Chapter 19

Barret left Marlene in Nanaki's care while Wutai prepared for battle. He couldn't be much help with fortifications or weapons distribution or last-minute drills, and it was probably for the best anyway; Nanaki was still enough of a novelty to Marlene that spending time with the big cat kept her distracted from the fact that her papa was about to go into a fight.

Shinra had never reached the capital during the war, Gorkii told him. The navy had protected it from any approach by sea, and the terrain made a land approach complicated. The mountains shielded it in the north, and the surrounding forest was too dense for vehicles. In the winter, the rivers were too cold to ford, forcing ground troops to bottleneck at the bridges.

But the Gelnikas could carry smaller aircraft in their holds. Most of the soldiers would be coming on foot, but what about Scarlet and her new weapon? What about those robots of hers?

A part of him itched to come face-to-face with her. Heidegger had passed down the order to destroy Sector 7, but it was Scarlet who'd overseen the destruction of Corel. It was Scarlet's rifle that had shot up his hand, making him lose his grip on Dyne. AVALANCHE's dealings with her had been so few that Barret had never found the moment to explain how personal it was with her.

Scarlet herself probably didn't even remember him from back then. That was the problem with Shinra. They ruined lives, and it never weighed on them.

Barret couldn't claim to know every life he'd ruined, or every face he'd killed, but he took responsibility as best he could. For his part in what had happened to Corel, for the No. 1 reactor, for the mess the world had fallen into as little by little they loosened Shinra's grip on it.

He never thought he'd find himself defending the capital city of Wutai any more than he'd expected to be protecting a Mako reactor only a few days ago, but as crazy as it was, this one didn't leave him conflicted. Wutai had lost the fight with Shinra before he'd ever thought to take it up. This time he'd help them win it.

But he felt off his game, not used to being on the defensive and not used to Wutai. While Godo finally threw his weight around organizing his own people, and Shera and her crew worked on fortifications, Barret looked for something he knew. No one had really asked anything of the refugees from Midgar. He wasn't surprised; none of them had been here for more than a couple weeks, and that wasn't long enough for anybody in Wutai to feel like they could be counted on.

Barret didn't know a lot of them personally, just a few faces here and there, folks who'd survived Sector 7 and wanted to leave its ruins well behind them. A lot of them, they didn't have it in them to confront this new disaster, and he didn't blame them. Folks had a right to a peaceful life, or at least he thought they should.

But some of them? Some of them were like him. They'd had too much taken away from them, and they were ready to fight back.

He picked his new recruits out of the anxiously uninvolved onlookers and asked them their experience, what they thought they could contribute. Some of them had never fought before, and he set them to work with Shera. Others had taken part in neighborhood watches, in keeping their friends and family safe from the monsters that crawled the slums. He brought them to Jessie, who'd made herself at home in the old materia shop. She sat chatting with retired Wutain ninja as they built up their stock of incendiaries.

She pulled him aside when she had a minute, urging him to sit down on a crate in the corner.

"This thing ain't full of explosives, is it?" he wondered.

"No, no," she assured him. "Not anymore. Here, I wanna take a look at your arm."

"What? My arm's fine."

"Yeah, but when was the last time we serviced it? You don't want it crapping out on you in the middle of a big fight."

Barret relented, stretching out his prosthetic arm for her. "All right, all right. Have it your way."

"Goodness," said Jessie, "you act like you don't like me servicing you."

Barret blushed furiously, and quickly glanced around, but no one in the shop was paying them any mind. "You really gotta put it like that?" he asked, voice low.

Jessie snickered and then winked at him. "Something to look forward to."

He shook his head, smiling fondly. "Kinda lookin' forward to a good night's sleep, honestly," he said.

"Yeah," Jessie agreed. "We've been going pretty hard since this morning. But we'll be through it soon."

