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what's left behind in the ashes

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NOW

Barret Wallace is sitting in the beautiful airship that Cloud and Cid have laid concurrent claim to, wondering when it happened, when was it he had sold his soul for a second time?

The first time - he knows when that happened, even if he didn't feel it at the time. He had allowed himself to be persuaded by ShinRa's pretty words and eager lies, allowed himself to be fooled, allowed himself to be used as a tool to damn the rest of his town. Maybe he should have seen it coming, but in those days, all he could see was the pain on Myrna's face.

 


THEN

 

Her name was Scarlet from Weapons Development, and she stood too close to Barret, breathed hot on the back of his neck, tossed her carelessly piled hair when she made a point.

She was probably used to talking to men like that. Used to manipulating them, flirting and petting them to get results, but all Barret could think was get this slippery bitch out of my living room . It was almost a sacrilege to have her polished, weaponized beauty anywhere near Myrna's wide, sincere face and genuine smile. Sometimes some of the other men in town made fun of him - said he was so in love with Myrna that he couldn't see straight - but he would give up a lot of dirty jokes and half-clad, squirming women just to be able to look Myrna in the eye.

Not that he got to do much of that, these days. But how could she stay hopeful if he couldn't? It's coming, he told himself, barely listening to Scarlet's throaty voice.

“Surely you want to bring Corel into the modern age, though,” she pressed.

“We get by fine the way we are,” he answered tightly. He would give her a few more minutes and then see her out, just like the rest of the town's councilmen had. If they didn't give her an opening, a weakness, she would pack up her mako reactor dreams and go home. “We don't need y'alls reactor. We use coal here, and it's just fine.”

Scarlet paused for a moment, surveying the photographs decorating their living room wall. Barret wanted to snap at her, to tell her not to look at them, because he could practically hear her brain thrumming, casting about for an argument.

“I'm sorry to hear about your wife,” Scarlet said finally, her voice sounding a little less smooth, a little less polished.

Who told this slippery ShinRa bitch about Myrna? He wondered furiously, turning his back on her. Myrna was none of her fuckin’ business.

“I can help you take care of her,” Scarlet murmured.

“I am taking care of her,” he said fiercely. And he was - just like he had promised twelve years ago, when they said their wedding vows. He would always take care of her. He had promised her - he had sworn.

“Of course,” Scarlet quickly agreed. “God, nobody could do more for his wife than you've done. But think about the long days you work in the mine…”

So long. Barret works twelve hours, minimum, sometimes more, to make up for the days he has to go to Costa del Sol or even Junon for medicine, and even working as much as he possibly can, Myrna's care costs all of his salary, plus about a third of Dyne's, which is something they all resolutely pretend doesn't happen.

“If there was a ShinRa reactor outside town, you would make more money and be home with her every evening. Every night for dinner,” Scarlet continued, catching his eye, forcing eye contact.

If they could persuade Barret, they would be able to persuade everyone else, because the town trusted him - no one loved this town more than him.

Coal was their way of life. The mine was where everyone worked - if he agreed to a reactor, they would all be out of work. Guaranteed.

Scarlet crept in, almost like she could read his thoughts, could sense his wavering. “There'll be no jobs lost. Everyone who works at the mine will get a better job, working for ShinRa at the reactor. Better paying. Easier work. Benefits.”

The last word hovered between them heavily, and Barret took a moment before asking. “Benefits?”

Scarlet paused a beat, and her smooth voice sounded so, so innocent. “Health care. You know - health insurance. You know that ShinRa has the best doctors - didn't I tell you that anyone working in one of our reactors has medical coverage for the whole family?”

Barret's mouth felt dry. He tried to picture Dyne, instructing him that not to allow a reactor under any circumstances, tried to imagine how the faces of the councilmen would fall if they heard that Barret Wallace had decided to give mako a try, but all he could see was Myrna.

“No,” he said finally. “You didn't tell me that.”

She couldn't hide the brightness in her eyes that came from finding the magic word, but the cast of her mouth was solemn. “Everyone usually deals with ShinRa corporate, but I'll have a special policy drawn up for you. The typical policy is good, but it has some limits on experimental drugs, that type of thing. I can write a policy that gives you and your doctor a blank check, Mr. Wallace.”

