It was night in Fort Condor by the time the Highwind reached it. There were lights scattered throughout the camp Reeve's men had made, but darkness disguised the full scene until they'd come nearer the entrance. Beneath the smoke of the torches, Barret picked out another smell, and then he spotted the row of bodies laid out at the base of the slope.
Almost out of sight around the curve of the hill, a few people dug graves by torchlight. Barret saw Cloud among them, and it brought him up short for a second. Cloud had helped to dig Dyne's grave, back in Corel. It was one of those things that was tough to do with just one hand.
"Hey, Cloud!" Wedge called out to him before Barret could recover himself.
Cloud paused, looked in their direction, and planted his shovel in the dirt. He said something to one of the other gravediggers before making his way over to them.
"Hey," he said simply. He looked tired.
"Just you out here?" Jessie wondered. "Where's Zack?"
Cloud shook his head, and a wry smile briefly crossed his face. "He overdid it trying to heal everybody. If you could wear out a materia..."
"Figured he was takin' it kinda hard," said Barret. It was harder to read people over the phone, but Zack hadn't mustered his usual enthusiasm the last couple times they'd spoken. If he felt responsible for the people who'd died under his command, Barret knew a little about that.
"He'll be okay though," Wedge put in. "We'll cheer him up, right?"
Cloud looked over at him. "Yeah..."
"What about you?" asked Jessie. "Are you okay?"
Cloud nodded. "It's over. Everyone who fought made their choice, right? We protected the people we care about. That's what matters."
That was when Barret realized-- "You're buryin' them, too, aren'tcha? The Shinra."
"Well..." Cloud faltered. "We couldn't just leave them lying there."
"I get it," Barret said. "Might've been on the wrong side, but they're still human."
Cloud scratched his head. "Yeah. What I'm not so sure about is what we do with the ones who survived."
"Oh, yeah," said Jessie. "Zack said something about prisoners, but he didn't say how many there were."
"Um... it's a lot," Cloud admitted. "Too many to take back in the Highwind, and too many for the mercenaries to guard on their own once we leave."
"Hmm..." Barret stroked his beard, thinking. "Well, I figure we can leave some o' Reeve's people here to lend a hand, at least for now. Hafta talk anything more permanent over with Reeve. It ain't what these folks signed on for either."
"We'll ask for volunteers," Wedge suggested. "I'm sure they'll understand."
"Yeah," Barret agreed. "Anyhow, we better talk to Tobin 'fore we head out. An' you better go drag Zack's ass outta bed," he added with a nod to Cloud.
"On it. I'll... see if I can track down Reno, too."
Barret grimaced. "Almost forgot about him. Tempting to leave 'im stranded, but the folks here don't deserve it."
It'd probably just be extra incentive for him to go crawling back to Rufus, too. Barret didn't imagine a guy like that had much in the way of loyalty, and to be honest, he wished they were still enemies, so he could be free to kick Reno's ass. It killed him, knowing the man who'd destroyed Sector 7 was someone Reeve relied on.
Couldn't he replace the bastard?
"C'mon," said Jessie. She caught his eye, and he knew she understood. Maybe one day they'd settle with Reno, but for now they had other things to take care of.
Tobin was waiting for them inside, a huge chunk of yellow crystal sitting on the table in front of him.
"Hello again," he greeted them. "I trust your endeavor to the west went well?"
Barret nodded. "Yeah. I heard you lost some folks, though... I'm sorry." He couldn't help looking past Tobin at the thought; he hadn't seen the man's son outside, and...
"Graham was wounded," Tobin said, before he could bring himself to ask, "but your friend healed him. I'm grateful."
"Well, I'm glad to hear that," Barret said. The thought of losing a child... He didn't even want to go there. "An' those condors o' yours made it through all right, too?"
"Yes, they seem fine." Tobin regarded him thoughtfully. "I'm surprised you're not asking me about this," he said, gesturing to the Huge Materia.
"Well..." Barret scratched his head. It was what they'd come for, and it was sitting right there, but it didn't feel right just taking it. "Shinra might think it belongs to them," he went on, "but I say this's your land, so it's yours to decide what to do with. You wanna hang onto it, that's your right. But, I gotta say I'd be worried the Shinra'd keep comin' after it. You hand it over to us, an' we'll take on that responsibility. Either way, we're allies, so we ain't about to leave you high an' dry."
Tobin nodded. "After this last battle, I believe it. We wouldn't have made it without your people. You can send my thanks along to that Reeve fellow, too." Lifting the Huge Materia, he held it out to them. "Here. We don't have any use for it anyway. I just didn't think the Shinra ought to have it."
