February 2023

At the start, Barret hadn't thought of himself as Marlene's father. He couldn't. He'd left her father for dead at the bottom of a ravine and stolen her away. He wasn't her father; he was the reason she didn't have one.

The flames of Corel stripped her of her entire family. Eleanor's sisters, Dyne's uncles, the grandparents who should have doted on her, the cousin only just on the way. Barret knew that Dyne would have wanted him and Myrna to take Marlene if anything happened to him and Eleanor, but this was different. This was a betrayal.

Barret didn't have any right to take her, but she didn't have anyone else.

Neither did he.

From the ashes of their town, he and the other survivors went north to the only other place they could: the foot of the mountains, where the train passed through carrying supplies to the reactor. There'd been a small station town there a long time ago, abandoned in their grandparents' day after a blasting accident collapsed the foundations beneath.

With Corel gone, those dilapidated buildings became shelter. They shored up the crumbling walls with scrap and took inventory of every broken tool and piece of trash their grandparents had left behind.

The others only let him stay because of Marlene. They looked him in the eye with silent resentment, and he felt their judgment on his back, heavier than the summer sun. He remembered his own stupid voice speaking up loudest in favor of the reactor. They didn't beat him to a pulp, only because of Marlene.

Shinra put the tragedy on the news, like something they'd had nothing to do with, and it made Barret's blood boil, but it attracted a few doctors and bleeding hearts. They stayed long enough to fit a prosthetic hand to his still-healing stump, and then they moved on, satisfied that they'd done what they could. Misery tourists, Dyne would've called them. Barret couldn't afford to turn them down.

One doctor offered--offered!--to take Marlene off his hands, like it was some kind of favor. Barret barely managed to refuse without throttling him.

Maybe he didn't deserve Marlene. All of this was his fault. But he'd be twice damned if he gave her away to someone who'd never known her parents. To someone who didn't understand, like Dyne had understood, what you could count on in this world, and what you couldn't.

Once Shinra completed the reactor, the trains stopped coming, too. Barret knew there was nothing to stay for, but it was hard to leave.

A man passed through late in the summer, headed east. He stayed a few nights in their camp, not because he felt he had anything to offer them, but because he wanted to hear their story. Listening from the fringes, Barret learned his first scraps of planetology. The man had come from Cosmo Canyon, where they studied that kind of thing, but their seclusion hadn't sat well with him.

Barret kept his distance from the others, but he spoke with the man alone before he left. He learned how Shinra wasn't just destroying people's lives, but the Planet itself, with its reactors.

That was when he realized that there was one more thing that he hadn't helped them kill, yet. The Planet was still alive, and he couldn't let them take that from Marlene, too.

He knew, of course he knew, that what he really wanted then was vengeance. But vengeance alone was a death wish. Without Marlene, there would have been nothing to stop him from going out in a blaze of pointless glory. But because she needed him, he kept going. He told himself the fight was all for her, until he believed it, because he needed to believe it.

Not long after that, he left for Midgar. Whatever happened to the man he spoke to, he never learned. Maybe Shinra silenced him, or maybe he found his own way to make a difference. Barret liked to imagine the latter.

When he hit Junon, he threw away his prosthetic hand, pawned every salvaged memento worth a gil, and had a gun grafted to his arm instead. He needed a use for that arm. He needed to be able to fight.

The doctor told him that he wasn't the first. Another man had come less than a month ago, seeking a weapon for his left arm. The implication settled uneasily in the pit of his stomach. If Dyne had survived, he would have lost his left hand.

Had he had the same idea? Did he know he could be fighting for something more than revenge? Did he know about Marlene?

Barret wasn't her father. He didn't even know if her father was dead. But if he wasn't, why hadn't he come to the camp? Had something prevented him?

For a while, Barret wondered if he might see Dyne. He wasted his time in Junon, hoping for a reunion and dreading it at the same time. Marlene was his lifeline, but he didn't have any right to her.

