Disclaimer: FFVII and Advent Children belong to Square Enix.
When he lifts her schoolbag up and over one shoulder with one hand, and catches her tiny fingers in the other, she beams up at him and there's a delighted twinkle in her eye.
"I drew a picture of you today," she bounces excitedly, her eyes huge and giddy and full of life and he smiles a tiny bit, just an upward slide of one corner of his lips, and nods faintly in approval, tugging her with him on the short walk home.
"You can show me later," he said and she grins in delight and pulls at his hand so they can catch up with Denzel who's already ten feet ahead trying desperately to look like he had nothing to do with the pair.
He likes walking so he doesn't really mind her nonstop chatter. He's learned to tune out her bubbly, high-pitched voice and only dimly listens when she starts narrating exaggerated stories about the plant they watered and complaining about the evil boy who broke her pencil and the fact that she doesn't understand why Cloud doesn't start with 'K'.
Sometime later, he helps them with their homework, her and Denzel both, and when they're all done, Marlene quickly furnishes the floor with all her colorful drawings and yanks him down beside her.
He grunts a little but doesn't protest. He adores the little girl and though he doesn't admit it, he enjoys watching over her on those days when he can get off early from work and Barret needs someone to look after his daughter.
He quirks an eyebrow at the piece of paper she holds up high and tries to identify the creepy creature with the huge head and blue, saucer like eyes. It's the mess of yellow on top of the thing's head that he vaguely recognizes.
It's the most hideous drawing he's ever seen but he smiles, a little shakily, and tells her it's pretty anyway.
"It's not," Denzel mutters and she sends him a half-hearted glare which vanishes quickly when she skims through the pages of her drawings and holds up another of her artwork.
"Here's papa," she announces proudly pointing to the blocky mess of dark scribbles, "and I drew Denzel too."
"It's stupid," Denzel scowls irately, embarrassed at having anything to do with the awkward jumble of crooked lines on the crumpled paper she's excitedly displaying.
Cloud sends his brother a sympathetic smile and stops the impending argument when he lifts another picture.
"Marlene," he points to the drawing of the lady with the hilariously huge head and the mismatched earrings and carefully asks if this is her late mother.
The little girl glances at the drawing and frowns.
"Cloud," she admonishes, rolling her eyes in a way that has his opening a little wider. "Does she look like my mother?"
He bites back the laugh that nearly bursts out and whips his gaze back to the piece of paper, not quite sure that the funny excuse of a drawing plastered there is actually meant to resemble someone.
Denzel groans impatiently and shoots him another irritated glance.
And apparently, Cloud thinks, looking through the rest of the little girl's drawings, Marlene adores her.
She helps papa with his work.
Some time ago, he's agreed to watch the kids on Mondays and Thursdays and every other Friday and leaves the rest of the days to Barret. It's one of those every other Friday today but its dark now and Barret has already passed by to take Marlene home and Denzel is lost in his superhero dreams. He decides he needs some fresh air and goes for a late night stroll, putting his headphones on and stuffing his hands in his pocket.
He's never really taken walks before, and it's a little awkward at first, but his thoughts are a mess and he's hoping that the exercise would help clear his mind.
She babysits Denzel and me sometimes. When you and papa are busy.
The park is unusually busy today, full of couples and families and old people taking strolls along the growth, people he sees everyday but doesn't really know. He's withdrawn like that, but his best friend Zack and Aerith from next door don't seem to mind much and he cares for and cherishes what little friends and family he's got.
Cloud! Do you like summer or winter? Tifa hates winter.
Because there's never any sun in winter, Marlene!
There's a lamppost that's been flickering annoyingly for the past ten minutes, spilling broken light over a crooked bench. The wooden boards are tilted a little to one side, and there's a forgotten paperback lodged in between them. He's not really curious but he sits down so it seems natural to pluck the book in between his thumb and forefinger and pretend to be interested. He needs to clear his head anyway so anything he does seems like a good idea to keep the relentless thoughts from stirring in his mind.