"Thanks," said Barret, accepting the materia. He felt a little funny holding it, but it wasn't so much different to him from holding regular materia. There was something about it he didn't quite get, and that was all. Jessie had tried explaining it to him once or twice, but he didn't have the intuitive knack for it. He wondered what that said about his connection to the Planet.
Jessie wordlessly opened her bag, and he eased the crystal into it.
They were explaining their plans for the soldiers to Tobin when Zack joined them. Wedge quietly offered him a thumbs up, and he returned it with a sleepy grin that disappeared into a yawn. He didn't really seem up for it, but they enlisted him in speaking to Reeve's men anyway. It was decided they'd bring the surviving enemy officers back to Midgar with them, leaving their subordinates behind with half of Reeve's people.
Cloud had finally managed to track down Reno just as they were preparing to leave, and Barret eyed him suspiciously. Just what had he been up to, off on his own?
Reno caught his look. "What, can't a guy take a smoke break without gettin' the evil eye from literally everybody?"
"Not you," said Barret.
Reno gave an exaggerated shrug and started up the ladder to the Highwind. Barret followed with a grimace.
With everyone on board, they gave Cid the okay to head for Midgar. Barret stood watching as the ship began to move through the night sky. It was hours left to Midgar, but only a short hop from there to Kalm. He'd be home by morning, before Marlene woke. They could make breakfast together, and he'd try to figure out how to broach that conversation... the one about Dyne.
He'd always intended to tell her, eventually, but the events of the summer made it harder. He and Tifa had agreed, they never wanted her to know what Dyne had become in the years following Corel. They never wanted her to know that he'd talked of murdering his own daughter, that Tifa had had to kill him to protect her.
The real Dyne had died four years ago. When Barret talked to her, he'd have to remember that.
His phone rang, startling him out of his thoughts. He dug it out of his jacket pocket and answered it.
"Barret. Are you on the Highwind right now?"
"Yeah, we just left Fort Condor. What's up?"
"I need to talk to you, but... Can you get somewhere private?"
The tone of her voice made his heart drop into his stomach. "What's wrong? Is it Marlene? Is she okay?"
"She's fine," Tifa assured him hurriedly. "She's with Aeris. It's just... I want to make sure no one's eavesdropping."
"...awright. Hang on."
It wasn't Marlene, but something was definitely wrong. Jessie was already looking at him anxiously, and he motioned for her to follow. Wedge, Zack, and Cloud were chatting near the exit to the bridge, and Barret lowered his voice to speak to them. "Zack, Cloud, with me. Wedge, you're still sharp. I want you keepin' an eye on you-know-who."
He jerked his head towards Reno, and Wedge nodded. "What's going on?" he asked.
"Not sure yet. Just tryin' to keep our bases covered."
Barret led the rest of them off the bridge and headed for the quarters he'd been sharing with Jessie. It had a bunk on either side of the room, and though one hadn't been slept in, he doubted anyone would notice right now. Cloud shut the door behind them, and the four of them sat.
"Okay," said Barret, and he switched the phone to speaker. "It's just folks we can trust now. You got me an' Jess, Zack, an' Cloud. Wedge's keepin' an eye on Reno."
"Good," said Tifa. "We've got a leak somewhere; I don't know if it's him, but I don't wanna take any chances."
"A leak?" Jessie repeated.
"I got a call from Nanaki," Tifa explained. "Bugenhagen passed this morning. And then, a couple hours ago, Tseng showed up there with a bunch of Shinra troops. He knew you'd been there with the Huge Materia, and he knew you left one behind."
"What?" said Barret.
"Does that mean Shinra's got it now?" asked Zack.
"Probably," said Tifa.
Jessie shook her head. "What do you mean 'probably'?"
"Nanaki handed it over to them, and they left on a Gelnika about an hour ago, but... Yuffie snuck on board."
Barret clenched his fists. "The hell was she thinkin'?" It was a lot, all at once. The loss of Bugenhagen, the existence of a spy, and now, Yuffie... It wasn't Marlene, but that was still his daughter out there, putting herself in harm's way.
"I'm sure she was thinking it's not that different from her back-up plan for the cargo ship," said Tifa, "but that was a lot less risky. She's never been on a Gelnika before, and the harbor security isn't the same as landing right in the middle of the air base..."
"She might pull it off," said Jessie. "Yuffie's pretty damn sneaky when she wants to be."
