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The Horror! by GubraithianFire

Format: Short story
Chapters: 9
Word Count: 16,769
Status: COMPLETED

Rating: 15+
Warnings: Mild violence, Scenes of a sexual nature, Substance abuse, Sensitive topic/issue/theme

Genres: Drama, Fluff, Romance
Characters: Filch, Neville, Albus, James (II), Lily (II), OC, OtherCanon
Pairings: James/OC

First Published: 06/04/2011
Last Chapter: 09/18/2011
Last Updated: 09/18/2011

Summary:
fluffy squishy happy banner by justonemorefic at tda







James Potter is taking a journey into the heart of darkness.
Which happens to be the seventh-year Gryffindor girls' dormitory.
And, maybe, possibly, a certain seventh-year Gryffindor girl’s heart.


Chapter 1: WAVERLY
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THE HORROR!
WAVERLY








There were some things that boys were destined to ponder on rainy March afternoons. Why the Cannons were so pitiful, and why they still managed to hold onto such a passionate fan base. What that whole business with the Elder Wand really meant, in the long run. What made the Wizengamot a legitimate political institute in this day and age. How house-elves could churn out delicious food all the bloody time. How Knight to E4 still rocked as hard as they probably did when they were seventeen.

What the girls’ dormitory was like.

It was Cillian Donnelly who first voiced it one particular Sunday afternoon. “It’s crazy that no bloke’s been inside there,” he said, out of the blue, over a chessboard. He’d been practicing for a tournament that one of the Weasleys was organising. “The girls’ dorms, I mean.”

He was facing James Potter, who didn’t care about the game but was a damn sight better despite that. “Castle to F-6.” As his castle plowed across the board, he said, “I’m sure there have been. There’re rumours and all about it.”

“What rumours?” asked Cillian. He was keeping a careful eye on the castle, which seemed to be humming with excitement for an attack, though he couldn’t yet see where or how it would come.

James leaned back in his chair. “Teddy always said he’d done it. Never said how, but I’m sure he got Nicky or Victoire or someone to help him,” he mused further.

“Then that’s the first step,” Cillian said. “Get an inside man.”

“Inside girl. You know it’s been your move for the past forty seconds.”

“I’m thinking, Potter.”

“Of the game or of seeing Isla Quigley’s knickers?”

Cillian glanced up from the chessboard and glared at his friend. “For one thing, you know I have no interest whatsoever in Isla Quigley. Or her knickers.”

“I’m sure you don’t.”

“For another, if you want to do this for that reason, you’re never going to get an inside man.”

“Inside girl, and I never said I wanted to do it.”

“You don’t want to? What the hell is wrong with you?”

In James’ case, it was usually the clinical but somehow charming nonchalance he’d developed to practically everything in his life. It wasn’t that he was mean or cold. He just was, content with charmed detachment and cool affection. It was an attitude that had really hit him in adolescence, not because of any traumatic experience, but because he realised that it worked for him very well. He knew it could be a liability sometimes, but when someone was as prone to spurts of dangerous spontaneity, as Cillian was, a bit of levelheadedness could be healthy.

“I never said I didn’t want to do it, either.”

Cillian grinned, and with one last despairing glance at the chessboard, took out his wand and jerked it to the left. Crying indignantly, the remaining pieces were swept as if by an invisible hand into the wooden box from which they had come. “Wouldn’t have stood a chance against Hugo anyway,” he sighed. “Better focus my attention on the realm of reasonable success, right?”

James couldn’t argue that there was a reasonable chance in the first place. “Sure. So have you concocted a plan already, or were you going to wait and pounce on the next girl to come down the stairs?”

“Can’t just pick up any old bird.” Cillian got up and positioned his chair next to James’, so both of them would have a view of the enchanted stairs. “We have to think this through carefully, got to consider all the possibilities. Like, Ruth’s probably out of the question, and I don’t think Mack–”

“How about her?” James pointed at the blondish figure coming down.

Cillian glanced at her. “Oh. Okay, yeah, she’ll do.”

The prospective inside man James was suggesting was Waverly Ward, and, as he knew full well, the only seventh-year Gryffindor girl who would be even slightly willing to help.

“You can talk to her,” Cillian said after a moment where they were both staring at the staircase. “From me it’d seem like a sick joke. From you it’d sound like–”

This was something that James hadn’t anticipated, but he completed his friend’s sentence with a smooth, “Mischievous fun? Yeah, I’ll do it. You go… take a walk or something and we’ll call you back later.”

Appreciating the positivity inherent in the statement, Cillian didn’t object and got up. He stretched his arms before ambling off, and James debated waiting for him to reach the portrait hole before realising that Waverly was also heading in that direction.

“Oi! Oi, Waverly!” He made a beckoning gesture–nothing so wild as frantic waving, but nothing unduly intimate. Though he was friendly with her, maybe even friends with her, depending on the day, he didn’t want to be too presumptuous. Not that he ever was.

In any case, she responded with a bit of dubious interest, and came to stand in front of him. “Hi.”

“Hey there, Waverly. You busy?”

“Depends,” she said carelessly. “But I’ve been cooped up in either my room or the library all weekend and I’d appreciate a little distraction.”

James patted the seat that Cillian just vacated. “I wanted to talk to you about a much bigger distraction, if you don’t mind.”

“Well isn’t that mysterious,” she said rather dryly. “You’ve stoked my curiosity now, James.” In any case, she cautiously sat down, ink-flecked hands settling on her lap. He also spotted the kernel of legitimate curiosity in the sardonic delivery, and smiled to hear it.

“Waverly,” he said, the name rolling off his tongue, “have you ever heard of a bloke getting in the girls’ dormitories?”

“Nope,” she said. “The stairs become a slide and the alarm goes off and everything. Can’t get in.”

James leaned in closer, aware now that he was turning on the charm in a significant way. He wasn’t quite sure why, because he certainly didn’t care that much about the endeavour. But Waverly was a girl, a fairly pretty girl, and she was itching for a distraction. He figured he might as well make her feel better about abandoning her work. Satisfied with his rationale, he let the charm radiate from his eyes and shift his posture and stopped questioning it. Questioning charm led to souring charm.

“That doesn’t mean that a bloke can’t get in,” he said. “It just means it’s more… difficult. Think about it. An alarm goes off and it becomes a slide. What kind of deterrent is that, really? Not a very good one. Getting into the girls’ rooms could very well be as easy as a bloke being levitated up the stairs. It could be much more involved than that, I dunno, but it makes sense, doesn’t it, to assume that it’s not impossible for the determined to get in?”

“I guess so,” she said, seeming intrigued despite herself. “But why are you so determined to do it?”

“Honestly?”

She nodded.

“Well, firstly because Cillian really wants to do it. I imagine it has something to do with Isla, and I’m nothing if not supportive of that relationship.”

“He fancies her? Never would’ve guessed.”

“It’ll become obvious when he’s pawing through her sock drawer.”

“As long as it’s just her socks,” she said, “I don’t mind.”

James, grinning despite himself at the memory of Cillian’s assertion from a few minutes ago, continued. “Now can I give you the eloquent version of why? I had this all rehearsed in my head as you were walking over.”

“Now I’m legitimately excited. A rehearsed speech and everything! Very smooth.” She smirked at him, but not in an antagonistic or uppity way. It was, as most of James’ interactions with people were, friendly.

“I try.” He inclined his head, gracious and self-effacing. “You see, when you think about it, the problem of the barrier is a challenge handed down by Godric Gryffindor himself. He basically put up a sign in front of your dorms that says no blokes allowed. So obviously, any freethinking bloke is going to try to get in. And I personally–speaking for Cillian as well–believe that it would be an insult to the Founder’s indomitable spirit to not take up the challenge. It’s a little bit of fun, too, you know, in the long stretch between hols and exams and stuff. We think we’re going to need an inside girl, though, which is where you come in.”

“That doesn’t sound right.” At his blank expression, she clarified, “Inside girl. Is that really a thing?”

“Technically,” James acceded, “it’s called an inside man. I just thought it’d be more appropriate if I used inside girl for you.”

“Oh, I don’t mind.” Then she gave him a rather cheeky, playful grin, which James considered a good thing. “But yeah, sure, I’ll do it.”

He was a bit surprised by how quickly she accepted the invitation, but didn’t show it. “Excellent.” James grinned widely, to denote that he really was happy to have her on board, because he honestly was. It would be more interesting with someone else in the mix, after all. Enliven the dynamic and all that. “Really excellent. Cillian’s out walking now, but when he comes back we can start brainstorming stra–”

But then Waverly stood up and pulled out her wand, fault lines in what James half-thought could have become a moment shaking. “Get up.”

He blinked.

“You said it yourself,” she said, “it might be as simple as levitating yourself up the stairs. So we might as well try it out, yeah?”

