The Passion of the Stigma
A character is forced to make a Faustian bargain with the Devil. It can be the real deal or a more metaphorical devil.
The Passion of the Stigma
He was denied the luxury of waking up. Every fleeting image taunted him, each as painful as the last, the spectacle never failing to culminate in the face of his prized possession. What sparse oil remained first spilled over his right arm before covering his hometown; Gil was snatched by invisible hands that took with a derisive cackle; and the angelic eyes showed no smile.
The last of the moonlight struck a picture frame. He stared at it until his eyes stung. The clouds moved in to return the night to darkness, and the images returned with a greater ferocity.
Gritting his teeth, he blinked a number of times until lucidity took back control. The guestroom was silent but for the rustling of crisp sheets. The pillow felt soft again. His surroundings were as they stood, a welcome reminder that some things hadn’t gone too far.
And with that, Barret Wallace turned onto his side with a disenchanted sigh, hoping the next day would hold a solution.
Barret paused, his expression dull as he inspected the glass of thick black liquid. ‘Last one? This had better be the best.’
Tifa Lockhart glanced over her shoulder at her grumpy patron and smirked. ‘I put as much effort into all of my drinks.’
‘Yeah, yeah.’ He took a quick swig. ‘Damn, Tif’, there’s no competition.’
Tifa turned back around to her friend, leaning her elbows on the counter as she spoke. ‘A bit now and then never hurt. Of course, I have a reputation to keep, so I can’t let just anyone pour their own.’
‘Heh-heh. Tell that to Spiky. He still helping you out here?’
Too busy taking a larger gulp from his glass, Barret hadn’t registered how fast Tifa’s expression changed.
It was a few seconds before she replied. ‘Yesterday.’
‘Yesterday? And you called me up for a visit today? You know I’m not that far away these days. I could’ve done with a drinking partner, ya know.’
Tifa failed to match Barret’s grin, and felt nothing close to warmth when he chuckled.
‘He coming back later when you open?’ he asked.
She took a deep breath. ‘Cloud needs some time to think about things.’
Barret looked up at her. ‘What does that mean?’
‘I…told him I won’t be opening tonight.’
‘Hold on. You are opening though, right?’
‘I am, but I don’t want Cloud to know.’
‘I needed to talk to you, Barret.’
The two locked eyes for an untold spell of quiet reading, her face telling all the signs of a burden—but not so much for her.
‘Barret, I need you to promise me something.’
The empty bar felt all the quieter, the ceiling fan the only entity preventing a silence.
‘What is it?’ He had enough problems of his own to be dealing with, and he found himself growing impatient, unable to juggle these equivocal requests.
‘Promise me you won’t get mad when I tell you.’
‘How am I supposed—?’
‘Just promise me!’
‘Fine! Geez, Tifa. What could be so bad? Spiky backing out of helping you with the orphanage or somethin’?’
Tifa shook her head. Her dark silky hair fell over her shoulders. She took out a raggedy pale-pink cloth, a present from Marlene when the 7th Heaven bar in Edge first opened—even now she cannot bring herself to dispose of it. Barret followed her hand as she wiped down the counter.
‘Two days ago, Cloud was contacted by…someone. And this someone offered him lots…lots of Gil. A great sum of money that would’ve helped the orphanage. It guaranteed a bright future. But, he declined.’
‘Huh? Why the—? Did this guy want something in return?’
‘Cloud never found out.’
‘What?’ Barret’s voice was beginning to rise. ‘He’d jes back out of all that money for nothin’?’
Tifa met his face, and bit her lip at the sight of the exasperation in his eyes. She sighed before explaining. ‘Barret, it didn’t matter to Cloud. The person who rang him…’
Barret knew she was struggling, but he felt compelled to know about this wealthy character, and he wasted no time demanding an answer. ‘Who, Tif’?’
‘It’s’—Tifa gulped, unafraid of the name but of its consequences—‘Rufus Shinra. He’s ali—’
The glass was the first object to experience the onslaught of Barret’s rage, and it found its new home on the wooden floor, smashed to pieces against the wall. The barstool was already knocked over once Barret leapt off his seat, but it didn’t stop him from giving it a good kick backwards.
‘Where the fuck is he?’
‘Barret! I told you to—!’
‘What’s he doin’ alive? The hell does he think he is trying to get Cloud to work for him?’
Tifa flinched as a resounding crash signalled the need to redo the paint job, Barret focusing all of his attention on the closest wall, each punch inching closer to bleeding knuckles. More than one picture lost their place to the tremors.
‘Why didn’t he call me?’
