Chapter 5: Choice
Sephiroth disguised himself as a member of the staff as they left the hotel. He could have made a swifter departure, but he accompanied Barret onto the ropeway and shifted his guise again. The car whirred along the cable, leaving behind the lights of Gold Saucer and descending into darkness.
« Why do you want to rescue this man's daughter? » Jenova asked him. « She'll become one with the Planet like all the rest. A month or two makes no difference. »
Why had he agreed to this? Speaking with Barret had instilled a kernel of doubt. He had had very little in the way of human connection, and perhaps that was not only too little to understand it, but too little to accurately assess it. If they fought for it so intensely, then was it worth something?
There is no turning back from what we intend, he told his mother, so it's worth being certain. I want to know which of them is right. Can humanity be salvaged? Or is it better off destroyed?
« Of course there's no salvaging them. »
What if I decide that I disagree?
« The Reunion must proceed. »
Of course it must, he agreed. But the rest is a choice. Once you are whole... will that satisfy you?
She didn't answer, and he had more than a kernel of doubt that it would.
I can't remember, he went on, which one of us proposed this plan. All those worlds you've been to—did you experience them, or did you simply end them?
« Sometimes I forget how young you are, » she said.
Are you suggesting I'm approaching this naively?
« You lack the experience to know, so you still question. I can be patient. »
I appreciate that.
Barret was watching him all the while. It wasn't a gaze without suspicion—that would have been foolish on his part—but he seemed more thoughtful than anything. Sephiroth wondered what Barret made of this temporary alliance.
Had he forgotten what company he kept when he proposed it? Caught up in his fear for his daughter, he had spoken without thinking and simply refused to take it back, out of stubbornness.
Wasn't that all?
Sephiroth shifted his focus. He already had one of his puppets near enough to keep eyes on the Shinra, and they were on the move now that they had the Keystone. It would be easy to slip among them, borrow their equipment, and determine where they were keeping Barret's daughter.
He wondered when she had been captured, how long she had been held. It could be that her father would come for her in a matter of days, and... Sephiroth would be in part responsible for that.
He had never thought much of children. He had never had the chance to be one. What did it mean to restore that chance to someone else?
Silly. It was such a small thing, as his mother said. One life.
And yet, simultaneously, a life significant enough that a man would ask his enemy for help. It didn't make any sense. Sephiroth had never meant that to anyone.
The ropeway car pulled into the north station. A few low fires flickered in the camp beyond it, its inhabitants not benefiting from the reactor that had displaced them. The way Barret carried himself changed, his shoulders slumping as though under a heavy weight.
"Kalm," Sephiroth told him. "That is where they're keeping her."
"Kalm?" Barret repeated. His expression twisted. "But getting back there could take..."
Weeks, certainly, using the means by which Barret had come. Without the others, without access to their pathetic vehicle, he imagined retracing his steps. Sephiroth had no intention of investing so much time in this.
"I do have faster means," he said. "You were correct in that."
"Yeah? So what's that mean, exactly?"
"I fly," Sephiroth said simply.
"I mean..." Barret gestured vaguely. "I guess we've seen you do it, but you're sayin' that wasn't an illusion? How come you didn't just fly across the ocean?"
"...it's an ocean," Sephiroth stated. "Even I have limits."
"So, we still gotta catch a ship," Barret concluded.
"You're not gonna flip out an' kill a bunch o' people again, are ya?"
Sephiroth regarded him flatly. It was a gaze that many people flinched from, but Barret did not.
"Gonna need an answer on that," said Barret. "Any ship headed for Junon's probably got at least a few Shinra."
"I thought you enjoyed seeing Shinra dead."
Barret grimaced, dropping his gaze. "Don't make it a good thing. A lot o' the low-level mooks, they don't know what's goin' on. Just a bunch o' stupid kids, like Cloud used to be. Nah, with Shinra... you gotta cut it off at the head."
Sephiroth regarded him thoughtfully. Barret wasn't entirely wrong. Shinra's ranks were filled with ignorant young men who thought enlisting meant protecting someone. But the longer they remained, the more willful that ignorance became. The corruption at the top spread quickly.
