Chapter 20 : You can be anything you want
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Cassie watched the grey sky lighten into a bright white haze, the sun just about managing to reach them through the cloud. She hadn’t gotten back to sleep. Not after that.
Dawn had been a little further than she’d thought. James had fallen back to sleep within ten minutes. He must have been tired. It had made her feel a little guilty. Had she been keeping him awake without realising? And then been entirely unappreciative when she’d realised?
It was for the best, she told herself. She and James weren’t close enough for that kind of intimacy, no matter how innocent the intentions. It would only make things weird between them, and she felt guilty enough as it was.
What would Al think? Here they were, supposed to be on this mission to rescue he and Ginny. She wasn’t supposed to be cuddling up to his brother along the way. She was supposed to be fully focused. This whole plan relied on her ability to pull this off. To have complete control over herself. She shouldn’t need James Potter’s support to be able to sleep. She shouldn’t need him at all.
For the hundredth time, she wished she could have come alone. Sure, she’d long admitted that she’d needed James’ guidance along the way. There was no way she’d have gotten this far by herself. Especially with how weak she’d been.
But this was all about Al. Al and Ginny. Not James.
What does it matter what Al thinks, the rational part of her mind asked. He’s not here. And even if he was...
No. She couldn’t deny that if Al were here, things would be different. It wouldn’t be James’ arms she was falling asleep in. It would be the ones she felt entirely comfortable and familiar with. There had been none of this guilt or resentment falling asleep in Al’s arms. Faint embarrassment, sure. But she’d woken feeling warm, safe, rested...
Cassie wrapped her arms tighter around her stomach as she felt the, now familiar, ache when she thought of Al. She would give anything for this to all be over and for him to be here. To be here and Ok.
If only she could apparate. Then none of this would be necessary. She could be there already. There wouldn’t be any of this guilt or this feeling of inadequacy and not knowing.
But she couldn’t. She was here, this was it. They just had to get on with it.
Still, Cassie waited until she heard James stir, stretch and get up to wash and pack up before she pretended to wake up herself. Hopefully they could just put last night behind them and carry on.
She kept her eyes averted as she passed him on the way to the stream, and she didn’t feel his eyes on her either. Maybe they both had the same idea.
He only acknowledged her when everything was packed up.
“Here.” He said, shortly, tossing her a muesli bar. “We should get moving.”
So it was back to their curt, formal interactions from the beginning of the trip. Cassie’s stomach dropped, and she realised she would miss their light, civil day yesterday. It looked like there would be no more of those.
“Thanks.” She said, just as briskly. Then noticed him favouring his left foot. She’d completely forgotten. “How is it?” She nodded at the foot that he was keeping slightly elevated.
“Fine.” As if to prove it, he gestured towards the hills they’d been approaching yesterday and began to walk towards them. “Let’s go.”
“Well, have you changed the bandage?” Cassie followed, watching his steps. He was making sure to walk as normally as possible, she was sure of it.
“I don’t need to. All I’ve done since then is sleep.”
“Well, does it hurt?”
“We’ve still got a bit of that potion, you could -”
“Look, it’s fine. Let’s just go.”
Cassie fell silent, and took her place behind him, unconvinced. Every few steps he would favour his left, avoiding putting weight on the right if he could. He was lying.
She wondered if he’d still lie about it if she hadn’t been so difficult last night. She didn’t need another thing to feel guilty about.
“You’re kidding, right?” Cassie found herself wringing her hands at James’ back as he balanced himself gingerly on one foot, holding onto a slim tree overhanging the creek.
“At least let me -"
“No. I’m doing it this way.”
Cassie sighed, unhappy with the decision. It was late. They’d walked for a long time today. Longer, maybe, that any day so far. Again, it was almost like James was trying to make up for his injured foot. Overkill.
He’d refused the remains of the potion all day. It turned out they were now low on the antiseptic wipes as well – Cassie had been overzealous with both. Which she now regretted, given James’ renewed stubbornness.
He’d been walking on it for hours – and not just walking. Today, probably the toughest day so far, they’d been making their way continually uphill. The terrain had become increasingly difficult to manoeuvre, the undergrowth denser and more thorn-laden, and the air had plummeted to a crisp, biting temperature.