Barret glanced at her, and for a beat, no one said anything. It wasn't impossible, but they all knew it wasn't likely. But, even if she couldn't get her hands on the materia, maybe she'd be able to stay hidden. Maybe she'd be fine.
"So..." Cloud ventured, "when will we know?"
"The Gelnika types aren't quite as fast as the Highwind," said Zack. "If they left an hour ago... they should get into Junon around dawn."
"I already told Sash to be on the alert," said Tifa. "She's gonna keep an ear out at the base."
"Hell..." Barret shook his head. "I hope Yuffie pulls through for us, but it's a slim bet. We can't count on it."
"I know," said Tifa. "We have to prepare for the possibility that... Shinra's about to get their bomb."
"Have you talked to Reeve?" Jessie wondered.
"He's my next call. And... then I'm heading for Midgar. I can't be hands-off for this."
Barret remembered their narrow escape from Sector 7, and he remembered Biggs, and part of him wanted to tell her it was all right to stay out of it. But... as mistaken as he might've been about how to deal with the reactors, their fight for the pillar had been a worthy one. They hadn't saved it, but they'd bought people time to get out. Every second had counted.
If he could go back in time and tell Biggs to stay out of it, was there any chance he would've listened? Even if he'd known it would cost him his life?
"I get it," Barret said quietly.
Jessie took his left hand and gave it a soft squeeze. The threat was a familiar one, he thought, but this time they had some warning.
"In the meantime," Tifa went on, "I need you think about who could've tipped off Tseng. Phoebe was out of the house when you called this morning, so it couldn't've been on our end."
Barret shook his head. "I hate to think it's any o' the Highwind crew... They're the ones who stole the damn thing from the Shinra in the first place."
There was a short pause, and then Zack offered, "Reno might've been in earshot, when you called me."
"Fuck," Barret spat. "Don't know why you're hesitatin' to point the finger at him."
"I've got my doubts about the guy, too, but he did fight with us at Fort Condor."
"He probably did that so's not to blow his cover. Woulda been even more suspicious if he refused."
Zack's shoulders slumped. "I guess that's a possibility..."
"Maybe we should have a talk with him," Jessie proposed.
"You do that," said Tifa. "If he's still loyal to Rufus, we need to know. He might know their target, too."
"Yeah," said Barret. "We'll see what we can get outta him. You catch Reeve up, an' we'll meet you in Midgar."
"Right. See you soon."
Barret tucked the phone back into his jacket and got to his feet.
"How're we doing this, exactly?" asked Zack. "If we're wrong, interrogating him isn't exactly the way to keep his loyalty."
"Ain't real worried about that," Barret snorted. "We ain't tip-toein' around this. We're gonna sit his ass down an' have a nice talk."
He let Zack stay behind when they went to the bridge to grab Reno, figuring he wouldn't be that intimidating dead on his feet. Wedge was keeping watch a few paces away, and Reno was alert to their approach immediately.
"What is it this time?"
"We're gonna take a little walk," said Barret.
"So much for that being a fun secret meeting you guys had. You wanna call Tifa back up and remind her of that time I saved her girlfriend?"
"Tifa's got a good memory. Sure she remembers that just as clear as Sector 7."
Reno's face fell into a frown, and he didn't argue the point. They led him back to the room, and Barret gave him a shove to sit him down on the unused bed. Reno folded his arms across his chest.
"So what is it you think I did this time? You got your Huge Materia, didn't you?"
"Yeah, but it seems someone's been tippin' off the Shinra as to our movements," Barret said archly. "You know anything about that?"
"Nope. Not a thing."
"Kinda suspicious, the way you say that."
"I could take a shit and you guys would think it's suspicious. Doesn't give me much incentive to try pulling off the innocent vibe."
Jessie held out her hand. "Lemme see your phone then. That should tell us something."
Without hesitation, Reno pulled it from inside his suit jacket and tossed it to her. "Knock yourself out."
Barret watched Jessie's face as she cycled through different screens, but she only frowned a little.
"...have you been texting Elena?"
"Yeah, I like to send her dick jokes," Reno said casually. "Pisses her off. It's hilarious."
"You remember she's your enemy now, right?" said Wedge.
"Did I say I was bein' nice to her?"
"Could be code," Barret proposed, and Reno snorted.
Zack leaned in closer to read over Jessie's shoulder. "Uhh... I don't think so, Barret."
"There's nothing obvious here," Jessie admitted, "but I won't be able to see any deleted logs until I get to a computer."
"You're not gonna find anything," Reno stated.
"Maybe he's got a second phone," Wedge suggested.
