night when I am more alone than ever, I still weep for its loss.
My voice is never the same. After all the losses sustained during the final battle, it's my voice I mourn most keenly. Heartless? I suppose. But, not vain. I'm not a vain person. In fact, I rarely consider my person, my appearance, with more than a passing thought. But, I've been told, on more than one occasion, that my voice is my strong point, my defining characteristic, so to speak. Now, I sound like a dying man, perpetually hoarse and, on a bad day, like a gurgling drain.
If I cannot teach, I can still learn, and I can still impart knowledge, somehow. I sell my dismal abode in Spinner's End, my childhood misery, and purchase an empty storefront in Diagon Alley. My personal collection alone fills half the bookshelves and I quickly fill the other half on buying jaunts around the world.
For the first time since I last saw you, I feel my heart shudder with something like life.
Or, something like love.
The Devia Lacuna becomes the reason for my existence. I lie awake at night and think of the name, chuckling in the dark. How clever of me!
Devia: Out of the way. Unfrequented.
Lacuna: A hole.
Work, once again, becomes my life, such as it is. And Graham Pritchard becomes my confidante, my only friend, if you will. He is as lost as I am, treading the fine line between dark and light. I like to think I have kept him in the light as much as possible.
I can barely remember him as a student at Hogwarts, but he is a Slytherin, after all, his parents long since sentenced to Azkaban, and we do try to look after our own.
Though he could have been Hufflepuff and I would have done the same, or so I like to think.
When I stumble over him he is barely clothed, shivering and incoherent in Knockturn Alley, having just partaken in, what I'm sure, is his fourth hit of Deflua Animus that day. Horrible and horribly addictive drug of choice, these days. Despite his bleary, yellowish eyes he knows me. After all this time, after my supposed death and disappearance, he looks into my face and knows who I am, who I was. What is he thinking in those first dark minutes? Does he think he, too, has died? That death had finally reached out with black, bony fingers and claimed him as well? Surely when he sees my horrid face, hears my raspy, useless voice, he thinks all is lost.
He is crying then, weeping, looking about as if he doesn't know who he is, or where he is.
I reach out my hand, take his cold and trembling one, and pull him upright, just as I pulled you up so many years before.
Come, I say. He does, because what other choice does he have?
Where are we going? he says.
To get you well.
I don't want your help.
I think I'm supposed to die.
He never answers.
But sometimes I wonder if I simply did not hear him.
It takes weeks to cleanse his system, but I relish the opportunity to plumb the depths of my Potions knowledge once more.
Curatio Victus, and Curatio Pectus.
Crocinus Occulus Absens.
He consumes them all without complaint, but without much improvement, either.
He lies sweating and shaking on the bed — my bed, I sleep on the chair — moaning words I don't understand, pointing at images I can not see. Slowly, though, painfully, he comes back to this world, bone-thin and beyond exhausted.
One day he actually focuses on me.
Professor Snape, he says.
It really is you.
I thought I was hallucinating, he says.
I'm not surprised.
Everyone said you were—
When I saw you I thought I'd died.
He doesn't even look chagrined. Typical Slytherin.
Where are we? He struggles to sit up. I push him back, gently.
In my store. I brought you here almost three weeks ago. This information does not seem to startle him in the least and I wonder how many other weeks, months, he's lost from his life since leaving Hogwarts. You almost did die, I add.
Wouldn't be the first time. He shrugs.
No? I keep my voice carefully neutral.
Shoulda just left me there.
Dying was sorta what I had in mind, he says with a grimace, but his eyes are full of tears, and he covers his face with one arm and reaches out blindly with the other and I take it, I take his hand in mine and squeeze it hard, and in that moment I understand him, and, despite my intentions, a bond is forged. I know then, in that instant as he weeps with abandon, that he will stay, that he will work for me, that he will remain clean and loyal for years to come.
And, he does.
So, I have my books. What more do I need?
As it turns out, I need Graham, and he needs me, as well. I teach him many things and once his body is free of drugs, he is an apt student, willing, with a quick mind. We never speak again of the scene in my room, or the alley, though I know I will never forget either.
I'm not used to thinking about someone else, worrying about someone else. It's a bother, but a comfort, too.
For the first time in my life, dying seems so unfair, now that I've finally found something worth living for.
You find me again at night, of course.
You follow me into my store and when I see you I think I might die, finally, really die, from happiness.
You, with your smile and your face and your hair and your hands! Your voice! Your voice has not changed. It's the same one I hear in my dreams, when I have them.
Then we walk, for hours.
Then we return to my cramped but clean — fastidiously clean — flat above the store and you want me. You desire me, despite everything. And I can't stop looking at you, though your face has never left me, and I can't stop touching you, and then at long last I am inside you, though I have been inside you all these years.