For all of the charm he’d ever thought he exerted or was thought to have exerted, James himself felt charmed, maybe even fascinated, by the inside man’s balls.





Disclaimer The title of this story and part of the summary are in fact inspired by Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which in no universe would I ever want to have written.

Many thanks as well to ahoythere at tda for the super hipster/fluffy chapter image.

Author's Note What? Gubby is legitimately trying her hand at fluff now? Yes, dear readers, it's true. As some of you may know, this has been a very long process, involving at least seven other stories started and unceremoniously copy-and-pasted into my Deleted Documents document. Happily, this particular plot bunny grew and grew into a completed short story, which means it's utterly prewritten for everyone's convenience. I'll try to update as often as I can. All of my love to Gina, for her lessons on contrivance and putting up with thousands of words of my inevitably elitist fluff, and the rest of the crew, for putting up with my freak-outs and declarations that fluff is impossible and totally ridiculous. I've only just realised that is neither of those things.

Hope you all enjoy what is to come!

Chapter 2: ARIADNE
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THE HORROR!
ARIADNE







As it turned out, it was not as simple as levitating oneself up the stairs.

Levitating oneself up the stairs without advance notice of levitation tended to send ripples of panic amongst young witches, leading to mass lampooning–both verbal and magical–of said levitator as he levitated up the stairs to said witches’ bedrooms.

“You would think,” James exhaled hoarsely, “that magical people can recognise a levitating man when they see one.”

Cillian and Waverly did not seem at all that sympathetic. The former was sitting at the foot of James’ bed and the latter on the floor next to them. James, with a bandage on his head and the shrill remonstrance of Madam Barnhart ringing in his ears, was snuggled into the blankets (Cillian’s work, not Waverly’s) and feeling a bit more intensely about this particular incident than he had about anything in months. Perhaps years.

“It’s the shock factor, I guess,” Cillian said sagely, leaning against the wall and chewing pensively on some Drooble’s Best he’d found underneath his own bed. “No one really expects it to happen, do they?”

“Did you hear the way they were shrieking?” Waverly snorted, clearly not allying herself with her roommates. “A boy is floating up the stairs! The horror! The horror!”

“Mistah Potter, he dead.”

She glanced at James, who shrugged as best he could with his sore arm. “It’s a reference.”

“To what?”

“Never mind that,” Cillian cut in, a loud pop of his bubblegum indicating how little he cared for this particular tangent. “The real question is, what’s the next step?”

“If there’s another step to be taken at all,” Waverly added. “Obviously there’s a lot of… pent-up animosity? Sexual tension? Insecurity? Immaturity? When it comes to girls and their space, I mean. Getting in there doesn’t look like harmless fun to them.” Tossing her head and twisting her hair into a bun, though she had nothing to tie it together, she went on, “It’s literally a life-or-death situation to them. You stay out, they live. You come in, they die.”

The boys stared at her together, equal amounts bewildered and dismissive.

Waverly, of course, didn’t seem to care very much about their confusion. Drawing her knees up to her chin, she exhaled. “Huh.”

Cillian leaned forward and poked her with his foot. It was a rather forward motion considering that the whole triumvirate thing was in its earliest stages and could possibly be on the verge of disintegrating, but no one seemed to mind. Except for James, for whom such a thing was unthinkable. Mostly because moving in any direction would only cause a lot of unpleasant groaning to resound throughout Gryffindor Tower, but also because he wasn’t a really physical person. What he deemed himself was an intellectual, and Waverly seemed to be on the same… wavelength. (He rolled his eyes at himself for the awful, awful pun.)

“Just–just think about it,” she said, methodically picking her words. “It’s like, I’m here in your room because the assumption had always been that girls are more trustworthy than boys. But how true is that really? It’s like… I dunno, it’s like the stair transfiguration is…”

“An outdated symbol of chauvinism? Absolutely.” James found himself pleased that he could extrapolate this way. More interestingly, he found himself pleased that Waverly seemed pleased with his extrapolation.

Cillian, however, had never been one for abstractions. It was what made him such a god-awful chess player. James recognised his distaste for the tangent, and resolved to wrap it up so they could return to the actual question of the hour. But when he spoke, it did nothing of the sort. “It’s as if this pet project, pet prank, whatever it can be called, it’s like it’s a grand social experiment, isn’t it? Gender roles in magical society, conformity… and, you know, I always thought there was an interesting attitude to witches at Hogwarts and I guess even amongst witches at Hogwarts. The dichotomy between–oi.” Someone punched him.

Judging by the blank look on his face, it wasn’t Cillian.

The real culprit rolled her eyes (the shock of pain going up his leg didn’t distract him from the fact that her eyes resembled those of a giraffe) and started playing with her hair again. “You lost me at dichotomy.”

“Then you’ve been lost for all of fifteen seconds,” he pointed out peaceably.

“It seemed like you were going off on a boring tangent. And being lost within a boring tangent is like being lost in a labyrinth, you know? Can’t get out. Stuck there forever.”

“You could get out if you had a thread to follow.”

“But I didn’t have one, because you were boring me.”

“Touché, Ariadne.”

“Ariadne?”

From the corner came Cillian’s pointed cough, mangled a bit by the gum that threatened to wedge itself in his throat. When it was freed, he cleared his throat and said. “I’m going to go ahead and assume that we’re still going to do this, yeah?”

James’ answer was unequivocal, as most of his answers were. But there was a solidness backing this one that Cillian hadn’t heard in a long time. “Oh, definitely. I’ve been done bodily harm just for doing the simplest thing. It’d be bloody unfair to let all that blood go to waste.”

“It was a cut,” Cillian said.

“On my head.”

“Forehead.”

“Oh, I’m in,” said Waverly brightly, without giving any further reason. Then she pushed herself off the floor and, upon regaining standing balance, patted James’ head.

It was a gesture that he hadn’t exactly expected; in his experience, warmth was a reciprocal thing, and he didn’t make it a point to give it and didn’t expect to receive it except from the rather foolish. But he found himself grinning anyway, and asked, “You’re leaving?”

“Yeah, I still have that essay, and I just wasted two hours with you.”

“Well, thanks for levitating me into the tigers’ den.”

“Thanks for distracting me from numbers and stuff.” She smiled, and then added to Cillian, “How old is that gum, exactly?”

He shrugged and wished her luck on her homework. He even hopped off James’ bed to walk her to the door, making a point to shut it when she had crossed the threshold. Then he scampered back to his original position, this time shifting himself to face the boy under the covers.

“So.” He raised a quizzical eyebrow. “What was all that about?”

James didn’t even have to feign nonchalance at this point. “What was what all about?”

The Irishman pointed at the door. “All that. The Muggle lit references. The mythology allusions. The grinning and the punching and the patting and the touché of it all. What was that?”

“We were talking, Cillian. That’s what happens in intelligent conversation. Ideas are exchanged. Sometimes it’s through the conduit of culture, high or low, or–”

“That’s not what happens in your intelligent conversations. I know, I’m usually around for those. That was… I haven’t seen you like this since… can’t even remember. She’s bringing it out in you, isn’t she?”

“And what d’you think she’s bringing out in me?” he countered. It could have sounded exasperated to an eavesdropper, but this was James, and he was for the most part unflappable.

“I dunno.” Cillian leaned against the bedpost to think about it. Abstractions, after all, were not his strong suit. But there was nothing abstract about the interaction he’d just seen. It had been concrete, it had been real. There was an element of James’ characteristic cool-friendliness, and Waverly’s generic cuteness, but there was something else there, too. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but he could tell it was there. “But I do know that you wanted her for a reason.”

“I did. Can you think of anyone else who’d spontaneously try to levitate me up to her room?”

Cillian rolled his eyes.

“For not sex- or revenge-related reasons,” James clarified.

“Beyond that,” Cillian asserted. Then, as James tried to settle himself more comfortably in bed (which in itself was a big to-do, considering the ridiculous soreness of his extremities and the delicate wound on his forehead), he said, “If you fancied her, you should’ve just told me. Could’ve gone about this a less painful way.”

James was now staring at the bunk above his own, not at his friend. And he was definitely not thinking about Waverly. In that way. Whatever way that was. As a friend, a collaborator, as an inside man. Not particularly as a girl.

“If I said I fancied her, would you admit that you’re only doing this to get into Isla Quigley’s sock drawer?”

“If you said you fancied her, I would as a matter of fact go through Isla’s sock drawer. And other drawers besides.”

And as amusing a thought as that was for him, it didn’t even occur to him to tell such a blatant, glaring, possibly truthful lie.





Disclaimer Once again, there are references to the aforementioned Joseph Conrad novel Heart of Darkness in this chapter, this time with James' line "Mistah Potter, he dead" (an obvious callback to the infamous "Mistah Kurtz, he dead"). Also, James' reference to Ariadne comes (similarly obviously, I should hope) from the Greek myth involving Theseus and a minotaur and a labyrinth and stuff.

