Books were hard to come by in the Midgar slums. Sure, you could take the train up to the plate, and they had their pristine libraries and massive bookstores, but Barret didn't like the plate. He had trouble holding his temper in check surrounded by so much complacency. All those people up there had sold out their Planet and their children's futures for a better life for themselves.
You could find books in the slums, but they were scattered. People would come to the city with their very favorites in their luggage, and eventually some got traded for more basic necessities. Barret had accumulated Marlene's picture books from the back corners of general stores. Inns maintained their own small collections, for guests only. Friends would pass theirs around until the spines were broken and the covers falling apart. Their books were well-worn and well-loved; nothing sat unread just to make somebody's shelves look pretty.
Barret's favorite discovery, though, was the book café over in Sector 4. 50 gil bought you a watered-down tea and an hour's time reading anything in their collection. It was eclectic, of course, and there was a lot of junk, but it also carried books you never could have found on the plate, because nobody from Shinra was going to take the time to go digging through the disorganized shelves for the banned ones.
There was an author he'd been trying to track down for a while, referenced in the few books he'd scrounged on planetology. Some guy named Faremis.
It was a long shot finding anything specific. He kept an eye out when he browsed. But on this particular day, Barret's eyes fell across the worn spine of a book titled What Is Mako? by Gast Faremis. His face split into a grin, and he tugged it loose from the shelf.
It was only as he stepped back that he noticed the woman standing nearby. She had about the longest hair he'd ever seen, and striking green eyes that dropped warily to his gun-arm before he could catch them.
It wasn't like Shinra protected anything down here except their precious restricted areas, so anyone who travelled anywhere in the slums usually did it armed. More because of the monsters than their fellow denizens, though you had to worry about that sometimes, too. Most people didn't wear their weapons as part of their bodies, though, and Barret understood how intimidating that could be. It was part of the point.
But not in a place like this.
"Safety's on," he assured her. "Am I in your way?"
The woman shook her head, her eyes flicking back up to the book in his hand. "No," she said softly. "No, you're fine."
Had she been coming over here for the same thing? "This the book you wanted?" Barret wondered.
"You take it," she said. "I've read it before."
"Huh. Good read?"
She tossed her head in a so-so motion. "He goes on some tangents. He would have benefited from an editor."
"Almost sounds like you know 'im," Barret observed.
"I did," she said.
"Oh." Those two words said a lot. He wondered how often she came here, knowing this book was here, specifically to reread something written by a friend she could no longer talk to. He held it out to her. "Well then, you oughtta take it."
"No, really," she insisted. "You paid for your time."
"So did you," he pointed out. After a beat, he suggested, "Here, how 'bout a compromise? I'll read it to ya."
"According to my daughter, I got a pretty good reading voice."
Her expression softened, and she offered him a cautious smile. "All right then."
"Name's Barret," he said as he led the way back over to his table to retrieve his drink. He meant to relocate to wherever she'd chosen to sit, but she was faster.
"Ifalna," she said, sitting down across from him with her tea.
Barret smiled and settled in his own seat. "Nice to meetcha."
She answered him only with a nod. He didn't take her for shy, exactly, but definitely cautious. It was a smart attitude to have in Midgar, but he wondered if she'd been burned before. She had a knowing look about her, and he had the sense that he was being evaluated for something.
He cleared his throat and cracked open the book. Skimming over the words on the first page, he hoped his reading skills were up to snuff. The books he read to Marlene had a simpler vocabulary, and while he didn't see anything unfamiliar, there were a couple he'd never heard out loud.
"'Mako,'" he began, "is a term we use to describe a form of energy that few understand. Uh... etymologically, the word itself simply means 'magic light,' further obscuring its origins. So what is Mako, exactly?
"Contrary to its rather... antiquated definition, Mako can be scientifically understood as a substance drawn up out of the earth, not so different from its predecessors like coal. Specifically, Mako refers to the refined substance that we use to power our cities, rather than its raw counterpart. Many laymen conflate the two, referring to both as Mako, but unrefined Mako is more accurately referred to as Lifestream..."
He continued through the preface and on into the more detailed chapters describing the workings of the Lifestream as science understood them. Focused on parsing the information, Barret didn't always notice the look on Ifalna's face as she listened, but he caught glimpses when he paused for a drink. None of this was new to her; instead she looked wistful.
The hour came to a close with plenty of chapters remaining. Barret never stayed more than the one hour; when he had downtime, he liked to spend most of it with Marlene.
"Your daughter was right," Ifalna remarked. "You do have a nice reading voice."
"Thought she might've been a little biased, huh?"
"Maybe. I assume she's young?"
