It was hot.
Cassie knew that.
She knew she ought to be hot; tramping through dense forest, kicking through scrub; batting away loose branches and vines...
Of course, it was normal that her face, her hair, her shirt ought to be damp.
So why was she shivering?
The back of James’ t-shirt, ten meters ahead of her – or what she could see of it, anyway, through the trees – was drenched through. She could hear his heavy breathing as he fought through the worst of the wilds, making her way slightly easier. She knew that was what he was doing. And it did bother her. But, she knew rationally, there was no other way. She was barely dragging herself along as it was, only one afternoon in.
She was grateful.
Still furious that he was there, yes. But grateful. It was a strange feeling.
But nothing stranger than anything else going through her head at the moment. She was trying so hard to keep her mind focused on the here and now – how to survive, how to keep going. The bare essentials. She was used to that – it was exactly like climbing. But that felt so long ago. It was harder now.
After so many weeks furiously analysing her every thought, every memory, how much to keep under an impenetrable guard , what was real and what was not...
It was hard.
And she couldn’t afford to keep succumbing to her thoughts. Her every iota of concentration needed to be on what she was doing, where she was going, how to keep going. She couldn’t afford to let her mind drift away, only to be yanked back to reality with a bang as she kicked a fallen tree, tripped on loose vines, or felt the sharp sting as nettles whipped her bare arms and legs.
Too often she’d been brought back to reality with a jolt – ...from where, though? It scared her that she didn’t know. She had to be in control of her mind. Had to... – and been overcome with panic as she momentarily lost sight of James ahead of her. It was as if she suddenly lost all sense of purpose, of direction, until she caught sight of the faded red t-shirt ahead of her.
She had to stay in control.
It didn’t matter that her hands were like ice, that she was shivering when she ought to feel overheated. She was always cold these days. It was just the stress, that was all. She’d be back to normal...
When would she be back to normal? The lack of a clear, precise goal or time frame sent her into another spiral of panic. She suddenly understood what James had meant – she was just a kid. A seventeen year old kid with no idea how she was going to pull this off, how she was going to cope with this suffocating pressure and...
Jolt. Back to reality. A reality where she’d not realised James had stopped, turned around and come back to her.
“Are you all right?” He carried on, his voice carrying only a minor hint of uncertainty.
It took Cassie a few seconds to register what was happening. She rubbed her clammy, pounding forehead and took in a juddering breath before answering shortly. “Yes.”
James’ eyes narrowed as he looked her up and down. “You stopped –“ Cassie realised she had. “- and you’re... look, I told you we could stop for a drink when you need to. You just have to tell me...”
“You’re not. You need to keep drinking or...”
James’ expression didn’t change as he eyed her with uncertainty. And hostility. Might as well note that that was there too.
“We stopped to drink an hour ago. We should keep going.” Cassie was irritated that she felt compelled to justify herself. She held her head high and her shoulders back, stubbornly.
James stood stock still for a long moment. “Fine.” He turned back in the direction he’d come, clearing the way with perhaps a little more force than before.
Cassie immediately let her shoulders drop and her head sag down in exhaustion. Her back ached. Her legs ached. Her head ached. Even her eyes ached. She probably could have done with some water, she realised now. But she wasn’t going to let that weakness show.
But before she could even take a step, her head began to swim again, the throbbing becoming overwhelming. She drew in a sharp breath and clamped her hands to her temples, begging it to die down.
When she opened her eyes again, the throbbing has subsided slightly.
But the regular sound of thrashing through the trees ahead of her had stopped.
“I’m fine.” She snapped, barely even taking in that he’d actually managed to say her name and convey genuine concern rather than dislike. Just to prove her point she stamped her way past him, holding her arms up in front of her to protect her face from the shrubbery flicking by.
She ignored him, her breathing frequent and shallow but she still forced herself to pick up one foot, then the next, as quickly and steadily as she could.
One foot. Then the next. And just ignore those little twigs and splinters snagging on your skin...
Her headache was back with vengeance. With each heavy step it flared up, almost blinding in its intensity.
One foot. Then the next.
“...listen to me...”
Her head was all she could think about now. The light felt too bright. She had to squint. And the sounds of James’ behind her were fading... was he falling behind? That didn’t seem right...
