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Chapter 18: Through The Maze
The tiered seats that rose up above the Quidditch Pitch were absolutely swarming with people. Students, faculty, the champions' friends and families, and even Ministry officials were packed together, vying for what they thought would be the best point from which to watch the final task of the tournament unfold. Laughter rang out from all sides, mingling with excited voices to form a cacophony of anticipation unrivaled by the previous two events. Rachel followed close behind Fred and George, desperately trying not to lose them as they searched for seats.
"Merlin," Fred panted as they finally encountered an empty row near the very top of the pitch. "We'll be lucky if we can even see the maze from here. We'll be the only ones in the whole school who won't know how the tournament played out." But of course, he needn't have worried - the dark green hedges sprawled across the pitch as far as the eye could see, probably magically extended to make finding the Cup a bit trickier for the champions. A clear vantage point could be had from veritably any seat in the arena. Rachel squinted at the crowd of people already on the grass, searching for Cedric, but she didn't see him anywhere.
She cringed with embarrassment as she took her seat between Fred and Angelina, her thoughts going back to fifteen or twenty minutes previously, at the Gryffindor table in the Great Hall. How could she have been so thick as to just sit there, when Cedric had told her loved her? He loved her! And what had she done besides sit there and gape at him stupidly? She felt like a complete and utter fool, and could feel her face flush pink just to think of it again.
From her left, Angelina leaned across Rachel to talk to George, who was fiddling with something wrapped in foil in his pocket. "Are you seriously going to test that out here, of all places?" she asked, cocking one eyebrow suspiciously in the direction of the lumpy package. Rachel looked closer, and recognized it as a Canary Cream - one of Fred and George's more harmless joke sweets. The victim would bite into the cream and instantly transform into a large canary, although the jinx would wear off in a minute or so. She remembered when they had tested them out on Neville after the first task, and could see Angelina remembered that night as well. Apparently, the twins were anxious to get reactions from students outside their own House.
George gave Angelina a cheeky grin and patted the pocket exaggeratedly. "Never you mind, Angelina," he said mysteriously, tapping the side of his nose now. The girl rolled her eyes and resumed her seat, although a slight grin played at the corners of her mouth.
At that moment, the voice of Ludo Bagman, magically magnified so all in attendance could hear him, boomed loudly across the heads of the people filling the stands. In one motion, the audience leaned forward, hanging on his every word - none of them wanted to miss whatever he was about to say. He welcomed them to the last task of the tournament, and then reminded them all of the points standings - Harry and Cedric were first, followed by Krum and then Fleur. As he talked, Rachel looked at the teachers, who were wearing bright red stars on their clothing. The stars seemed to be emitting a faint glow, and she figured they were going to be patrolling the maze's borders.
And then, finally, her eyes found Cedric on the flat ground below, and instantly her heart jumped a little in her throat. He was scanning the stands as well, eyes roving over row after row, and she looked at him intently, willing him to find her. Finally, despite the distance between them, his eyes found hers. They looked at each other, not breaking the gaze - just watching.
She wanted to tell him everything - how much he meant to her, how careful she wanted him to be - but there would be time enough for all of that and more as soon as the task was over. So for now she did the only thing she could thing to do that might mean something to him. She reached up, making sure he could see what she was doing, and touched the tiny Snitch that still hung around her neck, holding it tightly in her closed fist.
Cedric seemed to see it, and an almost relieved smile broke across his face. She smiled back, measures of relief filtering through her own expression, and nodded. He nodded back, and then Bagman had crossed to Cedric and Harry to say something to them, and their eye contact was broken. Rachel now looked at Bagman once more, who had raised his whistle to his lips after conferring with the Hogwarts champions.
A short blast from the whistle, and Cedric and Harry entered the maze.
"What are you doing?" came a voice from her left. Rachel turned, bewildered, to Angelina, and realized she was still clutching the Snitch pendant in her fist. She looked down and then released it hastily.
"Nothing," she said quickly, still very aware of the necklace where it lay against her breastbone. Bagman was now giving the signal for Krum to enter the maze, and very soon Fleur would be going in, as well. Then there would be nothing left for the spectators to do but watch for who would emerge with the Triwizard Cup.
It was a bit strange, sitting there and not being able to be actively worried in what the champions were doing in the task - although truly, it was a bit strange to be watching a task at all. Rachel hadn't had to be a spectator since the first task in November, and she'd forgotten how nerve-wracking it was to sit there and not be able to do anything but watch and wait. And now there was even less watching to be done, which left more time for worrying.