Reno spread his arms. "Search me."
Barret let Wedge and Cloud handle it, fighting to ignore the smug look on Reno's face as they failed to find anything incriminating. Apart from his nightstick, all he had on him was a wallet, key ring, a pack of cigarettes, and a pair of sunglasses that looked like they belonged to Rude.
"We having fun yet?" asked Reno.
"This ain't a joke," said Barret. "You know what Shinra wants to do with that Huge Materia. They're gonna bomb Midgar. You live there, you know better 'n I do the shape it's in. How you think that's gonna play? You want the city to tear itself apart?"
Reno said nothing.
Zack leaned forward on his knees, looking Reno in the eye. "Look, man. I don't know if you're the one who told them or not. But back in the reactor, you said you regretted Sector 7. You want a chance not to do it all over again? This is it."
Reno's smirk was gone, but he gave another shrug. "Love to help you, but I got nothin.'"
Barret had a hard time believing that. Regretted Sector 7? No way, not this guy. He didn't have any remorse, and appealing to that wasn't going to get him to do the right thing. Barret hauled his gun from his back. "You sure about that?"
"Barret," Jessie said quickly, putting her hand on his arm as the others all looked to him.
He adjusted his aim to Reno's leg. "I won't kill 'im. That's more mercy than he deserves an' we all know it."
But Reno's expression hadn't changed one iota. His friends were the ones who'd grown tense. Didn't Reno deserve it? Wasn't it worth it if putting the hurt on him could get them information that would save lives? Or was this just something the old AVALANCHE would have done?
"I don't think this is the way to make him talk," Wedge said cautiously.
"Yeah," Cloud agreed, but then he said something unexpected. "Torture's not the right leverage."
"Leverage?" Barret repeated, looking to him.
"Maybe we see Rude when we get in," Cloud suggested.
Barret couldn't put his finger on it, but something about Reno's posture changed at that. "Rude's got nothing to do with this," he said.
"You're partners, right?" said Cloud. "You're saying he wouldn't know if you're up to something?"
Barret slowly lowered his gun. "You just might be onto somethin.' He's kinda tight-lipped, but Vincent got 'im talkin' before."
"He's got nothin' to tell you," Reno maintained.
"We'll see. For now we're just gonna let you stew on it." Barret slung his gun back over his shoulder and motioned for the others to follow him out into the hallway. He kept his voice low. "Jess, you think they got any equipment on the ship you could use to look into his phone?"
"I'm not sure," she admitted. "I'll ask Shera. And... I'll ask her if she's noticed any of the crew having second thoughts about their mutiny. I'm with you, I think Reno's lying, but on the off chance he's not our guy, we need to find out who is."
Barret nodded. "Zack, Cloud, you two get some rest. Might be needin' it. Wedge, you an' me'll keep guard here."
Jessie gave his hand one more squeeze before she dispersed with the others. Barret would've liked to stay by her side, but she had work to do, and a Turk needed more than one guard. Right now, the mission came first.
Wedge scratched the back of his head. "So... what exactly did the Shinra find out?" he asked.
Barret filled him in on the situation, and left him to think on it as they settled in for their watch. If Reno was behind it, then it just went to show that he hadn't changed one bit. He'd let the world burn to save his own hide. Shinra to the core.
But without the man in front of him to be a lightning rod for his anger, Barret began to pick apart that Reno wasn't the only cause. Reno might've been the one to tell the Shinra that they'd left the Huge Materia virtually unprotected in Cosmo Canyon, but...
Barret leaned his head back against the door behind him, letting the cold, hard metal press against his skull.
Wedge spoke up. "You're thinking we should've stayed, aren't you?"
"With Yuffie? If all of us had stayed, maybe the Shinra wouldn't have come, and they wouldn't have the Huge Materia, and she wouldn't be in danger. That's what you're thinking, right?"
Barret didn't answer. Wedge could be damn insightful at times.
"You shouldn't," Wedge went on. "Anything might've happened. They might've come anyway, and that could've given them a chance at taking back the Highwind. They could've used the people of the canyon as hostages... It could've been a lot worse."
Barret knew he was right. There was no way they could've predicted it. After all, the Black Materia had been in Bugenhagen's care for close to two months now and Shinra was still none the wiser.
Well, Nanaki's care now. What a shit show. He should've been able to mourn in peace. Yuffie had even stayed behind to support him, and the Shinra had gotten in the way of that, too.
"I'm still worried about her," he said. "She's pulled off some impressive stunts, an' maybe we've relied on her too much. I'm worried she's gettin' overconfident."
