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The Clockwork Locket

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Chapter One

The Invisible Girl

            Cassie Alderfair did not remember much of her past four years at Hogwarts.

            It wasn’t as if she’d been Obliviated, or was suddenly diagnosed with amnesia. It was simply because she kept her head down and minded her own business, and remained as inconspicuous as possible.

            Her name was not on any award in the trophy room, and her grades were average at best. In fact, if one were to inquire about her to any student in the school prior to her fourth year, they would probably receive blank looks and confused frowns. The only reason why she wasn’t an equivalent of a Hogwarts ghost (and even then, more people knew of Nearly Headless Nick and the Fat Friar than her) was because of her surname.

            Despite her best attempts at anonymity, the name Alderfair had a certain ring in the Wizarding world that was hard to shake. Perhaps it was because of her father, a prominent figure on the Wizengamot, or maybe her mother, who was editor of the famous Witch Weekly magazine. Or perhaps because the Alderfairs were one of the only pure-blood families left in Britain, and thus held certain influence because of it. All of these things would have been easy to brush off, but it wasn’t until Cassie’s third year that she was thrust to the forefront of everyone’s mind when her elder brother William graduated Hogwarts and went on to become a Death Eater.

            That in itself had stirred quite a controversy at the school, remarkably so as Cassie and her brother had both been Sorted into Gryffindor. It was something much more expected of a Slytherin, but as Cassie had begun to see it, people were surprising – even those dearest to you. Fortunately, the talk had petered out by the end of her fourth year, and after another boring summer holiday, she was ready to go back to her invisible self for her fifth.

            The morning of September 1st dawned a clear and watery grey, and at approximately 10:13 AM, if one were to look directly at the wall separating platforms 9 and 10, they might have seen a surly teenage girl wheeling a trolley with a trunk and an owl in a cage walk right into the wall and disappear, closely followed by a woman wearing very strange and very bright clothing.

            Cassie blinked and found herself back in the usual chaos of Platform 9 ¾, where students ran up and down greeting friends they had not seen over the holiday, and frazzled parents were left to deal with their children’s luggage. Smoke from the Hogwarts Express drifted over their heads, adding an opaqueness to the scene, and Osbourne – Cassie’s sleek-feathered brown owl – hooted at all the sudden commotion.

            “Well, come on, dear,” Eleanor Alderfair said, gripping Cassie’s upper arm and ushering her towards the train, heedless of the attention the dazzling woman was receiving in her fuchsia robes and the exotic-feathered quill tucked behind her right ear.

            “Mum, I’ve done this before,” Cassie said, tugging her arm out of her mother’s grasp and scowling. “I’m not a child anymore.”

            “Of course you’re not,” Eleanor replied absentmindedly, returning the enthusiastic wave of a witch who must’ve read her magazine, and Cassie resisted the urge to vomit as she walked to an empty compartment where she could load her things.

            She found one more toward the back, where she could avoid the thickest crowd of students clustered in the middle and turned when she reached it.

            “Well, bye, Mum,” she said, and returned Eleanor’s sudden embrace half-heartedly as her mother sighed.

            “Goodbye, Pumpkin,” she said, pulling away dramatically and giving Cassie a wide, pink-lipped smile. “Your father sends his love as well, and he hopes you have another great year.”

            “Tell him thanks, and I love him, too,” Cassie said, if only to appease her; since starting school, the only consistent contact she had with her father was letters throughout the school year, and even those were rare. The Ministry was his first home at this point, and after their argument at the beginning of the summer… Well, she wasn’t surprised that she was receiving this secondhand good-bye.

            “We’ll see you home for Christmas, then,” Eleanor said, kissing her daughter’s forehead and beaming at her. “Be safe, Pumpkin, and write us if you need anything. I have to go, the office needs me, but write, you hear me, young lady?”

            “Yeah, got it,” Cassie said, forcing a smile in return as Eleanor blew a last kiss before Disapparating in a swirl of fuchsia.  

            Cassie huffed out a sigh, more from irritation at having to load her heavy luggage alone than at her mother. Eleanor was a summer storm; there one moment and gone the next, but Cassie was used to it. She had learned to look out for herself from a very young age because of it, and her independence was something she valued greatly.

            She opened the outer compartment door and first took Osbourne off the trolley. The owl tittered and flapped his wings in annoyance when she put him inside the compartment on one of the seats, and Cassie gave him a small smile.

            “Stop fretting, Ozzy,” she said. “I’ll let you roam about in a moment.”

            The owl glared at her with amber eyes, and she rolled her own in return as she hopped back out of the compartment, trying to figure out the best way to get her trunk in there by herself. She lifted one of the ends experimentally and cursed when it slid and rammed into her knee, setting it throbbing.

            “C’mon,” she moaned when she tried to push it next, to no avail. She was just about to pull out her wand and jinx it to get into the stupid compartment (wondering if that was even legal; after all, wasn’t the Hogwarts Express technically part of school grounds?), when a voice behind her said, “Having trouble?”

            Cassie spun around, her face pinching when she saw who the person was; the last time she’d seen him, he’d been hightailing it away from Filch’s office on the last day of term with the rest of his juvenile friends, his face screwed up in laughter as Filch screamed about “pants” and “fire.”

            Sirius Black had not changed much over the summer holiday, as far as she could tell. He still had the same shaggy black hair, grey eyes, and crooked grin that oozed with arrogance and self-assuredness. The only noticeable differences were that he’d grown at least two inches, and his grin was cockier than she’d remembered it – which was a feat in itself. Sirius was in her year at Hogwarts, and in the same House, and after seeing that smirking face nearly every day, she was surprised it could even get any more smirking.

            “I can manage,” she said shortly, proving her point spectacularly when she attempted to lift her trunk again and promptly dropped it on her foot.

            “I see that,” he said, grinning and raising a brow when she swore violently. “Here, budge over, or else you’ll end up in Madam Pomfrey’s before the term even starts.”

            Cassie wanted to protest, but the pain in her foot and knee made her stand back and watch as he hoisted her trunk in both hands and loaded it into the compartment with ease. He climbed back out and gave her a wide grin that she did not return.

            “Thanks,” she mumbled, about to board as well when his voice stopped her.

            “Hey,” he said, gazing at her quizzically when she turned back. “You’re a Gryffindor, right?”

            Cassie nodded, already preparing herself for the recognition, but he only tilted his head, contemplating. “Are you a fourth year?”

            Cassie glared at him, wondering if he was being serious or just a prick, but he looked at her as if he genuinely didn’t know who she was.

            “For the record, I’m in your year,” she said haughtily. “I’ve sat behind you in pretty much every class for the past four years.”

            His eyes widened at this, and finally, recognition dawned on his features as he began to say, “Cass—"

            She didn’t let him finish, already climbing aboard the train and shutting the compartment door in his face, her shoulders tense and her face flushing with mortification. She knew she wasn’t very well-known around Hogwarts – unless her name was placed to her face, anyway – but to not be recognized by one of her own classmates? That was a new low, even for her.

            She looked back to the window, her eyes raking the platform, but Sirius Black had already gone. She saw him standing with three other boys on the platform, talking to a set of older parents that had to be James Potter’s – Black’s best friend – as the man was the spitting image of his son, though with silver hair instead of black.

            Cassie watched Potter dodge another hug from his mother, who instead turned her embrace on Black and the other two boys – Remus Lupin and Peter Pettigrew – before the train whistle blew a shrill warning and they jogged to their own compartment, laughing and jostling each other as the Potters waved at them from the platform.

            Cassie felt strange, watching this encounter, so she instead turned her attention to the cage Osbourne was still in, unlatching the door and allowing the owl to hop out and stretch his wings.

            “Oh, Ozzy,” she said, scratching the owl’s head as the Hogwarts Express began to trundle out of the station, the many waving hands of parents beginning to blur together as the train picked up speed. “Why do I feel like this year is going to be complicated?”


 

            The morning passed in a haze of silence interspersed with small talk, as Cassie gained the companionship of a Ravenclaw in her year she had spoken to several times on occasion, by the name of Bellamy Armstrong.

            Bellamy was a quiet but observant girl, with curly brown hair and almond-shaped eyes, and she politely asked about Cassie’s holiday and what she was looking forward to the most this year before retreating behind the cover of their Potions book. 

             Cassie spent the rest of the train ride staring out the window and watching the countryside flash by, greens and browns and greys blending together as the day wore on. She ought to go find her dormmates and only friends, but she was enjoying her solitude too much to bother. She munched on some Pumpkin Pasties she’d bought from the food trolley and watched the tiny picture of Merlin pacing back and forth in his Chocolate Frog card before she grew tired of staring and stowed it away.

            Outside their quiet compartment, Cassie could hear the shouts and laughter of the other students, but she tried to block out their noise, curling up in her seat and closing her eyes for a small nap, telling Bellamy to wake her when they got close to Hogsmeade.

            When next Cassie awoke, after having been shaken by a soft but insistent Bellamy, the lanterns had flickered on and the sky outside was dark. She could barely make out the shape of mountains in the distance when the conductor announced that they would be arriving in Hogsmeade in five minutes.

            “We should change,” Bellamy said, gesturing to Cassie’s casual robes and her own Muggle dress. Cassie nodded, stifling a yawn as she pulled out her school robes from the top of her trunk and began fastening the silver clasps.

            By the time the train rumbled to a stop, they were both in their black robes, though with the respective colors of their House resembled on the ties they wore underneath their collars: Bellamy’s blue and bronze, and Cassie’s red and gold.

            They followed the rest of the students disembarking the train and came out on the small platform stationed in Hogsmeade, and Cassie rubbed her arms briskly from the chill of the early autumn air.

            “Firs’ years!” a voice boomed over the chattering crowd, and Cassie saw the gamekeeper, Hagrid, looming over all the students and holding a lamp as he called, “Firs’ years, this way!”

            Cassie saw the tiny, scared faces of the first years as they hesitantly approached the giant man, but she knew Hagrid would do them no harm, kindly soul he was. She remembered her own first year, when she had slipped on the rocks after exiting her boat, and Hagrid had been there to pick her back up, patting her shoulder reassuringly when she had sniffled, trying to keep from crying. The memory stuck out vividly to her, but she doubted he would be able to recall it, and the thought made her small smile vanish as she was pushed along by the crowd, making their way to the carriages that awaited the rest of them.

            Cassie and Bellamy climbed into one and were joined by two Hufflepuff third years. The younger girls turned to each other and whispered, glancing Cassie’s way every so often, but she grit her teeth and stared out the window until they’d arrived at the castle.

            The sight of Hogwarts never failed to amaze Cassie, with its high towers and turrets and windows that gleamed like tiny stars in the inky vastness of the dark sky surrounding them. Warm golden light spilled onto the stone steps they ascended, and as they crossed the threshold of the grand front doors, a feeling quite like that of coming home spread through Cassie’s chest as she joined the flock of students filing into the Great Hall.

            Cassie took a seat at the Gryffindor table along the right side of the Hall after parting ways with Bellamy, where she was quickly joined by the ever-smiling and joyous presence of Alice Fortescue, one of the girls she shared her dormitory with.

            “Cassie!” she cried, throwing her arms around Cassie’s neck and managing to sit down at the same time. “It’s so good to see you! How was your holiday?”

            “Same as ever,” she replied, though she couldn’t help but smile back. “What about you?”

            “Oh, it was just wonderful,” Alice gushed. “My parents took us to Paris…”

            Cassie nodded and exclaimed where she needed to, but for the most part, she let Alice do all the talking. The long journey had made her tired, and she thought longingly of the food that was about to appear before them as the first years were suddenly ushered into the hall and the Sorting Hat was brought out.

            Tuning out most of the Sorting (though still cheering with the other Gryffindors when another first-year joined their House), Cassie looked up and down the table absentmindedly, her gaze flicking over the familiar faces and pausing on the new additions.

            She watched James Potter talking animatedly to a nervous first year that had just sat down (probably already filling his mind with terrible practical jokes and crude humor), before she moved on and met a set of grey eyes already staring back at her.

            She blinked, startled to meet the gaze of Sirius Black as she took in his frown and scrunched brows, as if he were trying to place her. Cassie quickly dropped her eyes down to her lap as the Sorting finished, and the Headmaster, Professor Dumbledore, began to speak from the staff table.

            “Welcome to another year at Hogwarts!” he said, and there was a round of applause at this before he continued. “Now, I don’t want to keep you – or myself, for that matter – from this wonderful feast we are all waiting for, but I would like to say a few words beforehand.”

            Professor Dumbledore looked out at them all from behind his half-moon spectacles, his demeanor turning serious as he spoke again.

            “While dark times may have fallen outside of these walls, Hogwarts will always remain a safe haven to those in need of one,” he said solemnly, and Cassie shifted in her seat when she thought his sharp eyes strayed to her. “This year will be one of respect, tolerance, hard work, and above all, love and loyalty. May our spirits never dim against the shadows!”

            There were a few toasts with empty goblets around the Hall before Professor Dumbledore smiled genially once more and announced, “Dig in!”

            Food suddenly appeared before them, and talk broke out again when the Headmaster sat down. Cassie loaded food onto her golden plate half-heartedly, her stomach churning after hearing the Headmaster’s words. They had reminded her far too much of the argument she’d had with her father upon returning home last term, and the memory made her quite uncomfortable when she recalled it.

            Squashing it down, however, she turned to engage Alice in conversation once more, unaware of the grey eyes that had returned back to her in curiosity from farther down the table. 

Chapter Text

         “Look at this,” Alice said in dismay, shoving her schedule into Cassie’s face and narrowly avoiding the spoonful of porridge that was currently on its way to her mouth. “Double Charms and Double Potions? All before lunch?”

            Cassie didn’t immediately respond, letting the porridge sit on her tongue for a moment as she quickly scanned Alice’s schedule, relieved to see that they had almost precisely the same classes together, save for the fact that Cassie’s electives were Arithmancy and Care of Magical Creatures while Alice had Divination and Muggle Studies in those blocks.

            “At least we’ll get it out of the way first,” Cassie said optimistically. She pointed to a blank spot on their schedules. “And we get a break between the two.”

            “I guess,” Alice said, tracing her finger up and down the parchment before landing on ‘Defense Against the Dark Arts.’

            “D’you reckon this new teacher is going to be any good?” she asked. Cassie followed her gaze up to the staff table, her eyes picking out the newest addition of a tall, severe-looking blonde witch, who Dumbledore had introduced the night before as Professor Claudia Carlisle.

            “Dunno,” Cassie said, shrugging. “She looks like she’s constantly sucking on a lemon though, so I wouldn’t get your hopes up.”

            Alice nodded distractedly, her gaze now resting on Frank Longbottom, who was sitting some way down the bench from them. Grinning slightly upon this observation, Cassie went back to her porridge as Professor McGonagall swept up and down the Gryffindor table, passing out timetables as she went.

            “Jones – where is Harper Jones? Ah, yes, there you are – tuck in your shirt, Jones, we are not slobs in Gryffindor House!”

            “Yes, Professor,” Jones muttered, tucking in his shirt and quickly adjusting his black robe to cover the failed attempt as McGonagall walked on.

            “Potter,” she said, coming to a stop behind James Potter and glowering disapprovingly at his untidy black hair. The professor must have sensed this was a lost cause already though, as she just handed him his schedule.

            “Now, Potter, I expect you to be on your best behavior this year,” McGonagall said sternly, fixing him with her piercing gaze as he looked back to her innocently. “I just hope that your friend Mr. Lupin will help to keep you out of too much trouble.”

            Curious, Cassie looked at the sandy-haired boy across from Potter, her eyebrows rising when she noticed the prefect badge pinned to his robes.

            “Professor, you know I wouldn’t dare think to get myself into trouble,” Potter said, widening his hazel eyes in mock-earnestness. “Everything that’s ever happened to me has just been unfortunate circumstance.”

            Professor McGonagall said nothing, though her lips twitched slightly when everyone in the vicinity chuckled under their breath at his words.

            “Best behavior, Potter,” she replied. “And that goes for you, too, Mr. Black.” She eyed the boy sitting next to James with equal intensity before sweeping off down the table, and Cassie watched them share a grin as she left.

            “Good one, James!” Peter Pettigrew sniggered, his round face lit up in admiration. Cassie rolled her eyes before going back to her porridge. Four years later, and Pettigrew still acted as if Potter and Black were the greatest things since sliced bread.

            “We should get going soon,” Alice said, glancing at her watch. “Classes start at nine, and I don’t want to be late our first day back.”

            Cassie nodded, draining the last of her pumpkin juice and standing as Alice gathered her book bag. The two girls started out of the Great Hall, bypassing James Potter as he belched loudly on command. Cassie wrinkled her nose as those nearest roared with laughter, wondering how that could even possibly be funny.  

            She cast the group of boys a cursory glance, just as Sirius Black looked up and made eye contact with her. Familiarity flashed in his silver gaze, and before Cassie could avert her eyes, she saw him lean over to Potter and whisper something that made the bespectacled boy turn and grin at her, though Black was not smiling.

            Heat prickled her cheeks, and she quickened her pace, remaining silent as Alice chatted on about something she hadn’t been paying attention to, but she was relieved when they exited the Great Hall and the intensity of Potter’s and Black’s stares dissipated.

            They climbed the great marble staircase together, heading for the third floor as other students ambled past, the older ones taking their time getting to class while first years walked together in small packs, their eyes wide and quite a few of them looking frightened at the prospect of searching for one classroom in such a huge castle.

            “Were we that small when we were firsties?” Alice asked.

            “Probably.” Cassie shrugged. “I’m pretty sure everyone looks like that at some point, though.”

            “The wonders of puberty,” Alice agreed, and Cassie snorted.

            They made their way down the Charms corridor, all thoughts of Potter and Black pushed to the back of her mind as she debated the various heights of firsties with Alice. They entered the Charms classroom and took a seat in the very middle of all the joint desks, being the first ones to arrive, even before Professor Flitwick.

            The class started to fill as it got closer to nine, fifth-year Ravenclaws and Gryffindors drifting in with laughter and conversations, the mood light and happy after a summer holiday away from school.

            When the bell tolled for nine o’clock, Professor Flitwick bumbled into the classroom, humming genially to himself as he took a seat behind his desk, sitting atop a stack of textbooks so he could peer out to the class.

            “Good morning, and welcome back!” he greeted in his high, squeaky voice. “I trust you all had a wonderful holiday, and made sure to remember all those Charms we learned last year?”

            There were a few nervous chuckles from around the room, but Cassie noticed the Ravenclaws trading smug looks and guessed that they had not forgotten.

            “Would anyone care to give me the names of one of the spells we learned last year?” Professor Flitwick asked, and immediately several Ravenclaws’ hands shot into the air. “Yes, go ahead, Miss Flynn.”

            “Accio, sir, the Summoning Charm,” a girl with dark blonde hair said. Flitwick nodded proudly.

            “Excellent, five points to Ravenclaw,” he said. “What else? Yes, Mr. Myers?”

            “The Banishing Charm, Depulso,” a Ravenclaw boy said, and Flitwick smiled.

            “Take another five points for Ravenclaw,” he chirped, looking around the room and eyeing all the shuffling students whose hands were not raised. “Come now, class, it’s only been a few short weeks! What other spells did we learn?”

            “The Seize and Pull Charm,” a voice called from the back. Cassie turned to see James Potter, Sirius Black, Peter Pettigrew, and Remus Lupin enter the classroom. Lupin and Pettigrew slunk into open seats together while Potter grinned from the doorway, he having been the one to have spoken. “Carpe Retractum.”

            “Thank you, Mr. Potter,” Professor Flitwick said, nodding curtly as he and Black took the last seats open, two rows behind Cassie. “I had hoped with today being the first day of lessons that you would be punctual, but since you answered my question correctly, I won’t take any points. This time.”

            He eyed Potter sternly. The Gryffindor grinned, sheepish, but Cassie could still see his arrogance shining through clear as day.

            “It won’t happen again, Professor,” Potter promised. “See, we actually like Charms.”

            “Probably because it’s one of the only things you’re good at,” Black said, slapping Potter on the back as the rest of the class tittered at the look of mock-hurt on the bespectacled boy’s face.

            “All right, settle down, class,” Professor Flitwick said, holding up a hand as Cassie turned back to the front, trying to shake off the uncomfortable feeling the two gave her after remembering their stares this morning. “Let’s continue on with our review…”

            The next two hours passed slowly for Cassie. Not having to learn anything new just yet, and having retained her notes from last year, she let her mind drift, doodling lazily on a piece of parchment she had pulled out just in case.

            Occasionally, she would hear Potter or Black snigger from behind her, and though this was not a new thing after spending four years of lessons with them, she couldn’t help but feel that their whispers were directed at her.

            Don’t be stupid, she thought. You’ve never spoken to them before, and they’ve never even noticed you until now. Why would they be talking about you?

            But the feeling persisted, and when the bell rang to signal the end of class, Cassie stood up and packed her things slowly, hoping Potter and Black and their two friends would leave before her, so she didn’t have to walk past them again.

            Fortunately, luck was on her side, for when she turned around, slinging her book bag over her shoulder, the four boys were gone. Cassie let out a tiny sigh of relief.

            “Do you want to go for a walk outside?” Alice asked as they bid Professor Flitwick a good day and departed the classroom. “It’s so nice today, and I want to enjoy this weather while it lasts.”

            Cassie was about to answer but stopped when she heard a familiar snicker nearby. Whirling around, she spotted Potter, Black, Lupin, and Pettigrew huddled in a little group beside the classroom, but they were looking elsewhere rather than at her – probably poking fun at another student, she presumed. The thought made a muscle in her jaw twitch, though she was secretly glad their laughter wasn’t directed at her. Black turned to say something to Potter, catching Cassie’s eye as he did so, and she gave him the most baleful glare she could manage, narrowing her eyes in silent warning.

            Black paid her no mind, simply dropping her gaze and saying something that caused the four boys to roar with laughter. Cassie shook her head, her face feeling warm at the short interaction.

            “Walking sounds like an excellent idea,” she said, scowling, and before Alice could say anything else, she had grabbed the other girl’s arm and dragged her off down the corridor.


 

            By the time they entered the Great Hall for dinner later that day, Cassie’s stomach was rumbling with hunger. The quick lunch she’d scarfed down earlier was a forgotten memory as the scent of food reached her nostrils, making her mouth water.

            The day had slipped by surprisingly quickly after Charms despite the dreaded Double Potions, and her Herbology and Care of Magical Creatures classes after lunch. So far, they had yet to be assigned any homework, but Cassie shuddered at the thought of Double Transfiguration with Professor McGonagall tomorrow, already knowing that the stern witch would undoubtedly assign them a whole chapter to read from their textbook – if she was being lenient. Their Head of House had warned them all before the holiday that fifth year was O.W.L year, and that meant the most arduous and excessive work would be given to them as preparation for the exams next summer.

            The thought made Cassie’s heart warm like nothing else.

            “Cassie! Over here!” Alice called, waving her hand to get Cassie’s attention. Cassie saw the other girl patting an empty seat beside her and walked over, her stomach nearly whining at the sight of a pot roast only a few feet from Alice.

            Cassie took the seat next to Alice, sitting across Marlene McKinnon and Lily Evans, the other two girls they shared their dormitory with.

            “Hi, Cassie,” Lily said warmly, smiling at Cassie as Marlene waved, too busy chewing to say a proper greeting.

            “Hey, Lily,” Cassie returned. “Sorry I missed you and Marlene last night; I was just so tired I couldn’t help falling asleep.”

            Lily laughed, her pretty heart-shaped face lighting up with the sound.

            “Don’t worry about it,” she said. “We were all pretty tired.”

            “Not on Cassie’s level.” Marlene grinned. “I forgot how much you snored.”

            Cassie rolled her eyes, filling her plate high with shepherd’s pie and buttery rolls, though she smiled all the same.

            “Snoring is good for you,” she said. “I mean, it totally cleared up my complexion. See?”

            She stroked her cheek playfully, and the other girls laughed, making a warm feeling spread through Cassie as she began to eat. She would never dare crack a joke like that at home, in fear of earning disapproving looks from her parents, and the only other person in her family that she could play around with was gone, sucked into some mysterious group that she feared would never give him back.

            Swallowing past the sudden tightness in her throat, Cassie tuned back into the conversation, taking a swig of pumpkin juice as Marlene suddenly burst out, “Why does he keep looking down here?”

            “Who, Potter?” Lily said, not even bothering to look up from buttering her roll, as Cassie and Alice exchanged a knowing glance. It was no secret that James Potter was like a lovesick puppy when it came to Lily Evans, but Marlene’s answer made them all look up at her.

            “No, surprisingly not.” She frowned. “Black’s the one who keeps staring.”

            Cassie paused, her fork halfway to her mouth as a flare of indignation swept through her. Craning her neck, she looked to see that Black was indeed staring over at them, and she glowered when they made eye contact for what seemed like the hundredth time since yesterday. For Merlin’s sake, what did he want from her?

            “Just ignore him,” Cassie muttered, going back to eating her shepherd’s pie as Marlene shrugged, turning away.

            “I guess he’s decided to take a leaf out of Potter’s book this year,” she said. “I just don’t understand why boys think it’s acceptable to stare at girls. And not in a “I’m-madly-in-love-with-you” type of way. More like, “I’m-going-to-watch-you-in-your-sleep” type of way.”

            Cassie snorted into her pumpkin juice as Alice and Lily laughed.

            “I agree,” Alice said, grinning. “It’s the most annoying stare.”

            “Who d’you think he was looking at, though?” Marlene asked. She chanced a glance back down the table, and Cassie copied her, though luckily Black had gone back to dinner and talking to his own friends.

            Cassie looked back to her plate and shrugged, trying not to seem too guilty. She didn’t know why, but admitting it was her that Black was staring at did not bode well with her. The whole ordeal was dredging up memories of last year when all the students – and even some of the staff – had begun to look at her as if she had grown another head after the rumor had spread about her brother. The reminder left a pinched feeling in her gut, and she suddenly wasn’t as hungry anymore as Marlene sighed dramatically.

            “Well, I honestly wouldn’t mind if he was staring at me,” she said, tossing back her strawberry-blonde hair, her blue eyes twinkling wickedly. “He’s grown quite attractive, hasn’t he?”

            Lily and Alice wrinkled their noses at this, and Cassie scoffed.

            “Yeah, about as attractive as a flobberworm can get,” she said, and this caused Lily and Alice to laugh again. Marlene shared a tiny grin, though fortunately, she didn’t push the subject of Black’s staring further.

            “Speaking of flobberworms,” Lily said, finishing off the last of her roll in one pristine bite and wiping her mouth with a napkin. “Do you think Professor Kettleburn is going to let us take care of one this year?”

            “Maybe,” Cassie said, as Alice and Marlene started their own separate conversation; they had decided to take Divination over Care of Magical Creatures in their third year, so it was just Cassie and Lily in that class. “Don’t you think they’re a bit tame, though?”

            Lily shrugged. “I just hope he doesn’t make us test our wilderness survival skills again. “That was the worst thing ever.”

            Cassie thought back to their final exam last term with Professor Kettleburn, which had been a practical test to see if they could trek a short distance into the Forbidden Forest on a trail the professor had designed like an obstacle course filled with magical creatures. Cassie suppressed a shudder when she remembered her near-miss with a fire crab. She still had the singed sock and the burn mark on her ankle from where the creature had tried to blast her, and she agreed whole-heartedly with Lily.

            “Oh, I talked to one of the Hufflepuffs in Herbology today about the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher,” Lily said, changing the subject.          

Cassie looked up in interest. “Oh?”

            “Yeah, he said he had her this morning,” she confirmed, tucking a long strand of red hair behind her ear.

            “What did he say?” Cassie finished off the last of her dinner and eyed the platter of treacle tarts resting nearby as Lily shrugged.

            “That she was extremely strict, and had a short temper,” she said. “He told me that she took ten points from a student just because he was chewing gum.”

            Cassie groaned. “Why do we always have to get the worst Defense teachers?”

            “I don’t know.” Lily frowned. “I just hope she isn’t like Professor Swann. Remember him?”

            “How could I not?” Cassie replied, thinking back to their second year professor with a grimace. “He almost let a student get eaten by the giant squid.”

            “Maybe she’ll be a good teacher, though,” Lily said, looking up to the staff table. For the second time that day, Cassie’s eyes sought out the witch seated at the left wing of the table, her white-blonde hair pulled back in a tight bun that heightened her sharp features as she surveyed the students below with frosty eyes.

            Suddenly, those icy eyes were upon her, and Cassie dropped her gaze quickly, hoping the professor wouldn’t remember her rude staring when class came the next day.

            “Yeah, maybe,” she agreed without conviction. She took another swig of pumpkin juice and hoped the drink would melt some of the ice that had suddenly coated her insides when Professor Carlisle had looked at her.

Chapter Text

Chapter Three

The New Professor

            It was no secret that the entirety of the Hogwarts’ student body despised History of Magic the most. Even the most studious, strong-willed Ravenclaw would agree that they could hardly keep their eyes open during a lesson, even if they took a dose of Everett’s Everlasting-Energy Potion to sustain them.

            Though the subject itself was not horribly dull, it was the ever-monotonous tone and melancholic demeanor of Professor Binns that made the class so dreadful. (Then again, perhaps if one were a ghost teaching the same subject matter for a few centuries, they, too, would completely give up on making the lessons interesting.)

            This was Cassie’s opinion on the matter, at least, and this is what she chose to think about instead of listening to Professor Binns drone on about the importance of O.W.L.s. (The same speech had been made in every one of Cassie’s lessons the day before, which only made Binns’s spiel doubly boring.)

            With this class being her first of the day, combined with Binns’s flat voice and her stomach contentedly filled with five bacon sandwiches (a number Marlene had found appalling at breakfast), Cassie felt as if she could fall asleep right then and there – if it weren’t for James Potter and Sirius Black.

            They had chosen to sit in the row on her left, across the aisle, flanked perpetually by Remus Lupin and Peter Pettigrew. She tried not to think too much on their proximity to her, warily convincing herself that it was coincidence only; after all, she had arrived not too soon before them, but had been late enough to relegate herself a seat in the very back with a snoring Hufflepuff boy beside her (an unfortunate consequence of her infatuation with bacon sandwiches that morning. So that meant the other back row had been reserved for the most obnoxious of her classmates, naturally. At least Lupin was the closest one to her – he actually seemed to be the sensible one of the lot.

            It was quite hard for her to fall asleep, however, as Potter and Black seemed incapable of shutting up. Sniggers and whispers kept penetrating her slip into unconsciousness, and her annoyance was growing with each sleepless minute. What could they possibly have to say to each other so constantly? They were worse than gossiping girls, honestly.

            Unfortunately, her troubles didn’t seem to be present amongst anyone else in the class. Most of the students were already sleeping with their head on the desk or slumped in their seats, while the rest stared into space with slack jaws and glazed eyes. The only ones who seemed remotely awake were Potter and Black, of course, and Lily, sitting in front with a dozing Marlene while she listened raptly to Binns’s ongoing monologue of monotony. Even Lupin – one of the top students in their class, much to Cassie’s incredulity – was oddly subdued.

            “…O.W.L.s are the most important exams in defining the rest of your school years and the careers you wish to pursue afterwards…” Binns went on, and Cassie closed her eyes in silent prayer.

            For the love of Merlin, please let it end.

            “Psst. Hey. Hey!”

            This isn’t what I meant. Please just let me die, is what I was asking.

            “Adderfall!”

            “It’s Alderfair, idiot.”

            Anytime now…

            “Alderfair!”

            Cassie opened her eyes, scowling when a rolled-up piece of parchment bounced across her desk in an attempt to get her attention and hit her snoring Hufflepuff mate in the face, but he slept on. She whipped her head around.

            “What in the bloody hell is so urgent?” she snapped. Potter, Pettigrew, and Lupin all stared at her, though Lupin was the only one with enough sense to turn away and pretend to listen to Binns.

            From the cocky grin on Potter’s face, she guessed he had been the one to throw the parchment. Pettigrew watched in mild amusement, which only made her more suspicious, but the most surprising of all was that Black, for once, was not even paying her attention. It seemed that his staring spell the day before had worn off.

            “Calm down, Alderfair. I was just gonna ask if you had a spare quill I could use.” Potter looked to her earnestly – too earnestly, but Cassie was so caught off-guard she barely even noticed. Not once, in the past four years, had Potter ever spoken to her; she’d been with Lily numerous times whenever he tried one of his moronic advances upon her, but he’d never registered she was ever there, apparently. And now he was asking her for a quill.

            Cassie blinked once before reaching into her bag and pulling out one of her extra quills. She was reluctant to hand it over; it was a nice eagle-feathered quill, very sleek and elegant, and even had her initials monogrammed in gold on it. It had been a gift from her mother last Christmas, and seeing as she only had three, she was very protective of them. But if it would get Potter off her back…

            “Fine, here,” she muttered, thrusting the quill at him – or rather, Lupin, who took it across the aisle hesitantly before handing it off to Potter.

            Potter grinned, a twinkle in his eye she didn’t like as he said, “Thanks.”

            Cassie said nothing, instead trying to focus back on what Binns was saying, as her chances of a nap were nonexistent at this point. She had been listening for all of about ten seconds before something flew through the air, right at Binns, and passed through his transparent forehead, causing him to stop mid-monologue and for half the class to suddenly wake up as the object clattered to the flagstone floor.

            Cassie was frozen, staring at her professor in horror as he frowned and looked at the object that had passed through his head – an eagle-feathered quill with her initials engraved upon it.

            There was a very long, tense silence, before Professor Binns gestured vaguely to Frank Longbottom, who was sitting nearest the quill.

            “Mr. er…Longshanks,” Professor Binns intoned. “If you wouldn’t mind…”

            Frank nodded dumbly, his eyes still looking very glassy, but he picked up the quill and held it out to Binns nonetheless. Potter snickered heartily while Cassie’s heart beat madly.

            “Who threw this object?” Professor Binns sighed, his melancholic expression never wavering. The class was silent, save for Potter’s and the other boys’ muffled laughter.

            “There’s initials, sir,” Frank pointed out, and Cassie wanted to scream; damn Longbottom and his integrity! “C.A.”

            “C.A…” Binns mused, sounding almost bored. “I believe that would belong to Castor Aldfield back there, perhaps?”

            He inclined his translucent head at her, and Cassie felt her face flame when the half of the class that was awake turned around to stare.

            Marlene made a face at Cassie as if to say what the hell, Cass? But Lily’s green eyes immediately sought out Potter, and they flashed when she saw he was laughing with his mates.

            “Cassie didn’t throw that quill, Professor,” she said, turning back to face Binns with a steely glint in her gaze. “It was Potter and his childish friends back there.”

            Professor Binns didn’t seem to hear her, rather looking at Cassie as if he had never seen her before as she grit her teeth, her face still hot.

            “Landburrow, please return Miss Anderfan’s quill to her,” he finally said. “I will inform Professor McGonagall of this incident at a later time.”

            Frank walked back to where Cassie sat, grimacing apologetically as he handed her back her quill.

            Cassie shook her head once, hoping he would understand it to mean that she didn’t blame him. Luckily, he seemed to get it, and gave her a tiny smile as he went back to sit with Alice, who was glaring at Potter.

            “As I was saying…” Professor Binns continued his speech as if nothing had happened, which gave Cassie an opportunity to whirl on Potter, her face still flushed angrily.

            “What the hell are you playing at, Potter?” she hissed.

He had the audacity to scoff at her. “Oh, come off it, Alderfair.” He smirked, and she had the sudden urge to jump across the aisle and slap that smug grin off his face. “You were bored to death back here. I just wanted to liven things up a bit.”

            “You didn’t have to do it at my expense, though!” she said hotly, before throwing Potter a last dark look when it was clear he was not going to apologize. “And you wonder why Evans won’t date you.”

            With that, she turned back to the front of the room and stared straight ahead, fuming. She could hear Potter spluttering and trying to defend himself while his friends laughed, and she felt a sort of vicious pride go through her.

            Maybe the comment about Lily’s rejection of Potter’s advances had been a bit harsh, but she doubted she would take them back if she had the chance. Cassie had listened to enough of Lily’s rants in their dorm to know what she thought of the “immature, absolutely childish, arrogant toe-rag of a human being” that was James Potter. And suffice to say, she felt that she had hit the nail on the head with that one.

            After another agonizing hour spent with Professor Binns, the class finally ended. Cassie rushed out the door, waiting some ways away from the classroom to avoid Potter and his merry band of miscreants as they exited, luckily walking in the opposite direction of her as Lily, Marlene, and Alice joined her, quickly leaping to her defense.

            “I cannot believe Potter would do that to you!” Lily immediately said, shaking her head in disgust. “The nerve of him!”

            “Do you think Binns will tell McGonagall, though?” Alice asked, as the four began to walk down the corridor together. Cassie shrugged.

            “Dunno,” she said sullenly, though she was glad she had their support. “He’s a stickler for rules, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he forgot about it until Easter.”

            “I’d be shocked if you actually did get into trouble over this,” Marlene said. “You’ve never even gotten a detention before!”

            “Yeah,” Cassie said, her stomach turning slightly at the thought; getting a detention wouldn’t help her anonymity, and so far, she was enjoying being unrecognizable this year. The stares and the whispers that had followed in her wake last year had disappeared, and it seemed she was going back to her invisible self, finally.

            “We should go to the library for break,” Lily said, and the other three looked to her as if a third arm had suddenly sprouted from her chest. She stared back, puzzled.

            “Lily, it’s the second day of school,” Marlene said in bewilderment. “What do we possibly have to study for?”

            “It’d be nice to get a head start,” Lily said defensively. “We have O.W.L.s this year, and you know how important they are!”

            “Mar’s right,” Alice pointed out. “I’m not saying we shouldn’t study!” she said to Lily’s glare. “But those exams are ages away; we should just enjoy the free time while it lasts, yeah?”

            Lily seemed to ponder on this, uncertain, before finally sighing after catching the hopeful looks on her friends’ faces.

            “Fine,” she conceded, raising her voice to be heard over their cheering. “But just this once!”

            “The Great Prefect has spoken!” Cassie announced dramatically. “We are free!”

            The other girls laughed, and warmth rushed through her at the sound. She didn’t have many friends at Hogwarts, but she would be forever grateful for the bond she shared with the three girls. After living with them for the majority of a year since she was eleven, they had grown so close, and they were part of what made her love Hogwarts so much.

            They escaped the confines of the castle and made their way across the grounds, the sky shimmering blue and the air blissfully cool, and all thoughts of Potter and Black were pushed from her mind as a sense of peace washed over her.


 

            Of course, Cassie’s good mood did not last.

            After a very long and uneventful day following the disaster in History of Magic, she arrived at her last class of the day with Alice beside her, both of them curious and slightly apprehensive to finally see their new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor.

            They walked into the classroom on the fourth floor where the rest of their Defense classes had been held years prior, but the first thing Cassie noticed upon entering was that there was no decoration at all.

            Their previous professors had all attempted to give the same classroom their own personal touch (she shuddered after remembering Professor Swann’s twinkling fairy lights that seemed intent on burning every student before the year was up), but now the high-ceilinged classroom was devoid of anything – even desks.

            “Um…” Alice stopped and stared. Cassie paused as well when she realized that none of the students were sitting, but rather standing in a nervous cluster in the middle of the bare room.

            “Did they give her a new room?” Cassie wondered aloud, as they ventured deeper into the classroom and joined the huddled Gryffindors. She was disappointed to see that they would be sharing their class with Slytherins this year, as she took in the green and silver ties of the other half of the students standing some feet away from them. And by the disgruntled looks on her fellow Gryffindors’ faces, she could tell that they weren’t positively thrilled, either.

            No one answered her, for just then Potter swaggered into the classroom, laughing royally at something Black had said as Lupin and Pettigrew followed along, chuckling quietly but still looking very amused as Black smirked.

            The other Gryffindors eyed the group with expressions ranging from amusement to exasperation, with Cassie and Alice falling into the latter category. As a few girls struck up conversation with the boys, Lily and Marlene sidled to their sides, Lily positively glaring at Potter as he tousled his hair and winked at one of the girls.

            “Ugh, he is so full of himself,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Did he even apologize to you, Cassie?”

            Cassie shook her head, watching another girl – Karen Hartley, she remembered – practically drooling over Black. “Nope.”

            Lily made a frustrated noise. “Of course not. He’s got as much manners as Peeves.”

            “Have you lot noticed anything…strange going on here?” Alice said, only half-listening to Lily as she stared at the four boys with an odd expression on her face.

            “Definitely,” Marlene affirmed, nodding as she looked also, though Cassie noticed her eyes fixed upon Black. Even Lily seemed knowledgeable as to what they were talking about, but Cassie looked at all of them in bewilderment.

            “Can someone explain to me what’s so strange?” she said.

Marlene took her eyes off Black long enough to give Cassie “The Look”, which told her she was being incredibly dense.

            “The Marauders,” she said simply, and sighed when Cassie gave her a blank look. “It’s what they’ve taken to calling themselves this year: Potter, Black, Lupin, and Pettigrew.”

            “That’s…stupid,” Cassie said. “Yet oddly fitting.”

            “I wasn’t talking about that strange thing,” Alice broke in. “I was referring to the fact that nearly every girl in fifth year has taken a liking to them.”

            She gestured to the fawning girls still crowding the newly dubbed Marauders, and Cassie made a face while Lily snorted derisively.

            “Have they no sense?” she said. “How could any girl fancy a bloke like Potter, or Black? Lupin, I understand, and though Pettigrew is a stretch, he’s actually very sweet. But Potter? And Black?”

            Marlene shrugged. “You have to admit, they did get more attractive since the holiday.”

            Lily scowled, but Cassie took the opportunity to study the four boys more closely, wondering where Marlene had even pulled that thought from. However, she had to slightly agree as she finally began to take notice of their growing features.

            Potter had always been a decent-looking fellow, when he wasn’t being such a puffed-up cream ball all the time. Though tall and lanky, he was still very coordinated, and his untidy black hair, glasses, and hazel eyes only enhanced his looks, which probably attributed to his overflowing ego. Lupin was quite nice, too, with sandy hair and pale green eyes, though several white scars marred his otherwise clear skin, giving his face a hard edge that did not go with his soft demeanor. Pettigrew was as short and chubby as he ever was, though his blond hair was cut in a fashion that appropriately balanced out his round face and watery blue eyes, making him look slightly older. And Black, she was annoyed to see, was coming of age as gracefully and arrogantly as ever. She’d been hearing girls whisper about his fine aristocratic looks since third year, and she had always (pettily) wished he would get uglier as they aged, so his attractiveness could finally go hand-in-hand with his personality. But as she watched the girls continue to flirt with him and the other Marauders, she gave up that wish regretfully and instead turned back to her friends.

            “Where’s Professor Carlisle?” she asked. “She should be here by now.”

            “And she is,” a frosty voice said from behind her.

Cassie turned to see the new professor gliding into the classroom, the clustered students immediately parting for her as she swept through them, her black robes billowing grandly.

            Professor Carlisle turned to face them when she reached the front of the room and regarded them all coolly with piercing grey eyes.

            She was a very tall woman, and very willowy, though she seemed unnaturally tense, as if she were poised for a fight. Her hair was so blonde it almost appeared white, pulled back in an immaculate bun that enhanced her dangerously sharp features, her lips tinted a blood-red that contrasted greatly with her alabaster skin. All in all, she seemed a frightening woman, and Cassie opted to stare at her shoes when her razor-like gaze traveled over the class, suddenly reminded of the uneasy feeling she had experienced at dinner the night before.

            “Welcome to your fifth year of Defense Against the Dark Arts,” she said in her cold, clipped voice. “I am Professor Carlisle.”

            Silence.

            When no one spoke, she extracted her wand from within her robes and flicked it once. Several seconds later, desks came crashing down from the ceiling, narrowly avoiding students as they yelped and jumped out of the way, now standing disorderly amongst the new rows of desks.

            “One thing you will learn very quickly is that I am not like your other professors,” she said, continuing on as if nothing had happened. “I have read all of your student profiles, and I have seen your past grades, achievements, and shortcomings. And based on this information, I have assigned you all to a seat already.”

            There was a collective groan from the class at this that was instantly quelled by her cold glare. Cassie’s heart sank, and she met her friends’ eyes anxiously.

            “First three desks in the front will be as ordered: Remus Lupin, far right; Cassiopeia Alderfair, center; and Edmond Avery, far left.”

            Cassie tried not to look as disgruntled as she felt as she took her new seat; Lupin and Avery were not her ideal seatmates, considering one was a Marauder, and the other a Slytherin bully who looked far from pleased as he sat to her left.

            Professor Carlisle went on, rattling names off her roster, and Cassie was miffed to see that nearly all the Gryffindors were separated while most of the Slytherins were still put together. Cassie would bet one hundred Galleons that Carlisle herself had been a Slytherin when she attended school, and this was her way of showing favoritism to her old House as she put Potter and Black on complete opposite sides of the room, yet still sat Kanin Mulciber and Severus Snape side-by-side.

            When Professor Carlisle read off Snape’s name, there were several hisses from behind her. She turned to see the skinny, greasy-haired boy take his seat, the hisses coming from Potter and Black, namely, as they glared at him poisonously.

            Cassie had never associated with Snape, despite his close friendship to Lily that still puzzled her every time she thought about it. She knew Potter and Black detested Snape (for reasons beyond her, but probably stemming from their arrogance), as did practically everyone in the whole school. But he was far enough away from them to avoid any confrontations, which had probably been Carlisle’s exact attempt, and she turned back to the front when Carlisle finished doling out names.

            “Now,” she said, her voice seeming to gain an even sharper edge as she faced the class. “Your previous professors, from what I gathered, were very knowledgeable witches and wizards, yet very unpromising on anything that went strictly beyond what was written in a book.”

            Several glances and smirks were traded at this, as many students remembered Professor Swann’s brilliant plan for a practical “real-world” lesson that almost ended with the giant squid drowning a student. However, Professor Carlisle went on with no heed to this.

            “My purpose, therefore, is to start preparing you for what is beyond these walls,” she said, her voice stern and serious. “There are powers in this world that not even spellbooks can ready you for, and it is my job to teach you how to distinguish these threats, and how to combat them.”

            She raked her frigid gaze over the class, and Cassie felt a chill go down her spine when those eyes landed on her. “Miss Alderfair, could you tell the class of the differences between a banshee and a hag?”

Cassie blinked, frantically racking her brain for an answer as those cold eyes bored into her, emotionless and stony.

            “Er…one of them screams?” she said. Her face heated when she heard faint snickers and laughs from behind her, but her mind was completely blank.

            Professor Carlisle raised a pale eyebrow at her, not looking amused in the slightest, and Cassie slumped in her seat a little at the unsettling look.

            “Well, it seems obvious that you haven’t even bothered to open your book thus far this year, Miss Alderfair,” she said coolly. Cassie grimaced. “I expected better from you, being the daughter of such prominent parents and the sister of quite a Hogwarts legend, from what I hear.”

            Cassie wished the ground would open up and swallow her; she was afraid she was going to fall out of her desk entirely if she sunk any lower in her seat, but her palms were beginning to sweat as she felt the stares boring into her back, the same stares she had endured the year before when people found out about her brother.

            “Quidditch Captain, Head Boy, and as Professor Flitwick puts it, one of the most gifted students in Charms he has had the pleasure to teach,” she went on. A mocking smile curled her red lips. “A shame to see where all that potential went.”

            This struck a nerve within Cassie, and she found herself suddenly sitting very straight in her seat, her fists clenched on her desk as she stared at Professor Carlisle, her argument with her father coming to the forefront of her mind once again.

            “Yeah,” she said, her voice coming out an octave higher than normal, “having a Death Eater in the family is a right shame; but having a professor that doesn’t know how to keep her nose out of business that isn’t hers is worse, in my opinion.”

            There were several gasps that rippled from the class, but Cassie didn’t hear them, her attention fixed solely on Professor Carlisle. She seemed unfazed by Cassie’s words, but her small smile had disappeared.

            “Twenty points from Gryffindor for disrupting my class with unnecessary commentary,” she said finally, in that same cool voice. “And another five for failing to answer my original question.”

            This broke through Cassie’s angry haze; she could practically feel the disapproving looks she was receiving from her fellow Gryffindors as she forced herself to unclench her hands, breathing deeply through her nose. Twenty-five points gone, just like that. Godric, her Housemates would never let her live that down.

            She turned her head slightly when she still felt a pair of eyes on her, and through a curtain of dark hair, she could see Avery looking her up and down thoughtfully as if he were sizing her up.

            Gritting her teeth, Cassie ignored him and brought out her book, placing it on her desk with a little more force than necessary. Professor Carlisle gave her a slight look from the corner of her eye as she began reciting the various differences between a banshee and a hag, but Cassie glared right back, the sudden anger that had overtaken her not quite gone.

            All in all, she thought, this year was already off to a bad start.

Chapter Text

            “Cassie, you’re going to have to get up eventually.”

            “There is a difference between ‘having’ to do something, and ‘wanting’ to do something,” the young witch pointed out, currently buried in a tomb of sheets and pillows atop her four-poster bed in the dormitory she shared with the other three girls.

            She could practically feel Marlene rolling her eyes.

            “It’s only the fourth day of classes,” her friend countered. “You can’t skive just because you don’t want to go to Defense.”

            “I can, and I will,” Cassie retorted. She knew she was being childish, but the memory of their first class and losing twenty-five points for Gryffindor was still haunting her two days later.

            Marlene sighed. “Fine, stay here. But do you really think this is a good way of getting Professor Carlisle to like you?”

            “I don’t want her to like me.” Cassie sniffed, emerging from her nest to glare at Marlene. The other girl stood at the foot of her bed, arms crossed, one eyebrow raised. “I just want her to be like every other teacher I’ve had and ignore me completely.”

            “Purposefully going out of your way to try and be ignored is only going to bring you more attention,” Marlene said logically. “I get that you don’t want a repeat of last year, Cass, but skiving off and snapping at your teachers – no matter how much they deserve it—" she added before Cassie could break in “—is definitely not the way to go.”

            Cassie sat, still wrapped in her sheets and trying to come up with an argument to that, but she couldn’t. Marlene was right.

            “Break’s over in fifteen minutes,” the blonde girl said. “I’ll meet you down in the common room.”

            Cassie sat on her bed for another minute after Marlene left, trying to get over the dread that was settled firmly in her stomach. Even just thinking about Professor Carlisle made her tense. Just the way she’d talked about Cassie’s brother, like he was a particularly nasty slug she had stepped on, had been enough. And while it didn’t help her anonymity in the slightest, Cassie couldn’t stop herself from feeling some satisfaction over the encounter, especially when she had felt those frosty eyes bore into her back every time she sat down to eat in the Great Hall.

            Summoning enough courage to leave her bed, Cassie stood and walked to the washroom, straightening her robes as she went. She hadn’t bothered to take them off when break started and she’d decided to take a nap (Lily didn’t have a break this block, thankfully, or else Cassie would never have heard the end of it), so all she had to do was brush out her bedhead and be on her way.

            She ran a brush through her long hair, tucking it behind her ears when it had returned to its usual flat style, and once again found herself wishing she either had Marlene’s blonde curls or Lily’s wavy, fiery red locks. Anything besides the brown curtain that hung past her shoulders no matter what she or her mother did to attempt another style.

            Shrugging off her daily hair lamentation, she crossed back to her bed and gathered her books before shoving them into her bag and throwing it over her shoulder as she descended the winding staircase into the common room.

            She found Marlene sitting in a chair in the corner closest to the portrait hole and plopped down next to her, figuring they had about another five minutes before they needed to leave.

            “What was that stuff your mum sent you last year for the Halloween Feast?” Cassie asked, twirling a loose strand of hair and pouting when it still fell straight. “That really expensive hair gel that made anything hold?”

            Cassie waited, playing with her hair, but looked up when Marlene didn’t answer.

            “Hello, Earth to Mars!” Cassie grinned at her pun as she waved a hand in front of Marlene’s blank eyes. “I’m talking to you.”

            “Sorry, Cass,” Marlene said, blinking and refocusing on her. “Hair gel? It might’ve been Victoire’s Voluminous Vial, or something like it.”

            “Okay.” Cassie made a mental note of the name so she could write her own mum to buy her some. “What were you staring at?”

            “Nothing important,” Marlene said airily. She stood up and grabbed her bag, though Cassie noticed her eyes still fixed on something across the common room.

            Cassie stood as well, craning her neck to see what Marlene was staring at, but only catching sight of the Marauders sitting in chairs by the fireplace before Marlene was pulling her through the portrait hole.

            “Wait, was that what I think it was?” Cassie said, grinning mischievously when the other girl walked resolutely forward, not looking at her. “That totally was.”

            “I don’t know what you’re on about,” Marlene said neutrally, but Cassie could see the pink creeping into her friend’s cheeks as she cackled.

            “You fancy one of them, don’t you?” she said, poking Marlene’s arm and getting a good laugh out of her friend’s clear discomfort. Suddenly Cassie flashed back to dinner a few nights ago, when Marlene had made a comment about not minding if Black was staring at her. “It’s Black, isn’t it?”

            “No!” Marlene said, shaking her head quickly as her face flushed red. “He’s attractive, I’ll admit, but I would never like that git!”

            “But you’d still snog him, right?” Cassie asked, laughing even harder when Marlene made a startled noise in her throat.

            “I – no – I mean—" She stopped spluttering when Cassie put a hand on her arm, still grinning wickedly but looking around to make sure no one was listening.

            “Hey, no big deal,” she said. “I just think it’s kind of cute, in a very weird and disgusting way.”

            Marlene shook her head. “It’s not cute,” she moaned. “It’s a disaster! Of all the blokes in school, why does the hottest one have to be the most pretentious asshole of the lot?”

            Cassie shrugged. “Merlin likes to see us girls suffer, I guess.”

            Marlene snorted. “No kidding.”

            They walked the rest of the way talking about Mary MacDonald’s new haircut and this year’s prospects for the Quidditch team (as Marlene’s younger brother was a Chaser for their House team), but Cassie was very aware of the building dread in her stomach the whole time as they approached the Defense classroom.

            They walked in, and Marlene squeezed Cassie’s arm as she went to her seat, which had been unfairly put in the back next to a bunch of Slytherins as Cassie steeled herself and walked to her own desk.

            Her path took her directly in front of the teacher’s desk, where Professor Carlisle was sitting scribbling on a piece of parchment. The icy witch looked up as Cassie was passing, fixing her with a piercing glare as Cassie gulped and slunk into her seat, refusing to meet her eyes.

            She only looked up when she heard the professor’s quill go back to scratching on the parchment, and she breathed out a sigh of relief when the bell rang and the stragglers trickled into the classroom – including the Marauders, as she saw Lupin taking his seat next to her.  

            “Take out your books and turn to page twenty-three,” Professor Carlisle said without looking up from her parchment. There was a rustling of bags as the students pulled out their books: The Essential Defense Against the Dark Arts by Arsenius Jigger.

            The class complied with Professor Carlisle’s order and opened their books to page twenty-three, and Cassie’s brow furrowed when all she saw was a chapter on how to stop hags from eating small children.

            “Read the chapter, and then list and explain to me the ways one can banish a hag on a foot of parchment, to be handed in at the end of class,” Professor Carlisle said, again not looking up from her own parchment as the class mumbled. “And anyone who decides to slack off on this assignment will earn a night’s detention with me, so I suggest you get to work.”

            There was another flurry of movement as everyone pulled out quills and parchment, but the room went still again as Professor Carlisle spoke up once more.

            “Also, you may work with other people on this assignment.” Excited murmurs rippled through the room before they were immediately shut down. “However, you may only work with the people in your assigned row.”

            Cassie’s heart sank. She turned away from the crestfallen expressions of Lily, Marlene, and Alice, and looked to Lupin and Avery, both of whom were not paying any attention to her. She huffed in annoyance and glared at Professor Carlisle’s pale forehead.

            “You may begin,” the professor drawled.

Cassie sighed, settling herself in to read an undoubtedly boring chapter before she felt a tap on her shoulder. She looked to her left and saw Lupin facing her. She raised an eyebrow at him. “Yes?”

            “I was wondering if you wanted to work on this with me,” he said quietly, gesturing to the chapter as she stared. “I’m afraid I’ll fall asleep reading this thing, and it would be a bad example as a prefect if I were to get a detention.”

            He gave her a lopsided grin, his green eyes earnest, but not like Potter’s had been when he’d asked for her quill. It sounded like he genuinely wanted to work with her, and Cassie cursed herself for being so suspicious, but the thought that this was just another prank had planted a seed of doubt in her brain.

            “All right,” she hedged, scooting her desk closer but eyeing him warily. “I’ll work with you, so long as you don’t light my scroll on fire.”

            He chuckled, closing the distance with his own desk in one easy move, though he kept a respectable distance from her, she noticed.

            “No fires from me, I swear it,” he said. “That’s James’s thing, not mine.”

            Cassie scowled at the mention of James Potter, something Lupin did not miss.

            “He didn’t pull that quill stunt to get you in trouble, Cassie,” he said, and she started at the use of her name. “I’ll admit, James can be a git when it comes to pranking people, but he just wanted a laugh, that was all.”

            “Yeah, well, he didn’t have to use my quill,” she said, her face feeling hot again when she recalled her embarrassment. “And, no offense, but he’s pretty much always been a git.”

            Lupin shrugged. “Fair point,” he agreed. “But still, I’m sorry that it happened.”

            Cassie blinked, startled by his apology. She knew it was not in the Marauders’ nature to apologize about anything, but this was clearly an unexpected turn of events. True, it was not Potter himself making the apology, but one of his best friends offering was better than nothing.

            “Er, thank you,” she said. She cleared her throat and pulled her book closer as she tapped on the page. “We should probably start reading now though. I’d rather not get detention with her.”

            She nodded at Professor Carlisle, keeping her voice down all the same as they were sitting so close to her. Lupin raised a brow.

            “I’d noticed you weren’t too keen on her,” he said. Cassie’s face flushed again at the reference to her reaction the last class. “That was cruel on her part, though. There are some things we just can’t help. Family is one of them.”

            He didn’t exactly look at her as he said this last part, but Cassie nodded appreciatively, eyeing the sandy-haired boy with new regard. Perhaps he wasn’t as big a prat as his friends, as she had been led to believe the past four years.

            “Yeah,” she muttered. She nodded back to their books before she could have another revelation about the prefect Remus Lupin not being as Marauder-ish at first glance. “You take half and I take the other?”

            He nodded, propping his arm under his book to read. “Sounds fair.”

            Cassie began to read, the words already making no sense as her mind flooded with thoughts of their random exchange. She’d never associated with Remus Lupin before, and with this being her first time… Well, she was pleasantly surprised, to say the least. How long his kind, sensible act would last was another matter entirely, and that alone was enough to shake those thoughts from her head and continue reading.

            The dread that had been built up in Cassie’s stomach the whole day was finally starting to dissipate as the class wore on, the two hours ticking by with surprising speed as she and Lupin worked together. Professor Carlisle remained sitting at her desk, not bothering with any of her students. This did not go unnoticed by Cassie’s classmates, who decided to take advantage of their professor’s inattention and were now gossiping or flicking pieces of parchment at each other from across the room – Potter and Black, of course, being the instigators despite their distance from one another.

            Cassie and Lupin were just finishing up their list of ways to repel hags when a piece of paper hit the boy on the back of the head. Lupin looked more resigned than annoyed as he picked up the paper with a furtive glance to Professor Carlisle, though she was now too busy reading whatever she had written to see.

            Cassie glanced sidelong at the paper Lupin was holding and read a hastily scrawled ‘Moony’ before he opened the folded parchment to reveal a circle, and the words ‘Two days’ written beneath it. There were more words, but Cassie didn’t get a chance to read them as Lupin sighed, shoved the note into his pocket, and turned around to mouth something at Potter, who must have been the author.

            Figuring the note was some sort of code the Marauders had devised, Cassie squashed down her curiosity and started to work on her parchment with an hour left in class – more than enough time to write a thoroughly detailed foot of parchment.

            She’d only written a sentence when she felt another tap on her shoulder, though this time it came from her right. She looked up with a frown to see the Slytherin Edmond Avery pointing to her scroll.

            “Do you mind if I look at your notes?” he asked. His voice was surprisingly soft – very different from how Cassie imagined it to sound. “I think I got everything, but I just wanted to be sure.”

            “Er, yeah, go ahead.” She handed over the scratch paper she and Lupin had scrawled on as the latter was still turned around, talking silently to his friends.

            He inclined his head to her as he looked over the parchment, nodding as he compared the notes.

            Cassie waited, squirming slightly in her seat, unnerved by what was happening. She was used to being glanced over or scrutinized, but now here she was, partnered with a Marauder and being asked for help by a Slytherin. It was truly odd, and she was so intent upon wondering why that she didn’t even notice the paper that had been held out for her expectantly until Avery cleared his throat.

            “Oh, sorry.” She snatched the paper back, refusing to let her face flush, even though it was useless.

            “Not a problem,” the Slytherin boy said. He slid back into his seat and began to work on his own scroll, his movements smooth and deft as he wrote with his quill.

            Cassie leaned against her desk, elbows resting on top as she watched Avery work. She didn’t know much about him, besides his first name and his House and that he was from a pure-blood family like her own. He might’ve been a Beater for the Slytherin Quidditch team, but she wasn’t entirely sure; Quidditch was not something she participated heavily in, and she’d never seen a reason to pay attention to the other House teams. But she had heard of him and his little gang of Slytherins, who lurked around the school and hexed various students who had crossed them, most being Muggle-borns.

            This reminder was enough to put her off the newfound curiosity that had sprung up when Avery had spoken to her, and she went back to her work dutifully, determined to finish by the end of class.

            When the bell rang, Cassie stood from her seat and approached Professor Carlisle’s desk with only some trepidation, her pride at having finished a foot of parchment in little more than an hour outweighing the dread of having to be so close to the witch. She heard Lupin following behind her, his parchment still glistening with the ink of his last three sentences, which he had finished in the nick of time, considering the rather lengthy silent conversation he’d had with his mates.

            Professor Carlisle did not look up when Cassie handed in her work, but she saw the witch’s lips purse when she read her name at the top. While she perused Cassie’s essay, she let her eyes wander, and found them drawn towards the parchment Professor Carlisle had been working on all class.

            Most of it was words, written in elegant green letters, but there were several drawings, as well. Cassie tilted her head to look at them better despite the little voice telling her it was none of her business.

            The drawings turned out to be a diagram, from what she could tell; though it was impossible to decipher due to the many squiggly lines and scratched out portions. It looked like it could be a map, but before Cassie could study it further, Professor Carlisle had placed her essay atop it, giving a dismissive wave with her hand.

            “Next class your grades will be handed back to you,” she said to the class at large. “I will assess them as an O.W.L. proctor would, so I do hope for your sakes that this is some of your best work.”

            Many nervous glances were traded at this. Cassie saw Lily looking absolutely appalled as she waited in line to turn in her essay.

            Professor Carlisle’s eyes slipped back to Cassie, and she automatically tensed when the witch raised a pale brow at her.

            “If there is something you would like to say, Miss Alderfair, then do so quickly,” she said flatly. “You are holding up the line.”

            Cassie felt her face dip into a scowl as eyes turned on her, her classmates’ curiosity and anticipation for another incident like last time making her skin itch as she backed away from Professor Carlisle’s desk.

            “No,” she said, making her voice as hard as hers. “I have nothing else to say, Professor.”

            Professor Carlisle narrowed her eyes, the grey irises glittering out at her, but she turned away when Lupin handed her his essay, and Cassie was left to gather her things in peace.

            Her skin was still prickling when she exited the classroom a few minutes later, and she scratched at it unconsciously, wondering why being anywhere near the professor made her so uncomfortable. It had to have been because of her snide remark about her brother, but that didn’t explain the time she’d met her eyes in the Great Hall and felt as if she had been dunked into ice water.

            Shaking off the discomfort, Cassie walked down to the Great Hall for dinner, soon being joined by Lily, Marlene, and Alice. She had survived her first week back at school, and by Merlin was she going to enjoy sleeping that weekend.

 

           

Chapter Text

           “I’ll give you two Galleons if you strip naked and jump into the lake.”

            James looked over at Sirius, his eyebrows rising as he ruffled up his already wild hair. The other boy just grinned at him, a mischievous glint in his grey eyes.

            “Make it five and you have yourself a deal,” James said, waiting as Sirius cocked his head, clearly deliberating his offer.

            Before Sirius could even open his mouth to speak, Remus murmured, “Don’t even think about it, you two.”

            Sirius looked to his sandy-haired friend, pouting as he whined, “But Remus…”

            Remus just shook his head, his eyes never once leaving the book he was reading, and Sirius huffed.

            “C’mon, Moony, it’ll be brilliant,” James said, already tugging at his tie. Peter nodded enthusiastically, watching James with shining eyes. “And I know you’d give anything to see me in my skivvies.”

            He gave Remus a roguish wink as Sirius laughed. Their sensible friend finally looked up from his book, his green eyes narrowed.

            “I’d rather see a naked house-elf dancing in front of me than witness anything you have to offer, Prongs,” he said coolly, and James pressed a hand over his heart as Peter giggled.

            “You wound me, Remus!” he cried, falling back on the grass and giving a mock-writhe of pain. “Oh, how will I ever go on after this devastating blow?”

            “Shut it, James,” Remus said, though a smile twitched at his lips all the same. “You’re being too dramatic; the fourth years are staring again.”

            James sat up and looked in the direction indicated by his friend, seeing a gaggle of fourth-year Hufflepuff girls casting surreptitious glances at the boys sitting beneath the beech tree near the lake, and they immediately squealed and started whispering when James gave them a jaunty wave.

            Sirius snorted. “Careful, Prongs. Soon you’ll have a fan club if you keep that up.”

            James shrugged, wholly unruffled as he messed with his hair again.

            “I wouldn’t mind a fan club,” he said thoughtfully, before turning to Sirius with a suggestive grin. “As long as you’re my number one fan, Pads.”

            Sirius batted his eyelashes, pretending to swoon. “I thought you’d never ask, darling.”

            They both leaned in, making as if to snog, before Remus’s exasperated yet clearly amused voice broke them apart. “Oi, get a room! Some of us are trying to concentrate here.”

            “It’s the weekend, Moony,” James moaned, flopping back on the grass and putting an arm behind his head. “What are you possibly trying to concentrate on?”

            “Slughorn mentioned something about starting a lesson on Sleeping Potions next class, and seeing as I’m going to be out of commission…” He trailed off, and the boys all exchanged a look at the unspoken bit. Monday was the full moon, which meant it was time for Remus’s “furry little problem,” as James put it.

            “Don’t worry, mate, we’ll take good notes for you,” Sirius said, flicking the cover of Remus’s Potions book and causing the other boy to roll his eyes.

            “The day I let you lot take notes for me is the day Hell freezes over.”

            “I resent that remark.” Sirius sniffed. “I work hard for my grades, thank you very much, and you should be grateful that I am offering my services.”

            “No, you don’t,” Peter pointed out. Sirius turned on him, affronted, but the blond boy just shrugged his shoulders. “You breeze through lessons like they’re nothing, you and James both; it’s incredible, really, how you’re both so smart, yet you never really do anything.”

            Remus snorted. “Don’t encourage them, Pete.”

            Sirius looked to the mousy boy, who had gone back to staring out at the lake and pulling tufts of grass out of the ground. “I don’t know whether I should be flattered or offended.”

            “Take it as a compliment,” James suggested, “just like everything else.”

            “Good point,” Sirius agreed, letting his eyes wander over the grounds before he saw something that made him punch James’s leg. “Oi, Prongs, look who it is.”

            “Snivellus?” James sat up immediately, adjusting his glasses when they slipped off his nose and looking around eagerly, but Sirius shook his head.

            “Better, for you,” he said, pointing. “It’s Evans.”

            James sat up even straighter, his lanky form easily peering across the grounds to see a flash of bright red hair that was indeed Lily Evans, walking with Marlene McKinnon as the two went for a stroll around the lake.

            James sighed, his gaze following the girl wistfully, and Sirius rolled his eyes at the lovesick expression on his best mate’s face.

            “D’you think she’ll try and hex me if I go talk to her?” he asked, and the three Marauders responded “Yes” in unison almost instantaneously. “Alas, another time, then.” He sighed again. “I’d rather not get hit by a Tickling Curse today.”

            He took another look around the grounds, mussing up his hair even more, before gesturing with his chin at some point over Sirius’s shoulder.

            “Hey, there’s that Cassie Alderfair girl,” he said. They all turned to see the dark-haired witch who’d been the center of gossip the past few years walking across the grounds with Alice Fortescue, heading for the spot where Evans and McKinnon had sat on the shore.

            “She’s also the girl I had to apologize to on your behalf after that stunt in History of Magic,” Remus said, raising a pointed eyebrow that James waved off.

            “It was just a bit of fun. No need for her to get her knickers in a twist,” he said, and Remus frowned disapprovingly. “She’s a feisty one, though, eh? Calling out Professor Carlisle like that in front of the whole class.”

            “I thought it was good for her to stand up for her brother like that,” Remus said. “A teacher should know better than to discuss things that personal in front of other students.”

            “Remus John Lupin, riding to the rescue of another damsel in distress,” James teased. Remus scowled. “C’mon, Moony, I saw you two working together yesterday; you looked like you were enjoying it too.”

            “Come off it, James.” Remus snorted. “I was trying to be nice after your prank.”

            “D’you reckon her brother really is a Death Eater?” Peter broke in, staring after the Gryffindor girl with wide eyes.

            James shrugged. “Dunno,” he said, scratching the back of his neck. “He was our Quidditch Captain for two years, and I thought he was a pretty decent bloke – quiet, kind of moody, but still nice enough.”

            “He is a Death Eater,” Sirius suddenly said, also staring hard at the girl as she sat down with her friends. He felt the others’ eyes all turn to him.

            “How do you know?” Peter asked breathlessly.

            Sirius scowled. “My family had her parents over for dinner sometime this summer. I was trying to sneak some food up to my room to avoid them all, but I heard them talking about it: You-Know-Who, pure-blood ideology, all that rubbish. They were practically boasting about their son’s contributions to ‘the cause.’”

            They all exchanged a dark look at this, before turning to stare at Cassie Alderfair, who was now wading along the shore of the lake as the other girls stripped off their shoes and rolled their pants to join her in the shallow water.

            “What about her?” Peter whispered, and they didn’t need his pointing finger to know who he was talking about. “Is she one of them?”

            “Don’t be ridiculous, Wormtail,” Remus said, his voice uncharacteristically harsh, and they all turned to him with raised brows as Peter flushed. “She’s too young; why would You-Know-Who want a fifteen-year-old Death Eater?”

            “Right,” Peter said, nodding meekly. “That would be stupid.”

            There was an uncomfortable moment of silence before it was broken by James.

            “Anyway,” he said, clearing his throat. “We should start preparing for Monday…”

            Sirius tuned out their change in discussion, his eyes still focused on the girl in the lake. He flashed back to that morning on the train, when he’d helped her load her luggage into a compartment. He hadn’t even realized who she was until she’d pointed out that they were in the same year, and the same House, and he’d suddenly remembered her from the year before, after the rumor about her brother had taken hold of the student body like wildfire.

            In the past few years, it was not unusual for a graduate of Hogwarts to go off and work to spread the pure-blood ideology that was slowly coming to the forefront of the wizarding community again. William Alderfair must have been a right shock, however, as he thought back to Professor Carlisle’s description of him: a Gryffindor, Head Boy, and Quidditch Captain, along with being one of the top students? It was wrong of him, but he had to agree with the professor; William Alderfair had given up everything to follow the beliefs of a madman that his own family supported, and the thought disgusted him.

            He looked back to Alderfair’s sister and watched her splash water at her friends, her long hair flying and her face split into a wide smile, and he suddenly had trouble believing that she could end up as rotten as her brother. But then again, he could be wrong.

            Tearing his eyes away from Cassie Alderfair, he rejoined the Marauders’ conversation and tried to push all thoughts of mysterious girls and Death Eaters from his mind.


 

            Monday morning dawned overcast and chilly, and Cassie made her way down to the Great Hall for breakfast, her arms wrapped around herself in an attempt to stave off the draftiness of the castle. Fortunately, the Hall beckoned her with its warmth, and she entered gratefully, dropping her hands back to her sides as she took her customary seat with Alice, Lily, and Marlene.

            “G’morning, Cassie,” Lily said, taking a careful sip from her tea as she skimmed through the pages of that morning’s Daily Prophet.

            “Morning,” Cassie said, already too focused on filling her plate with eggs and bacon to offer more than a short greeting.

            “Anything interesting going on?” Alice asked, gesturing to the newspaper, and Lily frowned.

            “Nothing, really,” she said, before pausing and tapping on an article crammed at the bottom of the third page. “Wait, here’s something…”

            She scanned the article quickly while the other girls waited, before she finally sighed and lifted her head.

            “There’s been another attack on a Muggle-born family,” she said. Cassie saw her eyes flicker over to her for a brief second as she stopped chewing, her throat growing tight. “They don’t know who did it, but they suspect Death Eaters are behind it.”

            Cassie swallowed with difficulty, keeping her head down as her friends looked to her in concern. They’d been exceedingly careful about keeping away from the topic of Death Eaters whenever they were in her presence; and though they’d never once questioned her loyalty or her friendship, this walking-on-eggshells business around her grated her nerves.

            “Why would something like that be on the third page, though?” Marlene asked, shaking her head. “Something like this needs to be on the front, to at least caution other Muggle-born families to be on their guard.”

            “Because the Ministry doesn’t want to scare everyone,” Cassie said bitterly, taking a sharp stab at her eggs. “They want to pretend like everything is fine, and they have it under control, when they don’t. The attacks are going to keep happening, more frequently, and they’re going to be running around like chickens with their heads cut off while You-Know-Who keeps getting more and more powerful.”

            Silence met her dark prediction, and she glanced up to see the three girls looking at her with varying expressions of worry and discomfort.

            Cassie sighed, shaking her head, her sudden vehemence retreating as quickly as it had come. “Never mind, forget I said that. I didn’t mean to get so carried away.”

            Alice put a comforting hand on her shoulder, smiling gently. “It’s fine, Cass,” she said. “I think it’s good that you’re not trying to sweep this under the rug, like my family is doing.”

            Marlene nodded in agreement, and Lily looked at her with sympathetic emerald eyes.

            Cassie gave them a tiny smile, suddenly feeling a rush of emotion as she said, “Thank you. Really. That…actually means a lot to me.”

            They all smiled and nodded encouragingly, but the moment was interrupted when a voice from behind her said, “Er, Cassiopeia Alderfair?”

            Cassie turned, seeing a brown-haired boy who looked like a second-year standing behind her nervously, holding out a roll of parchment to her.

            “Oh, thanks,” she said, and the boy nodded before scurrying off, the tips of his ears red. She looked down at the sealed scroll apprehensively.

            “What is it?” Alice asked, and Cassie shrugged, unrolling the parchment and immediately letting out a groan.

            “Detention with Binns, eight o’clock,” she said, letting the parchment fall to the table as she buried her head in her arms. “My parents are going to kill me!”

            “No, they won’t,” Lily said firmly. “McGonagall’s not going to write your parents over something as minor as a quill being thrown.”

            “They always know,” Cassie moaned, her thoughts flipping through all the possibilities of what her parents might do if they found out about her first detention. “I’m a dead woman walking.”

            “Nonsense,” Lily chastised. “Just do the detention, and make sure it never happens again. You’ll be fine.”

            Cassie answered in lieu of a groan, keeping her head down until Alice informed her that classes were starting in ten minutes and that she couldn’t stay there all morning.

            Conceding this point, Cassie stood up and departed the Great Hall with her three friends, oblivious to the curious and borderline suspicious looks she was receiving from the Marauders.


 

            Later that night, Cassie bid good-bye to her friends and exited their dormitory, heading off to her very first detention she had ever received at Hogwarts.

            Despite knowing the general punishments one had to do in detention, she still felt nervous as she descended the winding staircase and entered the common room, where her Housemates were returning from a late dinner or chatting idly by the fireplace.

            She passed a group of sixth-year boys playing a very loud game of Exploding Snap, but paused on her way to the portrait hole when she heard someone call her name.

            Turning around, she saw Remus Lupin waving to her. She frowned, looking over her shoulder to see if she was mistaken and he was in fact acknowledging someone else. But no, it had to be her, as there was no one else behind her. She made her way over to him cautiously, where he was sitting amongst the other three Marauders in a secluded corner.

            “Hullo, Cassie,” he said politely, giving her a smile that looked quite forced; though upon closer inspection, she realized that he might be ill, his skin pale and his eyes shadowed with dark circles.

            “Er, hello…Remus,” she said, testing out his first name on her tongue and finding it very strange. She kept her eyes focused on him, refusing to look at any of the other Marauders, though she could feel their intense gazes upon her.

            “Want to take a seat?” he asked. He pulled another armchair closer and scooted over so he could add it to their circle, and Cassie stared, gobsmacked by the sudden invitation. Her immediate thought was that this was a prank; it had to be, right? She’d never spoken to any of them before this week, and now here she was, being asked if she wanted to sit with them. (Granted, it was only Remus who had asked her, but still.)

            “Um, I’d love to, but, er…I’m actually supposed to go meet Binns for a detention soon.” She couldn’t help glancing over to Potter at this, and he grimaced when Remus gave him a pointed look.

            “No worries,” the sandy-haired boy said coolly, pushing the chair back to its original place as she shuffled her feet awkwardly. “Have fun in detention, then.”

            His eyes glittered good-naturedly as he said it, and Cassie resisted the urge to turn and flee, instead giving him a slight nod.

            “I’m sure Binns will be a hoot, as ever,” she said, smiling tightly when he chuckled. She noticed Pettigrew’s mouth twitch as he looked at her before his watery eyes darted away quickly upon her observation. “But thanks for the offer. Maybe another time?”

            Her voice rose at the end, turning the statement into a question, and she cringed at how uncertain she sounded. But if Lupin noticed, he gave no sign of it.

            “’Course,” he said, giving her another lopsided grin like he had when he asked her to work with him on their hag essay.

            Realizing she was standing there like an idiot with nothing else to say, she finally nodded and said, “Right, then. Er…see you later.”

            “See you, Cassie,” he replied, sending her off with a wave as she turned and made for the portrait hole, trying not to walk too quickly.

            She clambered out into the corridor, hoisting her bag higher upon her shoulder as she made her way down to Professor Binns’s stuffy classroom, her face hot. Her mind was reeling at what had just happened, debating on whether she had hallucinated the whole thing or not.

            What had Remus Lupin wanted with her? It was one thing partnering up for a class, but to be invited into the Marauders’ inner circle was something else entirely. It was baffling, and the only conclusion that she could come to was that he had definitely been setting her up for a prank, or some other form of humiliation. After all, she was Cassie Alderfair: the Invisible Girl with a Death Eater for a brother. She was nothing to them, just another victim in their arrogant, infantile ways.

            Gritting her teeth, she marched the rest of the way to Binns’s classroom, vowing to herself that she would never get involved with the Marauders – only if they didn’t mess with her first.


 

            “What the bloody hell was that, Moony?” Sirius hissed as soon as Cassie Alderfair was out of earshot. He turned on his friend with an incredulous expression.

            “I second that,” James said, looking utterly bewildered at what had just happened. “Seriously, what did you call her over here for?”

            Remus shrugged, looking wholly unconcerned at his friends’ bafflement.

            “Well, since you were so keen on talking about her this weekend, I thought she should be able to join in on the discussion,” he said, and the other three exchanged a stupefied glance.

            “We talked about her once,” James pointed out. “Hardly enough to justify ‘getting to know her,’ or whatever scheme you had planned.”

            He suddenly paused, his hazel eyes narrowing as he scrutinized Remus, before a huge grin began spreading across his face, causing the other three to eye their friend warily.

            “But that’s exactly it, isn’t it?” he said, looking as if he had just found a sack full of Galleons lying in the street. “Of course you’d want to get to know her, Moony; you fancy her!”

            “What? No!” Remus objected, his face and neck immediately flushing red as James cackled, Peter watching on with a gleeful expression.

            “Who knew the day would come so soon!” James crowed, his voice rising so those nearest them were beginning to look over in interest as Remus slid lower in his seat, glaring at James vehemently as he went on. “Our little Moony, growing up and finally seeking out the wonders of love!”

            “Shove off, James,” he snapped. “I don’t fancy her.”

            “Then why did you ask her to sit with us?” Peter asked eagerly, nearly bouncing in his seat with excitement.

            “It’s called being a decent and polite person, something you clearly know nothing about,” he said hotly, and Sirius broke in before James pushed too far and ended up with a broken nose and a black eye – again.

            “Back off, you lot,” he said sternly, fixing them with his signature Black-glare that was guaranteed to make them stop acting like gits. He knew the subject of girls was a tricky matter for Remus, and with tonight being the full moon, his agitation would be quicker to ignite than normal, something James and Peter finally seemed to get as their grins faded.

            “Right you are, Padfoot,” James said seriously. “Sorry about that, Remus.”

            “Sorry,” Peter squeaked, but Remus just waved them off.

            “It’s fine,” he said, rubbing his eyes. “The common room’s starting to clear out; we should get ready soon.”

            They all nodded, and Peter and James started for their dormitory upstairs, but Sirius put a hand on Remus’s shoulder to keep him from following immediately.

            “Hey,” he said. Remus turned back to face him, his scars standing out whiter than usual, and Sirius saw the glint of gold in the back of his green eyes that alerted him to the stirring creature inside his friend. “You all right?”

            “Yeah, good,” he said, looking away awkwardly. Sirius studied him carefully, hesitating only a little before speaking again.

