It was a dark and stormy night.
All right, it was less "stormy" than "raining drearily," but Catherine wasn't going to let that stop her. She stole soundlessly down the corridor, her black robes blending into the darkness of the hall, as if she were just another one of the shadows pooling between the flickering torches. The faces in the portraits were all sleeping, quiet snores emitting from a few frames, and her journey was undisturbed. Her wand was in her hand but it remained unlit; she had been practising walking around in the dark and thought her night vision was getting quite good, even if she'd been forced to tell her fellow fourth years a lie about occasional bouts of sleepwalking.
As she stealthily slipped down the hallway that led to the Astronomy Tower, Catherine went over the directions in her mind again. There was a secret stair that twisted within the tower, the older girls had said. And it would lead beneath the tower to a secret chamber, and within that chamber lay the secret of the Grey Lady - the most tragically beautiful ghost in Hogwarts. Catherine wished once again that she had been Sorted as a Ravenclaw so that she could have spoken to the Grey Lady or seen her more frequently. Nearly Headless Nick was fine for most Gryffindors, but he was not precisely her ideal of a proper ghost. Of course, she hadn't known ghosts were really real until she'd gotten her letter and come to the school, her Muggle parents having no time for that sort of nonsense. Still, Catherine was captivated by the idea, and she just knew there had to be some sort of romantically tragic story behind the Grey Lady's palely sorrowful face and the dignity with which her spectral gowns trailed behind her.
Behind her, a step creaked, and Catherine swallowed a shriek. She stood perfectly still in the darkness between two shadows and willed herself to become invisible. She was not here. She was stone. She was a nymph transformed into a statue and placed here as a sculpture, draped with inky velvet of the deepest blackness to shield her tempting curves from view. She was -
Catherine made an extremely undignified noise and clapped a hand over her mouth, turning so fast she nearly tripped over her robes. There was Henry Tilney, prefect's badge shining in the dark, looking at her with curiosity.
"Hen- Tilney. Mister Tilney. What - why are you... " She drew herself together, trying to remember how not to sound like a ninny. "Good evening."
"Good evening," he said, smiling at her in that way he always had. Catherine was never quite sure if he was laughing at her or with her, but she didn't see anything particularly funny about this situation. "What are you doing out on such a fine night? You do remember that we have a curfew, do you not?"
The rain pattered against the windowpanes while Catherine considered her options. She did know they had a curfew. But she was friends with Eleanor Tilney, even though the older girl was a Hufflepuff. And she knew Henry liked her, or at least found her amusing, and he always listened to her. And he would know if she was lying. He always seemed to.
"I was looking for the Grey Lady," she said, lifting her chin up.
"Really," he said, his look fading from the amused smile into something much more intrigued. He took another step closer to her. "Why were you looking for her?"
Catherine refused to look away. She refused to quail. She had to tilt her head back a little to keep her eyes on his. "I wanted to know what made her so sad."
Henry was very quiet. "You don't think being a ghost is sad?" he asked finally.
"Nearly Headless Nick isn't sad," she pointed out. "Nor the Fat Friar, nor Peeves. But she always looks sad, as if she carries some great sorrow within herself."
Henry mulled this over. "I suppose you may be right," he said. "But lurking around the Astronomy Tower in the middle of the night hardly seems like it will provide you with the answers you're seeking. Perhaps the library may be of more use. Or you could ask a Ravenclaw." The smile that returned to his face was very nearly infuriating.
Catherine could feel the heat rising in her cheeks. "I heard that she has a secret chamber beneath the tower," she said.
"And did you hear it from a Ravenclaw? Because while I may not divulge every secret of our House, I can safely tell you I haven't heard that one before."
Catherine remained silent. Henry glanced at the window, the rain pinging off the pane of glass, and turned half away from her. He held out one arm. "It's late, Miss Morland," he said. "May I escort you back to the Gryffindor dormitory?"
She took his arm with a curious mixture of elation and embarrassment twining inside her chest. "Am I not in trouble, then?"
"I think I can make an exception this once," he said, setting off down the corridor with her hand tucked into the crook of his elbow. "I do so appreciate the chance to see you outside the Great Hall, even if it is somewhat beyond the rules."
Catherine tried to moderate her smile so that she wouldn't look a complete featherbrain. "You know, it is allowed to have friends from different Houses. You do not need to pursue me as if I were the fox at the end of a hunt."
"But then someone else might find you, and that would be far less enjoyable for both of us." He sounded like he was going to laugh. Henry always sounded like he was going to laugh at a private jest. The best moments were those when it seemed like he was about to share the jest with her. "However, if you don't currently have an escort for the next Hogsmeade visit, I should be honoured if you would accompany me."
"Will you report me for tonight if I say no?" She didn't particularly want to look up as she asked, but she had to know.
Henry scoffed. "Of course not. Eleanor would punish me quite severely if I did, and she would turn you against me entirely. No, I simply wish to have the pleasure of your company for the day."
"Then I would very much like to join you," Catherine said. She was quite proud of herself for managing to get all the words out without stuttering or stumbling or otherwise sounding like a fool.
Henry smiled and put his hand over hers where it rested on his elbow, a brief press of warmth that made her heart skip the proverbial beat. "Splendid."
Catherine wasn't entirely sure what they spoke about after that, as they wound back through the dim corridors to the Gryffindor tower. But she made Henry chuckle twice, and that was victory enough for her. Through a quirk of the shifting castle geography they wound up back at the portrait of the Fat Lady far too quickly for Catherine's tastes. Henry gently disengaged his arm from Catherine's grasp, taking her hand between both of his own.
"Good night, Miss Morland."
"Good night, Henry," she said softly. He didn't kiss her hand, but he smiled at her again before he left for the rest of his rounds.
She might not have seen a ghost, Catherine reflected as she headed back up to her bed. But the press of Henry's fingers and the memory of his smile was thrilling enough for one evening.