“I’ve told you everything I know.” Her voice was weak, wavering. Her head ducked, hair in front of her eyes, shoulders slumped in exhaustion. “Please. I don’t... I don’t know what else you want me to say. I’m sorry I don’t know more, I...”
Cassie wanted nothing more than to sit up straight, shoulders back, to look Cole straight in the eye. To show him with an expression of disgust just how she felt about him. She felt the adrenaline surging through her system, recognising her fury.
But she hid it.
She had to.
And she could. She could do anything she wanted. She knew that now.
Looking up through her hair, still with that fatigued, anxious expression on her face just in case, she saw Cole pressing his lips together. She noticed it all. His suspicion. His frustration. But also his acceptance.
He believed her. He believed the story she’d created for him in her own imagination. She’d seen Buchanan cast the spell in attempt to invade her mind. She knew what to look for now. And it was with icy clarity that she was certain that she’d done what she’d needed to. The wall around her mind was no longer foggy, hazy, confusing. She knew exactly how to keep the right stuff in and the wrong stuff out.
She had utter confidence in her abilities. She was like a new person. Gone was the Cassie that analysed, doubted and despaired over whether she was able. She’d left her behind on a mountaintop.
She had absolute confidence. Absolute focus.
Nearly dying did that to you.
She’d known in the instant she did it that it was crazy. And not just fun-crazy. Actual nearly-killing-yourself, should-be-locked-up crazy. She’d always been the one to take risks. To pull the mad stunts.
But climbing a tower with the necessary skills and experience was a little different to throwing yourself off a cliff when you’d never apparated in your life.
Crazy. Crazy and stupid.
Perhaps the mountain air got to her head. Or perhaps it was the desperation. She wasn’t sure. It was all a bit of a blur.
The only part that was clear was the lurch of her stomach as her body registered that it was falling – fast. The wind whipping her hair back. The hot rush of adrenaline from her core out to her fingertips. A surge of fear. The recognition that dying was not an option. The return of focus.
Then she was gone.
She probably couldn’t have done it again if she’d tried. But she’d done it.
Not well, sure. She’d landed face down on dry, compacted dirt. The impact on her face made her ears ring, her eyes water and she was sure she’d done some damage to her nose.
But she was breathing. She rolled over with a groan. Her body felt heavy, the muscles sore from the instinctive tension as she was falling, the rapid impact with the floor.
But it was a familiar pain. She searched her mind for where she’d felt it before. She saw Al’s face above her, panicked and concerned before breathing a laugh of relief.
Flying. That’s where she’d felt it before. Al teaching her to dive. Misjudging the distance. Catching the ground with a foot, the nose of the broom sticking into the dirt and the fragile human riding it being flung head over heels into the mud.
Sore. Stiff. Out of breath.
Better than the alternative.
It flooded back, what she’d done. The lengths that she’d gone to.
A slightly manic laugh escaped her, at the same time that her stomach squirmed in recognition of the absolute stupidity of what she’d done. It was a bizarre reaction. Her fingers were still shaking uncontrollably. She felt as though her body was bracing her for a realistic emotional reaction to what she’d done, but all she could manage was a brief laugh.
She sat up. The world swam around her. Her eyes couldn’t focus for a second. She closed her eyes and wiped her face gingerly with her sleeve. It came away dark with blood. She touched her throbbing nose with her fingertips. Hot blood coated her nose, her mouth, her chin.
She knew the charm to fix a broken nose. That was one she’d learnt way back. She’d come across it in a book. Only used it once, when Allen had broken all of the fingers on his right hand from a well-placed bludger. He’d been disapproving, of course. It wasn’t a spell approved by the curriculum. But he hadn’t wanted anyone to know he’d been hurt. So he’d let her.
Cassie’s eyes snapped open as she instinctively reached for her wand, tucked into the waistband of her shorts. The impact with the ground, surely she hadn’t –
She whipped it out and relief flooded through her, feeling it intact. She hadn’t landed on it. Pure luck.
But she hesitated. In one instant she took in her surroundings for the first time, thought about what had to happen next. This was it. The test. Time for her to use the skills that had made her so weak for so long. Time to put the plan into action.