            “This Alderfair girl…” he said slowly, watching Remus’s face slip into a scowl, but he held up a hand before he could say anything, only wanting to help his friend. “Do you really fancy her?”

            “Look, Pads, she’s a nice girl, but I don’t really know her at all.” He shook his head irritably. “And what with my condition…”

            Sirius nodded, patting his shoulder. “I understand,” he said. “Don’t worry about it, Moony. They’re just being prats. They’ll start talking about James’s love life – or lack thereof – again in no time.”

            Remus cracked a smile at this, and Sirius pulled his friend close as they headed up the stairs together, the dark-haired boy already itching to get this night started.


 

            Cassie thought detention would never end.

            It was only supposed to be two hours of copying lines, but from the way her eyes were blurring and her hand was cramping, it felt like she had been in there for eternity.

            Maybe this is how Binns feels all the time, she thought as her fingers twitched painfully along her quill. Trapped in this one classroom, doomed to put up with students for the rest of his immortal life…I’d be bitter too if I got stuck with this job forever.

            When the clock hands signaled that it was ten o’clock, Binns finally looked up from grading a stack of papers and waved her over to his desk. Her hand muscles weeping in relief, she stood up and walked over to him, handing over a foot and a half of parchment that read I will not throw things in the classroom like I am a Neanderthal nearly a hundred times over.

            He read over the lines silently, before nodding his ghostly head once and setting it aside.

            “I hope you have learned your lesson thoroughly, Miss Angford?” he said in his monotone. Cassie nodded quickly, anxious to leave and get started on the homework she still had to do to ensure she got some sleep that night. “You may leave, then,” he said, his expression as melancholy as ever, and Cassie thanked him before bidding him goodnight and bolting out of the classroom.

            She made her way back to Gryffindor Tower quickly, keeping her eyes and ears out for the heinous caretaker, Filch, or his demon-spawned cat, Mrs. Norris. She figured she probably wouldn’t be in too much trouble if she was caught outside of her common room, considering she actually had a valid reason to be out, but she wanted to avoid a confrontation with the despicable man and his unnatural cat, all the same.

            She came to a stop before the portrait of the Fat Lady, who started out of a doze when she heard Cassie approach.

            “What are you doing out so late, dear?” she uttered sleepily.

            “Detention,” Cassie said, grimacing.

             The Fat Lady nodded understandingly. “Password?”

            “Doxy,” she said, and the Fat Lady nodded again, yawning.

            “Nasty little things,” she said as the portrait swung open. “Tried to eat my frame once.”

            Cassie chose not to comment, climbing in through the hole and emerging into the Gryffindor Common Room, where she promptly dumped out her bag on the nearest desk and sat down, sighing at the amount of homework she had.

            Picking her star chart for Astronomy out of the mess of papers she had, she started filling it out, her eyelids drooping the longer she worked. The fire was still going, casting an orange glow on her paper as she scribbled the names of stars and what constellations they belonged to, the warmth lulling her into a state of contentment as her eyes drifted shut…

            She jerked awake to the sound of whispering voices, her cheek pressed firmly into her star chart and her mouth hanging open. For a moment she thought she’d dreamed the voices until they sounded again, coming from the staircases that led up to the dormitories.

            She sat up, ripping the star chart from her face when it stuck and rubbing at her skin, yawning as she looked around the common room.

            The fire was little more than glowing embers at this point, and shadows played across the walls from the bright moonlight streaming in through the high windows of the tower. Cassie stayed seated, not really wanting to have an awkward encounter with some couple sneaking out of their dormitories to snog in the moonlight, and so remained where she was, hidden in the shadows as the voices came closer.

            “Wormtail, hurry up!” one of them said. Cassie’s brows furrowed, knowing she’d heard that voice somewhere before…

            “Coming!” a high, breathy tone responded, and her eyes widened when she recognized the adoring voice of Peter Pettigrew as rapid footsteps came down the staircase of the boys’ dormitories, which meant that the other voice was definitely Potter’s.

            Cassie peeked her head around the corner, indeed seeing James Potter standing at the foot of the stairs impatiently with Sirius Black, who leaned against the wall with a bored expression, though she could tell he was waiting as much as Potter was, if his tapping foot was anything to go by.

            Pettigrew padded down the stairs then, and Potter jerked his head toward the portrait hole.

            “C’mon, then,” he said. “Moony’s waiting for us.”

            Cassie watched the three of them disappear into the portrait hole, utterly confused by what she had just witnessed as she was once again left alone in the dim light of the common room.

            Glancing at the clock resting on a table nearby, she saw that it was just before midnight. She frowned, wondering what the Marauders were doing, and why Remus wasn’t with them. Then she remembered the note Potter had thrown at him that one day in Defense, and the word ‘Moony’ scrawled across the front, and his reference just now: “Moony’s waiting for us.” Maybe Moony was some sort of stupid nickname they had made up for him. She didn’t understand why it was ‘Moony’ of all things, though. And what had Potter called Pettigrew? Wormtail?

            Cassie shook her head; nothing was making sense. This had to be a dream, or some sort of half-conscious delusion, but she wasn’t too keen on finding out which it was, either.

            Yawning widely, she packed away her things and vowed to finish her star chart at breakfast in the morning before taking her bag and hauling herself up the stairs to her dormitory.

            She pulled off her robes and changed into a set of nightclothes, being careful not to disturb her sleeping friends as she climbed into her bed. She looked out the window next to her four-poster before settling in for the night, and through the shifting clouds, she could see a very bright full moon illuminating the night sky.

            In fact, if she had shifted her head only a few more inches to the left that night, she might have seen three shadowy figures stealing their way across the grounds before disappearing under the cover of a cloud hiding away the moon.

Chapter Text

            September slipped into October faster than anyone could truly notice. The mornings became frostier, the temperatures cooler, and the trees lining the grounds and bordering the Forbidden Forest burst into an array of sunset-colored leaves before their branches became skinny and bare in preparation of winter.

            Autumn was in full swing, and soon, the first snowfall would come, which led to many students taking advantage of the fading good weather and spending the majority of their free time out on the grounds. Those in fifth-year and up could not join them, however, as the O.W.L. and N.E.W.T. workloads kept piling on, which led to an early onset of colds and other stress-induced illnesses amongst the older students, and a sense of enmity towards the younger ones.

            “Look at them,” Cassie said bitterly, staring out a window of Gryffindor Tower that overlooked the lake and scowling at the first years she could see chasing each other around and making random objects float. “Having fun, oblivious to the anxieties of being old, living carefree lives. It sickens me.”

            She was on her second hour of homework, with two rolls of parchment laid out before her for Transfiguration alone, not even counting the extra two she would have to write for Potions and Herbology. The stress of classes and homework was finally starting to catch up with her – so much so that she’d almost made a second-year girl cry earlier when she’d been talking too loud in the common room and Cassie had snapped at her. (However, after a harsh admonishing from Alice, Cassie had been forced to track down the girl and apologize.)

            “Then close the curtains and stop looking,” Marlene retorted. Her voice was thick and nasally from the sinus infection that had attacked her yesterday, but after a trip to the Hospital Wing and some Pepper-Up Potion, she was back to good health – though her attitude could use some work, in Cassie’s opinion.

            Cassie sniffed in disdain. “I will do no such thing. I will watch them prance around with no responsibilities to remind myself of my suffering and the obscene amount of homework I still have to do before bed.”

            There was a dull thunk on the table across from her the end of her sentence. She and Marlene turned to see Alice with her head down, her deep breathing indicating that she was fast asleep.

            “Me too, Al,” Cassie sighed, dropping her quill and stretching out her fingers as Marlene poked Alice’s cheek to no avail.

            “Yeah, she’s out,” she confirmed. Cassie snorted, wishing sleep would come that easily to her. All of her dreams of late ended with her jolting awake in a cold sweat as Professor McGonagall’s voice echoed in her head, telling her she was too stupid to attend school any longer and mocking her for not doing her homework. That alone was enough to put her off from sleep for the past week.

            “Where’s Lily?” she asked, shoving her Transfiguration homework out of the way to make way for her Potions, not realizing she had pushed it onto Marlene’s own homework as the blonde girl shrugged and in turn placed it on top of Alice’s head.

            “Dunno. Probably having a mental breakdown in the bathroom again.”

Cassie rolled her eyes in exasperation. If she thought she was stressed, it was nothing compared to Lily; the girl had become the walking definition of anxiety. Anyone who spoke more than a sentence to her was liable to be yelled at, and crying hysterically had become a sort of hobby for her. It frightened Cassie immensely; if this was Lily now, she didn’t want to be anywhere near her by the time the actual exams came around. She would likely end up the victim of a brutal murder if she even cracked a joke.

            “Blimey, I’m hungry,” Cassie moaned, reaching across the table to take a look at Alice’s watch to see how long they had until dinner. Marlene nodded, distracted, and hastily took out a tissue from her pocket to blow her nose loudly.

            Cassie turned Alice’s wrist to face her, studying the hands of the watch as the sleeping girl sighed, muttering something about Mandrakes before falling silent again.

            “Excellent, five minutes to,” she said, just as her stomach gave a sharp pang. “Let’s head down; I heard there was black pudding tonight.”

            “Can’t,” Marlene said, sniffling. “I have to finish this scroll for Professor Babbling or she’ll have my head.”

            Cassie shrugged before reaching over and slapping Alice’s hand.

            The brunette jerked awake and sat up quickly, causing Cassie’s Transfiguration homework to shower to the floor as Alice made a high-pitched noise of surprise.

            “Oi, that’s my Transfiguration homework!” she said, pointing to Alice. The other girl looked down in confusion before picking up the parchment and returning it to her.

            “What was it doing on my head?” she asked when Cassie snatched it back.

            “Never mind that,” she said, shoving it into her bag and standing. “Dinner awaits us, my dear Alice.”

            Alice yawned widely, slumping in her seat and closing her eyes.

            “You go,” she said, waving a lazy hand. “I’m too tired.”

            Cassie looked between Marlene and Alice, affronted.

            “Betrayed by my own friends,” she said, shaking her head in disbelief. “Don’t think I will forget this injustice so easily, ladies.”

            Marlene rolled her eyes. “Cassie, go eat something before I get the urge to throw this inkpot at you.”

            “Ungrateful and terrible, the lot of you,” she retorted, turning and tossing her hair in a melodramatic fashion. “I hope you have a horrible time without me here.”

            They didn’t reply, which made Cassie huff in annoyance as she climbed out of the portrait hole and set off for the Great Hall. She loved her friends, she really did, but sometimes they could never truly appreciate her humor.

            Their loss, she thought haughtily, traipsing down the marble staircase just as a group of Slytherins emerged from their dungeon common room, heading for the Great Hall such as she was. She hung back on the stairs a bit, not wanting to awkwardly enter in beside them, especially when she saw who they were.

            She only recognized three of them, as they were in her own year: Severus Snape, Kanin Mulciber, and Edmond Avery. They were with three other boys; two of them looked like older students – sixth- or seventh-years maybe – and the last one younger. Cassie’s gaze hesitated on the younger boy, feeling as if she recognized him, but she snapped her eyes away quickly when Avery turned his head in her direction.

            He made eye contact with her briefly, giving her a small nod of acknowledgment. She returned with a jerky wave, her surprise clearly overriding any normal movements. He disappeared into the Great Hall before she could do anything else though, and she shook her head, frowning before following them in.

            With her early arrival came the blessed opportunity for her to sit alone and eat in peace for once. She sat down in her usual seat enthusiastically, her stomach rumbling. She began to load her plate with food (silently cheering when she saw that there was, indeed, black pudding) and was about to take a disgustingly large bite when the Marauders themselves walked in, heading for the Gryffindor table.

            Shoving the spoonful of pudding into her mouth anyway, she watched them approach, pondering if she should say hello to Remus or not. The past month had become so intense in coursework that she had never taken him up on his offer to sit with him and his friends in the common room, and they’d had no partner work in Defense since the first essay, so she hadn’t had the opportunity to talk to him there, either. (Though he had let her go on an angry tirade when the essays were handed back, hers marked with a large red ‘D’ when his was an ‘A’, despite them both having the same exact information.) They occasionally exchanged pleasantries, but that was about the extent of their interactions. That is until he spotted her sitting alone and waved. He said something to his three friends before walking over to her, and the others followed in his wake, though much more slowly.

            Cassie painfully swallowed the large bite she had taken and downed a gulp of pumpkin juice just as Remus arrived, the others in tow. “Mind if we join you?”

            She raised an eyebrow at his friendly smile, suddenly wary. “Er, sure. As long as your mates don’t mind.”

            She looked pointedly to the other three Marauders; Pettigrew shifted on his feet nervously, while Potter looked agitated and Black just scowled.

            “They don’t mind,” he assured, giving them a glare as if daring one of them to object. When they didn’t, Cassie found herself suddenly very anxious as Remus plopped down next to her, the other three sitting on the bench across from them.

            As they began filling their plates, none of them saying anything, Cassie poked half-heartedly at her food, not that hungry anymore as she realized that she was eating dinner with the Marauders, of all people.

            “So, Cassie, how are you finding O.W.L. year?” Remus asked, breaking the awkward silence.

            She smiled nervously. “Well, I’ve only thought about pitching myself off the Astronomy Tower twice so far, so I reckon it’s not too bad right now.” She glanced over when Pettigrew snorted into his stew, his lips twitching in a grin that she felt heartened by, if only a little bit.  

            Remus nodded, chewing thoughtfully. “You know, that’s not too terrible of an idea, really.”

            Cassie snorted. “If you ever need someone to push you off in the near future, then you know who to come to.”

            He chuckled at that, and she took another bite of pudding, halting her chewing when Black finally spoke up.

            “Do you always eat like that?” he asked, eyeing the large bite she’d shoveled into her mouth with mild distaste. She raised an eyebrow as Remus scowled, and Potter jabbed him in the ribs with his elbow.

            Swallowing, Cassie stared back into his light grey eyes and said, “Do you always ask stupid questions?”

            Pettigrew truly laughed at this, and Potter disguised a chortle behind a cough. Remus looked highly amused when Black’s face turned the faintest hint of pink.

            “Never mind,” he mumbled, shaking his head and dropping his eyes back down to his plate.

             Cassie smirked to herself: Alderfair – 1, Black – 0.

            “How’s practice going, James?” Remus asked to smooth over the awkward moment. Potter gave a noncommittal shrug, and Cassie suddenly remembered that he was a Chaser on the Gryffindor Quidditch team.

            “All right, I guess,” he said. “Our new captain, Weatherly – that seventh-year bloke who looks like his mother mated with a rock – has no idea what he’s doing half the time, and the new Chaser we got can’t tell his arse from his head, but we’re not terrible. I reckon we’ll still beat Hufflepuff in the match next month.” He then grinned and clapped Black on the back. “At least we have a solid Beater this year, eh, Pads?”

            Black gave a flippant wave of his hand, taking a swig of pumpkin juice. Cassie stared at him.

“You’re a Beater? Since when?” Her brother had been on the team since his third year, yet she’d never heard him mention Black before. (Potter, on the other hand, she’d heard about loads of times; apparently, Will had not shared her sentiments toward him and had actually found him a decent bloke and a brilliant flyer.)

            “Tried out for the first time this year!” Potter said proudly, looking smug when Black rolled his eyes. “And about bloody time – we were losing hope in gaining another good player, but I convinced him to give it a go.”

            “Sirius is a great player,” Pettigrew chimed in. “All those times we scrimmaged at your house, James, he carried our team single-handedly.”

            “If you’re done drooling over me now,” Black said moodily. Cassie cocked a brow; Black was usually always the center of attention, but right now he looked downright uncomfortable.

            “Oh, but Sirius, can’t you see?” Potter said in a high-pitched voice, pretending to swoon. “I’m madly in love with you! I can’t stop, no matter what—"

            Potter choked when Black shoved a forkful of mashed potatoes in his mouth, and Cassie couldn’t help laughing at his wide-eyed expression when he swallowed with a large gulp and started chuckling too.

            “You lot are ridiculous,” she said, shaking her head.

            “Part of the Marauders’ charm, dear,” Potter said. He winked, though the effect was slightly marred by the potato now smeared on his chin.

            Remus cleared his throat. “Er, James.” He pointed to his chin, and Potter reached up to wipe the potato residue off his face, making a disgusted noise.

            “What’s with the name, anyway?” she asked, looking to Remus. “’The Marauders?’”

            “It’s a thing we came up with ages ago,” he explained. “We didn’t start publicly using it until this year, though; I don’t even remember who first came up with it.”

            “It was me,” Potter said at the same time Pettigrew said, “I did.”

            “Pete, your idea was the Crusaders, but we shot that down faster than you could say ‘hippogriff’—"

            “Come off it, James, it was my idea—"

            “Anyway,” Remus said, tuning out the two boys’ argument and speaking to Cassie again. “It was something we came up with our first year, and it’s just kinda stuck since then.”

            Cassie nodded thoughtfully. “I tried to come up with a name for me, Marlene, Lily, and Alice before.”

            “Oh?” Remus looked interested. “What was it?”

            “The Raging Whoremones.”

            Remus choked on the pumpkin juice he’d been drinking, spluttering as he burst out laughing.

            “You’re bloody joking,” he gasped. “When was this?”

            Cassie grimaced. “Last term.”

            This confession made Remus laugh harder, and she chuckled, as well. Potter and Pettigrew stared between them in confusion, finally pulled out of their argument, but she glanced to Black and saw the tiniest of smirks on his lips. As soon as he made eye contact with Cassie though, he went back to scowling and took a hearty bite from his chicken.

            The rest of the dinner passed with relative ease, as their conversations deviated to classes and their dreaded course load for the year. Cassie began to relax with the more time that passed, realizing that maybe the Marauders weren’t setting her up for some terrible humiliation as the Hall filled with more students. None of her friends had yet to show, so when the Marauders finished off their plates and prepared to leave, she felt a slight twinge of loneliness, though wondered if that was just her food digesting, instead.

            Potter and Pettigrew had the courtesy to wave to her before they left, but Black followed on their heels without so much as a glance back. After bidding her farewell, Remus made to leave too, but she stopped him when a sudden thought occurred to her. “Remus?”

            “Yeah?” He turned back to face her, his brows furrowing when he saw her troubled expression. “Is something wrong?”

            “I don’t know,” she said truthfully. “I…guess I’m just unsure.”

            “About what?” He was looking at her intensely, and she shifted when he sat back down next to her, those green eyes never leaving her face as she debated whether to tell him her misgivings or not. But in the end, she thought there was no use in denying it, so she continued.

            “About…this.” She gestured to him and the retreating backs of the other Marauders. “I mean, none of us have ever acknowledged each other before now, and suddenly, we’re eating dinner together? I’m not trying to sound snobbish, or anything, but…why are you being so nice to me?”

            She bit her lip when he didn’t immediately speak, picking at a loose thread on her skirt and cursing herself for being so nosy, for wanting reassurance that this wasn’t some awful joke at her expense. She had to believe they had hearts somewhere.

            “Look, Cassie…” His tone made her involuntarily flinch, and her heart sank with the inevitable sting of rejection. “I think you’re a nice person; I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to notice, but you’re actually really easy to talk to. You listen, and…that sticks out to me. I’m not used to people doing that for me – listening, and talking to me like I’m an actual person, not just James and Sirius’s friend.”

            He paused, his fingers tapping nervously on his leg while she watched him, feeling some hope rising in her chest again.

            “I also know what it’s like to be viewed differently – for people to look at you and see something that reflects only what they want to see.” He looked at her again when he said this, and her throat constricted, knowing he was talking about her brother, her family.

            “I don’t see you like everyone else does, Cassie.” He met her eyes, and she suddenly had the feeling that maybe, just maybe, Remus Lupin was telling the truth. “Maybe it’s because of things that I’ve been through, or maybe because getting to know you has changed my mind, but I’m not trying to befriend you as some sort of cruel joke. It’s because I genuinely think you’re all right.”

            He suddenly cleared his throat, looking away awkwardly. But once again, Cassie was stunned by this sandy-haired, green-eyed Marauder. He knew what she was going through; he had been there, or still was, and though she didn’t know what it was – he understood. He knew of her family, of her brother, but here he was: talking to her, befriending her, treating her like a person and not the shadow of another one. The gravity of his words finally sank in, and she found herself holding back tears, her chest feeling too tight.

            “Cassie?” Remus looked to her in concern when she sniffled. To her mortification, she felt a tear slip out of her eye, quickly followed by many more. “Oh, bloody hell, I’m such a git.”

            He started fumbling in his robes for a handkerchief, but when he couldn’t find one, he just grabbed a napkin off the table and held it out for her. “I’m so sorry, Cassie. I didn’t mean to make you cry.”

            “I’m not crying,” she protested weakly, dabbing at her clearly red-rimmed eyes. “I think I’m just coming down with whatever Marlene had…”

            Remus gave her a dubious look, and she let out a breathy laugh. “Poor excuse?”

            “Just a bit,” he said drily. She gave him a tiny smile before biting her lip.

            “Um, sorry,” she said, waving her hand to refer to her sudden crying. “I just… No one ever really comes out and says that, you know? I mean, I know the girls are there for me, but…they never talk about these things. They shy away from it, like they’re scared I’m going to react terribly to it. But…thank you, Remus. For talking about what it feels like. I…really appreciate it. And I appreciate you and your mates – no matter how pratty they are – for at least trying to see past my brother.”

            He gave her a gentle smile. “Of course, Cassie. I’m glad I could help.”

            They sat in silence until she noticed that they were starting to garner attention from the entering Gryffindors, and she nudged his shoulder slightly.

            “You should catch up with your friends,” she said. “I think I’ll be fine now.”

            He nodded and stood up, giving her shoulder a reassuring squeeze before walking away.

            “Oh, and Cassie?” She looked up, and he gave her a wink. “That offer still stands, anytime you need it.”

            “Maybe one day, Remus,” she replied, but gave the Marauder a last wave and smile before he left the Great Hall.

            Keeping her head down and trying to block out the whispers, Cassie reached for a slice of pumpkin pie and continued to eat, feeling truly content for the first time in a long time.


 

            James, Sirius, and Peter returned to a nearly empty common room, as everyone else had gone to dinner save for some very studious seventh-years holed up in a corner, their quills scratching like mad and their expressions haunted as they worked.

            The three present Marauders took their usual seats by the fireplace, their eyes occasionally sliding over the place where Remus would normally sit and remaining silent, none of them quite knowing what to make of the dinner they’d had with Cassie Alderfair a mere fifteen minutes ago.

            “So…” James began when he couldn’t take the silence any longer. “Interesting night, eh?”

            Peter grunted in agreement, picking at his nailbeds as he always did when he was thinking. Sirius said nothing, staring into the crackling flames with a creased brow.

            “I didn’t think it was all that bad,” James prodded. “Remus was right; she’s nice enough, and I like her humor.”

            “That doesn’t mean we can trust her,” Sirius muttered.

            James frowned, suspecting what his best mate was thinking and not quite liking it. He knew Sirius had grown up in a pure-blood household vastly different from his own; the Blacks were practically pure-blood royalty and had belonged exclusively in the elite, egotistical House of Slytherin for generations until Sirius had been Sorted into Gryffindor unexpectedly. And it was no secret that the Black family was also supportive of the anti-Muggle and -Muggle-born fever taking hold of the wizarding world. James imagined that the presence of this girl – whose own family followed the values of the one Sirius was trying so hard to get away from – did not bode well with the other boy at all.

            “We don’t know that,” James countered. Sirius scowled.

            “Her brother’s a Death Eater, James!” he snapped, turning to glare at him with dark grey eyes. “How do we know she isn’t like him, that she was raised to become one herself when she came of age?”

            “That’s a little hypocritical, don’t you think?” James raised a brow.

Sirius’s face scrunched in confusion. “Huh?”

            James rolled his eyes. “You’re making judgments on her based off what her family believes. I thought you of all people could understand that not everyone is like their own flesh and blood, Sirius.”

            Sirius flushed, though he still looked angry. “I do! But I don’t know anything about her.”

            “And you’re not going to if you keep skulking around in her presence and refuse to see past your prejudice,” James retorted.

            Sirius’s eyes flashed. “If you and Remus want to be her friends, fine by me,” he said coldly. “But when she starts strutting around with a Dark Mark and hexing Muggle-borns, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

            James opened his mouth to respond but stopped when the portrait hole opened and Remus walked in. He looked tired and worried, but his eyes glinted happily when he saw them.

            He sat down next to Peter on the couch, oblivious to the tension in the air, but when he took in Sirius’s and James’s scowls and Peter’s twitchy demeanor, he cottoned on quickly. “What happened with you lot?”

            When Sirius said nothing, James leaned back in his armchair and crossed his arms. “Sirius thinks we’re fraternizing with the enemy.”

            Remus sighed, closing his eyes and slumping in his seat as if he’d expected this. “And why does he think that?”

            “Because we know nothing about Cassie Alderfair, and he thinks we shouldn’t trust her because of her brother,” Peter filled him in, still tearing at his nailbeds and refusing to meet the dirty look Sirius shot in his direction.

            “Why do you want to be friends with her anyway?” he asked Remus. “From what I can tell, she’s not even worth the time.”

            Remus sat up, opening his eyes to reveal a hard green that met Sirius’s glare challengingly.

            “Because I know what she’s going through, all right?” he said, and even Sirius was taken aback by the sudden vehemence in his tone as they all stared at him. “I know how she feels: alone, scared, like nobody understands her position – because I feel the same way!”

            The other boys traded a guilty glance as Remus sighed wearily. He spoke in a much softer voice this time. “I just want her to know that she has allies, should she ever need them. She even told me tonight that the other girls are afraid to discuss it with her, and I know how much that alienates a person. She shouldn’t have to be by herself in this.”

            Silence met his words. They listened to the logs crack in the fireplace as the flames flickered shadows and light across their faces, each one thinking carefully and mulling over what Remus had told them.

            “I don’t think she’s bad,” Peter said quietly, still picking at his fingers. He shrugged when everyone looked to him. “Anyone who can take down that much pudding and not be sick in one sitting seems all right by me.”

            Remus snorted but James nodded in agreement.

            “If you’re all right with her, Moony, then she’s fine with me,” he said. He suddenly grimaced. “So long as she doesn’t try and get back at me for the quill thing.”

            They all turned expectantly to Sirius. He chewed on the inside of his cheek, deliberating, before finally throwing up his hands.

            “All right, I’ll give her a chance!” he said. “But if she starts acting like one of those Slytherins…”

            “She won’t,” Remus said firmly. Sirius just huffed, irritated that he was being outvoted in the matter.

            “Then here’s to attempts at new friendships!” James said, pretending to toast. “Let’s just hope this doesn’t come back to bite us in the ass.”

           

           

Chapter Text

            The Great Hall was buzzing with excitement when Cassie walked in for breakfast, but it was unsurprising as to why. The first Hogsmeade date had been posted on the notice board in all the House common rooms, and it was slated for next weekend, four days before Halloween.

            Those in third-year and up plotted about what they were going to do first when they got to the village, while the second- and first-years looked on enviously. Cassie couldn’t help but feel exceptionally grateful that she was no longer one of the younger students as she joined Lily, Alice, and Marlene at the table.

            “Morning, ladies!” she chirped, scooping about three servings of eggs onto her plate and humming to herself all the while.

            When she got no response, she looked up to find all three girls staring at her with varying degrees of surprise and concern. She paused with her fork halfway to her mouth. “What? Is it so wrong to be cheerful this early?”

            “Well, when it’s you, then yes,” Alice said.

            “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you so chipper first thing in the morning,” Marlene added. “You usually threaten to jinx us if we as much as whisper above a certain level.”

            Cassie made a face at her. “Then maybe I’m turning over a new leaf.”

            “Or someone’s been making her happier than usual,” Lily muttered under her breath, which made Alice and Marlene snicker into their plates as Cassie stared blankly.

            “Er, what?” she said when Lily gave her a knowing look, her green eyes twinkling.

            “Oh, it’s nothing,” she said airily, waving her hand, and Cassie wondered why they were suddenly being so odd.

            It was true, she conceded, that she’d never been a morning person, but she didn’t understand what was making her the object of their amusement. For the past week, she’d been waking up feeling refreshed and energized, and for some reason, she knew that it had to do with what Remus told her at dinner a few nights ago. She felt as if some of the huge weight on her chest had been lifted, and it’d made her bubblier and more good-natured than usual, lending her a new motivation that had even allowed her to catch up on all her homework. She frowned into her goblet, thinking over Lily’s words, but was interrupted when there was a sudden rustling noise above them, and the morning shower of owls flew into the Hall to deliver mail.

            Cassie spotted Osbourne amongst them and cleared a space next to her elbow so he could land. He flapped down beside her and deposited a letter, hooting proudly.

            “Hullo, Ozzy,” she cooed, feeding him a bit of her toast as he ruffled his brown feathers happily.

            He dipped his beak into her orange juice and made a content noise in his throat, giving her hand an affectionate nip before heading back to the Owlery along with the rest of the owls.

            Cassie reached for the letter but jumped when another bird landed right in front of her, this one a silvery-white that glared at her with sharp yellow eyes before croaking and taking off, leaving another letter in its wake.

            She grabbed the letter the strange owl had dropped, frowning when she noticed that it was blank. Puzzled, she set it aside for now, turning to the letter her parents (or, more accurately, her mum) had written her.

Dearest Cassie,

            I received your last letter asking about Victoire’s Voluminous Vial, and I went out immediately and bought you some. The witch working the shop was a dear; she knew me from my magazine, and gave me three bottles for the price of one! I have them here at the estate; please let me know what you want me to do with them. I can send them to you next time Osbourne comes, or I can wait until Christmas when you come home.

            I am so very happy to hear that fifth-year is treating you well. I know it can be tough sometimes with the O.W.L. workload, but I promise it is worth it in the long run. Our top scores are what helped your father and I get important jobs in our respective fields, and you should strive for the same!

            I assure you, darling, Professor Carlisle is an illustrious witch. She was only a few years behind your father and me in school, but from what I remember, she was very intelligent and came from a good, strong family – in fact, I believe her great-great-great grandfather was Beran Locke, a famous Slytherin who united most of the old English pure-blood families under one House. A truly ambitious and brilliant man.

            Cassie snorted at this, thinking of a few choice names she would rather call Professor Carlisle than ‘illustrious’ or ‘intelligent.’

            On the note of family, I feel inclined – more desperate, I think – to ask you of news from your brother. It’s been two months since we’ve heard anything from him, and I wanted to know if he had contacted you at all. I am sure he is very busy, but you are both my children, and I would like to be reassured that you still love me every so often!

            I love you, Pumpkin, and you can expect a package from Osbourne soon containing your birthday present. It’s hard for me to believe you are going to be sixteen – how the time flies!

Much love,

Mum

P.S. Your father sends his love as well, and he hopes you are having another wonderful year!

            Cassie scoffed, refolding the letter and sticking it under her plate for now, though her chest felt quite pinched all the same. The letter was not unusual – Cassie had been conversing solely with her mother since she started Hogwarts as her father was always too busy to write her – but the question about her brother had caught her off-guard.

            Her mum said he hadn’t written in two months, and that was what surprised Cassie the most. She didn’t even know her brother had been in contact with her parents since leaving, and a sudden bitterness welled inside of her at the thought. The last time she’d spoken to him was the day he left home, and she gripped her fork tightly as she recalled it.

            She stood at the borders of their estate in North Yorkshire, where her family had congregated to see Will off. She hung back behind her parents, eyeing the trunk her brother had rested at his feet as their parents embraced him lovingly, her father looking prouder than she had ever seen him while her mother dabbed at misty eyes.

            It was strange for her to witness this good-bye; she knew he’d been going to leave since they’d returned home for the summer – she from school and he from traveling abroad on mysterious business he’d told no one about – but now that he was actually doing it… She didn’t know what to think.

            Since he’d announced his plans to travel south and join the Death Eaters there, Cassie had found herself tiptoeing around him, unsure of what she felt whenever she now looked at her brother. Anger? Betrayal? Disgust? Resign? All of it blended together, rendering her helpless in how to deal with her emotions, much less her own brother. She just wished that he would stay, so they could hike through the countryside together, or swim in the lake, or any of the other things they did together during the holiday. Anything but watch him leave her for a cause she had never heard him talk about, not once.

Maybe that was why she felt so distant from him now. Because after all this time, she’d never truly known her brother. He was a stranger to her, and that was something that ached in her bones.

            After being released from yet another hug by their mother, he turned his dark eyes on her. Cassie stiffened, her hair whipping across her face as another gust of summer air blew around them, yet she felt colder than ever when Will took a step toward her.

            “Cassie…” He reached for her, but Cassie took a step back, eyeing his outstretched hand as if it were a weapon.

            She couldn’t do it. She couldn’t pretend like this was fine, that she was okay with him leaving. Her brother had fallen from being her closest friend to someone she had never known overnight, and she couldn’t bear it. Tears stung at her eyes. She bit her lip, looking down to her shoes to avoid the crushing disappointment she could see etched in his face.

            “I love you, Cassie.” His voice was so soft it might have been the wind speaking, but she still didn’t look up, not even when he had started to walk away.

            “I’m sorry.”

            That was surely her imagination speaking, but it made her flinch anyway. She kept her head down until there was a loud CRACK and he was gone.

            She only looked up when she heard her parents approach, and the looks on their faces immediately birthed a hot ball of guilt that rested heavily in her gut.

            Her mother’s face was white, her lips pursed as if she too were holding back her tears. But she said nothing to Cassie, opting to start back down the stone path to their house and leaving Cassie alone with her father.

            Cassie stared into his hard eyes – so brown they looked almost black – and an intense surge of anger rushed through her at the sight of his stern face, set into the look of disapproval he reserved only for her.

            “How could you let him do it?” Her voice came out shaky, but cutting, and her hands clenched into fists at her sides. “How could you just let him leave?”

            “Your brother is doing the right thing.” Lukas Alderfair’s voice was haughty, bland, and utterly without warmth when he spoke to her. “He is volunteering for a noble cause, and we should all be proud.”

            He enunciated this last part with an edge to his deep voice, but Cassie shook her head, stepping away.

            “This isn’t noble,” she said. “Father, you’ve read the papers – these people are committing crimes! Killing Muggle-borns, torturing Muggles, and Merlin knows what else! Their cause is evil.”

            Her father just stared at her, his features as cold as ever. “I think you’ve been spending too much time in the muck that Hogwarts has become, Cassiopeia. You almost sound like a blood traitor.”

            Cassie reeled, feeling as if she’d been slapped. But staring into her father’s blank eyes, she felt her shock and hurt consolidate into anger and disbelief.

            “You may think me a blood traitor, Father, but I would rather be one of them than someone who goes around killing those you see as lesser,” she hissed.

            “Be mindful of your words, Cassiopeia,” he said, and she involuntarily shivered at the warning laced within his tone. “They can get you into trouble one day if you’re not careful enough.”

            And with that, he left her standing at the top of the hill where her brother had walked out of her life.

She stared blankly at the spot where Will disappeared and let the tears fall until night glazed over the sky.

            Cassie swallowed hard, determined to keep her emotions in check, and instead reached for the blank letter the mysterious owl had left her. She slid her finger under the envelope and broke the seal. She extracted the letter, the parchment thin and cheap on her fingers, and opened it so she could read.

Cassie –

            I hope this letter finds you in good health and spirits. (Though with it being O.W.L. year, my optimism may not help much – might I suggest chamomile tea for the stress? It works wonders.)

            I regret to say that I have been too busy to contact anyone lately, but with your birthday soon approaching on the 30th, I made enough time to write you a quick greeting and to beg of you a small request.

            I know things were not ideal when I left, and I imagine you must still be quite angry, but I heard word of your Hogsmeade trip being scheduled for next weekend, and I ask that you’ll allow me to see you – if only briefly – so that I may give you your present and birthday wishes.

            Please send me your answer soon. I really do wish to see you again, Cassie.

Yours,

Will  

            Cassie felt as if she’d forgotten how to breathe. The longer she stared at the letter, the blurrier the words became – or perhaps that was just from the trembling in her fingers.

            Will. He’d written her. He wanted to see her. Four months without a single word, and suddenly he wanted to meet her in Hogsmeade, to give her a birthday gift.

            The rest of the Great Hall faded out to where it was just her and her brother’s letter – her brother, the Death Eater. The traitor of Gryffindor House. The favorite of the Alderfair children. The one who had abandoned her.

            Cassie felt very close to screaming, and she might have if not for Alice’s hand on her elbow.

            “Cass?” she was saying as Marlene and Lily looked on in concern. “Cassie? Are you all right?”

            Sucking in a sharp breath, Cassie gave them a forced smile and nodded. “Yeah. Fine.”

            Lily leaned forward, her red hair falling across her pinched face, but before she could say anything, Cassie had leaped from her seat, gathering up the letters and shoving them into her bag.

            “You know, I’m not feeling too well,” she said, slinging her bag over her shoulder. “I’m skiving History of Magic. I’ll see you later.”

            She hurried off before they could reply, her heart fluttering like mad. She blinked her tears back as she rushed for the doors, not even realizing where she was going until she knocked forcefully into someone’s side.

            “Oi! Watch where – Cassie?”

            She looked up in horror to see that she’d run right into the Marauders. Remus stood before her, rubbing his elbow before peering closely at her. “Cassie, what’s wrong?”

            “Nothing,” she gasped, mortified when she saw the other three looking at her like she was deranged. Without another word, she pushed past them and practically ran from the Great Hall. If anyone called after her, she didn’t hear them, taking the stairs two at a time until she arrived at the portrait of the Fat Lady, clutching a stitch in her side and choking on sobs.

            “Doxy!” she cried. The Fat Lady swung forward quickly, allowing Cassie to enter the common room and run to her dormitory, where she threw herself down on her bed and pressed her face into her pillow to muffle her crying.

            How dare he? How dare he write her as if nothing had happened, as if he hadn’t left her, as if everything was still fine like it had been before the holiday? How dare he drop off the planet for four months, and then come back and ask her to meet him for something as trivial as gifts?

            I hate you, Cassie thought as she cried. The day her brother left replayed over and over in her mind, making something hot twist in her heart. I hate you, I hate you, I hate you.

            She wished she’d never opened that letter.


 

             Remus was awakened by a pillow slapping him soundly across the face.

            “Bloody—" He sat up quickly, rubbing the sleep from his eyes and finding a smug Sirius standing beside him, the pillow hanging lazily from his hands as he smirked.

            “Up and at ‘em, Moony,” he said, tossing the pillow back on to his four-poster next to Remus’s. Remus scowled when he looked out the window and saw that the sky was still dark.

            “What could possibly be so important this early?” he grumbled, making no move to get out of bed, but Peter was the one who answered him.

            “Marauders Meeting,” he explained from where he was sitting cross-legged on the floor in the middle of their dormitory with James already next to him, wide awake and very excited.

            Remus rolled his eyes as Sirius went to join them, lounging back on his elbows on James’s other side. He patted the open spot next to him and looked pointedly at Remus.

            He reluctantly slid out of bed and took the space next to Sirius, already missing the warmth and comfort of his four-poster as James cleared his throat.

            “I hereby call this Marauders Meeting in session, to determine this year’s first prank!” he said importantly, and Remus held back a groan.

            “You do realize that I’m a prefect now?” he said. “I can’t afford to get as many detentions as last year, or they’ll strip me of my privileges for sure.”

            “Ah, but you see, dear Moony?” James grinned wickedly and adjusted his glasses. “That’s why we have luck on our side this year. No one would ever suspect a prefect.”

            Remus cocked a brow. “Even though I’ve spent the past four years running around with you lot?”

            James waved a hand. “Technicalities. Anyway, this year is going to be our year, mates, and we’ve got to do things bigger and better than we’ve ever done them before. So, suggestions?”

            “Dungbombs in the staff room,” Peter said, but James shook his head.

“No way, Pete, that’s child’s play. And we already did that second year, remember?”

            Sirius looked thoughtful. “Charm some of the corridors so when people accidentally brush the wall they’re stuck there until it wears off.”

            “Excellent idea, Padfoot,” James said, scratching the prank down on a scrap piece of parchment in front of him. “We’ll definitely do that, but I was thinking something more…grand, per se, as our first for the year. Something that will definitely get the Marauders’ name out there.”

            “Or we could actually try and be normal students this year,” Remus said slyly, grinning when the other three turned to look at him in disgust. “Only kidding.”

            “You damn well better be, Moony,” James growled, poking his quill in the other boy’s direction threateningly. “Or you’ll be facing the wrath of James Potter.”

            Remus pretended to shake, his eyes going wide. “N-no! N-not J-James P-P-Potter!”

            “Stuff it, Remus.” James rolled his eyes, though he was still grinning. “Seriously, mates, we have to think of something before breakfast.”

            And so they sat there while the sun rose, debating various pranks and their level of grandeur until Remus felt like they were beating a dead unicorn with a stick. They’d exhausted themselves, and though they had a decent list that could last them well into the sixth year, they still had nothing that James had deemed worthy enough to start this year with.

            “My brain hurts,” Peter moaned about an hour later. “Let’s just do Remus’s idea and be done with it.”

            Remus had suggested Charming the various suits of armor around the castle where every time a student walked by one, it would challenge them to a duel and start to fight them no matter the answer. But James shook his head, looking frazzled.

            “Not good enough,” he muttered. Remus rolled his eyes, now lying flat on his back and struggling to stay awake.

            “You know, maybe we’ve been going about this the wrong way,” said Sirius slowly. They all looked at him in confusion. He shrugged his shoulders, brushing his black hair out of his face before elaborating. “I mean, we’ve been trying to come up with things where we get into trouble so the other students will have a laugh. But what if we turned the tables a bit?”

            “Go on, Pads.” James leaned forward, staring at him intently. “How so?”

            “Well, what if we reversed the meaning of a prank, and instead of us being the ones to break the rules, we convinced everyone else to do it?”

            Remus shook his head. “Nobody would buy it. They’d know it was a prank.”

            “But what if they didn’t?” Sirius countered. “What if we disguised it as something else, but to us, we would still know it was a prank?”

            James pursed his lips. “Like a game.”

            Sirius nodded. “Exactly.”

            “So…we come up with a game and let the other students play it, while we sit back and watch our own dirty work be done for us?” Remus asked. James and Sirius nodded. “That is evil, but…I’m in.”

            “Brilliant,” James said, clapping his hands. “Now we just have to come up with the game.”

            “What about a scavenger hunt?” Peter said, his eyes shining. “We give everyone a list of tasks they have to compete in, with the ultimate goal being to not get caught, and they have to bring back proof that they completed the task in order to get a prize?”

            James clapped Peter on the back. “Wormtail, you’re a bloody genius.” He looked to the rest of them, a crooked smile growing on his face, and Remus could just imagine the cogs working in his devilish brain. “All those in favor of the greatest game Hogwarts is ever gonna play?”

            They all raised their hands.

            “Excellent,” he said. “We have an hour before breakfast, lads – let’s get cracking.”


 

            Tired but giddy, the four boys got dressed an hour later and headed down to the Great Hall, their spirits only lifting higher when they saw that the Hogsmeade date had been posted in the common room.

            They were one of the last ones to go to breakfast, but with the knowledge of what was coming with their first prank (effective the very next day and lasting all the way to the Saturday of the Hogsmeade trip), they entered with a sense of euphoria. Remus felt as if nothing could bring him down from their prank high, not even the looming threat of the full moon at the end of the week.

            He was so drunk on mischief that he didn’t even see the person in front of him until they had run straight into his side, making him stumble back into Sirius. “Oi! Watch where—"

            But he stopped abruptly when he realized who it was, his tone losing its biting edge as he said, “Cassie?”

            The dark-haired girl looked up at him, her eyes wide and bloodshot. Remus was taken aback when he saw that she was crying and found himself reaching for her shoulder. “Cassie, what’s wrong?”

            “Nothing,” she said, her voice breaking on the word. Before he could question her further, she brushed past them and fled the Great Hall, her long hair rippling around the corner before she was gone.

            “What was that all about?” James muttered, but Remus didn’t answer, not knowing himself. Instead, he turned to the Gryffindor table and spotted the clustered group of Lily Evans, Alice Fortescue, and Marlene McKinnon.

            “I’ll be back,” he said. He started toward the three girls, worry gnawing at his insides, and he didn’t even notice the other three following him until he reached the girls’ huddle.

            “Er, hello,” he said awkwardly. He’d never really spoken to them before save for Lily, his fellow prefect. The three girls looked up from their intense discussion, their expressions surprised and wary.

            “What are you doing here?” Lily asked suspiciously. Remus noticed her eyes fixed on something over his shoulder, and he sighed when he turned around and saw James standing there with Sirius and Peter.

            James just gave her an infuriating smile. “Good morning to you too, Evans.”

            “I was wondering about Cassie,” Remus said before Lily could think of hexing James. She turned her emerald eyes on him, raising a brow while Alice and Marlene looked flabbergasted. “She seemed upset.”

            Lily shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know what happened. One second, she was fine and then the next she’d opened a letter and looked like she was going to faint. When we asked, she just said she wasn’t feeling well and took off.”

            Remus frowned. “Do you know who the letter was from?”

            “Dunno,” she said, lifting her shoulders. “It wasn’t her parents though. She already had a letter from them, and this one wasn’t even addressed at all.”

            Remus tapped his fingers against his legs, a habit that manifested whenever he was anxious, but he was broken out of his thoughts when Alice Fortescue spoke up.

            “Why do you care anyway?” she asked. He looked down to see her blue eyes twinkling with something he couldn’t recognize. “I didn’t know that you and Cassie were such good friends.”

            Remus stared at her blankly. “Well, erm, I’d like to think that we are…”

            Her eyes flashed at this, and she shared a knowing smile with the other two, which only confused him more.

            “Oh, come off it,” Sirius scoffed, grabbing Remus’s shoulder and pulling him away from the giggling girls. “Remus doesn’t fancy her, so you can get that little fantasy out of your heads.”

            “And what about the rest of you?” Marlene McKinnon challenged. Her eyes swept over Sirius and stayed there. “We heard that you lot ate dinner with her last week. So, what’s your interest in our little Cass? We’re quite territorial of our friends, you know, and we can’t have you stealing her away from us.”

            Sirius opened his mouth to respond, but Lily beat him to it. “Please. As if Cassie would willingly hang around blokes like Potter.”

            “Jealous I’m not eating dinner with you, Evans?” James retorted.

            “I’d rather go on a romantic date with Peeves than be anywhere in your presence, Potter,” she spat.

            “I can arrange that,” James said wickedly. A light flared in Lily’s eyes that Remus had come to identify with her “hexing face,” and he jumped in before a brawl could begin.

            “Well, er, thanks anyway,” he said hastily, ushering the others in front of him. “Nice chat!”

            Remus could hear their giggles all the way at the other end of the table, and he closed his eyes in silent prayer.

            Bloody hell, girls were an odd bunch.


 

            When her tears had dried and she was effectively a red, blotchy mess, Cassie debated whether she should suck it up and get on with her day or stay in bed forever. On one hand, she really couldn’t afford to get behind in her lessons; but on the other, not having to put on a brave face and deal with her classmates sounded like the better option. But there was a reason she was in Gryffindor, right? And being brave, even if she didn’t want to be, was one of the defining attributes of her House.

            This thought was what ultimately pushed her to sit up and stumble into the washroom. She rinsed her face and neck with cold water and attempted to reduce the swelling of her eyes. Her skin was starting to go back to its fair color, but there was no way she could go out there and pass off as fine with her eyes so red and puffy.

            Her shoulders slumping in defeat, she pulled out her toiletry bag and extracted the numerous makeup products her mother forced upon her every year, grudgingly grateful for them now so she wouldn’t be walking around like a red-eyed demon the whole day. She’d never been one for makeup, saving it only for special occasions (and even then, her mother wouldn’t rest until Cassie’s face was entirely dolled up), but she decided that a little eyeliner and mascara couldn’t hurt, and some powder to even out her face would help too.

            She did it as lightly as she could but enough to where she looked bright-eyed and fresh. When she was satisfied with her appearance, she stepped back into the dormitory and collected her things, deciding that being late to History of Magic was better than not showing up at all, so she headed down the stairs.

            Binns didn’t even look up from his lecturing when she slipped quietly into the classroom and slid into her desk in the back, the Hufflepuff boy who sat next to her (whose name she still hadn’t learned yet) already fast asleep on top of his book.

            Cassie pulled out parchment and a quill for notes but had barely tuned in to Binns’s monologue when a folded piece of paper landed on her desk.

            Glancing around to make sure no one had seen, she opened the parchment and read.

            Moony thought you were dead when you weren’t in class earlier. You all right?

            Cassie looked across the aisle to see Potter waving to her, and she supposed the note came from him. Her gaze slid to Remus, who just shook his head slightly to counter Potter’s scribbled note. She scrawled back a reply.

            Moony?

            She remembered that name from nearly a month ago, when the three Marauders had been sneaking out of Gryffindor Tower to meet with ‘Moony’, and the note Potter had thrown at Remus one of their first days in Defense; he had called him ‘Moony’ then, and Cassie was curious about the nickname.

            Remus and Potter read her reply when she passed it back, and Remus glared when Potter grimaced, sheepish. The note landed back on her desk a few moments later.

            Don’t avoid the question.

            Cassie rolled her eyes.

            Don’t avoid mine.

            A minute later the note came back to her.

            Nickname we came up with first year. Not important.

            Cassie frowned. That really didn’t offer her any explanation at all. So she tried a different tactic.

            And what about Wormtail?

            She looked over to see Potter and Remus staring at her with varying levels of surprise and confusion. She mimed writing so they would reply.

            How do you know about that?

            She grinned slightly to herself; they had practically given her an answer without even realizing it.

            You lot aren’t exactly the quietest bunch.

            The two dipped their heads together and whispered for a few minutes before the note was passed over again.

            Wormtail is Peter’s nickname. I’m Prongs. Sirius is Padfoot. It’s just something stupid we started over the summer. Happy now, Princess?

            Cassie smirked.

            Exceptionally. Why those names?

            Potter glared over at her.

            Why so nosy?

            She rolled her eyes.

            Fine, whatever. Keep your secrets.

            She felt Remus looking at her carefully.

            Like you keep yours?

            This note came from him – she could tell by the neat letters, compared to James’s scrawl. She shot the sandy-haired boy a look, which he returned with an innocent shrug.

            Low blow. It’s nothing.

            And I’m Dumbledore. Come on, spill it.

            She shook her head, crumpling up the note and mouthing Later to him.

            Seemingly satisfied, he sat back in his seat, and Cassie went back to taking notes on witch burnings throughout the Dark Ages, already dreading the coming confrontation.


 

            But it never came.

            They’d barely sat in their seats when Defense Against the Dark Arts started before Professor Carlisle was already upon them, her demeanor as cold as ever.

            “Today you will be practicing the Shield Charms we discussed last class,” she said, leaning against her desk and sweeping her frosty eyes over the assembled students. “You will be assigned a partner, and one of you will attempt to Disarm while the other attempts to deflect it using a Shield Charm. The partners are as followed…”

            Marlene got paired up with Sirius Black, and Cassie could imagine the blonde girl’s delight at this arrangement as they moved to stand together, Black giving his partner a smirk that nearly reduced Marlene to a puddle on the floor.

            Cassie rolled her eyes, listening as Potter was partnered off with Alice, Remus got put with Lily (which Potter scowled at), and Pettigrew with a Slytherin girl twice his size, until she was one of the last four to be decided.

            “Miss Alderfair, with Mr. Avery,” Professor Carlisle said, her red lips turning up in a smug smile when Cassie reluctantly went to stand with Avery. She kept her eyes on her feet as the professor waved her wand and the desks were pushed back to the walls, leaving an open space for them to practice in as soft cushions filled the floor.

            “You have an hour and a half to practice,” she said. “I will come by and observe you towards the end of class, so it may be prudent for some of you to work during this time. You may begin.”

            Cassie looked at Avery out of the corner of her eye. “Do you want to practice first?”

            He gave her a cursory glance. “Sure.”

            He moved to stand across from her, raising his wand as she took a deep breath. “Ready?”

            “Ready.”

            She flicked her wand quickly, saying “Expelliarmus!” at the same time he said “Protego!”

            His shield wavered and his wand tugged in his grip, but otherwise, the charm held. Cassie nodded, impressed. “Have you been practicing?”

            He gave her a tiny grin. “For the past two nights.”

            “It shows.” She rolled up her sleeves and took her stance again. “Expelliarmus!”

            This time, his shield held, and her spell bounced off harmlessly. Cassie met his eyes – a startling light blue, she noticed – when he smirked to himself.

            “You want to try?” he asked, gesturing to her with his chin.

             She nodded. “Yeah.” She shifted her feet, trying to remember the wand motions for the spell, when suddenly his voice cried out, “Expelliarmus!”

            “Pro—" She never finished, for her wand was suddenly blasted out of her hand. She frowned, disgruntled when Avery chuckled.

            “Not ready?” he asked as she tracked down her wand amongst the scattered cushions and straightened up, shaking her head tightly. She tried not to show how miffed she was when she turned back to face him; Defense had always been one of her best subjects, and she wasn’t too keen on getting her self-esteem knocked so low after everything that had happened that morning.

            “Again,” she said, and he hesitated only briefly before flicking his wand.

            “Protego!”

            “Expelliarmus!”

            Her wand flew out of her hand again. Avery caught it deftly, giving her a small smirk when she let out a grunt of frustration.

            “Don’t be discouraged,” he said when she came to retrieve her wand. “That’s what this is about right now: practice.”

            Cassie didn’t say anything, taking back her wand. She was about to turn away when he said with some curiosity, “You look different today.”

            She looked up, her face flushing when she saw him studying her carefully with his pale eyes.

            “Oh, um, it’s makeup,” she confessed, shrugging her shoulders slightly.

             He nodded thoughtfully. “It looks good.”

             Cassie felt the warmth in her cheeks spread down her neck. “Er, thanks.”

            She highly doubted he was commenting on how well she’d applied it, but rather how it made her look, and she grimaced, wondering if Avery was referring to her as attractive. He couldn’t have been though. He was a Slytherin, and she was a Gryffindor. They had nothing in common whatsoever.

            Except for your families, a small voice said in the back of her mind. Both pure-bloods, both with Death Eater ties. You’re not that different…

            Cassie grit her teeth, shaking her head before looking back into Avery’s pale eyes. “Again.”


 

            Across the room, Sirius happened to see Avery and Cassie talking as he looked around in boredom, his eyes narrowing when Avery said something that caused the girl to blush. He glanced to the other Marauders to see if anyone else noticed, but they were all too busy practicing.

            “Sirius, you ready?” Marlene asked.

He turned back to the blonde girl in front of him. She gave him a playful smirk that was borderline seductive, and he felt his own slide into place as he raised his wand. “I’m always ready, love.”

            He gave her a wink that made her blush, and he tried not to think of the red that had stained Cassie Alderfair’s cheeks a moment before as he readied for Marlene’s Disarming Spell, pushing all suspicions of Avery and the dark-haired girl from his mind.      

Chapter Text

            “I cannot believe them!”

            Cassie was startled awake when she heard the dormitory door slam open. Heavy footsteps stomped across the wooden floors as she lay in bed still and sighed when she realized that she would not be able to go back to sleep now.

            Drawing back the curtains of her four-poster, she peered out to see Lily pacing angrily around their dorm, her face flushed and her eyes bright.

            “Such a blatant disregard for school rules!” she ranted. Cassie saw the dressing Marlene edge out of the redhaired witch’s way as Alice met her eyes from across the room, mouthing what the hell? Cassie just shrugged as Lily went on.

            “How Lupin ever became a Prefect is beyond me! I expected better of him this year, but of course, where Potter is concerned…”

            She shook her head, red hair flying, and Cassie finally summoned enough courage to ask, “Um, what’s going on?”

            Lily whirled on her. Cassie shrank back into her sheets as Lily thrust a piece of parchment at her. “This.”

            Cassie hesitantly took the paper as if afraid it would burn her. Lily continued to fume, muttering under her breath. Marlene and Alice squished on either side of Cassie to get a look at the paper, where lurid green writing flashed out at them as she began to read to herself.

            Greetings, fellow troublemakers and rule-breakers of Hogwarts!

            Tired of being a perfect goody-two-shoes? Sick of Prefects and Heads telling you what to do? Stuck wishing you could be more like the devilishly handsome and brilliantly mischievous Marauders?

            Well, we have the perfect solution!

            Cassie could feel a grin threatening to come on. She chanced a glance at Lily, already seeing what had pissed her off so royally as she continued to read.

             For one week, and one week only, we (yes, WE) give you all full permission to wreak havoc and mayhem upon this castle. But how, you may ask? Why, by breaking every school rule in a scavenger hunt, of course!

“But isn’t that…against the rules?”

The point exactly, lads and ladies.

“But why would we break the rules?”

To become a legend like the Marauders themselves; to win over the heart of a cheeky lass or gentle-lad with your stunning display of disregard for authority (a 100% guaranteed way to give off that “rebel-by-day-lover-by-night” aura); to let loose and have fun; to win prizes (examples being: Honeydukes sweets, Zonko’s merchandise, a date with one of the aforementioned exceptionally handsome Marauders…) Indeed, the possibilities are endless.

“But what if we get caught?”

Never fear, fellow students. Just tell ‘em the Marauders sent you.

“Couldn’t anyone just turn you in?”

Not a chance! Anyone who reads these papers and attempts to tell a staff member or other rule-abiding body will be subject to a rather nasty variation of the Furnunculus Hex that as of yet has no cure. Therefore, it is ill-advised to tattle.

For a complete set of rules and rewards and to receive your first clue for the scavenger hunt, please see the Marauders: James Potter, Sirius Black, Remus Lupin, and Peter Pettigrew.

Let the games begin!

            Cassie finished reading and looked up, unable to bite back a chuckle at the scandalized look Lily was giving her.

            “This is not a laughing matter, Cassie!” she cried, stamping her foot. Cassie ducked her head as her laughs threatened to overwhelm her. “These blithering idiots are setting this whole school up for detentions, and rule-breaking, and—"

            “Fun?” she supplied, raising her head and looking Lily in the eye when she stopped, frowning down at her. Cassie shook her head, gesturing to the parchment. “C’mon, Lily, it’s just a laugh. Nothing serious is going to come from this.”

            Lily stared at her as if seeing her for the first time.

            “Of course you would support them in this escapade,” she said, crossing her arms. “But just because you and Remus Lupin fancy each other doesn’t mean—"

            “Bloody Merlin, what?” Cassie exclaimed, blanching, though her cheeks immediately began to flare when all the girls turned on her with half-excited, half-exasperated looks. “You – you think Remus and I…what?”

            “Don’t play dumb with us!” Marlene squealed, nudging her shoulder. “We’ve noticed the two of you growing closer!”

            “Half the school has,” Alice muttered. Cassie made a rasping noise in the back of her throat. “C’mon, Cass, why else would he have come to us saying he was worried about you?”

            This brought Cassie up short. “He what?”

            Alice rolled her eyes as Lily and Marlene groaned. “Yesterday, when you left the Great Hall. He came up to us and asked what had happened. Nearly pined like a kicked puppy, too.”

            “You’ve got it all wrong,” Cassie said, numb with shock. “We’re definitely…not like that…”

            “Give us details!” Marlene said, scooting closer to her on the bed and gazing at her wistfully. “When did it start? When did you realize you liked him?”

            Cassie scrambled off the bed, suddenly feeling like her head was on fire.

            “I do not fancy Remus Lupin, and he does not fancy me!” she shouted as she ran for the washroom. “You’ll forgive me if I’d rather not be interrogated the rest of the morning by my deranged, delusional friends!”

            And with that, she slammed the washroom door shut behind her, turning on a shower full-blast to escape the mad giggling coming from the other room.

            When would her embarrassment ever end? It seemed her whole life was one fat, colossal joke. She slid down the wall to sit on the tiled floor, clutching her face in her hands as tears threatened to build.

            Everything was going so wrong. She’d wanted this year to be smooth sailing, to go back to being the invisible girl no one ever looked twice at. She’d wanted the whispers to stop, the rumors to dissipate, the stares to end. She just wanted to be left alone, dammit!

            She buried her head in her knees, wishing Sirius Black had never helped her on the platform, that James Potter had never asked for her quill, that Remus Lupin had never been so kind to her and for everyone to see that kindness as attraction. She wished her brother had never written her, that he’d never left, that she could have convinced him to stay, if only to give her the illusion of a semi-normal life. As selfish as it sounded, she blamed him for getting her into this mess in the first place, for making her a target for gossip, and for others to look down on her with pity and relief that they were not in her place. She just wanted things to go back to normal.

            Biting back her anger and hurt, she got up and turned the shower off, listening for the other girls’ voices. When she heard nothing, she opened the door cautiously, and found to her relief that they had already gone to breakfast. Sighing, she got ready as slowly as she could before finally descending the staircase into the common room.

            Most students were still at breakfast when she entered the nearly empty room, but to her great horror, the Marauders were sitting in their usual seats by the fireplace. She fought down the sudden urge to turn tail and flee, continuing to the portrait hole and hoping they wouldn’t notice her.

            Act natural. Don’t draw attention. You are one with the wallpaper.

            No sooner had she thought this then her bag strap got caught on a chair and toppled it over with a very noticeable crash. She internally screamed when she felt their eyes land on her, struggling to put the chair in its rightful place and run before they could realize it was her.

            “Nice going, Alderfair.”

            Biting back a whimper, she turned to see Potter smirking at her, and her face flushed with mortification when she met Remus’s eyes before quickly looking away.

            “Thanks, Potter,” she said flatly. “I have a knack for sweeping things off their feet, I guess.”

            Pettigrew snorted at this. When Cassie darted her gaze to him, he actually gave her a tiny grin instead of averting his eyes, like he usually did.

            All right, maybe Pettigrew isn’t so bad. The others can stay away, though.

            “What’s the hurry?” Remus asked, cocking his head as he studied her, and Cassie suddenly became very interested in the carpet.

            “Ah, didn’t want to miss breakfast,” she said, lifting one shoulder in a shrug. Black let out the tiniest of snorts and she turned her glare on him.

He sat languidly in his chair, feet propped on the table and skimming through the pages of Quidditch Today, but he looked up when he felt her gaze, raising an arrogant brow. “Problem?”

            “Yeah, one, and it’s you,” she retorted.

            “Is that so?” he drawled.

            “Get a life, Black,” she snapped, rolling her eyes. He gave her a nasty smile.

            “Already have one, and it’s not too shabby,” he said coldly. “Might I suggest a better insult next time?”

            She opened her mouth to shoot something rather unsavory back at him, but Remus broke in before she could.

            “Oh, bugger, I forgot my Charms book!” he said loudly, leaping to his feet. “Cassie, d’you mind helping me look for it?”

            He gave her a meaningful look. Everything in her screamed to say no and make a run for the Great Hall, but she found herself following him away from the Marauders, barely even noticing when they started up the staircase leading to the boys’ dormitories.

            The going was silent, and it was with a faint register of surprise that he led her into the dormitory he shared with the other Marauders. He shut the door behind her, giving her a few seconds to stand awkwardly in the middle of the room and take in her surroundings.

            It was cleaner than she expected it to be, considering the four boys who shared it. Clothes were folded and hung and the beds were at least attempted to be made, though the candy wrappers and loose pieces of parchment strewn about detracted from the cleanliness a bit. She could easily make out whose bed was whose just from the personal items around them and she studied them in interest, despite her nervousness at being alone with Remus.

            The bed nearest her on the left side was obviously Pettigrew’s; it was decorated with pictures of him and the Marauders and two mousy, fair-haired adults who had to be his parents. She assumed the pictures were from a Muggle camera, as they remained stationary, frozen forever in time. Chocolate Frog cards and Drooble’s Best Blowing Gum wrappers littered the bedside table.

            The next bed had to be Potter’s. Quidditch posters and various team flags were hung on the wall, with the largest banner being that of their Gryffindor House. She could see the handle of a broomstick poking out from underneath the bed, sleek and well-maintained. Black’s bed was on the other side of Potter’s, and she frowned in confusion at how…Muggle he had tried to make his space.

            Unmoving posters of Muggle rock bands wearing too much eyeliner and leather stared back at her, and there were a few pictures of simpering, scantily-dressed Muggle girls that she pulled a face at. There was only one picture of him arm-in-arm with the Marauders, taken in front of the school. She watched them laugh and ruffle each other’s hair in the shot, her annoyance relenting slightly when she saw Black amongst them, looking the happiest of them all. There were no pictures of his family.

            Remus moved from the door and sat on the edge of his own bed, impeccably made but littered with books and other miscellaneous items that he cleared out of the way before patting the space next to him. Cassie just gave him a haughty look.

            “If you’re going to lecture me about Black, save your breath,” she said, crossing her arms. Remus smiled ruefully.

            “I’m not going to lecture you about Sirius,” he said, watching her with glittering green eyes. “Though I will say that you should be careful: Sirius likes to play dirty, and anyone who is even remotely on his level will have a serious challenge on their hands when it comes to playing ‘who is snobbier.’”

            Cassie made a face at the unintentional pun, only sniffing disdainfully.

            “I don’t know what his problem is, anyway,” she muttered. “I’ve barely spoken to him and he looks at me like I personally threatened to carve him up and eat him for dinner.”

            Remus snorted, leaning back against his headboard and running a hand through his sandy hair.

            “Sirius is…a wary bloke,” he said. Cassie resisted the urge to scoff. “He doesn’t immediately take to new people, and, well…”

            He trailed off, suddenly uncertain, and that was when it hit her. “He doesn’t trust me.”

            She said it so bluntly Remus looked up in shock, his lips parting, but she just shook her head, suddenly feeling as if she had been doused in ice water.

            “He thinks I’m like my brother,” she continued bitterly. “He doesn’t want me around because he thinks I’ll end up like – like one of them.”

            Her voice broke on the last word, and Remus jumped up from the bed, moving over to her as she squeezed her eyes shut.

            “He doesn’t think that you’re like your brother, Cassie,” he said. She sensed him reach out as if to touch her before letting his hand fall back to his side. “Sirius…he comes from a rotten family. He’s learned to put up this guard around anyone he isn’t familiar with. It comes off as cold and distrustful sometimes, yeah, but he doesn’t think you’re bad, Cassie. If anything, he sees himself in you, in what you’re going through, and I think it scares him a little bit.”

            Cassie paused, letting Remus’s words sink in as she thought about what he said. She knew about the Blacks – mostly from secondhand knowledge her parents gave her – and she vaguely remembered meeting some of them from childhood dinner parties. They supported You-Know-Who and the Death Eaters, being pure-bloods such as her parents, and she also knew that that particular family had spawned many Dark witches and wizards through the ages. But Sirius was a Gryffindor, as was she. Remus’s words suddenly clicked in her mind.

            “That…makes sense,” she admitted quietly. She shot him a dark look. “Why do you have to be so reasonable?”

            He chuckled. “Someone has to be if I’m left to deal with you lot.”

            She glared. “I resent that.”

            “Of course you do.” He looked highly amused, though his eyes were still too serious. She suddenly remembered why she’d dreaded being alone with him earlier and hastily dropped her gaze, brushing invisible dirt off her robes.

            A lengthy silence began to grow between them, and Cassie suddenly itched to say something. Not even pausing to think about her words, she blurted out, “The girls think you fancy me” at the same time he said, “So what happened yesterday?”

            Cassie gaped, her eyes widening in horror when he stared back, mouth open, his face and neck flushing red.

            Let me die. Oh, Merlin, if you have any mercy, please smite me on the spot.

            “Erm, you know, let’s just forget I said that,” she squeaked, forcing a very pained smile. “Professor Kettleburn said our class might study bowtruckles today, and I think that’s incredibly boring, don’t you? But you’re not in Care of Magical Creatures, so you probably don’t care, but I—"

            “Cassie,” he said, holding up a hand to cut off her rambling, and she felt like sinking into the floor when she heard how strangled his voice was. “Look, I don’t know how to say this, but, er…I don’t. Fancy you, that is.”

            Instant relief coursed through her, but at the same time, she felt a little offended, wondering why he wouldn’t. Realizing how petty and stupid that thought was, however, she brushed it off, trying not to look too happy.

            “Oh, thank Merlin,” she said, before mentally slapping her forehead at her callous words. “I mean, not that it would’ve been a problem if you did! And I’m not trying to sound so relieved, you’re attractive and all, but still, it would’ve been weird. Not weird! That came out so wrong. I just meant—"

            She shut her eyes to block out his increasingly bemused face, her cheeks feverish and mortification threatening to drag her into the abyss. Stop talking. Please, just shut up.

            “I believe we’ve established our feelings enough on the matter, Cassie,” he said. He sounded like he was on the verge of laughing, which only made her cringe more. “Let’s not strain ourselves further, yeah?”

            Cassie opened her eyes to glare at him. “Why are you laughing at me?”

            To prove her point, he chuckled and raised his hands in defense when her look turned acidic. “I’m not! Cassie, I swear I’m not. Just…this whole thing is absurd, really. I don’t understand how girls interpret feelings based on the smallest of things. They can make up an entire convoluted story based on one tiny gesture.”

            “Like someone asking your friends if you’re okay.” She suddenly remembered Alice’s words from earlier about how Remus had approached them, worried about her well-being. She was touched and apprehensive at the same time, knowing he was going to ask her about the whole ordeal.

            He nodded slowly, as if sensing her hesitation. “Yeah, like that.”

            Another silence stretched between them. Cassie bit her lip, uncertain. She wanted to talk about it, to get someone’s advice, but she couldn’t bring herself to admit that her brother had written her to the other girls. It just didn’t feel right. But she recalled the night she’d had dinner with the Marauders and how Remus had talked to her so earnestly, and decided that if anyone could understand, then maybe it would be him.

            “My brother wrote me a letter,” she said finally. “It was so strange and unexpected. We hadn’t communicated at all since he left in June, but he asked if he could see me in Hogsmeade next weekend, so he could give me my birthday present.” She shook her head, wrapping her arms around herself. “I was just so…surprised. And angry. I didn’t know what to do. I still don’t, really.” She shrugged. “I guess it’s just complicated.”

            Remus nodded thoughtfully. “Well, do you want to see him? Honestly?”

            Cassie opened her mouth to respond ‘no’, but the way Remus was looking at her gave her pause. Did she want to see Will? Even his name sent anger running through her, but she thought past that, looking instead to what it would be like to see him. She could talk to him, away from their family, away from everyone else – maybe she could get an explanation for why he was doing this. Maybe she could change his mind. A dart of hope planted itself firmly in her chest and she looked back to Remus, knowing her answer.

            “I do, yeah,” she said. “I mean, it wouldn’t exactly hurt, would it?”

            He shrugged. “It’s up to you, Cassie. You have to make this choice for yourself.”

            She nibbled on her bottom lip, nodding slightly. “I’ll give him a chance, then.”

            Remus gave her a look she couldn’t decipher, but before she could ask his opinion he said, “Did you mention something about a birthday?”

            “Yes,” she said warily. “I’m turning sixteen on the thirtieth.”

            He gave her a wolfish grin. “You know, Sirius’s birthday is the third of November. Four days after yours.”

            Cassie scowled at the mention of Black. “So?”

            He shrugged. “Well, we Marauders know how to throw a party when the occasion calls for it, and with two birthdays in the same week…”

            She shook her head. “Oh, no. I am not having a joint birthday party with Sirius Black.”

            “We’ll see about that.” He grinned, taking a step closer to her. She looked up into his face, up until then unaware of just how tall he was; she was on the taller side for a girl, but he stood at least a head above her. “You’ll learn soon enough that I can be very persuasive.”

            He took another step, but the intense spell was broken when Cassie purposefully stepped on his foot, hard. He cursed and stumbled back as she laughed.

            “Nice try, Lupin,” she said, “but you’re going to have to do better than that if you want me to party with you and your mates.”

            “A deal, then,” he said. “Complete a task for the scavenger hunt and I won’t hound you to join us. Fail to do so and you’re stuck with us.”

            “You realize that Lily is out for your head because of that, yeah?” she asked, sidestepping the challenge with ease. “She’ll see you lot destroyed when this is all over.”

            “Something James must be wetting himself over, I bet,” he cracked, and they shared a grin at the image it provided before Cassie shook her head.

            “C’mon, Moony,” she said sarcastically, turning to the dormitory door and missing the unease that passed over his face when she used his nickname. “I’m starving. Let’s get something to eat.”

            They descended the staircase and the other three Marauders looked up from where they were still seated in the common room, though she took extra care not to glance over at Black this time around.

            “What took so long?” Potter complained. “Were you too busy snogging each other to even think about your poor, hungry mate?”

            Emboldened by her talk with Remus, Cassie slapped Potter on the back of the head, earning an incredulous scowl from him and a nod of approval from Remus.

            “Stuff it, Potter,” she said good-naturedly as Pettigrew laughed at Potter’s dumbfounded expression.

            “What was that for?” he demanded.

            “Think of it as payback.” She shrugged. “You know, for ‘borrowing’ my quill.”

            He shot Remus a glare. “I blame you for this.”

            “Also for being a git!” she called over her shoulder, leading them out of the common room with Potter grumbling all the way.


 

            True to Cassie’s rambling prediction, bowtruckles were agonizingly boring. Besides the occasional bid for freedom the tiny twig-like creatures tried to make and the numerous scratches and bites she’d received from the one she was supposed to be drawing, all they did was sulk and make odd chirping noises, pulling faces at her that she returned childishly as she labeled the parts Professor Kettleburn had instructed them to.

            “Will you quit that?” Lily admonished when she looked up from her diagram to see Cassie and the bowtruckle sticking their tongues out at each other. “You’re just going to antagonize it even more.”

            “Little Leaf wouldn’t do that to me,” she said, looking away from the bowtruckle to gaze imploringly at her partner. “We have a very sacred bond.”

            Lily just shook her head. “You named it?”

            “It was either Little Leaf or Antonio.”

            “You’re a very odd person, Cassie.”

            “So I’ve been told.”

            They went back to sketching Little Leaf, but Cassie sighed and stopped drawing when she felt Lily’s eyes trained on her for the millionth time since breakfast.

            She knew the girls had been in fits when she walked in with the Marauders, but when she had sat with them to eat, they hadn’t questioned her about it, which she found strange. They were dying to interrogate her, though, she could tell; but she’d left before they could, running by the Owlery before class to send a hastily scrawled reply to her brother along with Osbourne.

            Will –

            The overlook by the Shrieking Shack. 11:00. Don’t be late.

            With that gruesome task out of the way, she’d spent her day in relative peace – especially since she didn’t have to deal with the Marauders that much, as they didn’t sit together in any of the day’s classes. Care of Magical Creatures was even less pressure, as Alice and Marlene had Divination and she’d learned that Remus and Black had Ancient Runes together that block, leaving her with Lily, Potter, and Pettigrew (though the latter two knew to stay away where the Prefect was involved).

            “I’m starting to think you’re drawing me instead of Little Leaf here,” Cassie said finally, turning to Lily and raising a brow when the redhaired girl cringed.

            “Sorry,” she said. “I just…I dunno. You seem so different lately.”

            Cassie lifted both her brows now in speculation. Lily’s words reminded her of Avery’s from yesterday, and she grimaced at the memory, wondering why everyone was seeing her so “differently” now.

            “How so?” she asked coolly.

            “I mean, the Marauders, Cass?” Lily cast a surreptitious look at Potter and Pettigrew, where they were playing a game of monkey-in-the-middle with a pebble and their bowtruckle, laughing hysterically. “When did you start associating with them?”

            Cassie shrugged. “Why’s it so astonishing?”

            “Because they’re…them,” she said, suddenly flustered as she gestured vaguely with her hands. “And you’re…you.”

            “Thanks,” Cassie said drily. “Like I needed the reminder.”

            Lily’s face turned as red as her hair. “Cassie! That’s not what I meant. I just, well…”

            “Well, what?” Cassie said, her patience wearing thin. “Am I not allowed to talk to them? Is it forbidden?”

            Lily sighed. “I just want you to be careful, Cassie. They’re bad news. The things Sev tells me about what they do to him, and others…”

            Cassie frowned. “Severus Snape? What does he know?”

            Lily looked affronted. “That Potter and Black bully him mercilessly!” she cried. “They pick on him just because they can, and I don’t think you should be hanging around with people who do those sorts of things!”

            “I can make judgments for myself, thanks,” she said irritably. “And it’s not like I’m hanging around with Potter and Black; I’m only friends with Remus.”

            Lily shook her head, her expression worried, though Cassie could tell she still wasn’t convinced. “I don’t want to fight over this, Cassie. But I don’t want to see you get hurt.”

            “I don’t want to fight either,” she said. “And I appreciate your concern, Lils, but I think you should have a little more faith in me to make decisions for myself.”

            “Of course,” she said, placing her hand on top of Cassie’s and giving her a gentle smile.

            Cassie smiled back but leaped to her feet when she felt a tiny set of teeth bite into her shin. She let out a frustrated yell when she saw Little Leaf clinging to her stocking, his teeth gnawing on her leg through the fabric.

            “Little Leaf!” she cried in dismay, grabbing the bowtruckle by his twiggy torso and pulling him off. “How could you?”

            Professor Kettleburn hobbled over, yelling something about manhandling the creatures inappropriately. The bowtruckle gave her a smirk that was oddly reminiscent of Potter’s, who was rolling on the ground a few feet away, laughing his head off.

            I’m going to kill him.


 

            After dinner, Cassie was cornered in the Entrance Hall by Alice. She prepared herself for an onslaught of questions, but was taken aback when the other girl dragged her out of sight of the exiting students going back to their common rooms.

            “I need your help,” Alice whispered, frantic.

            Cassie gave her a puzzled look. “Okay. Why are we whispering?”

            “Because this is strictly between you and me,” she replied, her round face oddly serious, and Cassie had a feeling she wasn’t going to like whatever she had to say. “Not even Lily and Mar can know.”

            This piqued Cassie’s interest. “Why not?”

            Alice suddenly looked pained as she spoke the next words. “Because I’m doing one of the tasks for the scavenger hunt.”

            Cassie blinked. “Er, what?”

            “I know, I know, it’s stupid!” she said, wringing her hands. “I shouldn’t even be thinking about it! But something that stupid paper said, about being regaled as a royal prankster to those you admire…”

            Cassie’s eyes widened. “You want to impress Frank?”

            Alice nodded, sucking in her lip, but Cassie clapped her hands together, squealing.

            “This is so cute! Go for it, Al!”

            She gave her a weak smile. “I want to. But I want you to do it with me.”

            This brought Cassie up short. “Come again?”

            “Think about it, Cassie!” she gushed. “I get to show off for Frank, and you could win a date with Remus! It’s perfect!”

            “Except for the slight problem of me not being remotely interested in Remus,” she said, suddenly less enthusiastic than before. Alice gripped her arm.

            “Then do it for me!” she pleaded. “Please, just one task. I already got my hint from Pettigrew today – we can do it tonight!”

            “What’s the task?” she asked warily.

            Alice dug out a slip of parchment from her pocket and handed it over. Printed in the same bright green ink as the parchment from this morning was the task: At precisely 1:13 in the morning, one must sneak out of bed and find the kitchens. Once there, the hunter/huntress must procure one slice of lemon meringue pie, take three bites from it, and bring it back to the Marauders as proof that the task is completed. Rules broken: sneaking around the castle after hours, raiding the off-limits kitchens. Thanks for participating in The Marauders’ Obstreperous Scavenger Hunt (M.O.S.H.)!

            “This is ridiculous,” Cassie said. “No one even knows where the kitchens are.”

            “There’s a hint on the back,” Alice said. Cassie turned the paper over.

            “Pears are the most ticklish of fruits. Wonder how many Hufflepuffs know the secret to get their loots?” she read out loud, before looking to Alice in bafflement. “What the bloody hell does that mean?”

            “No idea,” she said, but pouted when Cassie rolled her eyes. “This is why I need you! I only have today to complete the task, or else Pettigrew said I’m disqualified from the game!”

            Cassie couldn’t believe this; it seemed like every step she made to not get involved with the Marauders only sucked her in deeper, but she knew she couldn’t back out on Alice. Damn those eyes of hers.

            “Fine,” Cassie said reluctantly.

Alice jumped up and down in excitement, squealing, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

            She hugged Cassie tightly, making the other girl grimace, but both of them were too preoccupied to notice the four boys watching them from afar on the pretense of stopping and pretending to talk while Peter mimed tying his shoelaces.

            “She’s in,” Remus said with a mischievous grin, his sharp ears making out what had been Cassie’s very reluctant agreement. James rubbed his hands together.

            “Excellent,” he said. “I say we bust out the cloak tonight and watch the show. As clumsy as Alderfair is, this is bound to be interesting.”

            “Embarrassing, more like,” Sirius said, sounding bored. “But entertaining, nonetheless.”

            Peter nodded in agreement. “Maybe she’ll run into Peeves!”

            The Marauders watched the two girls ascend the staircase, heading back to the common room, and Remus started after them with a cheeky, “Only one way to find out.”

            Peter and James shared a gleeful grin and Sirius rolled his eyes as they followed suit, eager to see what this game had in store for one Cassie Alderfair.  

Chapter Text

            Alice shook Cassie awake a little before one in the morning. Cassie grunted into her pillow, trying to escape the insistent hand, but bolted upright when said hand prodded her painfully in the side. She turned to glare at Alice.

            “Could you be any gentler?” she asked, rubbing under her rib where she’d been poked. All she saw was the outline of Alice’s smile in the dark.

            “No,” she replied sweetly. Cassie scowled as the shadow that was Alice moved toward the dormitory door.

