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Leaping Obstacles by TenthWeasley

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Format: Novel
Chapters: 20
Word Count: 61,272
Status: COMPLETED

Rating: 15+
Warnings: Mild Language, Mild Violence, Scenes of a Mild Sexual Nature, Substance Use or Abuse

Genres: Fluff, Romance, AU
Characters: Cedric, Fred, George, OC, OtherCanon
Pairings: Other Pairing

First Published: 07/03/2010
Last Chapter: 11/28/2011
Last Updated: 11/28/2012

Summary:




2011 Dobby FINALIST: Best Novel | 2011 Dobby Nominee: Best Romance

Meet Rachel Alexander, a sixth-year Gryffindor and best friends with Fred and George Weasley. Meet Cedric Diggory, a sixth-year Hufflepuff with a winning smile and a fan club to prove it. Now find out what happens when they meet each other. Banner by me.


Chapter 1: Falling
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Steam billowed across the train platform as Rachel Alexander skidded to a halt, hauling back on the trolley's handles and digging the heels of her well-worn sneakers into the pavement. She breathed in the soot and grime of the station with a certain relish, her heart thudding excitedly as she imagined herself back at Hogwarts for a brand-new school year. Hogwarts had become almost like her home in Liverpool, and the students and faculty were some of her favorite people in the world. It was hard to imagine how she'd lived a completely different life five years previous, knowing nothing about the magical world. Now she couldn't imgaine being anything other than a Gryffindor student, about to enter her sixth year of schooling. The thought was almost unreal, truly, but it was really a dream come true.

Rachel was the oldest child in a large Liverpudlian family, with a machinist for a father and five little brothers and sisters who always seemed to be underfoot, breaking one thing or another. It had shocked everyone when Rachel had received a letter from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry on her eleventh birthday, even when research had proved that Rachel’s great-great-uncle had in fact been a wizard. After all, it was unheard of to have a slightly eccentric-looking man show up on one's doorstep to invite an eleven-year-old to an unknown boarding school. Looking back, it was surprising that Rachel’s parents hadn’t dismissed the entire notion and forbidden her to attend, or worse, had Professor Dumbledore arrested for attempted kidnapping. She was extremely glad that fortune had worked in her favor on that one; the results could have otherwise been potentially embarrassing.

Brushing her thick blonde fringe out of her eyes, Rachel craned her neck around for some sign of her three best friends, Fred and George Weasley and Lee Jordan. Like herself, they were in their sixth year at Hogwarts, and had also been sorted into Gryffindor. Oddly enough, the four had met when Fred and George had tried to pelt Rachel with Dungbombs after a potions lesson in their first year - she'd been too shy to speak to them before. When she'd caught them at it, and hadn't gone squealing to Professor McGonagall, they'd figured having her around wouldn't be such a bad idea. It was a rather strange way of meeting, but she didn't know what she'd do without them now.

As though thinking about them caused them to appear in front of her, three figures emerged from the haze, running pell-mell in her direction. She grinned at their obvious blatant disregard for the others around them, noticing Lee narrowly avoid slamming into the back of an elderly witch, apparently seeing her grandson off to school. Rachel hadn't seen any of them all summer, and watching two thatches of red hair and one of black dreadlocks zooming toward her made her feel at home like nothing else yet had, in an odd way.

“Rachel! We’ve done it, we’ve done it!” shouted Fred triumphantly over the din of the station, causing many people to turn curiously in their direction. Another rather old wizard, standing close to the boy's grandmother, had to step back quickly so as not to be flattened by George's sneakers. He scowled at his back and muttered something about "hooligans". As he reached her side, Fred lowered his voice as he dug deep in a pocket of his jeans. He withdrew several small, bright candies wrapped in multicolored foil. Rachel stared at them for a few seconds, and then laughed.

“You didn’t, Fred! I was only joking!” she said, beginning to push her trolley toward the back of the train. Fred grinned wildly.

“It was a good idea, though, those tongue-swelling toffees!” he said, only slightly defensively. “And we tried it out over the summer on Harry Potter’s cousin-“

Rachel’s jaw dropped, and she stifled a giggle. “What’d it do?” she asked conspiratorially, but at that moment Fred and George’s mother bustled up to them.

“I’ve been looking everywhere for you two!” she said sternly, hands on her hips. “I want all your little toffee whatsits – now.” George started to protest, but Mrs. Weasley glared at them so ferociously that they hastily emptied their pockets, giving their mother their own glares in return.

“Nice,” Rachel teased as Fred aimed a kick at her trunk, scowling. “Come on, let’s get a compartment before they all fill up.” Still looking murderous, the boys followed her lead.

The four continued to the very end of the train, and Fred and George hoisted Rachel’s trunk into an empty compartment. Lee Jordan collapsed on one of the faded, worn seats, instantly burying his nose in the morning’s Daily Prophet. George pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket, and the twins began to whisper about whatever was on it; Rachel suspected they were discussing more joke products for the joke shop they dreamed of opening one day.

Sighing, Rachel sat by the window and leaned her head against the cooling glass. She watched mothers saying tearful goodbyes to their children and giving them stern reminders about vegetables and underwear, friends calling out to other friends and showing off their new robes and trinkets. She caught a glimpse of Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, and Hermione Granger climbing aboard the train a little further down, and suddenly her eyes lighted on an unfamiliar boy standing with his mother and father.

He was tall, with light brown hair and strong, chiseled features. His father (a good head shorter than the boy) was talking animatedly to his son, who seemed to be listening intently. Finally, the father smiled, and they hugged briefly.

“Lee,” said Rachel, “who’s that standing there on the platform? I don't think I've ever seen him before. Is he new?"

Lee looked up from his paper and scanned for the person Rachel mentioned. “The tall one? He’s Cedric Diggory. In our year, but he’s a Hufflepuff. Plays Seeker on the Hufflepuff Quidditch team.” At the mention of Cedric Diggory’s name, Fred and George looked up from the parchment and out the window as well. George scoffed.

“Yeah, ‘Pretty Boy’ Diggory’s got about a million girls waiting in line for him. He’s top of the year, he’s a wicked fast Seeker, and quite a looker – if you believe the females who trail him around the school.”

Rachel, who had been watching George talk, looked back out the window, but it seemed Cedric had climbed aboard the train; in any case, he’d disappeared from view. “I wonder why I've never seen him before,” Rachel mused, and Lee grinned.

“You have, he's been in our Herbology lessons since first year. Well," he added, speaking as he thought, apparently, "seeing as you don’t really take much fancy to Quidditch, I don’t know why you would have paid special attention."

 Rachel frowned. "Why's that?"

"That's mostly where he hangs out - he's Seeker for the Hufflepuff team," Lee explained. "And he's their captain to boot." He paused, and then added with an air of forced indifference, "You really should follow Quidditch more, you know, pretty much all the Gryffindor sixth-years are involved in one way or another-”

“I’ve told you,” Rachel laughed, “it’s not much of a sport! I’m not a fan of sports anyway.” Fred and George, Beaters for the Gryffindor team, and Lee, who commentated at the matches, were always trying to get her to get more excited about Quidditch. She'd always denied them, though - she really had never seen a point in watching sports. But I may have to watch them this year, she told herself, looking out the window again. But even thinking things like that made her blush. She wasn’t the kind of girl to go about getting random crushes on boys – she’d never even been on a real date before. And yes, Cedric Diggory certainly was handsome, but she wasn’t the kind of girl he’d choose, so why bother dwelling on it? Puppy love never amounted to anything.

With a loud whistle and a fresh burst of steam, the train jolted to life and began to slowly inch out of the station. Dawdling students hastened to jump aboard the train, and families waved goodbye to their students. Rachel caught sight of Mrs. Weasley standing next to her husband and waving before the train gathered speed and turned a corner, and the platform was whisked out of sight.

Soon the four Gryffindors were joined by the three other Gryffindor sixth-year girls: Katie Bell, Angelina Johnson, and Alicia Spinnet. The rest of the trip was a rather cacophonous mess of laughter, Bertie Bott’s Every-Flavor Beans, and ideas of pranks to play on the incoming first years (with most of the contributions coming from Fred and George). Before any of them could really bother to keep track of the hours, night had fallen outside the fogged windows, and lights had come on all along the train’s corridors.

With a squeal, the train slowed to a halt and finally came to rest at Hogsmeade Station. Laughter carried loudly through the clear but cold night as trunks were heaved onto the platform and the voice of Hagrid, the gamekeeper, called, “Firs’ years! Firs’ years, over here, don’ be shy!” 

Rachel, Fred, George, Lee, Alicia, Angelia, and Katie found an empty horseless carriage in the middle of the line that waited to take the remaining students up to the castle. They squeezed inside and shut the door, when Fred suddenly said, “George! We didn’t tell them, did we?”

George let out a little noise, apparently angry with himself, and Lee leaned forward excitedly across from Rachel. “What?” he asked eagerly.

“Dad and Percy told us before we left that something big was going to be happening at Hogwarts this year,” said Fred in a low voice, leaning forward too, so that everyone strained to hear him. “They wouldn’t say what - I don't think they was supposed to say anything, actually, Percy acted all snippy about it - but they did say that they wished they were still at Hogwarts to see it.”

“Maybe it’s some kind of inter-school World Cup!” said Katie excitedly. Katie, Angelina, and Alicia were also on the Gryffindor Quidditch team, as Chasers. They were as mad about Quidditch as the rest of the school, which Rachel simply couldn’t understand.

“Maybe,” said Fred importantly, leaning back against the seat once more and obviously loving being the one to let the rest in on this secret. “I just hope Dumbledore tells us tonight, so I won’t have to wait any longer to hear what it is!”

The carriages gave a sudden lurch, and began moving slowly up toward the stone steps leading into the castle. Rachel fell silent as the others began discussing the highlights of the Quidditch World Cup, which had been held that summer, along with brief mentions of the Dark Mark seen in the sky that night. Scores and plays blended into background noise, and unconsciously Rachel’s thoughts strayed back to Cedric Diggory. How had she never seen him before? Was she really that wrapped up in her life as a Gryffindor that she barely paid any attention to the other houses? Racking her brain, she tried to come up with names of other sixth-year students in different houses, but none came to her. She vowed silently to start paying more attention to her fellow classmates this year.

But Cedric – well, Fred hadn’t been lying; he certainly was handsome. Why should she care, though? She didn’t even know him, and he certainly didn’t know her. Crushing on him was only going to make her more miserable in the end, and it simply wasn’t worth it. She hated being such a defeatist, but her realism always won out in her internal battles. 

The carriages creaked to a stop, but Rachel remained seated until the rest of her friends had left the carriage before climbing out. She suddenly felt inexplicably distant from all of them, and didn’t like the feeling, nor whatever part of her it had come from. 

As Rachel climbed out of the carriage, her sneaker caught on the hem of her robes and she tumbled out of the door. Passersby laughed as she squirmed, trying to get her foot untangled. Her face grew very warm and she wanted to disappear.

Suddenly, strong hands lifted her to her feet and began brushing away the dirt on the front of her robes. With a jolt of shock and another wave of embarrassment, she realized that it was none other than Cedric Diggory himself.

“Are you all right?” he asked kindly, looking down at her concernedly from his height. Rachel nodded and blushed again, tucking a strand of hair that had become loose back into her ponytail. Cedric gave her a half smile and stuck out a hand. “Cedric Diggory.”

“Rachel Alexander,” she said, not at all surprised at the warmth and firmness of his handshake, despite never having spoken to him until this moment. Cedric nodded. “I’ve seen you around. You hang out with the Weasley twins, right? What a mess they are.”

“Yeah, they are,” Rachel grinned, feeling some of the blood that had rushed to her face leave it once more. “I… well, it was nice meeting you, but I should-“

“Yeah, me too,” he said hastily, as they realized that almost everyone had gone inside the castle. “Well, I - see you around.”

“See you,” said Rachel, and Cedric turned and began climbing the stone steps into the castle. Rachel remained rooted to the spot, her heart racing, wondering if she’d just imagined what had just happened. That was just a bit too coincidental for her liking.

It means nothing, she told herself firmly. He’s just a nice guy, that’s all. But she didn’t believe the words even as she thought them. She knew she’d only be frustrated in the end. She knew it wasn’t worth crushing on Cedric. It was a continuing thought chugging through her brain. But knowing what to do was different than actually doing it, and she knew just as well that - as much as she didn’t want it to happen – Cedric would be occupying more than a few of her thoughts this year.

A/N: Thanks for reading my first story! This summer I've been re-reading the Harry Potter books and came to realize how much I disliked Cho... and came to the conclusion that Cedric needed a better girl in his life. And the outcome of that thought was this! Don't forget to rate and review, because I'm not afraid of a little constructive criticism.

Edit 9-14-2011: I've made some changes and lengthened the chapter a bit -- it's funny to go back and read through this, seeing ways I've improved and how the story was formulated in my mind over a year ago. This story will always have a fond place in my heart.

Edit 9-18-2012: Thought I should put this in here, just to be safe! As a small disclaimer, nearly all of the events in this story are inspired from the plot of J.K. Rowling's fourth novel, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Any plot events you recognize, such as the Triwizard Tournament and the Yule Ball, are entirely credited to her; anything original remains my own. Thank you!


Chapter 2: Herbology
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The hall was already packed and noisy when Rachel entered for the start of term feast and took her place between Fred and Katie at the Gryffindor table. Katie turned to her, one eyebrow raised, but before she could ask questions about what had kept Rachel, the first-years began to file in for the Sorting Ceremony. In a way, she was glad of the diversion; she didn't know what exactly had happened, herself. That would have been a pleasant conversation. Pleasantly awkward.

Oh, yeah - remember how I asked about Cedric Diggory? Well, I fell flat on my face and he magically appeared and helped me up. And my face felt like it was on fire and I've decided this year's the perfect time to turn into a giggling pile of goo.

"Wilson, Brian" became a Hufflepuff at that moment, and Dumbledore arose from his throne-like chair in the middle of the staff table at the head of the hall - she'd missed the whole ceremony while rattling off nonsense inside her head. A kind of serene, peaceful silence fell over the students as they gazed up at him. Dumbledore had that kind of power over people, but he was both wise and good enough not to abuse it, apparently.

"Welcome, welcome to another year at Hogwarts!" Dumbledore said, beaming down at them all. "And what a year it's going to be - but before I bore you silly with talk, let us get your bellies filled. Everyone, enjoy!" With a slight movement from his right hand, the golden platters and flagons before them filled with food, and at once a familiar hum and buzz of chatter filled the Great Hall as everyone began to enjoy the feast. Thankfully, Katie seemed to have forgotten any questions she might have had, and began to talk with Angelina and Alicia about (what else?) the Quidditch World Cup. On her left, Fred, George, and Lee were scanning the house tables.

"I don't know," George was saying, his head craned in the direction of the Ravenclaw table. "Ann Marsh filled out pretty nicely over the summer, think she'd be interested in me?"

"Get real," Lee snorted into his pumpkin juice. "Besides, I heard she's going out with Terry Boot's older brother - you know the one, Edward or Edwin or something. And all the Ravenclaw girls are snobs, think they're better because they're supposed to be smarter." His point made, Lee promptly dug into a mound of mashed potatoes.

"What are you guys doing?" Rachel grinned, cutting a bite of steak and kidney pie. Fred waggled his eyebrows. "Checking out the crowd, of course," he laughed, then glanced sideways at Angelina. "Although I've got my sights set same as always, you know..."

Rachel rolled her eyes, and suddenly George plopped down on her other side, leaning in so their conversation wouldn't be overheard. "Why? You got your eye on someone?" Rachel tried to glare at him, but his wicked expression only made her giggle.

 "It's none of your business," she said with as much dignity as she could muster, but before she could resume eating her fork was yanked out of her left hand by Fred.

"C'mon, I bet it's Wood," said Fred eagerly. "Never met a girl who didn't fancy him at one point. Care to be introduced?"

"He's graduated, Weasley," she said with the tone of talking to a particularly dumb troll. "As in, he's no longer here. So, no."

"You're going to let that stop you?" Fred asked, waggling his eyebrows yet again, but George interrupted at that point. "I bet it's Diggory, girls are nuts over him," he said, and both turned to gauge Rachel's reaction to this. She gaped at one, and then the other, before she could stop herself; by the time she'd managed to rearrange her face into a more neutral expression, it was too late. Identical, scheming smiles spread across the twins' faces.

"'Pretty Boy' Diggory? Well, if you ask me, you could do a bit better than him, but no point sticking my nose in where it doesn't belong," said Fred languidly, returning to his own now-cold chicken. "I mean, I'll give him the handsome thing, but he's a bit of a -"

"Prat," George finished, nodding through a mouthful of peas. Rachel wrinkled her nose and passed him a napkin wordlessly.

"Clean. Now. I cannot talk to you with food all over your face," she said with mock severity. George made to stick out his tongue, but the peas prohibited him. He took the napkin ungraciously and quickly swiped it across his mouth.

"Think Percy in more handsome, Hufflepuff form," he finally added as though he'd never stopped talking.

"It doesn't matter, anyway, because he doesn't know who I am," she said simply, assuming an air of nonchalance as the dinner plates were wiped clean, to be immediately replaced by the pudding. For the rest of the meal, nothing more was said about Cedric, although a slightly awkward and uncomfortable air remained over the heads of the three, knowing what was going undiscussed. Rachel was almost relieved when Dumbledore stood up from his chair once more.

"Now that we are all fed and watered, I'd beg just a few more minutes of your time," he said grandly, smiling genially down at them once more. "As many of you may have speculated, something different and exciting will be happening at Hogwarts this year. I am very pleased to announce that our school will be hosting the Triwizard Tournament once more, for the first time in many years."

Gasps and whispers rippled through the waiting students, most of whom looked puzzled. Rachel was glad that she wasn't the only one who had no idea what a Triwizard Tournament was. She glanced sideways at Fred, who was wearing a rather smug and knowing expression, as though it had all been his idea.

"This tournament," said Dumbledore loudly, and everyone fell silent again at once, "will involve three students - one from our own school, and two from foreign schools who will be staying here for the duration of the competition. The champion who succeeds in collecting the Triwizard Cup after three dangerous tasks will be awarded not only wealth, but fame and notoriety as well.

"However, the Ministry of Magic, who have been working with us for many long months, have agreed that no one under the age of seventeen by the end of the month of October will be allowed to submit their name for entry into the tournament -"

This last statement was met with boos and hisses from many, largely from the Slytherin table at the opposite end of the hall. Dumbledore waited patiently, beaming rather neutrally out at all assembled as if he had not been interrupted at all.

"You will recieve more information about this tournament as the time approaches, but for now, I think, we have sufficiently covered the most broad span of information. And now, for the standard start of term announcements-'

As the headmaster began to recite the ever-growing list of banned objects and forbidden places in the school, Rachel glanced over at Fred again. He was now scowling heavily in Dumbledore's direction. "That's rubbish!" he muttered to Rachel out of the corner of his mouth. "I turn seventeen in April, why shouldn't I have the choice to enter if I want to? The Ministry's off their rocker, honestly."

"It's for safety's sake," Rachel hissed back, rolling her eyes at her friend. "Come off it, Fred, only anyone seriously out of their mind would enter the tournament anyway."

"Oh yeah?" he said, his scowl turning instantly into a smirk. He jerked his head in the direction of the Hufflepuff table, and Rachel followed the gesture. Her eyes immediately landed on Cedric, who was listening as his friends whispered eagerly to him and began prodding him with their elbows. "Looks like Diggory might be out of his mind, then," Fred grinned, and Rachel shot him a withering look.

A giant scraping of benches and chairs told her the feast had ended, and she gladly rose with the others. She, Fred, and George walked a little way ahead of Lee and the girls, who were now arguing over whether England had a chance of making it into the World Cup the next time around. "You'd think you lot would find something else to talk about other than bloody Quidditch all the time -" Rachel said, laughing as she looked over her shoulder at the group.

As she turned her head around to face front again, she walked right into someone, hurting her nose and causing her to trip over her shoelace. Looking up and rubbing the sore spot, she felt the color drain from her face as she realized she'd walked into none other than Cedric. How was it that she kept making a fool of herself in front of him? How was that fair?

"Seems like we keep running into each other," Cedric grinned, falling into step beside her; Rachel noticed that Fred and George had mysteriously vanished. "Your name's Rachel, right?"

"Um, yeah," Rachel said, cursing herself for blushing a little bit. " And sorry," she added, hastily removing her hand from her face. "I'm dead clumsy - you can ask anyone. Well, I guess you kind of know that already, what with the falling and the walking into you and everything. I've always been clumsy. Once -" She realized she was rambling and she hastily stopped talking, wishing fervently for an opportunity to blend into the crowd and not single herself out as an embarrassment.

To her surprise, Cedric laughed. "Clumsy isn't always a bad thing," he said. "Shows a little personality, I guess." He suddenly stopped, and Rachel unconsciously stopped next to him. He motioned a little with his right hand and said, "Well, this is me."

He was gesturing at a door under the staircase, and she realized that it was the entrance of the Hufflepuff common room. "Oh... right," she said, flustered. "Well, I - I guess I'll see you around. Again." She could have kicked herself, she sounded so stupid.

Cedric smiled down at her. "Yeah. Tomorrow, I think, Professor Sprout said something about having Herbology N.E.W.T. classes on Mondays... Are you taking Herbology this year?" She nodded, and then a slightly awkward silence followed. "Well, I guess I'll see you tomorrow, then," Cedric said, and turned to follow a group of Hufflepuffs back to their common room. Rachel gritted her teeth and wheeled around to go to Gryffindor Tower.

Stupid, stupid, stupid, she chanted internally, catching up with a line of straggling Gryffindor second years. She followed them through the portrait hole and saw Fred, George, and Lee on one of the squashy couches before the fireplace, each looking mischievous.

"So," said George, drawing out the word much longer than necessary. "How was the walk up here?" She glared at him; all three of them laughed heartily. "How's your nose?" Lee choked out, and that set the group of them going again.

"I'm going to bed," Rachel said, her face flushed. She stalked past them without another word and up the stairs to the girls' dormitories. Alicia, Angelina, and Katie were already getting ready for bed, and thankfully it didn't seem like Fred had told them about her literally running into Cedric. She dressed quietly in her pajamas and climbed beneath the covers, her eyes on the star-strewn sky outside. Even with all the teasing, her stomach warmed pleasantly as she thought of the possibility of seeing Cedric tomorrow.



Morning came much sooner than Rachel expected, and she climbed sleepily out of bed and dressed in her robes. Fred and George were in the common room by the time she descended the dormitory steps. They grinned when they saw her, identical smiles lighting up their freckled faces.

"Sorry about last night, Rach," George said, trying hard to fight the smile on his face. "We didn't mean to make you mad."

Rachel looked at them levelly, and as always couldn't help but smile at their eager expressions. "No harm done," she admitted grudgingly. "But did you have to tell Lee?" Their grins remained fixed in place, affirming her question. She rolled her eyes and started out of the portrait hole, the twins following behind her.

Rachel sat down at the Gryffindor table between Alicia and Katie, who were giggling about something. "Marcus Flint was just turned down for a date by one of the Slytherin girls," Alicia choked out as Rachel looked inquiringly at her. She looked over at the green-and-silver table; sure enough, Marcus was sitting by himself at one end, looking mutinous and stabbing kippers with intense ferocity. Rachel laughed and shook her head amusedly. That had been fast.

"Schedules!" barked Professor McGonagall suddenly from the end of the table nearest the raised platform. She handed schedules to the seventh years and then turned to the sixth year Gryffindor girls. "Your schedules are a bit trickier this year," she said crisply. "I need to approve all of your choices and see whether you are able to continue at N.E.W.T. level." She crossed to Rachel, brow furrowed.

"All of your choices look fine, dear," she said, tapping a blank piece of parchment with her wand and handing it to her. "You may head upstairs for Charms now." Rachel thanked her, gathered her bag, and turned to leave the Great Hall. She glanced at the Hufflepuff table automatically as she passed by it; Cedric was studying his schedule intently, forehead slightly wrinkled.

Rachel examined her schedule more thoroughly as she climbed the stairs to the second floor. Her stomach did a happy back flip as she gazed at the next class slot: double Herbology. What luck! Not only would she be able to see Cedric, but the class time was extended.

And why the heck was she thinking this way?

The rest of the Gryffindor sixth years had also passed their Charms O.W.L.s and they took seats together on the topmost row of Professor Flitwick's class. Charms was usually one of Rachel's best subjects, but she had a bit of trouble focusing today on their lesson.

 "Miss Alexander!" Professor Flitwick sputtered as, for the third time, Rachel had accidentally hit him full in the face with a stream of water. "Dear, dear girl... Please remember to concentrate!" Rachel grimaced apologetically as he tottered away, and caught Fred's eye.

"What do you have next?" he grinned, snatching Rachel's schedule from her bag. "Ah... Herbology! Pity I didn't pass that one, I'd give a few Galleons to see that class..." He smirked, and Rachel grabbed the schedule back from him, scowling.

Finally, the bell rang, signaling the end of class. Rachel waited for the girls outside the doors of the class. "Heading to Herbology?" she asked, but to her surprise all three of them shook their heads. "None of you?" she asked again, and Angelina smiled. "Yeah... Herbology was never my thing, I barely failed. I've already got the Egyptian Quidditch team interested in me though, so no loss."

So it was alone that Rachel descended the stone steps of the castle and crossed the vegetable patch to the Herbology greenhouses. Cedric was already waiting out there, surrounded as usual by a couple of his Hufflepuff friends. He turned as she approached though, and smiled.

"Thought I'd see you here," he said, then looked over her shoulder. "No one else came with you?" She shook her head. "Apparently, Gryffindors aren't the best at Herbology," she said wryly.

Cedric smiled. "Well, you're here, anyway." He turned to his friends, who were watching him. "Rachel, this is Anders" - a tall, skinny boy with white-blond hair waved - "and Matt." A stocky, brown-haired boy nodded.

"So, this it?" Rachel asked, looking at the three of them. "Four N.E.W.T. students?" Cedric grinned. "Apparently Gryffindors weren't the only ones who stunk at Herbology," he teased, and she giggled, and then promptly felt stupid for doing so. She'd never been much of a giggler before.

Professor Sprout emerged from the greenhouse just then, gray hair springing wildly from under her patched hat. "Come in, come in!" she said cheerily, bouncing on the balls of her feet. "Got a special welcome-back lesson for you, so don't dawdle!"

Rachel filed in behind the Hufflepuffs. It was cool and dark in the greenhouses, which smelled damply of earth and rain. They were grouped around a long rectangular table, upon which was grouped a number of evil-looking plants.

"Thought we'd start out with a little bit of a contest," said Professor Sprout happily, pulling on her dragon skin gloves; the four students did the same. "You'll pair up and have a little competition to see which of you can tackle these plants the fastest. We've got Snargaluffs, Venomous Tentaculas, and Mandrakes. Now, what you'll have to do - you'll gather five Snargaluff pods, re-pot two Mandrakes, and completely sever each of the ten arms of the matured Tentaculas. Ready? Well, off you go!"

Anders and Matt immediately grouped together, faces set and goggles on, and Cedric glanced at Rachel, looking not a little unnerved at their task. "Shall we?" he asked, motioning to the Snargaluff that stood expectantly in its little pot. Rachel grimaced slightly but grabbed a pair of the protective goggles and reached for the plant.

An hour and a half later, the four emerged from the greenhouses, sweaty and covered in dirt but laughing hysterically. Rachel had a large cut under her eye from one of the Snargaluffs and a large welt on her arm from a Tentacula vine which Cedric had had to sever using hedge trimmers. Cedric himself had a large bruise on his cheek from one of the Tentacula's heavy flowers, which had swung around and bashed into his face. Anders and Matt looked in similar states of injury.