The book is tattered, the cover is completely worn and the letters printed on it are faded. He has to squint in the unsteady light to make out the title and idly wonders just how many times it has been read.
"Dawn and Midnight," he murmurs, uninterested, then throws the book back on the bench with an irritated grunt of disapproval.
He decides it was forgotten on purpose anyway.
She made us extra cookies yesterday. Denzel snuck some in his pocket. Do you want one, Cloud?
Marlene! It's supposed to be a secret!
He closes his eyes and tries to concentrate on the lively sounds of the park somewhere beyond the music. The wind's picking up and he can feel the slight chill against his arms. It's refreshing and he breathes in deeply then carefully steers his mind to thinking of wind and weather. But the wind carries with it the sound of loud and laughing children and his mind strays a little from night and weather and stars. He struggles to keep his thoughts from wandering and starts to wonder why there are children up at this hour of the night.
Marlene and Denzel's voices are louder still, firmly forcing their ways into his head so he frowns and turns up the volume of the music he's not really listening to.
Tifa hates pink. Girls aren't supposed to hate pink. How come she hates pink!
She likes blue, Marlene!
He shoves a hand angrily into his hair and groans, sitting up, glaring at his shoes in frustration.
This wasn't working. Nothing ever did and he's tried everything.
He's let Marlene put ribbons in his hair when Denzel wouldn't play dress up with her.
He's let Zack 'borrow' his bike for just a few days without freaking out too much.
He's even let Aerith give teach him about flowers!
He snatches the book up in frustration and opens it to a random page.
"…and wielding the ancient sword, Princess Dawn, the King's youngest daughter, raced across the green fields…"
Tifa read me a story, but I don't remember what it's about.
Because it's silly, Marlene! It's about a princess! You hated it!
Tifa can hold her breath for twenty-eight seconds but she won't let me try!
Twenty-nine, Marlene! You messed up the counting!
He knows twenty anything is a ridiculous number. He's sure she can hold her breath for longer but he figures that Tifa pretends for the sake of the children who, he suspects, are determined to break her record.
He grits his teeth and pitches his voice a little higher, turning to another random page.
"…rays of the disappearing sun setting the distant hills on fire. The princess of the lands whistled and Midnight galloped obediently across the field...."
Cloud! Tifa wants to cut her hair! She said it's a secret. Don't tell anyone!
Tifa lost her earring, Cloud!
Tifa says I'm pretty. But I want to look like her when I grow up. She's very pretty. Like a princess. You should fall in love with her, Cloud!
Marlene! You can't just say that!
He growls, pushing his face vigorously into the palm of his hand and yanks the headphones off.
"It's that bad?"
He promptly jolts, jumping unceremoniously to his feet, a startled yelp pushing past his lips, and whips an angry glare up at the intruder.
And she, the intruder, jerks back a step, her eyes going wide in response.
"I'm sorry!" she says hastily, worry sparking in her eyes, and he shoves a hand into his hair and turns his glare to the ground instead. "You didn't answer when I called out. I didn't mean to startle you."
He keeps his eyes lowered till his breathing isn't so shaky and absently watches the hem of her blue dress sway in the cool, night breeze.
"It's fine," he mumbles and takes a deep breath. Then his eyes move to hers, and he sees her looking flustered and upset so he offers her a quick, vague half-smile. "Don't worry about it."
She nods slowly and returns his smile, her own slightly wider, then points to the book he's clutching tightly in his hands.
"It's my book," she explains idly, turning to flash an annoyed glance at the flickering light from the lamp post. "I was reading this morning and lost track of time. I must have dropped it when I rushed to work." She waits a heartbeat, glancing briefly at him, the smile still drawn politely on her face, before her eyes flicker down to her tattered paperback. "So is it really that bad?"
He watches how the loose waves of dark tresses dance against her cheeks when she tilts her head, and when she brushes at those stray locks, his eyes catch a twinkle of silver at the edge of one ear.