"Even if they catch her, they're not gonna kill her, right?" Wedge glanced at the door behind them. "They'll want to interrogate her first."
"...don't mean she'll be okay."
"But it does mean we'll have time for a rescue op. And we've been pretty good at those, right?"
Barret didn't bring up that they'd had one hell of a distraction both times they'd escaped from Shinra Headquarters. After all, maybe that was their luck, right? They'd rescue Yuffie out of the heart of Junon, if they had to. That was what he had to believe, the face he had to put on. Maybe he wasn't AVALANCHE's leader anymore, but that didn't mean nobody was looking to him. Especially when Tifa wasn't around.
"Yeah, you're right," he said, nodding to Wedge. "We'll figure it out."
It was going to be a long night, though.
It was nearly five in the morning, Midgar time, when they reached the city. It wouldn't have been so late back in Cosmo Canyon, so Barret wasn't feeling it yet, but he could see it in Tifa's face when he and Jessie met her and Reeve at his headquarters. They were working by electric lamp in one of the conference rooms, papers strewn across the table.
"No word yet?" Jessie asked first.
Tifa shook her head. "The Gelnika should still be in the air. I haven't heard from her, and I don't want to risk contacting her, in case that blows her cover."
"So," said Reeve, "you interrogated Reno?" He looked tired, too, and it was hard to tell how he felt about that.
"He ain't talkin,' yet," said Barret. "Jess couldn't find anything on his phone either."
"Then you don't have any evidence that it was him," Reeve concluded.
"Ain't nobody on the Highwind been actin' suspicious but him. Jess checked out all our phones, no sign o' bugs either. We wanna bring Rude in, see what he has to say about it."
Reeve frowned, but he nodded. "All right. I can't imagine he would be involved, but if anyone can get the truth out of Reno, it's him. You still have him on the ship?"
"I'll send him up." He rose from the table and stepped out into the hallway, letting the door shut behind him. Barret and Jessie approached to join Tifa, and Jessie gave a quick look over the papers in front of her, which Barret realized included a number of maps.
"You've been working on evacuation plans?" Jessie asked.
Tifa nodded, and she tried to straighten up, pushing hair out of her face. "But... where do we evacuate to when we don't know the target? There are still four active reactors, and they could take out any one of the other pillars. No part of the city is guaranteed safe, but clearing everyone out would be crazy, and the wasteland's full of monsters anyway..."
Barret stepped close behind her and squeezed her shoulder. She reached up and took his hand, and he could feel her anxiety in her grip. The thought of another Sector 7... And with the power of the Huge Materia, it could be even worse, this time. They'd all seen too many towns destroyed, lost too many faces. Again, he thought of Biggs...
For Biggs' sake, too, they couldn't let this happen.
"So we make it smaller, simpler," he said. "Shinra don't just wanna cause a bunch o' panic. They wanna pin it on AVALANCHE again, so they can come out lookin' like the good guys in the end."
Jessie caught his eye and nodded. "They tried to pin Sector 7 on AVALANCHE, but that doesn't play so well here in Midgar anymore. If they wanna recoup any of the people they lost to Reeve, dropping another part of the plate isn't their best play."
Reeve had stepped back into the room while she was speaking, and he glanced between them, picking up the thread of the conversation.
"At this point," said Tifa, "I don't know if I agree with you or if it's just what I want to think, that they won't go that far again. Sector 7 was about destroying AVALANCHE first. They might try to hit us here in Sector 3. They have to know by now that this is where Reeve's headquarters are."
"So we concentrate on evacuating Sector 3, and the reactors," said Jessie. "That's easier to wrap your head around, right?"
"I've already sent word to pull the civilian crews off the reactors," said Reeve as he sat back down. "But we don't have the manpower to increase security. I sent everyone I could spare with you to Fort Condor, and the people you've brought back need rest."
"Well," Jessie said, "even if they get the Huge Materia, they can't use it right away. They might've finished their prototype by now, but they haven't had any opportunity to run tests. And then they'll have to transport the thing."
Tifa shook her head. "We still don't know if that's a few days, or..." She trailed off. "I guess it's a lot more time than we got with Sector 7..."
"We're gonna stop this, Teef," Barret said, trying to keep his own worry out of his voice. "All right?" He pulled out the chair beside her and sat down. "You got your evacuation routes, so let's talk prevention. Jess? How're we thinkin' they might get it here?"
