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Chapter 8

"Marlene," Tifa whispered half heartily, half exhaling. Then the realization came over her, "Marlene!"

She moved ahead of Vincent and ran to her covering her face with kisses. She felt the tears come back and spill over her eyes. Again she whispered her name unable to believe it was her. Marlene had always been like a daughter to her.

"Tifa you're squishing me!" she squealed. Tifa let go but still held a firm grip on her shoulders, "Uncle Cid saw you running off away from Cloud and he went to find out what happened. He said Cloud said that you were mad he was going far away. Cid yelled at Cloud for a really long time because he let you go out there by yourself. Cloud walked back into the house and slammed the door in Cid's face and he got even madder!"

Tifa looked over her shoulder to Vincent who was staring right back at her. "How could she be alone like this?" Tifa said just with a questioning look in her eyes.

"Only one way to find out," Vincent replied, "Ask her."

"Marlene sweetie, what are you doing here by yourself? Where are the others, you said they were looking for me. Where's Barret?"

A distance took place in the child's soul. They felt her drift away from them, more visions. Barret sitting in bed coughing up blood. Marlene at his side, Tifa's picture. She remembered that picture! It was the opening of the bar in the slums, the 7th Heaven. How many years ago could that have been?

"Papa..got sick. He got sick the day after Cloud left, they also had a big fight. Everyone was fighting when you were gone. But everything can be ok now because youíre here!" Marlene hugged her again tightly burying her face in Tifa's hair. Something was not right in this child.

"Marlene, what happened to Barret?" Vincent asked speaking up. Marlene's eyes were swelling up with tears. Can one so little hold so much back? "Oh he's fine right now, he's resting in bed but, he's getting weaker. All he can do is sit and sleep. He didn't wake up yesterday so I decided-"

Tifa let go of Marlene and almost sank down to the ground, "Oh god. Oh please god no. Not him, not him." She shook her head. Vincent moved to her side, his cloak sliding like a velvety chocolate in the air. He took Marlene's hand reassuring her he would not bite. He knelt down beside her placing her face in his hands.

"We are going to bring you home to Papa, ok? But you must tell me something. You said he got sick the day after Cloud left, right?"

She sniffled and nodded slightly wiping her nose with her open palm.

"Did Barret, Papa, fight with Cloud alone? Were they together in a room?"

She was hesitant to answer, "I think so. They were in the bar alone. Then the next day Cloud said goodbye and was off. No one knew where he was going on he didn't say he would be in contact either."

Tifa absently looked to the sky and knew it was drawing nearer and nearer to dawn. Must get in and sleep. She rose to her feet and tugged Marlene with her to the inn, Vincent dragging behind. Out of sheer luck, or maybe just a single prayer was answered, the beds on the upper level were not destroyed. Tifa lye Marlene down on a bed and told her to sleep. Vincent waited outside. Pulling the sheet over her head, Marlene turned to her side, "Tifa, why were you.."

"Hm?"

"Why were you kissing him, Tifa? I thought you and Cloud were always going to get married and have babies."

She kissed her on the forehead getting up towards the door. She switched the light off and slowly closed it behind her, but said strongly as she did so, " Some things are never meant to happen as much as they seem they should. While other things greater, and though more unpredictable, will be waiting to give you a more promising result. I only now just realized it. As much as this may not make sense to you now, it will later darling. Goodnight."

"G'night Tif." Said the little one.

*

"What's wrong, Cloud? You seem to be losing your 'cool'." Tifa provoked.

"Shut up, Tifa. Why was Marlene there by herself?"

"I'm getting to that.Ē You cold hearted bastard she thought. Like you could care anywayÖ

*

Vincent was waiting in the lobby area smoking a cigarette. In her presence he immediately put it out taking a final drag and crushing it on the floor with his foot. The smoke slowly escaped his lips dancing in the air. He stood at the front of the steps waiting for her to descend.

"Did you ask her why she's here?"

"No, not yet. There's something she's not telling us. Something she's holding back. I can sense it even in her thoughts." Tifa said going down on step to the other. They met finally at the bottom.

"I know. What do you think it is?"

"Something about Cloud. Cloud and Barret had a fight and Marlene saw the whole thing. She was hiding behind the bar listening. Whenever she thinks about Cloud she seems to choke up. I donít know what's wrong with her."

Vincent took both Tifa's hands in his own and kissed them. "I know. Come on, let's sleep. It's been a long night."

