(A/N: Another oneshot focusing on Red XIII. Takes place soon after the end of AC.
Disclaimer: I own neither Final Fantasy VII, nor Advent Children, nor any of the characters. All belong to Square-Enix.)
When I was young, I was never overly fond of children. They didn't keep their distance, like most sensible adults. They always wanted to touch. Little podgy fingers scraping through my fur and tugging my ears and pulling my mane. As a cub, I had to be gentle with them. My parents always reminded me that I could bite off their hands with one snap. Sometimes we would play tag around the canyon. That was too easy. Other times, they made me play hide and seek. That wasn't fair. My beacon-like tail always gave me away. I preferred hunting with my parents and the company of my own kind.
As an older and more grizzled warrior, I came to regard children differently. They were naïve, fearless – the way I used to be. The youngest ones disregarded my fangs and claws because they didn't realise I posed a danger. There was something appealing about their innocence. For that, I could tolerate a few scrapes and scratches. I even let Marlene ride on my back once or twice.
Denzel was warier than most children. The first time I met him properly was soon after his Geostigma had been cured. We all went back to Tifa's bar to celebrate. While most of my comrades concentrated on getting drunk, a feat at which they all admirably succeeded, I rested with my tail curled around my nose in the corner, watching with much amusement. Marlene knew me and she dragged Denzel over to greet me.
"This is Red XIII," she announced.
I sat up and inclined my head politely. Denzel stepped back a pace at my sudden movement. He stayed behind Marlene as though her puny body might shield him. I noted his startlingly blue eyes and the reek of fear emanating from him. I yawned widely, revealing pointed fangs.
"Hello, Denzel," I said.
His eyes widened. "It talks?"
"Of course he does, silly," said Marlene, nudging him. "Didn't you hear him speak in the church?"
"Yes, I talk," I said. "You must be glad that you are healed. You're one lucky child."
He nodded. "You helped, didn't you? I saw you, in the fight against that big monster thing."
"Indeed I did. I'm an old friend of your guardians."
Marlene glanced back at the bar. Tifa had just served Cloud a drink and they were talking.
The little girl sat cross-legged on the wooden floor to talk to me. "Cloud's better now, isn't he?"
"I think so," I agreed.
Denzel crouched next to Marlene and ruffled her hair. "He said he'd come back and he did." He looked at me. "Do you think he'll stay?"
I lay down and settled comfortably, thinking. "It's not for me to predict the actions of humans."
"He will," said Marlene decisively. "He loves us and Tifa. Don't you agree?"
"Oh, yes," I said. "I can smell it a mile off."
I could tell Denzel didn't know whether to believe me, but Marlene nodded and said, "I can smell it too."
I laughed. "With that tiny nose of yours?"
"Yes." Her tone was final.
I turned to Denzel. "What about you?"
He shrugged. "Cloud and Tifa are like parents to me. And Marlene's like the sister I never had. Now I've met all their friends and it's like having one big happy family."
Marlene nodded fervently. I knew that I was the last of the gang Denzel had been introduced to, so I cocked my head on one side and said, "Oh? And where do I fit into this family?"
"You can be our Uncle Red," said Marlene.
"Our really cool Uncle Red," Denzel added. The smell of his fear had faded and he was watching me with bright curious eyes.
"Yeah, I watched you fighting that monster. It was amazing. You must have really sharp teeth." Denzel reached out a hand, but stopped as I grinned at him, showing my fangs. He didn't quite dare to touch me yet, but I was still happy to know that he thought I was cool, which I believed was a human term symbolising affection.
Marlene shifted closer and picked up my paw. "Uncle Red has very sharp claws too, don't you?"
She looked at Denzel, inviting him to join our little circle. He leaned forward to take a look.
"Where?" he asked.
My claws, of course, were retractable. I made one spring out to show him. It glinted in the dim bar light, as long as Marlene's finger, curved and deadly.
"Whoa!" he said. "Awesome! And those marks – are they battle scars?"
"Scars, yes, and tattoos."
I turned to show him the tattoos on my left flank. The number thirteen was emblazoned on my shoulder. Below that was another tattoo, a more intricate design. Denzel stared at them in awe.
"You've got an awful lot of tattoos, Uncle Red," said Marlene. "Will you tell us how you got them?"
"Hojo gave me the number thirteen tattoo," I informed them.
"Hojo? Who's that?"
"He was a scientist."
"He was a bad man," said Marlene solemnly.
"That's right," I said. "And this one beneath it – that's a special tattoo. It's the emblem of my tribe."
"Cool," Denzel enthused.
I stood up and stretched. "I got the one on my hind leg after I was injured in a battle. The bone was fractured and my mother had to carry me home. I was limp as a helpless cub. Grandfather fixed it for me. See the wavy lines? They're marks of strength, to prevent my leg from being injured again."
"Wow," said Denzel. "You must have been in a lot of battles."
