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Chapter 16 : Even The Best Fall Down Sometimes
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29th June 2023
Cassie Cooper was spinning.
Or the cliffs were spinning. Spinning against the backdrop of sheer white cloud.
“Cassie?” A concerned voice broke into what had seemed like a soundless void and the spinning slowed.
Cassie took in an aching gasp of cold air, hunched over with her hands on her knees and squeezed her eyes shut. “I’m ok.” She assured Hermione. She didn’t convince herself.
“What happened? You made the switch just as always. But then it kind of faded out and I hit the wall. What did you do differently?”
It took a moment and another couple of deep, crisp breaths for the jumble of words to make sense to Cassie.
Made the switch. That had become the given phrase, over the past week, for substituting an artificial memory for an existing one. It had taken time - three whole days of exhausting practice - for Cassie to move past casting her basic and impenetrable wall into creating something flexible, illusory and yet consistent. It had seemed like an age to Cassie, but everyone else held that she was doing a marvellous job, and even Hermione Weasley herself declared amazement at how quickly and determinedly Cassie was grasping it.
Determination. Sure. That was one word for it.
Desperation was more that one that came to Cassie’s mind.
“Nothing.” Cassie straightened up, the dizziness passing. “Nothing, I’m just a little tired -”
“Let’s take a break.” Hermione said. It was around the fourth or fifth time she’d suggested this that morning. Cassie had lost count. And always with that same troubled expression of concern.
“No, it’s fine.” Cassie shook her head and lifted her chin, readying herself. “Let’s go again.”
“No, really. I just zoned out a bit - lost concentration. I’ll focus this time, I think I know how to stop it going all shaky like it was yesterday, now -”
“Cassie.” This time Hermione stood firm, her arms folded and a scarily motherly and authoritive expression on her face. Cassie could see now why the usual raucous Hugo meekly obeyed his mother. “Sit.”
The childish side of her both wanted to obey and to stamp her foot and refuse. In the end she went for something vaguely in the middle and just slumped her shoulders in defeat.
“I don’t like doing nothing.” She mumbled, as some sort of an explanation.
Hermione nodded once in acknowledgement, then pursed her lips as she critically gave Cassie a sweeping look. “How much have you been sleeping?”
Cassie reacted irrationally, flinching as she summoned up the wall in her mind and searched for the initiative to create some sort of a false memory…
Before she realised that Hermione was merely asking a question. Not delving into her mind.
She really did need some more sleep.
“Enough.” She lied. She didn’t even have the energy to make it convincing. The shaky artificial memories she’d been creating were more convincing than her defensive, weary tone.
Hermione’s face softened a little but she still wasn’t letting Cassie get away with anything. “Rose told me about the nightmares.”
Cassie inwardly cursed Rose Weasley’s moral honesty and compassion, but she shrugged with a wry smile, “Shows I’m sleeping though, doesn’t it?” She thought it came across as fairly nonchalant.
Apparently she was wrong.
Hermione perched on the smooth side of a rock, jutting out at the bottom of the cliff face. Cassie thought maybe the move was supposed to indicate to her that she should sit down too, presumably for some sort of a heart to heart. Instead she just wrapped her arms agitatedly around herself and glanced up at the high cliff tops for what felt like the thousandth time that day.
She didn’t know if it was because she knew that the magic they were performing could be - and probably had been - detected outside the bubble of protection Hermione had cast, or just being out of the familiar setting of woodland. But she was on edge.
Of course, that could be because she hadn’t been sleeping.
“Rose says they’re getting worse.” Hermione said.
Cassie let out a sharp exhalation. Damn Rose Weasley. Alright, Cassie couldn’t blame her for noticing the nightmares - the whole of the girls tent had noticed. It’d have been hard not to, sleeping in that close proximity to someone waking up in floods of tears and near shrieking. It had been both thoroughly mortifying and humiliating to have everyone from Rose and Dom to little Roxy comforting her and assuring her that they didn’t mind her waking them up at all. Her only blessing was the magical properties of the tent. The next night it’d formed some sort of a convenient, separate partition with a heavy curtain that silenced her screams to the other occupants.
This came with it’s benefits and drawbacks. She no longer had to feel embarrassed or guilt about waking up the girls. But the nightmares lasted longer with no one to shake her awake. It wasn’t until her blanket was soaked through with sweat at her face was flushed red with the force of her cries that she was able to drag herself back to reality.
Of course, it seemed Rose hadn’t been able to just forget about Cassie behind that curtain. She’d been checking up on her.
“They’re not that bad.” Cassie said, avoiding the topic. She didn’t want to think about it.
“I think…” Hermione looked both tentative and serious, “I think I can guess. It doesn’t take a whole lot of working out. The more you improve every day at occlumency directly coincides with the level of distress you seem to be under in your dreams.”
The Cassie that slept more than a couple of hours each night probably would have understood. But sleep-deprived Cassie stood blankly.
“I think your nightmares are getting worse as you’re getting better at occlumency.” Hermione put it in shorter terms. “Your wall is so strong that you’re keeping things locked down. Things that can only come out when you let your guard down.”
“You’re the one that told me I’ve got to keep the bad stuff out of reach…” Cassie said, fighting a wave of hopelessness.
“Because a legilimens will play on your emotions,” Hermione repeated the phrase she’d used so many times before, “I’ve seen it happen; you’ve seen it happen - they’ll find a way in through memories that make you angry or make you scared or… you know…”
Cassie shifted uncomfortably. She knew exactly what Hermione meant. The first time they’d attempted to practice, Cassie had taken to the idea right away with ease. She could summon a strong wall instantly, blocking Hermione’s attempts at searching through relatively unimportant, trivial information.
