Barret was not the prickliest hunting companion Sephiroth had ever had, but even so Sephiroth respected the man's seeming preference for quiet. It was preferable for him too, letting him concentrate on the terrain and the signs that the massive Wolfmeisters couldn't help but leave. Gleipnir walked between them, blissfully oblivious to the tension.
A questioning chirp from the bird made Sephiroth pause, and he glanced back to see Barret with his hands on his hips, scowling at him. "You sure this is the right way," he demanded after a moment.
"Fairly sure," Sephiroth answered cautiously. "Why?"
Barret didn't answer - just turned his head, and scowled, and muttered, "Aw, dammit."
That - wasn't encouraging, but Sephiroth couldn't have asked what was wrong even if he'd been able to put the words together. He turned back to the trail again, pushing his disquiet to the side. You have a job to do still, S.
Barret was a puzzle. So far as Sephiroth was aware he'd never killed anyone close to Barret himself; the razing of Corel Tifa had spoken of had happened a year after his first death. Yet Barret seemed to hate him more than any of Cloud's friends. Yuffie, the heir to Wutai's ruling house, had mocked him mercilessly in Rocket Town with a cheerful grin; Cloud had agreed to take charge of him, however reluctantly; even Tifa seemed to be warming to him. The only person who seemed to resent him as much was perhaps Vincent-
...well, Vincent was even more of a mystery, but even he hadn't been overtly hostile. Perhaps it's protectiveness, Sephiroth mused, placing his footsteps carefully around the occasional Wolfmeister print. He hates me on behalf of the others, so they may deal with me more normally. Someone has to hold onto it all.
But then there was Marlene. The way the girl talked, Sephiroth couldn't imagine she hadn't told her beloved Papa about him. Why did Barret continue to permit his daughter access to a hated enemy? If he forbade it, surely Cloud and Tifa would listen.
He trusts them, Sephiroth realized. He trusts them with the life of his daughter.
The thought was sobering and strangely warming at the same time. He wanted to ask Barret about it directly, but Barret probably wouldn't answer him.
The trees were thinning. Sephiroth cleared the last of them and found himself standing on the tracks leading up to a massive, squat building of the type he recognized all too well. This must be the famed Corel Reactor.
"...was afraid of that," Barret commented, and Sephiroth ruthlessly squelched the instinct to jump. "What now, General?"
"I'll have to enter," Sephiroth sighed.
"Just remembering the last time you were in one of these things."
Must he bring that up? ...never mind. "I'm fairly sure," Sephiroth answered brittlely, "Hojo didn't stash a chunk of Jenova's corpse in every reactor on Gaia."
"...wouldn't be surprised," Barret muttered, and Sephiroth's stomach twisted uneasily.
"In any case," he forged ahead determinedly, "I have no choice."
"Maybe their nest ain't even in there."
Sephiroth was already forcing himself to march, his only concession to nerves being one hand on Gleipnir's wing. "Where better for a man-sized monster to nest than a defunct reactor? The nest is there. Hopefully it won't be too far in, but regardless..."
"All right, all right, General." Gravel crunched under heavy boots as Barret hurried to fall in, marching with Gleipnir between himself and Sephiroth. Gleipnir warbled contentedly, clearly accepting Barret as a flockmate. "Stubborn jackass. Startin' to remind me of Spike."
Fresh tension sang through Sephiroth's nerves, and he swallowed a protest before he could even analyze his feelings enough to encompass them in words. He would never be insulted by a comparison to Cloud, but given the younger man's history of being tampered with Sephiroth doubted the reverse was true.
Reactors were always built the same way, no matter where they were: plains, mountains, it had made no difference to Shinra. Efficiency was Shinra's design philosophy: everything, including nature itself, would bow to it.
Which was a long-winded way of saying they tore up a perfectly good mountain to build this ugly thing, but Sephiroth was perfectly content to use Shinra's predictability to his advantage one last time. Past the entranceway, sword out; along walkways that creaked and whispered with five years' age and rust; bypassing the powerless elevator via a service corridor that made Barret huff in irritation when Sephiroth led him into it.
"Wish we'd known about this," he muttered, and Sephiroth tilted his head but chose not to respond.
"Why, precisely, are you still following me?" he asked instead, and Barret's huff sounded amused this time.
"Guess I'm a softy. Gotta make sure you get back to your bird, right?"
Indeed, Gleipnir had not been happy to be left behind at the entrance, but a reactor with five years' worth of decay was not safe for a large flightless bird. "Indeed," Sephiroth murmured, disbelieving. "Cloud trusts me to hunt monsters unsupervised, you know."