A blank check.

“And of course, if there's a ShinRa facility right here in the mountains, I would have no problem having medication shipped from our main hospital in Midgar out here for you.”

With those words, she had him. Maybe it wasn't for lust or sex, or for power, or fame, or any of the usual reasons, maybe he even thought he was doing the right thing and figured the mako reactor would help other people too, not just him, maybe he was doing it out of love for his wife, but she still had him , right there, where she'd had so many other men.

How could he say no? The papers were drawn up within the hour. His soul, given over to ShinRa. His town, so Myrna might live.

As he signed the papers, he thought it was strange that he could give over his hometown with a flick of his pen. Barret Wallace , he wrote, again and again.

That was the first time he sold his soul, and it was clear as if it had been written in a fairy tale. He signed hisefnname on the dotted line, but how strange it was that he felt nothing at all.

 


TWO YEARS PRIOR


 

Daddy, daddy, daddy. The word beat in his head as a drum as he knelt down on the bathroom floor, wiping up the rust-red blood that stained the tile. He used bleach, paper towels, cleaning rags, labored over the small bathroom for hours trying to remove every trace of blood, every spot.

Barret scrubbed, but there was a shadow that wouldn't seem to come out. He couldn't let Myrna see this. He couldn't bear the thought of her, on her hands and knees, washing her own blood off the floor.

Washing their child's blood off the floor

Daddy, daddy, daddy.

No chance of that now.

Barret finally threw the bottle of spray-clean at the wall, where it bounced slightly with a satisfying thud, and stumbled down the hall to their bedroom, his head slightly dizzy from the bleach.

Their bed sat there, big and warm and covered in comfortable pillows and a soft duvet. An enormous red spot blooming from the middle, like a perverse rose, a speck of color, a splash of life in the middle of the white sheets.


 

“Barret,” she groans, and he's awake in a second. “Something's wrong.”

He feels something warm and wet, feels it drenching them both because he likes to sleep with Myrna pressed up against him, his strong arms wrapped around her.

“Your water?” he asks, jumping to turn the light on, panic streaking his voice because it's still too early for that - but deep, deep down, he knows the smell of blood, and as soon as the lights snap on, they can both see that they're covered in it, covered in blood.

“Fuck,” he swears as Myrna tries to rush out of bed. She's big, now, big enough that she has trouble moving, and she runs down the hall to the bathroom, leaving a trail of blood behind her that makes Barret ache in a way he's never known before.

Myrna weeps softly as they make it to the hospital, and Barret can't find any words for her. This wasn't supposed to happen. Those other pregnancies they lost, well, they were early and that happens, unfortunate but sometimes unavoidable, right?

But they were past that with this one - she was big enough for Dr Meecham to tell them they were having a little boy, big enough for old women to pat her belly and give unsolicited advice in the grocery store, big enough to paint a nursery. Big enough to pick out a name, syllables they whispered to each other in the dark, like a secret, like something sacred.

Myrna and Barret are still covered in blood when Dr Meecham shows up and takes one look at them. He sits down next to Myrna and reaches for her hand, and Myrna snatches it away, using a sharp, bruising tone Barret has never heard before.

“Don't you dare,” she snaps, her voice thick. “Don't you dare say it.”

“I'm sorry, Myrna.”

“Don't say that to me! Don't you tell me - ”

“Tell me ,” Barret breaks in, and suddenly they're all talking at once. “Tell me what happened, what the hell happened, you said we were safe now - ”

“I don't want to hear! I don't want to know - ”

“I'm so sorry to you both, but - ”

“He's not gone!” Myrna cries, clutching her still-swollen belly. “He was right right here - he's supposed to be safe! You said…”

Dr Meecham speaks quietly, calm and solemn. “Late term problems like this - a miscarriage that results in a stillborn - are so rare, Myrna. Most miscarriage happens in the first ten weeks.”

“Then what happened?” she begs. “I did everything you said. I didnt even paint the nursery - ”

“It wasn't you,” Barret says quickly, putting his big hands around her two slim ones. He stares at the doctor, hard and angry.  “It. Wasn't. Her. Isn't that right?”

The doctor agrees. “Of course not, Myrna. But I don't know - I'm going to run a few tests tonight, a couple scans, and see what I can learn.”