It wasn’t until Hermione had stumbled upon a stray, fleeting memory that Cassie had faltered. It was nothing. Stupid, even. So trivial she hadn’t bothered to even acknowledge that it could be used.
It was Albus.
Not just Albus, though. Albus, she’d been guarding. Anything to do with his capture, his disappearance; any of the strange feelings of anxiety, loss and desperation that she associated with the longer she didn’t see him.
She’d had it covered.
But it was something much smaller. Just the brief memory of seeing him again, upon her first arrival at camp. The rush of relief, joy and… something else, at seeing him there sleeping so safely, so peacefully and so boyishly.
It was that ‘something else’ that threw her.
It was like she hadn’t recognised it until looking at it as somebody else would.
And in that instant she’d panicked, forgotten her defences and roughly and unsophisticatedly attempted to throw Hermione out, thereby allowing her access to whatever it was she’d originally been concealing.
Hermione hadn’t mentioned it specifically.
Cassie was glad. She was sick enough of having to defend herself and Al against all the assumptions, and she was fairly certain that this wouldn’t work in her favour. She could see how it would look. But, honestly, just because she could admit that her best friend was attractive… it didn’t mean anything.
Wasn’t worth mentioning.
“Do you want to tell me what the nightmares are about?” Hermione asked.
She didn’t, really. She didn’t want to talk about it or think about it or acknowledge it.
Because it wasn’t the sort of nightmare that you could just forget once you woke up, thankful that it was all just a dream. This dream could so easily become reality.
“Just the stuff you told me to keep out of reach.” Cassie said, quietly but talking fairly quickly, as if to get it over with, “Just the… the same stuff, the…” No matter how vivid and real the dreams were when they were pinning her to her mat in terror, the words to describe the seemed just out of reach. “Losing Al. Losing Ryan. Everyone. Being alone and it being my fault. Sometimes because of… of Cole and sometimes they’re there, they just… won’t answer me or look at me… they hate me -”
The words couldn’t do the agony she went through at night justice.
“And then my parents, they‘re not… there, they‘re not…” She added, straining to think of more, but giving up. “I know it sounds pathetic -”
“No, Cassie,” Hermione shook her head, “Not at all. What you fear most is losing the people you care about. That’s completely understandable.”
“Hey,” Cassie realised something else, “What if they… what if Cole tries to use legilimens when I’m sleeping? What if I’m not awake to make the switch?”
She saw Hermione’s complexion colour just a little bit. “I kind of… thought of that…”
“Oh,” Cassie realised, half relieved and half kind of violated, “You already tried.”
“Don’t be,” Cassie waved a hand, too tired to work up the energy to figure out if she should be bothered. “So you couldn’t do it?”
“For one thing, legilimency is by far more difficult without eye contact. And for another, well… dreams are a lot harder to interpret than pure memories,” Hermione said, “To the dreamer, during the dream, things make sense. At least to you. But in reality they’re… well, they’re not reality. They don’t fit in with reality. And they move too quickly to make any sense. All I got was a flood of your anxiety, which in itself was overwhelming, and I couldn’t make sense of anything. Then you woke up. And the wall was back.”
Cassie took a moment to digest this. “So I’m safe.”
“I think we can say with some degree of certainty that your mind is safe from invasion when you sleep.”
“So I’m safe.”
Hermione smiled. “Let’s keep practicing before we make any claims like that.”
After almost a week of spending her days practicing occlumency with Hermione, Cassie was used to keeping to one side when she returned to camp. To begin with she’d been curious and keen to be a part of the plans the rest of the family were forming, but she’d been told to relax, to take it easy.
She didn’t particularly like it that she wasn’t one hundred percent sure what the plans were when she was such an integral part of them, but she accepted that the family were going to be extremely and infuriatingly stubborn on this point.
She was to rest.
But that evening, as Hermione brought them back via side-along apparition, the atmosphere was off.
Something was different.
“What’s happened?” Cassie asked. It wasn’t that she was alarmed, or that she feared their discovery. The chaos would have been obvious if that were the case. It was just… tense.
“I don’t know,” Hermione said, her eyes scanning the huddled group away from the fire and resting on her husband. “Wait here.”
“If something’s happened I want to -” Cassie began, but Hermione diverted her with a brisk call to Ryan before hurrying towards the group.
Cassie sat were she was gestured to beside her brother with a slight huff. But she guessed she’d have an easier time getting it out of Ryan than she would anyone else.
“What’s going on?” She asked him.
“God, Cass, you look even worse than this morning.” Ryan took a double take.
“You do. What’s Hermione been doing, punching you in the face?”
“Look.” Ryan flipped the aluminium place he’d just scraped clean so Cassie could vaguely see her reflection in the reflective underside.
Ryan was right. The dark circles beneath her eyes did make her look a bit beaten.
“Just tired.” She assured him. “What’s going on?”
Ryan looked for a second like he was going to enquire again how she was and Cassie wasn’t sure she could handle more probing. Fortunately, his eyes flickered towards the cluster of adults away in the shadows.
“Teddy went out again today.” He said.
“Really?” Cassie leapt at the chance to actually hear something useful for once, “Was there something else in the papers? Was there something about Al and -”
She stopped abruptly at the sight of Teddy - face now transformed back to normal - but expression flooded with the exhaustion, relief and worry that she recognised as a close call.
