Chapter 3: Staring Contests

Chapter Three: Staring Contests

As much as he was loath to admit it, Hermione was able to shut him out. At least literally. Cedric was slouched against the wall opposite of her sanctuary and was thoughtfully engaged in a staring contest he was bound to lose. Doors did not blink, after all. As it was, he stubbornly remained, unmoving and uncaring of Ginny’s sobs, Luna’s airy voice, and Neville’s reassuring tones.

This was not the first time, and unfortunately it would not be the last, Cedric had seen Hermione hovering at the edge only a hairsbreadth away from teetering over. Merlin’s beard, she’d seen and done more in her first year than he had in his first five. She’d faced a three headed dog, been petrified, had gone back in time to rescue a wrongfully convicted felon…the list seemed to go on and on.

Lifting a shaky hand, Cedric ran his fingers through his hair, gripping his skull tightly as his head began to throb in earnest. At least he’d been there at the Ministry, not that he had stopped Dolohov’s aim. Still, he’d been able to pull her to safety and protect her as the curses continued to fly. He’d been able to shield her body with his when he’d mistaken the arrival of the Order as more Death Eaters showing up to finish them off. It was in that moment as he curled himself over her small frame, his arms clutching her to him with bruising strength as his heart raged against the idea of them touching her- that brief moment when all he could feel was regret that he’d never plucked up the courage to kiss her- that he knew he loved her.

That had been his seventh and last year at school and the separation from her after his graduation nearly killed him. He wrote to her during her sixth year, telling her that she was right in her concerns over Harry’s new potion book, and that yes, Harry was acting like a great prat for not seeing reason. He met up with the three of them every Hogsmeade trip. Relief had filled him when it was Ron who had been poisoned, guilt following immediately afterwards at the thought. At least when the Death Eaters breeched the school’s wards she’d spent the fight unconscious in a closet.

Cedric shook his head. Why couldn’t she be locked away for every battle? Couldn’t he just shut her up in his flat? She’d be safe there, he’d see to it. Sure, she’d be pissed afterwards, and rightly so, but he could live with her anger- he just couldn’t live without her.

Her seventh year had been the worst. Bill and Fleur had sent him an invitation to their wedding and he’d been happy to go, content that he’d see her there. There was a part of him still, if he was honest, that saw Hermione as she’d been on that day- ribbons of sunlight in her curly hair, a ready smile for all around, and music in her laughter as he twirled her around in a lively dance. She had put the bride to shame.

He was loath to leave her side, but Fleur insisted on at least one dance with him. He’d twirled her around expertly, and when he happily returned her to her besotted husband, Cedric’s eyes had immediately sought out Hermione. He’d found her with Harry and Ron, the three of them huddled together on the fringe of excitement. A trill of suspicion danced down his spine. They were up to something.

“We should wait until everyone falls asleep,” Hermione was saying. “We don’t want anyone to notice we’re missing and ruin the party. This is supposed to be a happy occasion.”

He had a sinking feeling he knew what they were talking about.

“The sooner we go the better,” Harry persisted.

Ron was shaking his head. “I dunno, Harry. Is a couple hours gonna make that much of a difference?”

“Look, I know it’s a shite time,” Hermione glared and smacked his arm in warning for his language. Harry smiled at her, but it disappeared as he continued, “But the longer we wait the harder it’ll be when we leave.”

Fear gripped his heart and he spoke without even realizing it. “Not yet,” Cedric said, his voice carrying a hint of desperation. “Don’t leave.”

Harry wanted to argue with him, but Cedric wasn’t looking at the younger boy. His gray eyes were riveted on Hermione when he spoke. She looked so different from the girl he’d danced with. The sunlight still glinted on her hair, but it seemed duller than before. Her smile was fake and the music in her was muted.

“We told you about the horcruxes, Cedric,” she said gently, her eyes refusing to meet his. “You agreed with us.”

“I know,” he said. The words seemed thick in his throat and he swallowed heavily. “But don’t go- I know you have to, but not yet.”

She began to fidget. “Maybe Harry’s right. Maybe we should sneak out now while no one’s watching. We’ll send word to you while we’re gone. You’re to be our inside man, after all.”

Teeth clenching, Cedric glared at the reminder. “I still think I should go with you.”

“You can’t,” she said. “We need someone in the Order to keep in contact with, someone who knows what we’ll be doing just in case anything goes wrong.”