"This is gonna be one crazy year," Matt said, sobering suddenly and shaking his head. "I about lost both of my eyes in there, and we still have that essay to write about how to properly care for Fanged Geraniums. It's mad, is what it is!" He and Anders walked away up toward the castle for lunch, but Cedric slowed just a bit, and Rachel followed.

"Listen," he muttered, not quite meeting her eyes, "I don't know if you're busy with other stuff, or whatever, or if you just don't want to... but I was thinking that if you did want to, we could meet at the library tonight and start on that essay... but if you're busy..."

Rachel's heart fairly leaped from her chest with excitement. "I'd love to!" she said hastily, and blushed, feeling the blood pulse through her cuts. "I mean, you know, that'd be great." Would her face ever not feel like it was on fire this year? It was getting rather obnoxious.

Cedric grinned. "I'll meet you at eight o'clock in the library, then," he said. "Is that all right?"

"Fine with me," she said, a little more happily than she meant him to know. They walked through the large double doors and into the entrance hall, Rachel fighting the urge to jump up and down, although she couldn't keep a grin from spreading on her face.

"See you," Cedric said, heading in the direction of the Hufflepuff common room. Rachel, not bothering to wash up before lunch, fairly flew into the hall and sat down across from Fred and George, who seemed to have been waiting for her.

"Merlin's pants," George said appreciatively as she pulled a platter of roast beef toward her. "Are you all right? You look like you wrestled with a hippogriff."

Rachel grinned at him, forking a baked potato. "I'm fabulous! Thanks for asking." Fred and George's face immediately split into smiles as well, and Rachel laughed, knowing that whatever they told Lee tonight wouldn't bother her one bit.


Chapter 3: Rainy Saturday
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The first few weeks of term passed by blurrily, a mess of homework, meals, and quiet time at night doing homework in front of the Gryffindor common room’s roaring fire. As October drew nearer, the topic on everyone’s tongues was the Triwizard Tournament and the foreign students who would be coming to stay with them the following week and would also be competing against whichever student from Hogwarts was chosen. Rachel was interested in these things as much as the next person, but Cedric was the primary focus of her mind these days, as selfish and slightly embarrassing it was to admit it.

After their homework session in the library (in which they had admittedly talked more than worked on the Fanged Geranium essay), they had agreed to meet twice a week for the foreseeable future to continue to tackle the large pile of N.E.W.T. homework that the teachers seemed to be giving the sixth years. Rachel looked forward to these sessions more than she’d ever looked forward to anything in her life, and because Quidditch was not to be played this year due to the Tournament - much to the rest of the school’s chagrin - she and Cedric found more and more time to spend together. It amazed her that the best-looking boy she’d ever seen actually wanted to be her friend, but she didn’t want to jinx her luck by questioning the fact.

A week before the Beauxbatons and Durmstrang students were due to arrive at Hogwarts was a Saturday, which meant no classes for any of the Hogwarts students. Rachel awoke in a great mood - it was the weekend, she and Cedric had actually managed to complete all of their homework in the library the previous evening, and tomorrow was the first scheduled Hogsmeade visit of the year. Even the steady drumming rain the tickled the windows and flattened the trees couldn’t dampen her own high spirits.

Rachel hurriedly tied her curly hair back into a ponytail, eager to begin what she could already feel was going to be a great day, and trotted down the dormitory steps. But then, as she reached the common room, she stopped, hands still poised to fix her hair. Fred and George had apparently waiting for her at the bottom of the upon seeing her, and she was instantly wary of what kind of information they wanted out of her so early in the morning.

“So,” said George, drawing the word out. “Lee just happened to be cruising by the library last night and he noticed a certain Gryffindor looking quite cozy with a certain Hufflepuff.” He raised his eyebrows mysteriously, but the effect was lost on his friend. Rachel smiled enigmatically back.

“We were not ‘cozy’,” she said, gliding smoothly past them and heading for the portrait hole. “We were doing homework, and if Lee says anything to the contrary then he’s a lying git.” To her slight dismay, they refused to let the subject drop after that, merely following her out of the portrait and down the corridor in the direction of the grand staircase. She tried her hardest to pretend they weren’t there.

“We’ve seen the way he looks at you,” said Fred, acting stern now but failing miserably; it couldn’t have been more obvious how gleeful the two were to have something to tease her about. Secretly, Rachel didn’t mind, for it gave her more chances to think about Cedric. Who was just a friend. Right?

And what way did he look at her, anyway?

“Cool it, you two,” she said as they followed her doggedly down the marble stairs. “I mean it.” They said nothing more, but a slightly whimsical air hung about their heads, and Rachel knew that Fred and George couldn’t leave something alone for the life of them. They might stop teasing for the time being, but it was almost a sure thing it would start up again.

Cedric was absent from the Hufflepuff table, but she caught Anders and Matt’s eyes and waved at them a little. They were quickly becoming her friends as well; the N.E.W.T. Herbology students were so few and shared so many close calls with plants intent on killing them that friendships were inevitable.

Rachel sat down across from Katie and Angelina and next to Alicia. All three of them were watching her intently as she ladled porridge into a bowl and poured herself a goblet of pumpkin juice. She glanced up briefly, and then did a double take when she realized that they were still gawking at her. “What?” she demanded impatiently, self-consciously fiddling with the hem of her dark gray jumper as though that might be what was causing the stares.

“What’s this about you and Cedric?” said Angelina in a low voice, and Rachel almost laughed out loud. The gossip mills were certainly functioning in full force.

“This is what you get from listening to Lee, you know,” she said, looking down at her breakfast and subtly avoiding the question.

“We didn’t hear anything from Lee,” said Katie, the excitement in her tone matching the expression on her face. “Someone in Hufflepuff told a fourth-year Hufflepuff, who said something about it to Harry Potter in their Herbology class, and he told us because we knew you.” The three girls leaned unconsciously forward. “Are you dating him?”

“I am not dating him,” said Rachel carefully but emphatically, calmly reaching forward for the marmalade pitcher and spreading it thickly on the porridge. “We meet a few nights a week for homework, if that’s what you’re so excited about.” But apparently this was exactly what they were excited about.

“Oh, you’re so lucky!” sighed Alicia, glancing toward the Hufflepuff table, although Cedric was still absent from it. “He’s absolutely the most gorgeous boy in our year, all the girls agree.” Rachel looked up at them, but said nothing, smiling blandly at their obvious overexcitement. It was just a few study meetings, nothing more, she convinced herself. Really.

After breakfast, Rachel denied the invitation to an Exploding Snap championship tournament in the common room and instead headed for the front doors of the castle, despite the fact that the rain was still falling steadily. Walking in the rain calmed her down, and made her happy. It was weird, in a sense, but there was something satisfying about not fighting the rain, just letting it wash over you.

Her feet took her automatically to the trunk of a large willow tree that stood very near the edge of the lake’s shore. This was her favorite spot in all of Hogwarts; a hollow just big enough for two people to sit in lay between two of the large and wizened roots. She often came down here to do her homework or read – before she did both of those things with Cedric, anyway. When had she last been able to sneak away here?

She sat down on the earth, slightly damp from the rain that had dripped down the long branches, and crossed her legs, leaning back against the comfortable bark of the tree.

Suddenly, as though the brief thought of him had conjured him to her, Cedric appeared across the lawns, walking purposefully in her direction. Her heart gave a small leap as she watched him walk toward her, and it was leaping because he was coming in her direction.

That is – it would have been, had she had any notion of becoming more than friends. Which she did not.

He drew nearer, and finally he was right in front of her, and then, quite suddenly, he was sitting next to her in the hollow that the tree made. Rachel instantly decided that her favorite spot was all the better because of the space it allowed for him to sit next to her, although the accompanying chest-tightening from nerves was a bit uncomfortable. They didn’t speak for a minute, but sat side by side looking out at the rain making small ripples on the lake’s normally glassy surface.

“Hi,” said Cedric finally, and Rachel laughed. He grinned down at her and said, “What are you doing here?”

She shrugged. “I’m not sure. I like the rain, though. Sitting here, looking out at it and just listening to it. It’s kind of nice, getting away from the rush of life in there.” She jerked her head in the direction of the castle, and Cedric nodded, seeming to understand what she was describing to him.

“You know,” he said after a moment, “I think this is the first time we’ve been together that hasn’t been about homework or school.” Rachel grinned, her stomach squeezing pleasantly at the mention of being together.

“It’s kind of nice,” she supplied, and Cedric made a noise of agreement in his throat. The air between them suddenly grew tense and expectant; Rachel wondered what made the change.

The rain began to fall harder, pummeling the earth, and even the branches of the willow weren’t enough to completely separate them from the downpour. Rachel raised a hand to her eyes, shielding them from the rain that ran in tiny rivulets down her forehead and the back of her neck, soaking her shirt collar.

“I think I should go in now,” she said hesitantly, breaking the thick silence. “It’s – um – a bit wet out here.” She wanted to smack herself in the forehead for sounding so unintelligent at that moment. Cedric shook his head slightly as if he’d been lost in his thoughts, and he looked at her, meeting her gray eyes with his deep brown ones. A thrill ran through Rachel as they just looked at each other for a long moment.

“I’m just going to sit here for a little bit,” he said quietly, so that she almost missed it beneath the torrential rain. “I’ll catch up in a bit.” Her brow creased slightly, but she said nothing, only climbed to her feet and brushed the dirt off her dark skirt. Cedric was looking out again at the lake’s choppy surface, pocked with rain drops.

She was halfway back up the steep path to the castle when she heard him call her name from behind. Turning, she saw him standing just outside the willow tree’s branches, rain dripping off his flattened hair and the hem of his robes. Their eyes met, even at a distance, and her heart leaped again, bobbing somewhere around her Adam’s apple.

Cedric began making his way toward her once more, and she stopped breathing for a brief moment. They were a yard apart when he stopped and looked at her, searching for something.

“Listen,” he said quickly. “This is incredibly late notice and you probably don’t even want to, but I just – well, I’ve been wondering if you – do you want to go into Hogsmeade? With – well, with me?”

Rachel said nothing, her heart beating so fast it echoed loudly in her ears, and she was sure Cedric could hear it too. He looked embarrassed now, his chest rising and falling as if he’d just run a marathon. Rachel smiled up at him, and she felt herself turn slightly pink despite the chilly rain soaking her.

“I’d love to,” she said, and Cedric grinned. She noticed just how gorgeous he looked, even with rain dripping in his eyes. She smiled up at him, wishing she could reach out her hand and brush back the wet lock of hair that had fallen on his forehead…

“Great,” he said, and his smile lit up his eyes. “Can I meet you in the Entrance Hall at eleven?” She nodded, and they stayed like that for just a moment, only looking at each other. Then, with a last look and a small wave, Cedric turned and headed back for the lake, this time walking along the shore. Rachel watched him until he disappeared from view, fighting the urge to jump in the air and scream with delight.

She had never attracted anyone’s attention before. She’d never had a date. There were certainly many girls at school much prettier than she. But somehow, without quite knowing how she’d done it, she’d attracted the attention of Cedric Diggory.

She turned suddenly and flew up the steps into the warm, dry castle, scaling the stairs two at a time and hurtling down corridors, heading for the common room. The Fat Lady looked shocked to see the dripping figure standing before her.

“Balderdash,” Rachel panted, grinning like a lunatic and not wanting to hear whatever criticisms the portrait wanted to offer her. With a little sniff, the Fat Lady swung forward and Rachel dived through the portrait hole.

Fred, George, Lee, and Angelina were clustered beneath one of the rain-strewn windows, concentrating intently on a pack of cards in Lee’s hand – the Exploding Snap championship was obviously still in full swing. They all looked up as she crossed the room toward them, ignoring the looks that the others in the common room gave her. The grin on her face told them all they needed to know.

Lee whooped and gave out a mad cackle; Fred wolf-whistled. Rachel stuck out her tongue at them and sat on the floor by Angelina, who grinned knowingly at her friend. Rachel settled into the soft carpet, her mind already off the game of Exploding Snap that was continuing, thoughts wandering to the next day and to Cedric.

A/N: I hope you're all enjoying this story so far -- it's a bit slow, but I promise that it does eventually pick up pace, and there's plenty more Cedric/Rachel tension and fluff to come. And we all want to see that, don't we? Thought so! So hurry on to the next chapter, and please don't forget to leave a review. Reviews are an author's bread and butter, and would you want to see me starve? (I hope not!)

Thanks so much for the reads!


Chapter 4: Game On
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The next morning dawned cool and chilly as an aftermath of yesterday’s rain, which had continued the entire day, although no amount of rain could have damped Rachel’s considerably high spirits. Eleven o’ clock couldn’t come soon enough for her, and she was noticeably antsy all through breakfast as she talked to Angelina.

“Girl, you have got to calm down,” Angelina finally laughed as Rachel, clumsier than ever in her anxiety, knocked over half a pitcher of pumpkin juice all over a plate of sausages. Rachel grinned apologetically and waved her wand, sending the juice zooming back into the pitcher sausage-free. But her stomach was still fluttering as though someone had planted a Flutterby bush there, and she glanced at her watch for the thousandth time since sitting down.

“I’m going to go back up to the common room,” she said, knowing she couldn’t eat another bite in the state she was in. Angelina rolled her eyes but said nothing, just smiled as Rachel got up from the table and started back toward the entrance hall. As she walked between the Gryffindor and Hufflepuff tables, she thought she heard someone whistle loudly – but was that just a coincidence?

“Balderdash,” she said to the Fat Lady, who swung forward sleepily – she always had a tough time waking up on weekends, which occasionally caused misfortune for the first years who were too shy to scream at her, as was often necessary. Rachel climbed through the portrait hole and up to her dormitory, pacing around the small circular room nervously.

Cedric wasn’t anything different from the other boys she hung out with all the time. She could talk to Fred and George and Lee as well as anyone; why did she get so tongue-tied when she was with him? (Well, it certainly didn’t help that he was the best-looking boy she’d ever seen.) She bit her lip and drew in a deep breath, willing herself to calm down.

Finally, the minute hand on her watch ticked to ten fifty-five. She sucked in a deep breath and pulled on her gray pea coat and Gryffindor scarf, then descended into the common room. Alicia and Katie were sitting there, their Charms homework spread out on their laps in front of the fire. They flashed her thumbs-up as she walked by; she could only smile shyly and give them a little wave.

There was absolutely no reason to act as she was acting; none at all. She’d spent plenty of time alone with Cedric in the library before now and had never felt this way before. But, deep down, she knew the reason for her nerves: was this considered a date? And did it mean that Cedric really liked her in the way she didn’t even dare hope for, for fear of disappointment?

The Great Hall was packed with students lining up to be inspected by Filch before they started on the path into the village. Cedric was by the doors of the entrance hall, talking to Anders from their Herbology class. Rachel’s stomach gave a happy little jump as she made her way over to him. He looked around as she approached, and his face lit up.

“Hi,” he said, smiling down at her. She blushed faintly pink, Anders’s suddenly wicked grin not escaping her notice. They stood in slightly awkward silence for a moment before Rachel asked hesitantly, “Should we get in line?” She motioned awkwardly to the snaking line of classmates, all looking disgruntled with Filch’s self-satisfied leer.

“Oh – oh, yeah,” Cedric said, his own face flushing. They said nothing more as they waited to be approved to leave by Filch, who seemed to be moving down the list of approved students particularly slowly today. Rachel felt her face growing hotter and hotter as passing sixth years did double takes at the pair of them standing together.

Finally, they were outside, the uncharacteristically bitter later October wind whipping their cheeks. Cedric cleared his throat as they started down the winding dirt path.

“So,” he said at last, “I was thinking last night, and I realized I know almost nothing about you.” His cheeks turned pink again, but Rachel told herself pointedly that it was probably from the chilly air. “I’d like to, um, kind of get to know you better, if, um, that’s okay…” He trailed off, and Rachel’s heart leaped into her throat, while at the same time a feeling of amused pity washed over for her at how obviously tough it was for Cedric to manage his jumbled request.

“Only if you’ll tell me about yourself, too,” she said, smiling, and was relieved to watch Cedric’s face visibly relax. She instantly felt more at ease and started chattering about her childhood to Cedric, anxiously watching his expression for signs of boredom. But Cedric thankfully seemed genuinely interested in what she was telling him, and she found him increasingly easier to talk to as they made their way into the village, as though she’d known him for a long time.

The high street that ran down the center of Hogsmeade village was bustling with people, student and adult witches and wizards alike, calling to one another and window shopping. Rachel and Cedric made their way unconsciously in the direction of the Three Broomsticks, an extremely popular and almost always crowded pub that sat flush with the main road. Cedric held the door open for her as they entered the crowded and noisy tavern.

“I’ll get the drinks,” Cedric offered hesitantly, and turned toward the bar. Rachel’s stomach clenched happily again, and she smiled at him and turned to find an empty seat. She spotted an empty loveseat in the corner, right by the fireplace, and hurried over to it before it was snagged.

As she sat down, her gaze fell on a dark-haired Ravenclaw girl – younger than Cedric and Rachel, by the look of her - sitting at one of the tables closest to the loveseat where Rachel now sat. The girl shot Rachel a filthy look before getting up, surrounded by a bevy of her friends, and leaving the pub in an obviously affronted way. Rachel rolled her eyes as Cedric walked over to her, carrying two mugs of steaming butterbeer.

“Thanks,” Rachel smiled, curling up her legs beneath her as Cedric sat on the other end of the small sofa. Suddenly, the door burst open again and an official-looking man with a toothbrush mustache walked in, surveying the area as though its inhabitants were beneath him. He crossed to the bar and sat down at a recently vacated stool, talking to Madam Rosmerta, the barmaid, in a low voice.

“That’s Barty Crouch,” said Cedric suddenly, his eyes obviously trained on the same man Rachel had been watching. “My dad’s told me about him – he’s supposed to be really high up in the Ministry, head of the Department of International Magical Cooperation. He’s supposed to be a judge for the Tournament, too.”

Rachel looked around at Cedric; she’d almost forgotten all about the Tournament until that moment. “Are you going to enter your name?” she asked suddenly, remembering the night of the back-to-school feast when the Tournament was announced. Cedric fiddled with the handle of his tankard, a look of mixed excitement and apprehension flitting across his face.

“I’m seriously considering it, yeah,” he said, glancing sideways at her from under his unusually long eyelashes. Rachel’s heart quickened inexplicably and into her mind flashed a sudden, horrible thought: What if Cedric got hurt? She’d heard of serious injuries, even deaths, in some of the past tasks in the tournament. Wasn’t it possible that it could happen again?

Cedric must have seen the shock on her face, because he suddenly looked worried and laid a tentative hand on her crossed knee. The warmth of his hand through her jeans was oddly comforting, as though he suddenly became more real to her. “Hey,” he said gently. “If it means that much to you, then I won’t.”

An odd emotion coursed through her body, as suddenly as if she’s just downed a glass of firewhisky. She shook her head animatedly, wrapping her mug tighter in her hands. “No,” she said adamantly. “It’s your choice, not mine. It’d be really amazing if you got in, too.” She smiled and took a sip of her butterbeer, not taking her eyes away from his.

Cedric smiled reassuringly at her and gave her knee a slight squeeze before removing his hand. The squeeze sent shockwaves coursing up her leg and straight into her lungs, making it a little hard to breathe. What was it, she wondered, that made this boy drive all her senses so utterly out of control?

The rest of the day passed without a single mention of the tournament. Rachel told Cedric all about her colorful life as a Muggle growing up in Liverpool, which he seemed to find extremely fascinating. He asked endless questions about the docks, the shipping, and the shops on the streets. She realized just how little the wizarding world knew about the other world, the world they were hiding from. And he in turn told her about his growing up in the wizarding world. She loved thinking of Cedric as a little boy as she listened to him talk about riding a toy broomstick around and around the back lawn of his parents’ home.

“… And that’s when I really got into Quidditch,” he said, laughing and tipping his head back to catch the last dregs of his butterbeer. “Now I’m pretty much hooked. D’you ever play Quidditch?” he added? “I know you hang out with pretty much the whole team.” He grinned again, and she grinned back.

“No,” she admitted, wishing for the first time that he answer was different. “I’m not really a sports person, myself.” Cedric raised his eyebrows.

“It’s a shame we’re not playing this year,” he said, fiddling with the cup handle again. “It’d be cool for you to go and watch the games, you know, if you’d be interested in going to the Hufflepuff games and whatever…” He cleared his throat and quickly changed topics.

The afternoon seemed to be trickling away from them like water through cupped hands, and before either of them knew it, the sinking sun had started to turn the cold windows rosy pink. Cedric looked at his watch and took up the long-empty mug of butterbeer that sat by his feet; Rachel did the same.

“I really enjoyed this,” she said, grinning, and Cedric smiled back, absentmindedly tugging the bottom of his yellow and black scarf. He leaned forward, holding out his hand for her cup. “Let me take that,” he said, and as his hand closed around it the tips of his fingers brushed hers. That odd emotion sent a jolt running through her again, and this time she was almost certain Cedric felt it too. He didn’t move, but looked at her curiously, almost strangely, as though she might disappear if he broke the contact between them. Even as she looked steadily back at him, she was aware of how stupid and soap opera-ish the thoughts in her head sounded.

Finally, she relinquished the hold on her mug, cursing the flush of heat that tinged her cheeks at that moment. Cedric smiled slightly again and turned to set the tankards on the bar where Madam Rosmerta stood, wiping the already-spotless glasses. They exited the pub, some of the last of the Hogwarts students visible on the high street that ran through the little village.

“We’ll have to do this again,” Cedric said as they crunched their way through the hard ground on the path back up to the castle. “If they have another weekend,” Rachel pointed out. “With all the excitement from the foreign students it’ll be a wonder if they can get us to do anything normally around here.” Cedric laughed.

“Almost forgot about them,” he said, stuffing his hands in the pockets of his jacket. “It’s gonna be weird, won’t it? Well, we’ll have to do something, anyway.” He smiled down at her – was there any time a smile didn’t cross his face? – and they made the rest of the journey up to the school in a pleasant and amiable silence.

The noise coming from the Great Hall told the two that they were late for dinner, but Cedric seemed a little reluctant to enter the hall. Rachel couldn’t blame him; as far as her opinions went, she was by no means in a hurry to end what was unquestionably one of the best days of her life.

“I had a great time,” Cedric said suddenly, almost urgently, and seemed to be searching her face for something. Rachel blushed (bloody hell, not again!) and said nothing, just continued to gaze at his near flawless, handsome features…

“Yo, Cedric!” came a shout from the Great Hall, and a tall Hufflepuff boy that Rachel didn’t know came loping out of the hall with a slightly awkward gait. He slung an arm around Cedric’s shoulders and flashed a smooth grin in Rachel’s direction.

“Listen, Ced, been meaning to ask you about a few tactics for next year…” the boy started, meaning to steer Cedric back in the direction he’d come from. Cedric winced visibly and motioned to his companion. “Ben Drewart. Seventh year, Chaser on the Hufflepuff Quidditch team,” he said by way of explanation. Ben grinned at Rachel again and then tried to turn Cedric around once more. Cedric tried to remain planted into the floor.

“I – I guess I’ll see you tomorrow in Herbology, then?” he asked hurriedly. Rachel smiled and nodded. With a last look at her, Cedric allowed himself to be ushered into the hall, Ben already leading a storm of chatter about Quidditch that Rachel couldn’t follow. And Merlin’s pants, she wanted to be able to jump into that conversation…

She turned away, suddenly not hungry at all, and made her way quickly to the library. Madam Pince raised a pointy eyebrow as she approached the desk, her beak-like nose seemingly more pronounced than ever. The librarian liked Rachel as well as she liked anyway – she was notoriously good about returning books on time and keeping them neat – but Rachel was still intimidated by her.

“Hello,” she said nervously. “Erm, do you have a copy of Quidditch Through The Ages available?” Madam Pince said nothing but swept from behind the desk without a word. She returned shortly, a very battered old book in a thin, peeling green cover clasped in her claw-like hands.

“You’re fortunate,” she said crisply, opening the book with a snap and firmly stamping the inside of it. “Can’t get those dirty Quidditch players off this book, most times. Two weeks.” She handed the book to Rachel, who took it, eager to get back to the common room to start learning everything she could about the sport Cedric so loved.

If she was going to win Cedric – and by this point she knew that she really did want him, however stupid she thought herself for doing so – she needed to arm herself with the best knowledge possible. Quidditch, it seemed, could do this the fastest.

Thankfully, the common room was empty; no jokes from the twins and Lee tonight, no knowing looks from Angelina and Alicia and Katie. Rachel all but flew up to her dormitory where she peeled off her coat and scarf and flung herself on top of her four-poster, gingerly opening the cover of the worn book in her hands, and began to read. Let the game begin.

 A/N: I know. I'm a terrible person, and you have my full permission to beat me around the head with Beaters' clubs until I require medical attention. This chapter is VERY late and I am so, so sorry about that! I would make excuses, but the only ones I have are school and laziness, and both of them are very weak. Reviews are very much appreciated!


Chapter 5: Beginning the Tournament
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October blew in even colder than the preceding month, and students were not to be seen on the grounds without coats or capes to shelter them from the harsh, northern Scottish wind that constantly buffeted them to and from classes, turning every cheek pink and raw with cold. The castle, drafty as ever, was mercifully kept warm by roaring fires in the common rooms, and it was to these that the students retired after dinner each night to do homework or talk with each other.  

Although they saw each other every Monday in Herbology and studied together several nights a week, Rachel and Cedric couldn’t ever find time to spend together alone as they had that day in Hogsmeade, and although she hated to admit it to herself, Rachel was suffering from it. She didn't know if he felt the same, and so obviously wasn't going to broach the subject, but her mind was in a state of perpetual turmoil. Ignorance as far as flighty feelings, she was sure, was bliss.

 She wasn’t sure what to consider herself now, as far as he was concerned. Was she Cedric's friend? His more-than-friend, if there was such a title? Or was it perhaps possible he considered her to be neither, but just another Herbology study partner? She had endured much teasing on the subject, primarily from the Weasley twins, but that didn’t make a relationship; two people made a relationship, and as far as she was concerned neither of them had made a definitive step in that direction.

The thirtieth day of October was the day the delegates from Beauxbatons and Durmstrang were scheduled to arrive at Hogwarts and excitement was almost tangible among the chattering groups of students clustered in the hallways. The fact that it was Friday didn’t help, of course, and the teachers found themselves hard put to teach any of their students more than a single date or incantation before more excited whispers broke out behind hands and books. Six o’ clock couldn’t come soon enough for most of the students, and even Rachel, who had a free period the last class on Friday, couldn’t help her mounting excitement as she read before the Gryffindor common room fire, legs tucked up beneath her. Quidditch Teams of Britain and Ireland was laid face-down on the cushion beside her – if Madam Pince saw the way the binding was cracking, she would have had a fit – and Katie Bell’s quill was scratching furiously behind her.

The twins themselves blew into the common room at the moment, Lee with them. They had been on the grounds, trying to tickle the giant squid – a favorite pastime of the three, although Rachel often failed to see the point, especially on the occasion when one of them (or all of them) were squirted in the face by a spray of purple-black ink. They looked ink-free now, however, and George grinned upon seeing Rachel and the book next to her.

“Here’s our little Hufflepuff supporter,” he said in a sing-song voice, nudging the book aside and flopping down on the lumpy sofa beside her. “Reading up on teams for Cedric?” Rachel blushed furiously and cursed herself for doing so, saying nothing but slipping the book underneath her in a vain attempt to prevent further teasing.

“By the end of this little phase, you’ll know so much you could out-Chase Angelina,” said Fred, wearing a grin identical to his brother’s. Rachel turned up her nose slightly and said nothing again, determined to put the subject at rest.

