The Highwind couldn't get them directly to the Corel reactor; they spent the night outside North Corel, and in the morning, they entered the sorry excuse for a town. Barret hadn't been back here since...
Well, a lot of things had happened.
But Dyne's death was foremost in his mind. As they passed the first pile of junk, his muscles tensed, and he wondered if, somehow, they'd gotten word of it here. Barret could tell himself that Dyne had died a long time ago, but he hadn't really been gone until Barret had found him in that prison.
A walking death sentence, just like they said.
Jessie laid her hand on his arm. "Just remember. If anyone tries to slug you again, I'm right here."
Barret glanced down into her face, and it almost put him at ease.
The way she looked at him, sometimes he still didn't believe it. He'd seen her starry-eyed over a lot of men over the years, and he'd noticed he never exactly fit into that trend. It hadn't surprised him, her pining after Vincent. Get all that hair out of his face, and even Barret could admit he was a striking man. Pale and slender, quiet and reserved, he'd seemed to be all the things that Barret wasn't.
Seeing the familiar faces at the camp, he remembered how Myrna used to call him her 'handsome man,' sometimes to tease him, but usually in earnest. But he'd been younger then. Naive, but also guiltless. No blood on his hands, when she'd called him that. His spirit bright and his body whole. It had been an easier thing to believe.
Somehow, Jessie looked at him and still saw a good man. Even in the early days, when he'd first recruited her and Biggs into the fledgling AVALANCHE. His heart had been full of vengeance, but he'd spouted those lines about saving the Planet, and when that had been what convinced her, he'd believed in them a little more himself.
Wedge spoke up, drawing his attention back to the present. "I know you said it was bad here," he said, looking around, "but I can't believe your people live like this, Barret."
"Ain't got nowhere else to go," said Barret.
"For now maybe that's true," Jessie conceded, "but we can help them. Just like the people of Midgar."
Barret nodded, but it was a different situation from Midgar. He'd been thinking about it a lot lately. What to do about Corel.
Of all the reactors sucking the life from the Planet, Barret had always hated the Corel reactor the most. For years he'd envisioned the day when AVALANCHE would have the resources to return to it and destroy it, but it wasn't until these last few months, dealing with the fallout of Holy, that he'd considered the ramifications.
Midgar losing even half of its reactors hadn't just destabilized the city but the entire region. Kalm had lost power, too, and refugees had scattered across the continent. Shinra had walled itself off in Junon, holding onto its monopoly on the world's largest port and disrupting supply lines that people elsewhere had come to rely on.
The people of North Corel didn't have electricity, so they didn't rely on that reactor for power, but it brought other things. Destroying it would hurt Costa del Sol and put an end to Gold Saucer, and so the trade between them--the only reason anyone came through North Corel--would dry up completely. How would his people survive without those damn tourists passing through, deigning to buy some shoddy knickknack as a souvenir? Without Gold Saucer and its upkeep requiring the occasional outsourcing of manual labor?
The land was no good, anymore. The reactor had seen to that. His people couldn't eke out a living on it. And maybe with the loss of Mako, the world would need something to replace it, but Barret remembered the choking dark of the mines, and he knew that wasn't the way forward either.
More than once, he'd thought about the Midgar refugees, like Jessie suggested. People forced to leave the city in droves as entire sectors became unliveable, resettling wherever they could find space for themselves. Some of them were even willing to travel to Wutai, a land few from Midgar had seen except as soldiers fighting an intractable enemy.
In Corel, the war had been a distant thing. No one had much cared about Wutai. The animosity wasn't there, and he wondered if any of his people would be willing to make that journey, for a better life.
Barret was the only one who had left Corel Valley. This was their land, their home, no matter if it couldn't support them. One day it would be their grave, the same as Dyne.
So, there had to be a way forward for them here. There had to be a way to breathe life back into this place.
Yeah... There had to be a way. And with someone as smart as Jessie putting her mind to it, it wouldn't be long before they thought of it.