So much for their turn in the weather. It didn’t seem to matter up here, exposed on the mountainside. If Cassie squinted at the distant peak, she could see snow. She hoped fervently that they would avoid having to climb that high.
Unfortunately, the turn in temperature meant that they would have to bring out the tent again. Cassie had been hoping that she’d be able to have a little distance from James tonight – if she was going to sleep alone, she wasn’t going to be able to avoid the nightmares. So she needed as much space as possible so that she wouldn’t disrupt James’ sleep too.
It wasn’t comforting – hours after exhausting hour scaling the mountainside, calves burning, back aching, shoulders straining with the weight of her backpack... the irony didn’t escape her. This was the sort of thing she’d have done for fun, back before. Before Ryan had left. Before she knew anything bad about anyone. They’d go on trips in the summer – camping, hiking and climbing. And then, after he’d gone, it had been something she’d done to cling on to reality. To remind herself that, even with Ryan gone, Cassie was still alive and feeling.
She used to have the strength and endurance to do it. Sure, she was feeling way better today. But it would take a long time before she was as strong as before. A long time.
And now, not even a good night’s sleep to look forward to. She could imagine what the day would be like tomorrow, continuing their climb. Fragments of those first couple of days came back to her, the agonising fatigue and the unsettling inability to keep focused. She couldn’t bear that again.
And, just to top it all off, James was being difficult about the pain potion. He’d launched straight into setting up camp when they stopped, without so much as a thought for a rest. Cassie desperately wanted to take advantage of this and rest, but after a day watching him struggle with his foot and brusquely brushing off her concerns, she couldn’t justify it. She’d had enough. Ordered him to sit down, shut up and take off his shoe.
To his credit, with only the scowl on his face showing his displeasure, he did. Though he did refuse to let her take off the bandage, doing so himself.
The bandage itself was still relatively clean, which was good. They didn’t have much to spare in the way of medical supplies. The two thick pads though, were almost entirely saturated in dark, drying blood. The edges were a deep, almost black-red and sticky to the touch. In that moment, Cassie was glad for the crisp, mountain air. It quenched the desire to vomit.
James’ was looking a little pale himself. Having insisted on tending to it himself it was ever apparent that blood was not his thing. He dropped the sodden pads aside and clenched his fists for a second to hide the trembling in his hands. It was the first time he was letting the pain show, and Cassie felt a second of smug pleasure that he was finally letting down his guard, before feeling instantly guilty at the genuine pain on his face.
“We need to clean it.” Cassie offered, after James’ had been silently staring at it for a beat too long. “It’s been in your shoe all day and it smells terrible. “We’ll just use some of those wipes and then -”
“No, we don’t need to. I’ll just wash it in the creek -”
Cassie laughed, before realising he was serious. “Don’t be an idiot.”
"I’m not.” With difficulty, James pulled himself to a standing position and Cassie, despite her many protests, found herself watching him wash the wound in what had to be an icy-cold creek. She’d splashed her hands and face with the water earlier and it had caused almost an instant, bone-deep ache in her hands, it was so cold. James had his back to her, but she could picture his gritted teeth, and could see his white knuckles where he gripped a branch for support.
“Stop it, before it goes blue.” She said, finally, unable to watch anymore.
James hopped back a few feet to their bags and sat himself against his, wiping away a few more stubborn patches of dried blood. On the plus side, it hadn’t started bleeding again. But with the blood completely cleared and his skin tinged a pale purple from the cold, she could see that it really was a deep cut. And there was still nothing she could do about it.
James reached for the discarded bandage.
“Please. Just a little bit of the potion.” Cassie tried one last time. She couldn’t keep watching his face contort in pain every minute.
“I told you, it’s fine.” He forced a smile that was more like a grimace. “The creek numbed it. That’s one good thing.”
“What about when it un-numbs?” Cassie pressed.