And you say my name.
And you stay.
And you sleep.
And I watch you sleep.
I've made a horrible mistake.
I've made many in my miserable life, but this one eclipses them all.
I've fallen too hard for you. I care too much, and you leave. You leave me the following morning with a brief kiss on the cheek, and I don't hear from you again for days. Days.
When you finally do owl me, it's a short message, almost terse: A quick note to say hello. Busy with school. Will write more soon. H.
Hello? Hello? Was I her maiden aunt or some school chum? I crumple it, toss it in the bin, then take it out and place it in my desk drawer. Then I ignore it, for I, too, am simply too busy to write.
Another owl, the following day: Did you receive my note? I miss you.
Well. Somewhat better, but still. This one I don't crumple.
And another: Is everything all right? When can we meet again?
I am a proud, stubborn man. I have never denied this.
And the next: Please write back. H.
Graham, of course, sees it first. He knows me better than anyone these days and I've seen him naked and thrashing and covered in vomit and excrement, so I suppose he trusts that I won't kill him with my bare hands.
Who's the note from? he asks as we close up.
Are you going to owl no one back?
No. I shove the book in so hard the shelf shudders.
None of your bloody business.
You saved my life, he says, all pretense of humour gone. And now I'm going to try to save yours. Let her in.
Who? I almost drop the book I'm holding.
Hermione Granger. He speaks very slowly and clearly. She loves you. And you love her.
She loves me? I say before I can stop myself.
Graham rolls his eyes. I saw how she looked at you! Anyone with half a mind could see it a mile away. Merlin, man. Are you really that thick?
I nod. I am, I say. I really am. My heart, my heart! It squirms in my chest.
Hermione Bloody Gryffindor Granger, he says, smiling again. Thought you'd have better taste.
You've promised me you'll never walk at night, alone. You've sworn to me.
You come one evening, late, as I'm just finishing reordering shelves. Your cloak is pulled up, covering your face. I smile — I can't help it — see what you've done to me? You raise your hand in greeting, and I see, immediately, that it is trembling. My heart squeezes painfully. Something is wrong — I can tell from here. In another life I would yell, I would bellow, but that life is gone. Instead, I drop what I'm holding, and cross to you on legs I can barely feel moving.
I grab your shoulders in my hands — they, too, are trembling — and peer down into your averted face.
Hermione, I rasp. What's happened?
You shake your head. Still you won't look at me! Graham watches us from the desk, his eyes as big as moons. I glare at him, and lead you away more roughly than I intend, but I'm frightened, you see. I drag you behind me down a narrow, dim aisle to the back room. I close the door, pull down your hood, grasp your chin in my cold hands and force you to look at me at last.
Your face. Your face!
My horror must show in my expression, for you immediately cower and try to duck again, but I won't let you. I put my hands firmly on each side of your face, my thumbs hard against your cheekbones.
Who did this?
I don't know.
Some stupid bloke. I don't even know. Wanted…money—
Where was your wand?
It happened so fast. There wasn't even time—
I run frantic hands up and down your body, searching for— I don't even know. But the solidity of your frame soothes me, somehow.
Did he…did he—
Your mouth is hard and twisted even as your eyes widen, become wet. You blink.
I close my eyes.
No, Severus. I told you. It was very fast. Shoved me up against a wall, demanded whatever I had. Told him I had none. Told him to sod off, and he did, after a few punches. I was not otherwise violated.
As relief floods me, so does anger and my hands tighten against your skin.
Why didn't you just apparate here? Right to this doorstep?
The night was so lovely, and I felt like walking—
You promised me, Hermione. You promised me—
I know. I know. I'm sorry.
Sorry! Sorry? You could have been—
I can no longer speak or think. My dreams, I think. My worst dreams, one of the reasons I can no longer sleep. Each time I close my eyes and I feel myself fall and feel death coming, it's not only for me, but for you, too. And if you die, well, really, what would be the bloody point of hanging around this dismal world any longer?
I feel your hands on my face, hear your voice in my ears.
Severus, I'm fine, really, nothing a little Dittany won't repair—
I can't speak, so I hold you instead. I press your battered face against my chest tight, tight, not because I can't bear to look at you, but because I can't bear to let you see me weep.
Come to my bed. Come in my bed.
I'm not sure what brings you here, or what keeps you here. It might be pity. It might be love. If I ask, what will you say?
I'll never ask.
Because sleeping feels like dying, I do it very sparingly and with great reluctance.
I'm not used to having anyone in my bed.
When I do manage sleep I am curled, tight on my side, the so-called fetal position, but I feel as far removed from a baby as one can imagine. I have never felt protected, have never felt safe.