Also, all of the argyle socks in the world to ahoythere at tda for the chapter image!

Author's Note So... quick updates are pretty much off the table now, considering my schedule, but I'll do what I can when I can. Thanks for the lovely response to the first chapter, and I do hope you guys continue to enjoy!

Chapter 3: GRACE
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THE HORROR!
GRACE



Over the next few days, once James had recovered from the physical injuries inflicted upon him and once Waverly’s Arithmancy essay was finished (at six in the morning, as she kept reminding the boys who had delayed her, only to be reminded that she herself wanted to be distracted), the little triumvirate started sketching out new strategies for breaching one of the most well-guarded areas Hogwarts had to offer.

Cillian was confident that there would be some absurdly simple way to bypass the problem of the transfigured stairs. “If a girl just invited someone in, it’d have to work, right?”

Neither James nor Waverly much believed this could work, but since they had nothing else to put into place this quickly, they agreed to give it a try. This time Cillian was the guinea pig (a phrase that Waverly used gleefully once James explained what it meant) and James was watching from the common room. She was standing at the top of the stairs, creating what sounded like a serious backlog of traffic coming from the dormitories, and had her wand in her hand.

“I, Waverly Ward, by the power granted to me by ancient magics and my gender, do hereby invite the wizard Cillian Donnelly to visit my dormitory at the top of Gryffindor Tower!”

James didn’t think the wordiness was necessary, but he didn’t say anything as she scampered down to the bottom step and extended a hand to the waiting Irishman. He took it, and let her pull him up to join her on the staircase. They didn’t move for at least twenty seconds, and even James held his breath as they waited for the transfiguration to occur. It didn’t.

The guinea pig whispered something in the inside man’s ear. James couldn’t hear what was being said, but he saw her nod and cautiously ascend one step.

Of course, the moment Cillian raised his foot, it happened. The alarm sounded, and the stairs melted into one another to create a steep stone slide, and together the guinea pig and the inside man slipped down the slope. Admittedly, the fall wasn’t that great, as they hadn’t made it beyond the second step, but the laughter from the peanut gallery (which once again James had to explain) was what made the expected failure sting.

Even worse, though, at least for Cillian and Waverly, was the assumption that spread that they were a couple.

“A couple of people trying to do something stupid,” she corrected Ruth Zimmerman at dinner the day after the second failed attempt. “We’re not together. Believe me, we are not a dating couple at all.”

James, sitting nearby, watched this exchange with great interest, considering that Ruth was his ex and Waverly his… something.

Ruth didn’t seem convinced by the other witch’s assertions and frowned. “Why’re you doing this?” she asked, her lip curling. “Helping them with something like that?”

Waverly glanced at her fellow collaborator. Then, shifting her gaze to Ruth, she said, “They’re not trying to hurt or offend anyone. It’s just a bit of harmless fun. It’s not a horror story, it’s not perverted, and before you ask,” she added in a lower, more tenuous tone, “it has nothing to with you.”

James blinked and pushed away his plate. Suddenly he wasn’t that hungry anymore.

Ruth was similarly flabbergasted and certainly outraged. Her eyes, which James had once in passing compared to dark grayish marbles, flashed the same way they had nearly a year ago, when her frustration with his general lack of special physical or verbal affection finally boiled over. “To do with me? Why would it have anything to do with me? I don’t want anything to do with Potter and his stupid plots–”

“That’s the point, don’t you see? You don’t have anything to do with them. Which is why I don’t see what your problem is now that it’s clear that I’m not shagging Cillian.”

But Ruth seemed to have moved beyond the problem of Waverly’s alleged sexual relationship with Cillian. As James had suspected from the second he noticed Ruth’s marble-eyes straying more often than ever to the inside man, there were other things running in her head. Very, very irrelevant things, to be sure, and emotional ones, at that, which made him roll his eyes even as Ruth went on her tirade.

“You shouldn’t have anything to do with him either!” the petite brunette roared. “He’s a good-for-nothing cold corpse freak! You should know that by now, Waverly. He’s never cared about anyone in his life, and he’ll never care for you. So when you finally do realise that he’ll break your heart and never give a damn about it, don’t you dare come crying to me!”

“I–”

Before Waverly could finish, Ruth had run off, tears glinting in her marble-eyes and muttering curses under her breath to that bastard Potter and that idiot Donnelly and that traitor to her own sex Ward.

When she was gone, James reached out for his plate again; he saw no sense in depriving himself of food now that the eternal leech on his soul had fled. But his hand instead grasped Waverly’s, which was resting on the Gryffindor table as if it were bait over a body of water.

If it was a lure, it worked.

Waverly cracked a smirk. “You’re doing a good job at countering everything she just said.”

Only then did James let go. As usual, he didn’t let his embarrassment reach his face, but he had a feeling she knew it was there. “I try.”

She sat down across from him and, once seated, buried her face in her hands. For a moment he thought they were still stained by ink, but then he saw that the colour was just on her nails, and it wasn’t black, but rather it was a glittery carnation pink. “I should’ve known she’d throw a strop,” she muttered.

“You’re not…” James coughed. He had never been good dealing with emotional people. It was why he and Ruth didn’t get along as swimmingly as he did with practically everyone else. She was unapologetically in-tune with her feelings, and he preferred to ignore them for the sake of civility and regular affection. “You’re not upset, are you? Because she’s–and I know my opinion is biased–a bit of a nutter. Don’t let her get to you.” He thought about reaching over to pat her on the shoulder, but there’d already been one instance of unwarranted physical contact between them today. There was no way he was going to let Ruth’s assertions colour Waverly’s perception of him, or her perception of their friendship.

The glittery fingers parted and then fell to her lap. The face that had been hiding behind them was not red with distress and the eyes were not bloodshot with tears. She twisted her hair again, forcing it all to the side, and said, “Oh, I don’t care about what she said. I just meant I never would’ve guessed tensions about this sort of thing still existed, you know?”

“Yeah, it is a bit ridiculous,” he allowed. “But if it was any other bloke trying to do it, she wouldn’t be nearly as…”

“Hysterical.”

“That’s the word.”

Waverly’s gaze drifted off in the direction in which Ruth had run off. She seemed rather pensive, too, recalling the expression she’d had a few days ago on the floor of the boys’ room. “Would it be weird of me to ask what you saw in her?”

James shrugged as he actually brought his plate closer to him. “We were partners in Charms,” he told her. “She developed a crush on me. I kind of liked her, too, so when she asked me out, I said yeah, and… oh, you asked what I saw in her.” This he genuinely had to ponder, for once not having an answer residing on the tip of his tongue. “Well, she was there.”

She wrinkled her nose in something that wasn’t quite disgust. “That’s an awful reason to be with someone.”

“I agree. It’s why we broke up. I didn’t want her to get the impression that I was in love with her or something.”

“But she got it anyway?”

“So it seems. Are you going to ask about us now?”

She blinked. “What about us?”

James hadn’t even realised he’d said anything aloud. It had been a throwaway thought, one that he didn’t care to express at this point. Such a question was bound to segue into discussion about a relationship, which, in his eyes, was not completely out of the question. And as such, was utterly off-limits. “I… oh, you know, she says I don’t care about anyone and that I’ll break your heart, so I kind of guessed you’d want to know if either of those things were true.”

She blinked again. “I wasn’t going to ask that.”

“Oh. Well, for future reference, I do care about people, and I don’t think I’d ever break your heart.”

“That’s good,” she said airily. “Not that I was worried about that or anything.”

“Glad you weren’t,” he said. “Just thought I’d combat the popular assumption that, I dunno, I’m an emotionally damaged Byronic bloke.”

“Embryonic?”

Byronic. Literary archetype involving–just pass the green beans, would you?”

Waverly could be an excellent Grace Poole, he thought. An enabler, upon whom he could foist his craziest schemes and only expect bouts of supreme indifference leading to dangerous situations.

Which, all things considered, was not the worst thing he could have in a girl friend.





Disclaimer A bit easier on the references this chapter, yes? The story title obviously still comes from Conrad's Heart of Darkness, but this chapter we also had some throwaway lines about the Byronic hero (which becomes rather relevant later on) and, also importantly, to Grace Poole, a character in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre (often drunk, always creepy). None of which, clearly, belong to me.

Author's Note This was actually one of my favorite chapters of the fic! The dynamics established here echo for a long time afterwards. Thank you again for the lovely response to the last chapter(s), and I hope you enjoyed this one as well.

Chapter 4: MARY
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THE HORROR!
MARY



Later that night, James told Cillian all about Ruth’s tirade and the conversation that followed. Cillian didn’t seem all that moved by it, and dismissed it as more proof that James’ interest in Waverly had less to do with her role in the triumvirate and more to do with her hair and eyes and face and body and “that stupid thing she does where she gets you to go off topic and then pretends to be confused about what you’ve just said.”

