Chapter 4: Illusion

It was bad enough they'd had to come back to Gold Saucer at all, Barret couldn't believe they'd been forced to spend the night in the damn place. He couldn't tell if the design of the hotel was mocking him on purpose or if it was just that tone-deaf. It was built on graves, and they put cheap headstones out front as a gimmick.

Cloud had managed to win the Keystone off that sleazeball Dio. It should have given them a minute to breathe; whatever secrets the Temple of the Ancients held, whether it was about the Promised Land or the Black Materia, neither Sephiroth nor the Shinra would be able to get in without the key.

But how the hell was he supposed to relax here? The fake thunder rumbling outside put him so on edge that his hand kept twitching towards his gun-arm, even though he'd already taken it off to sleep. As if he'd be able to sleep.

They were too much in the dark, it didn't feel like they were one step ahead of anybody. Sephiroth said he was searching for the Promised Land, but if he wasn't really an Ancient, then could he even find it? The way Aeris talked, it didn't even sound like a fixed place. Barret trusted her word over the scholars at Cosmo Canyon who speculated it might not even exist, but he wasn't convinced it could be worth anything to Sephiroth either.

Was it just a smokescreen? The Shinra were still chasing Sephiroth around because they thought he could lead them to the Promised Land, but why would he want them on his tail? Was he luring them somewhere? Were Barret and the others about to fall into the same damn trap?

What was the Black Materia? It didn't sound like anything good.

Cid had yet to come upstairs, and Barret had heard Yuffie's voice loud in the corridor outside, proclaiming how she was going to bilk this place for gil. She probably wasn't the only one who'd decided to have a little fun before turning in. Barret tried not to hold it against them. They were stuck here anyway.

The door to his room opened, and he glanced over, preparing himself to turn down any invitations to join in.

It was Sephiroth.

Barret's eyes darted to his gun-arm, resting atop the corner table, safety on and out of reach. He started to his feet.

"I wouldn't," said Sephiroth. The door fell shut behind him, and Barret froze.

"...the hell're you doin' here?" he asked.

Instead of answering, Sephiroth glanced coolly over the room. "How brazen this place is," he remarked. "A tourist attraction built on the bones of your town."

"...yeah," Barret agreed cautiously. "Shinra likes doin' that, sweepin' things under the rug. Build somethin' shiny enough an' most people forget."

Sephiroth nodded, and his gaze shifted to look directly at Barret. "Our conversation was interrupted, before."

Barret stared at him. "You... came here to talk?"

"You don't want to?"

"Nah. Just didn't expect it. I kinda figured, you'd said everything you meant to."

"Did you?" Sephiroth wondered.

"Huh?"

"Did you say everything you meant to?"

Barret eyed him with a frown. Was Sephiroth saying that he was willing to hear him out? "Don't know that I had it planned out all that well," he admitted. "But I been thinkin' some since. Seems like in a lot o' ways, we ain't all that different."

"In what way do you mean?" Sephiroth asked.

Simulated rain ran down the window, from the supposed storm outside. Gold Saucer didn't actually drench its guests on the way to the hotel, so Barret guessed it was some kind of trick built into the window panes themselves. Just one more deception to keep people from thinking about where they really were. Far below their feet, the desert stretched for miles, land poisoned by the construction.

"I'm guessin' you know what happened to Corel," he said quietly, "since you're mentionin' it."

"I do," Sephiroth confirmed.

"After it all went down, the thing that got me outta my slump was vengeance. Shinra took everything from me, an' I was gonna pay 'em back tenfold. I didn't care who else got hurt. I told myself I was doin' the right thing, 'cause what they did was evil. I still believe that."

Barret dropped his gaze to the stump of his right arm, where the port for his prosthetic was grafted in. He'd even turned his own body into an instrument of that vengeance. It had just felt so useless otherwise.

"But y'know," he went on, "I was one o' those naive idiots who let 'em in. I hated myself most for that. An' it feels damn good when you can turn that on somebody else instead. When you can find somebody to blame not just for what they did to you, but for what you did to yourself."

Sephiroth's gaze was steady, but hard to read. "What could I have to hate myself for?" he asked.

Barret shook his head. "I don't know you real well, but... if it were me, I'd be damn pissed at myself for lettin' 'em use me as long as they did you. You fought their war. You wound up on their fuckin' posters, recruiting dumb kids who thought they were fightin' for somethin' other than corporate greed. They pulled one over on you, same as the rest of us."

"Don't you still want vengeance?" Sephiroth asked him.