Tifa scrunched her eyes. ‘We knew. We both knew you’d be upset. But, I…’
When he was done pounding the walls, Barret’s tensed face softened, and his mouth gaped. ‘Tif’…?’
She looked to be on the verge of crying, and he now understood why she struggled to maintain eye contact throughout their exchange.
‘What would you do, Barret? We both want her to get better. She needs this.’
A barrage of useless words lodged in his throat, but Tifa managed the response for him.
‘Wouldn’t you do anything for Marlene?’
The angrier occasions were few and far
between, but for all it was worth, Barret never once shouted at Cloud over the
phone. It was too early to rejuvenate the need to vent, and Cloud’s initial
rejection meant the opportunity was there for him instead. He reasoned Tifa
must have been speaking to him since. How else would Cloud have recited the
directions without putting up a fight?
He always wondered what the structure on the other side of the mountain was for. The general admittance ward for children was as far away as possible as one could be within the boundary of the Healen Lodge. It didn’t take Barret long to understand why. He was on the last note of his directions.
The stairs leading to the cabin were slippery. The rain was gluing his fishnet shirt to his skin, but the drink kept him warm. A roll of thunder brought his senses back to life, and he cast his sight on the distant waterfall. He had promised to take her here after she heard all about the “sparkling water that fell like twirling faeries in the moonlight”.
‘Heard you were comin’,’ said a familiar voice, his statement casual. There was no need for the man to call Barret; he was no more than a handful of steps away, already returning inside.
Barret growled as the door shut. Cocky fuck…
Ascending the last few steps was the most excruciating, and it could only intensify upon placing his hand on the handle of the door. He stood for what felt like an eternity, his heart and soul in conflict as his hand shook. When her usual smile came to the fore in the final battle, his heart prevailed, and he pressed down. Having heard the first squeak of the handle as Barret’s struggle took wind, the occupants already knew this outcome.
A massive flickering shadow was the first thing to steal his attention. Drying off from the few seconds he had stood out in the rain, Reno was sitting in front of a fire, not in the least bit concerned to turn his head. His shadow covered two other figures, who stood facing the entrance, more ready and willing to greet their guest.
Even in the dimly lit room, where judgement demanded the situation unnecessary, Rude stood next to the wheelchair-bound person with his shades donned, his facial expression untelling.
It wasn’t until the door blocked out the sounds of the rain again did someone speak up.
‘So,’ began the man in the wheelchair, ‘you are—’
‘Here to know what you want,’ said Barret, his frustration seeping into his voice.
Although most of his face was concealed by a white sheet, a faint smirk could be seen forming on the lips of Rufus Shinra.
‘To offer you a better world. And for you, personally, a solution to your crises.’ His response was quick, effortless.
Barret looked between Reno and Rude, neither Turk showing interest in his presence. It would be so easy, he thought, to finish the former president off, but the longer he stared the more he appreciated the frailty. Suddenly, the two had a connection. A similarity—a curse—they both had to live with.
Barret eventually said, ‘What would you know?’
‘Oil could be a future…if there was enough to go around.’
Rufus joined his hands and took a deep breath. As the seconds passed by, Barret assumed Rufus was waiting for him to advance the conversation. He wanted to know what they were up to, and he wanted to know how he survived. But above all, he wanted to know why he ought to listen any longer.
‘What do you want from Cloud? How did you know I was coming?’
‘I want to build a better future for the orphanage. Extend my hand and—’
‘I know all that! I wanna know why he’d turn that down!’
Rude cleared his throat and readjusted his tie. Reno glanced at Barret, but kept his head facing the fire.
‘Barret. I can fix all of your problems. Your business needs a financial boost. I have the means to make it more.’
‘And then what? You want in? Shinra caring about the Planet all of a sudden?’
‘I need someone to help me transport some items—items that will help all the patients of this Lodge. While we have our own problems to deal with, I would like you to take care of this little side project.’
The sudden reveal did nothing to alleviate his suspicions, but it explained a lot. ‘So you wanted Cloud for his bike, huh?’
Reno nodded, though aware Barret was paying him no heed.
Rufus smiled. ‘Consider it an apology. I can still help the orphanage, but I can help you too, Barret. All I ask is—’
‘And you’re sick, ain’t ya? That’s why you’re in that wheelchair. Planet’s finding more and more ways to dispose of your ass.’
Rude grunted, but Rufus showed no sign of discomfort. His smile never faltered.
‘Geostigma is the plague of our ages. You know all about it, I’m sure.’
Of course he knew. The word never failed to elicit shivers, even now in the warm room. Now the connection between them was stronger. Nonetheless, there was much room for ire, and it took little more to supersede his patience.
‘What are you saying? What do you know?’ His eyes began to widen, but the fury wasn’t the prime cause.