“I can’t help it if she’s only a pseudo-intellectual.”

“You can’t help that you’re attracted to her.”

“I thought that was you.”

Cillian gave him a rather serious look. “That was a rumour. But you, you and her, that’s fact. That’s just a matter of simple observation.”

“So is the fact that you’re dying to get in Isla’s–”

This made him shut up for the rest of the night.

Of course, James woke up very early on Friday morning, around four o’clock. He had awakened from a very strange dream involving a remote, rocky beach and a mermaid calling out to him from the water. He couldn’t see her, but as he rubbed his eyes and stared at the bottom of the bunk above him, he realised that the mermaid most likely resembled someone he knew. Waverly or Ruth were the best guesses he could muster, considering how much he’d been thinking about them lately.

He figured there was no point in going back to sleep. Nor was there point to actually get ready for the day–another one where people would be hounding him about the venture to get into the girls’ dormitory. Maybe, he mulled as he got out of his room and lumbered downstairs, someone would have the guts to come up to him and confront him about yesterday’s dinner outburst, and what the very clear hand-holding that followed it was about.

But even in his wildest dreams (and he had, in fact, just had a pretty wild dream) did he think it would be Ruth herself waiting for him. Or rather, not waiting for him, precisely, but staring into the smoking grate looking for all the world like a child who’s just lost her parents.

Avoiding her wouldn’t fit his persona. It would be like validating everything she’d ever said about him to her friends and behind his back. Which he hadn’t really cared about before this past Sunday afternoon, and which he hadn’t actively tried to counter in months before yesterday. But he figured it would be nothing but fair if he continued on this trajectory–fair to him, fair to Ruth, and… well, he couldn’t argue it was fair to Waverly, as she seemed to not care one way or other about the claims about him, but the thought of her dispelled the sleep from his eyes as he sat gently down beside her.

Ruth stiffened as she felt him settle into place, but she didn’t move away. He considered that a good thing.

“How long’ve you been here?”

“Half an hour or so,” she answered listlessly. “Couldn’t sleep.”

“Just woke up myself.” He yawned without meaning to. It was the first not-deliberate thing he’d done in front of her in months, but if he hoped the candidness would melt the ice between them, it was a lost cause. She had for too long regarded everything he did and said with suspicion. “Listen, Ruth, about yesterday.”

“I meant every word.”

He knew that. “I never wanted to hurt–”

“I didn’t say you did.” She heaved a weighty sigh and leaned back onto the back of the sofa. Her glasses were on, and James was noted that she looked different with them. She didn’t look nearly as shrill or hysterical as she had yesterday. In fact, she looked like someone who could have been his girlfriend. They could have made a nice couple, he remembered. But a relationship couldn’t be built on how compatible people look together. That was one of many things he’d forgotten in those days. “Waverly shouldn’t have to go through what I did. She should know better. But...”

There was only a brief pause, but James found himself jumping to fill it in. “But what?”

She glanced at him for the first time this morning. “But she doesn’t.”

He wanted very much to ask her why she thought that was the case. His mouth even opened of its own volition, but he shut it after a moment. Ruth didn’t seem to have seen it, as her gaze was fixed on the dying embers once more. Maybe she was equating them with their failed relationship. Perhaps she looked at them as if they represented something that could once again spark into something tangible if it was treated the right way.

The question, of course, was whether that relationship was the one James had with Ruth or the one he could have with Waverly.

In his head, there wasn’t much competition.

“I shouldn’t have bothered,” Ruth went on, rather bitterly. She reached behind herself to grab a cushion, and hugged it to her chest like a long lost teddy bear. “You don’t like her, do you? I mean–” here her eyes flicked back to his “–if you did, not that you ever could, but if you did–”

“She’s not interested in me, and I’m not interested in her.”

“That’s the problem, don’t you see? Even if she doesn’t like you now, she will. And when you realise that, you’ll decide that it can’t hurt to go for it. That’s what you do, isn’t it, Potter?”

“That’s what I did. Once. I’m not proud of it.” He lowered his voice. “Do you still hate me?”

“Mm hmm.”

“For what I did or for what you think I could do?”

“Both.”

“If Waverly and I–”

“She’d regret it.”

“I’m not a monster, Ruth.”

“You’re a bloody hero, then, are you?”

She’d read Lermontov for him. In their last civil conversation, she’d playfully compared him to the perpetually bored, eternally cynical Pechorin. He’d denied it at the time, but the comparison didn’t sit well with him, and he’d never really forgotten it.

“If I told you I did kind of like her, would that change anything, do you think?”

“I’d tell you…” She paused again, and James felt the breath in his throat hitch. He would have wondered what that meant, but she spat the complete thought out within a heartbeat. “I’d tell you that she sided with you when you left me.”

This was it? This was the grand thing she had in her pocket? James almost felt deflated, disappointed with how mundane a revelation it was.

“So you can see,” she snarled without all the venom she’d once had for him, “why I hate that you’ve recruited Waverly to help you pull off your stupid schemes. She has a weakness for you. And then she’ll let herself be exploited by you, if she hasn’t already, and then that downward spiral will begin, and you’ll be well on your way to breaking another stupid girl’s heart without knowing what you were doing.”

Another moment, another revelation, could have rendered James speechless. This was, after all, a lot to take in before dawn. But this was not that moment, even if the revelation was the right one. Ruth had never been one to steal his speech. There was a delicate, festering kind of ache in the pit of his stomach, but not something big enough to make him want to hide the truth. She deserved that, if nothing else.

“I knew what I was doing.”

To his surprise and concern, Ruth was silent.

“I’ll just be going, then,” he said briskly. She watched him get up and stretch, throwing the pillow where he had just risen from. “Nice talking to you.”

James crossed the common room aware that Ruth was not watching him anymore. He’d definitely just given the opposition to him personally and to his endeavour more fuel for their efforts. Maybe his status as a Byron, as a Pechorin, was set in stone now. Would that mean that Ruth was Princess Mary, an object he’d once pursued but never cared for? He supposed it did. He resisted the urge to cast Waverly as Vera or Bela–he didn’t want to emulate such destructive, fatal relationships. Waverly was better than that.

As he set foot on the stairs to his dormitory–the one set of stairs he actually could climb–he assured himself that none of that mattered. Ruth’s accusations (accurate though they were) would never touch him. She could never deflate him.

He decided that the next time he climbed these very stairs, he would take Waverly Ward in his arms and…

By the time he’d reached his room, he hadn’t yet filled in the blank.

At the very least, it would be interesting.





Disclaimer You'll have noticed by now that we're pretty much down to one great reference~ a chapter now. In addition to the standard Heart of Darkness one, from which I've derived the title, there's a whole thing about A Hero of Our Time. The main character, Pechorin, is one of the purest Byronic heroes you'll find (written by a man, Mikhail Lermontov, who fancied himself to be Russia's Lord Byron), wracked by boredom and more than slightly self-destructive because of it. Princess Mary is one of Pechorin's romantic pawns, the poor, foolish thing.

Author's Note And so the plot only slightly hinted at before this point is born! Or maybe it isn't obvious to anyone who isn't me, I don't know. But trust me, it's there, and it's coming to a head! As always, thanks to all of you for such lovely reviews, and I hope you'll continue to enjoy.

Chapter 5: ELIZABETH
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THE HORROR!
ELIZABETH



A few hours later, just as the sun was streaming into the boys’ dormitory, James kicked Cillian awake. (The Irishman had a habit of sleeping until just past the latest he could possibly sleep, especially when he’d gone through such an ordeal as the hounding about his nonexistent relationship with Waverly).

“Wha’ the–” Cillian peered through half-lidded eyes at his friend hovering over him like a nervous grandmother. “Jim, it’s–” he checked the clock “–half seven.”

“Get up,” James said with a last friendly shove. “Today’s a big day.”

“Yeah?” Cillian roused himself, now rubbing his eyes. “Why’s that?”

“Get ready and then I’ll tell you.”

Cillian didn’t have the heart or the presence of mind to argue about this obviously crap deal, but he shuffled off to the loo at James’ command. And it wasn’t until he was standing in front of the mirror, halfheartedly brushing his teeth, that it occurred to him that James Potter never had a big day.

“The hell’re you planning to do, Potter?”

James raised his head to look his friend, toothbrush in hand and minty foam in mouth, in the eye. “Dunno yet.”

About an hour later, once everyone else had gone to breakfast, Cillian and James were left alone in the dormitory. James didn’t look any different, but when did he ever? Cillian was almost disappointed at how normal he looked, as if his unchanging appearance belied the alleged importance of the day.

