As they walked downstairs–not hand in hand, but with his arm around her shoulders, because it was contact that was at once intimate and friendly–she asked him, “You’re going to London, aren’t you? After graduation?”
James would have thought that his stomach would twist, or some residue of guilt would rise up in his mouth, at the thought of being separated from her so soon. But he didn’t feel anything. He noticed that some of the cotton blue of her nails had rubbed off on his sleeve, and that her body was cool. That was it. “Yeah.”
This, he supposed, was contentment. Maybe it was happiness.
Waverly made a noncommittal noise, but was otherwise silent. Before he could question her question, they reached the end of the stairs and were back at the party.
At least, they should have been back at the party. It certainly looked like there had been a raging fifth-year style party in the common room, but it couldn’t have died as quickly as it seemed to have in a mere fifteen minutes. Suddenly the common room looked about as desolate as a graveyard, and the cups and streamers and balloons looked like detritus from a ghost town.
“Did we miss something?” Waverly whispered, a sound that was like the crack of a whip in the dead silence.
James was about to respond, but then, a lanky figure straightened up.
There was another figure behind him.
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that the party would be rained on like this, by the otherwise calm and friendly Herbology professor and the cranky caretaker. Fifth-years didn’t understand subtlety. Or how to cast Silencing Charms satisfactorily.
“I understand,” the Head of Gryffindor House said, his wand to his throat to magnify his voice, “that the end of exams is a moment to be celebrated. But we cannot allow our celebration to extend to a level where it becomes disruptive for the entire castle.”
There were some low, mutinous mutters. While Longbottom peered around at the students unlucky enough to still be here, James and Waverly hurried to a far corner, where they found a back-to-normal Cillian hiding as well. The Irishman wasn’t surprised to see Waverly and James together so closely, nor did he seem particularly excited. He shook his head in answer to the unasked question: he hadn’t made it.
Longbottom seemed satisfied by this speech, but Filch wasn’t. (He never was satisfied by mere words.) While Longbottom started inspecting the damage to the common room and assigning the guiltiest-looking ones to fix it (the hyper brunette with the business cards had disappeared), Filch began skulking in the shadows, breaking apart rule breakers and poking those who had passed out with his thick walking stick. Then, with the Herbology professor’s back turned, Filch scampered upstairs to look for and punish more deviants.
He went upstairs.
Up the girls’ stairs.
James and Cillian’s eyes grew wider than they’d ever been. Waverly was sure she was seeing things. And hearing things. Or rather, not hearing things, because there was no wailing klaxon. And there was no stone slide. It was a spindly old man struggling up the stairs that the laws of Hogwarts seemed to say he couldn’t climb.
“What’d he do?” Cillian whispered furiously. “What did he do?”
“Skipped the first step.”
“No, really, Potter, what did he do?”
“I’m not joking,” James hissed, “he really skipped the first step!”
“Come off it,” Waverly butt in, leaning forward and squinting her eyes. “Probably he can because he’s staff.”
“Then why’d he skip the second step?” James countered. “If he could go up there when he wanted to, he wouldn’t have to.”
“He didn’t,” whispered Cillian flatly. “She’s probably–hold it, shut up.” Longbottom was talking again, and had stalked to the foot of the stairs to call Filch down.
“Argus, that’s not your place–Argus, come back here–”
Though the triumvirate peered closely, the professor’s feet didn’t breach the enchanted staircase. And when Filch did come back a few seconds later, roaring something mostly unintelligible about kids these days and how one can’t trust them and how just this year boys have tried to get in there, the stairs were still in tact.
The authority figures left soon after, and the common room came back to life as if awakening from a very strange dream. James, Cillian, and Waverly dashed to the foot of the girls’ stairs; no one else was there, as it seemed that no one else took any interest in the significance of what they’d just seen.
“He’s staff,” Waverly repeated stubbornly.
“He’s an old man and yet he skipped a step,” James said, as if correcting her. “That’s the secret. It’s got to be.”
“That’s ridiculous,” she said. “It can’t work.”
“Polyjuice can’t be the only answer.”
“What happened with that, anyway?”
“Someone spotted Roxanne and wanted to talk about the Charms exam,” Cillian said dully. “By the time she could worm away, she was Cillian again.”
“Isla’s dating Eric, by the way. Sorry.”
“I know, I saw them.” For the record, Cillian didn’t seem the least bit heartbroken. And for the first time, it occurred to James that maybe the Irishman had never felt anything really significant for Isla Quigley. Not at all, he supposed, what he felt for Waverly. “Forget that. James, you swear you saw him skip the first step?”
