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Chapter 17: Tongue-Tied
The sun that was setting through the windows of the Herbology greenhouse was warm on the back of Rachel's neck as she sat hunched over one of the long trestle tables, quill poised over a scroll of parchment. The sixth-year Herbology students were taking the written part of their end-of-term exam, having already completed a practical on poisonous trees - everyone except Cedric, of course, who was exempt from exams because of the tournament. He was sitting a few yards away from her now, studying up on potentially useful spells for the maze. It seemed that Cedric, Harry, Fleur, and Krum were always hunched over books these days.
After she had finished this exam, she would be completely free for the rest of the year - and then, once everything concerning the champions and the tournament was finally over tomorrow, they would be able to relax until term ended on the thirtieth, with nothing hanging over their heads. In the entire course of their relationship, the Triwizard Tournament had always been a factor, and Rachel was more excited than she let on for getting the chance to finally have more normal interactions with him.
She glanced down the table now at Cedric, who was running his finger along a line of text in his book intently, brows contracted slightly. She twisted the chain of the Snitch necklace through her fingers absentmindedly, watching him mouth some of the words he was reading, and then quickly realized what she was doing. She turned hastily back to her parchment, smiling slightly, but scolding herself for allowing her mind to wander. There was only one question left - she needed to focus...
Describe in a brief paragraph the appearance of the non-magical plant mistletoe, and list the magical properties that can be obtained from it. Across the table from her, Anders sighed and shifted a bit in his seat. A few feet away from him, Matt was writing with great concentration in small, square print, his tongue clenched between his teeth. Professor Sprout surveyed them all from the other end of the room, hands clasped behind her back.
As Rachel looked at the professor, Cedric glanced her way, and his gaze met hers. He crossed his eyes, trying to make her laugh. Get back to work, he mouthed, pretending to frown, and she stuck out her tongue at him but did as he said. The ink was just beginning to dry on her final sentence when Professor Sprout called, "Time! Students, please turn over your papers and stopper your ink bottles." The fact that she was only addressing three students seemed to amuse her greatly, for she hummed as she collected the scrolls, laughing every now and then as though remembering a funny joke. In silence, Matt, Anders, Cedric, and Rachel collected their things and left the greenhouse for the final time.
"Well, I am thoroughly glad that's over," said Anders promptly upon leaving, running a hand through his white-blond hair and nodding smartly. Matt nodded back in agreement and said, "Divination exam tomorrow morning, and then we are free!"
"Unless you were smart enough to not take Divination," Rachel pointed out, and Matt rolled his eyes good-naturedly.
"Don't rub that in my face," he smirked. "Or I'll predict something awful for you and you'll regret it."
As they had had to come all the way up from Herbology, the Great Hall was already packed for dinner by the time the four arrived there. Rachel bid Cedric good-bye at the Hufflepuff table, promising to see him tomorrow morning at breakfast, and to spend the day with him.
"No preparation stuff," Cedric said firmly as he was about to turn away to join Matt and Anders, who had already claimed seats at the end near the teachers' table up front. "I've done enough studying for that during exams. Deal?"
"Deal," Rachel said reluctantly, making sure Cedric saw it. He laughed and pecked her lightly on the lips, giving her hand a final squeeze before moving off to sit near his friends. Rachel did the same, and found Katie cracking a wide grin at her as she took her place.
"Shut up," Rachel laughed, turning pink and pulling the tureen of buttered peas in front of her to hide her pleased embarrassment.
As usual, the nearness of yet another event brought on by the Triwizard Tournament sent an air of excited anticipation running almost tangibly throughout the school. The chatter and talk at breakfast the day after Rachel's Herbology exam reached right up to the vaulted ceiling over their heads, which shone brightly, promising a fair summer day. The owls hooted from the rafters, having already delivered the day's mail.
Fred, sitting to Rachel's left, had fallen asleep on his folded arms, some of his hair mixing with the ketchup and potatoes growing cold on his plate. George, Angelina, and Alicia looked to be in similar states of lethargy, which would have made the gathering that morning a rather quiet one were it not for the fact that Lee was intently trying to see how many of Angelina's braids he could dunk in marmalade before she realized what he was doing, which could only end badly.