"One day..." he said quietly, "this place's gonna be one I can bring Marlene to. One day she's gonna see the land where she was born, an' the people she was meant to be a part of."
"I like to think we were meant to be her people," said Jessie, "but I get what you mean, Barret. We'll get there. Don't you worry about it."
Her words made him wonder, though, if it still made sense to call these his people. He had a responsibility to them, because of his part in what had been done to them, but he'd thrown his lot in with a different group. He was building his life elsewhere. Myrna forgive him, but even in that, he was moving on.
They earned more than a few dirty looks as they passed through the town, but nothing like the welcoming committee of a few months prior. No one wanted anything to do with him, that was all. And that was fair.
They followed the old train tracks into the mountains. Tracks that his people had laid to help carry materials up to the reactor when they'd been building it. The memory of his own enthusiasm for the project didn't spark the same fury as it once had, but it left a bad taste in his mouth. He'd helped build the world they were living in just as much as anyone in Shinra.
The difference was, now he was working to undo that damage. He was working to make it better.
They stopped to rest atop the drawbridge, halfway to the reactor. Wedge sat down just at the pylon, but Jessie walked a little way farther and sat down with her legs dangling, looking into the river below. Barret joined her.
Jessie glanced back at Wedge, then nudged Barret in the side and said, "You remember the last time we came through here?"
"Yep. Only this time we're pretendin' we ain't datin.'"
"We should just tell him," Jessie insisted. "Marlene doesn't get to see him that often these days, we're way more likely to tip her off than he is."
"Ah... maybe so. I been puttin' it off 'cause I wanted Yuffie to know first, but that's done now. Only problem she had with it was how long it's been without us tellin.'"
"What, right this second?"
"Have you got something better to do?"
Barret scratched his head. He'd hated to do this to Jessie; asking her to keep her affection a secret went against her nature. And she was right. Now that the older of his adopted daughters knew about them, it was time to tell the rest of their friends.
Kind of awkward out of the blue though.
"Hey, uh, Wedge!" he called. "C'mere a second."
Wedge pushed himself up from his seat and came to join them. "What's up?"
Barret glanced at Jessie, who nodded encouragingly. "Well, uh... There's somethin' me an' Jess've been wantin' to tell you, but we were sorta waitin' to see if it stuck, I guess."
"Okay..." Wedge said slowly, without comprehension.
Barret faltered, and Jessie leaned forward. "We're dating!" she announced.
"What?" said Wedge, his eyes going wide in surprise. "You two are dating? Since when?"
"Since Cosmo Canyon," Barret confessed.
"That was months ago!" Wedge cried. "I can't believe you guys. Jessie, how did you manage to keep it a secret this whole time?"
"It's taken monumental effort on my part," Jessie said theatrically. "Thanks for acknowledging it."
Wedge was still shaking his head in astonishment. "Who else knows? Am I the last to know?"
"Nah, you ain't the last," Barret assured him. "We told Tifa an' Aeris 'bout near the start, an' I told Yuffie after her party. That's it for now."
"Marlene doesn't know?"
"Not yet... That's what we're keepin' it secret for. I'm still workin' out how to have that conversation."
"I'm sure she'd be happy for you," Wedge insisted.
"Well, we hope she is," said Jessie, "but it's complicated, right? Barret might not be her only family, but he's the center of her world. We'd hate for her to think that anyone might take that away from her."
She glanced at Barret, and he smiled ruefully. They'd talked about it plenty of times, the two of them, and now she was just repeating what he'd told her, time and again. He still believed it. If Marlene felt, even for a moment, that he loved her any less? He couldn't bear it.
But it was becoming clearer as time went on that this wasn't just a fluke, or one of Jessie's flings. They'd already lasted longer than most of her relationships, and Barret didn't see it ending. He hadn't wanted to upset Marlene's life with something fleeting, but this wasn't. So, he had to tell her.
Even if that moment happened.
