Pnigalion (The Strangler)
By Kick Flaw
Wakefulness came upon Remus with a start. Rubbing his eyes, he rolled over to better hear the noises that had disturbed his slumber. Blankets shifted above him, too heavy to be dislodged easily, and tangled. He pushed at them distractedly, harkening to the breath-marred silence of the dorm room. It was winter, and winter sucked the heat, the noise, from everything; But he didn’t think such silence could wake him.
There, a muted cry. Nearly soundless thrashing. Someone was having a nightmare. Sirius, if his sense of direction wasn’t failing him. The soft, struggling whimpers continued, tearing him between burying himself back into his nest of bedding or going to his friend, who may or may not appreciate the overture. Bed or Sirius, bed or Sirius…
Disgusted with himself, Remus kicked out of his bed and slid a random, discarded over-robe on. The chill was oppressive. Merlin, he despised the cold.
His black-haired comrade’s bed warmed him as he parted the curtains an crawled inside. It took careful movements to make sure he didn’t jar the boy awake before he was good and ready. Finally, seated cross-legged, he turned a curious eye to the nature of Sirius’ nightmare.
He must be fighting something hand-to-hand, he realized, noting the clawing fingers and twitching limbs. Something he couldn’t quite get a hold of. And he seemed to be having a hard time breathing, air only entered his lungs in spasmodic, short gusts. Oh. Well, of course.
Unfortunately, just as Remus was reaching to fix the problem so he could rest in peace, the shift in his weight dipped the mattress and tumbled Sirius towards him. Stomach met knee. Blue eyes snapped open with a gasp, wide and frantic.
“Shhh.” Placing a hand on the black-haired wizard’s forehead, the way his mother always did, he hushed what would have been a cry of surprise. “It’s just me.”
Sirius blinked at him, calm now but befuddled by the sleep-daze. Instead of returning to his bed, Remus moved gentle hands onto his pale neck and began to unwind the black strands that caught there. Sun-dark eyes focused intently on the strangling hair as freckled, bony fingers worked.
“It’s your hair, you stupid sod. You forgot to pull it back before bed. It was choking you.” He chided.
“Remus?” Still confused, Sirius twisted away, trying to see clearly in the dimness. The other boy had to lean over to finish his task, just slightly, but enough to tip their bodies together once again.
The hair came loose, running like slick satin through Remus’ fingers. He smiled, “Good as new.” and settled back.
“What happened?” asked Sirius as he sat up, scrubbing a hand over his freed neck.
In the near-darkness, moonlight sifted through the threads of red curtains, casting strange patterns of muffled shadow-ruby onto the bed. Fascinated, Remus let his gaze trace the shapes across the coverlet, up a bare arm, over throat and high, white cheekbone, until suddenly an idea, an absolutely wicked idea, struck him. Split seconds of staring into a pair of waiting eyes convinced him to employ it.
“I think,” he eventually replied, making his voice ominous, “that the Old Hag paid you a visit.”
“Who’s that?” frowned Sirius. The tone had awakened a spark of interest in him, as Remus had known it would.
He feigned shock. “You don’t know who the Old Hag is? The Strangler? Dab Tsog?” Actually, it was kind of surprising -the myth of the Old Hag was common even amongst muggles. Not that he thought the night’s occurrence had really been the Hag. He was just manipulating the legends to his advantage.
“Not at all.”
“Hmm.” Time for some good, old-fashioned story telling. The amber-eyed boy leaned closer and spoke lowly for effect, prompting Sirius to hunch near in turn. Blankets rumpled around them. Crowded together, drama and angular moonlight cloaking the enclosed bed-space, the explanation began.
“The Old Hag is one of many of a certain type of haunting. Unlike usual ghosts, she and her counterparts are malicious, they feed off of the energy of human beings, kind of like etheric revenants. They prey on the living by suffocating them in their sleep. First, you hear her scraping step as she hobbles to the bedside, moving down, down with hollow eyes and groping hands, until her weight is on your chest and her hungry fingers wrap around your neck.” Remus curled his fingers hideously and reached slowly for his wide-eyed audience, who jerked back in fright. Whispering harshly, he continued. “Then, the choking begins. She strangles the energy right out of the whatever victim she has chosen. Most survive, though some, the unlucky ones, never wake again.”