“What happened?” She asked, again.
“He was checking out the area around school and -”
“What? He… that’s crazy. Why would he do that, why -”
“Harry and the others guessed they’d have anti-apparition measures up, he wanted to see if they’d have anyone outside of that, kind of keeping watch. Only we underestimated how far out the protection went and Teddy got stuck. He only just made it out of the boundaries in time before some sort of a guard squad turned up. The good news is that we can take that as a sign that they‘ll have Al and Ginny at the castle. But, you know, it was a close one…”
Cassie felt cold at the thought of capture. The only thought that crossed her mind was a grim one. Azkaban. That was what was in store for Teddy, or anyone else that got too close to the castle.
“This is crazy.” She shook her head, “Why did he even need to check out the castle when I’m the one who’s got to…” A sudden, obvious thought struck her. “I can’t apparate. I won’t be able to… how am I supposed to get there?”
“Cass, I don’t -”
“I’m going to have to learn.” She felt exhausted at the very thought of it, but she had to do it. “I’ve got to. There’s no way anyone can take me by side-along, not if there’s protection and some sort of a guard. No way. It’s too risky. I have to -”
“I could take you.” Ryan said.
“No way.” Cassie dismissed the idea without a second thought. She made to stand up, “I have to go get some one to teach me, I can’t believe I didn’t think of this before, I’ve wasted so much time -”
“Cass.” Ryan’s hand enclosed her wrist, “I can take you.”
Cassie stopped still for a moment, staring at the hand that encircled her wrist so easily, then up to the solemn silvery-blue eyes.
“No.” Cassie said, her voice barely above a whisper, “You can’t. I know you could, but you can’t. It’s too dangerous, for you or anyone else…”
“I’m not a kid.” He said, firmly.
“I know you’re not.” Cassie looked back down at the grubby hands with their long, bony and wiry fingers, the sinews in the back of his hands that didn’t belong to the child he’d always been. “I know.”
“So let me -”
“No, Ryan,” Cassie put her own hand on top of his. Her hands looked fragile in comparison and she didn’t like it. He was the little brother. She was the older sister. That was the way it had always been. “No one can come with me. The idea is for me to get caught. Anyone else would go to Azkaban…”
“Not me.” He argued, “They want me too. To experiment on…”
“Exactly!” She almost laughed, “I’m not… you’re not… you can’t go through that again -”
“But you can?”
“I’ll be fine. I’ve got this occlumency thing now, they can’t hurt me -”
“So I’ll learn too. Maybe I’ll get it just as quick. We’re two of a kind.” He grinned, only it didn’t quite conceal the worry in his eyes.
“No, Ryan -” Cassie felt the strength draining from her, and was close to crying.
“Buddy, what’re you doing messing about with our key player?”
Cassie almost didn’t recognise the voice. It barely registered anyway; every fibre of her mind was focused on convincing Ryan that he wasn’t to do this.
The voice, she’d have recognised, just not the amicable tone.
“I’m not messing with her.” Ryan said, obstinately, letting go of her wrist and folding his arms. He looked resentfully up at James. “Why can’t I go?”
“You know why, bro.” James folded his arms right back, but his tone was gentle. Cassie hadn’t heard that before. “Your sister needs her head in the game and we can’t afford to have you giving her a nervous breakdown.”
Ryan still looked resentfully up at the older boy, directing all his blame at him for a reason Cassie couldn’t comprehend.
“Got plenty for you to do around here,” James held out a hand, “Can you give Hugh a hand over at the spring? He’s got a pile of washing up stacked up to his chest and none of the muscle to shift it.”
For a second Ryan sulked - acting more his age - but then with a last sullen sigh, took James helping hand to yank himself up and headed to the freshwater spring.
Cassie took the opportunity to wipe her face in case there were any stray tears. She didn’t think she’d actually cried at all but her eyes seemed constantly damp nowadays.
James took the seat by the fire that Ryan had vacated and held out his hands to the glowing coals. It was a strange, dim and practically smokeless fire that Cassie didn’t doubt that he’d constructed himself. She couldn’t deny that he was a key part of their security, just like she couldn’t deny that he’d subtly used the right amount of coercion and flattery to get Ryan off the subject and keep her from the brink of tears.
“Thank you.” She said, grudgingly.
“You shouldn’t treat him like a baby. Then he won’t get so pissed off.” Was his prompt reply.
Cassie bristled a little, any trace of gratitude vanishing. “I don’t treat him like a baby. What did I say -”
“It’s not what you say. It’s how you look at him. Like he’s your little brother -”
“He is my little brother -”
“Not anymore.” James picked up a stick at jabbed at the fire.
Cassie watched him sourly. He wasn’t just poking at the fire for something to do. The embers dim glow lit up his face enough for her to see the concentration as he leant forward to shift a log precisely. Almost immediately a renewed wave of warmth washed over her.
“He was twelve when he disappeared.” She said, half in reluctant explanation, and half in defence, “I missed three years of his life. And for those three years I only ever pictured him as I knew him. He was a kid.”
“Just like Al.” James said, disposing of his stick into the fire and sitting back, holding out his hands to warm them.
She felt a little guilty at the reminder that he’d gone through pretty much the same thing.
“Al wasn’t a kid.” She said, slightly mulishly. It was true. Al had been fourteen when James had lost him. Almost as old as Ryan was now.