Still, slaughter on this journey wouldn't serve him.
"I will restrain myself," he said coolly.
"...hope that's true," Barret said, and he turned to walk on.
"It was... not an intended outcome."
Barret glanced back at him. "Last time, you mean?"
Sephiroth hesitated, but there was something strangely enticing about the opportunity to speak to someone about his experiences. They were new to him, but not new to Jenova; why would he relate to her what she already knew?
He could always kill Barret later, if he wanted.
"Learning a new skill is not instantaneous," he said cautiously. "It takes practice to control another body. Keeping Mother's body concealed was... difficult."
"This illusion stuff, you couldn't keep it up?"
"I've learned better now," Sephiroth said.
Barret nodded, eyeing him. "That why you were kinda... off, when we ran into you?"
"Imagine all of your perceptions filtered through someone else's hands, only they don't have hands. Their eyes see differently. They have no vocal chords, so even your voice is pulled together from nothing."
"Sounds like a bad dream, if you ask me."
Sephiroth shook his head. A bad dream? It had been a challenge at first, but now it was a part of him. Jenova's body and each of his puppets were an extension of his awareness. His world grew wider and more tangible. It wasn't the same as touching it for real, with his own hands, but maybe the distance was better. Let his body be numb and insensate in the Northern Crater, if it meant he was untouchable.
"So, uh... the body you're usin' now..." Barret faltered. "Is that... What is it?"
"One of Hojo's failures. That's all."
"You call it a failure, but you're still usin' it, ain't ya?"
Sephiroth scoffed. "That it has a use doesn't mean he achieved his aims. He's poured years of effort into it, and he still can't even manage a pale imitation."
"Imitation o' what?"
Barret looked him over, quirking an eyebrow. "Kinda ironic for you to say, considering."
In spite of himself, Sephiroth laughed. Barret wasn't dull, whatever anyone thought. "I suppose it is."
Barret glanced behind them, in the direction of North Corel. "You figure we're far enough away now?"
"Far enough away?"
"So no one's gonna see two guys take off flyin.' Not the kinda thing we want anybody talkin' about to the wrong people."
Sephiroth paused. In truth, he'd only been delaying it. He didn't really care what these people saw, or what they made of it. But as much as this remote body gave him a buffer from sensation... it was still touch.
"You realize I'll have to carry you," he said.
"Yeah," said Barret, looking no more eager. "Think I'd prefer it if I was the one holdin' onto you. Just sayin.'"
"I could hardly expect you to accept my assurances of safety," Sephiroth agreed.
Barret stepped behind him, and he allowed it. He allowed the man to wrap both arms around him, a steady but second-hand pressure against his ribs from a firm hand and cold metal. The sort of embrace that he had experienced only in similar circumstances: when it was necessary.
As long as Barret held tight, then he would not return it.
The added weight was no obstacle, and they rose into the air.
"Shit, you really can fly," came Barret's voice at his ear, the nearest he'd heard any voice but Jenova's in years. As Barret's grip tightened, Sephiroth was glad that the body that felt it wasn't really his.
He picked up speed, following the dark slope of Mt. Corel upwards until they cleared its peak. There was no need to waste time with switchbacks or winding roads. Costa del Sol lay due east, and they sped across the land between.
It was still dark when they arrived. An early ship might leave at dawn.
Barret carefully released him as their feet touched ground again. Sephiroth stepped away, but he made the mistake of glancing back. There was something strange about Barret's expression.
"You can really just... do that," he said, articulately.
"Yes," said Sephiroth, not understanding his point, if he had one.
"Pretty damn incredible," said Barret.
Sephiroth just looked at him, not knowing how to take that. People had always been impressed by what he could do. Hojo had heaped praise on him so that he was sick of it well before he entered SOLDIER. The assessments were accurate, but meaningless. What could it mean to be praised for something so effortless, something that was only a fraction of his real potential?
He hadn't known he could fly, then. And it wasn't difficult now, but it was something more truly him than anything he'd done in service to Shinra.
Barret scratched his head. "Just figured you could stand to enjoy it. Kinda scary on my part, but— pretty exhilarating, too. Don't think I'd be off tryin' to find some Black Materia, in your shoes."