“All right, guys, come off it,” said Angelina, descending the staircase with Alicia behind her. She sprawled herself in front of the fire with a little groan, looking utterly tired, and Rachel understood; all the sixth- and seventh-years were feeling the strain of the N.E.W.T. coursework.

“About time for the delegates to arrive,” Alicia said, sitting down by her friend in front of the fire. “It’ll be weird, won’t it? Having them here?” George shrugged and stretched his arms, yawning, clearly unconcerned with what was still, to him, the distant future.

“I’m going to go put my stuff away,” Rachel said suddenly upon seeing Fred eyeing her library book wickedly once more, knowing he was about to make some comment about her and Cedric again. She hurried off the couch and up the dormitory steps, quietly shutting the door behind her and carefully setting the library book on her bedside table. Despite herself, Rachel was becoming increasingly interested in Quidditch, although the chances to talk about it with Cedric had been few and far between. But really – was it necessary for her best friends to bring it up every other minute? They were boys, true, but a little slack needed to be cut…

By the time she returned to the common room, a lot of other Gryffindors were milling around the circular room, bags slung on chairs and tables in the excitement of going down to greet the foreign students. Rachel joined Fred and George near the portrait hole.

“Let’s go, I want to get a good spot,” said Fred, and he led the way into the packed corridor. The castle’s portraits and armor had been scrubbed so thoroughly that sun actually shone off them; it was a little sad, Rachel thought, remembering the familiar worn landmarks she’d all but memorized in her five years here. It made the castle feel a little less like home.

The heads of houses were in a flurry as Fred, George, and Rachel reached the entrance hall, running about trying to put the students in some semblance of order. The younger students’ faces radiated nervous excitement, standing smartly in lines, still fresh enough to follow every rule tossed at them. The older students were calling to friends across the hall, laughing and joking and speculating about the delegates who would be shortly arriving. The three Gryffindors joined the end of their line, where Professor McGonagall was running up and down, barking flustered instructions to some of their wards.

Idly, Rachel looked about her, tuning out the twins’ conversation on some subject they’d been discussing often, something about money and Quidditch. She caught sight of Cedric in the line across the hall, standing with Anders and Matt, all three looking excited. He was scanning the room too; he caught her eye and gave her an infectious grin that she couldn’t help returning.

“Right, then!” shouted Professor McGonagall just then; it was amazing that her voice could retain its crispness even when she was screaming at them. “Follow me, Gryffindors! No pushing, now, let the first years through!” Slowly the line snaked onto the grounds and assembled onto the front steps of the castle.

It was unnaturally quiet once the student body had gathered there; everyone was tense, alert for any signs of the incoming schools. “Wonder how they’re getting here?” Angelina whispered to Rachel; she had joined the group soon after they themselves had begun waiting. Rachel shrugged and turned her attention back to the skies, the lake, and the grounds; anywhere but the group of Hufflepuffs standing further to her left, although her eyes yearned to catch another glimpse of Cedric.

Suddenly, Dumbledore shouted something Rachel couldn’t understand, and a great commotion and stir went up from the students. Rachel looked around for the source but couldn’t find it; someone screamed “It’s a dragon!” and she looked up instinctively. A great dark shape seemed to be hurtling toward them in the dim light, and now several people were pointing at it; there could be no doubt that this was what Dumbledore had announced, although a dragon might be getting a bit carried away.

With a crash and a bang, a powder-blue carriage halted into the smoothly manicured lawns of Hogwarts, and from it emerged a boy in silky pale blue robes; he was followed by a giant of a woman, who almost equaled Hagrid in size. Fred was on his tiptoes, craning eagerly for a better look as a dozen students in the same pale blue robes emerged from the carriage. Dumbledore stepped forward to great them, but the students were now scanning the skies for the second school’s arrival, the first already having lost interest.

The students (were they speaking French?) had filed through the mass of Hogwarts black, clutching their robes around them and shivering pitifully, and the crowd was silent once more. No one said anything for at least ten minutes; then, a shout from Rachel’s left caused her to jump. “The lake!” cried the voice of Lee Jordan, as he pointed over the heads of the people in front. As one, everyone swiveled to look in the direction he was pointing. A whirlpool had appeared in the middle of the usually calm lake, and slowly from it a long wooden pole was rising. Rachel frowned, watching it.

“It’s a mast!” she finally heard Harry Potter say, and then she understood; the other foreign delegates had appeared, quite suddenly, in a massive and old-fashioned wooden ship. A gangplank was lowered and another dozen students, all surly-looking boys, filed down in immaculate neatness. The rear was brought up by a tall, broad boy and an older man in thick furs and a curling goatee. Rachel narrowed her eyes as the pair approached.

Whispers were flitting from one person to another as the students filed up the path recently created by the French students, confirming Rachel’s suspicion. “Fred,” she hissed, “is that the Bulgarian Seeker? Viktor – Viktor Krum, or whatever?”

His attention was drawn from the world-famous Quidditch player to the bigger shock standing next to him. “You recognize him?” he asked incredulously, and she flushed, although pleased. “Well,” he said proudly, drawing out the word, “maybe this boy will be good for you after all, if it’s causing you to learn Quidditch.” She grinned mischievously and said nothing.

The rest of the school was now filing back into the castle for the welcoming feast. As she reentered the Entrance Hall, Rachel noticed most of the foreign students standing against the walls, looking apprehensive. She entered the Great Hall and took a seat at the Gryffindor table, not without noticing the additions to the top table. Several official-looking wizards were seated there, and where Dumbledore’s golden podium usually stood, a large wooden casket had taken its place.

The French students seated themselves at the Ravenclaw table, the northern students at the Slytherin table. Rachel watched them observing the golden plates and goblets with interest. Finally Dumbledore rose from his throne-like chair and held up a patient hand for silence, which came almost at once.

“To our foreign delegates, welcome, welcome most graciously to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry!” he cried happily, beaming down at them all genially. “I am positive this will be the beginning of wonderful friendships between students of different nations, of witches and wizards between countries. And, of course, I know you are all anxious to let the tournament commence. But it would be prudent, I think, to be well-fed before such an event occurs. And so, I say to you – tuck in!” He clapped his thin hands three times, and food appeared on the tables instantly, more food than Rachel had seen at a school feast before.

The feast was eaten courteously, but no one’s mind was really on the food, Rachel could tell. She watched the French and Bulgarian students eating hesitantly, clearly unused to the English food that was now served, although she noticed many foreign foods among the familiar ones. Finally (it felt like many, many hours later) the pudding had been cleared away and the plates shone newly clean once more. Dumbledore again rose from his seat, and this time silence did not need to be called for; the tension was tangible.

“Let the tournament commence,” he said softly, catching the attention of every person, young and old, in the room. He waved his hand gracefully and the lights dimmed to almost blackness; no one moved a muscle, but continued to gaze at the front of the room. Almost in slow motion, Dumbledore tapped the wooden casket lightly with his wand; it melted away as though ice, and in its place stood a wooden cup holding bright blue flames. George and Lee leaned forward automatically, eyes concentrated on the blue fire.

“The Goblet of Fire,” said Dumbledore quietly. “Each witch or wizard wishing to submit their name must only write it on a slip of paper and throw it into the cup, which will be placed in the Entrance Hall following the feast. An age line will be drawn around it to prevent merrymakers” – his blue eyes twinkled in the twins’ direction – “from fooling it.”

Rachel involuntarily glanced towards the Hufflepuff table, where Cedric sat with his friends. His face was upturned toward the wooden cup, the shimmering electric blue light shimmering eerily off his features, throwing some into darkness and illuminating others brightly. A curious expression had crossed these features, one of intense longing and passionate desire.

 A shiver suddenly ran up Rachel’s spine as she looked at him, and a sense of foreboding. She quickly looked away, back to the front of the room where Dumbledore was still speaking, but couldn’t remove the image of Cedric’s rapt face from her mind. For some reason, it scared her.


Chapter 6: The Choosing of the Champions
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The next day, tension and expectation ran higher throughout the castle than the day before, and everyone was anticipating the same thing: the night’s Halloween feast and the announcement of the three school champions who would compete in the Triwizard Tournament. There weren’t even any classes to distract the students from the coming event, and so talk and rumors about entrants spread quicker than Rachel had thought possible, even in Hogwarts.
 
She had stayed up late in the common room with the other sixth-years, listening to Fred and George’s various schemes as to how to trick Dumbledore’s age line, which grew wilder and more obtuse as the night wore on amid taunts and laughter. But Rachel could only participate half-heartedly; the expression on Cedric’s face at the welcoming feast still alarmed something deep within her.
 
You’re being stupid, she told herself firmly as she awoke on Halloween morning, dressing quietly in the nearly empty dormitory; Angelina was just stirring awake. Rachel looked at her friend prostrate on her bed and wondered why she didn’t feel as scared that Angelina had decided to enter the tournament, too. It wasn’t that she thought Angelina was more capable than Cedric – both of them were incredibly intelligent – but something about Cedric’s entry made her almost numb with fear. Stupid.
 
Angelina sat up sleepily in bed, stifling a yawn, and blinked blearily at her friend. “Wait for me,” she mumbled, slowly swinging her legs out of bed. “I’ll go down with you, I need to put my name in the cup…” Still half-asleep, she began rummaging in her trunk for a pair of jeans.
 
Soon both girls were dressed and they descended the stairs into the deserted common room; it seemed everyone had made sure to dart down to breakfast in a hurry, more than likely to watch the foreign students and to watch who put their name in the goblet. Rachel smirked as she thought of where Fred and George were instead: in the dungeons, with Lee, brewing up an Aging Potion, despite Rachel’s protests that Dumbledore wasn’t dumb enough to overlook a little potion.
 
The entrance hall, predictably, was packed with students clustering around the spot where the goblet had been placed after the feast. Angelina now looked bright-eyed and wide awake, and she slowly fished a piece of parchment out of her pocket, her name written upon it in a decisive and confident hand. People turned as she cut through them, excitement all over their curious faces, and they watched hungrily as she crossed the age line purposefully and dropped the paper into the high blue flames. They sparked for a moment, and then swallowed the paper. Several people applauded and clapped Angelina on the back as she made her way back to her friend.
“It’s done, then,” she said, grinning sheepishly at Rachel, who smiled back and squeezed her arm encouragingly. 
 
“I really hope you get it,” she said, knowing that the sentiment came from more than just wanting to see Angelina succeed in the tournament.
 
Angelina went into the Great Hall for breakfast, but Rachel lingered, knowing instinctively that Cedric hadn’t yet put his name into the cup. Word had spread that he was thinking of entering and, due to his popularity, he was already a favorite contender for the title. She hung near a large torch, half-hidden in the shadows, and soon her instinct was realized as a great roar went up from the crowd standing near the entrance to the Hufflepuff common room. A shifting of people revealed Cedric, grinning broadly, wading his way through them, parchment clutched tightly in his right fist. At the sight of the paper peeking from between his fingers, Rachel’s heart turned over; she seemed to stop breathing for a moment. 
 
There’s nothing that says he’ll get it above anyone else. You’re being thick, you know; you don’t own him. If you really want the best for him, let him make his own decisions. Unbeknownst to her, she had thrust her fists into her pockets, clenching them so tightly she could feel the skin stretch over her knuckles. She watched as he turned to the goblet, suddenly serious, and let the paper flutter into it. It sparked again and then resumed flickering. Another cheer erupted from the circle of onlookers.
 
As though he could feel her watching him, Cedric looked around at her suddenly. She met his gaze, loving the intensity of his eyes and feeling foolish for reveling in such trivialities in the first place. He seemed to see something in her expression; across his face flicked a curious emotion, a mixture of pain and something like duty. He muttered something to his friends and made his way across the hall to her unnoticed; his admirers, obviously having seen what they came to see, making their way into the Great Hall or onto the grounds.
 
“Hey,” he said gently when he got close enough. “Are you all right?” He took a firm hold of one of her upper arms, and a small shiver ran up her spine at his nearness. She nodded, but from his expression she could tell he didn’t believe it. He gave her a small smile and squeezed her arm.
 
“I know you’re worried,” he said, speaking even more quietly. “But it’ll be okay, whatever happens. I probably won’t even get it. And if I do… I’ll be careful, just for you. How’s that?” He grinned roguishly, that infectious grin that she could never help returning. He paused, as though about to say something, and then closed his mouth again.
 
“Well, I… I’ll see you, then,” she finished awkwardly, and he nodded, releasing her arm. He moved back in the direction of the Hufflepuff common room, shoulders squared and walking purposefully. She watched him go and then quietly slipped into the hall and into a seat between Lee and Alicia, thoughts still with Cedric’s retreating figure.
 
The day was one of the slowest Rachel could ever remember spending at Hogwarts; all her thoughts were concentrated on the feast that night, as were everyone else’s. Even Fred and George’s wonderful beards (a result from their unsuccessful attempt to hoodwink the Goblet of Fire) failed to distract her thoughts much. She tried not to show her irrational fear by losing herself in countless games of wizard’s chess with Ron Weasley, Fred and George’s brother, and Katie, until they both begged for a rest from it. Even when they had left to go tackle homework (a far thought from Rachel’s own mind), she remained where she was, staring into the fire in the hearth and remembering the way Cedric had looked at her: it was so intense she thought she might melt just from the memory of it…
 
Finally the sun had disappeared beyond the distant mountains visible from the leaded windows of Gryffindor Tower; people had moved in and out of the tower all night, talking animatedly, speculating who would be chosen Hogwarts champion that night. Although many Gryffindors were hoping for Angelina, Rachel still heard quite a few people pinning their hopes on Cedric, and the thought made her fearful again for him. Maybe she was just worrying too much – it was an annoying little habit of hers.
 
Fred caught Rachel’s elbow as they headed down the grand staircase to the feast, his brow creased, and he pulled her onto an empty armor plinth. “Rach, what’s up with you lately?” he said bluntly, not ever one to beat around the proverbial bush. “You’ve been acting a little distant and moody, and we’re all a little worried about you.” His eyes flicked to the other sixth years, clustered in a slow-moving group a little ways down the hall, trying in vain not to look like they were eavesdropping. Rachel was about to say that she was fine, but something stopped her.
 
“I’m really confused,” she began slowly, wanting to be able to confess the weight on her heart to her best friend without having to fear being teased for doing so. But it seemed that Fred was in one of his rare solemn moods, and she knew instinctively that he would listen. “It’s just that I’m a little worried about Cedric.”
 
Fred paused for a moment, seeming to mull this over before he responded. “Because of the tournament?” Her silence was confirmation. “Well, that’s pretty natural, I guess. We always worry about the ones closest to us.”
 
Rachel raised her eyes to his quickly, face reddening in a heartbeat, waiting for the witty sarcasm that would inevitably follow that remark. But it didn’t come; Fred’s face remained sincere. “I… no, Fred, that’s twisting things…” She stammered, then grew defensive. “I don’t love him, for Merlin’s sake.” As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she wished she could have thought them through a step further. Do I?
 
Fred raised his eyebrows slightly, obviously as skeptical about this remark as she herself was. “He’ll be fine,” he said, giving her a quick hug and starting to steer her in the direction of the straggling students going to dinner. “He promised you, didn’t he?”

She whipped around to look at him; there it was, that mischievous grin she knew too well. “Fred Weasley!” she laughed, pushing him. “I don’t remember giving you permission to eavesdrop on my conversations!” He laughed and pushed her back.

“Trust me, everyone sees. You’ve got nothing to worry about, he’ll keep any promise he makes if it’s to you.” Smirking, allowing her to puzzle over this last, he stepped ahead of her into the Great Hall. She followed him quickly.
 
The customary Halloween decorations were in place; jack o’ lanterns flickered eerily above the four tables laden with food that would have made a dentist’s hair curl. Live bats swooped from corner to corner, hissing occasionally and causing the first years to shriek with mock horror. There was considerably less noise, however, because every eye was subconsciously trained onto the Goblet of Fire, which had resumed its placed in front of the top table, flickering calmly. The teachers and tournament officials ate with seeming indifference to the eyes trained toward their end of the hall; only Karkaroff, the headmaster of the northern school Durmstrang, seemed disturbed by the pairs of eyes.

Finally, after what seemed like much longer than an hour, Dumbledore rose from his chair; an instant and almost tangible silence fell across those seated before him.
“Normally I would take this moment to give a few words,” said Dumbledore, adjusting the bridge of his glasses and smiling slightly, “but I can see none of you are patient enough to withstand them this evening. Therefore I simply say… it is time.”

As though in response to his words, the candles in the pumpkins flickered once, twice, and then went out entirely, bathing the Great Hall in the blue light from the goblet yet again. Dumbledore turned slowly toward it and held out a patient hand, as though waiting for someone to hand him a train ticket. Finally, after what may have been minutes, or quite possibly hours, a lick of flame shot up from the rough wooden cup, bearing upon it a slightly charred piece of paper. Dumbledore caught it neatly and turned it over delicately in his thin fingers.

“The champion from Beauxbatons is Fleur Delacour,” he said calmly after only a brief pause. Hard applause and cheers erupted from the Ravenclaw table; Rachel saw a girl with long, silver-blonde hair rise gracefully from her place next to a goggling seventh year and glide up to the top table effortlessly. Professor McGonagall motioned her to a room behind the table, and as soon as she disappeared from view, the hall was silent again; two more champions to go.

Another flame shot up from the goblet; Dumbledore caught the paper and squinted at the words printed on it. No one dared move. “The champion from Durmstrang is Viktor Krum!”

Rachel’s attention was momentarily caught, as was everyone else’s, as the surly Quidditch player rose from his seat at the Slytherin table and followed Fleur through the door behind the staff table. And, for a final time, silence fell; not a person spoke, but everyone was concentrated on the cup. For now, the Hogwarts champion would be revealed…

A flash of blue; a flutter of paper, and Dumbledore caught the final piece of parchment in his outstretched hand. He beamed at the students, some leaning forward as though they could hear the news first if they did so. He opened his mouth and spoke.

“The Hogwarts champion is… Cedric Diggory.”

An explosion of noise, like a backfire from a Blast-Ended Skrewt, rose up from the House tables. The Hufflepuff table had disappeared amid a storm of people all desperate to get close to Cedric, to touch him, to speak to their new champion. And all the while, Rachel remained at her seat at the Gryffindor table, feeling as though she’d just swallowed a chunk of ice and the Goblet of Fire itself all at once. It had happened, as part of her always knew it would; Cedric had done it. She fought hard between intense joy and overwhelming worry.

She turned her stunned gaze to the Hufflepuff table, watching as Cedric fought to rise from his place against the wave of people surging to congratulate him. She looked as he turned, found her, and the smile momentarily faded from his face; he looked vulnerable, and tender, and it was all she could do not to run to him and throw her arms around his neck. But no, that wouldn’t be proper… She wanted to celebrate with him, but quite honestly, wasn’t sure how.

She broke contact and looked down at her cutlery, the centerpieces, anywhere but the sheer wall of people behind her. Finally, the noise died down; Cedric had gone with the other champions. It was official now.

“Well done, well done, all of you!” Dumbledore cried, turning to face the students and clapping his hands together, looking positively joyful at the prospect of the coming tournament. “Congratulations to all of our champions, and I’m sure you all follow me in wishing them the best of luck in the coming months. Now, for a bit of business -"

But at that moment, a fourth flame erupted from the goblet. One of the teachers gave a gasp as the parchment rose high into the air and fell to the floor, skidding a little out of Dumbledore’s reach. He bent, frowning heavily, and picked it up, examining it shrewdly, before looking back at the students assembled before him, shock on all their faces.

“Harry Potter.”

Every head swiveled to look at Harry Potter, seated only a few seats away from Rachel. But (and if it was self-centered, then so be it) she really had no concern for him right now; her thoughts were still with Cedric, somewhere behind that door, happily celebrating his achievement at being made Hogwarts champion - now, co-champion. She barely listened as the hall began to buzz, and Harry slowly made his way up between the tables to Dumbledore, who pointed him into the back room without a word.

All the teachers hurried to confer with one another and the students clustered together to talk about this latest shocking development. George hurried away to talk to Hermione Granger and Ron, both of whom looked as shocked as the rest of the student body, but Fred leaned forward to Rachel.

“Rach, you look pale. Are you okay?” He looked genuinely concerned, and put a hand forward to cover hers. “It’s just a tournament,” he said awkwardly. “He’ll be fine. Honest to Merlin.”

“Honest to Merlin?” she asked skeptically, and he laughed. “You know what I mean,” Fred joked. She smiled and rose, wondering why she was making such a big deal out of this, anyway. “You’re right,” she said in a small voice. “Well, I’m going to go up to bed. Coming?” He shook his head, bewildered, and she all but fled the hall, having no earthly idea why she was so scared.

It’s just a tournament. It’s just a tournament. She repeated the words over and over to herself, willing them to stick in her brain. It was just some games. Dangerous or no, he certainly wouldn’t get injured. The school wouldn’t allow it, anyway. Then why was she so worried? It made no sense!

The common room and dormitories were expectedly empty. She burst into the sixth-year girls’ room and shut the door behind her, flopping onto the bed fully clothed for the second time in a row. She clutched the neck of her robes like a drowning person, willing herself to breathe, hating herself for acting like such an idiot about nothing at all.

He’ll be fine, he’ll be fine, he’ll be fine. But nothing would make her believe it unless he was near her, grinning infectiously, the only person able to clear her mind of fear now. She closed her eyes and sent up a silent prayer for the boy she was coming to find she just might possibly care about more than she wanted to.

A/N: Finally, the plot bunnies have returned to me! I have missed them. So, what do you think of this chapter? I'm not too sure on it... Hopefully, this story is still interesting to some of you out there! I'd really like to know what you think and how I could improve, so that little review box down there's about to become your best friend. Seriously, though - thanks to everyone who's made it this far, and everyone who's left a review as well. I couldn't keep writing without you! 

Some lines in Dumbledore's speech have been borrowed or altered from J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire". I do not own anything written by that wonderful woman. =) 


Chapter 7: Deliberations and Dragons
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Despite the mysterious circumstances surrounding the now four Triwizard champions, Cedric was by no means overlooked for the famous fourteen-year-old who had somehow made his way into the competition. If anything, people were supporting Cedric more heartily than they otherwise might have; Hufflepuffs, of course, were enthusiastic Cedric supporters, but Ravenclaws and even Slytherins were turning their attention from the Boy Who Lived to make badges and banners proclaiming Cedric’s name. Rachel felt a little guilty, but even though she believed Harry Potter didn’t enter his own name into the goblet, her attention was certainly more caught by Cedric’s victory.

Cedric’s popularity didn’t die down with the weeks leading up to the first task, which had been scheduled for the 24th of November. He and the other champions had their pictures featured in the Daily Prophet and the public attitude against Harry Potter among the student body grew with alarming frequency. Rachel found some of the conversations between herself and her friends strained as they emphatically joked about Harry’s winning the tournament, the spectacular feats he would pull off, and how badly he would beat Cedric in each one. They all seemed to have forgotten that Rachel and Cedric were in fact very good friends; they seemed to assume that, being a Gryffindor, she would naturally want to forget the Hufflepuff boy who stood in his way of winning.

Unfortunately, she was now no longer the only girl chasing Cedric, as carnal as that sounded; there was a gaggle of the arrogant, empty-headed girls who normally flocked towards the famous, standing around the greenhouse one Monday less than a week before the task was due to commence. They were obviously foregoing being on time to their own classes to catch a smile or nod from the Hogwarts champion (the official champion, in their minds and in the mind of the majority of the school). Some girls even had parchment and quills clutched in their gloves fists, as though Cedric was a world-famous musician rather than a sixteen-year-old student, and would grace their papers with autographs. Rachel shot them a dirty, slightly jealous look as she arrived early and sat down pointedly near the locked door to the class, pulling out her textbook and attempting to appear as though she was reading it. She wasn't going to stoop so low as begging for his autograph.

Presently, Anders and Matt, Cedric’s friends and Rachel’s Herbology classmates, arrived and sat down near her. The four of them had become quite good friends (it was impossible to be in such a small class and not become well-acquainted with one another) and she looked up gratefully, knowing that they were annoyed with all the attention being given Cedric as she was. They supported him, obviously, but she had been relieved to see that they hadn’t taken to wearing ‘Support Cedric Diggory’ badges like so many of their fellow, rather snobbish Hufflepuffs.

“Cedric got detained in the Great Hall by a bevy of seventh-year Ravenclaw girls,” Matt said, grinning and crossing his long legs underneath him languorously. “He’ll be along in a minute.” Rachel rolled her eyes and shook her head, but a small stab of jealously shot through her. Shut up.

“So, what do you guys think the task is gonna be?” Anders asked, squinting as he looked toward the castle, past the heads of the swarm of girls looking in the same direction.

“It better be something huge,” said Matt, grinning, “something to kick off the tournament with a bang. Like… well, I don’t know, but something great,” he finished a bit lamely, his excitement taking about a third of his vocabulary out of reach of his tongue.

“I don’t care,” said Rachel quietly, “but it had better be something relatively safe. I mean-“ She backtracked quickly at the looks of disbelief on Anders and Matt’s faces. “I get that the whole point of the thing is so that the champions can do tough, dangerous magic they wouldn’t otherwise do, but people have died in this tournament before.” She voiced the concern she hadn’t yet dared to say to anyone else for fear of being laughed at. “What if someone this time, you know…?”

Matt shook his head. “Nah, no one’s gonna die. The Ministry’s been working all summer to make sure it’s as safe as it can be. Nothing’s gonna happen except some wicked cool magic and maybe a scratch or two.” He grinned again. “But not on our man!”

Suddenly, Cedric himself appeared, and sure enough, a flock of girls swarmed around him like buzzing bees, giggling and adjusting their hair self-consciously. Rachel couldn’t help it; she laughed aloud at them, and Anders and Matt joined her. She had to admit that it felt relatively nice to be able to laugh; in some sort of perverse way, it meant she was above them, although she hated feeling so catty.

As he grew closer, the three of them could see how annoyed he looked at his present situation. The girls already waiting near the greenhouse, not wanting to be beaten out for the possibility of attention by the Ravenclaws, moved into the path down to the Herbology class and began fluffing their hair in exact images of the girls around him. Cedric looked overwhelmed and a little frustrated.

“No, really…” They could hear him saying as he drew slowly closer; the girls were impeding his ability to walk. “Please, I really need to get to class, Professor Sprout would kill me if I was late, and I’d really prefer not to die...” This feeble joke was carried over the top by his admirers, who shrieked with laughter as though he’d just said something remarkably witty. The sound seemed to grate on his ears. “Don’t you have classes to get to yourselves?” he burst in frustration.

Finally, at the greenhouses, the crowd dispersed, calling good-byes over their shoulders and giggling maddeningly amongst themselves. Cedric let out his breath as though he’d been holding it all the way down and only then noticed the smirks on Rachel, Anders, and Matt’s faces.

“Shut up,” he grinned. “Honestly, a bit of peace and quiet would be so welcome at this point…” He turned to Rachel, eyes warm, about to say something, but at that very moment Professor Sprout walked out of the building and ushered them into the cool, earthy-smelling room. Rachel felt like kicking the professor for interrupting whatever Cedric was about to say but kept her cool and followed him inside.

By now, the four had become so comfortable with each other that they automatically divided into the same pairs whenever they entered class: Cedric and Rachel, and Matt and Anders. Professor Sprout (looking slightly less brown with dirt than usual) stepped up at the head of the long trestle table and announced that they would begin a study of plants commonly found in the Muggle world that could be used in potions.

“Everyone will draw the plant given them,” she called happily, setting pots in front of each pair, “and label the parts, giving their uses in potion-making. Begin!” She moved to the back of the room and began examining her precious Venomous Tentaculas, and Rachel bent over her parchment, quill at hand and studying the familiar belladonna plant before her and Cedric.