"Yes. Everything else is just war scars." They were all long since healed, of course, although my right eye would never work properly again.
Marlene smiled and inched closer to me. Denzel was gazing at me, enthralled. Suddenly I reminded myself of my father, the way he used to tell stories of his life and I would hang on to his every word. If I ignored the smell and squinted a bit, I could imagine that Denzel and Marlene were fire-red cubs and we were back in Cosmo Canyon, playing in the evening sun. Okay, maybe not that far. But perhaps it explains what I did next.
"See the light on my tail?" I asked. It curved round, against my flank. Denzel and Marlene watched its movement as though hypnotised. I grinned. "See if you can touch it."
"It won't burn?"
"No, otherwise I would have set the bar on fire by now."
Reassured, Denzel extended a timid hand towards the flame. It danced out of his reach. Puzzled, he took another swipe, quicker this time, and again the flame swerved away from him. Marlene joined in and now two small hands were clutching at thin air, trying to catch the light on the end of my tail which evaded them like smoke. I wasn't doing anything. I just sat and licked my forepaw, blinking my eyes lazily. My tail flicked this way and that of its own accord.
I used to play this game with my father, when I was still a fuzzy ball of fur, tripping over my own tail. I never succeeded in catching the flame either.
"Uncle Red, can't you make it stay still?" Marlene pleaded with me.
"I'm afraid I can't," I said gravely. "This naughty tail of mine won't behave."
Denzel was still making snatching movements, his face intense with concentration. "I – can't – do it!" he said.
"Don't worry," I told him, amused at his persistence. "Nobody can. Your hand would pass through it anyway."
He sat back. A hand tapped him on the shoulder and he jumped. Our little circle had been interrupted. Tifa had slipped out from behind the bar and now she bent over us, smiling.
"It's getting late. I think it's time you two went to bed."
"Aw, no!" said Denzel immediately.
Marlene looked up at Tifa with wide pleading eyes. "Please can we stay just a bit longer?"
Tifa shook her head. "Come on, now."
"Everyone else is staying up," said Denzel stubbornly. "We wanna stay with Uncle Red."
"Maybe when you're older. But for now, it's past your bedtime."
Marlene clung to my shoulder, her fingers buried in my mane. "Please?"
Tifa gave an exasperated sigh and looked at me. "Red, what have you been doing? It's not like you to play silly games."
"You forget I'm still a teenager in human terms," I said in a low voice.
Her eyebrows rose. "So I did." Then a mischievous look passed over her face. "Well, come on then. No kids allowed in the bar at this time. That means it's your bedtime too, Red!"
I shook my mane and bared my teeth, trying not to laugh. "I don't think so," I growled menacingly.
She wagged her finger at me. "Come on. You don't want me to make Cloud put you to bed."
Denzel and Marlene grinned at either side of me, both their hands resting on my shoulders. I gave Marlene a nudge with my paw. The instant our eyes met she knew what to do.
"Catch me if you can then," I said, and with a great roar I let Marlene and Denzel jump on my back and leapt away. I dodged past Tifa's legs, catching a glimpse of her startled face and bounded from chair to table, knocking over several glasses along the way. Marlene and Denzel screamed in excitement. My spirit was up, but I couldn't carry them for long. One child wasn't too difficult, but Marlene had grown since I last saw her and both of them together were very heavy.
A chorus of swearwords charted my progress as first Barret and then Reno were almost knocked off their chairs when I flew past. I made one final effort and jumped onto the bar itself. I burst into a cloud of smoke which made my nose twitch. Cid's face loomed out of the smoke; I banked and just avoided crashing into him. He got a nice lash across the cheek from my tail. More swearwords followed. I hoped these children were covering their ears, but then again they were shrieking so loudly I doubted they could hear anything else. Finally I skidded to a halt just before a half-full glass of gin. My back claws had scored along the entire bar. We had stopped right in front of Cloud, whose hand which had been about to reach for the drink was now hovering in midair.
I wrinkled my nose. The smell of Seventh Heaven, always strong, had been heightened by my mad dash. Now smoke, alcohol, sweat and Mako fought for dominance and nearly overwhelmed all my other senses. I stood still for a moment, panting heavily, and vaguely felt Marlene tip off my back.
Cloud caught her with one arm, his other hand moving the glass of gin to a safer spot. He stared at Marlene and at Denzel and then finally at me. His mouth opened slightly but no sound came out.
Denzel climbed off me and sat down on top of the bar, his legs swinging over the edge and his hand laid protectively on my shoulder. Marlene looked at him from Cloud's lap and simultaneously they burst out laughing.
Their childish giggles made me grin too.
"Red," said Cloud at last, "what's gotten into you? Did you drink too much?"
"You know I don't drink that stuff," I said disdainfully.
He was interrupted by the arrival of Barret, Cid, Reno, Rude and Yuffie, who all stormed up to the bar in an alcohol-induced fury. At least, I like to think it was alcohol induced. They all stank of the stuff anyway.
