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Chapter 9: The Evening Prophet
Rachel should have known that her date to the Yule Ball wouldn’t remain a secret for very long, no matter how much she tried to hide it. It’s not that she wanted to hide it, exactly, but certain ginger-haired best friends of hers were only too happy to jump on the opportunity of a good chuckle, and they thrived on the reactions they got when they teased her about Cedric. So, the next time the Yule Ball was mentioned during an idle fireside common room chat, and Rachel didn’t roll her eyes or scoff, Fred and George knew something was up.
Rachel, Fred, George, Lee, Katie, Angelina, and Alicia were all grouped around the hearth when the subject arose, their limbs sprawled everywhere in a way that only teenagers can pull off with any amount of dignity. Textbooks were open and parchment was out, but as usual, no homework was being done; the three other Gryffindor girls were deep in a whispered conversation a little way away from Rachel and the boys, giggling madly as they had been wont to do of late.
“So, who are you taking, Lee?” said George in a low voice, his eyes half-closed in an after-dinner stupor. Lee didn’t ask for clarification; the subject of who was asking who to the dance was ground out constantly in every corner, corridor, and classroom now. He shrugged his shoulders half-heartedly and said, “Dunno. Might think of asking Alicia.” His eyes darted over to where the girls were clustered, their heads bent close together.
“What about you?” Fred asked George, and George jutted his chin in Katie’s direction. Rachel knew how this was going to inevitably end up; three boys and three girls meant instant pairs, she wasn’t dumb enough to miss that. Suddenly, she became aware of eyes turned in her direction, and she quickly buried her nose in her Charms book in an effort to try to avoid being dragged into the conversation.
No such luck.
“It’s too bad there aren’t four Gryffindor sixth year boys,” said Fred quietly, a wicked glint in his eyes as he turned to Rachel. “If only some young, strapping Hufflepuff would come and sweep the remaining girl off her feet… But where will we find one of those?” He frowned as though he was deeply puzzled, and she couldn’t help but laugh and elbow him in the ribs.
“Shut up. You don’t need to worry about me anymore,” she said jokingly, and then instantly realized the context in which her words could – and would – be taken. She glanced up quickly to see if Fred or George had caught her meaning, and judging by the suddenly keen and mischievous looks on their faces, they most certainly had; Fred’s eyes were nearly popping out of his head.
“Blimey!” he said, laughing loudly and causing not a few curious pairs of eyes to look in their direction. “You could have said something, you know! It’s not exactly a secret that you-“
“Fred!” she laughed warningly, a grin of her own nevertheless playing at the corners of her mouth. She bent her head again over the Charms book, terminating the conversation on her own terms, knowing that it would certainly be talked about among her friends once she’d gone up to bed. But, as Fred had pointed out, it really wasn’t a secret – and honestly, she wasn’t entirely sure she wanted to try and stop people from talking about it. Vain as it might sound, she didn’t mind thinking that she might become a half of an “it” couple – at least, not too much.
And, as it turned out, that attitude came in very handy as the weeks leading up to the Yule Ball slowly crept upon the castle. The word had slowly leaked out among the students that Cedric Diggory, the Hufflepuff champion, would be taking Rachel Alexander, best friend of Fred and George Weasley, to the ball on Christmas. Some of the more jealous girls around the school whispered cattily in the corridors, speculating as to how a girl like that had managed to connive Cedric into asking her out. She tried her best to ignore it, but it still hurt to have so many people glaring at her now, everywhere we went. She’d never imagined that accepting a date with Cedric would have had such an impact on the rest of the school.
“They’re just jealous,” said George thickly one morning at breakfast, trying to talk through a mouthful of eggs and toast; Angelina looked at him with a mixture of admiration at his being able to talk and disgust at being able to see his food. “I mean,” he continued, wiping his mouth hastily, “they all adore him because he’s the champion, don’t they? It’ll all blow over when Harry wins, don’t worry.”
Rachel, in the middle of pouring herself a glass of orange juice, shot him a withering look, and he grinned sheepishly back. That little snide remark about Harry hadn’t been overlooked, and although most of Rachel’s friends had calmed down somewhat about the intense inner-school rivalry, it was all too clear that they still were of the opinion that she had backed the wrong side, as it were.
Suddenly, as Rachel was about to take a bite from her own toast, a small second-year Gryffindor walked up to where she and the other sixth-year Gryffindors were eating. The girl merely looked expectantly at them, and they glanced at her, half-amused and half-suspicious. Finally, Fred put down his knife and fork and said baldly, “We’re not going to get Harry to ask you to the Yule Ball, so if that’s what you were after, you’re wasting your time.”
The girl blushed to the roots of her tightly plaited dark hair, and said in a slightly squeaky voice, “N-no. I was sent to ask if Rachel Alexander could be borrowed for a few moments. Someone wants to see her.” The girl blushed even more furiously; she evidently didn’t talk to older students very often.