“You stay and I’ll go instead.”

She snorted. “Nonsense, Diggory.”

He’d known she wouldn’t agree- she hadn’t the first dozen times he’d tried to convince her, nor the second dozen.

“It has to be this way. We have to leave,” she said, her words sounding uncharacteristically soft with regret.

“But not yet,” Harry broke in. He shot Cedric a look. “One more dance wouldn’t hurt.”

He danced with her three more songs before they departed.

He didn’t see her again until nearly eight months after. He received the odd owl once a month or so that usually had only two words written: We’re fine. That’s all the news he ever received, but he was never more relieved than when he read those two simple words written in Hermione’s neat hand.

On the eighth month, though, he received far more than an owl.

He had been home all of twenty minutes. His flat was strikingly bare even though he’d lived there for about two years. It wasn’t a home to him so much as a place he slept. Most of his time was spent working at the Ministry, or over at headquarters. He had one bedroom, a comfortable couch, and a serviceable kitchen.

The faint pops of apparating reached him in his room.

“Hurry-!”

“I’ve got her- you go ahead!”

“It’ll be alright- he’ll know what to do-” and Ron burst into his bedroom, his robes rank, his hair a mess, and dirt smudging his cheeks.

“Ron!” he’d gasped, pulling his t-shirt down and trying not to fall in surprise.

“How good are your healing charms?” he asked, straight to business.

Cedric felt his mouth dry and his heart freeze. A terrible sense of premonition gripped him as he forced himself to ask, “What’s happened?”

He opened his mouth to answer, but Harry was already behind him and shoving his way into the room, Hermione unconscious in his arms.

Cedric was at her side quicker than he could apparate. “What the bloody hell happened?” he was furious.

Hermione was set gently down on his bed, and even under such circumstances Cedric couldn’t help a thrill of excitement seeing her there, her skin light against the yellow of his sheets. He studied her prone form. Her hair was knotted, her frame thinner than he’d last seen, and when Harry moved her shirt up to better attend her, Cedric froze upon seeing the blood.

“We got caught by Death Eaters,” Ron was babbling. “They took us to Malfoy Manor. They locked me and Harry up, but Hermione-”

A powerful wave of magic swept the room and his eyes fell on Harry. The Boy-who-Lived was glaring angrily at the air, his fists clenched and body tense. “They wanted to know what we were doing. They decided Hermione would tell them. She didn’t. They punished her. But she didn’t talk.”

It was amazing how much he was able to say in his short sentences.

Tortured. The word made him feel hollow. And not by just anyone, but a real master…Bellatrix Lestrange…

And yet even pale and bleeding on his bed was better than how she was now. Those wounds had been easy to heal. Cedric was brilliant at charms. He was well stocked in his healing potions. With a flick of the wrist he was able to take her pain away and ease her discomfort.

“Why is she still trembling?” he’d asked after dressing her wounds and cleaning her clothes.

Neither boy answered him immediately. Cedric looked up from Hermione’s face, sensing their hesitation.

It was Harry who answered. “There’s no potion to help with that, Ced,” he whispered darkly.

Cedric’s eyes widened as a memory of Harry flitted across his mind- writhing in the middle of the night after the third task, his body in the grips of painful aftershocks of the Cruciatus Curse.

“They- They used that on her?” Cedric asked, his jaw wobbling as incredulity and disgust warred within him.

He’d been horrified that someone could hurt her that way. Of course, it didn’t surprise him that Death Eaters favored such a curse- he’d seen it in action, seen Harry himself battle the effects. But to see Hermione…beautiful, self-sacrificing Hermione who spoke up for House Elves and Centaurs alike. Sweet Hermione who would run herself ragged because she was so busy caring for everyone around her that she forgot to look after herself… how could anyone cause her harm?

“Cedric?”

Cedric snapped his gaze back down to the bed. Her eyes were open but filled with tears. Her voice was weak, barely audible, but also the most beautiful sound in the world to him.

“I’m here,” he whispered, kneeling down and smoothing the hair out of her eyes.

She attempted a brave smile that disappeared as she gasped in pain. “Stay?” she asked.

His hand never ceased its tender movement through her hair. “Always,” he promised. He gave her his most winning smile- the one that lit his eyes, emphasized his dimples and made girls’ stomachs flutter.

She sniffed softly as her body shook again. “Cocky,” she rasped, unimpressed with his grin.

