"She's really done it now, that bloody woman!" Ron exclaimed, slamming the Daily Prophet down on the breakfast table. "Hermione, have you--"
"Shh!" Hermione hissed. She nodded her head to the left a few times as if she was trying to shake something loose or get water out of her ear.
Ron gawked. "You barking or what?" he asked reasonably.
"Harry! Give… Ron!" She whined and made a grab for the paper and shoved it under the table just as Harry stepped up behind Ron. "Morning, Harry," she chirped exaggeratedly.
Harry blinked. "Uh… morning, Hermione. Hi, Ron." He shook himself and sat down. "So what's new?"
"Well, if it isn't Saint Potter! Although not as saintly as all that, apparently." Three loud guffaws followed this pronouncement.
"Oh no." Hermione hung her head over her bowl of cornflakes.
Harry sneered as he turned and looked up at the small group standing behind him. "What do you want, Malfoy?"
Malfoy snickered. "What do I want? Well, to start with, I want to thank you for keeping your hands to yourself around me."
Harry just stared. "What?"
Ron glared up at Malfoy and his entourage. "Bugger off, Malfoy."
"That seems to be more along the lines of Potter's... preferences," Malfoy countered. His thugs chuckled appropriately.
"Stop speaking in bloody riddles, Malfoy." Harry glared at him. "If you have something to say, say it."
"Why? You in a hurry, Potter? Got a date?" Malfoy cackled, then continued in an annoying sing-song voice, "A Diggory date?"
Ron was grinding his teeth. "Fuck off, ferret."
Malfoy sneered at him, then grinned at Harry. "Looks like your pet weasel is jealous, Potter. You could always try a threesome."
This time, even some non-Slytherins were chuckling.
Harry was completely flabbergasted. He ignored Malfoy altogether and turned back to a furiously blushing Ron. "What the blazes is he on about, Ron? What does Cedric have to do with anything?"
"Ooh, Ceeedric!" Malfoy crooned, then made an exaggerated swooning motion.
Snape materialised out of nowhere at that point, just in time to catch Draco tumbling about and feigning his fainting spell. "Go and have your breakfast, Mr Malfoy. You're an embarrassment to the colour green today."
Malfoy blinked and went red and, without a word, did as he was told.
Snape sneered at Harry and Ron and kept striding.
Harry stared at the breakfast table thoughtfully, then across at Hermione, who looked sheepish and embarrassed, then back at Ron. "One of you had better tell me what's going on before I hex you," he growled.
Hermione sighed and pulled the paper from the bench beside her to hand it to Harry.
Harry grabbed and opened it.
"Um, no, Harry. Front page," Ron muttered, then hid his face in his mug of tea.
Harry frowned at him, closed the paper, and then looked at the front page.
There it was, smack in the middle. Rita Skeeter must have called in a few favours to command prime position in the day's issue. The headline wasn't promising:
Triwizard Champions and their sordid Secrets
It got worse. Harry scanned the article, barely taking in some rubbish about Viktor Krum having been caught showing Fleur Delacour the moonlight from the bridge of the Durmstrang ship. When he saw his own name, he slowed down, his eyes growing bigger and bigger.
Harry croaked as he read about his whirlwind romance with Cedric Diggory. Apparently, it had started against the fiery backdrop of the Quidditch World Cup, where Cedric had single-handedly rescued him from a horde of death eaters, only to sweep him up in his strong manly arms and portkey them both to safety. Sources said, according to Rita Skeeter, that Harry Potter had fancied the handsome Hufflepuff seeker since the previous year when Diggory had been reluctant to accept a win over Gryffindor. And wasn't it all rather sweet? Further developments as they came in were to be found right there, in the Daily Prophet.
Ron and Hermione were exchanging a look. "It's not as if anyone's going to believe any of that," Hermione said tentatively.
Harry stared at her, then around the Great Hall, which had gone silent since Malfoy's antics as if everyone there was reading over Harry's shoulders. By the looks on the assembled faces, however, Harry guessed everyone had seen the paper well before he did. "Right, Hermione."
She sighed, and Ron patted his shoulder comfortingly.