"And AVALANCHE?" Sephiroth asked, quirking an eyebrow.
"I ain't sayin' I wouldn't be fightin.' I'm sayin' I wouldn't be fightin' for that."
Was he suggesting... that Sephiroth ought to find it incredible?
Perhaps it was something to take joy in. Surely joy was something that he sought, and if he could find it before the completion of his plans, then there was nothing wrong in that. He would carry it with him.
« Haven't you always taken joy in what you are, once you understood it? »
Had he? He had found in it relief, and meaning, but he struggled with joy.
The harbor was quiet in the predawn darkness. Sephiroth located the chief of operations' records and determined which of the ships docked would soonest be bound east. From there, they crept on board, with Barret marvelling at how easy it became under the power of illusion.
"Sure don't mind not havin' to wear disguises this time around," he remarked.
Sephiroth glanced at him. "We still need to find some hiding place," he said.
"Yeah? Guess maybe that's easier on you."
"...this body will need to rest soon," Sephiroth admitted. "I can't maintain this while it's unconscious."
"Oh." Barret looked at him for a long moment. He had probably forgotten this was a disguise, and he'd never seen the body's true appearance. A body that would become vulnerable, but pointless to destroy. "Yeah, all right. Let's find a spot."
They settled themselves in the cargo hold, amid crates already loaded and secured. Barret stifled a yawn as they sat. He had, Sephiroth supposed, skipped out on his hotel stay.
"The others will be returning in a few hours to your 'Tiny Bronco,'" he observed. "They won't find you there."
"You didn't think that far ahead, did you?"
"Kinda makin' this up on the fly," Barret confessed.
"Might I make a suggestion?"
"I could arrive in your place, in your guise."
"Disguised as me?" Barret said skeptically. "You really think you could pull that off?"
Sephiroth shifted his appearance, copying that of the man in front of him, and when he spoke, he spoke in Barret's voice. "Think I could put off suspicion a while longer, sure," he said.
Barret drew back, bumping his head on the crate behind him. "Okay, that's creepy as fuck."
Sephiroth shifted back. "Ideally, it need only be for a few days."
"Don't really like the idea o' lyin' to them..."
"You're already lying to them," Sephiroth pointed out.
Barret folded his arms, considering. "Now, wait a second. How do I know this ain't just you wormin' your way into the group? Everybody's headed to the Temple of the Ancients, an' that's exactly where you wanna get to."
"If I had wanted to replace you," Sephiroth said coolly, "I could have simply killed you. None of this is necessary for my efforts."
"...guess you probably got an in with the Shinra anyway, an' they're the ones with the Keystone."
Barret drew a long, slow breath. "Well, don't do anything weird. Just... Just bring up the rear an' don't talk much."
Sephiroth nodded. "That was the idea."
"Okay. Well, good."
Sephiroth adjusted the position of the body, letting it settle against the crate.
"You gonna get some rest?" Barret asked him.
"Awright. I'll keep watch 'til we get underway."
Sephiroth stared at him. The offer wasn't necessary; certainly there was no danger for him if they were discovered, but... He tried to recall the last time anyone had made him such an offer. It had happened some early in the war, before the difference in kind had become so starkly apparent. He was not someone in need of protection, so protection was rarely offered him.
"Nibelheim," he said softly. "You were right, that it wasn't about anything they did. It was about what they didn't do."
"What do you mean?" Barret asked, his brow furrowing.
"They had a certain... intentional helplessness," said Sephiroth. "The monsters were a problem they couldn't handle. What I learned at the reactor was a problem they couldn't handle. That mansion, and everything that went on inside of it, was something they chose to ignore. They excised it from their community and let it sit untouched for decades, pretending it wasn't right there in front of them."
"So you were angry... they didn't help."
"They never do."
Barret looked skeptical. "What about Cloud? Didn't he try an' talk to you?"
Sephiroth closed his eyes. Everything about Cloud was borrowed, in a way far more grotesque than what Sephiroth did with this body. Sephiroth had heard his version of events, the way he inserted himself into Zack's role. He had claimed Zack's words, Zack's gestures, Zack's confidence. They didn't belong to him.