            “Remember, 1:13,” Alice whispered before exiting the dormitory. Cassie grumbled inaudibly to herself, moving as quietly as she could as not to disturb Lily and Marlene.

            She pulled on a pair of Muggle jeans and laced up the worn trainers she’d had since the beginning of last year, vowing to buy new ones soon if she could escape the ever-watchful eyes of her parents. She’d always preferred Muggle fashion (finding it much more practical and stylish) and though her mother was more lenient when it came to it, she knew her father would likely have a stroke if he saw her in anything other than wizard robes. But Hogwarts was the one place where she could wear anything she liked, and – suddenly feeling very rebellious – she crept out of the dormitory and stole downstairs, meeting Alice in the common room.

            The brunette witch bounced nervously on the balls of her feet when Cassie approached. Her short hair was piled into a messy bun on top of her head, but her eyes were bright with excitement.

            “So, I’ve been thinking about the hint,” she said immediately, waving the slip of parchment in her hand. “And that line about the Hufflepuffs has to be important, right? So I think the kitchens are close to the Hufflepuff Common Room.”

            “Where even is that?” Cassie asked, stifling a yawn.

            “I think it’s a basement sort of thing, below the Great Hall,” she said. “I’ve seen Hufflepuffs going to and fro after meals; there’s a staircase they always come from, but I don’t think it’s a dungeon, like the Slytherins.”

            “If that’s our only lead, then we should get going,” Cassie said. “I’d rather not run into Filch tonight – or anyone else, for that matter.”

            Alice nodded, checking her watch. “It’s 1:13. Let’s go.”

            Despite her initial reluctance, Cassie felt a thrill of adrenaline course through her at the thought of sneaking out of the common room after hours for the first time. She followed Alice out of the portrait hole, creeping as quietly as they could as not to notify the Fat Lady, who was dozing contentedly in her frame.

            The portrait stirred as they entered the corridor but otherwise remained asleep, and the two girls snuck around a corner before Cassie uttered, “Lumos.” The tip of her wand illuminated with a bright but muted white light, bathing the corridor in a ghostly glow. She jerked her head toward the moving staircases.

            “C’mon,” she whispered. They started for the staircases, unaware that the Fat Lady’s portrait had swung open once more behind them – though if one had looked, they would not have been able to see anything emerge save for a glimpse of a trainer belonging to Peter Pettigrew.

            “Peter!” James whispered harshly when the blond boy tripped coming out of the portrait hole.

            Peter glared at the admonishment. “’S not my fault you lot are giants compared to me!” he hissed, readjusting the edge of the cloak covering him so his feet were partially hidden. This proved to be more difficult than it had been in the past, however, as James, Sirius, and Remus seemed to have grown a head each over the summer. They could barely fit under James’s Invisibility Cloak now.

            “Stuff it, midget,” Sirius said, blowing a piece of hair out of his mouth as they followed the retreating backs of the two girls ahead of them. “They’re going to hear you.”

            Peter huffed in annoyance, though he didn’t comment further as they turned the corner, Cassie Alderfair’s wand lighting the way as the girls began to descend the trick staircases.

            How they were going to descend seven floors and sneak into the basement level without being caught was beyond Cassie, but she decided to take it one step at a time, leading Alice through the maze of stairs with the ease of one who has had to deal with them every day for four years.

            They hopped over the stairs that were sure to capture their legs if they stepped on them and held on when the staircases decided to change on a whim, but they were across soon enough and emerged on the sixth floor, pausing to listen before moving on again.

            “Isn’t this exciting?” Alice whispered, gripping Cassie’s elbow as she grinned. “The castle is so different at night! Why have we never done this before?”

            “Because up until now we’d managed to retain our sanity?” she said drily. She thought she heard the faintest snort from behind her, but decided she’d imagined it, as nobody else was there.

            “We’re so going to win,” Alice said. “I can feel it, Cass; tonight is our lucky night!”

            “Don’t get too cocky,” she warned. “We’re only on the sixth floor.”

            “I wonder how many Hufflepuffs know about the kitchens,” the other girl mused, ignoring her. Cassie rolled her eyes. She was trying to be alert for anything that would tell her someone was coming, but Alice’s rambling was making it hard for her to listen. “I mean, the hint said that not many may know – but then how do the Marauders know?”

            Cassie shrugged, choosing not to comment, but internally groaned when Alice kept talking.

            “Oh, well, Hufflepuffs are an odd bunch,” she said, waving a hand. “I still can’t believe you went out with that one our third year – what was his name? David O’Leary?”

            Cassie made a startled gagging noise. “Alice! You promised you would never bring that up again!”

            “Did I?” she said, unaware of Cassie’s burning face, and Cassie fought down the urge to strangle the other girl as she went on. “I mean, he wasn’t so bad. Kind of cute, kind of sweet. Whatever happened between you two, anyway?”

            Cassie swallowed. “My brother happened.”

            Alice’s glee immediately shuttered. “Oh, Cassie, I’m sorry…”

            “Don’t worry about it,” she mumbled. They lapsed into an awkward silence as they made it to the fifth floor, still with no sign of anyone, fortunately.

            “You know, I never asked…” Alice started. Cassie braced herself for what was coming. “But, um, how are you handling it? Your brother, your parents…everything?”

            Cassie shrugged, scratching her wand arm with her free hand and enjoying the distraction, however small.

            “I’m not sure, really,” she said slowly. “Last year, it was easy to pretend everything was still normal, I guess. Besides the rumors and all that, I could just imagine he was traveling abroad, like everyone else does when they graduate. But when he kept making it into the papers, every article talking about his activism in this anti-Muggle cause…it got harder. By the time we got home this summer…I didn’t know who he was anymore.”

            Cassie didn’t know why she was talking about this. She hadn’t even admitted this much to Remus when they’d spoken. But for some reason being alone with her friend in a dark and empty corridor, with no one else around to hear, made it easier to say aloud. All the uncertainty, all the fear of judgment had somehow disappeared, and in this moment, she felt free enough to speak.

            “My parents couldn’t be prouder, though,” she said, her lips curling in a bitter smile as she recalled their good-byes to Will. “My mum thinks he’s a valiant hero. And my father…” She trailed off; her chest suddenly too tight. “Well, he accused me of being a blood traitor when he found out I didn’t support You-Know-Who or my brother, so it’s clear where he stands on the matter.”

            Alice stared at her, appalled. “He called you a blood traitor?”

            “Yep.” She shrugged again. “Not that I’m surprised, really; he always liked Will better. I think he was just looking for a reason to finally prove that.”

            “Cassie, I’m…” Alice trailed off. Cassie waved her hand.

            “It’s nothing to be bothered over,” she said. “He won’t disown me or anything. Mum would kill him if he tried.”

            “Still,” she insisted. “I had no idea, Cass. I’m so sorry.”

            “It’s my life,” she replied simply. “Granted, it’s pretty awful when you look at it from the outside, but things happen, y’know? No use crying over it.”

            They fell back into a stifling silence walking along the third-floor corridor, still oblivious to the four invisible boys trailing them, each one frowning and looking quite uncomfortable until James called for a halt.

            He waited until the two girls had walked far enough ahead before he whipped off the cloak and turned to face the other three, his face set into an uncharacteristic frown.

            “Did you hear that?” he asked – unnecessarily, as all of them had heard the conversation. “She stands up to her father, and in return, he calls her a blood traitor. A blood traitor.”

            He ran a hand through his hair, agitated. They all knew that ‘blood traitor’ was a term that struck a nerve within James, as his family had been accused of the same thing when they spoke against the pro-pure-blood cause despite being a pure-blood family themselves. He shook his head before his hazel eyes traveled to Remus.

            “I get what you said now,” he said when Remus looked back to him in surprise. “About understanding what she’s going through. I…” He let out a large breath, shaking his head again and pushing his glasses up his nose. “She shouldn’t have to go through that, for believing in what’s right.”

            Peter nodded mutely, his eyes following the retreating light of Cassie Alderfair’s wand.

            Remus stared back at James, his green eyes solemn. “She needs allies,” he reiterated.

James nodded before his gaze flicked to Sirius. The dark-haired boy was ashen, his grey eyes staring, unseeing. James put a bracing hand on his shoulder. “Pads, you all right?”

            “My father told me the same thing,” he mumbled, so quietly that James wondered if he was talking to himself. “He’s called me a blood traitor, too.”

            James shook his shoulder slightly. “Sirius.”

            He finally looked to James, his face sliding back into the careful blank mask he wore whenever he wanted to hide his true feelings. James pretended not to notice, giving his shoulder a squeeze. “You good?”

            Sirius nodded and rolled his shoulders as if to dispel whatever weight he was carrying within that moment. “Yeah. Let’s just get this over with.”

            James threw the cloak back over them, and they hurried to catch up to the two girls, who were now on the second floor.

            “So, what should we do in Hogsmeade next weekend?” Alice said, breaking the silence with some hesitation, though Cassie appreciated her effort to get things back to normal.

            She lifted her shoulders in a noncommittal gesture, suddenly remembering her brother and her promise to meet him, and she racked her brain to think up a response.

            “Oh, erm…” Alice was looking to her expectantly. Cassie blurted out the first thing that came to mind. “I’m not going.”

            Alice stared at her like she’d just announced plans to marry the giant squid. “Cassie, you love Hogsmeade! Why on earth would you not go?”

            Cassie scratched her arm again. “Well, it’s just been really stressful lately with all the O.W.L. stuff, and I thought I could use the downtime to catch up on all my work.”

            Alice shrugged, though she didn’t look convinced. “Okay, whatever. I’ll bring you back some Sugar Quills, yeah?”

            “You’d be the best friend ever,” Cassie sang, nudging the other girl’s shoulder, but a sudden scuffling noise made her stop. “Did you hear that?” she whispered, whirling around.

            Alice shook her head. “No. What was it?”

            Cassie swept the light from her wand down the corridor, but there was nothing there but shadows. Some portraits on the wall grumbled and shifted when her light hit their frames. A group of knights sitting at a round table cursed at her, telling her to turn the light off, but she ignored them, her skin prickling with the feeling of being watched. After searching for a few more minutes and finding nothing, she grabbed Alice’s elbow and hurried down the corridor.

            “C’mon,” she whispered. “We’re over halfway there; let’s just finish this stupid thing and get back to bed.”

            As they disappeared down the corridor, James slapped Peter on the back of the head.

            “Ow!” the other boy complained, rubbing his head. “Seriously, Prongs? I just had to sneeze!”

            “And you almost blew our cover!” James retorted. “Keep it in next time, would you?”

            “Forgive me for following my own bodily functions,” Peter said sarcastically, rolling his eyes.

            “Shut it, both of you,” Sirius said, irritated. “We’re wasting time.”

            After what felt like an eternity, the two girls made it to the ground floor. The Great Hall yawned before them, but Alice tugged on Cassie’s arm and silently pointed out the staircase she’d talked about earlier.

            They started down it, the air turning warmer and sweeter the farther they descended – nothing like the cold mustiness of the dungeons Cassie had come to associate the underground with. They emerged into a short corridor where a stack of large barrels sat on the righthand side. The only other decoration was a still-life painting of a bowl of fruit, which Cassie stared blankly at.

            “Read the hint again,” she instructed Alice. The other girl complied, removing the parchment from her pocket and holding it up to the wandlight to read.

            “Pears are the most ticklish of fruits. Wonder how many Hufflepuffs know the secret to get their loots?” she read before pouting. “I don’t understand! I thought this would be the best place to find it.”

            “Maybe it is,” Cassie said, studying the painting of the fruit. She went closer, her wand illuminating a pear sitting amongst the other fruits.

            “Pears are the most ticklish of fruits…” she repeated. Then, feeling utterly absurd, she reached out and tickled the pear in the painting.

            “Um, Cassie, what are you doing?” Alice asked.

            But Cassie didn’t answer as the pear let out a shrill giggle and morphed into a green doorknob. Alice stared, gobsmacked.

            “After you,” Cassie said, gesturing to the doorknob with a grin.

Alice reached out hesitantly, still looking highly skeptical, but turned the doorknob, allowing the picture to open and revealing a short tunnel much like the portrait hole to Gryffindor Tower. Casting Cassie a nervous glance, she climbed inside. Cassie followed behind, and her jaw dropped when she emerged from the end of the tunnel.

            The room they entered was gigantic. A high ceiling and stone walls lined with gleaming brass pots and pans greeted them, with five large tables dominating the center before a brick fireplace, set in the exact positions as those in the Great Hall above. Cassie was blown away by the sheer size of the place and how it still managed to be cozy and cheerful at the same time.

            “Hello, hello!” a tiny, breathy voice greeted.

Cassie and Alice looked down to see about a dozen house-elves scurrying towards them. Cassie expected them to be angry at their intrusion, or at the least bit alarmed, but the house-elves seemed ecstatic at their presence. The ones who weren’t rushing their way were either cooking by the fireplace, whistling merrily and working dutifully, as others disappeared with loud cracks – off to tend to the rest of the castle, or something like it, she assumed.

            “Greetings, young misses!” one house-elf said, bowing deeply, and the others followed suit. Alice looked overwhelmed but Cassie gave her elbow a reassuring squeeze; her family had their own house-elf by the name of Liddy, so she wasn’t as shocked as the other girl when the house-elves looked up to them with round eyes the size of tennis balls.

            The one who had spoken had the largest eyes of them all; a protuberant brown that matched the simple cloth toga he wore. “I am Pandy, young misses, at your service!” he squeaked.

Alice gave him a nervous smile. “Er…hello,” she said. “I’m Alice; this is my friend, Cassie.”

            “Pleased to meet you, Miss Alice!” Pandy trilled, giving her a deep bow before turning to Cassie and bowing again. “And you, Miss Alice’s friend, Miss Cassie!”

            “Likewise, Pandy,” Cassie said. She waved to the congregated house-elves and they positively squealed when she acknowledged them. “Hope we aren’t disturbing you.”

            “Not at all, not at all!” Pandy said, ushering them in deeper to the kitchens. “What do you need, Miss Cassie, Miss Alice? Name it, and Pandy will be sure to provide it!”

            Cassie motioned for Alice to speak. Still looking quite nervous with the way Pandy and the other house-elves were staring at her adoringly, she said, “Erm, well…there’s this task, you see, and we were wondering if, um, you’d be willing to, ah…make us a lemon meringue pie? If it’s too much of a hassle, don’t worry about it, we can just—"

            “’Tis no trouble, Miss Alice!” Pandy said as several house-elves dashed off to fulfill her request. “Take a seat, have some tea and biscuits! We will have your pie ready in a jiffy!”

            They seated themselves at what would be the Gryffindor table. They’d barely sat before two house-elves bustled over with the tea and a platter of biscuits and set them down with bows, hurrying away again as Pandy went to join the other baking elves.

            Alice looked around in awe. “This is incredible,” she said, taking a sip of her tea and grinning. “I can’t believe we actually did this!”

            “No kidding,” Cassie said, biting into her biscuit and sighing blissfully.

            “Frank is going to freak when I tell him,” she said. Cassie gave her a knowing smirk.

            “Maybe you should bring him here one night,” she suggested. “Make it an impressionable first date.”

            She winked and Alice blushed, sipping her tea instead of replying, though Cassie could tell she was smiling.

            It seemed like no time had passed before Pandy rushed back with three other house-elves, a large lemon meringue pie hefted in their tiny arms, and Cassie’s mouth started to water at how delicious it looked.

            “Lemon meringue pie, as Miss Alice requested!” he announced as more house-elves arrived with plates and forks and napkins for the two girls.

            “Thank you, Pandy,” Cassie said. “It looks wonderful.”

            The house-elves nearly started to glow from her praise.

            “’Twas our pleasure, Miss Cassie!” he said, bowing low, and the others followed suit as Alice scooped one slice onto a plate. “Please come again!”

            “You can bet on that,” Cassie said as she and Alice took two bites from the pie. She swooped in for the third before Alice could and smiled smugly at her.

            The house-elves followed them to the door, Alice cradling the slice that was proof of her completion of the task and Cassie holding the rest of the freshly baked pie. They bid many farewells to the house-elves before the portrait closed behind them, leaving them in the Hufflepuff Basement.

            Cassie couldn’t keep the grin off her face. “I think I finally know what paradise is like, Al.”

            Alice snorted as they began to climb the staircase back to the ground floor. “Of course, your paradise would consist of food, Cass.”

            “Food is the only constant thing in my life. In fact, I’d marry it if I could—"

            She was interrupted by a loud meow from above. They froze, peering to the top of the staircase where a mangy cat with glowing red eyes stared down at them, unblinking and unmoving.

            “Oh, Merlin!” Alice whispered fearfully. “It’s Mrs. Norris!”

            Cassie nodded slowly, swallowing down the lump in her throat. “Which means Filch isn’t far behind.”

            At the mention of the caretaker, Mrs. Norris swished away, letting out another croaky meow. Cassie seized Alice’s elbow.

            “Take the pie and run for the common room!” she hissed, gesturing to the plate in Alice’s hands and hoping she would never have to repeat that sentence again.

            “What about you?” Alice demanded.

            “I’ll distract Filch,” she said, speaking over Alice’s hushed protests. “Don’t argue with me, Al! You have to win. Do it for Frank.”

            “Damn Longbottom!” she snapped. “I’m not leaving you to get caught by Filch!”

            “I’m not giving you a choice!” Cassie growled. Her tone made Alice pause, looking between her and the staircase uncertainly. Cassie gave her a tiny push, mouthing Go!

            “You are so going to pay for this!” Alice hissed before whisking out of sight. Cassie heard her fleeing footsteps ascend the stairs and looked down to the rest of the pie still in her hands.

            Definitely should’ve thought about this a bit more.

            As shuffling footsteps and heavy breathing announced the arrival of Filch though, she knew her capture would be inevitable at this point, and having a pie wasn’t going to make that much of a difference. Squaring her shoulders, she emerged from the staircase, where Filch instantly pounced on her.

            “You!” he shouted, pointing. Cassie stopped, heart pounding as Filch hobbled over, a lantern swinging in his hand and his grizzled face alight with a delighted grin. “Student out of bed! What a lovely night indeed, my sweet!”

            It took Cassie a moment to register that he was speaking to his cat, who was winding around his ankles and letting out rusty purrs as those red eyes bored into her. She made a face back as Filch came closer, shining his lantern into her face.

            “What were ye doing out of bed, girl?” he said almost gleefully. Cassie shuffled her feet.

            “Er, I was…on my way…to the Hospital Wing,” she lied, wishing she wasn’t holding a whole pie in her hands as Filch looked down to it and grinned nastily.

            “After stealing pie from the kitchens? I don’t think so, little girl,” he said.

            “I didn’t steal it!” she protested. “It’s for…medical reasons.”

            “Oh?” Filch looked unimpressed, but she was desperate.

            “You know, for that…time of the month?” She gazed at Filch imploringly.

             He paused, his jowls quivering as he tried to put two and two together. Mrs. Norris meowed again, startling Cassie, but it seemed Filch could communicate with his cat on a strange level, for he immediately scowled and gripped Cassie’s upper arm tightly.

            “Nice try, missy,” he sneered before dragging her down a side corridor, her heart sinking. “But you’re not going to get out of this so easily.”

            He led her down a series of passageways that she could barely keep track of for the nausea building in her as she imagined what her parents would think. Throwing a quill was one thing, but being caught sneaking out of the kitchens after curfew was something else entirely. She doubted she would live long enough to see her O.W.L. exams.

            Filch led her to a tiny office that resembled a broom cupboard, or possibly a medieval torture chamber as she glimpsed the rusty chains hanging from the wall. The caretaker shoved her into a chair, the pie still in her hands, and he smiled grimly at her notice of the chains.

            “A shame we aren’t allowed to properly punish students anymore,” he said, sitting down behind a shabby desk and pulling out parchment and ink, a quill poised in his hand. “Those were the golden days, when nasty little brats like you got to hang from the ceiling by their toes if they were caught roaming the castle after hours. Golden days indeed…”

            He trailed off as he began to scribble a report, and all Cassie could do was sit there, her hands sweating as she watched the quill write. She jumped when something wiry brushed her leg and looked down to see Mrs. Norris gazing up at her, and she suddenly felt the strong urge to give her a sound kick. She loved cats, but Mrs. Norris seemed to be something else entirely.

             The pie was growing heavier with each passing minute, and she sorely wanted to ask Filch how much longer this would take. Her adrenaline had worn off some time ago; now all she wanted to do was sleep, the novelty at having been caught by the caretaker gone.

            Just as she opened her mouth to speak, there was a splintering CRASH from above. Dust floated down from the ceiling as she and Filch both looked up in shock. It sounded as if someone had dropped a grand piano on the floor above them. Filch’s face instantly purpled with rage as more crashes followed the first, creating a racket that was sure to wake up the entire castle.

            “PEEVES!” Filch bellowed, making Cassie jump in her seat and almost sending the pie toppling to the floor.

            Filch was breathing heavily, his jowls quivering, and he swept up the lantern perched on the edge of his desk. He rushed out of the room without a second look at Cassie, Mrs. Norris streaking past him.

            Cassie was left alone in Filch’s office, baffled and quite unsure of what to do as the crashes continued to echo above her. She thought about swiping the report and making a run for it, but fear of the repercussions kept her glued to her seat.

            No, she could do it. This was her only chance. If she could get away before Filch came back from reprimanding the poltergeist…

            She stood up and grabbed the report with her free hand, disgruntled to see that he had spelled her name completely wrong: Casseopeea Adlerfare.

            You’d think with having a Death Eater for a brother, people would actually know your name, but apparently not.

            She had just crumpled the paper into a ball and shoved it into her pocket when a voice hissed, “Alderfair!”

            Cassie spun toward the door, raising her wand in her non-pie-holding hand, but paused when she didn’t see anything. Confused, she took a step forward, but nearly tripped over the chair when Sirius Black’s head appeared out of thin air.

            “Bloody hell!” she yelped, clutching the pie tightly when his head shot her an exasperated glare.

            “Stop yelling,” he snapped. “Filch’ll be back any minute and I was given the lovely task of rescuing you. So shut it and get under here.”

            “Why are you invisible?” she asked, uncomprehending. Black rolled his eyes before his arm materialized as well and pulled her under the cover of something soft and lightweight. She saw the faint outline of a silvery cloak above her head and gaped when she realized what it must be. “Is this…an Invisibility Cloak?”

            “No, it’s just a blanket that happens to be invisible,” he said sarcastically. Cassie turned to glare at him, though she probably didn’t look that threatening considering she was holding a lemon meringue pie.

            “Sorry for asking, Your Highness,” she sneered.

            He rolled his eyes again. “Will you please just come on so we can get out of here?”

            Cassie gestured to the door. “Lead the way, my knight in shining armor.”

            He grumbled something under his breath she didn’t catch, though she doubted it was flattering as she stowed away her wand and grudgingly followed his lead.

            They crept out of Filch’s office and found themselves on the first floor of the castle, narrowly avoiding the caretaker himself as he stormed past them, his face red with rage and practically spitting as he spoke.

            “Just you wait, my sweet,” he was ranting to his cat as he disappeared down the corridor. Mrs. Norris cast the hidden pair a look that told Cassie the feline wasn’t fooled by the cloak, and she shivered uneasily. “One day, Peeves will get what’s coming to him…oh, yes…”

            He disappeared down the passageway to his office. Cassie felt a tug on her elbow.

            “C’mon,” Black said. “I’d rather not witness his temper tantrum when he finds out you’ve gone.”

            Cassie shuddered, grimacing. “Agreed.”

            They moved quickly down the corridor, heading for the second floor, not bothering to keep quiet when they were already hidden so well. They didn’t speak, though Cassie found it becoming very hot under the cloak, their heavy breathing and proximity not offering much of a reprieve from the stuffy air. Her skin began to prickle too as the reality of her situation set in; she was trapped under an Invisibility Cloak with Sirius Black, of all people, who had just rescued her from the clutches of Filch. She was acutely aware of his sleeve brushing her arm every once in a while, or her foot accidentally kicking the back of his shoe as they walked, and she begged to be back in her dormitory, sleeping soundly instead of wandering the castle at night with Black.

            When they made it to the sixth floor, he deemed it safe enough to remove the cloak. Cassie nearly got herself tangled in it as she flung it off, desperate to not be under there anymore with him. He folded it neatly across his arm, the silvery material glinting in the light he cast from his wand.

            Cassie hefted the pie in her arms again, her muscles sore at how long she’d been holding it, and Black cast her a sideways glance when she let out a small breath of discomfort.

            “You know, the challenge was to get one slice of pie, not the whole thing,” he said snidely. She huffed in annoyance, wishing he wouldn’t speak.

            “Alice was the one to do the task, so she has the one slice,” she said irritably. Black just nodded, clearly uninterested.

            They lapsed into another silence, though she openly sighed when he made to speak again, which led him to smirk at her in an infuriating way.

            “You’re welcome, by the way,” he said. Cassie glanced at him sidelong and didn’t reply.

            He sighed. “Usually a ‘thank you’ would suffice.”

            “You’ll get my thanks when you earn it,” she said coolly.

            “I just saved your skin back there,” he reminded her, none too modestly. “You owe me.”

            “No, I don’t, Black,” she said. “You didn’t do that because you wanted to – Remus told you to do it, didn’t he?”

            She glared at him, daring him to lie, and she knew she had him when he just muttered, “He may have mentioned it in passing.”  

            She scoffed, shaking her head. “Unbelievable.” 

            His jaw twitched, but thankfully he said nothing else until they made it to the seventh-floor corridor and the portrait of the Fat Lady came into view.

            “I was wondering why you weren’t with your friends this time around,” she said sternly to Black when they approached her. “You lot are going to keep me up all night at this rate.”

            Black gave her a charming smile that made Cassie want to vomit. “We’re the last of the night, so don’t wait up once we’ve gone in.”

            The Fat Lady sniffed. “I should change the password just for that.”

            “Ah, but you won’t,” Black said, winking. “You’re far too gracious for that sort of thing.”

            She rolled her eyes, though she now turned her gaze on Cassie.

            “I haven’t seen you out after curfew before,” she noted with faint surprise. Cassie grimaced when she went on. “Watch out for this one here,” she said, nodding to Black. “Trouble likes to follow him wherever he goes.”

            “I got that much, thanks,” Cassie said, her face flushing at the arrogant smirk Black tossed in her direction. “May we go in now, please?”

            “Oh, fine,” the Fat Lady huffed. “Password?”

            “Doxy,” the two said in unison, and they both made faces as the portrait swung open and they were allowed entrance into the common room.

            “Blimey, there you are!” Potter exclaimed when he saw them. He grinned broadly from where he was sprawled across an armchair. “We thought you got caught!”

            Black scoffed. “As if that would ever happen to me.”

            “Is that a pie?” Pettigrew asked, staring at Cassie with a sort of admiration in his gaze. She looked down, suddenly remembering the dessert in her hands.

            “Er, yeah, it is,” she said, frowning. “Dunno why I still have it, really.”

            Remus snorted, shaking his head. “Only you could make it out of punishment completely unscathed – with a pie, no less.”

            Cassie shrugged. “Duty before honor, I guess.” She looked around at them all as she began to realize something. “Wait. Were you the ones to…do that thing, above Filch’s office earlier?”

            Potter grinned arrogantly. “Of course that was us, Princess. How else d’you think Sirius was able to get you out of there?”

            Suddenly awkward and uncomfortable, she dipped her head and stared at her feet as her hair swung forward to cover her undoubtedly red face.

            “You didn’t have to do that,” she mumbled. “I don’t even know why you would help me, anyway.”

            Remus scoffed. “Because we were trying to look out for you,” he said. “We couldn’t let you get caught by Filch.”

            “But wasn’t that the point of the game?” she asked. “Get other students in trouble so you all don’t?”

            Potter tsked, shaking his head. “What Moony here is trying to get at, but failing miserably at doing so, is that we’re your allies now, Alderfair, whether you like it or not.”

            Cassie blinked, startled. “My what?”

            She could feel the power of all their eye rolls slamming into her at once.

            “Your allies,” Remus repeated patiently. “We have your back, just like you’ll have ours soon.”

            “That’s presumptuous of you.” She raised a skeptical brow. “Who says I’ll be looking out for you?”

            “Because you’re in our debt now,” Pettigrew said sweetly, smiling at her. “We got you in trouble with Binns, but we got you out with Filch. So, now you don’t have a choice in being our ally, because you owe us. Big time.”

            Cassie stared at the mousy boy, making a mental note never to cross Peter Pettigrew in that moment; he was a crafty one, for sure.

            She looked between all of their smug expressions, a sense of deep foreboding building in her chest as she realized that she did owe them. The Marauders – the most infamous group of pranksters in all the school – didn’t have to take notice of her, much less help her out of deep trouble, but they had. For some reason, these four boys had decided that she was worth allying themselves with. She found herself speechless, wondering if she’d suddenly woken up in an alternate reality, where people actually tried to befriend her instead of whispering about her brother and steering clear. It was…unsettling, but at the same time, she wasn’t necessarily certain that it was a bad thing.

            On impulse, she held out the pie, finding it very hard to look any of them in the eye during that moment as she cleared her throat. “Um, I accept your alliance, with this…pie. I don’t really know why I’m offering this, but think of it as my word, I guess.”

            “Offer accepted,” Potter said, taking the pie from her grasp and giving her a small nod, that perpetual smirk still stuck to his face. “We now have an alliance, Cassie Alderfair.”

            “And you can tell Alice that she won her task,” Remus added. “We’ll have her prize ready tomorrow morning.”

            Cassie nodded. “Will do.”

            There was a slight pause until Potter stretched dramatically, yawning and handing the pie off to Pettigrew.

            “Well, while it’s been a fun night and all, I’m going to hit the sack,” he said, gesturing upstairs, and the rest of them muttered in agreement. “’Night, Alderfair. See you tomorrow.”

            He gave her a cheeky wink. Cassie returned it with a small wave. “Er, ‘night.”

            Pettigrew and Remus said their own farewells, trudging up the boys’ staircase after Potter and leaving her alone with Black.

            Not even acknowledging her, he started after them, but Cassie was suddenly seized by a strange urge to say something to him.

            “Black,” she called. For a moment she thought he wasn’t going to stop; but he did, turning to look at her with a blank mask settled over his face and his brows arched.

            “Er, thanks,” she said lamely. “For, ah, you know…”

            She trailed off, rubbing her arms, and he stared at her for a long moment before saying anything.

            “Don’t mention it,” he eventually replied. But it wasn’t dismissive; it was thoughtful, calculating, as if he were determining the best way to figure her out.

            Self-conscious now under his scrutinizing look, she gave him a jerky nod and started towards her own dormitory, unaware of the many things that had been set in motion just from the simplicity of one action.

            But the largest ripples begin with the smallest pebbles. And that fateful night just so happened to be the pebble to start it all.

Chapter Text

            The Friday before the Hogsmeade trip was met with grumbles and complaints when students awoke to find themselves finally embracing the oncoming winter. The grounds had frozen over sometime in the night, though no snow had fallen, and the sky was a chilly grey that matched the surface of the Black Lake.

            Cassie, in particular, was none too thrilled by the colder weather. Winter had always been her least favorite season ever since she could remember; the lack of colors and the perpetual cold put her off from it, though she would concede the points of Christmas and the brief holiday away from school. However, thinking about going home over the break was too stressful, so it was with a heavy resign that she forced herself to get out of her warm bed and face the day.

            “Has anyone seen my scarf?” Marlene whined, shoving aside the pile of clothes she’d been looking through and flopping on her bed, sighing. “I can’t find it anywhere.”

            “Is it the one you’re lying on?” Lily asked. She pointed to the blonde girl’s bed and Marlene shifted so the red-and-gold striped scarf was revealed underneath her.

            “What would I do without you, Lils?” she said gratefully. Lily just smiled.

            “Drive yourself insane because you’d have no one to talk about your crushes with?” she suggested. Marlene scoffed.

            “Don’t be silly,” she said. “Cassie and Alice would listen to my boy talk, right?”

            She turned to the other two girls, beaming, and they both responded “No” in unison.

            Marlene huffed. “C’mon, it’s not that bad.”

            “Mar, you’re on to a new bloke every week,” Alice said, rolling her eyes, but her voice was playful. “It’s a little hard to keep up with your ‘boy talk.’”

            She frowned. “That’s not true.”

            “Not this year, so far,” Lily chimed in, tossing the other girls a secretive smile. “She’s only been able to talk about one.”

            Marlene flushed. “Lily!”

            “What?” Alice squawked, upending part of her trunk’s contents in her surprise as she stared at the furiously blushing Marlene. “Who is it?”

            Before she had a chance to reply, Lily gasped and jabbed an accusing finger at Alice. “What is that?”

            They all turned to see her staring at something that had fallen out of Alice’s trunk. Cassie blanched. The prize Alice had won from the Marauders was displayed proudly atop a pile of her socks – a bundle of Honeydukes sweets with a note pinned to it in familiar bright green ink: Congratulations on winning your task! Please enjoy a complimentary package of Honeydukes’ finest to celebrate your victory (and don’t forget to flaunt your newfound flair for rule-breaking to one Frank Longbottom). Signed, James P., Sirius B., Remus L., and Peter P.

             Lily looked as if she’d swallowed a lemon as Alice began to splutter.

            “I didn’t – it isn’t – Cassie did it, too!” she cried.

Cassie turned on her, affronted. “Way to throw me to the wolves!” But Alice gave her a look that said If I’m going down, you’re coming with me.

            Lily frowned, her pretty, heart-shaped features creasing as she looked between the two girls and the sweets. “You actually played that silly game Potter and his idiot friends came up with?”

            “They’re not all idiots,” Cassie protested, thinking of Remus. She rolled her eyes when Lily gave her an unimpressed look. “Okay, yeah, maybe they are sometimes. But it was just a bit of fun, Lily. You’re not going to throw us in detention just because we participated, are you?”

            Lily sighed, rubbing her forehead, and Cassie sensed she was about to start channeling her inner Prefect.

            “I understand it’s just a game,” she said. “But think of what would’ve happened had you been caught by Filch! Alice, you’re not a troublemaker. And Cassie, what you did was a huge risk if you’re worried about your parents finding out. I’m not going to give you detentions, but I think you two should be a bit more careful, especially when those Marauders are involved.”

            Her face soured at this last part. The two girls nodded, feeling as if Professor McGonagall had given them a stern talking-to, though this rant was a lot shorter and a lot quieter than what their Head of House would’ve said.

            “Love you both,” Lily said gently, though her emerald eyes flashed them a last warning as she grabbed her bag. “We’ll see you down at breakfast.”

            Cassie and Alice mumbled good-byes as she and Marlene departed the dormitory. Alice exhaled a large breath when the door closed behind them.

            “She’s scarier than my mother, that one,” she said, grudgingly hiding her prize in her trunk again. Cassie nodded, pulling on her robes and fiddling with the silver fastenings as she stared into space, thinking.

            She couldn’t help but feel just a bit frustrated at the situation. Lily’s disappointment bothered her, but she couldn’t exactly explain why. She wondered if it had anything to do with the Marauders and their newfound alliance, but she shied away from that thought, still unsure of how she felt about it.

            “You know, I’ve been meaning to ask you…” Alice said. Cassie looked to her, pulled out of her musings. “But what happened that night after I left? Did Filch catch you?”

            Cassie snorted, though she averted her eyes. “If Filch had caught me, I would have a month’s detentions under my belt,” she pointed out.

Alice looked dubious. “I was just wondering,” she said hastily. “You just took a really long time getting back, is all.”

            Cassie gave a noncommittal shrug. “I had to take a bunch of back ways to avoid Filch. It took a bit longer than I expected, but it worked, right?”

             “Right.” Alice still looked suspicious, but she didn’t press the matter further. “Want me to wait for you?”

            “You go ahead,” she said, waving a hand. “I still have to do some things.”

            Alice nodded and left without another word. Cassie sighed, heading into the washroom to finish getting ready.

            She let her mind wander as she washed her face and brushed her teeth. Her thoughts turned in the unbidden direction of the Hogsmeade trip tomorrow and the subsequent meeting with her brother. Even just thinking about it made her stomach turn, and when she looked at her reflection in the mirror, she thought her face was the tiniest tinge of green. She was very tempted to call the whole thing off or not even bother showing up, but the temptation of talking some sense into her brother was enough to keep her on the right track. And maybe – though she would deny it to anyone who asked – she still had some hope that her brother could be swayed back to the right side, that he wasn’t so far gone yet.

            Raking her hair out of her face, she retrieved her bag from the floor next to her bed and headed to breakfast, determined not to stress about it until tomorrow and just get through that day.

            She emerged from the girls’ staircase just as Remus emerged from the boys’. They both started in surprise before making their way towards each other across the common room.

            “Morning, Cassie,” he said, trying for a smile, though it came out wan and bleak. She peered at him closely and saw that he wasn’t looking very well at all; his cheekbones stood out harshly against his pale and clammy skin, and his eyes were bruised with dark shadows underneath, appearing duller and more muted than normal.

            “Hey, Remus,” she returned, frowning. “You’re looking a bit peaky this morning. Are you feeling well?”

            He chuckled, though it sounded as if it pained him. “No, I feel like shit actually,” he said. She noticed then that the scars on his face – which she could usually gloss over as they were so faint – stood out whiter than they had before. She put a hand to his forehead.

            “Remus, you’re blazing,” she said. He winced, pulling away from her.

            “Just a stomach bug,” he mumbled, avoiding her concerned gaze. “It’ll pass in a day or so.”

            “You should see Madam Pomfrey,” she said. Remus only nodded.

            “I’ll probably go later if it gets any worse,” he said, scratching his cheek. She nodded, satisfied, though she made a mental note to not catch what he had.

            “Good.” She gestured to the staircase. “Where are your mates?”

            “Still getting ready,” he said. “They spend ages making themselves seem ‘cool’ – you know, that whole ‘trying-not-to-look-put-together-but-not-like-a-slob’ thing?”

            Cassie snorted. “Merlin, they’re worse than Mar.” She shook her head. “How long does that take?”

            “More than you’d think.” He smirked when she made a horrified face. “So I’d suggest we go down now before we miss breakfast entirely.”

            “Agreed,” she said before biting her lip. “I was, um, hoping we could talk, as well.”

             He looked to her curiously as he led the way out of the common room. “What about?”

            They climbed through the portrait hole and walked down the seventh-floor corridor together while Cassie gathered her thoughts, Remus waiting patiently beside her. She wasn’t immune to the stares and whispers that were beginning to crop up as she walked next to a known Marauder, but she did her best to ignore them, tucking her hair behind her ear nervously as she spoke.

            “I guess I’m just really anxious about tomorrow,” she admitted. “I know I was the one who agreed to meet him, but Remus…what if something happened since I last saw Will? What if he’s not the same person who left in June and he’s…darker? What am I supposed to do then?”

            “Cassie,” he said softly. “I don’t know what it’s like to be in your position, and I’m not going to pretend like I do, but I think the best thing you can do about tomorrow is to remember that despite everything, he’s still your brother. And from the way you talk about him I assume the both of you were very close, and that kind of bond doesn’t go away overnight. You said it yourself the other day: you need to give him a chance. And I believe that this is it. Your chance. You should take it, whatever it comes out to be.”

            Cassie stared at him for so long he began to look slightly uncomfortable. “Er, Cassie?”

            She narrowed her eyes. “Don’t talk. I’m trying to determine if you’re wise from being an immortal or if you just read those really sappy Muggle novels.”

            He snorted. “No to either option, I’m afraid.”

            “Then what species are you?” she pressed. He faltered slightly in his steps at this and looked whiter, but she dismissed it as his stomach bug as she waited for an answer.

            “You know, I could just be a sensitive soul,” he said, making puppy-dog eyes at her as he launched into a monologue. “How my heart yearns to comfort when I see a lonely young maiden to impart my wisdom upon, and thus woo her to accept my hand in marriage—"

            “All right, all right, enough!” she said, laughing. “I’ll leave it alone. You’re a sensitive soul, Remus, I get it.”

            He chuckled, slinging an arm around her shoulders as if it were second nature – and it might’ve been, she realized as she stiffened at the unexpected touch. How many times had she seen the Marauders walk down the corridors and out on the grounds exactly like this? Arm in arm, laughing at something only they knew, like it was just them four living in a world they were the rulers of?

            She wanted to shrink away – no, she needed to if she were to have any chance of regaining her invisibility – but they were already walking into the Great Hall, and she sensed that Remus may be holding on to her for another reason as a flicker of pain marred his mirthful features for a moment before it was gone.

            As they made their way to the Gryffindor table, Remus still with an arm around her shoulders, she was aware of the looks cast in her direction. And though she couldn’t hear specifics, she could guess well enough what the sudden buzz of whispers and murmurs were aimed at.

            Fighting to keep the red from her face, she ducked her head, letting her hair fall forward before she felt a tug on one of her locks.

            “Why do you do that?” Remus asked, gazing down at her as his fingers played absentmindedly with her hair.

She pretended not to understand. “Do what?”

            “Try not to be seen,” he said. “You act as if you try hard enough, then no one will notice you.”

            This time she couldn’t help her face flushing. “I’ve always done that,” she admitted, self-conscious under the scrutiny of his gaze. “I’ve…never been involved much – in school, or friends outside of Lily, Marlene, and Alice – anything really. And last year, when news spread about my brother… I tried so hard to become invisible. To escape all the stares and rumors and people asking questions I couldn’t answer. I just wanted to be nobody again.”

            Her face heated even more at this confession, and she cursed whatever it was that made Remus Lupin so easy to talk to.

            “I get that,” he said, and she knew he meant it. “But do you now?”

            She frowned. “What do you mean?”

            He gestured to her. “Do you still want to be invisible?”

            She paused, not knowing what to say to that. Not that she would’ve had time to answer, anyway, for just then Potter decided to make his appearance.

            “Oi, d’you mind budging over a bit so those of us who don’t walk attached at the hip can get by?”

            Cassie and Remus turned to see him strutting up to them with an arrogant swagger to his step, flanked by Black and Pettigrew.

            Remus sidestepped out of the way, dragging Cassie with him, and mockingly curtsied. “Terribly sorry, mate. Is this enough room for your obnoxiously fat bottom to get through?”

            Cassie choked on a laugh at the look of sheer offense on Potter’s face.

            “You’ll pay for that, Moony,” he warned, latching onto Cassie’s other arm and pulling the both of them along with her trapped in the middle. “C’mon, Ally Alderfair, let’s get some food that can go straight to my voluptuous behind.”

            He cast Remus a dark look as they all laughed.

            “I’m sorry for any offense I caused to you and your arse,” Remus said.  “I promise it’s one of the fittest, perkiest bums I’ve ever—"

            “Cassie, what are you doing?”

            They all stopped and turned to see Lily, Marlene, and Alice sitting at the table and staring as if unable to believe what their eyes were seeing. Cassie hastily untangled herself from the limbs of Remus and Potter, attempting to come up with an answer until Potter spoke up before her.

            “Evans!” he said brightly, his eyes glittering. “You’re looking radiant this morning, as ever. See, we were just inviting Cassie to eat with us this morning – that is, if you don’t mind?”

            He gave her a faux-innocent look. Lily just looked unimpressed and bewildered, glancing back and forth between Potter and Cassie, who only returned her stare with a grimace.

            “Cassie can make decisions for herself,” she said finally, while it seemed that Alice and Marlene had been rendered speechless. “If she doesn’t mind, then I don’t mind.”

            Her gaze bored into Cassie, and she realized then that Lily was expecting her to refuse their offer and join them, just like every other morning. Perhaps it was because of Lily’s disapproving stare, or maybe some leftover residue of rebellion from the scavenger hunt night was still coursing through her, but Cassie felt the sudden desire to change things up a bit.

            “I don’t mind,” she said, meeting Lily’s gaze assuredly. “Just for today.”

            Lily’s eyes widened, but returned to their usual size quickly when Cassie gave her a tiny nod.

            “Excellent,” Potter said, looping his arm through hers again before dragging her away. “See you in class, Evans!”

            Lily didn’t even deign him with a response, but Potter seemed rather used to it as he forced Cassie to sit down beside him, Pettigrew on his other side and Remus and Black across from them.

            She must’ve looked vaguely helpless, for Remus just shrugged as if to say your choice. She grimaced at him before her gaze flicked to Black, only to find him already looking back at her.

            His intense silver gaze brought her back to those first days at school this term when he’d done nothing but stare at her. She attempted to lower her head, but resisted when she remembered Remus’s words: “Do you still want to be invisible?”

            Taking a deep breath, she gave Black a hesitant smile, holding his gaze until he nodded to her, once. It was a small victory, but a victory, nonetheless.

            And she imagined herself, transparent and invisible, slowly beginning to take substance again, piece by piece.


 

            When Cassie entered Defense Against the Dark Arts later that day, the floor was already cleared of desks and cushions were set up around the room again, and she internally groaned when Professor Carlisle began to speak.

            “You will continue work with your Shield Charms today,” she said stiffly. “Much of your effort was abysmal last class, so I do hope you have been practicing since then.”

            The students shuffled their feet and murmured at this, the Slytherins smug while most of the Gryffindors exchanged nervous glances. Cassie saw the Marauders standing off to her left, though frowned when she noticed that Remus wasn’t with them. She sidled closer as Professor Carlisle continued to speak.

            “Is Remus all right?” she whispered to Pettigrew, who was nearest her.

            “Stomach bug,” he whispered back, not meeting her eyes. “He’s in the Hospital Wing.”

            “I gathered that much,” she said. “He looked ghastly this morning. I was asking if he was going to be okay.”

            Pettigrew looked oddly flushed when he answered her. “He’ll be fine by tomorrow. Don’t worry about it.”

            The way he said it made her think that she should worry about it. But before she could say anything more, Professor Carlisle’s voice cut in from across the room.

            “Five points from Gryffindor, as Miss Alderfair seems incapable of remaining silent while I am speaking,” she said. Her cold eyes bored into Cassie as she flushed, not returning any of the stares that had swiveled around to her at Professor Carlisle’s words.

            Potter snorted from beside her and Pettigrew. “To be fair, Professor, half the class was talking while you were,” he pointed out, though his confident smirk wavered a bit when she turned her frosty gaze on him.

            “Would you care to make it ten more points, Mr. Potter?” she asked.

            He pretended to contemplate her question before shrugging. “No, I think I’m all right for now,” he said. “Maybe later.”

            Professor Carlisle seemed as if she were sucking on a particularly strong lemon as she stared at him, but after a few tense moments, she turned away and continued her lecture.

            Cassie exhaled a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. “Potter, someone is going to murder you one day if you keep that sort of thing up.”

            He shrugged, completely unruffled. “At least I’ll go out with a bang, eh?”

            She rolled her eyes, choosing not to comment further.

            “Pair with the partner you were assigned last time and begin,” Professor Carlisle said, retreating back to her desk as students began to mill around the room, looking for their partners.

            Cassie found herself staring at Professor Carlisle, miffed at being called out again by the icy witch, and she wondered what the professor had against her. She watched her take out a pile of parchment papers from within her desk and begin to scribble furiously on them, reminded of the day she’d turned in her essay on hags and had seen Carlisle working on that strange diagram, and frowned at the memory.

            However, her musings were cut short when someone tapped on her shoulder, and she turned to see Avery.

            He gestured to one of the far corners of the room, his black curls following the movement as he said, “There’s a space over there for us to practice.”

            She nodded, extracting her wand from within her robes as she followed him to the corner that was farthest away from Professor Carlisle. She wondered if he’d done it on purpose as he pivoted on his heel to face her.

            “You can go first this time,” he said, removing his elegant wand with a flourish.

            Cassie nodded again and raised her own wand as Avery cast his spell.

            “Expelliarmus!”

            “Protego!”

            A translucent shield formed in front of her, warding off Avery’s spell, and she couldn’t help her smile when he grudgingly nodded to her shield.

            “That was good,” he said, sounding mildly impressed. “Have you been practicing?”

            She gave him a cheeky smile. “For the past two nights.”

            His lips curved in a small smile. The motion accentuated his high cheekbones and sharp jawline, and she found herself staring a bit longer than was necessary.

            Clearing her throat, she raised her wand once more and said, “Again.”      


 

            Across the room, Sirius deflected Marlene’s spells almost carelessly, already bored with the lesson as he had mastered the spell perfectly in his fourth year.

            After another shield popped in front of him to block Marlene’s spell, the blonde witch let out a dejected huff and blew a loose curl off her mouth.

            “How are you so good at this?” she complained. Sirius smirked.

            “Practice, love,” he replied. Her lips twitched, though she still looked quite frustrated. “We can switch if you want.”

            She gave him a tiny nod. “Yes, please.”

            He relaxed his defensive stance and slipped into offense as she tensed across him. He prepared to Disarm her before her next sentence caught him off-guard.

            “So, really, what is going on with your mates and Cassie?” she asked.

            Sirius scowled, wishing she hadn’t brought that topic up. He still didn’t know what to make of Cassie Alderfair, and having her friends prod him with incessant questions wasn’t helping him see past his irritation with his own mates’ fascination with her.

            He only grunted, giving a small shrug. “Who knows?”

            She cocked her head, studying him intently. “Well, you’re their best mate,” she said. “I thought if anyone knew, it’d be you.”

            “Well, I haven’t the foggiest what’s going on in their heads, so I can’t help you there.” His tone came out harsher than he’d meant, and he shook his head when she frowned. “Never mind. Sorry.”

            She only continued to frown, her intense gaze making his skin prickle.

            “Cassie’s a good friend of mine,” she said finally. “She’s been through a lot and she doesn’t trust people easily. But if she’s willing to open up to you, then you should embrace that.” She gave him a bright smile. “And just know that if you or your mates do anything to hurt her, I will bury your bodies so deep in the Forbidden Forest that nobody will ever find you, okay?”

            Sirius blinked. “Er, okay.”

            His eyes flickered over to where Alderfair was working with Edmond Avery. She smiled when she produced another successful Shield Charm before his eyes slid over to Avery and narrowed.

            The Slytherin was watching her with a look he couldn’t identify, but he disliked it all the same; it reminded him of a snake waiting to strike at its prey. A strong sense of unease crept over him when Avery approached her, saying something that caused her to flush and look down at her feet, biting her lip to hold back a smile.

            He was brought back to his own space when a cushion cuffed him on the back of the head. He cursed and turned to see James walking over to him, giving Marlene a wink that made her roll her eyes and march over to Lily, who was working in a group of three since Remus was gone.

            “Can I help you?” he asked, smoothing down his hair where the cushion hit him.

            James’s grin slipped from his face when he jerked his chin to the corner where Avery and Alderfair were. “Saw you staring, thought I’d come over and find out why.” He watched the two interact with furrowed brows. “Blimey, the poor bloke; Bungo the Blind could see he was flirting from a continent away.”

            Sirius rolled his eyes. “His shabby flirting abilities aside, aren’t you curious as to why he’s being so friendly with Alderfair?”

            James quirked his lips. “She’s pretty and she’s a girl, Pads. Need I say more?”

            “That’s not what I meant, and you know it.” He scowled at James’s knowing smirk. “Avery doesn’t do friendly – only mean.”

            “If you’re going to spout more theories on how she’s a future Death Eater—"

            “I actually wasn’t going to,” he said, startled when he realized that it was true. His suspicions about Cassie Alderfair were still there, but they were more uncertainties now; this time, his distrust was aimed at the Slytherin. “I’m just saying that Avery has interest in her, and whoever Avery’s interested in usually winds up hexed at the bottom of a staircase.”

            James nodded slowly. “So, you’re suggesting we keep an eye on him?”

            “That’s exactly what I’m suggesting.”

            “All right, then,” he agreed before giving Sirius a sideways glance. “You know, one could say that your newfound interest in our ally is quite curious, too.”

            Sirius scowled. “Just let Peter know. You know how he gets if he feels like he’s being excluded.”

            “Aye, aye, captain,” James said with a salute. “We can let Remus know about Operation Sneaky Snake tonight, too.”

            Sirius gave him a disgusted look. “’Sneaky Snake?’”

            “Another reason to let Remus and Pete know,” he said, clapping him on the back. “They’re the ones who come up with all the good names.”

            James went back to work with Alice Fortescue as Professor Carlisle began making rounds to check their progress. Sirius cast Avery one last look, trying to ignore the seed of unease that was slowly taking root in his gut. 


 

            The day of the Hogsmeade trip dawned cloudy and cold, and there was a sharp bite of winter in the air that left the students to bundle up in coats and jumpers and scarves as they prepared for a day outside of the castle.

            Cassie was still nestled in her bed, watching the other girls get ready for breakfast and acting like she didn’t just have the most restless sleep of her life. An overwhelming sense of anxiety had clung to her all night despite her best attempts to shake it, and she wasn’t much better off now, either.

            “Cass, are you sure you don’t want to come to Hogsmeade?” Alice asked for the millionth time as she buttoned her coat.

Cassie tried not to roll her eyes, only giving her a polite smile. “I’m sure,” she said. “I just have too much to catch up on. But next time, yeah?”

            Alice nibbled on her bottom lip, nodding. “Yeah, all right. We’ll see you later, Cass.”

            “See you.” She waved as the three girls departed the dormitory. “And don’t forget to bring me back Sugar Quills!”

            When their footsteps retreated down the stairs, she got out of bed and started to dress, taking her time. She’d planned this exactly right, so she would miss the mass of students who would leave after breakfast and avoid any awkward confrontations with her friends, but she had to get there before Filch stopped checking names so she would still be allowed to go to the village. Unfortunately, her plan included missing breakfast, but she thought of steak-and-kidney pie from The Three Broomsticks to strengthen her will and motivate her for what was to come.

            She dressed simply in jeans and a soft pink jumper before throwing on a leather jacket she’d bought that summer on a whim and tying a loose red scarf around her neck. After sliding on her trainers and doing her best to look presentable (which wasn’t much), she stowed her wand in her back pocket and deemed it safe enough to venture out.

            First- and second-years were crowding the common room when she came downstairs. A few older students mingled about as well, either staying behind to study or just to hang around after the novelty of Hogsmeade had worn off for them. Luckily, she knew none of them and ducked out of the portrait hole quickly, making her way to the Entrance Hall.

            When she reached the marble staircase, she was relieved to find that most everyone was done with breakfast and were now departing from the courtyard, where Filch stood checking off names with a scowl.

            She slipped outside and joined the line, hiding behind a group of seventh-year Hufflepuffs that laughed loudly, but she enjoyed the distraction they provided as she listened to their lighthearted banter and tried not to let her mind drift into the dark realm of possibilities that seeing her brother could entail.

            Soon, she had reached Filch. She held her breath when the caretaker looked her up and down, praying he wouldn’t recognize her from the other night since it had been so dark.

            His beady eyes paused on her face, studying her carefully. Sweat began to slick her palms until he grunted, looking down at the roll of parchment in his hands. “Name?”

            “Cassiopeia Alderfair,” she said in a rush. Filch gave no indication that he knew who she was, only checking her name off the list and jerking his head, allowing her to pass.

            Breathing out a sigh of relief, she made her way to the gates, walking briskly along the path that would take her into Hogsmeade. She shoved her hands in her pockets to avoid the brunt of the chill and kept her head down, trying not to let her mounting apprehension get to her.

            It got harder the farther she walked, until she felt like she was hyperventilating once she reached a forked path, where one road would lead her into the village and the other branched off to the left, winding its way up a small incline where one would be able to get a glimpse of the distant Shrieking Shack, rumored to be the most haunted building in Britain. She’d been there before with her friends, and though she was never one to be easily scared by ghost stories, the derelict shack always made goosebumps rise on her arms whenever she saw it. Most students never dared to venture out to the overlook though, which was why she had chosen it as the meeting place. At least there she could speak to Will alone without having to worry about eavesdroppers.

            “Get a grip, Cassie,” she scolded, raking her hair out of her face and taking deep, calming breaths. “You can do this. Don’t freak out.”

            It was a lame pep talk, but it would have to suffice as a distant bell tower chimed that it was eleven o’clock. Steeling herself, she ducked down the path to the Shrieking Shack, unaware that she was being followed by three people who loved nothing more than uncovering secrets, and one that had resigned himself to his friends’ curiosity as he was dragged mercilessly along.           


 

            Remus awoke that morning, lying in his usual cot in the Hospital Wing and dressed in the soft pajamas Madam Pomfrey always provided him, feeling like he’d been torn apart then stitched back together again.

            His whole body was outrageously sore. He felt like his head might burst open as he forced himself to sit up and reached for the glass of water left on his bedside table.

            He almost dropped the glass, he was so weak – but before he could, another hand had swooped in and rescued it. He looked around blearily to see James, Sirius, and Peter all sitting beside him.

            “Wotcher, mate,” James said, grinning and pushing the glass back into Remus’s hand.

            He took the glass gratefully, drained the entire thing in one gulp, and leaned back against his pillows, sighing.

            “Rough night?” Peter asked sympathetically. Remus nodded.

            “The ones around Halloween are always the worst,” he admitted. “The ‘pinnacle of all things supernatural’ and all that rubbish.”

            “Is that really a thing?” Sirius asked, intrigued. Remus just grunted.

            “Sure feels like it,” he said. They all grinned at that.

            “So, does that mean you’re not up for Hogsmeade today?” James said.

            Remus’s grin diminished at the thought. Not for the first time, he felt a strong surge of anger towards his condition, for ruining things like this for him, but he quickly let it go, knowing it wasn’t worth it. He’d already come to terms that his condition would hinder him from a great many things, but it was still a hard notion to swallow sometimes.

            “No, probably not—" He stopped mid-sentence, suddenly recalling his conversation with Cassie yesterday. Immediately, he tried to sit up, only to groan and flop back as his friends looked at him in concern.

            “Moony?” James said, reaching for his arm. “Remus?”

            “Ah, good, he’s awake!”

            Madam Pomfrey emerged from her office and bustled over, waving her wand and summoning three vials of potion that Remus wrinkled his nose at, already familiar with them and their horrid tastes.

            “Here you are, dear,” the matron said, handing over a small cup filled with a sizzling purple liquid. He downed it rapidly, shuddering, though a newfound sense of energy began to grow within him. She gave him the two other potions – one to regain his strength and one just a dose of Pepper-Up Potion – and when he had finished them all, she smiled gently and began to poke at his body.

            “Nothing seems to be broken this time,” she remarked cheerfully, though he still winced every time her fingers prodded him. “You should be well enough to leave after breakfast. But I want you to rest, young man,” she added. “No gallivanting off to Hogsmeade today.”

            “We’ll take care of him, Poms, don’t worry,” James said, giving the matron a brilliant smile. She turned her stern gaze on him.

            “Please do, Mr. Potter,” she said. “I don’t want him overexerting himself running around with you three.”

            The Marauders exchanged a mischievous glance at this, thinking about the irony of her statement. She didn’t seem to notice, only casting Remus a fond look before returning to her office.

            “I need to go to Hogsmeade,” Remus said as soon as she was out of earshot. The other three turned to him gleefully.

            “Brilliant,” James said eagerly. “I’ll nip back to the dorm and grab the cloak—" He stopped when he saw Remus shaking his head. “What?”

            “I have to find Cassie,” he said. He cursed when he looked at the clock on his bedside table. “Damn, she probably already left—"

            “Wait, you’re ditching us for Alderfair?” Peter said, looking highly offended. “But we’re your mates—"

            “It’s important,” Remus insisted, kicking off his sheets and getting to his feet. He wobbled a bit standing up, but was otherwise fine, the potions Madam Pomfrey had given him already helping immensely as he searched for his clothes.

            “What is?” Sirius asked, producing Remus the said pile of clothes. He accepted them with a nod, drawing the curtains closed so he could change and escape the scrutiny of his friends’ gazes.

            “Nothing you need to worry about,” he replied, pulling his worn woolen jumper over his head and buttoning his trousers.

            He let out a yelp and jumped back, hitting the bed when James tore the curtains open, Sirius and Peter’s heads popping up behind him.

            “Bloody hell, Prongs,” he said, flushing, and he was glad he’d already been clothed as James gave him a mystified look.

            “What’s going on with you and Alderfair?” he demanded. His eyes narrowed in suspicion. “You’re not seeing her in secret, are you?”

            This caused Remus to blush even more. “No, James. It’s just important, all right?”

            The other boys traded a covert glance. Before he could fathom why, James and Sirius had him pinned to the bed while Peter closed the curtains, casting a Silencing Spell so Madam Pomfrey couldn’t interrupt them.

            “James, Sirius, gerroff!” he snapped, struggling against their hold, but it was virtually impossible in his weakened state and he soon accepted defeat.

            “Not until you tell us what’s going on,” Sirius said. Remus avoided his intense gaze, opting to stare at the ceiling as he tried to figure out how to get out of this without spilling Cassie’s secret.   

            “Come off it, Remus,” James scoffed. “We’re your mates; you can tell us anything.”

            “It’s not my secret to share,” he said. They looked put out by this until Peter spoke up.

            “Cassie’s our ally now,” he pointed out. “That means that we’re on the same side.”

            Remus shook his head. “It’s not that simple, Pete.”

            “Does it have something to do with Avery?” Sirius pressed.

            Remus frowned up at him. “What does Avery have to do with anything?”

            “The git’s been too friendly with Alderfair as of late,” James filled him in. “We’re going to be keeping an eye on him.”

            “Er, right,” he said, still confused, but he let it slide for now. “Seriously, will you please let me go now?”

            His answer was Peter sitting on his legs. He winced when his bones protested against the weight.

            “Jesus, fine,” he ground out, using one of the Muggle terms his mother uttered whenever she was exasperated. “I’ll tell you if you get off.”

            They instantly complied. He sat up, grimacing and rubbing the spots where he’d been held down by Sirius and James’s hands, wishing they weren’t so damned stubborn and nosy.

            “This stays between us,” he warned. Unnecessarily, really; he knew they’d rather die than break his trust, and the thought made him feel a little less guilty as he continued. “Cassie came to me a few days ago, saying that her brother wrote her a letter.”

            “That was what had her so freaked out that one day, then?” James interjected. Remus nodded.

            “Yeah, that was the reason. She said he’d asked her to meet him in Hogsmeade today – to give her a birthday present or some other rubbish – and she told me that she was going to give him a chance.”

            “You mean she’s meeting him today?” James gaped. “Like, right now?”

            Remus nodded again. “I was going to try and find her before she left – ask if she wanted me there or something – but it’s too late now. She’d already be gone.”

            James looked determined. “Well, that settles it. Wait here; I’m going to get the cloak.”

            “What for?” Peter asked. James gave him a steely look.

            “Because Alderfair’s a part of our alliance,” he said. “And no decent ally is going to let their comrade meet a known Death Eater alone.”

            “James, I don’t think that’s a good idea—" Remus started, but he was instantly quelled by the hard look the other boy aimed at him.

            “C’mon, lads,” James said, marching toward the Hospital Wing doors. “We’ve got an ally to defend.”

            Remus knew he was probably going to regret this, and it was this thought that instantly propelled him to his feet to follow James, with Sirius and Peter hurrying behind. 


 

            In any other circumstance, Cassie would be freezing her ass off right about then. But this wasn’t any normal circumstance, which led to her feeling as if her skin was on fire as she paced along the overlook, periodically tugging at her scarf and pressing her hands to her face in an attempt to cool herself down.

            Fifteen minutes had already passed, and her apprehension was slowly turning into irritation as she waited. Patience had never been a virtue of hers, and she wondered if this was fate giving her a second chance; a loophole to get herself out of this mess before it could even begin.

            How did she convince herself that this was a good idea? Nothing about this was smart, or even remotely sane. Will was a Death Eater. As hard as it was to accept it, that was the truth. She couldn’t keep pretending that it wasn’t, that he was still the same person—

            “Hello, Cassie.”

            Cassie stopped dead in her tracks, her heart picking up speed when she heard someone approach from behind her. She slowly turned, feeling as if she were suffocating as she faced her brother.

            Seeing him was the biggest shock of all, for he looked exactly as she remembered him on that last day. His dark hair was still thick and sleek; perhaps a bit longer now, but still styled, still meticulous, as it’d always been. His face was still clean-shaven – smooth and unblemished, like the marble sculptures of ancient gods, with the handsome features to match. He was dressed impeccably in expensive robes – black interwoven with silver – but his familiar image was shattered when she saw his eyes.

            She had grown up staring into those eyes; she’d seen them bright with excitement, overflowing with vitality, glassy with tears, and everything in between. She knew how to detect when he was being sarcastic or serious from those eyes, for they always glinted when he was up to no good, and became as dark as shadows when he was lost in thought or telling her tragic stories about the heroes who didn’t survive in the end. No, the worst part wasn’t that she was staring into those familiar eyes – the worst part was staring into those eyes and seeing nothing but a complete stranger gazing back at her.

            “William.” Her voice came out much colder than she’d intended, but she suddenly didn’t care that much.

            Will moved slowly across the overlook, hands clasped behind his back, posture straight and proud, as always. She forced herself to stand her ground as he came closer, though everything in her was screaming for her to run and forget this ever happened.  

            “You’re nervous,” he said. She blinked at his unexpected statement. “You pace whenever you get too anxious,” he explained, gesturing to her. She only stared, not knowing what to say. “It’s something of a habit for you.”

            She remained silent. He sighed, looking down to his feet and frowning. “I see that you’re still angry with me.”

            Cassie couldn’t help but scoff. He looked back up to her, brows furrowed.

            “I’m not angry, Will,” she said, shaking her head. “’Angry’ is reserved for small, petty arguments that can be worked out over a cup of tea and a few hugs. And betrayal doesn’t really fall into that category.”

            Surprise and some resign flitted over his features. “So you think I betrayed you?”

            “Didn’t I just say that?” she snapped. She took a deep breath when he didn’t reply and tried to rein in her emotions. She had to keep her head; she had to be reasonable if she was going to talk any sense into him. She couldn't drive him away, not if there was still a chance that she could convince him to come back home and forget all of this pure-blood nonsense.

            “I understand that you’re upset, Cassie,” he said softly. “But Cass…you’re so young, so ideological, so sheltered. When you venture out into the world it’s an entirely new place, and there are things that allow you to see so clearly what is wrong with our society.”

            “What, like all Muggles and Muggle-borns are scum, and we should treat them as if they are beneath us?” she retorted. He smiled ruefully.

            “You see everything in black and white,” he said, “but there is no distinction. Light and Dark, Good and Evil – they do not exist. This movement is not anti-Muggle or pro-pure-blood; it’s about balance – restoring order. Witches and wizards have lived in secrecy for so long because of Muggle persecution. This new order is going to change that. Those with magic will no longer cower in the shadows, and those with no magic will learn to accept their place in the world. They will admire us for our powers and realize how foolish they were so long ago to drive us out. They will help us see what we truly are – higher beings of a greater distinction, with a greater purpose. And the world will be better because of it.”

            Cassie felt as if a cold, dead hand was wrapping itself around her throat. Tears stung her eyes. “What did they do to you, Will? Oh, Merlin, what did they do to make you believe all that?”

            “One day you’ll see, Cassie,” he said, breathless with passion. “One day you’ll realize why I left. Then you’ll be by my side, watching as we shape history together. And what a glorious day that will be.”

            She shook her head, stepping away as his eyes beseeched her, lacking anything within that she could recognize. This wasn’t her brother – this was a blind follower of a lost cause.

            “I don’t know who you are anymore,” she said, her voice tremulous. “You never used to be like this. You never talked about stuff like this. I don’t know what you’ve become.”

            He ran a hand through his hair, sighing out his nose.

            “I didn’t come here to argue with you, Cassie,” he said. “You’re my sister; that’s not ever going to change. We are bonded by blood, and that magic runs deep. You know this, too, and that’s why you can’t bring yourself to hate me.”

            Her retort died on her lips when she met his eyes again, and she drew in a sharp breath when she saw some sort of glimmer there – a small light that told her not all was lost.

            He extracted a small box from within his robes and held it out to her, watching expectantly as she hesitated. She slowly reached for the box and he pressed it into her hand, giving her a tiny smile. The box was heavier than she expected, coated with black lacquer and tied with a simple golden string. She opened it carefully and gasped when she saw what was inside.

            It was a locket made of an intricate silver and ruby design, but it was something she had never seen before as she opened it and saw the smallest metal gears turning and whirring within, giving the impression of a miniature machine.

            “I found this a few weeks ago, in some strange shop in Bournemouth,” he said as she stared down at the locket in wonder. “It’s what they call a clockwork locket, because of the little gears on the inside. You can enchant it and it’ll play back anything you want it to – a message, a poem, a song, whatever. The giver is the one who usually enchants it, and that’s what I did. There’s a note inside the box that tells you how to play what I charmed it with.”

            “Will, I-I don’t know what to say,” she said, torn between fascination and a sudden rush of resentment. He inclined his head to her.

            “Think of it as an apology,” he said, and those were the words that finally pushed her over the edge, a well of emotions bursting inside her as she looked up to him.

            “Please come home, Will.” Her voice came out small, pleading. “Please come back.”

            Pain flashed across his features before it was gone, replaced with a carefully controlled mask. She closed her eyes when his cold hand cupped her cheek, his thumb swiping at the tears that were now falling.

            “I can’t, Cassie,” he whispered, and something shriveled inside her at his words. “There are things I have to do; things that should have been done a long time ago. I can’t come home. Not yet.”

            “Please,” she said, her voice nothing more than a ragged whisper. “Please don’t leave me alone.”

            “I love you, Cassie.” He sounded strangled. “I love you.”

            He pulled away. She seized his sleeve, suddenly desperate. “No, Will—"

            She froze when she saw something on his wrist. He attempted to tug his arm out of her grasp, but she’d already pushed his sleeve up, a wave of nausea rolling over her.

            An ugly tattoo marred the inside of his left forearm – a skull with twisting serpents twining around it and spilling out of its mouth, black and oozing with something dark and terrible. Cassie stared, horrified – so shocked that she barely registered when he yanked his arm out of her grip and hastily rolled down his sleeve.

            “Dear Merlin, what is that?” she breathed.

            “It’s nothing,” he said. “They’re just things we get when we join, like badges of honor. He makes us get them to prove our loyalty.”

            “He?” she echoed. “He makes you get them? He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named?”

            “That is not the Dark Lord’s title,” he said, miffed. “He is far greater than what the Prophet makes him out to be—"

            “You should leave,” she interrupted. His eyes widened, his lips parting in shock, but she refused to make eye contact, instead looking down to her feet.

            “Cassie—" he started, but she shook her head, her chest tight.

            “Please,” she said, and her voice broke on the word. “Please, just go.”

            He hesitated, opening his mouth to say something before he shut it again. She squeezed her eyes shut as that day in June came back to her, when they were in this exact position upon his first leave-taking.

            “I’m sorry.”

            This time she knew it was him speaking, not the wind. She looked up, tears streaming down her cheeks, just in time to see him disappear again.

            A sob escaped her throat when she realized that he was gone again. She sank to her knees, hunching over as more sobs racked her body, clutching the box with the locket in it to her chest as she cried.

            Where once an ugly, festering wound lay dormant, there was now a ragged, gaping hole. She felt as if she were going to drown in it, slip away until nothing was left of her. The one chance she’d had to make things right with Will, the last shred of hope she’d been clinging to, was now crushed into dust, and knowing that she’d failed was what killed her.

            She didn’t look up when four pairs of trainers abruptly stood in front of her, but she flinched when a hand touched her shoulder, warm and comforting.

            “Cassie?” It was Remus, she knew, but she couldn’t acknowledge him. Not when everything was falling apart around her. “Cassie, please look at me.”

            Despite her reluctance, she did, blinking to see him through her tears. He looked awful, and she guessed her predicament wasn’t making him feel any better. His fingers hovered over her face before he dropped them, as if he couldn’t bear to touch her. She couldn’t blame him, though; she must’ve been a terrible sight.

            “Will,” she blubbered. “He – I – How much did you hear?”

            He looked highly uncomfortable. “Erm, everything?”

            She looked down, wiping her eyes with her sleeve and trying very hard to not be embarrassed by the whole situation. She only looked up when she felt another body slide down next to hers.

            James Potter gazed at her solemnly, his hazel eyes more serious than she had ever seen them. And then he said, very bluntly: “Your brother is a git.”

            The absurdity of the statement captured her off-guard, and she bit out a harsh laugh as his arm snaked around her shoulders.

            Peter Pettigrew plopped down in front of her, and though he didn’t say anything, he held out a Chocolate Frog to her. She took it gratefully, nibbling on a small piece as Remus settled on her other side, hemming her in between the three.

            Sirius Black was still standing, looking extremely awkward and out of place until Potter yanked on his sleeve and pulled him down beside him.

            The dark-haired boy grumbled something incoherent but sat anyway, leaning against Potter as the bespectacled boy propped his head on Cassie’s shoulder, lending her a silent strength and an unspoken comfort. She flicked his nose lightly to show that she appreciated it, and he grinned into her jacket.

            Cassie didn’t know how long they stayed like that, but she found herself not really minding, too touched by their concern and too ravaged by her brother’s departure to think about doing anything else. But eventually, Potter was the one who goaded them into moving.

            “My ass hurts,” he complained, breaking the peaceful silence. Cassie snorted as he lifted his head off her shoulder, making a big show of standing up and rubbing his backside.

            “I second that,” Pettigrew grunted, getting to his feet and stretching. Black followed his lead and rose gracefully, not even disgruntled.

            Remus offered her a hand up. She accepted it, hauling herself off the hard ground and immediately regretting having sat that long when her legs burned.

            “Looks like we still have a few hours before we have to be back,” Potter remarked. He turned and wagged his eyebrows at them. “Who’s up for a butterbeer?”

            Cassie found herself being pulled along by Remus as they headed back to the main street and into Hogsmeade, laughing with them as they told jokes and stories. Their previous exchange was not mentioned at all, and she was beyond relieved when they never brought it up, for she still didn’t know what to make of it. That hole was still there, and it throbbed every time she poked at its edges, but she knew that like all things, time would heal it – even if it hurt like hell in the meantime.

            The only thing that was said about it that day was when they were heading back to the castle, full of warm butterbeer and giddy with the cheerful atmosphere of The Three Broomsticks. Black stopped her when they were exiting the pub, his hand on her shoulder and his eyes searching her face.

            “Alderfair,” he said lowly so only they could hear. She looked back to him with some trepidation, but he only seemed concerned, if not slightly awkward. “Are you all right?”

            She didn’t answer immediately, letting her gaze linger on the other three Marauders as Potter and Pettigrew skipped arm-in-arm down the street, singing a highly inappropriate drinking song about a one-legged wizard and a big-breasted barmaid while Remus roared with laughter behind them. Watching them, she felt the faint stirrings of something warm in her chest, and she looked back to Black, giving him a tiny smile.

            “Not really, no,” she said, meeting his grey eyes earnestly. “But honestly, Black? I think I will be.”

           

               

Chapter Text

            Cassie walked through the trees of the Forbidden Forest, the air damp and cool and musty. She shivered despite the jacket she wore, the hair on her arms rising the farther she went.

            The trees were packed so tightly together that the grey daylight was blocked out completely, lending the scene an eerie twilit backdrop as she pushed on, determined to keep moving. She didn’t know why she was in the forest, or what her ultimate goal was, but an insistent force kept prodding her along, whispering, close…so close…

            Unknown creatures rustled in the undergrowth around her. Eyes peered out amongst the leaves, some curious and some hungry, but she didn’t slow. Oddly, the creatures were not the root of her fear – it was whatever she was going towards that gave her a sense of danger, warning her away. But whatever she did, she could not turn and flee. She just kept going forward.

            Eventually, the trees thinned, and she found herself standing in a dark, empty clearing. She paused, confused, and blinked. When she opened her eyes, she was no longer alone. A stone well sat before her. It appeared to be very old; the stones were cracked, moss and weeds choked the base of it, twisting up its sides, and the chain used to lower the water pail was rusty and ancient.

            She stepped closer, almost against her will, and placed her hands on the rim, looking down into the yawning darkness. She couldn’t see the bottom of it, but the smell of stagnant water and fetid air reached for her nostrils, making her recoil, wrinkling her nose. And then someone else was there.

            “Cassie.”

            The voice was hoarse, choked. She looked up, the blood draining from her face when she saw her brother standing across from her, clutching the other side of the well with white knuckles and, strangely, wearing the locket he had given her in Hogsmeade.

            Will seemed to be in severe pain; his muscles tensed and coiled, and the veins in his neck and temples stood out harshly, twitching beneath his ghostly pale skin. His dark eyes bored into her, glassy with fear and something like regret. She gaped at him.

            “Will, what’s wrong? What’s happening?” she asked frantically. She tried to move to his side, but her body would not obey her. “Will?”

            “Cassie,” he rasped. One of his hands reached for the locket, and that was when she realized how tightly the chain was wound around his neck, biting into his skin with a raw and angry burn.

            “Will, please, what’s happening?” she cried, on the verge of hysteric tears when his lips started turning blue. “Will!”

            “I’m sorry.”

            The words were released in a breathless whisper before his body pitched forward, and he tumbled down into the darkness of the well.

            “WILL!”

            “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!”

            Cassie was ripped violently from her dream, her cry lost in the shouts of Lily, Marlene, and Alice as they all crowded around her on her bed, smiling and holding wrapped parcels. She sat up quickly, her heart racing like mad, and she breathed heavily, feeling feverish.

            “Sorry we scared you, bedhead,” Marlene laughed, her eyes sparkling. “Having a bad dream?”

            Cassie rubbed at her chest, her skin sticky with sweat, and gave a weak smile. “Something like it.”

            “Well, get up!” Alice said, shifting closer and practically bouncing on the mattress. “We have presents!”

            “You really didn’t have to get me anything,” she said hastily, kicking off the covers and trying to calm herself down from the dream. They all rolled their eyes.

            “We get you something every year, Cass, whether you want us to or not,” Lily reminded her, giving her a warm smile that told her she held no grudge for her eating with the Marauders the other morning. Cassie smiled back.

            “Only because you lot refuse to listen to me,” she joked, and they all shared smirks before Marlene held out her rather large parcel, wrapped in shiny purple paper.

            “Open mine first!” she ordered. Cassie grudgingly obeyed, tearing off the paper and feeling her face freeze into a polite yet slightly panicked smile.

            Marlene’s gift was comprised of nearly every cosmetic available, from eyeliner pencils to various shades of lipstick, and even included the numerous different brushes she would need to apply each eyeshadow palette. The blonde witch didn’t seem to notice her alarm, thankfully, taking her smile for one of gratitude instead.

            “That one day you showed up in class wearing makeup, I knew I just had to get you some quality products!” she gushed. “I mean, you looked so good, Cass, and with this stuff, you’ll be a total knockout!”

            “Wow, er, thanks, Mar,” she said, trying to force her smile to not look so pained as she hugged her friend. She was grateful for the gift – after all, it was the thought that counted and everything – but there was so much of it. The stuff would probably last her into the next millennium.

            She turned to Lily’s and Alice’s gifts next, relieved when she opened a box of cakes and pastries from Alice (her parents owned an ice cream and dessert shop in Diagon Alley, and they had sent along a wholesome amount of cream cheese Danishes, her favorite) and a new Muggle book from Lily, titled The Hobbit.

            “Thank you so much!” she said, wrapping her friends in an enormous hug. They returned the gesture so enthusiastically that she was tackled back onto her pillows as they all giggled.

            They basked in the early morning light peeking in through the window, tangled together, still in their pajamas, and Cassie felt so content and so loved within that moment that her terrible dream was very nearly forgotten, whisking away to some dark corner in her memory that she would not stray to, not now.

            “Breakfast starts soon,” Lily said, breaking the silence. “We should start getting ready.”

            This was met with groans, but they all relented and got out of Cassie’s bed when she gave them a stern glare, beginning their daily routine of dressing and washing.

            Cassie gathered her toiletry bag and a towel and headed for the washroom, but was stopped by Marlene, who shoved her birthday gift into Cassie’s arms, as well.

            “You’re not allowed out of there until you put this stuff on first,” she said firmly, marching her to the washroom and ignoring her feeble protests. “I want to see you radiant on your special day!”

            At this, Cassie was pushed unceremoniously into the washroom. The door shut behind her, leaving her alone to dump all the makeup products on the sink before turning on one of the showers, scrubbing at her eyes tiredly.

            She looked at her reflection in the mirror and couldn’t help remembering Will, her mind toying between the real one she had seen in Hogsmeade two days ago, and the imaginary one she had seen suffocating in her dream. She could see herself as Will in the dream, her dark eyes pained and scared, her lips blue, her angular face contorted in the throes of a slow and torturous death. Her stomach roiled, and she looked away and busied herself by stripping out of her pajamas and stepping into the scalding water of the shower.

            The hot water did nothing to ease the goosebumps that’d erupted on her arms, and she shivered involuntarily before chastising herself. She was never one to have nightmares; the few she did have were worrisome, sure, but none of them had been like this. This one had been so real, so vivid, that she could still feel the stone rim of the well under her hands, the musty air on her skin, and the overwhelming sense of helplessness as she had watched her brother fall into the well.

            The image of him and the locket, though, was the only thing she could think of when she wondered what the dream had meant. She hadn’t touched the locket since she’d returned from Hogsmeade, choosing to stash the box under a pile of shirts in her trunk and vowing to keep it there forever, not even caring that it had been a gift, and probably an expensive one. It reminded her too much of her brother, and right now, she wanted him to be the furthest thing from her mind.

            Shaking off the clinging uneasiness from her dream, she finished showering and grabbed her wand, muttering, “Impervius” to dry most of the water off her hair and body before finishing the job with her towel.   

