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!”
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…”
“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.”
“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.