Barret watched the rocket launch from the ground below. The dust cloud tore through the town, carrying with it a not-quite-familiar tremor that took him back to the mines. By the time he blinked the grit from his eyes, the rocket was already dwindling to a speck, riding on a streak of fire.
And he watched from the ground when it rammed into Meteor, setting the sky ablaze in a light so blinding it drowned out sound, too. When the roaring subsided, and Meteor remained, he felt sick. There was nothing right about using the Planet's gifts like this--wiring the Huge Materia into some thoughtless weapon--but if it was happening then he'd wanted it to work. It wasn't even the Shinra taking responsibility for the mess they'd made, just a desperate last-ditch effort to save their own hides, but if it could work...
But there hung Meteor, an ugly red blot in the sky, and Shinra had flung his friends into it for no goddamn reason. Cloud and Tifa and Cid had all been on that rocket, and maybe in another week there wouldn't be anyone else left either, but Barret didn't want to believe that. He didn't know what they were going to do to stop it, but he couldn't believe there was nothing.
They got the static-y call from Shera before the sob could climb all the way up from his throat, but he almost wept anyway. An escape pod somewhere out in the ocean... nothing sounded more beautiful.
Yuffie made fun of him for it, but he knew they all had to be relieved in their own way.
He'd composed himself by the time they got the Highwind out to pick everyone up. Barret saw that fragile little pod bobbing in the vast ocean, and he made sure to grip every hand firmly as he helped pull them aboard.
As they passed through the belly of the ship towards the bridge, Barret noticed Shera falling behind. Her eyes travelled over the exposed machinery below the catwalk at her feet.
Barret stopped, letting the others go on ahead. He didn't know what to do about their predicament, just yet, but he knew one thing that needed saying.
"Hey," he said, catching her attention.
"Oh, I'm sorry," said Shera. "Don't mind me, you go on ahead."
"It ain't that," he said, waving his hand. "Just wanted to say... Thanks for savin' everybody."
Shera blinked. "Oh... It was nothing."
"It ain't never nothin.' You oughtta know."
She looked at him for a moment and then adjusted her glasses. "I guess you're right."
Barret glanced towards the bridge. "Don't suppose you got any ideas on dealin' with Meteor now."
Shera shook her head slowly. "I don't really know... But after all this, I can't help wondering if maybe this is something science can't solve. At least, not now, not the science that we know. There's so much we don't know... About the universe... even about our own Planet."
"If I'm bein' honest, I mostly do things by feel," Barret admitted, "but I could use a little knowledge about now."
"I know. I'm sorry."
"You don't gotta apologize," Barret told her, and he put his hand on her shoulder as gently as he could, but she gave a start anyway. "I'm just grateful you brought my friends back safe and sound, awright?"
Shera gave him a cautious smile. "All right," she said. "We should probably join them. Because I don't know how you're going to do it, but if someone's going to save the Planet, it'll be you all."
Barret grinned, gave her shoulder a squeeze, and then let go. Hearing her confidence in them, it bolstered him. They'd do it, somehow. She and everyone else on the Planet were counting on them.
Barret came to visit, not long after Meteorfall. He walked in from the November chill, his huge frame filling the doorway but somehow unintimidating. Shera eyed his gun-arm as she helped him pull it from the sleeve of his coat. The last of Cid's bruises had since healed, but the toll of their battle remained scored into the metal.
She was grateful, too, for everything Barret had done to ensure Cid came home safely.
"He isn't here right now," she explained apologetically, hanging Barret's coat beside the door. "I'm afraid I don't know when he'll be back."
"Oh," he said. "Well, that's all right. Shoulda called first. Oh! Mind if I take a minute? I promised Marlene I'd let 'er know when I got here."
Shera smiled softly as she watched him step into the hallway to call Marlene on his battered second-hand phone. She put on a pot of tea as they talked, absently wondering what his daughter was like.
Shera had set aside notions of raising a family to pursue her career. The avenue wasn't entirely closed to her yet, but she didn't see herself going down it. She had no regrets about that--it hadn't been a great want and so, not a great sacrifice--but sometimes she wondered what sort of mother she might have been.
Barret was a doting father, that was plain. The care and genuine delight in his voice at the sound of his daughter's. He couldn't always be gentle--not with the life he lead--but Shera had never seen him otherwise.
Barrelling ahead, he still took the time to look back.
The tea was ready by the time he got off the phone, and Shera invited him to sit down with her. He rested his gun-arm on his leg, angled carefully down beneath the table.
"Tifa's looking after her?" Shera asked. "I overheard a little."
"Yeah. We got a place in Kalm for now, with Elmyra. Little crowded, but she's used to that."
Shera nodded. She knew a little of their circumstances, through Cid. That he and Tifa had lost their home in Midgar, with the fall of the Sector 7 plate. Shera hadn't been to Midgar in years, but she'd seen the destruction on the news, and she couldn't imagine what that felt like.
"I remember Kalm being nice," was what she said.
"It's nice enough," Barret conceded, "but I dunno. Don't feel like home."