"I’ll cope.” He said shortly. “Look there’s barely enough for another big injury and we don’t know what’s going to happen -”
“This is a big injury!” Cassie gestured to his foot. “I can pretty much see your bone and don’t think I can’t see how it’s all swollen up. And is blood even meant to go black? We don’t know how bad this is James! We shouldn’t risk -”
“You don’t know. I know that it feels fine. I’m not wasting the potion on this when -”
James pressed his lips together. He'd said something he shouldn't. “Nothing. I just don’t think we should waste it.”
Cassie narrowed her eyes. “Bullshit. When what?”
James didn’t meet her eyes, but began to wrap the bandage, slowly and systematically around his foot and ankle. It was a lot neater than when Cassie had attempted it the previous night. For some reason, this irritated her all the more.
“When. What?” She said, gritted her teeth.
“Look. After I deliver you back to school -” He ignored her bristling at his condescending use of ‘deliver’, “There’s a chance... and just a chance, it’s not definite... that I might end up in a sort of... messy situation.”
Cassie didn’t follow for a second. When she did, her eyes widen and her stomach dropped with dismay. This was exactly as she’d dreaded back at camp. Dreaded, and been assured it wouldn’t happen. “You mean...”
“Like I said, it’s just a chance -”
“But you might have to, what, fight your way out?”
“Don’t freak out. We didn’t tell you because we knew you’d react like this...”
It infuriated Cassie all the more that her reaction to the deception had been talked about behind her back. “React? I wouldn’t have allowed it! There’s no way I’d go along with something like that -”
“That doesn’t make it ok -” Cassie said, hotly.
“You’re overreacting -”
“Apparently I’m reacting just as you predicted!” Cassie stood up, her legs heavy from the arduous day but she was so angry she couldn’t keep still. “This is bullshit. Everyone keeping me in the dark like I can’t handle it -"
“It’s not that. You’ve got enough to deal with -”
“Exactly! I can handle all of that, what’s the difference? I need to know exactly what I’m walking in to. It isn’t fair.” She found herself pacing, torn between wanting to stalk away and not wanting to leave James in his state. Even after this.
Annoyingly, he was staying perfectly calm and collected. “You know exactly what you’re walking in to. This isn’t about you. It’s about me. And I’m fine with it -”
“Fine with it? You’re hurt, James.”
“For now. Lucky for me we’ve still got a good week or so...” He attempted humour. Cassie was beyond the point that she could recognise that.
Cassie paced the small, claustrophobic space between the steep, cliff-like mountain edge towering about them and the dense, thorny trees back the way they’d come. She recognised on some level that she was being irrational. There was nothing she could do about it now. They were here. She didn’t like it. But she’d have to deal with it.
But it was that feeling of anger, of being treated like a child – like someone too weak to handle it, of being lied to... it was feeling more like her nightmares. Impossible to control. Only this time, it wasn’t the guilt and shame and despair of being the one who’s fault it all was. This time she felt that betrayal like Al would have.
And, of course, that brought with it all those nightmare feelings of guilt and despair.
She didn’t know if it was the exhaustion from the long day, the constant worry that James was hiding his injury, anger at being deceived, the guilt about Al, about James... the whole helplessness of being utterly unable to control her emotions – everything she’d been working so hard to try and do...
Cassie found herself weak, the strength draining out of her limbs and she slid down to the ground against the cliff edge. It was frustrating – humiliating – but once the tears started they wouldn’t stop.
She pulled her knees to her chest and buried her face in her arms. It was silly, she couldn’t exactly hide it now, but she didn’t want James seeing her face. She could see him from the corner of her eye, not knowing what to do. He shifted as if to try and stand up – whether to comfort her or not, she didn’t know. But she knew she couldn’t have him near her right now.
“Don’t!” She probably sounded hysterical. If even understandable at all. But he didn’t come towards her. Went back to what he was doing before, unpacking for the night. Slowly, with his foot in that condition, but steadily.
She should help, she knew. She should apologise, stop crying, anything. But the tears wouldn’t stop, her shoulders and all her limbs still weak and heavy. The utter lethargy in her whole body wouldn’t allow her to get up and get busy to try and stop thinking about it all.
