Chapter 6: Rescue
It was a weird journey. Not that anything about it could have been normal. With Marlene in danger, Barret had made a snap decision, and now here he was steaming back across the ocean in the company of his supposed enemy.
Or, his enemy's flunky. When Sephiroth dropped the illusion, Barret was left staring at a frail, sickly man shrouded in a black cloak. It made his stomach twist, the first time. Maybe he hadn't given it too much thought, but he'd been imagining some kind of monster. Not a person. How was it okay to let Sephiroth use this guy to help him? Was the imposter he had with Cloud and the others the same deal?
When the man woke again, he didn't immediately assume Sephiroth's appearance. Barret tried to talk to him, but he would only groan unintelligibly. His eyes were vacant. Nobody home.
That didn't make it okay. Just because these guys didn't know what was going on, that didn't make it okay.
But maybe it meant he could put up with it a little while longer, because even more than Marlene, something else was going on here. Barret could feel a question in Sephiroth's gaze. He'd put a crack in Sephiroth's certainty, and if he could just see this through, if they could rescue Marlene together—that crack would get wider.
It wasn't just about saving Marlene, in this moment, from the Shinra who'd kidnapped her. It was about saving her from the desire of one man to end the world.
If Dyne had been able to meet her... Surely it would have changed his mind, too. Barret didn't think anyone could look into her eyes and still wish for the end of the world, least of all her father. If only he'd reached Dyne sooner, faster.
He knew he was projecting a little. The despair and fury at the state of the world, the sense of righteousness turned poison... If he was seeing more of Dyne in Sephiroth than there was, did it mean he didn't need someone reaching out to him?
Barret thought he was doing the right thing. He knew his friends would be rightfully pissed at him down the line, and especially with Tifa, that was going to be rough. Especially with Tifa... But he could take it if they were just angry with him. If the consequences of his decision weren't measured in lives.
Sephiroth kept watch in turn while Barret slept, with Barret relinquishing another fraction of his caution. He was pretty sure Sephiroth could have killed him without waiting for him to sleep; he wasn't really the type to wait for the easiest moment. And maybe it helped that Sephiroth had been the one to sleep first, even if it wasn't really his body. Barret got the sense that he didn't like anyone knowing what was behind the illusion.
Barret wondered where Sephiroth's real body was, and what state he was in. He didn't bring it up.
Instead he'd ask after Cloud and the others. "How close are they gettin'?" he'd ask. "They doin' okay?"
The Temple was a fair distance to the south, especially in that dinky plane, and it wasn't until they'd disembarked in Junon that Sephiroth informed him the others had reached it.
"They're unable to enter without the Keystone," Sephiroth went on, "but the Cetra knows I am not inside."
"'The Cetra'? Her name's Aeris."
"It seems... overly familiar. We haven't spoken."
Barret snorted. "So you're plannin' to kill us all, but you're gonna be polite about it."
The corner of Sephiroth's mouth quirked. "Of course," he said. "I'm not a monster."
It sure didn't seem like he was, Barret reflected. There was still a man in there, underneath everything that Shinra had made him into.
Junon was calmer than when they'd come through with the parade, more like what Barret remembered from his initial journey to Midgar. He was in a different place now than he had been then, angry and desperate and barely able to push himself from one day to the next. Marlene had been all he had, his only source of light, and even then, it was exhausting taking care of a baby. The days had blended together. He remembered the salt stink of the polluted ocean stinging his nostrils when he dozed. The unfamiliarity of it would wake him. He never slept too deep in those days, always scared to take his eyes off Marlene.
"We're almost there now, right?" he said to Sephiroth, as much as to himself. "It won't take any time at all to fly the rest of the way."
Sephiroth glanced at him. "Tomorrow," he said. "We'll rest in the mountains."
They hadn't taken the route directly south from Kalm, before. After that mad chase out of Midgar, they'd been worried about Shinra pursuit on the roads.
Now, Barret wrapped his arms around Sephiroth, and they flew straight up over the cliffs that backed the city, invisible he guessed to anyone around them. He squeezed his eyes shut at first, so he couldn't have said if anyone was staring.
