Child Support

Today was bad luck all around. For him, being found. For the routine patrol, finding him.

For Mrs. O'Hanessy, who'd been her usual neighborly self, either when explaining to the pair of Second Class how to navigate the labyrinth that was the village, or when seeing Zack and his gaggle of kids and sending them a cheerful hello, and whose wall was now partly caved in, due to Zack hammering the first of the SOLDIERs through.

He could see the roof teetering overhead as she stood on her doorstep, wrinkled face full of confusion. But the gunshots cracked loud and echoing in the narrow, twisty little streets of Minolos and he could do nothing but turn on his heel and run, Nadine snatched in mid-flight and pressed tight against his chest.

Couldn't make a stand there. It would be like shooting fish in a barrel that ricocheted bullets along. There was no way he could disarm the Second Class before he winged one of his kids. But they'd drilled this ten, twenty times -- oh, what a fun game you're making up, Mister Gainsborough, can we play too? -- so many tiny tiny streets that ended in claustrophobic culs de sac, so many paved-over ditches and old gutters and long-abandoned basements that no one could get to anymore. Unless you were a kid and you could squirm through and crawl under and fit.

If you couldn't, you had to guess which exit was going to be used, and take the long way 'round. The game was simple. Get through the village before I catch up. If I catch you out of a tunnel, you lose. You're dead.

He herded his brood to the nearest sharp turn. Gabe was there, six year old and eyes hard and brittle, bracing his back against the wall, holding the heavy plank up with both thin arms so his siblings could squirm through the hole. Zack let Nadine slide down his body, pushed Kyril toward the hole, go go go.

Zack turned his back on the narrow space between the houses, took in the sloping street.

The Second Class on one side, with his rifle, going down to one knee and taking aim.

On the other side, downhill, ringing footsteps past the corner but he still had a couple seconds, and the less long-distance weapons around the better. He lunged, line of fire against his cheek, knocking his cap off, swept the gun's barrel to the side with a harsh slap. His other fist followed. He'd drilled that too, hours and hours. Ribs snapped under his hands, blood splattered out of a gasping mouth. The body flew, crack -- thumped on the paved street. Good enough. He snatched up the rifle by the barrel and turned around.

He had a knife in his boot but no other weapon because inside the village who needed a broadsword, who could use a broadsword anyway, and the Buster was too distinctive and even more useless -- no room to swing. Most streets in Minolos weren't as wide as the Buster was long.

By the time he moved his rifle into the proper position and aimed Gabe would be dead.

It was a First Class who'd been coming behind him, not a Second -- likely the officer in charge of the whole patrol -- it was a First Class who was standing by the narrow opening between the two houses, who was staring down at something in utter bafflement, and Zack knew that something was his kid, his Gabriel, who was likely staring right back all defiant and terrified and he was never going to get there in time.

"... Zack," said the First Class, without looking away. "You... What the fuck?"

He dyed the kids' hair regularly, because all-white on five brats who otherwise didn't match very much was pushing it a bit.

For a fleeting moment he could see it, Gabe as an adult -- he'd just maybe be a touch paler, with sharper cheekbones, but the same purple eyes, the same sweep of tight curls. His heart kicked in his chest.

He could still spin this. He could gain at least a couple seconds, time enough to bridge the gap.

"Kegarr. Hey."

He edged forward, slowly. Kegarr twitched his fingers on his hunting knife, threw him a quick, warning glare. Alright.

"What the fuck is that."

... he could spin this, he had to spin this, Kegarr was ruthless on a battlefield but there were limits, there had to be, and he might never have wanted children of his own but there was still that button to push, to mash, he had to.

"I think you know," Zack said, a lot more calmly than he felt.

Kegarr stood facing him, but his head was still turned, still staring at the child in the alley like he couldn't break away, caught in some kind of horrible fascination.

Zack took a slow, gliding step forward, and then another one.

"I think you know. Not hard to guess, is it?"

The muscles of Kegarr's throat clenched, shifted as he swallowed convulsively. "I -- he--"

Zack made his voice soft. "Someone who'd care, Drey. That's what you said. Remember?"

"Oh hell, oh fuck--"

Closer, closer, floating slow and nice and non-jarring, non-startling, down the street, step by step... "And I do care."

Because you don't, he couldn't help but think in that second, even though he should have sounded nicer, conciliating, made an appeal to Kegarr's pity -- because you don't care about him and how could you, he's perfect, they all are, I hate you.

"His name is--"

"Shut up." Kegarr took a deep, ragged breath, eyes burning. "If you think I don't know what you're doing..."