“You know she’s probably at breakfast,” he said, leaning against a bed frame and watching James tie his shoes. “So if you’re okay doing whatever it is you want to do in front of everyone–”

“Who’s she?”

Cillian rolled his eyes.

“No, she’ll be in the common room,” he said.

“Oh yeah? And you know this for a fact?”

“While you were in the bathroom I had my sister tell Waverly to meet us downstairs.”

Cillian had to admit that he was impressed. Whenever James decided that he wanted to go for a romantic gesture, he usually executed it pretty well. But not since Ruth had he undertaken such a challenge; Cillian couldn’t help but think it had to do with how every girl in Gryffindor woke up hating him after their break-up. And now, here was one girl in Gryffindor who didn’t feel that way.

How fortuitous.

“Meet us?” Cillian continued. He wasn’t by any means determined to poke holes in whatever James’ plan was, and he was sure that on a logistical level there were none, but he didn’t want things to be shot to hell, either. “You intend to, what, declare your undying love for her with me there?”

“You know, I never really liked that phrase, undying love.” James shuddered good-naturedly, standing back up and smoothing his trouser leg. “Reminds me of an Inferius or something.”

“Eternal love, then.”

“Wizards don’t love for eternity. They die.”

The Irishman, exasperated by now, held up his hands in surrender. “Fine, fine,” he muttered mutinously, “you go say whatever you want to say and do whatever you want to do. Just tell me if you need me to stay up here while you do it or if I’m allowed to ruin your moment.”

James was already out the door.

So Cillian, with a sigh and a growling stomach, followed. There was no way he was sticking around to watch his best friend… he had no predicate for this sentence yet, but he wasn’t going to watch. That would be weird, and Cillian was anything but weird.

When he reached the bottom of the stairs, James was still ambling over to where Waverly was sitting on a plush chair. There were two chocolate croissants in his hands, which Cillian was sure had not been there before he got off the steps. The inside man called to the guinea pig, but he inclined his head, said some nonsense like you two go ahead without me, and raced out the portrait door before he could hear her response.

“But there’re croissants!”

James sat down and handed one of the pastries to Waverly. “He didn’t do the Astronomy homework. Think he’s going to go beg at Isla’s feet to see her charts.”

Waverly chuckled and conjured a napkin, which fell on her lap. She put the croissant down on it and said, “There’s definitely a dirty joke in there about planet sightings, but it’s too early to go there, don’t you think?”

“Way too early,” he agreed.

“I was quite impressed at the mode of invitation, by the way.”

“If I can’t get up there myself yet, I thought I might as well send my kid sister.” James smiled at the memory. He had been planning to ask any girl who wasn’t Ruth to nip back upstairs and deliver a message for him. It was a stroke of luck that had led him to Lily, who had been waiting for her boyfriend. “She said she knows you pretty well.”

“I think I helped her edit a Defense essay last year,” she said, taking a bite of croissant. “Not sure how that constitutes pretty well, but yeah, she’s a nice kid. So James,” she added. She wiped her fingers on her napkin and looked at him in a completely unassuming, friendly way. “What’s your big idea? And please don’t say I’ve got to publicly invite you to come to my personal inner sanctum, I don’t think I could–”

“Don’t worry, it isn’t that.” James set aside his croissant on the armrest of his chair and leaned forward. Waverly also scooted forward to balance on the edge of her seat, and the casual curiosity in her eyes and her posture made him smile again, this time not because of a memory but because of the present. “Frankly, my idea was sparked by our talk yesterday.”

“Oh?” She seemed less excited now, but he half-expected that. Ruth had said she had a weakness for him, not that she fancied him outright.

“I say sparked because it set in motion something I’d been thinking about for awhile.”

She too set aside her croissant. There was still a bit of chocolate smudged on the corner of her mouth, but she didn’t move to wipe it away.

“Waverly,” he said, as earnest as he could be, “I told you that I do care about people and that I don’t think I’ll break your heart. Both of which are true statements. But they aren’t the whole truth, and it wouldn’t be fair to you if I kept that from you. You see, I don’t care just about people: I care about you. I don’t want to break your heart. I don’t want to be presumptuous, you know, and ask for it, but I’d like to maybe be a part of it. I like you, Waverly, and–” he noticed now the flush on her cheeks and felt a bit of pride and joy in his chest “–I don’t know what you want to do about that, if you want to do anything about that, but I wanted you to know.”

He reached out his hand and without a moment’s hesitation took hers in his. She didn’t resist, but stared at where their bodies met so casually but so gently above the table with its sticky circles and the scraps of parchment and her chocolate croissant.

He stared, too, but not at their hands.

Waverly’s reddened face. Her lovely giraffe eyes, with the thick, long eyelashes. Her dark blonde hair and how it seemed fuller than usual this morning, which only served to bring attention back to the pretty face that James had only hours before decided was the most appealing in all of the castle.

He was holding her hand, and for a brief wild moment, he couldn’t believe he’d ever thought otherwise.

“Please tell me you aren’t joking,” she whispered.

He gripped her hand tighter and replied, “I’m not.”

She took a second to process that answer, and her mouth opened, forming a gentle ‘O’. But James didn’t move in to kiss her. Not yet.

“It’s really funny that you say… all that… now.” Her eyes flicked to his now, and he felt her squirm in his grasp. “Because Ruth told me literally fifteen minutes ago that I shouldn’t let myself believe anything you say, and that even though you have a way with words and you can be unbelievably charming, I shouldn’t let myself fall for you.”

James closed his eyes. He should have known. Ruth might have been defeated earlier, but she had never surrendered. It was almost as if she never would.

“Did you really start going out with her knowing full well you were going to hurt her?” Waverly asked. Her eyes weren’t shining with tears, as they might have been if this were any other girl.

Of course, that was what he liked about her. “I told you maybe ten hours ago that I never wanted to hurt her. I told Ruth that this morning.”

“I know what you said, James. And I don’t think I’d ever be as melodramatic as she is about you, but at the same time… I don’t know.” She took her free left hand and pried his off of her right one. It didn’t escape him that she held his hand for more than a fraction longer than she should have. “I like you and everything, I do, but I don’t think I can trust you. Entirely. Not yet.”

Only now did she tear a scrap off her napkin and wipe her mouth. He watched her do so, mesmerised, though he knew shouldn’t be, by the contour of her lips and the glitter of her fingertips.

He understood, though. He bowed his head to her and took his own croissant in his hands. He needed to occupy them somehow. “I can’t blame you,” he said, a bit louder than before. “I wish I could, but I can’t.”

She didn’t seem melodramatic at all, but the way she tossed the scrap of chocolate-stained napkin on the floor indicated that she at least felt mournful. “You get that I’m not entirely discounting the possibility of us having a relationship, right?”

“Yeah, definitely. I…” He hadn’t imagined saying the words that popped into his head at that moment, but they fell off his tongue before he could question himself. “I’d be willing to wait for you.”

She smiled then, a lovely one, sans chocolate or grief or emotional trauma. “But if you don’t want me to be the inside man, that’s fine. I’d love to be friends with you, though, even if it isn’t in that context.”

He exhaled a short, staccato breath and recognised that at least he didn’t have an Elizabeth Bennett on his hands. She hadn’t completely dismissed him and wasn’t going to kick him out of her life. “If you think you can survive the awkwardness, I don’t see why we can’t keep working together.”

“Me? What about you?” She giggled, but he knew it was an unnatural sound from her.

And with a completely natural, characteristic smirk, he said, “I’ll live.”




Disclaimer La la la, you guys know the drill by now (I should hope). We've got the standard Heart of Darkness stuff, where the title of this little fic comes from, and today, we get to add that perennial favorite, Pride and Prejudice to our list of ~great references~. In case your memory of that particular Jane Austen classic is a bit hazy, James is here referring to the moment when Darcy first confronts Elizabeth about how he feels, and she rejects him immediately. He isn't referring to how Darcy and Elizabeth are basically the most romantic and among the most beloved fictional couples ever.

Yet.

Author's Note Look! Plot! A wrench thrown in the gears of the budding (perhaps no longer budding) relationship between James and Waverly! If I sound more gleeful/excited than usual, it's because I love this chapter. Perhaps it's the sadism in any author that rears its head now, because what author doesn't like ruining anything for their characters? In any case, I'd like to thank you all for the wonderful reviews and the support, and I only hope that you continue to enjoy.

Chapter 6: SCHEHERAZADE
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THE HORROR!
SCHEHERAZADE




He told Cillian that afternoon, during a free period they shared, of what had transpired over chocolate croissants.

“I…” For once, Cillian was genuinely speechless. “I had no idea. I thought she didn’t care about that sort of thing.”

