Chapter 13

Barret hated to part with Jessie after what had happened at the reactor, but they both needed different things right now. She needed to let loose and have some fun, and he needed to see his daughter. He just wished those needs could coincide.

He'd held her all through the night, as if he could make up for leaving her behind. She'd told him to. He trusted her instinct on missions, and everything had worked out all right. But if he could do it again... Of course if he could do it again, knowing that everything would be all right, he never would have left her side. And maybe, if Yuffie hadn't been there, he would have stuck around no matter what she'd told him.

But he got what she'd been saying, too. There'd already been too many close calls, too many days where he'd nearly left Marlene fatherless. He didn't want to leave her either.

Jessie had always known his kids came first, but he hated when it made her feel like she was only second fiddle. They didn't talk about it much, but he knew she struggled sometimes with thinking she was somehow less than the rest of them--unimportant and expendable. She wasn't. Like hell was she expendable.

"You knew I was right, and you listened to me," was all she'd said on the matter. "I appreciate that in a man."

Planet willing, they'd never be in that kind of situation again. He didn't think he could make that choice again.

" all right, Barret?" Tifa asked him, glancing over at him from the driver's seat.

"Yeah," he said, because he knew he would be. "Just... feelin' like I made a mistake, leavin' Jessie with that bomb. Don't ever wanna leave anybody behind."

"I know," Tifa said quietly, and he knew she did. They'd both made it out of situations where hardly anyone else had, and he realized a part of it was guilt at the idea of coming close to that again. There had always, always been people who deserved to make it out more than him.

"But she gets it, too," Tifa went on. "I mean, she's been there. She had to leave all of us behind at the Northern Crater. She knows how hard it is."

"...guess you're right," he said. That memory was a little hazier for him--he'd had a sword through his gut--but it had never for a second crossed his mind that Jessie hadn't cared. "Guess that makes me feel a little less like she might think... I didn't care enough to stay."

"It's pretty obvious how much you care," said Tifa, a teasing note entering her voice. "Cloud actually came and asked me about it."

"Shit," Barret realized, "we never actually told him an' Zack, huh?"

"I think they've figured it out by now."

"Well... Guess that just leaves Marlene."

Tifa threw him another glance. "Are you gonna tell her soon?"

Barret nodded slowly. "Yeah... Soon. Maybe after we get back from Wutai. Don't wanna drop another big thing on 'er an' then skip town."

Tifa nodded, and as she returned her attention to the road, Barret studied her in turn. The anxiety she'd carried all during the threat to Midgar had eased, and she'd finally gotten a decent night's sleep, but something lingered.

"How 'bout you, Teef?" he asked her. "How you holdin' up? Ain't easy bein' the one makin' decisions that put folks in danger."

"It's not, is it?" she said. "I really thought I was sending her somewhere low-risk, and then..."

"Weren't a mistake on your part either," he said.

"I guess. But, I wish I knew why they targeted the No. 5. I can guess, but I don't know, and it makes me feel like we're missing something."

"Maybe we did miss somethin,'" Barret conceded, "but we still came out all right."

Tifa shook her head, smiling ruefully. "Delegating was supposed to make things easier, but I felt better being in charge when we were going through everything together."

"That why you wanna go along to Wutai?" he wondered.

"Mm, maybe that's part of it," she said. "But Aeris... She doesn't want to let on, but she's worried about this magic they need to do with the Huge Materia. Even if I can't help directly, I want to be there for her, like we were when she summoned Holy."

Barret nodded. "I feel ya. Think we gotta be there for Yuffie, too. Don't wanna make too big a deal out of it, but... kinda feels like it is anyway."

He wasn't sure any of them knew what this kind of magic was going to look like, or exactly what would happen if they succeeded at it. Maybe in part, he wanted to be there to see it. The Huge Materia was something the Shinra had forced out of the Planet against its will, and nothing good could come of having it around. Maybe getting rid of it wouldn't just ease their worries about Shinra using it, but ease some burden on the Planet, too.