Slowly, the talking, excited students filed out of the Great Hall, most departing for their last final exams of the term. Fred hauled himself up off his arms, looked about blearily, and yawned. Like Rachel, he had opted out of Divination in his sixth year, and so had no more exams to take.
"Blimey, I think I'm going back to bed," he said thickly, wiping a few drops of ketchup from the ends of his hair. "See you, Rachel." But she stood up with him, and instead of following him back up to the common room, crossed over to the Hufflepuff table, where Cedric was still sitting with his friends. He looked up and smiled warmly and she tentatively crossed and sat down; she'd never sat at any table besides the one designated for Gryffindors before.
"Nervous?" he asked in an undertone, pretending to be busying himself with a flagon of orange juice as he turned away from whatever joke Matt was making. Rachel raised her eyebrows in mild surprise.
"You're the one going into that maze, Cedric, not me. Or have you forgotten?" she asked glibly. He laughed, but she noticed that hints of concern still showed in his eyes. "Are you nervous?" she returned quietly. He merely looked at her calmly, hand grasping the pitcher, but said nothing.
At that moment, bustling footsteps hurried toward them from the teacher's table, and Professor McGonagall approached the spot where Cedric and Rachel were sitting. There was an unusual expression on her normally-stern face, as though she were hiding some rather juicy secret. "Ah, Mr. Diggory," she said. "I was hoping to catch you before you'd left the hall. The champions are congregating in the chamber where you assembled after the Goblet of Fire drew your names. Right now, if you please."
"Oh. Erm, all right," Cedric said hesitantly; it was clear that he had no more of an idea of what was going on than Rachel did. He glanced at her, and as he did so, Professor McGonagall seemed to realize that there was, in fact, a member of her own House sitting at the Hufflepuff table.
"What are you doing here, Miss Alexander?" she asked, raising one eyebrow with suspicion, although perhaps not nearly as much as she should have. Rachel stood up quickly from the bench, nearly knocking it over, her hand fumbling for the strap of her bag beneath the table.
"Sorry, Professor," she said. "I'll just, erm... go, shall I?" The briefest hint of a smile lighted the stern woman's mouth, but she merely nodded, and so Rachel departed the table with an apologetic glance at Cedric. She walked quickly towards the entrance hall, wondering what the champions might be doing in the chamber off the Great Hall - the task wasn't until tonight, after all.
Angelina stood with Katie and Alicia just outside the doors, looking absolutely livid - Rachel guessed that the marmalade hadn't gone over so well with her. Alicia looked around as Rachel exited, and she was trying very hard not to laugh.
"Bloody git," Angelina was muttering, moving her wand over one of her braids; water was siphoning out of it, washing away the sticky residue. "Just wait until I get my hands on him. Oh, he is in for it..." She tossed her braid angrily over her shoulder, water droplets sprinkling her friends. "Sorry."
"Off to your Divination exam, then?" Rachel asked Alicia, who was now red from suppressed giggles. The girl drew a deep breath, glad for the diversion, and answered, "Yes, and if we don't hurry we'll be late." She glanced at Angelina, though, who was still fuming, and seemed to think it best not to hurry her along. "It's going to be awful," she continued gloomily. "We've been doing tarot readings all term, and they just don't make any sense. I'll fail miserably."
"Not as miserably as me," piped up Katie, who was now helping Angelina dry off her hair with hot air from her own wand. Rachel grimaced in sympathy, secretly glad she had opted out of the class - she and Divination had never been friends.
Angelina, who had been about to chime in on how badly she expected to fail, as well, suddenly moved her eyes to a spot behind Rachel's left shoulder. Rachel frowned, but just as she was about to turn around, a hand landed on that shoulder, and she jumped slightly. Turning quickly, she grinned to see Cedric there, flushed with pleasure.
"Can you come with me?" he asked quickly, not even bothering to greet her friends. A chorus of girlish giggles erupted from behind her, and Rachel's face grew red with embarrassment.
"Of course," she said, pleased nonetheless, and with a final good-luck to Alicia, Katie, and Angelina, followed Cedric back into the hall and toward the little door that presumably led to the chamber where McGonagall had told him to go after breakfast. "What are we doing, anyway?" she asked interestedly.
