First I'd like to thank everyone who reviewed. I know it's been awhile since there's been an update.
Second I'd like to once again disclaim my ownership of Harry Potter and all affiliated characters. Some dialogue in this chapter has been taken directly from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. I do not own these quotes either.
Third I'd like to say that this has been beta'ed, but that would be a lie. My apologies for any mistakes, feel free to point them out.
Had it really been a month since he'd been out here with Harry listening to Bagman prattle on about the third task? Logically he could recall the passing of time, the marking off of dates on the calendar, but emotionally it was as if someone had slipped the chain of a time-turner around his neck and sent it spinning forward. He wasn't ready for this, despite the month he'd spent practicing every spell he knew and then some. He just wasn't.
Chills prickled the back of his neck as a breeze emanating from the maze ruffled his hair. He could almost taste the cool dampness of the evening air, and if he blocked out the raucous voices calling from the stands he could almost pretend that this was just another Hogwarts evening he was spending out by the lake.
Something buzzed past his ear and he swatted at it ineffectually. 'So much for pretending,' he thought as the noise of the crowd hit his returned senses full force. 'Ready or not, this is really happening, Ced.'
He wasn't a brave man. While he liked to think of himself as willing to stand up for injustices, Cedric Diggory was not the kind of man to play the hero. He was far more likely to play the sidekick, loyal and supporting, there when the hero was ready to give up. The Sorting Hat had been right, so many years before, to place him in Hufflepuff. In that same context, the Goblet of Fire had been wrong.
The rest of the students had already filed into the stands, bright eyed and eager to support him. At first Cedric had been hopeful that the school would have changed its collective mind, but Potter Stinks badges were still prominently displayed on many. He sighed and thoroughly wished that they had just gotten over the whole situation already. Harry had proven his worth as a champion several times over now, perhaps even more so than Cedric himself.
Harry coughed lightly, and when Cedric glanced across the maze entrance at the boy he had to bite back a grin at the ironic twist to the other boy's lips. "What's the matter, Potter? Scared?"
"Terrified," Harry said, and Cedric took note of the fingers that tapped anxiously on the side of the boy's right leg. "But at least I hide it better."
"What?" Cedric asked, quirking an eyebrow and allowing his eyes to deliberately rest on the twitchy hand. Harry noticed his gaze and, with a blush, stuffed his hands in the pockets of his robes.
He was hard-pressed to bite back that grin when Harry finally spoke again. "You're shaking."
The grin died completely as he looked down at his own hands. They were trembling, his grip on his wand so tight his knuckles had turned the pale white of the bones beneath. A crease formed between his eyebrows as he drew them together. He wasn't supposed to be anxious. It was just a hedgerow maze on a quidditch field, nothing more, nothing less. There was nothing to fear here.
To the sides Fleur appeared equally anxious, yet Krum proved once more to be an anomaly. The Durmstrang champion stood at ease, expression completely blank, almost dazed. Having never been a particular fan of Bulgaria's team it was difficult to say whether or not this stoicism was normal for him. For a moment Cedric envied the man his inner peace, for he seemed to be far away from the simple worries of this task.
A deep breath did nothing to help the Hufflepuff as Dumbledore called out the order they would enter the maze, so he took another, and another. He nearly jumped out of his skin at the crack of the signal.
'Deep breaths, I can do this,' he thought as he headed into the maze, completely forgetting Hermione's instructions to team up with Harry and turning right as the fourth year turned left.
While the anticipation and build-up to the third task had left Hermione nursing fears and nightmares only half-recognized, the actual event was quite the let down. Once the champions were gone, there was nothing to do but wait.
Judging by the frown that seemed cemented onto Professor McGonagall's face as she spoke with Professor Dumbledore below and the disapproving glances she aimed at Ludo Bagman every time he strolled near her in his efforts to excite the crowd, the task had not been well thought out. The maze was very large, and it seemed more and more likely that it would take the champions several hours to complete it. Apparently none of the architects of the third task had considered that, given the timeframe, they would be leaving the rest of the students to their own amusements.
Hermione sent a sidelong glance past Ron to where Fred and George sat conversing in hurried whispers. This could not end well.
With Rita Skeeter's secret found and the task in progress, she found that all her worries had evaporated. It was only a maze, and there were professors all around. Certainly Dumbledore could handle whatever challenges the maze might throw at her boys.
There was nothing to fear here. Satisfied with that conclusion, Hermione reached into her book bag for her newest text, Experimental Magic by Larius Safern. The chapter on the ethics of testing spells on various magical creatures was fascinating, and S.P.E.W. could always use more help.
While he had known that there wasn't going to be much light in the maze, what with the sun setting over the nearby mountains as they waited for the task to start, Cedric hadn't realized just how dark it would be once they were enclosed by the hedge rows. He also hadn't realized how strange the entire task would be. Claustrophobia was not something he had ever suffered from, but the Hufflepuff couldn't help but wonder if by the end of this he would find himself having nightmares about the trapping hedges.