Dyne never appeared. Barret's money ran out, and he had to do some things on the road from Junon that he wasn't proud of. A face like his couldn't beg.

And then they reached Midgar.

In some ways, in a lot of ways, it wasn't any different from the camp he'd left behind. Barret looked into soot-stained faces and wondered: how many dreams had Shinra ground into dust? That damn plate hung heavy over their heads, like a physical manifestation of their despair.

Tifa was a godsend. They never spoke of it, but he knew from the start that they shared the same kind of loss. She understood his anger, and he thought she understood the pit he teetered on the brink of, even though it seemed that, somehow, she'd clawed her way back from its edge on her own. They kept each other from falling back in, even if that was as much as they could do for each other. It was enough.

They were still living in those shitty rooms over the weapons shop when Barret cautiously let himself trust her, and asked her to look after Marlene. Just for an hour or two, in the mornings before her shift at the bar. Barret would go out on his own and scrounge for work. Nobody would hire a man with a baby to do a damn thing, but on his own he could pick up odd jobs. He could lift and carry, and collect the reward for killing monsters that wandered in from the edge of the wastes.

And then he'd hurry back.

He didn't even notice when Tifa said it the first time. Marlene was fussing in her arms when Barret walked in, five seconds from either a total meltdown or succumbing to the sleepiness that was making her cranky.

"Look, here's your papa," said Tifa, and Marlene quieted, turning to look at him with round, teary eyes. She reached for him. Her hands were so tiny and perfect.

Barret gathered her up and held her against his shoulder. Tifa had to head out, but Marlene was asleep in minutes after she'd gone.

Papa... He didn't know how he felt about that.

Back in Corel, they'd called their fathers 'Dad.' It was how Barret had known his, and it was how they referred to Dyne. Marlene's dad. They'd tease him about it and coo it at Marlene, in the same tone that Tifa had used. Look, here's your dad.

She hadn't been old enough to mimic the sounds, before everything went to shit.

People in Midgar mostly said 'Dad,' too. But Tifa wasn't from Midgar any more than he was.

As they grew more settled in Sector 7, Barret noticed it spreading. Marlene didn't look a thing like him. She had her father's eyes and Eleanor's delicate complexion. But somehow, no one commented. No one asked. Barret had never introduced Marlene as his daughter, only 'Marlene,' but when they were together, everyone would say it: How's your daughter? they would ask him.


What are you and your papa up to today?

And he knew it had come from Tifa.

For a while, he agonized over how to talk to her. It made him feel like an impostor, usurping Dyne's place. He wasn't Marlene's father, and Tifa shouldn't have told everyone that he was. He wanted to tell her to take it back, to tell everyone to stop.

But he would come home from a job, and Tifa would ask, "Are you excited to see your papa?" and more and more, he could see Marlene recognizing that as him. And she was excited. She didn't just rely on him, but she missed him when he was gone.

In the end he was a coward, and he could only broach the subject cautiously.

"Why... why'd you start callin' me her papa?" he asked Tifa, as Marlene settled down for a nap.

Tifa blinked at him. "Isn't that what you are?"

Barret looked away. "You know... I'm not her real father."

"You're the one who takes care of her," she said. "I don't know what happened, but... You love her like she's your own. If you're not her family, then who is?"

He didn't know how to answer her. For months, he'd told himself that he'd taken Marlene with him because she didn't have anyone else. After what he'd done, that was the only thing that made it okay.

He never spent any time pondering how much he loved her. He knew he loved her. It was like breathing.

Did that love make him a father?

Dyne hadn't shown up. Didn't Marlene deserve someone to call family? But he couldn't make himself feel right saying it. He'd just see what happened, he thought.

A few weeks after her first birthday, the world changed.

"Papa!" Marlene exclaimed as he walked in through the door, her pudgy arms bouncing up in excitement.

And after that, Barret couldn't be anyone else. She'd proclaimed it, so he knew it was true.

He scooped her up in his good arm, and she giggled as he lifted her high. "That's right," he said. "I'm your papa. And your papa loves you so much."

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