They talked a while about potential routes and means of transportation, and there wasn't a lot of certainty there either, but he thought having more of the team together was improving Tifa's outlook. Maybe his own, too. He and Jessie and Tifa had been in this fight together since the beginning, and putting an end to Shinra seemed a lot more feasible than when they'd started. They'd made it this far.
The door to the conference room opened. Rude entered, and Wedge followed behind him.
A man of few words, Rude got straight to the point. "It was Reno," he said.
"He told you that?" asked Tifa.
"Why...?" said Reeve.
"He wanted to keep our options open," said Rude. "In case Rufus regained the upper hand."
"For you, too, huh?"
"I didn't ask for it."
Reeve shook his head. "No, I know. I just..." He looked down, clasping his hands atop the table. "I guess I should've known better than to expect that kind of faith in me."
Barret hadn't seen him quite so down on himself before, but he'd seen glimpses. The man carried his own share of guilt, for what Shinra had done while he'd been a part of it. Complicit in his own way, even if he'd tried to stop some of it. But they all had things they'd been unable to stop.
"Plenty o' folks've got faith," Barret assured him. "It's a big part o' the reason Midgar's holdin' together at all. Just can't expect it from Turks."
Rude glanced at him, but said nothing. Jessie threw him a look, too, and damn it, he always forgot that Vincent had been a Turk. Might have been a different group thirty years ago, though.
"Did Reno tell you anything else?" Jessie asked.
"Tseng told him they'd be targeting the reactors," said Rude. "Not any of the pillars. Reno wouldn't sign up for that."
"Right..." said Tifa, with the same combination of skepticism and anger that Barret felt, too.
"He regrets it," said Rude.
"But," said Jessie, "Tseng could've lied to him."
"It's possible," Rude acknowledged.
"Even so," said Wedge, "he wouldn't want to lose his spy, right? Tseng would need to warn him before it happens."
"You're right," said Jessie. "He should try to contact him. As long as he doesn't know Reno's been caught, anyway."
"Can I see his phone?" Rude asked calmly.
Jessie hesitated, but she dug it out of her bag and handed it to him. He took it, and his fingers moved over the buttons. Jessie leaned in closer. "Are you texting Elena?"
"So it really was a code?" Wedge wondered, but Rude shook his head.
"...but it'll look suspicious if Reno stops harassing her all of a sudden," Jessie realized.
Reeve drew a breath and let it out. "I'll leave him to you, then, Rude. He may be our best chance for learning where they're going to strike."
"Where they might strike," Barret amended. "He know anything about Yuffie?"
"I don't think so," said Rude.
"I was actually thinking," Wedge began, "if she does get it back, she'll wanna get it out of Junon in a hurry. She could use more back-up than just Sash."
Tifa shook her head. "Shinra knows our faces. We'd never make it through the checkpoints to get to Junon."
Wedge pointed to himself. "I've never been arrested," he said.
"...y'know, that's right," Barret realized. "You might be the only one of us they've never caught."
"Shera said she'd help, too," Wedge added, "since she knows Junon base some."
Barret wondered if it was smart for Shera to risk it, but he didn't wonder long. She might've been a Shinra employee, and working on the very ship Rufus had cruised around in, but she would've been beneath his notice. That was both how and why the crew had mutinied.
"I don't know," said Tifa. "How would you get into the base?"
"I'm not sure yet," Wedge admitted. "We might not have to. I figure we'll hear about Yuffie before we hit Junon, and that'll give us a better idea how we can help."
Barret caught Tifa's eye. "I don't like the idea of leavin' Yuffie on 'er own, Teef."
"I don't either," she said. "...you go ahead, Wedge. But don't take any risks, all right?"
"Oh," said Reeve, like he was remembering something. "We'll need to tell Cid then, I suppose."
"Tell Cid what?" asked Wedge.
But Tifa knew exactly what he was talking about. "It's the only surefire evacuation plan we've got," she said. "Now that the Highwind's back, we can get that next group on their way to Wutai."
Jessie glanced between the two of them like she'd picked up on something else. "And you wanna do that before you put out any official word about the threat, don't you? To avoid a panic."
"It feels underhanded, but yes," Reeve admitted.
"Makes sense," Barret conceded. "Don't wanna put the crew in danger, or the folks who already signed on to go. Kalm ain't far, we can take the truck back anyhow."
Tifa blinked at him. "You're going?"
"We still gotta get the other Huge Materia to Aeris, right? An'... I promised Marlene. I ain't bowin' outta this, but I gotta see her first."
Tifa opened her mouth, and for a second he thought she'd tell him it was all right to bow out, the way he'd almost said it to her, but instead she just closed it again, and nodded.