‘Work for me, Barret, and I can help your business, and people with the stigma.’
Barret scrunched his fist until his knuckles turned a colour distinct from his skin. His body began to tremble.
‘Do we have a deal?’ With great effort, Rufus raised a hand. ‘Do not worry. Even if we struggle to understand why it is there, and why it exists in those we thought safe, it does not mean it cannot be cured.’
Rufus was aware of everything—Barret knew it. This cabin was out of sight from where he frequented, but to not know about the children’s ward, the most populated of all departments, would be to not have once stepped foot in the Healen Lodge. Rufus knew all about her.
‘Do we have a deal?’
Making his way to the door, Barret called out his phone number and departed with, ‘And don’t think I’m doin’ it for you!’
As soon as the door slammed, Reno got up from the ground with a stretch and matching yawn. ‘Not as entertaining as I imagined, but boy am I glad he brought up the bike. That was a convenient excuse. So now what? You hope he’ll bring Cloud into this?’
Rufus shook his head. ‘Not for that. No. You’ll go with Barret’—Reno rolled his eyes and plonked himself onto the sofa against the wall, sighing—‘I want Cloud for our other problems. If the trio come back again, they’ll have reason to disclose more of themselves around him.’
‘You think we can trust him?’ Reno asked.
‘What could betray his motivations?’
Thinking of himself and his new job, Reno answered, ‘What a former leader of AVALANCHE would think if he were to discover what we’re carrying…’
The last time he recalled a dream was somewhere in the region of when he last backed a winning chocobo. So, it came as a surprise to not only have a vivid and undeviating dream, but to remember these details the next morning with greater clarity than the exchange with Rufus and the Turks.
Rather than a mismatched selection of imagery he never thought worthy of deciphering, the dream was more of a forced recap of the first trip to the Healen Lodge. The staggering costs of treatment, the queue of desperate parents demanding to talk to a doctor, and the sly grin of the employee who spoke about the “bidding scale”, whereby the richest would be seen to first. Reasonable though it sounded, where the manpower and resources were already so scarce, the idea still sickened him, and it made him think of Shinra.
“You must understand, sir. We are at the trial period. Progress has been slow, yet a cure is possible. However, if we provided for the biggest sob story, where would we get the money to continue funding the treatment?”
It wasn’t quite word-for-word, but it was the only aspect of the dream that felt the most muddled. The agonising screams of children as the later stages took hold, frightened more than sore; of friends and families howling at the sight of their precious loved ones; that one nurse taking a smoke break. All of it was in place.
The scene withered, with the nurse outside with her back turned to the window the last thing to vanish. A voice asked Barret for the directions to the Lodge, crying out for work, a solution. He ignored it, and instead walked through the door of the now materialised cabin. It was then the dream decided to recreate its own version.
Reno and Rude were spread-eagled on the wall, bound by invisible chains. Their bodies were convulsing, skipping milliseconds in time between each quiver. The fireplace was engulfed in flames. A harsh ringing accompanied the distorted scene, his surroundings clouding more and more with every step. He edged closer to the man in the wheelchair, whose face was entirely covered by a blood-soaked cloth. He heard the sound of a gunshot, and the blurs vanished.
The sepia tone switched to one of dazzling white. Reno and Rude were absent; the fire to his left stood still, thinner than before; and the wheelchair figure was a blob of black, the only object not frozen in time.
The voice of Rufus Shinra asked, “Do we have a deal?”
Barret reached out his right hand to the outline of the figure’s hand, but saw the gun preventing the handshake. He switched to his left hand, but it too had a gun.
He laughed and said, “Oh, I get it now,” before moving into the shadow.
His breath left him, his eyes jumped out of their sockets, and a girl’s voice turned to laughter. He felt nothing else. He saw nothing else. But he could hear that laughter as if his own skin was emanating it.
When Barret awoke to the dull beeps of his alarm, he was gone from the visitor’s ward of the Lodge within two minutes, deciding he didn’t deserve to cast another glance at his beloved today.
The fresh breeze relieved the warm cheeks of a youthful face that had spent more time than usual training out back. Tifa looked up at the clear blue with the same gratitude as always. The 7th Heaven bar wasn’t quite the same as the old days, but being able to see the sky was a welcome consolation.
‘Never been cleaner, ma’am,’ said the approaching postman, who once expressed his appreciation in the same way.
‘We’ve come a long way since the Slums, Nyde,’ Tifa replied, reaching out to the letter he presented.
Nyde tipped his hat to her and went on his way. No sooner had he turned his back, Tifa was already engrossed in the letter. The handwriting on the front was familiar, and it had made her heart jump.