When they rolled up the gravel driveway towards the farmhouse a few hours later, Marlene and Elmyra were already out in the yard watching for them. Barret opened the door before Tifa even brought the car to a stop, and Marlene raced across the grass to meet him halfway, leaping into his arms.


"Only a few days," he said, holding her close, "just like I promised."

"I'm glad everything went well," said Elmyra, approaching after Marlene.

Barret loosened the hug, lifting Marlene up onto his shoulder as he stood. "Yeah, we did all right. Seems like things're gonna be okay."

"Does that mean we can go home?" asked Marlene.

"We're gonna talk about that," Barret said, meeting Elmyra's gaze.

"Tifa, are we going home?" Marlene said, twisting on his shoulder to look as Tifa joined them.

"Maybe," Tifa answered, exchanging glances with Barret. She could recognize when Marlene was trying to get a second opinion. "We have to help Yuffie with something."

"Is she okay?"

"Yeah," Barret assured her. "Yeah, she's fine. Everybody's fine. But you know that big materia we left with you all? Yuffie's figured out how to make it so nobody can ever use it to hurt anybody."

Marlene looked thoughtful for a moment, and then she started to wriggle, so he let her down. "We've been looking after it!" she said. "I'll show you."

She got her tiny hand around a couple of his fingers, and Barret obligingly let her pull him around the side of the house to the vegetable garden, Tifa and Elmyra following. The ground was hard from a recent frost, and it was past the time for serious gardening, but someone had repurposed the space to dump a pile of leaves, and Barret had his suspicions that the Huge Materia lay somewhere beneath.

"We hid them really good, right?" Marlene said proudly.

"You sure did," said Barret, surveying the garden as though he couldn't identify the exact spot. "You go an' bury 'em?"

Marlene giggled. "No, here!" She tramped across the ground and into the pile, tossing leaves up more for the fun of it than in a genuine attempt to uncover the materia, but Barret spotted a flash of color and came to help her.

Here was this powerful stuff that the Shinra wanted to use for a weapon, and his daughter had made a game out of it. Only a weapon if you saw it that way, he thought.

His fingers brushed against the green crystal of the materia they'd pulled out of Corel, something born from the very land he'd grown up in. In the context of the reactor, he'd thought of it as something wholly Shinra, more evidence of the harm they were doing to the Planet. Now, he wondered if somewhere in there were the Planet's memories of his home.

He still couldn't tell, from touching it. It wasn't just a rock, but that was all.

Tifa lifted up the Fort Condor Huge Materia once they uncovered it. With the Huge Materia in his metal hand and Marlene holding the other, Barret joined her and Elmyra back to the house.

"Is Derek not home?" Tifa wondered. A clatter went up the stairs as they reached the back porch, but they weren't the footsteps of a grown man--more likely Wedge's cat than his brother. The house seemed otherwise still, and Barret couldn't see anyone across the fields in view.

"He went over to help his neighbor," Elmyra explained. "One of her chocobos broke the fence and hurt itself in the process, and she needed a hand wrangling the silly thing."

"We're holding down the fort," Marlene put in.

"Is there anything we could help with?" Tifa wondered, setting the Huge Materia down on a bench just outside the back door.

"I don't think so," said Elmyra. "It's just one distressed bird, and otherwise things have gotten quiet around here. I wouldn't mind a hand with lunch, though."

"Of course," said Tifa, and the two women went on into the house. Marlene let go his hand to go after them, but Barret stopped her short.

"Hey, not so fast," he said. "Let's get you cleaned up first."

He set his Huge Materia down beside the other and crouched down to brush leaves off of Marlene's coat and pick a few out of her hair.

"Papa, too," she said, finding one that had caught itself in the top of his boot.

"Ahh, you're right. You see any others?" he asked, waiting patiently for her inspection.

"Mm... Nope! All good."

"Okay. In we go then."