Rachel, frowning in puzzlement, glanced at Katie, who was sitting across from her. Her friend shrugged slightly, and Rachel rose from the table to follow the girl, not having a clue as to who would want to see her during breakfast, or why. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw that all the teachers were still sitting at the staff table. Was this some kind of trick? She wouldn’t put any of the Slytherins above such childish nonsense, that’s for sure…
Upon arriving in the entrance hall, Rachel’s eyes immediately lighted upon a woman standing half in the shadows of the marble staircase. She was dressed in such a vivid color of green that she almost emitted a kind of glow in the dim hall. Rachel’s companion quickly scurried back into the hall as the woman strode forward to meet her, grinning toothily, the light catching several gold teeth glinting from her smile.
“You must be Rachel,” said the woman loudly, proffering a long-nailed hand for the girl to shake; she did so, now more confused than ever. The woman looked vaguely familiar, but for the moment Rachel couldn’t remember where she’d seen her before.
“Shall we go upstairs, then?” said the woman brightly, collecting a crocodile-skin handbag from the ground and moving to lead the way up the stairs. “We don’t want to be caught here when the rush comes, do we, it would look a bit suspicious…”
“Erm, not to be rude,” said Rachel timidly, “but I’m not entirely sure who you are… or why I’m here, for that matter.”
The woman looked blankly at Rachel for a few moments, and then let out a loud laugh so suddenly that Rachel jumped slightly. One of the stranger’s stiff blond curls came loose from the knot at the back of her head as she chortled far longer than Rachel personally believed necessary.
“How silly of me!” she cried, flashing her toothy grin once more; Rachel wondered if she wasn’t just a bit mad. “But surely you’ve read my column? I’m Rita Skeeter, writer for the Daily Prophet.” She made to stick out her hand again, then withdrew it, tittered, and said, “Shall we?”
Rachel followed her up the stairs and onto the first floor landing, now wondering if Rita Skeeter wasn’t more than a bit mad. She had recognized Rita’s face from her weekly column, as the woman had mentioned, but the piece in question was renowned for being nothing more than a glorified tell-all, and she had a sneaking suspicion what someone who was paid to write gossip might want with her.
Rita found a small, sour-smelling, and empty classroom down a corridor and ushered her companion inside, still beaming. Rachel idly wondered if her cheeks ever hurt from all the smiling she seemed to do. She sat down at a desk nervously, and Rita sat across from her, fumbling in her handbag. She withdrew a thin notebook and a violently-green quill that matched her outfit exactly. The quill she placed upon the notebook, where it balanced of its own accord, and then she looked at Rachel expectantly, crossing her hands upon the desk.
“So.” She peered shrewdly at Rachel through her jeweled glasses. “I asked you up here for a very important reason, my dear. The wizarding world is positively buzzing with talk about the Triwizard Tournament, and it would seem that, according to castle gossip, you are right at the forefront of some of the more juicy behind-the-scenes scoops.”
Rachel flushed furiously, but Rita seemed not to notice. “Word around the castle is that you have been asked to the upcoming Yule Ball by one Cedric Diggory, who is, of course, one of the Hogwarts champions. Care to comment?”
“I – well, I – what?” Rachel stumbled over her words in an attempt to regain focus after the shock of the woman’s leading question. What did it matter to anyone who she was going to the ball with? She noticed the quill had begun scribbling upon the page of the notebook.
“And, of course, there’s the subject of your disloyalty to your own house,” Rita barreled on, not caring to stop for an answer from her interviewee; Rachel had a sick feeling that, judging from the scratching of the quill, one had already been made up for her. Anger bubbled within her as she processed the second question posed to her.
“It’s not disloyalty,” she said hotly, rising quickly from her seat. Rita glanced up, looking shocked at the outburst. “I can bloody well choose what I’d like to do with my life, and thank you not to intrude upon it.” Her Northern accent thickened slightly, as it tended to do when she was in a temper; she could feel the red patches already blooming on her cheeks. “Put that in your column.”
Already slightly ashamed of her explosion, Rachel stormed from the classroom, leaving Rita Skeeter still sitting at the desk, looking thoroughly bewildered; Rachel surmised the reporter had never been treated like a criminal for asking questions before, but she didn’t care. She’d had her fill of people questioning her, of the whole stupid rivalry between the houses. Unfortunate though it was that someone fairly removed from the most of the previous quarreling had received the brunt of Rachel’s anger, she couldn’t say with total honesty that she was sorry she’d lost her temper.
Breakfast, as Rita Skeeter had predicted, was letting out by the time Rachel has reached the entrance hall again. She waited by the foot of the stairs for Lee and Alicia, the only other sixth-years taking Potions N.E.W.T.s, and the three of them started down the steps leading to the dungeon. “What did that second-year want?” Lee asked her.
“Never mind,” said Rachel, her temper still dangerously close to boiling point. Having been on the receiving end of one of her moods once before, when he, Fred, and George had accidentally set her History of Magic essay on fire, Lee recognized the clouded look on her face and shut up at once.