"You'll see," he said, pushing open the door with the flat of his hand and stepping back to allow her through. They were in a smaller room which greatly resembled the hall they'd just left, lined with portraits and dominated by a fireplace. Upon entering, Rachel's eyes immediately lighted upon Fred and George's mother, standing with their oldest brother Bill and talking animatedly to Harry. She didn't have much time to analyze this, however, before Cedric gently took her hand and pulled her a few yards to the left, to where a couple was waiting expectantly, smiling pleasantly. And then she realized, with a sudden jolt of shock, who these people were.
"Rachel, I'd like you to meet my parents," Cedric said proudly. "Mum, Dad - this is Rachel." Cedric's father's smile grew wider, and he stuck out his hand in a friendly way. She shook it, smiling shyly, all too aware of Cedric watching her happily.
"It's very nice to meet you, sir," Rachel said, hoping her voice wasn't too squeaky from the nerves. "And you as well, Mrs. Diggory," she added, shaking his mother's hand subsequently.
"The pleasure is ours, young lady. Ced's told us quite a bit about you," said Mr. Diggory, winking at his son. Rachel laughed at the embarrassed expression on Cedric's face, tingling with warmth to think that he might have told his parents about her - admittedly, she'd left out mentions of Cedric in letters to her father, who was a bit strict at times, and a small wave of guilt washed over her.
"Your accent's rather unique," Mrs. Diggory said, tucking a stray curl of gray-streaked brown hair behind her ear. "Where in England are you from?"
"The north. Liverpool," Rachel said. "My father's a machinist there. I come from a Muggle family," she added, half-wondering for a brief moment whether she should have made the distinction or not - sometimes, she'd found, it wasn't the best option to draw attention to such a difference, although she couldn't imagine Cedric's parents ever being the type to look down upon Muggle-borns.
"And what do you think of Ced's chances in the tournament, then?" Mr. Diggory added, winking again, this time at Rachel. Cedric rolled his eyes, but she couldn't resist making the moment a bit more embarrassing for him.
"I think he's got a brilliant chance, sir," Rachel said, eyes sparkling with fun as she looked at Cedric. He laughed at the same time as his father; she was struck by how similar the two laughs sounded. It hadn't been as obvious until they'd done so together.
"I like her," Mr. Diggory said, slapping Cedric once on the back good-naturedly. He looked around as Harry Potter strode past with Mrs. Weasley and Bill, apparently on the pretenses of walking around the castle. "Go for a tour, Ced?" he asked then. Cedric shrugged indifferently and looked down at Rachel, as though expecting her to make the decision. She hesitated, not sure what she should say at this moment, wondering if she was to be included in the group - what exactly was her ranking among Cedric's family, and was it strange to even consider that question?
"You'll come with us, won't you, Rachel?" asked Mrs. Diggory, smiling warmly at the girl. A hot flush of a mixture of relief and pleasure rose from somewhere near her stomach, and she nodded agreeably. Cedric led the way out of the little chamber, and she followed close behind.
The afternoon passed much too quickly for the liking of any of the four in the group, milling about the castle while the rest of the school finished their exams, strolling the corridors and grounds and talking about all that had gone on at the school so far that year. Rachel took immediately to Cedric's parents, both very friendly and humorous people, and to her relief they seemed to like her as well. Mrs. Diggory especially seemed interested in Rachel's life back in Liverpool, and asked several questions about Muggle life throughout the course of the day. She knew a good deal about Muggles already, it seemed, and Rachel was happy to answer her questions.
However, it didn't escape her attention that Cedric grew quieter and quieter as the afternoon wore on, listening more than talking and often seeming out of the conversation entirely. Rachel surmised that his mind was focused almost solely on the coming task that evening, and she wished that, for just one afternoon, she could take away the anxiety, give him some semblance of freedom for the first time nearly all year. She had to remind herself that after tonight, everything would finally end, and normalcy could once more ensue.
The tournament officials had once more joined the staff table at dinner that night, adding to the heightening sense of change that the tasks always seemed to allow to invade the castle. Some of them looked downright worried, which was puzzling, until Rachel saw the Minister of Magic with his eyes trained on the Durmstrang champion Viktor Krum. The business with Crouch, and with finding Krum Stunned on the edge of the Forbidden Forest, was as yet unresolved, and she knew that the officials would be as glad as she to have the whole thing over and done with. She could almost see the sweat beading on his brow from here.
