Cassandra sat at a table in the corner of the courtyard, staring into a teacup. She kept waiting for the tea leaves to become anything to her other than a collection of wet lumps. It was the latest in a series of Divination topics that she had completely failed to grasp. Cards, crystal balls, and now this. It didn't seem to matter how hard she tried.
It wasn't that she was a particularly bad student. It was just that she'd been consistently unremarkable in every one of her classes for the past two years, and she'd expected her third year at Hogwarts to be more of the same. She probably should have given it more thought before checking off an elective last year.
Truth be told, she'd always been fairly aimless. Never had a plan in her life, her mother frequently lamented. Even the Sorting Hat hadn't known what to do with her, settling on Hufflepuff with a shrug. She supposed she picked Divination on the off chance it might show her some direction, but now she was feeling more lost than ever. Maybe her mother had been right.
Her eyes drifted up and across the courtyard to a couple of second year students. Albus and Elphias were playing wizard chess. Or rather, Albus was trying to explain to Elphias why his next move would eventually lose him the game. Now there was a student who had his path mapped out before him. Taller than his peers, with an open face and auburn hair tucked behind his ears, Albus Dumbledore was always ten steps ahead of everyone else.
He certainly didn't need to hang out with the misfits anymore. By now, everyone in the school knew how smart he was. The other students had long forgotten about the unfortunate business of his father, and were eager to include him in their circle of friends. But none of that mattered to Albus.
He was a true and loyal friend, even if his friends weren't anywhere near as talented as he was. Elphias must have realized his luck and tried to make himself useful, coaxing Albus to pull his head out of his books and eat on a daily basis. As smart as he was, Albus did seem to lose track of time more often than most. Cassandra was no longer surprised when she found him sitting at the top of the Astronomy Tower, lost in his pages of calculations, long after his class had ended and the other students had gone to their beds. She'd watch him work until he'd finally notice that the next class was filing in.
There was something about him that drew her attention. It was hard for her to put into words. It was as if, when he was around, the world seemed to shift a little, and to slowly revolve around him instead.
"You're not going to see into the future staring at me," Albus called over to her, interrupting her thoughts.
Cassandra quickly looked down, mortified. She hadn't realized she'd been staring. Albus walked over and sat down across from her, leaving Elphias to think up a more successful move on his own.
"Having any luck?" He smiled and her embarrassment faded a little.
"I don't know." She watched wet clumps trail down the sides of the cup. "Do you know anyone with a lemur?"
She tilted her head. "Wait. Maybe it's a squirrel."
Before she could make another guess, the last of the clumps settled down into the bottom of the cup.
"Maybe I used too much tea."
Albus picked up the teacup and turned it clockwise. "I can never figure out why anyone ever signs up for Divination. It's all a bunch of far-fetched nonsense."
"I don't know," Cassandra shrugged. "I guess I was hoping there'd be something I was finally good at."
"What's the use of being good at something that isn't real?" Albus set the cup back down. "Thank Merlin it's only an elective. If it were up to me, the whole subject would be banished from Hogwarts. Waste of a perfectly good tower."
"You're probably right."
"Of course I am. The centaurs have about as much luck staring into the sky. And what has that ever gotten them?"
While true, none of this was making her feel any better. Cassandra turned the teacup upside-down and dumped the leaves onto the ground with a dejected sigh.
Albus leaned over the table and dropped his voice to a whisper.
"Cassie, you've got Astronomy after me. Do you want to help me with something?"
Cassandra leaned closer. "Help you with what?"
"I've been working on a project and I'm nearly ready to test it out. It would go easier with an extra set of eyes. What do you say?"
Her face brightened. "Sure!" she replied, surprised that Albus would include her in his plans.
"Then come ten minutes early to Astronomy tomorrow. That should give us enough time."
Elphias started waving at them from across the courtyard. "Hey Albus! I think I've got it now!"
Albus stood up to leave. As he headed back to the game, he turned to her one last time. "And don't forget to bring your telescope!"
With his Herbology assignment completed, Albus left the Gryffindor common room and headed upstairs to the dormitory. It wasn't the most ideal place to work, but it was quiet and offered some privacy. His roommates didn't usually wander up there until after dinner.
