Bedtime Story

Technically, according to Tifa's rules, it's past Marlene's bedtime. But Tifa's rules are always thrown out the window when Barret is around.

There's a fire in the fireplace, making its dully sharple crackles, chewing on the wood Barret brought for it. The dim firelight casts nonsensical, jumping shadows on the walls, shadows Marlene looks at but does not fear (somehow this growing, statuesque child-woman can never be afraid when he is around). His voice is a quiet, gentle hum as he pages through a book, reading her the story of Balthier the Moogle and how he schooled the Midgar Zolom.

Marlene is quiet where she rests against him, listening. Her darks eyes glisten with some slow emotion. The barest hint of a smile reclines on her lips.

All is well with the world.

Outside, the night is cold. The stars of the sky are faded and invisible, usurped by the light of the skyscrapers, cars, and traffic lights. It's like new gods overthrew the old. Monsters prowl the grasslands outside the city and human-seeming monsters prowl the city streets, crawling, trawling through the dark to find their fix.

Inside, the room is warm. The blankets are soft. Her father is comforting, a perfect reader, putting just the right amount of suspense into the story he reads. The lights might be dim, but he can read without eye strain, and there's not that much to see.

"Daddy," she murmurs, interrupting Balthier's squeaky query as to why he can't pass for a chocobo, "I missed you."

He looks down at her and smiles. His teeth are very white in his dark face. There is an inexpressible sorrow in his eyes, a blend of resignation and regret that she will see many times in the years to come.

Barret hugs Marlene close. The world over, petty strife ends.

"I missed you too," he says, and she thinks maybe he wants to cry a little, only of course he would never really cry, "I missed you too, honeychil'."

They fall asleep like that, her head pillowed against his shoulder, his hand on hers.

In the early hours of the following morning, Tifa rearranges them. Her lips press tight against each other as she recalls the man whose entire world is contained in a little girl, as she recalls the smiling, impish face of Marlene learning to mix her first martini.

She spreads a blanket over the two of them and is extra quiet about fixing breakfast.