What bothered him most, he decided as he peered around a corner, was the sense that he was completely and utterly alone. The hedges acted as a natural sound block, and without the noise from his classmates back at the start and the sight of any other beings, he found himself wishing for someone, anyone to come find him.
A rustling ahead made him yank his head back from where he had been eyeing the next intersection. He cursed silently; if the approaching sounds gave any indication, something had found him.
"'Arry?" A feminine voice whispered, and Cedric could have cried with relief as the sharp pang of terror faded. Still, best to be cautious. Who knew what sort of charms and traps had been placed? It could be some sort of voice mimicking creature of Hagrid's.
He chanced another glance out into the hedged corridor and felt his caution melt away as he caught sight of widened pale eyes. "Fleur, it's Cedric!" he whispered urgently, still not entering the path in case she was considering eliminating him as competition. "You all right?"
The French girl nodded to him, yet continued to hurry south down the corridor. "I think there is something following me," her heavily accented whisper reached his ears as she passed the turnoff where he stood, throwing fearful glances over her shoulder. Cedric noticed suddenly that though her wand was out she was not using it to light her way, and in the light emitting from his own wand she appeared both haggard and almost feral.
'Part veela,' he reminded himself as another rustle from the north end of the long passage made the girl start. Her gaze turned from haggard to terrified, and she broke into a run.
Cedric barely had the presence of mind to hiss out a quick "Nox!" before ducking around the bend and crouching as close to the hedge wall as he could. His light dazzled eyes left him blind in the renewed darkness, adding to the fear that welled in his chest as something raced past, hot on the girl's trail.
In a way he was grateful for that blindness. He didn't want to know anymore.
As soon as his vision cleared and he was certain that whatever-that-thing-was was not going to come back for him, Cedric moved back into the intersection and advanced north.
He had just turned off into another lane when a shrill scream, clearly from Fleur's lips, rent the air. A shower of red sparks lit the dusky sky for a short moment before fading away once more, leaving Cedric to wonder just what the judges had been thinking with this task.
Hermione had seen the sparks the moment they rose over the hedgerows, and putting two and two together with the scream realized that Fleur was out of the game.
The French girl had seemed so strong, too.
She felt the worry stir again, and let it. As much as she wanted to believe that it was the challenges in the maze that had proved too much for Fleur, she knew it was far more likely that it had been the other champions than any creature or spell trap.
As much as she didn't want to think badly of any of the remaining competitors, especially not Harry or Cedric, she also knew that desperation and fear changed even the best of people.
But she was stuck out here with the rest of the helpless and captive audience, and there was nothing to do but worry, and wait, and hope.
The telltale prickle at the back of his neck warned him the split second before he turned to see Krum, hooked nose and all, wand at the ready.
Still stunned from the quiet appearance of the other champion, Cedric asked rather sharply to his intentions. Upon receiving no answer, and suddenly noting the odd stare the Quidditch star had fixed on him, he opened his mouth again only to find himself staring at the wand pointed right at his face.
"What the hell d'you think you're doing?" he yelled, raising his own wand; the Bulgarian had completely left the realm of predictability--
--a gravelly, accented voice cast the Cruciatus Curse before Cedric could even consider a counter. There was no time to cast a shield charm as his back arched in pain. At some point he fell and found himself writhing on the grass, facedown, shouting his pain to the earth and sod and the pebble digging slightly into his right cheek.
When Harry came through the hedge and knocked the Bulgarian out, it was as if Cedric had been underwater and suddenly surfaced. He drew a deep breath which quickly turned into a hiss as a faint echo of the previous pain sounded in his ribs.
He pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes in an attempt to will back the pain as the Gryffindor helped him to sit and later stand. Had he somehow broken his ribs or just bruised them from the fall and subsequent thrashing? Cedric was sure that if he had broken them they would hurt more, and for a moment considered sending up red sparks for himself.
Then again, the task was still on. Now there was only Harry and whatever spell and creature challenges to worry about, what with both Fleur and Krum's removal (Cedric highly suspected that the former had been caused by the latter). If he didn't give up now, Hufflepuff could still have a victory.
For a moment he allowed himself to picture the tournament trophy in the common room, allowed himself to picture next year's first years, maybe some even eager to be in Helga Hufflepuff's house.
The images were too tempting. Holding his side and his wand Cedric Diggory took the right fork in the path, breaking into as best a run he could manage once Harry was out of sight.
When Viktor Krum emerged from the maze, supported by Karkaroff and looking rather freshly Stupefied Hermione did not participate in the cheers that rippled through the stands. While Krum had not caught her fancy as she had apparently caught his, she did respect him. Ignoring Ron's attempt to lead the Gryffindor side of the stands in a chant of Harry's name, she did her best to discern the strange set of his features.
The Marauder's Map had proved to be both a help and a hindrance during her wait. While she could watch the dots labeled with the champions' names traverse the maze, the maze did not appear on the map. To the map, Fleur Delacour, Viktor Krum, Harry Potter, and Cedric Diggory had apparently decided to take a very roundabout and convoluted stroll across the Quidditch field. She had seen the dots containing the three boys' names intersect one another, and it appeared that something had happened to Krum, but without knowing the situation surrounding the facts she could give no proper analysis.