The soft red light given off by the stars that the teachers wore could be seen moving about the maze perimeter. Rachel watched one - she think it came from Hagrid - unseeingly, her mind wandering but no concrete thoughts crossing its surface. She was only startled from her reverie by George, who had leaned forward in his seat to talk to a third-year Ravenclaw boy in front of them. With a sideways glance at Angelina, who was concentrating on something down front, the redhead slipped the boy the Canary Cream in his pocket, receiving seven Sickles in return. His eye caught Rachel's, and he raised his eyebrows mischievously.
As she watched, the third-year passed the biscuit down to one of his friend, a pockmarked boy with a rather impressive shock of densely curly hair. The boy took it hungrily, stuffing half of it into his mouth in one bite and chewing with slight difficulty, crumbs falling like snowflakes and dotting the surface of his black robes. Fred, George, Rachel, and the boy to whom George had sold the Canary Cream watched in anticipation, and then -
In a brilliant shower of bright yellow feathers, the pockmarked boy turned into a large and rather elegant-looking canary. The four roared with laughter, joined by others who could not help but notice that someone amongst them had just morphed into a large bird.
"Canary Creams!" Fred was saying loudly now as people began to turn from the very confused-looking canary to see who the mastermind behind the prank was. "Seven Sickles apiece, order them here - another world-famous joke product from Weasley's Wizard Wheezes!"
"World-famous?" Rachel said in George's ear, raising a skeptical eyebrow at his brother. George shrugged and chuckled.
"Whatever sells," he grinned, and she shook her head ruefully, watching as the pockmarked boy in front of them molted his feathers and reappeared, looking shaken but rather enjoying the attention he was receiving. She laughed as he turned in his seat and put his name down for five of the biscuits.
At that precise moment, a noise from deep within the maze reverberated over the stands, so loud that each spectator could hear it from where he or she sat without difficulty. It was a scream, high-pitched and absolutely full of terror; Rachel's heart had leapt into her throat even before it had ended. All heads turned in the direction of the maze, and an eerie silence seemed to descend upon them.
She glanced to her left and caught sight of Alicia's panicked expression before turning her head back to the ground below. A cluster of luminous red stars indicated the teachers had gathered together, clearly as confused and distressed about the source of the scream as those watching.
"Blimey," said Lee from Alicia's other side in a hushed voice. "That - that sounded like Fleur, you reckon?" Next to Rachel, Angelina nodded in mute agreement, her eyes riveted on the goings on down below. The teachers were still clustered together, murmuring anxiously, when the shower of red sparks was spotted, zooming up from somewhere within the maze and glistening over the spot where the fallen champion apparently lay.
"There!" cried an anonymous voice from the crowd, watching as the sparks hovered for a moment somewhere above the left region of the maze. Moving as one, the teachers rounded the outer corner, and all was silent once more as the crowd waited to see who would be returning - who was now out of the running.
Rachel was twisting her hands so tightly in her lap that her fingers hurt, but she didn't care. It definitely hadn't been Cedric who screamed - the voice was so shrill, it was almost certainly Fleur - but that didn't stop her mind from wandering to just what sorts of things the champions were battling. Even now, at this moment, he could be lying on the ground, hurt, unable to reach his wand...
The bulky form of Hagrid, the gamekeeper, came back around the maze's edge then, carrying a seemingly tiny form in his arms. Long blonde hair was draped pathetically over the sleeves of his coat, although Fleur's face was hidden from the crowd. A roar went up from those watching, pride for the Beauxbatons champion coming from the French delegates and the other schools as well. Fleur raised her face and smiled feebly, and finally Rachel let out a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding.
"Three left in," said Fred, grinning now that they knew that Fleur was out of any mortal danger. They all watched, some people still cheering and whistling, as Madame Maxime rushed over to where Hagrid stood with the French girl. They laid her gently on the grass, and she sat up immediately, talking quickly to her headmistress.
And then the second round of red sparks appeared from the maze, not too far from where Fleur had been found. Gasps and cries of shock rippled through the crowd again, their attention now totally turned from Fleur. The leaden feeling that had been fading from Rachel's insides now returned in full force. They'd had no indication this time that it was coming - no screams, nothing.
"That was too quick," she hissed worriedly to Fred, clenching the edge of her seat with white knuckles. Fred's mouth was set in a grim line, his previous grin entirely vanished. He didn't react to her words but kept his eyes trained hard on the spot below where the second sparks had appeared. Rachel followed suit, knowing very well that this time, it could very well be Cedric coming out of the maze in Hagrid's arms.
