Chapter 7 : Deliberations and Dragons
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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 –
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!
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