“He was. And he is.” James said, “He’s spent seven years at school, pissing around just as he always did, playing Quidditch and making the teachers look like fools…”
For a moment the words stirred memories that made Cassie smile. Then she recalled that James wasn’t using them fondly.
“It wasn’t that easy.” She shot back, “He had no idea what had happened, no idea where you were, what was going to happen. You were the one that got to stay with your family -”
“I was the one that was keeping my family alive. While we were busy surviving out here, he was inside having his every need catered for, same as ever -”
“It’s not like that -”
“Yes it is. You can see it after spending just a minute with him. He can’t take anything seriously, and why should he? He’s never had to -”
“He got here, didn’t he? He took that seriously enough.”
“And he told you.” James met her eyes for the first time, hotly. “Anyone with any sense would have known not to share it.”
Cassie swallowed hard and refused to blink, just in case her prickling eyes let her down. She hated that flash of Al’s face in the moments before he’d been stunned. The betrayal. If he had any sense now he definitely wouldn’t have anything to do with her.
And yet he hadn’t apparated. Hadn’t left her.
“Well, what’s done is done.” James said, humourlessly. “We can only focus on fixing it. There’s got to be some way we can use my brother’s weakness in our favour.”
“He’s not weak.” Cassie said, fiercely.
“I was talking about you.”
She could feel him looking from the corner of his eye at her, presumably to see if his comment could get the rise he wanted out of her. She wouldn’t.
For a long time she sat staring straight ahead at the softly glowing coals. It was almost as hypnotic as staring into flames; she wasn’t sure when James stopped looking at her.
“I need to learn to apparate.” She said, after a long period of silence but for the crackling of burning wood.
“One thing at a time.” James said, evenly, any trace of animosity gone.
“No. I need to learn. And fast.” She shook her head. “I’m taking too long and all the while we’re wasting our time here anything could be happening to -”
“One thing at a time.” James repeated.
“We don’t know how long this is going to take me. The occlumency thing’s getting there, sure -” She conveniently left out the insomnia and nightmares, “- but I couldn’t learn to apparate to save my life. Literally. If you wouldn’t have found me back at the old camp…”
“There’s a way around that.” James said, dismissing the fact that this was the closest she’d got to thanking him for that.
“One thing at a time.” He repeated. It sounded like his teeth were gritted.
“No one’s coming anywhere near the boundary with me.” Cassie added firmly, suddenly worried at the risks they’d go to. “Especially not -”
“Ryan’s not going.” James sounded just as firm.
Despite the relief and reluctant gratitude, Cassie couldn’t help but bite back, “Now who’s treating him like a kid?”
“Oh, I’m not questioning his ability to do anything. He could. But you couldn’t focus with him there. Which puts him in danger.”
Cassie didn’t know which feeling unnerved her more - the fact that James sincerely cared for Ryan as his own brother or the implication that he didn’t even remotely care if she were in danger.
“No one.” She added, stubbornly. Ryan safe was a relief, but anyone else still…
“We’ve got it covered.”
The finality in his tone made Cassie exhausted at even the thought of pushing him any further.
“How long?” She asked, after a minute or so of peace.
Every day they put it off, Al and Ginny were in more and more danger. Sure, it was almost summer holidays. Al would technically be able to leave. But every single one of them knew for certain that that would never happen. Suddenly every single one of the recent new laws seemed to have an ulterior motive. In this case, the idea that students would not be allowed to graduate until their grades and records reached what was deemed a ‘safe’ level. Sure, school work hadn’t been something Al had taken great pride in since he was abandoned by his family, but he was a smart guy. He didn’t deserve the P’s and D’s he’d been receiving in every class for the past four years.
“However long it takes.” James said, unintentionally cryptically. Then he elaborated. “This plan isn’t foolproof. For it to work, you need to be perfect. Spotless. There’s no room for anything to go wrong. If anything happens we’re fucked. And it’s on you. You think you’re ready, just say the word.”
He didn’t even look at her. Didn’t expect her to say anything.
Because she couldn’t.
He was right. There was no point her going in at all unless she had this down. Not just the wall, but the new memories. They needed to be faultless. Elaborate. Perfect.
“But every day they’re there…” Cassie closed her eyes. All it would take was for Al’s or Ginny’s walls to falter for a second. But at least it was ok for them to rely on walls. No false memories projected by a Potter would ever be trusted anyway.
“As long as it takes.” James repeated.
Cassie felt grim. For the level of perfection he was talking about, it could take weeks before she was ready. But they couldn’t afford anything less.
“As long as it takes.” She echoed, staring into the dying embers of the fire.
Two weeks later…
25th July 2023
The air was still. Although the sun had set, Cassie could swear she could still feel it beating down on her as she lay flat on her back, shattered, on hard dirt.
She cracked open an eye and in the dim firelight, took in Ryan’s silhouette, from the overgrown mop of hair to the lanky bare legs.
“Great, bring on the drugs.” She sat up and grinned weakly at her own lame attempt at a joke.
Ryan handed her the plastic water bottle and she swished around the tiny amount of deep, dark brown potion around the bottle of it, postponing.
“Cass.” He put his hands over hers and unscrewed the cap. “Drink.”
“What’s the point?” She said, watching the almost black liquid leaving slight gloopy stains on the side of the bottle. “It’s not doing anything.”
“You’re still having nightmares?” When he looked that worried Cassie could kid herself that it was because she was the big sister. She was meant to be the one comforting him over bad dreams.