“Is there any chance - ” Barret's voice breaks. “Is there any hope - ”

The doctor is quick, and it's a mercy. “No. I-I'm sure.”

The Wallaces look at the doctor with desperate tears, but he is mercifully certain. “I am positive. And I am so sorry, Myrna, Barret. Your son is dead.”


 

Myrna had to stay in the hospital for further testing and for the...the removal of the rest of the...tissue, god, Barret couldn't even listen to their medical terms. The nurse had mentioned discharging the leftover tissue and he had bitten his lip so hard he tasted metal, but it was better than throwing her against the wall, daring her to compare his child to tissue again.

Myrna would be discharged later when the doctor spoke to them both about her test results. Barret hadn't wanted to leave her side all weekend, but had finally decided he needed to go home and clean up so that Myrna didn't have to see the blood that had been left in her wake.

Barret stripped the sheets from the bed and held them for a moment, deciding what to do. Blood stained so badly, and even if he bleached the sheets, how could he ever ask Myrna to lay on a bed covered with sheets that had once been drenched in their son's lifeblood?

Barret balled up the sheets and threw them in a big black trash bag. He was mildly surprised by the bright sun when he took the trash out to the curb - when something as terrible as this was going on, it seemed like it should always be 3am, the sun should refuse to rise on a day where Barret's beloved wife was in the hospital, mourning her newly emptied womb.

“Hey,” a voice called from over his shoulder, and Barret looked into Dyne's concerned face. “Eleanor says your car has been gone all weekend, but I've been putting in some overtime at the mine...is everything okay?”

Barret was paralyzed for a moment and Dyne rushed over - twenty years of friendship and he could read him in a second. “Labor?” Dyne asked, his voice full of terrible hope as he came over to Barret's side and laid a hand on his shoulder. “It's a little early but - ”

Barret shook his head, and Dyne's face fell.  “Not - it's not another miscarriage?”

Barret willed his voice and hands to be steady. “A stillbirth.”

Dyne slipped his hat off in one smooth, unconscious motion, his face immediately creased with pain. Dyne had been there for each of the previous miscarriages, however early they happened, and Myrna had sat and laughed and cried and talked with Eleanor for hours, and they had felt like they could get through anything. Even the cruelest cut of all hadn't broken them.

But this time it had been different. Six weeks from the due date, it had all come crashing down. As Barret made his way back inside, walking as if he was in a haze, in a dream, he thought that nothing could ever be worse than the look on Myrna's face when the doctor had said their son was gone.

When it was finally time to meet the doctor and bring Myrna home - not pregnant, any more, and she probably never would be again - Barret stood in the doorway and looked at their house for a minute, trying to see it through her eyes.

He pulled the safety plug out of one of the outlets. They had been in there for years, since their first pregnancy, back when they were capable of hope. Barret had covered every single outlet in the house as Myrna had laughed behind him, saying that they still had eight months of pregnancy and at least a year before the baby started getting into outlets. But Barret had vowed then and there to always keep his baby safe.


 

Daddy, daddy, daddy.

They're sitting in Dr Meecham's office. Myrna still looks pregnant, still looks big, and the doctor has said it will take some time for things to go back to the way they were.

Barret doesn't know how to tell him that they never will. He sees the look in Myrna's eyes - this has scarred her, changed her. Changed him. How can things ever go back to the way they were? How could they ever make another baby while knowing that the baby could be lost in a gush of blood on a bathroom floor, a freak accident in the last minute? How will they ever have sex again without feeling like they are surrounded by the corpses of children?

“I have to tell you both something,” Dr Meecham says, his calm voice shaking slightly, which would ordinarily make Barret nervous, but what can be worse than what happened right here in this hospital?

Myrna feels the same way, just looks at the doctor expectantly. She's waiting to be told she's infertile, Barret knows, has known since their first miscarriage that it's her fear. She loves kids and loves him and has spent the last five years wanting nothing more than to give him a bunch of children, but the loss of their son is too much to bear.

“When I did your scans, Myrna, I found that it looks like the miscarriage was caused by - well, I'm just going to say it, and you can ask all the questions you want.” He takes a breath. “Myrna, you have cancer.”