James, unwilling to admit that he’d thought the same, went back to his History of Magic essay with renewed vigor. He wasn’t angry at Waverly, because he had no right to be. She had seen what he’d done and had heard several not untrue accounts of what had happened. He was sure that she still held a soft spot for him, and didn’t think it was too conceited to assume that she would always have a soft spot for him. It just so happened that sometimes weaknesses didn’t develop into relationships. He could live with that. He had realistically expected her to react that way.

In truth, James had never been a big fan of realism.

He knew, of course, that Waverly wasn’t going to go away, nor did he want her to. He liked hearing her talk and liked when she came to join him and Cillian for any reason. It was like she was that Persian princess whose name he couldn’t spell, the one from the Arabian Nights, who enthralled her husband with stories so that he couldn’t bear to kill her in the morning. Not that James would ever dream of cutting her off (or cutting her head off). Having her around felt normal to him.

In fact the only one who seemed to feel any awkwardness was Cillian, who, after two whole days of this behaviour, muttered to James, “Give up already.”

James, who was still working on that History essay, was shocked. “Give up what?”

“The dorm thing.”

They hadn’t tried anything new since Waverly tried to invite Cillian upstairs, but they’d been brainstorming.

“Why?” James asked, bewildered. “We started this thing, we should finish it.”

“It’s just… it’s weird, mate. You know it’s weird.”

“It should be weird, but it isn’t.”

“You are truly delusional.”

“What about Isla’s drawers? Given up on them? I said I liked Waverly, that means you’re going to have to do it.”

This brought Cillian up short. He was saved from having to reply by the arrival in the library of James’ little sister, Lily. Her fellow third-year boyfriend, Sam, was levitating a large stack of books, and seemed distinctly relieved as he set them down on James’ table for a bit.

“Hi, Jim,” the young Potter said to her brother, adding a wave as a second thought for her brother’s friend. “What’re you guys doing?”

James gestured to the very long roll of parchment in front of him.

“Oh, that looks like fun. Where’s Waverly?”

“Waverly?” he repeated. “Dunno, why?”

The young girl shrugged and glanced at Sam, who never spoke to his girlfriend’s brothers if he could help it. “We heard you asked her out the other morning and she turned you down.”

He was impressed with how largely truthful the rumour was. “So?”

Lily frowned a little bit. It was a look she’d used to great effect whenever someone was teasing her (which was often), but puberty meant that she didn’t look cute anymore when she made that face. “Just… I kind of hoped it wasn’t true. The turning-you-down bit. I thought she liked you.”

“It’s complicated, kid,” Cillian butted in, clapping his hand to her shoulder like the elder brother James pretended to be sometimes. “How’re you holding up, Sammy boy?” he added to the boyfriend. He stammered something about revision and Cillian let out a very Irish-sounding chortle. “Yeah, well, you’d better be off, we’ve got a lot of work to get done.”

“Yeah. Good luck, Lily.” James gave the boyfriend a nod, which he returned jerkily before following the girl to a different table.

Once they were gone, Cillian fixed the remaining Potter with a very pointed glare.

“What?”

“I told you it’s weird. Now you’ve got your sister pulling for you. And I’ll bet in the next hour, Al’s going to waltz in here and tell you how fit she is and–”

“Do you really think I’d care about what Albus says?”

“No, but it’s proof. Everyone, literally everyone, has an opinion about you two and you and Ruth and the dorm thing. It’s better for everyone if you don’t give them something to talk about.”

“It’d be even weirder if we canceled the dorm thing,” James argued. “It’d be like validating everything people are saying. We’re not bitter, are we, Cillian? We’re not sentimental, are we? There’s no reason not to carry on with the brainstorming and the putting into motion of our ideas. And how else are you going to–”

The Irishman spontaneously sank into his chair, making a slashing motion against his throat. So when James turned around, he wasn’t at all surprised to see one Isla Quigley chatting animatedly with Mackenzie Ellis.

“You are pathetic on many, many levels.”



But as it happened, Cillian was not wrong. Literally everyone did have an opinion about something to do with James, whether it was his long-ago treatment of Ruth, Waverly’s not-entirely-point-blank rejection of him, or his and his friends’ decision to try to storm the girls’ dormitories, and he was inundated with each and every opinion.

It wasn’t just directed at James, either. The ambiguous nature of Waverly’s rejection made her subject to heated exhortations from a lot of the older girls about what to do and what she should have done. Cillian, who had only just been discovered to be the real mastermind behind the attempts at dormitory-storming, was made out to be either a hero or lecher, depending on who was doing the talking.

It was not a pleasant week.

A week after the croissant morning, the shaking triumvirate regrouped for in an empty classroom on the second floor, and they did everything they could to fill the space. With the sound of their speech and the sound of their almost interminable awkward silences.

“This can’t keep happening,” Cillian muttered.

Waverly picked up on the utterance and agreed. “We have to do something. Shake up Hogwarts society, or distract them from talking about… other things.”

“Yes, but what?” Cillian said irritably. “We haven’t got a new idea, James isn’t going to apologise to Zimmerman, you’re not going to go out with him, and I’m not going to live this down. So. Thoughts, mates?”

“There’s only one of those things we can tackle right now,” James pointed out peaceably, “and that’s the matter of an idea.”

“You have one?”

“Surprisingly, yeah.”



“I found these boys rummaging around in Professor Plank’s potions supply cabinet, Headmistress, after Filch reported suspicious sounds coming from the dungeons.”

“Is that so, Neville?

Headmistress Sinistra exchanged a glance with Professor Longbottom and then peered down her long, pointy nose at James and Cillian. James had heard his father talking about the magical apparatuses in Professor Dumbledore’s office, but in Sinistra’s office, astronomical apparatuses–telescopes, lenses, star charts, even a small bottle of what appeared to be actual starlight–reigned. It didn’t make the Gryffindor boys feel any better about themselves. They were cowed by the reminders of their own insignificance. Which, James realised, was probably the point.

“Mr. Donnelly,” the Headmistress said, adjusting her powder blue sleeping cap, “what on earth were you doing?”

Cillian was mostly unfazed. “We were getting potions supplies.”

“Tell me, Mr. Potter, what you intended to do with these potion supplies.”

“Headmistress, we wanted to brew Polyjuice Potion,” James answered, similarly unfazed. In his head, he was thanking his lucky stars that he hadn’t invited Waverly to nip down to the dungeons in the middle of the night. For some reason, the thought of her getting in trouble filled him with an odd sort of dread. He knew he shouldn’t have felt it, because of course Waverly could withstand a detention or two without making a huge fuss about it, but still.

“Polyjuice?” Sinistra repeated. “Polyjuice Potion? Whom did you intend to imitate, boys?”

They didn’t glance at each other: they’d had their story prepared before hiding beneath James’ Invisibility Cloak. “A girl, ma’am,” said Cillian. “Waverly Ward, to be exact.”

That is to say, they didn’t have a story. All they had was the truth.

“We wanted,” James took over the thread of the narrative, “to sneak into the girls’ dormitories, and we figured it can’t be done unless you are a girl.”

Longbottom hung his head. The Headmistress blinked slowly.

It was a good thing James had not expected any degree of sympathy.

There were two types of people he couldn’t charm: emotional girls and female authority figures.



Waverly next saw the other two members of the triumvirate on Sunday morning. It was lunch, and they were heading to the Great Hall just as she was. They called to her, much to her surprise, and they walked together.

Cillian didn’t look at her when he said, “Last night we tried to steal ingredients for Polyjuice Potion.”

“We got caught.” James wanted to see her face when she learned of it, but he could only see her in profile. The half he saw didn’t seem particularly upset.

“We’ve got two detentions each, starting tonight,” Cillian continued. “And we’ve kind of had to promise Longbottom and Sinistra that we wouldn’t try anything.”

She bit her lip in what might have been regret. “So… so it’s over, then?”

This was something James and Cillian had debated heatedly over the past few hours. In the end, James’ cool, clear logic won, as no one had doubted it would. “It’s postponed, is all,” he insisted. “We’ll lay low for awhile, but as soon as this drifts out of collective memory, we’ll try again. Next time we’ll be more careful with our late-night dungeon escapades, I guess.”

She sighed, a gentle sound that tickled James’ cheek, and then grinned at her former partners. “Whenever you think Hogwarts is ready for us, let me know, yeah?”

It was Cillian who assured her they would. James had foisted this responsibility on him, because in truth, he knew it wouldn’t happen.




Disclaimer This is the part where I remind you guys that I don't own that plague of lit students everywhere, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, from which this eensy weensy fanfic derives its title and summary. And now I tell you that I don't own the other ~big reference~ of this particular chapter, which comes from One Thousand and One Nights, that legendary compilation of all sorts of Middle Eastern and South Asian stories from way back when; specifically, I'm referring to the frame story, the one with the king who kills his wives at breakfast time and the stories from that one wife (you know her name) that are just so intriguing that he can't kill her without knowing what happens next.