“No.” She lied, “This is getting blown way out of proportion. They’re only dreams. It’s fine -”
Unfortunately, at some point, her baby brother had gotten a little shrewd.
“Then you won’t mind taking the potion.” He said, nudging it closer to her mouth.
“I don’t need to -”
“It just gives you a deep sleep. Come on, it’s a luxury. Don’t tell me you don’t appreciate my many hours spent over a Potions textbook…”
He pulled a face as if the very experience had been traumatic, but Cassie could see that it was just the sort of teenage front he’d put on. Ryan had been enjoying learning to brew potions over the past couple of weeks. Since he’d discovered a copy of Advanced Potion Making in Hermione’s book collection, he’d spent a lot of his time searching through it for useful and simple enough potions and experimenting with them. And he was good enough at it to make Cassie feel kind of proud of him.
“I appreciate it.” She assured him with a smile, which promptly faded as she looked back down at the thick, muddy potion.
“It looks like puddle water.”
“But it tastes horrible…” Her excuses were wearing thinner and thinner.
“I added mint leaves. It takes away the acidity.”
She wasn’t sure she enjoyed Ryan being smarter than her.
She sighed and lifted the bottle up to her nose to take a sniff. She had to admit, it did smell slightly better.
To drink, or not to drink.
It was supposed to induce a deep, dreamless sleep.
She’d discovered pretty early on that that wasn’t the case.
It wasn’t because of any lack of potion brewing ability on Ryan’s part. Years spent acting little brother to James Potter had given Ryan a slight perfectionist attitude which meant he took great care in every stage of the brewing process.
She thought maybe it was because the haunting nightmares she’d been getting weren’t exactly dreams per se. They were more just expressions of her deepest, most disturbing and painful fears. Not something that could just be wiped away by a mere potion.
Instead, after taking the potion the first night Ryan had given it to her, Cassie had discovered that all it affected was her body, dulling her strength and paralysing her; pinning her to her sheets, helplessly unable to wake herself up and save herself from her worst fears.
But she couldn’t tell him that. Him or anyone else. She’d said that the dreams were fine - that they’d been getting fewer and less frequent all the time so she didn’t need the potion anymore. Then she’d just struggled to keep herself awake so she didn’t have to go through that torture every night, sleeping only briefly, lightly and when absolutely necessary.
Of course, the state that that left her in, in the day times, hadn’t gone unnoticed. She’d claimed it was the stress of the occlumency causing the dark shadows beneath her eyes, the way they seemed to water more often than not, and the way she was so sensitive to the cold. The stress of it all.
Ryan had almost immediately come up with a Relaxation Remedy potion that had left Cassie drowsy and weak in the evenings. Which then meant she’d fall asleep more easily. Which then meant more nightmares. Which then meant more effort to keep herself awake.
If she thought about it, it was probably incredibly bad for her, surviving on this diminished amount of sleep. Fortunately Ryan’s Pepper Up potion gave her the energy she needed to keep up the occlumency during the day.
That was also probably bad for her. The amount of potions she was relying on just to get through the day.
But that was only temporary, she told herself. For as long as it takes.
“Please, Cass.” Ryan said, imploring with the only remaining childlike feature of his face - his wide silvery eyes. “It’ll put my mind at ease.”
Cassie sighed. Only for Ryan. Screwing up her face in anticipation of the usually acidic taste and the gloopy consistency, she knocked back half of the small volume of potion.
He was right. The mint leaves did improve the taste.
But the dread for what she was going to have to go through that night was seeping through her, making her stomach churn nonetheless. Ryan’s mind may be at ease but hers was going to go through hell.
“And the rest of it.” Ryan prompted.
“Yes, Doc,” She teased, putting off taking the other mouthful. Maybe only taking half the potion would give her enough strength to wake her up when the nightmares got that bad. She could only hope. “Who’re you going to bully into pouring potions down their throats when I’m gone, hmm?”
Ryan’s face dropped and she immediately regretted the light-hearted humour. Whilst he’d been quietly troubled about her leaving, and she’d heard from Hermione that he’d initially asked a number of times to be the one to go back instead of her, they hadn’t properly talked about it yet.
“Joking,” She gave a weak smile, hastily trying to rectify, “I was joking, silly. I’ll be back before you know it.”
It was a lie. And they both knew it. If it was taking this long just to prepare, there was no telling how long things would take once they actually got started.
“Ryan…” She began again, not really knowing what she was going to say.
“I know.” He said, a little shortly but resigned, “I get it. And I’m… proud of you, I suppose. That you’re my sister and you’re fighting for the cause -” He gave a quick grin but it faded quickly, “But it just feels…. It feels like I’ve not even got you back properly and now you’re going again.”
Not got her back?
“What do you mean? I’m right here…” She said, nudging him gently with a smile, but he didn’t brighten.
“Are you?” He looked at her, forehead furrowed and circled her wrist with his thumb and forefinger. It suddenly looked very fragile. “You’re not the Cassie I left behind. I don’t like seeing you like this, Cass, you’re… you’re not you. It’s like I’m watching you fade away and I can try but I can’t do anything about it.”
“I’m not…” Cassie shook her head, not wanting to look at her little brother dwarfing her any more, “I’m fine. Honestly. I’m just tired - this occlumency is just taking a lot out of me -”
“That and the nightmares.” Ryan looked hard at her.
“No nightmares.” Another blatant lie. She wondered if she’d ever be able to stop.
“Once this is all sorted and Al’s back, we’ll be right back where we were. I promise. The Cassie you left behind will be back.”
