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Paternal Instincts

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Barret squinted out at the field of snow. He’d left the rest of the expedition behind a couple hours before to run a couple of tests on the ground of this plateau near the Crater  -  they were taking geological samples, trying to find a good alternative to mako power  -  but he hadn’t been expecting a blizzard like this.

At this rate he was going to have to camp out. It was lucky that he had the supplies for it with him - nothing fancy, but one tiny tent and some food and blankets would make things much more comfortable. Resigned to his fate, Barret started looking for a sheltered spot to make camp.

It was then that he saw the footprints.

He almost missed them, and if he’d been there a few minutes later, they’d have been gone. But there they were - a narrow line of steps, leading off into the blizzard.

Barret hesitated. If he’d ended up closer to the rest of the expedition than he thought, then they might just belong to one of the geologists or guides in the group. But when he looked at the stride length, it was shorter than his, by a lot. Didn’t necessarily mean anything though - could just be from someone short.

It was the shape of the imprint that decided him. When he bent down to get a better look, one of the prints had a clear shape.

Someone’s bare foot.

Small as well. Far too small.

Somewhere out here, caught in the whirling snow and freezing wind, was a child, without even a pair of shoes.

Barret swore, and followed the tracks. 

~=~

Barret had half expected the tracks to stop after a few steps. The wind was bitterly cold and he was already freezing, despite the warm winter clothing. He couldn’t imagine how it would feel to be out here without double layers of thick socks and fancy winter boots from the specialty store in Icicle Inn. His feet were almost numb already, and he couldn’t see anyone doing this barefoot.

There was an answer to that question: they couldn’t. And when he found this kid, whoever they were, he had to be prepared for the fact that they likely wouldn’t have made it.

Barret shuddered and picked up the pace. The air was so cold he could feel it stabbing into his lungs with every breath, but he pushed on. Anything that got him to that kid faster would be worth the pain.

When the tracks changed, it took him a moment to realize what had happened.

Kneeling down to study the marks, he puzzled over them for a moment. The tiny footprints had been replaced with long, dragging marks, and… were those handprints?

He hoped the five-fingered impressions were from gloves, not bare hands, but he wasn’t too optimistic, considering that the kid didn’t even have shoes. Barret had to admire this child's tenacity, whoever they were. Struggling on with their hands and knees in a storm like this… they either had someone important to run to, or someone important to run from.  

At least there was one point of optimism - the trail was easier to see than before, less covered by the still-falling snow. He was getting closer. Barret readjusted the thick scarf over his nose and mouth (it had frozen into a solid block of woolen ice a long time ago, but at least it sheltered him from the wind) and pressed on.

By the time the trail ended, his feet were numb from the ankle down and his hand was following suit. Unfairly, his torso was sweaty and overheated under his thick coat and layers of sweaters. His ears were numb too. His ears hadn’t been numb since the last time he was up here, with Cloud and the others. He was pretty sure the mucus in his nose was frozen, so he had to breathe through his mouth, adding more ice to the scarfsicle.

All Barret wanted was to make camp and get warmed up, maybe have some hot coffee and one of the self-heating mealpacks. Huh. Never thought he’d actually be looking forward to those.

But first he had to find the kid.

The tracks stopped, so they had to be around here, but he didn’t see anything. Just a weirdly shaped snowdrift by the end of the trail.

…And that was probably his answer.

He was silently grateful for the small shovel he’d switched out his gun with. Much more convenient this far North, and the monsters had been less aggressive and powerful ever since the reactors shut down, so there wasn't the same need to be well-armed.

He restrained the rising panic at the lack of movement as he dug the snow away. No use in assuming the worst before he saw it after all.

But when he did get down far enough to find the kid, he couldn’t stop the terror that filled him.

The pale body was clothed only in a blue dress, boxy and ill-fitting. Thin arms and legs were pulled close to the child’s torso, trying to make up for the obviously paper thin fabric. Their hair was coated in snow and their hands and feet were practically white.