"Yeah. Yeah, I do. So if that's what you're after, then just fuckin' say so."

Sephiroth didn't answer him that time. His brow furrowed faintly. Was it because Barret saw through him, or was he still trying to convince himself something else was going on?

"I don't know what your plan is," said Barret. "This stuff about a 'Reunion' and the Black Materia, I can't wrap my head around it. But I ain't exactly sure why we're on different sides."

"You think humanity is redeemable," Sephiroth stated simply. "You see the fault as lying with Shinra, and Shinra alone, when it's simply human nature."

"It isn't. Maybe you don't know that, 'cause a lotta people sure as hell failed you. It doesn't mean everybody fails everybody."

"Your own people cast you out. Your own friend tried to kill you."

At that, Barret felt his bile rising. He took a step closer, his fist clenching. "Don't talk about what you don't know," he growled. "We had a community, before Shinra. You ain't never seen a whole town pull together to dig survivors out of a collapsed shaft, or the way there was always food on the table, even when Dad was laid up in bed an' we were dirt broke. I was a mess when Myrna got sick, and Dyne was there to pick up the slack, just like I'd done for him a dozen times before. That's how we were."

"...but when the village burned," Sephiroth said, "they turned on you."

"I got my share o' the blame," Barret insisted. "You could say I turned on 'em first. I wanted to give over what we had for a shiny new life."

"You're making excuses for them."

"...an' you're takin' my side," Barret realized, squinting at him. "What's that about? Didn't I sign a contract, same as those folks in Nibelheim? Or was it maybe not about that?"

Sephiroth turned away from him and walked across the room to the window. He looked out into the false gloom, his hands still at his sides. "I don't understand why you want to know so badly."

"I'm thinkin' maybe you want me to know," Barret guessed, "or you wouldn't be here. Ain't been too many people reachin' out to you, I expect. You were untouchable."

Sephiroth said nothing. Barret ventured a couple steps closer, until he could make out the glow of those eyes reflected in the window.

"We could just talk," he offered. "When's the last time you did that?"

Sephiroth closed his eyes. "This isn't... me," he said.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"It's an illusion. My real body is elsewhere."

"So... what is it I'm really talkin' to then?" Barret wondered uneasily. "...Jenova?"

"What do you think?" Sephiroth asked, glancing at him.

Barret looked around the room. It was spacious enough for a hotel room, but the monster they'd fought in the cargo ship had been enormous. He tried to imagine where the tentacles would go, spilling across the floor between the beds. Its head would knock into the kitschy chandelier.

"Seems awful cramped for it," he decided, and Sephiroth chuckled softly. Barret hadn't heard the man laugh before.

He wondered if there was anything physical here at all, in his room. Sephiroth had come through the door. Was that just to maintain the illusion? Was there anything under the facade, or was it just the projection of a man?

"...your mind seems real enough," he said, "whatever's goin' on."

Sephiroth quickly sobered, turning back to the window. "I can't go back."

Was that a hint of regret? What was it that he might want to go back to?

"No," Barret agreed. "But you could pick some other way forward."

"And what way is that? The only way I can even interact with the world is through the fragments of other people."

"...are you stuck?" Barret wondered, and Sephiroth's mouth only pressed into a line, as though he hadn't meant to share so much. "Your real body, is it trapped somewhere? Why don'tcha just ask for help an' skip the part where you gotta take over the world?"

"I am where I need to be."

"To do what? The hell's this Black Materia even for?"

"I am going to end this world," said Sephiroth.

"End it!?" Barret repeated. "Hell, I thought you wanted to rule it! You got any idea how many billions of years this Planet's been around before we were even on it? An' you wanna end it 'cause of us?"

Sephiroth blinked at him, taken aback. "You actually care about the life of this Planet?"

"'course I do!" Barret exclaimed. He thumped his hand to his chest for emphasis. "I know I said before, fightin' for the Planet is just a lineóbut that don't make it fake either. People're complicated. Sometimes I'm fightin' 'cause I'm angry, sometimes I'm fightin' 'cause I believe in somethin.' I'm always fightin' to make a better world for my daughter."

"You think you can achieve that for her?"

"I gotta try. Be a hell of a lot easier with your kinda power."

"My power..." Sephiroth echoed.

"You know Shinra in an' out," Barret pointed out. "You know how to take 'em down."

Sephiroth arched an eyebrow at him. "You're trying to recruit me to your cause? I thought you'd allowed Cloud to take charge."

Barret ran his hand over his hair. "Yeah, that complicates things. Don't exactly think he'll take an apology. Tifa either."