Barret let his gaze drop to her hands. Her fingers worked deftly, unscrewing the casing and tucking the screws carefully into her palm. She'd always learned hands-on, not by the book, teaching herself things whenever there was a practical need for them. Maybe they were all like that, stepping into roles they'd never prepared for, armed with nothing but their own passion and building from there.

That could be plenty. That could take a person pretty far.

"You think this time..." he began, and Jessie glanced up at his face. "You think this is when we beat Shinra?"

Jessie grinned. "Kinda seems that way, doesn't it? And I mean, look at us. All us ordinary, average people, and there's so many of us. I didn't figure on it going down in Wutai, but... maybe this is our last big fight. This and what they're doing in Junon."

"I'd really like that," said Barret. "If this was the last time."

They woke Vincent when the scouts reported in that Shinra was on the move. Barret found Shera, and she agreed to look after Marlene until the battle was through. She'd done as much as she could for them, and though Nanaki hadn't said anything about it, Barret knew he was just as determined as the rest of them to protect Wutai on Yuffie's behalf; he wanted to be in the thick of it.

Barret carried Marlene down to the secret basement Yuffie had shown them, and he wasn't the only one taking his child there for shelter. Most of these kids had been born after the war; he wondered if their parents had ever been ushered down here, in its early years, and if they'd worried that no one would come back for them.

He'd made Marlene wonder that too many times already. This could be the last one. Just one more time.

He gave Marlene a tight hug and promised he'd be back soon, like he always did. He always meant it, and today wasn't going to make a liar of him. On his way out, he made sure the entrance was shut snug and invisible. He was determined that the Shinra would never make it this far, but if they did, they wouldn't find anything.

"Jessie fill you in on everything?" Barret asked Vincent as they walked with Nanaki east through the capital, towards where they expected to engage with Shinra. The front lines had never been Jessie's place; she'd thrown herself in with the team of lookouts relaying Shinra's movements.

"Yes," said Vincent. "I would call some of it far-fetched, but..."

Barret snorted. "All we've been through, an' all you've been through... Ain't somethin' you can say lightly."

"I am surprised Yuffie left Wutai, though."

"She sure didn't want to," said Barret, "but I think what she's doin,' she's still doin' for Wutai. If Leviathan helps put an end to all this, well... That's a win for her."

She'd had her heart set on being in the thick of things, too. He was worried for her, but he told himself Tifa would look out for her.

...Leviathan, too. It didn't come natural to him to ask the gods for anything or even think of them, but he said a quick prayer in his head as they walked, one parent to another. Yuffie's mother was in there somewhere, too, and she'd understand.

Godo had positioned himself with the greater part of Wutai's forces, at the outskirts of the capital. However much Yuffie (rightly) disparaged him, his people still respected him, and just having him there was good for morale. They'd pulled together a lot more people than had fought in that morning's skirmish. Some hadn't fought in years, and some were practically kids who'd never seen a real fight, but they looked more determined than nervous.

Barret went on past them, to the east bridge. Scouts hadn't reported any sign of Shinra circling around to the south, so this was the choke point, the way the ground forces would have to come.

Jessie had proposed blowing the bridge, forcing Shinra either to ford the freezing waters or take the time to construct their own ad hoc bridge, either way exposing themselves to attack. But the Wutains wouldn't hear of it. The thought of deliberately destroying a part of their own home... After losing so much to the Shinra already, Barret understood needing to draw a line. The bridge stayed.

Would Scarlet be leading the forces? As much as he hated her, she wasn't a coward. But she sure as hell wasn't noble either.

Shake and Chekhov were out this far, too, with another dozen of Wutai's warriors. Barret nodded to them and took up position behind the barricades they'd erected along the near bank of the river. Nanaki and Vincent hunkered down with him, and right now, he didn't mind that they weren't big talkers. He watched the trees for a glimpse of red. More likely, he'd spot blue uniform, first.

But he got a call from Jessie, before he so much as heard a twig snap under an approaching boot. "What's up, Jess?" he asked her, trying not to brace himself for bad news already.