Barret recognized the signs of frostbite - was honestly shocked they hadn’t progressed from white to blue and black - and pulled the kid out of the snow as fast as he could.

Cradling the body close, he lowered his head to their face, struggling to quiet his heavy breathing and racing heart enough to hear.

For several long, tense moments, he heard nothing. And then - there!

A shallow breath.

And another.

Barret found himself laughing in hysterical relief. He didn’t know how this kid was still alive - though the memory of the crawling tracks, from a child who collapsed in the snow and still managed to keep moving sprang to mind - but that wasn’t his problem right now.

He managed to grab the emergency blanket from his pack without setting the kid down, and wrapped them in it. It was thick and warm, though surprisingly light, and would hopefully keep the wind from making them worse. Then he stood, careful of his precious burden, and looked around.

The blizzard was still going strong, making it hard to see much of anything on this icy plateau, but he was pretty sure he spotted a hollow not too far off.

Barret jogged in that direction. If he could set up the tent somewhere out of the wind - even a little bit - it would make a huge difference.

When he got there, he found the hollow was smaller than it had looked, but still deep. He had to set the kid down to pitch the tent, and that scared him more than anything else - what if something bad happened to them while he wasn’t there?

But they needed that tent up, so he set down his pack first, and managed to get the tent out without letting go of the kid. Then he settled them on top of the pack, and made they were completely covered by the blanket, leaving only nose and mouth clear. With any luck, lying on the backpack and not the snowy ground would help keep them warm.

Barret had never been so glad that the tents on this expedition practically pitched themselves. It didn’t take him long to get the shelter up and the dry, protected interior had never looked so inviting.

Barret gently set the kid down inside, brushing off what snow he could, then pulled off his own coat and boots, leaving them in the outer vestibule area with his pack. Hopefully it would be enough to keep the inside clean and dry.

With his coat off, he was shivering immediately and his breath fogged the air, but he knew from experience that the tent would warm up fast. His priority was the kid.

Barret carefully unwrapped the blanket from the child’s still body, trying to keep from jostling them too much. He saw the blue dress again, and realized what it was: a hospital gown. The thin cotton fabric was wrapped around their torso, secured with a plain white tie. 

“Where’d you come from?” he muttered. The nearest hospital was in Icicle Inn, and they were closer to the Northern Crater itself than there.

Wherever the kid was from, they hadn’t been taken care of there. The gown was thin and barely covered their torso, let alone their limbs. Their hands and feet were waxy white, and the skin felt harder than it should be - all signs of frostbite.

Barret gritted his teeth and tried to remember the safety lectures they’d all been given before setting out from Icicle. Don’t agitate frostbitten areas, apply warm (not hot) water and sterile dressings. Dry, loose blankets and body heat can help keep the person’s body temperature up. Red skin or numbness means frostnip, pale, grey, or blue-black skin means frostbite. Shivering is a good sign - it means the body is still trying to warm up - and the kid's lack of it scared him. Seek medical attention immediately.

Well, the only medical attention here was him, and he only had a tiny, basic first aid kit, but it had to be better than staying out in the snow.

He grabbed the kit from his pack, relieved to note that the inside of the tent was feeling warmer already. The insulation on these things was a miracle.

The kid was trembling when he returned to them, which was another relief. Their stillness before had been both eerie and terrifying. Barret tried to gently separate their fingers and toes, which were tightly clenched and practically stuck together, and was shocked at how cold they felt.

Of course, they’d been out in the blizzard, without any proper clothing, for who-knew-how-long, but it was still a jolt to realize that the kid’s feet felt like blocks of ice. Barret winced, trying to make his touch even more gentle as he wrapped their hands and feet in spare pairs of socks from his bag.

After that, he turned to the hospital gown. It had been coated in snow before, and at this point was soaked through. Leaving it on would only hurt the kid, and once it was off, he could give them one of his own sweaters, which were at least dry.

