Ulweiss' little girl was watching him from the doorway. Zack smiled at her, though what he really wanted to do was to rush to her, pick her up, and hurry back to the crate to figure out how she'd gotten out and whether any of the other kids had hurt themselves trying to do the same. At least he was pretty sure they couldn't have left the house without walking by him; the bedroom didn't have a window.
Guess that was a good point in favor of Cosmo Canyon-style warren-houses.
He didn't get up, he didn't want to loom over her. He turned on his heels and put a knee on the floor, tried to look welcoming, tried not to think horrible thoughts at whoever had programmed the kids' vocabulary. "Yes, sweetie? You want to ask something?"
If he didn't think about where it was coming from, it was kind of cute. He smiled a little wider. "I'm listening."
Her little face scrunched up in intense, slightly displeased concentration. She was the tiniest of the five, her curly hair frizzed into a tangled silver cloud that went past her elbows. He still didn't have a name for her.
Oh. "Me?" he confirmed, pointing at his chest.
She nodded, hair bouncing. Untangling the mats he could see in there was going to be challenging. Maybe he ought to have played with his cousin and her dolls more often as a kid, instead of kidnapping them to tie to trees and have his own toys rescue (or eat, depending), but that was a skill set he'd never thought he would need.
Zack. His name. Easy, keep it simple. That wouldn't answer her real question, though.
Your caretaker. Clinical yet perfectly correct, plus something she had likely been primed to understand. Yeah, like fuck.
Your protector. Then he'd have to explain what he was protecting them all from. Way too early for that.
He wanted to be more than that.
"I'm your dad."
It felt like he'd taken a running leap over the edge of a cliff, without knowing what was underneath, but knowing there was no choice, no other way. Scary but exhilarating. He had decided they would be, he knew he had, in Cosmo Canyon when the old man he was renting the house from asked ... no, earlier, on the road with Gabe, washing pee-stained pants... maybe earlier than that, picking them up wet and limp from the bottom of their tanks, wiping them off, so small and soft...
Dad. God, I'm thirty years too young for this, yelled a panicked corner of his brain. He hummed a little song under his breath to distract himself from it. Lalala, everything was fine...
The kid mostly frowned harder, utterly uncomprehending. Zack chuckled and got up slowly, a hand trailing in the wooden tub to test the water. Hot enough. He went to the little girl and picked her up; she allowed it, limp but still frowning.
"It means I protect you, and take care of you, and love you, and you are safe with me."
He sat her on his hip, walked silently across the bedroom floor. Silence in the crate, no one else was out; her three brothers and her sister had moved around a bit on the cushions and were piled up like puppies, but none of them seemed too squashed to breathe or stuck in uncomfortable poses that would result in pins and needles.
(The kid who shared his genes looked like a giant hedgehog, rolled into a ball and almost entirely covered with an explosion of hip-length spikes. Zack had never been so grateful to his mom for nipping his attempts at a Seph-hairdo in the bud during his early teenagerhood.)
"Huh, I should take advantage of this, shouldn't I, sweetie? I doubt you guys will keep taking turns being awake for very long."
He went back to the other room, mostly empty save from a table and two chairs and the wooden tub he'd had to fill bucket after bucket from the water pump outside.
"Do we have everything?" he mused, as he put her sitting on the table and tugged the men's shirt off. He dropped it on the floor; he'd stolen it in a locker back in the Shinra building, and he had real children's clothes now. There was no way he'd put her back in it. "Soap, and shampoo... We need a rubber duckie, don't we? I'll get one next time I go to the village, promise. It's no fun in the bath otherwise."
She kept staring at him with her wide golden cat's eyes, brow furrowed. He dropped a kiss on her forehead.
"I bet you don't understand half of what I'm saying, but that's okay. I'm sure you'll learn real fast."
"I want now," she replied grumpily, catching him by surprise. He laughed, picked her up and swung her around just a little, so happy to see traces of personality.
"Sorry, baby. Now is bath time."
He tested the water with his hand again -- he wasn't sure how hot was too hot, so he'd decided not to push it; if it was a bit too cool at least he could warm her up rather quick. Treating burns wasn't his idea of a good way to build trust. He thought -- he hoped -- maybe this one would tell him if it hurt, or show him at least, but Tanner's little boy, for example, and the other girl, gave Zack the disturbing thought that they'd stay where Zack put them no matter how uncomfortable or painful it was. Maybe a washcloth would work better for the two of them.
He'd see about that later. One at a time. He lowered the little girl in the water, watching her reactions closely. She curled her toes when the water lapped at them, blinked.
"Is it too hot?"
He lifted her over the water quickly. Her legs weren't turning pink at all, not even a little. He blinked up at her face, which looked mildly interested. "... Is it hot?"
"Does it hurt?"
"So it's not too hot?"
She blinked back at him, dangling in his hold over the water like a sack of potatoes. "... Water."