Cedric and his parents were, of course, at the Hufflepuff table, and he was surrounded by well-wishers and supporters, all predicting an easy win for him despite the fact that Harry Potter was only seated a table away. Harry didn't look as though he really heard them - he was no doubt concentrating on things less trivial than task scores. He had his own slew of people to wish him good luck, however, and hardly any of the Gryffindors were able to eat due to the constant comings and goings of others to their table. But she was surprised to see, in passing a bowl of sprouts to Lee two seats down from her, that Cedric had stood up and was heading in her direction, looking right at her.
As unobtrusively as he could, he took the miraculously empty seat across from her, his nerves more apparent as the time until the third task ticked closer. He said nothing but merely looked at her, hands flat upon the table. She unconsciously leaned toward him, unspeakably glad that she would have the chance to wish him good luck before he entered the maze.
"When are you-" she began finally, but at that moment Dumbledore stood from his chair at the front table and waited patiently for silence. It wasn't long in coming; almost instantly the talking crowd silenced, a tense atmosphere settling thickly upon them like fog. In five minutes' time, he said, the crowd would begin to make their way to the Quidditch pitch for the third task, and would the champions please begin making their way there now.
Rachel swallowed hard against the rather painful lump that had appeared quite suddenly at the base of her throat. She forced it away and turned back to Cedric, willing herself to be calm for him - it would do him no good if she got too anxious. "Good luck," she said in a half-whisper, reaching her hand across the table. Cedric placed his on top of it. "Be careful."
Cedric looked at their hands for a moment, and finally raised his eyes to meet hers. He opened his mouth, and then closed it, as if not knowing what to say, before opening it once more and speaking in a voice so no other Gryffindors could hear him.
"I love you."
For a moment, she wondered if she'd imagined the words; her mind couldn't even wrap itself around them. She merely looked back at him blankly, waiting for him to crack a smile or joke about it, but his face remained serious and slightly anxious, as though worried he'd said the wrong thing. She wanted to run at him, fling her arms around his neck, kiss him. Tell him she loved him back, and hadn't realized it until this moment, when one of them had finally been brave enough to say it. But it felt as though someone had sewed her lips shut, for all the words she could pass through them.
Harry, passing towards the door to the entrance hall, stopped behind Cedric. "Coming?" he asked. Cedric turned back to look at him, but Rachel still gaped at the former, trying desperately to get words to come out of her mouth.
"Yeah," said Cedric, standing up, his face now visibly pink even in the fading light the ceiling cast over the students below. "I'll see you later, Rachel, okay?"
"Yeah, I - good luck," she croaked, instantly regretting the words because they were not the ones she meant to say. She watched numbly as Cedric and Harry walked together out of the entrance hall, the lump in her throat now swollen to twice the size it had been before, her heart beating uncomfortably fast.
She was so stupid. So stupid. Of all the things she had done this year - and she had managed to make things worse for herself quite a bit, looking back - this one by far took the cake. Of all the stupid times to go speechless, it had to be then. And now she wouldn't even get to speak to Cedric until after the task - she had to send him in thinking he'd done something wrong, when all he'd done was something more right than she ever had.
There was a great scraping of benches; the rest of the castle had been dismissed to go down to the field. Fred shook Rachel's shoulder gently as he passed, and she realized she'd been staring dumbly at a spot on the opposite wall. "You all right?" he asked. Rachel looked up at him and shook her head slightly, nodding and rising from the bench.
"Nervous?" he asked understandingly, and she found herself nodding, although there was no way she could relate the reasons to him at that moment. Maybe later, once she'd found her bloody tongue and was finally able to tell Cedric exactly what he meant to her, and not just sit there like a mute. She followed her friends out into the entrance hall and onto the grounds, light spilling from the castle behind her. The end of the third task couldn't come soon enough - and now for a very different reason than before. She could finally admit it to herself. She loved Cedric Diggory. And now he needed to know.
A/N: This is without a doubt my favorite cliffhanger I've yet written - possibly the cruelest, too, but we won't dive into that! Got to keep you coming back, especially with these last few chapters to go. Three more after this - it's a bit unbelievable, really. Of course, I'm still writing chapter 19 - but that's a minor detail.
What did you think? Please let me know - even three or four words will brighten my day considerably! Thanks so much for reading this story!