"That's the trouble with humans. You never move past your petty grievances."

"There ain't nothin' petty about losin' someone you love. Don't you know that?"

Sephiroth said nothing, and Barret's anger over his callousness began to deflate in the wake of the realization that... maybe he didn't.

"You never lost anybody?" he wondered. "Men under your command?"

"That was all they were," said Sephiroth.

"That's sad."

Sephiroth shrugged. "Your friend Dyne had people he loved, and he still thought they'd be better off dead."

"That ain't reason," said Barret. "That's pain. He... got mired in it. Wish to hell I could've helped him out of it."

"Is that what you think you're doing now?" Sephiroth wondered.

"You'd have to admit you got pain, first."

Sephiroth returned his gaze to the fake rain. "It doesn't matter. All pain will be irrelevant once I'm done. Yours and mine."

"I don't fuckin' want it to be irrelevant."

His response clearly caught Sephiroth off-guard. "What?"

"You're sayin' that like you're gonna do us all a favor, spare us the heartache o' livin.' But there's so much else. We lose people, but we find 'em first. Like hell do I want you takin' that away from me 'cause you don't get it."

"You want to keep going."

"An' I'll fight you tooth an' nail for it," Barret declared, even as he stood unarmed only a few paces away. "You need that Black Materia to end the world, we won't let you get it. Won't even let you in the damn Temple."

Sephiroth was unimpressed. "Shinra has the Keystone now," he said.

"What do you mean, Shinra's got it?"

"Cloud stepped out of his room, and they stole it."

"What theó" Barret looked sharply at the wall between the two rooms. When the hell had that happened? Was that the only reason Sephiroth had even come to the hotel, to check on the Keystone? "Have you known that this whole time?" he demanded. "Why didn't you say anything!?"

"It makes no difference to me," Sephiroth replied calmly.

"Well, hell, I gotta go get it back." Barret strode back across the room and grabbed his gun-arm.

"You can't," said Sephiroth.

"Like hell I can't."

"They have your daughter."

Barret froze, his gun-arm still inches from the connecting port. Those four words were one of his worst nightmares. He was always scared that the things he did might come down on Marlene, that even as he fought to make her future a brighter one, the very fact that he fought might steal it from her entirely.

"...how do you know that?" he asked. "How can you be sure?"

"You have a spy in your midst," Sephiroth explained. "Cait Sith. His operator arranged for her capture. He let her speak to Cloud, briefly."

"Cait Sith!" Barret exclaimed, whirling around. "That damn cat! He's the one?"

"I thought it was obvious."

"She... Do you know where she is? Is she okay?"

"She sounded unharmed."

"Where're they keepin' her? Back in Midgar?"

"I don't know," said Sephiroth. He had turned his back on the window to face Barret. His mouth opened, a pause before he spoke again. "I could discover it."

Barret looked at him for a long moment, because that one sentence... That was an offer.

"Okay," he said. "Okay, you know what? I ain't supposed to know any o' this yet, so there's time. Fuck, is the ropeway even busted? Cait Sith is the one who said it! He was just buyin' himself time to steal the damn Keystone!?"

"If you mean to go after her," said Sephiroth, "it's still suspect for you to leave your friends without warning."

"Nahó" Barret shook his head, turning back to his gun-arm. "Nah, I'll leave a note sayin' I couldn't stand spendin' the night here. They got the ropeway workin' an' I went ahead back to the Tiny Bronco. Should give us a head start at least."

"'Us'?" Sephiroth repeated.

Barret locked his gun back into its port and hefted the prosthetic. He looked to Sephiroth. "You ain't comin'?"

"Why would I come?"

"You're the one's gonna find out where they're keepin' Marlene. An' I don't know how the hell you're gettin' around, but it sure seems faster than what we've got."

"Your daughter's wellbeing has nothing to do with me," Sephiroth maintained.

"I'm askin' for help," said Barret, as absurd as it was who he was asking. It didn't matter if it was for Marlene. "You don't wanna give it? Fine. How 'bout stickin' it to Shinra?"

Sephiroth gave him a long look of appraisal. "...you're a strange man," he decided.

"That a yes?"

"......all right."

Barret grinned. "Great. You do whatever the fuck you do to find shit out. Where do I meet you?"

Sephiroth shook his head. "There's no need to separate."

"Huh?"

"I told you: this body is only an illusion. We'll go together."

It was a strange notion, going together, but Barret didn't let himself think about it too hard. He left a note on the hotel stationery, grabbed his pack up off the floor, and left. Sephiroth followed.


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