"Appealing to your basic human decency?" And fuck, he couldn't anymore, couldn't pretend, he was so angry. "Or did Shinra buy even this?!" He set his feet in a wider stance, knife fished out of his boot in a flash. The rifle was useless as anything but a club.

"You never told me!" Kegarr made a wide, angry slash with the hand that held his knife -- but it wasn't an attack, it was like he'd almost forgotten he was holding it. "You son of a bitch, you -- just, fuck you, that's not fair."

In a flash Zack could feel himself losing all the detachment of the mission mindset, all the calm readiness to do whatever necessary, and it was bad, because rage and years of buried resentment, what the fuck kind of use could they get here? His kids were waiting for him and there were more SOLDIERs patrolling the village, there had to be. But he wanted -- he didn't want to kill Kegarr, he wanted to get in his face and punch his teeth in --

At the mouth of the alley a little hand appeared, sneaking toward the big hunting knife still in Kegarr's thigh holster. Zack rocked forward. "No!"

"No -- don't do that, kiddo."

He brought himself to a stop in arm's reach, breathing too fast and feeling sick, watching Kegarr as Kegarr openly ignored him in order to look at the kid he'd accidentally fathered, somewhere in a lab, as Kegarr reached a big hand to those small fingers and then stopped just short of actual contact.

He brought his hand back on top of the butt of his knife, to keep it in its sheath. Straightened up slowly. Zack couldn't read his expression, the way it firmed in resolve -- which?

"I'm getting a bit sick of you knocking me out for my own good, Fair," Kegarr said almost conversationally, and pivoted on one foot until Zack was at his back. His eyes stayed on Gabe another second, and then, gritting his teeth with an almost audible noise, he lifted his head and stared straight ahead. "Try not to be too hard on my newbies."

Zack brought the butt of his knife down sharp and hard, caught him under the armpits and dragged him toward the little alley. Gabe was still standing there and watching, uncomprehending. Zack herded him right back to the end of the tunnel, dumped Kegarr against a wall, lifted the plank in the little space they had left. "Go, go, you know where to meet back."


It hurt, said here and now, with Kegarr's body crumpled in a heap beside them, with the way Gabe pressed himself against the wall rather than touch someone who should never have been a scary stranger. No time for that now, though. "Go!"

Gabe disappeared in the hole. Zack put the plank back down, then jumped over Kegarr's legs and back in the street. He could hear more people barking orders at each other, more booted heels resonating against the walls.

He grabbed a tile for handhold and swung himself up on the slanted roof. Alright. Ten people to a platoon, minus three, and the nearest garrison was probably in Rocket Town -- a good hour away in chopper. If another platoon wasn't visiting one of the nearby villages, that was.

Time to do some cleanup.

Seven people left. Four infantry troops, another Second, two newbie Thirds. He dropped in on the Second's head as he yelled something at that poor Bobby, who looked like a scary grown man but was about the same age as his kids inside.

Six people left, four troopers, two newbies. He found one of the newbies with two troopers, arguing about chain of command. Just so happened the river ran under that street, cold and fast, fresh from the Corel mountains; it broke the surface and ran along the street along a couple of houses before disappearing again. Whoops, look at that, slippery edge innit. They wouldn't be swept away; there was a fence before the nearest tunnel mouth to keep debris out, but climbing back out would take them a while; the water was really cold and the walls slick with moss.

Three people left, and he started circling around to go back to the rendezvous point. The leftover troopers were at the transport, one behind the wheel, looking jittery and not about to be tempted away. Likely they'd already made a call for reinforcements. Alright, fine; Zack slipped around to slash the tires and ghosted away.

He couldn't find the last newbie Third, but he needed to be gone, and one Third wasn't going to be much of a hindrance. Rendezvous point, now. He ran downhill, cut through a little herb garden, jumped the fence, and he was out of the village. He skid down a sharp slope -- it didn't matter if he knocked loose rock down into the river. The buggy waited hidden in the mouth of the tunnel, where the river gushed out into the sun, all cold and glittery. He hoped none of the kids had slipped and put their foot in the water again; he wasn't gonna have time to change their clothes for a while once behind the wheel.


"Don't move."

He could see the hood from there, part of the windshield, a little face with wide eyes inside -- Jake. Heard Nadine's voice, calling out, muffled.

Today was bad luck all around.

Zack had missed him at first because he wasn't in bright trooper blues but a Third's dull purples. Scruffy little trooper Cloud Strife had him in his sights, straight on for a headshot.

His eyes glowed like materia before a strike.