It still felt awkward to take off. This wasn’t Marlene, and the kid looked about seven or eight - more than old enough to dress themself. But the gown was far too wet to leave on, so he carefully undid the tie and pulled it away. At least it was easy to remove - medical gowns had to be.

Once it was off, Barret quickly checked for other injuries on the child’s body, and, finding none, wrapped them - him, he noted - in a warm hoodie he’d worn under his coat. It was huge on the boy’s trembling body, covering him from neck to knee, and utterly swamping his arms in the massive sleeves. With that on, Barret wrapped the blanket around him again, and went to unpack a little better.

He had one sleeping bag, several bottles of water, a few self-heating mealpacks, and some that you could eat cold. He also had a tiny electric stove - a very recent model - and extra batteries for it. It didn’t provide a lot of heat, but it would be enough to make the food hot or warm water for tea or coffee. Or melt snow, if it came to that. There weren’t a lot of spare clothes, as most of his things were still with the rest of the expedition, but there was probably enough to keep the kid from freezing, so long as he didn’t have to walk again. That was okay. Barret could carry him. He wasn’t heavy and it would probably be a bad idea for him to walk on those feet anyway.

Barret was busy hanging a lamp from the top of the tent when the kid stirred.

Barret was at his side in an instant (okay, it wasn’t exactly far, but he’d still moved fast), and watched his eyelids flutter. He was still shivering, if anything, harder than before.

“Hey, can you hear me?” He kept his voice gentle, used to dealing with small children. And with this one injury and unconsciousness would probably make him more timid around strangers.

The boy twitched again, and Barret cupped his cheek in his hand. “It’s okay. You’re gonna be okay. I’m taking care of you.” The kid’s breathing was speeding up, which could be a good thing, since it had been worryingly slow before, but also seemed like a sign of distress.

“Can you open your eyes for me?”

There was a moment of silence, no sound but the howling wind outside, and the creak of the tent fabric, and then the boy’s eyes opened.

And when Barret instantly recoiled, he couldn’t help it.

Eyelids fluttered shut again, and Barret could breathe. But he couldn’t forget what he’d seen, couldn’t forget every other time he’d seen those eyes.

This child had been lost alone in the wilderness near the Northern Crater, with nothing but a hospital gown to keep him warm. He’d collapsed in the snow, and kept crawling on. He’d nearly frozen to death in the bitter cold.

His hands and feet were frostbitten, but would likely recover. And it was just his hands and feet, while Barret, dressed in heavy winter gear, was already worried about the numbness of his legs almost up to the knee, not to mention his fingers or ears.

His hair, which Barret had taken for blond earlier, while it was covered in snow, was closer to gray. Or silver.

And his eyes.

His eyes were the glowing green of mako, the planet’s stolen lifeblood, with the slit pupils that only one person had ever had.

~=~

 

Barret didn’t know how long he knelt there. The light outside dimmed, and soon he could only see by the lamp he’d hung from the tent roof. His stomach rumbled, and he thought distantly of the mealpacks. In front of him… Sephiroth… no, the child, shifted. That was what finally made him move. Regardless of those eyes, that hair, and the uncanny resistance to the cold, the person lying on the ground in front of him was still just a kid.

Barret didn’t know who he was, had no proof it was Sephiroth and not some terrible coincidence. Some escaped experiment from a Shinra lab, an attempted Sephiroth clone, like Cloud had been. In fact, for all he knew, the slit pupiled eyes were a trick of the dim light, or of his own exhausted mind.

Satisfied with that line of thought, he nodded.

And he very carefully didn’t think that if those pupils were just a trick of the light, he could still lean forward and check again.

There were two flavors of self-heating mealpack in his bag: butter chicken and steak with potatoes. Normally he’d scoff at the names - neither of them was anything close to the dish it claimed to be - but today he was just too tired and hungry. He grabbed a chicken one and activated its little warming mechanism. Barret kept his hand wrapped around the package as it heated, his fingers enjoying the chance to get warm, and sent a guilty glance at the boy.