            After dressing and tackling her hair and teeth, she turned grudgingly to the cosmetics splayed across the counter, picking up a compact of powder and scrunching her nose. She really didn’t want to put any of the makeup on, but she knew Marlene’s feelings would be hurt if she chose not to.

            Just for today, she thought reluctantly. Then maybe she’ll forget about it and I can pawn the stuff off to Mum.

            Sighing, she chose the most inconspicuous shades possible – which was hard to do, considering Mar’s style bordered on the extreme and outrageous, and glitter was her favorite accessory. She compromised on a brown eyeliner pencil and a champagne-colored eyeshadow, with a pale pink lipstick shade and very minimal powder and mascara. Feeling very foolish, but knowing she would pass Marlene’s inspection, she stepped back into the dormitory and was met with a squeal and a very tight hug.

            “You look amazing!” Marlene gushed. Cassie grimaced, knowing she looked more like a clown than anything. “Oh, my stars, every boy in the school is going to trip over themselves just to talk to you!”

            “Yeah, well, I’d probably be the one to trip them myself,” she muttered, but Marlene didn’t seem to hear her, instead dragging her over to Lily and Alice so they could ogle at her face.

            After effectively being displayed like an exotic animal in a Muggle zoo, Cassie wrestled her way out of the dormitory, leaving the others behind to finish dressing and making her way down the stairs, disgruntled and feeling the faint stirrings of uncertainty.

            Cassie had never been truly self-conscious of her appearance, though her height and skinny frame had been areas of contention before (or her bout of acne last year that had made her want to hide her face in a balaclava for eternity). She’d always accepted the fact that she was fairly average-looking; not too ugly, not too pretty – the perfect recipe for invisibility. However, this term was slowly turning her into an insecure third-year. She wondered if she was really that plain without makeup, or if she had just fooled herself all this time and she was actually hideous, after remembering the way Marlene and the others had cooed at her new appearance. Merlin’s beard, even Avery had complimented her with makeup on.

            Suddenly squeamish, she tugged out the elastic that had been holding her hair into a ponytail and let the dark curtains fall forward again, hoping that would detract a bit from her face. Keeping her head down, she entered the common room, but let out a startled yelp when someone grabbed hold of her elbow and began pulling her across the room.

            “Keep it down, Alderfair, I’m not kidnapping you,” James Potter said, whistling cheerily as he led her to the Marauders’ fireplace seats and pushed her down on the couch next to Pettigrew, while he sat in the armchair across from Black’s.

            Cassie stifled a sigh, keeping her eyes trained on her lap as she said, “What do you want from me?”

            “See, you never took up Remus’s offer to sit with us before, so we – well, I – decided that now would be a perfect time,” he said smugly. She shook her head, her hair tickling her stocking-clad thighs.

            “I’m not sitting here,” she mumbled, standing. “I have to eat before class.”

            She was stopped in her tracks when Pettigrew spoke up beside her, his expression quizzical. “What happened to your face?”

            Remus smacked him on the arm, eliciting a sharp grunt of pain from the blond boy as Cassie’s cheeks blazed, wondering why every time she was near the Marauders, she somehow ended up more embarrassed than the last.

            “If you must know, Pettigrew, Marlene and the others think that I’m frightfully ugly, so now I get to look like a fool for the rest of the day,” she said bitterly, her embarrassment only growing when the boys began to crack up. “It’s not funny!”

            “’Course it is, Alderfair,” Potter said, chuckling when she shot him an offended look. “Cause you’re not. Ugly, that is.”

            “Having you laugh at me while you say that isn’t very reassuring, you know that?” she said. This only made his grin widen. She rolled her eyes. “Forget it. I’m just going to drown myself in syrup and pretend that this is not my life right now.”

            “Great, we’ll come with!” he said, leaping to his feet.

Cassie turned back with a scowl. “No, you’re not,” she said. “I don’t need any more attention.”

            “Well, that’s just a shame, Princess,” he said, slinging an arm around her shoulders and pulling her close, “because you’re about to get a whole lot of it.”

            She gave Remus a pleading look. “Please make him stop.”

            “Sorry, Cassie,” he said, shrugging, “but James is not one to be tamed so easily.”

            The messy-haired boy shot her a smug smile. “He’s right, y’know.”

            In response, she just elbowed him in the stomach. He immediately released her, stepping back and grunting. “Sheesh, Alderfair! D’you treat all your friends like this?”

            “Only the ones that annoy me,” she replied, adjusting her bag strap on her shoulder and tossing him a winning smile. “And we’re not friends, Potter; we’re allies. Remus is my friend.”

            Potter looked to the sandy-haired boy in bafflement. “How come she likes you more than me?”

            Remus shrugged and stood to join Cassie. “Couldn’t tell you, mate.” He looked down at her, raising a brow. “Breakfast, then?”

            “Like you even need to ask.” She couldn’t hide her smile when Potter began to splutter incredulously. She turned to the spot where Pettigrew was still sitting, watching the proceedings with an amused glint in his eyes. “Peter, would you like to join us?”

            The blond boy raised his head in surprise, looking between her and Potter with some hesitation, before getting up and walking to her side. Potter looked downright betrayed at this point.

            “Pete!” he said, clutching his chest. “I thought we were mates! Brothers in arms, ‘til death do us part—"

            “Sorry, mate,” he said, unapologetically. “But Cassie’s side has food, so…”

            At this, she turned to Peter, her eyes sparkling. “I like this one.”

            He gave her a shy smile, and she returned it brightly, turning back to Potter with a smirk. “You two boys have fun,” she said, indicating the gobsmacked Potter and the slightly amused Black. “We’ll be down in the Great Hall.”

            “Make that one.” Cassie’s smirk plastered to her face when Black stood up, coming to stand by Remus and giving her an indecipherable look before glancing away. “I think I’ll stick with them today.”

            Cassie had no idea what was happening. She had three Marauders standing next to her, one being Sirius Black himself, while James Potter stood across from them, looking as if he were on the verge of tears, though she knew he was milking this for everything that it was worth. But still, she now had the power over Potter, and she waggled her brows at him upon this realization, turning for the portrait hole.

            “C’mon, then, lads,” she said, walking with an exaggerated strut that resembled Potter’s while they all laughed behind her, Potter rendered incoherent at this point. “Bacon awaits!”

            They followed her out into the corridor, still chuckling heartily as they began to walk to the Great Hall.

            “How long until he starts running after us, begging to be taken back?” Remus asked. Cassie snickered at the absurd image his question provided.

            “I give it a minute,” Sirius said, walking with a languid grace right next to her that only heightened her discomfort. She didn’t know what terms she was on with Black yet, but so far, he had kept any sneering comments to himself, so she tried to relax instead.

            No sooner had the words left his mouth then they heard the portrait hole swing open behind them and running footsteps echo down the corridor, Potter shouting, “Oi! Wait for me!”

            They all burst out laughing, and Remus and Black exchanged a high-five.      


 

            Cassie knew something was awry as soon as she walked into Double Potions that day.

            Professor Slughorn’s class had never been a favorite of hers, despite managing to scrape by with passing marks and being able to usually fade into the background. Of course, that hadn’t always been the case. She’d been a favorite student of Slughorn’s for a while (due to her parents, of course), even having been invited to join his prestigious “Slug Club”, but as soon as her brother started making headlines in the Daily Prophet, she’d been dropped faster than a hot cauldron. Not that she minded that much – after all, the less attention, the better, in her opinion.

            When she took her customary seat next to Alice and the bell rang to begin class, Professor Slughorn waddled in from his office, his walrus-like mustache rippling from the force of his breathing, and Cassie noticed that the professor looked very excited as he began to speak.

            “Hello, hello!” he huffed. The Gryffindors settled down at once, though she could still hear some Slytherins whispering in the back. But Slughorn was their Head of House, so she doubted they would get in trouble, and she instead leaned forward to listen to the professor better.

            “We will be starting work on the Girding Potion today,” he said, rubbing his hands together and gazing around the dungeon classroom. “Does anyone know what the Girding Potion is used for?”

            Lily’s hand immediately shot into the air. Slughorn beamed at her, causing Cassie and Alice to trade small smirks. Lily was a favorite of Slughorn’s due to her aptitude for Potions, and it was no secret, as he gestured enthusiastically for her to speak.

            “The Girding Potion is a potion that gives the consumer extra endurance for a short period of time,” she answered, and Slughorn gave a little clap.

            “Right you are, Miss Evans!” he said jubilantly. “Five points to Gryffindor! Now, who can tell me the possible side effects of using this potion too frequently or in too large of a dose? Yes, go ahead, Mr. Snape.”

            “Too much can put the consumer into a deep sleep when the potion wears off, or it can cause the drinker to accumulate a nasty toe fungus,” Severus Snape said. His face flushed a bit when the class’s attention went to him, though it turned positively red with pleasure when Lily whispered something from beside him and Slughorn clapped again.  

            “Good, good!” he said. “Five points for Slytherin. Now that you know the basics, the instructions are here on the blackboard for you to replicate the potion. You will have the remainder of class to work.”

            Chairs began to scrape across the floor as students made for the storage cupboard in the back where their ingredients were kept, but they were stopped when Slughorn called, “Not yet, not yet! I still have an announcement to make!”

            Everyone sat down again, and Cassie had a feeling she was about to dread whatever he was going to say as he beamed out at them.

            “It has occurred to me recently that many of you have worked with the same few partners over the years,” he began, and the apprehension in the classroom was suddenly palpable. “So for this assignment, I ask that you choose a partner that you have never worked with before – and don’t try and work with ones you have in the past! I will be watching carefully to see who everyone picks, and if you should attempt to weasel your way out of this, then I will choose your partner myself. Now, off you trot!”

            “This is rubbish,” Cassie grumbled as people began to awkwardly shuffle about the room and ask around for partners. She had worked with Alice, Mar, and Lily far too much for Slughorn not to notice, but she perked up a bit when she remembered that Remus would not be able to work with the other Marauders.

            Alice wasn’t listening. “Hey, Frank, d’you want to be partners?”

            The blond boy nearly tripped over his desk in his haste to reach her. “Of course!”

            Her friend looked pleased, and her cheeks turned a light shade of pink when Cassie gave her a secretive grin before moving away, searching for Remus.

            She found him standing near the back, hovering uncertainly by the other Marauders, who were casting suspicious and challenging glares to the Slytherins in the room. When Remus spotted her, his face lit up; but before he could say anything, Potter shouted, “Oi! Evans! Wanna work with me?”

            Lily turned and gave James a scathing look. “Not a chance, Potter.”

            James returned her glare with a taunting smirk. “C’mon, Evans, you heard ol’ Sluggy; Snivellus can’t be your partner for this.”

            Lily’s face turned bright red. “I know that, Potter! That’s why Severus is working with Marlene.”

            Cassie doubted the blonde girl had been happy about that arrangement, and from James’s look, he was thinking the same thing. “Evans, you’re in need of a partner, and it just so happens that I am, too. So—"

            “Remus, will you be my partner?” Lily asked, speaking over James. Remus blinked, taken aback, his eyes flicking between the approaching Cassie and the fuming Lily.

            “Er…” He looked back to Cassie, and though she was disappointed she wouldn’t be able to work with him, she gave him a tiny nod; she’d rather have Remus work with Lily instead of risking an all-out war between Potter and the red-haired witch. “Sure, yeah, Lily.”

            They moved off to a table together. Lily shot Potter a cold glare, which he returned with a scowl. “I will never understand that one,” he muttered.

            “Maybe if you weren’t such a git to her, things would be different,” Cassie said disapprovingly. Potter frowned at her.

            “But being a git makes things fun!” he protested. He looked back to where Lily was sitting with Remus. “She’ll come around, Alderfair, you’ll see; no girl can resist my charm for long.”

            Cassie rolled her eyes. “Whatever.”

            Potter’s reply was cut off when another person joined their group. Cassie gulped when she recognized Avery, with the rather frightening Kanin Mulciber standing a few paces behind him and looking as if he’d smelled something vile.

            “Excuse me,” Avery said in his soft voice. His pale eyes gazed at Cassie, and her skin heated under the intensity of the look. “Cassie, I was wondering if you would like to be my partner? And Kanin here is also looking for someone to work with.”

            The temperature dropped at least ten degrees as the Gryffindors and Slytherins sized each other up. She licked her lips, about to respond, when Potter spoke up before her.

            “How about this? Avery, you be my partner – and Pete, you can work with Mulciber here. Sound fair?” His tone made it clear he wasn’t going to take no for an answer. Avery seemed to sense this, as well, for he only gave a curt nod.

            “Very well,” he said, looking vaguely disappointed as he and Potter walked off together in tense silence. Mulciber stalked away and Peter rushed to follow in his wake.

            Cassie had been left alone with Black. She turned to him questioningly. “Er, what was that about?”

            Black just shook his head, lips pursed. “No idea.”

            She got the sense that that wasn’t the truth, but she didn’t press the matter further, instead looking around and seeing that everyone was now seated and had begun work on their potions. “Oh, bugger, I still need to find a partner—"

            “What am I, a freaky first-year?” She turned to face Black again, her brows furrowing when she saw him smirking at her, though the expression contained none of its usual spite.

            “No, I…just didn’t know you wanted to partner with…me.” She cringed upon saying it, but Black scuffed his shoe on the floor, shoving his hands in his pockets.

            “Look, Alderfair, I know I’ve been a git to you in the past, but I, erm, well…” He trailed off, now looking extremely awkward, and she raised her brows when he huffed. “Never mind. Point is, I’m trying to get over it, so we should really get started on this potion before Slughorn notices we’re still standing here.”

            He said this last part in a rush. Cassie shrugged, not knowing what to say but feeling very perplexed as they moved to a table in the back. “Er, I’ll get the ingredients if you want to start heating the cauldron?”

            “Got it.” He took out his wand and set about getting a small flame lit as she headed for the storage cupboard, beginning her search for the ingredients Slughorn had written on the chalkboard.  

            She was just reaching for a box of dragonfly thoraxes when a voice behind her said, “Partners with Black, then?”

            She fumbled to keep the box from falling to the floor, spinning around to see Avery entering the cupboard, one of his slender brows arched when he witnessed her near-disaster.

            “Er, yeah,” she said, turning and looking for doxy eggs and trying to ignore the creeping heat on the back of her neck. “What of it?”

            She sensed him shrug as he gathered his own ingredients. “Nothing at all. I was simply curious.”

            “Why so?”

            “I didn’t know the two of you associated, is all,” he said. She tried not to squirm when she felt his eyes on her.

            “It’s a relatively new thing,” she replied uncomfortably. She turned to leave, now having all the ingredients, only to run into his chest and knock herself off-balance.

            She stumbled back, but he caught her by her elbows, keeping her from crashing into the shelf behind her. She looked up, meeting his pale blue eyes, and was reminded of how pretty they were as she squeaked out, “Thanks.”

            He gave her a slight nod before releasing her arms, and she was about to hurry away when his voice stopped her.

            “I urge you to be cautious around Black and his friends,” he said. “They aren’t the best of people to hang around with, Cassie.”

            “No offense, Avery, but I’ve heard the same thing about you and your gang,” she replied, suddenly testy. His eyes narrowed. “So, thanks for your concern, but no thanks.”

            She walked away, her pace quicker than normal. She all but threw herself into her seat, and Black looked up questioningly as she willed her body to stop feeling so hot and sweaty.

            “Everything all right?” he asked. She grunted, getting out her Potions book and flipping to the section on Girding Potions.

            When she didn’t reply, instead busying herself with the potion instructions, Sirius looked across the room and met James’s eyes, giving him a slight nod.

            Understanding perfectly, James turned away and waited for Avery to come back with their ingredients, determined to get to the bottom of this mystery. 


 

            “So, how was working with Black?”

            Cassie looked up from feeding Little Leaf a packet of woodlice to see Lily crouch down next to her, her emerald eyes curious as the bowtruckle scampered around in the grass, chasing down the tiny insects. (Cassie had formed a bond with the little tree-man ever since their first interaction in Care of Magical Creatures two weeks ago, and though they had moved on to learning about nifflers and Professor Kettleburn had released the bowtruckles back into the wild, she still snuck to the borders of the forest to give him treats at the end of class.)

            “Fine, surprisingly,” she said. “He’s actually really good at Potions.”

            Lily nodded thoughtfully. “That’s good.”

            They watched Little Leaf swallow several lice until Cassie asked, “How was Remus?”

            “Very helpful,” the other girl replied. “And he’s very nice.”

            Cassie hummed an agreement, and they went back to watching Little Leaf until she had to ask, “You’re not mad at me, are you? For working with Black?”

            Lily looked surprised. “Of course not,” she said truthfully. “Why would you think that?”

            Cassie shrugged, wishing she hadn’t said anything. “I dunno. You always just seem so…disapproving of him and his friends.”

            “I’m not saying I like them,” Lily said hastily. “But I’ve noticed that all of you have been hanging around each other more. I was just curious, I guess.”

            “Er…okay. Cool.”

            They fell into silence once more until Lily sighed, leaning closer. “Listen, don’t tell Mar I told you this…but she fancies Black. And I’m just worried for her. I’ve heard rumors since term started about him running around with a different girl every week, and, well, I don’t want her to fall for him only to get dropped for another.” She looked to Cassie imploringly. “You’ve started hanging around with him, Cassie – and I know I shouldn’t ask this of you, but I don’t want to see Mar get hurt. If the chance ever arose, and he starts fancying her back…will you tell him to not try any funny business with her?”

            “Erm, Black and I aren’t really that close…” she began, but internally groaned when Lily gave her a pleading look. “All right, if he starts getting interested, I’ll tell him.”

            Lily smiled. “Thanks, Cass.”

            The bell tolled across the grounds then, and the two gathered their bags and began to head back to the castle for dinner, Little Leaf chirping a good-bye behind them. They kept up casual conversation on the way, but Cassie was distracted when she looked up and saw two Ravenclaw girls who were in their class staring back at her over their shoulders. When she met their eyes, they giggled and turned away. She frowned, wondering what that had been about.

            She ate with the girls that night, and had just spooned a generous amount of beef stew into her bowl when a smattering of owls flew in, showering a few students with late mail or copies of the Evening Prophet. A handsome tawny owl landed before Lily, and she dropped a Knut into the pouch tied around its leg before it deposited a copy of the Prophet and flew away.

            Cassie began to eat, not expecting any mail (she had received her birthday gift from her parents that morning, which had consisted of a pouch of Galleons to “buy herself something nice” and a brief note from her father that just said: Happy Birthday – Father), and was only a bite in when Lily gasped.

            She looked up and saw that all the blood had drained from the other girl’s face, her eyes wide and scared at whatever she had read on the front page of the newspaper.

            “What is it?” Alice asked urgently, putting her goblet down and leaning forward. “Lils, what’s going on?”

            “Cassie,” the red-haired witch said hoarsely. “Cass…”

            Abandoning her stew, Cassie grabbed the newspaper out of the other girl’s grasp and read the headline, printed in big, bold letters: BRUTAL ATTACK ON MUGGLES INSTIGATED BY WIZENGAMOT MEMBER’S SON

            Suddenly feeling very cold, Cassie began to read the article.

A mere two hours ago, an anonymous tip was received by the Auror Office in response to what was later described as a “savage” attack on a group of Muggles in Cokeworth.

Aurors responded to the scene immediately, and arrived to find “…absolute pandemonium…[I’ve] never seen anything like it,” as one source said.

Though details about the attack have not been made public yet, an official statement is to be issued in tomorrow’s Daily Prophet. However, one inside source managed to share a few details about the attack:

Eight Muggles in total were attacked, and though it has yet to be confirmed, it is highly suspected that the Cruciatus Curse may have been used. The attack appeared to be discriminate, indicating that this was a hate crime against nonmagical people. All eight Muggles survived and are now healing in St Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries, and will have their memories erased as soon as the Department of Magical Law Enforcement takes their statements.

However, the biggest shock of this horrific attack is the reveal of the instigator behind it. It was reported that four wizards and/or witches were involved in the crime, with three of them wearing masks, yet the fourth was not. This wizard, the source says, happened to be none other than Wizengamot member Lukas Alderfair’s son, William Alderfair.

It is known to the wizarding community that William Alderfair is an avid supporter of the anti-Muggle terrorist You-Know-Who (for more on his activism in the anti-Muggle and Muggle-born movement, see pg. 3), and though Lukas Alderfair has never explicitly stated his stance on the matter, one can assume through his policymaking decisions and court judgments that he is not as impartial as we suspect (for more details, see pg.7).

The source claims that, “…He was the one not wearing the mask, that William Alderfair. I’ve seen many a Dark witch and wizard in my days, but this one…he was different. Jumping around, screaming, cheering, laughing his head off. Crazed, he looked to me. Deranged.”

Though the attackers were not caught, a new warning is to be administered along with the report tomorrow morning of the activities of You-Know-Who’s followers, and Minister of Magic Harold Minchum “is adamant that the attackers will be apprehended,” the source says.

Reported by Rita Skeeter, Special Correspondent of the Daily Prophet and the Evening Prophet

            Cassie put the newspaper down slowly. Alice and Marlene, who had squished beside her to read the paper as well, were staring anywhere but at her, and Lily was still quite pale in the face. Cassie took a sip of pumpkin juice, not tasting it at all, her ears beginning to ring.

            She looked around and noticed that many people were starting to give her suspicious, dark, even frightened looks, and hushed conversations were beginning to spread like wildfire around the Hall as people finished reading the article on their own papers.

            Cassie got to her feet calmly, and without a word to anyone, she turned and walked out of the Hall, completely numb to everything happening around her. She hadn’t the heart to care about the stares and murmurs at this point. Her feet carried her slowly back to the common room, through the portrait hole, and up the stairs into her dormitory.

            She opened her trunk and dug out the box that contained the clockwork locket. She extracted the locket, staring at its shiny silver surface, the red ruby winking up at her, before taking out the note from her brother that was left in the box.

            Say the word ‘Sparks’ and the locket will open. – Will

            Her heart squeezed when she read the word ‘Sparks.’ Her brother had given her that name when she was five and had accidentally set off one of his whiz-poppers, catching her hair aflame briefly before her mother had put it out using her wand. Holding the locket in her palm, she said very clearly, “Sparks.”

            There was a whirring noise, then a click, and the locket sprang open, revealing many gears and cogs on the inside that did indeed look like a Muggle clock. The little machine started up and a voice began to issue from it – neither male nor female, neither loud nor soft.

“A thousand years’ slumber,

In a tomb beyond light.

If Darkness adds to its number,

The world shall fall to night.”

            The voice was haunting, and when the message ended, her skin broke out in a cold sweat. For a long time, she knelt there on the floor of her dormitory, the words playing over and over in her mind.

            She had no idea what had possessed her brother to enchant it with something so meaningless, so stupid. His gift wasn’t thoughtful – it was worthless. And that was it, she realized. That was why he had gotten it for her. Because it was nothing. She was nothing.

            Grabbing the box from the floor, Cassie hurled it with all her might against the wall, feeling a sick satisfaction when she heard it crunch and saw that it had left a hole where it hit.

            Anger such as she had never felt raged inside of her. She began to tear her clothes out of her trunk, throwing them around the room and kicking at her bedposts as unadulterated fury channeled through her blood, making her see red. She took the locket and smashed it on her bedside table, hardly noticing that it didn’t break at all, just resealed itself. She opened the topmost drawer of the table and enclosed the locket within it, the final slam of the drawer snapping her out of whatever fit she had just gone into.

            She stood there for a minute, panting. When she finally felt the tears coming on, she sank onto her bed and curled up like a small child, clutching her pillow tightly to her chest.

            As she lay there, gently rocking herself to sleep before any of the sadness, the betrayal, the fear of what tomorrow would bring came on, she thought with some misery that this might just be the worst birthday of her life.      

               

              

Chapter Text

            The smell of baking pumpkin was thick in the air the next morning, and preparations for the Halloween Feast were in full swing by the time the Marauders made their way down to the Great Hall for breakfast.

            Professor McGonagall could be seen Transfiguring silver spoons into live bats while Professor Flitwick Charmed them to float above the House tables, the winged creatures flitting around the dull, cloudy sky the magical ceiling depicted. Hagrid would periodically lumber into the Hall, rolling pumpkins the size of the giant man’s torso in front of him and handing them off to Professor Vector, who then used her wand to carve designs into the pumpkins’ flesh.

            Many students had not yet awakened – which had been to the Marauders’ benefit, as there was less chance of their conversation being overheard. And they knew just what their subject was going to be about that morning – or rather, whom.

            “What time does Alderfair usually wake up?” James said. His knee bounced in agitation, and he cast yet another impatient look to the doors of the Hall.

            “She’ll come down when she’s ready, James,” Remus said, taking a calm sip from his tea and trying to act as if he weren’t just as anxious as his friend.

            Sirius gave a light snort. “I wouldn’t be surprised if she didn’t show at all,” he said, shaking his head. He paused in the midst of biting into his toast when all three cast him annoyed looks. “Oi, I’m not saying it in a bad way!”

            James stabbed at his eggs angrily. “I bet half that rubbish isn’t even true. That Skeeter woman will make up anything to get people to read her tosh.”

            Remus was surprised. “You know her?”

            The other boy nodded slowly. “She’s fairly new, from what I’ve heard. She was an intern for the Prophet’s gossip column a few years back when she graduated Hogwarts, but she didn’t get any recognition until she wrote some rotten article about the corruption of Aurors – she tried to go after my dad during all that, so that’s how I know about her, from him.”

            “She sounds vile,” Peter grumbled into his goblet.

James nodded in agreement. “Shame people actually believe what she writes, though,” he said darkly. “And the popularity of the story is only going to make things harder for Alderfair.”

            Remus shifted uncomfortably, wishing he could find Cassie and see how she was handling everything. They had been too wrapped up in planning their next prank at dinner last night to see her leave the Hall, and by the time they had managed to read the article, she’d already disappeared to her dormitory for the night, and her prolonged absence was worrying him.

            They fell into silence and continued to eat when a trio of fourth-years came and sat in close proximity to them, near enough so they could listen to their whispering, and they all froze when they heard the topic of their discussion.

            “Terrible, isn’t it, about that Muggle attack?” one girl said. The boy and girl sitting with her both nodded. “I wonder what the Minister is going to say about it; this seems like a big case.”

            “I just hope the Aurors catch the bastards who did it,” the boy grumbled. “Those people are demented for doing something like that.”

            “Isn’t William Alderfair that one fifth-year’s brother?” the other girl asked. When the two nodded, she tossed back her platinum hair in obvious disdain. “How sad. I would be ashamed if I had a brother like that, the little—"

            “D’you really wanna finish that thought?” James said loudly, turning to stare at the three.

            The girl with the platinum hair immediately flushed, though her expression remained indignant.

            “I never took you for a Death Eater supporter,” she shot back. James’s expression turned dark, but Sirius intervened before things got ugly.

            “Oh, stuff it, Blondie,” he said, quite rudely. She gaped at him while her friends just stared. “Go sit somewhere else and keep your irrelevant comments to yourself.”

            The girl gave him a withering look, but she heeded his advice and stalked away down the table, her friends hurrying in her wake. Remus gave him a reproachful look.

            “You shouldn’t have said that,” he said, though he had to remind himself to unclench his fists as the dark-haired boy snorted.

            “She shouldn’t have been a twit,” he retorted.

            Remus said nothing (for he quite agreed with Sirius), but they looked up from their plates when they heard footsteps fast approaching them and Alice Fortescue appeared, breathless and clearly flustered.

            “Have you seen Cassie?” she asked without preamble. When they shook their heads, she let out a distressed noise. “Oh, Merlin, we can’t find her anywhere! She was sleeping when we came in last night, but when we woke up this morning, she was gone! I’ve checked everywhere I thought she could be, but I can’t find her, and I’m so worried—"

            “Alice, hey, calm down,” Remus said gently. The girl plopped onto the bench beside him, now looking on the verge of tears. “I’m sure Cassie’s fine; she probably just needed some time to herself.”

            “I don’t think she is, though,” she said miserably. “You didn’t see her last night; she didn’t react to the news at all! She just walked off, and when we got back to the dorm, her stuff was everywhere, and there was a hole in the wall, and—"

            She broke off, burying her head in her hands, and they all looked on in alarm as she began to sniffle. “I shouldn’t have left her alone! I wanted to give her space, but I knew she needed me, and now she’s gone!”

            The Marauders exchanged worried glances. Remus put a comforting hand on Alice’s shoulder. “Don’t blame yourself, Alice. You were just trying to give her time to sort things out. Any friend would have done what you did.”

            She nodded tightly, scrubbing at her eyes and standing back up, and gave Remus a watery smile. “Just let me know if you see her, all right?’

            Remus nodded. “Will do.”

            With another grateful smile, she walked to her usual seat down the table and joined the anxious-looking Marlene and Lily, who must’ve entered after her. James gave the other boys a significant look.

            “Good thing we know where to find her,” he said, and they all leaned in as he reached into his robes.

            Pulling out his wand and a blank piece of parchment, he held the paper in his lap and tapped the tip of his wand against it, muttering, “I solemnly swear that I am up to no good…”


 

            The sun was just clearing the tree-tops when Cassie awoke that morning. For a moment, she lay there peacefully, her mind blissfully blank as she stared at the clouds rolling in from the east. They looked like rainclouds, and she thought about how cliché it would be if it were to storm on Halloween night, but the dull ache that had begun to grow in her chest upon awakening was already dragging her spirits down, and she suddenly wanted nothing more than to sink into oblivion again just to escape it.

            She wasn’t angry; no, she had gotten that out last night, and she cringed when she remembered the disaster zone she’d left in her wake before collapsing in bed. What she felt was more…resign, than anything. It was like last night had been a wake-up call for her. There was no hope, no more will that she could sway her brother back to the Light. He was gone. Truly, irredeemably, irrevocably gone.

            She suddenly itched to be out of this bed, out of this room; to walk freely before all the stares and whispers started up again. She swung her feet onto the floor and sat for a moment, trying to wipe off the remnants of last night’s makeup. Her eyes had practically glued shut and her face felt crusty, and she finally resorted to creeping into the washroom to rinse it all off, as a handkerchief didn’t seem to be doing the trick all that well.

            Being very careful not to disturb anyone, she collected her strewn things off the floor and returned them to her trunk. She winced when she saw the well-sized dent in the wall and promised herself that she would repair it later. After slipping into a pair of jeans and an oversized jumper, she grabbed her wand and headed down to the common room, relieved to find it empty.

            Fancying a walk by herself on the grounds, she walked out into the corridor and began to wander to the ground floor, enjoying the solitude and quiet. Even the portraits on the walls remained silent, most of them dozing in their frames still. She’d managed to work her way down to the first-floor undetected until a stern voice rang out behind her.

            “Miss Alderfair!”

            A flicker of apprehension went through her when she turned and saw Professor McGonagall striding towards her down the corridor, but she couldn’t find it in her to really care if she wasn’t technically supposed to be roaming about the castle this early. Instead, she only said, as politely as she could, “Yes, Professor?”

            The strict witch came to a stop before her, and Cassie waited indifferently while the professor looked her up and down, her lips pursing at whatever she saw.

            “Come with me,” she ordered.

            Cassie had no choice but to obey and follow the professor a short way until they entered a room that had to be her office. It was a small study that boasted a cheery fire and a large latticed window that overlooked the training grounds and the Quidditch Pitch. The professor took a seat behind a handsome mahogany desk and motioned for Cassie to do the same.

            She sank into a comfortable velvet chair and watched as Professor McGonagall waved her wand, a tea kettle soaring into the fireplace and hovering over the flames. The professor then pushed a silver tin toward Cassie. “Have a biscuit, Miss Alderfair.”

            Cassie took one – more out of politeness than anything – and bit into it, not really tasting it at all as the witch across from her studied her with calculating dark eyes, shrewd and intelligent. Though the professor was not that old, Cassie felt as if she were being scrutinized by someone of the same caliber as Professor Dumbledore. She shifted uncomfortably in her seat, finishing off the biscuit and discreetly brushing the crumbs from her clothes.

            “How is your term going so far, Miss Alderfair?” Professor McGonagall asked suddenly. Cassie blinked, staring at her Head of House.

            “Er…all right, I guess,” she said, unnerved by her intense stare. “Could be better, but could be worse.”

            McGonagall nodded slowly. “Indeed. And how are your studies treating you?”

            “Fine,” she said, cringing when it came out more like a question. When she didn’t elaborate further, the professor frowned.

            “And what about Defense Against the Dark Arts?”

            At this, Cassie’s eyes narrowed. “Why?” she asked suspiciously. “Did Professor Carlisle tell you that I was an incompetent, uncouth fool?”

            McGonagall looked startled by the vehemence in her tone. “Not at all, actually. She said you were as good as any other student she is teaching.”

            “So average, at best,” Cassie said, leaning back and crossing her arms. “I reckon that’s as good as I’m going to get, though.”

            Professor McGonagall didn’t respond, only gazing at Cassie with an indecipherable look that pricked at her skin irritably.

            “With all due respect, Professor, I’d rather be alone right now,” she said, suddenly tired. “Thanks for the biscuit.”

            “Sit down, Miss Alderfair,” she said firmly when she made to get up. Cassie wavered before settling herself into the chair again, trying hard not to scowl at her professor.

            The kettle had begun to whistle. McGonagall waved her wand once more, producing teabags and cups from a cabinet behind her. She filled them up with the water from the kettle before pushing one towards Cassie.

            She accepted the tea grudgingly, waiting for it to cool some before drinking. She breathed in the fumes, her frayed nerves soothing down some, and she looked up when the professor began to speak again.

            “Lavender and sage,” she said, gesturing to the tea in Cassie’s hands. “I practically lived off the brew until all of my entry exams were over. It has astounding calming capabilities, and I find it to be far more practical than any potion.”

            Cassie nodded, taking a sip of the tea and feeling some of her muscles relax. She hadn’t realized how tense she was – though after everything she had been through in the past twelve hours, it wasn’t that much of a surprise.

            “Miss Alderfair,” the professor said. Cassie looked up anxiously, seeing her dark eyes filled with something that resembled concern. “I would like you to know that should you ever need anything, my door is always open.”

            Cassie lowered her teacup, her throat burning, but not from the tea. She suddenly wished to scream, or yell, or cry, but nothing came past her lips. She could only sit there, tears welling in her eyes and her fingers trembling, wondering why this was all happening to her, why she had to be the one to deal with this mess, to pick up the broken pieces her brother had left behind. It wasn’t fair.

            “I never want to see him again,” she burst out, her voice choked with suppressed tears. “He’s a monster. I wish I never knew him.”

            She bowed her head, embarrassed that her professor was seeing her break down like this, but she looked up when she saw a handkerchief being offered to her from across the desk. She took it, dabbing at her eyes and trying to steady herself with deep breaths, and for a long while, only the flames in the hearth could be heard until the professor spoke once more.

            “War can do a great many things to people, Miss Alderfair,” she said solemnly. Cassie looked up, and the professor’s haunted expression gazed back at her. “It divides us, or unites us, and as much as we like to deny it, we all choose a side in the end. All we can do is hope that one day it will be over, and we can go back to what we were before, or build something new from the outcome.”

            Cassie stared into the witch’s dark eyes, and for some reason she got the feeling that she was speaking from experience as she gave her a small, sad smile.

            “You’ve been a strong and smart student since you were eleven, Miss Alderfair,” she continued gently. “Your will to keep your head high in the face of such turmoil is admirable, and I have the utmost confidence that you will be able to get through this, as well.”

            Cassie bit her lip, looking down at the handkerchief clutched in her hands at the professor’s praise. In any other circumstance, she would have keeled over at hearing the stern witch dish out a compliment, but right now, all she could feel was an overwhelming sense of gratitude, mingled with the raw ache of a sharp sadness.

            “Thank you, Professor,” she said quietly. “I want to believe in that for myself, too.”

            Professor McGonagall gave her a genuine smile before glancing at the clock on her desk. “Breakfast starts soon, Miss Alderfair. I still expect you to be in attendance for all of your lessons today.”

            Cassie blanched at the mention of lessons, but Professor McGonagall went on. “However, if at any point during the day, you feel too, shall we say…ill to attend, I may just happen to not pay attention to the roll.”

            Cassie returned her small smile, trying to convey her gratitude through the simple expression. The professor seemed to understand, and waved a hand to dismiss her from the office.

            She had just reached the door, her hand on the knob, before she turned back to McGonagall. “Professor?”

            McGonagall raised her thin brows, placing a pair of spectacles upon her nose just as she brought forth a stack of papers to grade. Cassie hesitated, until the professor said, “What is it, Miss Alderfair?”

            Shaking off her reluctance, she said, “Do you really think there’s going to be a war?”

            The professor looked taken aback by the question. She blinked once. “Let’s hope it does not come to that, Miss Alderfair.” She sighed. “But I fear that one has been building for a long while, and only time will tell where we go from here.”

            Not satisfied with that answer at all, but not wanting to pester her further, Cassie simply nodded. “Thank you, Professor. Have a nice day.”

            She exited the office and shut the door behind her, letting out a long breath as she thought about what to do next. Her stomach rumbled heartily, the biscuit having done nothing to quell her hunger after not eating dinner the night before, but she wasn’t ready to face the attention the Great Hall would bring.

            Fortunately for her, she knew exactly where to go.


 

            Pandy had been ecstatic when Cassie entered the kitchens, bowing deeply and immediately sending other house-elves off to prepare her a meal worthy of a king.

            The house-elf chatted at her as she spread strawberry marmalade on her toast, and she was glad for the distraction as she listened to his enthusiastic rambles, unaware of another presence until Pandy let out an excited squeak.

            “Misters Potter, Black, Lupin, and Pettigrew!” he trilled. Cassie froze, feeling the bite she had just taken stick in her throat. “A welcome surprise, indeed!”

            “Hey, Pandy,” Potter said from behind her. She refused to turn around, only drinking from her goblet as the house-elves scurried off to accommodate the four newcomers. “And Alderfair, a pleasure as always.”

            “What are you doing here?” she said, unable to keep the silent plea from her voice as they all sat around her, Pandy rushing off with promises of more food.

            “We followed you,” Potter said unabashedly. She glared at her plate, suddenly not hungry anymore.

            “Good for you,” she said, shoving away from the table. “Now go find somebody else to stalk.”

            “Not so fast!” he said, grabbing hold of her wrist, but she wrenched it away, scowling.

            “Do you not understand that I just want to be left alone right now?” she snapped. “And your concern is touching, Potter, really, but save it for someone who’s actually your friend.”

            “Sorry to rain on your parade, Princess, but I do actually consider you a friend,” he said, glaring at her.

             That shut her up quickly. “Huh?”

            “Told you he was gonna say it first,” Peter whispered, which only confused her more, though her irritation was still winning out.

            She sighed. “Look. I get that you want to help or whatever, but there’s nothing you can do. I’m sorry.”

            “We just want to make sure you’re all right, Cassie,” Remus said, his pale green eyes sympathetic. “You don’t have to talk about your feelings, or whatever else, if you don’t want to. Just let us – and Alice and the others – be here for you.”

            She nodded, her throat squeezing tight as all the fight drained out of her body. “Okay.”

            “You may want to hurry up and get dressed, though,” Black said. He shoved an entire sausage link in his mouth and said around his chewing, “Lessons start soon.”

            She made a face at him. “Anyone ever tell you that it’s gross to talk with your mouth full?”

            He gave her a smirk that made his grey eyes light up with mischief. “I doubt I’m any worse than you.”

            “Ouch,” she said, sticking her tongue out at him. “I’m going to change. Will, er…”

            She trailed off, uncertain, but Remus gave her a knowing wink. “Don’t worry. We’ll wait for you in the common room.”

            Relieved, she waved before bounding out of the kitchens, unsure of what the day would bring, but hoping that it wouldn’t be so bad with someone else at her side.


 

            October 31st, 1975 was quickly going down as one of the worst days in the history of Cassie Alderfair’s life.

            Every class was the same: students whispering when she walked in, staring at her no matter where they sat, and every professor avoiding her like the plague, never calling on her to answer their questions and letting her sit with the Marauders (as Potter had requested) despite having an assigned seat. Professor McGonagall was the only one who still treated her normally, though she had given her a tiny nod at the beginning of the class that reminded her of their conversation that morning.

            The Marauders, it seemed, had taken it upon themselves to become her personal bodyguards that day. They sat next to her in every lesson and walked with her in the corridors, blocking out most of the attention by entertaining her with stories and the various pranks they had played on different students.

            “Oi, see that git Romano? He called me a tosser fourth year for chatting up his girlfriend, so I jinxed his skin green for the rest of the week…”

            “Remember when we Charmed that bar of soap to chase Snivellus down the corridors second year? That was the best…”

            Cassie could tell that Lily, Alice, and Marlene wanted to talk to her, but she couldn’t find it in herself to approach them. She didn’t want any of their sympathy, and she knew that they had no idea what to say to her, anyway. So it was only with a mildly guilty conscience that she continued to let herself be surrounded by the Marauders while they gave her surreptitious looks all day, and by the time Double Transfiguration let out, she was feeling slightly better compared to that morning.

            Of course, she could only remain above it all for so long before the façade started to crack, and reality seeped through.

            “If they don’t stop looking over here and giggling, I’m going to sacrifice them to the giant squid,” she grumbled, glaring at the two Ravenclaw girls that had laughed at her yesterday after Care of Magical Creatures.

            She was sitting underneath a beech tree near the shores of the Black Lake with the Marauders, the wind buffeting them with a sharp chill that was far too reminiscent of winter, in her opinion. Fortunately, Remus had conjured some flames in a jar to provide warmth, and she sat as close as she could to it without catching herself aflame, the heat soaking into her bones deliciously.

            “Who?” Potter said lazily, looking around and ruffling his hair.

            Cassie gestured with her chin to the Ravenclaws. “Them.”

            Black let out a derisive snort. They all turned to look at him as his grey eyes narrowed at the two girls.

            “Mary MacDonald and Dorcas Meadowes,” he confirmed. “The two biggest airheads I have ever had the misfortune to meet.”

            “Aren’t they Ravenclaws, though?” Peter asked, frowning. “They’re supposed to be smart.”

            “Ravenclaw isn’t just about intelligence, mate,” Black said, shaking his head, “else they’d be in Hufflepuff.”

            “Well, I’m about to tell them to sod off,” Cassie huffed. “They were doing this after Care of Magical Creatures yesterday, too, and it’s starting to get bloody annoying.”

            Remus gave her a confused frown. “That was before dinner, wasn’t it?”

            Cassie nodded. “Yeah. What does that have to do with anything?”

            “Means they had something against you before the news about your brother came out,” he said.

            Cassie didn’t respond, for just then, the two Ravenclaws walked past as if they had been summoned.

            “Hey, Dorcas, how much do you wanna bet on which one she shags first?” one of the girls said loudly, and Cassie guessed that one was Mary as the Ravenclaw flashed her a predatory smile, her white teeth sparkling like the nasty glint in her green eyes.

            The girl walking beside her was very pretty, Cassie noticed with some disgruntlement, but the sneer she gave Cassie made her features warp into something unattractive. “My money’s on Lupin. Poor girl’s always clinging to him like a Sticking Spell.”

            They both giggled shrilly as they walked away, back toward the castle. Cassie made to get up, her face and ears burning, but Remus tugged her back down.

            “Don’t bother with them, Cassie,” he said disdainfully. “They’re not worth it.”

            “What is wrong with them?” she demanded. “Out of everything, they choose to mock me for being a slag?”

            “Moony’s right, Alderfair,” Black said, twirling his wand between his fingers and giving her a reassuring look. “They’re just being shallow twits.”

            Cassie huffed, leaning back against the tree and crossing her arms. “I just want to know how many Galleons are on Remus and I shagging.”

            They all roared with laughter at this, Remus being the loudest despite his burning face. She wished she could stay out here all day with them, but the break was almost over, which meant that Defense was next. She felt a tug of nausea in her gut and wondered if she should take advantage of McGonagall’s blind eye for the day.

            Potter seemed to sense her line of thought, for he punched her on the arm lightly. “Break’s over soon, Alderfair. You ready for Defense?”

            “I’d rather scoop my eyes out with a spoon, but sure, I guess.” She sighed, and he chuckled before offering her a hand up.

            “Hopefully it won’t be too bad,” he said bracingly as they began to walk back to the castle, a low rumble of thunder following them in. “Just let me know if Avery starts bothering you again.”

            She frowned at the mention of Avery, wondering what he could mean by that. “Speaking of, how was partnering with him in Potions yesterday?”

            He gave a noncommittal shrug, tousling his already-wild hair again. “Oh, not too bad. After I told him to piss off and leave you alone, everything was fine—"

            “Wait, you did what?” Cassie stared at him incredulously, stopping in the Entrance Hall and forcing the rest of them to stop walking, as well. “Why did you do that?”

            “He’s a Slytherin git, that’s why. And he has a thing for you—"

            “Oh, Merlin, please stop talking,” she said, holding up a hand. “You think Avery fancies me?”

            “On top of other things,” he said evasively. When she was about to retort, he cut her off. “I did you a favor, Alderfair; you’ll thank me in the long run, especially now that he knows about your brother.”

            “You’re an idiot, Potter,” she snapped, too thrown by the conversation to think of another comeback. She just started up the marble staircase, the Marauders hurrying behind her.

            “It’s to your benefit, Alderfair,” Potter argued, his long legs quickly catching up to her. “Avery’s a bully, and—"

            “And it’s none of your business!” she said. “You don’t have the right to control who I associate with—"

            “Considering I’m your friend, your well-being is my concern—"

            “Just stay out of it—"

            “Oi, shut it, you two!” Black said. Cassie whirled on him, noting his tight jaw and irritated gaze. “Or I’m going to muzzle you both if you don’t stop bickering.”

            Potter and Cassie both glared at him, but they didn’t talk the rest of the way to Defense, Potter ruffling his hair in agitation while Cassie fumed silently.

            “Today is a work day,” Professor Carlisle announced when class started five minutes later. Cassie and Remus made faces at this as her icy gaze swept over the room, landing briefly on Cassie before skirting away. “You will be silent, and diligent, for you will turn in a foot of parchment at the end of class detailing the history and use of the Cruciatus Curse.”

            There was a ripple of murmurs around the class, and from the corner of her eye, Cassie saw Lily raise her hand.

            “But Professor, aren’t the Unforgivable Curses not supposed to be taught until seventh year?” she asked, concerned. Professor Carlisle gave her a cold stare.

            “As I said at the beginning of the term, Miss Evans, I must prepare you for what is out there earlier than ever,” she said, her voice flat and firm. “And we are not going to go into extreme specifics regarding the curse, for some of you may already be familiar with it.”

            Her steely eyes fell upon Cassie at this, and just like that, the façade she had been trying to maintain all day cracked.

            “Please, spare us all the suspense and just say it,” she snapped, glaring into the professor’s eyes and feeling nothing but anger and disgust. “Everyone in this sodding classroom already knows who you mean, so there’s no need to be so dramatic about it.”

            The room seemed to collectively hold its breath as the two witches stared each other down. Finally, the professor said in her most chilling voice, “Fifty points from Gryffindor, and I will see you in detention tonight, Miss Alderfair. Seven o’clock sharp.”

            “Can’t wait,” she said sarcastically. Potter sniggered from somewhere behind her.

            Professor Carlisle’s eyes narrowed, but she didn’t say anything further, instead returning to her desk and ordering them to start on their work.

            Cassie made no move to get out her book or parchment, her fingers trembling slightly from her sudden outburst. She could hear people whispering about it around the room, but they were an annoying buzz in her ears. She wondered what was happening to her; she never used to be so volatile, so quick to anger, but lately, everything seemed to be setting her off. Blinking back angry tears, she reached into her bag just as a piece of paper landed on her desk.

            Expecting it to be from one of the Marauders, she took it and glanced around, frowning when they all seemed too preoccupied with their work to notice her. Her eyes slid to Avery, but he was digging through his book bag, trying to find a quill.

            Confused, she opened the parchment and froze when she saw a drawing of a skull and serpents, just like the tattoo Will had branded on his forearm. Underneath the hastily drawn picture were the words: Ready for yours?

            Her heart thumping painfully, she looked around again, her eyes catching on a huddled group of Slytherins in the back consisting of Severus Snape, Kanin Mulciber, and a troll of a girl named Peggy Sloane. Mulciber gave her a wink and tapped the inside of his left forearm. Cassie spun around in her seat to face the front, her stomach churning.

            Swallowing hard, she forced herself to get started on her work, trying to ignore the sneers directed at her and hoping that she was only imagining the skin of her left forearm tingling.


 

            “This is rubbish!” Cassie hissed as soon as they were released from Defense. She stalked down the corridor with the Marauders beside her, heading down for a short dinner before returning to the classroom for her detention. “Of all the nights to give me detention, it has to be the Halloween Feast, of course.”

            She shook her head, her frustration making her pace quicken. Peter began to pant as he tried to keep up. “Why does she hate me so much? What have I ever done to her?”

            “She’s probably jealous that you don’t have the personality of a brick wall,” Black said, and though her lips twitched, she couldn’t find the humor in the joke.

            “There’s got to be a reason,” she said, reaching out and pulling Peter up by the sleeve of his robe to walk next to her so he wouldn’t die from exertion. “I just don’t know what.”

            “I’d tell you to ask her yourself, but she’d probably curse you,” Potter said.

            “Yes, very helpful, James,” she said. She still hadn’t forgotten what he’d said about Avery earlier, but right now, she had more pressing issues to deal with. “It has to be about my brother. That’s the only explanation that makes sense!”

            “But how does she know him?” Remus asked, shifting his bag to his other shoulder and wincing slightly as if he were sore. “You said she was a few years younger than your parents at school, right?”

            “Yeah,” she said, frowning. “But they’ve never mentioned her, besides that letter my mum wrote.”

            “We should break into her office; see if she’s hiding anything,” James mused, raising his eyebrows when Cassie and Remus whirled on him with disapproving looks.

            “No, James,” Remus said firmly. “I’m not having a repeat of third year.”

            Cassie glanced between the two as Black and Peter snickered at some memory. “What happened in third year?”

            “James broke into Binns’ office to change a grade he got on his Statute of Secrecy essay,” Peter explained.

            “A feat that resulted in six weeks’ worth of detentions, and Filch’s hatred for him after he stepped on Mrs. Norris when he got caught,” Black chortled. Cassie shook her head in disbelief.

            “Your level of idiocy is truly astounding,” she said, and James gave her an arrogant smile.

            “At least it keeps things interesting,” he countered, which she had to agree with silently as they entered the Great Hall. The feast had already begun by the time they arrived, and the live, haunting decorations and cheerful atmosphere only served to put her in a fouler mood, especially when Peter mentioned hearing a rumor about Professor Dumbledore having hired a troupe of dancing skeletons to perform during the festivities.  

            They headed for their usual seats at the Gryffindor table. As they passed a group of muttering fourth-years, Cassie saw one girl with platinum hair turn and glare at Black. He gave no indication that he’d seen her, but James shot her a nasty look that made her turn away quickly and whisper to the rest of her friends.

            Deciding that it wasn’t her business, Cassie continued on with them and sat in between Peter and Black, her usually voracious appetite somewhat quelled when she saw an abandoned copy of that day’s Prophet resting nearby, the moving black-and-white photograph on the front depicting a quite heckled Harold Minchum addressing dozens of reporters.  

            Seeing her staring at it, Remus swept the paper away while James began to dish food onto his plate. “Want some sausage casserole, Alderfair?”

            “No, thanks,” she said, letting out a sigh when James didn’t listen to her and instead heaped a large amount of said casserole onto her own plate.

            She spent most of dinner poking at her food, occasionally taking a bite whenever she saw James staring at her, but remained silent while they carried on easy conversation – mostly about Quidditch, as the first game of the season was drawing near.

            When seven o’clock crept closer, she stood up and bid the Marauders farewell, suddenly a bit anxious at the thought of not having their company anymore. Shaking off the feeling, she began to make her way to Professor Carlisle’s classroom, stopping briefly when she heard a familiar voice call her name.

            Looking up, she saw that Alice, Lily, and Marlene had just entered the Great Hall, smiling and looking quite relieved as they rushed up to her.

            “Hey, do you want to eat with us?” Lily asked, placing a hand on her elbow. Cassie shifted awkwardly.

            “Erm, I would, really, but I have that detention…” She trailed off when their smiles faded, and she didn’t miss the look of hurt that flashed across Alice’s face, which only made her feel ten times worse.

            “Next time, then,” Marlene said, giving her a look that she couldn’t read, but Cassie nodded.

            “Yeah. Next time.”

            Led by Marlene, the three girls moved to the table, and she exhaled heavily before trudging out of the Great Hall, mentally preparing herself for the doom that was to come from her detention with Carlisle.

            When she reached the Defense classroom, she knocked on the door first. When there was no answer, she pushed it open cautiously, peering inside. The classroom was empty, but her eyes wandered toward the back, behind the chalkboard, where a small stone staircase led to a door that she presumed was the professor’s office, which was slightly ajar.

            “Er, Professor?” she called, trying to keep the note of resentment out of her voice and failing miserably. “Professor, it’s Cassie Alderfair. Here for detention?”

            When there was still no answer, she sighed and made her way to the stairs, climbing them slowly in case the professor suddenly emerged from her office. But she reached the door without incident and knocked hesitantly. There was a squeak of hinges as it opened further, allowing her access to the office.

            She stepped inside warily and took in her surroundings, annoyed to find that the professor wasn’t even in this room, either. Carlisle’s office, much like her classroom, was devoid of any decoration. The drab stone room boasted only a few wax candles perched in brass brackets, a shabby wardrobe, and another desk cluttered with parchment, quills, and empty ink bottles.

            She came closer to the desk, noticing a few papers that looked much like the ones she had seen the professor working on at the beginning of term: maps, or diagrams, maybe, and her interest piqued. Now, Cassie had been warned by her parents and friends alike that she was too nosy for her own good, but in her mind, where would the world be if people just minded their own business all the time?

            Thus, it was with little reservation and great curiosity that Cassie approached Professor Carlisle’s desk and shuffled through the topmost layer of papers, her eyes taking in black ink lines that ranged from hastily drawn sketches to minutely detailed drawings. It was one of the finer pictures that led Cassie to begin to make sense of what she was seeing, and her brows contracted low when she saw a hand-drawn map depicting the borders of the grounds and the edges of the Forbidden Forest. However, this map went into far greater detail about the forest than she knew, and her finger traced over lines etched into the parchment, some with question marks attached to them, and others scratched out completely, with little notes nearby that she read in interest.

            Route only leads to acromantula nest. Discontinued.

            Path strays too far into centaur territory. Discontinued.

            Cassie frowned at the maps, baffled. What was Professor Carlisle doing in the Forbidden Forest? Though her mind wrote off some excuse about her looking for Dark creatures to show the class, her gut was telling her something much different. She shuffled another paper, where four names were listed in neat writing:

Salazar Slytherin

Helga Hufflepuff

Rowena Ravenclaw?

Godric Gryffindor

            She stared at the paper, beyond confused at this point. Why did the professor have a list of the four Hogwarts founders? And why did the names all look like that? The questions kept coming the longer she looked, until a sudden voice behind her made her jump about a meter in the air.

            “What exactly do you think you are doing?”

            Cassie whirled around, her heart dropping to her toes when she saw Professor Carlisle standing in the doorway, her nostrils flaring and her face whiter than she had ever seen it. The witch’s cold eyes were locked onto the papers in Cassie’s hands. She threw them on the desk guiltily, swallowing hard. “Professor, I—"

            “Get out,” Professor Carlisle snapped, and Cassie flinched at her tone. “I said, get OUT!”

            Too stunned to respond, Cassie ducked around the professor and trampled down the steps, the office door slamming shut behind her. Her heart pulsed madly as she all but fled the room, and she skidded to a stop in the corridor, wondering what had just transpired.

            No answer came to her, but the only thing she could think as she made her way back to Gryffindor Tower was that James had been right in his guess earlier: Professor Carlisle was hiding something.


 

            “Remind me again why I’m awake at such an ungodly hour?”

            “Because,” Remus smirked at Sirius from across the room, buttoning his shirt, “it’s your birthday, and as your mates, we’re seeing to it that you make the most of it.”

            Sirius groaned, flopping back onto his pillows. “An extra hour of sleep wouldn’t kill me, Moony.”

            Remus chuckled, finishing tucking in his shirt and moving on to his tie. “True. But you wouldn’t want to miss your first present now, would you?”

            Sirius gazed suspiciously at his friend. “Depends on what it is.”

            “Oh, trust me, you’re going to like it. James and Peter are setting it up right now.”

            Going off the roguish grin on Remus’s face, Sirius had a feeling that it was either going to be something brilliant or utterly absurd. He leaned more toward the latter in this regard, after remembering his present last year of balloons with his face on them that complimented or insulted whoever was holding them at the time.

            Friday had crept up too fast for his liking. Despite knowing that he was officially sixteen, his birthday was always something he’d rather forget. Being at Hogwarts and having his friends around certainly made it tolerable, and all the attention he received wasn’t that bad, but the inevitable “Happy birthday, you ungrateful son – be glad we haven’t disowned you yet” message that would be arriving with the family owl that morning at breakfast would certainly dampen his spirits, yet again. He wasn’t one to much care about what his parents had to say, but unfortunately, they always knew just where to hit to make it hurt.

            “Are you going to get out of bed or not?” Remus’s exasperated voice cut across his musings, and Sirius sat up with a dramatic sigh, stretching and climbing out of his comfy four-poster.

            “Yes, Mummy,” he said in a falsetto.

             Remus groaned, tugging on his robes.

            “Just meet us in the Great Hall,” he said, picking up his book bag and starting for the door. “And if you try and go back to sleep, I will jinx braids to grow out of your nostrils again.”

            Sirius blanched, recalling that day with a great sense of horror, and he all but fled into the washroom as Remus laughed behind him.

            Thirty minutes later, after he was dressed and groomed into rugged handsomeness (at least, that was how he described himself), he headed for the common room, only to barrel into someone standing at the bottom of the staircase.

            “Ow! Really, Black?”

            Cassie Alderfair was staring at him, disgruntled and rubbing her side where his bag had knocked into her.

            “Sorry, Alderfair,” he said, sort-of meaning it when she waved him off, turning back to the stairs. “Why are you standing here, anyway?”

            “I’m waiting for Remus,” she said. She seemed oddly distracted, fiddling with her hair and biting her lip the whole time, and he frowned.

            “He already left,” he said, gesturing to the portrait hole. She sighed, shaking her head.

            “Naturally,” she grumbled, before giving him a slight nod. “Thanks.”

            “No problem.” He started across the room before he was seized by a reckless impulse, and he turned around to face her again. “Y’know, you can walk with me, if you want.”

            Her dark eyes went wide; even he was taken aback by his offer, though he didn’t show it, keeping his casual countenance while she looked him over.

            “Okay,” she said, shrugging, and he was surprised at how easily she had agreed, given their brief but bitter history. She fell into step beside him as they made their way out into the corridor, and he suddenly floundered for something to say, not quite knowing how to approach her (which was a first for him, and something he did not quite like at all).

            “Er, today’s my birthday,” he blurted out, and immediately cringed when she cast him a mildly amused glance from the corner of her eye.

            “I know,” she said coolly. “Remus told me.”

            “Right.” He nodded, cursing himself for being so stupid. He had never been rendered incoherent by a girl before, but something about her was throwing him off. He still felt some guilt over being such a berk to her before, and he figured that that must be it as they fell into a natural silence, walking side by side to breakfast.

            “Happy birthday, by the way,” she said when they reached the marble staircase. He glanced over to see her giving him a small smile. “Hope it’s a good one for you.”

            Sirius snorted as they began to descend the steps. “My birthdays aren’t exactly things I look forward to.”

            “Oh, right.” She nodded sagely, a small smirk playing on her lips. “I forgot your mates like to embarrass you on them.”

            He laughed unexpectedly at this, and she grinned; usually his family was to blame for his sourness on the day, but he forgot that Cassie knew nothing of his home life, and he found himself suddenly grateful for her ignorance.

            “I think my favorite was second year,” she continued, “when they got all those gnomes from Hagrid’s garden and convinced them to follow you around for the whole day alternating between rude versions of ‘Happy Birthday’ and Bonnie Banshee’s ‘I Don’t Need Amortentia to Love You.’”

            Sirius groaned as she laughed again. “I thought everyone had forgotten about that by now.”

            “Some things never die, Sirius,” she said, and they were too busy laughing to realize that she had just called him by his name for the first time.

            “There he is!” Peter shouted from the entrance to the Great Hall. The blond boy gave Sirius a wicked smile before dashing off to the Gryffindor table, robes streaming behind him.

            “If I need to make a quick escape, will you cover me?” he asked.

            She smiled. “You got it.”

            Bracing himself, Sirius entered the Great Hall and groaned when he saw the Gryffindor table laden with table cloths featuring his head blown up to the size of a small Muggle car, smiling and winking up at the diners as they all turned and laughed.

            Sirius laughed along with the rest of them, his composure easy and relaxed as he began to make his way down the table, nodding and waving to people who called out birthday wishes to him. Most of them were younger girls who instantly blushed and squealed when he acknowledged them, and he brushed his hair out of his face, unable to keep the smile from his lips when he saw his friends waiting for him in their usual seats.

            About halfway to them is when he began to notice a shift in the atmosphere. Suddenly people weren’t calling out to him anymore, instead huddling together and whispering, their hissing voices following him until he looked over at Cassie Alderfair.

           She walked with her head down, looking highly uncomfortable at all the attention she was now receiving, and not just from the Gryffindors. The Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw tables eyed her suspiciously, and the Slytherins jeered at her from across the Hall, tapping their arms suggestively and laughing at her. His eyes flicked in the unbidden direction of his Slytherin brother, and Sirius met Regulus’s eyes almost instantaneously, though his little brother had the sense to glance away and go back to talking to his creepy friends.

            “Ignore them,” Sirius said lowly. He gripped her elbow when she didn’t appear to be listening to him. “Alderfair, hey. They’re going to forget about it in a week, and they’re all a bunch of prats, anyway. They don’t matter.”

            “That’s easy for you to say,” she said miserably. “You don’t have a brother that goes around and tortures innocent Muggles!”

            Sirius cast another look over his shoulder at Regulus, who was now picking at his food in silence.

            “Hopefully not,” he muttered, but she didn’t seem to hear him, instead letting him lead her to a place in between him and James.

            “Like the decorations, Padfoot?” James grinned, highly pleased with himself, and Sirius guessed that he was the ultimate perpetrator behind all of this as he raised his goblet mockingly.

            “I think you have the best taste in this school, Prongs,” he said, pointing out a napkin with a mouse-sized Sirius on it doing cartwheels, and they all snickered.

            The morning post arrived just then. Sirius looked up, a tight ball of dread building in his stomach as the Black family owl swooped toward him, carrying a sealed letter after depositing one for Regulus at the Slytherin table.

            Sirius caught the letter half-heartedly, debating whether he ought to read it at that moment and get it over with, or if he should wait until he was alone in the dormitory at some point. Deciding it would be best to rip off the bandage now, however, he grit his teeth and opened the letter.

Sirius Orion Black –

You are to come home for the Christmas holidays. We have many important matters to discuss regarding this family and your future as a Black heir. Congratulations on reaching sixteen years of age – only one more year until you are free to live amongst those Muggles and Mudbloods you are so keen on associating with.

Orion and Walburga Black

            He snorted, taking out his wand and muttering a short “Incendio.” He watched the flames consume the letter until it was nothing more than ash before he swept the smoking pile onto the floor, scowling.

            “How bad?” James asked carefully, gazing at his friend intently over the rims of his glasses. Sirius shrugged.

            “The same as it always is,” he said, taking a swig of pumpkin juice and trying not to throw something. “’Be home for the holidays, we’re counting down the days until you’re old enough to leave,’ all that rubbish.” He shook his head. “Merlin, if anything I’m the one counting down the days before I can get out of that hellhole.”

            His friends all looked sympathetic, but Cassie was glancing between him and James in confusion, her mouth twisted into a puzzled frown.

            “Erm, was that…your parents?” she asked timidly.

            “Yep. Father Git and Mother Bitch, as I like to call them,” he said, and though her mouth twitched, her expression was understanding.

            “Pure-bloods,” she scoffed, and Sirius smirked before gesturing to James.

            “Not all of them are like that, thank Merlin,” he said. “James’s parents are a blessing; more like a mum and dad to me than my own.”

            “It’s true,” James said. “My mum even treats him like the favorite son.”

            “Family is strange,” Cassie said, and they all nodded in agreement.

            “Speaking of,” Remus said, clearing his throat and looking to Cassie. He dropped his voice. “Have your parents mentioned anything about your brother?”

            Now it was Cassie’s turn to look highly uncomfortable. She shifted in her seat, her leg brushing Sirius’s, and he could feel it bouncing up and down as she shook her head.

            “They haven’t said anything,” she said. “The last communication I had with them was on my birthday.” She let out a derisive snort then. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they were just too busy planning a party in his honor to see how I’m taking it, though.”

            There was a tense pause before she sighed and raked her hair out of her face. “Sorry. I guess I’m not used to talking about it yet.”

            Remus waved off her apology. “Don’t worry about it. We’re here for you if you need anything, remember that.”

            He elbowed Peter in the side at this, and the blond boy choked on his porridge, his face going bright red. “Oi! I wa’ nodding!”

            She gave them all a soft smile. “Thanks, really. You lot didn’t have to look out for me, but…I’m glad we made that alliance.”

            James looked as if she had just announced the birth of his firstborn child, and he positively beamed at her before Remus told him to shove off with the creepy smile.

            As they were leaving the Great Hall twenty minutes later, heading for Charms, Sirius felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned to see his brother standing there nervously.

            “Regulus,” he said cordially, raising a brow. “What do you want?”

            “A word,” Regulus replied, just as coolly, and his face fell into the perfected Black mask, haughty and distinguished.

            Sirius looked over his shoulder to where the others were standing and saw them staring, the three Marauders wary and Cassie curious, her eyes darting back and forth between the two. Sirius waved them on, and James took Cassie’s arm, leading her and the rest away before he turned back to his brother.

            “Go on, then,” Sirius said, motioning to him. “Speak.”

            Regulus’s eyes – a darker grey than Sirius’s – narrowed at his tone, but he jerked his chin to an alcove opposite the Great Hall. Sirius followed, betting all the loose Sickles in his robes that he didn’t want any of his Slytherin mates to see him talking to his blood traitor brother.

            They stopped in the alcove, and Regulus clasped his hands behind his back, inhaling, while Sirius lounged against the wall behind him, crossing his arms and eyeing his brother haughtily.

            “I wanted to wish you a happy birthday,” Regulus said finally. The words sounded forced, though both of Sirius’s brows rose now.

            “Thanks, Reg,” he said, “but you know you could’ve said that out there and gotten it over with in two seconds, yeah?”

            Regulus scowled. “Typical,” he muttered. “Every time I say something to you, you just act like you can’t even be bothered.”

            “Be glad I’m even speaking to you at all,” Sirius sneered. “I wouldn’t want to ignore Mummy’s favorite son and have him get upset.”

            “Piss off,” Regulus snapped, his face going red.

            Sirius smirked, raising his hands.

            “Whatever you say, Reg,” he replied. “But thanks for the birthday wishes. Don’t let Mum know you said it, though.”

            He backed out of the alcove and began to walk away, but Regulus’s voice stopped him again.

            “Watch out for Alderfair, y’hear?” he said. Sirius turned around slowly, seeing Regulus staring at him intently. “That thing about her brother has stirred quite the excitement with the Slytherins, and I know how protective you Gryffindors are.”

            Sirius gave him a slight nod, tucking that information away carefully in his mind. “Will do. See you, Reg.”

            Regulus nodded back. “See you, Sirius.”

            And just like that, the two brothers separated, like nothing had ever happened.


 

            “No.”

            “Alderfair, listen—"

            “Nope.”

            “Cassie, please—"

            “Ask me again.”

            James was on his knees in front of her armchair in the common room later that night, but she kept her eyes on the page she was reading in The Standard Book of Spells: Grade 5, trying not to let her obvious glee at having James Potter begging at her feet show.

            The bespectacled boy sighed, hazel eyes wide and beseeching as he said in his most dramatic voice, “Cassiopeia Alderfair, will you accompany the Marauders to the joint birthday party we are having tonight?”

            Cassie smiled sweetly. “No.”

            “But you just said to ask you again!” James got to his feet, now looking thoroughly annoyed, and she smirked up at him.

            “True, but I didn’t say I would say yes,” she countered.

            “But it can’t be a joint birthday party if one part of the ‘joint’ isn’t even there!” he cried in exasperation.

             Cassie closed her book calmly, sighing. “If I said yes…” She held up a finger when he opened his mouth. “What would we do?”

            “No spoiling the surprise,” he said, winking, and she groaned, throwing up her hands.

            “Oh, just go with him already,” a prickly seventh-year girl next to her said. She glared at them from where she was sat writing an essay. “You two are giving me a headache.”

            Cassie blushed, but James just grinned, giving the girl a mocking bow. “As you wish, m’lady.”

            The girl rolled her eyes, but her cheeks were the faintest hint of rosy, and James smirked at Cassie before whisking her out of the common room.

            “So, where’s this party at?” she asked when they started down the corridor.

             He wrinkled his nose at her. “Must you be so nosy?”

            “Yes, actually.”

            James sighed. “Just wait a few more minutes.”

            It turned out that the party was being held in the kitchens, and when they entered through the pear door, they were greeted by the other Marauders, who turned and raised bottles of butterbeer at them.

            “You made it!” Peter exclaimed, his eyes bright. “And you convinced Cassie to come!”

            “It was more begging than convincing,” she said, shrugging when James laughed. “But yeah, I’m here.”

            “Come join the party!” Sirius said, patting the seat on the floor next to him. She sat down, immediately reaching for the platter of chips set up in the middle of their circle while Remus opened a butterbeer and handed it to her.

            “Happy birthday to our friends, Sirius and Cassie!” he said. “May this year bring them happiness, and whatever other barmy shit is said in these things.”   

            Cassie laughed and clinked her bottle with the rest of theirs in a toast before downing the foamy, warm liquid, her insides going fuzzy and her fingertips hot.

            “All right, Exploding Snap or Gobstones?” Peter asked. “I personally vote for Snap.”

            “I second that,” James said, raising his hand.

            “No way, Gobstones!” Remus said, affronted, and Sirius nodded. “Yeah, Gobstones! We play Snap too much.”

            “Cassie?” Peter looked to her with hopeful eyes. “Be the tiebreaker here.”

            “Um…neither,” she said, and shrugged when all the boys looked at her strangely. “What? Gobstones is boring, and I’ve never bothered to play Snap.”

            “Then there’s our answer!” James said, clearing the floor of their food and drinks while Peter got out the deck of cards. “Snap it is; Sirius, bust out the firewhiskey for this one.”

            Even Remus and Sirius agreed to play, but only because they were convinced that the cards were going to explode in her face the most, as Remus had told her with no shame.

            After three hours, countless games of Snap (Remus’s prediction had proved true, and she now had the scent of ashes clogged in her nose from losing so much), more food than she thought possible, and three shots of firewhiskey (which she knew she was going to regret later – she was terrible at holding her liquor), the house-elves brought them an extravagant birthday cake, with sixteen candles on each side so she and Sirius could blow them out. Remus ended up having to light them, as James was too drunk to use his wand properly and had almost torched Peter, and after they all sang a horribly out of tune and off-key ‘Happy Birthday’, the two blew out their candles.

           She didn’t know what Sirius had wished for, or if he had even wished at all, but as she had closed her eyes and blew, she thought, I wish this moment here was my life. Laughter, and friends, and joy…I want this every day.

            The party began to wind down after that. Sirius had taken the leftover firewhiskey and stumbled out of the kitchens, while James drew on the unconscious Peter’s face, giggling like a small girl as he spelled out the word ‘PRAT’ on his forehead, though the ‘r’ had come out backward. Remus sat by the fireplace, a cup of coffee in his hands, and Cassie made her way over to him, trying not to show just how badly a mere three shots affected her as she sat beside him.

            “Thank you and your mates for being terribly persistent and forcing me to come,” she said, throwing her arms around his neck and smushing his cheek against hers.

            She felt him grin as he chuckled, patting her back lightly. “You’re welcome.”

            She suddenly yawned, and she got back to her feet, stretching. “Bed sounds nice. I’m going to go to sleep.”

            “You need any help getting there?” he asked amusedly when she swayed.

            She made a face. “I can manage.”

            “All right, Cassie,” he said, shaking his head. “G’night. Be careful.”

            “Yes, sir.” She saluted before leaving the kitchens, starting up the stairs that would take her to the ground floor but stopping when she nearly tripped over something. “What the – Black?”

            She could just make out the boy’s silhouette in the faint light, and the strong smell of firewhiskey burned her nostrils as he shifted on the stone steps. “Alderfair?”

            His voice was thick, but not from the alcohol. She frowned. “What are you doing?”

            He took another drink from the bottle, the liquid sloshing around before he said, “Drowning my sorrows.”

            “And why is that?”

            He tilted his head up to look at her, and as her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she saw his silvery gaze glittering and his mouth skewed in a smirk. “My family hates me, I hate them, and this is the fifth birthday I’ve had in a row that I’m reminded of that sorry little fact.”

            His voice was bitter and angry, and Cassie’s heart twinged, not even realizing any of this until now. She knew that he had a brother, and she assumed that it had been the boy who wanted to talk to him that morning, but she had never known how…lonely he was. He was like gravity, and the Marauders were spinning in his orbit, but outside of Hogwarts she had no idea what his life was like – whether he was a planet falling out of line with the sun, or just another cold point of a star in the sky, wandering and alone, and that quite bothered her.

            She climbed up a few of the steps until she was across from him and let her back slide down the wall, curling her knees to her chest so he would have leg room. She could feel him staring at her and she looked up, meeting his eyes through the dark, wide and disbelieving.

            “Er…what is this?” he asked.

            She lifted her shoulders slightly before dropping them, not really understanding why she was doing this either, but somehow feeling that it was the right thing to do.

            “Nobody should have to be alone on their birthday,” she said simply. “So…I’m gonna stay with you until you tell me to sod off.”

            He didn’t reply. She thought he was just going to get up and walk away, but after a few wavering seconds, he shifted into a more comfortable position, his shoe resting just shy of her own as they sat there together in the dim basements.

            No other word was spoken that night, but there was no need. They could feel the sudden shift as easily as one drawing back the curtains and allowing light to shine in an otherwise dark room. And from that moment on, Cassie Alderfair and Sirius Black could safely say that they were friends.   

Chapter Text

            The Sunday following the joint birthday party saw Cassie perched in an uncomfortable position on her bed, struggling to stay awake through the reading Professor McGonagall had assigned them on the Inanimatus Conjurus Spell. Weak sunlight filtered through the clouds outside, playing shadows across the pages of her copy of Intermediate Transfiguration, and finally, she snapped her book shut with a groan, untangling her limbs from her former seating position and lying flat on her back, staring at the red canopy above her.

            Boredom was making her restless, and she wished Lily, Alice, and Marlene would come back from whatever they were doing and save her from reading another word of Emeric Switch’s borderline obsession with Transfiguration. She had barely seen them since Friday night, before her detention with Professor Carlisle, and she couldn’t help but feel a little miffed that they kept running off without her. 

            Thinking of her detention led her thoughts back to that night, and her mind turned once again to the papers she had seen in the professor’s office. The maps and the list of the Four Founders were gnawing at her brain, poking at her meddlesome nature with a long stick, and the more she mulled it over, the more she was starting to like James’s idea of breaking in and seeing what she was hiding.

            You can’t, an insistent voice in her head chided. What if you were caught? You’re already on thin ice with her, and think about what your parents would say if you got expelled for doing such a thing!

            But I know she’s hiding something! her stubborn half persisted. I just have to find proof!

            Leave it alone!

            Cassie sighed and rubbed her hands over her face, immensely thankful that Marlene had backed off on the makeup thing, as she quite enjoyed not having to worry about smearing it or accidentally wiping it off.

            Deciding that sitting in her dormitory alone wasn’t much fun, she traipsed down the stairs into the common room, her eyes searching for a familiar sight of red waves, blonde curls, or cropped brown hair. She stifled her disappointment when she saw none of those, but perked back up when she noticed someone else.

            “Afternoon, gentlemen,” she said when she approached the Marauders sitting in their fireplace seats.

            “Hey, Cass,” Remus returned, shifting on the couch to make room for her between him and Peter.

            She sat down, copying Sirius and putting her feet up on the table. James made a rasping, squeaking noise in greeting, and she turned to him, raising her brows.

            “Sorry, James, what was that? I don’t speak Tea Kettle,” she said wryly. The others snickered as he scowled, sinking lower in his armchair and glowering into the hearth.

            “He screamed himself hoarse at practice this morning,” Sirius explained from where he was slouched in his chair too, head tilted back and eyes closed in clear exhaustion. “Poor bloke sounds like a mouse getting trod on now.”

            “Don’t let Lily hear him, then,” she said, smirking when James cast her a sharp look. “She’s scared of mice – she might hex him into cheese or something.”

            James opened his mouth to retort something, but when all that came out was a puff of air, he pursed his lips and looked away again, crossing his arms and pouting like a child.

            “So was practice really that bad, or is he just being overdramatic?” she asked, turning back to Sirius. But he didn’t answer, already asleep in his seat.

           Her gaze roved over his face; the fluttering eyelids and serene expression. He looked so much more peaceful in his sleep, more…open. His dark hair spilled over his forehead and tickled his neck, just brushing the tops of his shoulders, and she took in the smooth olive skin of his exposed throat, traveling to the collar of his Quidditch robes, which were slightly undone at the top.

            She nearly jumped when Remus cleared his throat. She tore her eyes away from Sirius, praying to Merlin that she wasn’t red while simultaneously cursing herself for staring so openly. It was hard to deny Sirius’s obvious looks, but she suddenly felt like the girls who would crowd around him and coo their compliments and pleasure, and the thought made her want to vomit.

            “Apparently Weatherly and James got into it at practice,” Remus said, speaking for the unconscious Sirius and the sulking James. She tried to ignore the spark of mischief in his eyes after noticing her blush. “Weatherly was being daft, as per usual; how that bloke ever became Captain is beyond me.”

            James squeaked in agreement, and Cassie nodded, now caught up to speed. “I see.”

            “I think the stress is getting to them,” Peter said, lowering his voice and gesturing to the other two boys. “The first match is this Saturday, and I’ve heard Ravenclaw put together a solid team this year.”

            Cassie wrinkled her nose. “Please, Aubrey may be top of the sixth-year class, but he couldn’t tell the difference between a Quaffle and the Snitch.”

            Peter nodded sagely and Remus snorted. James glanced over at her with newfound admiration at the statement.

            “You follow the House matches?” he asked, sounding like he had lived in a chimney all his life. Cassie scoffed.

            “I only know Aubrey’s the Ravenclaw Captain because Marlene went out with him last year, and her little brother’s on the team,” she said, quirking her brow. “And everyone’s been talking about this match since the term started, so no points for me in the Quidditch category. Sorry.”

            Peter looked as if she had insulted his mum, and James seemed, if possible, even more upset, turning back to the fireplace and positively brooding. Remus snorted again, thumbing through the pages of the book he held in his hands, but Sirius remained asleep, though his head was now lolling on his shoulder and snores were beginning to emanate from his open mouth.

            “Oi, this isn’t your dormitory,” Cassie said, kicking his foot lightly to startle him awake. He sat up and glared at her. “You look exhausted; go sleep in an actual bed.”

            “I am perfectly content here, thank you,” he said, throwing his legs over the opposite arm of the chair and giving her a petulant look.

            She rolled her eyes, her retort lost when her gaze landed on something else. “Hey, guys!”

            She leaped to her feet when she saw her three friends emerge from the portrait hole, and they stopped walking as she went over to meet them, beaming.

            Marlene whispered something in Lily’s ear as she approached, and she watched in confusion as the blonde girl scurried away up the stairs to the girls’ dormitories, not once glancing Cassie’s way. Shrugging off her retreat, figuring she had homework to catch up on (after all, Mar was the queen of procrastination), Cassie bounced up to Lily and Alice.

            “Where have you all been?” she said, reverting to her dramatic, whiny voice. “I’ve been dying without you here.”

            Alice only gave her a forced smile, but she guessed Lily was the source of her unease, for the redhead had her Prefect manner perfectly in place, disapproving frown pulling down her lips and her green eyes sharp and flaring.

            “What’s wrong, Lils?” she asked. “Catch anymore second-years throwing Dungbombs down the corridors?”

            If possible, Lily’s face got even darker at the joke.

            Cassie looked between Lily and Alice, her smile fading as confusion began to take hold of her. “Seriously, what’s up with you lot?”

            Lily opened her mouth to speak, but Cassie internally groaned when Sirius spoke directly behind her.

            “All right, Evans?” he said. Cassie turned to see him smirking at the Prefect mockingly and tried to block out how fantastically tousled he looked right then, coupled with his signature smirk that made first-years melt into goo. She mentally slapped herself, wondering what in the bloody hell was getting into her that day, but she was spared the agony of reflecting on his looks when Lily replied.

            “Go away, Black,” she said, and Cassie’s brows rose at her harsh tone; though Sirius was James’s closest mate, she usually treated him with a slightly warmer attitude than the latter, yet now his name held as much venom as when she spat Potter.

            Sirius looked to Cassie incredulously before turning his gaze back on Lily. “Whatever it was that happened, I swear James and I weren’t involved.”

            Lily glared, her eyes turning to green slits, and Cassie nudged the smirking boy with her elbow. “Sirius, I advise you to walk away now.”