Perhaps a broken nose would work in her favour.
Casting a spell way beyond her grade would not.
Uneasiness settled in as she took in the edge of the forest behind her. She’d managed to apparate into a field. She wasn’t sure where she’d been intending to go. It was all a blur. And she may not even be where she was aiming. She could have completely misjudged. Her adrenaline flooded brain could have taken her to the first place of safety it thought of.
She might be lost.
Lost, with no map, not broom, no food or water.
Her decision was becoming stupider by the minute.
What if she wasn’t even found? Her nose continued to bleed freely and now her stomach growled to remind her that she’d left James before they could eat.
If she wasn’t found, how long could she last before she became too weak?
The surge of panic was quashed by the icy clarity that she’d recognised on the mountaintop.
No, idiot. She told herself, standing up. Her legs felt reluctant to hold her, but they managed. You can do anything. There’s always a way.
She looked down at her wand and smiled. She wasn’t running anymore. Now she wanted to be found.
She raised her wand, enjoying the warmth that flooded through her arm. Her neglected wand was eager to be used again. It was a comforting feeling of power, a comfort she’d missed for so long. She sent a cascade of red sparks into the darkening sky.
She’d wondered if it would feel different, using magic after all this time. Knowing that it was being traced.
But it didn’t. It felt familiar. Like coming home.
But that wasn’t a comforting thought. It was that thought that, in combination with her clear head and determined focus, filled her with anger that this had been taken away from the Potters. This sense of security and power that was taken for granted by most had been taken away from them. All for standing up for what was right.
Cassie took the anger she felt for every one of the Potters, for every student that had their choices, their personality and their drive taken away from them, and focused it on her plan.
She could do it. And she would do it.
She heard the crack behind her of an approaching wizard. It was followed by three more. She smiled to herself for just a moment, relishing in her newfound confidence.
Before adopting the defeated, despairing, desperate stance of girl running for her life.
And her love.
"Help me – please.”
“We need to get her to the hospital wing.” Buchanan looked... did he actually look concerned for her wellbeing? Surely that was a first.
They still hadn’t fixed her nose, and although it had stopped bleeding and she’d tried to wipe the majority of the blood off her face, she could see it soaked into her t-shirt where it had dripped from her chin. She was sure she looked terrible. She’d never quite managed to lose those circles under her eyes and even with her skin darkened from the sun she was sure she still had that sickly, fatigued glow. In combination with the way she was careful to hold herself, she certainly did look like she needed the hospital wing.
But that wasn’t what a girl in love would want.
“No, please.” She stood up and took a couple of staggering steps towards the two teachers. “You have to let me see him. You said he’s safe but I... I need to see him please -”
For the first time in her performance, Cassie felt uneasy. It was slightly too easy to be the desperate girl. This was how she’d felt for the past two months. Desperate to see him again. She wasn’t sure just how different from the desperate girl in love she actually was.
She just knew, in the same way she knew that her mind was strong enough to keep everyone out, that she wouldn’t be able to rest until she saw him.
Cole and Buchanan actually took a step back. She really must look horrible. And probably smell horrible too. They exchanged looks. Cassie saw the discomfort but she couldn’t place why.
“You said I could see him.” She cried, “You promised. You said you were keeping him safe. Please, I need to -”
If they’d been uncomfortable before, they certainly were now. Harry Potter had been right about that. They had no idea how to handle an impassioned teen, having dulled the hundreds that called this castle home for too long.
“After you’re seen by the nurse.” Cole composed himself. “Your health comes first.”
All heart, that man.
Cassie nodded once and allowed herself to be led down the winding staircase from the Headmaster’s Office to the Hospital Wing. She hoped she was managing to portray ‘girl desperately trying to control her emotions’ well.
She was certainly having trouble controlling her impatience to see Al. And that little bit of dread that she was keeping firmly under wraps. That little bit of dread that he hadn’t forgiven her betrayal.
He’d done so well, she thought. So far, everything that Cole and Buchanan had asked confirmed the prediction she’d made that Al would have blocked them from his mind. That he wouldn’t have allowed them to see how he was feeling. She’d been right. He’d been doing that all along, whether he knew it or not. That was why Buchanan and everyone had never trusted him, but never known his plans. The whole time he’d been at Hogwarts he’d been on guard. He hadn’t let them in.