The teachers disappeared again around the corner, all except for Professor McGonagall, who seemed to be examining Fleur. The whole school was shaken up by the fact that, already, two of the champions had been forced to disqualify from the tournament. Rachel scanned the crowd and found Cornelius Fudge near the front, shaking his head and twisting his bowler hat in his fingers. It was evident that whatever he had expected from the final task, it certainly hadn't been this. That thought frightened her even more than the sparks, and she turned back to watch the left corner, shaking like a leaf.
Finally Hagrid reappeared again, but this time it was not a docile and delicate Fleur he carried. Viktor Krum was lying there instead, looking oddly stiff, and Hagrid was moving toward the flat ground in front of the maze at a half-jog. Several people stood up from their seats to get a better look, but Rachel didn't want to look too closely. Katie, however, stood up on her seat, on George's other side.
"Karkaroff looks angry," she said in a low voice, and he did indeed - he had stormed quickly over to the gamekeeper and was shouting something at him, tugging on his goatee with a furious fist. Krum was laid upon the ground, and the audience's view of him was closed off as all the professors formed a tight and protective ring around his prostrate body. Katie resumed her seat on the wooden bench.
"Well, this is turning out to be something, isn't it?" said George, elbowing his brother in the ribs and looking excited. But Fred still wore the grim expression he'd adopted after sparks had been sent up for Krum; Rachel couldn't blame him for this, as excitement was just about the last emotion she felt at the moment. Tension, nerves, and a slight sense of panic were all fighting for precedence, but nothing like excitement.
Whispers like wind were darting from person to person now; mouths turned down at the corners, and worried frowns creased brows. Cornelius Fudge had now risen from his seat and joined the school faculty around Krum's body. Finally, the Durmstrang champion was moved into a more private setting away from prying eyes, and the uneasy noise of forced cheerfulness began to slowly emerge once more. Lee, in an attempt to lighten the atmosphere, became a human test subject for some of Fred and George's Skiving Snackboxes, but nobody was really in the mood anymore.
The minutes on the watch Angelina wore on her right wrist ticked by slowly, the second hand seeming to drag more and more with each rotation of the clock face. "Surely they'd be back by now," Rachel said to her friend, eyes roving the maze for any sign of life from within. The tall hedges were doing their duty, though; whatever faced the champions was completely hidden from the audience.
"You'd think," said Angelina, frowning slightly. "Maybe there was a second part of the task they didn't tell Cedric and Harry about - wanting it to be a surprise, and all that." Rachel fervently hoped so, but for some reason knew that wasn't the case. The officials wouldn't have sent the four into a dangerous situation without at least a small heads-up.
The anxiety, which had been building tangibly since Fleur's reappearance from the maze, had settled over those watching like a thick fog now. Neighbors whispered to neighbors behind hands, and people stood up every so often, craning over the heads in front of them in futile attempts to glean some information as to what was going on. The ground in front of the hedges remained empty of any sign of Cedric and Harry, and only the teachers milled around, waiting for their return.
Suddenly, two forms appeared on the pitch in a brilliant flash of light - Cedric and Harry had returned.
But something was wrong.
For a moment, Rachel couldn't pinpoint exactly what about the scene before her struck her as so odd. Her eyes saw what was before her, but she couldn't connect the images she was seeing to her brain. Harry was clutching Cedric, visibly shaking even from this distance. And Cedric - well, Cedric was eerily still.
No. That's not even possible...
She found herself on her feet, hands pressed so tightly to her mouth her teeth hurt, without any recollection of moving at all. Air was all too suddenly hard to come by; surely her lungs were collapsing in on themselves. Her vision was receding, a sort of white haze filtering in as she looked down, trying to see something to counteract what her head was telling her.
A low, moaning sort of wail came from somewhere around her, and only when Fred turned to look at her with a panic-stricken expression did Rachel realize it had come from herself. And then she realized she was talking, words streaming from her mouth before she could process them. "No... please, no... oh God... oh God, not him, please not him..."
She bolted suddenly, intent only on fleeing the stands and, equally, the people who were turning to look at her. She had to be there, had to be next to him, because then she might be able to reassure herself it wasn't true, even though she already knew. She had known from the beginning, really. Denying it now would do no one any amount of good.