It was terrifying, knowing the ground was so far below him and the only control he had was to hold on tight. He'd never been wild about heights. But it was the fastest way to Marlene, and once he could swallow down his fear enough to crack an eye open, the view was incredible.
They were flying in daylight now. Water sparkling below them where the river fed into the ocean, and the mountains ahead. He could see why Cid was so into this, because having some kind of fucking vehicle to carry you instead of empty air beneath your feet probably cut a lot of the terror.
His fingers curled into Sephiroth's coat—or, into the cloak of the man beneath, he guessed. Everything about the illusion looked and felt real to Barret, but he wondered how it was from Sephiroth's perspective. Did he see his own hands, or someone else's? Did he feel Barret's touch?
They spent the night in the mountains, away from the road, away from anything. Barret had run through the provisions he'd had in his pack, but that was all right. He looked out north and imagined he could see Kalm just at the edge of the horizon.
Sephiroth's presence returned after dawn, his illusion as perfect as always, and they set out north.
Most of the buildings within were newer, but the fortress walls of Kalm were holdovers from a time well before Shinra. It was a history nobody talked about now, like the forgotten names of the towns subsumed by Midgar. Barret had no idea who the walls had been built to defend against, and the people who lived there probably didn't either.
Traffic into town funneled through the main gate, and on his own, Barret might have gone charging straight in, but Sephiroth set them down atop the old ramparts. Barret took a few moments to recover himself with solid ground beneath his feet. Then he turned to peer into the town.
"One of the old watchtowers, you said?"
Sephiroth nodded, and pointed out the building set back slightly from the main square, rising higher than the town walls. It was near enough to the ramparts that someone could jump to it, but Barret didn't see any easy way inside unless you were some sort of ninja. Or space alien. He was just a man with one hand.
There'd be an entrance on the ground level. He figured they could scope it out from here and then move in.
"You know how many guards?"
Sephiroth shook his head. "I haven't had eyes on it before now. But I imagine not many. She's only an ordinary child."
"Ain't nothin' ordinary 'bout my Marlene," Barret protested.
Sephiroth arched an eyebrow at him. "I meant human," he clarified.
"I could easily go in and take care of them myself," Sephiroth offered, returning his attention to the watchtower.
"...what exactly do you mean by 'take care of'?" Barret asked cautiously.
"No. Nuh-uh. We're not doin' that."
"I wouldn't have expected you to be soft on the men holding your daughter," said Sephiroth.
"That ain't the issue," Barret stated. "Marlene don't need to see none o' that."
"Hasn't she already seen death?"
"What? No. Not right in front o' her. Yeah, she's known... a lot more loss than I woulda wanted for her. She understands death, when she shouldn't. That don't make it okay to start killin' people around her."
"...because she's a child?" Sephiroth asked, and it was like he genuinely didn't know. How young had he been when the war started? Barret wondered. There sure as hell hadn't been anyone shielding him from death.
"Yeah," said Barret. "Well... Honestly, ain't anybody really oughtta have to see that. Think it damages a person. But you an' me are old enough to make that choice. She's just a kid. She ain't old enough to look out for herself, so somebody else's gotta do it for her. You get it?"
"...I suppose that's how it's meant to be," Sephiroth said.
Barret nodded. "Can't say I haven't fucked it up sometimes"—he glanced at the watchtower—"but I'm doin' my best."
"I'll take a look," said Sephiroth, "and report back."
"An' you won't do anything else?"
"They won't even know I'm there."
Sephiroth vanished from sight, and Barret watched tensely for any sign of his passing through the watchtower. Quiet was good, but it also meant Barret had no idea what was going on in there. Sephiroth had better be keeping his word... Hell, all he had was Sephiroth's word that Marlene was even here at all, but he didn't see the point of a deception that convoluted.
Sephiroth returned without ceremony, startling him as he appeared back on the ramparts. "There are only two infantrymen, presently eating a meal on the ground floor. Your daughter is in the tower bedroom in the company of a woman."
"A woman? Shit, did they take Elmyra, too?" At Sephiroth's blank look, he added, "Aeris's mom. I left Marlene with her."