"Uh. Yes, water."
She kicked at it, but missed. Zack cautiously lowered her a little.
Kick kick kick, stretching her legs to touch with her toes. ... Was that a smile? She even smiled like Ulweiss, with one side of her mouth going higher than the other. Zack lowered her a little more. She gave a little wriggle, as if trying to slither out of his hold and down into the bath. Well then. He checked the water temperature again and decided that not even his Northern grandma's snowcat would object.
"So here you are. Now -- uh, crap, washing cloth, washing cloth -- okay, don't move, I just need one second--"
He waited a second to see if she was about to pitch back or forward or otherwise underwater, then left her sitting in the bath and hurried to find what he needed. Next time he'd remember to move it first.
"Crap," she said behind him, and started tapping the flat of her hand on the surface. Zack groaned. Great, his first half-hour as her dad and he was already teaching her bad words.
Oh well, this one was really mild compared to what else he could have said.
He wet the washcloth and started soaping her up. She twitched, a bemused look on her face. "Aha. Ticklish?" Laughing, he wriggled his washcloth-covered hand against her side.
She threw herself away from him so fast, so hard, that when her little body hit the other side of the tub it made a loud thumping noise and water splashed over the edges. She didn't even make a sound, just braced herself against the tub to get up and stared at his hand like a wolf cub might look at a snake, intense and scared and ready.
"Oh shit," he couldn't help saying. He retreated, put his hands up and then on second thought behind his back, because she couldn't be expected to know what holding them up might mean, maybe it would look threatening, like he was making himself bigger. "I'm sorry, honey. I didn't mean..."
Great job, great -- 'you're safe with me,' hah. He was messing it up already.
She'd never really been touched by anything, really. Not while being conscious. Apart from her clothes, and maybe her siblings and the crate -- great references.
"Does it hurt?"
She made her most impressive disapproving face yet, a frowny-pout-glare combo that scrunched her brows. "... Hurt -- negative-sen-sensorey in-put. Yes."
She leaned away from the side of the tub, gingerly moving her arm up and away from her ribs. Zack bit his lip and moved closer, voice quieting. "Show me."
No bruise yet, but it would take a while to show. SOLDIERs didn't bruise easy, anyway. That didn't mean they felt no pain, and she was just a baby. He thought the area looked a little red.
"Do you want to get out of the water?"
She frown-pouted some more. "... No. Water." Splash, both hands hitting the surface together. "Water," she repeated, and while she didn't smile the frown lifted.
It looked like she'd already forgotten her scare. Zack relaxed enough to start calling himself names in the privacy of his own head. It could have ended a lot worse. He needed to think about those things, damn it.
At least she'd gone straight for the much-shorter 'no' than the military jargon this time around. Zack smiled, though she wasn't even looking at him. "Fluid dynamics more interesting than your old man, huh. I oughta start saving for your college fund."
She seemed calmer; he slowly took back his previous spot at the edge of the tub, flicked a little water at her hands. She splashed back, so he went ahead and reached to pour water on her back, before the soap dried on. That she allowed -- but the second the washcloth approached her again, her little baby hand came down and slapped it away.
Oh hell, she wasn't supposed to have reached the 'no' stage in under a half hour. Unfair! Now what was he supposed to do about it, obey it? He was the dad, he couldn't let her walk all over him. Ignore it and go ahead? Wouldn't that give her boundaries issues? Reinforce her conditioning?
... Said conditioning didn't seem to have taken much of a hold just yet, anyway, because when he sneaked his gloved hand back toward her she slapped it away again.
He knew he shouldn't laugh, but suddenly her expression, that move -- he knew her name. It couldn't be anything else.
She blinked up at him, golden eyes wide and serious, brow a little furrowed. He dumped the washcloth on the edge of the tub and rested his hand on her head, just like he'd done with Gabe.
"I dub thee Nadine the Fearless, she who disciplined us overgrown children like the true matriarch she was."
His baby girl would just need a ladle to complete the flashbacks he was getting to Wutai, growing boy with augmented metabolism, in constant need of nourishment. Yeah, he thought Cook would have liked her little namesake. She had the suspicious, 'pull the other one' glower down already.
He washed her quick as he could, touch firm so he wouldn't tickle her again. Washing her hair would have to wait until it was free of those epic tangles.
It was wavy; perhaps it might be coaxed into curls, maybe even ringlets, but that meant it would require pretty intensive upkeep. Might go faster to just cut it short as he could and let it grow again. It seemed like delicate work; his hands had never been especially good with small, precise movements, and SOLDIER strength didn't make them any easier.
He bet the assholes back at Shinra would have given the five of them monthly crew cuts, and considered the matter solved.
Eyes narrowed, he picked up the brush and the ends of her hair and started trying to work out the knots. Nadine sat in her bath and splashed away with grim satisfaction.