Cillian rolled up his sleeves and steeled himself.
“Don’t do it,” Waverly hissed in outrage. “It’s the worst idea we’ve had yet!”
But James drew her back into his arms. He didn’t presume to kiss her–that was patronising at a moment like this–but he held her with her back to his chest, and though she squirmed and clawed at his arms (in a very affectionate way), he offered Cillian one of the warmest smiles he’d ever mustered as the shaggy-haired Irishman prepared to mount his final stand.
“He’s going to hurt himself,” Waverly said to no one in particular, as if she thought no one was listening. “He’s going to hurt himself and then–and then–let me go!” she added with renewed vigor.
His eyes were not on Cillian, who had jogged to the portrait hole to get a running start on the stairs. They were on her. “Would it be cheesy to say that I’ll never do that?” James whispered in her ear.
“Yes. And it’s a lie, so there’s that as well.”
She took advantage of the temporary confusion of Cillian shouting at everyone to get the bleeding hell out of the way to scramble out of his grasp. Then she whirled around, her hair a bit wild and her face flushed.
“What about Ariadne?” she asked.
“Ariadne didn’t lie,” he told her.
Though there wasn’t much space between them, it felt like a lot when she came up to him again, this time facing him on her own. She was just half an inch shorter than him, but his face was angled down to hers and he remembered that day when she had had chocolate on the corner of her mouth. How she didn’t yet trust him not to hurt her. And look at where she was now. Look at where they were. At how she took his hand in hers, fingers slotting between his.
“James,” she said, “did you really decide to do that–” she jerked her head backwards towards the girls’ stairs “–for me?”
“No,” he told her truthfully. “I wasn’t even sure I liked you. So why did you agree?”
Waverly cracked a smile. “Oh, that was for you. I thought it was a chance to get to know you. The real you, if that kind of thing works in context. I wanted to see if I could do it, you know? Any girl would leap at the chance to figure out someone like you. Reach the heart of darkness, as it were.”
He processed her words carefully. But it couldn’t have been a coincidence that she–it had to be–he pulled her closer, suddenly enamoured. “You read Conrad?” he asked incredulously. “You read Conrad for me? You shouldn’t have. Literally, you really shouldn’t have. It’s not fun. I could point you to–”
A smile threatened to ruin his exasperated façade. “Nothing. You don’t have to read anything for me.”
“Good. It all sounds dreadful, anyway.”
“You know what?” He snuck a kiss on her cheek, and she untangled her hands to wrap them around his shoulders. She brought his face within kissing distance of her own, and she giggled despite herself as his breath washed over her. “You’re right. It really is dreadful.”
James could hear stirring somewhere in the common room. It meant that Cillian was finally satisfied with the path to the stairs. But for a moment, that didn’t matter. All that mattered was the way she said, “I know,” (as if she was talking to her neighbour about the weather), and how she lifted herself up to meet his lips for the nth time that afternoon, and how she sighed when they pulled apart to watch their friend start his flight into the–James couldn’t help but see the dormitories again as Hogwarts’ own heart of darkness. A place of mystery, a construct created by the human imagination and fear and desire for the unknown. And also by ancient magic.
As far as James was concerned, he had already breached it. He’d made it. He’d come back (not unscathed, he had to admit) with something–a greater understanding of his place in reality, an idea of how the world worked, and a girl.
Then Cillian’s footsteps started pounding the carpet of the common room, and James held Waverly’s hand, and he smiled at nothing and no one and her.
“But why would it be for Gryffindor if he cast the spell in the first–”
For once, James didn’t have an answer.
He liked the feeling.
The Last Disclaimer After this fic, I don't think I will ever want to have to remind anyone that I am not Joseph Conrad and have no rights to his horror of a novel(la?), Heart of Darkness.
The Last Author's Note I finished writing this for the first time at the end of April 2011. I revised it last a few minutes ago, as I copied-and-pasted this epilogue into the chapter text box. And I am now relieved that I can tick off the 'completed' box at last.
Thank you all: readers, reviewers, cheerleaders, and those other lovely few, who know who they are. Thank you for sticking with me in this journey for my own personal heart of darkness, that of the fluffy next generation short story. I only hope that you enjoyed it to some degree, and that it perhaps brought a smile to your face. It is the least I can do in return for the smiles you all have brought to mine.