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