The instinct was to gasp, pant for air with the exertion, but Fritz had taught them long ago just how much technique really did matter in the long run if you didn't want to wind up under Corner's skilled hands and should-have-known-better smirk, so he kept his breathing steady, sucking in on the push, letting it out slowly as he lowered himself to the floor. Despite the temptation of the holiday, Zach was taking care to keep up on his training when he could. Their time was growing so very short now, and he'd never forgive himself if he were anything less than the strongest he could be, the awareness that literally everyone was younger than him, looking up to him heavier than the book-filled knapsack he wore across his shoulders now.
A knock on the door startled him so badly he almost fell on his face, "Zach, mate, we need to talk." Not a good thing to ever hear from one's father.
He had a split-second to make the decision, and "no" was not on the table. Yes, he could jump up, grab a shirt and a book, pretend to have been reading, but there would be no hiding the sweat or the breathing or the flush, and there were so many so much more embarrassing assumptions that could be made. Still, there was no need to broadcast details that might result in questions. Quickly, he shrugged out of the knapsack and shoved it under the bed, scooting forward to drop his feet off the chair and continue with bog-standard pressups. "Okay."
The door opened, and he stood up as his father entered, grabbing his tshirt off the bed to wipe his face before he pulled it on. "Yeah, Dad?"
His father's long, appraising stare had been expected, but not the sadness in his eyes or the gravity in his voice as he nodded and sat down on the edge of the bed. "Good for you. I reckon I could bounce a knut off those abs."
Zach shrugged awkwardly. "I've been kinda working out this year. I figured…" He trailed off, not sure how to finish, but the understanding seemed to already be there to a degree that made him all the more nervous.
"You don't have to justify. As I said, good for you. It's what I'd have done at your age." There was another long, stifling pause. "You startled me in the kitchen tonight, Zach."
He frowned, racking his memory to try and remember what his father could be referring to, but he came up wandless. Surely doing the dishes with his mother wasn't that unusual. "I did?"
"I was going to read the paper, and I saw you through the door out of the corner of my eye. I thought there was a stranger in the house at first, and then I realized that it's happened." He shook his head with a dark, introspective chuckle. "Eighteen and a half years I thought I've been getting ready for it, working towards it, but then it just takes you by surprise when you realize that the man in your kitchen used to be your little boy. You've grown up, Zach."
For all that he'd been sure of it, proclaimed it, worried about it, felt the burden of it all year, hearing his father say it still took him by surprise, and a markedly not grown-up flush heated his face as he licked his lips slowly. "I guess I have." It seemed a silly thing to say, but he didn't know what else there was for it.
"Still planning to ask Meg to marry you at the end of the year?" This was more familiar ground, if so very bittersweet lately, and he let himself smile.
"Kind of already have. Pre-proposal, I guess, so I could start saving up for the ring. I've got about half, and I've picked it out and reserved it for when I get the rest. But yeah, the formal down on one knee part I'm waiting until the end of the year if -" the familiar, choking barrier of the Fidelius filled his throat, cutting off if we survive until he replaced it with "-everything goes well."
The pause was not missed, and the furrows between his father's brows deepened, then smoothed again in sympathy. "I don't envy you, Zach. You're coming out into the adult world when it's in the middle of hell. I can see you've already been thinking about needing to protect her - like I said, I'd be working out too - but you're going to have to leave school in a lot more ways than stopping classes, and that's what I want to talk to you about."
"I…" His thoughts were racing in circles, wondering if somehow the charm had been breached, the guilt head to head with the confusion, but a wave of the older man's hand pushed back his fumbling search for objection, agreement, or whatever he wasn't really sure of yet.
"You're Hufflepuff, just like I was, just like your mother and your grandparents, and you know how proud of you we are for that, but there's a reason that the other kids tend to look down their nose at us."
Zach grinned despite himself. "They're twats?"
"They're young." There was no levity in the answer, and he felt suddenly ridiculous for the joke. "They think we're sheep, because that's what loyalty means when you're a child: blind obedience to a group, and a child's groups are to a large extent put together by older people who decide who's in your class, your dorm, who you're allowed to play with, where you live. But you're not a child any more. You're making your own groups, aren't you?"
