"Why didn't you discuss this with me first?"
Zack paused in mid-movement, then slowly, leant the rest of his weight on the handle of the well pump. Water gurgled out into the waiting bucket and overflowed in the trough.
He straightened up, wiped sweat off his forehead.
"Hey, Seph. You can water your bird, if it's thirsty."
Likely the green chocobo would drink even if it wasn't thirsty yet; running water was rare in the red mountains. Light-footed bird, that one; Zack hadn't heard it approach until it was almost on top of him.
Sephiroth stared at him wordlessly from atop his mount for a long moment, and Zack had to smother a short burst of misplaced amusement. That was such a Nadine face. 'Are you sure it's edible? It's not going to revive and jump in my face, really?' (He didn't know why she was such a doubtful kid, it had only happened twice.)
Zack's expression softened as he watched the man. 'Why didn't you tell me?', huh. That presaged much better things than any other first words he could have chosen instead.
"Come on, let's go up to the house."
Sephiroth slid off his chocobo and led it to the trough. Zack picked up his full bucket, and when the bird was done he led the way, offering the man his back.
"So how far behind are they?" he asked, casual. He wasn't going to miss the house much, neat as it was -- a small, unassuming hut the color of the surrounding rocks, that was really just the entrance of a home dug right into the mountain. Cool in the summer and easy to miss if you didn't have Seph's freaky eyesight, but it was really kinda far from everything. But the people of Cosmo Village, them he would miss.
"Corel, by now," Sephiroth replied, somewhat clipped.
Zack arched his eyebrows. He must have been trying really hard, to put so much distance between him and the Turks. Not that the Turks were superhuman, but Seph wasn't exactly inconspicuous, and, precious and dangerous resource that he was, Shinra liked to keep track of his comings and goings; he'd have had less of a head start. Zack still had a half-day to pack up and get the fuck out, then.
It was almost a relief to know the hatchet was on its way down to his neck. Waiting for it had been more exhausting.
"Nice clothes, by the way," Zack said, and opened the front door.
Sephiroth looked wholly unlike himself in tan and beige; Zack supposed that was the point. He still managed to look like a model off the pages of some fashion magazine, but with his hair in a ponytail and a hat to shade his eyes, people were more likely to think it was where they were getting that 'I'm sure I've seen that face somewhere before' itch from.
"Come in," he invited.
Sephiroth didn't move.
"I promise there's no trap -- ah. Hey there, Ludy."
Ludmila stood in the shadow of the doorway, staring up at them, a finger in her mouth. Her hair was already half out of its braid, but that was likely due more to Zack's braiding skills than any mischief she'd gotten herself into.
"Naptime over?" he asked, crouching to look at her from her level. She considered the question, and then nodded once, firmly. "Alright then." He picked her up. "Ludmila, this is Sephiroth. He's my friend." He hoped that was still true. "Seph, my kid, Ludy."
With her gravity-defying bangs and her green eyes, and a little something in the cheekbones, hidden under her baby fat, Ludy was the one who resembled Sephiroth the most. After so long without seeing him, and with seeing the kids day in, day out, he'd forgotten about who else she looked like; he just thought she looked like a Ludmila. Watching Sephiroth discover her, though -- that felt strange. He scanned her face with such intensity, Zack started to get tense as well. Ludmila must have felt it, from the way her fingers tightened on his collar.
"... Your kid," Sephiroth repeated, softly, too softly.
Standing there, Zack suddenly felt like a fraud, a kidnapper, he and his casually possessive words. He'd introduced her to Seph the same way he would have introduced her to some random acquaintance.
For so long he'd concentrated on the other First Class donors; he was Ludmila's father because she was the half sister of his son. But Sephiroth was her father because he was her father, the end, her and the other three, and Zack didn't know how he felt about that.
"Seph," he said, and then he didn't know how to continue, whether he was even still allowed to use that nickname at all.
That was when another little silver head slipped around him and made a beeline for the chocobo.