From here, Viktor appeared to be suffering from more than just an impressive Stupefy. Rather than seem as if he were emerging from a stunned state, he looked as if he had just regained consciousness. Normally she would have decided she didn't know him well enough to judge his expressions, but there was something familiar about the confusion he was evidently experiencing. It seemed rather similar to the effects of being Obliviated, but she knew that wasn't the answer.
Annoyed that she couldn't remember where she had seen this similar state of being before, Hermione filed it into the back of her mind where she kept all the questions she couldn't currently answer for later research. If only she wasn't so sure she'd seen it before… but where? And why?
They had agreed to take the cup together. Much as Cedric wanted, for once in his life, to just take all the damn glory and be done with it, he was still fair. He could already feel the phantom pangs his conscience would guilt him with if he took Harry's offer, and to take it together, a true Hogwarts victory, seemed far more fitting than the usual besting of a house.
When the portkey took them, Cedric didn't panic. Considering the dangers of the task, the massive spider guarding the cup itself notwithstanding, using a portkey to transport the winner back to the entrance made sense. It was a very thoughtful gesture for Dumbledore to do such a thing, and the Hufflepuff felt a warm rush of gratitude towards the Headmaster. He was very tired, both physically and mentally exhausted. It would be nice to escape to the Prefect's Bath after the task, provided his house let him go even for a quick wash.
Something was wrong. Cedric noticed the moment he landed, feet first the way his father had taught him to. Though Harry's weight dragged him down as the boy collapsed on his injured leg, he knew his father would have congratulated him for the landing anyway. Amos Diggory had been so proud of his son's seemingly natural aptitude for so many areas of life, always full of praise and boasts for his only boy. Cedric had taken to his father immediately, instinctually eager to please the man who regarded him so highly.
His more basic instincts were speaking to him now, and it took him a moment to figure out what was wrong.
The air of a Hogwarts summer evening, usually cool due to the nearby lake, had been replaced with a chill, dank atmosphere. He opened his eyes, not surprised that they were no longer at Hogwarts. If the portkey had been what he originally thought it was, they would have landed to raucous cheers, not eerie silence. If the portkey had landed at Hogwarts, he would recognize where they were. Though the castle and its grounds were, in a way, ever-changing, there was no cemetery at the school. If there had been one, it would have been much more well-kept than this dilapidated collection of graves.
"Where are we?" Harry asked, wince obvious even in the darkness as Cedric pulled him to his feet. The Gryffindor stood hipshot, resting his weight on his uninjured leg as best he could. Cedric offered his shoulder for support as Harry stared at their surroundings, a faint look of fear steadily creeping over his face. Though he wanted to rid Harry that growing terror Cedric knew he could not, for his own expression surely mirrored it. If Harry Potter, not only a Gryffindor but the boy who had faced down You-Know-Who more times in his fourteen years of life than anyone Cedric knew other than Dumbledore, was afraid, then there was no hope for Cedric's failing courage at all.
Even with their wands out the fear did not abate. While he had never held superstitions about graveyards, Cedric was starting to think that, along with small spaces, graveyards would soon populate his nightmares. Neither cast Lumos, not out of any actual agreement but out of the unspoken realization that in this gloom, the light would attract anything nearby. Anything.
He thought he had been scared before the task, but that anxiety was nothing compared to the uneasiness that roiled in his belly now. This wasn't part of the task, he was sure of it. Something was wrong.
Something moved in the distance; there was a figure emerging from the gloom. He squinted, wanting to call out, but remembering Krum's blank gaze and the sheer pain that followed he stopped. This might not be a friend.
The figure was of rather short stature, he noticed as it came closer. A woman? Was she carrying something? It was so hard to see in this infernal darkness, where was a full moon when he needed it?
Whatever or whoever it was, the figure came to a halt and for a long moment the three faced off. Then Harry fell to the ground screaming.
Where had the Cruciatus Curse come from? There'd been no incantation, no warning, Harry was in such pain he wasn't even moving, just twitching spasmodically and Cedric's heart was in his throat with panic when--
"Kill the spare."
--when the green light hit him, and in that instant, as his life left him, the panic faded into a vague sense of remorse. The possible reasons for this were varied and only brought up in conversation when, years later, others had the sense to wonder if Hufflepuff's Golden Boy had any regrets.
Whether it was that he thought of Hufflepuff in his last moments and felt bad that they would not get the glory they craved or felt sorry that he had never outright apologized to Cho Chang for his actions during the year, no one could say. Maybe in his last thought he regretted that Harry would be here alone with this twisted thing before them, or grieved for the parents he would never see or hold again. He might have been thinking of all the friends and classmates, still obliviously waiting for his return at Hogwarts, that he would be leaving behind. He might have been thinking of the future he was losing, or of the life he had lived so far. If in those bittersweet last moments he thought of Hermione, if he missed her and her smile and the way she would wrap her arms around him, no one would ever know.
Long before anyone would wonder what his last thoughts were as Peter Pettigrew's killing curse hit him, Cedric Diggory was gone.