"Cloud doesn't know everything." Barret paused as Sephiroth opened the door to the lower landing and stepped through, sword first. When the landing proved to be clear, Sephiroth waved Barret through. "Besides," Barret continued, "Corel's my town, and I got a debt to it."
Debts, Sephiroth understood. He nodded tightly and moved on again, down the creaking stairs into the chambers surrounding the core.
The nest wasn't difficult to find after that: Barret and Sephiroth could smell it before they saw it, the reek of rotting flesh overpowering all else. Barret complained loudly as though he could drown out the smell with noise; Sephiroth simply covered his mouth and nose with one hand and kept going, eyes streaming and throat spasming with threats to heave up what little he'd eaten that morning. He could have hugged Barret with relief when he pointed out the pile of shredded vegetation spilling out one of the vehicle storage rooms, clearly the bedding material the Wolfmeisters had been using. He refrained, though, sheathed his sword and climbed down the ladder to face whatever was in there.
He paused just inside the room, long enough that Barret caught up to him. "Aww, hell," he muttered, surveying the half-dozen monster hatchlings that hissed and rattled at them. "I hate this part."
"On this, we agree," Sephiroth sighed.
He hadn't asked for assistance, but he wasn't surprised when Barret stepped up. The two of them divided the grim work between them, of killing the hatchlings as swiftly and humanely as they could. The fresh corpses joined two older, crumpled bodies, clearly of late used as playthings by their siblings, and the half-eaten, fly-blown carcass of the local therapod Bagnadrana. Sephiroth averted his eyes from the sight, wishing he could turn his sense of smell off the same way. Across the room, Barret was poking through the shreds of bedding with a handy stick.
"Think that's all of 'em," he commented, straightening and tossing the stick away.
Sephiroth nodded to him. "Thank you for your help, Mr. Wallace."
Consternation flashed across Barret's face, and Sephiroth was almost tempted to laugh until the expression faded to hard-edged grief. "...still don't sound right," Barret muttered, turning away, and Sephiroth winced to himself. "So, is that it?"
"Well..." Sephiroth let his eyes roam around the room. "...something still worries me," he admitted, and Barret groaned. "Did you see any signs of their passage around the main entrance?"
Barret waved his flesh hand in a 'don't ask me' gesture. "You're the expert, not me. I've never hunted in my life."
"They may have discovered a second entrance," Sephiroth explained. "I just want to be certain."
Barret crossed his arms, impatient, as Sephiroth felt his way back out of the Wolfmeisters' den, searching for telltale scrapes, breakages, anything that could tell him of the adult Wolfmeisters' passing. He found it in the torn-off door to a supply closet and entered with a cautious step. Surely there was no entry to the outside here, what could the monsters possibly-
The floor fell out from under him and he plummeted into darkness with an unmanly shriek.
Fortunately the fall was broken by a set of stairs, which guided Seph in their own gravity-assisted way to ground with - he was fairly sure as he sat up dizzily - no broken bones. As the room stopped spinning, he heard an unfamiliar and rather unwelcome sound: Barret whooping with laughter. "I'm glad one of us is enjoying this," he muttered, hauling himself to his feet. "Mr. Wa- ...Barret, can you bring a light down?"
"Sure, one sec...! ...pfft."
Just this once Sephiroth felt no shame in glaring at Barret as he came down, waving his PHS before him like a flashlight. Barret answered his glare, which at one point had had even the most hardened SOLDIERs quaking in their boots, with an irreverent grin. "How's your head, General?"
"Just fine, thank you."
The landing (ha) they found themselves in was short, with a single unmarked door ahead of them. Sephiroth tried the door, prepared to kick it down if necessary, but to his surprise the door meekly opened for him. Beyond it...
...it was hard to make sense of it at first, in the dim inconstant light of Barret's PHS, but the more Sephiroth saw the more his heart sank. He knew this layout, better than he knew Shinra's reactors. A room like this had been his home for the first fourteen years of his life.
"Those Mako tubes?" Barret's voice echoed off the age-stained walls as he shone the light on the glassy surface of a quartet of containment tubes.
"Yes," Sephiroth admitted in a near-whisper.
Barret turned to him, all traces of humor gone, and his light followed Sephiroth silently as he paced his way around the underground lab. Glass crunched under his boots and he glanced down, then back up at the shelving where the glass had probably come from. The control consoles were cold and dark, smeared with dust that smelled of Mako when he touched it. The tubes...
"These were drained recently," he said without thinking, and Barret jerked, his PHS's light juddering briefly over Sephiroth's crouched form.