“I don’t know.” Ryan said, looking down at the floor, “Even before, when Al was here…”
“That can’t count,” Cassie shook her head again, “I don’t even want to think about that time; what I was doing to everyone. I was feeling so guilty I couldn’t be me, I couldn’t just be happy with you -”
“You were happy.” Ryan said, “You were. I saw it. Not always but I saw you happy. I saw your real smile and your real laugh. And it was Al that did that.”
Cassie felt uncomfortable again. It wasn’t that Ryan sounded really hurt, but just… this was getting close to that Cassie-and-Albus topic again, the one that hurt her head a little to think about.
“He was the only real friend I had at Hogwarts.” She told him, trying to think of a way to make it clear, “He was the only one to make me happy there, so I guess -”
“So I guess it makes sense for you to fall for him.” Ryan finished for her.
Cassie blinked. “No… Ryan, that‘s not what -”
Ryan looked at her for a long moment. “No?”
“No. No it’s…” Cassie remembered her embarrassing panic with Hermione at occlumency, when she’d accessed that memory and the way it had looked to view it objectively. How obvious it had looked to someone else that the reunion between the boy and the girl wasn’t entirely on a friendship level…
No. This was ridiculous. It was Al. She and Al. They’d been through too much together for there to be anything remotely like a teenage crush involved…
Only, it hadn’t come across at a teenage crush at all, either.
She shook her head and became aware of a tiny smile on Ryan’s face, and became acutely aware that this was her little brother she was talking with. She was suddenly extremely thankful that Ryan wasn’t a legilimens.
“Shut up.” She advised him, stifling her own smile, “You’re starting to sound too middle-aged to be my brother.”
Ryan raised an eyebrow knowingly but settled on pushing Cassie’s bottle - still with a mouthful of potion remaining - towards her. “Just drink your puddle water.” He said, before standing and leaving her there with more to fret over than before he’d arrived.
One week later…
30th July 2023
Cassie shook her head, unsure if she heard correctly or if she was so tired she was now hallucinating. “Sorry?”
“That was perfect.”
Cassie laughed weakly and viciously rubbed her aching eyes, “Serious?”
“I’m serious.” Hermione smiled back. “It’s been perfect for the last couple of days. I’ve just been checking; making sure -”
Cassie laughed again, this time the disbelief overrun by delight, and took in a large breath of crisp, cold air.
“You know what this means,” Hermione’s smile widened at the sight of Cassie throwing her head back and taking in a deep lungful.
Cassie closed her eyes for a long moment as she exhaled. Yes, she knew what it meant. “I’m ready?”
“I think you are.”
Cassie raised her eyebrows. ‘Think’ didn’t really cut it.
“I know you are.” Hermione corrected herself. “I really believe you can do this. I admit, I was sceptical but you… you’ve really surpassed yourself. I’ve not seen anything like this before.”
Cassie felt a stifled bout of pride but also embarrassment at the compliment. “Just doing what’s got to be done.” She smiled.
“Give yourself some credit, Cassie. In under a month you’ve mastered occlumency. You’ve taken it further than any witch your age could ever have hoped for. And you’ve given us a real chance.”
Academically, Cassie supposed she could see that it was an achievement. But in reality, for her, it had been an agonisingly long and painful process. Almost a month.
Almost a month that Al and Ginny were… were what? Where? There’d been no reported news of them. They could be in Azkaban for all anyone knew. It was just going on the gut instinct that Cole was using them as some sort of bait at school that kept the family going.
“Feels like it’s taken forever.” Cassie said, failing to put the extent of her feelings into words.
“Sometimes,” Hermione agreed. “When I’m worrying about my friend and my nephew, yes. But when I’m considering the fact that we’re sending a seventeen year old girl into almost certain danger… then it seems to have gone by in a flash.”
“Hey.” Cassie folded her arms, “I thought you believed in me?”
Hermione smiled. “I said almost certain danger.”
Cassie laughed, but despite her bravado, she couldn’t help but acknowledge the panic igniting at the thought of actually carrying out the plan. The preparation had been all well and good, and she’d been desperate to put it into action. But now that that time was actually near…
“So do I get to find out the details now?” She asked, distracting herself from that churning sensation in her midriff.
She’d been becoming more and more annoying with being left out of the planning phase, and at the same time become more and more like a whining child. She was surprised no one had completely lost their temper with her. But, she supposed, it was difficult to be annoyed with someone with as pathetic an appearance as her, lately.
She still wasn’t sleeping.
She could feel it weakening her body, but was determined to through everything into keeping her mind flawless and strong. She could do it.
“It’s about time.” Hermione offered her arm for side-along-apparition, and Cassie took one more deep breath before disappearing.
“Cassie, listen. We’ve been going over this for weeks, it’s the only way -”
“No! It’s not happening. And it’s not the only way. Teach me to apparate, I can learn -”
“Cassie.” Harry took both of her hands - clenched into tight fists - in his. She wondered if he could feel how cold they were. How cold they always felt nowadays. “You’re not in a fit state for that. Your body needs to be strong enough for you to learn something like that -”
“I can do it.” She insisted, obstinately, but she could feel how much effort it was taking merely to tug her hands away from him.
“This is the safest way.”
Cassie mulled it over in her head, still frowning, and inadvertently glanced up at the shadowy face of James, standing at his fathers shoulder.
Why him? She asked, silently.
She could imagine his response. A dry, I’m not so keen on the idea either. But the defiant, just visible pride gave away the impression that he was pleased - relieved, even - to have been called upon to do something useful; something important.