            Clearly sensing danger, he nodded and backed away, patting Cassie’s shoulder bracingly. “I’ll be sleeping if anyone needs me.”

            He hurried away from the trio as quickly as he could without breaking the languid grace of his stride, and when his Quidditch robes rounded the corner of the boys’ staircase, Lily whirled on her accusingly.

            “Since when do you call him ‘Sirius?’” she said, her voice shrill.

           Cassie blinked, trying to absorb what was suddenly happening and looking to Alice for support. The other girl was no help, however, as she had opted to stare at her shoes, and so she looked back to Lily, completely baffled.

            “Since when do you care what I call him?” she asked.

            Lily’s face glowed red.

            “Because Sirius Black isn’t your friend, Cassie!” she snapped. “We are, though it seems as if you’ve forgotten that as of late!”

            “What are you—" Oh. “You think I’ve been avoiding you?”

            Lily let out a frustrated noise. “Of course we think that, Cass! As soon as the news about your brother got out, you’ve completely ditched us for them! Sneaking off to the kitchens, returning to the dormitory at the crack of dawn, smelling like firewhiskey – I mean, what has happened to you? Is this some sort of coping mechanism, throwing caution to the wind and running around with troublemakers who will place the blame on you as soon as you get caught?”

            “They wouldn’t do that to me,” she denied immediately, though a spike of uncertainty went through her as she said it. Lily just looked at Cassie with utter disappointment.

            “You know you can talk to us, Cassie,” she said, much more quietly. “We’ve been waiting for you to open up to us this whole time.”

            “See, that’s the thing, Lily,” she said, suddenly angry. “I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to hear about it, or see another damned article in the Prophet, or even think about it. This isn’t something that a late night girls’ talk can fix! And they get that – the boys, they take my mind off it, and that is me coping with it!”

            “Whatever, Cassie,” Lily said, backing away and shaking her head. “Save the excuses. You can hang out with them if you want – I won’t stop you.”

            She stalked away to the staircase, leaving her speechless. She stared at Alice, winded.

            The other girl just shook her head. “I’m sorry, Cassie. I just—" She broke off, biting her lip before saying “I dunno” and following Lily up the stairs.

            After standing for a few seconds in shock, she turned to the staircases and darted up the boy’s, leaving behind the curious eyes in the common room that had followed the argument. She made her way to the room Remus had led her to not that long ago, finding it and opening the door quickly and slipping inside.

            “Bloody hell!” Sirius jumped in his bed when she slammed the door shut, and she looked up to see him lying in his four-poster, covers pulled to his chin as he stared at her in alarm.

            “Er, in any other circumstance, I would love a girl to come barging into my room while I’m lying half-naked in bed and looking like she wanted to punch something, but…” He trailed off when she glared at him, and he cleared his throat before asking, “What happened?”

            “I don’t want to talk about it,” she growled, throwing herself on top of Remus’s bed and moving his things aside to make room for her body. She yanked off her shoes and turned on her side, facing Sirius. He looked back to her quizzically, though thankfully had enough sense not to press.

            “Whatever you say.” He shrugged and got into a more comfortable position under the sheets, closing his eyes and falling back to sleep in an instant.

            Cassie huffed, punching Remus’s pillow into a firmer shape before closing her own eyes, willing herself to calm down. If she wasn’t welcome in her own dorm at the moment, then the Marauders’ would have to do.


 

            Lunch was tense, to put it mildly.

            After James, Remus, and Peter had come up to the dormitory (Remus nearly screaming like a girl when he mistook Cassie for his clutter and attempted to sit on her), James and Sirius had gone into the washroom to shower (winking at Cassie the entire time and telling lewd jokes), and she’d climbed out of Remus’s bed to sit on the floor with him and Peter for a game of Snap before they headed down to the Great Hall.

            She had calmed down a bit since earlier and now relayed her and Lily’s spat to Remus and Peter, gesticulating wildly the more agitated she got before having to throw down her cards, as they had begun to smoke warningly in her hands.

            “I mean, what does she expect me to do?” Cassie said, watching as Peter punched the air silently after winning the round from Remus. (Peter, as it turned out, was the best at Snap, which explained why he always wanted to play and kept a deck of cards on him at all times.) “Am I supposed to be moping around depressingly, casting anxious looks out my window anytime it rains? Do I have to act like I’m Moaning Myrtle for her to see that I’m ‘trying to cope?’”

            “She doesn’t expect those things from you, Cassie,” Remus said, grudgingly fishing in his pocket and handing over a chunk of chocolate to the gleeful Peter. “From what you said, I think she’s just hurt that you’re choosing to spend time with us rather than her and the others.”

            “Well, she can get over it,” she grumbled. “It’s not like I’m doing anything wrong.”

            “Oi, Alderfair!” Sirius shouted from the other side of the washroom door. “Cover your eyes! We’re coming out!”

            “About time!” she said, taking the proffered pillow from Remus and covering her face with it. “I always thought you and James would make a cute couple.”

            Sirius whistled from inside the washroom, and there was a suspicious slapping sound that elicited laughs, before the door clicked open and she could hear the two boys begin to dress. She sensed Peter get to his feet and walk over to his trunk, but she jumped when she felt Remus’s breath right on her ear.

            “Do I need to keep an eye on you and make sure you don’t peek?” he teased.

Cassie felt her face grow warm, and not just from the pillow.

            “Ew, Remus!” she complained. “Why would I do that? That’s creepy.”

            He snorted, a puff of hot air on her ear, and shivers raced down her arms. “I saw you staring at Sirius earlier, and don’t deny it.” She could practically feel his smug grin. “Seems like the Great Cassie Alderfair isn’t immune to him, either.”

            “Oh, go boil your head, Remus!” she snapped, removing the pillow to give him a poisonous glare before remembering why it was over her face a second too late.

            “Merlin’s bollocks!” Sirius yelped. James let out a noise that resembled a shrieking bird, but the damage was already done. Thank Morgana and her lucky stars that they at least had knickers on, but the full effect of the scantily clothed James Potter and Sirius Black was now forever seared into Cassie’s mind as she fell back, Remus smothering her again with the pillow as the dormitory roared with laughter.

            “Remus, end my suffering!” she moaned, but all she got as a reply was Remus’s howling laughter. “I never want to see that much of them again!”

            Although, as she reflected on the incident fifteen minutes later when they were walking to the Great Hall, the experience had not been entirely unpleasant. James and Sirius were good-looking, and fit from all that Quidditch, and their physiques had portrayed that quite nicely, in her opinion (not that she would ever tell them that, of course).

            They had just begun to descend the marble staircase when a voice called out, “Potter!” Cassie turned to see one of Marlene’s many exes, Bertram Aubrey, approaching them from the opposite corridor, where she knew the direction of Ravenclaw Tower to be.

            “Aubrey,” James said as coolly as he could with his shot voice, pausing on the stairs, so people had to swerve around them to get past. “What’s up?”

            “I need you to pass on a message to Weatherly,” the Ravenclaw Quidditch Captain said, his voice confident and unwavering as he faced James squarely, though not unkindly. “Tell him I’m booking the pitch Thursday night, but he can have Friday morning if he wants.”

            “All right,” James said. “I’ll tell him.”

            Aubrey grinned, clapping him on the shoulder before turning his eyes to the rest of them. He started when he met Cassie’s gaze. “You’re one of Marley’s friends, right?”

            “Also the Gryffindor with a Death Eater brother, but thanks for not dwelling on that part,” she said, giving him a small wave, and to her surprise he laughed.

            “Sorry,” he said, chuckling, “I’m not laughing at you. I’d just forgotten how blunt you are.”

            Her brows rose at this, but her face flushed slightly as he kept grinning at her. “Forgive me if I don’t recall ever speaking to you; you and Mar were always very preoccupied anytime I was around.”

            He chuckled again, running a hand through his blond hair, which seemed perfectly styled by the wind. She grimaced nervously.

            “I think the one time we did you told me I had a pumpkin juice stain on my tie,” he said. “You asked me if tie-stains were now in fashion, and that you’d have to make a note to your mother so she could include it in her magazine.” Cassie gaped when she remembered the incident, which had been a good seven months ago. Aubrey kept grinning. “Marley reckons you were pissed at her for spending so much time with me; kept telling me that you were a lot nicer than that, but I thought it was hilarious.”

            “I forgot about that,” she said, half-quizzical, half-embarrassed. “How did you remember?”

            He shrugged, opening his mouth to answer, before Remus let out a particularly large and painfully fake sneeze.

            “Whew, sorry,” Remus said, rubbing his nose theatrically. “All this climate change going on…must be something in the air…”

            “Some soup will fix you right up, mate,” Sirius said, clapping Remus on the back before staring pointedly at Aubrey. “If you don’t mind…”

            “Of course,” the Ravenclaw said gracefully. “I’ll leave you to your meal. Don’t forget to pass on my message to Weatherly, Potter, Black.” He inclined his head to the two boys in turn before starting back up the staircase. “Nice chatting with you, Cassie!”

            When he had disappeared back up the staircase, she turned to Remus, raising a brow, but Sirius was already ushering him to the Great Hall with dramatic commentary on the sandy-haired boy’s critical condition and crippling sinuses that made people edge out of the way. Rolling her eyes, she followed after them with James and Peter, who seemed to be communicating silently behind her back. She grit her teeth, not surprised in the least if James had now taken it upon himself to chat with Aubrey as he had done Avery. The thought made her scowl, and she remained silent as they entered the Great Hall, heading for the table and passing Lily, Alice, and Marlene in their usual spots – her usual spot.

            The three girls acted as if they were unaware of her presence as she slipped by them, but from the frowns on their faces and their stiff posture, she knew that they had seen her with the Marauders, and they were displeased.

            Setting her jaw, she sat down with the boys and immediately began tossing food onto her plate, keeping her eyes on her cold cut so they wouldn’t stray to where Lily sat. She was thoroughly exasperated by the redhead’s behavior in regards to the Marauders and her new association with them, but she wasn’t stressed about the ordeal. Lily’s friendship with her was stronger than her hatred of the Marauders, and she would soon see that and apologize for treating Cassie so harshly.

            “Is it just me, or does Snivellus look greasier than usual today?” James rasped, his eyes narrowed past Cassie’s shoulder. She turned to see Severus Snape slinking into the Hall and taking a seat next to Kanin Mulciber at the Slytherin table.

            In truth, Cassie couldn’t tell much of a difference; Snape was always greasy and dour, though she had tried to keep her opinions on him neutral since he and Lily were such good friends. She knew of the silent (and sometimes not-so-silent) war raging between the boy and the Marauders that spanned back to their first year, but she had no idea what had made them hate each other so much, and now she couldn’t help her curiosity.

            “What is it with you lot and him, anyway?” she asked, turning back to face James and Sirius. “Why do you hate him so much?”

            “Because he’s a slimy Slytherin git,” Sirius said, as if that explained everything.

            “Every Slytherin is a slimy git,” she said, recalling Defense last week and Mulciber’s note to her. “But what makes him so special?”

            “He’s also interested in the Dark Arts,” James said, looking to her pointedly. “A little too interested, if you get what I mean.”

            “Noted,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Is that it? That’s not a lot of reasons.”

            The Marauders exchanged a dark look, before Sirius said, “Let’s just say that he doesn’t know how to keep his abnormally long nose out of our private business.”

            “And what kind of business is that?”

            “Kind that you’re not privy to,” he replied sweetly, smirking at her.

            “You’re no fun,” she complained, but all she received was a wink from him before their discussion returned to the upcoming match.

            Cassie ate her sandwich slowly, her thoughts wandering. So much had already happened this year, it seemed, and the term was little more than halfway through. She didn’t know how well she could take it if another Bludger of tragic news was beat at her head, knocking her world off its axis again, and she really didn’t want to find out. But Professor Carlisle’s mysterious maps and lists wouldn’t leave her alone, until finally she couldn’t hold it in any longer.

            “Professor Carlisle is hiding something,” she announced, cutting off Peter’s ramblings of team stats. They all stopped and stared at her, dumbfounded.

            “Didn’t I say that last week?” James said.

            She nodded, abandoning her sandwich and leaning closer, lowering her voice. “Yes, you did, but I have proof,” she whispered. “If I can get my hands on it,” she added as an afterthought.

            The four boys exchanged a glance again.

            “All right, I’ll bite,” Sirius said. “What did you find?”

            “Maps of hidden trails in the Forbidden Forest,” she said. “I think she’s looking for something in there.”

            “That could be anything,” Remus pointed out. “She could just be searching for some creature to show the class.”

            “I thought that, too,” she said, “but I found something else that makes me think that that isn’t the case.”

            “You’re killing us with the suspense, Princess,” James moaned. “Just spit it out.”

            She shot him an annoyed look. “I’m getting there. The other thing I found was a list of the Four Founders, but it was so strange. Next to Salazar Slytherin’s and Helga Hufflepuff’s names she had written ‘found,’ Rowena Ravenclaw’s name had a question mark, and Godric Gryffindor’s was bolded. Doesn’t that seem odd to anyone else?”

            “I dunno,” Sirius said slowly. “Sounds to me like she’s just really interested in the Founders.”

            “I don’t think so,” she said, shaking her head. “You didn’t see the list – I think she’s trying to find something connected to each of the Founders, but I can’t know for sure. Not unless I find something else in her office that proves my theory.”

            “Cassie, that may not be the best idea,” Remus said, frowning. “That list could mean anything, and it sounds harmless to me.”

            “I agree with Moony,” Sirius said. “I think you’re just overanalyzing things because you don’t like the witch – not saying that you should,” he added hastily when she threw him a glare.

            “Remus and Sirius are right,” Peter said, looking back to her apologetically. “It sounds like nothing, and you shouldn’t risk your neck over it.”

            Cassie swallowed back her disappointment, taking a sip of her pumpkin juice before nodding. “All right, fine,” she conceded. “I won’t do anything. But if something else comes up…”

            The others nodded, seemingly relieved. She took another bite of her sandwich, only looking up when she felt James’s eyes trained on her. He gave her a pointed look, and after pausing to decipher it, she nodded and went back to her meal, silently understanding what he had meant: we need to talk.

            When they’d finished eating, Remus drifted off to the library, saying he needed to study for some Ancient Runes exam coming up, and Peter followed after, asking Remus if he could proofread his Transfiguration essay. Sirius left for the common room, presumably to go back to sleep, leaving just her and James.

            “Okay, spill,” she said as they exited the Great Hall. Her eyes drifted to her normal seat with the girls as they passed, but to her relief and disappointment, they had already gone. She and James stopped in an alcove in the Entrance Hall, out of sight of the students streaming back to their common rooms.

            “I think the map and the list of the Founders is sketchy, too,” he said. “There’s definitely something off about Carlisle, and I agree that we should find out what.”

            “So, you’re going to help me?” she asked.

            “As soon as we have a bit more information,” he said, holding up his hand. “I don’t want to go in there blind.”

            “Then we’ll just have to keep an eye on her,” she said.

            He grinned, the same look of mischief lighting up his face as it did whenever he pulled off an exceedingly extravagant prank.

            “I guess so,” he said, and they shook on it.

            “Oh, and Cassie,” he said before they ventured out of the alcove. She stopped and faced him questioningly. He looked sheepish, running a hand through his hair before saying, “I’m sorry about the Avery thing. I was just trying to look out for you, y’know?”

            She quirked her lips at him in a wry grin. “I know. I’m sorry for jumping down your throat about it. But I can look out for myself too, yeah?”

            “Yeah.” He nodded, before seeing something over her shoulder and groaning. “There’s Weatherly. I guess I should pass on Aubrey’s message.”

            Cassie grimaced, turning to see the broad-shouldered Gryffindor Captain lumbering out of the Great Hall, his rock-like face set into a scowl as he headed up the marble staircase.

            “Best of luck,” she said, patting his arm, and he winced before following Weatherly up the stairs.

            She emerged from the alcove to hear two piercing giggles echo around the Entrance Hall, and she internally groaned when she saw Mary MacDonald and Dorcas Meadowes approaching her, predatory smiles on their glossy lips.

            “I think you might have to take back your bet on Lupin, Dor,” Mary said gleefully, staring at Cassie as if she were a bug she would desperately like to step on. “Seems like the Gryffin-slag is shacking up with Potter!”

            This sent the Ravenclaw girls into a new fit of shrill giggles. Cassie just stared at them coldly.

            “Of course, you’re so right, MacDonald!” she said sarcastically, trying to match the pitch of her voice to theirs. “I mean, Lupin was last week, but Potter…well, they say it’s good to have variety, right?”

            She covered her mouth as she laughed as high as she could, and she felt a sense of smugness as the two girls gazed at her, dumbstruck.

            “Adieu,” she sang, wiggling her fingers and starting up the stairs. She heard them whispering behind her, but she couldn’t find it in her to care. Between rumors about her being a slag, or having everyone talk about the crimes of her brother, she’d choose being a slag any day.


 

            The day of the match dawned clear and cold, and Cassie made sure to bundle up before heading down to breakfast. The other girls in the dorm were already gone, but this past week had become a sort of routine for her, in the sense that she never saw them until they went to bed in the evening. Lily had yet to apologize for the argument, and Cassie had told herself that she would be just as distant from the girls as they were to her unless she received some sort of apology.

            This had left her to hang around the Marauders all week, which only seemed to add more fuel to the fire, but what else was she supposed to do? She enjoyed their company (when they weren’t being immature berks), and she certainly wasn’t going to be alone until she and the girls made up, which made the situation halt at an impasse for the time being.

            She sat down with the Marauders in the Great Hall, her cheery greeting quelled by the somber atmosphere. She looked 'round at them all, frowning. “What’s gotten into you lot?”

            “Shh!” Peter hissed, waving her off frantically. “We only just got James to shut up about the match!”           

            At this, James scowled, though Cassie noted that he seemed very pale. “Stuff it, Wormtail.”

            “James, you need to eat something,” Remus said, gesturing to the untouched porridge in front of the boy. “You too, Sirius.”

            Sirius, despite looking as haughty and cool as ever, had only been taking small sips of gillywater. He seemed his normal, arrogant self, but Cassie could tell he was tense by the coiled muscles in his shoulders.  

            “’M not hungry,” James mumbled, but he forced down a bite all the same, looking as if he were about to be sick.

            “James, how are you possibly nervous?” Cassie asked, pointing her bacon at him. “You’ve been on the team since our second year; surely you’re used to the pre-game jitters by now?”

            “I am!” he said, closing his eyes as if in pain. “But Weatherly is a complete duffer, and our team is terrible!”

            “Oi, give us some credit,” Sirius said. “At least we’re not Hufflepuff.”

            “Well, if it’s any consolation, I believe that we can win,” she said bracingly. “Just give it your all, and whatever happens, happens.”

            “She has a point,” Remus agreed, and she looked to him fondly, pretending to faint. He only rolled his eyes in return. “Y’know, Cassie, sometimes I think that you have an ego as big as James and Sirius.”

            “Mine is far bigger than theirs,” she assured, smirking. “I’m just not an arrogant idiot about it.”

            The comment launched an argument between the five over whose ego was biggest. Fortunately, it seemed to loosen some of the strain on James and Sirius, for they looked considerably better ten minutes later when they headed to the pitch to change and prepare for that morning’s match.

            Remus, Peter, and Cassie took their time following them, and it wasn’t until they reached the doors of the Entrance Hall that Cassie realized she was missing her red and gold scarf.

            “Oh, bollocks,” she grumbled, already feeling a hint of the biting winter chill and knowing that she would not last long out in the stands in this weather. “I’ll catch up to you in a few; I’m going to nip back to the dorm and grab my scarf.”

            The two boys promised to save her a seat, and she headed back to Gryffindor Tower while they made their way to the pitch, many other students beginning to follow them as they finished their breakfast.

            Several minutes later, Cassie found herself back in the Entrance Hall, her scarf wound tightly 'round her neck. She was about to exit the castle when two figures caught her eye, partially hidden by the passage that led to the Slytherin Common Room. She started when she recognized the figures, her brows furrowing at the sight of Professor Carlisle talking to none other than Edmond Avery.

            Swiftly checking to make sure no one was watching, she crept closer to the pair, obscured behind a column near enough to where she could hear their voices and see them. She peeked her head around the corner, watching as Carlisle crossed her arms, her height matching that of Avery’s and putting them at eye-level.

            “Have you done any more research as I requested?” she asked, her voice flat and brisk. Though Avery’s back was to Cassie, she saw his shoulders lift in a noncommittal gesture.

            “Not much,” he said, his own voice neutral. “O.W.L. year isn’t exactly a stroll through the meadow.”

            Carlisle looked faintly annoyed, but she nodded. “See to it that it will be done, Edmond. We cannot proceed if we don’t know where to look.”

            “Yes, Professor,” Avery intoned. “It will be done.”

            “Good.” She gave him another curt nod. “Come; your classmates are expecting you, and unfortunately I must be in attendance for these foolish games.”

            “I’ll be down in a moment,” Avery said. He gestured down the passageway to the dungeons. “I forgot to grab something.”

            Carlisle nodded again before sweeping toward the great doors of the hall. Cassie pressed herself flat against the column, holding her breath before the professor was gone in a swirl of black robes.

            She let out a small breath but shrieked and pulled out her wand when a voice spoke directly in her ear.

            “I wouldn’t think a Gryffindor would be the type to eavesdrop.”

            She whirled to see Avery standing behind her shoulder, a smirk on his lips, but his gaze was irritated.

            “I wasn’t,” she said automatically, despite knowing how stupid that was.

            He raised his brows. “And a liar, as well.” He cocked his head, studying her with pale blue eyes, and she flushed to the roots of her hair.

            “I may be a lot of things, but a liar isn’t one of them,” she said hotly. He chuckled, raising his hands in surrender.

            “Perhaps not, Gryffindor,” he said, “but I know for a fact that your kind loves to have their noses in everyone else’s matters.”

            “We all have our flaws,” she countered, stowing away her wand.

            He smirked. “Indeed, Alderfair, we do.”

            There was a tense moment of silence where Cassie began to regret putting up her wand, before Avery asked, “What all did you hear?”

            “That Carlisle wants you to do some research for her,” she said, figuring she was already caught. “And it sounds like it’s important.”

            “Yes, it is,” he said. “It’s an extra credit assignment for Defense; I’m at the top of that class for the fifth-years, but if I’m not careful, you or that Lupin boy could claim my spot.”

            Cassie scoffed. “Yeah, because I’m such a threat. D’you know how long it took me to get that Shield Charm perfect?”

            “Yet yours is the best,” he countered. “The others are decent, but their lack of practice shows.”

            Cassie swallowed back her reply, wondering if the Slytherin was intentionally trying to get her off track with their conversation.

            “So, what kind of extra credit assignment is this?” she asked instead, looking to him as innocently as she could.

            He frowned, turning away and shrugging. “Just the usual: ‘History of the Dark Arts,’ obscure spells, all that tosh.”

            “Oh.” She nodded like she was interested. “So, you could research the Founders, right? I mean, each one of them would be fascinating to write about from a magical point of view, wouldn’t they? All their achievements in spellwork, things like that?”

            She watched his face carefully, and though it remained aloof and blank, she thought she saw the faintest shadow flicker in his eyes.

            “That would be fascinating,” he mused, nodding to her. “Thanks for the suggestion.”

            She gave him a toothless smile before stepping away. “Anytime.”

            And with that, she turned on her heel and walked away.


 

            “About bloody time,” Remus mumbled when she finally found him and Peter in the stands. She was panting hard and nursing some bruises after pushing her way through the crowds to reach them; she hadn’t realized how long her detour with Avery lasted, and the stands were filled to capacity now. “How long does it take you to get a scarf?”

            She didn’t reply, still too breathless. She wouldn’t have had time to answer anyway, for just then a whistle blew, capturing the crowd’s attention. The boys had managed to find good seats, and she looked down to see Madam Hooch standing on the pitch, her youthful frame tall and somewhat menacing, as the teams entered onto the field from opposite ends, the students cheering and booing in equal measure.

            “And here come the teams!” the student announcer, Charlie Jordan, said into his magically amplified megaphone. “On Ravenclaw, we have Peddleton, Raj, Kerpensky, Moss, Macon, Bosworth, and Captain Bertram Aubrey!”

            Strong cheering came from the Ravenclaws and Slytherins, while the Gryffindors and Hufflepuffs booed, flapping their arms at the opposing stands where students stood clad in blue.

            “And for Gryffindor, we have McKinnon, Potter, Schaffer, Wood, Black, Hamilton, and Captain Michael Weatherly!”

            Cassie clapped along with the shouting Gryffindors, red and gold banners depicting roaring lion heads flying around her. She only distantly heard Madam Hooch bark, “Captains, shake hands!” In the next moment, the players had all mounted their brooms, and after a sharp blow on the whistle, the match commenced.

            “And they’re off!” Jordan cried, his voice full of gusto as the Quaffle began to pass dizzyingly between the players, flying so fast and so high on their brooms that they resembled buzzing flies. “Kerpensky starts off with the Quaffle, passes it to Peddleton – McKinnon is on the chase – nice hit from Gryffindor Beater Black!”

            Cassie saw Sirius zoom past them in the stands, and she swore she saw him wink as he went back for the group of Chasers flying around, bat in hand.

            “McKinnon now in possession of the Quaffle, circling back to Ravenclaw’s hoops – he passes it to fellow Gryffindor Chaser Potter, and… HE SCORES!”

            The Gryffindors roared their approval, and James waved to the red-clad supporters, black hair tousling in the wind and looking as if he were born to be on a broom. Cassie clapped with the rest of them, shaking her head at James’s oozing self-confidence, but smiling all the same.

            “Score is now ten-zero for Gryffindor. Ravenclaw Chaser Raj now in possession – fancy pass there back to Peddleton – Peddleton takes off for the Gryffindor goals…c’mon Weatherly…Peddleton goes to score, and…scores.”

            The roar was nearly deafening from the Ravenclaw supporters. Jordan (a Gryffindor himself) couldn’t keep the bitterness out of his voice as he said, “Score now ten-ten, after Gryffindor Keeper Weatherly fails to block Peddleton’s shot, and Ravenclaw is once again in possession of the Quaffle…”

            Another hour of this passed, with each team gaining an upper hand before quickly losing it. Cassie found herself on the edge of her seat (not literally, of course; the energy of the match was too much for her to remain seated), anxiously watching the teams play with a fierce competitiveness reminiscent of animals fighting for their place at the top of the food chain. Her eyes kept straying back to James and Sirius, grudgingly admitting to herself that they were, indeed, excellent flyers, but her attention snapped back to the game when Jordan began screaming into the megaphone.

            “And it seems the Golden Snitch has been sighted at last! Gryffindor Seeker Wood makes a spectacular dive, Ravenclaw Seeker Aubrey hot on his tail…there we go, Wood, show that tosser how to fly—"

            “Jordan, if you can’t keep your commentary objective…” Professor McGonagall could be heard warning him, and Jordan cleared his throat awkwardly before continuing with a muttered, “Yes, Professor.

            “Wood and Aubrey now neck-and-neck, going after the Snitch… Current score is Gryffindor one-twenty, Ravenclaw one-ten, resulting in a win for either team if the Snitch is caught…”

            “I can’t watch,” Peter whimpered, though his eyes never left the game. Cassie found herself holding her hands over her mouth, adrenaline coursing through her as she watched two blurs pelting through the air, both arms outreached…

            “It’s close,” Jordan whispered, more to himself than anyone, but the crowd didn’t seem to notice, just as entranced. “So close…just a little bit more…and – YES! GRYFFINDOR’S CAUGHT THE SNITCH, WOOD CAUGHT IT, GRYFFINDOR WINS!”

            “We won?” Cassie gasped, uncovering her mouth and turning to a beaming Remus. “We won!”

            The three all screamed together, jumping around and hugging, and Cassie was amazed at how invested she had gotten. Most of the Quidditch games she attended were spent lounging in the top stands, gossiping with the girls and occasionally reading through magazines and doing their nails, and she wondered how she ever could have done that when this – victory – felt so wonderful.

            “PARTY IN THE GRYFFINDOR COMMON ROOM!” Peter roared, and the crowd went ballistic, racing off to the castle with whoops and hollers and very rude chants directed at the Ravenclaw supporters. 

            Cassie was so wrapped up in the euphoric sense of celebration that everything else faded into the background as she was swept back to the common room. James and Sirius intercepted them halfway there – still sweaty and dirty and wearing their Quidditch robes – and joined in their revelry. Cassie shrieked when Sirius lifted her up and swung her around, laughing loudly and joyfully, but she couldn’t help laughing too as they walked arm-in-arm to the castle.

            If she hadn’t been so immune to her surroundings, then perhaps she would have seen the billowing black robes of Professor Carlisle walking in the opposite direction of the castle, passing like a shadow through the first trees of the Forbidden Forest before vanishing in a haze of mist. 

Chapter Text

            “Mr. Black, if you would please keep all fours of your chair on the floor while I am teaching, that would be greatly appreciated.”

            Professor Flitwick was looking at him sternly from where he was standing in front of his desk, but Sirius would never have guessed the professor was there if he hadn’t craned his neck around to look.

            “Sorry, Professor,” he said, letting the front two legs of his chair fall back to the floor with a dull thunk. He shook his long hair from his face and grinned when he heard a dreamy sigh from the Ravenclaw girl sitting three seats away. “Bad habit, you see.”

            The professor gave a little huff, rolling up the sleeves of his robes as he prepared to demonstrate a spell. “Well, better points off your House than mine if I catch you doing it again,” he warned, and the boy grinned sheepishly as the professor continued with the lesson.

            Sirius let his mind and gaze wander, already familiar with the basics of the Substantive Charm and not needing to rehash the same principles. His eyes were drawn inadvertently to two rows in front of him, where he could just see the back of Cassie’s head if the bloke in front of him sat at an angle.

            She was twirling a piece of her long brown hair around her finger as her right hand moved across the parchment in front of her, taking notes on whatever Flitwick was saying. Occasionally she’d pause, tilting her head to listen better, before continuing writing. Sirius didn’t know how long he’d been watching the cyclical movements until his eyes shifted to the right, where Alice Fortescue usually sat, but now where a tall, lanky Ravenclaw bloke had taken her place.

            He knew Cassie was in some sort of row with her dormmates, and he assumed that that was why Alice was now sitting in the front with Frank Longbottom, and why Marlene kept shooting the dark-haired girl furtive glances over her shoulder every now and then. Lily, on the other hand, sat determinedly forward as if she were above it all. This annoyed him, since he knew that she was the one who had confronted Cassie in the first place about her hanging around with himself and the others.

            His eyes flicked back to the Ravenclaw bloke sitting next to Cassie, noticing how tense he seemed and the way his eyes would drift to her face before darting away. Sirius scowled. Cassie was probably acutely aware of her seatmate’s discomfort, but to her credit, she didn’t seem put out by it, only continuing her notetaking.

            He was slightly irked that he or one of the other Marauders wasn’t sitting by her, but after the grace period of last week, Flitwick had subtly reminded them that they weren’t supposed to be sitting together – hypocritical, of course, now that Alice had moved seats, yet Flitwick didn’t seem too bothered by it. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that anytime Cassie had sat with them, they would push their desks into a giant group, and the tiny professor finally just got annoyed about it, but still. Sirius would rather have her back there than next to a bloke who looked ready to piss himself if she looked at him the wrong way.

            The image made him chuckle under his breath, imagining her sending one of the withering looks she used to cast him on the Ravenclaw and him running from the room, screaming. James looked over at his soft laughter, raising his eyebrows and pushing his glasses up his nose.

            “What’s so funny?” he asked, as Professor Flitwick sent them off to practice the Charm with their partner. Sirius jerked his chin to the Ravenclaw.

            “Poor bloke is terrified of her,” he said. He watched him turn tentatively to Cassie and ask her something, and he saw her nod, though her hair was covering her face, so he had no idea what her expression was like.

            James snorted as jars filled with a strange white mist soared around the room, landing on each pair’s desks. Flitwick demonstrated the Charm once more before returning to his own desk, and Sirius immediately seized upon the opportunity to tilt his chair back again.

            “That’s Kerpensky, remember?” James said, pointing out one of the opposing Chasers on the Ravenclaw Quidditch team, and Sirius’s ears perked up, not having realized that. “Bloke looks scared of his own shadow sometimes.”

            “Unfortunate for him,” he replied, running a hand through his hair and smirking when he heard that sigh again. “D’you think Flitwick would notice if we brought her back here to work with us?”

            James looked exasperated when he turned to Sirius. “Yes, Padfoot, he’d notice,” he said drily, before his face quirked and he stared at his mate ponderingly. “Why d’you want her to work with us so bad?”

            Sirius shrugged, picking at his fingernails and ignoring the suggestive grin on his mate’s face. “You said it yourself, didn’t you? She’s our friend now.”

            James nodded slowly, his expression unwavering. “Yeah, she is. I thought you two didn’t get along, though?”

            He shrugged again, nonchalant. “Things change, Prongs. She’s not as bad as I first thought, I’ll give her that.” James, much to his chagrin, looked far too amused at his statement, and he scowled at the messy-haired boy. “What?”

            “Oh, nothing,” he said airily, before waving his wand and muttering, “Solidium!” The jar full of white fog now looked like it had been filled with glue. Professor Flitwick bumbled by right then, peering into their jar before giving them a nod.

            “Excellent work, Mr. Potter, Mr. Black,” he said. “Full marks for the both of you today.”

            “Thanks, Professor,” they replied in unison, and Flitwick gave them a small smile, not even bothering to comment on Sirius’s chair before moving on.

            A sudden shattering of glass and a couple of yelps from the front of the room made them look up. The jar that had been on Frank and Alice’s desk had broken, and now white goo was splattered across both Gryffindors. There were a few tsks and chuckles from the Ravenclaws as Frank rushed to apologize, while Flitwick waved away the broken jar and goo that had escaped onto the desk and floor with his wand.

            “No need to worry, no need to worry,” he said genially. “Mr. Longbottom, Miss Fortescue, I will excuse you to go clean yourselves up. You may go.”

            With muttered thanks to the professor, the two walked out of the room, Frank still apologizing profusely to Alice. Professor Flitwick glanced at the clock on his desk.

            “I believe that is enough practice for one day,” he chirped, and he zoomed the jars back into a cupboard as the class began to pack up their things. “Tonight’s homework will be two rolls of parchment detailing the theory of the Substantive Charm and the correct wand motions used in the spell, to be handed in on Wednesday.”

            There was a collective groan at this. Even the Ravenclaws looked mutinous, but the professor paid them no mind, instead shooing them out the door a few minutes early.

            “Two rolls of parchment?” Peter echoed with a moan as the Marauders exited the classroom and waited in the corridor for Cassie. “Merlin, I’m already drowning in homework as it is!”

            “Well, Pete, maybe if you actually did it on time…” Remus said, grinning when the blond boy shot him an irritable look.

            “Sorry we can’t all be as perfect as you, Moony,” he said, before pretending to prance around the corridor with a dreamy expression, raising his voice to a soft, girlish sigh. “’Look at me, I’m Remus Lupin! I always do my homework on time, and I’m a prefect. I also happen to be a very fluffy and gentle wer—”

            “Ugh! I swear at this rate the teachers are trying to make me drop out,” Cassie said as she emerged from the classroom, swinging her bag over her shoulder and pausing when she took in Peter mid-prance.

            James grinned nervously. Quite unnecessarily, Remus punched Peter in the shoulder. Peter winced, but didn’t say anything as he cleared his throat and straightened up, looking slightly panicked.

            Her dark eyes traveled between the four of them before she just shook her head. “Y’know, I’m not even gonna ask.”

            The moment of tension was gone, and the five began to walk down the corridor. They headed to the dungeons for Double Potions, and while Cassie and James discussed the appalling workload the fifth-years had, Sirius heard Remus and Peter bickering under their breath as they trailed behind.

            On the way there, they saw Alice Fortescue dart into one of the girls’ lavatories, still covered in sticky white goo. Sirius snuck a glance at Cassie and saw that she had noticed her friend too, and was now staring at the lavatory door, biting her lip in contemplation.

            He nudged her a bit with his elbow and nodded to the lavatory. She seemed to get the message, a determined look entering her gaze.

            “I’m going to the loo before class,” she announced. “Tell Slughorn I’m coming if I’m late?”

            “Sure thing,” Remus said.

            After flashing them a quick smile, she made for the lavatory, her hand accidentally brushing Sirius’s as she departed.

            He jerked at the unexpected contact, and Peter gave him a weird look as they continued walking, but he just shook his head. The blond boy merely shrugged, but Sirius couldn’t help casting a last look back until they rounded the corner to the dungeons.


 

            Cassie slipped into the lavatory right behind Alice. She looked up as Cassie entered, her eyes widening beneath the white boogey-like substance in her eyebrows and her face flushing crimson.

            “Cass – hi,” she squeaked.

            Cassie waved awkwardly, not quite sure how to act around the other girl. Alice had been her first friend at Hogwarts, and they had always gotten along well, something Alice seemed to be thinking too as she looked down to the tiled floor with a guilty expression.

            “Need any help with that?” Cassie asked, gesturing to the goo in her hair. For a second, she thought she was going to refuse, but finally she nodded.

            Cassie approached the other girl and began to run warm water in the sink, and it was silent for a few minutes as they waited for the temperature to rise.

            “So, er…how are you?” Cassie asked before cringing, knowing how lame she must sound.

            Alice shrugged, keeping her eyes on the running water. “Not too bad,” she said, putting her fingers under the faucet and deeming it warm enough. They began to tackle her hair, trying to smooth out the goo naturally instead of attempting a spell that might burn off all her hair instead. “What about you?”

            “I’ve been better,” Cassie said, keeping her voice light, casual.

            There was a slight pause before Alice blurted out, “Are they nice to you?”

            Cassie stopped scrubbing for a moment, staring at her, but Alice looked at her own reflection resolutely, still trying to work the goo out. It took Cassie a few moments to respond, taken aback by the question, but finally she nodded.

            “Yeah, they are,” she said quietly, noting that Alice didn’t seem surprised by her response, but feeling guilty when the girl looked slightly crestfallen. “They’re not bad blokes when they want to be,” she went on. “And for some reason, they seem to think I’m not too shabby, either, so it’s…a friendship of some sorts, I guess.”

            Alice nodded slowly, sucking on her teeth as she seemed to mull over her words.

            “This whole thing is barmy,” she said eventually. “Lily is the one who’s upset, not me. Yeah, I’ll admit, I was hurt when you chose them over us, but I know you, Cassie. You love us just as much as we love you, but Merlin knows we’re all too stubborn to admit that.”

            They both chuckled at this, and Alice shut off the water, the goo scrubbed out of her hair and leaving the brown locks plastered to her forehead and cheeks. She met Cassie’s eyes for the first time since they’d been in there, and an understanding seemed to pass between the two, for she suddenly smiled.

            “I know you’ll find your way back to us,” she said. “I’m not telling you to give up your relationship with the Marauders – I can see they have a positive effect on you. But I’m not choosing a side anymore. I’m still yours and Lily’s friend, and I know you two will make up.”

            Cassie smiled back, her heart lighter than it had been in a week. “Thanks, Alice,” she said sincerely. “You have no idea how much better that makes me feel.”

            “Of course,” she replied, pulling Cassie in for a hug, and she accepted the embrace gratefully.

            When they pulled apart, Alice dried her hair quickly with her wand before stowing it away and throwing her book bag over her shoulder. “Well, I’m off to Potions. Want me to wait?”

            “Nah, go ahead,” Cassie said, raising her hands and displaying the white goo that now coated her fingers. “I’ll clean this up and then I’ll be there.”

            “All right,” she said, heading for the door. “If Slughorn asks, I’ll tell him you’re taking care of some feminine hygiene things.” She grinned wickedly over her shoulder, and Cassie rolled her eyes before shooing her away.

            When the door had closed, she turned the water back on and began to wash her hands, smiling slightly to herself and feeling immensely relieved. Her real challenge, of course, still lay with Lily, but now that she had Alice again, she felt more confident that the redhead would be quick to let bygones be bygones, as well.

            She was just drying her hands when the lavatory door opened again. She glanced in the mirror and saw a gaggle of fourth-years entering, one of them a Gryffindor and the other two Hufflepuffs. Her gaze lingered on the Gryffindor, a thin-faced girl with an upturned nose that made her appear as if she were sniffing something unpleasant, and platinum hair that fell razor-sharp to her shoulders.

            They were laughing and gossiping about some poor third-year as they preened in the mirror and Cassie collected her things. She was about to head out when she caught the blonde’s gaze in the mirror, and her green eyes widened.

            She whirled around in the middle of her sentence, and the two Hufflepuff girls turned to stare at Cassie, as well, obviously confused. Cassie just raised her brows, not saying anything, but something in her jaw twitched when the Gryffindor asked, “Aren’t you Cassie Alderfair?”

            Cassie only shrugged, still heading for the door, but she stopped when the Gryffindor stepped in front of her, her expression slipping into a sneer that was very unbecoming.

            “Dunno why I asked that, really,” she said. Cassie just stared at her. “Everyone knows who you and your Death Eater brother are now.”

            Cassie remained silent. The Hufflepuff girls were now looking between her and the other girl warily, but with a hungry curiosity in their eyes.

            “I think it’s quite funny, how before last year no one even knew who you were,” the girl continued, placing her hands on her hips and looking supremely smug. “But I’ve heard about you, Alderfair; the Invisible Girl who tried so hard to blend in that she turned herself into a bloody fool. Is that why no one likes you, Alderfair? Or is it because you’re just like your brother, another filthy Death Eater to taint the name of Gryffindor?”

            Cassie could feel her hands shaking. She clenched them into fists, telling herself to breathe evenly.

            “Get out of my way,” she snapped, edging around the girl and growling when she stepped into her path again, now looking exhilarated at the fact that she was getting a rise out of her.

            “Can’t you see, Alderfair?” she said. “Everyone in this school knows who you are now, and you know what they say? That you’re a freak, and you just want attention – I mean, c’mon. For someone who wants to be so invisible, the Marauders are about the furthest you can get. Or are you just hanging around them like a lost puppy because you’re in desperate need of some validation, maybe even a nice shag—?”

            Cassie didn’t know when her wand had gotten into her hand, but suddenly it was pointing right at the blonde’s face. The girl squeaked and drew her own wand, though she now looked uneasy.

            “Don’t. Say. Another. Word. About me or my brother,” she snarled. She sensed the two Hufflepuff girls draw their wands, as well, though her blood roared in her ears, making her immune to the fact that she was outnumbered three to one.

            “Go on, then,” the girl said, defiant. “Hex me – but you’ll be the one in detention, and I’m sure Mummy and Daddy won’t be pleased with you—"

            Cassie roughly shoved the girl out of her way and strode for the door as she stumbled into her Hufflepuff mates. She had just gripped the knob when she heard the girl say from behind her, “Affligo!”

            Cassie was thrown face-first into the door, as if a giant hand had slammed into her back and knocked all the air from her lungs. She gasped, her knees buckling, but she turned and raised her wand, managing to suck in just enough breath to choke out, “Libaugeo!”

            The jinx hit the girl right in the face. Immediately, her lips began swelling in size, blooming like swollen hives and causing her to drop her wand in panic, crying through the small opening of her mouth where her lips were not yet touching. The Hufflepuffs rushed to her side, trying to figure out the counter-spell while Cassie struggled to get her breath back.

            The girl was crying now, her blotchy face making her lips look even uglier, and she would have laughed had the lavatory door not burst open behind her. To her intense dread, Professor Carlisle stalked in, demanding, “What is going on in here?”

            She stopped in her tracks when she took in the crying fourth-year, her lips now double their normal size. Very slowly, Cassie felt the professor’s eyes turn to her, as hard as flint.

            “Miss Alderfair,” she said, and the temperature seemed to drop about ten degrees. “Would you care to explain to me what has happened here?”

            “She attacked Zella!” one of the Hufflepuffs cried, looking panicked as she wrapped an arm around the Gryffindor girl. She pointed to Cassie accusingly, and the older girl opened her mouth, attempting to protest, but all that came out was a wheezing gasp.

            “Is that so?” Professor Carlisle’s eyes glittered with triumph as she turned her gaze back on Cassie. She flicked her hand to the huddled girls. “You two, escort Miss Knightley to the Hospital Wing. I will deal with Miss Alderfair’s punishment.”

            The Hufflepuffs hurriedly complied with her orders, and Cassie didn’t miss their gloating looks as they pushed out of the lavatory, leaving her alone with her most hated teacher.

            “Get up, Miss Alderfair,” she snapped. Cassie got to her feet slowly, glaring daggers at her the entire time, though she was unfazed, looking as gleeful as a child inside Honeydukes. “Come with me.”

            Reluctantly, Cassie followed behind her as she whisked out of the lavatory, confusion settling inside her when she realized that she was being led to the dungeons instead of the professor’s third-floor classroom.

            When they walked down a flight of stone steps and came to a halt outside of a familiar door, however, Cassie’s gut cramped anxiously as the professor knocked on the door, not even bothering to listen for an answer before leading Cassie in by the elbow.

            “Ah, Claudia,” Professor Slughorn said, smiling slightly but looking back and forth between them in bafflement. “I was just instructing the class here how to properly brew a Calming Draught. What can I do for you?”

            The class had all turned to stare at them. The Slytherins were watching on in malicious glee while the Gryffindors looked bewildered, though she avoided any of her friends’ gazes, too mortified to acknowledge anyone or anything.

            “I just came to inform you that I found Miss Alderfair in the lavatory just now – absent from your class – because she felt the need to hex a younger student unprovoked.” Professor Carlisle sounded breathless, and Cassie wrenched her arm out of her grasp, furious.

            “It wasn’t unprovoked!” she protested. “The prat was having a go at my brother!”

            “Miss Alderfair,” Professor Slughorn said, sounding scandalized, but he looked helplessly between the two women. “Claudia, dear, I don’t know what you are expecting me to do. I am not Miss Alderfair’s Head of House; shouldn’t you be taking her to Minerva?”

            “I am going to tell Minerva everything as soon as I am done here,” she assured. “I just wanted to make sure Miss Alderfair got to class without being tempted to attack another student.”

            The Slytherins laughed openly at this, but the Gryffindors glared at them furiously; though she knew some of them may be wary of her, the divide between the lions and the snakes was deep, and Gryffindors would always protect their own against the Slytherins.

            “By all means, please get back to your lesson,” Professor Carlisle said, nodding politely to Professor Slughorn. He just stared back, flabbergasted. “Expect a summons from Professor McGonagall later today, Miss Alderfair. Have a nice class.”

            And with that, she strode out the door, slamming it behind her and leaving Cassie standing in the middle of the room, her ears ringing.

            She knew her face was flaming, but there was no use hiding it. The damage had been done, and she had never been more mortified in her life, knowing that the witch had done this to her on purpose. The Slytherins now had even more reason to mock her, and now she looked like a bully to her fellow Gryffindors, going ‘round and hexing those in younger years. She looked like a Slytherin, and her gut twisted when she realized that that was exactly why Carlisle had done it, and she suddenly felt like bursting into tears in the middle of the classroom.

            “Er, Miss Alderfair,” Professor Slughorn said, clearing his throat uncomfortably. “If you wouldn’t mind taking your seat…”

            She nodded, numb, and moved to take her seat beside Sirius, who had decided to remain her Potions partner ever since they had first worked together a couple of weeks ago. She could feel him staring, but she shifted so her hair was covering her face, struggling not to cry as Slughorn moved on with the lesson, obviously trying to smooth over the tense moment.

            She felt a tap on her hand, and though she didn’t look up, she knew what Sirius was asking: Are you okay?

She shook her head slightly, and he tapped on the back of her hand again. Though she had never spoken to him before this year, and on some levels, they were still complete strangers, the meaning behind the tap was as clear as day: I’m here.

            She tapped back on his hand two simple words, but it was as if she had spoken them aloud: I know. 


 

            “Miss Alderfair, could you stay behind for a moment?”

            Potions had just ended, and as she was making her way to the door with Sirius and the others, Professor Slughorn’s voice called her back. She grimaced, really not wanting a lecture at the moment, but she knew she couldn’t refuse a teacher.

            Telling her they’d meet her in the Great Hall for lunch, the Marauders ambled off, leaving her alone with Professor Slughorn as he sat at his desk, his small eyes studying her carefully as she shifted nervously. “Yes, Professor?”

            “Would you like to explain to me what happened today?” he asked.

            She scuffed her shoe on the ground, frowning. “Not really, sir. It’s…kind of personal.”

            He sighed, the air rippling his walrus-like mustache, and he folded his hands carefully before him.

            “Miss Alderfair, I won’t pretend to understand the predicament you are in, but you must know that attacking other students is against school rules, and deeply frowned upon—"

            “She attacked me first!” she said hotly, immediately flushing and looking away when he just stared at her.

            “I seem to recall you never attending one of my dinner parties,” he said unexpectedly, and she started at the random statement. “Your brother had been an active participant; yet for some reason, you never bothered to show, though I pestered him all the time to bring you.”

            Cassie stared blankly. He sighed again, though it sounded weary, and a little sad.

            “William was always one of my favorites,” he said. She flinched at her brother’s name, though he didn’t notice. “So bright, so curious, so ambitious… I always told him he would have been better off in my House, yet he remained an adamant Gryffindor. He would have gone off to do great things, though I suppose one could argue that he is doing them now – terrible things, of course, but things that will one day go down as history.”

            Professor Slughorn looked back up to her, appearing to come out of some sort of reverie. “What I am trying to say, Miss Alderfair, is that there is more to you than just your brother and his deeds – you will make your own path, in time.”

            “Thank you…Professor,” she said haltingly, not knowing how to respond, but he simply pulled out a scroll tied with a black silk ribbon from a drawer within his desk and handed it to her.

            “I think it is time you received an invitation to my parties,” he said. “Two weeks from today, and you may bring a friend with you if you’d like.”

            Cassie clutched the scroll uncertainly, forcing a smile at the professor when he beamed at her. “Er, I’ll try, sir.”

            “Good, good,” he said, nodding. “The atmosphere may do you some good, lift your spirits a bit. Now, I know your friends are waiting for you to join them, so off you trot!”

            And before she could say anything else, he had shooed her out the door, leaving her standing in the dungeons before shaking her head and starting up the stairs.

            “So, you’ve been inducted into the Slug Club, it seems.”

            She internally groaned when she turned to see Avery walking up the steps behind her, hands clasped behind his back and looking as eloquent as ever.

            “Go away, Avery,” she said wearily. “And stop sneaking up on me like that.”

            “Like what?” He gave her an innocent look, and she just rolled her eyes, trudging up the stairs with him at her heels.

            “Please leave me alone,” she sighed. “I’m really not in the mood for you to twist my words and make fun of me in that subtle way you do.”

            “You think it’s subtle?” When she glared, he flashed her a tiny smirk. “Only joking.”

            “You’re hilarious,” she said drily.

            “Well, are you going to Slughorn’s party, then?” he said, wisely changing the subject, and she just grimaced.

            “Considering you heard everything down there, does it sound like I really have a choice?”

            “Of course,” he said. “You always have a choice.”

            His tone had become more solemn at the words. She glanced over at him, seeing him staring at her intently before he blinked and seemed to realize what he was doing, his arrogant smirk (a rival worthy of James and Sirius, she noted) playing on the edges of his lips again.

            Many babbling voices suddenly registered with her, and she realized that they had made it to the Great Hall.

            “Well,” he said, inclining his head slightly before gesturing to her, and then the Hall beyond. “Welcome to the Slug Club, Cassie. I’ll see you at the party.”

            And with that, he turned and strode to the Slytherin table, leaving her oddly nervous as she rushed to sit with her own friends and forget about all of the strange things that kept happening to her lately.

Chapter Text

            Cassie stared at the wooden doll before her, chin propped on her hand and brows furrowed in concentration. Her hazel wand rolled between her fingers in her other hand as she skimmed through the lines of her Defense book, trying to memorize the correct wand motion to use for the Shrinking Spell she was attempting to cast.

            She pointed her wand at the practice doll and gave it a wave, muttering, “Diminuendo!”

            The doll gave a little twitch but otherwise did nothing. She let out a sigh of frustration, dropping her eyes back to the book and pinning the page in place with her thumb when a breeze blew by.

            Despite the coldness and greyness of the day, she sat underneath the beech tree by the lake the Marauders usually claimed as their own, bundled up in her robes with a handy jar of flames nearby to stave off most of the late November chill. She had skipped breakfast to catch up on some of the work she was behind on, and to avoid the multitude of people inside staying out of the winter weather, she had gone to the grounds where she wouldn’t be bothered. Turns out it had been a good idea, in hindsight – at least no one would see her abysmal attempts at such a simple spell and have another thing to make fun of her for.

            She closed her book and rested it in her lap, tracing the leather cover absentmindedly as she tapped her wand against her knee, lost in thought. The past week and a half had been difficult, and not just from her strenuous workload; on top of the jeers and whispers that swirled around about her brother still, news had spread about her alleged “attack” on the fourth year, Zella Knightley, and the taunts had become particularly worse, especially from the Slytherins. Even the Gryffindors had given her a cold shoulder after Zella had begun to spread the rumor in the common room upon her return from the Hospital Wing; except, of course, those who knew her (which was painfully few) and those who couldn’t care less.

            “All I did was express my sympathies for her brother, and how awful the Prophet is making him out to be,” she recalled Zella saying tearfully in the common room several days ago, a few of her classmates and some younger students sitting around her in sickening concern, though the fourth year had given her a triumphant smile when she had caught Cassie’s eye. “And the next thing I know, I’m on my knees after a hex to the face, with that awful girl standing over me and threatening to silence me forever if I said anything to her ever again!”

            The other students had gasped and shot Cassie furtive, mutinous looks at this, and she had nearly snapped her quill in half from where she was doing homework a few tables away with Remus and Peter.

            “Unbelievable,” she muttered, watching the girl bask in all the attention she was receiving. “If the brat keeps this up then maybe I will have to silence her for good.”

            “Easy, Cassie,” Remus said, not once looking up from the essay he was writing. “Didn’t you say two days ago that you couldn’t get in any more trouble, or McGonagall would write your parents?”

            She’d blanched at the mention of her parents. “Good point.”

            The day Zella had attacked her in the lavatory, she had been called to Professor McGonagall’s office before dinner, and the witch had not been as kind as she had been the day she found Cassie wandering the halls after the news about her brother was published.

            After hearing Cassie’s version of events, however, her Head of House had decided not to write her parents over the matter, though she had slapped the girl with a week’s worth of detentions scrubbing bedpans in the Hospital Wing, and warned that if such a thing happened again, then her parents would have to be contacted to discuss “progressive disciplinary options.”

            The only other people who knew about the real story were the Marauders and Alice, who had gone back to sitting next to her in lessons again and had been outraged, and a little guilty.

            “I feel terrible, Cass,” she’d said the next day in Transfiguration, talking in hushed voices while they were supposed to be practicing turning their mice into teacups. “I should’ve waited for you; none of this would’ve happened if I had been there!”

            Cassie snorted, watching Alice’s mouse attempt to scuttle away from her. “I don’t think it would’ve mattered all that much. That girl seemed like she had been waiting her whole life to have a go at me.” She shrugged. “At least if you had been there, we probably could’ve given her a bigger head to match those awful lips.”

            They had snickered at this, though had fallen silent when Professor McGonagall eyed them sternly from across the room, both girls attempting to Transfigure their mice once more.

            Lily and Marlene seemed to believe her, as well, though they still weren’t speaking to her. Lily had even gone so far as to join a group of Ravenclaws in Care of Magical Creatures, leaving Cassie to work with James and Peter, which was slowly becoming a disaster. The boys were bright at the subject, though they always goofed off when Professor Kettleburn wasn’t looking, which usually resulted in leaving her to do all the work. However, her annoyance was made up in the form of Little Leaf, as the bowtruckle seemed to despise the two boys and did whatever was in his power to mock them, and it was always satisfying to see their egos knocked down a few pegs by a tiny tree-man from the woods.

            “All right, Alderfair?”

            The sound of James’s voice brought her back to reality, and she turned to see him striding across the lawn toward her, hair fluffed up even more by the wind and cheeks red from the cold.

            “How do you always seem to know where to find me?” she asked, watching as the bespectacled boy plopped down beside her, stretching his legs out before him.

            “It’s a secret,” he replied, winking at her, and she rolled her eyes as he held up a napkin and a cup in his hands. “Want some breakfast?”

            “Merlin, yes,” she breathed. She snatched the items from him and opened the napkin to reveal three pieces of toast, perfectly buttered and topped with strawberry marmalade, and she sighed blissfully when the scent of hot chocolate wafted out of the cup.

            “James Potter, you are my hero,” she said gratefully, munching on the toast and letting the hot chocolate warm up her other hand. “How did you know how I took my toast, though?”

            James rolled his eyes, smirking at her as he lounged back on his elbows. “You spend five minutes every morning meticulously smearing that stuff on your toast; it’s a little hard not to notice.”

            She scoffed at that. “Oh, c’mon, James – just admit you’re a mother hen and you care about me and what I like.”

            He looked to her, affronted. “I am not a mother hen!”

            “Okay, fine. A lioness with her cubs, maybe?”

            He gave her a dry look. “Just eat your toast and shut it, Princess.”

            “All right, Mum.”

            He threw his head back as if praying to Merlin for guidance, and she snickered.

            When she was done eating, she brushed the crumbs from her hands and lap and sat back against the tree, feeling better now that her stomach was full.

            “Where’s everyone else?” she asked, pushing her hair back when the wind disturbed it. He gave a noncommittal shrug from where he was laying in the short, brittle grass.

            “They were being little children and not wanting to sit out in the cold,” he said, and she nodded, picturing Sirius (ever the melodramatic one) whining about staying inside.

            When James made no further attempt at conversation, she got out her Defense book and began practicing the Shrinking Spell again. “Diminuendo!”

            The doll flopped disappointingly on the ground. James clucked his tongue. “Pathetic, Princess.” Her face flushed, and he sat up, scooting closer to her and gesturing to her wand. “You’ve got the motion backward; it’s a backhand counterclockwise, not the other way ‘round.”

            Biting her lip, she raised her wand and took his advice, moving it the opposite way. “Diminuendo!”           

            The doll immediately shrank in size, now appearing as if it were a toothpick, and she grinned as James ruffled her hair. “There you go, Princess!”

            She swatted his hand away. “All thanks to you, Mum.”

            He jerked back as if she’d scalded him. “Stop calling me that!”

            “All right, Mum.”

            She shrieked when he put her into a headlock. “Okay, I’m sorry! Let me go!”

            “Say ‘James Potter is the smartest and fittest bloke I know’ and I’ll consider it.”

            She pummeled his legs, laughing, though when her efforts proved fruitless, she gasped out, “JamesPotteristhesmartestandfittestblokeIknownowGETOFFME!”

            He released her. She flopped back on the grass, panting. He smirked at her. “Apology accepted.”

            She just gave him an obscene hand gesture.

            “So, ready for Slughorn’s party this Friday?” he asked when she could breathe again. She shook her head, grimacing. “Thought anymore on who to bring?”

            She shook her head again, not sure she even had anyone left to ask. James was already invited, of course, and though she was sure Slughorn had approached Sirius before, the boy wanted nothing to do with the parties, as did Remus and Peter. James only went due to Slughorn’s dotage on him and the contacts he had within the Ministry (better than his own father, he’d said, though his father was an Auror) and the professional Quidditch leagues, two things that interested James greatly. Alice had a date with Frank that night (which Cassie was not put-out by in the slightest), and since Lily and Marlene weren’t speaking to her, she was afraid they weren’t an option, either.

            “Y’know, I bet if you asked one of the lads, they’d go with you,” he said, quirking his lips. “Pete would probably trip over his own shoes to escort you there himself.”

            “I don’t need anyone to go with,” she said. “He said if I’d like, I could bring a friend, and since you’re already going, then there’s really no need, yeah?”

            “Yeah, but you still have the option,” he said, shrugging. “I know Remus would go with you – you two are pretty good mates, and he’s too kind to refuse you.”

            “James, stop trying to pair me off with your mates,” she said, rolling her eyes, but he pressed on as if he hadn’t heard her.

            “Or I guess you could take Sirius,” he mused, running a hand through his hair. “He’d hate it, but I think he likes you enough to do it for you.”

            “James, please, I’m not taking anyone,” she said. Her stomach had twisted oddly at the mention of Sirius, though she didn’t know why.

            “Just throwing suggestions out there,” he said, raising his hands and grinning at her. “Sorry, Princess.”

            She huffed in reply, and he chuckled before saying, “You said Avery was going to be there?”

            She had told James – and only James – about the weird meeting between the Slytherin boy and Carlisle before the Quidditch match, and her run-in with him after Potions the other week. James had seemed troubled by it, reluctantly agreeing with her that something appeared to be off in the matter. Despite Avery being his seatmate in Potions, he hadn’t been able to get more than a few words out of him at a time, and Cassie never saw him that much due to the conflicting schedules of her classes and studies, leaving Slughorn’s party their only chance of getting even a sliver of information out of the Slytherin.

            She nodded, and he mirrored her movement. “Good. Maybe we can find out what the git is up to.”

            “Don’t forget, this isn’t just about Avery,” she reminded him. “We have to get information about Carlisle, too.”

            “I know,” he said grudgingly. It seemed as if he were about to continue before another voice cut across his.

            “Oi! The bloody hell are you two doing? It’s winter, in case you haven’t noticed!”

            They looked to see the other three Marauders striding toward them from the castle, huddled into their cloaks and scarves. James waved them off lazily while Cassie just shrugged, shutting her Defense book again and holding it to her chest.

            The three boys plopped down next to James, and she snickered when Sirius rested his head on the boy’s chest, fluttering his eyelashes up to him innocently. James made as if to wrap him in an embrace before flinging him off, sending him sprawling in the grass while the rest laughed.

            “Prongs, my ego!” Sirius cried, clutching his chest, but the other boy just shook his head, laughing. Sirius made a big show of limping over to Cassie before throwing himself down, resting his head on her legs.

            She froze and looked down at his handsome face to find him staring up at her already. He winked when their gazes met. “All right there, Princess?”

            “If you scratch behind his ears he’ll start to whine like a dog,” Remus said mischievously, and the boys all exchanged a look that told her it was an inside joke as Sirius rolled his eyes.

            “Sorry, Moony ol’ pal, but I think that’s you,” he retorted. They all chuckled at that, while she just shook her head, going back to her Defense book so she wouldn’t have to look at Sirius Black’s head resting on her thighs.

            The boys chattered on about something, waiting for lessons to start, but Cassie was distracted from her reading when Sirius kept flicking at her book.

            “Can I help you, Sirius?” she said, lowering her book and raising an eyebrow at the smirking boy.

            “They’re talking about school, and I’m bored,” he said, waving to the other Marauders. “Talk to me.”

            She sniffed. “Ask nicely and maybe I will.”

            “Cassie, please spare me from the torturous bindings of my mates’ conversation, and talk to me instead?”

            “All right, then,” she said, making no move to close her book. “Speak.”

            He flicked the book in her hands again. “D’you like to read?”

            “Sometimes,” she answered. “I don’t do it very often, but if I find something I like, I won’t put it down until I finish it.”

            He nodded. “Y’know, I’m kinda the same way. What do you read?”

            “Adventure, mostly,” she said, smiling slightly. “I’m a sod for a good quest and some heroes. Especially the Muggle stuff. Lily got me this book for my birthday called The Hobbit, and though I haven’t had a chance to sit down and read it yet, from what I’ve seen I think I’m going to like it.”

            He seemed thoughtful, watching her tuck a piece of hair behind her ear, and she suddenly felt self-conscious, floundering for something to say. “Er, what about you?”

            “Anything that’s remotely interesting,” he said, shrugging. “I don’t think I’ve ever actually finished a book before, though; I always stop right before the end.”

            She gaped. “But the endings are the best parts! They’re like the final closure of everything. And that feeling you get when you finish a story…it’s indescribable. I love it.”

            “I much prefer beginnings,” he said, tapping his long fingers on his leg and distracting her from her incredulous staring. “I like the possibilities that come with them – the feeling that anything is possible, but you don’t know what to expect. And I think that’s why I never read books the whole way through; I like coming up with my own conclusions.”

            She studied him carefully while he did the same, brown eyes against grey, searching for something that neither of them knew on the other’s face.

            “I propose a deal,” she said abruptly.

            He cocked an eyebrow. “Oh?”

            “You have to read a book – the whole way through – and if you do, I will buy you anything you want at Honeydukes next Hogsmeade trip.”

            “All right,” he said easily, before grinning mischievously at her. “What’s your end of the deal, then?”

            She raised both brows at him. “Pardon?”

            “You gave me a challenge,” he said, “now I have to give one to you.”

            “I don’t think that’s how this works.”

            He gave her a dry look. “Humor me.”

            “Fine. Let’s hear it.”

            “Read The Hobbit, and when you’re done, you have to choose a character and dress up like them on the Hogsmeade trip.”

            “What?” she said, horrified. “Sirius, that’s so unfair! Your challenge isn’t embarrassing at all!”

            “Think of it as my incentive,” he said, smug. “I’ll gladly finish a book for some sweets if it means you dress up in some ridiculous costume to buy me some.”

            She crossed her arms. “Challenge denied. Think of something else.”

            His smirk grew wider. “Fine. Either that, or…tell Bertram Aubrey that he’s fit.”

            “Are you trying to make me an even bigger laughingstock?” she said, incredulous. “Why?”

            “Because you’ll have to dress up like a character from The Hobbit instead. Unless you want to dress up, then by all means…”

             “Fine,” she said, holding up a finger when he opened his mouth. “On one condition.”

            He grinned. “Name it.”

            “Come with me to Slughorn’s party,” she said triumphantly. She couldn’t help feeling smug, but her brief pride disappeared when he tugged at the collar of his robes awkwardly. Her smirk faded quickly. “Or…not?”

            “Cassie, erm, don’t get me wrong…” he said, looking at the leaves above them instead of her, “but I, er, already have plans this Friday.”

            “Oh,” she said, slightly disappointed, though she forced herself to laugh. “That’s totally fine! It just looked like I’d asked you to sign over your soul to me or something.”

            He gave her a faint smile, and she tilted her head, looking at him with a sly grin. “So what kind of plans are they?”

            “I’m going on a date,” he said simply, now very absorbed in his fingernails.

            For some reason, this answer bothered her, though she shoved that thought away.

            “Right,” she said neutrally. “Brilliant.”

            He shrugged, and there was an awkward moment of silence until there was a sudden squeak of pain beside them.

            “Mercy!” Peter yelped, struggling away from James and Remus’s fists and rubbing his arms. “Merlin, that hurt!”

            “That’s the point of the game, Pete,” James said as Remus chuckled next to him. “We keep hitting you until you say ‘mercy,’ and then we stop.”

            “Yeah, but you didn’t have to hit me that hard!” Peter moaned, just as the bell rang out across the grounds.

            “Barbarians,” Cassie scoffed. She shook her head and clambered to her feet when Sirius rolled off her, wincing at the soreness in her muscles from sitting for so long. “C’mon, children, let’s get to class.”

            “Who’s the mother hen now?” James interjected. She just rolled her eyes before starting for the castle.

            “Oi, Cassie,” Sirius said, jogging to catch up with her. She gazed at him questioningly when he grinned down at her. “Still on for our deal?”

            “We never agreed to anything,” she said, baffled.

            “Yeah, but when we do, then we’re already on, see?” He stuck out his hand and wiggled his fingers. “What d’you say, Alderfair? Or are you too scared to go up against me?”

            She eyed his outstretched hand for a moment, debating, before taking it into her own and giving it a firm shake. “You think I’m going to back down that easily, Black?”

            “’Course not, Princess,” he said, winking at her. “I wouldn’t expect any less from you.”

            “Good,” she said sweetly, giving him her best smirk, “because we are so on.”


 

            “So I’m standing there – macaroni all over me, right? And he has the nerve to say ‘Oi, watch where you’re going, prat.’ So, long story short, but that is exactly how and why Matthew Masaveu now has noodles for eyebrows and cheese in his hair.”

            James bowed deeply at the conclusion of his story. Peter gave him a round of applause, snickering like a hamster with asthma, while Cassie just rolled her eyes from where she was sitting on the ground, feeding Little Leaf strips of bark from her hands. The bowtruckle blew James a very small – yet still rude – raspberry in between bites, causing the bespectacled boy to scowl down at him.

            “Cassie, I don’t understand why you choose to spend your time with such unrefined company,” he said.

            “Y’know, James,” she said sarcastically, “I ask myself that every day when you’re around, too.”

            He made a face at her, while Peter gave a big show of biting his thumb and turning away, grinning.

            They had come down to Care of Magical Creatures that day only for Professor Kettleburn to announce he wasn’t feeling well and then proceeding to tell them to sod off, and while everyone else had trudged back to the castle, Cassie had opted to stay with Little Leaf for a while, with James and Peter following suit since Sirius and Remus were in another class.

            The week seemed to have crept by too slowly for her, yet now she was sitting on Thursday, only a day away from Slughorn’s party. She still had no one to go with besides James, and the more she thought about it, the more she began to realize that she had no idea who else was going to be there, and much less of a clue in determining what to wear. She had formal robes and a few Muggle dresses she had managed to buy without her father’s knowledge stashed in her trunk, yet she didn’t know what the dress code was, and wasn’t particularly willing to let James guide her in the right direction on that one.

            She watched Little Leaf do cartwheels in the dirt until a voice from behind them began to speak. “Excuse me, but have any of you seen my Charms book? I think I might’ve left it out here a few min – oh.”

            Everyone turned to see Lily standing frozen in her tracks behind them, her green eyes wide and her face now flushed crimson to the roots of her hair.

            “All right, Evans?” James said, his hand immediately jumping to his hair, but Lily wasn’t paying him any attention, her gaze locked onto Cassie.

            Little Leaf chirped from behind her, and she felt a tugging on her sleeve, but she found herself staring right back, a sobering feeling prickling her gut.

            “Hi, Lily,” she said quietly. She thought she saw the faintest flicker of nostalgia in the other girl’s eyes before it was gone, her gaze hardening as she took in James standing next to Cassie.

            “You know what? I’ll just come back and look for it later,” Lily said in a low voice. “Have a nice day, Cassie.”

            And with that, she turned on her heel and flounced away, red hair streaming behind her. Cassie cursed.

            “Watch Little Leaf,” she ordered the boys before getting to her feet and chasing after her friend. “Lily! Lily, please wait!”

            The other girl stopped walking, only turning when Cassie reached her side, clutching a stitch in her stomach from sprinting uphill.

            “What do you want, Cass?” she said, looking quite miserable, and Cassie paused, uncertain. She hadn’t expected to get this far, and now was at a loss for words.

            “I miss you,” she blurted out finally, her face flushing when Lily just crossed her arms. “Look, I know you don’t like James: he can be loud, and obnoxious, and the most egotistical bastard on the planet, and I know that his pranks can go too far, but…he’s a good bloke to me, Lily. He treats his friends like family, and he can be the most loyal, selfless person when it comes to them, and that’s the James I’m friends with. He has his flaws, yeah, but he’s only human, just like the rest of us.”

            Lily remained silent, and Cassie sighed before pressing on.

            “He’s not replacing you, or Mar, or Alice, or anyone. But by some odd circumstance, he’s my friend now, same as you. And I want to be friends with you both. So just…please don’t ask me to choose between you two. Because I really miss you, Lils, and I don’t want to fight.”

            She bit her lip, waiting for the other girl to respond. After a few moments, Lily dropped her arms and let out a noise of frustration.

            “Cass, you know I hate fighting with you, too,” she said, “but I just can’t forgive Potter that easily. All those years of him embarrassing me, trying to get me to go out with him, and all the times he’s bullied Sev…I just can’t see him the way you do.”

            Cassie’s heart sank, but Lily grabbed her hand, her face pleading.

            “But I don’t want to lose you over this. And I don’t want you to feel like you’re choosing sides,” she said desperately. “So…I’m here for you. Whenever you want to be with the girls and me, we’ll be there, and whenever you want to be with the boys, we won’t say anything. Just…I can’t be around Potter. Not right now.”

            “So…all is forgiven?” Cassie asked. Lily nodded, squeezing her hand.

            “I’m sorry for being a prat,” she said solemnly. “All is forgiven.”

            Cassie grinned, gripping Lily’s hand back before her face lit up mischievously. “So, Lils, got any plans tomorrow?”


 

            There was an air of cheeriness the next morning in the girls’ dormitory as Cassie got dressed, her mood the lightest it had been for a while. After sitting down with Lily, Alice, and Marlene the night before and having a very long and meaningful talk that had left her with a raging headache, they had worked out their issues and now seemed to be on the right track. None of them were exactly thrilled about her relationship with the Marauders (particularly with James and Sirius), but as Cassie had pointed out, no boy should ever come between their friendship, and so a truce was formed.

            “I can’t go to Slughorn’s party!” Lily fretted, throwing herself down on Cassie’s bed while the other girl tugged on her stockings. “I have nothing to wear!”

            “What about that one violet dress you have?” she suggested. “You look amazing in that one.”

            Lily let out a distressed noise. “Are you mad? I can’t go strutting around in Muggle clothes! D’you know how many Pure-bloods are going to be there? How many Slytherin Pure-bloods? They’d tie me to a stake and burn me alive!”

            “Then borrow some of my formal robes,” Cassie said, frowning. She hadn’t thought about it much, honestly – she had been too worried making plans with James to gather information on Carlisle and Avery to give it any weight. “I’m sure I have an extra set in my trunk somewhere.”

            “Cassie, I can’t wear your robes,” Lily said, shaking her head. “You’re much taller than me, and, well…I’m a bit bustier than you, yeah?”

            Cassie looked down at her disappointingly small chest before conceding that point to Lily. “Yeah, but we can always tweak them with some spells.”

            Alice snorted from across the room. “The last time we tried that we turned Marlene’s dress into feathers,” she pointed out, and they all snickered at the memory while Marlene grimaced.

            “Please don’t remind me of that,” she said wearily. “I was finding feathers in the oddest places for ages.”

            “I don’t think Slughorn would care if you showed up in a Muggle dress, Lils,” Cassie said, guiding the conversation back to its purpose. “You’re one of the best fifth-years at Potions – he’s starkers for you, that man.”

            Lily flashed her a grateful smile, but sucked on her teeth worriedly until Cassie got hit with a brilliant idea. “I know! You wear your Muggle dress, and I’ll wear something Muggle, too!”

            “But Cassie, you’re a Pure-blood, as well,” Lily said, frowning. “Don’t you have to maintain the part, or whatever it’s called?”

            Cassie shrugged. “That’s only around my parents. Here, I don’t have to worry about decorum so much.”

            When Lily still looked doubtful, Cassie sighed. “Lils, just wear the damn dress. If anyone says something, I’ll handle it.”

            Lily shot her a dubious look, and even she was surprised at what had come out of her mouth. She usually avoided confrontation at all costs, and had never once spoken out against another student, but the more she thought about it, the more she knew she meant it.

            Those stupid Marauders were starting to wear on her.

            “Now that the fashion crisis is over, can we go eat?” Alice said, holding her stomach. “I’m ravished.”

            Marlene wrinkled her nose. “Not a good enough reason to use that word, Al,” she said, but Alice stuck her tongue out before leading the way to the Great Hall.

            They made it to the fifth-floor corridor before they were stopped by a nasally voice calling out to Lily. The girls halted to see Severus Snape slinking out of the shadows, looking like an overbearing bat with his greasy black hair and too-long robes.

            “Sev, hi!” Lily said brightly, flashing the boy a brilliant smile that made his sallow cheeks turn pink. “What’s up? Aren’t you coming to breakfast?”

            “In a moment,” he said. His black eyes slid over the other girls, a faint sneer curling his lips. “I wanted to speak to you, actually. Privately.”

            “Oh, all right,” Lily said, looking back to the others with a bemused expression. “See you down there?”

            “See you,” Alice said, nodding, though Cassie didn’t miss her distrustful glare at Snape. The three girls continued on their way to the Great Hall, leaving Lily behind with Snape, and as soon as they were out of earshot, Marlene began to speak.

            “Merlin, he creeps me out!” she said, shivering. “I don’t understand why Lily’s friends with him!”

            “They grew up together,” Alice said. “But I agree – something about him doesn’t sit right.”

            “James said that he’s interested in the Dark Arts,” Cassie put in, and though they frowned at the mention of the Marauder, they didn’t argue.

            “Seems likely,” Alice said. “He hangs around with that awful Slytherin gang, and I’m pretty sure he was the one who jinxed little Matilda Smethley last year.”

            “Wonder what he wants with Lily?” Marlene mused. “He usually doesn’t seek her out like that; seems like he always waits in the shadows for her to make the first move.”

            “Marlene, don’t be rude!” Cassie chastised. They turned to her incredulously before she grinned, dropping her faux disapproval. “You know vampires don’t like direct sunlight!”

            They all burst out laughing at this, their giggles still subsiding by the time they entered the Great Hall and headed for their usual seats at the table, with Cassie joining them once more.

            She walked past the Marauders, giving them a cheery wave, not noticing the blush staining Marlene’s cheeks behind her. They waved back, taking her absence in stride, before her eyes flicked to Sirius, staring moodily at her. She quirked a brow, but he turned away as if he hadn’t seen her, leaving her to only frown and continue on to their seats.

            “What was that all about?” Alice asked her when they had sat down.

            Cassie looked to her quizzically. “What?”

            Alice smirked as she began to spear a few pieces of ham onto her plate, jerking her chin at her. “That. It looked to me like Sirius Black was a tad disappointed you weren’t sitting with him today.”

            Cassie rolled her eyes, silently cursing when her cheeks flared anyway. “Oh, come off it. He’s just glad I’m not there to bruise his ego anymore.”

            Alice chuckled, though Cassie still didn’t like the look in her eye as she began to eat, glancing to Marlene. The blonde girl had her head down, her face faintly red as she poked at her food, but luckily, they were all distracted by the morning post.

            Alice and Marlene stopped eating long enough to read their multiple letters while Cassie chewed on, not expecting anything until Osbourne landed at her elbow, hooting importantly.

            “Ozzy?” she said, putting down her fork and scratching the owl’s head in confusion. “What are you doing here?”

            In response, he held his leg out to her, where a letter was tied. She took it warily before setting it under her plate and feeding a bit of toast to Osbourne. “Thanks, Ozzy. Be a good owl, and don’t hog all the mice in the Owlery.”

            He looked offended as he took off with the rest of the owls, but she turned her attention to the letter, apprehensive. She knew it had to be either from her parents or – Merlin forbid it – her brother, and either option sounded unappealing.

            Downing a goblet of pumpkin juice, she opened the envelope, not even bothering to look at the sender before she began reading, only to stop when she read but a few abrupt sentences.

            It’s not what it looks like. I’m so sorry. I don’t even remember what happened. Please believe me.

            Cassie stared at the message, feeling as if she had been dunked into icy water. She tore her eyes away from the parchment, seeing that Alice and Marlene were too busy reading their letters still to pay her any attention, before she looked down the table, instantly catching Remus’s eye.

            He flashed her a grin before seeming to realize how panicked she looked, for his face folded and his brows scrunched in question. She shook the parchment in her hands at him, mouthing Will.

            His expression darkened. He pointed to the doors of the Great Hall, then the watch on his wrist, holding up ten fingers. She nodded, the message clear.

            Remus turned back to his mates, and Cassie started when Lily sat down beside her, her face flushed and troubled.

            “Hey, Lily,” Marlene greeted, finally looking up from her letter. “What’s got you so riled up?”

            Lily shook her head, now even more flustered. “Nothing – I – I just…” She trailed off after seeing their skeptical faces, groaning and plopping her head down on the table with a firm thud. “Severus asked me to go to Slughorn’s party with him,” she said in defeat, and the other three shared a high-browed glance.

            “Poor bloke,” Marlene commented drily, going back to her letter and taking a sip from her tea. “Did you let him down easy, at least?”

            Lily looked up from underneath a curtain of fiery hair. “No,” she said miserably. They all gaped. “He just asked as a friend!” she protested. “And I told him I was going with Cassie, but that I’d meet him there!”

            “Oh, Lily,” Alice said, patting her hand sympathetically. “You really can’t see how smitten he is with you, can you?”

            Lily opened and closed her mouth, her face now a furious shade of red. Cassie, sensing another “Remus Lupin-fancies-you” debacle, intervened before anything else was said at Lily’s expense.

            “Y’know what’s great?” she broke in. She reached into her book bag and pulled out The Hobbit. “This book. Simply wonderful. Lily, I’d like to thank you so much for giving this to me. I can understand why the Muggles all like it.”

            She set the book down on the table, everyone’s attention now on her as she rifled through the pages. “I just got past chapter three, but there was this lovely bit back in chapter two about trolls – the author said you could defeat mountain-trolls just by sunlight! It turns them to stone! Isn’t that utterly absurd?”

            “I think you just made me lose my appetite,” Alice said, clanking down her fork, and Marlene grunted in agreement. “I’m going to History of Magic now.”

            She and Marlene got up and left for class, leaving just Cassie and Lily. The latter smiled gratefully and squeezed Cassie’s hand.

            “You’re the best,” she whispered.

            Cassie shrugged. “I try.”

            Swinging her bag over her shoulder and grabbing some toast, Lily headed after the other girls. Cassie followed suit, gesturing to Remus as she went.

            She found an abandoned classroom on the first floor and waited, pacing anxiously, the note still clutched in her hand. Five minutes later, Remus entered with the other three Marauders in tow.

            “I hereby call this Marauders meeting in session!” James said, banging an imaginary gavel.

            “I’m not a Marauder,” she pointed out, but James waved her off.