The rational part of her couldn’t win out over that. All she could do was sit there and let the tears try and drain it all out of her. She was supposed to be making things right. But it seemed like every decision she made to try and do that was just making everything worse. Who was she kidding –thinking she could do this? Was James right, back at camp? Was she just a kid; naive enough to think she could do this?
She’d been driven all this time by the need to make things right. To just try. But it every time she tried she made it worse for someone... what was the point? Could she bear it if she made things worse for Al again? She’d already given him so much reason to hate her, to never want to see her again. Even now – sure she was trying but he’d already been their prisoner for so long. If she was better somehow, if she’d mastered Occlumens sooner...
And added to that – she was going to get his brother hurt. James was going to risk his life so that Cassie could carry out that plan that he’d been against in the first place. If anything happened to James, how could Al forgive that? They were brothers. They loved one another in their weird, fierce, loyal way. Wasn’t that why Cassie and Al had become friends in the first place? That love for their families?
It was a long time before Cassie had nothing left to cry. She felt completely dried out. Her head throbbed. Her face felt filthy.
It was dark now. James had already retired to the tent. He’d left her out some food. She forced herself to pick at it – having accepted now, that this was it. Whether she liked it or not, tomorrow was happening. And if it was anything like today, she’d need the energy.
He wasn’t asleep. She was familiar enough with his breathing by now to tell that. But he was on his side, facing towards the canvas wall of the tent. He was willing to give her that privacy. Willing, or so uncomfortable that he had to.
She could just go to sleep, if she wanted. Without saying anything. He was giving her that.
Of course, whether she could sleep or not was another matter.
She said it anyway. “What if we’re too late?” Her voice was just a whisper in the dark. “What if I just keep making everything worse?” It was the most gut-deep of her worries.
James was quiet for so long she thought he might be pretending to be asleep.
“Then we try anyway.” He said, eventually.
Cassie probably should have predicted he’d say that. It was what she’d known she’d have to do anyway. That drive to try hadn’t gone away. It never had – not since Ryan had first disappeared. It was the reason she’d never given up on hope. The reason everyone else thought she was mad. It was a trait, she realised, that she shared with the whole Potter family. The drive to keep going even when it seemed that there was no way out.
Right now, she just couldn’t decide if it was good or a bad thing.
“I won’t have anyone else hurt because of me.” She said, trying to find a way to voice her dilemma. Of course she would try. Of course she would keep going. She had to.
But there had to be something she could do to stop other people getting hurt.
She sensed James was stopping himself retorting. Probably something along the lines of how it was his choice. But he didn’t. He didn’t even say ‘good night’. He wouldn’t say anything.
He probably thought there was nothing she could do about it.
He was wrong.
The next day just made Cassie more determined.
James had been struggling.
His attempts to power through the previous day had taken their toll. His exhaustion was showing by mid-morning. Every so often he’d trip, stumble, stagger – stifling grunts of pain as he’d accidentally put the extra weight onto his foot.
His breathing, usually so strong and steady – usually something Cassie could use to anchor herself to the present when she was feeling so faint herself – was shallow, heavy, uneven.
And, just to top it off, a lot of that was her fault.
She’d awoken to rough shaking in a state of sort of pre-panic no less than five times during the night. It was startling. But better than the alternative, she told herself grimly. It put her – both of them – back in their places. Where they belonged. They were reluctant allies in this. Nothing more.
It still worried her though. The nightmares had never had the chance to properly begin. James had been sure to wake her before that. But what did that mean about his own sleep? Had he been keeping himself awake to make sure she wasn’t trapped in her dreams? She’d voiced her concern at one point in the early hours of the morning before the morning light brought with it her inhibitions. He’d retorted shortly that he was a light sleeper.
No one was that light a sleeper.
The plan had been forming last night when she’d gotten over the hysterical part of her despair. It wasn’t a great one. But, to be quite honest, none of this was ideal. It could go horribly wrong. So could any of this. In fact, if you considered the injured James and lack of medical help, it already had.
As usual, she had to try.
When they stopped for lunch – an insistence on Cassie’s part when James’ breathing had become startlingly laboured – she brought up the topic. In a roundabout way. She was counting on his exhaustion to keep him off guard. She knew personally how hard it was to keep your mind engaged when your body was weak.