“Well then he can just apparate me there.” She tried, “To where you all caught me before. I can find my way back from there alone - I got there on my own, didn’t I? It only took me four days…”
“On a broom.” Harry pointed out. “Four days flying, that’s… well, we don’t know exactly how long it’s going to take on foot. Plus, you’re going to have to start from further out; we can’t apparate you there, it’s within the boundary. And remember there’s a patrol around the anti-apparition border. We’re estimating that at best it could take two, two and a half weeks to reach the border. And that’s assuming you don’t get lost, assuming the conditions will be perfect…”
Two and half weeks.
Too long, Cassie was certain. She’d known it would be a long process, but after taking so long to even reach this stage…
And two and half weeks with James.
“It’s too dangerous.” She shook her head. “You said it yourself, if anyone else gets caught it means Azkaban. It’s got to be just me. I can read a map. If someone can get me a map I’ll be absolutely fine -”
“No, that’s too dangerous.” Harry said. “Being alone in the wilderness for two weeks alone? It’s a risky idea for anyone.”
Cassie resented his unspoken implication about her condition.
But why him? She wanted to sulk.
She didn’t even need to speak aloud.
“James is the best hope you have of making it there, safely and in good time. He’s the reason we’ve survived out here so long. You need him.”
She didn’t like that. She didn’t want to need him.
But she couldn’t deny it.
James had taken to the survival aspect of this type of life naturally. He understood how it worked. He understood what he could and couldn’t do. He understood how to survive.
“But if he gets caught…” That was another thing that was bothering Cassie. James was supposed to leave her a reasonable distance from the border, to avoid the patrolling guards. But what if the guards were anticipating them? What if he accidentally went in too far?
“I can apparate.”
Cassie jumped at his voice, and again made the mistake of meeting his eyes.
“I won’t get caught.” He said.
Cassie didn’t know how he made her believe him.
Two and a half weeks.
They’d be well into August before they even reached the border. There was no doubt that Al would be being kept at Hogwarts at all. With his poor grades and absence for months, they’d have no problem arguing his place in the newly created mandatory summer school for sub-par students.
The idea was just to find out as much as she could. Her projected memories were so powerful that Hermione said that sometimes she had to remind herself what was real and what wasn’t, even if what Cassie was projecting was something outlandish. With that power she could convince Cole that she was innocent, perhaps even gain enough trust to find out where Ginny was, what had happened…
That part of the plan she was fine with. Sure it wouldn’t be easy. She have to be careful. Sure. But it made sense.
She didn’t know why they wanted to make things more complicated.
The funny thing was, Ryan had been the one to originally suggest it.
“He made a good point,” Harry had said. “It made me - us - think.”
“It’s completely unnecessary.” Cassie argued, wishing she had control over the flush of her cheeks, “It’s just an added complication. And I haven’t been practicing projecting that, I’ll need to work it in realistically and I don’t think -”
“You’ve got the two and a half weeks to do it. And there’s not a lot that needs to be tweaked. We’re not asking you to write an epic romance. Remember. Cole, Buchanan, all of them; they were uncomfortable around the normal teenage girl stuff -” It was true. Cassie remembered Cole being at his most uncertain around the touchy subject of Cassie and Albus’ unexpected and sudden friendship. And Buchanan’s discomfort when she’d insisted that she needed privacy to change. They had no idea how to act around a typical teenage girl. “- because they’re not used to that. They’ve almost eradicated that from Hogwarts, what with the lack of intimacy drive. It will throw them off and it gives you an alibi. At the moment, to Cole, you could still be made out to be a bit of a rebel. You didn’t set off the necklace in good time - he could think there’s still a possibility of you being on our side. It’ll work out easier for you if you play the whole teenage-love angle. You couldn’t bear to leave Albus behind, he’s your sole reason for living, etcetera, etcetera.”
Cassie tried to inconspicuously cool her burning cheeks with the back of her hand.
“You think he’d really fall for that?”
“I think it could work in your favour.”
“But what about Al? He’s going to have to go along with it. How am I supposed to tell him we’re meant to be hopelessly in love when I can’t talk to him about anything without them knowing -”
“He’ll go along with it.”
Cassie didn’t know how their certainty made her feel. “But -”
“Trust me. You can count on him to make this work.”
For some reason, James’ words from a few weeks previously rang in her ears; “There’s got to be some way to use my brothers weakness in our favour,”
She wished she wasn’t the type to be so easily embarrassed by this sort of thing.
“Even if he does. His… erm, his… account… it’s going to be different to mine.”
“Al hasn’t studied occlumency like you.” Harry said, “I’m sure he’d be able to throw them out but he won’t be projecting like you. They’ll just -”
“Hit the wall.” Cassie supplied. She could only hope she was right about Al’s ability to keep them out.
So it was simple. Sort of.
Two and half weeks (minimum) trekking through dense forest with James.
Convincing Cole and the rest that she was a love-sick, tragic, romantic heroine who acted impulsively out of true love.
Convince Al to go along with it.
Carry on the whole charade to find out as much useable information as they could, including the whereabouts of his mother.
Then there was the last part.
The last part, she wasn’t so sure of.
“Hold still, and relax your arm,” Hermione said, wiping the soft, inner part of Cassie’s upper arm with an antibacterial wipe. “Relax it, Cassie.”
“I’m relaxed.” Cassie insisted. As relaxed as she could be when she couldn’t take her eyes off the gleaming scalpel and various other sharp implements laying on a cloth besides her.