As Barret shut the porch door behind them, he couldn't help feeling strange leaving the Huge Materia sitting out there like so much firewood. But there really was no one around. That was why they'd felt comfortable leaving it here with Elmyra in the first place.

Lunch was a simple affair, but everything was so much fresher than in Midgar. Most of Midgar's food came from farms in this area, but by the time it got there, it just wasn't the same. Part of it was the air pollution, too, that Mako taste clinging in the back of your throat.

Inside the farmhouse was the cozy scent of wood smoke from the furnace, and the air outside was cold and crisp. There would probably be snow soon. There'd still been snow on the ground when Marlene was born, but she wouldn't remember having seen it, and she'd spent every winter since beneath Midgar's plate. For her, this would be the first time.

"So," Tifa said at last, as they sat around with crumbs on their plates, watching Marlene dutifully pick at the last of her peas. "Elmyra, we figured we'd see what you were comfortable with first. Whether you want to go back to Midgar, or stay here for another few days until we're back again."

"But you think it's safe now, right?"

Tifa nodded. "They put a lot of resources into that attack, so they should be licking their wounds for a while. Wedge, Cloud, and Zack are staying put, too, so they'll be there if anything does happen."

"How does that sound, Marlene?" Elmyra asked her. "Going to Midgar to stay at my house for a few days, with Wedge and the others?"

Marlene looked up from her peas. "Not to Kalm?"

"It might be a little strange for Miss Phoebe," said Tifa. "She and Elmyra don't really know each other."

"Why aren't you going back to Kalm?" Marlene asked, looking between Tifa and Barret.

"We will be soon," Tifa assured her. "But we want to make sure we're with Yuffie when she first goes back to Wutai. She has to talk to some important people, and having the leader of AVALANCHE along might help things go well."

"She might have to talk to her old dad, too," Barret added.

"The mean one?" said Marlene.

Barret nodded. "Yeah, the mean one. We don't want her doin' that without backup, do we?"

Marlene shook her head. She considered for a minute and then announced, "I wanna come, too!"

He exchanged glances with Tifa, a little thrown. Maybe he shouldn't have been.

"I went before," Marlene added, as supporting evidence for her proposal. Even by adult reasoning, it was pretty sound.

"Well," Tifa said slowly, "it shouldn't really be any more dangerous than Midgar, should it? The Highwind must've made half a dozen trips there by now."

"That's true," said Barret. "Ain't had any problems. Only kinda trouble we're expectin' is a few arguments with some old folks."

"So I can go?" Marlene asked, rocking eagerly on the edge of her seat.

There might be snow already in Wutai, was his first thought. Yuffie had mentioned a snow before she left. Was it selfish to want to bring Marlene along, to keep her with him and make sure he saw her face in that moment? Tifa was right, there was no reason to think it would be any more dangerous than Midgar. Probably less so; people were willing to relocate there because of just how bad things had gotten in Midgar.

Barret glanced towards the back porch. They'd found their leak, too. No one would be alerting Shinra to their movements. Shinra wouldn't know what AVALANCHE was doing with the Huge Materia in the wake of their victory.

"Yeah," he decided with a nod. "I think it's all right."

Marlene beamed.

Tifa volunteered for dish duty, and Barret went upstairs with Marlene and Elmyra to help them (mostly Marlene) pack up their belongings. Marlene chatted to them excitedly the entire time about their last trip to Wutai--about Yuffie's many cats and whether Evie would like them, and about the 'big men' in the mountains, and about how clear the rivers had been. When the weather warmed again, he'd have to teach her how to swim.

He heard the porch door twice while they were getting ready: once when Derek returned from his neighbor's, and again a little later, after Tifa's phone rang and she stepped outside to answer it. It introduced a wrinkle of worry, but Barret assured himself that if it was important, Tifa would have called him down to listen in. Probably it was just Shera letting them know the Highwind had arrived in Midgar.

Barret carried Marlene's very small, very pink bag downstairs, where they found Derek at the kitchen table, tucking into the plate Elmyra had set aside for him.

"Derek, guess what!" Marlene exclaimed.