“You – all of you back at camp. You haven’t used a wand in...?”
“Years.” James sat on a fallen tree, his foot propped up. Cassie hadn’t mentioned anything about any more potion for it. She’d keep him happy. They wouldn’t argue again. “Not since that first week when we learnt they could find us.”
“Do you think you still could?” She asked, conversationally, picking at a bag of nuts and seeds.
James shrugged his shoulders, not quite able or willing to keep them straight. They slumped back into his tired posture immediately. “Hopefully. I might need to one day.”
“Your aunt can, obviously. But she’s not exactly normal.” Cassie recalled how Hermione Granger had done things with a wand that Cassie hadn’t known were possible, back when they were practicing Occlumency. Of course, there was a lot that Cole hadn’t taught the students nowadays.
James shrugged and the fleeting ghost of a smile crossed his face.
“What about Ryan? You said he got the hang of apparating pretty quickly. And he’s good at making all of our potions -” Potions they really should have been a bit more careful with. “- Do you think he’d be able to.”
James shrugged again. “He’s pretty talented. Picks things up really quickly. Even if he was rusty he’d pick it up again soon enough.” He raised his eyes to look at Cassie for the first time. “You don’t have to worry about him so much, you know. He can handle himself. Between him and Al I don’t know how you sleep at night.”
I don’t, clearly.
James realised what he’d said, breaking their fragile truce, and winced slightly.
Cassie decided not to let the conversation go there.
“What is it?” She asked. “What is it that makes him able to do these things? Why can he apparate and I can’t?”
She wondered if she’d given too much away, but James’ tired eyes didn’t flicker with suspicion like she half expected. He really was in bad shape.
“He’s a fighter.” James said. “He’ll work so hard, try so hard at everything. He was so determined to be useful and to be able to help you when he needed to. The whole time, he told me he was going to reach his sister one day. He was determined to. You need that.”
“And I don’t have it?” Cassie felt truly unsettled at the thought of that. Didn’t she want this more than anything in the world right now? For Al to be safe. To see him for herself. To be with him again. Didn’t she have enough determination for that? Was she that weak?
“Sure you do. You’re here aren’t you?”
It was Cassie’s turn to shrug.
“You don’t give yourself enough credit. You’ve been working your mind to the maximum getting this Occlumency thing down. Meanwhile, you haven’t been sleeping. If you were at your best of course you’d get it. You and Ryan are more alike than you see.”
Cassie leant back and stared up at the peak of the hill they were approaching. “I just miss him. I only just got him back and now -”
Now they were separated again. At least there was a plan this time. At least they both understood.
“All the more reason to make sure this works.” James said. “I said you were alike. The way you worry for him? That’s how he feels about you. He didn’t show it but he wasn’t happy with this plan, you know.”
Another thing that had contributed to Cassie’s enduring guilt. “I know.” She swallowed. “But he knows I’m coming back. He knows I’ll do anything.”
James’ ghost smile came back. “He knows how much you’re like him. That’s why he’s worried. He knows you’ll do whatever it takes and more.”
Whatever it takes and more. If she was as like Ryan as James said, she could do this. Occlumency or no Occlumency – she was stronger now than she had been. She was more determined. This guilt wouldn’t do.
No one else would get hurt because of her.
The next two days were a strange combination of horrible and bearable.
Horrible because James grew weaker, more irritable and more stubborn by the hour. If Cassie hadn’t had an agenda of her own she would have been terrified that they wouldn’t even make it. They’d had another freezing evening up in the mountains, and she could feel him violently shivering underneath the blankets. Even she wasn’t that cold. There was definitely something more wrong with him.
Fortunately, he wouldn’t have to deal with it any longer. Of that, she was determined. He’d be back to camp safe and sound where her far more capable brother and his extremely capable aunt could heal him quickly and simply.
That was why it was more bearable – the alternative agenda. This newfound, absolute determination that she wouldn’t add another person to the list she’d hurt. Or put in danger. Not even James Potter.