He opened the trunk at the foot of his bed, and lifted out a fabric bundle, placing it on the center of the bed. He carefully unwrapped the protective cloth to reveal a large metallic cylinder. It had an open framework, and appeared to be made of mismatched parts, ranging from shiny and silver to dull and blackened.
The trunk also contained a jumbled assortment of broken measuring instruments and cast-off school equipment. Rooting around with his fingers, he pulled out one item after another, tossing each one back until he found what he was looking for. He pried an L-shaped rod from a defective lunarium and held it up to the cylinder. Just a minor adjustment and it should fit.
He grabbed his emery cloth from the trunk and sat on the edge of his bed, swatting a heavy curtain out of the way. It was slow work, carefully shaping the piece by hand. Albus had learned the rudimentary skill at his father's side. It was good for him, his father had explained. He'd promised to teach Albus to use magic for the task when the time came, but...that was never going to happen.
Growing up, he'd watched his father work patiently to repair the most delicate of instruments. His father had encouraged his interest, taking him along whenever he visited the wizarding equipment shop in Diagon Alley. Albus could spend hours in there, looking at all the shelves lined with wondrous creations.
But that was in the past. With his father in Azkaban, his family had been forced to move. His mother had insisted he go to school, leaving her to care for his brother and sister alone. He couldn't bear the thought of her struggling to support them all.
And then he'd found the answer to their problem. All those fancy instruments in the shop, there were a lot of people who paid good money for them. He may not have the experience of a craftsman like his father, but he had big ideas, and if just one of them worked, his mother would have all the gold she'd ever need.
Albus held the metal rod up to the light. It looked about right. He tested it against the cylinder. The rod slid into place with a satisfied click. He was almost there. Just one more piece, and it would be ready.
Cassandra was halfway up the winding spiral staircase of the Astronomy Tower when she heard the rush of feet coming from above. The sound was growing louder, heading her way. She pressed herself flat against the wall, and let the horde of students stream past her. When she finally made it to the top, she pulled open the door and stepped out into the cool night air. Albus was there, as usual, but tonight he was kneeling down, his attention on a strange looking contraption.
As she approached, she saw some oddly recognizable parts laid out to one side.
"You've made quite a mess there. Was that your telescope?" She'd never seen the insides of one before.
Albus looked up and gave a quick nod. "I'm almost done."
He leaned over the exposed mechanical guts of his old telescope, slipped some kind of tool inside, and gently pulled out the charmed lens. He set the lens into a slot in the strange metal cylinder.
"That should do it." Albus grasped a silver lever, and with a final twist, the contraption shook to life, odd bits of it whirring and spinning.
Albus' face lit up with one of the biggest grins she'd ever seen.
"Look at it! Isn't it amazing?" he said excitedly, checking it from one angle and then another.
She leaned forward a little, squinting her eyes at it, but then jumped as it shot out a puff of smoke.
"It's ready! Give me your telescope!" He held out his hand.
Cassandra looked down at what was left of his and clutched her telescope a little tighter.
Not feeling anything in his hand, Albus' attention finally shifted from the machine to her, confusion putting a damper on his excitement, but only for a moment.
"No, no, it's okay. I only needed it for one last part. Yours will be fine. Not a scratch, I promise."
She looked at him skeptically. "Well, then let me help." She gave him the telescope and busied herself with setting up the stand.
Albus positioned the cylinder over the front of the telescope, and let it slide down until the metal framework encircled the body.
"If this works, it should let us see five times farther than our old ones," he explained as he fastened the modified telescope to the stand. He looked through the eyepiece and turned a gear. Frowning, he pulled away to check the setting and looked through the eyepiece again.
"I can't seem to focus this. Come over here and look while I try some changes. Tell me what you see."
Cassandra looked through the eyepiece and saw a blur. She could hear Albus turning another gear. All of a sudden, the stars came into view. But they looked like they always did through her telescope.
"I can see the stars now. They look the same as usual."
As Albus continued to work, flipping various levers, the stars seemed like they could be getting closer.
"I think it might be working, maybe a little bit. It's hard to tell."
"Hold on, let me try one more thing."