The room was completely silent, rare for the N.E.W.T. students, despite the small number of them. Usually Cedric was very talkative and open, starting conversations and jokes and getting them all going, but today he remained as tense and slightly frustrated as he had looked coming down to the greenhouses. Finally, Rachel spoke to him in a quiet voice, so as not to draw too much attention from the two other Hufflepuff boys. “Are you all right?”

Cedric looked up and gave her a falsely cheery smile. “Yeah! Never better,” he said. She only looked at him disbelievingly, and he knew he couldn’t fool her with that for a minute. “Okay, well, no,” he said, dropping the façade, and Rachel gave him a gentle smile, encouraging him to continue.

“I just…” He sighed and ran a hand through his hair, and it struck him how vulnerable he suddenly looked. “It’s a lot of pressure, right now, being champion. Especially because of… well, you know.” She nodded, thinking of the ‘Support Cedric Diggory’ badges. “People are just expecting so much of me, because I’m older than Potter, or whatever,” he continued. “And if I let them down… I’m going to fail them all. And I have no idea what I’m doing; this isn’t just getting your picture in the paper and walking around like some hero… I’ve got to do this. I’ve got to risk my life.” He breathed another frustrated sigh and gripped his quill harder in his hand, causing his knuckles to turn white.

Rachel’s heart ached in sudden compassion for him. Driven more by instinct than common sense, she leaned across the table and placed her hand on Cedric’s clenched fist, painfully aware of the warmth of his skin on hers. “Listen,” she said quietly, and Cedric looked up, a pained expression in his eyes. “Anyone who’s pressuring you is someone you don’t want to be around anyway. We – your friends – we all believe you can do it.” She gave his hand a reassuring squeeze. “As long as you’re safe, we’ll cheer for you louder than anyone else.” And she meant it with all her heart.

Cedric returned her smile and didn’t try to move his hand away from under hers. “Thanks,” he said softly. Nothing more was spoken for the rest of the lesson, but every time Rachel looked up from her belladonna drawing, the smile was still fixed on Cedric’s face.

In the days leading up to the first task, the school became more competitive than ever, a school divided against itself, due to the circumstances involving Harry Potter. More than one student was sent to the hospital wing sporting a large bruise or a bloody nose from a fellow student’s zealous enthusiasm for the champion of their choice. Fred and George had been rumored to have been seen flinging Dungbombs at passing badge-wearing Slytherins, although no one was willing to confirm it; the odor that hung in the corridors was proof enough for Filch to be even more suspicious of the students than usual.

The morning of November the 24th dawned cool and clear – fine weather for the task, which the students had been told would be taking place outside. Rachel sat down to breakfast with her other Gryffindors, who all seemed congregated around the spot where she assumed Harry Potter was sitting before going down to the grounds. She chose not to join the throng and sat further down, looking instinctively over at the Hufflepuff table. The Hufflepuffs were craning their necks up and down the table and all around the hall; it was apparent that Cedric hadn’t gone down to breakfast. This thought concerned her.

Rachel suddenly found that she wasn’t hungry; her stomach had remained in a constant state of twisted nerves ever since Herbology the previous Monday, when Cedric had confessed how scared he was to her. She hoped this meant she’d taken on his own worries; the last thing she wanted was for him to lose his head in the middle of the task and risk being injured.

Fred and Lee separated themselves from the mass of people and sat down by their friend, Fred pulling a large plate of kippers toward himself and heaping them on his own plate. “Great day,” he grinned, glancing toward the ceiling reflecting the weather outside. “Man, this is gonna be cool. First task! This is gonna go down in the record books, this is.”

“Especially ‘cause Potter’s gonna win!” Lee called, raising his voice and directing it at the crowd surrounding Harry. Cheers of agreement answered him, and Rachel caught a glimpse of the fourteen-year-old’s face through a small gap between two third-year girls: Harry certainly didn’t look as if he shared Lee’s confidence. The wave of nervous nausea overwhelmed Rachel again.

“See you on the grounds,” she said shortly to the boys; they exchanged puzzled looks as she rose quickly from the table and hurried toward the entrance hall, wanting a few moments alone in the dormitory before it was time to leave to watch the competition.

But as she was hurrying past the Slytherin table, a voice hailed her ears. “Alexander! Hey! ALEXANDER!” She turned, frowning, wondering why anyone from Slytherin would be calling her. Two large Slytherins she knew from Potions, Warrington and Montague, were grinning at her malevolently, and she hesitated, wondering if she could just ignore them.

“Gonna go give your boyfriend a good-luck kiss before the task?” Montague called, and the entire Slytherin table laughed, even the Durmstrang boys, although they couldn’t really follow what was going on. Instant heat flamed Rachel’s cheeks and she scowled heavily.

“Go jump in the lake,” she said hotly, and they laughed even harder at her reaction. “Cedric, Cedric! Don’t hurt yourself!” Montague called again in a cracked falsetto; Warrington was pounding the table in silent mirth.

Angry tears stung Rachel’s flashing gray eyes, and she turned away from them, half-running back to the common room. She brushed the tears away voraciously, just as furious at herself for letting them get to her. And what were they talking about, anyway? How had they found out about how worried she was about Cedric? No one knew the depth of her fears – not Fred or George, not Lee, not Angelina or Katie or Alicia. Not even Cedric knew, fully. Were they just guessing? Or was it as plain as parchment on her face?

She flew up the dormitory steps, not stopping to return Katie’s hello from the couch in front of the fire, and all but slammed the door to the dormitory. She leaned against it, taking deep and calming breaths. The more she thought about it, the more likely it was that they simply were just trying to push buttons they didn’t know she had. The stupidest thing she’d done was react to it. Rachel clapped a hand to her forehead and closed her eyes tightly. In, out; in, out. Slowly she felt herself calming down.

The noise of excited voices and footsteps clattering on the stairs told her it was about time for the task to begin. Worried clenching in her stomach renewed, she grabbed her coat and gloves from the end of her four-poster and pulled them on as she went back down the stairs.

“Are you okay?” Katie asked when she reappeared in the common room. Rachel gave her a bright smile, and it seemed to fool her friend.

“I’m fine!” she said, waving away the question as though it was unimportant and slipping on her last glove. “Just excited, that’s all!” She looped her arm with Katie’s and they stepped onto the seventh-floor corridor, intercepting Lee and Angelina. The four descended the grand staircase and went onto the grounds together; none of them seemed to be as worried as she was.

A giant arena had been constructed seemingly out of midair near the edge of the Forbidden Forest; a mob of students and faculty were entering through a small door in the base and climbing to raised seats set in an elongated circle, not too unlike the Quidditch pitch. Nearly half of the spectators were dressed in solid yellow and black in support for Cedric, many Ravenclaws and Slytherins among them.

The noise was deafening, and Rachel felt her nerves for Cedric mount higher and higher as she climbed the stairs to the seats. Any minute now, the task would be starting – whatever it was, and Rachel sensed that in an arena this big it would be dangerous – and Cedric would be competing, completely on his own, scared as she knew him to be. The thought sent a physical shiver of fear racing along her spine.

Ludo Bagman stepped out of the entrance to a bright purple tent as Rachel and the other sixth-year Gryffindors (Fred, George, and Alicia had joined them) were sitting down, and a great cheer roared up from the stands. He beamed genially up at all of them and raised his wand to his throat. His voice was suddenly magically magnified, bouncing around the wooden stadium.

“Welcome all to the first task of the Triwizard Tournament!” He paused, beaming, as another roar of excitement raced across Rachel’s ears from the spectators. “We’re about ready to get things started, so I’d like you all to please direct your attention downwards –“

He gestured with the hand not clutching his wand toward an area to his right. A thousand eager faces leaned forward, craning for a look, and suddenly –

BAM.

A giant, previously hidden door fell outward from a section of the stands opposite the semi-circle of spectator seats. Six muscled, tanned wizards were ushering out a giant, dark shape with small red sparks from their wands. It was tethered to a giant chain that had blended into the rock lining the bottom of the arena. As the shape moved into the light shining into the arena, a collective gasp rose from the crowd.

An enormous and towering silver-and-blue dragon ambled slowly into the arena, looking not at all happy with her present situation. She eyed the audience evilly with a menacing silver gaze; several people shrank back in their seats, and someone screamed. The dragon keepers hurried forward with a thick blanket in which lay oval-shaped silver eggs; one gold one was among them.

“The task,” Bagman was roaring happily across the crowd’s reaction, “is for the champions to collect the golden egg from their dragon. The judges will be giving marks to each champion based on his performance; the champion with the highest marks will win the task. We’ll be starting in just a moment, so if you could all be patient, please –“

He crossed the arena, removing his wand from the base of his throat. Rachel felt as though a large quantity of ice cubes had just been plunged roughly down her throat and into the pit of her stomach. She had leaned forward unknowingly, and was clenching the edge of the seat in front of her with clammy hands. Her friends seemed not to notice her reaction; they were talking excitedly amongst themselves.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” came Bagman’s voice once more; he was now seated at a purple-covered table with the four other judges. “Please give a warm welcome to your first Hogwarts champion, Mr. Cedric Diggory!”

The ice in her stomach turned into boiling lava; Rachel nearly vaulted herself over the stands. She watched as Cedric’s small figure walked onto the rocks from the entrance of the little purple tent where Bagman had appeared, dressed in yellow-and-black robes. The dragon turned her sharp silver gaze on him as he walked out and snorting; a puff of blue smoke rose from her thin nostrils.

“And… Mr. Diggory seems to be evaluating his options, clever lad!” roared Bagman. Cedric started forward purposefully; the dragon followed him with her beady eyes. Suddenly, without warning, the dragon roared; a jet of bright-blue flame was shot heavenward. Cedric ducked quickly behind a rock where the dragon couldn’t see him. Even from this distance, Rachel could tell he was breathing hard. Her own heart felt like it was about to burst out of her chest.

“Near miss there, Mr. Diggory… and he’s started back toward the eggs!” Bagman commentated. Rachel clasped her hands together, bringing them to her lips in silent prayer, trembling slightly. The dragon opened her mouth, preparing to shoot more flame to protect her eggs.

Cedric swiftly directed his wand at a mid-size boulder and shouted something indistinguishable; with a sharp crack and a small spray of gold sparks, the bolder was transformed into a large Labrador. The yellow-and-black-wearing supporters cheered loudly; Bagman was beside himself with excitement.

“Tricky bit of Transfiguration there! Let’s hope it works… and… yes, the dragon has seen it!” And indeed she had; her elegant, terrifying silver-and-blue head was trained intently on the dog, now running in the opposite direction from where Cedric stood, still breathing fast. Her attention was diverted from the eggs…

Like a Firebolt, Cedric bolted forward, intent on his goal: the golden egg amid the silver. He was fifty yards away… forty yards… Rachel clenched her hands harder together, willing the dog to divert the dragon’s attention only a few minutes more…

And then it happened: the dragon saw Cedric darting for her eggs and let out an angry bellow that shook the stadium; dust rained down on the heads of the lower-seated spectators. With another great roar, she shot a second jet of brilliant blue flame, larger and longer than the last; Cedric was momentarily engulfed in it. Screams rippled through the audience, and Rachel clasped her hands to her mouth, eyes wide with fear and shock, almost certain her lungs had collapsed on her – no air passed her lips for a moment.

And, as suddenly as it had started, it was all over; a shrill whistle blast told them that Cedric had accomplished his task. The handlers ran from the opening where they had first appeared, shooting jets of red light at the dragon to subdue her. Mediwizards surged onto the rocky terrain, surrounding Cedric, who emerged from the huddle clutching his prize. A deafening roar went up from one half of the stands; their champion had succeeded.

Without thinking, Rachel turned and fled along the rows of people, ignoring George’s shout of “Where the hell are you going?!” and the cries of several people as she pushed roughly past them. Only one thought was at the forefront of her mind: Was Cedric all right? Her only intention at the moment was to get to him as fast as her feet could carry her… She needed to be with him…

Rachel fairly flew down the staircase, around the arena, past the opening into the champions’ tent and through the flaps of the infirmary tent. Cedric was seated on a small cot at the end, his face being dabbed with a thick orange paste by a thoroughly disgruntled-looking Madam Pomfrey. Without even stopping to check herself, Rachel raced to the end of the tent and, without quite knowing what she was doing, threw her arms tightly around Cedric.

He responded more eagerly than she would ever have expected; to her surprise, he hugged her back even more tightly than she was hugging him. He was still trembling slightly, and he seemed to be taking solace in her firm and physical presence, reassurance that he had succeeded. Rachel could never remember a better smell than the smell of him, his sweat and adrenaline and the curious orange burn paste.

“Come now, Miss Alexander, this is a hospital,” said Madam Pomfrey, although with slightly less annoyance than she might have used on another similar occasion. Neither listened but continued to cling to each other, and finally the witch moved away, shaking her head and smiling slightly.

Finally Cedric drew away and laughed shakily; she did the same, ashamed of the tears that suddenly sparked her eyes. She said the first thing that came to her mind; her eyes roved over the sticky paste that covered half of his face and said, “You’re hurt!”

“Nah.” Cedric grinned; she couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen him this happy, if ever. Not being able to speak from experience, she supposed outsmarting a dragon put one in exceptionally good spirits. Her heart was beating fast again, but not for fear; a curious, tingling warm sensation had replaced the icy fire in the pit of her stomach. She suddenly realized how close she and Cedric were on his cot, how his hand lay lightly yet firmly on hers, but it didn’t bother her who might be looking – no Slytherins could ever ruin this moment. They could only look at each other, grinning stupidly, laughing for no reason at all, and talking of absolutely nothing. Something momentous passed between them; Rachel knew she could sit forever by him, and never want another thing as long as she lived, and she instinctively knew he was feeling the same.

A/N: So! Comments, questions, concerns? I feel this is a good point to add that this is, without a doubt, my very favorite chapter that I have so far written. This may account for its length... No matter! What did YOU think of it? That's what really matters! That little review box down there will help you tell me, and trust me, I do want to know! Thanks for reading this chapter. Hope to see you back soon!


Chapter 8: Waiting In The Library
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The Gryffindor common room was in an uproar that evening, celebrating Harry Potter’s triumph in the first task against his Hungarian Horntail dragon. Rachel had missed seeing him compete – all anyone could talk about was how brilliant it was that he’d managed to snag the egg on his Firebolt - but in all honesty she couldn’t have cared less about how Harry had performed. Although he hadn’t placed first, Cedric had made it through, and that was all that mattered to her. Her anxiety had slowly begun to ebb away, to be replaced by a growing excitement to see the rest of his performances in the coming tasks.

Unfortunately, Fred and George weren’t about to let things slide that easily. She’d managed to elude their inevitable cornering for most of the day, not really wanting to go into details about where she’d run off to after Cedric was escorted out of the stands by the mediwizards, but she figured they had a very good idea exactly where she had been going, anyway.

And, sure enough, she was sitting on one of the squishy sofas in the common room during the celebration party, writing the conclusion to an essay for Professor McGonagall, when two thumps on either side of her told her that her best friends had caught up with her at last. She refused to give them the satisfaction of meeting their eyes and continued scratching her quill across the parchment.

“What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be celebrating with the other Hufflepuffs?” George asked, and she finally looked up long enough to shoot daggers at him before returning to the essay. Fred swiped a sausage roll from Ron’s hand as he was passing and bit into it; Ron, who had been in a foul mood since Halloween, looked as though he’d like to punch his brother but thought better of it.

“Aren’t you even happy our champion is winning?” George persisted, not even trying to hide the odd tone in his voice; they obviously weren’t going to let the subject drop. Rachel looked up in disbelief, but the twins’ faces were both, for once, the epitome of seriousness. She rolled her eyes.

“Of course I’m glad for him!” she said, slightly exasperated. “I just think we should be happy for Cedric too. After all, he’s a Hogwarts champion just as much as Harry is.” But Fred and George exchanged knowing glances across her head, and she felt annoyed; it was evident they didn’t believe her.

“Look, we’re happy for you two,” said Fred, wiping his mouth with his sleeve and brushing the last of the pastry crumbs from his hands. “But you’ve got to be loyal to Gryffindor House, you know – it is your house. Or have you forgotten where the Sorting Hat placed you?"

“I am so sick of trying to be forced into choosing sides!” she burst out in frustration, not quite meaning to lose her cool but unable to stop it now. "And you can just stuff it if you've got anything more to say, because I am not in the mood." Fred, who had at that point opened his mouth to try and slip in another comment, wisely shut it, looking wary.

 It was driving her nuts, this civil war the students had become engaged in, endlessly debating over whether Cedric or Harry was the real Hogwarts champion. And Cedric and Harry didn’t like it, either, so what was the point? It only drew deeper divisions between everyone.

“I’m going to bed,” she said shortly, rolling her parchment up with a snap and jamming it and her quill back into her bag fiercely. Fred and George just looked at her blithely. She’d never lost her temper with them before now, and it seemed to have shocked them rather speechless. “Talk to me again when you’ve gotten over this ‘real Hogwarts champion’ nonsense,” she added tersely, and despite the early hour of the party climbed the steps to her dormitory and rolled into bed.

But she lay awake for a time after this, not being able to sleep for the thoughts buzzing like bees in her brain. Cedric was safe, and she was happy, but it depressed her that she couldn’t let her feelings show around her friends. Everyone in Gryffindor had put such an effort into backing “their” champion that they were getting swept away in the madness without quite realizing where it was going. What kinds of foreign friendships could they hope to bolster if they were at war with their own classmates? Could it come to a good end if no one was willing to support one another?

She was sorry she’d snapped at her friends, though, because they certainly weren’t the ones who’d deserved it. She made a mental note to make them a sincere apology in the morning, and then turned over, closing her eyes and punching her pillow into a more comfortable shape. And then her thoughts wandered back to being with Cedric in the medical tent, and a smile crossed her face as she finally drifted into dreams.

November faded slowly into early December with no real changes, other than the bitingly cold weather. Snow fell almost every night on the castle, powdering the tops of the trees in the forest and covering anew each evening the footsteps that dotted the grounds. Rachel came to value Herbology class with Cedric, Matt, and Anders more than ever, for they seemed to be the only people not at odds with each other in the corridors. They, at least, were gracious enough to acknowledge the skills of both Hogwarts champions.

Cedric and Rachel didn’t speak about whatever had passed between them in the infirmary tent. Although something had clearly been felt by both parties, it was also clear that neither knew exactly what it was. They were more polite to each other than they had been previously. Their study nights in the library continued as always, but they were actually studying and doing homework now, rather than sharing stories and talking about nothing in particular, as they had done before.

Rachel worried tirelessly that she might have messed things up for her and Cedric before they even really began. She couldn’t explain why he might suddenly become slightly more distant from her, and she fretted again that it might be yet another result of the rift the tournament seemed to have cause. Surely he couldn’t think that she was of the same narrow mindset the other Gryffindors had displayed of late – but that was the only plausible scenario she could think of.

Worse, the Slytherins seemed to be doing an awful lot more whispering when she was around lately. As if she needed another burden to worry about, Rachel suspected more than ever that someone had blabbed to one of them about her crush on Cedric, and wondered if this could be the reason for his distance. Never before in her life had she stressed so much, and over a boy! It was ridiculous, but she couldn’t help it, and the worry remained ever present.

In mid-December, an announcement was made to all students fourth year and above that (if possible) increased her nerves tenfold. It was announced throughout the school that, to celebrate the holidays with their foreign guests, Hogwarts would be hosting a Yule Ball on Christmas night.

Rachel, who was sitting in Charms between Alicia and Angelina one day about a week after the announcement and trying not to listen to all the chatter about the ball that was drifting across the classroom, was already heartily sick of everyone’s obsession with the upcoming dance. The girls seemed to all have been hit with the Rictusempra hex, so frequent were their giggles, and boys suddenly became much more withdrawn than normal – all except Fred and George. They were making a big joke of it, as always.

Sitting three rows in front of the girls now were the twins themselves, heads together, whispering eagerly about something, and, Rachel thought wryly, it probably wouldn’t have taken a genius to figure out what. Angelina suddenly began to giggle as Fred turned around and gave her a broad wink, and Alicia joined in. Rachel scoffed and began gathering up her things and stuffing them into her bag as the bell pealed. As if the whole school needed another excuse to get competitive. This dance certainly was a brilliant idea.

The other sixth-year Charms students pushed toward the door in a wave. Rachel tried to join the queue out the door, but felt a hand yank her upper arm. She turned angrily, and wasn’t much placated to see Fred and George standing there, grinning like idiots.

“Shut up. Now,” she said immediately, giving them a half amused, half exasperated look. “I really don’t want to hear your guys’ little jokes about Cedric right now, got it?” As if broadly hinting about the ball to every female on two legs wasn’t enough, they had been relentlessly teasing Rachel about Cedric because of it as well – even more so than normal. Judging by her mixed emotions regarding that particular boy at the moment, the jokes were most ill-timed. But, of course, they couldn’t know that.

“Us? Joke?” George said, faking being appalled at her words. He glanced at Fred, and they cracked identical grins before leaving the classroom. She rolled her eyes and headed toward the library, intending to knock some of her homework out of the way during her break before she had to head to Defense Against the Dark Arts.

Suddenly, as she turned a corner, she saw a group of Slytherin sixth-years walking in her direction. She sucked in a breath and tried to pretend they weren’t there; maybe if they didn’t notice her, they wouldn’t make snide comments about Cedric.

Unfortunately, no one else was in the corridor to shield her from view.

“Look! It’s Alexander!” laughed one particularly nasty girl Rachel knew only by sight from spending so much time in Potions with the Slytherins. “Or should we call you Diggory now? Haven’t you set a date for the wedding yet?”

Rachel felt her face grow hot, which was unfortunately exactly the response they had been hoping for. A tall, skinny boy made kissing noises between pursed lips, and that set them howling again.

“Your boyfriend’s in the library, bet he’s waiting for you!” called the first girl over her shoulder, and they walked away laughing nastily. Rachel’s heart gave a little somersault, and she walked a little more quickly than normal into the library.

Sure enough, she recognized Cedric’s profile as he bent over a table, studying a thick book intently. He looked up as she slid into the chair across from him and, smiling slightly, opened his mouth to say something, but Madam Pince swooped down upon them in an instant.

“No talking in the library!” she hissed, looking as though she’d like to drop a couple of the books she was carrying on their heads. Rachel frowned.

“We weren’t-“ she began, but the woman’s nostrils flared dangerously, and Rachel quickly dug her Charms book out of her bag and flipped through it. Madam Pince stalked away back to her desk, and Rachel looked back at Cedric; he was shaking with silent laughter.

“Shut up,” she whispered, grinning but not daring to raise her head more than a few centimeters from the book in case the librarian happened to still be looking in their direction. Cedric grinned back but said nothing more. Instead he motioned toward the corridor outside. Rachel nodded, and they both stood up and put their books in their bags. Rachel glanced over her shoulder; the librarian looked as if she was about to get up and say something to them again. They quickly left the library.

“What an old hag,” Cedric said promptly once they were out of her earshot, and Rachel burst out laughing. He grinned down at her, and suddenly looked a little embarrassed.“So, um… I kind of heard what those Slytherins said to you… before you came in.” He looked down at his feet.

Rachel wanted to sink right through the floor and never set eyes on him again. “Oh, yeah?” she stammered, her voice squeaking. Her face flamed red and her throat seemed to be closing in on her windpipe.

“Yeah… so, before you get the wrong idea, I just wanted to say that I am totally cool with us being friends,” he said quickly. She felt like someone had just punched her in the stomach.

“Oh…” she said quietly. Her eyes burned but she forced the tears to go back down. You always knew this was going to happen, she tried to tell herself, but she knew it was a lie. The past few months she’d let herself get her hopes up, much further than she should have. She only felt stupid for not seeing it sooner.

“Yeah,” Cedric said now, still looking uncomfortable. “This is weird… I don’t know how they found out, but I was going to tell you soon. Honest.” He looked like he wanted to sink into the floor too, and Rachel frowned; his sentence didn’t fit in with the rest of her train of thought.

“Wait, what?” she blurted, halting dead in her tracks.

“I don’t know how they found out I liked you,” he continued, going pink in the cheeks. “But I was going to tell you, only… they got there first. I think it was that stupid Ben Drewart, he’s been a little sore at me since I turned down all his Quidditch tactics for next year’s cup.” He scowled slightly at the floor.

For a minute she said nothing, only stared at him in disbelief, her mouth open. She didn’t believe what she was hearing; this never happened, not to her… All those times she’d been teased by the Slytherins, they hadn’t been talking about her… they’d been talking about Cedric?

Cedric looked like he wanted to kick himself. “I’m sorry,” he said hastily, running a hand over his face. “I should have told you. Look, I’ll just-“

“No!” Rachel blurted, and laughed out loud. She felt almost giddy with relief. “It’s just… I thought someone had told them that… well, that I liked you…” Cedric looked up hastily, and she laughed again at the new look on his face.

“So… you thought… they were teasing you?” he said slowly, and she nodded, although she knew she was still as red as a beet. He laughed and ran a hand through his hair.

“Well! This certainly wasn’t how I thought my day was going to go,” he said with incredulity. They started down the corridor again, and this time Rachel was convinced than someone had charmed the carpet under her feet into clouds.

“So, um… would you like to go to the Yule Ball with me?” he asked, and she looked at him and beamed.

“I’d love to,” she said, and he grinned, relief washing over his face.

“Great!” he said enthusiastically, and as if it was planned, the bell rang just then. Students began pouring out of classes, and the corridors turned into the normal battle for survival.

“So, I guess… I’ll see you later,” Cedric said, and Rachel nodded. They said their good-byes and he headed down the staircase for Potions while she turned in the direction of Defense Against the Dark Arts.

She had a date to the Yule Ball. With Cedric Diggory, of all people! Even her wildest dreams had never extended this far.

The same group of Slytherins from in front of the library was queuing outside the Charms classroom, waiting to go in. The sixth-year girl who’d taunted her earlier grinned as she entered their line of vision. “Hey, Alexander! How’d it go with your boyfriend?” she asked, drawing out the word.

To their immense surprise, Rachel beamed at them. “Great! Thanks for helping out!” she called, and, laughing at the extremely stupid looks on their faces, went off to her class, certain her heart could be seen beating madly from underneath her robes, and not really caring either way.

A/N: So, thanks to the absolutely brilliant work of the validators, this chapter's popping up here rather quickly! So, maybe Cedric and Rachel are finally getting together? What do you think? It sure seems that way, but then again, what a good story without a few twists, yeah? I hope you're enjoying this story, because I sure do enjoy your reviews!
 
 


Chapter 9: The Evening Prophet
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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!


Chapter 10: Here Goes Nothing
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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.


Chapter 11: The Yule Ball
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Cedric was waiting at the foot of the stairs, and when Rachel came into view a smile lit up his face. Her breath caught yet again in her throat – he looked so handsome - and she had to remind herself to keep on inhaling and exhaling as she walked the last few steps to stand beside him. He held out his arm as Fred had done only minutes earlier in the common room, and she took it, trying not to stare at him too much and failing entirely.

“You look really nice,” he said, and she blushed slightly, opening her mouth to tell him how nice he looked, too. But at that precise moment Professor McGonagall stepped out of the closed doors leading into the Great Hall, wearing a tartan dress of her own; it was odd not to see her in her usual emerald green robes.

“Champions and their partners, if you could step over here, please!” she called crisply over the heads of the students milling around the entrance hall. Cedric and Rachel stepped over to the area under the stairs where she was motioning. Glancing over her shoulder, Rachel caught Lee’s eye; he gave her a thumbs-up and a broad grin before walking with Alicia into the Great Hall.