But gods if he didn't want to do everything he could to make sure it didn't.
"Well, I'm happy for you," said Wedge.
"Heh. Thanks, man."
"Man, everybody's pairing off, though. I'm gonna be the only single one left..."
"That ain't true," said Barret. "Reeve's single. Sash, too. And, uh... well, Vincent."
Jessie threw him a look that he knew was entirely deserved for that one. Vincent was only single because Lucrecia had died. He was basically a widower, and Barret should've known better.
"Oh, and Yuffie," Jessie added. "I don't think she's even interested in dating."
"I can't even picture it," said Wedge.
"Good," said Barret. "She's still a kid, no matter what she says."
Jessie smiled. "You're going to be that overprotective dad who scares off any suitors with a shotgun, aren't you?"
"I think you can back off. She'll do it herself if they're not up to her standards."
Barret scratched his head and didn't argue. She was probably right, and Yuffie was going to have some high standards if she ever did get into romance. If anything, she'd need more encouragement than protection, to see to it she didn't chase off the right person.
He probably knew more about that anyway.
They pressed on towards the reactor. As it came into sight, Barret led them up to an overlook, where they could get a look at it without being in plain view.
On reaching the top of the ladder, though, he was struck by the pang of loss.
The last time he'd stood here was over four years ago, with Dyne by his side. Back then, they hadn't looked at the reactor, but in the other direction, towards the line of smoke on the horizon where their home had been.
Barret flexed his hand. The metal digits clicked together without him feeling a thing, but he remembered the pain clear enough. He'd shredded his own shirt to staunch the bleeding of his mangled arm, and he'd pushed himself to keep moving south. By the time he'd reached Corel, the Shinra soldiers were leaving, and the fire had done most of its work. He'd found Myrna's body in the cinders of their house, and he'd felt in the moment that it was a curse not to have died, too. Like Dyne, like Myrna, like everyone. He'd intended nothing more in that moment than to lie down beside her, and let that be the end.
But then... Marlene. He'd heard Marlene crying.
Barret felt the thrumming of the reactor in the earth beneath his feet, and somewhere beneath that, he heard something else now. The cry of the Planet.
He thought he'd felt it before, in the No. 1 Reactor, and in the reactor on Mt. Nibel, but he hadn't heard its voice then. It was possible he'd only imagined it. The leader of AVALANCHE, fighting to save the Planet, of course he should've been able to hear it crying out.
This time, he did. He recognized this sound from Bugenhagen's machine. Aeris was always saying that, even since Holy, this was the loudest thing, and it'd be the first to reach his human ears. He glanced at his friends, wondering if they'd picked up on it, too, but he didn't ask just yet. They had a job to do.
He joined them, lying on their stomachs, peering through the bars of the railing at the reactor's entrance below.
Barret hadn't been this close to it since its construction more than four years ago. It sat there, bounded by the peaks of the Corel mountains, and sucked the life from his homeland. The trees had gone from the slopes surrounding it, leaving nothing but bare rock. And he'd helped bring this monstrosity into being, thinking somehow it would do the opposite.
"No guards," Wedge observed.
"That could be a good sign," said Jessie. "The way this place operated pre-Holy, they were relying mostly on passcodes and the remote location to do their security. If they haven't changed up their personnel assignments--which, maybe they haven't, since they've had enough to deal with--then we're talking mostly engineers and no more than half a dozen security guards."
"Sounds like smooth sailing," said Wedge.
"Could be," said Barret, "but maybe not. We oughtta have a better idea once we see whether the codes Reeve gave us still work."
"Shall we?" Jessie proposed.
They climbed back down from the overlook and approached the reactor.
"All right," said Jessie, her fingers poised over a control panel beside the door. "Now, this thing isn't supposed to sound an alarm after the first wrong input, but I can't guarantee that. So let's be prepared, okay?"
"Got it," said Barret, though he had to fight the years-ingrained instinct to raise the gun arm he no longer had. Instead he unslung the machine gun from his back and held it ready.