The words hang there, terrible and still. Barret's heart begins racing, because he cannot lose Myrna as well, he just can't, he won't.

“Cancer of the uterus,” Myrna states, not a question. “That's fine. Take it out. I don't want it.”

“Baby,” Barret hushes, tugging on her hands. “It'll be - ”

But it won't be, not the slightest bit, so he stops himself.

Dr Meecham runs a hand through his silvery hair. “The uterus - but it's in your blood, too. It's metastatic.”

The room begins to shake and Barret stands up, quivering with anger. “No. No. She's paid enough. She's been through enough. Don't - this can't be true.”

The doctor goes through some medical information to them, gives them a medical primer in all the different types of cancer and how the mako all around them seems to be mutating it, some long evil-mako lecture he's heard before about their fertility problems, but Meecham ends with, “and we will do everything to keep you comfortable, of course,” and Barret snaps to attention again, furious.

“Keep her comfortable? No. No, we're not giving up on her, you're going to cure her.”

Dr Meecham sighs. “There are a few options, of course, but depending on your access - ”

“Money,” Myrna states flatly. “We don't have enough money to do what we would need to do.”

“What?” Barret blusters. “That's nonsense! I make a decent living, Myrna, we can pay - ”

“The only thing that might extend her life significantly is an experimental drug they have in Midgar,” Dr Meecham explains. “Phalanxifor is the only medicine of it's kind that seems to be effective with these new kind of fast spreading cancers. But it's in Midgar, and it's - it's prohibitively expensive.”

Barret is already shaking his head and pulling Myrna to her feet. “Listen, doc. I'm taking my wife home to rest. And then I'm gonna come back here later this week and me and you are gonna nail down all the details. The money. Where to get this drug. But you start looking into it now, because I'm not letting her die.”

The doctor doesn't argue, lets Barret take Myrna out of the room and usher her home into their cozy house.

He tucks Myrna into bed and tries not to notice the way she inspects the house for a spare drop of blood, left behind.

“I love you, Myrna,” he whispers to her. Her face is stone, not at all the happy, open countenance he had become accustomed to seeing - hell, that he had found he needed in his life. “I love you, and I'll fix this.”

The doctor sent them home with a vial of pills for pain and another for anxiety. Barret weighs them both in his hands and decides on one of each, giving them to his wife with a glass of water. She doesn't ask what she's being given, opens her mouth obediently and accepts it like a child.

As soon as he is sure that she's asleep, Barret creeps out to the living room and falls to his knees on the floor. It's too much to bear - to lose their son - to see her suffer - to know that there's more ahead.

His cheeks are damp with tears he doesnt remember crying. He says his son's name out loud, first, middle, last, just the way they had planned it. He repeats it again, softer, like a prayer. Those syllables are sacred - his son who was born dead.

He never says that name out loud again. He never speaks of it again.


 

Dyne and Eleanor ended up having a beautiful baby girl. They named her Marlene, and although Barret's first instinct was to bar them from his wife, not wanting her to have to see a perfect little newborn that should have belonged to them - but both Eleanor and Myrna were stubborn, and the look of joy on Myrna's face when she held tiny Marlene proved healing for her. Eleanor spent many days over at the Wallace house, especially while the men were at work.

It did Myrna good to hold and cuddle Marlene, who would take a bottle from Myrna just as easily as Eleanor.

On the good days, Eleanor bundled Marlene up and carried her over to their house, where they spent the day talking, caring for the baby, cooking, and leaving room for the healing power of a baby's laugh.

But there were bad days - days where Eleanor would come over and find Myrna wracked with pain, writhing and vomiting in the bathroom. Marlene would cry in her carrier as Eleanor cleaned her up, helped Myrna into bed, learned how to administer the various medications that now occupied the refrigerator next to the lettuce and the milk, like they belonged there.

And Barret and Dyne did the best they could for as long as they could. Their families had merged, it seemed, in the strangest and darkest way, but they were going to make it through this too.

Barret and Dyne worked long hours at the mine - so long that when they came home, Eleanor would be exhausted, her face pale and drawn from caring for Marlene and Myrna too, on those worst days. All their money went right back out again, transport fees to get to Costa del Sol for the medicines (when they were lucky) and exorbitant tickets to Junon for the medications (when they weren't).