Sorry about that commotion, five days ago. By the time you get this, I should be visiting tonight - couldn’t find your number (I might’ve lost it). Elmyra has been brilliant. Very lucky to have her while I’m working. I’ll talk later. Hope this covers any repairs.
P.S. Glad it was the last one
The sigh of relief was short-lived as surprise took over. A cheque floated from the envelope, landing on her feet, waiting to be read.
‘Barret…’ This is more than enough.
Tifa shot her head up at the two figures in the distant, and she waved over with a hearty smile. Her guests had arrived, their timing never better.
‘What’s in these boxes?’
‘What do I look like, yo?’
‘Like a jackass who knows what’s in these boxes.’
Reno dumped the last trolley of packages onto the organised pile, showing no remorse as they—and the metal carrier—piled over one another. He shot Barret a filthy glare as he leapt from the truck’s storage compartment.
‘No use getting mad at me. Can’t expect me to move this stuff and not know what’s goin’ on.’
‘Yeah, well, not that I’ve been happy working here. But, hey, two hands are better than one, right?’
‘Don’t push your luck.’
Reno, unfazed by Barret’s brief show of teeth, tossed his hair back before closing the door of the rear, concealing a smirk.
‘I do the lifting and the driving,’ Reno continued, making his way to the driver’s seat, ‘and you provide the—’
‘I don’t need two hands to lift! I’m doin’ just fine!’
‘Then lead the way.’ Reno opened the door for him.
As Barret took hold of the wheel, he looked into the wing mirror and examined the backdrop once more. The night was growing, and clouds were making a daring dash to dampen the neighbouring land. The ruins of Midgar were monotonous—while they were at a sector once familiar two years ago, a small region almost cleared of all toxic Mako, there was little left to recognise.
Every day they came out to a new area. All Reno had explained was about the ex-employees who had garnered these “resources”, these resources that Barret had asked about each time—and was always met with the same response of ignorance.
‘If I were to place a bet, Reno,’ murmured Barret, ‘those old Shinra scumbag I ain’t seen yet are gathering stuff from the ruins of Shinra Tower.’
Reno opened his window as he laughed, enjoying the breeze as much as his engagement with his driver. ‘Meteor not enough to wipe out all the trade secrets?’
‘Fair enough. You’re not stupid, at least. And you’re doing a fine job at driving this old piece o’ junk.’ Reno put on his seatbelt and waited for Barret’s reaction.
‘You don’ need that, boy. I can handle this better than you ever will.’
‘So you’re the best driver?’
‘Better than Cloud.’
‘How is that guy? I was hoping he’d be down by now.’
Barret slammed hard on the brakes.
Reno made another dirty look at his present company, endeavouring to keep his cool as he asked, ‘What gives? Seatbelt and all couldn’t—’
‘You’re using me to get Cloud.’
Reno blew his lips. ‘Keep driving. What kind of conclusion is that? Both of you would be fine, but maybe Cloud wouldn’t be as hot-headed as—’
‘Don’t try changing the subject again. How would Cloud’s bike be good for any of this?’
The rise in Barret’s voice was enough to force Reno into divulging whatever he could to alleviate his co-worker’s growing temper. After all, there were only two more days to put up with.
‘Look, Barret, I’ll level with ya. We have problems of our own. This trio of silver-haired freaks came out of nowhere. Nothing but tormenting us. It’s only a matter of time before they find Rufus. None of us can afford to be alone right now, and this task is crucial.’
Barret grunted before asking, ‘So, what’s in the boxes?’
There was an unexpected stoic tone to Barret’s question that showed he had not only calmed down—he sounded sympathetic. Reno groaned before conceding defeat. ‘Medicine…’
‘Medicine? Wait, this is for—?’
‘The stigma. There are…things...that are necessary for making this medicine. It’s slow, and we don’t have much, so that’s why we gather as much stuff here as we can.’
Although he still hadn’t answered what exact items were in the box, it was enough for Barret. A new issue weighed on his mind. ‘Silver-haired freaks?’
‘We don’t know, man. It’s a long story, but we’re outnumbered.’
‘Now you know why Tseng and Elena ain’t with us. So, fuck, man. We both got problems, okay? But we’re nearly finished this part. I can go back to that crisis, and you’ll be free of your own. Let’s just work together and get it over with. You with me?’
After a few seconds of silence, broken only by Barret’s deep breathing—neither party blinking—Reno managed a sigh of relief as Barret replied, ‘I’m with ya,’ and said not another word until they drove back to Kalm.
‘Ahhh. Look who showed up for the party.’
Barret grinned as he reached out for the pint Cid Highwind offered. He joined him at the bar counter as Cid patted the stool.