But the code worked, and the door slid open without sounding an alarm or summoning any guards. Barret went in first, scanned the route ahead of them, and motioned the others after him.
Jessie had been studying the schematics on the flight over, and she gave directions. The layout was different from the Midgar reactors, even though everything else about it felt familiar. He remembered how proud they'd been, after taking out the No. 1 Reactor. They'd taken their little jabs at Shinra before, but that had elevated them to a whole new level.
Barret didn't really like the man he'd been that night, when he looked back on it. He didn't like what he'd pushed his team into doing. It had been a step forward, but a step in the wrong direction.
They came across an engineer the second level down. He froze in startlement at the sight of them, and Barret struck him with the butt of his gun before he could shout. He went down, and Jessie cast a Silence spell on him before he could recover. They dragged him out of sight behind some crates and left him tied to a railing.
The next one, they couldn't deal with so silently. She was working at a computer station, and though they tried to creep up on her, she spotted them and reached for the alarm. It was blaring before Barret reached her and pulled her away from the keyboard.
"Help!" she shouted, struggling in his grip.
"I ain't gonna hurt you," Barret said. "Just can't have you in the way."
He wrestled her to a section of railing too far for her to reach any buttons, and Wedge bound her hands while Jessie tried to turn off the alarm.
"You can't do this!" the engineer cried. "You can't leave me here!"
"One o' your friends'll be around sooner or later, yeah?"
"But if it's later...!" She was terrified, tears starting to well up in her eyes.
"She thinks we're here to blow the reactor," Jessie observed.
Barret glanced at her, then back at the woman. "Woah, hey now. We ain't here for that. Certainly wouldn't leave ya tied up here if we were. You got that?"
"Why should I believe you? It's what happened in Midgar."
He frowned, unable to deny it. Whatever Shinra might've been saying about the reactors Holy had destroyed, AVALANCHE hadn't tried to warn anyone about the No. 1 Reactor bombing. They'd blown it knowing there were people still inside--guards they'd knocked unconscious along the way, night shift engineers who didn't realize the place was about to come down on their heads.
"Guess you got no reason to trust us," Barret conceded, "but all I can give you's my word. We're tryin' to do things different now. Y'all are on the wrong side... but I used to believe in Shinra, too. Maybe one day you'll figure out they ain't too trustworthy either."
The alarm cut out suddenly. "C'mon, Barret," said Jessie. "We should get moving. Wherever security is, they're probably on their way to investigate."
"Right," he said, and straightened.
Security found them just as they reached the entrance to Mako storage. Too far back for a clear shot, their bullets ricocheted off the doorframe as Barret urged the others on through ahead of him. They ducked to either side until the door shut automatically behind them.
"This thing lock, Jess?"
She shook her head. "It might, but they're gonna catch up before I figure it out."
"Awright, then I guess we gotta deal with 'em now."
To their credit, the guards weren't stupid enough to come charging straight through. When the door opened again, they had ducked to either side of it, trying to assess the situation first. What they hadn't prepared for was for Jessie to toss one of her flashbangs through the door. Wedge smashed the button to close it again, and they heard the muffled bang on the other side.
Barret was through first. In a panic, one of the guards fired wildly, nearly hitting one of his comrades before Barret wrenched the rifle out of his hands and threw it aside. There were four men, and between the three of them, they managed to disarm all of them before the effects of the flashbang started to wear off.
Jessie made sure their weapons were out of reach, and as their vision returned, the knot of disoriented guards found themselves staring down the barrels of Barret and Wedge's guns. They exchanged glances, and two of them cautiously put their hands up. They walked the guards back to a bit of piping and had them cuff themselves to it and toss Jessie the keys.
"You're not going to kill us?" one of them asked at last, still speaking too loudly. "Aren't you AVALANCHE?"
"Hoo-boy," said Wedge.
"Got a bit of a reputation to shake, don't we?" said Barret, exchanging glances with Jessie.