It wasn't exactly an accusation, but there was no mistaking what he meant, and he knew it was useless even as he tried to deliberately misunderstand. "Meg and I are still planning on a big family, sure, but that's kind of a one at a time thing, and we don't want to have kids straight out of the gate until I've got a good job."
"Zacharias, don't lie to me. I'm talking to you like an adult, I expect you to show me the same respect, not act like I've caught you in the ice cream."
The quiet rebuke hit him like a punch to the gut, but there was nothing he could do, and he looked down, twisting his hands together on the hem of his shirt. "I'm sorry, Dad. I honestly can't tell you. I would if I could. It's not that I don't trust you."
He could feel the searching gaze on him, unable to bring himself to look up. "Fidelius charm? Unbreakable Vow? Secrecy Seal? Or just good old-fashioned cross-your-heart-and-hope-to-die pinky swear?"
Now he did look up, his eyes pleading. "Dad…."
"Nevermind," his father waved his hand dismissively. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that."
"Charles Smith may be older than dirt to you, mate, but he's not stupid, and though it might shock you to hear this, parents are capable of communicating with one another. When every kid in yellow and black comes home with athlete's bodies and prisoner's eyes, we start putting things together."
It was entirely possible that he was about to throw up. "And what have you put together?"
"That there are at least three Death Eaters on staff. That we all saw how you reacted to Miss Lovegood's abduction over Christmas, and it's no secret who's in charge - there's some grumbling on that, but if he's anything like his parents or grandmother, it's a good choice, and Potter trusted him, so I'm not going to take issue there. That startling one of you kids is a good way to get your teeth kicked in these days. That Creevey lost a hand over Christmas and he's staying with the Robbins' now, which doesn't suggest he has a home to go to. That everyone's thinking Potter might be heading back to Hogwarts any day now because whatever he's going to try involved Dumbledore. In short, that your world is going to hell as much as the one outside and you're readying yourselves to not go down easily."
There was nothing to say, nothing to argue, but Zach was surprised to find that he didn't want to. What he did want to do wasn't anything like the maturity that he had been granted. What he wanted was burst into tears in gratitude that someone got it, that they weren't really alone, but what held him back was more than pride. It was that although the words showed approval, there was something more there. He stopped himself, taking a deep breath and reaching for the yellow and black notebook on the side table that held his homework. "You're definitely not stupid. But what does that have to do with this?"
"I don't care about your marks this year, Zach, it's -"
"Not my marks, Dad. My House. If you think that I've just blindly joined things because I'm a 'Puff…."
"No." He took the binder, flipping through it in a way that any other time Zach would have seen as casual, but now he noted the tiny tells, the tightening of the eyes when he passed essays for Muggle Studies, the caught breath at the take-home exam for Dark Arts. "But I think that you need to look beyond the groups that are available at school, because as much as it seems like the extent of the entire universe for the last seven years, you're about to enter a much bigger world, and you need to consider the rest of your life."
Now it was Zach's shoulders that tightened, his head raising defiantly. "I'm not going to just go along quietly. I know you want me to stay safe -"
"Fuck that, boy." It was the first time he had ever heard that word used by one of his parent's without the impetus of a stubbed toe or scalded hand and an immediately following apology, and it rendered him speechless as his father continued. "There is no 'safe' right now, and there won't be until this is all over one way or another. I wish I could tell you to stay safe, that I could keep you safe…but we both know that's not going to happen, and it's more likely these days that those biceps are going to be what saves you rather than anything I could do."
There was a terrible kind of sorrow in the confession, and he said nothing as his father put the binder down, reaching out to wrap both hands around his and lock his eyes inescapably. "Whatever you are doing at school, if it's just trying to protect yourselves, I completely support that. But if you're thinking about going on the offensive, you're worth more than that. Merlin, you're worth so much more than that."