“Right, then,” said Professor McGonagall, once the four champions and their partners had assembled around her. “Once everyone has gone into the hall, you will take your places at the table set up there for the feast. However, once the feast has ended, you must take your spots on the floor. Remember, you will be opening the dancing. Do you all understand?” She eyed them all beadily, and six heads nodded in unison; only Rachel and Harry Potter seemed to take this as news.

“Open the dance?” Rachel whispered at Cedric, feeling as though her throat had suddenly gone very dry. Harry had now taken Professor McGonagall aside; the Ravenclaw girl she’d seen in the Three Broomsticks a few months ago was hanging off his arm. Cedric looked concerned at Rachel’s question.

“Yeah, I – didn’t I tell you?” he said, sounding confused. Rachel shook her head, now feeling a lot more nervous than she already had. Dancing with Cedric while being surrounded by other people was bad enough, but now she’d be dancing in front of other people?

“I can’t dance, Cedric,” she whispered urgently, and he smiled. Well, apparently he hadn’t forgotten her clumsiness.

“Trust me, just follow what I do,” he said. She opened her mouth to protest, to insist that no matter what he did, it wouldn’t help her two left feet at all, but at that moment Professor McGonagall arched an eyebrow in their direction; the other pairs were lined up already. Cedric and Rachel scurried to the back of the line.

They waited in a few minutes’ tense silence, Rachel wondering how on earth she was going to manage this without making herself look stupider in front of Cedric. He looked fairly calm – once you’d tackled a dragon, Rachel supposed, nothing else was really going to be hard anymore. Still, her stomach was fluttering nervously, and she instinctively drew closer to Cedric. Even through her jitters, her brain still registered that he didn’t move away from her.

The minutes before the doors to the Great Hall swung open seemed to drag on forever – Rachel had time to take in every minute detail of the embroidery on Fleur’s dress, and the stitching on Krum’s dress robes, and most especially the warmth of Cedric’s body near hers. She was in a slight state of panic, worrying about tripping over her dress or walking right into Hermione Granger, who was standing in front of her, next to Viktor Krum.

Finally, the doors creaked open, and the voices of the students and staff already inside died down to a low murmur. The normally bright candles that hung over the hall were dimmed, and instead of four long House tables, smaller purple tables were grouped around a large cleared space Rachel guessed must have been left especially for the dancing. Cedric and Rachel followed the other champions toward still-vacant places at the top table, where the faculty and judges were sitting.

All throughout dinner she tried to make easy conversation with Cedric and Hermione Granger, who was seated on her right, but it was hard to concentrate when she was worrying about what was to come. Cedric seemed to notice her nerves, and leaned over during one part of the dinner, looking worried.

“Are you okay?” he asked in a low voice so as to not attract attention, raising his eyebrows in a show of concern for her.

“I’m fine,” she smiled, trying to look reassuring and stop her hand from its slight shaking at the same time. She was almost as nervous now as she had been before walking down to meet Cedric – and that certainly was saying something!

Before she was quite ready, the feast had ended, and Professor McGonagall had leaned down the table to look pointedly at the four champions and their dates. They got up, and all eyes seemed to follow the pairs as they made their way once more through the tables and chairs, this time spacing themselves around the open floor.

The sound of a baton tapping a music stand faintly registered in her ears, and she placed a hand on Cedric’s shoulder, taking his other in her hand. Violins and cellos began to play, and Cedric started leading her around the dance floor.

It was all going wonderfully, much better than she’d expected beforehand – her eyes were locked with Cedric’s, and she quite nearly lost herself in their beautiful gray color. She didn’t much care right now if she was acting like a character in a romance novel, because this was almost like a fairy tale in itself, with the sparkling icicles and Christmas decorations that had been constructed around the hall. She felt herself beginning to relax, Cedric leading her smoothly through the dance steps.

And then, of course, her heel caught on a rough flagstone in the floor.

Off-balance, she stumbled backward, and before Cedric knew what was happening, she found herself sitting hard on the stone floor, legs sprawled awkwardly in front of her. Laughter rippled through the onlookers, mostly from a section near the back that Rachel strongly suspected to be made up of mostly Slytherins. She felt her face flame up, hotter than ever before. She wanted to sink right through the floor and never come back up.

Cedric had stuck out both of his hands, and she took them and climbed to her feet shakily. He was smiling as well, but there was concern behind his gray eyes; she felt infinitely grateful to him for that. “Don’t worry about it,” he said under his breath, replacing his hand to her waist. “I’ll catch you next time.”

Rachel felt her heart begin doing cartwheels in her chest. She smiled through her embarrassment and tuned out the lingering chuckles from some of the onlookers. But she kept glancing at the floor, wary of any more trips like the first one she’d had. Embarrassing herself in front of the whole school once was enough, thank you very much.

“Didn’t I just tell you I’d catch you?” Cedric said, and she looked up quickly, grinning; a wide smile was on his face as well. “Don’t look down,” he added, and pulled her slightly closer. Her legs turned to jelly and she was terrified that she really would fall again, but was determined not to look down. At this point, if Cedric had asked her to throw Dungbombs at Filch she would have done it.

This, Rachel thought, had to be one of the happiest moments in her life – just being with Cedric, dancing with him, feeling his arms around her and the fabric of his dress robes under her own fingers. It seemed like the moment was hanging in time, as though it was entirely plausible that it might go on forever that way. She half-wished that it would.

Rachel and Cedric had stopped when the first song ended, although she couldn’t have rightly said when exactly that had been. He was now looking down at her with an expression she couldn’t ever remember seeing on his face before, watching her while her own rambling thoughts flitted across her brain. She waited, tense with anticipation at his expression, her hand still on his shoulder.

“Do you want to go for a walk?” he said abruptly as the band raised their instruments for the next song.
“Is my dancing that awful?” she teased, and Cedric laughed and shook his head emphatically.

“Not at all, but we wouldn’t want you spraining your ankle next,” he teased back, and held out his arm for her once more. They slipped between the dancing couples – she passed by Fred and Angelina, and Angelina raised her eyebrows suggestively – and emerged into the nearly deserted entrance hall. The doors to the grounds were flung wide, leading out into a makeshift garden arranged specifically for the ball’s purposes.

A little path of crushed white rocks wove among newly-planted bushes, each of which sparkled with tiny lights that Rachel was surprised to see were actually real fairies. Statues had also mysteriously sprung up around the little garden, and from the trickling of water that reached her ears, Rachel assumed there were fountains there as well. She had to hand it to whoever had thought this up.

Cedric seemed to have no destination in mind, and that was absolutely fine with her. They walked side by side in a comfortable and amicable silence, listening to the fountains playing somewhere beyond their range of vision. They reached the center of the little path, a circular fountain of children playing with fairies, and Cedric sat down on the rim of the basin; Rachel did the same.

Her heart seemed to have once more lodged itself in the vicinity of her throat – it seemed to happen with increasing frequency whenever she was around Cedric. She never thought she’d be the kind of person to experience all of these romance-novel feelings, but now she had turned into the giggling, blushing girl she’d always thought so silly. She couldn’t entirely say she disliked the change - or rather, the reason for it.

Cedric turned to face her suddenly, and she shook her head slightly, cutting off her second internal monologue of the evening (that was definitely a habit she didn’t want to start developing). He was smiling slightly, and she couldn’t help but smile back, feeling warmth begin to blossom in the pit of her stomach. She desperately searched her mind for something to say, hoping she didn’t look like a total idiot right now, sitting there with nothing to say.

And then, without warning, Cedric leaned forward and pressed his lips to hers.

They lingered there for moments – or perhaps it was much longer than moments, Rachel never really knew - before they finally broke away. Cedric was looking at her, his eyes slightly wide as though he didn’t really know what he’d just done. She looked back at him breathlessly, still feeling the pressure of his lips on hers, not quite knowing what to do next.

“I’ve wanted to do that for a long time,” he said softly, his face flushed. Rachel just continued to look evenly at him, not allowing her face to give away the fact that he had just set her heart racing at a million miles an hour. She did the only thing that she could think of doing, and it was both wonderfully brilliant and wonderfully stupid. She leaned forward and kissed him back.

Of one thing she remained certain – this second kiss definitely lasted more than moments, and more than minutes besides. It was almost surreal, sitting on a fountain and kissing Cedric Diggory, and she half-wondered if she might even be dreaming. Maybe she’d knocked her head during the fall in the Great Hall, and was currently knocked out cold on a bed in the hospital wing.

Dear Merlin, if this is a dream, let me never wake up.

Cedric’s hands found hers, and he wrapped his fingers around her own, just tight enough to make her stomach clench pleasantly. It was all she could think about – the warmth of his hands, the smell of his cologne, the feeling of his lips on hers…

A loud crashing sound from their right cut through what had until now been silence, and Rachel and Cedric jumped apart, his hands still wrapped snugly around hers. Peeves, the resident poltergeist of the castle, had burst through a carefully manicured rosebush upside-down, bits of leaves and twigs sticking to his garish bowtie. His eyes lighted on the pair by the fountain, and a wicked grin cracked his wide face.

“Why, what is this?” he said in mock puzzlement, flipping right side up and bobbing like a cork in the air. Rachel glanced sideways at Cedric and caught his eye; he grinned sheepishly, and she mirrored it. Peeves swooped over to bob between them, darting his beady little eyes between them.

“Do I spy two ickle students romping about in the garden?” he said, revolving slowly. Cedric rolled his eyes, a slight blush tingeing his cheeks again.

“Get out of here, Peeves,” he muttered, another grin creeping across his face. Rachel laughed and watched as the little man blew a very large, wet raspberry, flipped upside down once more, and went zooming off in the other direction, humming something that sounded suspiciously like a wedding march.

From somewhere inside the castle, a bell tolled quarter to twelve. Rachel couldn’t believe it was already that late; the time had just flown by and had caught her totally unawares. She returned her gaze to Cedric, who also seemed surprised by the lateness of the hour.

“I guess… we should go back inside,” she said regretfully, and instantly wanting to take the words back – what if Cedric thought he’d only made things awkward for her? If she’d had things her way, she could have sat by Cedric here and kissed him until the end of the world.

“I guess so,” he echoed, and her heart jumped selfishly at the note of disappointment in his voice. They stood in unison from the rim of the fountain, and Rachel sought his hand again. He squeezed it and smiled down at her gently, and, leaning forward, tucked a strand of hair that had fallen from her bun back behind her ear. The gesture sent a cold shiver down her spine.

Other students, having noted the lateness of the hour, were milling around the entrance hall when they stepped back inside, saying good-bye to their dates. Some of the girls were sprawled on the floor together, rubbing their feet from the marks their heels had left there.

Cedric and Rachel stopped at the foot of the stairs, near the doorway that led to the painting concealing the Hufflepuff common room. He still clutched her hand tightly in his; she could feel his pulse beating in his wrist. It was thrilling to be able to take in small details such as that.

“I had a great time,” she smiled, speaking softly, and he nodded in agreement. Rachel suddenly found herself inexplicably at a loss for words. She became aware of more than a few pairs of eyes that had turned in their direction, and squirmed inwardly at the scrutiny.

“I really had fun, Rach,” Cedric broke into her thoughts. She looked up into his gray eyes, her heart beating uncomfortably fast as she recalled their kisses in the garden.

Sod it.

She raised herself up and kissed him for the second time that evening, thrilled that he didn’t pull away but instead placed his hands firmly on her waist. Goosebumps blossomed up and down her arms, her body reacting once again to the touch of his lips on hers. They finally broke away, identical grins cracking their faces.

“Good night,” she laughed, turning pink, and began to climb the stairs, not even registering the chuckles and whistles that were coming from the onlookers still lingering about the entrance hall.

If someone had asked her all those months ago on the Hogwarts Express whether she thought that, a mere three and a half months later, she would have kissed Cedric Diggory three times in the same night, she would have laughed outright.

Wasn’t life just a little bit funny sometimes?
 

A/N: Hmm... this was a rather boring little chapter, wasn't it? Rather humdrum, all around. Nothing of note. Nothing... at all. And certainly nothing that's been building up for eleven chapters. Well, what do you think? I'd love to know - as always!


Chapter 12: The Flying Lesson
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The snow continued to fall as steadily as it had been doing for the past few weeks, and it was the first of January before the students of Hogwarts were treated to a clear, albeit cold, sky outside. Filch could be seen puttering around the grounds with a rather bent snow shovel in his hands, a tartan scarf wrapped tightly around his neck, Mrs. Norris in a similar scarf twisting about his legs. Fred and George started to occupy most of their free time with organizing massive House-wide snowball fights, which more often than not ended with some Gryffindor first year with a handful or three of snow down the back of his robes.

Rachel chose not to partake in these snow wars, however; as the classes began to loom ever closer on their schedules, she and Cedric found more and more time to spend in each other’s company in their waning class-free hours. Since the Yule Ball, now that it had been made rather clear how one felt about the other, they spent a good deal of time in the library or walking the corridors, talking long about nothing and laughing more than was perhaps strictly necessary. Some small part of her still didn’t quite believe that Cedric could ever return the feelings she had unwittingly developed for him, but all his actions contradicted that nagging doubt tenfold - he certainly hadn’t left the kissing to a garden at Christmas, and admittedly, neither had she.

The last day before the students were due to resume classes, a Sunday, was one of the warmest days the castle had seen in quite some time, and the grounds underneath their feet turned to slush and mud rather quickly. The twins had found that pelting passersby with slush balls wasn’t nearly as fun as the previous snow had been, and so it was with relief that Rachel and Cedric found themselves walking on the grounds that afternoon, not having to worry too much about being ambushed at each turn. Cedric was talking about Quidditch, and some of the games he’d played, and Rachel (who, despite reading several books on the sport, knew almost nothing about the real experience of game play) found herself more excited by his descriptions than she was willing to admit.

“And so then, everything got really cold,” Cedric was saying animatedly, a kind of delight lighting up his eyes as he described a Quidditch match he’d played in last year, when dementors had stormed the field in the middle of the game. “And I’d just managed to get my fingers around the Snitch when we saw this scarlet thing, falling from the sky. It’s just lucky Professor Dumbledore realized it was Potter, really, or that could have been nasty…”

Perhaps it wasn’t a surprise that the couple suddenly found themselves at the gates to the Quidditch Pitch, looking up at the empty, hollow-looking shells that comprised the stadium; it seemed their feet had carried them there automatically. This was the closest Rachel thought she’d ever been to the stands; they looked a lot closer from this view. She suddenly became aware that Cedric had stopped recounting the match; he was looking up with a kind of longing etched on his face.

“You really miss playing Quidditch,” she said softly, slipping her hand into his own almost as an afterthought. He nodded and squeezed the hand, and warmth flooded the pit of her stomach, as it always did.

“It really is kind of a shame you aren’t playing this year,” she added, still watching his face. “Everyone says you’re a greet Seeker, Ced – I really wish I could have actually watched you.”

Cedric turned to her, a wicked grinning suddenly splitting her face, and she looked back apprehensively. “I’ll teach you,” he said, and she laughed outright.

“Uh, no, you won’t,” she said, still laughing. “If you can recall the last time I tried to do something I was lousy at, I nearly twisted my ankle. Can you imagine what kind of damage I could do to me or you if you got me up in the air?”

“Oh, that was dancing,” he said airily, brushing her protest off as though it was of no consequence. “This is different, way different.” He looked extremely excited, his whole appearance transformed, and Rachel couldn’t help but catch a bit of his excitement as well. “Let me teach you,” he teased, leaning down and putting his forehead to hers. She grinned, but still didn’t want to fully give in to him.

“Cedric, the last time I flew… well, it didn’t end up great.” She cringed inwardly, reflecting on her first year flying lessons and how she had been the only one who couldn’t fly in a straight line. “I’m just going to make a fool of myself, you know.”

“Rach.” He said it so sternly that she couldn’t help but grin sheepishly, noting that his eyes were smiling and knowing he didn’t mean a bit of his mock severity. “If I say you’re going to fly, you’re going to fly – if I have to drag you on the broom myself.”

“Okay! You win,” she agreed, and kissed his lips quickly as a consolation. He smiled at her, and then began to move into the arena. Her stomach flipped.

“Wait – now?” she said, remaining where she was – she didn’t think he meant teach her today. Cedric grinned wickedly over his shoulder, and crossed back over to her, gently taking her hands in his and starting to walk backwards.

“I’m not going to let you fall, remember? I’ll catch you,” he smiled. “You’ll have fun, Rach. I promise.” His gray eyes widened slightly, and she laughed, shaking her head as though unbelieving he could be so convincing. She let him lead her to the broom shed on the opposite side of the pitch from where they’d entered, thinking absently that she would pretty much walk across the earth if he was leading her like this.

When had she turned into such a sap, anyway?

He let go of her hands to open the broom shed, and from inside withdrew two of the school’s brooms, used by those who didn’t have one of their own. Whether they were good brooms or not, Rachel really didn’t know – she hadn’t yet gotten around to checking out any of the issues of Which Broomstick? quite yet. She watched in pleasant silence as Cedric seemed to be inspecting them for something, and then finally nodded.

“These will work,” he said, and tossed one to her. Unexpected as the toss was, she managed to catch the broom handle before it fell onto the ground, and was rather pleased with this victory over her clumsiness. Perhaps she should stop while she was ahead?

Cedric was watching her as thoughts flitted across her brain, grinning slightly as though he knew exactly what she was thinking. “You’ll do fine,” he said, and without preamble mounted his broom and pushed off hard from the ground with the toes of his sneakers. He zoomed into the air, and Rachel heard him let out a whoop, causing her to laugh at how happy he was to be back in the air.

Cedric zoomed around the pitch a few times, letting out his pent-up energy, and finally touched down next to her once more. The cold wind had turned his cheeks pink, and his hair was windswept from his race around the stands. Why have I never thought watching Quidditch was a good idea? Rachel found herself thinking without meaning to.

“I’m going to fall,” she said firmly as soon as Cedric was within hearing range once more. He laughed, and this time it was his turn to shake his head.

“You won’t,” he said, just as resolutely, and mounted his broom next to her – this time he didn’t kick off from the ground. “Do as I do,” he said, and she tried copying his stance, positioning her hands awkwardly on the broom handle.

“Further down the neck, or you’ll lose your grip… there, that looks better,” Cedric said, concentrating hard, fully in his element out here on the field. He looked up and caught her smiling at him. “What?” he laughed.

“Nothing,” she said, looking back down at the handle and clenching it firmly in her hands, trying not to think too much of how close Cedric was standing to her – a hard thing, to be sure. “Like this?” she asked, and he nodded smartly.

“Right, now – your feet go on either side, like this. Yeah. And then you just push –“ He kicked off from the ground again, and the broom rose into the air, hovering about six feet over her head. Feeling rather stupid, and suddenly having vivid memories of her eleven-year-old self, Rachel dug her toes into the soft grass of the pitch.

To her shock, the broom shot up jerkily, and she just managed to hang on, unable to help the little gasp of shock that escaped her lips at leaving the firm, solid ground behind her. Cedric laughed at her reaction, moving his broom a little closer to hers.

“Great. Now, to move forward, just lean a bit over the neck – not too much, or you’ll shoot forward too fast,” he cautioned. “To slow down, do just the opposite – lean back.” He demonstrated, gliding effortlessly forward a few yards and then coming to a halt in midair. She inched shakily toward him, concentrating hard on her hands on the broom handle, relieved to see that she was going more or less in a straight line.

“See? You can do this,” he called over to her, smirking slightly, pleased that he had been right. She stuck her tongue out at him good-naturedly and began experimenting around the field, leaning left and right as Cedric started doing barrel rolls above her.

“Show off!” she called up as he twisted in midair, and she heard his laugh from where she was now lapping the field – she had never really quite realized how much she loved hearing him laugh. She smiled to herself as she made her way around the field, leaning lower and lower over the handle as she grew more confident in her flying abilities.

This wasn’t bad at all, she realized – she could see why Fred and George, and admittedly the rest of her friends, loved flying so much. Rachel felt almost weightless, and it certainly was an intoxicating feeling. She barely even noticed how fast she was going until she heard a whistling from behind her, and Cedric came speeding up alongside her, leaned low over the handle of his own broom.

“Are you trying to race me, Diggory?” she called over the rushing wind in her ears.

“Not trying – succeeding!” he yelled back, and leaned even further over the broom neck, shooting ahead of her; he looked like little more than a blur to her now. She laughed and did the same, marveling at how incredibly natural this now seemed to her. Had she really been such a terrible flier six years ago? That was a little embarrassing.

She saw Cedric slowing down, half a field length ahead, and did the same, coming to a slightly shaky halt in midair beside him. “We’ll stop there for today. You did really well, Rach,” he said, leaping lightly off the handle and turning to her, holding up his arms. Blushing slightly, and telling herself it was the fresh air that was turning her cheeks pink, she took his hands and jumped to the ground, landing far less gracefully than he had.

“Only as good as my teacher,” she quipped, giving his hands a little squeeze. He suddenly leaned down and kissed her, sending a thrill right to the tips of her toes in their sneakers. She wondered if his kisses would ever not make that happen – somehow, she seriously doubted it.

They put the brooms back in the broom shed, and then began making their way back to the castle – judging by how low the sun was hanging in the sky, dinner would be served soon. They walked in a companionable silence, shoulder to shoulder, still clutching hands.

As Rachel and Cedric began making their way up the sloping lawn toward the double doors, however, someone emerged from the castle, looking around and spotting the two. The person began making his way purposefully toward them, although his progress was hindered by a wooden leg and a cane.

“Evening, Miss Alexander. Mr. Diggory,” growled Professor Moody once he was within speaking range, his electric blue eye fixed unblinkingly on Cedric. He always unnerved her, somehow – she didn’t know if it was the eye, or his scarred face, or his half-gone nose that did it.

“Can I help you, sir?” asked Cedric, clearly as confused as Rachel was as to why a teacher would be seeking them out on the weekend. The overly anxious part of Rachel’s brain kicked in at that moment, and she wondered wildly if perhaps she and Cedric hadn’t been allowed to go flying on the pitch. But as though he had read her mind, Moody’s blue eye suddenly swiveled dizzily in its socket to look at her, and she swallowed the apology she’d been ready to voice.

“I’d like to talk to Mr. Diggory alone, if you don’t mind,” he said in a gravelly voice, although it was rather clear that he didn’t care whether Rachel minded or not. She looked at Cedric, noting his small frown – he evidently didn’t have a clue as to what was going on – and shrugged a little helplessly.

“See you later, then,” she said, feeling a little awkward at having to say good-bye to Cedric in front of a teacher. She squeezed his hand and continued walking up to the double doors as Professor Moody placed a gnarled hand on Cedric’s shoulder and began steering him in the direction of the lake.

Why would Professor Moody want to speak to Cedric alone? Rachel wondered. It suddenly occurred to her that this might have something to do with the tournament. In the months since the first task and the dragon, what with everything else going on, Rachel had almost allowed herself to forget that the second task would be taking place at the end of February. As much as she dreaded it, she had to admit to herself that it was much nearer than she’d realized.

The Gryffindor table was crowded, as usual, but she managed to squeeze into a spot between Angelina and Alicia, pulling a plate of roast potatoes towards her.

“Saw you and Diggory out on the pitch from the tower window,” said Angelina suddenly, hiding a smirk behind her goblet. “Planning on trying out for the Quidditch team next year? Or would the rivalry be too much for the lovebirds?” Rachel stuck out her tongue at her friend, knowing she was teasing, and merely speared a potato and pretended to become very interested in what Lee and George were saying across the table.

It was only once pudding had cleared away and everyone was rising from their seats that Rachel looked over to the Hufflepuff table. Cedric had never come in to dinner.

A/N: Thanks to the SUPER work of our validaters, these updates are flying in! This was a fun, lighthearted chapter to write, and I've been wanting to write about flying for a long time, since it's such a big deal to Cedric. Thank you to LadyMalfoy23 for giving me this idea! And thanks to you, my readers, for all the reads and reviews and favorites. You flatter me! What'd you think? Let me know!


Chapter 13: Cracking the Egg
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Rachel lay staring up at the underside of the canopy above her four-poster, inexplicably unable to sleep. By now it must have been well past midnight, and she knew that her tomorrow was the first day back to class, but for some reason she was wide awake – well, she knew the reason. The question of why Cedric hadn’t appeared at dinner was still burned into the forefront of her mind.

How could she have forgotten that the second task of the tournament was so close? She’d been so elated that Cedric had made it through battling with the dragon virtually unscathed that she really hadn’t given the following tasks much thought at all. Coupled with all the drama that had followed her before the Yule Ball, plus the dance itself, she hadn’t really had spare time to think about much else. But of course there were going to be more – and now she once again had that familiar nervous knot in her stomach, thinking of having to watch Cedric risk his life once again. All for a stupid competition.

She turned over, unable to get comfortable beneath the thick down comforter. Katie’s snores from across the little tower room seemed even louder than they normally were – for some reason they grated especially hard on Rachel’s nerves tonight. She flopped back over on her back, looking at the little patch of light that the moon cast on the canopy, willing herself into sleep.

Footsteps could be heard suddenly in the corridor connecting all the girls’ dormitories, trotting quickly in the direction of the sixth-year room. Rachel sat up on an elbow, watching the door through the darkness. Sure enough, as though she had known it was coming, whoever the footsteps belonged too stopped outside the door. A loud knock broke the silence, and Alicia mumbled in her sleep and rolled over.

Quickly, trying hard not to wake her friends, Rachel slipped out of bed and stole quietly to the door. She cracked it open and blinked in the sudden, harsh light emanating from the end of the visitor’s wand. Still squinting, she recognized a fourth-year Gryffindor girl, Hermione Granger, standing there, still wearing her robes.

“What is it? What are you still doing up?” Rachel asked, her voice groggier than she’d thought. She rubbed a hand over her eyes, still unused to the light.

“I’ve been doing homework –“ Hermione began matter-of-factly, and Rachel cut her off in disbelief.

“What? We haven’t even gone back yet,” she said, amazed at how bookish this girl really was – it seemed that Fred and George really weren’t exaggerating. The fourth-year brushed this off, looking slightly annoyed that Rachel had chosen to focus on this particular issue.

“Doesn’t matter,” she said brusquely. “Look, Cedric Diggory is outside the common room and he said he really needs to talk to you. I told him you were sleeping, but he said it was really important.”

Rachel suddenly felt wide awake. She quickly hurried back to her bed, leaving the door ajar, and threw on some jeans, a white T-shirt, and a gray sweater, running her fingers through her hair and hoping beyond hope that it wasn’t too frizzy from lying on the pillow. When she returned to the door leading out to the corridor, she found that Hermione Granger was still there, looking mightily put-out.

“You know, you shouldn’t be leaving your dormitory after curfew,” she said bossily, following Rachel down the spiral staircase into the common room. The fire in the grate was now burning low; it was a wonder that Hermione found enough light to do her homework by.

“If you’re caught, you’ll get in so much trouble,” Hermione continued, talking rather fast, as though she wanted to get everything out before Rachel left the room. But all her admonitions were ignored; Rachel pushed open the Fat Lady’s portrait and scrambled through the portrait hole, and the nagging voice behind her was cut off.

Cedric was standing against the stone wall adjoining the portrait, deep in thought, but he looked up as she emerged. “I have something to show you,” he said, without waiting for her to ask why he had called her out in the middle of the night. She noticed he had the golden egg he’d collected from the silver and blue dragon in the first task under his arm. Then she became aware that his hair and skin were damp, as though he’d been swimming, and her curiosity was piqued further. She frowned, a million questions blossoming on the tip of her tongue.