Shera offered him an encouraging smile. "I think 'home' takes time," she said.
Barret scratched his head, and she dropped her gaze. He probably wasn't interested in her platitudes. It wasn't as though he'd come here to see her.
"Anyway, uh... How you an' Cid been doin'?" he asked. "He treatin' you right?"
"Treating me right...?" Shera echoed, her brow furrowing. It wasn't the question she expected.
"You know... Before the big showdown, it seemed like he'd figured somethin' out..."
"Oh," she said. She should have realized; Cid wasn't much good at keeping his feelings hidden. "I turned him down."
Barret stared at her. "What? But you were--" He stopped himself, and then, went on carefully, "I mean... We all thought you'd been waitin' around on 'im."
Shera smiled ruefully into her tea. "I thought so, too," she admitted. "I spent all that time focused on him and his needs, I think I convinced myself it was love. It's not that I don't care about him, but..."
"Different kinda love?" Barret proposed.
She nodded slowly. "Yes. I think that's what it is. We've always moved at different speeds, anyway. He was stuck for a while, but now he's back jetting around all over the world, and I don't think my saying yes would have changed that."
"Wouldn't've wanted to jet around with 'im?"
"It's a little fast, for me."
Barret leaned back. "Well, that's all right then. Fact o' the matter is... I didn't come here after a pilot. You're all engineers around here, ain't ya?"
For a while, they talked ideas. Barret's, mostly. The world had to leave Mako behind, and something else needed to take its place. He didn't want to return to the days of coal either; he was more knowledgeable about that than she was, though he only mentioned his own experience in the mines. In the dark of the earth, out of sight of the stars...
No, he wanted a way forward.
It wasn't Shera's area of expertise, but she did have connections. Old colleagues, some of them in touch again since the launch of the rocket.
Barret's voice rose with his enthusiasm, and once he smacked the table in a way that made her jump, but he was careful to steady his teacup and apologize for the outburst. She did her best to reassure him that she didn't mind. He was a big man with big feelings. She'd never known how to express herself so loudly, and she admired it.
"There were a lot of avenues of research that Shinra abandoned," she reflected, "once they discovered how profitable Mako could be."
"Seems like it's time to pick some of 'em up again," said Barret.
"Maybe," she said.
"Well, what's stoppin' you? You wanna wait around on Palmer?"
Of course the idea was absurd; Shinra was finished, and no one even knew for sure if Palmer was alive. But she realized, it didn't make sense to wait around on anyone anymore. Cid would pursue his own interests in his own break-neck fashion, and if they worked together, it wouldn't be because she owed him anything.
"I would like to see space again," she admitted, looking down at the overhead lights reflected in her tea.
"So much we don't know, right?"
Shera looked up at him, surprised to hear him echo her words from that brief conversation. She even suspected he'd done it on purpose. "Yes. I know so far the evidence that we aren't alone in this universe hasn't been... ideal, but I'd like to think it's the exception, rather than the rule. There's so much more out there we might discover. Maybe even other planets like ours, calling out into the void and waiting on an answer."
"...you ever been to Cosmo Canyon?" Barret asked her.
She hadn't. And Shera realized with surprise that he'd asked it as an invitation.
Barret had travelled to Rocket Town by chocobo, and the roads south to Cosmo Canyon weren't ideal for driving. Of course he hadn't meant anything by it, but somewhere in the mountains, with Shera settled close in front of him in the saddle, it occurred to him that someone else might read into the situation.
He hadn't made advances on a woman since Myrna. There had never been a time or place for it. With the fall of Shinra, nothing was settling down, but it felt like the biggest obstacles to a brighter future had gone. The fight wasn't so all-consuming.
So apparently he had the space to think about stupid things, like whether he'd done something that might be misconstrued as flirtatious.
Or whether he minded if it was. He wondered how many of the others would have teased him, if they were here.
Shera was a sweet woman, and a friend of a friend, and there was nothing wrong with getting to know her better. Right? That was all it was.
They reached the river before nightfall, but not while the ferry was still running. They made camp out under the open sky, and as the stars came out, Barret felt even sillier. What did she need to go all the way to Cosmo Canyon to see a planetarium for, when all the stars were right there over their heads?
"Bet you know all the constellations," he remarked, as if running his mouth would make him feel less awkward.
"A lot of them," said Shera, "but the names and stories are different all around the world. So I really only know the ones from Midgar."
"Don't get much in the way o' stars out that way."
"Maybe you can't see them from Midgar anymore," she conceded, "but the memory of them is still alive."
Barret leaned back on his hand, looking up. "Think their night sky might come back, 'fore we're both dead?"
"Maybe. I guess it all depends on what we do now."
"I'm gonna do everything I can. I want Marlene to look up an' see this no matter where she is."
"Has she ever seen the stars?" Shera wondered.
He shook his head. "Not like this."
Kalm was far enough from Midgar, and the light pollution wasn't so bad, that you could see the brighter stars at night. Enough for him to trace a few constellations, and tell her the one story he remembered. As miners, they hadn't done so much looking up.