"Just turned three," Barret said proudly. "She can't read none yet but she likes to memorize the stories an' pretend she can."
"She sounds like she's going to be a troublemaker," Ifalna observed fondly.
"Speaking from experience?"
"Mmhm. My daughter's grown now, and no less trouble."
"You got a grown-up daughter?" he asked in surprise. "You don't look like it."
"Well, thank you," she said wryly.
Barret scratched his head. "Guess I made some assumptions."
Ifalna shook her head. "It's all right. I did, too." She gestured to the dog tags he wore around his neck. "Those aren't military, are they?"
Barret let his gaze follow her gesture, dropping to the familiar tags. One of them wasn't as shiny as the other, the metal darkened by time spent in heat and fire so that the name had grown hard to read, but he knew what it said. He'd never know whether she'd been caught in her sleep, or whether Shinra soldiers had barred her exit. When he found the body in the remains of their house, he hadn't wanted to believe it. The tags told him he had to.
"Nah," he said softly. "Used to be a miner, some years back. This one was my wife's."
He'd been too late to save her. He hadn't wanted to leave her, but once he found Marlene... He couldn't stay, and he couldn't take Myrna with him. So he'd taken the tag, and left one of his own. It was the best he could do.
"I'm so sorry," said Ifalna. He felt the brush of her fingers over his hand more than he saw them. "An accident?"
Barret shook his head slowly. "No. No, it was no accident."
Ifalna stilled. The sympathy in her expression vitrified into dread, as if she understood his words more intimately than anyone he'd ever met. "...neither was he," she murmured. Her eyes had fallen to the book open beneath his hand.
"...Shinra didn't much like what he was writin,' did they," Barret guessed.
"No," she said, "it wasn't because of what he wrote. It..." Abruptly, she withdrew her hand and stood. "I'm sorry. I should go."
Barret's chair scraped against the floor as he hurried to stop her. "Sorry, I didn't mean to--"
"It's just time," she interrupted him. "I should be getting home."
He let her go. Pushing it wouldn't help anything.
He shouldn't have put it like that. He thought he was right that it was Shinra, but you couldn't just come out and say that to a stranger. If she was scared of something, then maybe it was the people who'd killed her friend. Not knowing the reason, they could be after her, too.
She'd relaxed on realizing he wasn't military, on realizing he, too, had a daughter to protect. But maybe she wasn't someone who could afford to be open about how she felt.
It was something Barret hated about Midgar, sometimes. Even when he ran into like-minded people, so many of them just wanted to keep their heads down, and he couldn't blame them. When you understood what Shinra was, you understood how hard they could come down on you.
With a sigh, Barret closed the book and went to return it to its place. Gast Faremis, killed by Shinra for... what?
He hoped the hour had given Ifalna some solace, even if it had ended with the reminder.
Barret wasn't sure he'd run into her again. A particularly careful type wouldn't go back to that café for a good while. But he wanted to apologize properly, so he made his way back the same time the following week.
Books had a tendency to move around on the shelves, but not too many people were interested in dense, thirty-year-old monographs on Mako energy. When Barret checked, there was a distinct gap in the spot where he'd left it before.
He found Ifalna in one of the private alcoves. A sliver of neon green from a sign outside poured in through a gap in the corrugated metal behind her, highlighting strands of her hair. She sat with the book open in front of her, but her tea was untouched.
"I ain't gonna bother you much," Barret said preemptively as she glanced up. "Just wanted to 'pologize for last time. Wasn't my business to speculate about... that."
Ifalna shook her head. "No. I wanted to apologize, too. I shouldn't have mentioned it, when I wasn't ready."
"We don't gotta talk about it," he said.
Ifalna gestured to the seat across from her, and Barret carefully sat down. "He was my husband," she explained. "The way you lost your wife... It's not something I'd want anyone to understand, but I think you do. I wasn't really prepared for that."
"Think I know what you mean," said Barret.
Ifalna smiled softly as she ran her fingers over the page in front of her. "I never thought anyone else would be interested in this silly book," she admitted. "Even my daughter's never read it. But it was nice to hear his words from someone else. The last thing he would have wanted was for his life's work to go forgotten."
"...you wanna keep goin' then?" Barret ventured. He didn't think either of them was ready to talk more about how Shinra had taken their loved ones from them, or why. That could come later, maybe, with a little more time and a little more trust. For now, Barret could help her to keep his memory alive.
"If that's all right with you," said Ifalna.
Barret nodded, and he caught the book as she slid it across the table, turning it around to face him. She'd only read a page beyond where they'd left off, and he flipped it back. He took a sip of his tea, and started again.