Eleanor got no break, Barret knew, and he loved Eleanor  but he couldn't help but think Myrna never got a break either. And he had sworn to do anything - he will beg, steal, borrow, even swallow his pride and accept charity from his best friends - to choose Myrna. To have the ability to keep choosing her. To keep her alive.

Because the truth was, she wasn't getting any better. There were good and bad days, days where she couldn't even get up to use the bathroom and days where she met Barret at the door with a smile and a kiss like the woman she used to be - but she wasn't improving. All they were doing was keeping her alive - keeping her from declining. And that was enough for Barret for now.

Once, Dyne had asked him if he didnt think that forcing Myrna to stay alive for his sake wasn't more cruel than letting her die.

That night, Dyne had lied to their wives about an accident at work, how he had been so clumsy and gotten hit. Yeah, looks just like a punch to the face, doesn't it? Funny, that. He would be more careful next time.

The bruise faded quickly but Barret's shame didn't.

They struggled at the edges of poverty and the edges of death for so long it became normal.

Marlene called Eleanor “Mama” and Myrna “Mrr-mah”. It was hard to tell the words apart sometimes, who she was calling for, and just hearing that tiny voice call for her sometimes gave Myrna the strength to get through another day.

Barret proved difficult for Marlene to say, though. “Dada” came easily, a delighted squeal when she saw Dyne collapse into a chair after pulling yet another 12 hour day, but “Barret” was hard. Somewhere between Marlene's fairy tale story books and Barret's large dark-skinned body, combined with his name, some wire got crossed in her little baby brain, and she took to calling him “Papa Bear”.

“Papa Bear! Dada!” she would call as they both traipsed into the house, and it was enough to pull them through.

They were pulling through. They were breaking even.

And then suddenly, there were whispers of ShinRa coming to town. Town meetings, where the consensus was absolutely no reactor. Town meetings where Barret was given permission to act as the town's spokesperson, because who didn't trust Barret? Who couldn't see how hard he worked, how honest he was, how much he loved his wife and his people and his land?

Speak for us, Barret, they told him, and he agreed to take them on.

Two weeks later, a beautiful blonde woman with steel eyes and a ridiculously sexy dress was standing in his living room.

“I'm Scarlet,” she purred. “I'm from Weapons Development at ShinRa, Inc. I hear you're the man to go to, around here.”

 


NOW

 

Years later in the Highwind, Barret knows that's the first time he sold his soul over, maybe to try to do the right thing, but he still gave it up.

But when was the second time? Was it when he planted his first bomb in a reactor, waving away collateral damage, telling himself he was fighting for the planet when really he was fighting back at the ShinRa for causing him to lose everything? Was it when he recruited Cloud Strife, a man he knew would cause more damage than he ever could? When he talked Tifa into letting him use her bar, her pride and joy, as the hideout for his terrorist cell - and he can't shy away, that's what it was.

Maybe it was earlier than that. Maybe it was when he first met up with Biggs and Jessie and Wedge, convinced them he knew how to save the planet.

He buries his face in his hand, his gun-arm hanging by his side. He has no prosthetic anymore - he can never put his weapon down, he can never unequip. Every time he sleeps, every time he holds Marlene, it's always with a weapon, not near him, but in him.

No. No, he's sure, now. The second time he sold his soul was the day he bullied that doctor - doctor, hell, more like an arms dealer - into implanting his arm. Just before he heard a voice, heard words he never thought he would hear.

Daddy, daddy, daddy .

 

 

 


THEN

 

The man wasn't a doctor, much less a surgeon - Barret knew that. It was the best he could hope for, though, an arms dealer with some army medic experience and a little field surgery.

They were in one of the small shantytowns that had popped up around where Corel used to be - that Corel was nothing but a wreck now, ashes and trash and broken people with broken hearts.

Barret was just glad this guy hadn't recognized him - if he knew who he was, he knew there was no way he would deal with him at all, not for any amount of gil. But he could remain anonymous, so he gave some stupid fake name and raised his voice, leaned in close, scared the man until he agreed.

“You want it implanted in?” The guy double checked. “You don't need two hands to fire a gun, ya know. You can use all these weapons with a prosthetic.”