Just then, the doors opened, and a throng of Hufflepuffs walked in. They were surrounding Cedric with death glares - if Hufflepuffs possessed such a thing - directed at all and sundry, as if warning everyone off saying a single word about the article.
Harry noticed a copy of the Daily Prophet in the hands of Ernie Macmillan, and he quickly looked up. His eyes met Cedric's, and both blushed, quickly breaking eye contact again as Cedric sat down for breakfast.
Harry dropped the paper on the table, grabbed a banana and stood up. "Not really hungry," he told his friends. He did his best to ignore the snickers and whistles following him out.
* * *
If Harry had expected things to die down and for everyone to remember that Rita Skeeter wrote nothing but rubbish, ever, he had been quite mistaken. Apparently, some kinds of rubbish were more entertaining to the student body at large than others.
The next few weeks were like an obstacle race for Harry. His only comfort lay in the fact that the other three champions were no better off. Any time two or more of them assembled in the same location, Rita Skeeter and her photographer minion would manage to pop into existence with knowing smirks and a Quick Quotes Quill and flashlight at the ready. It got so bad that the champions avoided appearing in public together. It stopped the news reports for a short while.
At least until the day Harry walked up to Cedric in the courtyard to tell him about the dragons, because annoying journalists be damned, he could hardly let him walk right into a task like that and be burned to a crisp, could he?
The next day's front page of the Daily Prophet showed a blushing, positively glowing Cedric throwing a triumphant look back over his shoulder at his Hufflepuff friends as he followed Harry to a more private spot. This, frankly incriminating, photo was topped with the headline:
Harry Potter casts a Spell on fellow Champion
Harry's jaw dropped almost low enough for his chin to dip into his cereal.
Any rumours which might have died down in the previous weeks roared back to life that day. Slytherins were sneering and cackling in the corridors, Ravenclaws were looking haughty and above such things, Gryffindors were ready to punch anyone who made insinuations, and the Hufflepuffs looked as livid as Hufflepuffs possibly could.
Even hopes that the first task itself might warrant more media coverage than the supposed romantic entanglements of the champions were promptly crushed.
The day after the task, the front page of the Daily Prophet showed the assembled champions in the tent just prior to the task. In the photo, Rita's quill was stroking Viktor Krum's chin with Fleur Delacour looking on angrily. Then the photo moved to show Rita wrapping her arm around Cedric's back just as Filch fired the cannon, with Harry glaring at her fiercely.
Fiery Task has nothing on Fiery Champions
... So the Prophet pronounced that day. And underneath this:
Bulgarian champion Viktor Krum reacted badly to outside intrusion into the cosy love nest of the champions' tent, flexing his muscles threateningly. Even the usually friendly and accommodating Cedric Diggory reacted badly to the sight of non-champions, sneering at the hapless Miss Granger hugging Harry Potter, and even at yours truly. As for Miss Delacour and Mr Potter himself - well, dear readers. See for yourselves. Apparently, tasks all but forgotten, the only true prizes at stake in this year's tournament are hearts!
"She's completely bonkers," Ron decided, screwing up the paper and throwing it across his morning bowl of porridge.
Hermione grumbled, "She's turning the Triwizard Tournament into a soap opera."
"A what?" Ron asked, baffled.
While Hermione attempted to explain, Harry's eyes were on Cedric Diggory. Paper in hand, the Hufflepuff had just come in with a couple of friends and was looking at him with a lopsided, apologetic smile. Harry returned it equally helplessly.
"Muggle television..." Hermione was muttering. "I can't say I miss it much while at school."
"Huh?" Harry had forgotten what they'd been talking about.
"Harry?" Hermione asked, following the direction of his eyes.
"Nothing," he quickly said, attacking the bacon on his plate.
She frowned. "Don't let it get to you," she said. "She's not worth it."
"Course not," Harry said, smiling.
"I think you're taking this pretty well actually, Harry," Ron said in awe.
"Not much point doing otherwise, is there?" Harry asked, shoving food into his mouth with great gusto. "She'll write what she likes."
"Hm." Hermione gave him an assessing look.
