Even at Hogwarts, Hermione had never understood Zacharias Smith.
He was hardly the usual, easy-going Hufflepuff. Then again, neither was Ernie MacMillan but Ernie . . . Ernie filled many of the other qualities of Hufflepuff, including industriousness and loyalty. Zach, she couldn't figure out. He was quarrelsome, aggressive, and belligerent, and she might have thought he belonged in Gryffindor or Ravenclaw rather than Hufflepuff.
Yet he'd also proven dogged and dependable almost from the time he'd deigned to involve himself with Dumbledore's Army. At first, he'd been sceptical, but once committed, he'd been there for every meeting. If he hadn't particularly liked Harry, he'd listened to him, learned from him. And in the years that had followed, he'd become a relentless soldier in the fight against Voldemort.
Today was 24th June, four years after Voldemort's death and the end of the war. Hermione had come to the little cemetery outside Ottery-St.-Catchpole to visit a particular grave. Of all the resting places of the dead, this was the one she kept returning to, ensuring that it always had flowers as he had no other still-living close relatives to keep it up. Even so she hadn't expected to spot Zacharias Smith's blond head bent over the same grave. At her footstep, he turned. "What are you doing here?"
Her eyebrow lifted. "What does it look like?" With flowers in hand, she'd think it would be obvious.
His gaze dropped to the flowers, then rose back to her face and he stepped aside, letting her kneel beside the flat granite gravestone, removing the old flowers that -- Refreshing charm or not -- were starting to look ragged, and replacing them with new ones. Daisies with bright yellow centres, but she'd chosen them for what they meant in the language of flowers, not how they looked.
There was camomile for patience, and bluebells for humility, and last, a great sunflower for loyalty. Her bouquets were always specific, compiled just for him, although she didn't always include the same flowers.
The daisies though -- the daisies were a constant.
"Aren't daisies a bit . . . girly?"
Squinting against the sun's glare, Hermione turned her head to look up at Zach. She couldn't make him out as more than a shadow. "Daisies are for innocence." Zach snorted. Ignoring his amusement, she pointed to the other flowers and gave their meanings "Patience, humility, and loyalty."
His sour humour fled. "Loyalty . . . yeah. Yeah, that suits him. Courage, too. You left that out."
"I bring different flowers each time. Black poplar symbolizes courage. I've brought him that before."
Zach suddenly knelt down next to her, absently pulling away the grass that was encroaching along the edges of the pale gray marble framing a central bronze nameplate: Cedric G. C. Diggory. Then he turned to clear the graves to either side -- Cedric's parents, killed during the war. Zach didn't speak further, and Hermione didn't have to ask why he'd come on this day in particular -- the day Cedric had died -- but she did wonder what he was doing here. "Did you know him well?"
For a long moment, Zach didn't reply. His blond fringe had fallen forward, almost obscuring his eyes. "I don't know," he admitted finally. "Yes. No. Sometimes I wonder if anybody really knew him. Funny, isn't it? Everybody knew of him. And he was always friendly."
"Popular," she agreed.
Zach snorted again. "Yeah, popular. He was never sure what to make of that. I think he liked it -- I mean, who wouldn't, being really honest? We might say we wouldn't, but if we were? Yeah, I think we'd all enjoy it. So he was glad to be admired, but wasn't any too certain what to do about it, wasn't sure it was earned. It embarrassed him. Part of his appeal was that he really didn't understand his appeal. He didn't let it suck him in, make him a git -- unlike some."
She felt her face darken. "Harry wasn't a git either."
"Didn't mean Potter, Granger. Just in general." He turned to look at her. "Why are you here, anyway? You weren't Diggory's friend."
Frowning, she rubbed the bridge of her nose. "Because he was the first."
"First what?" Zach asked with his usual belligerence.
