Brace yourselves.


The first week with the kids goes well enough. They sleep a lot, and when they're awake mostly they stand or sit where he puts them, or drift quietly through the open rooms like little ghosts, watching without touching anything. Sometimes Gabe or Nadine poke at things, but they don't really pick them up. Zack can't help but think it's weird, but he doesn't have the first idea how to fix it save keeping on encouraging them. In the meantime it helps him determine how much food and clothes they need and how often he should go down the village to shop, and to set up a mealtimes-bathtime-bedtime schedule.

He's real proud of his schedule, he who could never be organized for anything but missions before. (Maybe because missions are by nature not on a regular schedule, and it's more interesting to plan dynamically.)

The second week he is just as proud when he manages, with minimal hammer targeting incidents, to take apart the crate and build them all separate beds, unpainted and not really symmetrical-looking but all sanded satin-smooth.

The first morning after that he laughs when he finds that they have all crawled out to pile up on Gabe's, and Jake is upside-down and snoring and Kyril's ass is hanging out over the floor. The second morning he sighs and reminds them to stay in their beds, that Gabe's bed is Gabe's. The third morning they're all crammed in with Ludmila instead.

Zack would grumble more, but they're starting to make grimaces at certain foods or ask for seconds at others, and Ludmila and Jake have been coming up to him and leaning against his shoulders when he sits on the floor (no couch yet) to read the newspaper. He figures the separate beds thing can wait a while longer.

He's strangely happy the first time Jake reaches for a closed door and figures out how to open it by hanging his weight from the handle.

It's the beginning of the end.

He starts finding them on chairs, on the kitchen table, on the counter, wedged between the ceiling and the top of the cupboards. If he had drapes or chandeliers they'd be swinging from those as well. Telling them not to doesn't help, ordering them doesn't help, yelling doesn't help, and then he feels horrible. He has to install a lock on the kitchen door.

Cabin fever is setting in.

He starts moving rocks and piling them into little walls to delimitate a garden. By the end of the third week they spend most of their time outdoors playing in red, dusty dirt that gets in every crack, he spends most of his time outdoors patrolling for monsters, and he has given up on regular mealtimes.

It's Friday. He has looked for Ludy for an increasingly panicky hour before finding her under a dry, half-dead bush -- somewhere Zack walked by at least seven times without her piping up; Jake managed to put the wood shed on fire; and Gabe has been systematically trying out the vast and varied application of the word 'no'.

Zack is tired, grumpy, and wishes he could hire a couple of babysitters and go get shitfaced at the nearest biker bar, and have a brawl as a nightcap. Even if the closest such bar wasn't several hours away, and he could trust the babysitters not to sell him out, leaving them to people with baseline strength and senses would be suicidal. They walk quiet as fuck and they kick like mules, so here he is, sitting exhausted in a corner of the garden -- hah, glorified, half-assed pen -- and thinking to himself that it's been a while since he saw Nadine and Kyril and he'll get up and take a look around the corner in a second, really, but right now he is going to let himself wish a giant snake could slither by. He doesn't even care whether it'd swallow the kids or him.

When Ludy looks up from the hole she's digging and says "ow", he doesn't even react straight away. She's disturbingly blank-faced, and she watches him more to see how he'll react than because she's expecting... anything. He's not sure how to explain, it's strange. It's observation without communication. He sighs and drags himself up and ambles her way, looking her over. She doesn't look hurt. He crouches in front of her, and reaches out a hand, and says, "Okay, show me where you" and that's when he sees blood from the corner of his eye.

Kyril is standing there right past the corner of the house and even more blank-faced than Ludmila, and his arm is painted red and dripping in the dust in fat drops. Zack can see bone.

There's nothing between seeing and landing there in front of him, hitting the ground on his knees so hard it should hurt and he doesn't care, doesn't think. He doesn't even need to reach his mind for the materia on his bracer, there's no thought involved anywhere. Green and white light surges through him like a wave; he pours everything he has in it, in knitting the gashes and the holes in muscle fibers and baby fat. He's going to be sick.

He drags Kyril in his arms the second he can touch without hurting, throws the last dregs of his mental strength into a scan, and when no other wounds rise to his awareness he just holds on and tries to breathe. Kyril doesn't react. There's a dead snake in the dust a few steps behind them, mouth and razor-scale crest all red from Zack's child's blood. Its body is crushed into a pulp.

"I told you," Zack starts, and doesn't even recognize himself, his voice or what he's feeling right now, but that's such a distant thing, "I told you to leave animals alone."

He is terrified and blind with rage and he's been good about raising his voice at them, shouting okay, screaming not. He's screaming right now, not even sure about what, goddamn stupid kid, what the hell were you thinking, I told you I told you never again you're not even listening to me--

His hand is raised and shaking and Kyril still watches him. His eyes are blue like a winter morning sky and just as empty.

Zack's hands drop, both of them. Kyril is free of his hold now but he still doesn't move. He'd stay here even if Zack did slap him, he'd stay and take it and not make a sound.

He's still covered in blood but Zack can't even make himself pick him up and wash him. He gets up fast, making himself dizzy. He can't right now, he's going to scream again, going to do things that make him not recognize himself. He walks off and it's a struggle not to run instead, he walks with legs stiff to the door and inside the house. He sits at the kitchen table.

He shakes, hands fisted in his hair.

"What am I doing," he whispers. He doesn't know.

He's in over his head. He's going to fuck up, he's been fucking up for days and weeks but it's building up to something worse, he's going to fuck them up worse than Shinra would have. He doesn't know what they need and even if he did, he can't give it to them, not alone. He's a fighter, not a parent, he's never even babysat in his life, and it makes him feel dirty to think it, disloyal, but there's no pretending any of them is normal. Kyril especially gives off vibes like a budding sociopath, and what is he supposed to do about that?

He's at the end of his rope and it hasn't been a month.

He's a failure as a parent, he didn't save them from jack shit, just fed his ego and his hero complex, he's going to have to give in and -- what, hand them back? Who else could raise them, how would he find them, how would he ask, how would he know to trust? He's gonna have to give up, he can't.

He's never been so ashamed, but somewhere under there he's relieved. Give in, let go of the crushing weight of responsibility. Just admit he can't.

He opens his eyes and watches Gabe watch him from the doorway. Guilt peaks, but exhaustion kills it.

It's funny how Gabe isn't even his biological kid and yet is the only one to share his eye color, though it's more intense in him, solid Materia-color instead of a mere overlay. Jake's eyes are Sephiroth-green instead of purple.

He walks up to the table on still-chubby legs and offers up a chewed-up, possibly poisonous caterpillar. Zack closes his eyes and lets his head fall back on his arm.

It's dinnertime and nothing's ready.

Giving up is all well and good but he can't do that without anything else in place. "... Thanks for the help," he says somehow, and straightens up, "but this isn't good food."

"Yes," Gabe agrees with a little puzzled frown, and dumps the damp, mushy caterpillar on the table. "Daddy fix it."


Gabe isn't that much more huggable than Kyril is, not at first; he allows it without really leaning in. But when Zack gets his shoulder all wet with tears he doesn't protest either, he just touches his insect-gut-covered hand to Zack's cheek, cautious and curious and warm. Love tears a hole in Zack's chest; it chokes him a little.

Zack kisses his temple and leans back, and he laughs because there are no words, none, that would cover that horrible, immense, bone-deep feeling, that awareness.

"Thanks, baby." He ruffles Gabe's curls, smiles at Nadine over his head, who's watching with her head tilted and chewing on her sleeve, at Kyril who must have tried to clean himself in the trough and only managed to smear pink everywhere. "Hey, wanna help daddy cook?"