"How can you tell?" he demanded.
"There's residue in the grate." Sephiroth rose, turned to face him. "I can't give you an exact timeframe without knowing the composition of the medium, but back - back at Shinra Headquarters it took at least forty-eight days for Mako residue to evaporate completely. Barret - are you absolutely sure Hojo is dead?"
Barret's look of shock folded down into a resolute frown. "I was there, Sephiroth. I helped put the bastard down myself."
Standing as close as they were, Sephiroth realized with some shock that Barret was nearly as tall as he was - and a lot broader. The immovable object to Cloud's unstoppable force. "Then," he sighed, "someone else has been here. As to what they found, or set loose..."
"Shinra," Barret growled. "We'll never be free of their damn sins." He turned, storming back toward the stairs - taking his light with him, and Sephiroth hurried after him before he could be lost in darkness.
"Where are you going?" he demanded.
"Where d'you think?" Barret shot back over his shoulder. "I'm callin' Reeve!"
The World Regenesis Organization's flagship ran largely on coal from the Corel Mountains, which went a long way toward making Barret forgive Reeve Tuesti for being a former Shinra executive. There was even an airship dock in Corel at Barret's urging, a strange amenity in a town that had few amenities not related to mining. When the airship landed at dock, it dwarfed the town.
"Reeve, you bastard!" Barret roared across the tarmac, striding forward as a trim, bearded man emerged from the airship. The guards who'd preceded him smartly stepped aside, their postures relaxed to Sephiroth's trained eye, as though they knew the massive man barreling at them was no threat. Sephiroth, not so assured, stayed right where he was, well away from guards and former executives alike though he was still well within earshot of them.
"Barret," Reeve greeted, a note of dry humor in his voice as he clasped Barret's shoulder - on the unaugmented side, wisely. "How are things in Corel?"
"Like you don't know, you nosey ass," Barret responded, giving Reeve a gentle sock on the arm that drove him back a step. "Those wind turbines of yours are gonna pay for themselves within the next five years, and fuck you for always bein' right anyway. What are we gonna do with ourselves out here without coal mining, anyway?"
"In five years, we'll still have forty-five years left of the Global Clean Energy Initiative, according to current predictions," Reeve answered placidly. "I'm sure there'll be plenty for everyone to do. And our descendants will thank us."
"You gonna have descendants?" Barret demanded, openly doubtful. Reeve arched his eyebrows, but refrained from commenting.
"Is that Cloud's guest?" he asked instead, sharp eyes flickering to Sephiroth. Sephiroth hoped the sudden tension in his spine wasn't noticeable.
"Yeah, that's him. He kinda-" A muffled noise that sounded suspiciously like a laugh. "Found the lab. On accident."
My dignity and my tailbone will never recover. Sephiroth sighed and tried to look as impassive as he could in hand-me-down clothes and a half-undone braid. Too late he realized he was at attention as Reeve stopped in front of him.
"General," he greeted.
Reeve grimaced, the expression deepening the lines of his face, and Sephiroth was struck by how much older he looked. It had been ten years since Sephiroth had last seen him - that he remembered - but he looked twenty years older, at least. "Just Reeve, please."
Reeve eyed him a moment longer, then looked away. He did not offer his hand or say 'welcome back,' as Tseng had. He doesn't want anything from me, a sardonic thought passed through his head. Tseng - or rather, Rufus - stood to profit from ignoring my sins.
"Well," Reeve said, interrupting Sephiroth's bitter thoughts, "let's see about this lab of yours."
"We're takin' a coal car this time," Barret put in. "I dunno about you, General, but I'm about done with monsters for the day."
Sephiroth hesitated. "Is it - necessary that I come along?"
Barret fielded the question to Reeve with a glance. "I would prefer it," Reeve admitted. "You're our only expert on Hojo's lab practices. If there's anything unusual about the place you're most likely to spot it. Unless you've noted something already...?"
"We weren't there very long," Sephiroth admitted grudgingly. Expert on Hojo's lab practices? Am I supposed to be flattered?
Reeve's chin dipped in a nod. "I can't force you, of course. But under the circumstances..."
"...no, you're right." Sephiroth held back a sigh. "Just - give me a few minutes. I need to check in with Cloud."
Cloud was not pleased when Sephiroth explained the situation over his borrowed PHS, but he agreed that Sephiroth should stay and lend his expertise. "Just don't let Reeve talk you into leading a task force or something," he added.
"I don't think he'd trust me at the head of a janitorial detail," Sephiroth assured him, earning an amused snort over the static-fuzzy line. "I'll report in again when I'm on the way home."