"No, we're not going to kill you," Jessie told them, raising her voice to be sure they heard her over the ringing in their ears. "Just sit tight and we'll be out of your hair in no time."
Jessie led the way back into Mako storage, and they climbed down to the lower level. A whole pit of the Planet's lifeblood churned in front of them, and he could still hear the Planet crying out, like an undercurrent to the hum of machinery around them.
But instead of taking the catwalk across the Mako pit, they turned into the control room behind them.
"All right, now we just need to find the control panel to access the Huge Materia," said Jessie.
"Didn't Reeve tell you?"
"I got the code from Reno, but where to enter it wasn't exactly in the schematics... I don't think it was part of Reeve's design. Top secret, I guess!"
"Well, let's have a look around," Barret decided.
The control room of the Corel reactor, he thought. There had to be all kinds of trouble they could cause in here, but he pushed it to the back of his mind for now. This mission was about getting the Huge Materia, so Shinra wouldn't be able to use it to fuck with Midgar any more than they already had.
"You know," Wedge spoke up, "I think I can see it."
"Huh?" said Barret, shooting him a glance. It didn't sound like he was talking about the control panel.
"You two," Wedge clarified. "You're always so in sync when we're on a mission. Although, to tell you the truth, I used to think you and Tifa were a thing."
Barret sputtered. "Wha--? But Tifa's--!" He found himself lowering his voice, even though it was just the three of them. "You know Tifa's a lesbian, right?"
"Of course I do. But you guys used to share a bed sometimes, so you can see why a person'd get the wrong idea."
Jessie had half-turned to look at him in amusement. "That was for Marlene," he said. "Made her feel safe."
"They still do it sometimes," Jessie put in helpfully.
"Seriously?" said Wedge.
"What? It's just sleepin.'"
Wedge looked skeptical. "Well..."
Jessie walked over to loop her hand through Barret's arm, leaning her head against his shoulder in a quick hug. "I know my man. He'd never even dream of it."
Barret wasn't sure he was any less embarrassed with that than with the two of them teasing him. Even back home, she didn't often show him affection in front of anyone else, because Marlene was always with one of them.
He cleared his throat and gestured at random to one of the panels in front of him. "So's this the one?"
"Oh, no," said Jessie. "I found it a second ago, but I didn't want to ruin the moment."
Barret threw her a look, but she just smiled and pulled away. Wedge was grinning at him, and he folded his arms.
Barret half-expected the code not to work, but Reno must have been more trustworthy than they gave him credit for, because as soon as Jessie entered it, a door they hadn't even noticed slid open, revealing a small chamber. It was cramped enough that Barret let Jessie go in alone, though he stood in the doorway to keep an eye on things.
From a glass container in the center of the room, Jessie pulled a huge chunk of green crystal. Holding it in both hands, she stood for a moment with her eyes wide.
"Damn," she said. "I don't have the first clue how to use this thing, but it feels powerful."
"We oughtta get it to Aeris," Barret suggested. "Bet she'd know."
"Yeah, maybe." Jessie maneuvered the materia carefully into her pack and adjusted it across her shoulders. "All right, we got what we came for."
"Guess we're not shutting down the reactor today..." said Wedge. "One of those engineers would just come along and start it up again."
"Yeah," Jessie agreed, casting the controls a rueful glance as she stepped back into the room with them.
"Don't think we're ready for it anyway," said Barret.
"Ready?" Wedge wondered.
"We cut the power without warning... an' we pull the plug on the hospital in Costa del Sol. We strand the folks up at Gold Saucer. An' I don't even know what other kinda collateral damage we cause. Back when we bombed the No. 1 Reactor, we thought we were prepared for that. We thought we could justify it, sayin' we were savin' the Planet. Now..." Barret shook his head. "The Planet's gonna have to accept my apology, 'cause I can't put any more o' that on my conscience."