"Shinra air support is on the move," she said. "Guys up on the mountain said three helicopters, and one aerial robot."

"Shit," said Barret, jumping to his feet. Nanaki and Vincent looked at him inquisitively. "You need us to high-tail it back there? They're probably aimin' to fly straight past our defenses."

"No, stay put," Jessie said firmly. "The roboguard's staying at low altitude; I don't think those models can clear anywhere near as high as a mountain range."

Barret faltered. "You think it's comin' our way?"

"That's what I'd bet on. If I were Shinra, I'd send that thing to clear the path."

"But you got three copters--"

"And a bunch of explosives to chuck at 'em. Plus we're getting a message to Godo to pull some of his people back."

"...awright," Barret relented. "But you keep your distance from the explosions this time, you hear?"

"Aw, you don't wanna carry me again?"

"Not 'cause I have to."

He could hear the smile in Jessie's voice. "You be careful, too," she said.

"Yeah, I will," he said. "An' I'm comin' for ya once we take care o' that thing."

"I'll do my best not to need saving," she promised.

She'd be all right, he told himself. There wasn't any reason for her to get into the thick of things, this time. No bombs only she could diffuse. She could keep her distance.

He was still glad it wasn't that much longer before he caught the whir of rotor blades. He wanted to get this over quick, in case she decided to be reckless anyway.

It just barely cleared the trees, its body snapping through the uppermost branches even as the wind generated by its rotors pushed them down. Its triangular construction ended with a drill at its base, but its primary weapons were the machine guns mounted on either side.

They'd fought tougher.

It almost seemed keen to sail right on over the bridge and past them, but Barret leveled his gun at it first, aiming for those propellers to see if he could ground it, and Vincent joined him. Their bullets pinged off its metal hull, but caught its attention. It stopped, hovering just above the far end of the bridge, and raised its guns.

Barret ducked back down behind the barricade, and he felt the hail of bullets slam into the other side. He waited on the reload, but farther down the barricade, out of the path of its fire, Chekhov lifted her head up. She made some gesture with her hands, and the crack of a Bolt spell almost deafened him.

The rhythm against the barricade ceased. He risked a glance in time to see the robot smashing into the ground, its rotors stalled. The drill gouged a shallow hole in the hard ground and then it pitched over, landing on its side.

Shake vaulted over the barricade and was across the bridge like a shot, faster even than Yuffie could move. He flipped one of those Wutain daggers into his hand and sliced into the wires of one gun mount.

"Careful, kid!" Barret shouted after him. His muscles tensed to follow, but the robot was already starting to shudder, revving back to life. Shake clung onto the back of the gun as it lifted up from the ground again. The rotors spun just above his head, the air they blasted loosening his hair from its ties. The machine started to turn, slowly, like it was trying to detect him.

Barret fired a shot into its opposite side, away from Shake, drawing the robot's attention. The heli-gunner lifted one gun, but the other hung still at its side as it fired both. Barret ducked down again.

Some of the Wutain warriors had crept farther up the river, where it began to bend, in search of a better angle. A shuriken flew from someone's hands, followed by another. The first missed its target, but the second sliced into the machine's wiring.

Barret wondered how many robots like this one had been deployed in the war. Whether Wutai had studied the weak points of this one's predecessors, how many people they'd lost in the process.

The second gun struggled to maintain its angle, its weight supported by fewer components. As it started to turn towards the Wutains who'd attacked it, the spray of bullets following, Nanaki hit the gun with a Fire spell. Something gave, and the arm dropped. Barret grinned, but just for a second.

He caught a flash out of the corner of his eye. A flare rose above the trees behind them, back to the west. It was an urgent signal they'd all agreed on: Shinra had broken through into the heart of the capital.

Marlene. Jessie.

