Barret had Sephiroth leave a slightly more honest note for his friends, saying that he was leaving to find Marlene. Once he realized she'd been rescued before 'Barret' ever left, Cait Sith would know there was a lie in it somewhere, but what was he going to say? The others didn't trust him.

Shinra had gotten into the Temple, but the word was they couldn't decipher it. Unable to secure Aeris's cooperation, they'd sent the Turks out to track down scholars who might have a chance at reading the Ancient's language. For now, both parties were at a stalemate. Barret would trust in his friends to make sure it stayed that way.

Shinra was the greatest threat to the Planet after all, he thought. That hadn't changed, or even subsided, just because their latest quest for new resources to exploit had stalled. Their cities and their reactors still stood, pulling the end slowly but inexorably closer.

Barret hadn't forgotten that. He'd be dealing with them. He'd find a safer place for Elmyra and his daughter, and then, he'd make sure none of them had to worry about the Shinra again.

He wouldn't push Sephiroth into it. Whatever the man chose to do with his freedom would be his choice. But Barret thought that by now they had an understanding. They both had a deep-seated anger they couldn't ignore, and a shared enemy.

They headed south first by chocobo, and under the open sky, Marlene's shyness gave way to rapture. Whenever they stopped to rest, she would excitedly present them with each new discovered beetle or unfamiliar leaf. Her antics mystified Sephiroth—clearly the guy had never spent time around kids—but he never shut her down or brushed her off. For her part, Marlene had no idea the man she gifted pretty rocks to had been planning to end the world, until he'd decided instead to try saving one person.

After they settled Elmyra and Marlene in the village outside of Fort Condor, they began a long trek north. Sephiroth, in his borrowed body, accompanied him as far as Icicle Inn. For all the powers that Sephiroth could channel through these men, they were too weak to survive the final climb, and Barret drew the line at throwing their lives away like that. Whatever Hojo had done to them, they didn't belong to Sephiroth.

He hoped, once Sephiroth had his own body and his own agency back, he wouldn't feel like he needed them.

Barret bundled himself up, swapped his gun for a climbing hook, and pressed on north. Past the mountains, and the glacier, and the cliffs, he came to the crater at the top of the world. It was massive, an expanse wide enough across to hold an entire city, but the slope he climbed down was nothing but lifeless rock.

It was different nearer the bottom, where pure Lifestream gushed up through cracks in the earth. Barret pushed his way through the winds that directed it until he found the calm at the center.

The Lifestream had crystallized all around, just as Sephiroth had described to him. Barret lifted his gaze, spotting one particular crystal nestled overhead amid a tangle of dead branches.

It was going to be a pain in the ass reaching it.

In the end, he managed to hook a rope up through the branches, and he pulled with all of his weight until he felt something shift. Smaller branches snapped as he tugged, and the crystal in their midst slipped loose.

It fell a little too close for comfort, smashing into the rock just feet from where he stood. The crystal split, and it wasn't quite solid inside. Maybe it took more than five years to finish the process.

There was a body inside—sort of. If it were anyone else, Barret would've called it a corpse, because half of it was just missing. He still had his doubts as he approached.

This was the man who'd been his companion these past few weeks? In a way, he could understand why Sephiroth had projected himself constantly through other bodies. Barret had only lost a hand, and that had been hard enough. Almost too much at times for him to cope with, on top of everything else. He would've escaped it if he could.

Uncertainly, he pushed aside the outer shell of the crystal and dipped his fingers into the goop beneath. It had begun to ooze out over the ground like honey, but enough of its container remained that Sephiroth's head had yet to break the surface. Barret got his hand behind the other man's shoulder blades and gently eased him up out of the Mako.

He wasn't sure what to do, exactly. Here he was pulling half a body out of a glowing goo in the middle of a crater. He wiped some of if off of Sephiroth's face, and at the touch of his thumb, Sephiroth's eyelids fluttered.

"Wait, hang on," said Barret. He unslung his pack, hastily pulled loose a blanket, and wiped more from the man's face with one corner.

Sephiroth opened his eyes.

They were the same eyes as they'd always been, speaking to the accuracy of Sephiroth's illusions. It was a piercing gaze, but disoriented.

"Didn't think I'd make it all the way up here, didja?" said Barret.

Sephiroth's mouth quirked, and then opened. "I..." His voice rasped, sending Barret searching for his canteen, but Sephiroth gripped his arm, stopping him. "...I didn't doubt you," he said.

It was a big enough deal for him to say that that Barret wondered if he really meant it. Sephiroth's faith in anything was fragile. Barret was just glad he hadn't broken it.

"Well, good," he said awkwardly. After a beat, Sephiroth released his arm, dropping back, and Barret asked, "So, uh, where's the rest of you?"

Sephiroth shook his head. "It doesn't matter. My body will reform."

"You mean... your legs'll grow back? You can do that?"

"...though I don't know how long it takes," Sephiroth admitted. "I've never done it before."

Barret snorted. "I should hope not. Kinda glad though, 'cause it's weird as hell that we're talking an' you ain't even got all your insides."

Sephiroth's hand brushed the bottom of his torso. On any human person who'd been cut in half like that, there'd be guts spilling out of him, but now that Barret brought himself to look, it was like it had healed over into something resembling—well, something resembling Jenova's body when they'd first seen it in the Shinra building.

"...how's it feel?" Barret asked him.

"Like I'd forgotten," Sephiroth said slowly, "what anything felt like." His hand reached again towards Barret's, and he took it. He wanted Sephiroth to have that contact, so he'd know what was real.

And maybe Barret wanted that, too. After so long talking to an illusion, this was the real thing. He tightened his grip, pushing skin against skin as the Mako sloughed off between their fingers.

"...gotta say, this is about the weirdest situation I've ever put myself in."

"Says the man with a hook for an arm," said Sephiroth.

"To the naked assless wonder!!" Barret countered, and Sephiroth burst out laughing.

If Barret had imagined Sephiroth laughing as he killed President Shinra, it would've been a different sound. He liked this one better.

Even after all the time he'd had to think on his trek up here, he still had only half a clue what he'd gotten himself into. He'd taken the trail of blood at Shinra headquarters for evidence of a deliberate and single-minded vengeance, but that wasn't what he'd found, because nobody was that simple, in the end. He didn't even have himself figured out, with the way he constantly thought himself in circles.

But maybe now they were both circling towards the right way to do things, whatever that might be and however muddy the path. They'd figure it out.

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