"I'm going to Wutai!"

"Wow," he said appreciatively. "That's pretty far. You excited?"


Barret caught Derek's eye and nodded to him. "Thanks for lettin' her stay here a few days. Feels like we never give you much warnin,' but I ain't heard you complain once. Wish we could do somethin' to return the favor."

Derek shook his head. "It's nice to have company," he said, "and I get to hear how my brother's doing. I don't know. You guys are out there saving the world, I feel like it's the least I can do to give you a safe place to stay now and then."

"I appreciate it," Barret insisted.

Stepping out onto the porch, he found Tifa tucking her phone back into her jacket pocket. "Oh, hey," she said. "You guys about ready to go?"

"Just about. Elmyra's still huntin' down that cat. Everything okay?"

Tifa nodded. "I think so, for now. Sash just had a quick update for us: Shinra's lost contact with their survey team up at the Northern Crater. That's not really surprising considering how remote it is, but they're keeping the Gelnikas on stand-by instead of sending anyone to check on them."

"On stand-by?" Barret repeated, his brow furrowing. "For what?"

"I don't know. I doubt they're planning anything big so soon. Maybe they just want all hands on deck in case we decide to go on the offensive. But I told her we'd get in touch with Fort Condor and let them know to be on alert, in case they try to go for an easy win. Morale's pretty low on the base, apparently, so they could use one."

Barret nodded slowly. Even if there was no Huge Materia there anymore, Fort Condor had been a thorn in Shinra's side for a while. It had to be embarrassing, not having control over one of their own reactors, and so close to Junon. Reclaiming it would be a good way to save face.

"Suppose it's too much to hope the public's losin' faith, too?" he wondered.

"It doesn't seem like it," Tifa said with a helpless shrug. "The Midgar fiasco landed them some fresh recruits."

Barret snorted. "Go figure." But he did hope those thick-headed idiots didn't get themselves killed fighting for a cause that didn't give a damn about them.

Elmyra finally tracked down Evie hiding inside a closet and joined them downstairs. They made their final thank yous and farewells to Derek, retrieved the Huge Materia off the back porch, and headed out to the car for the drive back to Midgar. Barret didn't feel much regret leaving behind the clean country air, because their stopover in Midgar would be a brief one. Wutai had never seen any reactors. Like it'd been some kind of punishment, after losing the war, for Shinra not to grant them entry into their modern world after all.

He wondered how the refugees from Midgar were getting on without Mako. It was one thing to volunteer for it, and another thing to live it, but he wanted to believe they could adapt. He wanted to believe most of humanity could learn to be mindful enough to put the Planet ahead of their own convenience.

The change in the landscape as they drew nearer to the Midgar wasteland was a painful reminder of the opposite, but there was still time to turn it around. It was messy, and hard, but they were doing it now.

The Highwind had returned in their absence. They spotted it anchored over the Sector 3 headquarters as they hit the interplate highway. Barret tried giving Jessie a call, but whatever party she'd gone to, he guessed it was loud enough she didn't hear her phone ringing. It was a small disappointment, her not answering. He thought about trying one of the others, but figured he'd leave it until after they'd checked in with Shera.

Elmyra opted to stay in the car, and Marlene stayed with her, a little intimidated by the unfamiliar building and the likelihood of encountering the strangers that made up Reeve's staff. They wouldn't be long anyway.

But to Barret's great surprise, it wasn't Shera who greeted them inside the lobby.

"Nanaki!" Tifa exclaimed first. "I had no idea you were coming to Midgar."

Nanaki flicked his tail, and Barret thought he looked pleased with himself. "I contacted Shera a few days ago; she picked me up on the way here. I understand the danger to Midgar has passed, so I'm not certain what help I can be, but I... didn't want to sit, doing nothing."

"I understand," Tifa said sympathetically.

With everything that had happened, it felt like longer, but Barret wasn't sure even a week had gone by since Bugenhagen's passing. He could understand if Nanaki needed something to distract him from his grief.