“Why…?” she began, but he had already held his hand out to her, looking anxious. Giving a little sigh of resignation, she took it, and he immediately began to walk quickly for some destination unknown to her. The castle was still and quiet – most of the paintings in their frames were fast asleep – and the moon shining through the high, narrow windows provided enough light for them to see by.

They moved in stealthy silence down a staircase concealed by a tapestry, then another, and all the while Cedric made no mention of where they might be heading. She noticed that he was looking around him anxiously as though worried they would be caught, but she understood this – technically, he wasn’t supposed to reveal to her anything about the upcoming tournament task.

They finally stopped outside a statue of a wizard Rachel recognized from History of Magic to be Boris the Bewildered, and then Cedric began counting doors, stopping at the fourth from the left of the statue. “Pine fresh,” he muttered, and the door swung open with a loud click that seemed to resonate throughout the whole castle. Still holding her hand tightly, Cedric led the way into the room he had just unlocked, and Rachel followed him in.

They were standing in a massive bathroom that was dominated by a large pool in the center of the room. Adorning the ornately tiled edge of what Rachel now assumed to be a sort of lavish bathtub were taps embedded with little gemstones. The tiles were still slippery and slick with water and bubbles – now it was evident why Cedric had been wet when he’d come to fetch her from Gryffindor Tower. A sort of muffled sobbing was coming from somewhere unseen – Rachel recognized the sobs as those of Moaning Myrtle, the ghost who haunted a girls’ toilet.

“Why on earth did you bring me to a bathroom, Cedric?” Rachel asked, more confused now than ever. This really wasn’t her idea of a good place for a midnight jaunt, to be honest, but she knew there must have been some crucial reason for the meeting spot.

“Hold on,” Cedric said, and crossed to the pool’s edge. Kneeling down, he twisted a few of the taps at random, and the room began to steam almost immediately as perfumed water and large, iridescent soap bubbles began spilling from the bejeweled spouts. Rachel watched in fascination, coming to kneel beside him as yellow and red bubbles rose to the surface.

Cedric turned to look at her expectantly, as though he had proved some elaborate point, but she merely stared back at him blankly, still unable to comprehend his train of thought. “Bubbles,” she said at last, hoping that she was at least on the right track.

He laughed for the first time that evening, the warm sound echoing brightly around the stalls and tiles of the bathroom. “I haven’t gotten to my reason for bringing you here yet. Be patient,” he teased, and then his smile dropped gradually as he reached behind him for the golden egg. Taking it carefully in his large hands, his thumbnails found a groove in the smooth gilded surface. For the first time Rachel noticed the little hinges on one side of the egg.

A split second later, the egg fell open, revealing its hollow insides – and a shriek unlike any she had ever heard screamed to the ceiling, seeming to come from the egg itself. Instinctively Rachel reached up and clapped her hands over her ears, and Cedric did the same, dropping the egg by his ankles. This, however, did nothing to deaden the sound, magnified as it was by the acoustics of the room.

With a mighty kick, Cedric sent the egg whizzing into the foamy water he’d just drawn, and the screaming stopped at once, to be replaced by a kind of warbled bubbling sound. Rachel cautiously lowered her hands – the egg might float, and she wanted to be prepared.

“They’re mad,” she said firmly, both eyeing the spot where the egg now lay at the bottom of the bath; great bubbles seemed to be issuing from it, disturbing the otherwise calm surface of the water. Cedric laughed again but nodded in grudging agreement. “Barking, the whole lot of judges,” he said.

“But what’s any of that got to do with the second task?” she asked.

“Put your ear to the water,” Cedric said, and, leaning over the edge of the massive tub, did just that, laying his cheek on the foam. Hesitantly, Rachel followed suit, acutely aware of how close their faces were to each other. And then she heard it. Calling it singing was certainly a stretch, but some kind of vaguely musical sound did now seem to be coming from the egg. She closed her eyes in concentration, and the faintly distant lyrics of a semblance of a song came to her.

“Come seek us where our voices sound,” she whispered aloud, and sat up on her knees. Cedric did the same, nodding gravely, and began to recite the rest of the odd lyrics. She closed her eyes again to listen to them, their meaning become strangely clearer as she listened to his voice.

“So you have to find something – something whoever is singing has taken,” she said slowly, once she had heard the full song. “And you’ll have an hour to recover it, or it’ll disappear forever. Is that it?” Cedric nodded, but still looked rather grim, which she didn’t understand; after battling a dragon, surely he could do a scavenger hunt.

“There’s a bit more to it,” he said. “The singers are merpeople. Which means that I’ll have to recover whatever it is from somewhere underwater.” And then Rachel understood.

“How are you – you’re going to hold your breath underwater for an hour?” she said, not being able to help the look of incredulity that spread across her face. Cedric shrugged, but it was affirmation enough – that was certainly what the egg seemed to be implying. She leaned down to the water again, hoping she might hear something he had missed. But the egg’s song remained exactly the same as it had been the first time she’d listened to it.

Suddenly, she became aware that Cedric had moved away from the pool’s edge – she’d been concentrating so hard on the clue that she hadn’t noticed him get up. She scrambled quickly to her feet and, looking around, saw him standing in front of a narrow window on the opposite side of the door. His face was half-cloaked in shadow; the dimness of the light made him look suddenly vulnerable and scared, and that frightened Rachel.

Slowly, not making a sound on the damp floor, she crossed to him and wrapped her arms snugly around him from behind. She felt some of the tension in his shoulders ease slightly, and laid her cheek against his back, hoping to convey to him her trust and confidence. He seemed to need that right now.

“We’ll find something,” she said, speaking earnestly in the dripping silence of the bathroom. “There’s got to be some way to do it, or they wouldn’t have set the task in the first place. You’re going to do great, Cedric.”

Cedric turned, a ghost of a smile flickering across his face, and it was his turn to wrap her in a hug. She didn’t care that his sweater was still slightly damp; she clung to him tightly, attempting to convey all that she was feeling. She’d been scared before, but that was before the first task – she knew he could do this.

“Thanks, Rach,” Cedric mumbled into her air, and she drew back, smiling confidently up at him.

“We’ll go to the library every evening, if we have to. Okay?” He grinned and nodded, and then, for the second time that day, surprised her with an unexpected kiss. This time, the intensity of that kiss scared her a little, but she brushed the thought quickly from her mind less it latch on there and take hold of her, as it had when Cedric’s name had come out of the cup.

Cedric summoned the egg from the bottom of the bath and drained the water and bubbles from it. Holding on tightly once more to Rachel’s hand, they left the bathroom, Myrtle’s sobbing (which had ceased during their conversation) resuming just before the door swung shut behind them. The path back up to Gryffindor Tower was largely uneventful, though less hurried than the trek down to the bathroom had been – they were really in no hurry to leave each other now.

“Tomorrow evening, Ced. The library,” Rachel smiled as they came to a halt outside the portrait of the Fat Lady, who was snoring rather ungracefully against her gilded frame. Cedric nodded, and Rachel was relieved to see that he hadn’t looked as strained as he had in the shadowy light from the room.

“Thanks, Rach. Good night,” he said softly, and left a light kiss on her lips before creeping away, checking for Filch or Peeves before disappearing from view down the end of the corridor. Rachel smiled slightly after him and then turned to go into the common room.

To her shock, someone was sitting on the sofa before the fire, which had now been reduced to ash – two people, as a matter of fact. Both heads jerked up quickly as the portrait of the very irate and sleepy Fat Lady swung shut behind her, and then she recognized them. Her face felt as though it was on fire.

“What are you two still doing up?” she hissed, quickly crossing the common room and sitting on the armchair adjoining the couch that the Weasley twins occupied.

George gave her a broad grin and grabbed one of the little white boxes that were sitting on his lap – it was about the size of a deck of cards. Rachel recognized the box at once and, rolling her eyes, she opened it; two sweets, one purple and one orange, fell into the outstretched palm of her hand.

“Just doing some top-secret little touchups on our latest Skiving Snackbox,” said Fred with a cheeky smirk, naming the products the twins had been working on in private since the beginning of the year – they were supposed to get you out of class if they worked all right, although they’d been having difficulties. “Can’t let others see the merchandise, after all.”

“But I’d wager my last Galleon that what we’re doing up late is not nearly as interesting nor exciting as what you’re doing out of bed after hours,” George interrupted, his eyes twinkling with mirth even in the dim light that two o’ clock in the morning afforded.

“None of your business,” Rachel said, sticking her tongue out and rising quickly from the chair, depositing the sweets back in George’s hand.

“Hey, that’s not fair!” laughed Fred. “We told you what we were doing!”

“Good night,” Rachel said firmly, unable to keep a grin from sliding across her face, and she march resolutely over to the spiral staircase that led up to the Gryffindor girls’ dormitories.

It was only once she had climbed underneath her covers once more, being careful not to wake Angelina, Alicia, or Katie, that she allowed her thoughts to wander back to the egg and Cedric and the second task that was approaching with each tick of the second hand. She pulled the covers up to her chin and turned over, watching an owl swoop by the narrow window.

She knew that he could do it – hadn’t he conquered a dragon last fall, and come away with only a fairly minor burn to show for it? That certainly wasn’t an easy feat, to be sure. She had no idea how he was going to manage to stay underwater for an hour, but surely something in one of the library’s books could help them – and if helping Cedric was a little illegal, well, so be it.

The last thought on her mind, though, was not of the second task, nor the issue of holding one’s breath for an hour. The only thing she could focus on was how much power had been behind the kiss Cedric had given her that evening.

A/N: The further I get in this story, the less I want to post chapters, because I firmly refuse to believe that this story shall ever come to an end. And yet here we are at chapter thirteen out of twenty! Wow - that's just crazy stuff right there. Credit goes once more to LadyMalfoy23 for helping me (again) figure out this chapter, and even more so to Sarah, for making me laugh, keeping me sane, and sticking by this story like no one else.

PULSE PULSE PULSE. (That's an in-joke, that is.)


Chapter 14: Preparations and Promises
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If someone had been looking for any sign of either Rachel or Cedric in the weeks leading up to the second task, they would have been hard pressed to find them anywhere other than classes, the Great Hall, or the library. Nearly every free moment was spent together, desperately looking for some way that Cedric could spend an hour underwater, but so far their venture had been unsuccessful. Part of the problem was that they really didn’t know where to begin looking, and so had been forced to pull books off the shelf at random.

Harry Potter and his best friends, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley, were also soon spotted more frequently in the library, and Rachel surmised that they, too, were looking for a way to keep Harry alive under the water. Cedric had confessed to Rachel about Harry’s warning him of the dragon in the first task, and so had returned the favor by telling Harry about the egg clue, although this didn’t seem to have helped the fourth-year much; at any rate, he was stuck at the same point as Cedric.

After breakfast one Saturday morning in early February, they were once again in the library, poring over books and searching for any mention of something that might be of use. Madam Pince had taken to stalking rather frequently by their table that day, looking down her beaky nose at them more often than Rachel was comfortable with. It was an unusually warm day for midwinter – bright sunshine was streaming in through the leaded glass panes of the windows in the library – and so the librarian was no doubt curious as to why two healthy students would choose to stay indoors on such a day.

Cedric sat at a table near the back of the library, flicking idly through the pages of a particularly large and dusty book he had pulled at random, a tome entitled Spells and Charms to Thwart Your Enemies. He had been working through this book for a few days now, but the book was mostly filled with nasty things to do to people – make tentacles sprout from their eyes, for example, or fill their shoes with biting red ants. Rachel was browsing the shelves near him, trying to find something useful among books on magical seaweed and coming up short. She could hear Hermione Granger’s bossy voice whispering from several rows away, and Harry Potter retorting something angrily in return.

Suddenly, she heard Cedric’s chair creak behind her, and she turned. He had become suddenly hunched over the book, his fingers flying rapidly across a stained entry in his book. She crossed to him quickly, her heart beating. “Did you find something?” she whispered, standing over his shoulder. Madam Pince, who was passing by at that moment, gave her a frown, but she didn’t really care.

Cedric didn’t respond, but she looked to where his fingers were still moving across the text. “Bubble-Head Charm,” she read aloud, but before she could get any further Cedric snapped the book closed, his forefinger marking the page with the charm. Excitement danced in his gray eyes; her stomach gave a pleasant swoop, and she cursed herself for focusing on them at the most inopportune times.

“This could work,” he said urgently, and grabbed her hand quickly. “Come on.” He all but pulled her to the circulation desk, where Madam Pince had resumed her usual place, looking at a pile of returned books as though she was a vulture. She looked up when they stepped up.

“Could I check this book out?” Cedric said with an air of forced calm, although Rachel could detect a quiver of something else beneath his voice. The librarian held out a claw-like hand and stamped something on the inside front cover.

“Two weeks,” she said crisply, and Cedric thanked her and half-ran out of the library, still clutching Rachel’s hand tightly in his. She followed unquestioningly, although still didn’t know exactly what the Bubble-Head Charm was. It was like the night he had taken her to the prefects’ bathroom; they hurried up a couple of staircases and down hallways, finally stopping somewhere on the seventh floor, in a completely deserted corridor. He stopped abruptly and sank cross-legged onto the dusty green carpet runner, and Rachel knelt beside him. He flipped open the book to the page he still had marked.

“’The Bubble-Head Charm allows breathing in places you would not otherwise be able to breathe,’” Cedric read aloud, sounding rather breathless himself. He looked up quickly at Rachel. “D’you think it could work underwater?”

Rachel felt her own excitement growing as she registered the charm’s description. “I don’t know,” she said, but for some reason was sure it would. “We need to try it. Oh, Cedric, this could work!”

He laughed aloud, a weight seemingly gone from his shoulders. “I know!” he grinned, and looked back down at the page. “Ebulla Spiratus,” he murmured aloud, and Rachel guessed this must be the incantation. He shut the book with a snap and offered it to her. Rachel looked at him quizzically.

“Take this and hide it in your dormitory,” he said. “I’m going to run down to the prefect’s bathroom and try this out. Meet me back here in half an hour.” He stood up quickly and helped Rachel regain her feet beneath her; she was still trying to take in his instructions when he planted a quick kiss on her lips and all but ran off down the corridor.

Slightly dazed, she clutched the book to her chest and sped off in the other direction, toward the portrait of the Fat Lady and Gryffindor Tower. The common room was almost deserted – everyone was outside enjoying the rare February warmth – and she reached the sixth-year girls’ dormitory without incident. However, when she pushed open the door, she realized that it was not as empty as she had suspected. Angelina was lying on her bed, a thick book open on her lap. She looked up as Rachel entered.

“Don’t you look excited,” she said with a grin, closing her book and setting it on the bedside table. “What’s up?”

“Nothing,” said Rachel, a little more harshly than she meant to, and instinctively clutched the book a little more tightly to her. Angelina’s eyebrows rose at her friend’s abrasive tone, and Rachel crossed to her own bed as casually as she could, already knowing she’d given away more than she meant to. As though it was the most normal thing in the world, she slipped the book under her pillow and smoothed the bed covers back over it. But, of course, Angelina was still watching.

“What’s in that book?” she asked, sitting up a little straighter and crossing her legs beneath her. Rachel pretended as though the question had never been asked, although her cheeks were blooming red. She made to cross to the door again, although the half hour was in no way almost up.

“It’s something to help Cedric in the tournament, isn’t it,” said Angelina from behind her. It was a statement – not a question. Rachel turned back to see what kind of expression had crossed her friend’s face, and was shocked to find not the expected anger, but only a slightly hurt confusion there.

“We’re not stupid, you know,” she continued. “We know you’re helping him – no one cares. Why do you have to hide it? What, are we going to run and tell Harry, or something?” There were definitely undercurrents of anger in her voice now, and Rachel suddenly felt awful.

“I – no, that’s not what I’m doing,” she said defensively. But something within her squirmed uncomfortably – had she, even without meaning to?

“We’re still your friends, Rach,” Angelina said. “He’s not the only one.” A wave of guilt and remorse swept over her, and she bit her lip as tears suddenly stung her eyes. She swallowed against the hard lump that had risen in her throat. It was evident that Angelina had talked about this with the others – Fred and George, and Lee, and Katie and Alicia. They’d all had this discussion without her.

“I know,” she choked, and felt anger at how thick her voice now sounded. “I – yes, I know that. I’m sorry.” Angelina gave her a sad smile, and Rachel returned it, although the horrible guilt that had invaded her stomach did not abate at the gesture. At a loss for words, she pushed open the door of the dormitory and hurried down the spiral steps, her heart beating uncomfortably quickly. She knew that Angelina had meant nothing nasty by the confrontation, but there was an unnerving truth in her words. Rachel knew her top priority was still helping Cedric stay safe, but she needed to remember to balance out her older friendships, as well. It wasn’t fair to them.

She reached the stretch of wall where she and Cedric had stopped to look at the charm; as expected, he was still nowhere in sight. She took his absence as a good indication of the spell’s ability, however - if it hadn’t worked Cedric would no doubt have returned to the corridor by now.

She slumped down against the wall again, her thoughts swimmingly maddeningly about. She tried to push the more unpleasant ones away, the ones about what Angelina had said to her in the dormitory. Those could be dealt with in a few hours, once Cedric had returned from the bathroom. Without warning, her mind jumped suddenly to the afternoon on the Quidditch Pitch a few weeks ago. Why that suddenly entered her mind, she didn’t know, but it calmed her down a bit to think of it. She allowed the memories to envelop her mind, leaning her head against the wall and smiling slightly. They hadn’t had time to return to the Quidditch Pitch since that day in early January.

“What are you thinking about?” Cedric’s voice interrupted her brief reverie, and her eyes flew open. He was smiling down at her, seemingly even taller than he was from her position on the ground. He reached down and pulled her to her feet again.

“I was thinking about the day you taught me to fly,” she grinned, and suddenly her eyes took in his appearance. His sweater was damp again, as it had been when he had come to collect her when he brought her to the prefect’s bathroom. But his hair, and his face – they were completely dry. From the neck up, it looked as though he hadn’t gone swimming at all.

“It worked?” she breathed incredulously, still unsure as to whether it had been a success. One of Cedric’s grins cracked his face.

“It worked,” he confirmed, and she let out a huge sigh of relief, closing the small gap between them and hugging him tightly. She hadn’t realized until that moment how tense she had been, but all of that tension ebbed away. It had worked, and that meant that their biggest concern of the second task was resolved! She felt Cedric’s arms enclose her and they stood there for a few moments, basking in their reprieve from their biggest worry.

Just for the moment, all her other concerns could wait. She was absolutely convinced that Cedric would make it through this task unscathed, and allowed herself brief moments to think about the possibility that he could win the whole tournament. But it would be a victory no matter what, as long as he was safe.

* * * * * *

The night before the second task, the entire school seemed once more to be buzzing about what might occur the next day. What Rachel and Cedric, and presumably the other champions, knew was obviously not common knowledge, and she had to pretend as though she was just as clueless to the task’s nature as the rest of the student body.

She was sitting at the Gryffindor table in the Great Hall at dinner between Fred and Alicia, absentmindedly shredding her roast beef with the tines of her fork. After the confrontation in the dormitory with Alicia, she had made a more formal sort of apology to her friends that night in the common room, and had genuinely made a larger effort to spend more time with them than she had been doing. She realized that she had sort of been putting them off, but things between the other six and her had been mended tenfold since she’d come to that revelation.

However, with the task so close at hand, the familiar nervous butterflies had once more blossomed in her stomach, and it certainly wasn’t hard to guess where her thoughts were lying that evening as she toyed with her dinner – eating was out of the question for now. People were gathered around the House tables, anxious to wish the champions luck in the upcoming task. Harry, Ron, and Hermione were mysteriously absent from the well-wishing, and Rachel assumed that they were still in the library. That was a bit nerve-wracking, to think that Harry might not have found a solution to the underwater problem yet. Even the foreign champions, Fleur Delacour and Viktor Krum, were receiving their due share of the admiration.

As she minced her dinner, however, staring at her plate in anxious silence, she became aware of someone walking quickly in her direction between the tables. She looked up, and so did her friends, as Professor McGonagall came into view, her mouth set into a very thin, grim line. Behind her was a small girl with vivid white-blond hair, a girl who looked remarkably like a small carbon copy of the Beauxbatons champion, Fleur Delacour. Rachel surmised that the girl must be some sort of relation. And behind this girl towered the figure of Madame Maxime, the headmistress of Beauxbatons.

“Miss Alexander, I need to see you in my office,” said the woman sharply, looking not all pleased with the task she had been given. Rachel frowned slightly but got up from the bench without question. “You will need to bring your things with you,” Professor McGonagall added, seeing her school bag, still beneath her seat. “You will not be returning to dinner.”

“Professor, she hasn’t eaten anything,” piped up George from across the table. “Let her finish-“

“Then she can eat something on the way, Mr. Weasley,” said the woman sternly, and George closed his mouth at once. Rachel reluctantly grabbed an apple from the bowl on the table, shooting George a look for blabbing. She still didn’t feel like eating, but Professor McGonagall seemed to be waiting, so she took a bite from the fruit and forced her teeth to chew it.

“In the meantime, Mr. Weasley, would you and your brother kindly see to recovering your brother and Miss Granger from the library? I shall need to talk to them, as well.” Fred and George looked at each other, baffled, but rose obediently from their seats. Seemingly satisfied, the professor swept toward the door leading into the entrance hall, her other two companions following in her wake. Hitching her bag over her shoulder and glancing back at her friends, who were still watching with interest, she followed with Fred and George, not really knowing what else to do.

They walked for a few minutes in a stony kind of silence, no one uttering a word, and Rachel found herself filled with a growing dread that this had something to do with the Tournament. Perhaps Professor McGonagall had found out that she had helped Cedric with figuring out what to do about the second task? She knew that, technically, the champions weren’t supposed to accept help, but no one had stopped Ron and Hermione from helping Harry. Then again, if Fred and George were being sent to collect them, then that very well might be what all of this was about.

Professor McGonagall led the way into her study on the castle’s first floor, a room Rachel only knew by sight but had never actually been in, and she entered after the little French girl while Fred and George continued on in the direction of the library. Igor Karkaroff, the headmaster from Durmstrang, and Professor Dumbledore were already inside Professor McGonagall’s study, as though waiting for the arrival of the four.

“I’ve sent Fred and George Weasley to collect the others,” Professor McGonagall said to Professor Dumbledore, as though the others weren’t there. The old man beamed and nodded his understanding, and then started to hum a little tune while absently staring out the window. The little girl whom Rachel had assumed to be related to Fleur Delacour had taken a seat in one of the four hard chairs that had been placed before the professor’s desk. Rachel did the same, gingerly setting her bag beneath the seat, trying to come up with a plausible way to plead her case to the faculty.

After ten minutes of rather awkward silence, Fred and George reappeared at the study door, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger in tow. Professor McGonagall thanked them brusquely and then shooed them away, and the two took the remaining chairs, looking as nervous as Rachel herself felt. Only then did Professor Dumbledore stop humming; standing up, he smiled fondly down at all of them.

“Professor, if this is about helping Harry-“ Hermione began quickly, twisting her hands nervously in her lap, but the headmaster cut her off with a slight chuckle.

“I assure you, neither you nor Mr. Weasley is in trouble for – ah – aiding Mr. Potter with the tournament,” he said, his blue eyes twinkling, and Hermione breathed a very loud sigh of relief. Rachel felt like doing the same, but then her attention focused once more; if not that, what were they here for?

“For this task,” Dumbledore continued, suddenly more grave than he had been, “each champion will have to find something that has been taken from them. Something they hold very dear, and would miss most, should they fail to retrieve them.” He fixed each individual sitting before him with a piercing gaze. “It has therefore been noted that each of you will serve as that thing for one champion.”

He left time for his words to register in the brains of the four, but Rachel already felt her cheeks growing red with embarrassment; glancing sideways, she saw a similar reaction occurring in Hermione. She tried to drown out the rapid translation being given the French girl by Madame Maxime, attempting to control her suddenly reeling thoughts. She was the thing that Cedric would miss most?

Igor Karkaroff was giving Hermione a disgusted look, as though she was something he might have found on the bottom of his shoe. Madame Maxime had one of her large hands clamped firmly on the back of the little girl’s chair.

“But eef zee champion does not collect zee person in time,” she rumbled, “will zey still be safe? Zee ‘ostage, I mean to say, will be unharmed?”

“I assure you, my lady, that each of these four will be in good hands whilst they are waiting to be found,” said Professor Dumbledore in a reassuring voice. Karkaroff looked as though he wished this could be otherwise; Rachel found herself with an inexplicable but instant aversion to the man.

“Professor Snape has brewed a very powerful and complicated sleeping draft that we will administer to the four of you presently,” Dumbledore continued. “This will place you in a very deep sleep, from which you will not wake until your champion brings you to the surface of the lake you will be placed at the bottom of for your champion to find.” Rachel shot furtive glances at her companions, but only the little French girl seemed to take this latest as news; her already-pale face turned an even whiter color.

“If there are no questions, then,” said Professor Dumbledore pleasantly, “I think it is time for the potions.” Four glasses, each half-full of a viscous, vibrantly green liquid, were brought from behind the professor’s desk and placed in the hands of the four hostages. They all hesitated, looking at one another, and Dumbledore gave a little chuckle.

“I assure you, each of you will be perfectly safe,” he said, and that seemed to stiffen Ron’s resolve. He bravely looked down into the glass and quickly downed the potion. Rachel looked down at her own mixture, took a deep breath, and swallowed it in two gulps; it tasted very strange, but was not entirely unpleasant.

The effect was nearly immediate; almost at once, she felt a great drowsiness overcome her, and knew that fighting it even for a few moments would be a wasted effort. The last thing she remembered was the night sky beyond the windows in Professor McGonagall’s study before she fell into the deepest sleep she had ever experienced.

* * * * * *

Rachel did not know what occurred while she was sleeping – how she had gotten to the lake, how she had been submerged, or how Cedric had rescued her from there. She could remember absolutely nothing at all from the night before, after looking at the sky from the window. It seemed only a few seconds between that moment, and when her head cleared the surface of the lake, a bitter wind stinging her wet cheeks.

She became suddenly aware that Cedric was carrying her through the water, swimming for the shore where a huge crowd of people were screaming for him. Any traces of the Bubble-Head Charm had vanished, and he looked positively normal, although soaked to the skin, as she was. He did not look at her but was intent on his goal.

Hands dragged them to land, thumping their backs, wrapping blankets around their shoulders. Through a gap in the mass of people, she saw Fleur Delacour sitting next to Madame Maxime, biting her nails anxiously. Rachel sat close to Cedric, shivering in the icy air, and became aware of his hand and how it was intertwined tightly with hers. He was looking at her intensely, as though afraid she would disappear if he broke contact for even a moment. She grinned through her chattering teeth.

“W- what?” she stammered, unable to control her shaking voice. Cedric gave an equally tremulous laugh and, leaning forward through his blankets, placed a warm kiss on her cold forehead.

“Don’t ever s-scare me like that a-again,” he said, returning her grin. “You’ve g-got no idea how terrified I w-was that I was t-too late.” Her heart suddenly ached in sympathy, and, not caring who might see, she placed her hands on the back of his head and pulled him close for a kiss. He returned it hungrily.

“I’m n-not going anywhere,” she smiled, pressing her forehead to his. He reached around and pulled her to him, enveloping her in his own blankets so they looked like one form huddled there together. They continued to sit like that as Viktor Krum reappeared with Hermione, and then as Harry appeared with both Ron and the little French girl, much to Fleur’s intense relief. The judges gathered off to the side to confer about the marks to be awarded to each champion for their performance in the lake.

The results were given – Cedric and Harry were tied for first place. Glancing up at his face, she could see the delight emanating from every part of him. She kissed him quickly, so happy as to be almost delirious. Not only was Cedric safe – he was winning!