He misses her frown and doesn't acknowledge the awkward timidity that leaves her fighting the urge to fidget when he stays still and silent. A small, knowing smile slowly stretches his lips, and his eyes soften a little when he nods his answer.
"It's bad," he decides trying to ignore the sound of his heartbeat pounding in his ears. He looks down at the worn book in his hand and holds it out for her to take. "I tried your cookies," he adds without thinking, lifting perfect eyes to her face. "They're too sweet."
She drops the book, and jerks back a step and his smile spreads just a little at the corners.
"W…what?" He sees a hint of fear bloom in her eyes and rubs a hand awkwardly at the back of his head, attempting a shrug that won't come out right. His entire body feels a little weak and the thoughts in his head are a jumbled mess.
"Do I know you?"
He frowns a little, trying to figure out what to say.
"Before," he starts awkwardly, "when I first saw you, you had a big head and your smile was crooked and your earrings didn't match." He meets her eyes as he speaks, thinking back to the day when he was first introduced to a stick figure on a crumpled sheet of paper.
I wanted to see you.
The space between her eyebrows crease and the corners of her mouth slant a little downwards in a brief pout. There's an almost childish look of hurt in her eyes but there's also a hint of amusement there. A quick breeze whistles by and it catches the wispy ends of her bangs and tugs them playfully against her face but she ignores them and flashes him a quick, wary glance.
"My smile isn't crooked," she murmurs and he sees the conflict in her eyes, a beautiful mix of curiosity and confusion amidst the wariness. "How did you know my name?"
She can barely resist the urge to step back when he takes a step closer and the caution in her eyes intensifies even as she stills completely, afraid to make any movement.
"I know you," he says simply. I know you enjoy sitting in the sun.
Her breath catches abruptly and her eyes snap shut when he reaches up and captures the silky strands flitting lightly against her cheek with the tips of his fingers. His gaze stays on her face when he brushes her hair away and his fingers linger when he's done, forgotten as he studies her curiously.
"Don't cut it," he murmurs quietly still battling the strange, warm feelings stirring inside him, and watches when her eyes snap open, flooding with realization.
I know because you smell like cookie batter and because you like blue and you read silly stories.
He can see the recognition in her searching eyes but she looks afraid to believe it.
And you lost your earring.
He doesn't really say anything. Instead, he listens to her hold her breath and watches her gaze slowly climb to his hair and he doesn't realize he's counting till he reaches the twenty in twenty-nine.
Then she smiles.
He's not surprised. He knows Marlene adores him too.
And you'll only hold your breath for twenty-eight and a half seconds.
And when she slowly lowers her gaze back to his, it's shimmering a little too hard and her smile is spreading and stunned and breathtaking beneath the stubborn wisps of silk.
And you want to cut your hair because it's always in the way.
"Cloud…" her voice cracks with barely controlled delight, her words laced with laughter that shines like wet crystals in her eyes. "It's really you…"
He moves impulsively, almost urgently, closing the gap between them and slides a shaky arm desperately around her waist, pulling her close so he could just breathe her in.
I wanted to see you.
"I've missed you," she laughs, wrapping her arms around him and holding him tight, and the impulse to grin is lost in the wake of the wonderful emotions he's feeling.
"I wanted to see you," he mumbles though he's infinitely overjoyed, and his one-armed hug lingers around her a few moments more before he reluctantly loosens it enough to let her draw back and rub fervently at her misty eyes.
"How did you know it was me?"
Because you're the prettiest girl I've ever seen.
He thinks of all the times Marlene has told him about Tifa, and he thinks of all the times he's sure Marlene has told Tifa that he's handsome-like a prince- and then casually added shocking words that a horrified Denzel would tell her she just can't say.
And then he studies the tender emotions in Tifa's shimmering eyes, open and unmasked, and decides that Denzel should really cut the little girl some slack.
"You've been listening to Marlene," he tells her easily, soft smile deepening when her eyes go wide and a faint blush spreads quickly over her cheeks.
Because, I too, he thinks to himself, have been falling in love with you.