"You should take Elmyra with you," Wedge suggested. "And Evie."
"The hell's Evie?" Barret wondered.
And that was how, a short time later, he found himself on the road with Jessie driving, and Elmyra tucked safely in the back seat with Wedge's cat. Barret's eyes kept training on the sky instead of the road ahead, watching for the first signs of dawn. The call wouldn't come yet, but it would come soon.
For a while, only Evie's pathetic meows broke the tense silence, but eventually Elmyra spoke up.
"If Reno's been alerting Rufus to your movements, doesn't that mean... he must know about your place in Kalm, too?"
Barret exchanged glances with Jessie.
"Probably," she said. "Maybe now's a good time for you and Marlene to pay a visit to Wedge's brother."
"Yeah," Barret agreed. "I think that'd be a good idea."
Dawn was just breaking as they reached Kalm. Pale daylight stretched across the earth, but, partly blocked by the town's wall, it touched only the roof of the old watchtower overlooking the square. Phoebe's house had been built onto it in a disjointed mismatch of styles, and Marlene had fallen in love with that tower. Barret had agreed to make it their bedroom, even though that spiral staircase still gave him vertigo.
He wondered if she was asleep up there now, a little princess in her tower.
Aeris was awake to meet them as they entered. She rose from the kitchen table, but her mouth hung open a moment in surprise.
"Mom! I didn't realize you were coming." She stepped forward, but faltered on realizing Elmyra was still holding the cat.
Elmyra smiled wryly. "I'm sure Wedge was thinking of my safety when he suggested it, but I know you. You'll want to go, too, won't you?"
"It's... all right. I understand by now."
Jessie hefted her bag, though she glanced around for any sign of their landlady before she spoke. "We brought the Huge Materia for you to look at, Aeris. But I guess it'll be going along to the farm..."
"The farm?" Aeris wondered.
"It wouldn't really be protected here, would it?" said Elmyra in understanding. "With all of you away."
Barret heard what they were saying, but his attention had drifted past the closed door to their landlady's room, towards the spiral staircase. He wanted to see her, but what was he going to say? He'd promised her a conversation, an important one, but to have it now, only to leave again...
Aeris caught the look on his face. "Marlene's asleep in our room," she said. "She got a little lonely up in her tower."
Barret nodded and started for the nearer, regular staircase, but their landlady suddenly emerged from her room, looking upset.
"Just what is going on with all of you?" she demanded. "The late night phone calls, coming and going at all hours... Did you get into some kind of trouble?"
Jessie opened her mouth, but Barret motioned to her. He had this. "Sorry if it's been makin' you anxious," he said. "Friend o' the family passed away yesterday." It wasn't untrue, but had that really been yesterday? "Tifa went ahead to help with arrangements. Rest of us are gonna be headed outta town for a few days, too."
Phoebe deflated, the exasperation draining from her face. "Oh... I'm so sorry. I had no idea."
"S'all right," said Barret. He threw a glance at Jessie and Aeris and then approached her across the kitchen. "But, on the subject o' family, there was one thing I wanted to talk to you about."
"What's that?" she wondered.
"I heard you asked Marlene 'bout her mama the other day. I would've appreciated it if you'd come to me first. I know we ain't the usual sorta family... An' I don't want her feelin' badly about that. You understand?"
Phoebe frowned uncertainly, and he didn't think she fully grasped what he was getting at, but she nodded slowly. "Yes. I'm sorry. I didn't realize her mother had passed."
Barret nodded. He was definitely feeling the hour now, and it was enough, for now. "Anyhow, I'm gonna go up an' see her."
He walked past the others to climb the stairs to the second floor bedroom that Jessie shared with Tifa and Aeris. It was significantly larger than the little tower room he shared with Marlene, and crowded with their work. Cheap folding tables lined the entire wall facing the street, laden with Aeris's plants, a tangle of greenery still in full bloom.
In the corner alcove beyond was Jessie's desk, cluttered with blueprints and computer equipment that she powered with the ugly-ass generator stuffed beneath it. Projects that she'd had to put aside to deal with the latest crisis. He liked watching her create more than he liked her plans for taking down Shinra, even if she had a head for both.
Marlene was asleep in the nearer bed that Tifa and Aeris typically shared. She looked so tiny in the middle of it, curled up with her little hands resting beside her on the pillow.
Barret eased himself down onto the edge of the bed, watching her. After Holy, he'd hoped this kind of thing was behind them. He'd never leave behind AVALANCHE or the things they stood for, but it was for Marlene's sake that he wanted to make the world better, and he wanted to live in that better world with her.
