September quickly turned to October as Francisca and the rest of the 5th years were overwhelmed with their coursework in preparation for their O.W.L.s. She wasn’t quite feeling like her old self but it was a new normal she was slowly adjusting to, being more cautious and observant of others while also making sure she could still control the emotions she let in. She had barely any time to spare, but typically spent what free time she did have with Zach. 

Sometimes they would just hang out, doing nothing but talking (with a bit of snogging) or playing games, other times they would actually study together, and occasionally strategize about the Quidditch season.

One night after they had been studying for a couple of hours in the courtyard, they decided to walk down by the lake before they had to head back to the common room for the rest of the evening. Francisca held Zach’s hand while they strolled slowly around the edge of the lake. She glanced over at him as he stared out across the water’s black surface, his expression particularly surly. She could vaguely feel that he was upset but was confused as to why — she’d thought they were having a good evening together.

“What’re you thinking about?” Francisca asked gently.

Zach turned his head to look at her, giving her a sad smile. “Just thinking about the last conversation I had with Ced before the final task of the tournament. He talked about how much he missed Quidditch and couldn’t wait for next year to be able to play again for the last time at Hogwarts. He’d been planning to recommend to Professor Sprout that I become Captain alongside him. I had no idea what to say to him, all I could do was grin like an idiot. To know he thought that highly of me…it was an honor. I miss him a lot,” he said the last part quietly. “I thought I would be discussing Quidditch plays and the House Cup with him, maybe getting advice on how to survive O.W.L.s but now…well…” By the time he had finished, he was looking down at his feet as they continued to walk slowly.

Francisca gave his hand a small squeeze. “That’s wonderful that he wanted you to be team Captain, you’d be brilliant. Grieving is a strange process but you should always allow yourself to remember the good times and memories. And to be sad when you need it too. It’s okay to not always be okay. There’s strength and healing in embracing what you’ve lost.”

“Thanks Fran,” he leaned over and kissed her forehead. “I just wish things could be different. I find myself getting really mad that Potter was the last person to get to see him sometimes. He’s always in some type of mess and…I don’t know.” He sighed heavily, looking back across the lake clenching his jaw.

“Do…do you still not really believe what happened to him?” she asked quietly.

“I don’t know what I believe anymore. All I know is Ced is gone when he shouldn’t be.” 

Francisca did not press him any further. She could sense that he was becoming frustrated with the conversation but also confused and conflicted because of the story surrounding his death. They made their way back up to the castle, then down to the basement. 

When they got into the common room, Francisca started for her dorm, but Zach pulled her back. He held her face in his hands for a moment, staring into her eyes before giving her a tender kiss goodbye. Before Zach could turn to walk away, Francisca grabbed his hand, wanting to say something about how their conversation ended out at the lake, but quickly thought better of it. She didn’t want to ruin the moment.

“What is it, Fran?” he asked, cocking his head to the side. 

“Oh um, nothing. Just wanted to say good night!” she said quickly, pecking him before hurrying off to her dorm.

Francisca felt a flurry of emotions, both from the conversation she just had with Zach and the goodbye kiss. She found Susan sitting on her bed, writing a letter to her Aunt Amelia. Susan’s head whipped up from her letter.

“Whoa, slow down. Are you okay? What’s going on?” Susan said with alarm in her voice.

She realized she could talk to Susan about her worries — remembering that Susan was no stranger to loss and grief. She sighed heavily and threw herself on her bed, laying on her stomach facing Susan. “I just don’t know what to think about Zach’s reservations on believing Harry,” she said. “We both know what it’s like…losing people to Voldemort’s terror. It’s new to him and I don’t totally know how to help.” 

“Did he mention it again?” Susan asked. 

Francisca filled her in on what he’d said down at the lake. 

“Well, I think you’ve got to just be patient and understanding with him. It’s a scary time for everyone right now, no one knows what’s true and what’s not. You just have to keep that in mind Fran,” Susan said. “People want to believe that it’s not happening, so they cling on to hope. We can’t fault them for that.”

“Are you sure you weren’t supposed to be in Ravenclaw with all this wisdom?” Francisca said, grinning at Susan before turning serious. “It doesn’t help that I can sometimes feel everybody’s confusion and fear. It’s been putting me on edge again.”

“Just try to make sure you’re taking care of yourself. Spend time alone if you need to, so you can get your thoughts and emotions together.”