            “You can be the mascot or something,” he said.

            She rolled her eyes. “Gee, thanks.”

            “What happened, Cassie?” Remus said, gesturing to the note in her hand. “You said that Will wrote you?”

            She nodded, apprehensive again as she opened the message. “It’s not so much a letter as it is a plea,” she said. “And he didn’t sign it, but I know it must be him – just listen: It’s not what it looks like. I’m so sorry. I don’t even remember what happened. Please believe me.”

            She looked up, her hands shaking slightly as she met their eyes, each one intense and thoughtful. When she looked at Sirius, he smirked at her out of reflex, though the familiar gesture was enough to slow the race of her heartbeat.

            “It could be a trick,” James said slowly, raising his hands when her sharp gaze landed on him. “Cassie, the last time you saw him, the guy was a huge prick and was practically trying to recruit you into the Death Eaters. I’m just saying it’s a possibility that he’s trying to get you to sympathize, so he can work his way in.”

            She bit her lip, uncertain, though what James said did make sense. “Maybe you’re right, James. But the way he worded it…it sounds desperate.”

            The four boys shuffled their feet and traded uncomfortable glances.

            “Is there any reason why he would say that?” Remus asked, studying her carefully. “Anything to suggest that this isn’t some ploy?”

            She hesitated, her mind following the unbidden direction of the clockwork locket. It had been locked in her bedside table for the better part of a month, and she had nearly forgotten about it until now, though the message it had played for her all those weeks ago came back in haunting clarity.

            “I think there might be,” she said slowly, and they looked stunned when she told them about the locket and the message left by Will inside it.

            “Whoa, whoa, whoa,” James said, holding up his hands as if she were a wild hippogriff he was trying to rein back in. “You mean to tell me that your brother – y’know, a Death Eater – left some cryptic as hell message in a locket for you that basically warns against Darkness adding to its number? What the hell?”

            “Repeat the thing again,” Remus said, staring at the floor and cupping his chin in his hand.

            “A thousand years’ slumber, in a tomb beyond light/If Darkness adds to its number, the world shall fall to night,” she recited. She looked to him questioningly. “D’you have something?”

            “I’m just…trying to think…” he muttered, while Peter looked around the room in helpless confusion, obviously not having any clue as to what anything meant.

            “It’s rubbish,” Sirius said. “C’mon, that’s a load of dragon dung. Who puts that in a locket?”

            “Will doesn’t do anything randomly,” Cassie said, glaring at him. “Everything he does has a purpose – trust me, I would know. I’m his sister.”

            “Well, he’s not a very good brother if he doesn’t even take the time to explain what in the bloody hell his message to his sister means.” He raised a pointed eyebrow, and Cassie grit her teeth.

            “Sirius, this is definitely something to be concerned about,” Remus said, frowning. “Cassie’s right; this message is too specific to not mean anything.”

            “Then please enlighten us as to what it means, Remus,” he said as if speaking to a small child, “because it seems to me that the bloke’s being a git, as per usual nowadays.”

            “That’s my brother you’re talking about, Black,” Cassie snapped.

            “My bad.” He rolled his eyes. “Your brother is just being a git, Cassie. Simple as that.”

            “Piss off, Sirius,” she hissed. “You don’t know the first thing about my brother—"

            “Nor do I want to,” he shot back. “Not if he’s running around with a Dark Mark and torturing Muggles – and not to mention hurting you and causing you to deal with all this shit—"

            “I didn’t ask for any of this!” she said. “But he’s still my brother and I still want to look out for him – something you don’t seem to understand!”

            His eyes practically bugged at this, his olive skin slowly turning a deep shade of maroon the longer he stared at her, and she was quite taken aback – she had never seen him look so upset before.

            “Don’t act like you know me,” he growled. “You don’t know the first thing about me, Alderfair.”

            And with that, he turned on his heel and stalked out of the classroom, slamming the door behind him and making Peter jump from where he was perched on top of a desk.

            A tense silence followed Sirius’s departure until they all started (Peter nearly tumbling to the floor) when the bell rang throughout the castle.

            “We’ll talk tomorrow,” Cassie grumbled, grabbing her things and heading out the door. It closed with a snap behind her, leaving James, Remus, and Peter all standing in the classroom staring at each other.

            “Well,” James said finally, with fake enthusiasm, “it was nice while it lasted, eh?”


 

            The rest of the day passed in relative silence and glaring, as Cassie and Sirius didn’t seem keen on approaching the other after their row. James flitted back and forth between them, obviously trying to coax some sort of apology out of either of them, but they didn’t budge. He stopped trying after lunch, and thus, Cassie spent the afternoon brooding, only occasionally speaking to the girls, who were more than happy to leave her with her sulky self until the time came to prepare for Slughorn’s party.

            “Cass, the party starts in twenty minutes!” Lily cried when she walked out of the washroom and saw Cassie still laying on the bed where she had left her an hour ago, reading The Hobbit. “Why aren’t you ready?”

            “I’m not in a party mood,” she grumbled, flipping the page and continuing to read. She had just reached the part where Bard and Thranduil had come to treat with Thorin, and she was too invested now to stop. She heard Lily sigh from where she was standing in front of the full-length mirror, applying lipstick.

            “Look, you asked me to come with you, and you are not standing me up,” she said firmly, turning around and planting her hands on her hips. “C’mon, Cassie.”

            Cassie rolled her eyes, reluctantly closing her book and getting up to sift through her trunk to find what she needed.

            Ten minutes later, she was dressed in a sleeveless, silvery-grey blouse, and trousers too dark to be considered casual, before throwing on a black cardigan and slipping on a pair of flats.

            “Let’s go,” she said after running a brush through her hair. She stopped when she saw Lily looking her over critically. “What?”

            “That’s it?” she asked. “That’s all you’re gonna do?”

            She rolled her eyes, not in the mood to once again be criticized for her lack of fashion or beauty sense. “Yes, this is it. Now, come on before I change my mind.”

            Shrugging, but still looking judgmental, Lily followed her down the stairs. They emerged into the common room just in time to greet James as he came down the boys’ staircase.

            “Save your breath, Potter,” Lily sighed, holding up a hand when the boy saw her and opened his mouth, probably to say something embarrassing. He stared after her with a goofy expression as she went to wait by the portrait hole before Cassie slapped him on the back of the head.

            “Oi! What was that for?” he demanded.

            “Just don’t do anything stupid,” she said, marching away, but he caught her by her elbow and pulled her back.

            “Are you still mad about the Sirius thing?” he asked.

            She scowled and tugged her arm out of his grasp. “Yes, I’m still mad,” she said. “What gave it away?”

            “Merlin, you’re almost as dramatic as he is,” he said in a pained voice. “Look, Cass, I get it, but he’s just trying to be logical in the harsh, terrible way that he is. Give him some benefit of the doubt; he wasn’t bashing your brother.”

            “Then what about the whole you don’t know the first thing about me, Alderfair?” she questioned. “Was that his way of saying sorry?”

            “Will you stop trying to bite my head off?” he said, exasperated. “I’m trying to make amends here.”

            “That’s his job, not yours,” she retorted. “He’s a big boy; he can apologize to me himself.”

            James sighed in frustration, running a hand through his hair. “Fine, whatever. Let’s just go.”

            He joined her and Lily as they walked through the corridors to Slughorn’s office, the three wrapped in a sweltering silence, as each was lost to their own thoughts. Cassie could hear the classical music playing from a corridor away, and she wrinkled her nose, already envisioning how boring this dinner party was going to be as they made their way to the door.

            “James, m’boy!” Slughorn boomed when he spotted them. “Good to see you, good to see you! And it seems you’ve brought both the lovely Miss Evans and Miss Alderfair with you!”

            “Glad to be here, sir,” James said, shaking his hand and suddenly looking every bit the Pure-blood he was. “You know I never miss a chance to cheat you out of some wine and good food.”

            Slughorn laughed, clapping James on the shoulder before steering him away from the girls. “Cheeky lad! Now, come, there are some people I’d like you to meet…”

            The two disappeared into the steadily growing crowd, leaving Cassie and Lily standing awkwardly by themselves.

            “Er, drinks?” Lily said, gesturing to a table laden with expensive crystal and exquisite foods, and Cassie nodded. They each grabbed a glass of elf-wine and stood idly, chatting nonsensically as they surveyed the room.

            It seemed Slughorn had expanded the dimensions of his office to that of a small ballroom, as there was a dance floor in the middle beneath a glittering chandelier. Deep purple tapestries adorned the walls, lending the atmosphere one of decadence. Cassie was unfortunately familiar with the air of aristocracy from the countless dinner parties she’d had to attend with her family in the past, but Lily looked to be way out of her element, eyeing the elegant witches and wizards around them and shifting nervously on her feet.

            “Relax, Lily,” Cassie said, brushing her elbow with her fingers. “See? No one’s even looking at us twice.”

            Lily didn’t respond, not seeming to have heard her. Cassie sighed and turned when she felt a tap on her shoulder. “Yes?”

            “Fancy seeing you here,” Avery greeted. She stifled the urge to groan, only letting out a short sigh.

            “You knew I’d be here,” she reminded him. He grinned into his wineglass.

            “That I did.” His blue eyes sparkled as he took her in, and she looked away, uncomfortable. “Strange how well Muggle attire suits you.”

            She whirled around, her father’s accusations of blood traitor ringing in her ears.

            “And what exactly are you insinuating?” she demanded, shrugging off Lily’s hand on her shoulder and meeting his gaze challengingly.

            “Nothing at all,” he said, smirking. He seemed amused by her ire. “I was just stating a fact.”

            Cassie snorted, sipping from her wine and wishing he would go away, but she cursed when she realized that now was an opportune moment to get some information out of him. Swallowing the wine, she turned back to him and said as casually as she could, “So, how’s that extra credit assignment for Defense coming along?”

            “Oh, you know.” He waved his hand airily, his eyes now surveying the people around them. “Quite a bore, honestly.”

            “Aren’t you doing the Founders, like I suggested?” she asked innocently.

            “I am,” he said. “Not much to go on, really. People choose to talk more about their achievements as the creators of Hogwarts rather than what magic they were best at.”

            Cassie frowned, not knowing what else to say without being too obvious, though luckily, Avery was called away by some ancient-looking witch with a Bulgarian accent.

            He inclined his head to her before disappearing into the crowd, and she heard Lily breathe deeply from behind her.

            “Goodness, Cassie,” she said faintly, staring after Avery. “You know how to make friends with the wrong sort, don’t you?”

            Cassie snorted. “Avery is definitely not my friend,” she said, her eyes searching through the crowds. “Listen, I’ve got to find James – you want to come with?”

            Lily made a face at her. “No, I’m fine here with this lovely buffet behind me. Go on; I’ll catch up to you later.”

            Cassie squeezed her arm briefly before moving off in search of the bespectacled boy, wondering how she hadn’t been able to find his obnoxious self before now. She squeezed in between a couple of Ravenclaw seventh-years and spotted a flash of messy black hair, but before she could start after James, someone grabbed her arm from behind.

            “What d’you want, Avery?” she sighed, turning, before stopping in her tracks. Her eyes widened when she took in black hair, grey eyes, and olive skin. “Sirius?”

            But it wasn’t Sirius; she could tell from the way the boy’s face slipped into a sneer, his eyes cold and haughty. This boy was also shorter, broader in the shoulders, and not quite as handsome, but she recognized who he was when he began to speak.

            “Been spending too much time around charming Sirius, love?” he said, his voice lower and more controlled than his brother’s. His dark grey eyes raked her over intently.

            “Regulus, is it?” she said, regaining her wits and regarding the younger Black coolly. “I don’t think we’ve met before.”

            “I make it a point not to socialize with Gryffindors,” he said arrogantly, and she had to refrain from rolling her eyes. “But I recognize you; we attended the same manners classes when we were children.”

            She only hummed in response, not recalling that at all as he continued. “You’re also the talk of the school right now: Death Eater brother, crazy bitch who attacked a fourth-year, slagging around with my brother and those so-called Marauders of his… Well, you get the point.”

            Despite her best efforts, she could feel her face reddening. She hoped the lighting was dim enough to where he couldn’t tell, though the smirk on his face said otherwise.

            “Is there something you wanted, Black, or would you mind doing me the favor of sodding off?” she replied. He chuckled, teeth gleaming in the light.

            “Just thought I’d give you a little tip, Alderfair,” he said, shrugging, before leaning close. “You’ve piqued the interest of several Slytherins now, and I’d watch your back if I were you.”

            She shivered when his breath tickled her cheek. “Is that a warning or a threat?”

            He didn’t reply, only gazing at her with his dark eyes before stepping away and smiling softly. “Whatever you think you have on Carlisle, just leave it alone.”

            She froze, about to ask what he meant, but he was gone, having disappeared into the crowd behind him.

            Suddenly confined and uncomfortable, she weaved her way to the exit at the door, stepping out into the dungeons and shivering when the cool air hit her clammy skin. She had to find James, tell him about what had happened with Regulus Black, but first, she needed some air.

            She wandered up to the ground floor and began to meander along the corridors, not even thinking of Filch or Peeves or anyone else who would find her roaming about after dark, her mind too filled with jumbled thoughts of a mystery that was slowly becoming a much larger thing than she ever imagined.

            Sighing heavily, she found an empty classroom on her left and jiggled open the door, stepping inside to find a moment of peace where she could get her brain back together.

            To her horror, the classroom was already occupied, and she froze in the doorway when she saw two figures in a compromising position atop the large desk at the front of the room. Before she could stop herself, she let out a tiny squeak before clapping her hand to her mouth, mortified.

            “Bloody—" One of the figures struggled to stand up. The shorter one slid off the taller one’s lap, and there was a rustling of clothing as Cassie began to splutter.

            “I’m so sorry!” she said, backing out of the classroom. “I had no idea—"

            But she stopped dead when a voice, filled with incredulity and panic, said, “Cassie?”

            Oh, no.

            The second voice chimed in, this one sickeningly familiar as well, and Cassie could feel the blood rushing to her face. “Wait, Cass? Is that you?”

            There was another rustle, and then an indistinguishable mutter, before the room was suddenly filled with wandlight, and the whole terrible scene came to life before her eyes.

            Oh, no.

            She was staring into the shocked faces of none other than Sirius Black, and Marlene.

Chapter Text

            She was, quite literally, a deer stuck in wandlight as the brightness emanating from Sirius’s wand seared into her eyes, along with the petrifying images of catching two of her mates in an empty classroom in the middle of the night.

            She mumbled something unintelligible along the lines of “ad-gah...der” before common sense finally kicked in, and she all but fled down the corridor the way she’d come.

            Mortification such as she had never felt swelled inside of her, and she thought she might die from the severity of it, her mind unable to stop replaying the scene she had just witnessed over and over again.

            It’s all a dream. A very bad, disturbing, terrifying dream. Everything will be all right when I wake up. Oh, Merlin…

            “Cassie! Cassie, wait!”

            She quickened her pace, nearly jogging now as she heard footsteps chasing after her, and her embarrassment only grew when she realized that it was Sirius pursuing her.

            She hooked a sharp left down the corridor, attempting to make it back to the ground floor and the relative safety of the dungeons beyond, but Sirius grabbed hold of her arm just then.

            “I don’t want to hear it!” she said shrilly, refusing to look at him as her face glowed redder than it already was. “I just want to pretend like nothing just happened and I didn’t see you and one of my best friends doing...things!”

            “Cool it, will you, Princess?” He sounded exasperated, but she couldn’t bring herself to meet his eyes. “It wasn’t anything serious, all right? You can stop acting like you’ve just seen me naked.”

            “Been there, done that, and this was infinitely worse,” she replied, staring up at the high ceiling. He gave a deep sigh.

            “Cassie, please look at me.”

            His tone was so calm, so soothing, that she dropped her eyes, meeting his silver gaze and swallowing nervously.

            He looked gloriously rumpled, his hair disheveled and falling into his face, his cheeks flushed a lovely shade of pink. He hadn’t buttoned the top buttons of his shirt, but she snapped her eyes back to his quickly before she could notice anything else, wishing the floor would open up and swallow her whole.

            “There we go,” he said softly, giving her a slight smirk that seemed to tighten something in her chest into a taut strand, quivering like it was ready to break. “It was no big deal, yeah?”

            And just like that, the strand snapped.

            “‘No big deal?’” she repeated scathingly. His smirk wavered a little at her harsh tone. “Oh, I’m sorry, you must have me mistaken for some pervy third-year that just happened upon two older students getting it on in an abandoned classroom in the middle of the night! Not two of my mates who, until now, had no prior contact with each other as far as I knew!”

           He frowned down at her. “Well, it was an honest mistake, wasn’t it?”

           She laughed bitterly. “I guess you’re forgetting about the part where Lily, Alice, and Mar didn’t speak to me for weeks because I was hanging out with you! And now here you are, shacking up with Marlene as if you didn’t know what our row had been about in the first place!”

           He put his hands up in a placating gesture but dropped them when she appeared even angrier, her teeth clenching together with an audible snap.

           “Look, Cassie, this isn’t a recent thing,” he said, sighing. “This started a few weeks before you and I officially became friends—"

           “Like that’s supposed to make it any better?” She was nearly yelling now, but she didn’t care—how was he not seeing the fault in this? “Sirius, we weren’t speaking for three weeks, and in all the time I was off gallivanting with you, you never once decided to mention oh, by the way, I’m hooking up with your mate Marlene?”

           “I thought you knew, or she would have told you when you made up,” he said, now looking thoroughly annoyed. “Stop pinning the blame all on me, all right?”

           “I’ll do whatever I damn well please,” she snapped, jabbing her finger into his chest. “This isn’t just about Marlene and your lies, either—you insulted my brother, and me—"

           “Since when did I insult you?” he asked, bewildered. She threw up her hands in frustration.

           “You don’t know the first thing about me, Alderfair!” she mimicked in a high voice.

           “You don’t,” he said, gritting his teeth, and she scoffed.

           “Obviously not,” she retorted, “since I’ve never seen you act this way.”

           “Stop acting like you’ve got me all figured out,” he snarled, and now it was her turn to be stunned. His grey eyes had morphed from a light silver to a darkened storm cloud, and the intensity with which they bored into her made her feel like lightning was sizzling across her skin.

           “You said it yourself,” he continued, “we’ve been hanging around each other, what? Three weeks? A month at the most, if you count the times you were there with my mates but we didn’t speak to each other. And suddenly, you think that you know how I work, what’s going on inside my head, but you don’t. And if you knew anything about me or my life, then you would understand why I don’t trust your brother.”

           “Then let me understand!” she argued. “You’re acting like you expect me to figure you out, mystery and all, yet you give me nothing to work with. I’ve told you and your mates things that I’m not even sure I should trust you with yet, so the least you could do is help me understand you.”

           There was a crackling silence between them, and Cassie just watched his face in the dim light of the corridor, his expression shifting too fast for her to decipher what he was thinking. She stared at the arch of his mouth above his lips, where her head rested just shy of the bridge of his nose, waiting for him to say something. He seemed to be struggling with himself, and another moment of silence passed in which he didn’t say anything before she sighed, stepping away and shaking her head.

           “Just forget it,” she said. “I’m going to bed.”

           She turned and walked away, not even flinching when she heard him curse and start after her again. “Cassie, wait, dammit—"

           “And just what are you two doing out of bed?”

           They turned in the direction they had just come from, only to see Professor McGonagall staring them down with her formidable gaze. Cassie nearly groaned aloud at her rotten luck.

           “Just on our way back from Slughorn’s party, Minnie,” Sirius said easily, though his tone was still flat and angry. Cassie gaped at his rudeness, staring between him and the stern witch fearfully.

           Professor McGonagall raked her eyes over them, obviously noting Cassie’s semi-formal attire and Sirius’s ruffled appearance, and she seemed close to rolling her eyes.

           “Well, get back to your dormitories, then,” she said, gesturing them on. “And if I catch you two wandering the corridors again after curfew, I will be more than happy to assign you both more detentions.”

            With muttered apologies and hasty goodnights, they retreated to the common room, not daring to go anywhere else with their narrow escape from their Head of House. The going was tense, and she tried not to be aware of Sirius walking a few steps behind her, shoes scuffing the floor and hands in his pockets, though it was hard, as his aura seemed to radiate displeasure.

            They made it to the Fat Lady, and after muttering a sullen “nimble wimble” the portrait swung forward and permitted them entrance. They climbed into the empty common room without speaking, but when she peeled off to the girls’ staircases, Sirius gave a light snort from behind her.

            “Oh, for Merlin’s sake, what?” she snapped, turning to face him and crossing her arms. He was still standing near the portrait hole, hands still in his pockets, and she dearly wished she could give him a nice shove at that moment.

            “So, that’s it, then?” he asked, eyes glittering. “You’re just going to be mad at me now until you decide not to be?”

            “Until you decide to stop being a git,” she corrected.

            “D’you even realize how dramatic you are sometimes?”

            “That’s rich, coming from the drama queen himself.”

            He sighed heavily out his nose, running both hands through his hair in agitation and looking like he was trying very hard not to hit something. Or her, specifically.

            “Why am I even friends with you again?” He seemed to be asking himself more than her, but the comment still stung, nonetheless. As his words sunk in, she deflated in on herself, all the fight draining out of her body and leaving her exhausted and uncertain.

            “I don’t know,” she said quietly. He stared at her strangely before his words clicked.

            “Oh, fu—Cassie, stop, you know I didn’t mean it like that.” He stepped closer to her before halting, dropping his hands as she bit her lip, not knowing whether to be angry or break down.

            He looked genuinely worried as he watched her, speaking in a rush. “Look, I—I’m not good at this, okay? I’ve never had a friend that’s a girl—like an actual mate I can hang around with. And that—what I just said—was nothing, Cassie. Really. You’re my friend. I’m sorry.”

            She held up a hand, cutting off his rambling when she could feel a headache coming on.

            “It doesn’t matter,” she said lowly. “Can we—can we just talk tomorrow, Sirius? I can’t do this right now.”

            He looked like he wanted to protest, but after seeing the silent plea in her gaze, he simply nodded.

            “’Course,” he said gruffly. “Er…goodnight, Cassie.”

            “’Night, Sirius.”

            She had just set foot on the bottom step of the staircase when his voice spoke up again. She paused to listen, though didn’t turn back around.

            “My middle name’s Orion, by the way,” he said quietly. She wondered if he was even still talking to her, but he had to be. There was no one else in the common room with them. “It’s a small something to work with, but it’s a start, eh?”

            When she didn’t say anything, she heard him start up the boys’ staircase, before her soft voice reached out to him.

            “Mine’s Marie.”

            With the truce offered and accepted, they said nothing else and parted ways for the night.


 

             Cassie trudged up the staircase, walking slowly to her dormitory and cursing herself for ever getting involved with the Marauders and Avery—and Regulus Black now, apparently. Her life had been much simpler when she was still the Invisible Girl; sure, people would still know about her brother, still jeer at her for it, but they were strangers—people she could easily brush off at the end of the day. But now she was starting to regret ever opening up to Remus Lupin and allowing him and his mates to worm their way into her life like this.

            Oh, come off it, she scoffed. Stop acting like such a prat. You know you wouldn’t go back and change it now.

            Though bizarre to think about, she had to agree with her little voice, and she suddenly felt guilty for ever thinking she was better off not knowing them. True, it had been a little more than a month since they’d become friends, but she was starting to genuinely like them, and perhaps that was why she had been so shocked and angry at Sirius.

            He was a berk for not telling her, but at the same time, she knew that it shouldn’t matter to her. What should matter was if he hurt Marlene in any way. Then he would regret the day he was ever born if she had any say in the matter.

            She was just reaching for the doorknob when there was a sudden scuffle from down the hall, and Marlene’s anxious voice called out, “Cassie? Is that you?”

            Stifling a sigh, since there was no use denying it, she said, “Yeah, it’s me, Mar.”

            She felt Marlene’s uncomfortably warm hands grasp her own before the other girl was already rambling, whispering in the darkness of the hall. “Cassie, I’m so sorry you had to see that. And I’m sorry for not telling you about Sirius and me sooner—I know you and he are mates now, so I assumed he would’ve mentioned something. And the whole thing with Lily—oh, Merlin, you must hate me now, I’m such a hypocrite—"

            “Mar,” Cassie said, cutting off her apologies, and the other girl’s fingers tightened in her own. “Look, I’m not mad, okay? It’s your life, you do what you want with it. But Godric, I wish one of you would’ve told me, so I didn’t have to look like a complete fool.” She closed her eyes, fighting off the headache that was slowly growing stronger and sighing. “Does Lily know?”

            Marlene shook her head. “Not yet. But I’m going to tell her. Tomorrow.”

            “She won’t be mad, Mar,” Cassie said, hearing the worry in her friend’s voice. “Not after me. And we swore no boy was ever going to come between us again, remember?”

            “Yes, that’s true,” she said, sounding like she was trying to convince herself. “I’m still really sorry, Cass. You, erm, shouldn’t have had to find out that way.”

            “There are worse ways,” she said, shrugging. “Thank Merlin it wasn’t the Prefects’ bathroom or anything—"

            “Ugh, gross, Cass.” She shuddered. “You really know how to ruin the moment, don’t you?”

            “It’s one of my specialties,” she replied, smirking, before leading Marlene into the dorm. “Can we just go to bed now and pretend this never happened? I have a raging headache and I want to sleep it off.”

            Marlene nudged her with her elbow playfully. “All right. Goodnight, Cass.”

            Cassie shooed her off to bed, being careful not to disturb Alice as she changed into her nightclothes. Lily’s bed was empty, and she assumed the other girl was still at Slughorn’s party—another thing for Cassie to feel guilty for, as she’d left her there all alone and ditched James, as well.

            Shrugging it off and promising herself she would deal with it in the morning, she climbed into bed and lay there for a while, staring out the window and trying to figure out why she felt so wrong.


 

            “Wait, so Alderfair walked in on you doing what?”

            Sirius grimaced at James’s shock, not quite meeting his mate’s eyes as he pulled on his Quidditch robes. Weatherly had insisted on an early Saturday morning practice despite them just having played a game two weeks ago, reiterating the point all morning that the outcome of the Slytherin versus Hufflepuff match next week would determine who they play next and that they should be prepared for anything. (Sirius quite liked the thought of Weatherly being prepared for his broomstick to be shoved up his arse, but that was his own personal preference.)

            “Nothing serious,” he said hastily, yanking on his boots. “McKinnon and I were just, y’know…snogging.”

            “Clothes on or off?” James asked. Sirius made a face at him.

            “On. Sort of,” he replied, smacking James on the arm with his glove when the other boy made disgusting kissing noises at him.

            “And Alderfair saw it?” He dodged Sirius’s next hit nimbly, frowning when Sirius nodded reluctantly. “Poor girl,” he said sympathetically, mussing up his hair. “Is that why she looked so awkward at breakfast this morning?”

            Sirius shrugged, frowning when he recalled the way her eyes had skimmed over him that morning as she’d walked with Marlene to sit with Evans and Fortescue. Marlene had given him an embarrassed wave that he’d returned with a nod, though his attention had been mostly on Cassie. She hadn’t looked mad, to his relief, but she’d appeared faintly annoyed when Marlene insisted on taking her arm and chattering in her ear, a tad too forcefully.

            James clucked his tongue. “Way to go, Pads. Now she’s probably terrified of you sticking your tongue down her throat next—"

            Sirius rolled his eyes, choosing to not even deign that with a response, but James went on. “And an empty classroom, really? No wonder why you got caught—I always take my birds up to the Astronomy Tower; no one ever thinks to look there—"

            “Oi, Potter, Black! Are you two going to shut it or do I have to make you both run extra laps today?” Weatherly glared at them from the door of the changing rooms, already dressed in his Keeper uniform and looking like a boulder had learned how to wear clothes.

            “Nah, don’t worry about us, Weatherly,” James said, pretending to salute. “I’m in top form, and Sirius already did some laps with Marlene McKinnon last night—"

            “You did what with my sister?” Mikey McKinnon groaned, quite green in the face as Sirius shoved a snickering James roughly into a locker.

            “Nothing, kid,” Sirius grumbled to the fourth-year. Mikey looked away, muttering about how he was going to be sick, while the rest of the team looked on in entertainment.

            Weatherly cleared his throat before speaking, his tone irritated. “Right, then. Five laps around the pitch running and another five on brooms when you’re finished. Let’s get started.”

            The seven players hustled out of the changing rooms and began to jog around the pitch, the dry grass crackling under their shoes and the cold winter air stinging their faces pink. Sirius welcomed the cold, letting it fill his lungs and invigorate his senses as he stayed by James’s side, the other boy’s stride long and sure as they completed their first lap.

            “So,” James said on their third lap, his voice nonchalant, “how d’you feel about Cassie finding out?”

            “Finding out what?”

            James rolled his eyes.

            “You and McKinnon,” he said wryly. “Considering I didn’t find out about it until thirty minutes ago, I’m assuming you didn’t tell her?”

            “It’s not like McKinnon and I are dating,” he said, tone brusque. “It’s just hooking up.”

            “Something tells me she wouldn’t be too pleased with either scenario,” James pointed out. Sirius grit his teeth.

            “If you care so much about how she feels, then why don’t you ask her yourself?” he retorted.

            “I’m asking how you feel about how she feels,” James said. Sirius turned to stare at him, baffled.

            “That’s completely mental,” he said, but James just shrugged.

            “Cassie’s our friend,” he said. “And after your row yesterday, I just want to be sure that there’s not going to be any tension now—"

            “There’s not,” Sirius said as they completed their laps and grabbed up their brooms. “In fact, just to please you especially Prongs, I’ll talk to her tonight.”

            “Good,” James said, mounting his broom and casting him a look he did not like at all. “Remember, Pads, she’s our ally, and a friend now. So just…don't ruin that, yeah?”

            Sirius looked to him, affronted. “Since when do I ever ruin things?”

            James just grinned before clapping him on the shoulder.

            “Just stick with McKinnon, y’hear? Don’t get Cassie involved.”

            And with that bit of advice, he pushed off the ground and joined the rest of the team circling the pitch on their brooms, leaving a dumbstruck Sirius behind. 


 

            “It’s just so weird,” Cassie said to Alice later that day. “Like, Sirius doesn’t think it’s a big deal, but Mar was practically bugging about it. And I’m the one stuck in the middle, which is the last place I want to be.”

            She was laying down on Alice’s bed, her legs swinging over the footboard as the other girl lay on her stomach beside her, a pillow under her elbows as she tried to copy some flower design from that month’s issue of Witch Weekly on her nails. Marlene had pulled Lily out of the dorm with some vague excuse about the library, but she assumed the blonde witch was going to tell Lily about Sirius. Alice already knew since Cassie couldn’t keep any juicy secret away from her, but she hadn’t seemed surprised.

            “It’s just who they are as people,” she said reasonably, grunting when she messed up a petal and quickly using a piece of cotton to fix it. “Black’s been messing around with girls since the end of third year, and I doubt he sees anything long-term with Mar. While on the other hand…”

            “Mar falls in love at the drop of a hat,” Cassie finished, frowning. “And that’s what I’m afraid of.”

            “Well, whatever happens, at least we know she’ll be over it quickly,” Alice pointed out, and Cassie had to agree. Though it sounded harsh, Marlene always bounced back after a breakup, usually by convincing herself that so-and-so was wrong, and she was right, and Cassie figured her inevitable split with Sirius would be no different.

            Alice finished up her nails while Cassie perused the pages of the glossy magazine, her eyes flicking over moving pictures of witches and wizards in lurid, fashionable robes and exotic makeup styles, wondering how many had been handpicked personally by her mother. She imagined only a few, as Eleanor was extremely picky and her standards were high, and she knew her mother would want only the best and the most beautiful models in the world. She flipped to the first page, where she knew all the editors’ names and photographs to be.

            She spotted her mother immediately, her face one of the bigger ones on the page, wearing sparkling magenta robes and her trademark peacock-feathered quill perched behind one of her diamond-studded ears. Despite the layers of flawless makeup, Cassie could still see her features represented there: the straight nose, high cheekbones, and arching brows, all framed by a curtain of dark brown hair, though Eleanor’s was richer than her own—almost black. The features all looked better on her mother, too, as she had inherited her father’s thin lips and upturned eyes, while Eleanor’s full lips and blue almond-shaped eyes made her one of the most beautiful witches in Britain.

            “I keep forgetting how much you look like your mum,” Alice said, staring over Cassie’s shoulder as Eleanor’s picture smiled and blew kisses out to them. “You’re both so pretty.”

            Cassie scoffed, tossing the magazine back to her friend. “You’re lucky she’s not here to hear that,” she said. “She’d probably try and give you an autograph.”

            “Being best friends with her daughter is more than enough,” she replied, pinching Cassie’s side and giggling when she swatted her away.

            “You’re so embarrassing,” Cassie moaned, covering her face, and Alice laughed again before sitting up and stretching.

            “Y’know, I was kind of wondering…” Cassie peeked from between her fingers to see Alice staring down at her thoughtfully. “How do you feel about Mar and Black?”

            Cassie removed her hands from her face, frowning up at her friend. “What d’you mean? I already told you that it was weird, and I was kind of pissed no one told me, but it’s happening, right? No use worrying about it.”

            “So, you don’t feel any way toward it?” Alice pressed, quirking her lips. “Nothing to say about it at all?”

            “Er…no,” Cassie said, bewildered. “Should I?”

            Alice just shrugged, but Cassie sat up, brows furrowed. “Al, you know I’m terribly thick. What are you trying to get at?”

            Alice shook her head. “It’s nothing, Cass. I just thought…well…”

            Cassie nodded, goading her on. “Well…?”

            Alice gave her a dry look before raising her hands. “I just thought you and Black were going to hit things off,” she said. Cassie gaped. “The two of you were getting closer, you were with his mates all the time—oh, Cass, don’t give me that look.”

            “No, I will!” she said. “Why does everyone think that I hang around them because I fancy one of them, or I’m taking turns shagging each one? Al, don’t laugh—why can’t I just be around them without everyone assuming the worst?”

            “Because society sucks,” she said, waving the magazine in front of her and pointing to a headline reading HOW TO ENSNARE THE LOVE OF YOUR LIFE IN THREE EASY STEPS—NO LOVE POTIONS INVOLVED!

            Cassie slapped the magazine out of her face, scowling. “No kidding. And can we not talk about Sirius Black? Just hearing his name is giving me a migraine.”

            Alice huffed dramatically. “Fine, whatever. Should we go see if Lily’s killed Mar yet?”

            Cassie sighed, not really wanting to move but knowing that Alice would make her—she hated going places by herself. “Yeah, let’s go.”


 

            After checking the library and not finding any signs of Marlene’s mangled corpse, the two girls headed to the Great Hall for a quick lunch before getting started on the mountain of homework they had. Upon entering, Alice elbowed Cassie in the ribs, breaking the girl’s gaze away from where the Marauders usually sat and gesturing farther down the table, where Lily and Mar were sitting across from each other civilly and eating.

            “Well, she’s still upright and breathing,” Alice remarked as they made their way to them. “That’s always a good sign.”

            “I dunno,” Cassie said. “She might be an Inferius—Lily could’ve killed her and then brought her back just to kill her again.”

            Alice snorted loudly, and several heads turned in their direction, including Lily’s and Marlene’s. The blonde witch nearly wept in relief as they sat down.

            “So…how is everybody?” Cassie asked, pouring herself some tea and hoping she could eat before she had to flee if things got nasty.

            Lily gave her a look that made the redhaired girl appear as if she were struggling to swallow a mouse, and Marlene smiled sheepishly, which was all the confirmation she needed to begin wolfing down her food.

            “Hey, what did we just promise each other?” Alice said, pointing her fork to each girl individually to enunciate her point. “No—boys—come—between us. Right?”

            Marlene nodded a bit too quickly. “Of course!”

            Lily sniffed and flipped her hair over her shoulder. “Right.”

            Cassie almost choked on her roasted potatoes in her haste to agree. “Yeah, got it.”

            “Then it’s settled.” Alice spread her hands in a peaceful gesture. “Marlene, despite the reputation that precedes Sirius Black, we will support you both in your endeavors—so long as they are appropriate—and we wish you luck.”

            Cassie raised her teacup. “Hear, hear!”

            Lily gave her a dry look, but sighed and nodded at Alice’s imploring gaze. “Yes, yes, fine, congratulations. But if he steps one toe out of line, or if he hurts Mar in any way…”

            “Then we will gladly castrate him in front of everybody in the courtyard,” Cassie finished. Lily grimaced.

            “Well, I wasn’t going to go that far…but essentially, yes.”

            Marlene looked around at them, her eyes shining. “You are all absolutely the best friends anyone could ask for, you know that?”

            “Of course we know.” Cassie pretended to pose dramatically but only succeeded in hitting her elbow on her fork and sending it clattering to the floor.

            The other girls snickered as she reached under the table to retrieve her fork. After avoiding an enthusiastic second-year’s foot that almost kicked her in the face, she grabbed ahold of the utensil and sat back up, only to hear Mar squeak, “Sirius, hi!”

            Lily stiffened beside her as Mar waved over Cassie’s shoulder, smiling brilliantly. Alice pretended to be very interested in her salad as Cassie cleaned her fork off on a napkin, acting as if she hadn’t heard Marlene’s happy greeting.

            “Hullo, love,” Sirius returned, and Cassie could only imagine the smirk he was shooting Marlene to make her blush so profusely. “All right, Evans, Fortescue?”

            “It’s Alice,” Alice said, shrugging slightly, and Cassie practically felt the wink he aimed at the brunette.

            “Alice it is, then,” he said. “And I’m assuming we’re not on good enough terms for Lily yet, eh, Evans?”

            “Not even close,” Lily replied, taking a sip of gillywater through pursed lips, and Sirius chuckled before Cassie heard him shift behind her.

            “Er, Cassie,” he said a bit hesitantly. “D’you mind walking with me for a bit?”

            Knowing the inevitability of this situation, she drained the last of her tea in one gulp and stood up, nodding.

            “I’ll be back,” she said to the girls, catching Alice’s eye and seeing the brunette scrutinizing her and Sirius intently. Lily didn’t acknowledge her, and Marlene seemed a bit put-out that he hadn’t asked her to walk with him, but Sirius was already departing, so she followed after him with a small sigh.

            Eyes trailed them as they left the Hall. Sirius walked away from the Hall and the other students’ scrutiny before he came to rest against a pillar near the front doors, propping his shoulders on the stone and leaning back, arms crossed.

            “Short walk,” she commented, coming to a stop before him, and he rolled his eyes.

            “What did you want to talk about?” he asked.

            “What?”

            “You said let’s talk tomorrow,” he said, staring at her. “So, what was it that you wanted to talk about?”

            “When did I say that I had anything more to talk about?” she said, frowning. “You were the one so keen on speaking last night, so I thought you had more to say.”

            He sighed, pinching his nose between his thumb and index finger. “Are you beginning to notice a trend here?”

            “That we’re both pretty much the most complicated people on the planet?”

            “Exactly.”

            They shared a tiny smirk before Cassie sighed, figuring she had to get the ball rolling at some point. “I’m sorry for freaking out last night. Maybe I overreacted just a tad, but I hope you can see where I was coming from about getting left in the dark by two of my friends. I just hope for your sake now that you treat Marlene well.”

            He fidgeted against the pillar. “Er, McKinnon and I…aren’t exactly an item.”

            “I know,” she said. “I’m aware of your reputation—as is most everybody in this school, and probably Professor Dumbledore, too—but even if it’s just many one-night stands in a row, I still expect you to be respectful of her and responsible.”

            He gave her a weird look. “You and James would make formidable parents together, y’know that? The ultimate mum duo.”

            She rolled her eyes. “Good thing I don’t ever plan on marrying him, then. Now, is there anything else you’d like to add before we throw this under the bridge?”

            He grimaced, rocking back on his heels and staring up at the ceiling. “I’m sorry for being a git to you and your brother, the git of all gits,” he said, smirking when she scowled. “I understand where you’re coming from, wanting to protect him, but… I just want you to be careful, Cassie. He’s still a Death Eater.” He blew out his cheeks. “And I really am sorry for not telling you about Marlene.”

            Cassie searched his face for a moment, trying to detect a hint of sarcasm, but it wasn’t there. His grey eyes were solemn and sincere when they met hers, and a strange feeling twisted in her gut at the look before she finally nodded.

            “Apology accepted,” she said. “Thank you, Sirius Orion Black.”

            “But of course,” he said, bowing his shaggy head before looking back up to her with a smirk. “Cassiopeia Marie Alderfair.”

            She made a face at him and he barked out a laugh. She turned back to the Great Hall just in time to see a gaggle of older Ravenclaw students walking in, and her eyes lit up when she saw Bertram Aubrey amongst them.

            She looked back at Sirius with a wicked grin. He returned the gesture, though it was tinted with confusion at the look of mischief splayed over her features as she walked toward the Hall and the Ravenclaws.

            “What are you doing?” he asked slowly. She shot him a wink.

            “Upholding my side of the deal,” she said before swaggering away. She reached the Ravenclaws just as they were about to enter and tapped Aubrey on the shoulder.

            He turned and smiled when he saw her, his features brightening in recognition. “Cassie, hey. I haven’t seen you in a while. How is everything?”

            “Oh, fine,” she said, surprised that her face wasn’t flushed, as it normally would’ve been at this point. “How are you?”

            “Pretty good,” he said, pushing his golden hair off his forehead. “Just trying to survive at this point, y’know?”

            She giggled at this, touching her fingers to her throat at the overly girlish sound that came out, but he didn’t seem to notice, still grinning down at her. “So, what’s up? Did you need anything?”

            “What? Oh, no,” she said, waving him off. “I just had something to say.”

            And before she could stop and process what she was about to do, she said as confidently as she could: “I think you’re pretty fit.”

            He stared at her, bemused, but before he could say anything, she flashed him a brilliant smile and walked away, saying, “Enjoy your lunch!”

            She went back to Sirius, still lounging against the pillar and now staring at her as if he had never seen her before. She tossed him a smug grin.

            “There,” she said triumphantly. “Now, I don’t have to dress up and embarrass myself in Hogsmeade. So, do you still want to keep your terms, or would you like to change them?”

            “Merlin’s great staff, Cassie,” he said in awe. “Did you see how bad that bloke looked? Nearly gaped like a fish out of water.”

            She shrugged, a little modest as she fiddled with the hem of her shirt. “When you’re friends with someone like Mar, you pick up on a few tricks here and there,” she admitted, flushing when he scoffed.

            “No kidding,” he replied, still looking quite gobsmacked at the whole ordeal. “I think I’d like to up the deal a bit.”

            “Oh?” She raised her eyebrows. “Name your terms, then.”

            “How about this?” He licked his lips, thinking. “If Aubrey asks you to the next Hogsmeade trip now after what you just did, you still have to buy me anything I want from Honeydukes."

            “That’s lame, Sirius Black,” she said, wrinkling her nose, but she couldn’t help the jittery feeling that coursed through her at the mention of Aubrey asking her out. “Do something else, something more…daring. You are a Marauder after all, aren’t you?”

            He eyed her with a new appraisal at her words, smirking slightly. “So, the Princess wants to get her hands dirty?”

            “I learned dares from the best,” she said, gesturing to him.

            “All right,” he said. “Here are my terms: if Aubrey asks you to Hogsmeade, you have my express permission to choose any point in time and force me to jump into the Black Lake, completely naked.”

            She snorted, covering her mouth to stifle her laughter before asking, “And if he doesn’t? Then I get to jump in naked?”

            His grin turned wolfish. “Nah. Your deal is that if he doesn’t, you have to lick my foot.”

            “That’s it?” She crinkled her face. “That’s so…”

            “Lame?” He smirked when she nodded. “Ah, but see, Princess, you didn’t let me finish.” He leaned in close; so close she could see the ring of darker grey that lined his irises and smell his cologne, an expensive and heavenly scent that enticed her to lean forward as well, their faces inches apart.

            “Well?” she whispered, dearly wishing she had a mint at that time, but his smirk merely grew.

            He flicked a piece of her hair before saying lowly, “You’ll find out.”

            And with that, he brushed past her and walked away. She stood, confused, before whirling around.

            “Sirius Black!” she called. “You can’t do that!”

            All she got in return was a chuckle and a wave before he reentered the Great Hall. She stared after him, shaking her head in amazement before a gruff hand covered her mouth, smothering her cry of surprise, and her vision went dark.

Chapter Text

            The hand held firm over her mouth despite her muffled shouts and flailing limbs, and the cloth wrapped tightly over her eyes obscured her view completely, rendering her helpless as she was pushed along by multiple pairs of hands.

            When she wasn’t struggling, she could hear only the footsteps of the people holding on to her, and the sudden narrowness and cramped feeling she got told her that she was traveling through secret passageways, out of sight of the other students and staff.

            The cloth was ripped free of her eyes and she was shoved onto a cold stone floor. There was a distinct snap of a door behind her as she whirled around, preparing to scream before a voice said, “Silencio.”

            Cassie opened her mouth, but no sound came out. She looked up to see three girls standing over her, the center one lowering her wand and smirking as she gaped. Cassie recognized Peggy Sloane, the horrible girl from her Defense class who had laughed with the other Slytherins after Mulciber had given her that note. The other two she vaguely recalled, and though she couldn’t remember their names, their silver-and-green ties told her they were Slytherins, as well.

            “Look at her face,” Sloane snickered. Her own face—which quite resembled that of a bulldog’s—was lit with vicious amusement. “It looks like she’s trying to comprehend her own stupidity.”

            Cassie wanted to point out that that made no sense at all, but her vocal cords were completely useless as she kneeled on the floor of what appeared to be an empty bathroom.

            Sloane raised her wand again. “Now, Alderfair, if I lift the spell, are you gonna scream?”

            Very slowly, she shook her head, and Sloane gave her a smug smile before muttering the counter-curse. The other two tensed, expecting her to cry out, but she remained silent, getting back to her feet and saying nothing, only meeting Sloane’s beady eyes.

            “What do you want?” she asked. She was surprised to hear her voice come out so even despite her racing heart and sweaty palms.

            “We just got a few questions for you, Gryffindor, no big deal,” Sloane said, shrugging.

            Cassie eyed her warily. “About what?”

            “Your brother.” Cassie froze, and Sloane noticed the motion like a shark sniffing blood in the water.

            “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said as firmly as she could. “I haven’t spoken to him in months.”

            “Word travels,” Sloane said, and Cassie swallowed nervously at the grin on the girl’s face. “See, us Slytherins look out for each other; and when your brother decided to jump into the snake pit with the rest of us, we started keeping tabs on him, too. So, cut the shit, Alderfair. We know about the Hogsmeade visit.”

            The blood drained from Cassie’s face—if they knew about her meeting with Will, then did they know about the locket too?

            “What of it?” she said with a slight waver to her voice. The girls exchanged a meaningful look.

            “He gave you something, a birthday present.” Sloane sneered at her. “What was it?”

            “A stupid bracelet, completely worthless,” she said. “I threw it in the bin as soon as I got back.”

            The three exchanged another look. She could tell they weren’t entirely convinced, and her mind hurried to think of something else.

            “Why are you interested, anyway?” she asked. “Did Carlisle put you up to this?”

            One of the girls’ eyes widened, and she turned to Sloane fearfully. “She knows about Carlisle—"

            “Shut up, Emma!” Sloane hissed, but Cassie grinned.

            “What’s Carlisle’s game?” she said. “What does she want with me and my brother?”

            “Nothing,” Sloane snapped, but Cassie wasn’t done.

            “And what about the Founders? Why is she so interested in them, and the Forbidden Forest—?”

            She stopped, hand automatically reaching for her pocket when three wands aimed at her, Sloane glaring with the intensity of a rabid dog.

            “This conversation never happened,” she said, pointing the tip of her wand at Cassie’s forehead. “Your day was entirely normal, Alderfair, and you won’t remember any of this. Oblivi—ARGH!”

            Cassie stared, dumbfounded, as jets of water shot from the row of toilets behind her and doused the three Slytherins in dull grey water that smelled strongly of sewage. After gargling and slipping in the water barrage for a few seconds, the three girls turned and fled the bathroom, coughing and gagging the whole way.

            Cassie stood alone in the bathroom. She watched the water flow back into the toilets, leaving the floor soaking, yet she was standing in the only dry spot in the room. She looked from the door to the now-peaceful toilets, shocked, and jumped when a voice behind her said, “I never liked bullies.”

            She turned to see a pearly, translucent ghost of a girl about her age floating a few feet above the wet floor, her eyes glaring behind large glasses at the door the Slytherins had just run through. Her glare switched to Cassie, who closed her mouth quickly and averted her gaze, not wanting to upset the temperamental ghost of Moaning Myrtle.

            “Er, thanks,” she said hastily.

            Myrtle didn’t reply, instead drifting over to a mirror and fiddling with her transparent pigtails. Cassie figured she must be in the faulty girls’ lavatory on the second floor, the one Myrtle must frequent and the one no girl dared to use for fear of upsetting the ghost, and after clearing her throat, she started for the door, grudgingly stopping when Myrtle spoke up.

            “You look like someone I’ve seen before,” she said. Cassie gave the ghost a blank look as she gazed at her with her eerily large eyes.

            “Er, well, I’ve been going to this school for a few years now,” she said. “And my brother went here, too; people say we usually look alike. When they notice me beside him,” she added in an undertone, but Myrtle either didn’t hear the last part or ignored her.

            “No, not like that,” she said, waving a pale hand. “She was a woman—a ghost, actually. I only ever saw her the once, but you look a lot like her.”

            “That’s nice,” Cassie said, now extremely uncomfortable. “Have a nice day, Myrtle.”

            She slipped out the door before the ghost could creep her out further, and walked quickly to the common room, looking over her shoulder multiple times to make sure those Slytherins weren’t following her.

            She remembered Regulus’s words from last night, about how she had begun to interest several of his Housemates, and she couldn’t help the shiver that rolled down her spine, making her hair stand on end as she realized that the Slytherin had been right.

            She marched to the common room with new purpose; she had to find James and tell him what happened last night with Regulus and now today with the Slytherin girls, and she needed to know if he managed to get any information about Carlisle or Avery at the party.

            She climbed through the portrait hole, looking around to see if she could spot James before someone grabbed hold of her arm and dragged her off to the girls’ staircases.

            “Merlin, can everyone stop manhandling me today?” she complained, tugging her arm out of Lily’s iron grasp and staring at her friend with raised brows. “Lily?”

            The redhaired witch turned with a sigh, crossing her arms and staring at Cassie seriously. “Wait, who else manhandled you today? Did Black do something to you?”

            “What? No, no.” She shook her head, nearly forgetting about her conversation with Sirius that morning in her haste to find James. “Lily, what’s up? I’m kind of in a rush right now, I have to find James—"

            Lily’s lips pursed at the mention of her arch-nemesis’s name, but she didn’t comment, which Cassie took to be one step forward in the right direction. Lily shook her head, dropping her hands. “Cassie, I-I just need some advice here.”

            She looked so desperate that Cassie found herself nodding, James temporarily shoved aside as Lily plopped into a plush armchair by the window, Cassie following suit and gazing at her friend imploringly. “What’s wrong, Lils?”

            “I just…” She gestured vaguely to Cassie, frowning. “How are you not upset over Marlene and Black? Both of them hid it from you, and even though I’m not friends with Black, I was still mad that Mar hadn’t told me sooner.”

            Cassie paused, unsure of what to say. She had been mad when she’d found out, and the notion that they had kept it from her still nettled her a bit, but Lily was right. Why was she not angrier?

            “I dunno,” she said slowly, looking back to Lily apologetically. “After everything else, I just can’t find it in myself to be upset, y’know? With Will, and my parents, and all the things that are happening in the news… I just can’t be angry at them. If they have a chance of being decently happy in each other’s company, then who am I to judge and take that away from them when everything else in the world is so messed up?”

            Lily stared at her for a long while, not saying anything, and Cassie shifted uncomfortably, wondering if she had upset the other girl. Finally, she sighed and shook her head.

            “Well, Merlin, Cassie,” she said. “When you put it like that…” She shook her head again. “I’m a prat, I know. I don’t know why I act like this whenever those…Marauders are involved. It just makes everybody else upset.”

            Cassie shrugged. “They’ve been giving you hell since first year. You have a right to dislike them.” She eyed Lily firmly. “That doesn’t mean you should expect everyone to dislike them, though.”

            Lily flushed. “I know that! Look, I’m trying, all right? Just don’t expect me to start skipping down the corridors with them hand-in-hand.”

            Cassie snorted at the image that provided. “Of course not. Now, are you okay?”

            Lily nodded slowly. “I think so.”

            Cassie reached over and patted the other girl’s knee. “Thanks, Lils. For understanding.”

            “You’re welcome.” Lily gave her a warm smile before gesturing to the staircases. “Potter’s in his dormitory. I don’t know where that is—"

            “Don’t worry, I do.” Cassie shot her a mischievous smile before waving and bounding up the stairs, nearly out of breath by the time she reached their door and rapped on it smartly.

            She could hear shuffles from the other side of the door before it opened, revealing Peter, who looked out in suspicion before he recognized her.

            “Oh, it’s just Cassie,” he said, stepping back and allowing her entrance. She gave him an affronted look as she walked in.

            “Don’t sound so enthused next time, Pete,” she said. She looked around, only seeing Remus sitting atop his bed reading a book. “Where’s James?”

            “Shower,” Peter grunted, flinging himself down on his own mattress and putting his arms behind his head.

            Cassie sighed before nudging Remus with her hand. “Budge over.”

            He barely looked up at her as he kept reading, though he shifted to make just enough room for her to plop down. She threw herself onto her back and stared at the red canopy above them, her hair splayed across the pillow.

            Remus spluttered, swatting aside her hair as he grumbled, “Why is there so much of it?”

            “It grows, Remus,” she pointed out, and he huffed.

            “Sensible people cut their hair before it gets this long,” he said.

            “I do cut it; it just grows fast.” She snickered when he flung some of her locks over her face.

            “Well, keep it on your side of the bed,” he retorted, going back to his book. Peter snorted from the other side of the room.

            “Aw, are you two having your first domestic?” he asked, sitting up and batting his eyes at them. Cassie grabbed her shoe from the floor and threw it at him.

            It went wide, smacking into the wall beside him, and he chortled. “Now I know why you don’t play Quidditch.”

            “Oh, shove off, Peter,” she said, though she couldn’t help but laugh as the mousy boy got up from his bed and padded over to them.

            “Nah, I’m good,” he said before throwing himself on top of them.

            “Can’t…breathe…” Remus panted, shoving the boy off his chest and onto Cassie.

            “I think you’re crushing my reproductive system,” she gasped when his elbow dug into her pelvic bone. The two boys let out disgusted noises, and Peter scrambled off her and onto the floor.

            “Cassie, that’s gross,” he complained as he sat up, brushing off his sweater and glaring at her.

            She stuck her tongue out at him. “It’s natural, idiot. Get over it.”

            “Wait, why are you in my bed when there’re two other empty ones in this room?” Remus said, finally looking up from his book and staring at her. “Go lay in Sirius’s bed or something.”

            “You do not want to do that!” Peter looked panicked as he held out his arms to prevent her from moving.

            “So she may find some dirty knickers, so what?” Remus snorted. Peter gave him a deadly serious look.

            “Moony, have you ever stopped and wondered why some nights he casts a Silencing Charm around his bed?”

            Cassie and Remus looked at each other, both realizing the meaning behind Peter’s words at the same time as their eyes widened. Remus groaned, covering his face with his book, and Cassie pretended to vomit over the edge of Remus’s bed, though her stomach was genuinely cramping from laughing so hard as Peter rolled on the floor, giggling like mad.

            “You could not pay me enough Galleons in the world to climb into a bed where Sirius Black gets off,” Cassie wheezed, and this sent Peter into a new round of giggles as Remus howled with laughter.

            “No wonder why he has all those Muggle magazines,” Peter said, his voice squeakier than normal.

            “You think he gets off on those girls?” Remus said incredulously. “Try those motorbikes they always pose on top of.”

            Peter had entered a realm of soundless laughter. “’I’d stick my shaft up your pipe, baby,’” he choked out in a terrible impression of Sirius’s husky voice. Cassie shrieked with mirth as Remus held his stomach beside her, the mattress nearly vibrating with the force of their laughter.

            “What in Godric Gryffindor’s sacred name is going on out here?”

            James had appeared in the doorway of the washroom, wrapped in a towel and his hair sticking every which way as steam curled from behind him. He stared at the three as if they had come from some alien planet.

            They quieted down at his appearance, but as soon as they exchanged a glance they were laughing again, James looking on in bemusement.

            Shaking his head so water droplets sprinkled the floor, he walked over to his bed and gestured to Remus. “Moony, the Princess.”

            Still chuckling, Remus grabbed the pillow from behind them and placed it over her face, holding it firm as Cassie discreetly dried the tears that had leaked from her eyes on the pillowcase as James dressed. A few minutes later, Remus removed the pillow, James already looking at her expectantly from his bed where he rubbed his hair with his towel.

            Understanding the silent message, she got up from Remus’s bed and went over to the fully clothed James, ignoring Remus’s sly comments about having a bed to himself again.

            James wiped his glasses clean on his shirt before putting them on again. He jerked his chin at her. “Fancy a trip to the kitchens?”

            “You know I’m always up for food,” she said, and he shot her a smirk as they departed the dormitory, leaving Remus to read his book and Peter attempting to talk to him, still on the floor.      


            “They did what?” James exclaimed a half-hour later, abandoning his pudding and staring at Cassie with a mixture of incredulity and anger. She had just finished relaying her story to him, beginning from Regulus’s cryptic warning at the party the night before and ending it with the revenge of Moaning Myrtle after the Slytherin girls had cornered her in the bathroom. She left out the part about her conversation with the ghost, however; Myrtle never really seemed to have all her marbles together, even in the afterlife, and she was sure it meant nothing.

            James furiously spooned more pudding into his mouth and swallowed it with a loud gulp, a scowl set deep in his face. “This is open warfare now. They attacked one of our own—"

            “Oh, will you stop acting like one of those Muggle army-leading-blokes?” she said, rolling her eyes.

            “I believe the term you are looking for is a commander, or perhaps a general,” he said wryly, causing her to make a face at him. “And I’m serious, Cassie—"

            “No, you’re not, you’re James.”

            He threw his hands up in exasperation as she snickered, knowing the other boys would have been proud of her for that one.

            “Will you stop joking around? This is seri—" He cut off when she looked on in expectation, pinching the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. “This is important, Cassie, all right?”

            “They’re just bullies,” she said. She frowned. “Bullies that seem to be working for Carlisle, but still.”

            James sighed, pushing his glasses back up his nose when they slipped down. “Look, you’re the one that started this whole Carlisle theory, and as much as I hate to admit it, I think you’re right—something is up. Something big. And if all these Slytherins are in on it, then it’s starting to sound more and more dangerous. Like, Death Eater-level dangerous.”

            Cassie scoffed. “So, what? You think Carlisle is trying to recruit students as Death Eaters and is making them do stuff for her to prove their worth? Inside Hogwarts? The literal safest place in the wizarding world?”

            James looked at her with such solemnity she felt the lemon cake she’d been chewing turn to sand in her mouth. “This recruiting has been going on for a few years, Cassie. It’s an inside job. How do you think your brother found out about it all?”

            She swallowed the cake like it was a stone lodged in her throat. “Then what do we do about it?”

            “Let’s go to Dumbledore,” he urged. “He’d know what to do. I bet he can get Carlisle sacked, too—"

            “On what evidence?” she hissed, feeling the need to drop her voice as she leaned in, propping her elbows on the table. “We don’t have anything on her except speculation.”

            “What about those maps and papers you found in her office?” he said. “We can use those as our proof.”

            She shook her head. “There’s no way we can get those papers legally. All of our credibility would be lost if he found out we had stolen them.”

            “Sometimes you have to do things the hard way,” he pointed out. She ran her tongue over her top teeth, thinking.

            “What about the locket?” she asked. “Do we have to tell him about that?”

            James looked at her oddly. “Do you not want to?”

            She sighed, putting her head in her hands and shrugging. “I dunno. I just want my life to stop feeling like those mystery novels my mum always reads.”

            “With all the erotic sex scenes added or without?” He tossed her a cheeky grin when she looked up in disgust. “Hey, my mum reads them, too. And let’s just say they are not the type of books to leave around the house with your bored ten-year-old son roaming about.”

            “Okay, I get it, bad analogy, whatever,” she said, waving him off.

            “Actually, I think you used a simile, but that’s all right.”

            “James?”

            “Yeah?”

            “Sometimes I wish you would stop talking. Permanently.”

            “Funny, Evans says the same thing.”

            Cassie groaned and rested her head on the table. “Good Godric, you’re exhausting.”

            “Now that is something I hope I hear from her someday.”

            She mimed stabbing her fork into her throat as he laughed obnoxiously.

            They sat in silence for a few moments as house-elves whisked by and cleared away their bare dishes. She swirled her finger along the patterns of the wood in the table, lost in thought until James spoke again.

            “Did you see they posted the next Hogsmeade date?” She shook her head as he nodded, ruffling his hair (she figured it was a subconscious movement at this point, as Lily wasn’t even around to see it). “Scheduled for next weekend. The ninth.”

            Her brows rose. “That soon? Merlin, this month went by fast.”

            He gave her an impish grin. “Time flies when you’re having fun.”

            Ignoring him, she scratched absentmindedly at her nose, thinking back to the deal she’d struck with Sirius that morning, suddenly anxious as she realized that it all hinged on Bertram Aubrey asking her to go with him to the village.

            She sighed, flopping her head on her arms and blowing a piece of hair out of her mouth. “I hate deals.”

            James gave her a pitying look, obviously already knowing what she was talking about. “Sirius Black is as devious as they come, too. Sorry to say, Princess, but you’re pretty screwed.”

            “Like I haven’t figured that out already,” she replied, rolling her eyes. There was another silence until she asked, “Did you know? About Sirius and Marlene?”

            “Hadn’t the foggiest until he told me yesterday at practice about what happened,” he said.

            “Did it bother you?” she pressed. “Him not telling you until someone else found them out?”

            He cocked his head, studying her thoughtfully. “Sirius is his own person,” he said evenly. “I’m his best mate, and even I still don’t know full well how his brain works.”

            She frowned, not very satisfied with that answer, and he flicked her hair playfully. “Why? Does it bother you?”

            She thought about regurgitating what her answer to Lily had been, but the more she pondered it, the more she realized she was bothered by it.

            “They’re going to be terrible together,” she admitted aloud. “He’s a player, and she’s a heartbreaker. They’re going to ruin each other.”

            James whistled lowly, and she wondered if she had offended him by calling out his best mate until he said, “My thoughts exactly, Princess.”

            They exchanged a look, and Cassie grimaced. “This is going to be a long year, isn’t it?”

            James gazed at her sympathetically. “Oh, Princess, you don’t know the half of it.”


 

            The girl was getting farther away.

            She ran through trees splattered with the colors of fall, skirts hefted and shoes missing. Her dark hair streamed behind her like a banner, a declaration of defiance against the brightness of the leaves swirling around her.

            A man chased her, but as Cassie watched from the peripheral, the two were laughing, mirth coloring their cheeks and brightening their eyes as they raced on. They were blurs, fading in and out of focus as she attempted to follow them, but it was like she was trapped on the other side of a frosted window. Their faces were indistinct, but she had the vague feeling she ought to know who they were.

            Finally, the girl stopped, leaning back against the trunk of a wide oak, though all Cassie could see of her was her green dress and dark hair. The man slowed to a halt beside her, his scarlet robes blending spectacularly with the scenery and his golden hair disheveled from the chase.

            “I wish I could do this forever,” the girl said, her voice eerily familiar. “Run, and never have to worry about how far I’m going, or when I have to turn back. Just run and run and run.”

            “You can be free, my love,” the man said, coming before the girl and wrapping his hands around her shoulders. “Marry me, and all of this can be yours. Forever.”

            Her shoulders slumped in resign. “You know I cannot.”

            The man looked pained, and Cassie recognized enough to know that he had heard her say this before.

            “At least have this.” He extracted something from a pocket within his robes. Cassie strained to see it as he held it out to the girl. “It is enchanted. Only you can open it, and when you are alone, I hope you think of me when it plays.”

            Realization and a sudden dread gripped Cassie, her eyes focused on the gift: a silver locket, circular, with silver whorls and a single red ruby wrought into the middle of it. Her locket. The clockwork locket.

            She could hear the love and longing in the girl’s voice as she whispered, “We have a deal, then, my love.”

            The man bent his head, their lips meeting just as Cassie jerked awake, her eyes snapping open. She lay in her bed, tucked away in her dormitory as the sounds of the other sleeping girls drifted to her ears. Faint moonlight filtered in through the window, and she rolled onto her side, her eyes drawn inexplicably to her bedside table.

            She stared at the topmost drawer for a long while, and when her skin became too itchy, she swung her legs out of bed and knelt down before it, sliding open the drawer as silently as she could and rifling through it until her fingers touched on a cool metal chain.

            She pulled the locket out and held it in her palm, feeling the faint whirs of the gears inside it against her heated skin before she finally let out a long breath in defeat.

            “You’re not going to leave me alone, are you?” she asked it miserably. Luckily, it didn’t answer her, but she imagined the gears turning a little faster, as if in excitement.

            “Fine,” she grumbled before clasping it around her neck and letting the pendant settle against her chest, molding to her skin as if it were made to be there.

            Shaking off the absurdity of the thought, she climbed back into bed, settling herself in to sleep again, and hopefully this time without any weird dreams about forbidden lovers and her locket.

            Her eyes slipped closed, and before she sank into oblivion once more, she imagined she felt a slight stirring against her chest as if a second heartbeat were linking itself to her own.

Chapter Text

            Winter had Hogwarts clutched firmly in its jaws now. The late autumn weather that had been struggling to stay had finally been quashed, and every morning leading up to the holidays was seen laden with snow and burdened by chilly grey clouds. The arrival of the holidays also brought upon the students a sense of wariness, as it was not uncommon for someone to be pelted with enchanted snowballs by people from other Houses whilst walking across the grounds, and Peeves had taken it upon himself to knock loose icicles from the banisters outside in an attempt to impale any who hadn’t the sense to watch out for the poltergeist.

            In the week leading up to the last Hogsmeade trip before the holidays, an eerie hush had fallen over the castle, the kind of stifling silence only observed during the time of exams while all years had to take their midterm tests. House common rooms became refuges for students unable to snag a seat in the overcrowded library, which forced many other students to seek out random spots around the castle to host their games of Exploding Snap or to simply escape the confines of studying as James, Sirius, and Peter had taken to doing, which unfortunately meant that Remus and Cassie were to be dragged along, as well.

            A small explosion that nearly singed off her eyebrows made Cassie look up from her Herbology notes with a scowl, seeing Peter doing some sort of victory jig as he collected quite a few Knuts from both Sirius and James, whose faces were covered in a fine layer of soot and most of the hair on their forearms was smoking.

            “All right, I’m going back to the common room,” she announced, stuffing her notes back into her bag and nudging Remus’s knee with her foot. “You coming?”

            “I thought you’d never ask,” he said, sliding his thumb in the place he had left off in his Ancient Runes book before closing it and accepting her proffered hand to be helped up.

            “Nerds,” James jeered when they made to walk out of the secret passageway they had been holed up in on the third floor, hidden behind a tapestry of thirteen witches dancing around a sacrificial fire. The Marauders had proudly told her that they had found it their first year, and she had only shaken her head, not even bothering asking how they’d managed that.

            “Sorry that I’d rather pass my exams than continue to watch Peter rob you of all your money,” she retorted. Peter snickered, shooting her a thumbs-up as James rolled his eyes.

            “We only have one more exam tomorrow,” he pointed out. “Then the day after that is Hogsmeade, baby!”

            “Yes, only one more exam that I have to pass still.” She sniffed. “My parents would ground me until graduation if I got anything lower than an A.” She frowned then. “Not that I’ve ever really gotten a lot of O’s before, or even E’s…”

            “I say blow the whole thing off just to knot their knickers,” Sirius said, leaning back against the wall and stretching his legs out before him. “Then they’ll have zero expectations the next time you do anything stupid.”

            “That sounds like a lovely idea if only I had a death wish,” she deadpanned. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I really need to finish looking over these Herbology notes.”

            She marched out from behind the tapestry with Remus in tow, slightly abashed at her shortness. The past two weeks had been strange in terms of her friendship with Sirius, and it wasn’t sitting well with her at all. He and Marlene had gone public with their “dating” (a loosely applied term, in their case), and ever since, she had barely gotten a chance to talk to him beyond the occasional greeting, for it seemed Marlene was always glued to his side.

The blonde witch had been ecstatic when she’d announced that she and Sirius were official, and it seemed that all she ever did anymore was talk about the handsome Marauder. She had even taken to sitting with the boys at meals now, coaxing the other girls into joining even though she always seemed to pay more attention to her boyfriend than them.

            Cassie didn’t really mind the seating arrangement, as she had been sitting with them for weeks already, but she could tell Lily was quite uncomfortable since James seemed incapable of not acting like a git in front of her. Alice wasn’t happy about it either, as she always cast longing looks down the table to where Frank Longbottom usually sat. The only thing she did mind was Marlene and Sirius showing some disgusting display of affection right across from her, whether they would be feeding each other food or just simply snogging for everyone to see, and there had been more than one occasion when she had lost her appetite after seeing some tongue thrown in, as well.

            And when the two weren’t snogging at the table, or in the common room, or in the corridors between classes, they were mysteriously absent on some nights. Cassie would hear Marlene stumble into the dormitory at odd hours of the morning, and she shuddered as unbidden images of that horrible night flooded her brain once more, only being able to imagine the kind of stuff they would be doing now that they were an item.

            She was pulled out of her thoughts when Remus bumped his elbow against her own. She looked up to see him gazing down at her, half-smiling, but with a touch of concern in his green gaze. “Hey, you all right?”

            She gave him a small smile of her own, hoisting her bag higher on her shoulder. “Yeah, good. Why?”

            “Dunno, you’re just really quiet today,” he said, shrugging. “Usually you’re rambling on about some weird thing at this point.”

            She gasped, mock offended. “That hurts, Remus.”

            He chuckled, and they walked along amiably for a few more moments before he spoke again. “Y’know, come to think of it…you’ve been quiet a lot recently. Are you sure nothing’s the matter?”

            She sighed, her hand reaching up subconsciously to rub at the chain around her neck, not even realizing Remus’s eyes had followed the movement until he grabbed her hand in alarm, startling her.

            “Cassie,” he said, his eyes fixed on the chain, “please don’t tell me that that is what I think it is.”

            She blinked, suddenly nervous as she tugged on the chain and brought the locket out from under her shirt. Remus looked from the locket to her rapidly, his pupils dilating.

            “That’s the locket,” he said, quite unnecessarily. “Cassie, can I please ask you why you are wearing the locket your Death Eater brother gave to you?”

            “It’s not cursed or anything,” she said hastily, stowing it away after she noticed how white his face had gone. He shook his head.

            “You don’t know that,” he said, meeting her eyes gravely. “Magic is powerful, Cassie, and sometimes the greatest powers are the ones that can’t be seen or felt physically.”

            “Look, I can’t explain it, okay?” she said, shaking her head. “But something is telling me that I should wear it. I need to have it on me at all times. It’s just this…gut feeling, like something could go horribly wrong if I don’t.”

            Remus looked panicked at her admission. “Cassie, this is vitally important. When did you start feeling like you needed to wear it?”

            “I…dunno,” she said haltingly, not wanting to tell him about her dream, about the lovers and the locket. She would probably sound crazy. “I just wanted to.”

            He ran his hands through his hair, his scars showing stark against his skin as he released a heavy breath, muttering to himself, “Could be some form of the Imperius Curse…”

            “Will isn’t out to kill me, or whatever else you lot think he’s doing,” she said, her temper rising. “He’s my brother. He wouldn’t hurt me.”

            Remus gazed at her for a long while, not saying anything, and she placed her forehead on the window they had stopped at, the cold glass numbing her skin. “I have to believe that,” she said, and her voice came out in a small whisper. “I have to believe that he still cares, deep down.”

            She shut her eyes tightly, struggling to fight off the tears as Remus heaved a large sigh in front of her.

            “Cassie, you know I just want you to be safe,” he said. She opened her eyes, seeing him looking at her with such tender concern she felt her heart swell.

            “I know,” she said before reaching out and wrapping her arms around him. He stiffened as if startled by the contact before his own hands came to rest on her back, and he gave a little rub between her shoulder blades that seemed to take weeks of strain off her.

            “Cassie, Remus! Hey!”

            They broke apart to see Marlene striding toward them, her blonde hair pulled into a high ponytail that swung like a pendulum as she walked. She waved to them as she neared, smiling brightly.

            “Hey, Mar,” Cassie said, and Remus nodded to her, saying, “Hi, Marlene.”

            “Have you two seen Sirius?” she asked, cutting right to the point. Cassie was about to point out the direction of the passageway they had just come from before Remus elbowed her sharply in the ribs.

            “Nope, can’t say we have,” he said casually while Cassie began fake coughing to hide the grunt of pain she had released at his jab. “Have you tried the library?”

            Marlene frowned. “No, I haven’t looked there yet,” she said. “I didn’t think he’d be the studying type.”

            “Are you kidding? That boy is one of the hardest workers I have ever seen,” Remus said, his eyes wide. Cassie watched in confusion while Marlene just smiled, bemused. “Dunno how he’s not top of the class, really.”

            “Okay…” Marlene said slowly. “Er, I’m going to try the library, then. See you two later!”

            She sashayed around the corner, and as soon as she was out of earshot Remus began to snigger heartily, causing Cassie to punch him in the shoulder.

            “Ow, Cassie, hey! What was that for?” he asked, rubbing his arm. She glared at him.

            “I could ask you the same thing,” she said, arching a brow. “That was rude what you just did to her!”

            “Only the Marauders know about that passageway, and I know Sirius would want it to stay that way,” he said. “Sheesh, you have a really solid arm, y’know that?”

            “That’s one of the lamest excuses I have ever heard,” she said, ignoring his comment. “And I’m not a Marauder; how come I’m allowed to know where it is?”

            “Because you’re as good as,” he said, rolling up his sleeve to check for damage and luckily not noticing the blush of surprise and pleasure that had flared across her cheeks. “Seriously, I think I’m gonna have a bruise now.”

            “And I’ll give you a matching one on your other arm if you don’t tell me the truth about why you just lied to my friend,” she said, raising a fist threateningly. His eyes flickered to her knuckles before going back to hers.

            “Sirius is just…a little tired of her at the moment,” he admitted reluctantly.

            “They’ve been dating for two weeks!” she exclaimed. “How can he be tired of her already?”

            They shared a look, and at the same time they said, “Player.”

            Cassie sighed, shaking her head. “This is bad. Really, really bad.”

            “She’s attached, isn’t she?” he asked and winced when she nodded. “Yikes.”

            “She was talking about buying them promise rings for Christmas,” she said, making a face. “I’m not that surprised, though; she’s like this with every bloke she dates.”

            “Yeah, she cornered me the other day and asked me what I thought he’d like for a present,” he said, grimacing. “It was rather frightening.”

            Cassie snorted. “What’d you tell her?”

            “I told her to buy him a pet rock. Y’know, something permanent that would always be there to support him.”

            She laughed at this and he grinned, jerking his thumb over his shoulder. “We should really get back and study.”

            “Agreed.”

            They walked back to the common room, chattering on about the Hogsmeade trip, but Cassie couldn’t help her fingers straying back to the chain of the locket, a seedling of doubt taking root in her gut as she wondered if Remus was right in believing that her brother had done something wrong to it.


 

            Despite nearly being sucked into a mass of writhing venomous tentacula vines, the Herbology exam went off without a hitch, which Cassie was relieved and quite proud of as the fifth-years trudged out of the greenhouses, covered in dragon dung and sweat, with some nursing only minor wounds from several of the more violent plants.

            “Ugh, I’m starving,” Alice said, smoothing down the back of her head from when a screechsnap had flung dragon dung at her for watering it too much. “Can we please go eat?”

            “I’ll meet up with you there,” Cassie said. “I’m going to visit Little Leaf for a few minutes. I haven’t seen him since last Tuesday.”

            Alice simply shrugged, already acclimated to her friend’s strange bond with the woodland creature. “Suit yourself. I’ll save you a seat.”

            Cassie waved before trekking down the path that led to the edge of the Forbidden Forest, past the gamekeeper’s hut where smoke curled from the chimney of the small home. She saw Professor Kettleburn hobbling around the patch of forest reserved for his Care of Magical Creatures classes while some younger students were finishing up their exam by trying to herd a group of diricawls into something that resembled a large chicken coop. This was proving to be extremely difficult, however, as the dodo-like birds kept vanishing and then reappearing several yards away, resulting in a mad chase around the pen between the creatures and the students.

            She approached her meeting spot with Little Leaf, pulling out a bag of woodlice and giving it a nice shake, calling out the bowtruckle’s name and waiting for him to appear. She sat down and waited when he didn’t immediately show, huddling deep into her cloak to escape the chill, but after a few more minutes of waiting, she began to get worried, wondering where he was.

            “Little Leaf!” she tried calling again, but there was still no sign of the little tree-man. The wind whistled through the trees bordering the edge of the forest, the bare branches creaking in the breeze, and the hair on the back of her neck began to rise as she wondered what could have happened to the bowtruckle.

            “I wouldn’ be surprised if yer little friend moved on,” a gruff voice said behind her. She jumped, whirling around to see Hagrid looming over her, a few rabbits strung from his belt and a giant crossbow slung over his shoulder.

            “What do you mean?” she asked. “Moved on as in…dead?”

            “Nah, not dead,” the giant man said, shaking his great hairy head. “I’ve been talkin’ to some of the centaurs in there—they say there’s a great migration or summat like that goin’ on. All the creatures are movin’ on, clearin’ outta here and goin’ in deeper.”

            Cassie frowned, her brows furrowed. “Why would they do that?”

            Hagrid shrugged his huge shoulders, reaching up and scratching at his wild beard with a hand the size of a rubbish bin lid.

            “Who knows? The forest is a strange place.”

            Cassie had to agree with that, but she couldn’t help turning back and staring at the spot Little Leaf usually emerged from, a sense of unease creeping over her.

            “Yer name’s Alderfair, righ’?” Hagrid asked her. She winced before turning to him and nodding. He studied her with beetle-black eyes, though the gaze wasn’t lingering or scornful. He just seemed to be looking at her, a quiet gentleness to his eyes that put her at ease in his presence.

            “Yeah, ol’ Silvanus told me about yer bond with tha’ bowtruckle,” he said, gesturing his head to where Professor Kettleburn was shouting at the students to do better at catching the vanishing birds. “Little Leaf, was it?”

            She nodded, blowing out her cheeks as she sighed. “That’s him,” she said. “Or, was.”

            “Ah, well, I wouldn’ be too let down by it,” he said kindly. “Bowtruckles don’ usually bond with humans all tha’ well, anyway. It was probably his time to go.”

            “You’re probably right,” she admitted, biting her lip and scooping up the woodlice bag from the ground. “Thanks, Hagrid.”

            “No need ter thank me, missy,” he said, waving her off. “Jus’ keep doin’ well in class, ya hear? Silvanus raves about yer grades and yer interest in the subject. He might offer ye a job outta school if ye pass all his N.E.W.T. courses.”

            Cassie looked up in astonishment. “You mean…Professor Kettleburn likes me?”

            Hagrid snorted. “Starkers, more like. But yer a bright witch; I think ye could do anything ye wanted to if ye tried hard enough.”

            “Th-thank you,” she stammered, stunned at the praise. “And, er, please call me Cassie. For future reference.”

            She could see his smile behind his bushy beard. “Cassie. Pretty name. Well, I’d best be off if I wanna have supper anytime soon.” He gestured to the rabbits on his belt before lumbering away, giving her a last wave. “Ye take care, Cassie, hear?”

            After assuring the groundskeeper that she would, she started back to the castle just as Professor Kettleburn released his students from their exam, the diricawls apparently having all been caught by the sweaty and exhausted fourth years.

            She had just reached the stone steps that twisted their way to the castle doors when she felt someone slip into space nearby on her right; not close enough to be considered a walking companion, but near enough for the person to speak out of the corner of their mouth to her.

            “Evening, Gryffindor,” Regulus Black greeted her. Though she could feel his grey eyes slide to her, she stared resolutely ahead, quickening her pace without responding.

            He let out a small chuckle at her reaction. “Heard about what happened with Sloane and her cronies. At least you have Moaning Myrtle on your side in case anyone tries something again.”

            “Piss off, Black,” she hissed, walking still quicker, though the boy seemed to keep even pace with her despite never once breaking his stride.

            “Hm. You seem to have a lot of practice saying that. How fares my brother, anyhow?”

            “Ask his girlfriend,” she shot back before biting her tongue when she realized how petty she sounded—something Regulus hadn’t missed.

            “Ah, a jealous Gryffindor,” he mused. “Hell hath no fury like a scorned lion. Or, in this case, a lioness.”

            “It’s a wonder you two don’t get along more,” she said. “You’re both the most insufferable gits I have ever met.”

            “Don’t ever compare me to him!” Regulus snapped. Cassie cast him a sidelong glance, seeing that she had struck a nerve as she noticed his tight jaw and clenched fists.

            “Sorry,” she said without really meaning it. Her half-hearted apology seemed to work, for he’d calmed down by the time they reached the courtyard.

            They reached the front doors of the castle and entered, but before Cassie continued into the Great Hall, she heard Regulus whisper in her ear, “Remember what I said at Slughorn’s party.”