But the heli-gunner wasn't down yet, even if they'd disabled its long-range capabilities. It began to spin, faster and faster, until Shake lost his grip and went flying into the trees behind it. The robot sped forward across the water, and Chekhov cast hastily, summoning a block of ice in its path. The machine smashed into it, losing its momentum and momentarily its sense of direction.

Somewhere in the trees beyond, he caught a flash of approaching blue uniform.

Barret felt frozen, not sure which direction to rush.

"Go," Vincent said quietly.

"That kid--"

"I'll look after the boy. Go to her."

Barret met his gaze, and nodded. He could leave this fight to others. He couldn't leave Jessie on her own, and he couldn't stay here not knowing how close Marlene was to danger.

"You fall back to Godo's position once--"

"I know the plan," Vincent interrupted him.

Barret let that go unchallenged. He took off back through the forest path, and Nanaki followed at his heels.

As they cleared the treeline into the outskirts of the city, he saw smoke rising in the distance, and his heart seized in his chest, remembering the smoke of a different fire--

His next breath came sharp and deep, and he couldn't smell the smoke. It wasn't thick in the air, this was something much smaller, just two thin lines rising up clear across the city. A couple buildings at most, not an entire village.

One building could still be too much.

His feet pounded over the dirt and stones of Wutai's streets, weirdly empty of people. Everyone was either hiding inside or they'd already rushed to help. They ran into Jessie at the head of the path leading up to the pagoda. Barret almost bowled her over, not expecting to find her clear of the danger.

"Jess!" he exclaimed, letting his momentum carry him into scooping her up with one arm and spinning around. She let out a whoop of surprise, and she was grinning when he set her down.

"Uh, yeah, I'm fine," she said. "And they haven't gotten to Marlene. I've been watching from up top." She gestured to the roof of the shop nearby.

"The smoke?" Nanaki wondered.

"Helicopters," Jessie answered. "They brought down two of them, but the third one just landed in the square."

"Then they are near Marlene!" Barret concluded, taking off again. Jessie kept pace with him. Racing along the river towards the pagoda, the sound of a bell reached his ears.

"They won't find her," said Jessie, and he'd told himself that before, but he'd feel a lot better knowing they couldn't even look.

"They must be after Godo," Nanaki reasoned. "He's rarely left that house in years."

He was probably right. If the Shinra could capture Godo, it would weaken the resolve of Wutai's forces, and without Wutai's support, AVALANCHE couldn't stand up to Shinra's forces.

But, Yuffie had persuaded Godo to fight. He wasn't the easy win Shinra expected.

The bell fell silent, ceding to the sound of scattered gunfire. Quick bursts of explosions followed.

Barret bounded up the steps to the big gate opening out onto the square, and the scene was chaotic. A military helicopter dominated the square, and SOLDIERs leapt out of it beneath the spinning rotors. Scarlet in her red coat had her huge gun in her arms; the barrel smoked from a recent shot.

Allies scrambled for the barricades that had been erected as a last defense around Godo's house. A few of the Midgar refugees were helping Gorkii drag a wounded Staniv up to the house, and Cid was shouting to Wutain and Midgar fighters alike to cover them. They had only a handful of guns themselves, but people hurled grenades.

That kept the SOLDIERs at a distance, but some of them were focusing magic. No one had noticed them yet, and Jessie wordlessly pulled a smoke bomb from her belt and tossed it in the direction of the helicopter. Smoke poured out of it and enveloped Scarlet and her men, and unable to see their targets, none of their spells materialized.

Nanaki bounded ahead to join the others, and Barret and Jessie helped the last few stragglers up the steps and behind cover. Barret took stock: they hadn't left anyone behind, and apart from Staniv, no one seemed badly hurt.

"He gonna be all right?" Barret asked of Gorkii. He had his hands pressed against Staniv's ribs, where blood was soaking through his tunic. Barret wondered if the Shinra had mistaken him for Godo; he had a slighter frame, but from a distance...

"Yes," Gorkii answered after a beat. "It was a clean shot."

