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Chapter 10: Here Goes Nothing
The next morning, it seemed that all anyone could talk about was the article that had shown up in Rita Skeeter's column in the Evening Prophet the day before. Girls in the hall who had until now only looked at Rachel with spiteful jealousy were now stepping up their game, hissing insults at her and telling her how Cedric didn't deserve a girl like her. Katie, Angelina, Alicia, and Lee had been just as outraged as the twins to hear about the slanderous attack against their friend, but they couldn't do much to stop the comments - one could only threaten to bust someone's nose so many times before Filch or McGonagall caught wind of it.
Worse still, Rachel hadn't seen Cedric since the article had appeared, and her thought processes had again started to run similarly to the way they had before he'd asked her to the Yule Ball. Was he avoiding her, choosing instead to believe the vicious gossip in the paper? Or was it merely coincidence that he was nowhere to be found between her classes? She really hoped the latter was true, but didn't know if she was brave enough to go seeking the answer for herself. She hated being so timid about things like this.
The worst blow came on the Monday morning after the article was published, during first period Herbology. Rachel had barely ventured from the common room during the weekend, having had quite enough of the nastiness from the other students, but was determined this morning to talk to Cedric in class and straighten out whatever he might be thinking. She arrived early, before any of the three Hufflepuff boys, and sat by the doors to the greenhouse to wait.
Presently she spotted Matt and Anders crossing the snowy lawn - Cedric wasn't with them, but this had become normal. He was usually detained at the breakfast table by giggling girls, and this hadn't abated in the slightest since his name appeared from the goblet. Rachel stood up to greet them as they approached across the vegetable garden.
"Hi," she called brightly when they were within hearing distance, happier than she had expected to see two of the few people who, like her, didn't buy into all the madness this tournament had brought on. But to her shock, they didn't return her greeting but just nodded stiffly and seated themselves on the other side of the door, immediately beginning to talk as though she wasn't even there.
Surely they didn't believe all that Skeeter garbage, too?
Rachel stood up, feeling anger begin to bubble within her again, but before she could cross to the boys and ask them what the heck they were so touchy about, Professor Sprout popped into view, her sleeves rolled above the elbows and her arms covered in potting soil.
"Come on in, then," she said, beaming up at her students. "Today we'll finish up our study of Muggle plants used in magic, and we'll tie it off right before the holidays." Her jolly smile faded, however, when she saw the expressions on the faces of the three. They filed wordlessly into the greenhouse and took their places at the long trestle table.
"Is Mr. Diggory coming today?" the professor asked then, noting the empty place. Rachel looked around hastily at Matt and Anders; they were determinedly looking anywhere but in her direction.
"Erm, no, Professor, he said he was feeling ill this morning," said Matt finally, and Professor Sprout shrugged and turned to take a holly plant from a shelf behind her. Rachel felt her cheeks burn. So Cedric had taken to skipping classes, now?
She took out a piece of parchment and a quill, pretending she was about to start drawing her holly bush, but instead waited until Professor Sprout had disappeared to look after her Venomous Tentaculas, which had become extremely fussy due to the cold weather.
"Hey," she hissed down the table to the other two; they pretended not to hear her. Angrily she reached into her back for another piece of parchment and chucked it. It hit its mark, bouncing square off Matt's nose. He looked up, slight annoyance written on his face.
"Listen," Rachel said, talking quickly in a low voice in case Professor Sprout overheard. "I know you saw that Skeeter article, everyone did - you don't believe it, do you?" The uncomfortable looks on her friends' faces suggested otherwise, but she continued on, knowing she didn't have long to plead her case.
"She only wrote those things because I - well, I got really angry at her. I would never try and take advantage of Cedric, or you guys, or anyone, just because of this stupid tournament. You have to believe me, none of what she said is the truth." She looked imploringly at them, begging them to trust her.
Matt and Anders looked at each other, and then back at her, slightly abashed. "Skeeter's sort of well known for being a bloody cow," Anders admitted, a shadow of a grin sliding across his face. Rachel grinned back as a wave of warm relief swept over her, but then just as quickly disappeared.
"And, Cedric - does he know?" she asked quietly, feeling her face grow warm. "That it's not true, I mean?"
Matt looked even more uncomfortable than before. "I think he wants to believe that," he said, rubbing the back of his neck awkwardly; Rachel realized how weird it must be for him to be talking about this. "He's a little mad, though - we all were, to be honest." Rachel nodded, a lump rising painfully in her throat.
"But if you talk to him, I know he'll believe you," Matt added hastily, redness tinting his own cheeks. "He's so... well, he'll believe you, anyway."
"Great," Rachel said sarcastically, motioning to the empty seat across from her. "Except he sort of seems to be avoiding me at the moment, doesn't he?"
"Just come with us after class is over, before lunch," Anders said, glancing nervously at the back of the greenhouse where Professor Sprout seemed to be finishing administering a salve to the spiky Tentacula leaves. "The sooner this is resolved, the less we'll have to hear about it."
Rachel smiled her thanks and hastily ducked her head over her work again as Professor Sprout crossed back to them, sketching and labeling the bright red holly berries on her bush. But as she drew, she was hoping that everything regarding the article and the ball would finally be put to rest.
