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.