"You f-f-four-legged animal!" Barret yelled. "That was my daughter you were tearing around with – could have killed her you b-beast!"
"What the hell's wrong with you?" Cid shouted at the same time.
"I lost a bet because of you!" Reno slurred. "If I'd downed that last shot, Yuffie would have kissed me!"
"I want my drink paying for, now," said Rude.
"You knocked me over, you big cat… dog… wolf… lion thing!" Yuffie cried.
That I could distinguish all these words was entirely down to my remarkable hearing because to most ordinary humans it would probably have sounded like a drunken cacophony of noise. Denzel and Marlene both shrank back as this human tide of fury washed over them.
"You're frightening the children," I said softly.
Cloud stood up and faced them. They all shut up at the sight of him. I couldn't see his glare, but the rigidness of his stance was enough. His aura of authority was palpable; it made the fur on my back stand on end. Unlike the others, he was fairly sober.
"Go back to your drinks," he said quietly. "If you want another, it's on the house. Tifa will get it for you. Remember what we're celebrating tonight. Have some respect for the kids."
Tifa pushed her way through the crowd and held Cloud's hand, offering her silent support. She was still smiling. I guessed she'd watched the whole thing. Gradually, the others dispersed. Reno seemed quite taken by Cloud's words because he immediately started up a drinking song which he improvised on the spot – something about children being the future. Yuffie joined in and then Rude added his deep voice to the racket. Everyone remained in high spirits.
Denzel and Marlene, their faces flushed, still wanted to stay up.
"Can I have a tattoo?" Denzel pleaded.
Cloud blinked in shock.
"One like Uncle Red's got? They're awesome!"
"No," said Tifa.
She looked at Cloud for back-up.
"Sorry, kid," he said. "We'll discuss this later – for now, you should be in bed."
"That's right," said Tifa, "and I'll be having a word with Uncle Red about his naughty behaviour and bad influence." She gave me what was supposed to be a glare, but her dark eyes twinkled. I affected misery by bowing my head and making my mane droop. Still sitting on the counter, Denzel stroked me.
"Do we have to go?" he whined.
Marlene wriggled in Cloud's lap, but he kept a firm hold on her. Tifa lifted Denzel off the bar counter and set him down, making sure her hand grasped his tightly. I shimmied forward and lay down on my belly with my front paws dangling over the front of the bar and my tail curling at the back. I winked at Denzel and he gave me a thumbs up.
"You'll play with us again, won't you, Uncle Red?" he asked.
And then Cloud and Tifa whisked the children away and I returned to my silent vigil in the corner. Since the children had approached me, the behaviour in the bar had descended into outright chaos. Barret and Cid were having a slanging match. Reno and Rude were competing to see how many shots they could down before falling over. Yuffie was cheering them on enthusiastically. Vincent was hunched over the bar, completely immobile. Reeve, who had finally joined us instead of sending his puppet, was actually singing in a deep, ponderous voice.
Tifa returned and was immediately beset by requests for more drinks. She shrugged off the people hounding her and sent Cloud to serve them. Then she approached me. I scratched my ear in an attempt at nonchalance.
"Thanks," she said. "For keeping the kids entertained while I served this rowdy lot."
"Oh," I said. "Don't mention it."
She folded her arms. "Even though I'm going to be spending all this week trying to convince Denzel that tattoos aren't cool."
"What can I say? In my tribe they're a sign of honour."
"Sorry – I didn't mean to insult your tribe."
"It's all right."
She grinned. "I can't believe you took them for a ride around the bar. But it's fun to play once in a while, huh?"
"I was taught that children learn by playing. These children, however –" here I indicated the mass of humanity in the room with a sweep of my paw – "won't remember anything in the morning."
Tifa looked around. The bar was indeed full of adults acting like children. If their neuronal function got any lower, they'd be squawking like chocobos.
"You're right," she said. "I'll have to stop serving, or they'll be completely out of control. Children… sometimes they're the most clear-headed out of all of us."
I nodded. "Marlene is a wise child. She knows more than you think."
"What – what do you mean?"
"Ask her anything and she'll give you an honest answer."
Tifa nodded thoughtfully. "Is that why you talked to her?"
"She talked to me."
I wasn't sure whether Tifa really understood. I used to dislike children. Not so now. In many ways it was easier to connect with them. Marlene knew by intuition what I knew by smell, but she was sensible enough to recognise the link and refer to it in a way I understood. I knew that Cloud was Denzel's idol, but he admired the same qualities in me, realising that choice of fighting style made little difference to a true warrior. Reno and Rude still referred to me as a beast. Marlene and Denzel knew better. Such is the wisdom of children.
(I'm not expecting a huge response considering Red XIII isn't the most popular character, but if you've read this, then do please drop me a review and tell me what you think. Thanks!)