Returning to the lab site was as unpleasant as Sephiroth had anticipated - a hot, crowded, awkward ride culminating in a dark, smelly, unpleasant place full of unpleasant memories. But Sephiroth was used to onerous duties. He stood near the back of the lab, back straight and stiff, and took mental notes as the WRO staff took pictures and inventory and finally started carting everything out. Not one of them met his eyes. He was grateful - he wasn't sure what his expression looked like right now, but in his General days he had tended to frighten people with a glance when he was-
"Hey, workaholic! Let's go!" Barret's voice barking from the stairwell, obscurely comforting in its combativeness. Sephiroth pulled himself away from the wall - when had his back gotten so stiff? - and headed up the stairs after him. His headache would fade once he got some fresh air.
Fresh air was not in Sephiroth's immediate future. After an equally uncomfortable coal car ride back to Corel, he was ushered straight to Reeve's airship, where he, Barret, and the WRO operatives gather for the debrief.
"Forensic analysis is ongoing, but all indications so far point to the lab being used in the past month." The squad leader paced in front of the projection, obscuring it with her own shadow for a moment. "There are signs of biological experimentation, but few notes. However, given the history of the reactor given by Mr. Wallace-" Barret nodded to her. "It is unlikely the lab existed prior to nine years ago."
"What was it used for?" Reeve asked from the back row when the squad leader faltered.
The squad leader shook her head, clearly pulling her train of thought back on track. "It appeared to be a biology lab," she said. "There were four mako tubes, recently drained. Several sedative compounds, biological samples - judging by their labels, at least. The samples themselves were either missing or highly degraded." Missing, Sephiroth thought with a wince. "In addition, we found the entrance the Wolfmeisters had been using for their nest, but no alternate entrance to the lab. There was no evidence of human-monster conflict other than - well - the hatchlings, so the monsters must have moved in after our Unknown Party left."
A younger woman seated to her left leaned forward, elbows on her knees. "Or the monsters were what was in those tubes," she pointed out. "Four tubes - four Wolfmeisters, right?"
Every eye turned to Sephiroth. Throat burning, he nodded tightly. "A parting gift, maybe," the squad leader mused. "Or covering their tracks."
"Or a lure." A third operative glanced at Sephiroth again as he spoke, and Sephiroth tried not to hunch his shoulders.
Reeve shook his head. "Speculation is useless at this stage. Without the forensic reports, or any notes...?" He trailed off hopefully, but received only headshakes and regretful shrugs in return. "I suppose it's too much to hope they'd be that careless. Sephiroth-"
Sephiroth's back snapped straight on half-panicked instinct; he fought to school his expression as the entire room turned to look at him again. "We haven't had a chance to hear your thoughts," Reeve said, his voice calm, neutral - commanding in a way that had nothing to do with barked orders or battlefield roars. "In your opinion, is this lab connected with Hojo?"
Sephiroth swallowed. "Almost certainly." Reeve's expression darkened. "If so, whatever was in those tubes - may have started out human."
Rows and rows of pods, bodies floating in Mako, encrusted with it, no longer human-
"...fuck," Barret muttered, breaking the room's attention on Sephiroth. He slumped in relief as they turned to each other in discussion again.
"So we're looking for someone who was familiar with Hojo's work," the squad leader summarised, her voice rising over her chatter. "Maybe a colleague, or a lab tech - someone who was close enough to know or to figure out where Hojo's secret lab was."
"Hojo wasn't that close to anybody," another argued. "It must've been a rival who stole his notes after he died or something-"
Reeve cleared his throat and the room quieted. "Actually," he said, "I have a - speculation."
"Sir?" the squad leader prompted.
Reeve actually rubbed the back of his neck, the gesture so painfully familiar that Sephiroth had to blink a couple of times before the sheepish expression on Reeve's face actually looked natural. "A high-profile guest of ours, just after Meteorfall-" His eyes flicked to Sephiroth, but Sephiroth was too tense already and didn't flinch at the mention. "We lost track of her after she left Junon."
"So who's 'her'?" Barret demanded.
"Well..." Reeve hedged. Barret's eyes were all for Reeve, but Sephiroth was watching the other WRO members, and could see the ripple of 'oh!' as realization hit for each individual.
"Dammit, don't play games with me, Reeve." Barret could loom with the best of them when he wished, Sephiroth noted. "Whoever 'her' is, she released four Wolfmeisters within shouting distance of Corel. Now spill."
Reeve's throat worked. "...did I ever mention, Scarlet is still alive?"
"...you what? ....Goddammit, Reeve!"