‘Our guest has arrived,’ announced the wolf-like being, whose disapproving gaze—as Barret ruffled the top of his head—was overwhelmed by his smile.
‘What’s up, old timer?’
‘Which one?’ asked a smiling Tifa as she turned around to face the three, having already made Barret’s favourite brew.
‘Strong words, Tifa,’ Cid said, readjusting the cigarette tucked behind his ear. Turning to Barret, he added, ‘Are you gonna manage two of those?’
‘Pah! Try to keep up.’
Nanaki chuckled with his mouth closed as he leaned up against the counter to join their height. No other patron batted an eyelid at his striking appearance, having long become accustomed to the strangest of Tifa’s regulars.
‘So, how is the little tyke?’ Cid asked.
‘Yeah, so soon. You think I haven’t been worrying too?’
‘We all have, Barret,’ said Nanaki. ‘We’re going to visit tomorrow.’
Barret closed his eyes. Thanks, guys.
‘Elmyra’s with her now?’ Cid asked.
‘Yes,’ answered Tifa, back from pouring a drink for the bushy-eyed patron on the opposite end of the counter. ‘She’s been wonderful. Cloud and I have been taking turns, but Barret’s there every free moment he’s got.’
‘Damn straight,’ said Barret, fixing himself up. He took a heavier mouthful before adding, ‘I’m here for a while before I’m back up. Had a little detour first, so it was perfect.’
‘Far as I’ve heard,’ Cid began, pulling a lighter out of his pocket, ‘you don’t have as much free time anymore.’
Barret slowly turned his head at him before dragging it back to Tifa, his expression dull. A part of him felt annoyed, yet he expected this.
‘Of course I told them,’ said Tifa, reading his mind. ‘We’re all looking out for you, Barret. Even Cloud has been keeping an eye on things.’
‘Like what? He spying on me? Think I’ll misbehave?’
‘Stop it, Barret!’
That was all she needed to say.
‘Sorry, Tif’. I didn’t want anybody worrying about me is all. Save it for who needs it.’
‘Mental health counts for a lot these days,’ Cid said, yawning.
‘Course I am! I just need a bit of fresh air, don’t I?’ he said, grinning as he took the cigarette from his ear.
As Cid strolled outside, Tifa’s mouth gaped, and she dashed from the counter to sort out the emerging scuffle at the back of the bar—she had a sixth sense for it.
After a minute of focusing on his drink, the general din of the bar not once allowing an uncomfortable silence, Barret asked, ‘What are you drinking?’
‘Me? I find no need to intoxicate myself with such chemicals.’
‘Ha! Sometimes yer just so damn right, you know that?’
Nanaki chuckled again, yet the unease in his eye stood contrary. His smile faded, and he stared at his friend for a few seconds. It was a look Barret could feel, and eventually he turned in his seat.
‘What is it…what is it you are carrying for them?’
Barret grunted. If it hadn’t been for Tifa scolding him earlier, he would have found himself much more irritated. Cloud must have been keeping an eye on him all this time. He wanted to ignore this question; but, he knew had the tables been turned, he would have been demanding Cloud to reveal everything.
‘Medicine. For the stigma.’
Anyone who ever anticipated news about the stigma would have welcomed such a firm admission. Nanaki was one such wishful thinker, but he found no excitement to express. ‘There really is a cure?’
‘So they say.’
‘So they say…’
‘What does that mean?’
‘It means you’re not sure.’
‘And why does that matter?’
It was like talking to his own mind the day he accepted the deal. Work for Rufus Shinra, the man no less a monster than those who once tried to destroy the Planet, and ensure a brighter, happier future. Business booming, schooling the best, and the ability to dance and play returned. It was never worth saying no to.
‘What else could I have done?’
‘Nothing, Barret. Not for her anyway. But, don’t forget who you are. You’re the man who brought new life to AVALANCHE. Whether you see it this way or not, Shinra was always what kept your heart and soul burning with purpose—a passion to make change. Now you’re working with them to make a new kind of change. This time, however—’
‘I get all that! Damn!’
Nanaki bowed his head in apology. He knew Barret had no easy decisions in the last week, and every working day could only be as unbearable as the last. Before he could respond, Barret spoke again.
‘But you’re wrong. It was her, man. It was always her. I wanted to take down Shinra for her. I want to work with Shinra for her.’
Nanaki kept his head down as a faint smile formed. ‘I am glad you see it this way, Barret. If you have not much left to do, I pray you can finish the way you need to finish. Not many can work for their enemies and keep their soul their own.’
A cold wave, an inexplicable army of marching shivers, engulfed Barret. He gazed into his glass, hoping to see his reflection. When Tifa returned to the counter, he told her, ‘Last one, Tif’.’