He tried to interrupt, but he was cut off with a warning look. "I already said you should fight back. But one of the most important things a man learns is that the real world doesn't work like playing games in the back yard. When it's all over, the dead ones don't get up and go in for biscuits and juice with the rest. If you lay down your life, it's gone. Over. There are no do-overs, no second chances, no round two. So you make it count. You don't sell my eldest son's pure, Founder's-line blood or Meg's husband and the father of her children for anything less than the highest possible price."
"I won't, Dad." Zach was surprised to hear himself whispering beneath the gravity of what should have been so obvious all along but somehow hadn't been. "I'll be careful."
"It's not about being careful. It's about choosing who you affiliate with and not taking for granted that what your child's life presented you with is the best option for you as an adult."
"I'm sorry, I don't understand."
"Longbottom is a brave boy from bloody good stock; no one should question that after the business at the Ministry in '96. But he's not his parents or his grandmother. He has no training, and if training didn't matter, every army on the planet wouldn't put so much effort into it, and I don't just mean what you've all done physically. I mean tactics, battle strategy, combat experience. He's got no more of that than your little sister."
What he seemed to be suggesting was nothing short of treason, but Zach held back the immediate, offended rejoinder, trying to be reasonable. "What do you want me to do?"
"The Order of the Phoenix." The bluntness of the reply startled him, and he blinked in disbelief.
"Hear me out!" His father let go, running a hand through his hair with a hard exhalation as if he couldn't believe what he'd just said either. "I know, I know, I used to call them vigilantes, extremists - it was different then. I'm sorry. But these are desperate times, and I'm not too proud to admit I made a mistake. I don't even really know much about them, but everyone knows they were Dumbledore's elite who stopped You-Know-Who last time, and that they're back now, and Weasley or Longbottom would definitely know how to get you in touch with them now. Rumor has it they're struggling, that they're terribly outnumbered, but…."
He took a deep, shuddering breath, and Zach could hardly believe it that his voice had started trembling, that when he looked up there were tears clear in his eyes. "…maybe if they got reinforcements in a few months? A dozen or so, maybe? Young, strong, toughened, already ready to go, brave and loyal and with so much to fight for who wouldn't make the mistakes of their parents…."
Adult or not be damned. He threw his arms around his father, hugging him as tightly as he dared. "Oh, Dad -!"
The embrace was returned with more strength than he thought the older man had, one hand running through Zach's hair as his father clung as though every demon in the world's hells was going to try and pry them apart at any moment. "I would do anything to never have to give you my blessing to go get yourself killed, Zacharias. I feel like I've failed you as a father, as a protector, fuck it, as a man who was supposed to make a better world for your generation."
"No, Dad, you haven't failed me, not at all! It's not your fault, it's -"
"That doesn't matter. It's too late now." He felt the deep, gathering breath of returned composure, then his father pushed away, holding him by the shoulders at arms' length. "But I will only give that blessing to a man who is going to war, not to a boy who is playing it in the schoolyard, do you understand me?"
"I do." And he did, even if it hurt to realize the truth of it, even if he would rather face You-Know-Who himself than think about how he was going to tell the Commander. Except maybe it didn't have to be like that. Maybe he could talk them all into a change of plan, because it was true, wasn't it? If they joined the Order en masse, joining the DA's guts and brutal training with the experience of the likes of Moody and Shacklebolt…he felt himself grin even through the fear. "I won't let you down."
"Oh, I never doubted that." The smile seemed to break something in his father's eyes as he stood, lingering a hand on Zach's shoulder until he couldn't any more. "One more thing, though?"
"I brought you these." He dug into his pocket, pulling out his hand and opening it to reveal two rings, one a delicate starburst of diamonds and sapphires, the other a man's worn golden band. "They were your grandparent's. I want you to take the one for Meg, because your mother and I agreed we wanted her to have it back when we first realized you two were serious, and because you'll need to keep your money. Rebellions are always broke."
Zach took them carefully, reverently, turning them over in his hands to admire the details of the antique workmanship. "And Granddad's?"
"Engagement rings don't have to just be for witches, you know," the smile deepened, cut. "And besides, maybe if you have a reminder of how much you have to survive for, I might get those promised piles of grandchildren after all, even if you're fighting for real."