“Stop tensing your muscle. It‘ll only hurt more.”
Cassie focused all her attention on letting the tension out of her arm with a deep breath.
But as soon as Hermione picked up the scalpel she could feel her clammy fingers curling and the muscle in her arm firming up again.
A warm hand enclosed her free hand, holding it firmly enough to make her look away from the sharp objects.
“Don’t look at it. Look at me.” James’ voice was commanding enough for her not to argue, as if she could force her stare away from those eyes anyway.
Instead of the cold or biting remark she wanted to come out with, Cassie found that all she could do was swallow and nod, squeezing his hand back as she felt cold metal slicing into her other arm.
“Good. Ok. Perfect.” Hermione commented, absently, as Cassie tried to ignore the sensation of a small metal tube being inserted into her arm, “That’s all there is to it. That wasn’t so bad, was it? Ryan? Do you have the healing potion?”
“Here.” Ryan’s voice came from behind Cassie and she felt something cold and wet being dapped on the tender area that had just been cut. “You can open your eyes now, Cass.” He sounded amused.
Cassie opened her eyes and scowled at him to mask her embarrassment at her overreaction. She didn’t know why she disliked the whole idea so much, it just made her feel slightly nauseous.
“Remind me again, why it has to be inside me?” She asked, weakly.
“So that no one finds it.” Hermione said, with the air of repetition. “You know how it was with people commenting on the chain you wore. We couldn’t use something visible to the eye.”
Cassie hated any reminder of the chain. Especially one now safely concealed in her arm; Ryan’s healing potion having closed up the small cut already. The only evidence was a harsh violet bruise, that Ryan insisted would fade by nightfall.
Short of cutting her arm open, there was no way of getting rid of it. It was as bad as the chain.
Which made sense. That was where Hermione had gotten the idea from. She’d spent all the free time in which she hadn’t been teaching Cassie occlumency buried in research on port keys. She’d then been experimenting. Just as Cassie had wanted to take occlumency further, Hermione had been certain that she could take port keys further.
A normal port key had to be registered and, if it wasn’t, could be traced. This could not.
A normal port key would activate within a maximum of weeks. This would not activate for months.
A normal port key had to be touched by a body part to transport that person. This… well, Cassie had no choice over this. It was with her whether she remembered it or not.
All of these adjustments were of utmost importance. For the plan to go smoothly, the creation and existence of the port key under Cassie’s skin could not be detected by anybody at Hogwarts or the Ministry. They couldn’t set it off quickly. They had to allow time to reach the castle (and no one seemed to know exactly how long this would take), for Cassie to reach Al, for her to have access to him at the time of the activation, find Ginny, to find out anything else they could. It looked like Cassie would be back at Hogwarts for a while. And finally, it couldn’t be a piece of junk, like a port key usually would be. No matter how well disguised, hidden or guarded it was, there was always the possibility that it would be taken, lost or forgotten. Especially with Cole certain to be attempting to mess with Cassie’s mind.
“You’re sure it won’t just rip out of my arm when the time comes?” Cassie stared down at her bruise apprehensively, as if it were about to happen of its own accord.
“Certain.” Hermione nodded. “So remember…”
“I know, I know.” Cassie closed her eyes. “On the 31st of October…”
“Halloween. A good setting.” Hugo nodded, approvingly.
“… at seven p.m. precisely, I am not to let Al out of my grip.”
“And you’ll remember,” Hermione added, “Because although you won’t be able to feel the port key at all up until Halloween, all day it will be growing warmer, which will unfortunately irritate you a little; just enough to remind you. You know. Just in case they manage to…”
“To mess with my head. Got it.” Cassie nodded. Great. Not only was there a piece of metal inside her, but it was going to burn. Wonderful. “So that gives me… how long? When do I… we… leave?”
“How about three months?” Harry’s voice was quiet. It sounded like he didn’t really want to ask it of her. Like he hated throwing her into all this risk, this pressure…
It took her a moment to work out what the date was.
“Tomorrow?” Cassie asked, eyes wide. Sure, she wanted to get this underway, but… she felt exactly as she had when Hermione had declared her ready. Like all the training was going to be nothing compared to the real thing. Hadn’t Al said that about Quidditch once?…
She was doing this for Al.
Al needed her, and he needed her soon.
“It’s too soon.” Harry shook his head, noting her initial stunned expression. “Of course, it’s too soon. You must feel overwhelmed, exhausted…”
Well, that was true. But it wasn’t the point.
“No. Tomorrow.” Cassie cleared her throat and nodded firmly.
“Well,” James held up a flame-lit lantern and took a glance at his watch. “Today, actually. It’s gone midnight.” His face broke into a wry half-smile. “Happy Birthday, Dad.”
Harry could barely manage a sad smile. “Just get some sleep, you two.”
Cassie found herself yawning, and was immediately filled with the - now familiar - dread of the night ahead. On one hand, she had an enormous journey on foot ahead of her; she needed the rest desperately. On the other… she just couldn’t face those dreams.
“Tomorrow.” She whispered to herself, hugging her knees and staring into the dying fire as everybody else drifted about getting ready to turn in.
A.N. Horrendously long update, I know. This was hard to write when all I wanted to be writing was the EXCITING stuff! But I hope it's slightly worth it anyway, theres a lot in there! I'm in a rush so no long rambling not like usual.
I'd love to hear what you think! Thanks for reading and please leave a review.
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