It was later than the other days when Reno and Barret set out to the ruins of Sector 5. It was the second time visiting, but this occasion brought with it an unusual spectacle.
‘Yeah,’ said Reno, his eyes contracted as he scanned its perimeter. ‘Flowers still bloom inside. Makes you wonder what keeps ‘em alive.’
Without hesitation, Barret marched straight in, his mouth remaining shut.
‘Hey! This way!’ Exhaling in frustration, Reno raised his eyes to the dark, starry sky and muttered, ‘Just don’t stand on the flowers.’
The sight of the yellow and white flowers, swaying gently in what little breeze entered the decrepit edifice, stopped Barret in his tracks. He felt his muscles loosen, his face relaxing. He strolled to the flowerbed and bent down.
‘She’d love these.’
A part of him wished to leave the scenic spot unspoiled, but for her…
‘You serious?’ droned Reno, leaning against the broken doorway as he watched Barret pluck a generous helping of flowers.
‘They ain’t for you, sunshine.’
‘Heh. You’re so thoughtless.’
Reno couldn’t resist smiling. The tough and volatile reviver of AVALANCHE, he realised, was really a doting daddy at heart.
‘When you’re done,’ Reno said, making his way out.
Barret gathered himself up and glanced back and forth between the bouquet in his hands and the fresh barren patch of their home. This must’ve been the spot. Flowers that always bloom…they’ll grow again. A gift from the flower girl. Yeah, she’d love that idea.
Something stirred within him, like static coursed every vein. He didn’t know what caused it or what it meant, but an involuntary smile formed, and he left the church satisfied. Outside, the harsh nip returned, and the wind sped up. Reno was nowhere to be seen.
Shrugging his shoulders, Barret turned his attention to the truck and left the flowers in the front seat. A quiet shuffling from the storage compartment reached his ears. He furrowed his brow as he made his way around.
Before he could reach the back, a box fell out. It was the exact same kind of packaging from the previous days. But this one undid itself.
Reno froze. His legs wouldn’t let him jump out. His eyes locked onto Barret as guilt formed his countenance.
‘We forgot one from the other day,’ Reno explained, hopping down to fix it. He managed no more than brushing his finger off the top before finding himself falling onto his behind.
Barret had neither looked at nor spoken to Reno as he pushed him away, his vision focused on the small vials that rolled out of the cardboard container. He read aloud the small labels on each one.
‘Mako variation M1? Mako variation A4. Mako variation R6! What the hell is this? This is your medicine?’ Barret roared, rounding on the Turk who was trying to pick himself up before Barret could.
Reno was too late, and Barret had him pinned against the truck, his head bouncing off the surface.
‘Ow! Fuck, ma—’
‘You knew about this! You fucking knew! You giving Mako to children, huh? This the big secret Barret can’t know about?’
Reno brought his teeth together as adrenaline accelerated his breath. The urge to spit was overwhelming, but he didn’t want to add a bloody mouth to his head pain.
Reno’s lips formed a wicked grin before he said, ‘What? Just ‘cause of a little Mako you’re gonna turn the down the job? It’s not poison, man. You—’
‘What else you been taking?’
The flash of annoyance on Reno’s face told Barret he was on the right track. ‘Parts? Data? Trade secrets don’t sound so funny now!’
‘I don’t get why you’re getting all worked up! Fuck! Doesn’t she mean enough to y—?’
‘Don’t you dare play that card with me! Don’t you DARE!’
‘Look, Barret. You better let go now if you know what’s good for you! Things can change if and when they gotta change. And oil won’t be making a comeback any time soon. Catch my drift?’
The slimy overtone in Reno’s threat wasn’t necessary: Barret already knew what else was implied.
‘Does Rufus wanna make a little business venture? Bringing back some old age methods, is he?’
To Barret’s bewilderment, Reno relaxed. He was no longer trying to squirm his way out of his accoster’s grip, and the cocky gaze made a return.
‘Heh-heh. You win, big man. Why don’t you give our boss—your boss—a call?’
Barret growled before tossing Reno to the ground, grazing the face of the agile Turk who had no means of cushioning his fall. He jumped into the truck, unaware of the flowers he had squashed, and put enough bullets through the side window until the remaining glass hung like jagged teeth.
Reno dived out of the way as the truck reversed. Within the minute, Barret—and Reno’s only way back to base—was gone.
‘Huh. Guess he wouldn’t do anything for her.’
Reno brushed the dirt of his suit, pulled out his cell phone, and sighed before making the call.