"I heard from Shera that some of you meant to go to Wutai now," said Nanaki. "I had hoped to ask Yuffie about it, but everyone seems to have vanished somewhere."

"They got invited to some party down in the slums," Barret explained. "Though, gotta say I'm surprised if Yuffie an' Vincent went along..."

"Jessie probably dragged them into it," Tifa reasoned.

"Probably," Barret considered, and he did his best to stifle that lingering part of him that felt jealous at Jessie dragging Vincent to a party. They were friends, and Vincent was a good guy. "Anyhow, I figure we let 'em have their fun an' head out tomorrow. Yuffie an' Aeris know the details better, but we're hopin' the folks in Wutai can help us get rid o' the Huge Materia."

Nanaki tilted his head thoughtfully. "There's something in Wutain lore?"

Barret scratched his head. "Not exactly. Yuffie talked to her god. Guess it came up with a plan for her."

"I'm sure she'd like to have you along when we talk to Gorkii and the others," Tifa put in. "I can tell she's worried the rest of them won't listen to her."

Nanaki nodded in understanding. "She does have some trouble dealing with the older generation," he said mildly, and Barret chuckled.

They checked in quickly with Shera, who was in the middle of discussing the Highwind's fuel situation with Reeve. On her last stop in Rocket Town, she'd discovered that the Shinra had made use of the fuel depot there. Shera assured them the townsfolk were supportive, but they weren't in a position to say no to Shinra troops. They could only, hopefully, disguise the fact that the Highwind had been making regular visits.

For the time being, though, they decided it was better not to risk it. They didn't need Shinra ambushing them on some routine trip, and they could refuel in Midgar.

It didn't change their plans in the short term. Shera confirmed the Highwind would be ready to go in the morning.

Nanaki came back out with them to the car, and neither Barret nor Tifa had really considered how Evie might react to the appearance of a much, much bigger cat. Amid the reshuffling of passengers, Evie hissed and escaped Elmyra's arms to hide under the front seat near Barret's feet instead.

Before Nanaki could say anything, Marlene patted him on the nose and apologized for the cat's rudeness.

On the drive down to the slums, Elmyra cautiously asked how Nanaki had been, but his bland answer warded off further questions. No one mentioned Bugenhagen.

The narrow slum streets prevented them from driving far, so they left the car outside the church. For the sake of the dumb cat, Elmyra and Tifa went on ahead, while the rest of them lingered for a little while. This was as much of Midgar as Nanaki had ever seen, Barret realized; they'd all spent the night in this church, after Holy.

"It doesn't smell quite as bad," Nanaki remarked.

"Right?" said Marlene, but then she wrinkled her nose. "It's still bad, though."

Barret glanced overhead, at the looming figure of the reactor they'd fought to defend just yesterday, now offline. It felt quieter here, but that might have had as much to do with the slow attrition of Midgar's population as it did with the reactor's silence. But he was sure the Planet appreciated it.

Barret lifted Marlene up onto his shoulder, and they went on to Elmyra's house.

It wasn't the same ethereal impossibility that it had been the night Barret had first seen it, after the destruction of Sector 7. Not much was in bloom anymore, the garden falling dormant for the winter. But it was still an incongruously cozy sight in the Midgar slums, and they accepted Elmyra's offer to stay for dinner without a second thought.

He finally got a call back from Jessie well after they'd eaten, with Marlene standing on a step-stool beside him as they washed dishes by candlelight. Tifa took over for him, and he hurriedly wiped his hands so he could answer.

"Jess! You partied out yet?" He could make out some indistinct voices in the background, but not the din of a crowded bar.

"We just left," she confirmed. "Sorry I missed your call earlier. Are you back in Midgar?"

"Yeah, we got back a few hours ago. We're relaxin' at Elmyra's place now."

"Then we'll swing by, and we can all head topside together," Jessie proposed.

Barret glanced back at Marlene and Tifa in the kitchen. "Elmyra invited us to spend the night, actually. But if it ain't outta your way, I wouldn't mind seein' you before you head up."