"Her mother?" Sephiroth asked, his brow furrowing.
"Adopted. Hence why she didn't get carted off to that damn lab."
Sephiroth said nothing to that. His mouth pressed into a thin line.
"Anyway, that's good. They ain't even on the same floor, so we go in, knock out the guards, an' lock 'em up someplace. Then we can get Marlene an' Elmyra out no problem."
"Only knock them out?"
"I ain't takin' my daughter past any dead bodies," Barret said firmly. "We can figure out if we gotta go back an' deal with 'em later, but the priority's extraction. Understand?"
Sephiroth had quietly unlocked the front door as part of his reconnaissance. The guards weren't expecting anyone to waltz in, they didn't have their weapons close at hand, and it wasn't much of a fight. Sephiroth was right; for the purpose of keeping a four-year-old and one middle-aged woman in line, Shinra hadn't seen the need for anything more.
They hauled the two men into the nearby pantry and bolted it shut. That would hold them for long enough. Barret unloaded their rifles and pocketed the ammo. Just one of these... That was all it would have taken.
"Marlene!?" he called and raced up the spiral staircase without waiting for a response.
As he burst into the tower bedroom, Marlene had just pulled herself free from Elmyra's protective hold.
She raced into his arms, and he held her close.
"I'm sorry, baby girl," he murmured into her hair. "I should never've let them take you."
"Then," said Elmyra, "what we heard downstairs, that was...?"
"We put 'em in time-out for now," said Barret. He gathered Marlene and lifted her with him as he stood. "But we oughtta get goin.'"
There was a faint thud from behind him, and Barret spun, clutching Marlene close and raising his gun-arm—but all he saw was Sephiroth standing a few steps down from the landing.
"What was that?" he asked.
"...I'm a bit tired, that's all," answered Sephiroth.
Barret wasn't entirely sure what to make of that, but the body under that illusion looked so frail. Had he done something as simple as trip on the steps? Barret nodded, lowering his arm.
His reaction had scared Marlene, and he turned his attention to her, offering a smile. "Hey, it's okay now. This's Sephiroth. He's been helpin' your papa out."
Marlene clung to him, but, half-hidden behind the safety of his beard, she offered shyly, "Thanks, for helping Papa."
Sephiroth stared back at her like he'd never seen a kid before, but at last he nodded.
"You been pushin' your body pretty hard," Barret observed. "We'll get outta here, an' then you can rest a while." Hefting Marlene close, he descended the first few steps until he stood beside Sephiroth, and offered his shoulder. "Lean on me if you need to."
The hand he felt grip his arm didn't match what he saw, as though the man beneath was pulling himself up from the floor.
"...thank you," said Sephiroth.
The four of them exited the watchtower under the cloak of invisibility, so Sephiroth assured them, and made their way through the streets to an inn, where they slipped the key to an unoccupied room and shut themselves inside. Barret promised himself he'd leave money for the stay later, but if anyone came asking, the innkeeper had honestly never seen them.
Sephiroth immediately made his way to one of the beds and began to fold himself inside. Barret set Marlene down and made his way over.
"...you doin' okay?" he asked softly.
"Too much exertion," Sephiroth murmured. "I don't think he slept well."
"Well... you get some rest, but I wanna talk to you later. Okay?"
Sephiroth met his gaze, and Barret wondered if actually, the idea of abandoning this body now that he'd fulfilled his promise had never occurred to him. Somewhere along the line they'd become a team, and it was expected that Sephiroth would return again.
Barret made sure to pull the blanket all the way up over Sephiroth's head, so that when the illusion fell, Marlene and Elmyra would see nothing of the man underneath.
"Where are the others?" Elmyra asked him at last. "Are they all right?"
"They're fine," Barret assured her. "Aeris is fine. Just had to come an' do this without 'em, so nobody would guess we were comin.'"
"Aeris is fine..." Elmyra repeated to herself, letting out a breath.
"You two are both okay, right?" Barret knelt down in front of Marlene, checking her over. Her dress was clean and her hair brushed, and she only giggled when his fingers brushed against a ticklish spot on her arm. He didn't see a mark on her.