One foot. Then the next.
The throbbing was a constant. It was the first thing she was aware of as she came round.
Before she had time to gather her thoughts, before the usual clamp down on her mind – the defence that she’d become so accustomed to throwing up every day...
Then her mind was her own again. Then she realised she had no idea what had happened.
It was dark. Dim, anyway. There was the warm flicker of golden fire light. But it had only been mid-afternoon...
“What -” She attempted to sit up, but her head swam and before she could acclimatise to the movement she was roughly jolted back down again by one shoulder.
“Don’t move.” James’ voice. Brisk and unaffectionate though it was, the familiarity gave her some kind of comfort.
She relaxed a fraction, and in doing so realised she was laid outside, on a mat. With a heavy blanket over her. Everything came together in an instant and she felt a rush of gratitude – bewilderment, yet, but gratitude – that James... well. He must have done this.
“What... what happened?” She asked, watching as he – having made sure she was lying down – turned back to where he was feeding kindling onto a small fire.
“You hadn’t had enough water.” He said, shortly. The unspoken ‘like I told you’ hanging in the air between them. “You fainted. You hit your head.”
Cassie remembered the dizziness. The thirstiness. The determination not to be the one to ask to stop for a rest, a drink... but that wasn’t what was making her faint. Sure, that might have triggered it. But the way she felt so weak all of the time, the way her thoughts felt at times like a violent storm and others like just a vague mist...
Hermione had been right. Hermione, Harry, Ryan, all of them. The occlumency had made her weak. The exhaustion from throwing up a solid wall and the strain of having to create that perfect memory to replace her own, the overwhelming anxiety about Al, about this enormous responsibility on her shoulders...
Her head throbbed painfully again, dragging her back to reality. Her breath caught in her throat at the sudden jolt.
It caught James’ attention immediately. By the time she opened her eyes again he was leaning over her, eyes narrowed as he appraised her state.
“Does it hurt?”
It took a moment for her to realise he meant her head. Where she’d apparently hit it.
“No, I... I don’t... no. No it’s ok, I think -” It was true, actually. The throbbing was there, but that had been there before the wound. She couldn’t actually feel any wound on her head at all.
“It shouldn’t do. I used a bit of one of Ryan’s potions. He had them labelled, I’m sure it was the right one -”
Ryan had solemnly handed over a collection of carefully-labelled bottles when they’d been just about to leave. The dreamless sleep potion, pain relief, pepper up – all in small, individual bottles, their contents murky and ominous. Well one, mainly. That dreaded sleep potion.
One thing Cassie was sure about – she was not touching that stuff.
Cassie’s eyes fell on the small bottle of pain relief potion. Almost a third of it was gone.
“You used that much?!” She demanded, wincing slightly with her frown.
“Yeah.” James looked slightly defensive, “Well I didn’t know how much to use for it to work. I didn’t want... you know. I wanted it to work.”
For a moment it could have been almost a gesture of genuine care. But...
“We can’t afford for this to happen again. I needed to make sure you’d be ok for tomorrow.”
“But there’s only that bottle plus one more left. What if something serious happened -”
“Nothing serious is going to happen.”
“But what if it does?”
James paused for a moment. Then shrugged. “Then we’ll deal with it when it comes.”
She couldn’t really argue with that. “Ok. Well. Thank you.” She said, shortly.
“For what?” He turned back to the fire.
“For...” For not just ditching me. For taking care of me. Neither of those really felt like something she could say. “Just thanks.”
There was another pause of several seconds. “Just tell me next time you need a break.” His voice sounded slightly strained but carefully modulated.
“I didn’t...” Cassie began to protest automatically before realising, to her dismay, that he was right. Of course she’d needed a rest. She hadn’t been able to see straight. But would a few minutes rest and a sip of water have been enough? She felt like she needed days in bed. Days in bed with a dreamless sleep, no waking up drenched in sweat and shaking in anxiety, no fighting to stay awake to avoid all that... just... peace.
But that wasn’t something she could afford right now.
“Ok. Maybe I should have had a quick break.” She forced herself to say, with difficulty. “I didn’t mean to... I didn’t realise I was going to...”