"Aw, you really missed me today, huh?" Jessie teased. "Sure, it's not far out of our way. I'll see you soon."

"Yeah. See ya."

For the small house, it was quite a crowd. Their chatter overlapped, between the surprise of Nanaki's presence and Aeris greeting her mom and the collision of questions asking each other about their very different days.

Everyone seemed in high spirits; even Vincent, tucking himself into a corner, looked almost content. It must've been some party. When they finally let slip it had been in Wall Market, Barret had to suppress his flash of horror; Yuffie was practically bouncing off the walls, so she'd come out of it just fine, and like hell could he voice any of his reservations about it in front of Marlene. He shared a private look of incredulity with Tifa, and set it aside for later.

There was no chance for a moment alone with Jessie. It would've been too obvious to step aside, and anyway, he didn't want to leave Marlene with so many people. Even if she knew all of them, it had been a long day for her, and he knew the crowd would be overwhelming without him there to stick to. He gave Jessie a quick hug when they were all saying hello, and somewhere in the shuffle, she touched his hand. That was all.

It had to be enough for now.

No one really talked shop, apart from settling their morning departure. Zack remarked on how Barret had ousted the Midgar team from their bedroom, but Barret didn't think he'd mind a short hotel stay. They'd be back in their own beds the following night, staying behind to hold down the fort.

Once the others had gone again, Barret announced it was bedtime for Marlene, and he ushered her upstairs to the bedroom that had once belonged to Aeris. It looked a little different now: they'd moved the sofa in for Wedge to sleep on, and the belongings of three grown men cluttered the room in competition with the markedly floral and feminine decor.

Marlene hopped up on the bedspread, and Barret helped her get her shoes off.

"Papa?" she asked, swinging her stockinged feet. "Do you like Jessie?"

"Wh-" Barret sputtered, completely caught off-guard. "O- Of course I do. We all like Jessie."

"But do you like her?" Marlene persisted.

He absolutely couldn't lie to her, not when she was asking straight out. Barret sat back and scratched his head. "That okay with you?"

"It's about time," said Marlene, to his utter bemusement.

"What makes you say that?" he managed.

"Most papas are married by now," she said sagely. He had no idea where she'd picked that up. It must have been a recent thing. Maybe Phoebe had said something, or maybe she'd noticed a different trend among the families in Kalm than the ones they'd known in Midgar.

Barret thumbed the ring finger on his left hand. They'd had so little coming out of Corel that he'd had to pawn his wedding band--one more pebble in a mountain of grief. He'd regretted it so intensely afterwards, but taking care of Marlene was more important than a piece of metal, no matter what it signified.

He'd been married, but he didn't think this was the time to tell her about Myrna. He wanted to let this be as simple for her right now as it could be.

"Well, uh, guess I'm takin' my time on that one," he said. "But you think I oughtta get married, huh?"

"Not yet," Marlene amended. "Aeris said, you have to take your time and be sure."

"When'd you talk to Aeris about it?" he asked, wondering if he needed to have a word with her about the meaning of discretion.

"A while ago. She said it was too soon for her and Tifa to get married."

"Ahh, I see. Well, she's right that it's important to be sure. That's why folks date a while first."

"Are you gonna ask Jessie out?"

Oh, man. Barret didn't know whether to laugh or cry. All his worries about how Marlene might react to him being in a relationship, and maybe she would've been their biggest supporter. Maybe it really wasn't any different to her than when Tifa and Aeris had gotten together. Marlene couldn't remember a time when she'd had a conventional family. She'd always been surrounded by people who'd loved and protected her, and who'd cared as much about each other, even if that love hadn't been romantic until recently.

Still, he thought it might be different for her, if she actually saw them being openly affectionate with each other. It was different from how he was with Tifa, or the rest of AVALANCHE.

" you think I should?" he ventured carefully.

"I think she'll say yes," Marlene said.

