There's a reason Zack went to ground in Cosmo Canyon, apart from those miles and miles of jagged cliffs and caves and other such hiding places.
In Cosmo Canyon, fooling Shinra people is a national sport.
Not a lot of easily accessible Mako, either -- supposedly -- so Shinra people never push too hard. Which is good for them because when they're around central heating fails and prices hike harder than a mountain trail up the red hills.
Or maybe they never hang around long enough to find a good Mako vein because of the lack of welcome. It's a bit of an egg and chicken thing.
Doesn't help that what locals call a road, Midgar people call a goat trail. Zack feels like he ran his own trail twice, with a full pack, between all the chasing after wayward children he did and all the "daddy carry me".
Still, for their first family trek ever, it's been going okay so far.
He's gambling not only his but their lives on the lack of strangers in the village but there is just about zero choice. Not like he can leave them alone at home, not even if he waits until they're asleep; they'd wake up, guaranteed. There's only bad solutions and worse.
The path winds down to the bottom of a canyon, and at the next turn, there is the first house.
"Howdy, neighbor!" he calls, because why not.
A wiry old man gives him and his gaggle of silver-haired kids a long, suspicious look. Zack puts sweet, shy, quiet Ludmila on the ground and snatches up Jake before he can go investigate and ruin the man's vegetable garden, hard-won over friable rock and dry, powdery soil. He grins as he sits Jake on his hip and waves, pretending that Jake isn't kicking his leg hard enough to bruise even a SOLDIER and going noooooo!.
"Howdy, neighbor," Nadine repeats dutifully, lips pursed in concentration. The man unbends enough to flick her a smile. After a second he comes up to his fence and holds out a hand for Zack to shake. Zack shakes obligingly, though he has to juggle Jake around a bit first. He's still wriggling like a cut worm.
"Hi. Zack Strife."
"So." The man eyes the pack.
The pack eyes him back, the exact same way they eyed that poor, lost Grand Horn that was stupid enough to drift by the house, the same look of 'is it edible? How do you take it apart?'. Zack's smile quirks with a spark of really inappropriate humor.
"The five sisters land you with a lovechild each?"
Zack chokes, gives a startled laugh. It's an interesting explanation; he'd run with it if he could tell Poulson believed it even a little bit. "Err. Something like that."
Poulson looks at the kids again. Gabe and Nadine are still staring back, the way they watch interesting monsters (those that they don't have the sense to be scared of, ie all of them); Ludy is hiding behind Zack's legs.
"Nice eyes they've got."
A part of Zack's brain that's been calculating the distance between them from the beginning starts wondering whether putting Jake down before he grabs Poulson by the neck and breaks it would give too much warning. Zack keeps smiling and offers up absolutely no explanation.
One second of uncomfortable silence, two. Poulson sighs a bit, still staring right into Zack's eyes, and flicks him the tiniest smile. "Good thing you came down now and not last week, the village was full of stupid cars. Dangerous with so many kids who don't know sit and stay yet."
Of course, when Zack looks back Kyril's smooth little head of hair is nowhere to be seen. Poulson points up laconically; the kid's blue tanktop is streaked with so much red dirt he melds with the cliff side he's climbing. He's already of a height with Zack's head.
"Kyril! No higher," he orders, calm but firm with several weeks of experience under his belt, even if it's not how he wants to sound at all. (More like oh my god, kid! Get down now! No, wait, don't move, I'm getting you!. The issue there is Kyril usually respects limits he hasn't crossed yet, but doesn't even seem to hear that kind of correction. Or maybe it's the emotional content of Zack's tone he has trouble with. Hard to say.)
Zack will say one good thing about how they were made; it would take a much higher fall than that to make any of the kids even bleed, which helps with his gray hairs a bit. But he can't help but worry about what might happen if Kyril ever gets caught on a bramble and lands wrong, on his head. He wouldn't break his skull, but he might break his neck. He has the innate balance of a cat, but he still doesn't seem to notice what his shoelaces and shirtsleeves are doing, and when he's paying attention to something he finds interesting in his weird Kyril way everything else seems to fade away.
Also there's the lack of "hey, it hurts, maybe I should back off so it'll stop hurting" reflexes. Zack still isn't sure if he doesn't feel pain at all, or if he feels it but deems it irrelevant or against conditioning or however the fuck those Malboro-sucking assholes who made him fucked him up.
Kyril seems steady for now, there's a patch of grass under him, and Poulson is still watching him like a hawk. Zack shuffles Jake to his other side and turns so he can keep an eye on both the cliff and the man, and smiles, pleasant and meaningless.