"Kyril, stop!" he called; his arms full of Ludy, he couldn't snatch him up. Damn it!
A couple steps from his goal and Sephiroth stopped the child in his tracks, a hand on his chest. He looked up at Zack, as if asking what he'd done that for, now that he'd already moved on his cue. Zack smiled.
"He's always trying to grab animals, and they always bite the shit out of him," he explained, stepping forward as he moved Ludmila to sit on his left forearm. "Don't know how your chocobo is about strangers..."
"I wanna pet!" Kyril protested when Zack picked him up, and squirmed like an eel. Zack used to be glad he did, because it was a normal toddler thing and it meant he was getting over the 'let your commanding officer/caretaker manhandle you, they have the right to and you are not allowed to say no' ingrained ickiness; right now it was mostly a right pain in the ass.
"I don't know," said Sephiroth, at the same time as his green bird peered over his shoulder and tilted its head at the child still reaching its pudgy little hands to it.
Then it started to groom his dandelion head of hair.
Zack blinked. Sephiroth arched an elegant eyebrow. Ludmila tilted her head like a confused puppy. Kyril, the sullen little shit, burst out into peals of delighted laughter, and started patting the feathered neck over his head with a vigor that would have (and already had) flattened a smaller animal. The chocobo didn't seem to mind.
"Well, hell, maybe I oughta get him a dog after all. Except he doesn't get the concept of playing nice, so the puppy would have to be a Nibel wolf at least."
The chocobo started crooning. Kyril let out a little purry noise that was likely trying to be an imitation. Bird throats weren't shaped like mammals', though, so no luck there.
"And here's the rest of the brood," Zack said with an unsurprised sigh. The chocobo looked more pleased than anything, so he surrendered and put his double armful on the ground. Ludmila stayed put, but Kyril made a beeline for the bird, quickly followed by Nadine and Jake. Gabe was the only one who seemed more interested in Sephiroth, staring up at him with a wary little frown.
Sephiroth stared back, up until Gabe suddenly lost interest and joined his siblings to explore the bird, who had stepped into a little circle and then flopped down like a big pile of grass, and was now doing her best to gather them all under her stubby little wings.
"A hen," he commented, stepping up to Sephiroth's shoulder. "Definitely a hen."
Sephiroth was still staring at the children, with an expression Zack couldn't really read, save that it was intense, and perhaps somewhere in the vicinity of really fucking conflicted.
"Wanna come inside?" Zack invited quietly. "I should pack up the food anyway." The escape essentials were long since packed, a couple of emergency backpacks stashed just behind the door. All the rest could be abandoned, though he'd still go through the bedroom and gather the few toys they had before they left.
Sephiroth followed him inside, still stone-silent. Zack opened the window under which the kids were playing, so he'd be ready to jump out at the first alarming noise, and started emptying the shelves. He could feel the weight of Sephiroth's brooding stare between his shoulder blades.
"Do you truly feel that this life is better than the one they would have had with Shinra?" he asked, when Zack had started thinking he'd have to speak first. "This is the middle of nowhere. There are no doctors, no schools."
"They're young enough, they don't need school yet. When they're older we'll figure something out, and then later they can even choose to go and work for Shinra. They're certainly built for it." He put down the cans in his hand, turned to face Sephiroth head on. He wanted to make sure Sephiroth understood how strongly he felt about his reasons. "But it'll be their choice, on their terms. It won't be because they got it shoveled into their heads that it was where they belonged when they were too young to question it."
A pause, as Zack's stare didn't waver, and then Sephiroth's real objection, in a voice tight with repressed emotion. "You're perpetually on the edge of going on the run."
"Yes," he agreed, a little tired. "This is a stressful life, and I'm gonna have to teach them to hide themselves and be wary of strangers and it sucks, but at least I love them."
Sephiroth's jaw tightened briefly. "Did you love them at first sight, in their tanks?"