"Yeah, I... I think she might, too." Barret hesitated, searching for the right words. He didn't want to put a doubt into her head that wasn't already there. "I just wanna make sure it's okay with you. I know Jessie's been family for a while already, but it's, uh... Y'know, it's kinda like when we decided together that Yuffie oughtta be family, instead o' just a friend."

Marlene hesitated. "If you date Jessie, is she my mama?"

"Oh, no. Not unless you want her to be. That's a different conversation." Barret gave her a sheepish smile. "Kinda complicated, ain't it?"

Marlene smiled back. "Yeah. Kinda."

"Well, complicated ain't always bad. You got so many people in your life who love you, they're runnin' outta words for it. I think that's pretty special."

She nodded, and he let out a breath.

"Anyway, uh... if you're really okay with me askin' Jessie out, I might just do that. What kinda date you think I should take her on?"

"You should get her flowers," said Marlene. "Aeris says they mean things."

It wasn't really a date, but he was, after all, asking romantic advice of a four-year-old. He thought Jessie might get a kick out of it if he followed through, especially considering she shared a room with the local florist.

"Yeah?" he said. "What kinda flowers?"

"Mmm... pink ones!" Marlene declared, unsurprisingly, but she went on to inform him, "Yellow is for just friends."

"Got it. No yellow."

He got her bundled into bed, and sat with her until she fell asleep.

In the morning, they said goodbye to Elmyra (and Evie), and drove back up to the plate, where the Highwind waited. Marlene was sleepy in the car, but her excitement returned at the sight of the airship.

When it was just a few of them, they used the ladder to board, but this time, nearly all of AVALANCHE was going, and Reeve had collected a small group of refugees to join them. The belly of the airship had opened, allowing the loading platform to descend.

"Makes it feel like a big undertaking, doesn't it?" Tifa remarked.

"Kind of is, ain't it?" said Barret. "Here's hopin' it goes better than the last time we tried talkin' to Godo."

"Maybe don't punch him this time?" Tifa suggested. "I get why you did it, but..."

Barret scratched his head. "Yeah, yeah. I'll do my best."

Wedge, Zack, and Cloud were there to see them off, and promised to look after things in Midgar while they were gone. The rest of them boarded the airship alongside the refugees, and Barret carried Marlene on up to the bridge while Shera and the others got their passengers settled.

It was still strange, seeing Midgar from above. The airship faced east, the No. 3 and 4 reactors visible in the distance, their glow bounding the edges of Sector 3. Nearly the only active ones left on this continent.

He hadn't had too much foresight, he thought now, in planning to blow them all up. There was no way their little band could have destroyed them all without Shinra catching them. Had he known that on some level, or had he really thought that their fight would inspire others to the cause? He wasn't sure now, in hindsight. Vengeance had driven him as much as passion.

He was grateful things had gone in a different direction.

He let Marlene down as the others joined him on the bridge, and Shera let Cid know they were ready to leave. The airship rose higher, beginning their journey towards Wutai. They'd pass near to Kalm as they went, and a part of him did feel like they'd be skipping past home. It was the people, more than the place--the thought of all of them together in that house--that made it feel that way, but even so. It had taken him so long to recognize the feeling in Midgar that it hadn't really hit him until Sector 7 was already gone.

It took him a minute to realize that Jessie had joined him.

"So," she said, "Marlene wanted to know my favorite flower, and then she said you had something to ask me. So what's going on? You're the one with a birthday coming up."

Barret turned to her, scratching his head. Marlene really wasn't letting him waste any time on this, was she? "Well, uh... Apparently she thinks I oughtta ask you out."

"What?" Jessie laughed, her face splitting in an incredulous grin.

"I feel like a jerk," he confessed, "makin' such a big deal out of it. I'm sorry."

Jessie waved it off. "You're not a jerk. I mean, she's never told you to date anyone else before, right? How could you have known?"

"Was never into anyone else before," he said, relaxing. He was glad she was taking it in stride.