“Whoa.” Sirius covered his neck with his own, very trustworthy hands, aghast.
Remus nodded somberly, pasting on as sincere an expression as he could, but he could feel amusement dancing in his eyes. Sirius was such a dope sometimes; he was the first to jump during a good horror story and the last to calm down. Something to do with being raised muggle, no doubt.
“Wait…I’ve never heard of that. Shouldn’t we have studied it or something? You’re pranking me, you tosser!”
Maybe not such a dope, after all. “What would I do that?”
“I don’t know. Because you want revenge for the snow ball ambush last week? Taking advantage of my poor, neurotic psyche for personal vengeance, oh, you bad wolf. Bad wolf.” The rumpled boy narrowed his eyes playfully. “Good one though, I’ll give you credit.”
The moonlight never shifted, enchanting, eerie. The enclosed bed was warm with body-heat and breath, but the cold was so close it hovered. Night hung almost in unreality. The perfect scene for a haunting. If he could play it right…
“I’m not kidding, Sear.” It wasn’t really a lie. The Strangler phenomenon was common throughout world-wide folklore. Each culture had a version of it. It just wasn’t the cause of Sirius’ nightmare.
He adopted his darkest, most dire face, looking straight into shadow-blackened blue eyes. “Seriously. I’m *not* kidding.”
Sirius faltered. “You really think…”
Slow, solemn, silent nod.
Defensive hands braced once more on that victimized throat. “Thank god you scared it away! It won’t be back, will it?”
Just the opening he’d been waiting for. Tonight Sirius was more alluring than ever, if that was possible. Surrounded in heavy flannel and deep shadow and painted red-moonlight, looking so earnest and half-apprehensive. Uninhibitedly emotional. Sirius had never been ashamed of showing what he felt, not even if it was fear. He experienced life too deeply to hide it. That was merely one of the many things that so engrossed Remus about the other boy. And he was oh, so charmingly gullible. He couldn’t resist.
And it was harmless, really it was, no one would know the difference. He just wanted a little bit of his dreams. It wasn’t too much to ask. Too late anyway, the trap had been set.
“I don’t know.” Remus donned a worried frown. “Most likely. She won’t come back another night, but if you fall asleep again this one, she’ll probably attack you.”
“What can I do?!”
“There’s not much you *can* do, unless you want to stay up until morning.”
That elicited a glance at the clock and a groan. “It’s 1:30, I’ll never make it!”
Pretending to ponder the possibilities, he tapped a finger to his chin, aware always of how close he and the black-haired boy of heart sat. “The only thing I know of is a protective kiss,” he muttered eventually, “that, or having another person sleep with you.”
“What’s the protective kiss?” inquired Sirius, who was apparently distraught at the idea of dying. He kept licking his lips quickly, maddeningly.
“Just a kiss to the forehead. Like mothers do to children. It seals the third eyes from etheric invasion.”
“Oh…” He relaxed. “That’s easy. You can kiss me and stay here for the rest of the night, no big deal. I’ll kiss you too, just to be safe.”
“I guess. But if you kick me you won’t have to worry about The Strangler. *I’ll* kill you.” Nothing like a bit of reluctance to cover your tracks. Inside, Remus grinned like a madman.
After nodding, Sirius pushed his black bangs off of his forehead, expectantly waiting for the light-haired boy to plant his lips there. Said light-haired boy wet his lips and curled a tentative hand around the back of his friend’s neck, while using the other to replace the paler one holding those obtrusive locks back. With light pressure, he pulled smooth skin down to his mouth.
A moment and it was over, then Sirius climbed to his knees and carded strong fingers into the lighter head of hair, repeating the process. When he withdrew, he slipped a few strands between his thumb and forefinger teasingly, smiling down at Remus.
“Thanks.” He murmured.
“No problem.” Remus hitched, unable to look away.
Crimson moonlight geometry spattered them as they tucked themselves around each other underneath the blankets. Arms folded in a loose embrace, legs intertwined, heads resting on the same pillow eye-to-eye, the boys lay, and finally, just like that -
If I’m happy, and he’s happy, who cares why, Remus thought, smiling contently.
He’s cute when he thinks he has the upper hand, Sirius thought, smirking.
- surrendered to sleep.
And the old ghost in the corner bent her crooked grin into the darkness.
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