“You don't gimme what I asked for, you're gonna be dealing with these weapons implanted into you,” Barret snarled, not sure where this coarse, violent persona came from. “I'll implant ’em, and I ain't real picky about where.”

The guy paled. “Okay, man, shit. I'll do it. Fuck. Just - just lay there. Yeah, take the prosthetic off, ’n I'll - ”

The procedure didn't last long, the arms dealer yammering at him the whole time. Did it hurt? Well, fuck, yeah, it hurt. He felt the white hot searing pain alongside his stump, heard the whir of machinery, but nothing happening to his arm was any worse than the blur of the past month.

Until he smelled the flesh. Burning flesh, rotten, sickly sweet and smoky, just like that day, that day , THAT DAY

“Man! Calm down! Fuck, hold the fuck still!”

It took three people to hold him down before he could continue. Three people and then Barret mastered himself, breathed through his mouth, tried to picture whiteness, serenity…

That didn't work, so he pictured the look on President ShinRas face when he unloaded a round into his gut with his brand new gun-arm, all the better to get vengeance with, my dear.

That worked. He moved on to Scarlet. Right in her pretty little face, and then maybe another in her lithe stomach just for good measure.

The soldiers who had come to install the reactor. The infantry that had backed Scarlet up that day on the cliff, shooting at him as he held on to Dyne for dear life, the only person he had left.

Track them down. Make them pay.

Make them pay, the same way he paid, like Myrna and Dyne and Eleanor all paid.

In blood.

“You're all done,” the pseudo-doctor said, kind of nervously. He was afraid of Barret. The town had seen Barret's large, imposing figure, his dark skin and huge muscles and felt safe behind him. Trusted him.

Now he was just another thug with a gun. A wild dog that might or might not be feral.

He felt his stance shift. Ever since That Day, he had been a little coarser, sworn a little more, been louder and fiercer and just more careless than he ever would have been before - before.

He smiled, and then he heard it. A voice he never thought he would hear again. Saying words he knew would never belong to him.

“Daddy? Daddy, Daddy?”


 

Dyne is trying to forgive him. Barret knows that. He had sworn at him and yelled at him and called him a ShinRa lapdog after the council meeting, but now that it's all said and done and the reactor is functioning, Dyne is trying to forgive. He smiles at Barret sometimes. He holds back his anger.

They're friends, and their two families have been so close for so long - losing each other would be like losing a limb.

They're on their way back from Costa del Sol with Myrna's medicines - free, this time, completely covered under the new ShinRa insurance, and Dyne had bitten his tongue during the transaction - when Dyne looks up, cocks his head.

“Barret,” he says slowly. “Do you smell smoke?”


Fire.

The town is on fire. The cliff they're on gives them the perfect view and they can see every single structure, up in flames.

Screams and burning flesh and the crackling of flames licking their way up the houses and stores and buildings, owned by people who had loved their land and trusted Barret.

“The ShinRa,” Dyne says - gasps, really, a struggle to even form words.

“Fuckin - we gotta get back! We need to hurry!” Barret howls, dropping the box of medicine and pulling Dyne ahead. Myrna is still weak, who knows if someone would have thought to help her, and what about Eleanor…

They're stopped by a cool, familiar voice, and that same absurd red dress. “Hey there, boys.”

“You bitch,” Barret spits. “You filthy, murderin’, ShinRa cunt.”

Myrna would hate if she heard him talk like that to a woman. But this slippery bitch had better get on her knees and pray that their families are okay, because Barret and Dyne have murder in their hearts.


 

“Hold on!” Barret begs Dyne, grasping his hand harder. “Just - hold on one minute, I'll pull you - ”

“Take care of Eleanor! And Marlene!”

It doesn't need to be said. It's a promise they've made each other a million times before, in word and in deed, and the desperation in Dyne's eyes breaks Barret.

“No, man, you will! Just hold on!”

Dyne reaches up and grasps Barret with his other hand, too, making it easier for Barret to lift him. Barret is not surprisingly strong, he's exactly as strong as he looks, which is plenty, and he begins to pull Dyne up the cliff, inch by inch.

Bullets whiz by. Missing them by inches, on either side, again and again, until they suddenly don't.