He wanted to bring Marlene out west, where the stars were still countless. But whenever he thought about it, he couldn't escape the thought of Corel. The land of her birth, that she didn't remember. He didn't think he could take her through it, without telling her.
"...they're like this in Rocket Town, too," Shera said tentatively. "You can ask Cid to bring you both by. It'll be a safer journey for her."
She hadn't quite understood his hesitation, and that was fine; he still appreciated her consideration.
She was a considerate woman.
"Might just do that," he said.
When morning came, they caught the ferry across the river and pressed on towards the canyon. The air was warm and dry, but not so hot as it had been when they'd first passed through in the final weeks of summer. He didn't mind it. It almost felt like home.
They reached the settlement, and Barret could see the curiosity on Shera's face as she took the place in, even as she tried to keep her reaction subdued, not to take up too much space. He left her for a few minutes to get the chocobo settled around back of the inn, hoping she might relax some unobserved.
When he returned, a little boy had struck up a conversation with her. Her hands were on her knees, bent down to his level, gentle with him the way Barret imagined she'd be gentle with Marlene. The boy wanted to know if she was a friend of Nanaki's, too.
"Well, an acquaintance," Shera answered.
"What's that?" the boy wondered.
"It's someone you know, but you don't know each other well enough to be friends yet." She glanced up at Barret's approach, offering him a faint smile.
He wondered if he qualified as a friend yet.
"He around somewhere, Nanaki?" Barret asked the boy.
"He's hunting," came the answer, "but he'll be back soon."
Barret nodded. "You see 'im when he comes in, you tell 'im his friends are checkin' out the observatory."
The boy looked briefly puzzled, but he nodded.
As Barret led the way towards the stairs, Shera spoke up quietly. "I'm not really..."
"You've been a friend to AVALANCHE," Barret insisted. "Don't think Red'd mind."
Shera smiled bashfully, dropping her gaze.
They passed other residents on their way through the canyon, but the observatory itself was empty. Private. Barret realized as he led Shera into the planetarium that he'd never operated the machinery himself. He stood in front of the control panel and considered the different levers and switches.
"Ah... Shoulda asked before how this thing worked."
"Should I take a look?" Shera wondered.
He shook his head. "Can't be that hard. Cloud figured it out, I'll get it goin' for ya in a minute."
Shera went quiet for a moment, and then she said, "You don't owe me anything."
Barret glanced back at her. "Huh?"
"If this is about... the rocket..."
At that, he understood what she meant. "Nah, it ain't like that," he said. "I'm always gonna be grateful for it, but this ain't me tryin' to repay ya. I just thought you'd like it."
"Thought I'd like it...?"
Barret scratched his head. "Maybe I got a little excited about sharin' it," he admitted. "The kinda study they do here, it's been an inspiration."
"No, that's..." Shera smiled. "That's very thoughtful of you."
"All right then," he said, and turned back to the controls. "Ah, this's the one."
He flipped the rightmost lever. The lights went dim, and the platform beneath their feet clanked upwards into the dome of the planetarium. With another button, the projector in the center of the room whirred to life. They found themselves standing in the middle of the solar system, the walls nearly disappearing into the blanket of stars around them.
Shera's soft smile widened. The lights of the projection glinted off her glasses, and her eyes were just as bright behind them. The ends of her ponytail brushed against her shoulders as she looked up all around her, and then her gaze settled on the model of their Planet.
"Ain't exactly the same as bein' there for real, I expect," said Barret.
"No," Shera admitted, "but it reminds me of it. How small and fragile it looked..."
Cid had said something pretty similar, after he'd come back. "Makes you wanna protect it," Barret said.
"It's funny," she went on, "considering all of us are even smaller. It would be easy to think that in such a vast universe, we're completely powerless. But then, you all did save the Planet. All of you working together, and Aeris..."
"Yeah..." Looking at the model of the Planet, Barret remembered watching the Lifestream pull together around Holy, forming a light so blinding but so quiet and still, that when Meteor was gone afterwards, for a moment all he'd felt was calm. "Think Aeris an' the Planet did a lot o' the heavy liftin,' but we helped. Pulled a thorn out of its side for sure."
"Exactly," said Shera. "We need each other. We're a part of each other. We're a part of the universe, too, although that's a system we understand even less."
Barret smiled. She could be so timid, but watching her come alive in her element was something else. "We're gettin' a start on that," he said. "I think you oughtta keep at it."
"I mean to. And, I'll be sure to share our findings with you."
"You can share more than that."
Shera blinked at him uncertainly.
Barret ducked his head. "That is... If you want to, I wouldn't mind gettin' to know you better, too."
Shera smiled at him, and cautiously, gently, put her hand on his arm. "...I'd like that," she said.
Barret couldn't stop the grin spreading across his face or the heat he felt in his cheeks, and that was fine. It was fine to have a crush for the first time in years. And if she liked to take things slow, then that was fine, too. He thought in that respect, they were moving at the same speed.