He almost laughed. Leave it to Hermione to comfort him when she was the one in pain. “Rest now,” he said, his smile fading.

Her eyelids drooped and another spasm made her gasp softly, the sound making Cedric’s heart clench. “Don’t leave…” she slurred, helpless to fight the sleep pulling at her.

“Never, Mine. I’ll never leave you.”

And he didn’t leave. It was Hermione who left. He’d fallen asleep holding her hand. How long he slept, slumped in a conjured chair that did nothing for his posture, he didn’t know. But when the fine light of the morning sun pierced his dreams and Cedric awoke, she was gone.

In their wake, they’d left another note. He saw it folded neatly on the pillow of his bed. I’m Sorry, Hermione had written on some scratch parchment, her hand shaky and sloppy.

He’d never been so furious. Hermione Granger was more elusive than the wind and Cedric Diggory was slowly going mad chasing after her. He’d never forgiven her for leaving like that, injured and sneaking out in the middle of the night.

“I knew you’d try to stop me,” was her defense upon their reappearance into the wizarding world.

“You’re bloody well right I would have!” he shouted, his face flushed in anger. “I would have tied you to my bed to keep you from leaving!”

Cedric watched as a light blush stained her cheeks and was confused until he realized what he’d just spoken. I would have tied you to my bed

Amusement began to simmer behind his fury as he watched Hermione stutter, her eyes looking anywhere but him. “Well,” she huffed, her cheeks brightening. “That just proves I made the right choice then!”

She was insufferably stubborn- if there was such a thing.

And as he stared at the bedroom door, Cedric rather thought there was. He blinked first, of course, and the staring contest was over. The heels of his hands dug into his tired eyes and rubbed. She was going to drive him insane.

“Here, you look like you need it.”

A glass of butterbeer was shoved into his face and Cedric looked up to see Neville smiling crookedly.

“Thanks,” he mumbled, his fingers curling around the cool glass and pressing it to his temple.

Neville sighed and plopped down next to him uninvited.

“Any luck with her?” he asked lowly, afraid Hermione would hear.

“Yes and no,” Cedric said, resuming his staring at the door.

Neville shook his head. “Ginny shouldn’t have spoken like that. She’s upset is all. She wants to understand, but she can’t.”

Staring turned into glaring. “She’s not the only one upset,” Cedric snapped, immediately on the defensive.

“I know,” Neville agreed. “But we should try to understand-”

Cedric nearly growled. “All I understand is that Hermione must have witnessed something horrific. She must have seen something so terrible to shut herself away from us- and all anyone is trying to do is make her relive it!”

Even as he spoke, Cedric knew that he himself was in that group. Disgust made his stomach cold.

“Maybe,” he began again, his anger fading into sadness. “Maybe we’re better off not knowing. Maybe she’s trying to protect us.”

“She’s doing more harm than good if that’s the case,” Neville’s words were just as heavy as his as he reaffixed his gaze on the closed door.

“Perhaps,” Cedric conceded evasively.

“Ginny didn’t really mean what she said,” Neville cocked his head to look at Cedric.

Cedric sighed. “Yes she did, Longbottom. She probably didn’t mean to hurt Hermione so much, but on some level, she meant what she said. You can’t take words like that back.”

“What do we do, Cedric?” Neville asked.

Cedric looked at the young man slouched beside him and for the first time, he was able to see a fraction of his own pain and desperation reflected in someone else. Neville was a decent bloke and Cedric wondered, as he had in the past, what had placed the boy in the house of lions and not Cedric’s own den. His loyalty to his friends was overwhelming.

Shaking his thoughts, Cedric’s posture sank deeper. “What can we do, Neville?”

Neville looked thoughtful for a second before opening his mouth to answer. His words were lost when Ginny appeared beside them, her tears dry and her eyes wide in fear.

“Someone just apparated into the building,” she said.

Cedric and Neville were on their feet instantly.

“Are you sure?” Neville asked.

Cedric went into the living room and his eyes focused on the glowing crystal on the mantle above the fireplace that announced that yes, someone had indeed apparated into the flat building. The flat itself was warded against apparition- Hermione had twisted the spells and runes to allow people to apparate out of their place, but never in. She couldn’t ward the entire building, however, and Cedric had offered to charm the crystal to glow when someone apparated anywhere else in the building.

He did not need to here Ginny’s affirmative answer to know she was right.