However, when she was actually crossing the grounds with Matt and Anders at her side, on their way to seek out Cedric, her confidence was definitely not as rock-solid as it had been in the greenhouse. Her stomach felt like a whole flock of butterflies had nested there, and she would have been lying if she'd said she was only a little nervous.
"What if he doesn't believe me?" Rachel hissed as they stepped into the cool gloom of the entrance hall. Student voices from their right indicated that most of the school was already inside, eating lunch. Rachel suspected, however, that Cedric wouldn't be there; he'd been absent from meals lately. Her suspicions were confirmed as they bypassed the Great Hall entirely.
"Would you calm down?" Anders hissed, beckoning her to a door that was half-hidden in the shadows from the marble staircase leading off from the hall. Rachel had never been through the door before, but had seen enough Hufflepuffs emerge from it to suspect that somewhere behind it was the entrance to the Hufflepuff common room. She followed him through tentatively, as though she expected to run into Cedric at any turn.
The corridor was long and low, brightly illuminated by tapers on the walls that flickered when the door opened. Along the left wall there was nothing but a stretch of sand-colored stone; the right was dotted with various paintings of fruit, vegetables, and bread in various stages of being prepared. The length of the floor was covered in a dark gold carpet runner interlaced with black designs.
Matt and Anders led Rachel to the very end of the corridor, to a painting of a monk in a monastery kitchen, happily humming as he whacked away at some leeks and potatoes. Behind him, a pot was bubbling over an open flame. He looked up and waved cheerily as the three approached.
"Password?" he said, wiping his hands off on a painted dishcloth.
"Quail eggs," said Matt, and the monk's painting lifted from the top - Rachel was put in mind of the door to her parents' garage. The boys looked back at her as the painting cleared the floor, but she took a step back, shaking her head slightly.
"I - I'll just wait here," she said apologetically, clasping her hands behind her back and nearly tripping over the edge of the carpet runner. Anders glanced at Matt, who merely shrugged and entered through the opening that the portrait had revealed. It closed behind them and the monk continued to hum to himself as he chopped vegetables.
Truthfully, she knew why she had waited behind - she was a chicken. And it was better for her to face Cedric with something to say prepared than to just barge in on him in his natural habitat. Her brain worked furiously as the seconds dragged by and she tried to come up with the most convincing thing to say to win Cedric back to her side.
But as the portrait swung upward once more, anything she might have been thinking of got lost in her throat on the way up. For the first time since that nasty article had appeared in the paper, she found herself face to face with Cedric, and remembered exactly how hard it was for her to breathe around him.
"Give us a minute?" he said over his shoulder to his friends. Matt and Anders scurried back up the passage to lunch, and finally Cedric and Rachel were alone in the corridor. She drew in a shaky breath, willing feeling to return to her numb toes.
"Hi," she finally managed to squeak out, and he smiled slightly at the hitch in her voice - a good sign.
"You wanted to talk to me?" he asked bluntly.
"Yeah," Rachel said, but before continuing she quickly searched his face. He didn't look angry - another good sign - but there was some other emotion lurking there that she couldn't quite pinpoint. Hurt? Shame? Whatever it was, it made her feel even guiltier than she already did for blowing up at Rita Skeeter.
“I – look, Cedric, none of what was said in that article is true,” she said in a rush, forcing herself to look at him while she spoke – he deserved that much.
“I’m not trying to – to charm you into losing, or whatever it is people obviously think I’m doing,” she continued, an embarrassing blush creeping up into her cheeks. She began twisting her fingers in the hem of her sweater, a nervous habit of hers. When she looked back up at Cedric, he was still looking at her intently.
“I’m sorry,” she finally breathed out, willing him to believe her. That was the best she could do.
Cedric rubbed his hand over his face, and her heart sank a little. What if he didn’t believe her? What if he thought that maybe they should just go to the Yule Ball separately? As much as she hated to admit it to herself, she was convinced that she wouldn’t go unless she could go with him – she’d already let herself become too entwined in the reality.
“I… am the biggest jerk in the world,” he said finally, lowering his hand and smiling slightly at her. Her heart leaped, and she returned the tentative smile.
“I knew better than to believe that stupid article, but I – well, I decided to be a jerk about it, I guess,” he said, pressing his lips together. “You don’t need to apologize for anything, Rach, because if anything I am the one who should be apologizing to you, for skipping classes and meals. I’m sorry.” He stuck out his hand formally, a slightly sarcastic smile twisting his mouth, and Rachel shook it, grinning.
“So, we’ll forget everything about this article?” he asked, still looked a little worried.
Rachel laughed. “What article is this again, Cedric?” she teased. He grinned infectiously at her and shook his head slightly, as though he should have known better.
Her heart much lighter than she could ever remember, even during their walk after the library, the two began making their way down the carpeted corridor toward the entrance hall outside. They parted ways at the staircase – Rachel didn’t know if she could have eaten in the state she was in, and so told Cedric she was going to get her books from her dormitory.