"S'a good thing he's got a good head for heights, or I don't know how you'd handle all the ladders and cliff-side paths in town," the man points out laconically. "Then again you might manage to stay at ground level now all those Shinra cars aren't zooming around anymore."
Shinra. Yeah. Fuck. That's pretty much what he guessed was buzzing in the background of the conversation. Nice to have it in the open.
Now whether they actually did leave...
"Dunno what they were looking for, crazy renegade and stolen experiments or something. Here, in our mountains! The cleanest, most dangerous nature preserve on the continent. Bless 'em, Shinra men are so daft, huh." Poulson waves his weathered hand like he doesn't care, but when his eyes pass over Gabe and Nadine, who have given up watching him to poke at a caterpillar and giggle when it rolls up, his voice wavers with something like rage or disgust, or furious, sympathetic pain.
Those are the eyes of a man who's had children. Who sees children. Zack can tell. He knows that expression from the inside out, there's no faking it.
Okay. No killing Grig Poulson.
He is so glad he came to Cosmo Canyon first. (Though he vaguely wonders if as an ex-Shinra man he should feel offended...)
(Nah. Daft describes him pretty well at times too. Like right now. He knew he might have to kill witnesses when he came down, though. Bad choices and worse ones, gambles all around. Looks like he's winning this one, so far.)
"... S' good. Kinda forgot to settle my rent when I left the big city. Be just like them to go that far just to collect a couple hundred gils."
The inflection he gives 'big city' and 'them' is copied straight from Poulson, that faintly disdainful undertone, that barrier, them as in not us. And then he waits for a verdict.
Poulson scrutinizes him for another second or ten, expressionless, and then grins back suddenly. It's an 'okay, we're adopting you.' He props his elbow on the fence, spine loosening, looking for all the world like any man gossiping with any of his neighbors, and Zack gives a little laugh and grins back (and juggles Jake so he's upside down, to keep him distracted. Jake shrieks and bursts out laughing.)
"Everyone is always up in everyone's business in this place, but I should mention, I'm on the council with old Bugenhagen -- got a head start on the gossip train." More like he can also stop it in its tracks. Or start it in the first place. Maybe it's no accident that Zack was given the house whose path goes by his place. "So. How 're you liking your house so far?"
"Oh, it serves well enough for now. I'm lucky they don't want a bedroom each yet, don't think I've got that much money on me. Kyril, don't touch that bird nest."
Of course it means instead Kyril leans so close that his nose is almost stuck to the tiny eggs inside, and no doubt his breathing all over the nest will be just as scary for the parent birds as touching the egg straight out, but Zack really doesn't feel like cleaning yolk off him today. The wildlife will have to sort itself out.
Quick headcount -- Gabe and Nadine are building a corral for an insect family in the dirt (if he believes the narration that praying mantis is daddy, and they're trying to put a Jake-beetle on its back. N'aww.), and Ludy still hides behind him like a little ghost, the only one of them still to pay any attention to their neighbor. Kyril is inching higher up the cliff. And Jake is whining a hole into his eardrum, daddy dooooown down down down daaaddyyyy.
"Anyway. I know where the monster parts counter is set up," and thank god for that, he's short on cash but after a month up in the mountain he really isn't lacking in hides and poison bladders and fancy horns. He juggles Jake up when Jake had almost managed to wriggle himself down his side, and promptly gets his shoulders scaled instead. Holding a conversation while serving as a jungle gym is a skill he feels he'll need to practice, but at least it makes the old man's eyes light up with a silent laugh, so maybe getting his hair pulled and knelt on will be worth it. "...But we've got a birthday coming up soon, and I see no reason not to go festive. Got any idea where I could find hair dye around here?"
And there isn't any in the big shop, (or perhaps there is but the vendor shouldn't be trusted to get a good look at them yet, went for his studies in Junon, you know, he's only here for spring break) but Poulson's own niece might know, let Zack just go and do his normal shopping and she'll get it to him on the way back, and they've got kid's clothes at the tailor's if he needs more, and Martya's pies are really worth a try, be a shame not to let the tykes have a taste. If Zack's still here next winter maybe the men of the village can come up and dig him up another room, it's not like they're hitting the mountain's bottom yet.
"See ya, neighbor!" they both call when he leaves, and Gabe raises his squishy little hand and mimics their waving haphazardly, though he looks like he's not sure who he ought to be waving at.
Zack trudges down into the town proper, Kyril sitting on one shoulder and Jake squirming on the other one, the rest of his brood on his heels, and not even the thought of the return trip where everyone will be exhausted and he'll be carrying supplies as well makes him stop smiling.
Now if he remembers how his mom used to do it back home, maybe he'll even score the recipe that goes with that promised pie.