            She shivered at his sudden proximity, but he was already moving away, twisting between the bodies of students going to dinner before disappearing into the dungeons toward his common room, leaving her standing alone and feeling quite cold.

            Her sudden dread was quelled by a voice calling her name, and she turned to see Sirius bounding down the marble staircase toward her, a grin lighting his face and his dark hair flopping with each step. She felt an odd twist in her gut as he approached but brushed it off as a hunger pang.

            “Hey, Sirius,” she said when he had pushed his way over to her, but instead of responding, he instead let out a loud bark of laughter, slinging his arm around her shoulders as if she had just told the funniest joke in the world.

            “Oh, Cassie, you’re so inappropriate, it’s hilarious!” he said, loudly enough to where everyone in their vicinity cast them odd looks.

            “What the hell are you doing?” she asked between gritted teeth, but he only laughed louder, clutching his stomach.

            “I can’t believe you actually ate a snargaluff pod!” he shouted, and she saw people look to her judgmentally, beginning to murmur behind their hands. “Truly disgusting!”

            “Sirius—" she growled, stopping when she caught the steely glint in his eye as he gazed at someone amongst the crowd.

            Her eyes landed on Bertram Aubrey, who had halted a few steps away, his green eyes darting back and forth between her crimson face and Sirius’s smug one before he glanced at Sirius’s arm around her, his cheeks coloring a faint pink hue when Sirius waggled his brows at him.

            Without even acknowledging her presence, Aubrey turned and walked away, hurrying into the Great Hall. She shoved Sirius away from her, suddenly furious.

            “You absolute arse, Sirius Black!” she yelled. “You knew Aubrey was going to ask me to Hogsmeade tonight! You just ruined everything!”

            “Sorry, Princess, but I play dirty,” he said, grinning at her smugly and completely oblivious to her anger and mortification. “Looks like I’m going to be winning that deal.”

            “You are such a prat,” she said, not even caring how many people had stopped to stare at them. “Congratulations on cheating, Black. You’re the bloody winner.” Her every word dripped with sarcasm, but he didn’t seem to notice, only shrugging.

            “Oh, c’mon, Alderfair, like you would’ve said yes to him, anyway,” he said, sticking his hands in his pockets and giving her his signature smirk.

            “With the way you’re acting right now, I would choose him over you any day,” she retorted, and that wiped the grin off his face. He stared at her, his mouth opening slightly.

            “Cassie—" he started to say, but she shook her head.

            “Go away, Sirius,” she muttered before turning on her heel and storming into the Great Hall. She bypassed the Marauders and the girls where Marlene had dragged them to sit so she could eat with Sirius again, seating herself in a spot next to some first years that looked to her fearfully as she took an angry bite out of a dinner roll, her stomach roiling too much for anything else.           

            She had never felt as humiliated as she did within that moment. Despite Aubrey asking her out being the foundation of their challenge, the more she’d mulled it over, a tiny part of her had wanted to go to Hogsmeade with him. He was a good-looking bloke, and quite funny and easygoing. But now Sirius had ruined her chance of ever getting asked out by him all for the sake of winning. Her first chance of going on an actual date had just backfired tremendously, though she would never admit that fact to him. He would lord it over her forever if he found out she had never been asked to Hogsmeade before, and the thought quickly made her lose her appetite as she set down the roll, trying to keep the tears at bay.

            She barely registered when two bodies slid in on either side of her, and she kept her head down, even when she felt Alice smooth her hair away from her face and Lily take her hand in her own.

            “Want to talk about it?” she asked. Cassie shook her head.

            “Not yet,” she said, and that was all they needed before they began to eat beside her, coaxing her into drinking some pumpkin juice and swallowing a couple more rolls.

            She never looked once to where the Marauders were sitting, unable to bear seeing Sirius snogging Marlene again as if he hadn’t just done anything to her. She didn’t look to the Ravenclaw table, either, even though she felt more than one pairs of eyes boring into the back of her head all night before she finally decided to retire to bed.

            As she left the Great Hall, she thought she heard someone say her name softly, but she marched resolutely forward, trying to pretend as if her heart hadn’t lifted slightly in hope at the sound.


 

            Snow was falling heavily the next morning as the girls prepared for Hogsmeade, stuffing themselves into layers of clothes and scarves before daring to set foot outside of the castle.

            Cassie dressed in silence, her anger from the night before still clinging to her like an annoying bramble she couldn’t shake. Luckily, the other girls seemed to sense her mood and didn’t try too hard to include her in their conversations. She’d told them about what Sirius had done to her, and they had all been shocked and angry, even Marlene threatening to talk some sense into him that day about his practical joke, but she had a hard time believing it.

            “Cass, you ready?” Alice said from the doorway. Cassie nodded, getting up from where she had been putting her boots on and following the other girls into the common room before they set off for the Entrance Hall.

            Cassie walked along at Alice’s shoulder, keeping her head down and her hands shoved deep into her pockets. Hogsmeade trips had always been a source of fun and excitement for her, but now she just felt tired and drained, as if Sirius’s sabotage had sucked everything right out of her. She had gone straight to bed after dinner, so she hadn’t seen him at all since the night before, but she didn’t really consider it a loss as she trudged after the girls.

            They reached the marble staircase, but Cassie stopped dead when she lifted her head and saw Bertram Aubrey approaching from the direction of Ravenclaw Tower, he too coming to an abrupt halt when he saw her.

            Her face flared with mortification, but after a few tense moments, he gave her a jerky nod before practically running down the steps, a few of his friends in tow who cast her scornful looks as they passed, making her face heat more.

            “If anyone needs me, I’ll be sleeping for the next century,” she said, turning back in the direction of Gryffindor Tower and silently groaning when she felt hands grabbing onto the back of her coat.

            “Oh, no, you don’t,” Alice said sharply, yanking her back around and putting a secure arm around her shoulders. “You’re going to hang out with us girls today, and you’re not going to worry about any boys, because all of them are daft dolts anyway. Got it?”

            Cassie grumbled indistinctly as she was dragged down the staircase, still pinned beneath Alice’s arm even after they got their names checked off by Filch and began to head down the path to the gates.

            They were only a few steps down the road to the village when they heard shouts behind them, and they turned to see the Marauders trekking toward them, laughing and pushing each other around like idiots. Cassie rolled her eyes, her gaze never once straying to Sirius.

            “Babe!” Marlene said happily, bouncing up to the blur in her peripheral that was Sirius and not hesitating to envelop him in a long, passionate kiss.

            James mimed throwing up behind them, which caused everyone to snicker; even Lily cracked a small grin. James straightened immediately upon this realization, giving her a brilliant smile that she did not return, only turning away and joining Cassie and Alice again.

            “Let’s leave them to it, shall we?” she said, and the other two nodded, starting back down the road before the boys caught up to them again.

            “If I ever get a girlfriend and we start snogging instead of talking to each other, will one of you please punch me in the face?” Peter asked seriously, and Cassie and Remus both raised their hands.

            “I volunteer myself for when that day comes,” she said.

            Remus nodded in agreement. “I second that.”

            “D’you think they’d notice if I put a Lip-Locking Charm on them?” James mused, twirling his wand.

            Lily looked at him warily. “You know how to do a Lip-Locking Charm?”

            James seemed startled by the fact that she was speaking directly to him without an insult or yelling, but he nodded slowly. “Er, yeah. Learned it in third year.”

            Lily’s face twitched, and Cassie could tell she was trying hard to not look impressed. “Oh. Interesting.”

            James stared at her, slack-jawed, before Remus took pity on him and asked about Quidditch practice to distract him from looking like a freak as they enjoyed their walk to Hogsmeade, debating all the places they should go.

            When they reached the village, the boys broke off to go to Spintwitches to look at Quidditch gear, while Lily dragged Cassie and Alice to Tomes and Scrolls so she could buy more books.

            The two girls found some shabby armchairs by the front door and promptly took seats, knowing how long Lily spent in the bookshop as they watched witches and wizards of all kinds tramp in and out. They recognized a few of the Hogwarts students who came in, as well, and Alice waved to some of them while Cassie stared out at the rows of books on their shelves, thinking about The Hobbit book she had just finished.

            The ending had almost made her cry, and she had been shocked to learn that Thorin hadn’t made it out of the battle alive. She thought about how sad it was, for the dwarf to come so far to reclaim his kingdom, only to fail in the end. She wondered if the author had intentionally done that, not only to warn of the trappings of greed but also to provide an example of just how unfair life could be. Thinking about the book only led her thoughts back to Sirius, however, so she quickly engaged Alice in conversation, grateful for the distraction she provided as Lily came back over to them, carrying a large bag stuffed to the brim with books.

            They visited a few more shops they often frequented, each girl emerging from Honeydukes with a bag of sweets, and Alice dropping a fistful of Sickles on some fancy quills from Scrivenshaft’s. Cassie had had to be dragged away from Dominic Maestro’s after she’d found a small corner filled with Muggle records and threatened to sit there all day and listen to them, and she was still pouting by the time they reached the main street and bumped into Marlene walking alone.

            “Oh, there you are!” she said brightly, her cheeks flushed pink, though Cassie assumed not just from the cold. “Sirius and I just got done with lunch at Madam Puddifoot’s, but he said he was going to meet the other boys at The Three Broomsticks. Have you been to Gladrags yet? I really wanted to look at some new dress robes.”

            “Nope, we were just on our way there,” Lily said, casting Cassie a surreptitious look she couldn’t read, but she wasn’t really paying attention.

            She was staring off in the direction of The Three Broomsticks, a sudden ball of hot anger churning in her gut as she thought back to the deal she had struck with Sirius, and the challenge he had given her if Aubrey didn’t ask her to Hogsmeade. Even though he had cheated her out of winning, she wasn’t about to back down and appear weak. She set her jaw determinedly, knowing what she had to do.

            “You three go ahead,” she said, waving the other girls off and marching toward the direction of the pub. “There’s something I have to do.”

            She didn’t wait for their response, making her way up the street and into the packed pub. Warmth and the smells of roasted meat and butterbeer washed over her as she entered, and she squeezed in between a set of warlocks speaking in fluid Dutch to each other, her eyes skimming the crowded room.

            The place was packed with Hogwarts students, locals, and travelers alike. She thought she would never be able to find the Marauders until she saw a flash of untidy black hair and her gaze locked onto James expertly weaving through the patrons, holding four mugs of butterbeer in his hands and heading to a booth in the back where she could see Sirius, Remus, and Peter sitting. Raising her chin, she started after him.

            James had just set down the drinks and slid into the seat next to Peter when she plopped herself into the space beside him, causing him to start in surprise before he realized who she was.

            “Sheesh, Princess, don’t sneak up on me like that!” he said.

            She ignored him, looking to Sirius across from her and settling her face into the iciest expression she could conjure. From the way he attempted to muster a sheepish smile and failed, only shifting guiltily, she had a feeling it came off pretty well, and she silently thanked her Pure-blood ancestors for giving her such a dangerous face for when she needed it.

            “When you grow up as an Alderfair, everything has meaning,” she said, never once breaking her stare from Sirius’s. “Every word is a promise; every gesture is calculated; and from an early age I was disciplined in the lessons of honor, intention, and what to do if someone should ever cross me in life.”

            She lifted her chin, Sirius’s wide grey eyes fixed upon her face as she continued. “You cheated me out of a deal we both agreed on, and besides being a very dishonorable thing to do, it was an insult to me and the values I hold dear. You went up against an Alderfair, and let me just tell you that that was a very stupid thing to do.”

            The booth was silent, and she found she was quite enjoying herself as she leaned forward, lacing her fingers together on the table. Sirius hadn’t moved a muscle since she’d sat down, staring at her as if he had never seen her before as she gave him a thin smile.

            “Don’t ever cross me again,” she said darkly, and she swore he actually gulped before that sliver of Black arrogance reentered his expression.

            “Is that a challenge, Princess?” he said, a grin widening his mouth and giving him a predatory look. She leaned back, arching a brow haughtily.

            “Think of it more as a promise the next time you decide to be a moronic git,” she said sweetly, and he smirked, the arrogant expression making something in her stomach swoop.

            “Challenge accepted,” he murmured, and after a few more seconds of intense staring, James finally broke the tension.

            “Sweet Merlin above, you two are scary,” he said, and Peter nodded in agreement, actually looking pale in the face.

            “Are you both quite done, then?” Remus asked in exasperation. “Because I’d like to get on with it and enjoy a drink with all my mates now.”

            “Almost,” Cassie said, holding up her hand before turning to Sirius again. “As an Alderfair, it is also my honor to uphold my end of the deal, despite the underhanded methods used against me.” She pointed her finger at him. “Shoe. Sock. Off.”

            He looked confused before realization dawned on his face and his eyes lit up with glee. “I thought this day would never come,” he said as he bent to do what she said. “Oh, this is going to be good.”

            “I have a very bad feeling about this,” Remus said, his eyes darting back and forth between the two as Cassie tied her hair back from her face.

            “Do I even wanna know what this is about?” James asked in a pained voice, and Peter nodded again.

            “Something tells me you definitely don’t want to miss this,” the blond boy answered, and James grimaced, though continued to watch them cautiously.

            “Ready whenever you are, Princess,” Sirius said, leaning back in his seat and putting his arms over his head leisurely. “Heel to toe. The whole length.”

            Remus groaned, putting his head in his hands. “I can’t believe you two are some of the friends I choose to spend my time with.”

            Cassie shot him a grin. “Oh, hush, Remus. You know you love us.”

            “After this, I don’t think that’s going to be possible anymore,” he said, and she chuckled before inhaling deeply, steeling herself.

            “Any day now, Princess,” Sirius said, wagging his brows, and she shot him a glare before sliding underneath the table, his bare foot practically thrust into her face already.

            Why do I do these things to myself? she asked silently, flinching back when Sirius wiggled his toes in her face expectantly. Okay, no big deal. Just close your eyes and get it over with.

            With a silent prayer to Merlin that he had showered that morning, she stuck her tongue out and dragged it up the length of his foot, feeling the boy shaking with laughter above as the others rolled in their seats, practically screaming at the happenings proceeding under the table. She finished, spitting a few times onto the floor to get the taste out of her mouth. It wasn’t a bad taste, per se—the only way she could describe it was distinctly foot.

            She emerged from underneath the table, immediately reaching for James’s butterbeer and chugging a good portion of it while the boys roared with laughter around her.

            “Cassie,” James wheezed, pushing his glasses back up his nose and clapping her on the shoulder like a proud father, “you are something else.”

            “I’m going to go get myself a drink,” she said, making a face before getting up and heading to the bar.

            She hopped onto a stool and slid Madam Rosmerta a few coins when she brought her a butterbeer, and the young witch gave her a dazzling smile when she saw the few extra Cassie had slipped in there for her. She remembered Rosmerta from school when she was a lot younger, as she had been casual friends with her brother—something Rosmerta seemed to think of at that moment, as well, for she gave her a wink and handed her a sweet roll with no extra charge before whisking away.

            Cassie happily munched on the roll and sipped from her butterbeer, content in her seat at the bar as she listened to other people’s random conversations, only looking up when someone perched on the stool next to her.

            “Is it wrong to say that I might be slightly aroused from you licking my foot?” Sirius said, stealing a piece of her roll as she gave him a disgusted look, though that odd swoop in her stomach happened again when he smirked at her.

            “Very wrong, especially because you are dating Marlene,” she pointed out, and she thought his expression flickered before it was back in place.

            “Good point,” he agreed, winking and handing Rosmerta a few coins when she brought him another butterbeer. They drank in silence for a while before Sirius spoke up again, and what he said surprised her.

            “You’re a really good mate to me, Cassie,” he said, tracing his finger down the side of his mug and catching the condensation that was forming on the glass. “I didn’t think we would ever get along, but, well, I enjoy having you as a friend. And I’m very protective of that. I can’t really explain why but… I thought Aubrey was going to mess that up. That’s why I sabotaged him asking you out, because… I guess I didn’t want to lose you to someone else.”

            “Sirius, you’re not going to lose me just because someone asks me out,” she said, shaking her head in bafflement. “You’re my mate, too, and I don’t let small things like that worry me. So, you don’t have to worry about that, either.”

            They shared a small smile, and something seemed to pass between them, a faint flicker that Cassie felt in her fingertips before she dropped her gaze awkwardly, fiddling with the rest of her sweet roll.

            Sirius suddenly held up his mug, and she eyed it questioningly as he grinned, meeting her eyes again. “To friendship,” he said, and Cassie smiled as she clinked her own glass to his.

            “To friendship,” she echoed.

            They both drank deeply before setting down their mugs, and she attributed the warmth glowing in her gut to the aftereffects of the butterbeer, and not to the feeling she had gotten whenever Sirius’s eyes had met hers.

Chapter Text

            Cassie wrestled her way through the pack of students crowding the rickety train platform, her breath spilling into the air in little puffs of smoke as she sidestepped a third-year scouting for someone to practice his Tickling Hex on. She probably ought to have stopped him, but there was a reason Lily was the Prefect and not her, so she continued on, scanning the faces around her until she spotted who she was looking for.

            “Thank Merlin,” she breathed, nearly collapsing into Alice’s arms as she joined the small huddle of girls near the edge of the platform. “This place is a madhouse; I thought I had lost you forever!”

            “Where’d you go, anyway?” Alice asked, steadying her after she had barreled into their group.

            She held up the bag of owl treats in her mitten-clad hand. “Almost forgot these for Osbourne.”

            Alice rolled her eyes. “I reckon your owl could’ve lived without treats for a couple of weeks, Cass,” she said. “And isn’t Ozzy going home with you?”

            Cassie shot her a disgruntled look. “Yes, but I didn’t want to leave his treats behind. He loves these things.” She shook the bag in Alice’s face. “And believe me when I tell you that these are a lot better to give him rather than waking up and finding dead mice in your room.”

            Alice made a face, pushing her hand away. “Don’t worry, I believe you.”

            Satisfied, Cassie bent down and stuffed the treats into her rucksack where she had left it before sprinting back to the castle, standing up and shouldering it just as the scarlet Hogwarts Express trundled into Hogsmeade Station.

            The students who were taking the train back home for the holidays whooped and cheered when the steam engine groaned to a stop at the platform. Cassie traded looks with Lily, Alice, and Marlene, neither one of them understanding what the students were cheering for. She didn’t quite understand it, either, but if they were excited about getting out of the cold, then she would gladly scream along with the rest of them.

            They followed the stampede of bodies onto the train, quickly finding a compartment and settling in so they wouldn’t be trampled by anyone else. Lily slid the door closed behind her, plopping into the seat next to Cassie and removing her muffler, her fiery hair falling down her shoulders as she reached into her bag and pulled out a book. Cassie propped her back on the window to sleep while Alice and Marlene skimmed through Madam Malkin’s winter catalogue, though the blonde witch kept casting irritable looks to the door as if she were expecting someone.

            “Cassie, did you happen to see Sirius on your way back from the castle?” Marlene asked her, confirming the girl’s suspicions as she cracked open an eye, ignoring the jab of annoyance that went through her at the question.

            “Yeah, I saw him fondling the giant squid good-bye,” she said, which only earned her a snicker from Alice and two looks of disapproval from Lily and Marlene.

            Marlene let out a hmph of irritation. “He said we would ride together back to London.”

            Alice caught Cassie’s eye and made a motion with her hips like one would do when riding a horse, and she couldn’t hide her laughter, snorting into her coat sleeve and disguising it as a cough as Marlene got up, fortunately not seeming to have noticed them.

            “I’m going to go find him,” she announced before flouncing out of the compartment and allowing Cassie and Alice to crack up in full. Lily just rolled her eyes at them.

            “You two are juvenile,” she said, though she sounded amused all the same as she went back to her book.

            Most of the commotion outside had quieted, and the train jostled before starting up again, heading out of the station and gaining speed as they left the grounds of Hogwarts and the village behind. Cassie had only managed to doze for several minutes until a loud bang made her jerk awake, sitting up in her seat as Alice yelped and Lily dropped her book.

            “Stupid door,” Alice muttered, standing up and sliding the door to their compartment closed, which had apparently opened somehow and had been the source of the noise.

            Blowing out her cheeks in a heavy sigh, Cassie settled back against the cool glass of the window when her eye caught something black that flitted right past Alice’s foot as the other girl sat down again. She looked to Lily, wondering if the redhaired witch had seen it, too, but she was too busy reaching down to pick up her fallen book to have noticed much else.

            As she watched, Lily’s book skidded across the floor of the compartment like someone had given it a nice kick. She jumped back in her seat, startled, her green eyes wide as she looked to the shocked Alice and Cassie.

            “You both saw that, too, right?” she asked, and they nodded. Alice cast a nervous look around them.

            “Is there a haunted compartment or something that I don’t know about?” she said, and Cassie started when she thought she heard the faintest chuckle from right next to her.

            A wand seemed to light within her brain, and she rolled her eyes, saying, “Yeah, didn’t you know? This compartment is haunted by a particularly idiotic and immature ghost that can’t seem to learn the definition of ‘stalking.’”

            Alice and Lily both stared at her as if she had just admitted to having an affair with said ghost.

            “Erm, is that really true?” Alice asked quietly.

            “No, Al, it’s not,” she said, getting to her feet. “I’m going to step out and see how long until the trolley rolls around.”

            She exited the compartment, leaving the door pointedly open for a few moments behind her before shutting it. She turned around just in time to see James tugging his Invisibility Cloak off, grinning brightly, though fortunately out of view of the other girls.

            “I’m a bit disappointed you caught on so quickly,” he said, folding the cloak over his arm and reaching up to rub his already mussed hair. “I was planning on having a bit more fun with Evans.”

            “Did you need me for something, James?” she asked, disregarding his earlier statements. “I was really looking forward to that nap.”

            “Well, there’ll be plenty of time for that in our compartment,” he said, grabbing her wrist and dragging her down the corridor. She attempted to dig her heels into the floor, but he was stronger than he looked, and she eventually gave up when his grip did not relent.

            “Why do I have to sit with you lot?” she whined. “You have Mar, and I was perfectly fine where I was at, thank you very much.”

            “McKinnon’s not sitting with us,” he replied cheerfully, turning back and winking at her. “We paid off her brother and his mates to keep her occupied for the time being.”

            Cassie rolled her eyes, knowing full well that Mikey and his goofy friends would do anything the Marauders asked them to, starry-eyed fans they were. But she was relieved that she wouldn’t have to put up with Marlene and Sirius, though she felt immediately guilty for thinking that.

            “Why does it seem like Sirius tries to avoid her all the time now?” she asked, dodging a couple of Ravenclaws coming the opposite way down the corridor and ignoring their incredulous stares when they saw her walking nearly hand-in-hand with James Potter. “He’s being very insensitive about it all, considering they’re dating and everything.”

            “He’s a hard man to love, Princess,” he said cheekily, and she looked to the ceiling helplessly at this answer. “He loves attention, but McKinnon dotes on him too much. It’s driving all of us mad.”

            She frowned at the back of his head, noticing a tuft of hair that stuck out so prominently she had the sudden urge to lick her hand and smooth it down, though she refrained. “That doesn’t mean you have to be pricks about it.”

            “I’ve seen the way you stare at them at dinner, Cassie,” he said. “Don’t act like they don’t gross you out, either.”

            She made a face at him, knowing he had a point there. “Still. You should be more supportive of the people Sirius chooses to spend his time with.”

            “I am, Princess. That’s why you’re coming to sit with us,” he replied, and though the response was heartening to hear, she still couldn’t help thinking about why Sirius didn’t want to be around Marlene.

            They came to a stop at a compartment near the back of the train. James slid the door open and Cassie followed him in as the other three Marauders looked up at the sound of their entrance.

            “Welcome back, Prongs,” Sirius said grandly, spreading his arms wide in a welcoming gesture as he abandoned his game of Snap with Peter, who was discreetly blowing on the smoking cards in Sirius’s hand in the hopes of igniting one of them to explode. “And it seems you brought the lovely Miss Alderfair, as well. Smashing to see you, dear.”

            He winked at her as she shut the door behind her, but she only gave him a dry look in return as she took the seat next to James, propping her feet up on his lap. He flicked her calf but otherwise made no attempt to push her off, so she settled more comfortably into the seat, still thinking about that nap.

            “Come to lick any more feet?” Remus asked mischievously from across her.

            “No, thanks, Sirius scarred me enough,” she retorted with a grimace. “How’s the flu?”

            Remus winced at her question, rubbing the back of his neck and saying, “Better. Madam Pomfrey gave me some stuff that’s been helping me get over it.”

            “Must’ve been a bad one,” she said sympathetically, taking in his haggard appearance and tired green eyes. “Usually a dose of Pepper-Up has me back in shape in no time.”

            “Er, well, I think with all the stress added because of the exams it was worse,” he mumbled, looking out the window as he said it and staring at the snow-laden trees whipping by. She noticed that the compartment had become quite still after her and Remus’s conversation before Peter coughed awkwardly.

            “Up for a game, Cass?” he asked, waving the deck of cards at her, and she readily accepted, having gotten a hang of the game and determined to at least beat him once.

            The rest of the time passed quickly, the compartment full of laughter and jokes, but Cassie couldn’t help the jitters in her stomach as the day wore on, her mind turning to the unbidden fact that she would have to see her parents in only a few hours’ time.

            “Godric, Cassie, pay attention!” Sirius cried, batting the cards out of her hand that had just gone up in flames. The cards flew toward the door, exploding in a shower of sparks, but Remus put them out quickly with his wand before they caught the whole compartment on fire.

            “The point of the game is to not do that,” Peter pointed out slyly.

            She rubbed at her singed fingertips, frowning. “Sorry, I got distracted.”  

            Peter shrugged, reshuffling the deck while she got to her feet and stretched. She turned to the door and made to step out before Sirius’s voice held her back.

            “Oi, where are you off to?” he demanded. She waved a hand airily, though her stomach jolted when the conductor’s voice announced that they would be arriving at King’s Cross in five minutes.

            “Just getting some air,” she mumbled before slipping out and heading for the compartment she had been sharing with Alice and Lily earlier.

            She had barely gone ten steps before the door slid open behind her and Sirius’s voice barked, “Oi, Cass, wait up!”

            She didn’t stop but slowed her pace some so Sirius could catch up with her, that weird jolt going through her stomach again. She had considered yesterday’s Hogsmeade trip to be quite a success in getting him to take her seriously, yet she now found it quite hard to make eye contact with him, though she was certain it had nothing to do with having licked his foot.

            “What’s up with you today, Princess?” he said, flicking a piece of hair back from her face and causing her to bat his hand away. “You look like you’re about to face the gallows or something.”

            She heaved a deep sigh, not even knowing where to begin sifting through all the anxieties weighing on her chest.

            “I’m just…not quite ready to go back home,” she said, choosing the least incriminating statement, but Sirius just cocked his head, his grey eyes searching her face.

            “I see,” he said, and she got the feeling that he wasn’t lying about that. “I’m not too terribly thrilled to be going back to my wretched family, either.”

            “They’re not…wretched,” she said, frowning. “They’re just a bit complicated.”

            Sirius snorted. “All Pure-bloods are awful to some degree,” he said. “’cept James and his family; and my cousin Andromeda isn’t too bad.”

            Cassie looked to him curiously. “You mean Andromeda Black?” Sirius nodded, confirming her redundant question, but she remembered Andromeda Black being a big target for gossip during school a few years ago. Even her mother had mentioned something about her once or twice. “She ran off and got married to a Muggle-born, didn’t she?”

            “That’s the one,” Sirius said, picking at his fingernails. “You’d think she’d died from the way my mother talks about her. Even blasted her off right off the family tapestry.” He chuckled bitterly. “She always likes to threaten me and say I’ll be the next one to go, but Merlin knows I’m the one waiting for when that day comes more than her.”

            Cassie fidgeted with the ends of her coat sleeves, not quite knowing how to reply to that. Despite the rocky relationship she had with her father, she didn’t think he would ever go so far as to disown her as Sirius’s mother would. Sirius seemed to sense her discomfort, for he just laughed and slung an arm over her shoulders.

            “Listen, Princess, you’ll be fine,” he assured her. “Just remember something for me?”

            “What’s that?” she asked, trying to focus on his words and not the heat emanating from him, but it was proving to be quite difficult.

            He stopped her and turned her shoulders, so she was facing him squarely. She forced herself to meet his gaze, her face a bit too warm when she saw how intense he looked, grey eyes solemn and handsome face serious. She was aware of how close they were standing in the small corridor, as well, but she tried not to think about it too much when he spoke again.

            “If anything starts getting too bad at home, well, er… you can always write me,” he said, reaching up and brushing his hair out of his eyes. It took away slightly from his intensity, though she could tell he meant it. “Granted, my place wouldn’t be any better, but if you ever wanted to get out and do something at some point over the holidays…”

            He trailed off, now looking as if he had something he shouldn’t have, but she was so taken aback and touched by his concern she found herself nodding.

            “Thank you, Sirius,” she said quietly. “And, erm, same to you.”

            They shared a tentative smile before the train began to slow, and the conductor announced that they had reached London.  

            “Well, I’d better get back,” he said, jerking his thumb over his shoulder. “See you around, Princess.”

            He winked one last time before strolling back to his compartment, hands shoved in his pockets and stride as cool as ever. She stared after him a bit too long, only realizing what she was doing when compartment doors slid open and students started to emerge into the corridor around her.

            She hurried back to her own compartment, grabbing up her rucksack as Lily and Alice did the same. They didn’t ask where she had been, probably having guessed already, and they were all distracted when Marlene stomped into the compartment a few minutes later with a dramatic huff.

            “My brother is so annoying!” she said, shaking her head as she slung her bag over her shoulder with a jerky movement. “He made me play Gobstones with him and his freaky mates the whole way here and threatened to tell our parents about Sirius if I didn’t!”

            Cassie bit back a snort while Alice and Lily assured her that her brother was a git. By the time they had disembarked the train, the blonde witch had calmed down some, wishing them all a good holiday before kissing each girl on the cheek and joining the throng of students on the platform.

            “See you two in a few weeks!” Alice chirped, hugging Cassie and Lily tightly before heading to her parents standing a few meters away, leaving the other girls alone together.

            “Well, should we go find our own parents?” Lily said, gesturing to the crowd, only to frown when she noticed Cassie’s hesitation. “What?”

            “Er, Lils…” she said awkwardly. “Look, you know I would, but my mum wrote me last week… She said she was going to be busy at the office, so my dad would have to come get me.”

            She bit her lip, waiting as realization dawned on her face.

            “Oh,” she said, blinking. “Right. Pure-blood. Muggle-born.” She gestured first to Cassie, then to herself. The other girl winced.

            “I’m sorry, Lils,” she said hastily. “You’ve met my mum before; she loves you. But my dad…”

            “Cass, I get it,” she said, squeezing her elbow. “It’s not your fault. Don’t sweat it.”

            Cassie gave her an uncertain smile, but Lily just rolled her eyes and pulled her into a tight hug. “Take care, Cass. Have a good holiday.”

            “You too, Lils,” she said before pulling away and starting in the opposite direction with a last wave.

            Her throat was uncomfortably dry, and her arms had started to itch under her coat as she scanned the faces around her, looking for the telltale signs of cold aristocracy and an aura of arrogance that people tended to give a wide berth around. Finally did she spot him standing some ways away from the crowd, other witches and wizards scurrying past with fervent looks cast to the elegant man in the black robes, and she gulped.

            Lukas Alderfair looked very much the same as he always had, ever since Cassie could remember him as a little girl. His brown hair was still cut in the same fashion, long on top and shorn on the sides, exposing the grey hair that had always been prominent there. He was not a tall nor a broad man, but his stiff posture and frighteningly cool demeanor were imposing enough on their own. His pale skin was so smooth and unblemished it gave the appearance of expensive porcelain; a stark contrast to his eyes—so dark they seemed almost black. It was these same eyes that locked onto her naught a second later, and Cassie ignored the sudden drop in her stomach as she approached him.

            She waited until she had reached him to say anything, clearing her throat and giving him a respectful nod. “Father.”

            “Cassiopeia.” His voice was flat, devoid of emotion. She swallowed nervously as his dark eyes raked her over before one eyebrow rose in mild disgust. “I see you have decided to trade in your normal attire for whatever rubbish the Mudbloods wear today.”

            Cassie blanched, looking down to her trousers and pea coat and cursing herself for being so stupid. Her wizard robes were sitting in the rucksack upon her shoulder, but it seemed that in the wake of her conversation with Sirius, she had completely forgotten to change before departing the train.

            “I-I was going to change,” she stammered. “On the train, I-I fell asleep, and forgot…”

            She trailed off when he only gazed at her coldly. She kept her eyes trained on her boots as he said in an offhand voice, “No matter. We can just add this mistake to the list of things I wanted to speak to you about at dinner tonight. Like the detentions you’ve received this term.” She winced. “And perhaps your mother can explain to me why she allows you to go behind my back to buy such distasteful filth in the first place.”

            Cassie paled, nauseous. It was one thing for her father to be displeased with her, but she hadn’t meant to get her mother involved in his ire this time. Eleanor excelled at being the voice of reason when it came to her husband and his treatment of their daughter, but defending both of them against an angry Lukas Alderfair was a lost cause.

            “Come,” her father said, placing one of his pale hands on her shoulder and steering her firmly off the platform. “Let us get away from this pigsty and go home.”

            Cassie cast a look back over her shoulder, struggling to get a last glimpse of any of her friends before being subjected back to her home life, but tears pricked her eyes when she saw no one and her father tightened his grip on her shoulder, preparing them for Side-Along Apparition.

            The last thing she saw as she was sucked into darkness was a pair of glittering grey eyes trained right on her, and she faintly registered the face of Sirius and what appeared to be a hard look of concern in his gaze before she had left the platform behind.


 

            If you were to visit the town of Middlesbrough in North Yorkshire and had a certain hankering for nature and breathtaking sights, you would perhaps be recommended to the large hill of the North York Moors the town boasted, given the delectable name of Roseberry Topping. Muggles found it to be quite a charming tourist attraction in the area, and the moor’s history dated back all the way to the age of the Viking, giving it a rich characterization and intense interest among most English historians.

           However, no matter how intellectual and knowledgeable Muggles often claim to be, not a single one of them had any inkling that the moor was already inhabited, and by a village, no less. Of course, this village is nigh impenetrable by Muggles (though the occasional one does tend to stray within the wards by sheer accident, leaving for an awkward situation for the Ministry of Magic to clear up), for it is exclusively inhabited by magical folk, and has been for quite some centuries.

           Ilfracombe was a small, yet grandiose village nestled in the moors sprawled around Roseberry Topping, and is said to have originated in the year 1119 when a pagan witch by the name of Ilfra Combe attempted to settle a safe haven for her cult of witches and wizards steeped in the dark and ancient arts. The settlement was eventually attacked and destroyed by the First High Court of Magick, yet was later re-settled as the village of Ilfracombe in the Middle Ages due to its unique and captivating location, and over the centuries grew as a renowned and wealthy village to many respectable Pure-blood families—the Alderfairs, of course, being the most prominent.    

          Cassie was released from the compressing darkness of Apparition atop the hillside, where she promptly stumbled and dropped her rucksack while her father landed smoothly beside her, not a hair out of place as she scrambled to pick up her belongings.

          He started up the stone path that led to an expansive wrought-iron gate some meters away, and she followed after him quickly, the sight of the gate only bringing her some small comfort as she took in the words etched at the top: Fortes fortuna iuvat.

          Suddenly, she was eight years old again, running after her brother down the hill and laughing as they collapsed against the cool metal of the gate, out of breath and panting from their race to see who could get there first.

         “I beat you!” Will exclaimed triumphantly, his dark eyes sparkling while he shot her a smug grin, his slightly crooked front teeth showing out at her while she pouted.

        “Only because you cheated!” she retorted, though she wasn’t that upset; Will was leaving for his first year at Hogwarts in a few days, and she had begun to cherish their moments together—to savor them when he was off without her.

       “Did not!” he argued, grabbing her and tickling her sides as she shrieked with mirth, begging him to stop. “Now, take it back!”

      “Okay—you—won—fair and—square!” she gasped out. “I’m sorry!”

      He released her from his wrath, and she laid back on the grass, staring up at the gate. He flopped down beside her, immediately beginning to rip up the weeds that grew there.

     “What do you think that means?” she asked, pointing to the three words wrought above the gate. He rolled his eyes.

    “It’s Latin, idiot,” he said. “Father’s told us what it means a thousand times: fortune favors the brave. They’re our House words.”

   “I know that, dummy,” she said, huffing. “But what does it mean? I don’t get why it’s supposed to represent us.”

   Will scrunched up his nose, pondering her question before shrugging. “I dunno. I think it means if you want to be successful, you have to be willing to take risks.”

   She made a face. “That’s it?”

  He looked over at her in exasperation. “Well, what do you want it to mean?”

 She shrugged, her eyes tracing over the words again. “I’m not sure. I just think it should mean more than that.”

 “Maybe it’s a sign,” Will mused. “Something like fate.”

 She laughed at this. “Oh? And what’s your fate, Brother? That you’re destined to become the biggest fathead in the world?”

 “Oh, shut up,” he said, shoving her side as she giggled shrilly at her own joke. “I think it means that I’m going to be a Gryffindor.”

 “A Gryffindor?” She rolled onto her side, so she was facing him seriously. “Why would you want to be in that House?”

 “What’s wrong with Gryffindor?” he demanded, staring at her, and she frowned.

“Father says they value brawn over brains too much,” she said. “And he and Mummy were both in Ravenclaw. Why wouldn’t you want to be in the House that they were in when they went to school?”

  Will shrugged, looking back up to the gate thoughtfully. “Gryffindors value bravery and chivalry above all else,” he said eventually. “Ravenclaw wouldn’t be bad, but I feel like Gryffindor would help me become…greater, y’know? Like it could unlock my full potential.”

“Well, I’m going to be a Ravenclaw. I’ll make Father and Mummy proud.”

 Will snorted at this. “Cassie, if anyone’s going to be a Gryffindor in this family, then it’s you.”

 She looked to him, affronted. “How so?”

 He laughed at her offense. “Because you’re you. You’re too bold to be in boring old Ravenclaw—and you don’t exactly have the intelligence of one…”

“Hey!” she complained, though she couldn’t help but laugh along with him. They lay in silence for a few moments once their laughter had passed before she peeked over at her brother again. “Will?”

“Hm?” He looked back to her, brows scrunching when he saw how troubled she looked.

“Promise me something?” she asked quietly, and he grinned at her.

“Anything for you, Sparks.”

“If you get Sorted into Gryffindor, and I become a Ravenclaw…don’t ignore me, okay? We can still be brother and sister, even if we’re in different Houses.”

He chuckled. “Sparks, you’ll always be my sister. I’ll never ignore you, or abandon you, all right? I promise.”

      “Cassiopeia.”

       She looked up at her father’s voice, not even realizing that she’d stopped walking completely when they had reached the gate, too absorbed in her memories to pay attention to what she was doing. Her father watched her impatiently, standing at the now-open gate, and she muttered a hasty apology before following him through and up the stone path that would lead them to the manor.

      The path wound its way up the hill, becoming gradually steeper as it went, though the views it offered outweighed the struggle of walking uphill. The moors stretched out below them in swatches of brown and green, almost ghostly from the fine layers of mist overlying them. Lights were beginning to wink on in the village below in the semi-darkness of twilight, offering a golden opaqueness to the scene that was quite warm despite the cold winter air.

      They made their way under tall alder trees, through stone archways and courtyards overlooking the expansive gardens they kept, everything still in bloom and fresh from the spells the gardeners had placed upon the flora for the season. Eventually, through the gloom, a large Gothic structure began to edge into view, the many windows of the manor alight with lanterns and glittering out at them like hungry, intelligent eyes. Cassie suppressed a shiver as they ascended the smooth marble steps that took them to the grand front doors; she had always considered Alderfair Manor to be creepy in some way due to its cold, imposing exterior, but the feelings seemed to increase tenfold with her father at her shoulder. He waved his wand, and the doors swung open easily despite their size and heavy wooden structure.

       They stepped into the warm foyer, the doors closing behind them, and immediately a shrill voice puffed out, “Master Alderfair, welcome back! And you brought the young Mistress home from school, as well! Welcome, welcome!”

        Cassie gave a tentative smile to the elderly house-elf hobbling toward them, her father shedding his cloak while Cassie did the same with her coat. “Hi, Liddy. It’s good to see you.”

        The elf’s blue eyes peered up at her fondly, and her small hand patted Cassie’s knee affectionately before she padded toward the kitchen, talking over her shoulder as she went. “I’m preparing tea for you now, Master and young Mistress, and supper is not far behind—"

       “Did my wife tell you what time she would be home this evening?” Lukas interrupted, pulling out his golden pocket watch and frowning at it as if it had caused him some personal offense.

       “No, sir, Mistress Alderfair did not say,” Liddy said. “She only said she was to be late—"

       Liddy was interrupted yet again, but this time, because of a knock on the front doors. Cassie looked to her father questioningly, though he appeared as surprised as her.

      “You didn’t happen to give out this address to any of your, ah, friends, did you?” he asked her, arching an imperious brow. She shook her head quickly.

      “Is there someone you were supposed to be meeting?” she asked hesitantly, but he only shook his head, now frowning at the doors.

      “Cassiopeia, answer the door,” he ordered her.

       She hurried to comply, an intense surge of dread barreling through her as she placed her hand on the knob. Shrugging the warning off, figuring it was just because of her father, she pulled open the door and froze, her mouth dropping into a silent ‘o’.

       “Hello, Sister,” Will said, smirking at her through the shadows. “Mind if I come in?”

Chapter Text

20 December 1975

Dearest Prongs,

It’s been approximately 48 hours since we departed from Platform 9 ¾, and I am utterly bored. I’ve been hiding out in my room since we’ve gotten back, mostly to avoid Mother’s incessant cursing and nagging. I think Father’s gone through about four bottles of firewhiskey in the meantime, and I’m starting to worry about his liver. Not really. I’d find it ironic if he died from alcoholism, so cheers to that.

Anyway, enough about my dazzling home life and charming family. I was actually writing to you to see if you had heard from Cassie at all. I told her to write me if things got rough over at her place, but I was thinking about it and maybe thought she had misunderstood it to mean that she could write any of us? I’m sending letters to Moony and Wormtail, as well, but I just wanted to be sure. You’d tell me if she wrote you, yeah?

Yours truly,

Padfoot


 

  21 December 1975

My darling Padfoot,

            I can’t believe it’s taken this long for you to write me! Honestly, mate, usually I receive a letter from you within the first 24 hours! This is truly unacceptable.

            Dad’s been busy at the office most of the time, which means Mum is making me clean and help her prepare for Christmas dinner (and before you ask, yes, we’ll be saving you leftovers). Dunno why she’s making me do all this, though; I mean, we have a house-elf for a reason, but I guess she likes to feel good about herself during the holidays or whatnot. Speaking of which, my parents are fine with you coming to stay with us after Christmas again. Mum says you can stay however long you like, too.

            And before you jump down my throat about it, no, I haven’t heard from Cassie. Has Moony replied yet? If she were to write any of us, it might be him. (And Pads, just a little word of advice…don’t sound so desperate next time, yeah?)

            Let me know whether you can stay or not! I’ll try and get Moony and Wormtail out here, too, that way the whole gang’s here.

Best,

Prongs


 

  21 December 1975

Dear Padfoot,

            I thought we agreed that you would at least try to use Muggle mail when you wanted to write me? Your owl scared the living daylights out of my mum, and now she keeps looking at the kitchen window like she’s afraid something’s going to come through it and eat her.

            Sorry to hear about your mum and dad; they’re both slimy gits anyway, so it’s probably best you stay clear of them (and please don’t let them find out what I just said about them). Did Prongs write you about spending the rest of the holidays at his place? My mum doesn’t really like the idea of me leaving so soon after Christmas, but she usually listens to me, so I’ll probably end up going, anyway.

            I haven’t heard from Cassie, either. Sorry, mate. You sure she hasn’t written you yet? (Also, are any of you getting her something for Christmas? I want to, but if the rest of you aren’t, I don’t think I will. It’d be a bit awkward you know?)

          Anyway, happy holidays, and see you soon!

From,

Wormtail


 

  22 December 1975

Padfoot—

            Sorry it took a couple days for me to reply. I had to finish up Christmas shopping with my mum and dad and I still wasn’t feeling too well after my transformation. I feel fine now, don’t worry—we don’t need another rescue mission from second year.

            I’m assuming Prongs already wrote you about all of us getting together at his place after Christmas. Wormtail thinks he can make it, and my dad said I could go as long as I get all of my holiday reading done first, which shouldn’t be too hard—I’m already halfway done with it, and I think it’s actually quite interesting. (I’m not even going to bother asking if you’ve already started; we both know you’ll wait until the night before to do it.)

            Pads, I’m sure Cassie’s fine. She hasn’t written me, either, but that’s a good thing, right? If she was in trouble, she definitely would’ve contacted us already. And if I’m being honest, I think you’re a bit too paranoid right now. Cassie’s family isn’t yours—from the few times we talked about it, she seems to really like her mother, and though she has to tread carefully around her father, she doesn’t seem to believe that he’s all that bad. The only person we should be wary of is Will, but no one’s heard anything about him in weeks, and Cassie would have told us if he was back, I’m sure of it.  

            Speaking of Cassie, are you getting her anything for Christmas? Wormtail said he was thinking about it, but I think it’d be nice if all of us got a little something for her.

            Anyway, I need to go, but I’ll see you in a few days, all right?

 —Moony

             Sirius sighed and crumpled up the letter, tossing it into the bin where all his other letters had gone since he’d arrived home. Besides the ones from the other Marauders, the rest were tinted slightly pink and smelled like the nauseating aroma of roses, and he had taken extra care to avoid those.

            He had been hoping that with some distance Marlene would back off for a bit, but if anything, their time apart was simply reinforcing her need to pervade every aspect of his life. He cast a disdainful look at the ring sitting atop his dresser, an early Christmas present that had arrived with one of the letters, and he realized with a sinking feeling that he was going to have to break things off with the persistent witch. Usually, he opted for the easier route of ignoring his exes until they inevitably drifted apart, but that obviously wasn’t going to work with Marlene.

            He laid back on his bed and rubbed his hands over his face, already dreading what such a confrontation would bring, for he had at least some tact in choosing not to dump her via owl. He winced when he wondered how Cassie would react to him breaking up with one of her best friends before he pushed that thought to the side, the gnawing worry that started up every time he thought of the dark-haired witch kneading at his insides again.

            He knew he should be relieved that Cassie hadn’t written him; after all, it was exactly as Remus had said. If she was in trouble, they would’ve heard from her by now. But he still couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong.

            Or maybe you were just hoping that she’d write you because you just wanted to talk to her, a tiny voice suggested. Sirius scowled, batting that thought away. It wasn’t as if two weeks was an exceptionally long time for them to not see each other. Before this year, he had barely even been aware of her existence—he should be used to not being around her, right?

            It’s this bloody house, he realized, staring at the dark ceiling above him. 12 Grimmauld Place was far from cheery, and even further from feeling even remotely like a home to him. Here, he was trapped. Alone and locked away in his room, decorated so it felt like even the tiniest sliver of home, which was his dormitory in Gryffindor Tower. The one place he felt like he belonged.

            That was it, he thought. He was lonely, and even though he was going to see his mates in a few days, he couldn’t help but wish that Cassie would be there with them. There was something about her that seemed so…natural. Like she was supposed to be where he was, like she fit into their group like a puzzle piece they never knew they needed.

            He thought about the last time he had seen her that day on the train, how she had laughed at all of their stupid jokes in the compartment, her fair cheeks stained permanently red from her mirth. And then how worried she’d been when he’d confronted her in the corridor, his fingers curled over the tops of her shoulders and her breathing moving her body under his hands. He saw her anxious eyes one last time on the platform, her face tight with apprehension, and he’d thought about running to her then, though the presence of his mother had kept him from doing anything rash. Looking back on it, he wished he had run to her, though. At least then she would have kept him away from this bloody family.

            There was a soft knock on his door—two raps that barely sounded over the blaring of his Muggle rock music (he had been sure to pick the loudest record, just to piss off his mother), but he instantly knew who it was. His mother had the nasty habit of pounding on his door with her bony knuckles and screaming when she wanted him to come out, and considering his father never came up to his room, he knew it had to be his brother.

            After debating for a few moments whether he wanted to answer or not, he finally sighed and trudged over to the door and opened it, looking down into the face of his brother as he stood there uncertainly.

            “No, I’m not going to turn down my Muggle filth, Reg,” he said before his brother could even open his mouth. “Now, if that’s all—"

            Sirius made to close the door, but Regulus pushed back on it, scowling. “That’s not what I was going to say, you idiot!”

            Sirius stopped attempting to shut the door, instead holding it ajar and rolling his eyes. “Then what the hell do you want?”

            “To come in,” he said, arching an imperious brow, and Sirius scoffed, though he stepped away to allow him entry.

            Regulus brushed past him and leaned against the black wardrobe set up against the far wall, casting a distasteful look to the beat-up record player he had found in one of their Muggle neighbors’ trash bins that was currently blaring Deep Purple.

            “I don’t understand how you can listen to this rubbish,” Regulus said, nearly shouting to be heard over the music.

            “It’s called rock ‘n’ roll, Reg,” Sirius said, brushing his hair out of his face and sitting on his bed again, “and it’s the future, let me tell you.”

            “It’s a menace to my eardrums, is what it is,” he replied, sniffing, and Sirius cracked a small grin before waving his hand to him.

            “All right, Reg, if you didn’t come to complain about my music, then why are you here?” he asked.

            Regulus cast an anxious look to the door before turning up the volume on the record player. Sirius watched him in confusion, wondering what his brother was doing as Regulus leaned forward, his eyes serious.

            “I was down in the drawing room a few minutes ago,” he began, and Sirius had to strain to hear his voice over the music, watching his lips form the words so he wouldn’t be completely lost. “I heard Mother and Father talking about that new friend of yours, Alderfair.”

            Sirius was instantly on high alert, sitting up straighter and staring at his brother as he leaned closer. “What were they saying?”

            “Nothing too important,” Regulus said hastily, casting another look to the door. “They were just saying how they should invite the Alderfairs over for Christmas dinner.” Sirius frowned, his fingers digging into the side of his mattress as he thought before Regulus continued.

            “And before you get any ideas in your head, they didn’t sound interested in your girlfriend,” he said, rolling his eyes. Sirius’s head snapped up at this, his mouth opening in protest, but Regulus talked over him. “They were talking about her brother a lot, though, and what he was doing in his campaign with the Dark Lord.”

            Sirius snorted, running a hand through his hair as he sat back, scowling. “Of course they were,” he said scathingly. “They’re probably wondering where they should go to sign you up.”

            There was a heartbeat of silence until Sirius realized what he had just said. He winced, looking up to Regulus guiltily. “Reg, hey—"

            “No.”

            It was one word, but it was so cold, so flat, that Sirius couldn’t help but shrink back a bit from his brother’s tone. Regulus stood completely straight, his hands curled into fists so tightly that his knuckles were slowly turning white. His face, however, was flaming red with anger, and his eyes had become glittering chips of ice, cutting into Sirius like the sharpest blade.

            “No,” he repeated, and Sirius saw that his brother was trembling. “You don’t get to say that and then turn around and blow it off like it was nothing.” Regulus’s voice was harsh, and Sirius distantly wondered if he had ever heard him sound so detached, his fury all but numbed out of his voice. “Is that all you think I’ll ever be, Sirius? Is some fucking Death Eater?”

            Sirius stood from his bed abruptly, easily looming over his younger brother as he stared into the cold depths of Regulus’s eyes, simultaneously shocked and furious.

            “Well, with the people you hang around with now and what they’re into, you can’t blame me for being cautious,” he snapped. Regulus’s angry scowl turned into a sneer.

            “Admit it, Brother,” he hissed, coming to stand before Sirius until they were practically nose-to-nose. “That’s exactly what you’re afraid of, isn’t it? You preach about how much you care about me, but you do nothing but hide and run out the door the first chance you get—"

            “I do care, you moron!” Sirius snarled, jabbing his finger into his brother’s chest and forcing him back a step. “All my life I’ve spent looking out for you—"

            “Like hell!” Regulus said, his usually low voice raised in a shout. “As soon as I became a snake you dropped me in favor of your mangy half-blood friends and that blood traitor Potter—"

            “Don’t say a word about my mates!” Sirius roared, pushing his brother back until he hit the wardrobe. “They’re twice the decent human beings your Muggle-hating friends are—"

            Regulus shoved him, hard, and sent him staggering back a step, staring at him with red eyes while Sirius regained his balance, cursing.

            “See?” he cried, pointing accusingly at Sirius. “This is exactly what I mean! You don’t care, you never did—all you sodding care about is how much time I have left until I join up with the Dark Lord! Admit it!”

            “Have you not been listening to anything I’ve been saying?” Sirius shouted. “You’re my brother, Reg! You’re the only bloody person in this damned house I care about! And I’m not—I won’t lose you—"

            “Lose me to what?” The deathly cold voice was back. Regulus stared at him as if he had never seen him before. He gave a dry, brittle chuckle, shaking his head when Sirius glowered at him. “C’mon, Sirius; you were just saying it. Lose. Me. To. What?”

            “Get out,” Sirius snapped. “We’re done here.”

            “Whatever you say.” Regulus shrugged, walking to the door while another guitar solo wailed from the record player, the only sound in the otherwise silent room.

            “Oh, and Sirius?”

            He didn’t turn around, but Regulus’s eyes bored into the back of his head. He grit his teeth.

            “I’d keep an eye on your girlfriend if I were you,” he said. Sirius froze, his muscles tensing as he finally turned to look at his brother standing in the doorway, one hand on the knob while he smirked at his older brother, his eyes cold. “I wouldn’t want one of my mates to catch her alone when we get back to school after all the poking around she’s been doing.”

            “Is that a threat?” Sirius said, his voice dangerously low. Regulus smirked at him again.

            “Now, I never said that, did I?” He gave him one last cheery wave before he was gone, shutting the door behind him with an audible snap and leaving Sirius more alone than he ever had been at Grimmauld Place.


 

 19 December 1975

Cass the Sass,

            Exactly 16 hours have passed since we last saw each other, but I have to say: I MISS YOU! Of course, I miss Lils and Mar, too, but they weren’t the ones who sat in the Hospital Wing with me for those two weeks in first year when I had dragon pox. Plus, you’re the only person who can adopt a tree for a pet and not weird me out by it, so yeah, I miss you the most.

            I don’t have a lot to talk about, considering we just saw each other…OH! I almost forgot to tell you! Frank invited me over to his house for New Year’s! Isn’t that exciting? He asked me yesterday as we were leaving the station—he was so sweet about it! You have GOT to help me get ready. I already have a few outfits in mind, but I’ll send pictures for you the day before so you can help me decide. (How you can pick the perfect outfit for me but refuse to do the same for yourself will forever amaze me, by the way.)

            Anyway, I’ll talk to you soon! Hope everything is going all right over at your place!

Yours truly,

Alice the Chalice

P.S. Mum and Dad are baking pumpkin bread for you—I’ll send it along with Hera in a couple days xx


 

  21 December 1975

Dear Cassie,

            How are you? It’s been snowing here like mad! Daddy’s already had to shovel the driveway twice—Mum says it’s useless, since the snow will just come right back, but he insists, and Merlin knows he’s too stubborn to stop. Tuney’s being unbearable, as usual. She’s got a boyfriend now; his name’s Vernon, and he’s the most dreadfully boring person on the planet. And he’s very standoffish; not at all a gentleman, but Tuney’s very smitten with him (gag). He’s coming over for Christmas dinner, which means Tuney has gone absolutely starkers and keeps telling me that if I show any signs of magic, she’ll bury me in all that snow to where no one can find me. (I haven’t bothered to tell her that I can’t do magic outside of school, but what she doesn’t know won’t hurt her, yeah?)

            Honestly, I’m a bit worried about Sev, too. I know you and he haven’t gotten the opportunity to talk much, but I hope you can find some sympathy for him. He’s been different ever since this year started, and it’s really starting to concern me. He’s been very moody and lashing out more, and I don’t know what I can do to help him other than just be there for him. Hopefully it’s just a phase, but I think having him around more during the holidays should help his spirits, don’t you think?

            Speaking of holiday spirits, I hope everything is okay with you. I was reading The Daily Prophet last night and there was a mention about your brother in one of the articles. I never got a chance to read the whole thing through (I always have to hide them whenever Tuney’s around or she’ll get mad) but now I can’t find it, so I don’t know what was in it. Do you?

            Hopefully we’ll talk soon, but until then, have a good holiday and Happy Christmas!

With love,

Lily


 

  22 December 1975

Dear Cassie,

            UGH, I MISS YOU ALL SO MUCH! Late night boy talks would be so much easier if we were all actually together!

            While on the topic of boys, have you heard from Sirius at all? I know the two of you are friends, so I just wanted to be sure. He hasn’t responded to any of my letters—not even the one where I sent him the promise ring as his present! (Dramatic sigh.) Boys. Don’t ever get involved with them, Cassie. They’re nothing but stress and heartache.

            But anyway. How are you? Hope your holiday is going well so far! You can expect my present soon. I think you’re going to like it…

            Love you bunches, and you’ll be sure to tell me if Sirius writes you, yeah?

xoxo,

Marlene


 

  22 December 1975

Cass—

            Hello? Are you even alive? You haven’t responded to me at all!

            Don’t even think about eating any of that bread until you write me back, missy, understand? And if you don’t respond before Christmas Eve, we are going to have serious issues, got it?

            Love you, even though you’re IGNORING YOUR BEST FRIEND!

 —Alice


 

  22 December 1975

Cassie,

            Hey. It’s Sirius. How are you doing?

            Look, I don’t want to make this all about myself or make you feel uncomfortable, but…things are pretty shit here. I won’t go into detail, but I just needed to write to someone, you know? And I’ve written about a thousand copies of this same letter to send to James or Remus or Peter, but for some reason, I could never finish them. But then I thought of you and everything became so much easier. Stupid, right?

            Anyway, I think where I’m going with this is that I need to know if you’re all right and not having a horrible time like I am. And if everything is fine, that’s great! Sirius-ly (haha). But if not… then I’m here. Maybe my emotions are speaking for me after the row I just had with my brother, but I miss you, Princess. Who else am I supposed to mess with if you’re not here?

            Another thing, though, and I don’t know if you know yet, but my parents are inviting yours over for Christmas dinner. And as much as I hate myself for asking you this…if I invited you, would you come with them? I despise knowing that you’ll have to meet my insufferable family, but having you here would at least make the night more bearable. And don’t feel obligated to come just because I asked you. Merlin, I would hate that. But I would also really like it if you came, nonetheless.

            Send your reply back with Perseus (and I’m sorry if he bites you—he gets a bit excited sometimes). Hope you’re having a good holiday, Cass.

Yours,

Sirius

            Cassie put down the letter with a sigh, subtly moving away from the handsome black owl perched on her windowsill after reading through Sirius’s warning about it biting.

            Dusty evening light spilled into her room through the open window, giving the place a dreary layer of grey as she sat upon her bed, still holding the letter in her hands.

            She cast a look to the large mahogany desk set up in the corner, her eyes raking over the unanswered letters she had from Alice, Lily, and Marlene with a guilty twinge. It wasn’t as if she were avoiding them all; she simply had nothing to talk about. After all, what could she say?

            Hey, sorry I haven’t answered. Besides the fact that my brother showed up out of the blue after being on the run from torturing Muggles and my father cleared his name with the Ministry a few days ago, leaving him innocent and free to attack again, everything has just been peachy! My father’s been ignoring me, my mother’s never home, which means I’m left avoiding my Death Eater brother like the plague, and I couldn’t be happier! Christmas cheer is in the air and I can’t wait to make cookies with my brother and pretend that everything is all right!

            Yeah, she thought wryly, because that would go over really well.

            She’d practically locked herself in her room since returning home, only emerging to go to the bathroom at night when she was sure everyone else was asleep. She’d even ordered Liddy to bring her meals privately, and she ate in solitude, surrounded by the same four walls she had had since she was a child.

            The room was mostly bare, considering most of her things were still hanging in the dormitory at Hogwarts, except for the few items she couldn’t bring with her, such as the huge framed paintings of prowling griffins and flying ravens that she had adored when she was younger. The walls were white but decorated with blue and bronze flowers—a remnant from her days when she was convinced that she was going to be a Ravenclaw that she hadn’t the heart to change, even when she had become a Gryffindor and grown up.

            A large bed canopied by white silk curtains dominated most of the room, with an expensive feathered rug beneath it that contrasted with the dark wooden floors, made of the same mahogany as her desk and every other piece of furniture in the room. Large windows offered a plethora of light and lovely views of the countryside, but with the wintry twilight gloom outside, they just made everything look depressing. It was a grand room, to be sure, but she felt lonelier than ever when she was in it. She longed for the warmth and comfort her dormitory in Gryffindor Tower brought her, away from the mess that had ensnared the Alderfair household upon Will’s unexpected arrival.

            The last time Cassie had seen him was the night he had appeared on their doorstep. After his cryptic greeting, he’d asked to speak with their father alone in his study; she’d had no idea why then, but after reading the article Lily had spoken about in the Daily Prophet, she had understood.

            WILLIAM ALDERFAIR’S NAME CLEARED IN MUGGLE ATTACK INVESTIGATION the headline had blared, and it had been with a sick, sinking feeling in her chest that she had read the rest:

            On Monday morning, the Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, Bartemius Crouch, reported in an exclusive statement with the Daily Prophet that all charges being held against Wizengamot member Lukas Alderfair’s son have been dropped concerning the Muggle attack that took place in Cokeworth nearly two months ago.

            “The evidence that had previously been pointing to William Alderfair as a suspect for the crime has been reviewed and labeled as circumstantial,” Crouch told reporters, alongside several somber-looking Ministry officials. “Eyewitness accounts have been thrown out of the Council of Magical Law’s investigation due to bias and unreliability, and have thus proven Mr. Alderfair’s innocence.”

            The Auror’s account of the incident and the naming of William Alderfair as a suspect previously published has been ruled as “artificial” and “false” in terms of the investigation, with Lukas Alderfair confirming that he and the Auror in question had a complication in the past that led to the erroneous eyewitness account that had incriminated Mr. Alderfair’s son. The Auror in question declined to comment on the decision, only stating that he would be resigning from the Auror Office once Christmas was over.

            Ministry officials still declare that the investigation is ongoing, and Minster of Magic Harold Minchum assures the magical community that the attackers will be apprehended and brought to justice (for updates on the investigation, see pg. 12).

            Reported by Rita Skeeter, Special Correspondent of the Daily Prophet and Evening Prophet

            Even though she had burned the article after reading it, she still felt nauseous every time she thought about it, and she wondered what Will could have told their father that had made him help clear his name.

            It’s not what it looks like. I’m so sorry. I don’t even remember what happened. Please believe me.

            Cassie shut her eyes, digging the heels of her palms into her eye sockets in an attempt to stop the barrage of words and images flooding her brain. All she had wanted was a simple holiday, and now all she was getting was enough trouble to last her a lifetime.

            “Rough day, eh?”

            Cassie was instantly on her feet, wand in hand as she faced her door, where Will was leaning casually in the threshold. She hadn’t even heard the door open, and that only made her angrier as he smirked at her, crossing his arms leisurely.

            “Get out,” she snapped. “I won’t ask twice.”

            “That didn’t sound like asking the first time,” he said, raising his brows. Her teeth ground together with an audible click.

            “Just leave,” she said. “Father and Mum may think you’re innocent, but I sure as hell don’t.”

            “I think the Ministry dropping all charges against me seems to disprove that little theory of yours,” he said mockingly, and her fingers tightened upon her wand. “And here I thought that you would be the first to believe me when I said I had no part in that attack.”

            “You’re a liar,” she hissed. “I don’t know what you told Father, but you’re not fooling me with it.”

            “How strange,” he mused, cocking his head and frowning at her like she was a dog that had failed to perform a trick for him. “The last time we met, you were so adamant in hoping that I could still somehow be saved, and now you seem to have lost all that faith in me.”

            “Finding out that your brother tortures innocent people tends to have that effect on a person,” she bit back. He smiled ruefully, not at all bothered by her hostility.

            “And yet you still wear the locket that your evil older brother gave to you,” he said. She started, momentarily distracted as she gazed down to the locket sitting against her chest, twinkling brightly. “Has it been of any use to you yet?”

            “I don’t see how an enchanted piece of worthless jewelry could be of any use to me other than hanging there like a pretty bauble,” she retorted. His expression darkened at her words.

            “Think of me as a liar all you want, Cassie, but heed my words when I tell you that that locket is important,” he said gravely. “It could very well mean the difference between life and death.”

            She didn’t respond, too shaken to say anything, merely watching as he stood up straight, uncrossing his arms and giving her a patronizing salute.

            “See you around, Sparks,” he called over his shoulder, walking back down the hallway and leaving her standing, still holding her wand, in the middle of her bedroom, his words ringing in her ears.

            After making sure he was gone, she rushed to her door and locked it, stowing away her wand. She hurried to her desk and snatched up several pieces of blank parchment paper, a quill, and an inkpot, beginning to pen four hasty letters.

            By the time she was finished, they were smeared and dotted with stray ink blots, but otherwise contained the same message: I don’t care how crazy I sound. Something is going on. And we need to figure out what.

            She couldn’t make sense of any of it: Avery, Regulus, Professor Carlisle, the maps, the Founders, Will, the locket… None of it added up. But something was rooting itself in her gut, something that twisted and pawed at her and begged her to look in the right direction, and she had to see. She had to know what was going on. And by Merlin himself, she was going to get the answers she needed.

            She looked down to the letters again before a sudden urge made her grab up the quill once more and scrawl another sentence at the bottom of the one closest to her: I’ll be there.    

            Sealing the letters and grabbing them up, she walked back to her window and met the intelligent gaze of Sirius’s owl, silently praying that he wouldn’t bite her as she tied the letters to his legs.

            “Sorry about this,” she whispered after tying them on, “but these are really important, okay? Make sure they get these.”

            The owl ruffled his jet-black feathers, hooting once as an assurance before soaring out of her window and disappearing on the horizon like a wisp of smoke.

Chapter Text

            For the first time in sixteen years, Cassie was not looking forward to Christmas morning.

            There was a time long since past when she would have awakened before dawn and stolen downstairs in the dim early morning hours to snuggle on the rug near the hearth, where she would have a perfect view of their extravagant tree, still lit during the night and casting flickering shadows that danced patterns as she watched and waited.

            Of course, she never saw Father Christmas, no matter how much she struggled to stay awake, but it was still worth it to fall asleep and wake up to her brother curled up next to her, her body warm from his own and the fire at their backs.

            This year, there would be none of that. Despite jolting awake at three o’clock in the morning after having some dream she couldn’t remember, she still lay in her bed long after the sun had risen, only to be roused by a soft knock on her door around lunchtime.

            She stayed on her side, facing the frosty afternoon outside her windows even after she heard the door open. She only stirred when her mattress dipped behind her from someone’s weight, and she rolled over to see her mother smiling down at her, her ebony hair perfectly neat even after sleep, though her bright blue eyes hinted at fatigue as she gazed down to her daughter.

            “Happy Christmas, my love,” Eleanor whispered. Cassie threw herself into her mother’s arms; she had only seen her a handful of times since the holidays had begun, as she always seemed to be working, but the relief she felt when she entered her mother’s embrace was almost enough to take a week’s worth of tension from her shoulders.

            “Happy Christmas, Mum,” Cassie said, her voice raspy from its lack of use over the days, and Eleanor’s arms tightened ever so slightly around her. They stayed like that for a long while, until Eleanor sighed and pulled away, brushing back a loose strand of hair from Cassie’s forehead.

            “Come downstairs,” she urged, giving her a faint smile. “You have presents, and I’ll get Liddy to make us some tea.”

            At this, Cassie’s relief vanished, her anxiety rushing back at the thought of the other half of their family. “What about Father and Will?”

            Eleanor gazed at her daughter, puzzled by the unhidden dread in her voice. “What about them?”

            Cassie attempted to keep her composure, forcing her voice to be as nonchalant as possible when she said, “Are they, er, here?”

            “No, they had to return to the Ministry,” she said, and Cassie didn’t miss the tight lines around her mother’s mouth before they were gone, to be replaced by another one of her dazzling smiles. “Come, dear; those presents aren’t going to open themselves!”

            Cassie let herself be pulled out of bed, schooling her expression into something more neutral as she followed her mother down the hall to the grand staircase. Why would her father and brother still be making visits to the Ministry, especially on Christmas morning? Wasn’t Will’s name already cleared? What more could they possibly be doing?

            The unsettling feeling that had been sitting in Cassie’s gut for the last week only seemed to intensify the longer she thought about it, but she tried to quash it down as she followed her mother into the drawing room, where a plethora of presents wrapped in shiny silver and gold paper gleamed out at her from beneath the tree.

            Cassie sat in her customary spot next to the tree while Eleanor perched herself in one of the straight-backed armchairs that decorated the room, and she tried not to feel like something was missing as she reached for the first parcel that had her name on it at her mother’s urging. She unwrapped the gift and found a new set of silky wizarding robes, as black as Peruvian ink. Despite her aversion to wizarding fashion, she couldn’t help the small gasp of surprise that came out of her mouth when she unraveled them.

            “Beautiful, aren’t they?” Eleanor said, her eyes raking the robes with the eye of the wizarding world’s most acclaimed fashion magazine editor. “I purchased them from a friend of mine all the way from China; he said the silk was woven a thousand years ago, made by some of the greatest magical Chinese seamstresses the wizarding world had ever seen.”

            “They’re gorgeous,” Cassie said. The fabric slipped easily through her roaming fingers, like rivers of the softest ink.

            “You can wear them tonight,” Eleanor suggested, turning her head and watching Liddy bumble into the room, carrying a tray of tea, biscuits, and fruit. “The Blacks are an esteemed family, and Walburga has an eye for fashion that I could use at the magazine, yet she refuses me every time. She’ll adore you.”

            She laughed at this, a tinkling sound that made Cassie’s lips curl at the corners, as well, as she helped herself to a piece of cantaloupe before turning to her other presents.

            “You remember the Blacks, don’t you, Cassie?” Eleanor continued as she opened a box containing a silver bracelet she would probably never wear. She looked up at her mother’s question, nodding.

            “Yes,” she said, setting the bracelet aside and tearing the paper off another parcel. “I was in the same manners classes with their youngest son when I was little.”

            “But their oldest is in your year, yes?” Eleanor said. “Sirius, isn’t it?”

            “Yeah,” Cassie said, feeling a sudden prickle at her skin at the mention of Sirius’s name. “He’s a Gryffindor, too.”

            “That I could not forget,” Eleanor said, chuckling. “Oh, how upset Walburga was when he didn’t get Sorted into Slytherin! I heard about that one for weeks—the first Black to not be in Slytherin. Such a shock to everyone, I imagine.”

            “Yeah,” Cassie said again, uncomfortable when she recalled how Sirius had told her about his mother threatening to disown him and blast him off his family’s tapestry for not being a true Black.

            There were a few minutes of silence where Cassie continued to open presents, exclaiming and expressing gratitude when she had to while Eleanor watched on, sipping from her tea slowly until Cassie’s pile had dwindled to only two more parcels.

             The smaller gift was a bottle of expensive French perfume that Cassie swore to pawn off to one of the girls when they returned to school after testing it, though she smiled and thanked her mother all the same. The last gift was from Eleanor, as well, and when she opened it, she couldn’t help but squeal in delight.

            “You remembered!” she cried, pulling the cream-colored leather jacket out of its box and hugging it to her chest, beaming at her mother. “I can’t believe you got it!”

            Eleanor laughed, waving a dismissive hand. “It was too hard to pass up,” she said. “Just don’t let your father know I bought it for you.”

A shadow passed over her face when she said this last part. Cassie opened her mouth, about to ask what was wrong before she was interrupted by Liddy returning to the drawing room.

            “Forgive me, Mistresses,” the house-elf said, bowing her floppy-eared head. “There is a Floo call for you, Mistress Eleanor; it is from Master Alderfair.”

            At this, Eleanor got to her feet, smoothing out her robes and turning to Cassie. “Take your things upstairs, dear,” she said, “and start getting ready for tonight. I want to be punctual for the Blacks.”

            Cassie nodded as Eleanor swept off to the study. She wondered what her father was calling about as she gathered up her small pile of gifts and made for the stairs. Her foot had just touched the bottom step when she heard Liddy’s squeaky voice behind her, and she turned to see the tiny house-elf lugging a large parcel toward her.

            “What’s this, Liddy?” Cassie said, bemused as the elf came to a stop before her, panting and arms shaking from the strain of holding the parcel. Cassie set down her other presents and took the package from Liddy, startled by how heavy and solid it was. “Good Godric, what’s in here?”

            “I do not know, Mistress,” Liddy wheezed, rubbing her small arms. “I was only instructed to give it to you when you were alone by Master William.”

            Cassie abruptly stopped her investigation of the parcel, looking down to Liddy with a scowl.

            “I don’t want it,” she said, holding it back out to her. “Take it away. Burn it. Throw it in the bin with all the other rubbish—just do something. I’m not taking it.”

            “I-I’m sorry, Mistress,” Liddy said, wringing her hands as she beseeched Cassie with her large brown eyes. “Master William told me that I had to give it to you. H-he made me swear it, or else he threatened t-to give me—” she gulped “—clothes.

            “Bastard!” Cassie exclaimed, outraged. “Liddy, listen to me: you’re not going anywhere, all right? I’ll take the stupid present. Don’t worry about my brother.”

            “Yes, Mistress,” Liddy said, relieved, and bowed low. “Happy Christmas, Mistress.”

The house-elf scampered off, and Cassie heaved a great sigh, looking back to the parcel in her hands with a frown. It was wrapped in crinkly parchment paper, secured with a thick brown string, and rectangular in appearance. If she had to guess, she would say it was some sort of book, but the thought only made her frown deepen. Why would Will give her a bloody book? And why would he instruct Liddy to give it to her when she was alone, and threaten her if she didn’t?

            Suspicious but curious, Cassie continued upstairs before retreating to her bedroom and dumping her gifts at the foot of her bed, only keeping Will’s parcel in her hands as she sat on the mattress and stared down at it in her lap, debating whether she wanted to open it or not.

            A part of her was tempted to take a match to it right then, but that same nagging feeling that she got whenever she thought about Professor Carlisle and Avery and the locket returned to her, and she resigned herself to at least look while her fingers tore away the wrappings.

            When she was done, she was left with a large book in her lap, as she had guessed, but it looked ancient. The cover was leather and worn, perhaps a rich brown at one point, but now faded into a dusty beige, the embossed lettering all but invisible. She opened the cover and was hit with a musty smell. The pages were thick yet brittle to her touch, and she held them carefully as she flipped through the first few—faded with age—before finding the title, thankfully readable:

Alorfæger

Sylfum Þæt frumcynn and cynnreccennes sylfum se Alorfæger ræw

            On second thought, Cassie thought as she stared at the Old English words, maybe not.

            “Need a translation on that?”

            She started at Will’s voice and slammed the book shut with a snap, sliding it off her lap as she got to her feet, fingers reflexively moving toward her wand.

            “How can I make myself any clearer when I say that I don’t want you near me?” she growled, glaring at her brother as he perched himself in her doorframe once again, perpetual smirk in place. “Get. Out.”

            Will just wrinkled his nose at her, unfazed. “Rude,” he sniffed, before gesturing to the book lying on her bed. “Is this the kind of thanks I get for my gift?”

            “When you insist on giving me rubbish, then yes,” she retorted, and he rolled his eyes.

            “Apologies, Princess,” he said. “Remind me to get you a castle next time.”

            “Don’t call me that,” she snapped, marching over to him and pushing him off her threshold. He just chuckled, pushing his overlong hair out of his eyes.

            “Sorry,” he said. “I forget that I’m not your precious Sirius. Only he and his scum mates are allowed to call you that, right?”

            Cassie froze, looking hard into her brother’s face as realization dawned on her.

            “You’re having me followed, aren’t you?” she said, searching his face and finding no signs of remorse. “At school, and maybe even elsewhere that only Merlin knows about?”

            “There are eyes and ears everywhere, Sister,” he said lowly, and she couldn’t help but swallow at his intense gaze. “They aren’t necessarily mine, either, so I suggest you start being a little more careful when you go back to Hogwarts.”

            “Why are you even here?” she asked if only to avoid the pit of ice she could feel growing in her gut. “I thought you were with Father at the Ministry again?”

            “I was,” he said, leaning against the wall opposite her and shoving his hands into his pockets. “Got bored, so I came back.”

            “Fascinating,” she said flatly. “Now, do me the favor of sodding off. I have to start getting ready for this stupid dinner party and figure out how I’m going to spend an entire evening pretending to like you.”

            “I wouldn’t spend too much time worrying about that.” He picked at an immaculate fingernail and shrugged at her look. “I’m not going.”

            “Thank Merlin,” she said. “At least I know he’s answering some of my prayers.”

            And with that, she slammed the door in his face.


 

             Cassie sucked in a sharp breath when she was released from the clutches of her father’s Side-Along Apparition, willing her stomach to stop roiling. Cold air stung her face and stabbed at her lungs as her parents tumbled into existence next to her much more smoothly.

            “Goodness,” Eleanor said, sweeping her perfect hair over her shoulders and dabbing at her flawless makeup. “I forgot how much Apparition takes out of you!”

            “I never understood how Orion could stand to live in such a place,” Lukas said, casting a disdainful look at the Muggle neighborhood they had emerged in. Cassie had to agree slightly; for all the Pure-blood ideology the Black family was renowned for touting, one would think that their house would be established in a predominantly wizarding village instead of the central part of London.

            Lukas gestured for them to cross the street, to the townhomes on the other side. They came upon a wrought iron gate and passed through, the metal squeaking on its hinges as they trekked up a short drive that stopped in between two dreary-looking buildings, one marked with the number eleven, and the next one over marked with a thirteen. Confused, Cassie blinked a few times to make sure she wasn’t just seeing things, and in the next second another building had sprung up between the two, this one visibly marked with the number twelve.

            The building didn’t look any different than the others, but as the Alderfairs gathered on the front stoop, Cassie could feel the magic radiating from it and the powerful wards around it. Lukas reached up and knocked three times on the door using the ugly gargoyle knocker that leered out at them.

            They waited only briefly until the front door opened, revealing perhaps one of the ugliest house-elves she had ever seen. It was old and gnarled, with a foul temperament and tufts of hair growing out of its large ears, dressed in a simple cloth that resembled something like a pillowcase.

            “Welcome to the most Noble and Ancient House of Black,” the house-elf croaked, bowing so low that his overlong nose brushed the fine carpet beneath him. “Right this way, Master and Mistresses.”

            Lukas stepped inside, closely followed by Eleanor and Cassie, and they all removed their cloaks as the house-elf shut the door behind them before returning and Vanishing their garments with a snap of his fingers.

            “Follow me, please,” the house-elf rasped, shuffling down a long and narrow hall with the Alderfairs in tow.

He took a sharp left and led them into a low-ceilinged but grand room, with an intimidating fireplace taking up much of the wall space and large, moving oil portraits of various witches and wizards dominating the rest. A sprawling sofa that looked highly uncomfortable sat before the fireplace, along with a divan and two high-backed chairs all made with the same emerald velvet and a fine oak table that sparkled with a crystal decanter holding an amber liquid.

            “Ah, there they are,” a woman’s voice said, and Cassie’s attention was drawn to one of the armchairs facing the fire. “Now, attend to dinner, Kreacher.”

            With a groveling bow and a string of compliments, the house-elf backed out of the room, leaving the three Alderfairs standing and facing the four members of the Black family.

            Almost subconsciously, Cassie’s eyes sought Sirius first, and some of her anxiety lessened when he shot her his signature smirk from where he was seated on the sofa. He looked the same as ever with his finely tousled black hair and aristocratic features, but she could see the layer of strain in his silvery eyes when he looked at her. She raised a pointed brow at his appearance, as well; gone were the ripped jeans and ratty T-shirts he was always so keen on wearing, replaced with a rich set of black robes embroidered with silver thread. She couldn’t help but to crack a smile at how uncharacteristically formal he looked.

            Seeing her grin, he rolled his eyes, then gestured to her own attire as if to say and what about you? She fought the urge to stick her tongue out at him, instead only shaking her head slightly before moving her gaze away, lest she was reprimanded.

            Across from Sirius was Regulus, stiff and silent as a board where he sat on the divan, arms crossed and glowering darkly in every direction beside his brother’s. He spared Cassie only a quick glance before his scowl deepened and he looked into the fireplace, but she had no time to ponder the youngest Black’s behavior before Orion and Walburga were upon them.

            It was easy to see which features Sirius had inherited from his parents as Cassie studied them, taken aback by just how good-looking each of them were. Orion was still very attractive at his age, with the same thick, silky dark hair Sirius possessed, though there were quite a few greys mixed in, as well. His eyes were deep-set and dark in his face, his olive skin seeming to glow faintly in the dim light, and his beard was short and well-kempt. He approached her father with a lazy sort of smile that reminded her of a cat, easily towering over the shorter and slighter man as he grasped Lukas’s hand tightly and gave it a firm shake.

            “Lukas,” he greeted, his voice soft and low—much different from how Cassie expected such a large man to sound. “A pleasure, as always. I hope you had no trouble getting here?”

            “We Apparated,” Lukas responded, sharing a stiff smile of his own. “I think the only trouble now is our appetites.”