Author's Note So this was a bit of a different chapter stylistically, with the jumping around and the different sections and whatnot, but I hope it wasn't too jarring a change. The next chapters are not nearly as jumpy/actiony. In fact, there are only two chapters left! Plus an epilogue of sorts, so that makes... three, technically. In any case, thank you as always for the spectacular reviews, and I hope that you guys continue to enjoy as we move on to the last third of the story.

Chapter 7: ROSALINE
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THE HORROR!
ROSALINE




There was no ostensible reason for it to happen. He liked her. She liked him. And they’d been friends before the plot to invade the well-guarded girls’ dormitory was hatched. They were certainly friends after the plot was disbanded, but James felt that there was a change in his and Waverly’s dynamic. A nearly imperceptible change, to be sure, which started with less references both aloud and private and evolved to exchanged glances instead of hellos and eventually reached a point where James considered it a stroke of luck whenever he got the chance to talk to her at all.

He wasn’t sure whether or not Waverly trusted him now any more than she had in the middle of March. She wasn’t growing colder to him, at any rate, nor he to her: when they did talk, those rare bright moments in a stretch of rain and revision, they were affectionate, friendly, even. He managed to sneak in a few references here and there–Victor Frankenstein (the doctor, not the monster), Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mrs. Danvers. Her lovely eyes would widen in confusion, and even after he’d try to explain it she’d not care.

He could say he was stuck in the “friend zone,” but that was too pedestrian and inaccurate a term for what was happening to them. In reality he didn’t occupy any one zone. He knew she still thought about him. He hoped she missed him. She seemed content in the status quo, although they both knew–she had to know–it was changing. It was worsening.

James didn’t dwell on all this, though. He didn’t see the point in it, because it wasn’t in him to push for something he only thought he wanted. It didn’t make sense to him to force Waverly to come to a decision–she wouldn’t like that, and he didn’t want to be the one to force her hand. (Or, in more melodramatic terms, her heart.)

But then, the rain and the revision culminated in a conversation.

Waverly started it, sitting without invitation on a hallway window seat James had usurped for revising purposes. “Are you busy?”

He was almost unnerved by her appearance, but as usual brushed it off. “I can spare a little time. What’s going on?”

“Just–I’ve been thinking.” She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear; her nails were no longer pink and glittery, and were scrubbed very clean. As if she couldn’t afford the distraction of colour when there were N.E.W.T.s to prepare for. “It’s been so long since we had a real conversation.”

Several weeks. He hadn’t been counting, but it felt like that. “What constitutes a real conversation, do you think?”

“Hopefully this,” she said. In the cloud-light (he’d always liked it, as it was grey and misty and mysterious–not so predatory as night and not so blinding as day) her skin looked starker than usual, and her eyes clearer. “You said that you’d be willing to wait for me to come around to… the idea of us being together.”

He blinked, and in the moment when he couldn’t see her, he steeled himself.

“I don’t think you should wait, if you are.” James saw that her hand twitched in her lap, as if she was restraining it from reaching out to him for what could well be the last time. “It’s not that I could never like you, James, because I think I do, but I don’t think I want to be with you right now. And I don’t know what sort of timeline you were imagining, but the fact is we’ll be graduating soon and then it’s the Wizengamot internship for you and publishing for me, and then what?”

He’d always found it amusing that she wanted to get into book publishing. She was a good reader, he knew, but she’d never read for him. Maybe if he’d asked her, she would have.

“I’m sorry, James.”

He believed her. “You don’t have to be.”

The corner of her mouth turned upward for a moment, a quirk of a smile he always saw on her before. Perhaps before he’d thought he sparked them the way she sparked esoteric, elitist remarks in him. But she leaned over and hugged him, and having her in his arms for the first time he could remember reminded him that a spark did not always light kindling on fire.

“I know we’ll both be busy for awhile,” Waverly said as they broke apart. “That’s why I wanted to tell you this now. I don’t want to wait for when it’s too late.”

“I’m not complaining about it,” he said. “And just so you know, that was probably the realest conversation I’ve had in a long time.”

She didn’t believe him, but patted his knee as she stood up.

When she was gone, he went back to work.

It was as if nothing had changed.


“So now you’re going to give up.”

Cillian was not impressed with James’ mode of dealing with anything. But only now was he making a stand to persuade him to change that mode.

“You told me to quit the dorm thing,” James reminded him without any remorse, any mournful feeling. How could he mourn that which wasn’t alive?

“That was different. I wanted you to give up on that particular endeavour so you could pursue this one. Her.”

“I did pursue her,” he said. “I told her how I feel. She said she didn’t trust me, and I didn’t argue with her. I let her choose what she wanted to do. And now she’s made her choice.”

Of course, Cillian knew where he was going with this. James had always prided himself on figuring things out quickly, but the Irishman was no lesser a thinker. In many ways, really, he was better at this sort of thing than James. Cillian had no set of behaviours on which he forced himself to base further action. He could get to the core of any matter in less biased a fashion than others, and if ever James needed an unbiased voice of consciousness, it was now.

“Do you think you’re chivalrous, Potter? Gentlemanly? Letting her make the choice?” He shook his shaggy head and pushed the fringe back from his eyes. “You said yourself that very first day that the transfiguration of the steps was a remnant of outmoded chivalry. You thought getting up those steps would serve as a wake-up call about gender roles in Hogwarts.”

James, blinded by self-delusion, didn’t get it.

“You’re so determined to change things that you refuse to be active. You pursue girls only so long as they need pursuing. Once they’re in reach, you’re fine, all is well, everything’s grand. Don’t think you did Waverly a favour by letting her make a choice about you. What did you give her to go off, anyway? You call her Rosaline and you think you’re charming her? You think there’s no point persuading her that you’re not a heartless bastard when doing that could mean that you’d get with your dream girl? You’re an idiot, James. I’m not afraid to admit that. I know you aren’t, either, but… what you did, it isn’t right.”

James sighed heavily. He’d heard speeches like this before, from his father, from Teddy, from his Uncle Charlie, from Ruth. They’d all said more or less the same thing–the longer you pretend cheerful indifference, the more convinced everyone will be of it. The likelier it is that you’ll lose something.

He thought it was Charlie who had said that he could lose someone.

He’d thought himself that he could lose Waverly if he didn’t do it right, but it never occurred to him that his approach had been wrong from the start. And yet, as Cillian’s almost angry remonstrance sank in, he remembered something he’d seen after Waverly had left him at the window.

“Considering she’s with Eric Gallagher, I’d reckon my chances are pretty low.”


The funny thing about young like was that it didn’t provide a logical reaction to a missed opportunity. It was a good thing, then, that fate and circumstance and precedence gave James just the thing to counter the fact that Waverly was moving on.

How could that faze him, really, when he hadn’t truly been fazed in years? How could one girl holding hands with one boy break through a persona that he’d unintentionally cultivated for years?

If Waverly was his dream girl, why didn’t he see her face etched on his eyelids at night?

Why hadn’t she broken his heart?

He had his answer.

Perhaps he never had a heart after all.





Disclaimer So, there's a lot in this chapter that I have to tell you that I do not own. Therefore, a list is in order!

1. Do not even sort of want to own Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad. 2. Only kind of would like to be Ralph Waldo Emerson, the real person and American poet. 3. Am way too freaked out to want to have any rights to the nightmarish figure of Mrs. Danvers in Daphne DeMaurier's Rebecca. 4. If I owned Victor Frankenstein from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, I would make sure every person ever stopped referring to the monster by that name. 5. And let's not kid ourselves: I have nothing to do with anything Shakespeare ever dreamt of, especially the jilted Rosaline from Romeo and Juliet.

Author's Note I kind of sort of really like this chapter. Heartless James rears his head again, Awesome Cillian shows himself. But hey, that's just me. Another thing: I honestly do not know why I picked the references I did for this chapter (except for Rosaline) but if you guys have any ideas or parallels you can think of, I'd love to hear them.

One chapter and an epilogue left, everyone. I hope you enjoy it.

Chapter 8: RAPUNZEL
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THE HORROR!
Rapunzel



There were some things boys were meant to ponder on sunny June afternoons. What would happen to them when they left school. Which of their classmates they’d still be in contact with in three months. Why it was so bloody hot all of a sudden. How big that squid in the lake really was.

Why the wizard didn’t get the witch.

Revision had come and gone, and Cillian Donnelly and James Potter had just finished their very last Hogwarts exam ever, the Defense Against the Dark Arts N.E.W.T. Like all other seventh-years, they lounged at the shore of the Black Lake, taking in the sunshine and the smell of freedom for the first and perhaps the last time.

“It’s crazy,” Cillian mused, tossing a small pebble in the air. “You remember we were right here at the end of the first-year exams?”