Barret left him to concentrate. Jessie was checking what munitions they had. The smoke had started to drift away, and while he couldn't see anyone yet, he heard Scarlet shouting through it. He propped his gun on the reinforced railing and aimed it in the direction of her voice. Maybe he'd get lucky.

Before he could get off a shot, a sword came slicing through the smoke ahead of the SOLDIER wielding it. Barret shifted his aim and fired. His first shot hit armor, but his second caught the man above the collarbone and he went down.

Others charged out of the smoke after him. Barret took aim, but he caught a flash of red, and as Scarlet's view of them cleared, she leveled her gun.

"Down!" shouted Cid.

Barret ducked below the barricade, and the entire railing shuddered with the impact. Something splintered. He wondered how many blasts they could withstand.

The SOLDIERs were nearly on them now. A few last grenades were tossed before they got so close they'd risk blowing up their own allies, and Nanaki blasted off a Fire spell. Barret kept firing at close range. A few of the Wutain fighters leveled halberds as the enemy drew closer to melee range.

Two SOLDIERs bounded up the steps onto the veranda, and a third leapt clear over the railing, scattering defenders. Cid shoved someone back out of the way and cursed as he scrambled out of the path of the sword himself. It was too close for a clear shot. Barret swung the butt of his gun into the back of the SOLDIER's head. Nanaki rushed past him, sinking his teeth into the man's sword arm.

Barret turned. Wutain halberds were holding the other SOLDIERs at bay, but one was pulling back, focusing a spell.

"Gorkii!" Barret shouted. He grabbed Jessie and hauled her back as fire exploded onto the veranda. Gorkii's barrier magic fell into place, shaping the plumes around it, but a fraction of a second too slow for the nearest of the defenders. He screamed and dropped his halberd as the fire burned his hands. His comrades caught him, and Jessie threw a grenade out. It detonated behind the two SOLDIERs, throwing them forward onto the steps as the defenders pulled back.

Barret lifted his gun, but a Bolt spell hit him out of nowhere.

When Cid's next warning shout came, he was already on the floor. Scarlet's shot slammed into the barricade less than a meter away, the heavy round tearing through thick planks of wood to bury itself in the wall of the house behind.

He felt Jessie's hand on his arm. "You okay?"

"Yeah," he grunted, pulling himself up. Gorkii had shifted his focus to shield them from the SOLDIERs' magic, and Nanaki was helping to keep them at bay with magic of his own, but that was all they were doing: keeping them at bay. It was a stand-off, and with Scarlet out there, he didn't like their chances of holding.

"We gotta get Scarlet," he said.

She hadn't advanced from the helicopter, and two infantry with riot shields had hung back, flanking her. It'd be hard to get a clear shot, but magic-- Nanaki had his paws full.

Scarlet's weapon began to glow. Cid shouted. Barret pulled Jessie around away from the damaged barricade, and the shot ripped through behind his back, sending chunks of wood flying. Something smacked against his boot, but not hard enough hurt.

He saw Staniv, bloody but alert, his eyes on what he could see of the fight from where he leaned against the outside wall of the house.

Barret crouched down beside him. "What kinda magic your gods give you?" he asked.

"That isn't--" Staniv began, offended by his bluntness, but he let it drop. "Mastery of weapons," he said, "and the element of earth."

"Don't suppose that means you could magic Scarlet's gun away from her..."

Staniv regarded Barret flatly. If he could do a thing like that, he probably wouldn't have gotten shot by just a regular gun.

"But she's standing on earth," Jessie pointed out. "Can you do something with that?"

"...yes," Staniv answered this time, and he grit his teeth, starting to lean forward. Barret and Jessie helped him closer to the railing, where he could get a look at his target.

"After her next shot," said Barret. It was already nearly charged again.

They waited for the shot to slam through the barricade, tearing another hole in their cover. Then Jessie supported Staniv while Barret readied his gun.