"The first person I knew who died. I didn't know him well; we just spoke now and then in the library during his last year, but I can't even say if he knew my name. Still, he was the first person my age who I'd talked to who died. I didn't see it happen, but I saw his body afterwards and it was so very strange -- so shocking. I kept thinking he was going to get up off the grass and say it was all a joke because, you know, he couldn't be dead. It wasn't that he just looked asleep or anything. He looked dead. Dead people look dead. But it was too sudden. And then they herded us all away and I had Harry to think about and . . . well, I never made it to the funeral, even though the Weasleys went. But I thought about him sometimes. One minute, he'd been all nervous and excited about the task, and then he was just . . . dead. And it didn't even make sense. He wasn't a particular enemy of Voldemort."
Zack didn't wince at her use of the name. He just listened.
"It was so random. And that's the day -- or really the night, I suppose -- I realised we could all die. I wondered what he was thinking, at the end. If he understood what was about to happen? If he was scared? If he was angry to die like that?"
She shrugged. "After the war, I found out his parents had been killed too, so I asked where he was buried and came here. Nobody had been tending his grave and that just didn't seem right. So I started coming to bring him flowers."
Turning her head again to look at him, she said, "What about you? You said you didn't know him that well."
For a long time, Zach didn't answer. She wondered if he would. Finally, he said, "He showed me why I was in Hufflepuff."
And that got Hermione's attention. "He did? How?"
Zach ran a hand into his hair. "I told him, back when I was a second year and he was a fourth, that he was the epitome of Hufflepuff -- nice, sweet and useless. All fluff and no substance. And he laughed at me. Really pissed me off."
Hermione could just imagine Zach's reaction, and felt her lips quirk up. "Then he told you why you were in Hufflepuff?"
"No. He didn't say anything at all, just walked off."
"So when did he tell you?"
"The day he died."
And her heart went out to him. "Oh, Zach, I'm sorry. But at least you have a good memory for your last conversation with him."
Blue eyes narrow, he studied her. "We never had a conversation about it. He just . . . every time I was mean to him, he'd smile. And he talked to me when the rest of the house didn't much. Then he got made Quidditch Captain and let me try out for the team, made me a Chaser. Nobody else on the team wanted me, but he said I'd made the cut, fair and square. So I played my best for him. Then he got made Triwizard Champ and he still stopped in the hallways to say hello . . . And then he died."
Zach stopped, frowning. Hermione didn't interrupt, and after a moment, he went on, "I wanted to take on Voldemort and Potter and Bagman -- even Dumbledore. Anybody who'd been responsible. And that was when I understood why I was in Hufflepuff. And why he was. He never gave up on me." Zach shrugged. "So here I am. I won't let him be forgotten."
Hermione sat for a while, wind blowing her hair, and considered. Zach might be abrasive, but so was she. He might be idiosyncratic, but so was she. She hadn't been popular at Hogwarts any more than he. Yet his tenacity was his redemption. And if Cedric Diggory could see it, surely she could.
Reaching forward, she pulled the sunflower from the bouquet and handed it to him. At first, he refused to take it -- "That's Cedric's" -- but she just laid it across his lap.
"He'd want you to have it. Sunflowers stand for loyalty, it's true. But also for haughtiness." She gave Zach a sly smile and he frowned. "In the language of flowers, they say, 'You are splendid.'"
And now he was blushing, but he picked it up. "Definitely shouldn't be mine, then."
"You have your virtues, Zacharias Smith." She stood abruptly and brushed grass off her bottom. "Can I buy you a coffee?"
He squinted up at her, one hand shading his eyes. "No. I'm not much of a coffee drinker." And for a moment, she thought he was making excuses. Then he said, "But you can buy me a beer."
Notes: Post-war. The Language of Flowers refers to the Victorian practice of composing bouquets that conveyed messages (sometimes very complex ones). Written for Cunning Croft, for her lovely manips. Yes, yes, Cedric can't seem to stay out of my stories even when he's dead, but this one isn't about him so much as about them, and what he reflects back to them about themselves.