*

"Why were you fighting with Barret?"

"He was on my back for letting you go, just like Cid. They didn't understand what the hell they were talking about. It's because they were jealous I could move on so easily and they couldnít. Cid was tied down with Shera and Barret with Marlene. They had things to do, people to support. I was free as a bird and they couldn't handle it," Cloud shot back, "They were pissed cause you ran away crying like a little girl." He avoiding her look at all costs. A sweat was breaking out on his forehead.

Tifa looked back at him with unpredictable eyes. A face with no emotion, not a clue as to what she'd say next. She wanted to read what he was thinking but at the same time didn't. She wasn't sure if she wanted to know. It was a cross between that or just not caring. It didnít matter now, he was putty in her hands. Whether or not he wanted to hear her talk was now not the case, it was the fact that he couldn't muster up the courage to walk out of this room, out of her life for the second time. The saddest part of all was that no sorrow was in him. No desire to apologize. The arrogance in him would always show through.

"You weren't my responsibility. I donít see why everyone thought you were. There was no law saying I had to protect you and take you under my wing. It's unfair. I didnít want to live my life with your shadow!"

He was yelling by this point. A vein in his neck bulged every time he raised his voice. His face was turning redder and a sweat had now broken out over his face. Tifa had him where she wanted.

"How did you do it?" she asked. He pretended he didnít know what she was talking about.

*

Sleep came quickly to those who were exhausted. But for others who had much on their mind, sleep will linger. Vincent and Tifa knew what they must do. Penetrate through the minds of the innocent to find who is to blame and who is guilty. Barret was sick and he was poisoned. That much they knew.

Tifa was the first to go in. Fields and fields of wild flowers, a little girl's fantasy. And there she was, carefree and helpless in this world where no threats could come. Bundles of flowers lay in her hair and hands. A bouquet of these flowers she lightly gripped and ran with them down a small hill. A town below. Nothing like the dreamy scene before. This town was dark and dismal, misted and polluted. Bums stumbled on the streets grasping their bottles which would one day bring about their own end. Vincent stepped in now unobtrusively only letting his presence be known with his voice, "One so young can know so much and understand so little. It's better that way. I hope she never has to understand why. Maybe by that time it will be eliminated."

Marlene opened the door to a building as grim as the rest of them. The flowers were gone now, banished from the eye. A whiff of food and drinks and memories, old jokes and gatherings, everything came together at once and hit like a wrecking ball almost knocking Tifa over. Marlene sat down at a stool and pretended to be a woman of class, very lady like. Struggling to cross her legs and ordering a Shirley Temple.

She jumped off the stool and taking her time crouched down behind the counter looking for something. A glass perhaps. The door flew open and a rush of cold wind came through. Two auras came into thought, one they sensed as something dark, perhaps evil. The other of pure goodness, though a touch of pride was there.

"How could you let 'er run off like that, boy? You're so stupid, you know that?"

"Barret, enough of this shit! I donít care about her like you all think I should. No one ever bothered to ask me how I felt about everything. You can't make decisions for me and neither can anyone else. Besides, she's not my type."

Marlene crawled to a better spot so she would not be seen but hear all the action. "You tell him, Daddy!" she thought. "Cloud, you 'ain't gonna just sit back and let someone as good as Tifa get away are ya? No, you know what? You donít deserve her you cold bastard. She was always too good for ya in the first place."

Cloud took a seat lying his head down on the table. "I donít want to hear about it anymore. I just sat through a boring lecture from Cid. Blah blah, Tifa this. Blah blah, Tifa that. Give it a break. She's a big girl, she can take care of herself. Instead she chooses to act prissy and selfish when she doesnít get her way."

This was not the right thing to say. Barret thundered his way over to Cloud grabbing him by his neck. He looked up in shock. "I won't have you insulting her like that. She is the greatest girl, you hear me? The greatest! The greatest you'll ever lay your filthy eyes on, you hear me? To think I could ever let her have feelings for you you scum." He spat to the side and slammed him back down.

Cloud grabbed his neck trying to massage it. Barret was breathing hard and could feel the blood rushing to his face. Anger couldnít describe his feelings. Hatred could not sum up how he felt for the person in front of him.

Tifa stepped forward in her dreamlike appearance, invisible to the figures. She touched Barret's arm trying to understand how he felt. She burned her fingers on his skin and could tell something very wrong was about to happen. Cloud on the other hand felt mustered and unsure.