He'd thought about vengeance plenty of times. There'd been a few times that he'd felt close enough to taste it. And he'd killed Shinra soldiers before, but after everything with Dyne, he'd done what he could not to let himself want to. He wasn't seeking their deaths; this was about protecting the people he loved, not destroying what he hated.

Looking out at Scarlet, it was hard not to feel the opposite. But this was his shot. He couldn't push it off on someone else to carry, not this time.

Staniv's magic rippled beneath the cobblestones of the courtyard and erupted beneath the feet of Scarlet and her two guards. They stumbled away from her, and Scarlet herself fell back against the hull of the helicopter. Unguarded, unprepared to fire again. A clear shot.

His bullet struck her in the chest. She crumpled against the helicopter and slid to the ground as her two guards scrambled over to her.

Barret watched her, motionless, his finger still resting against the trigger. Had he killed her?

He couldn't name what he felt. It wasn't satisfaction, and it wasn't emptiness, but it did feel like something had gone out of him.

He noticed the rising commotion belatedly as Jessie's hand settled on his arm. Ice crystallized around the attacking SOLDIERs, and up through the gate, Chekhov appeared. Vincent came behind her, and he took aim at the immobilized SOLDIERs one-by-one. The spell didn't hold them for long, but the moment's reprieve energized the defenders. They surged down the steps, taking the offensive.

Barret caught Jessie's eye, and he left her with Staniv to join them. Between Chekhov's magic and the passion of the defenders, the remaining SOLDIERs were overwhelmed in a matter of minutes. It was more than the tide turning. It was like a flood.

As soon as the way was clear enough, Barret crossed the courtyard to Scarlet. She wasn't dead, after all. She lay crumpled on the ground, breathing shallowly, blood running down from the bullet wound into the bodice of her dress, though he could barely make out the stain for the color. He wondered if that was why she'd chosen it; all the blood on her hands would never show.

She didn't have the strength to grip her gun, but it still lay loosely in her fingers. Barret slung his own over his shoulder and yanked hers away, just to be sure. She looked up at him, and her lips trembled into a grimace.

Did she think he'd come to finish the job? She'd bleed out soon enough, without him doing anything but watching.

And if it had been just him... If it were just him, then it would've sat fine. But somewhere almost directly beneath his feet was Marlene, and she didn't know him for a man who did ugly things. He'd done ugly things, and she'd learn about them someday, but he didn't need to add one more to the list. However certain he felt in his bones about what Scarlet deserved... Marlene deserved a better man for a father than that.

Jessie hurried up beside him then, and he passed Scarlet's gun to her before she could say anything. He knelt, and pressed his good hand against the wound to staunch the bleeding.

"Gorkii around?" he asked Jessie brusquely. "Ain't exactly a priority, but... You get me."

"I'll ask him," Jessie said after a short hesitation. They both knew Gorkii might not agree, even if he had no other wounded to tend. He was a good man from what Barret could tell, but he was more of a soldier than they were. Scarlet was the enemy commander, and she was dying. In war, that was supposed to be a good thing.

Jessie's footsteps retreated anyway, in search of Gorkii.

"Idiot," Scarlet growled through grit teeth. "You're the one who shot me."

"Returnin' the favor, I guess."


"You don't remember me, do you?"

Scarlet's eyes narrowed at him. "AVALANCHE scum," she said, but he shook his head.

"Before that. You were the one... came to Corel, made us all those promises. You were the one, ordered your men to burn it all down. You were the one, shot up my arm, and put a good man down a dark path."

"You think you're a good man?" she asked, her mouth twisting.

"Wasn't talkin' about me," he said. "But I expect you don't remember Dyne either. Even if he was the one man who saw through you."

Barret wished he'd seen her for what she was, too, back then. Just a dolled-up face making grandiose and empty promises. She'd never cared about their lives, or their futures. All she seemed to care about was destruction.