James did remember. He and the other boys in their House had started an impromptu diving competition and Eric Gallagher had somehow been catapulted extremely far into the depths of the lake. Teddy had had to rescue the small boy.

Of course, Eric wasn’t the spindly first-year anymore. He was Waverly’s… something. James didn’t resent him for it, since he’d never had any concrete claim to her attention, and he didn’t treat Eric any differently because of the girl he sometimes took out and hung around.

“When d’you start your Wizengamot thing again?”

“Right after graduation, Cillian, I told you,” James said. He was about to give the exact date when all of a sudden his brother Albus ran up to him, his well-groomed hair blowing in the lake breeze. He seemed a bit out of breath. “Hey, there,” James grinned, “take it easy.”

Albus wouldn’t take it easy. Mostly because he was one of the most self-absorbed kids James had ever known, although no one else seemed to recognise that. But also because, it seemed, he had big news. “Party–Tower–going on now–spread the word–going to be bloody epic–” Then the fifth-year ran off, calling to more of his upper-year mates.

Cillian glanced at his friend, who was still watching his brother. “You don’t want to check it out, do you?” he said. “It’ll be those fifth-year ragers pretending they’re doing it for everyone, I guarantee you.”

“It could be fun,” James said fairly, knocking the pebble Cillian was playing with out of the air. “If we ignore them.”

“That’s difficult. You know how those kids are.”

“You’re such an old codger.” James grinned and leaped up from the shore. “Tell you what, I’ll think up something actually fun. I’ll meet you in the common room.”

Cillian, who had been passing his hand through the grass in search of the pebble, peered dubiously at him, but before he could protest, James had gone off towards the castle. And since James’ idea of real fun was not orthodox, to say the least, Cillian went over to another group of seventh-years who had ignored the middle Potter to exhort them to grace the little fifth-years with their exalted, exam-less presences.


Cillian reached Gryffindor Tower with his other friends about twenty minutes after Albus had made his party rounds, so when he arrived, he was a bit thrown by how over-the-top the common room had suddenly become. Streamers that changed colour and design every five minutes. Balloons spontaneously coming into being from a smoking machine in the corner. There were already people passed out on the floor, including a third-year with large hives on his cheeks. At the portrait hole, a sugar-high girl shook all of the boys’ hands, introducing herself as CEO and Chief Officer of The Confectionary LTD. Bright yellow and pink business cards were scattered on the floor and on the table near the back of the common room that had food and drink.

“Fifth-years,” Cillian muttered to himself. So over the top and so… tacky. (He hesitated to use that word, but he was a bit of an old codger so he didn’t really care.) He finally spotted James next to the stairs to the boys’ dormitory. He was sipping from a clear glass holding an amber liquid, looking very smug and mysterious.

“So what’s this fun you’ve decided on?” Cillian asked, leaning on the wall next to him.

James downed the rest of his drink and tossed the glass into a very empty rubbish bin in the corner. Then he fought his way to the stairs and began climbing them, leaving Cillian to scramble after him for the second time today.

Once they reached the top and the relatively quiet sanctuary of their abandoned dorm, James pulled a very small, opaque vial from his trouser pocket. “Turns out that the minute exams end, security for certain underground classrooms disappears,” he said with a practically devilish smirk. “One sip of this and–”

“You’re not serious.”

“James Sirius. So yeah, I am. I don’t have enough for a full hour, just fifteen minutes or so. No one’ll be looking, I’ve got Roxy’s hair here–”

Cillian was going to ask how he had obtained Polyjuice Potion so quickly and how he had stolen a strand of his cousin’s hair and why he was so sure that he, Cillian, wanted to be in Isla Quigley’s room. But he realised within a few seconds that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and it’d be stupid to waste it.

Five minutes later, a lithe, dark-skinned girl wearing robes two sizes too big left James by himself again. He pulled out his wand after a moment and, pointing it at the empty vial, he said flatly, “Evanesco.” This task completed, he crossed his dorm to return to the party, but then the door swung open again. For a second he wondered that maybe his timing calculation had been off and the potion had already worn off. Then he realised that it was Waverly entering his room.

The tension wasn’t gone, though.

She waved to him, and he noticed that her now cottony-sky-blue nails seemed almost slickly shiny. He supposed she’d just painted them, perhaps in the privacy of the room Cillian would only now be reaching. “Was Roxanne just in here?” she asked. “I saw her coming down and I know she has my Astronomy tex–”

At least it worked for that long. “Nah. It was Cillian.”

Waverly’s eyes widened. “You’re trying again?”

James shrugged, and wished all of a sudden that he hadn’t Vanished the vial of potion. It would have been nice to share his triumph with the erstwhile inside man. “One last hurrah, you know? It was his idea in the beginning. Did you see him get up there?”

“I lost him… her?... anyway, once Cillian got down these stairs I lost him.” She seemed sad that she’d lost the opportunity to see what could well be history being made. “Does your cousin know what you’re doing with her hair?”

James shook his head. “I ran into her in the hall when I was coming back. She said she wanted to sneak into Hogsmeade now, wanted to borrow something off me. So while I gave her what she needed…” He broke off and filled the void with a grin.

“That does it, then. You’ve done it!” Waverly took a few celebratory steps forward, but stopped short of reaching James. “Probably, anyway. And without my help.” She sighed. “So much for an inside man.”

“Not like we very well could’ve had two of you running around the party,” James chortled.

“Yeah, one Waverly’s enough for all of us.”

There was silence. James hated silence. Desperate to salvage this moment and well aware that he might not get another conversation with her on her own, James threw words into the air. “How’re things with Eric?”

She didn’t seem to expect this question, but shrugged nonchalantly after a moment anyway. “I’m not the one to ask. I don’t think we were ever really together, you know? We weren’t exclusive or anything.”

James didn’t know that.

Waverly saw his shock and braved another step towards him. “Surprised? Him and Isla left the party together.”

“Really.” He also edged forward, making the distance between them nearly negligible. It could be covered with a hug. With… hmm. James didn’t think to imagine beyond that. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. It wasn’t serious, I just said so.”

There was an opportunity knocking here. He was sure of it. He was sure she was sure of it, because–now that he thought of it–Waverly wouldn’t come up here to see if his cousin had just left. That was stupid. Waverly wasn’t an intellectual, but she wasn’t stupid. If she came, it was because she had guessed what he was up to.

If she came to him, it was because she wanted to see him.

“You know,” he said, looking at her too shiny nails (at this proximity, he saw that they wouldn’t dry evenly), “the way you said that… I dunno, but I get the impression that you’re reaching out to me again.”

“Do you?” she asked. There was no guile in her voice, which didn’t really surprise him. “Is that the impression I’m giving you? And what does that spark in you–a reference to something I’ve never heard of? Tell me, James.” She smiled. “I’m curious.”

He thought for a moment before replying. “There’s this fairytale princess, Rapunzel. A witch has her trapped in a tower, but she has this hair that’s long enough to pull a prince up to her. She falls in love with him. But you aren’t Rapunzel, you’re Waverly. And I don’t want to think of you in any other terms, you know?” His voice, which never shook unless he wanted it to, became quieter, almost to the point of oddly passionate silence. “I don’t think it really occurred to me back then that I could lose you–”

“I never went anywhere.”

“What do you think going to Hogsmeade with him was?” he asked.

She rolled her eyes. “It was a detour. And you could have had a detour if you wanted, and it could have become something really great, and I wouldn’t begrudge you or–”

“If I wanted a detour, I would have taken one.”

His hand found hers. Her body found his.

There was a question on her lips. “What happened to that princess?”

He thought for a moment. For someone so well-versed in literature and culture, he didn’t process a lot of the endings. He had always been content with knowing they had endings at all. “Depends on who tells the story, I think. One version says the prince gets her pregnant. When the witch finds out, she cuts Rapunzel’s hair and casts her out on her own. Then the witch uses the hair to lure the prince up to the tower and she blinds him. So they’re both desolate and alone for awhile, but then they find each other, and Rapunzel’s tears heal his blindness and they get married and live ha–”

“I get it, James.”





Disclaimer Do not own: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad; or any iteration of the Rapunzel fairytale, although I did draw mostly from the Grimm version.

Author's Note Just an epilogue left, everyone. I hope you all liked this last 'official' chapter, and for the last time, I hope you enjoy what's next. Thank you all so much.

Chapter 9: WAVERLY AGAIN
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THE HORROR!
Waverly Again



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.

Professor Longbottom.

There was another figure behind him.

Mr. Filch.

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?”

“I swear.”

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.”

“Touché, Waverly.”

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–”

“Read what?”

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.

“FOR GRYFFINDOR!”

“But why would it be for Gryffindor if he cast the spell in the first–”

“I… I…”

For once, James didn’t have an answer.

He liked the feeling.


the end.





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.

Thank you again.

http://www.harrypotterfanfiction.com