"Rachel!" Fred's voice, scared but insistent, somehow reached the fogged front of her mind. His hand closed tightly on her upper arm, and she turned wildly, dry sobs already catching in her throat. "Don't go," he said firmly, his eyes pleading. "Don't go down there, Rach, I swear - it's not -"
"Let go!" she cried, twisting feebly, aware now of all the eyes watching her. From somewhere below came the sound of screams and footsteps; the whole audience, it seemed, was surging the place. Fred only responded by gripping harder.
"Let me go! Get off, let go! Let go!" Rachel screamed now, her voice rising higher and higher with each demand. Bright stars popped in front of her vision, and she could already feel the wetness on her cheeks. In a distant corner of her mind, she was ashamed of those tears; they admitted a weakness she desperately wanted to hide, a confirmation of something she wanted so desperately to fight against. Startled by the insanity in her screams, Fred released her.
How she made it down to the pitch, Rachel never knew. Her feet suddenly hit the smooth turf, and she stumbled slightly before running forward, shoving people aside with reckless abandon. The white fog that had previously encroached her vision came back in full force, and she wondered if she was going to faint. Whispers scurried through those already there, voicing the word she wouldn't. She felt like screaming at them, telling them how wrong they were.
Harry was nowhere to be seen; only Cedric's parents were on the ground now. His gray eyes, the eyes that had always been full of warmth and life and love when they had looked at her, were cold now, staring blankly upwards. She stumbled to the ground, half-blind through salty tears and grief.
"Cedric, Cedric," she half-whispered, half-moaned. "Come back. Cedric, come back." Her voice cracked in anguish, but she was far beyond caring. She reached for his hand, cold and limp in hers, but her own were shaking so hard she couldn’t grasp anything. Rachel finally managed to grab it, hold it, willing life to return to it.
He couldn't have left her now, after everything he had done for her. She needed him more than ever, needed him to hear the words she had been unable to say in the Great Hall. She needed him to hold her, and she needed to hold him in return. She needed to hear his voice, and his laugh, and see his smile so she could document them forever. How had she taken those things for granted?
Words ceased to flow from her mouth, and instead only a sobbing wail issued forth. Language had ceased to have all meaning. She grasped his hand between both of hers, her chest heaving painfully, ribs jamming against her throat.
Hands pressed firmly on her shoulders from behind just then, attempting to pull her backwards and up onto her feet. "No!" Rachel screamed, fighting to stay next to Cedric, wanting to keep him with her for a little longer. The hands resisted, and someone dropped to their knees beside her. Fred instead took a hold of her elbow and merely waited as Rachel poured out eight months of emotions, emotions she had bottled up until this moment without realizing. Her groans echoed oddly in the otherwise still night; the world stood hushed, frozen with respect.
After a long time, Fred spoke. "Rachel," he said, shaking her gently, his own voice cracking. "Rachel, look at me. Look at me." She shook her head, lips pressed tightly, hoping vainly that she might stay by his side forever is she didn’t return back to her wretched reality. She could think of nowhere else she ever wanted to be, anyway.
"He's dead, Rachel," said Fred thickly, shaking her again, less gently this time. "There's absolutely nothing you can do. He's gone."
The actuality of it finally broke. Cedric's hand dropped from hers, and she bent double, forehead touching cool grass and knees curled tight under her chest. She sobbed into them, biting her knuckles to keep from screaming out loud. Fred's hand was warm on her back, and comforting, but it could only do so much. Words jammed back into her brain again, but only one thought, running in continuous motion. She spoke to Fred, knowing he wouldn’t understand her her but really not caring.
"I didn’t tell him, I couldn’t… Please… I can’t, I can’t…” The words didn’t really make sense, but so many emotions were fighting for superiority in her right now, it was all she could do to speak at all.
The stars were reflected in Cedric's eyes, as yet unclosed. His parents wept with dignity nearby, clinging to each other but maintaining composure throughout their grief. The hows and whys didn't matter for now; there would be time later to learn the details.
But Rachel had no one, so she grieved alone, huddled before the students, and the faculty, and the others who had come to watch the tournament. She sobbed for the boy who had loved her, who had held her and kissed her and calmed her fears when no one else could. She sobbed because she knew now that she had truly loved him in return, but hadn't been able to tell him when it mattered most. She had failed him - and that was what she sobbed for most of all.
A/N: And there it is. Without a doubt, one of the hardest things I have ever written.
I wanted to go AU. I wanted to go AU so much, it hurt. I tried and tried to think of a way to do it, but since the beginning this story was written with these intentions. I couldn't change it halfway through, no matter how much I wanted to. And so I had to do it, as much as it pained me.
Let me know your thoughts and comments?