The third task was set to take place on the twenty-fourth of June, and the champions were told they would be given more information as the time for the task drew nearer. The crowd began to make their way back up to the castle, chattering excitedly about the spectacle they had just witnessed, but Cedric and Rachel lingered a little longer on the rocky lake shore.

“Congratulations,” Rachel said, and Cedric laughed softly, looking down at her.

“If they ask you to do anything like this in the next task,” he teased, “say no. I can’t do this again. Promise?”

“I don’t know,” she hedged, pretending to think about it for a moment. “It was rather exciting, being the thing you’d miss the most.” She snuck a glance at Cedric sitting beside her. She was delighted to see that, despite the chill air mixing with his damp skin, a pleased flush had crept up into his pale cheeks.

“I promise,” she laughed, nudging him playfully with her shoulder, wrapped up as she was in the thick blanket. Cedric nudged her back and rolled his eyes at her.

“You’d better,” he said, only half-teasing. “I wouldn’t want to risk running out of time the next go-round.” She looked steadily at him, and then it was her turn to flush with pleasure, turning away to intently study the rocks on the shore as though they were the most interesting things she’d seen in her whole life.

He climbed to his feet and, as always, pulled her up with him. Holding tightly to each other’s hands, they followed the straggling crowd back up to Hogwarts, where celebrations for the victors awaited in the common rooms. Rachel would go to the Gryffindor common room and congratulate Harry, she knew, but she also knew that her mind would still be occupied further away, with the fact that it had been she whom Cedric would have missed most of all.
 
A/N: This chapter came SUPER fast while writing it, and for some reason it just ended up being my favorite one yet. Perhaps because of all that sappy, mushy fluff at the end, yeah? I just love writing about the tasks, although it's still a little hard for me to believe just how far I've come in this story. (I know - you're getting tired of me saying it!) Well, as always, I'd love to know your thoughts. Please leave a review, it'll only take a minute!


Chapter 15: The Edge of the Forest
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After late February, the weather turned unseasonably warm, as if it was apologizing for all the stress that the tournament had caused since October. The sun shone brightly onto the grounds and through the windows, only temporarily covered by nonthreatening, puffy clouds. It became rather hard to pay attention in Herbology. As a result of the sunshine and warmth, Professor Sprout had taken to holding her sixth-year lessons outside behind the greenhouse while they began a new study of poisonous trees. Anders kept dozing off underneath one, which resulted in a panic as Cedric had to continually beat away its highly toxic leaves from falling on his friend’s face.

It seemed like things had returned to being more or less ordinary after the task in the lake. One could almost act as though nothing out of the commonplace was happening, as though the students from Beauxbatons and Durmstrang had always been there, and the Triwizard Tournament was merely a pleasant diversion from the regular normalcy. Cedric didn’t even have another clue to work on for the next task, and so it was just possible to forget that he would have to risk his life a final time for the school’s entertainment.

The months slipped slowly past in a blur of classes, homework, and lazy afternoons spent on the shore of the lake, avoiding said homework. It was almost as if they didn’t exist at all, those months, and instead were rather pleasant dreamy interludes, or figments of a very relaxed imagination. Fred and George, still hell-bent on developing their Skiving Snackboxes to perfection, caused several diversions in the common room that spring and one or two rather magnificent explosions. Rachel helped them as best she could, although there were some things even she wouldn’t do – she had staunchly refused to sign up as a test subject for the products, and all the various and rather painful-looking side effects she saw throughout the weeks only reinforced her decision.

It seemed that she had finally found a way to maintain an acceptable balance between spending time with her friends and spending time with Cedric, as well. He’d even helped with the Snackboxes on one occasion, suggesting looking into doxy venom, a notion Fred and George hadn’t thought of on their own. They were much keener on “Pretty Boy” Diggory after this.

But Rachel and Cedric found plenty of time to spend alone, too – walking around the grounds and the perimeter of the lake, studying as always in the quiet library, and attending the spring trip to Hogsmeade and stopping into Quality Quidditch Supplies for a less hands-on flying lesson. Whenever she was with Cedric, time seemed to absolutely melt away. And so when, on one bright and hot afternoon as Rachel met up with Cedric in the library for their still-ongoing weekly library dates, she discovered it was already the end of May, she could barely believe it.

“I don’t actually remember too much of what’s happened since the second task. Everything’s sort of run together,” she admitted sheepishly, keeping her voice down in case the librarian should be stalking nearby – ever since February, Madam Pince had seemed to do everything but sit at Cedric and Rachel’s table with them, so omnipresent was her beaklike nose hovering over everything. Cedric leaned his chin on his hand and idly doodled away on the corner of his Charms essay, a small smile turning up the corners of his mouth.

“Your brain’s still a bit waterlogged, I expect,” he teased, and she laughed and flicked his hand playfully, causing the ink to blot over the little hippogriff he’d been drawing. He stared at it in mock dismay.

“You’ve ruined it,” he said, pretending to pout, although unable to conceal a grin. He took out his wand and tried to siphon away the excess ink, but instead accidentally removed half of the creature’s head. He eyed his paper critically, turning it this way and that, and Rachel laughed outright at the decidedly perplexed expression on his face.

“By the way,” she said, as Cedric bent once more over his sketch and began redrawing the hippogriff’s head, “we need to get out on the Quidditch Pitch again. I’m afraid I’ve lost whatever you taught me back in January.” For no reason other than pure laziness, Cedric and Rachel hadn’t flown since that first lesson, even after the Hogsmeade visit, and she could tell he was itching to get back out there again by now.

Sure enough, his face lit up at the mention of flying. “Yes,” he said excitedly. “Tonight? We’ve about got all our homework knocked out.” He gestured vaguely to the Charms essay he was doodling on. She nodded happily, and bent back over the Potions questions she was proofreading for mistakes.

At that moment, a bell sounded in the corridors outside of the library, signaling the end of classes and the end of break for Rachel and Cedric. As they got up and began to gather the books, parchment, and quills they had scattered about in the course of their studying, preparing to head down to the Great Hall for dinner, they were joined almost out of nowhere by Professor Moody, who was leaning heavily on his cane. Rachel was a bit apprehensive at his presence, remembering how the last time he had interrupted a meeting of theirs, he had taken Cedric away to talk about the second task.

“Evening Miss Alexander. Mr. Diggory,” the old man growled, both of his eyes fixed unnervingly on them, his magical blue one trembling slightly in its socket. She clutched her books to her chest, waiting for whatever news the professor was going to bring this time.

“Mr. Diggory, you’re needed down at the Quidditch Pitch at nine o’ clock this evening,” he finally said, apparently finished surveying them. “Third task instructions.” Cedric nodded once to show that he had understood, and without further ado Moody stalked away from them, taking a deep swig from his hip flask before he went, which earned him a disapproving glare from Madam Pince.

“Not much for words, is he?” Rachel said wryly, and then the meaning of his message caused her stomach to squirm in disappointment. “Guess that means no flying for us tonight.”

Cedric’s face fell; he obviously hadn’t connected the two. “Well, I’ll see if I can grab a couple of the brooms, at any rate,” he said optimistically, looking down at her. “I can stash them in the common room, and we can go flying around the lake later, or something.” He raised his eyebrows and she nodded enthusiastically. At the top of the stairs, they parted to deposit their books in their respective common rooms, Rachel promising to meet Cedric in the entrance hall after he was finished with whatever the champions were doing that evening.

At dinner, she was surprised to see that the twins were sitting slightly apart from everyone else, heads bent together over a rather long piece of parchment. Angelina looked mildly put out at their secrecy, and kept glancing over at them with a slightly hurt expression on her face. Rachel slid next to George, who looked up hastily and put an arm over the parchment with obviously forced nonchalance.

“What are you doing?” Rachel asked, raising an eyebrow and glancing at the scroll, not fooled for even an instant. She tugged the parchment from under her friend’s elbow and held it up, but Fred crunched a hand down upon it. “Are you trying to let everyone see?” he hissed, and she stuck her tongue out at him, but lowered the parchment.

Written upon it in a cramped yet neat hand were Fred and George’s current products – line after line of joke wands, trick sweets, and other products even Rachel hadn’t heard of. She glanced up at Fred and George, who seemed to be waiting for her to say something.

“Is this like some sort of catalogue?” she asked, giving the paper a little shake. Fred nodded. “And all these things… they’re stuff you’ve invented?” she continued, and again received a nod of affirmation. Her eyes dropped back to the list of merchandise list. They really were serious about opening up their own joke shop, then.

“But why are you hiding it?” she asked suddenly, looking up from the parchment a second time. George glanced over at Lee and Alicia, sitting the closest to them, and shrugged a bit.

“We’re kind of concerned this might get out,” he said at last, clearly not wanting to talk much longer about the subject. But both he and his brother looked pleased by Rachel’s response to the list, and as she handed it back to Fred and began forking sausages onto her plate, they looked loads more confident about the venture, as well.

After dinner, most of the Gryffindors retired back up to the common room to work on their homework. Rachel did the same, but sitting in front of the fire and trying to prevent Lee from copying her Potions questions, her eyes kept flicking to the watch on Katie’s wrist. As the hands ticked closer to nine o’ clock, her mind became more and more occupied with the flying she would be doing that evening. Her stomach began to skip excitedly, as it was wont to do when she knew she would be spending time with Cedric.

She saw Harry leave for the pitch, trying to skirt unobserved through the common room and out the portrait hole, and the small butterflies in her stomach seemed to double. She tried to imagine what the champions might be doing on the Quidditch Pitch – some kind of strange training for the third task? She found herself hoping it would be something tame, although if the past two tasks had been any indication, that was wishful thinking.

When Katie’s watch clicked over to nine o’ clock, Rachel closed her Potions book, stuffing it firmly in her bag out of Lee’s reach. She knew studying any more after this point would be a pointless effort.

“And where are you going?” Alicia asked as Rachel rose from the armchair, scribbling out a sentence in her own Potions questions and looking up curiously.

“I’m meeting Cedric later,” Rachel said, not being able to help the pinkness on her cheeks – even after all this time, talking about Cedric with her friends embarrassed her somewhat. Of course, their reactions didn’t help; Alicia caught Angelina’s eye, and both of them grinned, turning back to their homework and pretending as though nothing had just happened. Rachel rolled her eyes and ran to the dormitory. She flung her bag carelessly on her four-poster, brushed quickly through her hair with her fingers, and tied her red and gold scarf around her neck before descending back to the common room in a span of five minutes.

“Have fun!” Lee called after her retreating back, and she waved sarcastically over her shoulder, enjoying the reaction that seemed to cause. She couldn’t stop a smirk from twisting her lips as she half-jogged down the moving staircases in the direction of the entrance hall, however – no matter how much her friends goaded her, she knew it was all in jest at the end of the day.

The entrance hall was, as expected, deserted. The torches lining the walls in their brackets had already started to burn low in preparation for the evening, and so it was in shadows Rachel took her place along the wall, wrapping her arms around herself and sliding down to a sitting position. All was quiet and still; not even ghosts were passing this way tonight. She couldn’t hear any noises from outside, but that was to be expected – the pitch was quite a ways from the doors to the castle.

It was rather funny how, when you were waiting for something, the minutes seemed to drag by. Rachel was convinced that she’d been sitting there for at least an hour when the clock chimed fifteen after nine. She gave a little puff of breath at a piece of hair that lay across her forehead and leaned back against the cold stone castle wall.

Suddenly, the castle door creaked open. She frowned – the champions hadn’t even been out twenty minutes – and clambered to her feet, losing her balance slightly and steadying herself on the wall. Cedric walked into the entrance hall, Ludo Bagman behind him, looking positively excited about whatever was in store in the third task.

“Ah! Miss Alexander!” he beamed upon spotting her; Cedric grinned as she approached the little group. “Doing well, I hope? Recovered from the lake?” Rachel glanced at Cedric, who coughed politely to hide a grin, before turning back to Bagman.

“I’m doing just fine, sir, thank you,” she said, and he clapped a hand on her shoulder, giving her a broad wink.

“Good to hear it!” he fairly roared, his voice louder than was strictly necessary. Smiling a final time at the pair of them, he strode away up the main staircase, whistling something.

“No brooms to be seen, I’m afraid,” Cedric said apologetically, stuffing his hands in his pockets and leaning one shoulder against the wall. Rachel mimicked him, smiling unconsciously. His presence seemed to keep a smile fixed on her face, no matter what they talked about.

“We’ll get out there eventually,” she promised, and then glanced over her shoulder to make sure Bagman had disappeared from view. He was, but her voice dropped to a whisper anyway. “Any word on the last task?”

“A hedge maze on the pitch,” Cedric said, his face suddenly unreadable; she didn’t know what that meant to him, whether it was a good thing or a bad thing. “We’ve got to find the Triwizard Cup in the maze. Whoever finds it wins.”

Rachel frowned slightly; that seemed a bit too simple, even with her assumptions that there would be obstacles placed within the maze. “Are you worried about it?” she asked, searching his face, which still remained oddly removed from any emotion towards the subject.

Cedric shrugged. “I just… really want it to be over,” he said sincerely. Her heart gave a slight twinge, and she instinctively reached forward and touched his arm lightly in reassurance. He looked at it, and then back at her, smiling slightly. He removed one of his hands from his pockets and took hers in his, rubbing his thumb slowly over the back of it. For a few moments they said nothing but stood like this in their usual companionable silence.

The door to the entrance hall all of a sudden flew open with a tremendous BANG. Cedric and Rachel whipped around, staring at Harry Potter, who was hurtling through it as though someone were chasing him. He skidded to a halt at the sight of them, turning beet red despite his obvious hurry.

“Are you okay?” Cedric asked, taking a few steps in Harry’s direction. Harry was clutching a stitch in his side, but he was already walking quickly towards the marble staircase.

“Got to go… to Dumbledore,” he gasped, and Cedric started off after him. Rachel started off in the direction of the staircase as well, not knowing what else to do; she couldn’t help thinking that this probably looked sort of like a kind of confusing and odd parade.

As they fairly sprinted through the corridors, one right after the other, Harry explained in small bursts about why he needed Dumbledore so desperately. Apparently, Krum and Harry had gone off to talk when they had found Barty Crouch, who had recently been missing from the tournament events, in a state of delirium. He hadn’t quite known what was going on, and for the most part had been babbling incoherently. So, leaving Krum with Crouch, Harry had run off to find Dumbledore.

The three reached the stone gargoyle that Rachel supposed was the entrance to the headmaster’s office – having never been there herself, she couldn’t be too sure. But Harry looked at a loss as to what to do now. He shouted at it to move, but the gargoyle remained quite still. She found herself half-wondering why on earth she was there in the first place. Not only did she really not have much of a clue as to what was going on, but she couldn’t help but thinking that should anyone find three students trying to all but break into Dumbledore’s office, they’d be in for it.

And, of course, at that moment, Professor Snape chose to appear behind them.

It was easy to see, even from an objective viewpoint, how much Professor Snape seemed to hate Harry in particular. Harry tried furiously to explain what he was doing there, but Snape seemed to have none of it, deflecting any excuses or pleas the fourth-year made with his characteristic smirks and sneers. He insisted that Dumbledore was busy, and that Harry could not see him under any circumstances.

“Please, sir,” Cedric burst in, and both Snape and Harry turned to him with surprised looks on their faces. “It’s very important,” he continued, sounding a little apologetic now.

“I would keep your tongue in your head, Mr. Diggory, if you do not desire to anger me as Mr. Potter has done,” said Snape coolly, throwing Harry a nasty glance; the latter scowled and looked as though he should like to strangle the Potions professor, or at the least give him a good kick.

“Is something the matter here?” said a pleasant voice from behind them; Snape, Harry, Cedric, and Rachel turned as one to see Dumbledore gliding smoothly toward them from behind the wall concealed by the gargoyle, his lined face pleasantly inquisitive. In the heat of the argument, no one had noticed it opening.

Harry immediately launched into his story again while Snape fumed and Dumbledore’s face became more and more grave. At the conclusion, he promptly left with the fourth-year to seek out Crouch. Snape remained behind, appearing to be chewing on the inside of his cheek in his anger. It took a few minutes of Rachel and Cedric looking awkwardly from him to each other to remind the professor that he was not alone in the corridor.

“And you two,” he said with malevolence, “should run along before I change my mind about your disregard for authority.” Cedric opened his mouth to protest the unfairness of this, but appeared to think better of it. Snape swept away quickly, muttering furiously under his breath, black robes billowing out behind him like smoke.

Cedric immediately sank to the floor in front of the leaded windows lining the corridor, raising a hand to his mouth and staring at the floor unseeingly. The expression on his face frightened Rachel; for the first time, he almost looked scared. She gently knelt beside him. “Are you okay?”

He said nothing for a moment, absentmindedly rubbing his jaw with his long, thin fingers. Finally he turned his head and looked at her. The worry in his eyes was even more pronounced when he looked at her straight on.

“I’m starting to think I had no idea what I was signing up for, entering my name in that goblet,” he said at last, and Rachel’s throat seemed to close up. He was voicing the worries that had plagued her since the beginning, and that terrified her even more than the expression on his face. “This is something far bigger than anything we’ve imagined so far,” he continued. His eyes returned to the spot on the carpet he’d previously been staring at.

Rachel laid her head on his shoulder and took his free hand in both of hers. She didn’t know what else to do, or even if something else could be done. She had a growing, dreadful suspicion that Cedric was exactly right.

A/N: I really have nothing much to say in this particular author's note - shocker - except for the fact that I am so glad to be posting chapter fifteen! It took me over two weeks to write, for no reason other than that my muse simply decided to take a long holiday when I needed him most. But I can't stay mad at him forever, and in fact he has been better lately, so no harm done.

Many thanks to Callie for her support and for helping me out in planning this chapter - even if she doesn't remember it! This one's for her!


Chapter 16: The Snitch
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Not since the night that the names of the champions had been drawn from the Goblet of Fire had Rachel felt such apprehension about the Triwizard Tournament. When Professor Dumbledore and Harry had gone down to see about Mr. Crouch that night, they had found Viktor Krum lying on the ground, Stunned, and no sign anywhere of the Triwizard judge. The fact that anyone could just disappear without a trace - from Hogwarts, of all places - was nothing less than scary.

An air of tension and suspense seemed to be hanging all around her these days; not only about the affair with Mr. Crouch, but within her own group of friends, as well. Fred and George were being even more secretive than usual, and it just wasn't like them. They all but kept to themselves, spending late nights hunched over scrolls of parchment in the corners of the Gryffindor common room. What was even stranger about this was that they wouldn't even let Rachel near them, despite the fact that she knew about their ongoing catalogue for their joke products. They nearly always looked angry, as well, which led her to wonder if they weren't working on Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes at all, but some other, graver matter of business.

Lee, Angelina, Katie, and Alicia seemed to be feeling this separation as well, and weren't at all happy about being left out of so many loops. Somehow, one or the other of them became convinced Rachel knew something they didn't, and she felt a little stranded in the middle as they isolated themselves from her. She knew she hadn't done anything wrong, but for some reason the other four felt she'd betrayed them in some way. Rachel wasn't sure which side she should pledge allegiance to, or if she should pledge to a side at all. She'd thought that after her confrontation with Angelina before the second task, she wouldn't have to worry about things like this again, but histrionic tendencies were once more building like waves on either side. The thought was enough to drive her mad with frustration.

The only escape from the annoying and causeless drama from the other Gryffindor sixth-years was spending time with Cedric, but even that lately had become more fraught with worry than it had been in the past. Though Cedric normally tried to act as though nothing was wrong, Rachel could tell how much the events that had taken place after the champion meeting disturbed him. Dark circles had begun forming under his eyes, and she knew that he wasn't sleeping well. The third task was only three weeks away, and Rachel began counting down the days until all of this was finally going to be over, and lives could go back to being as they always had been. Until then, all she could do was be there with him, trying not to let her own fears show - he had enough on his plate without her adding to his burden.

The time until final exams was nearing, and so Cedric and Rachel spent nearly the entire first weekend of June in the library under the ever-watchful eye of Madam Pince. Cedric was trying to help Rachel to study, and she was trying to help him to prepare for the third task, so their aims conflicted a little. She was hunched over a spellbook, pretending to study Bubbling Incantations but really looking for anything that might help Cedric in the maze. He, in turn, was rifling through their Herbology notes, looking for potential exam questions. It was fairly obvious that neither was very involved in their task; something more pressing was occupying their minds, as it had been for the past week.

However, she was not expecting him to slam the notes down on the table as he did then, causing the pages of her book to ruffle in the sudden draft that was caused. She looked up in surprised, surveying the expression etched on his face; his brows were creased in uncomprehending confusion. He raised a hand to his forehead, rubbing his temples wearily.

"I just don't understand it," he said in a harsh whisper, gazing unseeingly at a spot on the wood grain of the library table. She waited patiently, not questioning the abrupt launch into discussion, for it circled the minds of most people involved with the tournament these days. "There are only so many places one can go in Hogwarts before someone finds you, and Moody searched the entire forest," Cedric continued. "Who would even have the time to knock out Krum and take Crouch away before Dumbledore and Harry arrived - assuming that was even their motive in the first place?" He looked up as though expecting Rachel to answer, but she merely shrugged helplessly, at a loss for anything to say. The exact same thoughts had been buzzing around her own mind with no answers for the past week, and talking about them out loud didn't make them any more solvable to her.

"Sometimes I think you were right," Cedric muttered darkly, flipping so viciously through his Herbology notes that the bottom half of one tore with a violent rip. He mended it forcefully with a jab of his wand. "I shouldn't have entered this stupid tournament at all. It's turning out to be way more effort than it's worth, just staying on top of all the weird things that are happening." He glanced up at her, this time looking utterly defenseless and vulnerable, more like a small child than a seventeen-year-old wizard. Her throat constricted in sympathy for him.

"Don't talk like that," she said gently, reaching across without thinking and placing her smaller hand on top of his larger one, running a thumb across the smooth skin that was stretched taut over his knuckles. He watched her thumb make small patterns on the back of his hand. "You've only got one task to go," she reminded him in a reassuring voice. "And then you're done, forever, and you'll never have to compete in this ever again." He said nothing, but she continued to rub the skin on his hand in small circles, hoping that it would calm him down slightly.

She was just as confused and frightened as he was - perhaps a little less so, as she was only a spectator, but it certainly wasn't a small worry weighing on her mind. Things had only become more twisted since the night that the Goblet of Fire had spit forth Harry Potter's name as the fourth champion. More questions had arisen with no answers to the previous ones. But she told herself that she had to be strong for Cedric now - in three weeks, this would all be a thing of the past. They had to hold on for only three more weeks.

Finally, the wrinkles around Cedric's brow eased, and he breathed deeply through pursed lips, as though attempting to relieve himself of some pressing tension. His eyes lifted again to meet hers, and for the first time since that evening in the entrance hall something like a genuine smile flashed into his eyes and lips.

"You're right. Again," he conceded, and she smiled softly, removing her hand from his. He glanced at the watch on his left wrist, and scooped up the Herbology notes in front of him, stuffing them into the school bag at his feet. "I don't think we're going to get any more work done today," he said, and Rachel promptly snapped her own book closed, silently agreeing. Too much had happened lately for studying to be of prominent importance, final exams or no.

The next afternoon, Cedric and Rachel planned to meet in the library again for another attempt at getting Rachel prepared for final exams - she was only grateful that, as a champion, Cedric was exempt, for he didn't need any more added stresses on his life. But for the first time all year, he wasn't waiting there when she entered the library. She walked unobtrusively to their usual table, getting out the same spell book she'd looked at the previous day and opening it to the marked page on Bubbling Charms. It was rather lonely in the nearly-deserted library without Cedric sitting across from her.

As always, the charms in the book had no hold on her attention span, and she found herself wondering where on earth Cedric was. Surely he couldn't have forgotten - she'd seen him in passing at breakfast this morning (alone, as Lee and the girls had gone down without her), and he'd made no mention of having to skip out on their afternoon. She glanced at the large clock on Madam Pince's desk and correctly ascertained that she was not ridiculously early - but that only served to heighten her confusion, for she couldn't remember a time yet where Cedric had been late for an appointed meeting. She crossed her legs and leaned her head on her hand, rifling through the book's rough-cut pages without taking in a single word printed on the parchment.

"If you study like that, you've got absolutely no hope of passing your exams, you know," said a teasing voice from somewhere above her. Rachel jumped - she hadn't heard anyone approach her table - and found herself blinking rather stupidly at Lee Jordan, who was leaning on the back of the chair Cedric usually occupied, smirking in a joking fashion. She rolled her eyes and snapped the book close.

"Like I was studying," she retorted sarcastically. "What are you doing here anyway, Jordan? Aren't you and the twins allergic to books?" This was how she and Lee interacted - through sarcasm and playful jabs at the other. It was how their friendship had always run, and she wouldn't have been lying to say that both thought it a lot of fun.

"Har har," Lee said, and it was his turn to roll his eyes now. "I guess I shouldn't tell you that Cedric's waiting for you in the entrance hall, then."

"What?" Rachel said, standing up so quickly her chair flipped over behind her. She winced at the loud bang it made on the flagstones, and turned sheepishly in the direction of the circulation desk. The librarian looked as though she might ban Rachel from the library forever for causing such a ruckus. She carefully bent over, replaced the chair to its upright position, and finally turned back to her friend, frowning slightly. "Why is he down there?" she asked. "Why didn't he just come and meet me here?"

Lee shrugged, apparently not really interested in the hows and whys of it. "Dunno. He just asked me if I could run up here and ask you to come down." Rachel was already stuffing her things back in her bag, and now half-trotted out of the library. Lee followed quickly behind her.

It only then occurred to her that this was very different from the way that he, along with her dormitory roommates, had been acting towards her lately. She glanced sideways up at him as they walked down the long corridors, their footsteps muffled by carpet runners, but his expression gave no explanation. Finally, she broached the subject hesitantly.

"Erm, I don't mean this in a rude way," she began, inwardly thinking that that probably wasn't the best precursor for a conversation, "but why did you agree to come and get me? It's just that lately I've been under the impression that you've been mad at me... you and Alicia and Katie and Angelina," she added. Lee looked a little uncomfortable at the question; he unconsciously tugged at his tie.

"We weren't - we weren't mad," Lee said, looking anywhere but down at her. "But I mean, it's a little off for you and Fred and George to be keeping secrets, you know?"

"I'm not keeping any of Fred and George's secrets," Rachel said bluntly, raising her eyebrows in surprise. "I'm just as much in the dark as you are. I've noticed how weird they've been acting lately, as well."

"I kind of figured this morning at breakfast," Lee said, finally looking down at her, a rather pathetic expression of mild remorse in his brown eyes. "When you sat down alone. You could have eaten with us, you know," he added, slightly defensively. Rachel shrugged, disguising the huge wave of relief that washed through her. Four of her friends, at least, weren't angry with her for some reason unbeknownst to her, and right now that was good enough.

"I'm sorry," Lee said finally. "It was kind of stupid of us." He looked genuinely abashed, and Rachel couldn't help but smile at the sincerity in his voice. "No harm done," she said lightly, and no more was discussed on the subject.

Lee and Rachel parted at the staircase, and he climbed in the direction of the common room while she hurried down the opposite way, towards the entrance hall. Now that she was alone again, she began to ponder why on earth Cedric hadn't met her in the library as usual. Unless he'd found something out about the third task?

Sure enough, he was waiting with his back against the stone wall right outside the Great Hall, almost in the exact spot she'd waited for him on that evening a month earlier. He looked up at her clattering steps on the marble stairs and a wide grin cracked his face. "Beginning to think you wouldn't show," he called out as she crossed the distance between them.

"Of course I came," she said, pretending to sound affronted. "Unless you hoped I wouldn't?" Rachel turned to go, as though she was having second thoughts, causing Cedric to laugh and hold out his hand to her in a beseeching, exaggerated gesture.