He’d been freezing earlier, and Barret hadn’t done much to consciously warm him. It would be truly ironic for Barret to have rescued him from the blizzard only to let him succumb to hypothermia in their tent itself.

He set the mealpack down and rested the back of his hand on the boy’s forehead. Still too cold. Under the blanket though, his chest felt like almost a normal temperature. Barret gently pulled the boy’s hands from the hoodie sleeves and spare socks, and found them flushed and red. That was a good sign, and it was the same for his feet.

He was still shivering, though it seemed to have gotten less violent since he last looked.

The kid’s hair wasn’t any less silver now, but Barret avoided it and focused on other things. Like the reassurance that the kid would make it.

The mealpack was warm, and the boy was safe, so Barret settled down to eat. He hadn’t noticed how ravenous he was until the package was empty and he was still hungry. He didn’t even care about the less-than-satisfying taste.

Leaving the empty packet in a small garbage bag, Barret grabbed the tiny stove and some water. At least he could have coffee, though the instant coffee packets were as abysmal as the food.

One effect of having such a tiny tent  was that the little stove heating the water was right by the kid’s head. Barret wasn’t too worried about him being burned - the stove was well insulated on the sides - but it still felt warm. 

And the boy noticed. Even unconscious, he tilted his face towards the warmth and tried to curl into it.

But the blanket was wrapped around him too well for him to move, and the motion devolved into a jerky twitching. It was pitiful to watch, especially as the kid clearly panicked at the restraint and began to struggle harder.

Barret reached out, planning to hold the kid a bit more still so he could get the blanket untangled, but the moment his hand reached his shoulder the boy froze. 

The child’s harsh, shallow breathing was very loud in the tiny tent.

“It’s alright. Listen, it’s okay, calm down.” Barret kept his voice quiet and soothing. If the boy was an escapee from a Shinra lab, he might not be used to kind touches, and he remembered how Cloud had been for the first little while they’d known him. Sometimes he would roll with touches, laugh and joke and tease if someone else made contact - the Zack-persona, they’d learn later - and sometimes he’d flinch away, react like he would to an attack, scared and hurt - the Cloud-persona. Though Barret wasn't quite sure that was fair on Cloud. Even his Cloud-persona got better as they travelled together: it was closer to his trauma-persona.

But the boy’s reaction wasn’t quite like either of Cloud’s. Cloud you could always talk to. It might take him a while to respond, but he would. The boy just seemed to panic more at the sound of his voice. He didn’t move, but Barret could feel the tension in him, how he was holding himself as stiff as a board. See it in the pinched expression on his face.

Not what he’d been going for.

“It’s okay, I’m not gonna hurt you.” As he spoke he carefully withdrew his hand. “There. You awake?”

Silence for a moment. And then - a tiny nod.

“Good, that’s good. You feeling okay?”

The boy’s pinched look got, if possible, even more pinched.

And then, a sharp nod.

Barret frowned. The boy was still shivering, and his hands and feet had to be sore from warming up, if not outright painful. But if he was feeling well enough to lie about how ill he was, that might be a good sign. Marlene had never been able to lie when she was really sick. 

This boy might be a lot more used to pain than his daughter, though, if the last few moments were any indication.

Barret pushed away the sick feeling that thought gave him, and focused on the kid in front of him.

“Can you open your eyes?”

This time, he was ready for the slit pupils and poison-green eyes. He didn’t flinch.

“Are you thirsty?”

No response, though the kid’s eyes stayed focused on him.

He probably was though. Cold weather took it out of you, and a hot drink would help his recovery.

Barret broke eye contact with the kid’s unblinking stare. The water was heated, and he poured some into the little camping mug. Marlene had never liked coffee much, so he added a teabag instead, and, after thinking for a moment, two little packets of sugar. Never met a kid who didn’t like sweets.

