A long-fingered hand, stained in places and bearing the calluses of someone who spends a great deal of time writing with an old-fashioned quill, carded through thick curly hair. The woman to whom the hair belonged lay unmoving on a small camp bed. Nearby, a high table held cauldrons which steamed and bubbled. The man belonging to the hand smoothed the hair one last time and then flicked his wand in a complicated pattern. A series of numbers hung in the air before him and he carefully noted them down on a piece of parchment, already covered in a long list of similar numbers.
The woman lay so still that the numbers were sometimes the only thing that convinced the man that she was still alive; the numbers and the fact that her eyes moved rapidly behind her closed lids.
The woman was constantly dreaming.
These days, she never sleeps. She's had her share of sleeping, these last hundred years, and of dreaming. Sometimes at night when the castle is silent, she wanders the halls, trailing her hand across cool stone, stopping to caress the lintel of a window or to peer through a doorway.
Across the room from the camp bed and the potions bench the flames in the fireplace suddenly turned green and two people tumbled out of it. The man reacted instantly, pointing his wand at the perceived threat. The two people, both young men, one with messy dark hair and the other with smooth platinum hair, ignored the wand pointed at them and continued the process of cleaning themselves off. Floo travel was not the tidiest method of travel in the world.
"Dammit," the man with the wand said angrily, but his posture relaxed. "How the hell did you find me?"
The man with blond hair held up his hands placatingly and then pointed to his companion.
"Boy-Who-Lived, remember?" the second young man replied with an unrepentant grin. "Really, Snape. I broke into this place when I was fifteen. Do you honestly think the Department of Mysteries was going to let that go? Croaker recruited me a week later."
The castle is beautiful to her like this; through all her years of sleeping, it appeared in her dreams as a living, breathing thing, pulsing with life, people bustling everywhere. It never slept.
Now it does.
"Dammit, Potter," Snape growled and sheathed his wand with a snap. Then he turned to the other man. "What about you, Draco?"
"I'm just along for the ride."
"That's not entirely true, Dray," Harry Potter said with a fond look at his companion. "If it wasn't for you, we never would have heard that Hermione had been struck by a mysterious illness. When no one could find her I realized that you must've brought her here."
Snape pinched the bridge of his nose, a move familiar to any of his former students. "And you did not think to call ahead first and let me know you were coming?"
"Where's the fun in that?" Harry asked, still grinning. Then he grew serious. "How is she?"
Snape gestured at the woman on the camp bed. "See for yourselves."
Taking that as permission, Harry and Draco stepped towards Hermione and each began casting spell after spell. Harry's eyes grew wide and Draco began looking more and more concerned.
When she woke for the first time in a hundred years and the last time in her life, she could feel the silence of the castle around her, sleeping with her but slower to wake, and she was fascinated. By the time she and her prince walked down the tower's stairs, the castle was moving again, vibrant and alive, as all of the newly wakened inhabitants hurried to put things to rights.
"Solemnis aeternum?" Draco asked, as if he didn't trust his own conclusion.
"The Sleeping Beauty Curse?" Harry said in surprise.
Snape nodded grimly. "That was my conclusion as well."
Harry conjured two more chairs beside the one that Snape had abandoned and indicated for everyone to take a seat. "I think you'd better tell us all that you know and have figured out. I've only seen vague references to this curse in the magical world, and I take it from your expressions that it is not something common?"
"Understated as always, Potter," Draco said snippily, clearly still disturbed by the conclusion that he had come to.
"Be nice, Dray," Harry murmured and then turned back to Snape. "Please, Snape. Severus. I know she is your wife, but she's been my best friend for a very long time. She's like a sister to me. If there's anything I can do, any influence I can wield, hell, any raw magical power I can point at something, please tell me."
The legacy of Lily's green eyes shone out from behind the young man's glasses, with the same sort of intensity that his mother always had when she felt strongly about something. Snape shuddered at the ghost in those eyes. He never could refuse her, even three decades after her death and with his heart given to another woman.
He took a deep breath and began to explain.
But at night the castle falls silent again, and she can see sleep all around her, sleep that she can no longer inhabit, sleep that she never saw face-to-face in all the years she slept.
Sometimes she kneels and gently strokes the head of a dog, snorting and slobbering beside a banked fire. It turns over in its sleep, does not wake up, and she moves on.
Sometimes she stares out a window into the darkness, and the swoop of bats through the night sky forms a counterpoint to the slumbering castle around her. She feels like a bat herself, alert and alive and she laughs from the joy of it, careful and quiet so nobody wakes.
"As the name implies, it is intended to be a permanent condition. Unlike a regular sleeping spell, there is no counter. Finite has no effect. And unlike a potion-based slumber, like Drought of Living Death, the brain is still fully functional. There is no coma-like state here. She started dreaming the moment the curse hit her, and she will continue to do so until I - we - can wake her up."