‘Hey. Yeah, it’s happened.’ ‘You know what, I’ve been thinking the same. It’s about time. It was gonna happen one way or another.’ ‘Yeah. It’ll be easy getting Cloud on board now.’ ‘Oh, really? Okay. Be careful though. He’s a man with a passion.’
He left the truck smouldering at the base of the stairs. But putting more bullets through it wasn’t nearly enough to quell his wrath. He stormed up the stairs as the downpour threw its weight at him and the powerful gale tried its best to halt his advance.
With blind fury, the time to register the oddness of the setup inside the Shinra Cabin could not be upheld. Rufus and Rude were to be found in the same position as when they first encountered six days ago, their expressions unmoving as they witnessed Barret barge through the door. There was no fire, but a dim light from the far left corner was enough for Barret to aim at his target without fault.
‘Tell me why I shouldn’t!’ he bellowed, kicking the door shut, holding his arm—his gun—to the helpless wheelchair user.
Rude was poised for action, but Rufus raised a feeble hand, encouraging him to stay back.
‘You don’t get to ask anything! I know what’s in that medicine. And I know what you plan on doing with my company! You tell me why I shouldn’t. And you’d better pray you’ve a goddamn good answer.’
‘I need you t—’
‘You aren’t going to shoot me.’
‘Don’t push it!’ He took a step closer.
Rude coughed as Rufus removed the blanket from his head. Barret gasped.
What evidence of Geostigma scourging the former president’s body was not visible from his face. It looked younger than ever, and his eyes emitted a distinct glow that brought Cloud to mind. Then, smiling, he stood up. Barret could do nothing but stare into his dreamlike eyes.
‘A mild consequence, you see, but entirely effective.’ He rolled up the sleeve of his left arm, revealing a handful of black sores.
‘T-then you gotta live with it! They’ll all have to live with Mako in their…in their—’
‘Cloud is living a normal life, is he not? He denied my offer without a second thought for the orphanage, yet to think he has since called back…’
Barret found his arm lowering, but he caught it before it could fall. He jabbed it forward. ‘It means jack shit! You’re still sick! Medicine don’t prove it’s worth a damn!’
‘But if I am telling the truth? And you have the sense to believe me?’
‘Then what are you gonna do? Say you fix all these people—say you fix my girl—what do you want with my company?’
‘Is that all you can think about right now?’
‘Shut up!’ Barret spat on the floor. ‘You can’t answer me! I know you’re planning more than that. Your little associate couldn’t keep his mouth shut.’
Rufus mustered a weak laugh, his body already tired from standing. He resumed his seat, unafraid to take his eyes off the burly man with the dangerous gun and dangerous passion.
‘What do you think the surviving Shinra scientists are doing now?’
Barret searched the ground, not knowing what to make of Rufus’s calm demeanour, unable to maintain his own cool. ‘What does that have to do—?’
‘They are working.’ The interruption was unforced. ‘Can you guess where?’
‘They’re gathering! That’s why they can go into the toxic regions. Shinra HQ had to have been the worst, and they knew what they were doing.’
‘I am glad to hear you cooperate, but alas you are wrong. Most of them are working right here in the Healen Lodge. They are developing a cure for Geostigma, and they are doing so quite effectively. With little difficulty, I daresay.’
Barret tried to speak, but only a broken cough escaped. The same sensation smothered his being, the same feeling he experienced when Nanaki spoke of working for the enemy. Rufus sensed the bewilderment seizing Barret, and so he took the opportunity to elaborate further.
‘It’s not about fixing me, Barret. It’s about fixing the people of Midgar. What better way for Shinra to regain the trust of the people?’
The fire in Barret’s eyes made a dramatic comeback, and he filled the gap, his gun now a mere inch away from Rufus’s chin. Rude’s breath shuddered, his restraint among the tension a struggle to endure.
Rufus smirked at his wannabe assailant and said, ‘You can’t help your business if you cannot be there. And you not being there means you are with your angel. And if she does not make it, you know your business will not.’
The dream on the night he accepted the offer seemed to impose itself into the moment. For a timeless period he could not see the face of his boss.
Boss…the hell if he’s my boss! He—he’s just…he’s just…
The featureless figure spoke again. ‘The perfect balance of Mako and other ingredients…the solution to the stigma. Mako cannot go yet, and nor can our methods. While reactors are a thing of the past, the name of Shinra is the name of the planet’s saviour. Geostigma is the plague of our ages. And if you shoot now, Barret, you lose everything.’
Barret took a step backwards, his balance shaky. It took just one more before falling over. Rude bowed his head.
Rufus took a deep breath, and Barret could see his face again.
‘So many have died already,’ Rufus continued. ‘But out very first test subject showed us the way forward.’