The boy watched him silently. 

Once the tea was ready, Barret held it out.

“There you go. You might wanna let it steep for a minute first though.”

The boy made no move to take it. Barret gestured impatiently.

“Go on. I want to make coffee from the rest of the water before it gets cold - take this so I can have my hand free.”

The kid's green eyes were still mistrustful, but he sat up slowly and inched a hand out from under the blanket, casting a brief confused look at the hoodie sleeve, and took the mug. He didn’t let his fingers so much as brush Barret’s.

Barret nodded, and focused on making coffee in the half-empty metal canteen holding the rest of the water - he only had the one mug.

When that was ready, Barret took a long sip, and sighed in contentment. Even low-quality, instant coffee was worth it, and he could feel the warmth spreading through his body already. He took another, and cast a sidelong glance at the kid.

The boy was sitting exactly as he’d left him, the mug held in his fingers like he expected it to bite him.

“It’s probably done steeping by now. Try some and see if you like it.”

The kid started at the sound of his voice, nearly dropping his tea as he whipped his head around to stare at Barret through wide, terrified eyes.

Barret stayed still and tried to look nonthreatening. Nothing he could do about the fact that the kid was alone with a stranger, and that the small size of the tent meant that he was probably looming no matter how hard he tried not to be, but he could still make the attempt.

Still staring at him, the boy raised the cup to his lips. He glanced down at the liquid, and then, with the air of someone forcing themself to swallow poison, gulped all the scalding drink down in one go.

“Wait-!” Barret started forward, afraid the kid would burn himself like that, but the boy’s reaction stopped him.

He flinched hard, drawing in a sharp, panicked breath. He kept his body in position with what looked like a great force of will, but his fingers clenched around the mug, and a metallic crumpling noise jerked Barret’s attention down.

The metal mug was bent out of any hope of repair in the boy’s fisted hand.

The kid seemed to notice this at the same moment he did, and his expression of guarded caution changed to one of abject terror. The child dropped the mug immediately, as though hoping that distancing himself from the crime would make him look less guilty.

But he clearly didn’t expect that to work. He sat up straight, lifting his chin to bare his throat and his face went blank. Or at least it tried to. Barret could still see the fear in his eyes, evident in the rigid set of his jaw and the tremble of his mouth. He looked less fearless, and more like he was trying not to cry.

Barret delicately reached out and picked up the mug. The boy watched out of the corner of his eyes, and, if possible, got even more tense.

“I’m sorry.”

Barret jerked his head up. The kid’s voice was startling. Softer than he’d expected, and higher.

The boy wasn’t looking at him. He was staring straight ahead.

“I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry.”

That sentence cut straight to Barret’s heart. “It’s okay, it’s okay. I was just worried you’d burn yourself.” The kid was giving him a very odd look. “On the tea.”

The kid was still scared. Barret took a deep breath.

"It's alright. Would you like some more?"

The boy considered, before nodding, quick and jerky, like he was afraid it was a trap.

Barret gave him a smile, and set about making more tea in a second canteen - the mug was hopeless. This time the kid took it without being asked, and wrapped his small hands around it.

Barret leaned back and focused on his coffee. The child was nervous enough, and he wanted to give him a chance to calm down a bit and warm up before he tried to figure out who he was.

The boy sipped carefully at his tea, sneaking glances at Barret whenever he could. He didn't say anything, not even a thank you for the tea, which Barret had to restrain himself from correcting. This wasn't Marlene. At least he didn't seem cold anymore.

Once the boy's tea was mostly gone and Barret's coffee was finished, he decided to ask a few questions.

"How old are you?"

The boy looked at him, confused.

"Seven."

Younger than Marlene, just barely.

"How’d you get here?"