Looking back at him, Jessie and Wedge nodded. Then Jessie turned back to the control panel.
"Well, we can at least give the Planet a breather," she said. "I think I can put this thing in low-power mode, and even if I can't change the password, it'll take those engineers a little while to bring it back up to normal."
Barret didn't know how to express how that gesture made him feel. All he could say was, "Thanks, Jess."
On their way out, they passed the guards they'd left handcuffed to the rail. Jessie pulled the keys from her pocket and tossed them to the floor just out of easy reach. "Imagine someone'll be along soon enough to help you out," she said.
Wedge turned to walk backwards as they started to leave the guards behind. "And just remember: don't believe everything Shinra tells you. Especially about AVALANCHE!"
"I wonder if assaulting and tying them up will really get them to question what they've heard about us," Jessie wondered wryly as they continued on.
"Well, it ain't exactly the M.O. we been ascribed," said Barret, though he didn't have high expectations either. "We're s'posed to be the ones who did that massacre at the Shinra building when President Shinra got killed."
"Plus we're gonna walk out of this place, and it won't blow up," added Wedge.
"Come to think of it," said Jessie, "if the regular crews don't know anything about the Huge Materia, they're gonna be real confused about what we even did here, aren't they?"
"Almost feel bad for 'em," Barret chuckled. "That's gotta make a person paranoid."
They didn't run into any more trouble inside the reactor. Outside, a knot of engineers had gathered some distance away, the woman they'd run into earlier among them, and they shifted uneasily as the three of them stepped out into daylight.
With them, too, was a single Shinra soldier. Barret aimed his gun in their direction, preempting that soldier from making any stupid moves.
Jessie, though, waved to them. "It's really not going to explode!" she called. "But a little fresh air won't kill you either."
"Not sure I'd call this fresh," said Barret, wrinkling his nose.
"Better than in there," said Jessie.
They kept a cautious eye on the reactor personnel as they left the reactor behind, but they all seemed to have enough sense not to pick a fight. Still, even after those Shinra jumpsuits had fallen out of sight behind the cleft in the mountain, Barret took up the rear position to make sure no one was following.
As the minutes passed with no sign of pursuit, they picked up the pace. The farther they got from the reactor, the cleaner the air smelled, and... that undercurrent of alarm from the Planet faded out of hearing, too. Barret watched his friends breathing in the air, and he wondered again.
"So, did y'all hear that back there?"
"Hear what?" asked Wedge.
"What Aeris always talks about, what we heard from Bugenhagen's machine... The cries of the Planet."
Wedge exchanged glances with Jessie, who gave a shrug. "I can't say I did," she admitted. "But it doesn't surprise me if you're hearing it before we are, Barret. You're the one who got us into this. You're the one who knew first that there was anything to listen for."
Barret nodded. Disappointed, he had to admit, that they couldn't share this with him just yet, but they'd get there. Much as they each had their own reasons for wanting to stick it to the Shinra, their need for revenge had never run as deep as his. Their desire to help the Planet had been genuine from the start. They'd get there.
They made it back down to the drawbridge by mid-afternoon. Once they'd crossed it, Barret gave Jessie a boost up to the control booth, where she switched it into its raised position, just in case. If anyone did decide to follow, they'd have a hard time catching up now.
"You know, Barret," said Jessie as they continued on, looking back towards the bridge, "it's actually pretty through here. I can see why a person'd get attached to it."
"Ain't been home for a while, though."
She looked up at him, thoughtful. "Are you saying you wouldn't wanna come back?"
"...I dunno," he admitted. "If I'm bein' honest... it was never really part o' the plan. I've never figured on bein' forgiven, an' I don't want Marlene hearin' the things they say about me. I just thought maybe... maybe one day I'd feel right enough with myself that I could come back here an' see some good in it again. Wouldn't be to stay, though."
"Well, if you ever change your mind... I'm just saying, I think I could be persuaded."
Barret couldn't help a smile. "Heh. Good to know."
