Chapter 1: Trail of Blood

The trail of blood and bodies led them to President Shinra's office. Barret was more than ready to put a bullet or fifty into that bastard's head— but someone had beat him to it.

Barret stared in disbelief at Shinra's corpse slumped over that ostentatious desk, sword protruding from his back. "He's dead... The leader of Shinra is dead..."

It was Tifa who ran around behind the desk, as if someone needed to confirm it. "Then this sword must be...!?"

"Sephiroth's!" Cloud finished.

Barret didn't care about that. Shinra was dead! Someone had cut the head off the snake, and the whole damn empire would come crashing down now. He knew it wouldn't happen overnight, but this was the start, he was sure of it.

That weaselly bastard Palmer emerged from some hiding place and tried to make a break for it, but they caught him. Cloud, though, was still fixated on Sephiroth.

It took Barret a minute to place the name. Corel had watched Shinra's war from a distance, smart enough to recognize that despite their propaganda, Shinra wasn't the world's hero fighting on their behalf. But maybe not so smart, because they'd thought it had nothing to do with them. Winning the war had just emboldened Shinra and brought them nosing around Corel, looking for their next conquest.

Yeah, 'Sephiroth' had been one of the big names in the papers in those days. The exemplary SOLDIER.

And now he'd gone and killed the President.

"So he's a good guy then?" Barret wondered. He didn't know why the guy would care about the Promised Land, and he had his doubts about any SOLDIER being his ally, but then there was Cloud's scrawny ass.

Cloud was shaking his head vehemently. "A good guy? No way!!"

There wasn't time to get into it then. Rufus made his grand entrance, and then they were fighting robots and racing down the highway out of Midgar. Barely time to breathe, much less talk. Much less think.

It had been like that for days, ever since the No. 1 Reactor. That one mission had set off a chain reaction, and it wasn't the one that Barret had expected or hoped for. On the road to Kalm, things finally slowed down enough for him to think about it.

Had they struck any real blows against Shinra? Was the company in any actual danger of collapse? The news had twisted AVALANCHE's bombings into the latest scapegoat for Shinra's tightening control. He'd watched the suits in that conference room shrug off the destruction of Sector 7 like it meant nothing. Rufus had stepped into his father's shoes before the body was even cold.

Had it all been for nothing? Biggs, Wedge, Jessie... They'd all fought at his side believing that it was a fight worth rallying to. Believing what he told them about putting an end to Shinra and making a better world.

He thought about Sephiroth's sword impaled in President Shinra's body and the horror that it had inspired in Tifa and Cloud. And Barret had been elated. Giddy, almost. He would have done it himself.

The enemy of my enemy is my friend, they said. What if that person terrified your friends? What did that say about Barret if he admired the guy?

No, it wasn't the guy, but the act. He didn't know a damn thing about Sephiroth, except that he was an ex-SOLDIER. If he'd killed the man Barret hated most in the world, it didn't mean he'd done it for the same reasons.

When they reached Kalm, and Cloud told his story, the reasons didn't get any clearer. In a lot of ways, it was easier to equate Sephiroth with Shinra. He'd burned Nibelheim to the ground the same way Shinra had burned Corel, and Cloud was right: there was no way he was a good guy. They had to stop him, pure and simple.

Or was it dangerous to think it was simple?

Barret knew Shinra. You could talk about different strategies to take them down, but there were things that were never on the table. You couldn't trust them. You couldn't reason with them. They didn't value anything but the money in their own pockets.

Crazy as he was, Sephiroth's motives were different. If he wanted to take the Planet back from humans, Barret would be the first to agree they'd made a damn mess of it. But Sephiroth was seeing them all in black-and-white. Clear-cut, humans were a plague.

Pure and simple.

Barret kept his thoughts to himself as they journeyed. He'd seen the way Tifa drew in on herself when Cloud talked about Sephiroth. If Barret brought it up with her, she'd shut down. And who else was he supposed to talk to? Cloud had a one-track mind on the subject, Aeris had her own issues to wrestle with, and Red XIII was so tight-lipped he still hadn't told them his own damn name.

They were just thoughts, anyway. Useless as long as they were only following in the man's footsteps.



The next bloody trail they followed led them into the engine room of a cargo ship. A man in the red uniform of a commander turned and collapsed as they entered the room, and the knot of them stopped short. There was no sign of their enemy.

A figure in black slowly phased upwards through the floor.

"Sephiroth!" Cloud exclaimed. "You're alive!"

The apparition looked at him without recognition. "...who are you?"

Shouldn't he have remembered his old comrade? Barret didn't know how well ghosts held onto memories, but a ghost wasn't what he expected.

The body of the Shinra commander lay motionless at Sephiroth's back. Sephiroth hadn't so much as glanced at it. His face was expressionless, cold. What was this?

Sephiroth's ghost flew off while Cloud was mid-sentence. Some monster showed up out of nowhere, and Barret cursed, lifting his gun-arm.