The lies that Cloud had woven into his own memories were vulnerabilities that Sephiroth could exploit, but the omission dug at him. As if Sephiroth had betrayed a boy of no consequence. No, Sephiroth had been stabbed in the back by the sword of the one man he had trusted most.
"Zack," he corrected.
"It was Zack who tried. The story that Cloud told you is not his own."
"You sayin' he's been lyin' to us?" Barret asked. His tone suggested he'd noticed enough to believe it.
"Not intentionally," Sephiroth conceded. "His memories are tangled, and he's co-opted a role that never belonged to him. Zack...... was my friend."
He had never admitted as much while the man was alive. To an extent, he wasn't sure how true it was. It hadn't been a deep connection. Zack made friends easily. But when Barret spoke of loss, that was who Sephiroth had thought of. He would have expected the betrayal to negate it, and yet...
"I would have let him live," he said, "if he hadn't challenged me."
"...that when you gave up on people altogether?" Barret asked.
Sephiroth wasn't sure what to make of the question. Barret dropped his gaze, his posture tensing.
"...can't imagine what Dyne must've thought," he said, "down at the bottom o' that cliff. Don't know how long he might've been there, waitin' to see if anybody came back for 'im. I thought he was dead— I left him for dead. But he was down there waitin,' while Shinra burned his town an' his best friend took his daughter, an' maybe that's when it started, him thinkin' the whole world oughtta end."
Sephiroth regarded him silently. Their situations weren't the same, but in a way, they were. Nibelheim had changed his entire world. What little he'd thought he had, gone. Even himself. He'd plunged into the depths of the reactor, and no one had come for him. He'd had to construct something new for himself, something that wouldn't depend on any of them.
In his world, there would be no one to betray him.
He wondered what Zack had thought in those moments. If he had regretted leaving him to that basement alone, leaving the man he'd been then for dead. Would that regret have been worth anything? Could he have accepted it?
Dyne hadn't, and now he lay dead in truth at the bottom of a desert ravine. Sephiroth wouldn't share that fate.
Was he on the correct path to avoid it?
Sephiroth let Barret's words hang between them and closed his eyes. He withdrew his consciousness from the puppet, and in his absence, the illusion would fall, letting Barret see the pathetic form beneath. Just a body. Not him.
He let himself be for a moment in the numbness of his true self in the Northern Crater. There were no sensory distractions here. Nothing to see, nothing to hear, nothing to touch. Jenova was always near, just at the edges of his mind, but even that required reaching out, if only slightly.
He didn't have to continue his assistance. He didn't need a second puppet in Cloud's group, and the body he'd left behind on the ship was of little use to him there. He could leave Barret on his own, and he doubted the man would argue it was undeserved. There was no obligation between them. They had done nothing to earn one another's help.
What did it mean to choose to help someone?
What he had had under Shinra were orders. Responsibilities that came with a command he had been pushed into. His life had been lived within the constraints of duty and obligation. Never choice.
Likewise, no one had ever chosen to help him. Lab techs had fed and clothed him and never questioned the lock on his door. His fellow soldiers had understood their chances improved with him alive, and they watched his back on the condition that he carry them through the battle. Even Jenova's guidance came with an understanding that it would benefit them both.
Even now, Shinra prepared for the next leg of their journey. An advance team climbed into the helicopter that would carry them to the Temple's island. They went in blind pursuit, believing Sephiroth's goals were the same as theirs and that he would lead them to a part of the world they hadn't yet ruined.
The rot neither began nor ended with the Shinra, a fact he was sure even Barret knew, loath though he was to admit it. Even the Cetra had been the ones to conceive of a weapon such as the Black Materia. Faced with extinction, they had considered ending the Planet to be rid of a Crisis they didn't understand. For a moment, they had forgotten that the end of their civilization was not the end of everything.
If Sephiroth's world had ended in Nibelheim, did that mean there was nothing else? Were there other worlds worth cultivating?
The Cetra had never used their weapon. They had chosen another path.
Sephiroth tugged one of his puppets south towards where Cloud and the others had left their broken plane. He would watch and wait a while longer.