In just a few short months, she'd be five years old. In the spring, she'd start school. He and Tifa had already set it up, and he couldn't wait to hear about the new friends she'd make, and the things she'd learn. He had to be here for it.
In a few months, she'd be five, and in another few months after that would come an entirely different kind of anniversary. And that... he couldn't forget that either.
Marlene shifted a little, and slowly she opened her eyes. "Papa?" she mumbled, and then she pushed back the covers to sit up. "Papa! You're home!"
She clambered the short distance across the bed, and he leaned down for her to throw her arms around his neck. He held her close.
"I missed you, too, baby girl."
"You were gone five whole days," she said, drawing back.
"I know. I'm sorry."
She searched his face, and her expression faltered. "Are you leaving again?"
"There's a lot goin' on," he said. "Reeve needs our help over in Midgar, an'--"
"No!" Marlene interrupted. "You saved the Planet, so you don't have to leave anymore!"
"Marlene, just lemme explain..."
"No!" she said again, and she pulled away from him, turning her back.
Barret let out a slow breath. His heart ached. He kicked off his boots and pulled himself up onto the bed beside her. "We'll talk it through, all right? I promised you we were gonna have a talk when I got back... There's some important stuff I gotta tell you, an' this seems like a good time to do that."
Marlene cautiously looked back at him, and then she settled down, mirroring his posture and wrapping her arms around her knees. "About... where you're from?"
He nodded. "You were too little to remember, but it's where you're from, too. Now, I want you to remember, there ain't a world that exists where I don't love you with my whole heart. I loved you from the moment I met you." He paused. "You just weren't my daughter then."
"Huh?" Her eyes were round in confusion.
"Back before me," he explained, "when you were just a baby, you had another papa."
"That's right. He was your mama's husband. His name was Dyne, an' he was my best friend."
Marlene frowned, trying to think it through. "Like Tifa?" she asked.
"Yeah, like Tifa. Me an' Dyne were like family, too. He loved you more 'n anything, your first papa, same as I do. He was so excited to meet you, he introduced me to you the day you were born. Used to be my favorite days, when he'd let me look after you for 'im."
"Where is he?"
Barret lifted his gaze to a painting on the far wall, trying not to picture the grave where they'd buried him just that September. "He's with the Planet," he said. "With your mama. That's why I decided, back then, to adopt you as my own daughter."
"You didn't ask me," Marlene pointed out, reminding him of what he'd said to her about Yuffie.
"That's true," he admitted. "You weren't much of a talker back then. But we had an understandin.' We needed each other. Since that day, it's been you an' me."
"How come... they're with the Planet? Did something bad happen?"
Barret hesitated. Of course that was a part of this conversation, and it was something she had a better frame of reference for than he'd ever wanted her to. "You know how I been fightin' the Shinra for a long time now, with Tifa an' the others. They done some bad things, the Shinra. You remember... how they destroyed our home in Sector 7. They did the same thing to Corel. Dyne an' Eleanor... they didn't make it, that day."
Marlene hugged her knees a little closer, and he settled his hand across her back. "Like Biggs..." she murmured.
"Yeah. Like Biggs."
She looked up at him. "But, when they're with the Planet, they're okay?"
"They're at peace," he said. "I can't say as I know exactly what it's like, but I bet they've been keepin' an eye on you. They've gotta be so proud o' how you're growin' up."
Marlene didn't say anything. It was a heavy thing to put on her, but he couldn't keep it from her. He didn't want her to feel that he kept secrets from her, even though he'd always had to, with the life he led. He was as honest as he could be, and this was a truth about her, and where she'd come from.
A truth he wanted her to hear from him, and hear from him now, just in case...
Barret took a breath and went on. "But what happened to Corel, and to Sector 7... We're all fightin' so that never happens to anybody else again. You know I don't wanna leave you. I want the fight to be over. An' we're close. We're real close now."
"You're coming back... aren't you?"
"'course I am. I always do, don't I?"
Marlene nodded, and her expression eased some. "Yeah," she said.
"Now, Miss Elmyra's gonna be lookin' after you for a bit, an' we thought you might like to visit Wedge's brother out at the farm."
Marlene perked up at first, but then she faltered. "When we went to the farm before, you were gone a really long time..."
"It ain't gonna be so long this time. I promise."
And in that moment, with a tenuous smile just reaching Marlene's face, came the phone call he'd been dreading. The one with news about his other daughter.