With anyone else Zack would have gotten angry. With Sephiroth -- he wouldn't insult the man by excusing him with 'he can't know, the poor thing.' Sephiroth knew a lot about normal families, normal friendship, normal interaction.
It was all the detached, academic knowledge gleaned from books, though.
"No," he said. "I felt like it was my responsibility, because sure as fuck no one else was gonna. It was one hell of a bummer, actually." He breathed out, let tension flow out, gave his guest a wry smirk. "I love them now. I knew I was going to. Most people are wired to start loving the kids they're caring for, if they let themselves, else the species wouldn't have gotten very far."
Sephiroth glared at him for a few seconds -- the real glare, not 'Please speed through the inane chattering portion of your speech' but a true 'I am so pissed at you.' He started to move, pacing around the kitchen, staring at things Zack was sure he had no interest in, just so he wouldn't be tempted to follow through with a punch.
"You of all people," he spat out. "Retreating behind biology."
Zack winced. "... Alright, yeah, that was kinda flip of me. I'm sorry." He sank into a chair, staring at the cans he'd been about to pack. "I loved my old life, being a SOLDIER, I loved Midgar, even its goddamn slums. I had a girl I was getting to... really like. But I've got to put them first. I'm their dad now."
"That's supposed to be your trump card? Zack, Hojo is my dad."
Zack was bristling suddenly, standing with his hands planted on the table, startling Sephiroth and himself both with the intensity of his anger. "He's not your fucking dad, he's your sperm donor!"
"What's the difference?" Sephiroth replied, muscles tight with restrained anger. "You didn't even give any material for four out of five of them. If that gives you a claim on them, wouldn't it follow that they are mine as well, more than they are yours? Or does my possessing Hojo's genes immediately disqualify me for more than 'sperm donor' status?"
"I couldn't take the fucking risk!" he replied, furious and just barely reminding to slam the window closed, not that it would stop the kids from hearing much; they were SOLDIER-enhanced too. "You have no idea how much I wished I could take you with me--"
"Oh, I'm sure that must have been agonizing," Sephiroth hissed back, mirroring his pose. They glared at each other, faces only a few inches apart, fists planted on the table.
"You're fucking jealous of a bunch of toddlers. Stop it."
Sephiroth reared back, a reaction Zack couldn't have gotten if he'd stabbed him with the Buster. It made him feel shitty, but the guilt only pissed him off more.
"I'm sorry I couldn't take you on the fucking road trip too, okay?! I'm sorry I didn't even tell you what I was planning, because it was useless since you couldn't have come anyway and yes, because I fucking doubted you, and I'm sorry for that too, I'm so sorry and I knew it was a five percent chance at worst and I still didn't say jack shit because you know what? If I messed up, if I was wrong, they'd be worse than dead, they'd become --"
"Like me?" Sephiroth asked, teeth bared.
This time Zack was the one who felt like he'd gotten hit. A good sucker punch, right in the solar plexus.
Silence fell in the kitchen, the hot burst of rage rapidly cooling into something worse, something defeated.
"I would have saved you too," Zack said quietly. "If I'd been there."
"But I wasn't there in time for you. I'm in time for them."
Zack closed his eyes.
"I can't stand behind a company that does this kind of shit, no matter how much I love you. The only reason I didn't flip my lid earlier about what they'd done to you was that you were an adult and a warrior and you'd long since learned to stand your ground. You'd grown into someone strong, someone who had pride, someone I could admire. I wasn't going to insult you with pity."
When he opened his eyes, it was to see Sephiroth with a look of pure astonishment on his face. Zack frowned in confusion; surely he hadn't said anything Sephiroth hadn't somehow guessed --
"... How much you...?"
-- Oh, right. He forced a chuckle. "Well of course I do, I'm --"
'Your best friend' was on his tongue, but his face, that flash of ... disappointment, no, more than that, he could read it and suddenly the conversation had a whole new and different context.
They'd been best friends for so long. Zack just didn't think about it. Him. Off limits, so no reason to.