Jessie reached for his hand, and twined her fingers through his. With a start, Barret looked ahead, but Wedge was walking a good distance in front of them. Probably on purpose, knowing him. He was good at reading people.
Barret had wanted to call Kalm once they were safely back on the Highwind, but the afternoon was getting closer to sundown and they were still picking their way down the mountain. Back in Kalm, it would be evening, drawing closer to Marlene's bedtime.
Assuming Aeris put her to bed on time. Of course Barret trusted Aeris to protect his daughter with her life, but when it came to upholding such mundane rules as bedtime, she was less reliable.
She was prompt about answering her phone at least. "Hi, Barret!" she said brightly. "How did it go?"
"Couldn'ta gone much smoother," he answered.
"Papa!" Marlene exclaimed before he could go into any details. "Does that mean you're coming home soon?"
"Gonna be a couple more days. We got one more errand out this way, but it ain't gonna be any trouble. I bet you're havin' lots o' fun with Aeris anyhow."
Marlene brightened at that. "I helped with deliveries!" she said.
"Two birthdays and an anniversary," Aeris confirmed. "Busy day."
Compared to what she'd said of her business back in Midgar, it really wasn't, but she hadn't been long established as a florist in Kalm.
"What's that make now?" Jessie cut in from beside him. "A straight week of deliveries? You're really building that customer base fast."
"It helps to have such a good assistant," Aeris said, and Marlene giggled.
"Ahh, I wish I had one to help out in Sector 5," said Wedge. "I'm always worried we're ruining your poor garden, Aeris."
"As long as you're not letting Zack help, I trust you. I love him, but he's got absolutely no green thumb whatsoever." Wedge laughed, and she went on, "Anyway, it definitely sounds like a success. You seem in good spirits."
"Yeah," Barret confirmed. "Jess says this Huge Materia feels pretty powerful. We want you to get a look at it."
"I'm definitely... curious," said Aeris, though she sounded hesitant.
"No biggie if it ain't somethin' you can figure out either," he told her. "The important thing's that the Shinra can't use it."
"Right," said Aeris, and the confidence was back in her voice. "I guess we'd better swing by the bar and tell Tifa. She was worried, you know."
"Of course she was," said Jessie, rolling her eyes, even though she'd probably had worries herself.
"Oh, and you should let Yuffie know," Aeris added. "She got in a few hours ago. Said there was definitely a team on that ship with her."
"Figured as much, but good to know," said Barret. "But before you go an' tell Tifa, d'you mind if I...?"
"Talk a while with Marlene?" Aeris finished. "Of course not. Here you go, sweetheart. I'll be just upstairs, okay?"
"Okay!" answered Marlene.
There was the sound of a chair scraping back, Aeris moving off. On either side of him, Jessie and Wedge slowed to drop back a few steps. He didn't mind if they overheard, but all the same, it was nice to have the space to talk to his daughter.
"You down in the kitchen right now?" Barret asked her.
"Uh-huh! We were doin' the dishes. Aeris says it'll make Miss Phoebe like us more."
"She ain't wrong," Barret admitted. By now he thought they'd mostly won over their landlady, as perplexed as she remained about them, but they still needed to stay in her good graces. She'd have no shortage of other potential tenants if she decided to turn them out. "It's Miss Phoebe's house," he went on, "so she likes when we help her keep it nice an' clean."
"She asked me..." Marlene hesitated, in a way that made him brace himself. "Miss Phoebe asked me something funny today. When me an' Aeris were going to give people flowers, she asked if I was helping my mama."
Inwardly, Barret cursed himself for never taking the time to have that talk with their landlady. People had made assumptions about Tifa in the past, but no one had ever had the audacity to ask Marlene herself.
"She thought Aeris was your mama?" was what he said.
"What'd you say?"
"My mama's with the Planet," said Marlene. "That's what you said."