As Francisca changed into her dressing gown, her thoughts became consumed by Susan’s advice. On one hand, she appreciated that Zach had opened up about Cedric, but on the other, she could tell he had major reservations believing that Voldemort was actually back. Uncle King wouldn’t be so worried or cautious if he didn’t truly believe Voldemort was on the rise, and his instincts were usually right. She couldn’t help feeling like Zach was being dismissive, but she knew it wasn’t personal. Francisca decided to put the subject out of her mind for the time being. She couldn’t really blame him for not fully trusting what was essentially a rumor. After wrapping her braids up and saying goodnight to Susan, she climbed into bed, pulled the curtains around her four-poster, and decided to read to distract herself from her thoughts.

The next morning, a list was posted for the year’s Hogsmeade weekends. Francisca practically counted down the days to the first one because it not only meant they would get a break from studying, but that the Quidditch season was to start soon. As the first Hogsmeade weekend rapidly approached, Zach and Francisca decided to go down and have lunch together before meeting up with their respective groups of friends afterwards. The two of them hadn’t really talked much in depth about anything since the lake. She could tell he was holding back on her but she didn’t want to pressure him. The unspoken words between them made her feel a little apprehensive in the days leading up to their date.

On the day of their date, they walked hand-in-hand to the Three Broomsticks and found a table off to the far right side of the pub. They sat down and ordered their lunch, sipping their butterbeers contently as they waited for their food.

Francisca fidgeted with her fingernails under the table, trying to ward off her worry while also trying to not read into Zach’s mood. She feared that she wouldn’t like what she felt if she attempted to decipher what he was feeling. Then suddenly, as if he could tell she was overthinking things, Zach placed his hand on Francisca’s knee, his smile melting away her anxiousness. 

“Did you catch the new music from Celestina Warbeck this summer?” he asked. Black art was something both Zach and Francisca enjoyed a lot. They had quickly bonded over it when they’d started playing Quidditch together, the only two Black players on the team.

Francisca’s face broke out into a wide smile and she slapped her hands on the table and leaned in slowly with excitement. “I did! I may not have done much over the summer but that was one thing I was not going to miss out on. I didn’t think she could make anything better than Dragon My Heart Through the Coal but she really outdid herself this time,” Francisca said, impressed.

Zach threw his head back and laughed. “I knooow! You Can Steal My Cauldron but You Can’t Have My Heart is known all over now. I’d bet even people over in the United States have heard of Thee Miss Singing Sorceress. I don’t see how more people our age don’t listen to her.”

“Ginny refuses to listen but it’s okay because Mrs. Weasley is always playing her music anyways, so she has no choice.”

The two of them laughed as Francisca relayed the  time Ginny tried to hex Mrs. Weasley’s radio but it backfired and started playing the music even louder throughout the house. Once their food was brought over, they ate and happily chatted more about which songs they liked best from the album. The conversation then turned to how nice it was to not have to worry about homework for a day, which then turned to how awful Defense Against the Dark Arts had become with Professor Umbridge. Francisca was quite disappointed with the class this year — it was usually one of her favorite subjects and she excelled in it, but now she was struggling to grasp the material since they weren’t actually practicing it. Once they finished eating their food, Zach paid their tab and they got up to leave.

“I’ll walk you to where you’re meeting up with your friends,” Zach said, draping his arm across Francisca’s shoulders.

“Oh. Okay, that’s fine then,” Francisca responded a little hesitantly. She had not mentioned to Zach about the meeting at the Hog’s Head Ginny had told her about in passing. She wasn’t quite sure what the meeting was for because Ginny was vague, but in case she didn’t want anyone else knowing, Francisca kept the information to herself. 

As they got closer to the pub, she noticed several other students making their way over as well. Zach continued to walk with his arm on her shoulders until they stepped inside, where their noses were assaulted by the smell of what seemed to be barn animals. Francisca turned to tell Zach goodbye until she realized he was heading over to where the other students were seated. 

“Oh, I didn’t know you knew about this,” she said, raising her eyebrows.

“Mm, I didn’t know you knew about it either,” Zach responded, side eyeing her.

She didn’t say anything further, just followed him over to a table next to Susan and Hannah. She hadn’t mentioned the meeting to him because she knew how he was still skeptical about the rumors around Voldemort’s return, so she didn’t understand what had made him decide to come anyway. Maybe he had changed his mind and just didn’t say so, they hadn’t talked about it since their walk on the lake after all.

Hermione was the one to speak to the group first. She stumbled a bit over her words but the message was clear: she believed they should all take learning Defense Against the Dark Arts into their own hands so that they could be prepared for Voldemort. 

