A/N - If you've seen Advent Children, you'll notice that Marlene seems somewhat... Attached to Vincent. Strange, no? There had to be some sort of backstory to it...
Disclaimer - ... Not mine.
Thanks to - Su-chan, mah Beta!
"Cloud? I don't know..." Tifa frowned, absently wiping at the rim of a glass that was already dry. "He said he'd be back in a few days, but I haven't seen him since last week." She sighed, replaced the piece of glassware and picked up a plate. "I'm sorry, Vincent, it's always like this. He never tells me what job he's on, and he never answers his phone. It's not urgent, is it?"
"Not particularly. I could wait until he returned."
"That could be anytime from minutes to days."
"I don't mind. The requirements for this task are somewhat specific. It's worth the wait."
She nodded and shrugged. "Sure, whatever suits you. Are you staying somewhere?"
Vincent blinked. He hadn't thought of that.
Tifa allowed herself a wry smile, drying her hands and crossing over to the door to hang up the closed sign. "Well, seeing as Cloud's room is currently empty, you can sleep in there. If Cloud returns, his punishment is sleeping on the floor."
"Harsh," Vincent observed lightly.
"You have to be, where it concerns him." She strolled over to the fridge and considered its contents, a hand on her hip. Funny how a fridge in a diner could be completely devoid of a decent meal. "Um. D'you think you could do me a favour for a minute? I have to go out and get something for dinner. It won't be long. Could you mind Marlene for me?"
"Payment for the accommodation?"
"You got it," she winked.
He shifted a shoulder, the closest that he would ever come to indicating a shrug. Why not?
Tifa headed upstairs, pausing on the first landing to knock on a door and call, "Marlene? I'm going out for a bit to buy a couple of things. I have a friend here, so you be good while I'm gone, all right?"
"Yes, Tifa," sang a voice, muffled by the door.
With that, she vanished further up and appeared again a moment later, pulling on a coat and pausing to knock once more on the worn door. "Come on out and say hi to him. I'm going now."
She descended the final steps, zipping up the jacket as she placed the cordless handset down on the bar in front of him. "I know it's probably useless, but try calling him anyway. If you've got a better Luck Plus Materia than me, he just may pick up. I'll be right back." She might have waved before the door clattered closed after her, but he was already preoccupied with searching the memory buttons on the receiver and listening for the dial tone.
It rang seven times.
"The number you have dialled is currently switched off or unavailable. To inform them of your call, please leave your name and number after the tone."
It wasn't even personalised. Some nerve Cloud had to call him cold.
"It's Vincent. There's a job that I believe might of great interest to you. I'm calling from Edge. Seventh Heaven..." He paused and then lowered his voice, despite the fact that he was the only person in the room. "I do suggest you return immediately. Tifa appears... Anxious."
A small sound behind Vincent made him turn. Wide, brown eyes regarded him solemnly for a fleeting moment, before disappearing behind a corner with a swish of grey skirt and short chestnut pigtails. Ah. The famed Marlene that Barret had ranted of ceaselessly during their Quest - he was to make her acquaintance at last.
During his previous employment as a Turk, Vincent had bore witness to cold-blooded assassinations, various stints of blackmail, and gruelling sessions of torture and extraction, but by far, his most scarring assignment had been a spontaneous request from the President, who, upon being visited by a sudden flood of relatives in the wake of his son's birth, decided to deposit the welfare of every last niece, nephew and whatnot in the frightfully incapable hands of the Turks.
Alone, the insufferable wailing of Rufus Shin-Ra, barely a week old, was enough to drive the elite agents frantic. Thankfully, Rufus had a wet-nurse, although little could be said for the rest of the twenty-odd children, who, between them, had literally turned an entire floor of Shin-Ra Headquarters upside-down, inside out, sticky, and multi-coloured.
The entire damage bill (including the busted elevator, cleaning costs and therapy) had amounted to over thirty thousand gil, and it was also through this experience that Vincent learnt something else: Even water-based markers are hell to remove from walls.
This girl however, didn't seem to be as bad as those spoilt brats. For one thing, she was certainly a lot more quiet, tentatively creeping into the room when he turned away, watching him (and trying desperately not to look like she was doing so) and finally, approaching him at the bar.