"They haven't treated us badly," Elmyra assured him. "We just weren't permitted to leave."
"Good," he said, nodding. "I was worried..."
"Don't cry, Papa. We're okay."
Barret swallowed and picked her up again. Marlene didn't understand the enormity of the danger she'd been in, and he probably owed a lot of that to Elmyra. A captive herself, she'd provided Marlene with a sense of familiarity and safety.
He sat down on the other bed and settled Marlene in his lap. "Yeah. I'm glad... I'm glad you're okay. Sorry I wasn't here."
"You came," said Elmyra, but he wasn't sure that was enough.
"How'd they find you, anyway?" he wondered.
"Like you said, I thought we'd be safer out of Midgar. I have a cousin in town here, but..." She shook her head. "The Turks must have known about her. I'm sure they've done all sorts of digging into my life since I took Aeris in. We'd only been there a few days when soldiers showed up."
"Sorry," he said again.
"No, it isn't your fault. That Shinra would use a child as leverage against you... That's on them."
"Still, I'm the one who asked you to look out for her."
"Haven't you been looking after Aeris?"
Barret scratched his head. He always thought himself in circles when it came to Marlene. He wanted to be with her, to protect her, to be the father she deserved, and at the same time, the world was fucked up, and he wanted to fix it, so it would be the world she deserved.
"Where is the flower lady?" Marlene wondered. "Can we go see her?"
"'fraid it's probably gonna be a while," Barret admitted. "They're all checkin' out some temple down south. I don't think it's too dangerous out there, but it's pretty far away, an' things are a little complicated right now."
"...and him?" Elmyra wondered, nodding to the lump beneath the blankets.
"...that's part o' the complicated," said Barret.
"General Sephiroth," Elmyra noted. "I thought he died, after the war."
"That's what they put in the papers. Turns out he went rogue. I dunno how they put President Shinra in the news, but that was him."
"Then he's with AVALANCHE now?"
Barret shook his head. "It oughtta be that simple, you'd think. But the way Shinra messed with him..." He hesitated, trying to think of a to explain it without exposing Marlene to all of it. "Guess it'd be like, if Aeris'd never made it out, as a kid."
They had a lot in common, and then they didn't. Out of all of his friends, Barret thought Aeris might be the one to understand what he was doing now.
"They would have used her," Elmyra said quietly. "Then, he's special?"
"In a different way, but yeah. He's been through some stuff, an' he's done some stuff, too, that he can't take back. Tifa an' Cloud, there's no way they could work with 'im. But... I think he can be one o' the good guys."
Elmyra considered that, her gaze going past him. "...well, he helped us," she said.
"Yeah. He sure did."
They kept the curtains drawn, but Barret peeked out now and again onto the street. If there was a search underway, he didn't see any signs of it. No onlookers could have seen them leaving, much less provided the soldiers with the direction they'd gone. The logical thing might be to assume they'd left Kalm altogether. Barret meant to, once they'd settled on where to go.
His stomach started growling, and Elmyra volunteered to venture down to the kitchen, insisting that on her own, she was unremarkable. People would be looking for two tall and very distinct men and a little girl, not a woman whose description matched that of any number of residents. Barret fretted, but he was grateful for it. He didn't want Marlene going without dinner either.
Night fell without anyone so much as checking in with the front desk, as far as Barret could tell. He tucked Marlene in with a story and a kiss, and insisted Elmyra take the bed. He settled himself on the floor beside it where he could easily look up and see his daughter's sleeping face.
Marlene was safe, out of the reach of Shinra to use against him. He could come clean to the others now, and they wouldn't have to go along with whatever that spy Cait Sith had demanded from them. Not that they'd be too happy with Barret either, but he hoped they'd understand his actions, even if most of them would never understand Sephiroth's involvement.
He turned his head in the other direction, gaze settling on the form hidden beneath the blankets. The sleeping body that wasn't really Sephiroth's. Where did he retreat to? Was he still awake there, turning his own thoughts over in his head? Had he come to a decision?
Barret didn't know where they went from here. They'd started something, and even though they'd made it here, he didn't think they'd finished it. They were in-between, where neither one of them had quite acknowledged it.