She fumed silently through most of the day – Rachel was never one to let things go easily – and the rest of her friends had adopted the same position as Lee, giving her a wide berth in which to let her anger cool. By dinner, however, she had all but recovered, and it was with a positive disposition and considerably more cheerful spirits that she descended the steps, heading once more to the entrance hall for dinner, Fred and George on either side of her, cracking jokes about George’s pitiful attempt to turn a handbag into a badger.
Suddenly, a shout of laughter rose up from below where they stood on the landing. “There she is!” crowed a loud, nasal voice, and Rachel’s stomach twisted uncomfortably; it was the same skinny Slytherin boy who’d been part of the group outside the library before Cedric had asked her to the Yule Ball. She had a very unpleasant feeling she knew who they might be talking about, and her guess wasn’t wrong.
“Cast any charms on champions lately?” the boy sniggered as she drew closer to him. She knit her brows, not really sure what he was talking about. A short, bulbous-nosed girl gave an ugly giggle and Fred snapped, “If you’re going to be thick, why don’t you-“
“Calm yourself, Weasley,” drawled the boy in the same nasal voice. He thrust something under their noses, and the trio leaned together as one, wondering what could make a group of Slytherins look so gleeful – it surely could be nothing good.
It was the day’s edition of the Evening Prophet, and smack on the right-hand side of the page was a thin column topped by a picture of a woman that made Rachel’s stomach twist even more. Rita Skeeter was winking smarmily up at them, baring her teeth in what was obviously supposed to be a smile, and waving her fingers cheekily. Below her was a headline of a column that had apparently been continued for several weeks: “Tournament Tattler: The Latest News from the School Scoop.” Bile rising sickeningly in her throat, Rachel read what was below.
"Readers will all have read about the rivalry between the school Houses as far as their true champion: Does the title rightfully belong to the legendary and famous Boy Who Lived, Harry Potter, or the other Hufflepuff boy? The nasty competition has reached extraordinary heights; it seems there is nothing these fans will not stoop to in order to make sure their chosen favorite appears victorious. But one must ask – what tactics wouldn’t a student employ to ascertain their favorite a victory?
According to a source who has proved reliable to this author, one alleged Potter supporter has crossed ranks in order to try and charm the other champion into giving up his glory. The boy in question, Kendric Diggors, has been seen in the company of this femme fatale on several occasions, my source says.
'I personally think she’s put some sort of enchantment on him, she’d never be able to land him otherwise,' said my source in a confidential interview. The Gryffindor in question, a hot-tempered and rather homely girl, was not able to make a significant contribution to this column."
It was as though a light red haze blurred Rachel’s vision; she could barely see or speak through her rage and humiliation. George looked up heatedly from her left side, and angrily shoved the paper back at its original owner, who had joined the group of Slytherins in laughing loudly and rudely.
“Come on,” she muttered, pulling George’s sleeve and trying to turn him back in the direction of the Great Hall; he was looking like he was going to storm over and punch a few people if she didn’t act quickly. The three turned and followed the stragglers in to dinner, Rachel’s face burning.
But as they passed by the Hufflepuff table, a hissing sound met their ears; it seemed as though nearly everyone seated there was looking at her curiously, and most of these stares were significantly less than friendly. With a painful jolt, she glimpsed many newspapers upon the table between the golden plates and goblets. It was apparent that the sixth-year Slytherins weren’t the only ones who had seen that evening’s edition. She glanced quickly up the table but saw no sign of Cedric.
She took a place with her back to the Hufflepuffs, not wanting to see some of the more malicious of the stares as she tried to eat, but she’d discovered her appetite had disappeared. George was looking warily at her as she stared at the table, trying hard not to be aware of the murmuring behind her.
“Listen,” he said, leaning over to speak in her ear, “do you want to sit here through this? I mean, I don’t want to tell you what to do, but this-“ He broke off, seemingly unable to articulate whatever he wanted to say.
“No, you’re right,” she said quietly. “I’m not really up to this right now.” She rose again from her seat. “See you in the common room, then.” She could feel eyes on her, people from the Gryffindor table as well as the Hufflepuff, and tried to blend into the background as she made her way back through the hall and toward the exit. The pathway seemed ten times longer than normal.
The entire way back to the common room, Rita Skeeter’s words from the column seemed to be echoing cruelly inside her head, bouncing off her brain and almost physically causing her a headache. She pressed her hands to her forehead, trying to ease the pain, but she felt on the verge of a breakdown. This was wrong, all wrong… It wasn’t supposed to have ended up like this…
She didn’t know what was going to happen now; after everything, it actually seemed feasible that she might accidentally lose this game, and it wouldn’t even be through something she had actually said or done. Rachel now saw the heavy cost her temper had inflicted upon her personal life, and wished with all her heart that she hadn’t lost it in front of the reporter. Anything but this; nothing else that could have happened would have made her feel so utterly defeated.
A/N: Wow, nine chapters up already - when I began this story this past summer, I had no idea if it would even make it past chapter one. It never would have gotten here without you guys, and I thank you for reading and reviewing - it really keeps me going! I hope you've enjoyed this latest installment - let me know your thoughts, yeah? Thanks so much to everyone!