"Hi," she said softly.
Her eyes darted irresistibly towards the metallic gleam of the claw attached to his left arm, but withdrew as quickly as though they had been burnt. In her hand, she held a roll of paper and several crayons, which she was constantly checking to see if any might have vanished within the ten seconds or so since she looked last. With a shy smile, her gaze returned to his face and she said, "You have very pretty eyes,"
Vincent cleared his throat, uncertain and unprepared for the compliment. "... Thank you."
The smile was encouraged by this, growing steadier as she clambered onto the stool beside him with the ease of practice. "My name's Marlene. Marlene Wallace. I'm five-and-a-half years old." Then, on a surge of boldness, she let go of the crayons and stuck out her hand.
"Vincent Valentine," he replied, enveloping her tiny fingers gently in his gloved hand as an odd sensation spread somewhere in his chest. He may not had realised it yet, but there was that little part of him that had survived Hojo's insane experimentations, and Marlene had just succeeded in prodding it out of dormancy. From the moment the girl had opened her mouth, she had charmed him witless.
"Mr. Vincent, do you wanna help me colour in my pictures?"
He stared at the dog-eared pages rolled out on the counter before him. A smiling face, outlined with a coffee-coloured marker: Barret; and beside him, Tifa, another smiling face with long, dark hair. Between them was a little figure in a pink skirt, holding hands with the other two and in the background, a squarish building with a yellow sign that read "7th".
"Are you missing someone?" He pointed.
She frowned down at the flourishing illustration. "Who?"
Vincent picked up a blue crayon and drew a circle next to Tifa's head, followed by a wobbly sort of sausage diagram of what might have represented a man - so artistic ability was not one of his strong points - and with a yellow crayon, scribbled in a mess of blond hair. Then, feeling vaguely silly, he picked up the blue crayon again and drew in a little face. But it didn't smile. Much.
"Cloud!" Marlene exclaimed in delighted recognition. "Whoops!"
Whoops, indeed. Just how frequently had these extended absences been occurring?
"You're a good drawer, Mr. Vincent." (He couldn't help but smile inwardly at exactly how correct her statement was) "Tifa said you're her friend. Are you friends with Daddy and Cloud too?"
"... I joined them on a journey, almost a year ago."
"When the big thing fell out of the sky?"
Big thing... Oh. Meteor. "Yes."
"Were you scared?"
The question caught him off guard and he had to pause for a second, before re-establishing his bearings. "... No."
She tilted her head. "I was very scared. But -" she looked at him intently, beckoning him to come closer so she could whisper something in his ear. Vincent hesitated, instinctively recoiling at the idea of close proximity with another human, but before he could stop himself, he was bending over and leaning down... '- but, big sister came and she said that everything was gonna be okay. And she was right."
Sister? Did she mean...?
They sat in thoughtful, momentary silence as Marlene worked away at her clumsy masterpieces, although it wasn't long before she applied the last, careful stroke to the paper and abandoning the crayon, slid off the stool, announcing, "I'm finished."
Vincent glanced at the picture. Apparently, 'finished' meant the addition of a lot more squiggly random coloured lines.
"C'mon." He nearly jumped in alarm when she took his hand and began to lead him upstairs. "Let's go play in Cloud's room. Hey, wow. You have funny shoes."
The door was neatly hidden down a narrow passage running adjacent to Tifa's room, opening into a sizable, well-kept space that seemed to double as storage for various domestic articles as well as Cloud's room and office. There was a desk in the corner, the only zone of disorder, overflowing with what seemed like hundreds of pale yellow job request slips, under which Vincent could just make out a phone and an empty photo frame. A worn-looking bed was pushed up against the far wall, looking incredibly aged in comparison to a new bedside table, on which sat a lamp and a vase that held a wilting yellow flower.
"It's dying," Marlene lamented, stroking the drooping petals. "Oh, well. Cloud always gets more from the Church anyway." She leapt onto the bed and bounced as she hummed tunelessly under her breath before starting to giggle. "Look! Look, I'm as tall as Mr. Vincent!"