"Listen Barret, I'm sorry. I can't change the way I think. I didnít realize it till now how you felt about her.."

This caught all those attention in the room. "What the hell do you mean?"

"Isn't it obvious? You love Tifa, you always have."

Marlene shook her head in disbelief. Tifa's mouth was agar with gaping eyes. Even Vincent showed some sort of reaction.

"I, I donít know what to say. I dun love her. She's been there for me. She's be my best friend, the only friend I've trusted enough to raise my daughter!" again his voice was raised.

"It's ok, Barret. Your secret is safe with me. I won't tell a living soul. Let me make you a drink." He said throwing that dashing smile. He was behind the counter before Barret could answer or even make sure he heard him. Vincent caught on to what was happening, Tifa was still in a daze.

Marlene got as small as she could hiding in the shadows, her legs pulled up close to her chest breathing short gasping breaths. Cloud stood above her mixing a drink vigorously. Barret sat opposite on the same stool Marlene before just sat. Cloud pulled out a small bottle filled with tiny little capsules.

Tifa watched Barret feeling pity for him, for the secret he kept all this time. The pain was visible now in all his movements. If she'd even thought about anything but Cloud in the past few years she could have taken notice. Even before Sephiroth and Meteor was a distant future, it had always been this way. She hated herself for it now.

Vincent watched first Marlene and then Cloud as he broke the capsules into the drink glass, Barret not looking in his direction. Marlene bit her lip and began to weep silently, Barret accepted the drink from someone he thought he could trust. Tifa saw this now and was appalled, sick to her stomach. Terrified.

"Cloud how could you," she whispered, "No, Barret donít drink it. Stop!" she was screaming. Vincent was holding her. "Barret no!!"

In a single gulp, the drink was gone and Cloud smiled triumphantly. The vision ended and there was only blackness, Tifa and Vincent. Her head was in her hands and the headache was pounding. They were in a room, a room unknown to them and Barret lay very still. The picture she'd seen before he still had in his hands and Marlene stood over him not understanding at all.

"Papa, why donít you want to wake up anymore? It's the middle of the day! Papa please wake up soon." She begged again kissing his rough cheek. She shut the door very quietly as it all faded away but a sound much louder was heard. A scream?

Tifa and Vincent jumped up at the same time in their room. The door was shut and the drapes were closed, it was completely dark. Checking his watch he knew it was safe for them to leave and investigate. Marlene was in the next room crying. Vincent burst through the door with Tifa close behind. She rushed over to Marlene.

"Marlene, what's wrong. Hush, hush, stop your crying and tell me what's wrong."

The cries became screams of anguish. She was tossing around throwing the sheets all over the place, "I want to go to Papa! Why isnít he getting any better?" Vincent held her down with strength but the child seemed to always wiggle her way out. "It's my fault Papa's sick! I didnít stop him!"

Tifa took Marlene from Vincent and held her as she cried. The entire time Tifa hoped Barret would be ok, that he wasnít dying. What would become of this child? Where would she go?

"We will take you back to Papa, Marlene. We'll go right now. Tell us where he is."

"He's in Rocket Town, with Cid and Shera. Yuffie was there too but she left the day Papa got sick, she went looking for a cure. I donít know if she would be able to find it so-"

"So you went looking for yourself?"

"Yes" she sniffled. The cries came again, "But I couldn't find it either!"

Vincent knew the only cure was time itself. They must think its food poisoning, he thought, or something to that sort. If he has little time left he should at least be with his daughter, he hoped that wasn't what was the inevitable.

"Come on, let's go." He said already halfway out the door. Tifa gave him one last longing look and turned to the stained, wet face of Marlene. She attempted a weak smile of encouragement, as if saying not to give up hope. Marlene hopped off the bed dragging her feet slowly after Vincent. Tifa sighed knowing that aching feeling in her chest once more.

"How can you do this, Cloud. To her and to us. To one of us, a best friend." She whispered barely hearing herself even. She too then followed them down the deserted street. The tension of the situation was well on its way to a climax. It was a matter of who would snap first. Tifa knew she wasn't too much far behind Marlene in breaking down. Barret meant so much to her and she wouldn't let him leave this life without a fair fight, nor would she not be by his side in his time of complete need.

And thus began their journey.

Chapter 9-not done yet