“Because we lost about four hours. That might not sound a lot but if we keep it up... Well. We’ll just drag this whole thing out a lot longer than it needs to be.”
Cassie had known that he hadn’t liked her. She’d accepted that for... well, for weeks and weeks now. He hadn’t trusted her to start with, he’d been bitter about the amount of time she’d been spending with his brother and she hadn’t helped the whole situation by betraying them all. So it was fair enough that he pretty much detested her.
But it still stung. To have every comment that might have been one of concern followed by an brusque dismissal of her feelings.
Why had he come then? Just to feel like he was contributing to the cause? It definitely wasn’t to spend some quality bonding time... ‘drag this whole thing out longer than we have to’...
He could at least be civil.
“Well neither of us wants that.” She echoed the coldness in his voice.
After a couple of seconds he sat back onto his knees from where he’d been leant over the fire, a hand gripped in his hair. Cassie could see his profile silhouetted in the firelight. He could so almost be Al, if she just half-closed her eyes...
If it were Al, he wouldn’t be snapping at her about losing time.
If it were Al, he would genuinely care if she were hurt.
If it were Al there wouldn’t be this heavy tension and coldness around them.
But. For Al to be here, they wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place.
“Look.” His voice made her jump, she’d been so lost in her train of thought that for a second that voice could have been her friends. “All either of us wants is to get there. To get there, to get my brother, to get my mum and to get out. And this is the only way. I can put up with it if you can.”
Again, ‘put up with it’ stung. And it annoyed her that it did. It wasn’t like she wanted his approval or anything. She wanted the same as him, she just wanted to pull this off and have Al and Ginny safe. It shouldn’t hurt.
“Fine.” She swallowed, blaming the pain on her head and lying it back down. But she couldn’t get too comfortable. She couldn’t afford to relax completely when she was tired like this. One thing she wouldn’t do was give James Potter the satisfaction of seeing her at her worst – after the nightmares. She was counting on the tent remembering to do that soundproofing thing – she couldn’t bear the thought of him just the other side of a thin sheet of canvas hearing everything.
There were a quiet few seconds, in which she shook that image out of her head. But, as if he could read her thoughts, James spoke.
“We should probably think about getting some sleep. I’d quite like to get up early tomorrow and make some ground before it gets too hot. Then we can have a longer break for lunch.”
It was a good idea. But it slightly irritated Cassie that she could sense that the ‘longer break for lunch’ was directed at her.
“Ok.” She said, carefully calmly. “You go ahead and get to bed if you want to. I’m just going to... I’d just like some more fresh air. For a little while.” If she was going to be awake all night she certainly wasn’t going to spend the whole time cooped up in canvas walls.
“Oh. Well I... uh. I was just going to sleep out here. Once you’d gone to bed. I mean...” He rubbed a hand slightly agitatedly through his hair, scowling slightly.
“What?” Cassie was mildly thrown to see him acting so uneasy. Was the thought of being under the same roof as her really that distressing? They’d be in separate compartments, for god’s sake... “What’s wrong with the tent?”
“What’s right with the tent is the better question...” He muttered, kicking a stone over the fire.
Cassie frowned, glancing from James, to the tent, and back again. He wasn’t giving it away. Just scowling at the fire again as if it deserved some of the blame for whatever this tent situation was.
She scrutinized the tent again. It looked fine. Pretty worn, fair enough, but they’d been living in tents in worse condition for weeks, months... years, for James. And Harry had made sure they had one of the better tents for their trip. It was just... fine.
“I don’t...” Cassie began to voice her question and James sat back with a heavy, uncomfortable sigh.
“It’s fine. You can sleep in it just fine. It’ll do the job. It’s just...” He stopped again with a sharp exhale. If Cassie didn’t know better, she might say he was acting kind of... well, awkward.
An ominous feeling crept over her. This couldn’t be good. She didn’t know what it was but it couldn’t be good.
“As a tent, it’s fine.” James carried on, shortly. “It’s the... it’s the, uh, magical properties. Something’s not right with it. It’s meant to sort itself out, you know -” She did know. Like how the tent had automatically accommodated for the fact that the whole group wanted... needed... to be together on the night that Al and Ginny were taken. It magically adapted to the needs of the group. Didn’t it? “- But it must be wearing out. It’s not... it’s not split. Like it should be.”