"...that's right." He thought of Eleanor's grave, on the edge of that cliff, and Dyne's now, beside it. He wondered if they'd found each other in the Lifestream. If Dyne was at peace. "Did it bother you, her askin' about that?"
"I don't know."
Barret wished this was a conversation they were having in person, so he could take her in his arms, but he'd have to put his reassurance into words, as best he could. "It's true, a lotta little girls have mamas," he said. "It ain't bad to be different from them. You an' me, we always had Tifa helpin' us out, an' then Jessie, an' now Aeris, too. But there's nothin' wrong with wantin' what's normal either."
"Can I pick a mama?" Marlene asked. "Like Yuffie picked you."
"You could, if you wanted," Barret said carefully. "We should probably all talk about it, like Yuffie talked to us. We both wanted her to be part of our family, so now she is."
"You got someone in mind?"
"I don't know..." Marlene said again, and he felt some relief knowing that this probably hadn't been on her mind any longer than one afternoon. He'd told her a little about Eleanor, when she'd been even younger, because he'd expected her to wonder about it once she heard other kids talking about their mothers. But until now, she'd never expressed any desire for one. AVALANCHE had been more than enough family for her, he'd thought. He'd hoped.
"All right," he said. "You think on it as long as you want to, baby girl, an' we can talk about it some more when I get home."
"Wanna tell you some about Corel, too, I think," he added, to take her mind off of it.
"That's where you're at right now?"
"That's right. This's right around where your papa grew up, you know."
"Oh! In the, um... the valley?"
Barret smiled. "Yep, that's the one. Got mountains all around."
"Well... A little different from Wutai. You remember those mountains we flew over after pickin' up Tifa an' Aeris from their vacation? They look sorta like those. But I'll take you one day, so you can see for yourself."
"Absolutely. Just gotta make sure it's safe first."
"I liked when we went all those places, on the ship," said Marlene.
"Me, too," he said. "I liked havin' you with me."
"Come home soon, Papa."
His heart always broke a little when she said that. "Just a couple more days, sweetheart," he promised. "You be a good girl an' go on lookin' after Tifa an' Aeris for me, awright?"
"Speakin' o' which, you an' Aeris've got some good news to go tell Tifa before bed. So you an' me, we should probably say goodnight."
"You'll call tomorrow?" she asked.
"You know I will."
"Okay. Goodnight, Papa."
"Goodnight, baby girl."
Reluctantly, Barret ended the call. By now, the sun was setting, and they had nearly reached the base of the mountain. Jessie returned to walk beside him, looking cautiously up into his face.
"...starting to wonder more about her mom, huh?" she said.
"Yeah," said Barret. So she had been listening. "Guess it's about time we had that conversation, once I get back."
"You don't mean, about Dyne?"
"If she's thinkin' about it, I figure it's time. Right?"
"...yeah. You're probably right."
Barret could guess she was thinking about the other thing he had yet to tell Marlene. And the two weren't completely unrelated. He wasn't sure how much Marlene had put together that parents were usually a couple--there'd been so many broken families in the slums--but if she knew he was with Jessie, then would she be more inclined to think of Jessie as a mother? Would that turn it into a positive thing, to tell her that now, too? Or would it overwhelm her?
"I can be patient a little longer, you know," said Jessie, guessing his thoughts, too. She gave him a nudge and a conspiratorial look. "Sneaking around's not all bad."
From behind them, Wedge cleared his throat.
"Anyway," Jessie went on brightly, "I guess we'd better call your other kid. Maybe we can catch dinner with her in Costa del Sol."
Barret shook his head. "Dunno how her stomach'll feel about that after four days at sea."
"Well, she's had a few hours to recover her appetite, but I can't imagine it did much for her mood either. That's what the company's for!"
"Heh. Yeah, all right. Let's give 'er a call."
Ahead of them, North Corel was coming into sight, but not even a little did it feel like coming home. It wasn't where his family was. Barret lifted his gaze instead to the Highwind, waiting for them beyond. By air, Costa del Sol wasn't far at all.