They hated it. It made her scared for him. Scared for what they might have done to him when he refused to bend to their will.
She was sure Ginny had too. Al certainly had her stubbornness. It had to come from somewhere, and from what they’d said back at camp, it hadn’t been Harry’s.
She’d been careful not to ask anything about Ginny, just like they’d agreed. She was the love-struck girl. She wasn’t thinking straight. She was escaping from the terrible Potters and convinced that the boy she loved needed to be kept safe from his outcast family. She wouldn’t be thinking of his evil mother’s wellbeing. Of course she wouldn’t.
She’d find a way to ask Al. There was always a way. Sure, she was certain they’d never be left alone together. But they’d find a way. They always had before.
If he forgave her, that was.
The shaking in her fingers and the tension in her shoulders – that wasn’t all false. She flinched as she felt a hand on her shoulder.
“It’s ok.” Buchanan looked torn between discomfort and some sort of concern. “You’re safe now. They can’t harm you here.”
Cassie summoned an anxious, apologetic nod. She was relieved that her ‘performance’ was so convincing. But nauseated at being treated like a comrade - like a protégé – by a man she despised.
She knew what she’d created in her mind. She knew that they’d seen it. They saw her as a frightened girl that had been too scared to make a move but been finally driven by love to escape her cruel captors.
It didn’t mean she didn’t hate it.
The halls were empty. Cassie had never seen school like this before. It had never been so quiet. The sound of three sets of footsteps echoing from the high ceiling was unnerving. Adding to her angst.
His name rang out in her mind in time with their steps.
Was he ok? Would he forgive her?
Buchanan must have heard her deep, steadying sigh and interpreted it as nerves.
“I would brace yourself, Miss Cooper.”
Cassie’s imagination immediately leapt to some kind of threat and she tensed. But when she turned to him, Buchanan hadn’t lost that concerned, bothered look.
“What do you mean?” She asked.
He didn’t answer for a long few moments. They reached the hospital wing and Cassie was ushered over to a bed by a nurse that had clearly been briefed about her arrival. She wondered whether the nurse had been summoned in when they’d been alerted that Cassie was here. Or – her stomach churned – whether they’d had need for a nurse to be here all summer anyway.
She saw that there was one other bed half made up at the far end of the ward. It didn’t look as clean and spotless as the one she was being helped into – almost like it had been used recently. The pillow was skewed and the top sheet hanging over the side. The side table was lying on its side next to the bed.
Almost as if someone had made a hasty exit – or been forced to.
She had a bad feeling about it.
“What do you mean, I need to ‘brace myself’?” She repeated, unable to stop looking across at the other used bed as the nurse fussed around her with her wand. “And what happened there? Who was using that bed?”
She realised Cole hadn’t joined them in the hospital wing. She could only assume he was fetching Al. That they were going through with their promise. But it didn’t stop her nerves rising.
Had that been Al’s bed? Why had he needed to be in the hospital wing so recently? What had they done to him?
Buchanan stayed out of the way of the nurse, lingering close to the door.
“Mr Potter has not been as... cooperative. As yourself.” He said, watching the nurse juggle potions and her wand, extracting blood from Cassie’s arm without her feeling a thing.
“What... what do you mean?” Cassie tried to plaster a bewildered look on her face. Her bad feeling was getting worse. She could feel the heavy feeling creeping up from her gut to her chest. She’d known he’d be uncooperative. She’d banked on it. But hearing it made it all the more real. Made the consequences all the more real. “He’s safe now, doesn’t he realise? I thought he knew – I thought he knew I was trying to protect him...”
“He might. But he has been... difficult to read. He hasn’t spoken more than a few words since we picked him up. Even with... encouragement.”
“Well... he must have just been worried.” Cassie said, frantically. “Worried about me. Right? I’m sure this is just a big misunderstanding...” It was all she could do not to leap from the bed and claw Buchanan’s face with her bare hands. Encouragement... that couldn’t mean anything good.
