The Long Fuse
You don't date the boss.
That was Biggs' one rule, having given up on every other aspect of Jessie's love life. Her flings always burned out fast, and a break-up could really throw a wrench in any working relationship.
But Jessie had never listened to his input, and she was starting to think she had a reason to break this rule, too.
Barret, leader of AVALANCHE.
It had been about a year since he and Tifa had first showed up at her door, Jessie's reputation for fake IDs bringing them around. Barret had been brusque and intimidating, towering over her where she sat with her equipment. A guy with a real short fuse, she'd thought.
And he could be, sometimes. Say one word about Shinra and he'd explode.
But she'd learned later that that was the day he'd left Marlene with a neighbor for the very first time, and he'd been tense with worry, wanting nothing more than to get back to her and make sure she was all right.
He was intense about everything. Passionate about everything. After Jessie had done them a few more favors, he started to share those feelings. He wasn't like most of the other people who came to her, wanting to slip under Shinra's radar for enterprises that might not be criminal, in another world. Barret positioned himself in opposition. He was taking a stance.
Shinra was killing the Planet, he said, and he couldn't let them get away with it.
Jessie wasn't as young as some, and she remembered a little of what things had been like, before the plate went up. The air had been fresher, and the earth greener. But, what could you do about any of it?
But when Barret got going, he got charismatic. His passion was infectious. Jessie felt it lighting a fire in her, too, a drive to do something more than just flout the law.
They were going to change the world.
It was a big feeling. She wanted to be a part of something big, a nobody like her, making a mark on the world.
Barret seemed larger than life, and he never stopped towering over her, but before long it was more captivating than intimidating. The strength and power and steadiness of him, the way she could feel the heaviness of his step through the floorboards. She knew, without any doubt, that he could pick her up with just his one arm like a sack of feathers.
It was late that evening, well past midnight even if things like that didn't matter so much in the slums. People kept track of the hours anyway, to feel connected to the world above. A late hour and it was closing time. Tifa had had a hectic night, and they'd sent her off to bed with assurances that they could clean up. Up in the apartment above the bar, she and Marlene slept soundly, one assumed, and Barret had kicked Biggs and Wedge out for making too much noise, never mind that he was louder than either of them.
It was rare that it was just the two of them anywhere. The bar was empty, the jukebox silent, and while Jessie wasn't sure everything met with Tifa's standards, the work was done. Barret gestured at her from across the room.
"I'm headed down for a bit," he said, approaching the pinball machine.
It was late, and she'd meant to head home. Barret should've been going to sleep. She wondered what he'd been turning over in his head, if he meant to stay up.
"Hold up!" she said as he reached for the hidden lever behind the machine. He waited for her as she scooted across the room to join him.
She hadn't really thought about how close a space it was, that little elevator platform. She'd crowded onto it with everybody before, Biggs and Wedge and Tifa, but never with just Barret. She could smell the day's sweat on him, and the leather of his vest. Their respective heights put her at just the right level to admire his pecs, which was a normal thing to do. Surely everybody did that.
If he noticed, Barret didn't remark on it. He flipped the lever, and the elevator clanked downwards.
They'd switched off the lights when they'd last come up, and for the first few seconds the basement was lit only by the faint glow of her computer monitor. She picked out Barret's silhouette against it, and she wanted to melt into it.
The elevator settled at the bottom, and Barret stepped away to flick on the light. Jessie squinted.
"You got some stuff you wanna work on?" Barret asked her, walking to the table and the shuffle of papers they'd left there. Half-finished plans and whatever intel on Shinra facilities they'd managed to scrape together so far. It wasn't enough, yet, to do anything big. But they were getting there, finding ways to fill in the gaps.
"Not exactly," Jessie admitted. "I could, but I figured maybe you could use a sounding board."
Barret looked at her in surprise, like he hadn't realized that she'd just been following his lead. "You don't have to stick around for that," he said.
"Nah. But I think I'm in the mood." Jessie sat down on the stool in front of her computer and gave herself a short spin. "What's on your mind, oh fearless leader?"
For a second, her heart caught in her chest. Oh, it was normal, absolutely typical, for them to talk plans together in this basement. But it wasn't normal to do it at 2am, with all the others cleared out and asleep in their beds, unaware. It wasn't normal to start one of these brainstorming sessions without Barret's voice booming across the bar, gathering everyone together.
Barret had come down here with the intention of thinking through a problem on his own, and Jessie had invited herself into it. She could act casual all she wanted, but there was something intimate about that.
Barret held her gaze a moment longer, and then he cleared his throat, turning his attention back to the papers on the table. Jessie let out a quiet breath.
She was glad she was good at multitasking, because as he started to explain, she couldn't stop herself from turning that one instant over and over in her mind. The look in his eyes, like he'd just noticed something, like he'd noticed her for the first time.
A spark, maybe. A lit fuse, but not one leading to a blast that would flare out and die just as quick. Barret's passions were enduring.
Her heart fluttered at the thought of becoming one of them, and her feet swivelled her lightly back and forth on her stool. Patience, she told herself. She could calculate how long any fuse would burn before the explosion, and she knew, this one had some time yet.