Night after night I jerk back from the abyss, and on this particular night I jerk violently, judging by your reaction. You sit up, your hand pressed to your chest. Is your heart pounding as hard as mine?
What was that? you ask, eyes wide.
Nothing, I say. Nothing.
It's the falling. It's the blackness beneath my feet. It's the thought of dying, of death, and worse, of never seeing you again.
Night after night you appear to me, announcing yourself by the jingle above the door, the shy smile at Graham, who smiles just as shyly but winks at me when you're not looking.
Night after night you slip into my bed — willingly! — and you love me, you let me love you, you hold me as I approach the abyss, my toes dangling, my heart threatening to bounce from my chest.
One night you speak as you begin to doze off.
Go to sleep.
You're not going to— you begin.
You swallow. I'm suddenly fascinated with the way light and shadows play around your throat. I want to kiss you there. How easily you distract me!
You try again: You're not going to die, silly.
I smile in the dark.
How do you know?
You shrug. I just do.
I nod. Well, I feel ever so much better, now.
You put your arms around me. You hold on.
Because I won't let you die, you say finally, and it's enough for me, and the abyss widens and I step closer, open my arms, let myself fall.
I spread your legs. You let me. I put my face there, my mouth there. I inhale like a dying man. I drink like a dying man. I wait for you to shudder beneath my touch, my tongue. There, you say. There! And, there. Don't stop, you say. I want to laugh when you say that. Stop? Stop? I move closer, burrow closer, deeper, tongue and lips and your bucking hips and your small sounds that grow louder as I respond to your assurances that what I'm doing is right and good, and Godgodohgod and I forget for a moment that you are, after all, Muggle-born, and I smile against your wet, slippery, tender skin as you keen, fingers twisting in my hair, digging in my scalp, and I gasp with you and realize I've finally, finally found a religion.
Night after night I almost die.
Night after night you hear me almost die.
You have the patience of a saint, my dear girl.
Night after night I fall. I know I will die. I jerk back from the abyss to find you beside me.
You jump beside me, jolting awake, sitting up on your elbows. I've awoken you, again. On the rare occasions you do manage to find sleep, I awaken you.
Sorry, sorry. Sorry. It's an automatic response. I am sorry.
You sigh, more loudly than necessary. You slide back down beneath the sheets — you're not leaving! You are grumpy, sleep tousled, frustrated, but you're staying.
You're not leaving!
Wish you'd stop doing that, is all you say.
I smile in the dark. You're not leaving.
Me, too, I say.
You awake one night to find me sitting by the bed, reading by candlelight, but surreptitiously watching you sleep. You are so beautiful I can feel my heart breaking with each quiet breath.
You're awake, you say, your lovely mouth twitching.
Apparently, I say. I don't know what I've been reading. I don't even care.
You lie still, watching me watch you. I could stay like this for hours; have, in fact, but you, as usual, have other ideas.
You prop yourself up on one elbow, tilt your head.
Shall we walk? you ask.
No, I want to say. You need to sleep, I want to say.
But instead I say yes, because I want to, want to walk with you even though I know it won't help, not really. I've been walking for years, all alone, and getting absolutely nowhere.
I've never needed much before. Food. Books. Sleep. Now, I don't even sleep.
But, things change.
Now, I need you.
We walk for hours, along empty, dark streets, past unlit windows. We walk through fields, along the edges of trees with branches that wave and twitch as we pass. We don't speak, but we know and we understand, as we have for years and years before. We walk past the sleeping and the dead, and because we are neither, we continue until we are both too exhausted to take another step. We mount the creaking steps of the Devia Lacuna, no longer empty and, for now, no longer lost. We undress in the dark, my cold hands sliding along your skin, over your hips, up along your ribs, over your breasts, my cold hands cupping that oh-so-soft weight, the nipples hard in my palms, your breath warm on my neck.
I kiss you. I can't stop kissing you. Both our mouths are cold, then hot, and then I am inside you once more, where I need to be, moving until I can move no more, until finally I feel I can rest without fear.
You need sleep, you say, smiling against my mouth. Ah, ah! Sleep. I close my eyes and nod. I will do anything for you.
I will sleep for you.
I will sleep. I will. Even if it feels like dying.
Why? Because I love you more than I've ever loved anyone. I would die for you, and if I do die, there's no other place I'd rather succumb.
Maybe, one day, I will tell you this.
Come, you say, tugging at my hand as you. Come.
You pull me close, close, closer to the abyss that's not nearly as black and bottomless as it once was. My toes approach the edge, they dangle, I peer over and down. You take my hand. You smile.
It's all right, you say, because you know. You know. It is all right and now I know it, too.
We wrap ourselves around one another. I find your hair, your breasts, your pulse, your skin.
We breathe. We keep breathing.
We fall. Slowly, gently.
We do not die.
And, I should know.