He watched her, torn between amusement and anxiety as she folded her legs beneath her and let herself drop onto the bed, head in her hands. "What do you wanna play?" Before he could answer, her eyes widened and she was already up again, disappearing behind him in another fit of giggles as he felt his cloak tug as she lifted it and let it fall over her head. "Wow, it's like a cubby house! Can we play with your blanket, Mr. Vincent?"
Twisting, he easily picked her up and sat her on the bed, before crouching to meet her at eye level. "How about this?" He asked, as he deftly unbuckled the cloak one-handed, removed it and draped the voluminous scarlet garment about Marlene's tiny frame. "You may play with my cloak, but we won't play... 'Cubby house'." He started to do up the buckles, but had to undo them again when Marlene's head began to disappear behind the tall collar. At last, he settled for having only two done and allowing the collar to flop onto her shoulders. "There."
She hopped onto the floor and gathered the fabric with her arms, trailing the rest behind her. "It's so warm! How do I look, Mr. Vincent?"
He folded his arms. "Like a queen."
She seemed to enjoy that idea and flapped around the room for a couple of minutes, singing "I'm Queen Marlene!" as Vincent occupied himself with removing his heavy shoulder armour.
"Hey, Mr. Vincent! Mr. Vincent! I have an idea!" She bounced on the balls of her feet in her excitement, prompting a vague thought on the part of the older of the two about the source of this apparently limitless energy. "I'm gonna be a queen, and you can be my knight! You can be Sir Vincent," she declared, scrambling back onto the bed. "Kneel down."
"Yes, silly, so I can dub you," she rolled her eyes at him at if this was the most obvious thing in the world.
Oh, why not?
What Tifa had told Vincent would take just a minute turned out to require a good two-and-a-half hours when she heard the grocer mention that he'd sent Cloud out on an extra delivery - a really quick one - he'd paid extra, and Cloud would probably be back very soon. So she waited. Half an hour ticked by, but the grocer just told her that he'd be back soon, and repeated it so many times that Tifa virtually believed it.
Unfortunately, according to him, 'soon' seemed to mean almost two hours later, when Cloud's motorcycle pulled into the street with a return parcel from the receiver and a rider on the verge of collapse from exhaustion. Needless to say, Tifa wasn't exactly thrilled with the idea of Cloud's health deteriorating from over-exertion and it was all she could do to refrain from reproachfully lecturing him all the way home, where she hoped Marlene wouldn't mind an extremely late dinner.
"Oh, and I forgot to mention," she said, as she led the way back into the diner, "Vincent dropped in with a job for you. I told him he could have your room... Is that okay with you?"
"Yeah, whatever," Cloud nodded his consent, too tired to negotiate anything.
"Marlene! I'm home!" Tifa unloaded her bags on the counter, unzipping her coat and headed upstairs to check on the girl. Where was Vincent? "Marlene, Cloud's back -"
Her room was empty.
"Marlene?" She couldn't help but feel a little flurry of panic somewhere in her chest as she shut the door again and glanced downstairs at a perplexed Cloud looking back up at her from the landing. Turning, Tifa completed climbing the stairs and began turning her room upside down. "Marlene, if this is hide and seek or something, stop playing! Come out -"
"- right now, or you'll be in -"
"Tifa," Cloud gently took her wrist, halting her progress in removing the contents of her wardrobe. "Do you have a camera? I need a photo of this."
She blinked at him and obediently allowed him to lead her to his room, where he stood at the door and pointed inside. "Don't take this the wrong way, but I don't think I've ever seen Vincent look this cute."
Propped up against the bed head with a couple of pillows, their vampiric friend sat, head tilting listlessly as he slept. Curled up in his lap, swathed in his red cloak, and also fast asleep, was Marlene.
Tifa stared for a good, long moment, utterly speechless. "I didn't know Vincent slept," she said at last.
She wouldn't have been surprised, if she'd known that after parading around the room for fifteen minutes as Queen Marlene's knight, Vincent was then talked into playing a wizard, dragon and horse, and when the fun in that wore off, took to telling the little girl riveting stories about his "adventures" with Cloud, Tifa and their friends until his voice lulled Marlene to sleep and fatigue claimed him soon after.
"Well, this is nice and all, but where am I supposed to crash?" Cloud muttered irritably.
Tifa smiled, shrugging off her coat and shutting the door gently on the sleeping pair inside. "There's always my room."