“Wands out,” Cedric said.

Luna took her wand out from behind her ear, her wide eyes alert and watchful.

Ginny snatched her wand from the coffee table and stretched a shaky arm out to the door.

Neville pulled his from his pocket and daringly took a step closer to the front door, his wide frame partially shielding Luna and Ginny.

And Cedric positioned himself to where he could keep an eye on each door- one on the front door where who knows how many Death Eaters were about to break in, and the other on the door that remained sealed shut with Hermione thankfully behind it. His hand slipped under the left sleeve of his robe and pulled his wand out of his hidden holster.

Please, his mind was racing. Please don’t let them find her. Let her stay safe.

His palm was starting to feel slick, but his grip did not waver.

Footsteps echoed in the hall, slow and uneven. It didn’t sound like more than one person. He heard them stop at the door. The handle twisted and the door swung open.

Hermione stumbled in, favoring her right leg, her hair frizzing out behind her in a sloppy ponytail.

“Bloody hell!” Neville gasped.

Ginny frowned. Luna smiled dazedly.

And Cedric was just plain confused.

There was a cut on her forehead, shallow, but bleeding profusely and she was wearing what Cedric knew to be her horcrux hunting clothes. She and Harry, with their muggle upbringing, saw the disadvantages of heavy robes while dueling. They’d convinced Ron to give up the bulky garments when they started their hunt, and instead they donned form fitting pants and shirts. They always wore black since they moved most often in the cover of night, and Cedric had joined them a few times since they became aurors and had witnessed first hand the practicality of the tight fitting clothes.

Hermione’s shirt was torn on the left sleeve, but it still clung to her tightly. Her black pants were covered in was dirt or maybe dust. Her wand was pointed at them reflexively and once her eyes scanned each of their faces, ending on his, she began to lower it slightly.

“Sorry,” she mumbled. “I had an errand to run.”

She closed the door, reset the wards, and headed back to the room.

“Wh-what?” Cedric stuttered.

And then his confusion was being replaced by anger as realization sunk in. She snuck out. The whole time he’d been seated across the bedroom door, worrying about her being huddled alone in there with nothing but her memories to drown in as she paced and wrote- she hadn’t even been in the room.

“Why?” Cedric bit out, blocking her path to the room she attempted to flee to once again.

He saw a flash of surprise cross her eyes before it cleared and her gaze was carefully blank.

“I have no idea what you’re referring to,” she said, her shoulders squared defiantly.

“Why?” he asked again and there must have been something different in his tone or expression, because Hermione seemed to pause.

She shifted her weight and smothered a painful wince. Her eyes pinned him. “Because there’s no one else who can,” she answered softly. The words carried a soft hint of reprimanding in them as if her answer should have been obvious.

“No, Mine, that’s not what I meant.”

Hermione frowned. Cedric sighed. “Why won’t you let me help you?”

He could almost hear the slam of the door as she locked her emotions away. “That’s not your place,” she said primly.

She tried to brush past him, but he caught her arm more roughly than he intended. She winced, and he instantly loosened his grip.

“But it can be,” he said persuasively. “If you’ll let it.”

She looked shocked for some reason and Cedric wondered if maybe Harry and Ron were wrong. Maybe all of her playful flirting was just that- playful flirting. Perhaps there was nothing behind her blushing cheeks, nothing behind the soft touches and lingering glances. Maybe he really was just her backup date. Someone she spent time with only to avoid other men.

There was a sharp stabbing pain in his chest and Cedric fought the urge to grip it. It was a pain unlike anything he’d ever known. It was worse than his fear that night in the graveyard, beyond what he had felt in her hiatus during her seventh year. It felt like there was a gaping hole in his chest and he had to clutch at it if only to prevent the hole from growing.

He felt a gentle touch to his cheek and it was enough ease the pain slightly. Hermione was lightly tracing his cheekbone, a queer expression on her face. She wasn’t quite smiling, but she wasn’t frowning.

“Silly Cedric,” she breathed, her hand caressing his cheek as if his pain was physical and she could soothe it away. “Always jumping to conclusions.”

Before he could analyze what she meant, her hand was gone and she was past him. Like it was only an after thought she flicked her wand and Harry and Ron’s door unsealed and opened for her. She closed it softly behind her.

His feet moved. He rushed to the door, his hand testing the knob.

But it was too late. She’d already locked him out.

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