It's unbelievable pain. And Barret might hold on anyway, but faster than he can blink, his hand is dropping into the gorge with Dyne still clutching it. Still calling for him. Still trusting him.


 

When Barret makes it to the town, covered in blood, he heads straight for his house, still blazing.

He calls for Myrna, and another one of his coworkers, Roy, stops him. “They carried her out,” he shouts over the flames. “She's dead!”

Barret is leveled, but he swallows his vomit and turns towards Dyne's house. “Eleanor? Marlene?”

Roy shrugs, but his eyes are pure pain. “Who knows? I think they're dead too.”

Now Barret does fall. The searing heat of the town falling around him, he kneels in the dirt and weeps until someone drags him away.


 

Dr Meecham is the only one in town who will talk to him. The others spit at him and swear, curse him like he's never heard before. He doesn't care. After losing everyone and everything? Let them hate him. They can't possible find him as despicable as he finds himself.

“You don't need to see,” the doctor tries to tell him, but Barret  is prepared to shove him aside and go through the body bags one by one if he has to. Blood doesn't bother him. Burnt, splintered flesh is nothing.

After a terse discussion, the doctor yields, and pulls a bag out. “She died in the fire,” he tries to to warn him. “It's not pretty.”

What ever is, in his life?

The doctor opens the bag, and Barret feels, viscerally, his heart turn to ash.

Myrna, fluttering her eyelashes at him on their first date. Myrna, teasing him and laughing during his fumbling proposal. Myrna, whose body he had memorized by heart, but who he always received like a blessing. Myrna laughing. Myrna arguing with him over the dining room curtains. Myrna. Myrna. Myrna.

Myrna, disfigured and grotesque in a black body bag

Barret's fault. No - no, not just Barret's fault. ShinRa.

ShinRa.

Barret stumbles out of the morgue without a single word, a backward glance, a response to the good doctor's attempts at sympathy.

The town has burnt itself down to embers, but his heart is consumed with hatred and flame.

ShinRa will pay, with blood and with pain, for their actions.

Just like he has.


 

Barret thought he was hallucinating for a second when he heard that familiar voice crying, but he realized quickly it was right outside the tent.

“Daddy!”

He looked at the arms dealer, who just shrugged. “I dunno. Some toddler. Parents must have died in the fire but no one has room for another kid. They might ship her off to Costa del Sol or something, see if anyone there wants - ”

But Barret had placed the voice and he rushed out of the tent, cutting the man off. It was Marlene - Marlene, alive and filthy, with tear streaks through her grimy face.

She burst into a fresh round of tears upon seeing him. “Papa Bear! Papa!”

Barret went to hold his arms out, so she could leap into them like she had done a million times before - and then he remembered the cold steel gun implanted in his right hand.

He had wanted revenge, and he gave up the ability to give comfort, to cradle a child with the tenderness and love she deserved.

His right arm had once covered half of his face for peek a boo. It had swung her around in the air while she squealed with delight.

Now, all it would do was kill.

Marlene went with him anyway, trusted him anyway, the poor, naive toddler. Unafraid of his gun-arm, unfazed by the street slang and coarse language and profanity he now spewed like a seasoned pro, so far from the gentle man who had rocked both Myrna and Marlene to sleep at times.

Nobody said a word when he picked her up and walked off with her, stole her, and that made him angry all over again. What if he had been some freak, some pedophile murderer? But she had no one, no one to speak for her, no one to care.

Except for Barret. That's all she had now - a disgraced man who had lost everything. Violent and scary. So deadly he needed to have a gun attached to his own body, half mad with grief and loss, a man who sold his soul twice over, and felt nothing either time.

 


 

NOW

 

Barret is glad he's the only one awake on the Highwind, because he feels tears pricking his eyes.

Everyone who has ever loved him has died, save Marlene. And now he's gone so far on his quest for vengeance against ShinRa that he's left her alone for days, then left her in the company of a virtual stranger for months now

He's not stupid enough to think this is still about ShinRa. Now, with Sephiroth summoning Meteor, now it really is about the Planet.

But all those risks he took before. All the times he left her, took a risk that he would never come back?

She's young enough to forgive. She's probably even young enough to forget. But someday won't he have to tell her all? Will he have to tell her that her mother burned to death partially because of him? That he killed her father in a junkyard duel, because Dyne had gone so mad with grief and pain that he wanted to kill them all too?