"I… I don't know." Barret frowned and the kid quickly went on. "The professor was testing something, but the tank made me fall asleep." Something in Barret's face must have seemed off because the boy curled into himself. "I really tried not to but I was there for a long time. When I woke up, I was out of the tank and it was cold."

Barret closed his eyes and took a deep breath. And another one. Restraining his anger. He knew what time in labs and mako tanks could do to someone - he'd seen the mansion's basement in Nibelheim, and what it had done to Cloud. And this was a seven year old kid. 

The boy spoke up again. "Are you a researcher or a technician or an assistant?"

Barret felt cold. "What's the difference?"

"Researchers help the Professor do tests, assistants help the researchers, and technicians do things that aren't tests." He said the word 'technician’ like 'tek-ition' and it was an unsettlingly sweet counterpoint to what he was saying.

"I'm not any of those. My name's Barret. I found you outside."

The boy frowned. "I wasn't outside."

What? "That's where I found you. You crawled through the snow - I followed the tracks."

The boy shook his head, almost violently. He looked like he was about to cry, and seeing his inhuman eyes filled with tears was one of the strangest things Barret had ever seen. "I wasn't outside. I never go outside. I was in a training room. Or dreaming."

"Okay, okay," Barret tried to calm him down. "Why don't you tell me your name?"

Green eyes looked at him suspiciously, still wet. "Sephiroth ess-one."

It took Barret a moment to process that. One: there was some experiment somewhere that was literally making a second Sephiroth - even the various Sephiroth-clones hadn't used that name, and two: he gave his specimen number, S-1, as part of his name and instead of a last name. It made part of him want to rage and scream against Shinra's all-encompassing greed, another part wanted to put down the escaped experiment before he could do any damage, and his heart and the father in him wanted to wrap the kid in his arms and keep him safe from the people who had put such a dead look into the eyes of a boy so young. 

Barret did none of those things. He asked the boy (Sephiroth … no, just a boy) if he was hungry, and then got him something to eat. He couldn't finish the mealpack, but the hot food seemed to do him good. It brought a little color into his cheeks and relaxed a bit of the tension in his small body. He still didn't speak, and Barret wasn't feeling inclined to break the silence. He was tired and just wanted to rest. It wasn’t as if the kid would try to throttle him in his sleep - even if his tiny hands could reach.

After he set out the sleeping bag, he had to decide what to do about the kid. There was only the one sleeping bag, and the tent would only get colder as temperatures dropped during the night. Normally, Barret would wrap himself in the blanket and the sleeping bag both.

And the kid was still recovering from frostbite and hypothermia and almost fucking freezing to death. Sharing body heat would probably be good for him.

But Barret couldn't forget how he panicked when touched before. He didn't want to do anything to bring that fear back into the child’s face.

Well. Nothing to do but ask, right?

“Hey, kid.” He wasn’t ready to use that name for a child just yet. Not until they had more information. “It’s getting late, we should turn in.”

The boy blinked up at him, utterly uncomprehending. Barret decided to just keep going.

“We’ve only got one sleeping bag, and it gets pretty miserable here at night. We’re gonna have to share, okay?”

Those acid green eyes stared at him eerily. The effect was somewhat diminished when they fell shut as the kid yawned enormously.

“It’s time for bed?”

Barret smiled despite himself. Disturbing resemblance aside, the kid was adorable. Big eyes, and his messy hair falling in his face… 

Planet, he missed Marlene. Being around children always reminded him of her, and they’d left for Icicle Inn nearly a full week ago. He hadn’t been able to call her since they’d left the town itself a few days before, and he wondered how she was doing. When he left, she’d had a project at school that she’d been excited about presenting - he wished he knew how that went. When he got home, he’d take her out for the day, find something fun for them to do together. Catch up on everything going on in her life… 

Barret jolted himself back to the present. The kid was staring at him expectantly, and he managed an answer. “Yeah, that’s right.” Took a deep breath - by his reaction earlier, the boy had no clue what a sleeping bag was. “Have you ever been camping?”