"Hmm." Jessie glanced discreetly over her shoulder and then met his gaze. "So, are you meant to be asking me right now? Should I act like I'm surprised and excited?"

"You kinda look it already," he told her. "No need to go overboard. An' I was thinkin'... maybe we have our 'first' date once we get back to Kalm, an' then we don't gotta hide it anymore."

Jessie smiled, touching his arm. "I like that plan. Ohh, we should go to the movies. That's a good traditional first date."

Of course Kalm didn't have Mako anymore, so the movie theatre didn't operate like it used to. In fact, the owner had up and left for Junon, leaving it abandoned, and a group of Midgar refugees had taken up residence. An electrician in the group had been helping Jessie work on her solar generators, and their first attempt powered the theatre (some of the time), letting them show old movies there a few times a day. Jessie got in for free.

It was, they'd discovered, a great place to make out.

"Yeah, all right," he agreed with a chuckle. "Let's go to the movies."

"I'm really glad," Jessie added more softly, "that she's taking it so well. Not just because I wanna be open about it, but... I didn't wanna mess anything up between you two either."

"You ain't messin' up anything," he told her. He was glad, too.

He wondered how much might change, or how little. Jessie wasn't someone new, after all. Barret could remember that cautious first meeting, when they were just building their connections in the city, and someone had referred them to her for fake IDs. He hadn't expected someone involved in shady criminal activity to be so friendly. It had thrown him. Tifa had done most of the talking.

They'd sure come a long way since then. Maybe there was a long road ahead of them, too.

The blue roofs of Kalm passed by to the south of them, and the Highwind continued on over the northern seas. A lot of empty ocean to his mind, but it occurred to him, eventually, that maybe Yuffie's god was swimming around down there somewhere. And the Lifestream coursed deep beneath, out of Shinra's reach all the way out here.

They'd replenish the rivers of Wutai, Yuffie had said, and then everything would be okay. Barret wasn't entirely clear on what that meant, but he liked the sound of it. The water below seemed endless and enduring. Shinra kept preaching the Lifestream was the same, and it wasn't, but maybe it could be closer, with a little help.

With this route, they were travelling against the sun, and it made the winter day even shorter. The sun set early behind them, and night came on in what felt like the early afternoon. He thought it might be disorienting for Marlene, but having spent the bulk of her few years in Midgar, a normal day and night was something for her only a few months old. He put her down for a long nap in one of the available quarters, and when she woke, they sat on the bridge stargazing.

It was still dark when Wutai's mountains came into view, but Barret knew it for a pre-dawn darkness.

"Finally," said Yuffie, leaning on the bridge's railing nearby. "I can't wait to get down there."

"Lookin' forward to it now, huh?" Barret remarked, knowing she hadn't shared Marlene's unequivocal excitement. Homecoming was complicated for her.

"I swear it's the only upside to this stupid airship."

"Hey!" Cid protested, and Yuffie stuck her tongue out at him.

Nobody saw it coming. The Highwind shuddered, and everyone exclaimed, the ship throwing them against railings and control panels. Someone landed hard on the floor behind them, but Barret was already seated. Marlene fell into him, and he put one arm around her, his other going behind him to brace himself against the floor.

"The heck was that?" he demanded, looking over at Cid.

"Shit!" Cid cursed, and given the situation, Barret bit back his reprimand. Alarms rose in a chorus, lights overhead flashed red, and the crew scrambled back to their posts. The ship continued to shake, and out the window ahead, the mountains loomed closer. Their altitude was dropping.

"It's like we hit somethin,'" said Cid, "or- somethin' hit us."

"Papa?" said Marlene.

"It's gonna be okay," he told her, tucking her head against his chest so she couldn't see the view or the flashing alarms. Over her head, he watched Cid wrestling with the controls. The wheel was all the way over, and the ship turned, slowly, away from imminent collision. The plains to the north were coming up fast instead.

"Is it?" said Yuffie.

"Hell, who do you think I am!?" Cid demanded. "Hold onto your asses, I'm puttin' us down!"

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