Killing her, or letting her die, wouldn't absolve him of any of his own responsibility for what had happened. But in the moment, he was looking at the part of the blame that didn't fall on his shoulders.

Jessie was back, dropping onto her knees on Scarlet's other side. "Gorkii and the other medics are busy with our own," she said. "Not sure they'll make it."

"Cowards," Scarlet spat. "Just let go."

"You'd like that, huh?" said Barret. "Go out fast, in a fight? Instead o' makin' it through this pain an' findin' yourself locked up the rest o' your life?"

Scarlet said nothing, just glaring at him. Maybe, he thought, as much as she hated an enemy trying to help her, she didn't want to go out at all.

But he felt her pulse weaken. Her gaze went unfocused, and at last she let out a breath, and didn't take another one. Slowly, Barret pulled his hand back.

"You okay?" Jessie asked him.

"...yeah," he decided. He'd done what he could, hadn't he?

"...was she the one who ordered the attack on Corel?"

Barret looked up at her in surprise. "How did you...?"

"I know you," she said. "I can tell when it's personal."

He nodded slowly. "Yeah. It was her." He lifted up his metal hand. Clean compared to his other. "So was this."

Jessie put her hand on his shoulder. "You're a good man," she said. "No one could've blamed you, for trying to take vengeance."

"This wasn't vengeance?" he wondered.

"...maybe it was, a little bit," Jessie admitted. "But you tried to keep her alive, so she could face justice. Not that I really think this wasn't just. I mean..." She lifted her gaze past him, looking out over the courtyard. "All she's ever done is hurt people."

Barret followed her gaze, watching the people around them for a minute. Gorkii and a few others tending to their wounded allies. Vincent and Nanaki among those checking over the fallen Shinra, divesting them of their weapons. Smoke still rose beyond the courtyard from the downed helicopters, and he realized one of the plumes was dangerously close to the pagoda. He remembered, for a second, that robot they'd left defeated in the City of the Ancients, just more Shinra junk desecrating sacred spaces.

"Wait," he said suddenly, looking back at Jessie. "What about the rest of the fight?"

Jessie looked at him incredulously. "I don't think that's our job," she said. "Do you?"

"I can still fight."

She picked herself up and offered him a hand, even though she couldn't have pulled him to his feet. He took it anyway. "We'll check with Vincent," she said. "But if he left that fight, I don't think they need our help."

She was right, when they asked him. Godo had sent Chekhov back to the city because the battle at its outskirts was well in hand, and her magic wasn't needed. Under Godo's command, Wutai's forces were fighting well. Vincent expected Shinra to retreat come nightfall, if they lasted that long.

"We should check on Marlene," Jessie proposed, and Barret turned eagerly for the house, only to notice Scarlet's blood still staining his hand.

Jessie took his wrist, gently. "We'll both get cleaned up a little, first."

They went back out beneath the gate and down to the riverbank. Jessie pulled a rag out of her pocket and Barret sat with her, letting her wipe the blood from his skin, as careful and meticulous as she'd been with his prosthetic.

"...seein' to both my hands today, huh," he remarked.

"Well, they're yours. So I'm a fan."

Barret smiled faintly. Even now, she didn't see anything ugly in them. Maybe there wasn't.

He'd talked to Tifa some, about how she'd felt with Sephiroth gone. Like she'd finally closed the chapter on Nibelheim, she'd said, making the space to start a new one.

It wasn't just Scarlet. He saw Shinra coming to its end. It'd be a long time before anyone could forget what they'd done, but he wouldn't have to live knowing they were still getting away with it. That had always been one of the hardest parts: watching other people, complacent or oblivious, throwing their support behind Shinra, the same way he had.

They'd have a hard time doing that now, if there wasn't any Shinra. Even the most stubborn would have to turn elsewhere. They'd have to support other things.

"...I've missed watchin' you work," he said, watching Jessie's hands.

"This is work?" she asked.

"Nah, not exactly. Just been thinkin' about it. I know you get kind of a thrill blowin' stuff up, but..."