"But isn't that a good thing? If her brain is still working, keeping active by dreaming, won't that be less dangerous for her?"
Snape merely shook his head and turned to study his wife, leaving Draco to explain.
"No, Harry. I mean, yes, in most circumstances it would be good, but not with this curse. The way the curse works is that first it convinces the person that they've been asleep for a very long time. Then it convinces them that they've been awoken by their true love's kiss and that they will live happily ever after. That's what she's dreaming right now - the happily ever after."
"There have been cases," Snape added softly, "when, after someone who was hit with this curse was awakened, they refused to accept reality. They spent the rest of their lives trying to get back to that happily ever after dream state."
Once she looks in on the servants where they sleep and stands listening to them breathe, but she does not do it again, because it feels rude, oddly intimate, and this is not an intimacy they chose.
During the day she is a good queen. She listens to her people, she pays attention to her counselors, she researches droughts and wars and economics. She loves her husband and he loves her in return. They balance each other well, king and queen, and their country prospers.
"So that means there is a cure?" Harry asked, seizing on the one positive thing that he could find.
"There is," Snape confirmed. He gestured to the simmering cauldrons. "It is a hideously complex potion and it's only because of my position in the Department that I was able to get half of the ingredients that are required."
"And what else does it involve?" Draco asked, eyes narrowed.
"Blood sacrifice. Five drops of blood of a loved one incorporated just before administering."
Draco frowned, not understanding what the issue was. Blood wasn't often used in potions as it carried something of a taboo, but it wasn't technically illegal. Particularly for a member of the Department of Mysteries, who were presumed to work in the grey areas of magic.
But at night they are different creatures. He does not understand, but he loves her, and he accepts.
When she was newly woken, at night she would go to bed, lie down, stare up at the ceiling for hours. She knew she would not sleep, but still she hoped that she might become accustomed to the patterns of nights and days that everyone lived. By the time of her marriage she knew this would not happen.
Harry, however, had a fairly good idea as to the cause of Snape's uncertainty.
"Which means that if the recipient doesn't feel the same way about the person who gave the blood, the potion will fail? Leaving the sleeper stuck in the dream state forever?"
"Two points to Gryffindor, Mr. Potter, for a correct and complete answer."
"Good thing you don't have anything to worry about, then," Harry said quietly.
"So," Draco asked after a long period where the only noises in the room were the crackle of the fire, the bubbling of the cauldrons, and Hermione’s steady breathing, "who did this to her?"
Snape stiffened. "It has been dealt with."
Draco and Harry both glared at the older man.
"Sev - " Draco began warningly, but Snape just shook his head.
"I said, it's been dealt with, Draco."
Her husband has grown used to her habits, and on the nights she gets out of bed to wander, he does not protest. He doesn't even wake.
But on the nights she does not rise, she lies in bed cradling her sleeping husband in her arms, admiring the soft relaxed lines of his face, counting his even breaths, feeling the slow beat of his heart against hers, and she holds sleep to her like a lover.
All three men held their breath as Hermione reflexively swallowed, allowing her to ingest the potion. Minute after agonizing minute ticked. Then her hands twitched slightly and she stirred, a sleeper awakening from a deep slumber.
Everyone in the room relaxed as she stretched and yawned, looking around in half-awake confusion.
"Sev?" She reached out for her husband, who took her hand immediately. "What happened? Why am I in your lab?"
"What do you remember?" he asked and wrapped one arm around her waist, helping her to sit up.
"Harry? Malfoy? What're you doing here?" Hermione wondered after blinking several times.
"They were helping me. What do you remember, Hermione?" Snape asked again.
"I heard an incantation behind me, and the next thing I know, I'm waking up from the longest nap in history. I was in a castle, there was a prince." She paused. "It's fuzzy, distant. That was a dream, too, wasn't it? I dreamed I was asleep and then I dreamed I was awake?"
"Yes. You were hit with the Sleeping Beauty Curse. Fortunately, the only known reversal was successful."
"Oh." Hermione paused. "Oh. That's good. I think. I don't think I'd want to spend the rest of my life in a dream, unable to sleep." She shook her head, as if to clear it. "That's what it was, you know. In the dream. I had woken up from a hundred year sleep and never needed to sleep again. I wandered around the castle at night, watching everything."
"What do you want to do now?" Harry asked softly.
"I think I would like my husband to take me home, so that I can fall asleep in his arms and wake up in them tomorrow morning," she said with a smile.
"I believe that can be arranged," Snape said, standing and holding out a hand to her. She took it and then wrapped her arms around his waist. "I trust you gentlemen can show yourselves out," he said and activated his Portkey to take his wife home.
"I think that sounds like a rather good idea. What do you say?" Harry said, holding out his hand to Draco.
"Always knew she was the smart one. Let's go home, Harry."
Together they stepped back through the green flames, leaving the lab silent and peaceful. Almost sleeping.