His throat was dry. He tried on a smile. It didn't stay. Kind of superfluous, anyway.
"I'm raising your kids, aren't I?"
Green eyes, Ludmila-green, in a face he had missed, eyes always cool and controlled -- the glass of a mako tank, the real Sephiroth always watching, remote, through a wall he couldn't breach.
"Well." A short pause, as Sephiroth absorbed what Zack truly meant to say. His eyes softened, so fleetingly Zack might have missed it if he'd looked away. "It could also be Stockholm Syndrome."
"Oh, get out," Zack groaned, and rested his head on the table as he started laughing.
He listened to Sephiroth crossing the kitchen, slow, measured steps, coming to a stop on the edge of arm's reach. He straightened up in his chair, looked up, a faint smile still floating at the corners of his mouth.
"Are you gonna kill him?"
Gah. Jerking, he turned around. Jake was watching them from the doorway, a disturbingly casual look of interest on his face. Zack groaned.
"No, I'm not gonna kill Seph. He's a friend. Sometimes friends argue, but that doesn't mean they stop being friends."
Though really, it made him feel warm, the way Jake didn't even question he might be unable to, even if it was because he didn't know any better. Seph was a lot tougher than the local monsters.
He went to the door and patted Jake's spiky head. "Go and get your toys, kiddo. We're going on a trip."
Jake tore off through the corridor. Zack turned back to the kitchen and its half-packed cans and the fridge still to clean, and Sephiroth in the middle of all that.
"Is he yours?" Sephiroth asked, almost casual, as he went to the cupboards.
"Jake? He's the one I donated for, yeah. Recognize the hair, huh?" He went to the fridge, since Seph was moving the cupboards' contents to the table to sort out. "I named him after my uncle. Most awesome old guy ever."
Seph made a noise of acknowledgment. "The others?"
"Ludmila I named after Sergeant Galevik's wife, because she was one cool lady. She loved one of us, didn't she? And the tiny one is Nadine."
"Ah. Like that canteen lady in Wutai."
Zack grinned. "Can't believe you remember her," he said, glad Sephiroth did anyway. She'd died toward the end of the war, in a last-ditch assault from the Wutai forces, a butcher knife in hand. "She was pretty badass. I mean, not even augmented and she ruled us all with a fist of steel."
"That's because your stomachs weren't steel."
"Point." A chuckle. "And Kyril I named because his face reminded me of a guy I knew in school, and Gabe I named pretty much at random."
Sephiroth gave a thoughtful nod, as if he'd been listening to something deeper than Zack's pretty random naming choices.
"I'll keep riding up toward the Nibel mountains," he said. Zack's easy smile disappeared. "It'll draw them away from you."
Zack put the bag of food on the table, because it seemed weird to listen to that with a bag of perishables in hand. It wasn't even that the Turks would figure it out eventually and then Sephiroth would be in trouble with Shinra Senior.
He wished Seph could come with them, too.
"We'll keep in touch," he promised, and then gave into the impulse to throw his arms around the man and hug him rough and tight.
"I would be most put out if you didn't," Sephiroth replied in his quiet, sarcastic voice, and cautiously lifted a hand and returned the hug.
It only lasted a moment longer, and then they both let go.
"... It'd be better if you could ride down to the southwester harbor to Wutai, though," he said, because at this point not trusting Sephiroth with the fact that he'd prefer to go north himself seemed pretty silly.
"Hm. I was planning to catch up to my men for a mission there..." A faint, amused smile. Seph ditching a mission to go south-west instead would only lend more weight to the theory that Zack and his brood had gone looking for refuge over there. "Oh well."
Sephiroth gave a decisive nod, and turned to leave.
"Heh. Good luck getting your bird back from the kids," Zack called. Sephiroth threw him a little salute over his shoulder and then he was gone.
Zack could have watched him go, but he finished packing up instead. Goodbyes were for people who didn't think they'd see each other again.