It took Cassie a moment to figure out what he meant.
“You mean...” She swallowed. “No compartments.”
No compartments. No magically adapted, sound proof compartments designed to keep prying eyes away from Cassie and her nightmares.
Her ominous gut-feeling was turning out to be on track.
“No compartments.” James was confirming. “And pretty... small.”
Cassie took a calming breath and forced herself not to show the panic that threatened, as it had earlier in the day, overwhelm her.
She could not and would not share a compartment with James Potter.
He could not know about the nightmares.
She would not let him see her as any more weak than he already did.
She directed her attention at the problem at hand. “Do you think it doesn’t... realise? That there are two of us? Maybe it was because I was... you know... passed out?”
“I don’t know. I just know that I’ve spent the afternoon trying to figure out a way of fixing it without picking up a freaking wand, and I’ve got nothing. You can’t even... there’s not even any room to just hang something down the middle...”
He was awfully disgruntled about this. Of course, so was she, but Cassie felt she had a much more valid reason. She didn’t want anyone to find out her secret, her weakness. His only reasoning was an unrelenting dislike for her.
Of course, even in the best of circumstances she would have been loath to have shared a compartment with James Potter. Mutual dislike brought with it a distinctly uncomfortable shared atmosphere. But if it was that or... well...
“So you were just going to sleep out here?” Cassie asked, mildly surprised. She’d half expected him to have claimed it immediately. Or at least flip a coin.
“I don’t mind.” He said, brusquely. “I quite often sleep outside in the summer, if I get sick of the others.”
“But it’s...” Cassie searched for a less melodramatic word but failed. “... kind of dangerous. In our... in this situation.”
For a moment the golden glow of the fire lit a tiny smirk on James’ face. “What, and four walls of canvas are going to protect us?”
“Oh.” Another chilling reminder of how isolated, how alone, and how vulnerable they were. “I suppose. But I mean, it doesn’t really seem fair.”
“You’ve spent half the afternoon passed out from exhaustion. I don’t think fair’s got anything to do with it.”
She could see that he had a point. Somewhere under that condescending tone that she had to use every fibre of her remaining strength to ignore.
But it was infuriating. It made sense that they should be in separate compartments, sure. That was vital to her plan of not letting a single soul know about the nightmares. And it made sense that she should have the tent given, according to James, she needed a more sound nights rest than he did.
But it was that tone. That tone that suggested that she was weak. Fragile. Pathetic.
But they couldn’t share the tent. They just couldn’t.
“Fine.” Cassie forced out, attempting to sound grateful. But failing. “Thank you.”
“No problem.” James failed equally miserably to sound pleasant.
“I’ll just... I’ll just clean up a bit then.” Cassie climbed slowly to her feet, avoiding the throbbing that came with sudden movements as much as possible, and headed in the direction of the sound of running water.
It was as she reached the stream that the first rain fell.
It took a few seconds for her to realise what it meant, her hands cupped in the stream, watching each drop form small ripples.
Then they began to fall faster and faster, harder and harder.
She sat back on her heels and looked up to the black canopy of trees above her head that failed to block the downpour.
Are you freaking serious? She wanted to scream.
Rain meant shelter. And here, shelter meant a very small tent for herself and for...
Rain meant they had no choice but to share the tent.
As the rain soaked through her hair and ran down her face she took a couple of calming breaths.
It would be ok. The repetitive patter of rain on the waxed, canvas tent meant that the task of staying awake would be easier. She wouldn’t be able to sleep even if she wanted to. So the only problem would be that she’d be sharing a very close space with James. And neither of them were going to enjoy that.
She stood up and made her way back to their camp. James was stood, stationary, in the pouring rain. His hood was drawn up but hair still plastered to his forehead.
He didn’t say anything.
But he hadn’t sheltered in the tent.
“What are you doing?”
She had to raise her voice slightly to make herself heard over the rain.
He didn’t move for a moment, but to shrug. “I’m not...” He shrugged again. “It’s still yours if you want it.”
Cassie was speechless for a moment. He wouldn’t actually stay out in this, surely...