* * *
If anyone thought the Yule Ball would change Rita Skeeter's focus in writing her articles, they were very much mistaken. The front page the day after the ball sported a photo large enough to be impressive when pinned to the outside of the Gryffindor common room door - which is where Harry and Ron found it on the way to breakfast. It showed the champions' opening dance.
"Bloody hell!" Ron exclaimed, staring at it. "How did they fiddle it to look like that?"
Harry blinked at the picture. Then blinked again.
He was stumbling across the dance floor looking over Parvati's shoulder, with Cedric dancing Cho right past them, staring intently at him. Him, not Cho. And as the photo went on for a good three turns, there was no denying that Harry's eyes met and held Cedric's for an entirely inappropriate length of time. As for the appropriateness of the photo's headline - no one could possibly deny that:
Yule Ball Enchantment
Harry gulped. He wasn't aware that wizarding photos could be 'fiddled with', as Ron put it. He passed on reading the article to go with the photo that day, but couldn't help wondering what Cedric was making of it all.
* * *
Cedric Diggory was walking back to the Hufflepuff common room after a chat with Madame Pomfrey, when he noticed Harry across the courtyard. The younger student was just passing through between two pillars.
Cedric bit his lip, pondering whether it would be safer for them both if he walked back the way he had come. That was when he saw someone else, on the far side of the courtyard, who would spot Harry the moment they turned the next corner. "Harry!" he hissed as loudly as he dared.
Harry had just come into plain view, and on hearing his name, looked up. He stopped, unfortunately, clearly wondering what to do.
There was no time for indecision. Cedric huffed impatiently and took a few steps towards him. "Harry, quickly!" he called out a bit louder, waving Harry towards him.
Harry frowned, but when Cedric nodded his head towards the courtyard, Harry saw Rita Skeeter and her photographer about to catch up with him. He cursed under his breath, realising he had no time to lose. He looked around nervously for a hiding place.
Cedric did the same, then moved quickly towards Harry and grabbed his arm. "This way," he hissed, pulling open a door and rushing through with Harry firmly clasped to his chest.
A moment later, Harry found himself in total darkness, with a door slamming in his face and him slamming back into Cedric. Behind him, Cedric was panting.
"Where are we?"
"Closet," Cedric whispered in the darkness. "Sorry."
"That's okay," Harry whispered back. "Thanks."
Cedric smiled, not that Harry would know. "You'd have done the same for me."
"Hm." Harry smiled too, aware that Cedric's arm still rested across his chest as if to hold him in place. He had no intention of rushing away and outside to face Rita Skeeter, but he didn't think it necessary to point that out.
They could hear the approaching clicks of high heels on cobble and Skeeter's instruction to the photographer to keep his eyes open at all times, lest they miss one of those perfect, juicy moments. Then the steps stopped, and Skeeter and her minion started talking a load of rubbish about the Daily Prophet and various interviews they had lined up. It sounded rather as if they were getting settled in right outside the closet.
Cedric sighed. The soft exhalation ruffled Harry's hair, and he shivered.
"You okay?" Cedric asked very softly.
"Fine," Harry whispered with his eyes closed. He felt sure he could feel Cedric's pulse over his heart. The Hufflepuff's jumper and shirt sleeves must be rolled up.
Cedric's eyes were wide open. He was hoping to somehow defy the utter darkness in the closet and distinguish between Harry and the surroundings. The space was miniscule, and Harry's back was pressed hard against his front. It was somehow comforting to feel a strong heartbeat against the sensitive skin of his forearm; he'd never liked the dark. And Harry didn't seem to mind his arm across his chest. Or maybe he hadn't noticed.
Harry had definitely noticed, but he didn't dare breathe too heavily or move in any way that might dislodge the pleasant weight.
They could hear the two outside talking flat out, but neither Cedric nor Harry were listening to the actual conversation anymore. It was like the buzzing of a beehive somewhere in the distance.
Cedric wondered why he could smell honey, then realised that they must be in one of the cleaning closets; the smell was that of the wood polish used all over the castle. There was also a hint of vanilla in the air, but try as he might, Cedric couldn't figure out where that came from. Until he dipped his head forward and realized it had to be Harry's shampoo. But Harry was exuding a hint of peach and musk as well, and the combination made Cedric's head spin. He was shocked to hear himself moaning softly.