“Don’t worry.” Buchanan said, raising his hands to stop her. “I didn’t want to alarm you. I just didn’t want you to be too shocked. When you see him. He hasn’t been... looking after himself. Very well.”
Cassie didn’t even need to hide her expression to this. The agonizing worry was pure and real.
It would be bad.
“Please.” She whispered. She could feel, for the first time, her adrenaline leeching out her – leaving her weak and heavy. “I have to see him.”
It seemed like an agonisingly long few minutes until Buchanan spoke up again.
“Here he is now...”
It took far longer than it should have for Cassie to process those words. The door had pushed open and the green-eyed boy with the far-too-messy hair was frozen motionless in front of her before she could even make herself breathe.
He looked skinny, was her first thought. And pale.
But he was still Al. He was alive.
“Al!” Cassie heard her own voice come out, involuntarily, like a groan or sob of relief more than anything. Before she could even pause to remember that he might be furious with her at the betrayal, that he might hate her, that he had no idea to play along with the scheme she and his family had come up with... she’d thrown herself up from her bed, still unsteady on her feet, and into his arms.
It was only after she’d buried her face into his neck and breathed in that warm, safe scent, that she even took a second thought.
But whatever betrayal he may have felt, Al’s arms circled her, warm and firm as ever, fitting just as they always did.
For a couple of seconds they clung to one another. Cassie felt his cheek against her hair but had no way of telling what his expression was.
Please, she prayed, the reality of the situation catching up with her initial euphoria. Please, just not disgusted. Not angry. Not betrayed.
She only dared breathe into his ear as she lifted her head slightly. Barely even words, and definitely not a sentence. Nothing that could be detected.
“Follow... my lead...” She kept her lips perfectly still, the words almost lost in the sound of her breath.
If he didn’t hate her before, surely he would now. Cassie certainly hated herself.
For a second his arms froze. She was almost certain he was going to give them away, before they circled her all the more tightly.
She took the opportunity to reach up and pull his face down to hers. His eyes flickered over her whole face, scanning to see if she was ok just like she was with him. His expression didn’t bare any sign of the betrayal or hatred she feared. But... he didn’t look entirely trusting. He was nervous. Anticipating her next move. Like he wasn’t even sure she was on his side.
She was very completely aware of Cole and Buchanan silently studying them from over Al’s shoulder. She needed to make them uncomfortable, James had said. That was key. They didn’t understand teenagers. They didn’t understand love. Make them uncomfortable. Convince them. Make them dismiss them both as foolish, passionate teenagers.
Do it, she told herself. Make them uncomfortable. Kiss him.
She couldn’t. Not like this. Not with Al looking at her like that.
She was used to his hugs. The support of his arm. The curve of his body around hers at night. But they’d never crossed that line. She wasn’t even sure she wanted to. He was one of the two most important people in the world to her. She loved him just as she loved Ryan.
Well. Not exactly like that. She’d missed him so much it had ached. Torn her apart. Even on top of everything else.
But did she want that? Did he?
Everybody else seemed to think so. No one would have blinked an eye if they had.
No one would have thought it strange to see them kiss.
But they never had.
Maybe they would have, one day. Later. Maybe they’d have grown into it without realising. Just like when their friendship evolved from nothing.
It was unfair that that experience, that choice, was being taken away from them.
She felt that, now familiar, prickling in her eyes but blinked them away fiercely. She held his face in her hands, brought their foreheads together.
I don’t want it to be this way, she tried to say without speaking. It should have been different. We should have had a choice.
From the soft, poignant look in his eyes she almost felt that he’d heard it. She took in his whole face, the shadows under his eyes and the healing scrape on his too-prominent cheekbone. What had they done to him?
I’m sorry, she wanted to say. This is all my fault.
Then, in an instant, his eyes glazed over – hardening his entire face. It was just like that stone mask he’d worn, months ago now, before he ran away.
But Cassie only had a momentary glimpse of it before he closed the distance between them and his lips collided with hers.
It shouldn’t have been this way. It should have been, sweet, playful, private, tender. Like Al.
But Cassie only had one thing running through her mind. His face. His mask.
He’ll never forgive me.
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