“Don’t be stupid.” She didn’t voice her concern or bewilderment. “We don’t have a choice. Either of us stays out here and we’ll catch a cold,” She remembered his point earlier. “The last thing we need is to be held up again. We’ll just have to...” She looked at the tent; a tiny, feeble structure in the downpour. “... how small did you say it was?”
After the awkwardness of crawling into the tent, witnessing just how cramped it would be – particularly with the damp belongings they had to drag in from the rain – and realising they were each going to have to change their soaked clothes from underneath blankets, a slight peace was achieved.
But it was small. Very small.
The peace that was achieved was ever so slightly ruined by the fact that if either of them moved so much as a centimetre they’d be touching.
Cassie was very certain that the instant there was a dry night she would be the first to volunteer to sleep outside.
The damp, clammy skin as the very small tent space began to heat up from their bodies, the coffin-like space they each had to occupy, and the nervous tension Cassie had grown to associate with exhaustion and fighting the urge to sleep...
It was as uncomfortable as she’d envisioned.
And she had to make it through the whole night without succumbing to sleep.
It worried her that it surely meant that she’d be just as weak and exhausted tomorrow – maybe more so – as she’d been today. She couldn’t afford to keep letting her body dictate what she could and couldn’t do. Surely it was a case of mind over matter? And she knew her mind was strong. The last month had proved that.
It was just infuriating that her body kept letting her down.
“I didn’t always used to be this weak.” The sound of her own voice surprised her. She hadn’t meant to speak. Given the awkward circumstances she hadn’t planned to utter anything beyond a short ‘good night’.
There was a short silence in which James didn’t reply, or even move. Cassie might have thought that he’d fallen asleep if they hadn’t been so close that she could hear that he’d held his breath.
“I know it probably looks like I’m pathetic. That I can’t even make a single day. It’s annoying for me too, you know. I used to be able to do what I want. I used to be able to climb the Astronomy tower. I used to be able to do flips and jumps and stuff that most people can’t. So it’s probably even more annoying for me, being like this.”
She didn’t know where this confession had come from. It certainly wasn’t something she’d intended to tell anyone, let alone James Potter. This was something that no one except maybe Ryan could understand. At Hogwarts running, climbing, gymnastics... they’d been her escape. They’d been private. But Ryan had known her his whole life. He’d seen himself her compete, race, perform in virtually every sport. He’d said himself, her transformation to this fragile Cassie was shocking.
There was another pause in which, this time, Cassie clamped her lips together to stop herself spilling out anymore deep set fears and angers. It was stupid. It wasn’t like telling him that was going to achieve anything. He probably wouldn’t even believe her...
“I don’t think you’re weak.” James shifted as he spoke and without warning, brushed her arm with his own. Cassie immediately felt both of them stiffen and pull away. “I never thought that. And I’m not annoyed. Not at you. I can see that you’ve... what you’ve... learning occlumency. That shows you’re not weak. It’s just that at the same time you’ve been so...” He stopped, clearly unsure what to say without her snapping at him.
“Tired.” She supplied. “It’s just... exhausting.”
“Yeah. And you can tell. So what’s annoying is that there’s nothing I... nothing we can do about it. To help.”
Cassie could see, now. She could see why, despite his cool facade, the reason he’d insisted on being the one to guide her back to Hogwarts. It was that need to be helping again. The need to do something.
There was another pause, though this time more genuinely peaceful.
“Well you’re here now.” Cassie said, quietly.
“Right.” He let out a big breath, sounding weary yet Cassie was almost certain she could hear a smile in his voice. “And what’ll help now is for you to get some sleep. I’ll wake you up when we need to get going.”
With that, clearly enough amicability for one night, he rolled onto his side away from her and fell silent.
Cassie lay still. Suddenly feeling all the more alone. Even if they could maintain this... not friendship, not in the slightest... not even civility, just... understanding. It was just one more person she’d have to feel guilty for lying to.
After a while, the tent was filled with his soft, slow breathing. An undisturbed sleep.
Cassie rolled the other way, and prepared herself for another sleepless night.
A.N. To everyone that still checks up on my stories, thank you for following and having faith even when it appears I've deserted you! They're often on my mind I just have less and less time to sit and type it all out so they've had to take a backseat. But if you've kept with me, thank you.
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