The boy opened his mouth, as though to ask a question then shut it. He shook his head.

That was odd. Children didn’t normally hesitate about asking questions.

“Well then. This is a sleeping bag. We’ll sleep in it, since there’s no bed here. There’s only one so we’ll have to share. That okay?”

The kid nodded briefly, then looked like he was not-asking a question again.

“If you’ve got questions, go ahead and ask them. Don’t hesitate on my account.”

“Why isn’t there a bed here?”

“Cause we’re in a little tent out in the wilderness. It’d be pretty hard to carry a bed out all this way.”

The kid frowned, but he didn’t say anything else. Well, Barret could live with that.

“Come on then. Bedtime.”

The kid - still swaddled in the extra big hoodie - hesitantly crawled towards Barret, who did his best to give him room in the sleeping bag without too much crowding. It wasn’t the easiest, but with the spare blanket too, he managed to get them arranged so they’d both be warm and were only awkwardly close, not painfully so. And if he was pretty sure he was going to wake up the next morning with his ears and hand freezing from hanging out of the sleeping bag - well, it was a small price to pay to give the kid a bit more room. Because if the way he’d flinched at a hand on his shoulder earlier was heartbreaking, how he just lay there next to Barret, tense and trembling and obviously miserable - but not resisting at all - was far, far worse. 

Barret was struck by the ridiculous desire to just stay up the night, curled up in his warm outer layers and let the kid have the sleeping bag to himself, but he doubted it would help. He wouldn't bet any sleep like that, and he wanted his wits about him tomorrow, when he’d have to find his way back to the expedition, carrying some escaped Sephiroth-clone science project, and explain things to everyone there, and possibly demand the expedition be cut short so he could take the kid back to civilization and alert the rest of Avalanche. 

And the boy’s trembling was probably just residual hypothermia anyway. And his tension was just the unfamiliar situation. And the fact that he gave a specimen number as part of his name was just his parents’ idea of a joke. Yeah. Barret wasn’t fooling anyone, not even himself.

All the more reason to get back to civilization as soon as possible. Some sort of professional would be the best idea to help this kid, and they needed to know where he came from - both to stop whatever operation was going on and to rescue any other children being kept there as experiments.

As he turned off the little lantern, he glanced down at the boy. His breathing had slowed, but not to the point of sleep and his eyes were open, the green glow shockingly bright up close in the dark. Barret had never seen anyone but Cloud and the original Sephiroth with eyes like that. And Cloud’s weren’t this color - the sharp, acid green of pure mako. His enhancements had come late in his life, leaving him with a bright glow and a mako shimmer, but his natural eye color showed through. This boy’s eyes might as well have been made of the stuff. That and his slit pupils…

Barret shuddered and looked away. 

“Get some sleep kid.”

He tried to follow his own advice, he really did, but it wouldn’t come. He drifted in and out of a light doze, never unaware but never alert either, for hours on end. He wasn’t sure about the kid, but he didn’t seem any better off. 

At some point, four in the morning or so by the lit display of his watch, the boy seemed more disturbed. He tensed up and his breaths were harder. His face was screwed up, eyes squeezed tight, and he kept making tiny, gasping noises that might have been muffled sobs or choked screams.

“Kid? Wake up.” Barret reached down, gently putting a hand on the boy's shoulder. “It’s okay - wake up.” Marlene had nightmares too sometimes. 

The kid twitched, curling into himself. But that sent him curling closer against Barret too, who immediately wrapped an arm around him. The child went tense at the touch, as Barret murmured soothing nothings. The small body against him trembled, but didn’t pull away. Barret held him as the tremors slowly disappeared and he went back to sleep. Eventually Barret followed.

The next morning, they didn’t say much. The boy was quiet, watching his every move from under his silver bangs, and Barret wasn’t in a mood to talk. Once they were packed, Barret wrapped the boy in the spare blanket and lifted him with his left arm. Holding the child on his hip, he set off towards the rest of the expedition.