But as she began heading up to the first floor, a thought struck her, and she spun around quickly on the landing. “Cedric!” she called down the stairs, and he turned from where he was about to enter the hall, looking up at her curiously.
“So, are we… back on?” she asked, mentally kicking herself for sounding like a naïve child.
He frowned slightly. “Were we ever off?”
She grinned widely, her heart fluttering in her chest – she couldn’t help it. Cedric grinned in return, and with a final look in her direction, turned and entered the doors to the noisy Great Hall. She practically danced the rest of the way to the common room, certain she would not be able to wait until Christmas night.
The few weeks that led up to Christmas were probably some of the slowest Rachel could ever remember experiencing. Her parents had understood her want to stay at school when she had briefly told them the bare details of the Triwizard Tournament, but it was still a little weird for her to be staying at Hogwarts for Christmas rather than returning to Liverpool.
The entire castle began to undergo huge, festive changes in the days leading up to Christmas. One couldn’t go anywhere without seeing loops of holly and ivy, or massive trees decorated with magical baubles and garlands. Filch went on yet another mad cleaning spree, which not only put him in a grumpier mood than usual, but the portraits and suits of armor as well, who had already been thoroughly scrubbed a few months previous.
Surprisingly enough, in contrast to the weeks leading up to it, Christmas Day went by in a blur for Rachel, primarily because she spent most of it locked in her dormitory. Immediately following a Christmas dinner with her friends (amid multi-colored puffs of smoke from wizard crackers), the girls retired upstairs to put on their dress robes for the ball.
Rachel, who was currently having her hair styled by Angelina, was a basket case. Her hands clasped in her lap were shaking slightly, and she felt nauseous with nerves.
“I can’t dance, I’m too clumsy,” she said into the busy silence for the umpteenth time, speaking to no one in particular and staring unseeingly out the window in front of her. As the sun had set, snow had started to drift lazily past, settling on the windowsill.
“Will you calm down?” Angelina groaned, performing complicated spiral movements with her wand as she curled her friend’s hair. She was already dressed in her own gown, a very pretty red satin dress with long sleeves and a heart-shaped neckline.
“I’m sorry,” she moaned, her teeth suddenly beginning to chatter with nerves. She pressed her hands to her chin to stop the trembling, but because her hands were still shaking as well, this really did no good.
So many things had the potential to go wrong tonight, and she was absolutely determined not to let anything be messed up as far as she was concerned – goodness knows she and Cedric had had enough close calls already. Her hard work at trying not to trip over every uneven surface when she was around him might have caused him to temporarily forget her klutziness, but it was going to be significantly less easy to do so tonight. And unfortunately, that was the least of the potential problems.
“Done,” said Angelina, stepping back and surveying her work critically. She had fixed the curls up on top of Rachel’s head in a very loose bun, leaving a few wisps hanging down around her face. Rachel touched it gingerly and stood up, twisting her head to see it in the now-dark window.
Behind her, Alicia was adjusting the thin straps on her deep purple dress, fiddling with them self-consciously. She had fixed her hair into an elaborate braid that hung down between her shoulder blades. Katie was on her knees, searching under her bed for her missing silver heel. Glancing at the clock on her nightstand, she saw that there were only fifteen minutes left before the Yule Ball was due to begin. She took a deep breath and crossed over to her bed, where her dress was laying. She had been so excited when she’d picked it out – it was midnight blue, with inch-wide straps and a long, straight skirt – but now she was more terrified to concentrate much on the dress; she didn’t think she would have noticed if someone had replaced it with a potato sack.
Way before Rachel was ready, it was time for the ball to begin: all four girls were dressed, their hair fixed, their shoes buckled. Alicia was still fiddling nervously with her dress straps, and Angelina (who was certainly the calmest of the four) had to nudge her three times to stop. They descended the dormitory stairs, Rachel beginning to shake once more. Her stomach had suddenly gone missing.
Fred, George, and Lee were waiting in the common room with a few other Gryffindor boys. They crossed to the girls in unison when they came down, all three grinning madly. Angelina smiled broadly as Fred held out his arm, giving her a cheeky wink.
“Are we ready to go down?” George asked, and everyone nodded. His gaze lingered concernedly on Rachel, who was now pale to match the sick feeling in her stomach. “Are you all right, Rach?” he added, and everyone else turned to look at her too.
“Fine. Nervous,” she said shortly; any more words, and she might have lost what little air was left in her lungs. She nodded her head toward the portrait hole, and she brought up the rear of the three pairs, feeling rather like the seventh wheel – as it were.
The clock struck eight as they reached the first floor. Rachel sucked in a breath, knowing she had little time left; she could see the grand staircase now.
Here goes nothing.
A/N: I couldn't just let you know what happened at the Yule Ball, could I? Something's got to keep bringing you back here! Well, things are finally looking up for Rachel - poor girl, she deserved a break. Nasty Rita Skeeter. And this story is... WOW. I just realized it's just about halfway done! That's insane.
I wonder if this is eventually going to wind up as a novel-length story? Hmm. Well, the only way YOU'LL find out is if I find out, and to keep me going I would very much appreciate your reviews! Thank you for reading this far into the story.