"Never," he said sincerely. "But you, my little bookworm, need a break from studying, and I thought that we'd just go for a walk today instead of staying cooped up in the library all afternoon. It's too nice outside for us to make excuses."

"Sounds like a plan," she agreed gamely, and took his proffered hand, wrapping her fingers snugly within his. They emerged through the double doors leading to the lawns, the water on the lake sparkling as ripples caused by the giant squid's long tentacles caught the bright sunlight.

They were by no means the only students enjoying the pleasant early summer weather, but Cedric didn't seem entirely focused on staying around them, and began walking the opposite direction from where others were sprawled near the water or the vegetable gardens. The sun was warm on their backs and necks as they walked parallel to the wall that surrounded the castle. Finally, Rachel realized just where Cedric was headed, and smiled. She should have guessed it from the start.

The three golden hoops that dominated either end of the Quidditch Pitch gleamed that afternoon, still visible over the hedges that Rachel could now see growing where the grass had once been green and smooth. Chinks of sunshine filtered through the dark green leaves on the hedge nearest to them, casting a sort of diamond pattern on the ground underfoot. It was a place completely changed from when Cedric and Rachel had been here last, flying around on borrowed school brooms. She walked over and touched one of the bushes hesitantly, aware that it was meant for the champions and knowing what the previous tasks had been like, but the hedge remained quite still.

Cedric came up to stand beside her. "Last one," he said, reaching out and brushing the plant as well. Rachel knew what he meant, but chose not to comment on it. Today was a day just for him and her, together, and she really didn't want to dwell on coming events. Apparently Cedric felt the same, for he said nothing further about it.

"I have something for you," he suddenly said abruptly, and Rachel turned to him in surprise, one hand still stretched out and half-buried in the hedge's leaves. She searched his eyes for any sign of a joke, but it remained quite serious, although a smile was playing around the corners of his mouth - not a smile of trickery, but simply a warm and friendly gesture. She had no idea what on earth Cedric was talking about, but her first instinct (ingrained from spending so much time with Fred and George, she assumed) was to make a joke about it.

"Color-coded notes for the Transfiguration exam?" she teased, but Cedric merely smiled and shook his head, savoring whatever secret he was keeping from her. Rachel just looked at him in perplexity until finally Cedric stuck his hand in the inner pocket of his robes. He made to draw something out, and then stopped.

"Turn around," he grinned. "I want it to be a surprise." Slowly, almost cautiously, Rachel followed his instructions, looking back at him until it was physically impossible, and then just staring at the twisting hedges covering the field while she waited.

Cedric's fingers unexpectedly brushed the nape of her neck, sending an involuntary shiver up her spine. He gently lifted her hair away from her neck and she felt something thin and cold encircle it. She closed her eyes, willing herself not to look until he told her to, although she was itching to see what on earth he was putting around her neck. The soft click of a clasp met her ears, and then Cedric said, "You can look now."

Rachel's fingers flew instantly to her collarbone, and she looked down at what she now knew to be a necklace. The thin gold chain bore a tiny Golden Snitch, only the size of a pea, that was adorned with thread-like silver wings. Her breath caught in her throat as the necklace caught some of the light and reflected it onto her face. She looked up at Cedric, speechless with an emotion she wasn't sure she could name.

"They sold them at Quality Quidditch Supplies when we went into Hogsmeade a few months ago," said Cedric, smiling still but now looking slightly anxious beneath it. "I had to get it for you. You can think of it as a way for me to make up for not getting you a Christmas present." She continued to say nothing, but just looked at him. She knew that anything that was going to come out of her mouth right now wouldn't even make sense.

"It's sort of silly, really." Cedric was talking a little faster now, as though in a hurry to explain his reasoning. "But since I play Seeker, you know, and then I catch the Snitch..." He gestured helplessly, willing her to understand the meaning. And then, quite suddenly, he was nearly knocked off his feet as Rachel all but ran him over as she threw her arms around his neck. He responded gratefully, holding her tightly to him.

Rachel was still overcome with that nameless emotion, welling up inside her and causing a lump to rise in her throat. For a long moment, she pressed herself to him, taking in the scent of his cologne and feeling his robes beneath her cheek. Finally, reluctantly, she drew away. She had said all she could, without saying anything at all. But Cedric seemed to understand.

As she pulled away from his embrace, the wings adorning the little Snitch fluttered suddenly, taking her by surprise. Cedric laughed, a bit sheepishly, and picked up the little pendant, holding it in the palm of his hand while it was still fastened around her neck. “Snitches have flesh memories,” he explained softly. “It knows me.” Suddenly the necklace took on a newer, deeper meaning for her, almost at the same time that a horrible thought struck, bringing with it the capacity to once more utter words. "I didn't get you anything," she said miserably, and Cedric laughed loudly, a ringing sound that almost seemed to echo through the empty stands around the field.

"You were my Christmas present, at the Yule Ball," he teased, kissing her lightly on the nose. She blushed and leaned against him, hoping that maybe she could stay next to him forever this way. He slung an arm around her shoulders, and they turned to go back to the castle this way, all but glued at the hip. Rachel still grinned giddily, and she knew that her cheeks would hurt later because the smile was in no danger of disappearing any time soon.

She ran her fingers again and again over the metallic surface of the tiny Snitch during the walk back, and a sense of peace washed over her. Exams might as well be a millennium away; the third task had faded from her mind. Only right now existed.

A/N: SO MUCH FLUFF IN THIS CHAPTER. I do love writing fluff! And lately I've been sort of feeling that Rachel and Cedric needed some more fluff in their lives, instead of tournament-related angst all the time. Except the end of chapter fourteen was sort of fluffy, as well. But the more, the merrier! Don't forget to review, please - even a simple sentence will make my day, never fear.


Chapter 17: Tongue-Tied
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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!


Chapter 18: Through The Maze
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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?


Chapter 19: Under The Tree
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A funny thing began to happen to Rachel in the days following Cedric's death - it was as though whatever part of her brain that had controlled emotion had simply died right along with him. Where she had once laughed, or cried, or felt pain, or sickness, or hunger, was now nothing more or less than a pure white fog that dominated all other senses. Words that Fred or Katie or Lee tried to say to her went in one ear and out the other, most often without even a noncommittal shrug or response from her. It was as though her body was simply shutting down, unwilling to cope with the harsh blow that it had been dealt.

Why couldn't she cry for the boy she had loved so much? She had not shed a single tear since that night on the pitch, doubled over as she had been with grief at the sight of Cedric's still body lying prone on the soft ground. It didn't feel right that she wasn't able to mourn him as others expected her to - it felt as though she were letting him down, somehow. But she had failed him before his death; should it change afterward?

Nearly worse than Rachel's inability to function were the reactions of those around her - her friends, Cedric's friends, even the Ministry officials who were merely attending the third task as a social event. All seemed to be watching her, gauging her responses and wondering when she might finally crack under the immense amounts of pressure she was being placed under. During her nearly endless roaming around the castle and grounds, she was never free from whispers, stares, and blatantly pointing fingers. Once, as she was climbing the stairs to the Divination tower simply for something to do, she heard a boy say to his friend, "That was his girlfriend. Supposed to be barking mad since the maze, y'know. Not been the same since she saw him dead."

Maybe the boy was right, though. Perhaps she was going mad.

The morning before the last day of term found Rachel lying in bed long after the other girls had awoken and dressed for the day. She was still curled into a tight ball under her wrinkled sheets and bedcovers, eyes trained on the small leaded window, one of many that dotted the walls of Gryffindor Tower. The day was sunny, as all the days had been since the night of the maze. Summer had burst forth upon the castle in all its full glory, and most people had been outside around the clock, taking in the warmth before they were shipped back home for a few months.

Rachel didn't want to return home - that was the only thing she was certain of. Home meant people who loved her, yes, but it also meant people who couldn't possibly fathom what had gone on in the last few weeks of term. She had written to her parents steadily throughout the year, and had described as simply as she could the tournament and its tasks. But she could not bring herself to write them a letter about the maze, because cementing with quill and ink what had happened that night was almost more than she could bear. She could not bear to recreate Cedric in her mind to be only the boy who could exist now as nothing but memories. It would make the events more permanent, the reality more blindingly real, and less shrouded in the white haze that continually clouded her mind. It was, she selfishly imagined, more comfortable in that haze.

A sudden sharp knock on the dormitory door startled her slightly, but she made no move to get up and answer it. The door creaked open by itself, however, and someone let themselves inside, shutting the door quietly behind them. Rachel didn't roll over to see who it was, not even when she sat down at the foot of the four-poster. And then, to her immense surprise, it was Hermione Granger who spoke.

"Our exam results came in." Rachel didn't react to this, unexpected as the voice was, as she was hit with a sudden blinding memory of Cedric's doodled hippogriff in the library while studying for those exams. She pushed it away further, drawing her blankness around her firmly. Thinking was too painful.

Hermione waited, perhaps wondering if she would recieve a response, and then tried again with cheeriness that was blatantly faked. "Come on down to the grounds with everyone," she chirped. "All the Gryffindors are out there, it's really nice weather."

Finally, Rachel rolled over slightly to look at the fourth-year girl in the face. "Are you really talking about the weather?" she said, her voice slightly hoarse from a combination of disuse and suppressed emotions. Hermione shrugged, although looking mildly pleased that she had at least elicited a response. But that was all that Rachel felt like giving her. She turned back over and resumed staring out the window, sheet tucked up to her chin.

“Look,” Hermione said finally, in a very brisk and no-nonsense sort of voice, “you can’t hide from people forever. Shutting yourself away from the world isn’t going to do any good, and you’re hurting yourself in the process.” When Rachel didn’t answer, the fourth year continued on heatedly.

“I know what you’ve been through – watching Viktor compete in the tournament wasn’t exactly a walk in the park, was it?” Rachel turned back around. She hadn’t thought before about what Hermione must have felt, having the same Triwizard Tournament worries as Rachel herself had had. Hermione’s cheeks were slightly pink, but she looked defiantly at Rachel, daring her to contradict her.

“Hermione, I’m just not ready,” said Rachel brokenly, not crying but overcome with a sudden bone-deep weariness that seemed to possess all of her. “I know it seems stupid, and foolish, and even conceited. But I just can’t.”

Hermione pursed her lips, and finally rose from the bed, sighing slightly. She left the dormitory as quietly as she had entered it, and Rachel turned her attention back to the real world beyond the slightly rippled panes of glass in her window. It looked so easy to be carefree; she very well might not know that simplicity again. Not anymore.

*

The end of term feast was rather a more somber affair than it had been in previous years; an attitude of relaxed and easy gaiety was somewhat missing from the festivities. The Great Hall, which usually would have been decorated in the colors of whichever House had won that year’s House Cup, was swathed instead in black to show respect for the loss of Cedric. Rachel couldn’t look anywhere, at any of the mournful decorations; it was much too excruciating to have to see constant reminders. The ache in her heart hadn’t dulled in the slightest since the night of the maze.

She knew that, though her friends loved her, they were unaware of exactly what to say to her to draw her out of the funk she’d been thrust in, and so they said nothing. This was both a blessing and a curse, for she had to answer no odd questions or talk about anything she didn’t want to. But being the girl everyone avoided was a bit lonesome, to be sure. She didn’t blame them – she wouldn’t have known what to say, either, had the situation been flipped. But that didn’t make her feel any better.

Fred and George were talking in conspiratorial tones, as usual, yet another long sheet of parchment on the table between them. Their heads were nearly touching in their desperate effort to avoid being overheard – she knew they were conjecturing plans for their joke shop yet again. Her eyes drifted away from them over to the Hufflepuff table, where they instantly found Matt and Anders. They were sitting with a group of their friends than included Ben Drewart, the Hufflepuff Chaser. Although unceasing, even from this distance their conversation looked strained and forced. But at least they, unlike her, were talking.

Why could they act so normally, when she couldn’t?

At that moment, Dumbledore rose from where he had been sitting in the middle of the long staff table at the front of the Great Hall. The noise level from the chattering students, which had already been a bit more subdued than normal, died away almost at once. A funny sensation crept suddenly into Rachel’s stomach as she looked blankly at the determined expression on the headmaster’s face. Whatever he was about to say – and it more than likely had to do with the one subject she could stand never to talk about again – it was extremely important to him.

He began with a toast, as one might have expected he would – a toast to the loss of the innocent, to Cedric Diggory, who had died before his time. The lump that had been sitting at the base of Rachel’s throat suddenly doubled in size, pressing her windpipe and making it painful to swallow. She stood numbly with the rest, goblet forgotten on the table in front of her, as she watched everyone raise their own glasses and murmur. It was as though she wasn’t present, and was watching the events from somewhere very far away – a mere spectator.

The air in the room suddenly became very thin and hard to breathe in. She sat down quickly, breath coming fast and shallow, and from the corner of her eye saw that Fred was giving her a concerned look.

Why was this so hard, even after time had passed? One would think that Rachel might at least have accepted it by now. But some part of her, a very small and foolish part, expected someone to tell her it was a joke at any moment. That Cedric would walk through the door, his infectious grin asking forgiveness, and she would give it and tell him exactly what she had been unable to tell him before.

Her mind jolted suddenly back to the present, the words entering her brain quite suddenly, in time to hear something entirely unexpected. Her eyes swung almost of their own accord back to the headmaster as, with a sense of gravity unlike any tone he had used before, he informed them exactly how Cedric had died in the maze. Cedric had been murdered, and what was more, he had been murdered by Lord Voldemort.

Rachel had heard of vertigo brought on by sudden shocking news – where floors spin under peoples’ feet, and the walls blur in motion purely imagined from some part of the brain. But this wasn’t like that. It was as though the entire room literally jolted sharply beneath her, so real that she gripped the table in the slightly confused fear of being thrown from the bench. Fred shot her another worried look and reached out his arm as though to steady her; for a wild moment, she wondered if maybe the earth had jarred for a second.

Dumbledore was still speaking, pushing on through the unnerving effect that his words had had on the student body. Rachel cast glazed-over eyes about her; students were whispering to their neighbors, mixed looks of shock and doubt and suspicion cast over their previously-mournful expressions. She felt her stomach give an uncomfortable lurch, and it became even harder to breathe.

Murdered. His death was no accident – he has been killed intentionally. Having grown up in the Muggle world as opposed to the wizarding one, she wasn’t quite as well-versed on You-Know-Who as most of her schoolmates, but she knew enough about him to be scared at even the thought of his returning. The notion that Cedric had died at his hands was simply unthinkable.

“Rachel?” Fred’s low whisper reached her brain as though from across a long distance. She looked at him, aware that her breathing was coming more quickly and loudly now, but not quite sure how she could control that. More people were turning wary eyes on her now as she began attracting the attention of Gryffindors up and down the table.

“Rachel, look at me,” said Fred again, sounding slightly panicked. He was trying hard not to speak too loudly. “Are you all right?”

She pressed her lips together, vaguely aware that Dumbledore was still speaking from the front of the hall. An overwhelming and inexplicable sense of panic gripped her heart, and quickened it. She rose on shaking knees from the bench, and heads turned in her direction. Uncaring, she fumbled over the seat, nearly falling flat on her face, and started making her way to the exit.

Eyes bored into the back of her skull, curious and watchful, knowing exactly why she was fleeing the scene. She couldn’t handle it, any of it – she felt like a shard of glass only moments from shattering, and would do anything possible to stop the inevitable from happening. She walked, but the panic increased with each step. And so she ran, trying to outrun whatever it was that chased her.

She burst through the doors into the entrance hall and turned left immediately, her feet knowing where they wanted to go without her telling them. They pounded through the great oak doors onto the sweeping expanse of lawn, turned and hurtled toward the Black Lake with its smooth expanse of dark, mirror-like water. Rachel gasped in great breaths of air, nearly flying, robes billowing behind her, and finally came to the twisted tree by the lake.

It was the tree where Cedric had asked her to Hogsmeade – the tree where, really, this had all began in its definitive direction. It looked solid and unchanging, as though not even a leaf had fallen from it since that rainy day in late October; the only difference was that the soggy fire-colored leaves were now green and bright. She sank beneath it, limbs trembling, clutching her head in her hands and squeezing her eyes shut tightly.

The grounds were peaceful in the evening twilight; the sun had dipped below the horizon, and it wouldn’t be long before total darkness spread itself across the grass and walls of the castle. It was an ironic contradiction to the tempest inside of her. And yet Rachel still couldn’t cry. What the hell was wrong with her? She could cry at the drop of a hat before. This was all wrong; it wasn’t fair to Cedric that she couldn’t even mourn him properly.

She hadn’t been watching the castle, and so was taken aback at the sound of footsteps moving across the ground in her direction. She kept her head resting on her tightly furled knees, knowing that if she didn’t concentrate solely on taking deep, slow breaths, she might very well lose it entirely. Hopefully whomever had been sent to check on her would take the hint and leave her alone.

But no such luck – he or she dropped down to sit beside her, drawing their legs up and settling in for the long term. She raised her head slightly and was mildly surprised to see the shock of flaming Weasley hair next to her. “What do you want, Fred?” she said hoarsely.

“To listen,” he said simply, not looking at her but at the water in front of them. He said nothing else, and they listened as the lake lapped gently at its rocky shore. She had a sudden flash of memory of sitting on those rocks, wrapped in a blanket, Cedric by her side and both of them flushed with his victory. The soreness in her throat returned.

“What is wrong with me?” she asked finally, hating the pathetic tone in her voice but unable to remove it. Just asking the question in the first place was a stretch for her, at any rate. She looked at Fred from the corner of her eye, not entirely sure she wanted to know the answer. He said nothing for a long moment, and then shook his head with startling vehemence.

“Absolutely nothing,” he said firmly.

“I can’t even mourn for him, Fred –“

“You are. In your own way.” He finally turned to look at her, and she found herself gulping. “So you haven’t cried – that’s okay. Everyone’s got to deal with this in their own way, and this is yours. You’ll come around in time.”

She continued staring at the water, mulling his words over in her head. A sense of relative calm descended on her for the first time in days, perhaps even since before Cedric had been killed. Being able to think about it at all was evidence enough. She smiled slightly (how long had it been since that had happened?) and turned her head to look at him, laying it sideways on her knees, still drawn up to her chest.

“Who would have thought that you, of all people, could have been so smart about all this,” she said softly. Fred reflected her small smile and stood up, brushing off the dirt from the backs of his trousers.

“It’s what I’m here for,” he said, with a wink that was only slightly less cocky than normal. “I’ll head back in – give you some time alone. You probably need it.” In fact, she’d been alone more in the last few days than she had in her entire life, but she understood what he meant – now that she was finally thinking with a clear head, she needed to say her goodbyes.

The sound of his trainers faded on the soft dirt underneath, and finally she was once more alone, the sounds of nature the only company she had on these solitary grounds. The rustle of leaves and the small splashes from the giant squid’s long tentacles seemed oddly heightened in the stillness. Rachel half-wondered exactly where she was expected to go from here.

Perhaps she should begin where she had left off before.

It was quiet; there was no one else around, of that she was certain. She drew in a breath, suddenly worried that it might do more harm than good, but she had already resolved her mind to at least attempt it. The words seemed to burst forth before she could really think about them, slipping away into the fast-approaching darkness.

“I love you, Cedric.”

And at that exact moment, the tiny Golden Snitch – the necklace she still wore around her neck, for she hadn’t had the courage to remove it – beats its silver wings once against her collarbone.

Her heart jumped into her mouth, and she nearly ripped the pendant from the chain in her haste to examine it further. It lay quite still and cold in her palm, but she knew what she had felt. This necklace knew Cedric. It was imprinted with him, his first and last gift to her. It was the only explanation she had, and why shouldn’t it be true?

Rachel became aware of a sudden wetness on her cheek, as though the lump of tears in her throat had only been waiting for this moment. She was crying.

A/N: So, hopefully you will feel that this gave Rachel and Cedric some of the closure they weren't able to get while Cedric was still alive - I want to thank everyone for all the incredible feedback on chapter eighteen. You guys are truly amazing, and without you I wouldn't still be here today, so thanks to each and every one of you. How was this chapter? There's only one more left, and it's still hard for me to believe it's over. A little review is always appreciated!


Chapter 20: In The End
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It was a strange thing, to be going home – Rachel had changed so completely in the year she had spent away from her small house in Liverpool that she half-wondered if she would find everything as she had left it. She knew her father would still be working as a machinist, her mother still caring for her brothers and sisters as she always had done. The fact that such a place of relative peace and solidity could still exist in her shaken world was almost inconceivable.

Packing was, as always, hectic as anything – belongings became so strewn about the dormitory in the course of a school year that it took nearly the entire morning just to sort out which things belonged in whose trunk, and which belonged in others. Angelina, Alicia, and Katie were still treating Rachel with a sort of wary distance, although they had been visibly relieved when she had spoken to them briefly the evening before after returning from the lake.

It had felt, in a perverse sort of way, good to cry. She didn’t know exactly how long she had sat by the lake after talking to Fred - only that the moon was high in the sky when she finally returned to the entrance hall, and that all remnants of the feast had long since disappeared from the cold and silent dining hall. She had passed several ghosts on her way up to the tower, but none of them had disturbed her, and she suspected that they had witnessed her flight from the Great Hall at the feast just as the students and faculty had. Notoriety for certifiably losing it on the last night of term was sure to follow her into next year.

Packing and making preparations to leave Hogwarts was only more hectic this year due to the presence of the Durmstrang and Beauxbatons students, who were also preparing to leave for their own schools. Addresses were being exchanged, and slightly morose good-byes expressed as new friends departed, perhaps forever.

Everyone was a little confused, too, due to events that had quickly culminated since the third task, events Rachel and most of the other students were only just learning about. Mad-Eye Moody had been impersonated the entire year by a Death Eater, for starters - that thought alone was enough to send powerful shivers up her spine, remembering Moody attempting to get Cedric alone on several occasions.

Barty Crouch had been pronounced unmistakably dead, murdered by his own son, who was in fact the Death Eater who had adopted Moody’s persona. Harry Potter had seen You-Know-Who return, that night right after Cedric had been murdered. The events all sort of blurred together for her, and she might never uncover the truth behind them, tangled as it was. For now, she was content to let her mind go as blank as she dared, pressed shoulder to shoulder in the entrance hall with the other sixth years to await the carriages that would take them back to the platform at Hogsmeade Station.

As Rachel stood, trunk by her feet, watching Alicia chew out George for something he had done to her quills (apparently having turned one or two of them into frogs), she was suddenly aware of two people weaving their way towards her through the throng of people and luggage. Matt and Anders both caught her eye at the same time, and she smiled and gave a little wave.

“Been meaning to talk to you for a bit,” Anders said once he and his friend finally found themselves by her side. He looked a little embarrassed, scratching the back of his neck uncomfortably. Rachel suddenly became startlingly aware of the fact that this was the first time that the three of them had talked without Cedric factoring in some way.

“Just wanted to make sure… you know, that you’re okay,” Anders continued. Rachel took a deep breath, and tried to fix her face into a complacent smile. Throughout the year, she’d always thought of them as Cedric’s friends, not even realizing that along the way they had become hers, too.

“I’m fine,” she said, and then impulsively reached forward and hugged first him, then Matt. If they were surprised, they didn’t show it. She smiled again, willing them to believe her, although she didn’t believe it totally herself. But no matter – she had begun the healing last night, by the lake, and it was a step forward.

“If you ever need anything, you know,” said Matt, turning to leave and stopping himself suddenly, “you can always write. ‘Kay?” He smiled shyly, and then said quickly, as though needing to get the words out before he backed down, “He really cared about you, you know. I’d never seen him so happy.”

She waited for the unbearable pain that mention of Cedric had so recently brought, but for some reason, it had dulled since her night under the tree by the lake. Matt’s words inevitably hurt, but they also served to comfort, and that made all the difference. Rachel nodded mutely, and Matt looked at her for a moment before following Anders across the hall. She watched them go, and turned to see Fred looking at her with concern. He had been a sort of surrogate older brother since their talk at the lake, protective and concerned. He raised his eyebrows in a silent question, and she nodded. It’s okay, she mouthed.

“Sixth years!” called the trembling growl of the caretaker, Argus Filch, over the heads of those assembled in the entrance hall. “Mind your luggage, there, and step this way.” He cast a bloodshot and sour eye over the students queuing up to board the carriages to the platform, watching each and every one of them as they exited with their bulk and baggage, and Rachel passed quickly through the oak doors onto the grounds to avoid its wrath, dragging her trunk awkwardly behind her. Some things would never change.

But she could not have been expected to suppress memories of Cedric forever – such thoughts simply weren’t rational – and the sight of the carriages made her mind jump quickly to their first encounter. She recalled with a slight twinge of embarrassment how she had fallen right out of one, and he’d had to help her up. At least I never had to hide my clumsiness, she thought wryly, and a sardonic smile twisted her lips.

Would she have done anything differently? Separated herself from him, to save herself the pain that had come with the end of the tournament? She considered this question seriously as she loaded her trunk into the carriage with Lee’s help.

She remembered the miscommunications, the low points in their rather tumultuous relationship – Rita Skeeter’s article, and the interfering group of Slytherins, and the temporary separation from her friends that it had caused. And then Rachel remembered the Yule Ball, and the Hogsmeade visit, and the necklace, and flying around the pitch. It had been no picnic, leaping obstacles to stay together as they had. But nothing in life was ever simple, and the good had always outweighed the bad, in the end. His death would not kill her, for it was only the bad thing that must inevitably prelude the good. That was how things had always worked out in their relationship, and for the first time, she was convinced that this time would be no different. It might take more time, but everything would be all right in the end.

This just meant it wasn’t the end yet.

The door to the carriage closed with a sharp snap, jerking her out of her reverie. She saw Fred watching her concernedly again, and shook her head gently. “Some year,” she said sadly, although not without a note of wonder in her voice. He evaluated her expression carefully, wondering exactly how he was supposed to approach responding to that statement, taking in her eyes and her mouth and her voice before sitting back cautiously.

“Yeah,” he agreed. “It won’t be the same again, that’s for sure.” The carriage jolted forward, pulled as always by the invisible horses, and Hogwarts appeared in the tiny window in the door, more like a portrait than a solid and living building.

“No,” she agreed, voice trailing slightly. “It certainly won’t.”

The carriage rounded a bend in the path, and the last glimpse of the towers and turrets of Hogwarts castle faded from view. The sky above was a cloudless turquoise; it was beautiful. She twisted in her seat to watch the rest scenery before it, too, faded from view.

Everything would be all right in the end. A brief, flickering smile crossed Rachel's face, and she turned her back on all of it with a sense of resignation and finality. She faced forward.

A/N: So much is owed in the writing of this novel that I can't possibly hope to tell everyone how much support and encouragement they have given to me in nearly a year of writing this. It is no small thing to say that, without each and every one of you, this novel would not exist. So this is for Sarah, who has supported me without abandon since we first met. To Callie, my most loyal reader. To Annie, whose valuable ideas made this story what it is. To Shelby and Jess, my Golden Trio. And to you, because you have followed Cedric and Rachel until their story met its natural and ultimate end, and have been there for me at each and every bump in the road.

Thank you to everyone for reading, and reviewing, and recommending. Thank you for holding my hand and walking with me as I wrote "Leaping Obstacles". Thank you for believing in me. I love you all!

And so, I shall now write those two most blessed of all three-letter words:

The End

EDIT: If you would like to read a bit more about Cedric and Rachel at a point in their respective futures, please, please head over to Toujours Padfoot's author page and read her one-shot called Summoned! It's an absolutely brilliant rendering of some of Leaping Obstacles's characters three years after this one, in 1998. Seriously. You need to do that right now.


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