Suddenly, she saw a bright white light, fading before she could pull away, and then an entirely new picture revealed itself through the eyepiece. She could see threads of light stretching between the stars and curving around the planets. They weren't fixed, but seemed to sway imperceptibly as if from some unfelt breeze. She saw, for the first time, everything connected, and some part of her seemed to understand.
At the same time, a high-pitched whining noise was quickly buiding to a painful intensity. It ended with a loud springy pop and then the eyepiece went dark.
Cassandra pulled back from the telescope and blinked, but the strands were still there, weaving their way across the heavens. Her eyes followed them overhead, trying to take it all in. But as she tilted her head back, she suddenly felt dizzy. She began to fall backwards, unable to stop herself, and felt an arm come around her and ease her gently to the floor. Still, she couldn't take her eyes off the vision before her.
And then a face blocked her view, a concerned face, lit by that same light. It was Albus, and now she could see more threads looping down, wrapping around him, and twisting away. So many for just this one boy.
"Do you see...?" Cassandra stopped. Her voice sounded strange, like it was far away.
Her eyes stayed fixed on Albus', but in her mind she began to travel along one of those strands. As she moved forward, she saw them spreading outward all around her now, crissing and crossing, twisting around each other. So far out that she could go on forever.
Was that Albus? She could barely hear him.
"Cassie! Are you alright?"
It was louder this time. She turned to look and then felt herself stop. Something was pulling her back. The strands were fading. No, it was too soon! She had to tell him what she'd seen, before it all slipped away. From far away, the words came...
"With eyes opened, the puppet will become puppet-master...his alone the power to tell the story...and in so choosing, the puppet-master must choose his own ending..."
Cassandra blinked again. The strands were gone. She had been trying to tell Albus something, but that was gone as well. She looked up to see Albus leaning over her, pale and shaken.
"Albus? What happened?"
"It broke, and then you were falling, and you seemed..."
His voice caught in his throat and she could see that he was scared. Of her. She wasn't sure what to say.
The door started to creak open as the first students arrived for her class. Cassandra sat up quickly to a more dignified position.
"It's okay. I'm okay."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes." He helped her stand up, and the floor seemed firm beneath her feet again.
Albus turned to the telescope, working to free it from what was left of his invention.
"What did you see...through the telescope?" he asked hesitantly, keeping his back to her.
"I'm not exactly sure." She could still remember some images, the experience of seeing, but the details of what she saw were retreating into the distance. "I think I saw clearer than I ever have before. But now it's getting fuzzy."
Albus turned around, looking relieved, and brushed off her telescope before handing it back to her. He crouched down to scoop up the scattered bits of broken metal pieces.
"Can you fix it?"
"No, that was the last of the parts from my telescope. My mom's not going to be happy when she finds out I need a new one."
"Sorry about that."
"It's alright. I've got another project in mind anyway. This one didn't go exactly as planned."
Another year over, Cassandra sat next to the window, watching the landscape go by as she headed towards home. She could see the track curving ahead of them, and she closed her eyes to imagine herself travelling along a strand of light again.
"Hey Cassandra, wake up!" A girl had crossed the carriage to hand her a scroll, its seal broken and “C. Trelawney” written underneath. "You left this on your bed. Honestly, I don't know how you could forget something like that."
Cassandra thanked her but ignored the scroll in her lap as she went back to looking out the window. She'd always been told she was drifting her way through life, but she didn't see it that way anymore. While the people around her struggled against their paths, effecting little change with great effort, she took comfort in knowing that it was all laid out before them.
Since that night on the Astronomy Tower, she hadn't seen Albus around as much. He was still friendly towards her, but always seemed to have someplace else he needed to be. Even so, there were times, if she got the chance to watch him just long enough, that she could almost start to see the faintest shadow of a thread. Maybe she was imagining it now. But maybe she wasn't.
She looked down at the scroll with her exam results and smiled, not really minding anymore. She had finished nearly all of her classes in typical mediocre fashion. All but one.
She'd actually managed a good mark in Divination, although she never did see anything in the swirling fog or the wet clumps of tea leaves. It wasn't until she decided to look beyond the crystal balls and teacups, and concentrate instead on the faces around her, that she'd finally found her path clear.