Barret’s got a bad feeling about this. Sure, the mission had gone well enough, but he’s not exactly the sappy, idealistic type, and “all’s well that ends well” is the kind of motto only the depressingly wealthy, like the Shinra Electric assholes, can afford.
Completely oblivious to his emotional turmoil, Tifa says, “Thanks for doing this.”
“It’s your bar,” Barret wants to reply. “Your apartment. You can do whatcha want in it.”
What she wants, of course, is to allow a gilded zolom to mooch off her kindness – and his own admittedly limited patience.
Her brown eyes are so soft and sweet and earnest, though, like two pools of some warm chocolate drink, that they make him fidget on his bar-stool. He manages no more than a grunt, glowering down at the amber liquid in the glass she’d offered him, but she takes it as permission to continue.
She leans her elbows on the bar and tips her head closer to his, voice dropping low. “It’s just, I worry about him. He hasn’t been the same since he got back. I was hoping you could talk to him about, y’know, some of your own experiences.”
Barret doesn’t immediately deign her with an answer. He – Strife – looks plenty fine to him. He’s smirking at Biggs and Wedge as he lazily drawls the story of some daredevil adventure he’d had while under SOLDIER’s employ, uncaring of the ramifications on the civilians beneath the Plate. And every time his eerie blue eyes smolder in Jessie’s direction, Barret sees her knees knock together under the table. They all hang on his every word, and he eats up the attention like a prince among his most loyal subjects, lithe limbs spread out on top of the table behind him, the crown of his unruly golden locks doing little to hide his devil-may-care grin.
Marlene, at least, had the presence of mind to squeak and hide behind the bar when Strife first sauntered into the Seventh Heaven after their mission, singed but triumphant. In fact, she’s been so quiet back there, so diligent in helping Tifa polish glasses, that Barret doesn’t think Strife’s even noticed her yet – which is for the best. He damn well does not want some asshole white boy charmer in her life.
His luck on the matter does not last long, unfortunately, because Marlene sneaks peeks out from behind the small double-doors at the end of the bar a few times, her tiny face growing more and more determined not to let the strange man keep her from talking to her AVALANCHE friends, and eventually Tifa manages to coax her out with a small tray of snacks for their guests.
Barret values Tifa’s friendship enough to swallow a protest, although he’s sure the effort of it leaves him a bit constipated. When Marlene trips and face-plants in the tray, and Strife leaps at the sound, shell-shocked, it becomes a lot harder to keep himself from running to her side, but before he can jump up and do just that, Strife takes a grounding breath and kneels to help her up.
“Hey, don’t cry,” he says, and though the leather and char and metal of his gloves seem intimidating, his long fingers look gentle on her plump cheeks.
In spite of this, Barret hears her sniffle, and the plop of a few fat teardrops hitting the plastic of the tray. He knows his baby-girl well enough to realize that she’s humiliated. Strife seems bemused by her abject misery for a moment, but then an idea alights in his sapphire eyes, giving them an uncanny glow. Out of nowhere, he plucks out a small yellow flower and tucks it behind her ear.
“There, now. A pretty girl like you shouldn’t cry,” he says, and Barret stifles a groan at Marlene's giggle.
Tifa’s face, too, is painted with unabashed affection, and the AVALANCHE crew only grows more enamored, their besotted chatter – Cloud’s so cool. Do you think he'll join us permanently? – embarrassingly audible even in the din of Sector Seven’s drunks arguing outside. Strife seems to notice Barret’s lack of regard, however, because he narrows his shrewd gaze at him, his irreverent smirk returning.
He picks Marlene up and sets her on her feet. In the span of the few seconds it takes him to dust off her dress, he whispers something in her ear. Barret bristles as she giggles again, but soon enough, she skips away from Strife, back toward him. In a deft move, she clambers into Barret’s lap, takes the flower from behind the delicate shell of her ear, and places it carefully behind his instead.
“Papa’s real pretty,” she says delightedly.
“He sure is,” agrees Strife, and the expression on his face is actually thoughtful.
Barret feels his own face heat up. He’s not sure whether it’s from anger or embarrassment or some misplaced shred of pleasure, but he can’t begrudge the matching beams Marlene and Tifa wear, or even the small, genuinely pleased smile that crooks Strife’s pink lips.
He sighs, arms tightening around his squirming daughter. “Hit me with another shot, Tifa. Harder this time. I’mma need it.”
“Comin’ right up,” she says, and when she leans close to ask, “So, will you talk to him?” with the slightest bit of residual anxiety trembling in her voice, he sighs again, but nods.
Then, he jumps about a foot off the stool, Marlene yet cradled in his arms, when Strife says from right behind him, “Maybe over dinner next time?”
Tifa looks guilty that Strife has overheard, but he seems unbothered, grinning between her and Barret. Marlene, on the other hand, is completely taken by the idea – the horrible, horrible idea.
“Yes, Papa, go!” she declares, to the innuendo-laden hoots of his traitorous AVALANCHE crew.
But somehow, in between grumbling about spiky-headed punk white kids and nearly having a heart attack, Barret finds himself consenting to dinner – consenting to, for the Planet’s sake, a freakin’ date.
“Swell,” says Strife, his clever swordsman fingers casual over Barret's gun-arm for a meager instant. The provincial nature of the term, the sweetness of the gesture, seems incongruous with his mask of cool, but Barret still finds that he feels warm inside.
He blames the alcohol.