Taking a sip of tepid Nescafe, Zach tried to hide his wince. The sharp-eyed woman working at the little bakery café gave him a withering glare.
"If you don't like our coffee, you shouldn't come in here every single day and order it." Despite his best efforts, Zach felt his face flush as he bit back a number of responses.
This swill is undrinkable.
It gives me an excuse to see you.
How can you possibly be so pretty while scowling like that?
This coffee is an insult to Arabica beans everywhere.
It really is ghastly.
I love you.
Instead he just smiled awkwardly and played with the frayed edge of his scarf. This whole holding his tongue concept was still new and difficult for him, but he was trying. That should count for something, right? After a long moment of silence, he felt like he could answer without offering either a scathing review on the coffee or a declaration of undying devotion.
"Just need a morning pick-me-up, and this place has the best scones," he managed, annoyed at his red face and lack of social graces. Shouldn't schools teach important life skills like this? On the other hand, he was hoping he would earn at least a point or two with his honest praise of the scones, because he happened to know that she baked them herself.
Marietta, the girl whose glares left him breathless and whose rare smiles made him feel like his heart might explode, looked marginally placated. She shoved the plate with his warm cinnamon scone towards him, and before he could stop himself, Zach blurted out,
"And the prettiest employees!" Mortified, he grabbed his scone before she could snatch it back. Risking a glance up, he found her giving him an odd look, part glare and part bafflement.
She had been in Ravenclaw and was very clever, so he knew she couldn't be completely oblivious. He came into this shop everyday, which in the small, small world that was Wizarding London she probably knew was exceedingly out of his way. He ordered coffee, which he obviously hated (subtlety and tact had never been strong suits of his) and he turned nearly maroon every time she spoke to him.
He must have looked even more pathetic than usual, because she only gave an exasperated huff through her nose, which made her wild mess of barely contained blonde curls quiver. Instead of turning around and marching back to her position behind the counter like she usually did, she paused.
"What's with the scarf?" she finally asked, and Zach couldn't breathe; she was actually talking to him! "You're always dressed so … professionally, but then you wear that ratty old scarf. They sell House scarves, you know, if you're still hell-bent on advertising your Hufflepuff history."
Zach felt like laughing with joy, but he was so breathless that his attempt came out more like a sickly wheeze. She'd noticed him—his clothes, his scarf, him!
"I know it's a bit worn." He watched her arch one eyebrow in an obvious that's an understatement gesture and continued, "but it's got sentimental value, and I can't quite let go of it."
Her expression softened, and for some insane reason, Zach wanted to pour out his soul and tell her every single story he had.
"In sixth year, Megan Jones took up knitting. It was just a silly hobby, but I used to tease her about it. Not to be mean or anything, as I was actually quite fond of her. Very nice girl. And then she gave me this thing for Christmas. Even when it was new it was a mess—weird, lumpy, knobby bits and uneven stripes … It was probably more of a joke than anything. She knew she wasn't very good at it, but she didn't care.
"Anyway, I tossed it in my trunk and didn't give it much thought. Then she died the next year in the Final Battle. She was so much braver than I ever was. The last thing I ever said to her was some snotty comment about wearing this scarf as armour—that it was so ugly that no Death Eater could look at me long enough to aim properly. She laughed, of course. She always did. Never took me too seriously, that one, even when I was a total arse. She was a really good friend.
"And then she died. A lot of people did, of course, but I knew her, you know? It made it more real. I pulled this thing out after I heard what had happened." He paused, and fingered the fraying edge of a gold stripe. "I just can't quite say good-bye to this ugly thing. I've been wearing it ever since."
To his complete shock, he felt Marietta's hand on his shoulder. "You're a good friend, Zacharias."
"Call me Zach," he croaked.
"All right, Zach. I'll see you tomorrow then?" she asked.
He let out a strangled chuckle. "I'll be here."
Her eyes softer than he'd ever seen them, she gave him a little smile. He felt like if he weren't already sitting down, that he might have fallen right over. To his disbelief, she turned back around after she started to leave and leaned down closer to him. She smelled warm and sweet, like cinnamon and almond and everything good in the entire world.
"You know, there's a coffee shop two streets over. If you wanted to bring your own coffee in, well … I won't tell if you won't."
The mischievous smile danced over her face, playing in her eyes and dimpling her chin. Zach's mouth dropped open and he couldn't hide his astonished awe. Marietta gave him a cute little partial smile that crinkled half her face into an adorable almost wink, and then she walked away, a little extra swing in her step, leaving Zach gaping after her.