She’d been periodically forcing him to have rest stops. The tables had turned. But he hadn’t even been able to refuse. He’d genuinely, desperately needed them. His face was constantly covered in a sheen of sweat, his face was pale and the circles under his eyes prominent. He was in a bad way. It took most of his energy to walk and talk. He’d begun to give up on the talking part.
Those rest stops were all a part of the plan. At each one, James would collapse on to the closest peace of even terrain and gulp down water, or just close his eyes. Cassie would carefully put down all of her things – all of the things he might need... and disappear for a few minutes. She’d just be stretching her legs, she’d say. Just keeping an eye out for any food. Any excuse to disappear into the trees. Then she could try.
Try and apparate.
It hadn’t gone well to start with. She thought she’d just try and apparate a few metres – she could see the space she wanted to be in, for Christ’s sake. It should have been easy. But, same as back at camp, it wasn’t. She wasn’t sure if it was because her body was still weak from the weeks of poor sleep, constant stress and exhaustion. She wasn’t sure if it was because she was having trouble fully clearing her mind of the all the guilt, worry and crap it was cluttered with. She wasn’t sure if it was because her mind was now trained to be fully closed to everyone, constantly ready to ‘make the switch’ and misdirect anyone that might try and delve into her mind.
It could be any of the above.
Surely, if someone was this determined, it should just happen? Apparently not. And she couldn’t be away for too long or James would be suspicious. Even in his sluggish state.
“If you get hurt,” She’d started, at lunch time the next day. James had braced himself as if for an argument that he really didn’t have the energy for, but she interrupted, “No, I don’t want to argue about it. Just... say if you did get hurt...” Much like now. “... would you still be able to apparate and get away?”
James sighed. “You don’t have to worry about me. Just worry about your bit. As soon as you’re where you need to be, I’ll make a run for it. I’ll be fine by then, “ He indicated his foot, “I should make it out of bounds easily and be gone.”
"But if you do get hurt.” Cassie prompted.
James half smiled, “Don’t worry.” He repeated. “Even if I’m bleeding out -” Cassie’s eyes widened. “- I can apparate. I can do it half conscious. I’ve been doing it a dozen times a day for the past three years.”
Morbid thoughts aside, it comforted her. This was the right thing to do. She wouldn’t be leaving James helpless. He’d be able to apparate back to camp easily. And she’d get to Al quicker. This was the right path.
At mid-afternoon, they must have been at higher altitude than they’d been so far.
James had needed another break. This time he’d just sunk back against a tree, leant his head back and closed his eyes. Cassie slipped away, this time she didn’t even need an excuse. James didn’t even appear to notice her leaving.
As she pushed through a few tall thorn bushes, the air suddenly felt cooler, clearer, crisper. Something was different. Something made her push that little bit further through the trees.
They’d spent the past couple of days in thick undergrowth, picking their way through heavily wooded mountains. But today, they’d reached higher ground. The bush was thinner, sparser. Cassie sensed it before she saw it.
She felt like she’d truly opened her eyes for the first time.
She’d known they were high – but this...
The mountains seemed to go on forever. Majestic hills as far as the eye could see, a rolling purple brown, marble-like surface with dramatic scarring from age old landslides. Thick forest, sparse bush, low cloud clinging to the topmost hills.
The air suddenly seemed clearer. In that moment, she didn’t know how, Cassie’s mind cleared. The worry, guilt, despair... all seemed to vanish with one breath to be replace with awe.
In that instant, she wasn’t Cassie Cooper any more. She wasn’t someone that had hurt, screwed over and endangered the people she loved. She wasn’t someone under pressure. She wasn’t anyone.
She could do anything.
She must have been hungrier than she thought. Hungrier, more exhausted, sudden loss of mental function.
Something made her do it.
In that instant, she was so filled with awe that she knew she could do anything. Somehow, it became more than determination. It was an energy; complete certainty that she could do anything she wanted.
Her toes were already inches from the drop.
It didn’t matter. The energy filled her. She stepped into air.
And then she wasn’t there anymore.
A.N. Thanks for reading! Like I said last time, this is the last chapter before we get a glimpse of Al... I for one am excited for his return. Thanks so much to everyone that reviewed my last update, it was great to hear how many of you are still with me - and made me super motivated to get this chapter up!
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