Harry sucked in a deep breath, the sound of Cedric's unexpected moan curling around his spine in pleasant tendrils. His lips parted, but nothing came out, only the slow, voiceless exhalation of that same breath.
A slight angling of Cedric's head had his nose brushing the thick, black strands. Harry held himself completely still while Cedric nuzzled his hair, the arm across his chest tightening almost imperceptibly. He felt more than heard rapid breaths, and couldn't help but murmur, "Cedric, are you..." He swallowed. "Are you... sniffing me?"
Cedric stilled, but didn't move. "Um," he murmured awkwardly. His breath was warm in Harry's hair, his lips as he spoke ghosting ever so slightly over Harry's scalp. "I'm sorry, Harry. You... you smell so good," he said, his voice low and husky. He closed his eyes in horror.
Biting his lip to keep from either laughing or moaning out loud, Harry took a moment to get himself back together. "Thanks, Cedric," he finally managed, but there was a hint of a giggle in his voice.
Cedric, well aware of the ridiculousness of the situation, gave a soft snort of laughter as well, but realised immediately that if they should end up in fits of giggles, Skeeter and the camera would be in here with them in a second. "Hush," he hissed between snickers.
Soft peals of laughter started burbling from Harry's throat then, shaking him all over in Cedric's embrace.
Cedric was tittering himself, but he knew he had to do something, distract Harry. Distract both of them before they were caught. They'd never hear the end of it, being found together in a closet of all places!
That thought did nothing to suppress Cedric's misplaced amusement, and thinking quickly, he shifted his arm, gripped Harry's shoulders, and turned him around in his arms, miraculously avoiding knocking anything over or off a shelf. "Need to be quiet," he hissed, and seeking out Harry's jaw with his hand, he leaned down. He missed at first, his lips flattening Harry's nose, then smacking his chin, but finally, he managed to cover his mouth and barely prevented a renewed burst of laughter from spilling forth.
Harry's body went completely still in his arms, almost as if until the moment it happened, Harry hadn't believed that Cedric was actually trying to kiss him.
For an instant, Cedric thought that perhaps the shock had been enough to curb any amusement, and he should let go off Harry before he would start thrashing around and demand to be released. But just as he, very reluctantly, made to draw back, his lips separating from Harry's, the Gryffindor's fingers dug into his upper arms like claws, pulling him back down.
Harry's mouth pressed up against his, clumsily and too forcefully, and he just about broke both their noses.
Cedric suppressed a wince of pain and angled his head, and their lips met perfectly. Harry's grip softened and he sank into Cedric, and Cedric raised both hands to cup Harry's head and kiss him harder, the surrender in the kiss more than he had dared hope for, maybe more than he could cope with.
Harry was trembling. He made soft little mewling noises whenever there was the slightest breathing space between their lips, and because they couldn't afford to be discovered, it meant they simply had to continue kissing.
Finally, panting and out of breath, Cedric released Harry's face and wrapped his arms around him.
Harry smiled against Cedric's shoulder, and then he gasped, because Cedric's lips were against his neck, continuing to kiss him there with soft, light smacks and nips when they met the cords of Harry's neck. He whimpered, very softly, his eyes squeezing shut when one arm held him pressed tightly against the taller body while a hand caressed the side of his neck.
When Cedric's mouth latched onto his neck and sucked hard enough to bruise, a groan was halfway out of Harry's mouth before a hand quickly moved up and covered it. His lips were still parted, and Cedric's index finger lay across the seam; Harry couldn't help flicker his tongue against it.
Cedric shivered all over, moaning against Harry's neck, then biting down lightly.
Harry retaliated by licking again, and this time, Cedric let the finger slip between his lips, and Harry suckled on it greedily.
The effect on Cedric was immediate and undeniable, and Harry felt himself flushing all over. His heart was beating madly, and he knew he was in way over his head, but he couldn't stop. He closed his lips over Cedric's finger, drawing on it hard, and with a soft growl against the flesh of his neck, Cedric pushed his left knee between Harry's legs.
Harry was lifted to the tips of his toes by the movement, and clung onto Cedric for dear life. He whimpered around the digit in his mouth, which drew back a little.
