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.
“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?”
“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.