Whatever the next step, they had to figure it out together.
Barret let his eyes drift shut, letting his guard down. The man who'd been his enemy had helped him rescue his daughter, so he wasn't afraid to.
He still woke before the others, in the morning. The floor was an improvement over the past few nights, but it wasn't exactly cozy. He pushed himself up and took in the room—took in Marlene, still asleep and still safe.
Sephiroth's silver head emerged from the blankets, and he sat up, his back to Barret. It often took him a few minutes to fully settle into the body, but he didn't move. Barret crept across the room as quietly as he could and sat down beside Sephiroth on the bed. The mattress bowed beneath his weight in a way that it didn't for the thin man beneath Sephiroth's illusion.
"Hey," he said softly. "You doin' okay?"
"Yes," said Sephiroth, and Barret didn't believe that for a second. He eyed the man for a moment.
"I talked it out with Elmyra," he said. "I gotta make sure she an' Marlene make it someplace safe. We're thinkin' Fort Condor, thereabouts. Made some friends there, an' they oughtta be better equipped to protect 'em from the Shinra."
"Mm," said Sephiroth.
"What about you? Where do you go from here?"
To that, Sephiroth didn't grace him with any sort of answer. Barret almost considered he wasn't even here, but he could see the way Sephiroth held his hands in his lap, a faint pressure in his knuckles. He was present, and there were things going through his mind that he wasn't sharing. Maybe he didn't know how.
"I'm grateful for you helpin' me," Barret went on instead. "More than I can say. An' I don't want it to turn out that you an' me are enemies. Ain't no reason we gotta be."
"I'm sure you can imagine other scenarios in which I could be of use to you," Sephiroth said coolly.
"What? It ain't like that. That ain't what I meant."
"Then what do you mean?"
"I mean..." Barret ran a hand through his hair. "Hell, at first I just thought, we'd put up with each other until we got to here, an' then that'd be it. But, you're kinda growin' on me. The thought of us goin' our separate ways now kinda bums me out."
Sephiroth glanced at him, cautious. "...is that an invitation?"
"I guess so. Yeah. I wouldn't mind if you stuck around."
Sephiroth fell silent again. Cautiously, Barret reached over and touched his hand. Sephiroth inhaled sharply, but he didn't pull away.
"Hey," said Barret. "C'mon. What's goin' on?"
"Mother has stopped speaking to me," he said at last. "She's shutting me out."
Good riddance, Barret thought, but he bit back the words. Sure, Jenova was nothing but a horrific space monster to him, and he couldn't understand how Sephiroth could call that thing 'Mother,' but he could understand that it meant something to Sephiroth. It was the only sort of connection he'd had over the past five years.
"...she don't like you changin' your mind, huh?" he ventured instead, because that had to be what it meant. Sephiroth hadn't said it in so many words, and maybe there was a part of him that wavered, thinking if he didn't say it, he could still go back.
"No," Sephiroth said. "I didn't want this to separate us. But..." His hesitation stretched for a long moment. "My decisions have to be my own," he finished.
"Yeah," Barret agreed. "You gotta live honest with yourself."
Sephiroth glanced at him again, frowning. "Is that all you have to say?"
"What were you expectin'?"
Sephiroth shook his head. "This is what you wanted, isn't it? For me to change my mind."
"Yeah, but... I ain't gonna crow about it. This ain't some kinda 'I told you so' moment. What you're doin' ain't easy."
"...there are things, even about myself, that I don't understand. It would be folly to end them in ignorance."
Barret nodded. Quietly, he offered, "I'll help you figure 'em out, if I can."
Sephiroth glanced back over his shoulder, and Barret followed his gaze to the still-sleeping Elmyra and Marlene.
"You worried about them seein'... you know. That it ain't really you?"
Sephiroth shook his head slightly. He seemed to consider his words and then said, "I'd like it to be really me."
"I understand that your daughter is your priority. But if I were to tell you where to find my real body...... Would you come?"
There was a vulnerability in Sephiroth's expression that he'd never seen. He was asking for something he never had before, because someone had made him believe the answer would always be no.
"Yeah," said Barret. "I'll come."