They hadn't faced a fight this intense since the Shinra building, surrounded by metal walls and the smell of blood. But this thing wasn't anything like the big roboguards. Its body moved unnaturally and its mouth spewed poisonous gas. The air grew thick, disorienting. Half his bullets seemed to disappear into the mass of flesh like they weren't even real.

They pulled through in the end, and as he caught his breath, Barret finally recognized the monster.

"Isn't this... that thing?"

"...Jenova," Cloud confirmed.

That headless thing from the Shinra building, only it had a head now, and a lot more limbs in the way of tentacles. And somehow, this thing had the same name as Sephiroth's mother.

This couldn't be anybody's mother. There was no way the Ancients had looked like this. Right?

The ship docked at Costa del Sol. Barret welcomed the daylight after that fucking horror show, but the heat hit him fast. While Cloud put on his best impression of a leader and the girls talked hitting the beach, Barret went on ahead to scope out an inn, because someone had to take care of things.

He hit the shower once he'd checked them in. He wanted to wash off the sweat of battle and the lingering disgust of having to sneak around the Shinra. He knew there'd been no way to get through Junon head-on, but he preferred things head-on.

Nothing about what they were doing was straightforward.

Red XIII had said, whatever killed the guard outside their cell that night hadn't been human. But President Shinra had definitely been killed by a sword. The man they'd seen just now had been like a ghost, but Barret's bruises told him that monster sure as hell wasn't.

What was even real? What the fuck were they chasing?

And where was it leading them?

He stepped out of the shower and reached for his usual clothes. The sailor suit lay in a crumpled heap on the floor, and he still had half a mind to throw it in the trash.

It wasn't a Shinra uniform, technically. He hadn't been able to stomach that. Shinra controlled the harbors and the ships, but Shinra controlled everything. The crew they'd run into hadn't cared that they were stowaways, like they turned a blind eye all the time. Some folks could only rebel in small ways.

Barret collected the sailor suit off the floor. Pajamas, Tifa had suggested.

He wondered what Marlene would think of the outfit. It was a far cry from Midgar slums fashion and the image he'd constructed for himself. Nobody looked intimidating in a sailor suit—not that Marlene ever saw him that way anyway. Still, it was better suited to a kid.

He wondered when he'd get back to her... how he'd explain any of this to her. Fighting the Shinra was something he could put in terms she understood—hell, in terms he understood. This was different. Cloud said that Sephiroth was a greater threat to the Planet than Shinra. Barret didn't disagree; the guy was sure as hell some kind of threat, but he couldn't figure out the shape of it.

Nobody even knew what the Promised Land was. What did it mean for Sephiroth to get to it?

When he returned to his room, he found Aeris lying on her back on the far bed, and he faltered. He'd left the rest of his gear here, but he wasn't about to kick her out.

"Oh, uh. Didn't realize you were claimin' this one," he said. "I just gotta grab my arm an' then I'll be outta your hair."

"No, it's all right," Aeris said without looking at him. "I'm not sleeping. I just... wanted a minute to think."

She sounded off. Barret didn't know Aeris well, but moments like this told him she put on a front of her own, sometimes.

" all right?" he ventured.

She was uncharacteristically quiet, eyes fixed on the ceiling fan that spun lazily overhead. "I don't know," she admitted finally. "Sephiroth...... He was strange, wasn't he?"

"Yeah," said Barret. He moved closer and sat down on the opposite bed. "Wasn't exactly what I was expectin.'"

"And Jenova..." She trailed off, frowning.

"Sure as hell didn't seem like no Ancient," he offered. "If you're anything to go by."

It didn't seem to reassure her. "I don't really know," she said. "What are Ancients supposed to be like? What about me is like an Ancient?"

"Well, they ain't supposed to look like that, are they?"

"I guess not. But Jenova was in Professor Hojo's lab for a long time."

Barret rubbed at his beard. "You think he did somethin' to it? I don't know... corrupted it?"

"Maybe. And maybe that explains Sephiroth, too. Why he's so... different."

"You don't wanna be like him."

Aeris shook her head slowly. "I can't decide. If he is an Ancient, then I'm not the only one. But... the things he's done..."

"Nibelheim," Barret agreed. "There ain't no excusin' it."

She nodded.

"...probably no comin' back from it either."

Aeris finally glanced over at him, her brow furrowing curiously. "You don't sound so sure."

"Hell. I oughtta be. It just seems like somebody who hates Shinra that much oughtta be on our side. But he ain't."

"You get it then," said Aeris, looking back at the ceiling. "We have a lot in common. And then we don't."

Having anything in common didn't seem like it was going to make much of a difference. Sephiroth, if that ghost even was Sephiroth, had barely spoken to them. Maybe all that stuff he'd gone through before Nibelheim didn't matter anymore. Maybe he was just a shadow of the man he'd been.

Why kill President Shinra so personally, if there wasn't a person behind it?

Barret had had one look at the Great Sephiroth, and it wasn't enough to suss anything out.

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