Once they got there, Barret would have to demand they turn back. Return to Icicle Inn at least, there was no way finishing their survey was as important as whatever this kid represented. He held the kid more securely against his body, feeling a sudden wave of protectiveness. But when they got there, he'd have to tell Cloud that Sephiroth seemed to be back again, however indirectly. Get Avalanche together to decide what to do. 

~=~

That all went wrong fast. After they'd been walking for a while, the boy happened to ask him what he did. Barret told him about alternative energy sources, and was all geared up for a lecture on renewable energy, when the boy asked something else.

“Are you a terrorist?”

Barret wasn’t sure what to say to that. But lying was no way to build trust.

“I used to be. Blowing up reactors and all that. But there’s no need for any of that stuff now.”

“I’m not supposed to reveal information to terrorists.” So saying, the boy squirmed his way out of Barret’s arm, landed like a cat on the icy crust of the snow, and ran.

“Shit.”  Barret ran after him.

The chase was surprisingly even. The kid was dressed in Barret’s spare clothes, the emergency blanket trailing behind him like a neon orange cape, but his socks were no protection from the biting cold. Barret was dressed properly for the weather, and his time in Avalanche had taught him to stay in shape, but he had to wade through the deep snow while the kid could run across the thin crust. 

But his legs were longer, and the kid was still weak from frostbite and whatever else had happened to him before Barret found him. Eventually the boy found a section of snow too weak to support even his slight weight and fell. Barret had reached him before he could scramble back to his feet.

The child gasped in fear as Barret slammed down in front of him, left hand grabbing his shoulder, right arm bracketing him in.

“Stay right there . If you run here you’ll freeze to death, and there's no way I'm taking responsibility for combing this whole wasteland for your dead body.” His grip tightened on the boy’s shoulder, making the kid flinch.

Shit. ” Barret loosened his hand. “Kid, you have to stay with me. I’m not gonna hurt you, and you’ll die of exposure before you find a settlement if you just run.” Barret realized how harsh and loud his voice had gotten when the boy trembled, lowering his gaze and curling in on himself.

Deep breath. Lean back and loosen his hand a little - kid’s not going anywhere right now.

“Please.” This time his voice came out honestly pleading. “I’m gonna help you, get you to some people who can figure out what happened. We’ll take care of you.” He hunched down to meet the boy’s eyes. “Just don’t run away on me yet, okay?”

The kid’s slit pupils were narrow, more inhuman than ever, but the fear in them was real. It broke Barret’s heart, even more now that he was sure he was the cause of some of it. But the little boy still nodded before he dipped his head again. His silver hair fell in his eyes, just like how Marlene’s did when she was trying not to cry, and he brushed it away without thinking.

The boy froze. And a moment later so did Barret.

But the stillness only looked nervous this time, not full out terror. So he carefully repeated the action, a gentle caress along the side of the boy’s face.

And the kid just… melted. His head drooped, resting on Barret’s chest, his hands came up to clutch at his coat, and he slowly tilted forward to curl into Barret’s body.

Automatically, Barret hugged him, pulling the little body closer, pressing his nose into the soft, silver hair, rubbing his back soothingly with his one hand. The boy shuddered, a muffled sob making its way out. Barret held him tighter as he kept crying, getting snot all over the emergency blanket and Barret’s coat. It was such a normal scene, comforting a crying child, that Barret could even ignore the situation, ignore who this boy was.

At least until he smelled the laboratory stench clinging to the kid’s hair. And the uncanny strength in his clenched grip on the coat. And saw his bare feet peeking out from under the blanket, red and painful in the cold.

If he stayed crumpled in the snow like this, his feet would get frostbite. And they needed to get back to the expedition.

Barret murmured a warning, and plucked the kid up, carefully wrapping him in his arms.

Together, they made their way back to civilization.

~=~