"I get it," she said. "I wanna get back to building things, too. Not just damage control. Although, I've been thinking about getting into fireworks."

"Fireworks, huh? Bet Marlene'd like 'em."

Jessie smiled. "I hope so." She looked his hand over, and then the rest of him, and pronounced him clean enough to go be a dad. They both still had some dirt smudged here and there, but that was fine.

When Barret came down the stairs to the shelter, he could sense everyone in the room letting go their tension. He wasn't Shinra.

"Papa!" Marlene cried, racing across to him. "Did you beat them?"

"That's right, baby girl. We won." He drew her carefully into his arms, trying not to feel like the blood was still there, somehow. She didn't know anything about that. He was her father, and she felt safe with him, and damn it, this was the last time. The last time he left her like this.

"Cid's just fine," he heard Jessie assuring Shera, behind him. "We all came through it okay."

Barret knew, it wasn't possible that they had zero casualties. Some folks had been wounded upstairs, and he knew, even if you survived an injury, it could change you. And out where Godo was still fighting, he didn't know the counts.

But Marlene didn't need to know that. If they could tell her the people important to her were safe, that was enough.

Was Yuffie safe? Were Tifa, and Aeris? Wedge, and Zack, and Cloud?

"Papa..." Marlene began, and he knew he was holding her a little too tight. He relaxed his grip.

"Sorry 'bout that. Just glad it's over with."

Jessie glanced at him, and then asked Shera, "Any word from Junon?"

They heard from Cloud about the same time that Shake came charging down the stairs to announce Shinra's defeat. Weapon was down, and Tifa and the others had cornered Rufus in his own damn command center. Barret could hardly believe it. He hugged Marlene close again, and then he decided they didn't need to be cooped up down in some basement any longer.

"Just close your eyes a minute," he told her as he carried her up the stairs. He didn't know if the bodies, if Scarlet's body, was still out there, but he didn't want her seeing that. In the winter air, she curled into his jacket, keeping her eyes shut.

The sun had set behind the mountains, throwing twilight across Wutai. The smell of smoke lingered in the air, but there was something else, too. In the low light, he thought his eyes were playing tricks on him at first. But Jessie caught up to him with a lantern, and in the warm glow, he could see for sure:

It had started snowing.

"Hey," he said to Marlene, as they continued down the river walk, putting the site of the battle behind them. "Look. What's that?"

She opened her eyes. For a full minute, she just stared. The flakes came down heavier, growing unmistakable. She wriggled, and Barret let her down.

"Papa--" she started, but still she was speechless. She ran a few paces ahead of him, staring upwards, and then spun around to face him. "It's snowing," she pronounced at last.

"Sure is," Barret said, grinning.

Jessie stepped up beside him, bumping his arm with her shoulder. "Think this might be what it looks like, a world without Shinra."

"Yeah," he agreed. "Maybe so."

Jessie handed the lantern off to him joined Marlene, encouraging her to stick her tongue out in hopes of catching snowflakes, the way she'd done as a kid.

It had snowed rarely in Corel. It got cold enough, but not wet enough. But in Midgar, Jessie had been Marlene's age when the plate had started going up. Old enough to remember what they'd lost. What would it take to dismantle all that? Another thirty years, and maybe Marlene would be reminiscing to kids about how she hadn't ever seen the sky, when she was young.

He wondered how much of this she'd hold onto. Barret didn't have a lot of memories from before his fifth year, but Marlene had had a rougher start in life than most. A lot of struggle, and a lot of loss. He hadn't been able to shield her from all of that.

But spinning around with Jessie under the snowfall, she didn't look like someone who carried anything on her shoulders at all. They'd lay a world free from Shinra out ahead of her, and the chaotic years without a sky would be nothing but a strange anecdote to tell in the future, to people who knew nothing about it. They'd be okay now. She'd be okay.

It looked like a damn good start to a new chapter.

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