Ifalna was less reserved of a listener this time. She'd just smile patiently when a word tripped him up, but other times she'd cut in to make a remark or offer an opinion. "He contradicts himself two chapters later," she'd say, or "He was always overusing that word. I could never break him of the habit."
Deep in a chapter about the formation of materia, he caught her rolling her eyes.
"What?" he asked.
"It's such a persistent myth," she said, "that the Ancients invented materia."
"Guess this book ain't exactly the latest," Barret considered. "You read somethin' that refuted it?"
"...yes," answered Ifalna, strangely guarded. "But, think about it. They say materia works by granting its user the 'knowledge and wisdom of the Ancients.' Why would the Ancients themselves have needed such a thing when the knowledge was already in their own heads?"
"You got me there. Can't say as I've ever gotten the hang of materia anyway, though."
"You don't know how to use it?" She sounded surprised.
"Given it a couple tries. Just can't see to wrap my head around it."
"Maybe you're thinking too hard," she suggested.
Barret shrugged. "Could be." Tifa had said something similar after he'd gotten lost in Jessie's technical explanation of how the stuff worked. Maybe it was the sort of thing you were just meant to intuit, but if he was going to use something manufactured by Shinra, then he didn't want to do it thoughtlessly.
"Most people don't put so much effort into understanding things," Ifalna noted.
"Yeah," he said. "But I figure, that's the kinda habit you wanna break. Might take me a while to work it all out, but it's important to ask the questions."
She regarded him thoughtfully. "And, that's why you're studying planetology?"
Barret glanced out from the alcove, but there wasn't anyone browsing nearby. "Don't think it's any secret by now that what Shinra's doin' ain't good for the Planet," he said. "But most folks don't understand the how of it. They don't know how bad it is, so they just shrug it off an' go on about their lives. But the whole northern part o' this continent, it can't support trees no more. I found an old atlas in here one time; there used to be forests all over."
"Did there...?" Ifalna wondered, but he didn't get the sense that this was news to her.
"Shinra's turnin' our Planet into a wasteland," he affirmed.
His hand had curled into a fist atop the book, and Ifalna noticed.
"...careful," she said.
"You're almost talking like... you want to do something," she said quietly. "That's dangerous."
"You worried about me?" he asked.
Ifalna fixed him with a steady gaze. "Barret, I'm serious."
"...I know," he said, sobering. She had good reason. Of course she did. "I want nothin' more than to be able to live a quiet life with my daughter. But that's what we were all tryin' to do before. There ain't no such thing as safe, as long as they're around."
Ifalna frowned, and her gaze dropped to the table between them.
"I ain't tryin' to judge ya," he said. "It's just what I gotta do."
"No. I understand. I... wish I could be that brave."
"Were you there when they...?" Barret stopped himself and shook his head. "Sorry. You don't gotta answer that."
There was a long pause before she spoke. "...he was trying to protect me," she said, which told him she'd seen plenty. "But it isn't only that. They took my daughter and I into custody, afterwards. Seven years..."
She trailed off. Seven years in a Shinra prison, he thought. With a kid?
"...they didn't just let you go, did they," he concluded.
Ifalna shook her head. "I can't... go back there. I think I'd lose my mind. And I can't let them take her, but she takes so many risks now that she's older. I've just been so scared for so long."
Barret could imagine it, at least some of it. He hadn't even been a father a full three years, but he knew the fear of it. He'd fought through his grief to do everything he could to keep Marlene safe, all the while knowing full well what dangers there were out there for her, knowing they wouldn't show her any mercy just because she was innocent.
He didn't know how she'd done it, but Ifalna must have already fought so hard to get what she had now. It wouldn't have been an easy thing to break out of Shinra custody, even less with a kid in tow. She'd fought that fight and made the two of them into fugitives, and if that was as much as she could handle, then it was plenty.
Barret reached across the table and cautiously took her hand. "I promise you, you won't have to be scared forever."
Ifalna looked back up at him, her expression twisting. "I don't want you to protect me," she said. That wasn't among the things she could handle.
"That ain't what I'm sayin.' Don't know that that's somethin' I could offer anyway."
"Then what are you saying?"
"Guess I'm tryin' to offer... a light at the end o' the tunnel," he decided. "I believe that things can change."
"...I'd like to believe that, too," Ifalna said cautiously.
Barret nodded. "You'll see. We're gonna make a difference."
Ifalna's smile was small, but hopeful. She set her other hand atop his. "Could we meet here the same time next week?" she asked.
He felt her sliver of hope mirrored back in him. For the first time in a while, he felt like this was something that was more about living than surviving, more about holding precious memories close than about avenging the worst ones. It promised something after all of that.
Barret grinned back at her. "Same time next week," he agreed.