Barret leaned his head up as Rude stepped away from Rufus. His mouth gaped further and further as Rude retracted his shades, displaying the same unmissable glow from his eyes as his boss. He nodded at Barret before putting them back on.
‘It…i-it really works…’
Rufus was one thing. He was the former head honcho of Shinra, a figure Barret never failed to distrust. But Rude looked to be in perfect health. He was able to stand up this whole time; his face bore no paleness. In Barret’s mind, he was as good an enemy as any other Turk, but he never carried the same sleazy air as his other comrades.
‘Say somethin’,’ he ordered Rude, his voice weak. ‘Say something at all.’
Rude cleared his throat again. ‘The stigma has advanced. Our top scientists once believed it was not contagious. This is no longer true. It is how the most unsuspecting of us could be carrying it. Without continual development of our treatment, many will die. If I do not stay on this medicine, I will die. The president could die. And so will…you know.’
Barret grimaced. Rude showed no signs of illness, but he bore the same glow. He was completely fine. Yet…
‘I-it just neutralises…it doesn’t cure anything!’
‘We have yet to kill the mother cell—the core. Until then, Barret, what else do we have? What else do you have? What else does she h—?’
‘Don’t…’ His voice was never so frail. ‘Don’t bring her—’
‘I took the liberty of examining our priority patient. She is nearing critical stages. Not many live after the month.’
‘Priority? She’s…priority?’ A month? A fucking month… ‘Why should I—why make a priority list? Why a fucking bidding scale?’
Suddenly, all the other questions surrounding the practices of Healen Lodge seemed the most important to ask; it helped reimburse some inner strength. He felt entwined in all this in a way he could never have expected. Maybe they didn’t want him for Cloud. Maybe they wanted Cloud for him.
‘Without the money, we cannot source our other necessary components from overse—’
‘Fuck you and your money! You have loads to give away. You offered Cloud everything, and you’re doin’ the same to me!’
‘It is not so simple, Barret.’
‘Why not? Why the HELL not?’
‘Because we haven’t the means to produce so much medicine at once. But there is a basis. Can you guess what it is? Your very own foundation, Barret. Your company is the way of the future, but only if you let us handle it.’
‘W-what are you saying?’
‘I’m buying it from you. It will be the origins for the new Shinra. A reliable energy source. And with the world no longer falling victim to the stigma, a trustworthy energy source. Give it to me, and I can give you everything you could ever dream of.’
He couldn’t kill Rufus. Those who needed the medicine—whom he wanted it for most—would never receive it. And what would be the point of sustaining the cleaner future, the brighter tomorrow he gave his all for, if who he had fought so hard for was not around to smell the fresh air and walk across the lush and healthy grass? Hand in hand, together towards that future he promised. Where would be that little hand?
‘I am not the same man you assumed, Barret. I do not merely want your company. I want to buy it from you. I want to buy the perfect ending for both of you.’
Still sound like the fucking devil to me!
‘Mako…your management…I won’t let you!’ His arm stayed down.
‘You will, Barret. You don’t have a choice.’
Barret’s nostrils flared, and all the lost strength returned at once. ‘No choice? Who the HELL do you think you are? Why haven’t I a choice?’
Before Barret could say anything else, Rufus echoed a familiar statement—a statement that drove him to start this ordeal, and what was to drive him to conclude it. This time, however, it was not a question. It was Barret’s answer.
‘Because you’d do anything for Marlene.’
The silence that followed was poisonous. A new sensation gripped Barret. Where it struck he could not tell. But it didn’t matter. He could no longer think for himself. He could no longer think of anything. All he recognised was Rufus Shinra extending his hand with ease, and his own hand stretching forward.
Rude stood still like an insomnolent watchman, conveying his attention through the slightest twitch of his nose, not once blinking as the deal was sealed.
Marlene Wallace rolled up her sleeves to the top of her shoulder, revealing the tiny black sore that had lightened in colour over the last week.
‘Just in time for the new term,’ said Barret, managing a genuine smile as he looked into the radiant blue of her eyes.
‘Yup-yup!’ she cheered, running on ahead to Tifa, her schoolbag bouncing against her back.
As Marlene dived into Tifa’s open arms, Barret was distracted by the small airship that flew overhead. The confident face of Rufus Shinra was plastered onto the side with the caption “Shinra Inc. - Fighting the stigma for your future”.
Only took him a couple of weeks. Damn him…
This was the world he allowed to exist. But as Marlene looked back at him, smiling as she beckoned him to catch up, he felt a familiar warmth—a unique and personal passion—within. It didn’t take him long to realise where it was coming from.
He may have sold his soul, but Marlene always reminded him he had a heart.
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