Cedric's leg shifted back and forth in a slow, gentle rhythm, and Harry bit down slightly on his finger to keep from groaning out loud. A whimper from Cedric made him widen his eyes. "Sorry," he whispered.
"S'okay," Cedric murmured against his neck, voice low and husky, but he withdrew his finger slowly to trace it along Harry's lips, outlining the soft, swollen flesh with dampness. "I want to see you," he whispered regretfully.
"I'm a right mess," Harry muttered shakily, even while Cedric's moistened finger on his lips was making him shiver all over.
"Good," Cedric purred, and replaced the finger once more with his mouth. Both hands were on Harry's hips then, sliding down under the smooth, firm swell of his buttocks to pull him up against himself. His thigh was pressed hard between the juncture of Harry's legs, and he could feel what he was doing to Harry. Knew he should stop. Didn't think he could.
One of Harry's hands was on his shoulder, holding on for dear life, and then, lightening-quick, the other was between them, cupping him through his wool trousers, and Cedric shuddered and groaned into Harry's throat. He pulled back when his mind finally managed to focus. "No!" he whispered desperately, panting.
Harry tried to kiss him again, not removing his hand, but squeezing harder. "I want to, Cedric. Please. Let me."
Cedric gasped, holding Harry so close that he couldn't move his fingers anymore, supporting him with just one arm around his waist and gently removing the teasing hand between them. "Not yet, Harry. Not now." He was panting. "Not here."
Harry sighed, pressing his face against Cedric's chest. "Soon?"
Cedric wrapped his arms around him and held him tight. "Yes, soon. I'll let you know. Somehow." He kissed the top of Harry's head. "I'll think of somewhere more private, okay? Somewhere with space and a bit of light."
Harry smiled against the soft wool of Cedric's jumper. "Okay."
Cedric cupped his face, and this time when he leaned down to kiss Harry, their lips met right away.
The buzzing of conversation outside receded, and Rita Skeeter's heels clicked off into the distance.
After another minute, Cedric reluctantly released Harry and reached around him to carefully open the door. "We should..." he said with a sigh.
"Yeah," Harry agreed, taking a step outside with Cedric following right behind him. There was a flash, which had to be sunlight. Both of them blinked, disoriented and far too flustered to be out in public, really.
Cedric looked at Harry, his eyes sparkling with mirth and affection. "You were right. You are a mess." He nodded to indicate the state of Harry's hair, sticking out every which way. It was monumentally hard not to reach into it to tidy it for him.
Harry blushed. "You too. Though you'd be worse if I could actually reach up into your hair."
Cedric laughed, took a step closer, then thought better of it. "Soon," he whispered instead, a promise in his eyes.
"I'll hold you to that."
Cedric grinned and turned to walk away when he saw a luminous green quill hovering in midair by one of the pillars, scribbling into a notepad. He swore and lunged at it, but it zoomed away. "Shite!"
Harry was laughing, and Cedric turned to look at him in horror. "You don't mind?" Cedric asked.
Harry blushed. "Guess whatever she ends up writing will be just as true or false as the rest of her articles."
"She has a bit of a knack for seeing below the surface, doesn't she?" Cedric agreed with a soft smile tugging at his lips. "Enchanting Gryffindor," he said affectionately.
"Captivating Hufflepuff," Harry returned in the same tone of voice.
Cedric looked at him until Harry was tingling right down to his toes. "Soon."
Harry nodded, watching Cedric walk away.
The following day saw the front page of the Daily Prophet sporting a photo of Harry and Cedric stepping from a broom closet, looking utterly debauched and well-snogged. There was - rather surprisingly, considering the quill - no article to go with the photo. All it said under the photo itself was a single line by Rita Skeeter, stating "Me, myself and I are stunned into speechlessness."
Harry's eyes met Cedric's across the Great Hall and both smiled, perfectly content to ignore the giggling and questions regarding the photo.
When Cedric approached Harry on the narrow bridge over the valley soon after, Harry didn't really want to hear about the next task, or about the blasted egg. But when Cedric continued to blush and wiggle his eyebrows and started talking about the Prefect's Bathroom, Harry's heart sped up. Because this wasn't about the task at all, was it?