“Where’s the proof that You-Know-Who is back?” Zach asked from next to Francisca, who turned her head sharply at his question.

“Well, Dumbledore believes it—“ Hermione started.

“You mean, Dumbledore believes him,” he nodded at Harry.

Francisca grabbed Zach’s hand under the table, “What are you doing?” she whispered to him.

“Who are you?” said Ron aggressively.

“Zacharias Smith. And I think we have the right to know why he believes You-Know-Who is back,” Zach said fiercely.

“That’s not what this meeting is—“ Hermione began again but was cut off by Harry.

Francisca could tell Harry had not taken kindly to Zach’s questioning. She was still holding his hand under the table, staring at him blankly, unable to comprehend why he was being so hostile in front of everyone. 

“What makes me say he’s back? I saw him,” Harry said. “Dumbledore told the whole school so if you don’t believe him, you don’t believe me. And I’m not wasting my time trying to convince anyone.” 

“All Dumbledore said was that Cedric got killed by You-Know-Who and that you brought his body back. He didn’t give us details, didn’t tell us how he was murdered, and I think we’d all like to know—“

Francisca let go of Zach’s hand immediately, feeling as if she had no idea who he was. She could sense Harry’s temper rising quickly but before she could even attempt to intervene, he responded.

“If you’ve come to hear what it looks like when Voldemort kills someone I can’t help you. I don’t want to talk about Cedric. So if that’s why you’re here, you may as well clear out now,” Harry replied hotly.

No one left their seat, despite the tense atmosphere. Hermione finally broke the silence, talking about the details of when and where they could meet when she was interrupted by Susan, who asked about Harry being capable of producing a corporeal Patronus. From there, Harry’s impressive feats became the topic of discussion, but Francisca wasn’t paying any mind to the meeting anymore. Her head was swimming with shock, disappointment, and anger. Why had Zach questioned Harry like that in front of everyone? Had he gone mad? She could tell he was intent on listening to the conversation about Harry’s capabilities and adding in his opinion occasionally, which was received with threats from the Weasley brothers, but she wanted very badly to discuss what he was thinking. She knew he was hurt deeply by Cedric’s death but she wasn’t sure that gave him a pass to ask such accusatory questions. 

The meeting appeared to have gone well despite Zach’s comments. They all signed a piece of parchment agreeing to participate in lessons, and then departed for the castle. Ginny gave Francisca a sideways glance, knowing she wanted to talk about what happened at the pub, but Francisca continued walking with the rest of her house down to their common room. Once they were inside, Francisca immediately pulled Zach to the side, away from everyone.

“What on Earth was that all about?! You…that was quite unnecessary, interrogating him about Cedric’s death like that!” hissed Francisca.

“What do you mean what was that all about? I simply wanted to know what happened. I know his friends know. I bet even you know because of Ginny but you’ve never talked to me about it. So I figured that meeting was as good a place as any to find out,” Zach shoved his hands in his pockets.

“That was a terrible time to ask. And you’ve never asked me about Cedric’s death. I didn’t think that would be something you would want to know about,” she said, scowling and crossing her arms. “So how was I supposed to know?”

“Yeah well…it’s been difficult to think about him being gone. And with your abilities, I don’t want to get too worked up in front of you,” he responded in a soft tone, looking sheepish. 

Francisca’s expression softened some. She knew he was avoiding talking about Cedric with her and she was glad he finally admitted it out loud. Even without trying, she could sense the strong urge Zach felt to protect her from making her relive the emotions she worked so hard to control. She felt a little guilty for being so mad at him, though she still thought he was out of line for being so brash. 

“Zach, you can talk to me about anything. You truly don’t have to worry about my abilities, I know how to control them. I know Cedric’s death was hard on all of us, especially you, but I don’t think confronting Harry like that was right. He hurts just as we do…he watched it happened. Voldemort has taken so much from so many…I’m sure Harry feels a great deal of grief as well. You have to understand that we’re all scared and trying to process.”

Zach sighed heavily and kissed her on the forehead. “You’re right. You always are. I’m sorry. I’ll do better from now on. I didn’t necessarily believe He Who Must Not Be Named wasn’t back, I just was having a hard time accepting it I guess. I’m still a little skeptical about these lessons but I’ll still go.”

Francisca smiled up at him weakly. She wanted to believe things would be okay between the two of them but wasn’t so sure anymore. She couldn’t help shake the feeling that this was only the beginning of many tough conversations that would be had. Her uncle’s words of advice from before the term began echoed in her mind, “Voldemort did the most damage by pulling apart families and friends…” Boy was he right.