Pain doesn't discriminate.

It takes and it takes and it takes.

Scarlet was an evil, conniving bitch and she lived, and Eleanor gave everything to help with Myrna and she died in the same agony Myrna had.

It has been so long since Barret has felt anything other than pain. Even the shining moments with Marlene - watching her grow and teaching her to read and skip and count by 2's are streaked with pain, like when she started just referring to him as her Papa and stopped asking about her parents altogether, accepting the strange life he had built with Tifa and AVALANCHE and 7th Heaven.

Even that life, broken and alien as it had been is gone now, disappeared in a moment as the Plate had come crashing down.

Killing hundreds. Killing thousands, maybe, and doesn't he bear some blame for that too? Didn't he push the ShinRa, taunt the ShinRa?

Maybe he deserved to lose it all the way he did. Maybe a man, not even a whole man anymore, deprived of his soul twice over couldn't be around goodness anymore. Maybe, like Sephiroth, he was repelled by it, opposed to it like a magnet, destined to always push it away without even meaning to.

He is crying in earnest now. Myrna. Eleanor. Marlene. Biggs and Wedge and Jessie. The whole damn town of Corel. Oh God. He's lost it all, several times over, and how much can one man possibly stand before he breaks?

Is that what he's doing right now, breaking? Crying like he's never wept before, gasping, jerking. Maybe he'll never stop. Maybe this is the moment where his fight is over, and he proves himself worthless for one last time.

“I know.”

The voice comes from behind him and Barret freaks the fuck out for half a second, before realizing it's Vincent, who moves so goddamn silently it should be a crime.

Barret doesn't feel shame for his tears. All his shame has been used up when he realized he was to blame for destroying his town, losing his wife, killing his best friend, abandoning his daughter. There's none left to spare for a broken man's ruined pride.

Vincent stands behind him silently for a moment, putting his good hand, the one not covered in a gauntlet, on Barret's shoulder. “I couldn't sleep, either.”

Barret stifles his sobs and runs his hand over his face. A shaky breath later, he speaks.

“I can't ever forgive myself.”

Vincent's hand tightens on his shoulder. “Neither can I.”

“You don't know what I've been through,” Barret begins roughly. “You don't know what I've done.”

Vincent takes it the way he takes everything, the way he manages Cloud's psychosis, his panic attacks, the way he manages to receive the most bizarre or hurtful of information - calmly. He doesn't offer comfort - what is there to give? Who is he to speak for a past that he knows so little of?

So they stand there silently, for many minutes.

“We're all with you,” Vincent says quietly. “Your old life is gone. But we're here.”

All that does is damn them, Barret thinks bitterly. Everyone who has ever loved him is dead, and yet he allows more people the opportunity to die because of his foolishness. This is why he's not the leader, why he would let just about anyone lead the company before he would. All his leadership can cause is ruin.

“And someone will always take care of your daughter,” Vincent adds again, some minutes later. “I swear.”

“Thank you,” Barret says softly, his voice hoarse. “Thank you.”

“You won't lose her too.”

They're an odd bunch of people, an unusual gathering, but they've defeated Weapons at this point, held their own against Jenova, and they are loyal . If anyone can shield Marlene from Barret's own rotten - luck? Decisions? Skill? - it will be them.

He nods, and Vincent sighs. “The sun will be up soon. The others will be waking.”

With that, Vincent disappears as quickly as he arrived, silent as a shadow.

The sun will be up soon.

Barret stares off the edge of the Highwind. It's a long shot, a very long shot, but there's a glimmer of possibility in those words.

The sun will be up soon.

And maybe it will shine on a brand new day.


 

Barret pens her a letter. His handwriting is atrocious but she'll decipher it. Smart girl, that one.

 

Papa loves you, Marlene.

You're my own daughter the same as  if I made you myself. And as bad as I am, you are the good in me.

If I don't make it back, I died trying to give you a better world. Don't mourn me. Don't get caught in anger and grief and vengeance.

Be happy and be strong.

You have your strength and your smarts and you are a survivor above all, but you will always have my love.

Carry it with you.

Papa

 

He doesn't know if he'll send it or not.

The sun will be up soon.