            The adults all tittered at this, and that was when Walburga spoke up after having greeted Eleanor by kissing both of her cheeks lightly.

            “Well, you certainly came at the right time,” Sirius’s mother said. “We should be eating within the hour.”

            Cassie stared at the other woman. After everything Sirius had told her about his mother, she had expected Mrs. Black to be something of a hag: old and skinny, with wrinkly skin and a bunch of warts to go along with such a distasteful personality. But this version of Mrs. Black was young and elegant, with shiny black hair pulled back into a bun, skin as white and smooth as cream, and the same noble look as the rest of the Blacks. The only resemblance Cassie could see between her and Sirius, however, were the eyes, for they were the exact same shade of light grey as her eldest son’s.

            Despite her decidedly not-haggish appearance, the woman still intimidated Cassie, and it wasn’t hard to figure out why—she radiated cold. She was like an ancient statue brought to life; everything about her was stiff and stony, from the way she stood to her tight smile. Her eyes were flat, almost completely lifeless, and Cassie began to wonder if she had been wrong to be skeptical of Sirius whenever he said that his mother had no soul.

            “Dear Merlin, is this Cassiopeia?” Walburga said, sounding dreadfully bored as her eyes raked Cassie over like a snake. She came forward and grasped her by the elbows, looking her up and down almost hungrily as a smile stretched her pale lips. “My, I haven’t seen you since you were a child, my sweet.”

            She reached up and placed her icy fingers on her chin, swiveling her head this way and that as to get a better look at her.

            “Such beauty,” she murmured. “You look just like your mother.”

            “Th-thank you,” Cassie stammered, unnerved by her touch. “It’s nice to see you again, Mrs. Black.”

            “No need for such formalities, dear,” she said, finally stepping back and giving an approving nod to Eleanor as if she were satisfied with Cassie’s appearance. “You may call me Walburga.”

            Cassie nodded, not knowing what else to say, but Walburga continued on, now speaking to Eleanor.

            “You must find her a husband soon, Eleanor,” she said, casting Cassie another appreciative glance. “Beauty like that should not be left to go to waste. And with blood so pure…”

            Cassie blanched at this, catching Sirius’s eye and experiencing the same disgust that flashed across his face as he glared at his mother’s back. Regulus muttered behind them, and Sirius turned on his brother, whispering something harsh that made the younger boy’s teeth clench.

            “Of course,” Eleanor replied, and Cassie was relieved to see that her mother seemed to be just as thrown by the statement as she was. “I’m sure once Cassie finishes school the subject will be broached.”

            Walburga frowned. “Shouldn’t you be starting now? I remember the day I turned sixteen I was already betrothed to Orion.”

            “We will be discussing our options soon,” Lukas interjected. His expression told Cassie that those options were practically nonexistent, as he probably didn’t think any man would want to marry her. “Ah, is that young Sirius and Regulus I see sitting there?”

            At the sound of their names, both boys got to their feet, but Sirius came forward first, holding out his hand to her father.

            “It is, sir,” he said smoothly, and Cassie suppressed a smirk; for all his rebel ways, Sirius Black was still a Pure-blood at heart, and she couldn’t help but admire his charm as he greeted her father and stooped to kiss her mother’s hand, Eleanor tittering and complimenting his manners the whole time.

            “Cassie,” he said when he came to a stop before her and grabbed her hand. “A pleasure, as always.” He bent low and kissed her knuckles, and she internally cursed when her cheeks flared, knowing that he was trying to embarrass her on purpose. He straightened and gave her a dazzling smile that she recognized the Marauder in. “Is it acceptable to mention how stunning you look tonight?”

            “Of course,” she replied coolly, regaining her wits and shooting him a haughty smile. Two can play at this game, Black. “You clean up nicely yourself, Sirius. I’ve forgotten how handsome you can be when you want.”

            He shot her his own smirk, and Cassie’s heart quickened at the action, though she didn’t know why.

            “Walburga, dear, I’m shocked!” Eleanor said, placing a hand over her heart and casting Sirius one of her blinding smiles. “The last time I was here you made no mention of how charming your Sirius was!”

            Walburga smiled at the other woman, though it looked like she was swallowing glass. “Yes, well, I always thought Sirius’s manners could always use some improvement, especially in light of Regulus’s.”

            Cassie winced at the clear disdain in Walburga’s voice; something Eleanor didn’t seem to pick up on as she turned to greet the younger Black warmly. She looked to Sirius to gauge his reaction, but other than the slight tightening of his jaw, he didn’t seem fazed by the remark, which only made her feel worse.  

            “Cassie.” She blinked and turned to see Regulus standing before her, already having exchanged pleasantries with her parents.

            She nodded to him warily, wondering which side of him she was going to see tonight: the irritatingly vague helper who had warned her of Carlisle, or the aggressive, moody teenager he seemed to turn into whenever Sirius was mentioned. She was taken aback, however, when he only gave her a respectful nod and brushed a chaste kiss across her knuckles before practically dropping her hand, his face unreadable.

            “Regulus,” she said carefully. “A pleasure to see you again.”

            “The pleasure is all mine,” he said neutrally. Sirius gave a light scoff next to her. “If I may?”

            It took her a second to realize that he was holding out his arm to her as the adults began making their way to the dining room. She stared, unsure of what to do before Sirius snorted and looped his own arm through hers.

            “Nice try, Reg,” he said, and Regulus scowled.

            “Oh, enough, both of you,” Cassie snapped, tugging her arm out of Sirius’s grasp and glaring at them both, not having the patience for this tonight. “I’m not in the mood to be caught in the middle of whatever pissing match you two are having with each other, so if you’ll excuse me.”

            She huffed and sauntered out of the room, leaving the two brothers to stare after her incredulously.

            “Well,” Regulus said after a heartbeat of silence, “I’m glad she’s yours.”

            He clapped Sirius on the shoulder, smirking at the dark look his brother cast him before seeming to remember that they were in a row and stepping away quickly, his face becoming expressionless once more as he followed Cassie out of the room.

            “She’s not mine,” Sirius muttered irritably before steeling himself for the long night ahead and trudging after them.


 

             The dinner had been going well, up until the pie was served and things began to go south, much like Cassie had predicted they would. After all talk of school and work had been exhausted, the conversation took a turn for the worse.

            “So, what is young William up to now that his name has been cleared?” Walburga asked, taking a sip from her elf-wine while Kreacher served them dessert with low bows. “How ghastly that whole ordeal must have been for him.”

            Cassie’s grip on her fork slipped at the question, the utensil clattering loudly on her porcelain plate. Fortunately, Sirius was the only one who noticed. He reached under the table and put his hand on her knee from where he was sat next to her, warm and solid and reminding her of his presence.

            “Yes, how…unsavory,” Orion said carelessly. He leaned back in his chair and swished the wine in his goblet, though his dark eyes never left Lukas’s face. “And you said this Auror delivered a false account based on a minor incident in the past?”

            “Indeed,” Lukas said, setting down his fork and clearing his throat. “A low-level trial that he did not approve the outcome of, as I was the deciding vote in the matter.” Cassie’s father smiled ruefully as if he were enjoying some private joke. “However, he confessed to his erroneous account and is resigning his post in acquiescence, so the matter is dealt with.”

            “Honestly, Lukas, I would have been proud of the boy,” Walburga said, reaching for her goblet with a smile as stony as cold marble. “Those Muggles probably deserved to be roughed up a bit!”

            “And you’d have done it yourself if you weren’t afraid of getting your hands dirty,” Sirius muttered. Cassie gave him a warning look that he ignored; though after seeing the glint in his mother’s gaze, she couldn’t help to agree with him silently.

            “William is too smart to be caught up in petty Muggle squabbles,” Lukas said, sniffing. “He has his own errands to complete under the Dark Lord’s orders.”

            The dining room took on a stifling hush. Cassie could sense the anticipation in the air as Walburga leaned forward in her seat, her harsh gaze fixed upon Lukas and her bony fingers curled on the expensive tablecloth.

            “And what of the Dark Lord’s campaign?” she asked, her voice almost husky. Cassie felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up at the breathless curiosity in the other woman’s tone. “Everything seems to be hushed up after his declaration. Is he biding his time? What does he plan to do when he gains enough followers?”

            Next to her, Regulus sat stiffly, his eyes fixed on his plate. Walburga’s hand snaked under the table, and Regulus winced when her sharp nails dug into his knee in suspense. Cassie looked away quickly, knowing that she was not supposed to have seen that, but the grimace on Regulus’s face stayed with her.

            Lukas shrugged. “That I am unsure of. William cannot disclose that type of information to me, for reasons you must understand.”

            “Of course.” Walburga nodded slowly, her disappointment palpable. “I understand.”

            Lukas sighed, leaning back in his seat and lacing his fingers together over his stomach. “All William has told me is that the Dark Lord is searching for something; an object with great value that William has been assigned to find.”

            “What sort of object?” Orion asked, swallowing his wine in one gulp and raising a brow.

            “That I do not know,” Lukas said, “but I suspect it is something powerful.”

            Walburga looked thoughtful. “Whatever it is, I am sure the Dark Lord knows what he is doing with it,” she said. “After all, the man is a revolutionary! Mark my words, this world will have taken on a new order by the time he’s finished with it. And we, my friends, will be standing on the winning side of history once more.”

            “Hear, hear,” Orion said blandly, raising his goblet before draining the rest of it.

            Cassie glanced around the table, sick to her stomach. How could these people accept what was happening? And even worse—how could they relish in the fact that innocents were being harassed and tortured, even killed? The only people who didn’t look thrilled by Walburga’s proclamation were her and Sirius; even Regulus looked ashen, though she wasn’t sure if that was just his complexion in the dim lighting. She cast a quick look to her mother, who had not spoken during the entirety of the discussion, but Eleanor’s face was carefully blank, her eyes downcast.

            Everything about this is so wrong, Cassie thought. So, so wrong.

            She thought about Lily, and what Sirius’s parents and her own father might think of her; they’d call her a Mudblood, and her family worse. They wouldn’t even care if Lily was magical; all they’d see in her was a Muggle-born, and they would probably feel no remorse if Lily and her family were tortured by Death Eaters. They wouldn’t feel anything.

            “Sirius,” Cassie whispered. His hand slid into her own under the table, and she wrapped her fingers tightly around him, feeling his rapid pulse as her nails dug into the skin at his wrist. She was trembling, though she wondered if there was a slight tremor in Sirius’s hand, as well.

            “If we may be excused?” Sirius said loudly, cutting into the adults’ conversation. They faltered and turned to him questioningly. “I think Cassie’s had a bit too much wine this evening.”

            He pinched her knuckle as he said it—which was quite unnecessary, as she had already been nodding.

            “Yes, I-I just need some air,” she said, taking care to avoid eye contact with anyone. “Thank you for the dinner, it was wonderful.”

            She didn’t hear any words spoken, but out of her peripheral, she saw Orion flick his hand. Sirius stood, dragging her out of her seat with him. They fled the dining room, Sirius’s hand still gripped tightly around hers as he pulled her along, down the hallway and up a flight of stairs decorated with stuffed house-elf heads on the wall. He led her up several more flights of stairs before finally coming to the topmost landing and pausing outside of a door that bore his name on a plaque.

            He opened the door and entered. She followed behind slowly, realizing that this was Sirius Black’s bedroom—not his dormitory in Gryffindor Tower, but his actual room. He released her hand and closed the door behind them, muttering “Colloportus” and “Muffliato.” The lock turned and a thick silence fell over them, and she guessed he had cast a Silencing Charm as she took stock of her surroundings.

            It was a spacious room, with a large bed decorated with a carved headboard, velvet curtains shut tightly over the windows, and a dripping candle chandelier above them. What little wall space that wasn’t covered with Muggle posters like the ones in his dormitory or Gryffindor banners boasted a nice coat of burgundy paint, which matched the fine oak of his furniture, and her lips quirked in a grin when she noticed the tall bookshelf filled completely with books.

            “Er, ignore the posters,” he said hastily, mistaking where she was looking and discreetly stepping in front of a provocative picture depicting a bikini-clad Muggle girl. “I do it just to piss off my mother; even put Permanent Sticking Charms on all of them.”

            “It’s fine,” she said, settling herself carefully atop his bed and running her fingers over the thick velvet duvet. “I think it’s very…you.”

            He gave her a hesitant smile before his eyes became serious once more. He sat next to her on the bed.

            “Cassie…I’m sorry,” he said, shaking his head so his dark hair fell into his eyes. “You shouldn’t have had to hear that. My parents—"

            “Have a right to their opinion,” she interrupted, frowning. “As much as I hate to say it, this is their home, and that’s what they believe. There’s nothing we can do about it.”

            “I don’t want you to think that I’m like them,” he said quietly, speaking to his knees. She blinked, shocked.

            “Why would I think that?” she asked. “Sirius, I know you’re nothing like them.”

            “How do you know?” he asked, almost desperately. She stared as he looked to her, something like fear in his grey eyes. “How do you know I’m not one of them?”

            “Because you’re…you,” she said haltingly, pausing when she realized how stupid that was. “I mean, you’re a Gryffindor, and you’re not blinded by whatever Pure-blood tosh is fed to us when we’re kids. You hang out with people like Remus and Peter, even though they’re not Pure-blood—"

            She broke off when he dropped his head, staring at his knees again. She bit her lip, reaching out a hesitant hand and putting it on his shoulder.

            “Sirius,” she said. “You’re not like them, I swear it.” She paused again, taking a deep breath before continuing. “Before I knew you, I thought the same as the other half of the school who wasn’t completely obsessed with you; that you were loud and obnoxious, and rude, and would hex anyone who even looked at you the wrong way. I thought you were a bully, and a troublemaker, and were far too arrogant for your own good.”

            She hesitated, embarrassed, but she knew she had to say this; if not for Sirius’s sake, then her own—for it was the truth, she realized.

            “Getting to know you has changed everything. You still have your prick moments, yeah, but Sirius… You’re one of the greatest people I’ve ever known. You would do anything for James, Remus, and Peter. And I know they love you just as much as you love them, even if you don’t believe it at times.” She smiled softly. “You would die for the ones you love, and you inspire that same loyalty in others. You’re recklessly brave, brutally honest, and annoyingly smart, yet…you’re one of my best friends. And please believe me when I say that you’re not like your family and that your heart is in the right place. Please.”

            She fell silent, not knowing what else to say. They didn’t move or speak for a long while until Sirius heaved a shaky breath.

            “Thank you,” he said, turning his head toward her but not quite meeting her eyes. “You’re, um, important to me too, Cassie.”

            She gave him a tiny smile, shifting on the bed a bit and not noticing the way his fingers reached in her direction for a second before dropping back to his side.

            “So, You-Know-Who has tasked Will with finding an object,” he said, changing the subject. Cassie nodded slowly, her mind leading in that same direction. “What d’you reckon it is?”

            “I dunno,” she said, “but I might have a theory.”

            He raised his eyebrows. “Oh? Please share.”

            “Carlisle,” she said simply, meeting his eyes. “She’s looking for something, too; she has maps and diagrams, I saw them. What if they’re connected?”

            “Are you suggesting that Carlisle is a Death Eater?” he asked. “I mean, I definitely agree that she has a stick up her arse, but that doesn’t mean she’s actually evil.”

            “Then what is she looking for?” she pressed. “And why do so many Slytherins seem to know about it? Sloane, Avery, Regulus—"

            “Hold on,” Sirius said, staring at her. “You think my brother has something to do with this?”

            “I-I’m not sure,” she stammered, quelled by the look of mingled fury and confusion on his face. “But he’s been warning me about Carlisle, Sirius. There has to be something there.”

            “I don’t want to believe you,” he said, his jaw working, “but I think I might have to. He’s been warning me of things, too.”

            She opened her mouth, about to ask what, but he cut her off. “Have you told anyone else about all of this?”

            She shook her head. “Only James. He’s trying to help me get to the bottom of this.”

            Sirius scowled at the floor. “So, let me get this straight: you and James think Carlisle is plotting something, possibly Death Eater related, and is working with select Slytherin students to see it done?” She nodded. “And your brother is hunting something that You-Know-Who wants?” She nodded again. “And you and Remus also think that the locket he gave you contains some sort of hidden message?” She nodded a third time, and he blew his cheeks out, slapping his hands on his knees. “Well, Princess, you sure know how to make a great big mess of things, don’t you?”

            “Hey!” she objected. “It’s not like I’m asking for any of this to happen!”

            He chuckled at her outraged expression. “I know, I know. I was just joking.”

            She rolled her eyes before she turned to him once more in all seriousness.

            “What do we do, Sirius?” she asked, searching his eyes as if he could give her some sort of clarity in the midst of all this mystery. “It all has to add up somehow; we just need to find out how.”

            “I think we have to go back to square one,” he said slowly. She furrowed her brows, confused. He looked back to her steadily. “I think we finally need to figure out what Carlisle is hiding in her office.”


 

             The moon was shrouded by dark clouds later that night as Cassie trudged after her parents to the manor, drawing her cloak tightly about herself as the wind whipped sharp and cold around them. The family was silent as they approached their home, though, through the darkness, many lights still burned throughout the house, shining out to them like harsh golden beacons. Cassie shivered in the night air, wanting nothing more than to take a hot bath and curl up in her bed, ready to fall into a deep sleep after the long night at Grimmauld Place.

            They climbed the steps leading to the front door. Lukas extracted his wand to open them, but before he could even get it out of his pocket, the wide doors swung open of their own accord, revealing Will in the threshold.

            “Ah, Mother, Father, Sister,” he said. “Welcome home. I was just telling everyone that you should be here at any second.”

            Cassie stiffened. Her eyes darted to her father, though Lukas seemed just as taken aback as she was, as was Eleanor.

            “Who is ‘everyone?’” Lukas said slowly.

            “You’ll see,” Will replied with an ominous smile.

            Cassie felt much colder than before as he ushered them inside, instructing them to follow him to the parlor where she had opened gifts just that morning.

            Only instead of an empty room, it was now filled with over a dozen people; many of them, she noticed, around Will’s age or a few years older. She felt the weight of their scrutinizing eyes upon her as she entered with her family, and she had the strange notion that she knew some of them as her eyes snagged on quite a few familiar faces.

            “The man is a revolutionary,” she could hear Walburga saying, and she began to tack on and fit the pieces together, her blood chilling.

            A revolutionary.

            The people around her. Rebels. Soldiers.

            Death Eaters.

            And the one who led them all…

            “It is my extreme pleasure to introduce you to a very important wizard,” Will said. He swept his hand toward the fireplace, and the people around them parted as if on some unspoken command.

            Cassie sought the figure silhouetted against the hearth. Red eyes flickered to her, locking her in place as Will smiled.

            “This is Lord Voldemort.”

Chapter Text

            The man with the red eyes smiled at them—a serpent believing itself to be charming when it just came off as hungry.

            Cassie’s knees knocked together, her whole body going numb.

            He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. The Dark Lord. Standing in front of her fireplace, hands clasped behind his back and looking as if he were the true owner of Alderfair Manor.

            “Please.” Cassie shivered when he spoke, his voice high and cold to her ears, like the biting wind that struck at you if you were standing on the peak of a tall mountain, waiting for it to rip you from the top and throw you back to the ground. He gestured with a pale hand to everyone in the room. “Sit.”

            The assembled Death Eaters and Alderfairs sank into seats around the room, angling themselves so they could see the Dark Lord from where he still stood in front of the hearth. Cassie nearly collapsed onto the small sofa with her father and mother, her heart pounding. Her hands were trembling, and she shoved them between her knees to hide them, her throat parched as she took in the people around her, looking everywhere but to the fire.

            Directly across from her sat a young couple, their hands entwined and their platinum hair gleaming in the light of the room. She recognized the man—who was only a few years older than Will—as Lucius Malfoy, who had been a Fifth Year and a Prefect when Cassie first started Hogwarts. She’d been terrified of him her first three years of school, for his status of being the strictest and most power-hungry Prefect had made him reputable amongst all the Houses. A delicate woman sat next to him, and though Cassie didn’t remember seeing her at Hogwarts at all, her features were distinctly familiar, yet she couldn’t quite place them on her face.

            Her eyes traveled next to another man and woman, the man displaying a narrow face and pointed chin, with a gleam in his black eyes that made her look away hastily, her stomach churning. The woman next to him was darkness incarnate: wild black curls piled messily around her head and shoulders, and heavy-lidded eyes that seemed able to penetrate even the deepest of shadows. She was terrifying, to say the least, with an aura of smug arrogance that seemed to roll off her in waves, and Cassie started when she realized that her demeanor remarkably resembled that of the Blacks, meaning that the woman had to be Bellatrix Black—or, Lestrange, if the man next to her was her husband, Rodolphus Lestrange.

            The rest of the people gathered were younger adults, and though she had a nagging suspicion that she knew some of them, she couldn’t remember their names or faces—or perhaps her fear was making her memory cloudy. They all bore the same disposition, however; one of arrogance, and eagerness, and blind loyalty that shone in their eyes as they gazed to the Dark Lord, their faces basked in the golden glow of the flames. They were his followers, and Will’s comrades, she realized. Killers and torturers, their beliefs rooted in supremacy and elitism, and they were all sitting in her drawing-room as if they had gathered for afternoon tea.

            “Before we begin, I would like for us to extend our gratitude to the Alderfair family for allowing us to take residence in their home for the evening,” You-Know-Who said, nodding to the three Alderfairs seated on the couch. Cassie could feel everyone’s eyes swivel to them, murmurs of thanks passing around the room.

            “As most of you may know, the Alderfair family has been around for generations,” he continued. Cassie kept her eyes trained on her feet, fighting the urge to flee. “Wealthy, esteemed, and not a drop of Muggle blood to taint the roots of their purity—an unfortunately rare condition in our society today.”

            A ripple of agreement swept through the crowd. Cassie’s eyes darted to where Will stood by the liquor cabinet in the room, swirling some amber liquid in a crystal goblet. The square of his jaw was thrown into deep contrast, his face shadowed and hollow in the firelight, making his eyes disappear into his skull. He appeared not to be listening, but she could tell he was deep in thought, his mouth pulled into a frown as he mulled over his drink.

            “Your William has become an invaluable asset to the New Order.” You-Know-Who now spoke directly to her parents. She sucked in a sharp breath, daring to look in his general direction, but focusing her eyes on some point over his shoulder. “Know that I am increasingly grateful for his service, and you should be proud.”

            Then those red eyes were upon her. She could feel them, like burning hot coals pressing into her skin. She suppressed a shiver, keeping her eyes trained forward, unseeing.

            “I have been so impressed with William’s dedication that I now find myself curious to see if his sister is the same way,” he mused. Her mother stiffened beside her. The Dark Lord’s eyes finally left Cassie, but before she could breathe a sigh of relief, he had flicked one of his pale hands. “Everyone, leave us. I wish to speak to young Miss Alderfair alone.”          

            There was a soft rustle as the Death Eaters filed out silently, disciplined soldiers they were. Cassie sensed her father stand, tugging on Eleanor’s hand after she made no move to join him. She wondered if her father was bothered by being ordered around in his own home, but if he was, he didn’t show it, only looking to her mother expectantly. With some reluctance, Eleanor stood. Cassie didn’t dare meet her eyes, afraid that if she did, she would break, and all her fear would come pouring out. After a few tense seconds, Lukas and Eleanor exited the room, Will on their heels.

            He stopped, just before leaving, and Cassie turned her head, meeting his eyes and wondering if he could see the simmering anger behind her own, the fury at his gall to even put her in a situation such as this. His expression was indecipherable, but there was something in his gaze that resembled fear and maybe even a hint of apology before he was gone, closing the door and trapping her with the Dark Lord.

            The snap of the door seemed to wake her up, and she emerged from her stupor of fear, her mind clear and her survival instincts kicking in. She sat up straighter and took a deep breath.

            Control.

            With some focus, she managed to quell the tremors in her hands, and she slid them back into place on her lap, palms flat and fingers entwined, the heat from her skin soaking through her robes and settling on her thighs. The action reminded her of Sirius’s hand on her knee at dinner earlier, and the thought helped her some as she evened out her breathing.

            Conceal.

            The Alderfair mask came out of hiding when she summoned it, and she carefully schooled her features into a castle wall, impenetrable and formidable. Weakness, even the tiniest crack in her wall, could easily topple her reign and subject her to the serpent before her, and that was something she could not afford.

            Contact.

            This was the hardest part. The eyes were the gate to the secrets hiding in the garden, and if she wasn’t careful, then the lock could be picked, and she would be exposed. Steeling her spine, she forced herself to look up and into the red eyes of the serpent, fighting to keep her breathing steady and her heart steadfast despite everything in her screaming to run.

            She was now facing He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named in his entirety, and she could tell he was sizing her up just as she was doing the same to him. She imagined he used to be handsome once before he had corrupted himself with either Dark Magic or his own hand, seen in his thick black hair and pretentious features—perhaps charming at one point, but now marred into something else.

            She remembered stumbling upon an old book in her father’s study many years ago, and though she had been too young to understand half the words, the pictures in it had been enough to frighten her for weeks with nightmares: detailed drawings showing witches and wizards with abhorrent, monstrous features, their afflictions all brought about by a use of abundant Dark Magic. Her father had walked in on her studying the drawings in rapt horror and had promptly thrown her out, yelling the whole time, and though she had gone back in search of the book after the worst of her nightmares had subsided, she never found it again, and now she wondered if the Dark Lord would ever grace those pages in the future.

            His skin, which must once have been fair ivory, was now sallow and too pale, stretched like wax over his face and giving him a haunted, skeletal look. He was tall and slender, his black robes making him look like a bare tree, bleached with moonlight but still cloaked in shade. He may still have tried to pass off as an ordinary man if it weren’t for the eyes.

           Her first thought was that they looked like the startling crimson of blood, but that couldn’t be it; blood was natural, an organic thing, and he was anything but. Dark Magic had twisted him to its will, and this was the product before her, staring at her with those unnatural eyes with slits for pupils and cutting into her very flesh.  

            The only sound in the room was the crackling of the flames. She held her tongue, refusing to be the first one to speak. And what was she supposed to say, anyway? “Wotcher, mate. How’s it going? Torture any Muggle-borns lately?”

            “You surprise me, Miss Alderfair,” he finally said. He tilted his head, his eyes raking over her from head to toe. “You appear to be nothing like your brother. He is rash, bold, and headstrong. You are the opposite: poised, graceful, observant. A young woman with a clear mind and a strong will. We could use more followers with the same attributes.”

            “So, is that why I’m here speaking with you?” she asked, surprising herself with her directness. “Because you want to recruit me?”

            He pursed his lips—so pale they were almost blue, adding more eeriness to his features. “Recruit is not the word I would use.”

            She raised a brow. “Oh?”

            “In order for a cause to be successful, it needs to have believers.” His wand appeared in his hands, and she had refrained from shrinking back, keeping her expression neutral as he began to roll the pale wood between his fingers. “Plucking people off the streets and telling them to believe in your cause is one thing, but that is too extreme. Those people are usually the ones who need to be coerced into believing, and then they are not true. But the enlightened ones, the ones who have dreamt of the day when they would rise up and take back what is rightfully theirs—they are the believers. Those are the ones who seek me out, the ones who wish to see their world as it should be. I accept them as comrades-in-arms, and in turn, they trust in me to lead them to the salvation of the wizarding world and all its purity.”

             “And what of your cause?” she said, lifting her chin a hair in challenge. “Why disrupt the order of the wizarding world now?”

            For a moment, she wondered if she had crossed some line, for he didn’t speak, merely opting to gaze at her and leaving her to shift uncomfortably in her seat. But then he smirked; a wry grin that looked more like a grimace with his features.

            “Perhaps I was wrong earlier,” he said. “You are bold, as well; another true Gryffindor.” He paused, glancing down to his wand again, before saying, “Do you believe in immortality, Miss Alderfair?”

            She blinked once. “Like the Elixir of Life?”

            He nodded. “Something like that.”

            She hesitated, unsure of what to say. “I believe wizards have the capability to achieve it, yes. It would be nearly impossible, but Nicolas Flamel did it. But do I believe in the concept of it?” She shook her head, frowning. “Nothing lasts forever. There’s a limit to everything. Even magic.”

            “And what if I told you you’re wrong?”

            She narrowed her eyes at him, skeptical. “How so?”

            “Alchemy is not the only solution,” he said, eyes glinting in the gloom. “I have achieved things no other wizard would dare; I have pushed the limits of life farther than anyone else, but I will not stop there. My legacy will reign for eternity, and that is my cause, Miss Alderfair. Everything else is simply there for the taking.”

            “Then the torturing of Muggles and mongering fear amongst wizards is just an extracurricular?” she said, her fingernails digging into her palms as she clenched her fists. “A fun little game for your followers to play while you daydream about some glorious fantasy?”

            She tried to calm down, reminding herself that she was alone with the most dangerous person in the wizarding world at that moment, but she couldn’t. This twisted excuse for a man was delusional, and she couldn’t stomach what she was hearing.

            “Muggles and Mudbloods are still a blight on our society,” he replied, and if she thought his voice had been cold before, now it was downright chilling. “Even half-bloods are inferior to the untainted magic of Pure-bloods, as I am sure you understand.”

            “I don’t,” she said. “Blood status doesn’t determine who is better at magic or not. Pure-blood families would have gone extinct centuries ago if they hadn’t started to marry outside of other Pure-blood families. The past may have lauded Pure-bloods, but they’re merely a minority now. Killing off all the half-bloods and Muggle-borns won’t do anything to change that.”

            The Dark Lord studied her for a long time, but she found that she didn’t really care. This monster was the one who had warped her brother into an entirely different person for his deranged ideology, and as much as she blamed Will, she blamed him even more. He was a madman, simple as that.

            “Interesting,” he said as if he had reached some sort of conclusion. “Your brother made a strong case against me attempting to persuade you, and I am surprised to realize that he was right; there is too much Gryffindor pride in you, the thrill of championing the underdog that makes you unsuitable as a Death Eater.” He said the last part as if she were a particularly large and nasty slug he had found on the bottom of his shoe, and she felt a vindictive satisfaction. “Therefore, you are of no further use to me.”

            He raised his wand and she froze, cold rushing over her as her eyes darted between his blank gaze and the tip of his wand pointed right at her heart. She wondered if she even had time to get out her own wand in an attempt to defend herself before he sighed, lowering it again.

            “Or perhaps not. You may still be of some use to me yet in the future.”

            He stowed away his wand. She was hyperaware of her pounding heart and the sweat that had formed on her brow and upper lip, her whole body flushed but still very cold.

            He whisked back to the fireplace, standing before it and peering thoughtfully into the flames. A long moment of silence stretched between them in which Cassie tried to regain her composure again, but her nerves were long since frayed, her mask chipped away by fear.

            “You may leave,” he said finally, not turning away from the fire. She scrambled to her feet, her legs wobbling. “Send the others back in, and tell your parents they may join if they so wish.”

            She turned without a word, fighting not to break into a sprint to get away from him faster, but she halted when he spoke once more.

            “And Miss Alderfair?” Despite her best interest, she looked back over her shoulder, only to find his eyes boring into her with the intensity of a curse. “I do trust you know what will happen to you should you breathe a word of this discussion to anyone—particularly Albus Dumbledore.”

            She nodded, her throat dry. He waved a dismissive hand to her. “Until next we meet, Miss Alderfair.”

            She fled the room.


 

             Cassie flinched when a knock sounded on her bedroom door several minutes later. She abandoned her half-filled trunk in favor of her wand, raising it and pointing it at the door as she called out a rusty, “Who’s there?”

            “Cassie, it’s your mother,” Eleanor’s muffled voice came from the other side of the door. “May I come in?”

            “Yes.”

            She dropped her arm as the door clicked open, though she didn’t relax, not even when Eleanor crossed the room and swept her into her embrace.

            “Oh, Cassie,” she said, sounding on the verge of tears. “I’m so sorry. I had no idea your brother—"

            “Would bring a murdering psychopath into the house?” Cassie finished, and Eleanor seemed to deflate a bit in her arms. “Yeah, I didn’t think he was capable of it, either.”

            Eleanor pulled away, her startlingly blue eyes wet before they fell on the half-packed trunk sitting in the middle of the floor, and the subsequent mess her room had become in her attempt to pack her belongings as quickly as she could. “Are you leaving?”

            She nodded. “Yeah. I have friends I can stay with…” She trailed off, uncertain.

            Her first choice would have been Alice, but she didn’t want to be a burden; the Fortescues weren’t a particularly rich family, and Alice shared her house with not only her father and step-family, but also her aunt, uncle, and cousins, and Cassie wouldn’t feel right if she imposed herself on their generosity for the rest of the holiday, even if it was for a little more than a week. Lily was out of the picture, too; she knew the redhaired witch’s parents would be thrilled to see her again, but she also didn’t want to add any more strain to Lily and her sister Petunia’s relationship by having another openly magical person in the Evans household. She thought about Marlene, but instantly decided she didn’t want to go there with a sharp pinch of guilt, though she tried to ignore it.

            “I’ll find somewhere,” Cassie amended, shaking her head and tossing another shirt into her trunk. “I have some leftover birthday money; I can get a room at the Leaky Cauldron or something…”

            Eleanor watched her sadly, but to her credit, she didn’t seem angry at her; just worried.

            Wordlessly, her mother began to help her pack, much to her surprise; she had expected an argument, a refusal to let her go, but instead, they worked in silence, Cassie gathering all her things and Eleanor placing them neatly into her trunk, not even bothering to use magic.

            After twenty minutes, her trunk was completely packed, and the two women sat on the bed, staring anywhere but each other, not quite ready to speak yet. But finally, it was Cassie who broke the silence.

            “You’re not going to try and stop me?” she asked quietly, looking up to her mother, who faced her with a rueful smile on her face.

            “No,” she said. “I know you’ve been unhappy here, especially after everything that has happened with your brother.” A shadow flickered over her beautiful features before it was gone. “And I just want you to be happy.”

            Eleanor coughed slightly, trying hard to keep it together for her sake. She reached over and put her hand on top of her mother’s.

            “Mum, come with me,” she said. Eleanor’s lips parted in shock, but Cassie rushed on before she could say anything. “I know you hate it here as much as I do.” She lowered her voice, glancing to the bedroom door. “I know you can’t stand all the pure-blood rubbish, and what the Death Eaters are doing—what Will is doing.” She squeezed her mother’s hand, hard. “Please, come with me. We can leave it all behind, start over—I dunno. We can do something.”

            A tear slipped down Eleanor’s cheek, quickly followed by another. “I love you, Cassie,” she said, taking her daughter’s face into her hands and seeming to drink in every detail she could find. “I love you, but I also love your father and brother. My place is here, as much as I’d love to be with you.”

            Eleanor swiped at a tear Cassie hadn’t realized was falling, her touch a balm to the sore she could feel rubbing on her heart.

            “You’ve always been so brave,” Eleanor whispered. “So brave and so loving. I used to be afraid of what you would grow up to be, as stubborn and free-spirited as you were when you were young. I was relieved when you went to Hogwarts and I heard nothing from your professors about your behavior—but I always knew that that Invisible Girl, or whatever you called yourself, wasn’t really you.”

            She paused, running her thumbs over Cassie’s cheekbones and contemplating her next words. “Earlier, at the Blacks… I saw a side of you I hadn’t seen in a long time. Not since you were a child. That free spirit was back; that same light in your eyes you used to have before you were taught how to repress it, and I blame myself for teaching you that. I don’t know what caused it to come back, but I was overjoyed to see it. I want you to carry that light from now on, even if it means you can’t stay here.” She smiled softly. “That light is yours, Cassie. Don’t ever let anything take that away from you.”

            Cassie nodded, beginning to cry silently as she wrapped her arms around her mother and buried her head in the crook of her neck, inhaling the sweet scent of her vanilla perfume and clutching onto this feeling, even if it was a bittersweet potion she was forced to swallow.

            “I love you, Mum,” she managed.

            Eleanor stroked her hair, nodding. “I know, sweetie, I know. I love you, too.”

            After several minutes, but what still felt far too soon, they pulled apart, Cassie scrubbing at her face and Eleanor dabbing at her eyes before they stood, facing each other once more.

            Cassie grabbed the leather jacket Eleanor had given her earlier that day before shrugging it on, having already shucked off the robes she’d been wearing previously and now dressed in plain Muggle attire once again. She pocketed her wand before looking around her room one last time, Eleanor waiting patiently by the foot of her bed.

            “Have you decided where to go?” she asked. Cassie frowned, still not having thought of a solution to that particular dilemma. Her mind drifted to Remus, but then remembered Sirius mentioning something earlier to her about how they were all going to James’s house for the remainder of the holidays…

            “I have an idea,” she said. “Er, do you know the Potters’ address by any chance?”

            Eleanor nodded, perplexed, though she didn’t say anything about it. “They own a country estate down in Devon. I’m sure Euphemia wouldn’t mind; she met you several times when you were still just a baby. She positively adored you.” She raised a quizzical brow. “They have a son, don’t they?”

            “Yeah, his name’s James,” she replied. “We’re, uh, friends, I guess. And his mates, too.”

            “Sirius included?” Cassie nodded, and Eleanor’s brow inched higher. “Hm. Interesting.”

            “Don’t get any ideas, we’re just friends,” Cassie said hastily. Eleanor pursed her lips. “Mum.”

            “All right, all right, no more ideas,” she said, fighting to keep the smile from her face. “It’s just that you’ve never had any boy friends before—"

            “Mum!”

            “It’s a mother’s duty to question these things!” she argued, but she was beaming at her daughter. “But if you insist…”

            Cassie rolled her eyes. “Thank you.”

            She picked up Osbourne’s cage from where it sat by the window. The dozing owl started when he was jostled, letting out a sleepy hoot before tucking his head back under his wing. “Er, how should I get there?”

            Eleanor frowned, thinking. “I never mastered Side-Along Apparition over great distances, so if you’d rather get splinched—"

            Cassie shuddered. “No, thanks. I’m good.”

            “Your father has sealed off his study for the night, so we can’t use Floo powder—"

            “Good to see how much he trusts those Death Eaters.”

            “I think you’d be better off taking the Knight Bus. It’s not as fast as Apparition or Floo, but you’d still get there by morning.”

            Cassie made a face at this; she had never taken the Knight Bus before, but she’d heard accounts of it from various classmates, and she could only hope they had been exaggerating. Eleanor was right, though; it was her best option.

            “Okay, I’ll do that, then,” she said.

            Eleanor nodded. “I’ll walk you to the edge of the property and we’ll see if we can hail it down.”

            She pulled out her wand and gave it a wave, and Cassie’s trunk and owl cage disappeared, now waiting for her at the bottom of the hill where the gate was. Eleanor took her hand and led her out of the room. Cassie cast one look back to it before she closed the door behind her and followed her mother.

            The drawing room doors were shut when they walked past, and for that, she was glad. Even just thinking about You-Know-Who sent a shiver down her spine, and Eleanor squeezed her hand in reassurance as they ventured out into the dark night.

            The air was bitingly cold, nipping at her exposed flesh, and a few frozen flakes fell from the sky, but other than that, it was nice out. Silence coated the world from up here, and only a few lights were still glowing in the cottages down below, the rest of the village asleep at such a late hour.

            The two women weaved their way down the path, keeping up light-hearted conversation as they went, but Cassie could feel her heart growing heavier with each step, until finally falling silent when they reached the gate.

            Osbourne was awake now, glaring at her with amber eyes from the indignity of being left out in the cold, but she ignored his poisonous look, turning back to her mother and embracing her again.

            “Thank you,” she whispered. Eleanor patted her back before pulling away and kissing her lightly on both cheeks, her lips cold to the touch.

            “I’m always here for you, my love,” she said. “Hopefully, we can be back together when summer starts.”

            Cassie nodded, her throat tight, but Eleanor just smiled. “Remember to stick your wand out so the bus knows where to come. Keep in touch.”

            “I will.”

            Eleanor blew her one last kiss before starting back up the path to the manor, her dark hair blending into the night as snow fell before her in a flurry of submission, coating her in tiny stars of ice like a queen. Cassie watched her until she faded out of sight before heaving a great sigh and pulling out her wand, sticking it out in front of her.

            Not five seconds later she was staggering backward into the gate, Osbourne letting out a panicked screech as a purple triple-decker bus roared to a halt before them, the brakes squealing and letting off a stench of burnt rubber from the tires as the doors swung open before her.

            “Welcome to the Knight Bus, the only operating bus for the magical community here in Britain to help stranded witches or wizards get to their destination or no destination at all,” a pompous voice greeted her. She shoved her hair out of her face and saw a portly, middle-aged man gazing down at her in bemusement. “All right, there, miss?”

            “Never better,” she mumbled, picking up Osbourne’s cage while the man hopped down from the bus to get her trunk, huffing and puffing as he followed her through the doors. Cassie gaped when she stepped inside, feeling like she had just entered some sort of hotel rather than a bus.

            Three decks of beds stretched above her, with a cut-crystal chandelier gleaming from the ceiling and giving a soft golden ambiance to the interior. Some older men and women occupied a few of the beds, snoring softly in their sleep, save for one man who sounded like he was gasping for air every time he inhaled. A few other people were still awake and sitting in plush armchairs instead of beds, sipping hot chocolate and reading the paper or knitting, and she looked around in amazement before the conductor cleared his throat behind her.

            “Oh, sorry,” she said, stepping out of his way as he deposited her trunk on the floor. He pulled out a handkerchief to dab at his brow, his round face red from exertion.

            “Not to worry, miss,” he said, stretching out his arms. “Nothing like a little cardio to keep you awake, eh?”

            “Er, right,” she said. “How much would it be to get to Potter Manor in Devon?”

            “Hey, Ernie!” the man called. Cassie looked over his shoulder to see the bus driver asleep in his seat, though at the man’s voice, he jumped and looked around, cramming his bottle-like spectacles on.

            “Huh, what?” he asked groggily. Cassie’s confidence wavered a bit as his huge eyes finally focused on the conductor. “What is it, Harold?”

            “This lass wants to get to Devon,” he said. “How much?”

            Ernie waved his hand, turning back to the wheel and grumbling something incoherent, but the conductor seemed to get it, facing her with a roll of his eyes. “He says it’ll be eleven Sickles; thirteen if you want hot chocolate, and fifteen for a hot water bottle and a toothbrush.”

            “No, that’s fine,” she said, handing him eleven Sickles and few Knuts as a tip, and he gave her a little bow.

            “Thank you, miss. I’m Harold Hancox, by the way. I’ll be up front if you’ll be needing anything.”

            Cassie thanked him and settled into an armchair, propping her feet up on her trunk and securing Osbourne’s cage next to her. She looked out the window at the faint illumination of the gate in the lights from the bus, her eyes tracing out the Latin words etched there once more: Fortune favors the brave.

            The moment was disrupted when the bus lurched forward. She cracked her head into the glass and pulled back with a groan, rubbing at her forehead as the bus trundled through the countryside at a ludicrous speed. It squeezed through impossibly tight spaces, objects leaping out of their path as they passed, and she was increasingly grateful that she hadn’t gotten the hot chocolate, or else she’d probably be wearing it at that point.

            She must have dozed off sometime during the night, for when next she saw, the sky was painted a rosy gold and Harold was leaning over her, gently shaking her awake. She sat up and discreetly tried to rub the dried drool off her chin, hoping he hadn’t noticed.

            “Here’s your stop, miss,” he said. “Potter Manor in Devon.”

            “Thank you, Harold,” she said, gathering up Osbourne’s cage again as the conductor tackled her trunk once more. She stepped out of the stuffy heat of the Knight Bus into the blissfully cold morning, taking a deep breath of the frosty air as Harold set down her trunk next to her and tipped his hat.

            “Good day, miss,” he said before jumping back into the bus. The vehicle disappeared in a blur of purple, leaving her alone on a small dirt road that overlooked a meadow; yellow now in the winter, but probably green and beautiful in the springtime.

            Down the road, she could see a large but quaint house, made of red bricks and gleaming white columns with a wraparound porch. Considering she couldn’t see any other habitation, she guessed that that was Potter Manor. With Ozzy’s cage in one hand and the handle of her trunk in the other, she started toward the house. She had to pause every now and then to rest, but she eventually made it after a half-hour, carefully maneuvering her trunk up the steps before dropping it at her side, hesitating outside the door.

            It was painted a dazzling white to match the columns on the porch, and a grand wreath made with red and gold flowers decorated it, imitating the smaller ones hanging in the front windows. Despite the cheeriness of the décor, she was still nervous. She had never met James’s parents before, and she hadn’t even cleared coming over with James himself. He probably wouldn’t be pleased; after all, he was supposed to be with the Marauders the rest of the holiday, and she hadn’t even been invited. She bit her lip, thinking.

            She was just about to turn around and walk away before the front door swung open, revealing a short woman with tidy grey curls and warm, dark skin. She peered at Cassie with an unreadable gaze before her face split into a sunny smile.

            “You must be Cassie!” she said, pulling the younger girl in for a hug. Cassie just smiled nervously, nodding. “I’m Euphemia—Euphemia Potter. Your mother wrote me about an hour ago saying you would be here.” She drew back and rubbed Cassie’s arms. “She, er, explained as best she could. But no matter! You still would’ve been welcome, anyway. Now, come in; I’ve just been cooking some breakfast for you.”

            “Oh, you didn’t have to do that,” Cassie said awkwardly as Mrs. Potter waved her wand, lifting her trunk inside. She was taken aback by the older woman’s chirpiness and scattered thoughts; she sounded exactly like James.

            “It was no trouble, dear,” she said fondly. “Come, I’ll take you to the kitchen.”

            She deposited Ozzy’s cage on top of her trunk before following Mrs. Potter deeper into the house, relaxing as she went. The house was cozy despite its size, smelling of cinnamon and apples, and it took Cassie a moment to realize how much it felt like home. Alderfair Manor was big, but it was cold and imposing, and Grimmauld Place was dark and forlorn, more like a dank basement than a house. Potter Manor was the exact opposite, and she was slightly in awe as Mrs. Potter directed her to a seat at the kitchen table.

            “I’m sorry if something didn’t come out right,” she fretted as she went over to the stove. “I typically give our house-elf Christmas off, since it’s my favorite holiday and I enjoy doing the cooking from time to time, but I’m afraid I’m not as good as her.”

            “That’s fine,” Cassie said, her stomach rumbling from the smell of bacon and eggs. Mrs. Potter bustled over, setting down a plate before her, and it took all her willpower not to immediately pounce on the food.

            “What would you like to drink, dear?” Mrs. Potter asked, flicking her wand and pulling a glass out of a cupboard. “Tea, milk, pumpkin juice?”

            “Pumpkin juice is grand,” she said, and Mrs. Potter nodded, filling up the glass before directing it to the table. “Thank you.”

            Mrs. Potter gave her a warm smile before setting about cleaning the kitchen, bewitching the dishes to start washing and drying themselves while she scrubbed countertops with magic and left Cassie to stuff her face in silence.

            “Done?” she asked once Cassie had finished. Cassie nodded, getting up to take care of her dishes before she was shooed away. “No, no! I’ll take care of them, don’t worry!”

            “Really, it’s fine,” Cassie said politely, but Mrs. Potter shook her head firmly.

            “You’re sweet, but you’ve had a long night, dear,” she said kindly, taking the dishes from her. “I’ve set up a room for you upstairs at the end of the hall. James is still sleeping, and the other boys will be here about noon, but I’ll tell them to leave you be.”

            “Thank you, Mrs. Potter,” she said gratefully, and the woman gave her another brilliant smile.

            “You are very welcome, dear. I’ll be down here if you need anything.”

            Cassie returned her smile before leaving the kitchen and heading up the stairs, tired and sluggish again after eating. She found the room Mrs. Potter had been talking about and promptly threw herself down on the soft bed after closing the door, heaving a great sigh and staring up at the ceiling. Not even a minute later were her eyes closed and she was fast asleep, trainers still on and passed out on top of the covers.  


 

            “You think she’d notice if we stuck something up her nose?”

            “Depends on what it is.”

            “What about a quill?”

            “Nah, too big. It’d never fit.”

            “Sirius’s pinky finger?”

            “Keep my pinky finger out of this.”

            “Okay, Remus’s pinky finger?”

            “You idiots know I can hear you, right?”

            Cassie opened her eyes to see four faces grinning down at her, not one of them looking ashamed at having been caught. She rolled her eyes, sitting up and scraping her hair out of her face as James spread his arms out wide.

            “The Princess awakes! And not even a kiss was involved!”

            She made a face at him. “Knowing you lot, you’d probably make me kiss a toad if I ever fell into an enchanted sleep.”

            “Don’t give him any ideas,” Remus warned, lounging against the windowsill in her room and giving her a wry grin. “How’ve you been, Cassie?”

            She thought back to last night and snorted, though a tight feeling still twisted her gut all the same. “Still alive, so that’s worth something, I guess.”

            “Damn, was my place really that bad?” Sirius asked, grinning at her from where he leaned against the door. All traces of his pure-blood image from the night before were gone, his impeccable robes traded back for a pair of ripped jeans and a plain white shirt under his leather jacket, and his slicked-back hair reverted to its true state of unruly wavy locks, but his smirk was still the same.

            “It was the posters,” she assured him, and he barked out a laugh that made her genuinely smile, her heart warming as she took in the four Marauders around her. “You have no idea how good it is to see you all.”

            “Someone write that down,” James said. “I think Alderfair just gave us a compliment.”

            They all chuckled when she shot him a rude hand gesture before Peter looked to her curiously. “Wait, Cass, why are you here?”

            Just like that, her good mood evaporated, and she was back in the drawing-room at Alderfair Manor, those red serpent eyes boring into her. She swallowed thickly, her throat too tight. She didn’t want to tell them—she couldn’t. The Dark Lord had warned her, but this was something she couldn’t keep to herself. If she wanted to stay sane, she couldn’t keep secrets.

            “My brother…” She trailed off, clearing her throat while they looked on expectantly. “Will…he, uh, invited Death Eaters over to our house last night, while we were at your place.” She gestured to Sirius. His jaw clenched, though he didn’t say anything. “And, um…”

            She hesitated, the wand pointed at her heart again, the red eyes…

            “He was there,” she whispered, shutting her eyes. “He was there.”

            “Who was there?” James asked slowly.

            She opened her eyes, and Remus looked to her in horror.

            “Good Godric, Cassie,” he said hoarsely. “You don’t mean…?”

            She nodded once. “You-Know-Who.”

            She watched all the blood drain from their faces, their eyes wide with shock.

            “Well, that settles it,” Sirius said. His grey eyes were blazing, his face ashen, and he looked as if he were preparing himself for a fight. “I’m going to kill that bastard.”

            “You-Know-Who or Will?” Peter asked in a small voice.

            Sirius scowled. “Both.”

            “Don’t be stupid, Sirius,” Cassie said, shaking her head. “There’s nothing you can do.”

            “Like hell, there isn’t!” he snapped, and the vehemence in his voice startled her. “We can always fight. I heard there are people already doing it now—people who are against the Death Eaters. People like us!”

            “Sirius,” James said, uneasy. “We’re still only in school, mate.”

            “Then I’ll wait,” the other boy growled. “As soon as I come of age, I’m going to fight.”

            Stunned silence met his proclamation, everyone trading apprehensive glances before the tension was diffused by Mrs. Potter calling them down for lunch. Without a backward glance, Sirius stalked out of the room, leaving everyone else in a shocked wake.

            “Well,” James said, puffing out a nervous chuckle in an effort to make the mood light again, “that’s one way to kick off the holiday.”

           

Chapter Text

            The rest of the holiday passed far too quickly for Cassie. The days at Potter Manor blurred together in a haze of Quidditch scrimmages between the boys (which she always readily refereed, as she much preferred the ground to a broomstick), hot cocoa and warm butterbeer in the mornings before the fireplace, and spending dinner at the table with the Potters, whom Cassie realized were perhaps the nicest people in the world, and now understood why Sirius was so fond of them.

            However, after dinner, their carefree attitude was replaced by an air of seriousness as the five of them would all congregate in James’s room once his parents had gone to bed, dressed in pajamas and surrounded by stacks of parchment and loose quills as they talked well into the morning.

            Their second day at Potter Manor, when their first meeting had taken place, Cassie and Sirius had decided to broach the subject of breaking into Carlisle’s office once more to the others, which had been met with mixed emotions.

            “I would like to point out that this was my idea first,” James said immediately after they were done speaking.

            Sirius rolled his eyes.

            “Does that mean you’re still in, Prongs?” he said.

            James gave him a wicked grin. “’Course, Pads. How could I ever pass up such a grand opportunity?”

            Remus looked dubious.

            “I dunno,” he said slowly, rubbing his chin with his hand. “I still think we should tell Dumbledore.”

            “No!” Cassie said too quickly, and she flushed when they all turned to stare at her. She hadn’t forgotten You-Know-Who’s warning; she knew she couldn’t let them tell Dumbledore. It was too dangerous.

            “Cassie, it’s for the best,” Remus said. She crossed her arms and looked away when she realized he was trying to use his reasonable voice with her, the one that always seemed to make her do what he said. “This is far too serious for us—we’re just kids! Dumbledore will know what to do. Maybe he can help take some of the pressure off you—"

            “No,” she repeated, setting her jaw stubbornly. “Will gave the locket to me. I was the one who found out about Carlisle’s maps. And I’m not a kid anymore!”

            “I knew you were gonna say something like that,” Remus said, looking pained, “but this could be dangerous, Cassie. We have no idea what we’re getting into! Carlisle could actually be a Death Eater, and if so—"

            “Then I’m going to expose her to the world,” she cut in. “Dumbledore was the one who hired her in the first place! How well would he take it if we suddenly accused her of being a Death Eater? He’d laugh us out of his office if he didn’t expel us first!”

            Remus still seemed upset, but he didn’t immediately answer, scrubbing a hand through his hair in frustration.

            “Can’t we just compromise?” Peter spoke up for the first time since they’d sat down. They looked over at the small boy picking his hangnails anxiously, his watery blue eyes beseeching them. “Remus is right, but Cassie is, too. Let’s just find a way to meet in the middle.”

            James nodded thoughtfully. “Wormtail has a point.”

            “Then how about we do this?” Sirius placed his hands on his knees, leaning forward intently as he spoke. “When we get back to school, we break into Carlisle’s office.” Remus opened his mouth to protest, but Sirius gave him a sharp look. The other boy huffed, propping his back against James’s bed. “If we don’t find anything, then nothing happens, end of story. But if we find something dodgy, then we all agree to go to Dumbledore, yeah?”

            Cassie kept her arms crossed, adamant in her decision to not get the Headmaster involved, but when she saw Remus nodding reluctantly, she threw up her hands in surrender. “Yes, fine, whatever! Now, can we move on to the actual breaking-in part?”

            So, for the next several nights, they would reconvene in James’s room to discuss strategies for getting in, while also making sure they could keep Carlisle away from her office long enough for them to get in and out. It was a lot to work through, considering how many things that could go wrong they had to account for, but by the time their final day at Potter Manor came around, they had a rough plan in store for when they went back to Hogwarts the next day.

            Their last night at Potter Manor fell on New Year’s Eve, and Cassie was invited to join the Marauders’ tradition they’d had since third year, where one of the requirements apparently involved certain death.

            “I’m not getting on the roof,” she said, standing in the attic window that led onto the shingled roof of Potter Manor and glaring at the three boys who were already out the window and roaming about, several floors above the ground.

            “Cassie, would we ever do something that would put you in harm’s way?” James asked.

             Peter snorted from where he was pretending to walk a tightrope beyond him. “Don’t answer that, Cassie,” he said.

             She raised a pointed brow at James, who just rolled his eyes.

            “Fine, stay there, be boring,” he said, swaggering away. “We’ll have fun without you, right, Moony?”

            He punched the sandy-haired boy on the arm lightly. Remus started, tearing his gaze away from the clear starry night and the waxing sliver of the moon to look at James, who was nodding encouragingly. “Er, yeah. Whatever you said.”

            Cassie rolled her eyes and crossed her arms, the winter air reaching for her through the window and making her shiver. She was just about to retreat into the warmth of the house when a sudden hand gripped her around the waist and yanked her out onto the roof. She tripped with a startled yelp while Sirius dragged her along by his side, a bottle that looked suspiciously like firewhiskey in his other hand.

            “What—are you mental?” Cassie spluttered, gazing around at them rather than looking over the edge and seeing the ground below. She unconsciously gripped Sirius’s sleeve as they picked their way over the roof. “Not only are you going to prance around on the roof, but you’re going to be doing it while you’re drunk?”

            “Relax, Princess. It’s a sacred tradition, old as time itself,” James said, and she shook her head.

            “Mental,” she repeated, attempting to pull away from Sirius, but he only drew her closer into his side, and she tried not to be aware of his cold fingers pressing into the hollow just above her hip.

            “Here,” he said, passing off the bottle to James before standing behind her and putting both his hands on her waist, which only increased her nervousness, for whatever reason. “Sit in front of me.”

            “What?” she said, keeping her eyes on the horizon and not anywhere below that.

            Sirius sighed. She felt his breath on the back of her neck, and she involuntarily shivered. “Just follow my lead.”

            He slowly lowered himself to sit down on the roof, and his hands at her waist guided her along with him until she was seated before him, her knees curled up to her chin and her arms locked across them.

            “Lean back,” Sirius instructed.

            She did, reluctantly, only stopping when her back pressed into his chest. Despite trying to focus on something else, her face flushed, anyway, and she was glad that it was dark so the others couldn’t see how red she was. Once she was secure, his right arm snaked around her stomach and anchored her against him, his legs spreading out on either side of her, and she realized that he was doing it so she felt protected against pitching herself off the roof by accident.

            “Y’know, Sirius, you’re not too shabby of a mate,” she said, reaching back and patting the top of his head.

            “Why, Cassie, I had no idea you felt that way about me,” he purred, his arm wrapping around her tighter, but a swift elbow to his stomach made him stop that.

            “Don’t push it, Black,” she said, adjusting herself against him as he grunted and rubbed at his ribs.

            “Remus, would you hold me like that?” Peter asked, batting his eyes up at the other boy as they all sat down, James cracking open the bottle that was definitely firewhiskey and taking a hearty gulp.

             Remus gave the mousy boy a disgusted look. “Pete, I’d rather snuggle a Snargaluff.”

            Peter pouted, flopping back dramatically on the shingles. “I’m so unloved.”

            “Nah, Wormtail, you’re Mummy’s darling angel, remember?” James mimicked in a horrible impression of what must’ve been Peter’s mother as he handed the bottle off to Remus.

            Remus took a swig of the drink, shuddering at the taste before grinning at Peter. “And let’s not forget Daddy’s little princess—"

            “—And Auntie’s pumpkin pasty—"

            “—And Granny’s sugar lumpkin—"

            “Sod off!” Peter groaned, sitting back up and glaring at all their grins with pink ears. “Stop taking the piss out of me, you always do!”

            Cassie’s smirk faltered at his harsh tone, but the others didn’t seem to pick up on it, simply shrugging and chuckling under their breath as the firewhiskey continued to get passed around.

            “I can’t believe we’re getting drunk the night before we go back to Hogwarts,” she said after her fifth drink, giggling at the thought as the now half-empty bottle kept exchanging hands.

            “Being hungover the day before lessons isn’t bad,” James said sagely, though the effect was somewhat marred by his slurred words. “It’s if you’re still hungover when you go to class that it’s bad.”

            “I’m a Prefect,” Remus moaned, holding his head in his hands as if he just realized this. “I’m s’posed to be the good example for you lot!”

            “Fuck the establishment, Moony,” Sirius said, raising the bottle. “Just pretend it’s Emma Vanity and fuck it.”

            Remus burst out laughing as the bottle swapped to Cassie. “Is that what you think of every time we break the rules? Is fucking some poor girl like McKinnon?”

            Cassie’s grin vanished at the mention of Marlene. She gripped the bottle in her hand tighter before taking another swig, the liquid scorching her throat and settling to simmer with the buzzing feeling that had started up inside her.

            Sirius laughed, though Cassie wondered if it sounded strained somehow. “Not anymore, mate. I plan on calling it quits when we get back to school.”

            Remus and James let out collective “oooh’s.” Peter remained silent, but Cassie sat up against his chest, craning her head back to look at him with a frown. “What?”

            Sirius grimaced at her accusing tone, shrugging one shoulder half-heartedly. “I’m just not feeling it anymore, y’know?”

            Cassie snorted, facing forward once more. “That doesn’t surprise me.”

            “What’s that s’pposed to mean?”

            She rolled her eyes. “Nothing, Sirius.”

            He shifted her in his arms so she faced him, and she cocked a brow at his annoyed gaze. “Just spit it out, Cass.”

            “Fine. You, Sirius Black,” —she jabbed a finger into his chest to emphasize— “are a complete and utter player who disregards all feelings unless they’re yours.” She didn’t know why she was saying this, but the effects of the firewhiskey and her indignation on Marlene’s behalf seemed to be goading her into speech. “And I told you not to hurt Mar’s feelings, yet here you are.”

            She shrugged, splaying out across his legs until she was laying on the roof, staring up at the stars while the boys all snickered at the look on Sirius’s face.

            “She’s got a point, Pads,” James said. “You’re a heartbreaker.”

            “And a berk,” Remus added.

            “The bloody hell am I supposed to say to that?” he demanded. “I don’t have to defend who I spend my time with and why. That’s my personal life.”

            “Just be careful, Sirius,” Cassie said. “And stop being insensitive to others.”

            He seemed on the verge of arguing, but Cassie gasped, pointing up. “A shooting star!” The others followed her finger just in time to see the star wink out of existence. “Make a wish,” she whispered, though the star was long gone. She closed her eyes, seeing nothing but the darkness behind her eyelids.

            If I can’t wish that none of this had happened to me, then at least let me wish for the power to put a stop to it, she thought.

            She opened her eyes to see the boys with their own eyes closed, and she smiled slightly to herself, glad that she wasn’t alone in all of this. She had them and Lily, Alice, and Marlene. And that, she thought with a rush of warmth, was enough.


 

            “I think I’m going to be sick,” James moaned for the tenth time. Cassie rolled her eyes (also for the tenth time) as the bespectacled boy slumped in his seat, rubbing his stomach like a pregnant mother.

            They were on their way to King’s Cross along with Mrs. Potter; Mr. Potter had had to be at work early that morning, but due to his Auror connections, he was able to get them a Ministry car to take them to the station.

            Despite her father being a prominent Ministry employee himself, she had never ridden in a Ministry car before—probably because he thought it too Muggle for his tastes, but she had to admit that he was missing out. The car had been Charmed to accommodate all six of them, including the two Ministry officials who sat in the front. The backseat had been transformed into something resembling a park bench, with Sirius, James, and Mrs. Potter seated on one side and Cassie, Remus, and Peter opposite them, all of them fitting comfortably along with their trunks and owls stashed in the rear of the car.

               The only downside was that nearly all of them were nursing hangovers from their night of drinking—except Mrs. Potter, of course, and to everyone’s anger and disgust, Sirius—who looked as bright-eyed and alert as ever as he tapped his fingers on his knee, humming to himself and staring out the window while James looked ready to pass out beside him.

            Cassie wasn’t feeling nearly as unwell as James, but she had a nasty headache and her mouth tasted like cotton. Remus wasn’t much better off. His skin had been pale and clammy when they’d gotten into the car, but after attempting to read a few pages from his book, he’d shut it and leaned his head back on the seat, his face now tinged a light shade of green. She edged away from him, sitting closer to Peter, who was already snoring with his face pressed into the window, a little circle of fog appearing on the glass every time he exhaled from his lolling mouth.

            Mrs. Potter seemed oblivious to their plight, or perhaps she was used to it by now as the car weaved through Muggle traffic much like the Knight Bus had, though a lot smoother and less vertigo-inducing than the latter. She was flipping idly through the pages of that morning’s Daily Prophet, and Cassie stared at the front page, a moving black-and-white photograph depicting the scowling Minister of Magic, Harold Minchum, glowering out at her.

            MINISTER APPROVES BILL ALLOCATING ONE HUNDRED MORE DEMENTORS TO GUARD AZKABAN PRISON the headline blared.

She tried to read more, but the words were too small. Mrs. Potter must have sensed her staring, for she looked up from her reading and sighed, turning back to the front page.

            “Scary, isn’t it?” she said. “Dementors are terrible creatures; I almost feel sorry for the people locked up there, but I have to agree with the Minister’s decision.”

            “Why?” Cassie asked, recalling a lesson they’d had fourth year about dementors and suppressing a shudder at the memory. “If they’re so horrible, then why is the Ministry using more of them?”

            Mrs. Potter glanced around the car, noticing that their conversation had attracted the attention of the other boys—save for Peter, who still snored away until James kicked him in the shin. The blond boy started, snapping awake and gazing blearily around the car. Cassie surreptitiously gestured to the drool on his chin, which he wiped off on his sweater sleeve quickly before tuning in with the rest.

            Mrs. Potter cast an uncomfortable look to the Ministry officials sitting in the front before she waved her wand. The Ministry officials stuck their fingers in their ears as if trying to clear them, and Cassie guessed that Mrs. Potter had cast the same Silencing Charm Sirius had at Grimmauld Place while James stared at her in awe.

            “Mum,” he said, impressed, “I didn’t know you were that cool.”

            Mrs. Potter rolled her eyes, though a slight grin tugged at her lips before it was replaced by a grave expression.

            “Children, if I tell you this, it is because I think you are old enough to know the truth, or at least parts of it,” she said. “You’ve known there has been…unrest in the wizarding world.” A dark look clouded her lined face. “You’re too young to remember Grindelwald, but what’s happening out there is much the same as before.

            “This Dark wizard, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, is believed to have started recruiting elsewhere than the wizarding community.” She nodded to James. “Your father has had reports of attacks from giants, dementors, werewolves, and even Inferi who are suspected of being allied with the Death Eaters, which leads us back to your question, Cassie. The reason why the Ministry is using so many dementors is to keep them on our side. Dementors are very dangerous, and if the Death Eaters have an army of them at their disposal…”

            She trailed off, that dark look shadowing her face once more.

            “The Ministry is making alliances left and right, trying to keep the threat contained, but He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named is growing stronger. I’m warning you all of this because at this point I think a war is inevitable, and I want you to be prepared as best you can. Be diligent in your lessons, be aware of what is happening outside of Hogwarts, but most of all, be loyal to each other and those around you. The wizarding world needs unity now more than ever, and you can be an example for others to do the same in school.”

            Cassie and the Marauders shared a look, and she knew they were all thinking the same thing. Sirius had said it when Cassie arrived at Potter Manor, but now they needed to believe it: they had to be ready to fight.

            “Ah, here we are,” Mrs. Potter said, her cheery disposition returning when they looked out the window and saw King’s Cross before them. She waved her wand and the Silencing Charm was broken as the car parked and they filed out.

            “Have a good term, dears,” Mrs. Potter said, kissing them each on the cheek while one of the Ministry officials flagged down trolleys for them. “Study hard, and try your best for your O.W.L.s—they’re important!”

            “I think you just made me ill again,” James groaned as she smothered him in another hug. Cassie and Peter snickered at him before gasping and pretending to faint when he shot them a rude hand gesture behind his mother’s back.

            After their many good-byes and thanks were said, the five ventured into King’s Cross in search of Platform 9 ¾, taking their time getting to the barrier, as they had arrived about twenty minutes early.

            James, Remus, and Peter wandered off at one point in search of food, the worst of their nausea apparently subsided, while Cassie and Sirius hung back to guard their trolleys. The two received many odd looks from Muggles while they stood there with their trunks and three owls tittering in their cages, but they ignored them, Sirius flipping through a magazine he’d found abandoned on a seat and Cassie rubbing her temples after his owl screeched bloody murder.

            “Will you stop making so much noise?” he growled at his owl. Perseus glared at him with yellow eyes, ruffling his feathers indignantly and hooting. Sirius groaned. “He’s hopeless.”

            Cassie didn’t respond to his lamentations, her fingers moving to fiddle with the locket at her neck as she mulled over their conversation with Mrs. Potter in the car. Her need to find out what Carlisle was doing had only heightened, and she was now more determined than ever to solve the witch’s mystery.

            “Cass, are you even listening to me?”

            She was pulled out of her thoughts at Sirius’s voice. He stared at her, obviously having been saying something to her that she completely ignored.

            “Oh, sorry, Sirius. What were you saying?”

            “Nothing important, apparently,” he said, giving her a dry look.

            “I didn’t mean to ignore you,” she said hastily. “I just…have a lot on my mind.”

            “I know what you mean,” he said, sighing and seating himself on top of Peter’s trunk. He raked a hand through his dark hair, a few strands falling back into his face in defiance, but he didn’t seem to care, only putting his elbows on his knees and sighing again. “You all right?” he asked her.

            She frowned, touching her fingers to her forehead. “Er, yeah. I just have this massive headache, but otherwise—"

            “I’m not talking about physically,” he said, rolling his eyes but shooting her a grin. “I meant mentally.”

            She shrugged, messing with the zipper on her jacket.

            “I guess,” she said. “Still kicking, you know?”

            He grinned. “Just remember what James’s mum said. We have to stick together, now more than ever.”

            Cassie chuckled, shaking her head and looking to Sirius.

            He gazed at her, bemused. “What’s so funny?”

            “You,” she said simply, smirking when his eyebrows knitted. “It’s just funny to me, how before this year you didn’t know me at all. I was invisible.” She smiled ruefully, scuffing her shoe on the shiny floor. “And then when you did find out who I was, you hated my guts. And now…” She lifted her shoulders. “Here we are, friends promising to stick together. Who knew, right?”

            “It is funny now that I think about it,” he said, his confusion replaced with amusement. “I never thought we’d get along, even after you became friends with Remus. I just took you for a Slytherin disguised as a Gryffindor.”

            “Can’t blame you,” she said, not at all bothered by his admission. “Will chose such an unexpected path, and I can’t be upset that people thought I would follow in his footsteps, or if they still do. I know who I am, though, and that’s enough for me.”

            Her words surprised her, but she was happy to realize that she was right. She’d been so afraid of other people judging her by her brother’s mistakes that she’d forgotten she was her own person, too.

            Sirius gazed at her with an indecipherable expression, and she raised her brows at him. “What?”

            “You,” he said, smirking as he copied her from earlier.

            Her brows rose further when he didn’t elaborate. “Me, what?”

            He shook his head, still smirking, and her heart skipped a couple beats when she met his silver gaze, staring at her as if he could see everything about her.

            “Just you,” he replied, but she didn’t get a chance to coerce an answer from him before the three boys ambled back over to them, each with a cone filled with roasted almonds in their hands.

            “Let’s go catch the train,” James said around a mouthful of nuts, and Cassie refrained from making an inappropriate joke as they grabbed their trolleys and wheeled them to the platform, checking to see if any Muggles were watching before they passed through the barrier.

            The scarlet steam engine sat before them, belching out smoke over the small crowd that waited to go back to Hogwarts. Most students tended to Floo to the school from their family’s house, leaving a smaller group who took the train back, most of them Muggle-borns or groups of friends who wanted to catch up on all the holiday gossip before returning to the rumor mill of Hogwarts.

            They boarded the train near the end, searching for a compartment that wasn’t already taken. Cassie followed at the rear, allowing the boys to do most of the scouting while she puffed along behind them, her trunk in one hand and Ozzy’s cage in the other.

            She eventually had to stop and catch her breath, setting down the trunk and cage and flexing her fingers, trying to get some feeling back into them while the Marauders continued without her, not noticing she had fallen behind.

            She rubbed her palms, hoping she wasn’t going to get blisters as a compartment door opened to her right and she heard a familiar voice say, “Er, Cassie?”

            She turned to see Bertram Aubrey standing in the compartment opening, staring at her with a slight grimace that she returned, her face flushing when she realized this was the first time he had spoken to her since Sirius had decided to sabotage him asking her to Hogsmeade.

            “Er, hi, Bertram…Aubrey,” she said, inwardly cringing at herself for not even knowing what to call him. “Good holiday?”

            “Yeah, it was all right,” he said, scraping some of his golden hair out of his face, his sea-green eyes studying her carefully. “You?”

            She shrugged. “Nothing too extravagant, unless you count my brother hosting a Christmas party for all his murder pals.”

            To her shock and some dismay, he actually laughed at this, obviously thinking she’d been joking, and she forced a smile of her own despite mentally berating herself for letting something like that slip out so casually.

            “I’m sure it must’ve been fun,” he said wryly, stepping out of his compartment and shutting the door behind him, where she could see a few of his mates staring at them with wide eyes.

            “Oh, yeah, playing charades with the Death Eaters was a real treat,” she said, and he laughed again, much to her pleasure. He had a nice laugh, deep and throaty, and his smile was so bright she almost felt blinded by it.

            “Hey,” he said as if a sudden thought had occurred to him, “d’you want to sit in my compartment? Er, I feel like we got off on the wrong foot, but if you’d rather not, that’s okay.”

            “Oh,” she said, startled, but not unpleasantly so. “Er…”

            “Ah, no worries,” he said with an easy smile. “I saw your friends pass by earlier, so you must want to sit with them. At least let me help you with your luggage.”

            She only smiled gratefully as he stooped to lift her trunk, and she grabbed ahold of Ozzy’s cage again as they set off down the corridor, looking for where the Marauders went and keeping up easy conversation as they went. It seemed as if the horrible disaster from before Hogsmeade had never happened, and Cassie found she was quite enjoying herself until they entered another train car and were met with a scene that made her groan aloud.

            “Leave him alone, Potter! And—Severus, put away your wand right now!”

            Lily stood in between James and Severus Snape, who both glared balefully at each other with their wands raised, Sirius, Remus, and Peter extracting their own while Lily waved her hands frantically, her face almost as red as her hair.

            “Both of you, enough! Just walk away from each other! It’s not that hard!”

            “Stay out of it, Evans,” James said, his eyes narrowing behind his glasses. “If Snivellus wants a fight, then he’s going to get one.”

            “Gallant little Potter, so brave,” Snape sneered, his greasy hair hanging in his sallow face. “I bet you wouldn’t be so cocky if your mates weren’t around—"

            “Sev, please, don’t stoop to their level,” Lily pleaded, her green eyes wide. Snape glanced to her, his face softening and his hand dipping for a fraction of a second, but that was all James needed.

            “James, don’t!” Cassie cried, but it was too late; James’s hex soared over Lily’s shoulder and hit Snape directly in the face. His pale skin erupted with red bumps as if he had been attacked by a swarm of hornets. He slumped to his knees, clutching his face while Lily was near hysterics, alternating between trying to fix his face and yelling at James, who was laughing with Sirius and Peter while Remus looked on indifferently, though Cassie could still see the faint smirk on his lips.

            “I’m sorry,” Cassie said, turning to Aubrey. “You shouldn’t have had to see this.”

            “It’s fine,” he said, looking quite flabbergasted at the whole ordeal, but she admired him for being so calm. “Do you need any help?”

            She looked around the train car. Lily had stopped screaming at James long enough to work the counter-curse on Snape, and his face now deflated like a balloon as he still huddled on the floor. The Marauders collected their things, ignoring Lily’s threats to tell Professor McGonagall as they turned and disappeared to look for another compartment.

            Cassie just shook her head, stifling a sigh. “No, I think they have it handled. Thanks, though.”

            He gave her another brilliant smile. “Of course. If anything else happens, you know where I am.”

            She nodded, turning toward Lily and Snape before his voice held her back. “And Cassie?” He grinned at her, his green eyes hopeful. “If you ever, er, want to talk or hang out sometime, I’d be more than happy to.”

            She felt a strange lurch in her gut, but she smiled at him all the same. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

            He gave her another grin before departing with a wave. Once he was gone, her smile dropped from her face, and she followed Lily into the compartment she had helped Snape into to see what the damage was.

            The redhaired witch spun around when the door snapped shut behind her, her eyes sparking before she realized it was just Cassie.

            “Oh, Cass,” she said, sounding exhausted as she wrapped the taller girl into her arms. “How are you? I barely heard from you over the holidays!”

            “Sorry, Lils,” she said, hugging the other girl back. “Things got pretty rough. I’m sure you can understand.”

            She gave Lily a significant look that said she’d tell her everything later, and Lily nodded, turning back to Snape with a frown.

            “Did you see what Potter did to Sev?” she said, and Cassie winced, nodding.

            “I’m, er, sorry about your face,” she said to Snape. He scowled at her, his black eyes flashing dangerously, and she guessed he wasn’t keen on receiving any apologies from someone who hung around with the Marauders. “What happened?” she asked, turning back to Lily and ignoring Snape’s hiss of annoyance.

            “Potter happened,” she said, nearly spitting out the other boy’s name. “We were just sitting in here, waiting for the train to start, and he decided to have a go at Sev for no other reason than boredom, I suppose.” She shook her head quickly, her red hair flying. “I know you’re friends with him, Cass, but I really don’t understand how someone could be so arrogant and immature.”

            Cassie shrugged, uncomfortable. “I’ll try talking to him, Lily.”

            Snape let out a derisive snort, and both girls turned to stare at him, his still-mottled face flushed with anger and embarrassment.

            “I don’t need you to defend me, Alderfair!” he snapped. Cassie blinked while Lily gaped. “They’ll get what’s coming to them!”

            “Sev!” Lily said, aghast. He cowed a bit at Lily’s tone, but his eyes were still full of anger when he stared at Cassie.

            “Fine,” she said coolly, raising a brow at the Slytherin. “I’ll get out of your greasy hair, Snivellus.”

            Lily nearly whimpered. “Cass—"

            “I’ll see you at the castle, Lily,” she said, cutting off the other girl and exiting the compartment, slamming the door behind her. She didn’t need Snape’s scorn, and if he was too proud to admit that he needed her help, then so be it.

            She grabbed her trunk and Ozzy’s cage once more, quickly finding the Marauders’ compartment and hauling her things in. Remus stood up wordlessly to help her stash them away, and when she sat down next to Peter, she sighed, rubbing at her temples.

            “Care to explain what just happened?” she asked the compartment at large. When no one answered, she looked to James. “James?”

            “The git was asking for it,” he mumbled, staring darkly out the window as the train trundled out of the station, the view soon opening into a grey and dreary landscape laden with rainclouds.

            “By what, existing?” she asked.

            “Well, you’re not wrong,” Sirius muttered from beside James, but she shut him up with a severe look.

            James groaned, leaning his head against the window as the first drops of rain pelted the glass, more ice than water considering the season.

            “I don’t know why I did it,” he admitted miserably. “I just get so angry whenever I see him with Evans. And that talk with my mum had me riled up…”

            Cassie arched a brow. “You mean the talk about unity?”

            He glared at her. “I’m not cozying up to anyone who practices the Dark Arts. Hell, Snape’s probably already been recruited into the Death Eaters—"

            “James, you have to stop making assumptions about him,” she said, shaking her head. “Lily’s known him since they were kids; there’s no way he could be a Death Eater without her knowing.”

            James opened his mouth, looking ready to argue, but they all started when there was a sudden lurch from the train. Cassie slammed back into her seat as a groaning sound came from beneath their feet, and she exchanged a worried glance with Peter.

            “The bloody hell was that?” Sirius demanded.

            “Probably an engine malfunction,” Remus said, though he looked uneasy. “The train may be magic, but it’s still a Muggle machine at heart.”

            Cassie looked up when Ozzy tittered, and she let out an exasperated noise when she noticed that the train’s movement had caused the lid of her trunk to open; she must’ve forgotten to lock it.

            “Bugger it all,” she said, standing up on her seat to close it, but she yelped when the train lurched again. Her foot slipped from the seat, her trunk tipping dangerously and spilling the topmost layer of contents onto the floor while she grabbed the rack to keep herself from falling.

            “What in Godric’s name is going on?” Sirius said, but just then an announcement came from the conductor.

            “We are terribly sorry for the previous issues you experienced, and we are now working to get those issues resolved. The Hogwarts Express will be delayed by a few hours. To accommodate this inconvenience, the food trolley will be around shortly with reduced prices on whatever goods you should choose. Thank you for your cooperation, and we hope to be on our way again shortly.”

            “Great,” Cassie muttered, hopping down to pick up whatever items had fallen from her trunk.

            “Cassie…” Remus said uncertainly, and she rolled her eyes as she picked up a pair of underwear from the floor.

            “Yes, Remus, I’m terribly sorry your virgin eyes had the misfortune to glance upon my frilly knickers.”

            “Cassie,” he said sharply.

            She stopped, turning to stare at him, but his eyes weren’t on her. She followed his gaze to see where he was looking, noticing with some bafflement that the other boys were all staring at the same thing.

            The book Will had given her had apparently fallen out of the trunk, as well, and now laid open on the floor, the yellowed pages peering up at her as she tried to make sense of what she was seeing.

            “What are you lot looking at?” she said, picking up the book and glancing over the page it had fallen open upon, which was decorated with a moving portrait of some dark-haired woman. “I’m sure it’s not that fascinating—"

            She sucked in a sharp breath as she saw the picture clearly for the first time. The woman depicted was fair and willowy, with dark hair that spilled around her shoulders and down her back in rivulets, clashing handsomely with her rich red robes. Her face was oval-shaped and had an imperious air about it, and her eyes were a deep brown, so dark they appeared almost black.

            Staring at the picture, Cassie realized that she had a problem. However, the problem was not the certainty in her gut that she had seen this woman before, for she knew she had: her dream about the locket and the lovers, the man and the woman—this was the same woman she had seen. Though her face had been hazy at the time, Cassie knew that this was her, the woman who had once owned the clockwork locket. But that was not the problem.

            No, the problem was eerier than that, and she finally understood why the Marauders were staring at her as if they had seen a ghost. It was because they had.

            The problem was that the woman in the book looked exactly like Cassie.