Last Exit for the Lost Chapter 14


By Damodred

"Hojo?!" exclaimed Zack, surprised. "What the hell is that doing here?" "Getting a tan, probably," rumbled Barret. He shrugged when everyone looked at him, "We won't know until we find out, will we?" Aerith nodded, "He's our opportunity to find out what's going on at ShinRa. Let's go."

They found him where Sephiroth said he'd be, off at a secluded part of the beach, perusing a notebook covered with scribbled notes. He looked up as they approached, but didn't seem particularly alarmed, only grunted and went back to reading. As they stopped next to him, he looked up and swiveled his gaze straight to Aerith. His lip curled with contempt, "So, the Ancient finally shows her true colors." Aerith nodded, unsurprised, "So, the madman finally realizes the truth." Hojo laughed at her mockery, a brief, loud cackle that sent the nearby seagulls to flight with loud, startled squawks. He suddenly stopped and said in a cold voice, "You don't know as much as you think you do. Rufus will be after you now for a different reason. He wants the Promised Land." Aerith shrugged gracefully, "I don't much care what he wants," she replied. Hojo studied her for a while, then turned his gaze to Tifa, eyeing her up and down. She flushed a bit under his scrutiny, but was more unnerved by the unsteady gleam in his eyes than his leer. Aerith interposed herself in Hojo's line of vision and demanded coldly, "Why are you here, Hojo?" He reluctantly looked up at her and said, casually, "I just wanted to see how the failure was doing. You know, he was in that reactor for months," he looked at Aerith in reproach, ignoring Tifa's gasp of shock as she made the connection, and continued, "and nothing ever happened! He just sat there...." he trailed off, musing. He looked up again, his disconcertingly clear stare seemingly boring into Aerith's eyes, "He's going back." After that pronouncement he lowered his head and began to mutter over his notes again. He would respond to no other questions, lost in his own world.

"Completely insane," was Aerith's pronouncement as they regrouped at the inn. "I don't know what he told Rufus, but I'm sure it'll only create new problems for us. Also, it sounds like someone finally realized that I had been hiding right under their noses for all these years." Tifa broke in, "Do you think it's Hojo?" Aerith shook her head, "He's too megalomaniac to hold back such knowledge, or such plans. If he didn't say anything over those years, that can only mean he didn't know. Besides," she shrugged, "his field was Mako research and applications. The only genetics he knew had to do with Mako energy and Jenova. This Promised Land thing is someone else's idea, maybe the same someone else who..." she broke off and looked away. Sephiroth pushed himself away from the wall and put a hand on her shoulder, squeezing it gently. Grasping it gratefully, she resumed, "He said he's going back. I think he meant Cloud." Tifa nodded and said with a dread certainty, "Nibelheim."

They talked one of the eternal residents of Costa del Sol - the one who owned the hydroplane - into flying them as close to Mount Corel as was possible. Due to the small amounts of water on the other side of the mountain range, landing anywhere was a challenge, one that appealed immediately to the jaded beach bum. After overriding his protests over the weight, they were on their way. The small plane lifted from the water grudgingly, but flew steadily on, over the mountains. As they descended towards a small, glittering ribbon of the small river below them, Barret's mood descended as well. Tifa noticed his glum face and made a mental note to ask him about it once they were down. Between the engine and the shrieking wind, conversation was impossible.

They watched from the ground as the plane dipped its wings in farewell as it flew over the mountains. The pilot managed to land them within a few miles of North Corel, better than they could have expected. As they approached the town, Barret's brow furrowed gradually and he began muttering. When enough of it was visible, he cursed and murmured, "Damn. They rebuilt it." Tifa turned to him questioningly, but he refused to meet her eyes. They walked into the shanty town, Barret's eyes questing constantly and finally widening as he spied a familiar form. He ran forward, shouting "Eleanor! Wait up!" The woman stopped, puzzled and as she recognized the man running towards her her face turned dark. As he stopped in front of her, she pulled back her hand and slapped him, hard. Barret winced, but met her eyes. "You got a lotta nerve coming back here," she said, her voice shaking. "After you ran out on us like that..." she wilted visibly, and threw herself into his arms, crying. Barret patted her on the back, awkwardly and whispered, "I couldn't stay...I thought..." She pulled herself back, drying her eyes with her hand and said, dryly, "You always thought too much, Barret." She composed herself and said, looking him in the eyes, "Dyne died after you left." Barret nodded, sadly, saying, "I'm sorry...I knew I should've stayed, but I couldn't...I wasn't strong enough." They stood awkwardly in the street for a moment, after which Eleanor stirred herself and said briskly, to hide the pain, "You and your friends can stay at the house tonight. There's enough space..." she trailed off, voice trembling and Barret nodded quickly, before she could finish the thought. He motioned to the group, and they walked slowly towards Eleanor's house through the dusty, disarrayed town.

Tifa thought about Barret's story as she lay on the couch, staring at the waterstained, brown ceiling. She realized that Midgar was not the only place where ShinRa oppressed, and wondered if there was a place that was free of them. She would like to find that place, and live peacefully with Cloud. Maybe he could finally hang his sword up on the wall, and she could lay her martial arts skills to rest. She turned her thoughts to the present. It seemed that ShinRa came here too, offering to provide jobs for everyone at the new Mako reactor they wanted to build in Corel mountains. Dyne, Barret's childhood friend was the only dissenter in the consenting board of village leaders. The reactor was built, and the town prospered for a short while, enjoying the cheap energy and plentiful employment. Dyne muttered darkly about the future, but his omens were disregarded in the general welfare. When the reactor was sabotaged, no one knew where to turn, but ShinRa was quick enough to find a scapegoat. They were quick to point out the dissenting Dyne, and tossed in the rest of the village as an afterthought. North Corel was razed in the aftermath, while the reactor burned. Barret's wife, Myrna, was killed, as was Marlene, Dyne's daughter that was staying with Myrna on that day. Both Barret and Dyne were wounded in the firefight, taking a lot of chances as they tried to repel the ShinRa. In the end, the ShinRa outnumbered them. Eleanor was out of town and survived, only to return to a town of ashes. Barret blamed the entire incident on himself, saying that he should have listened to Dyne and never let ShinRa build the reactor. He left North Corel in anguish, vowing never to return. While he was gone, Dyne wasted away slowly, from grief and untended wounds. Eleanor apparently stayed, and rebuilt the town with the help of the survivors, as it went back to its original mission as a mining town. Tifa shook her head; it was just another example of ShinRa's senseless brutality and it would one day bring them down. She raised her head as Barret stomped inside. He had a look on his face that was half-haunted, half-satisfied. He sank down to a crouch so his face was level with Tifa's and announced quietly, "I've been lookin' around. This place has a future, but it'll need help." He took a deep breath, "I decided I'm staying. You and Cloud taught me that problems have to be faced, not forgotten. I've been running long enough. Besides, Eleanor..." he broke off, murmuring now. "She needs someone. With Dyne gone..." Tifa interrupted, "I understand, Barret. I'll tell the others." Barret glanced at her out of the corner of his eye, "You're not...disappointed, are ya?" Tifa shook her head, "I'd think less of you if you didn't stay. You have to do what you have to do." Barret nodded and stood up, looking down at her. "I will," he said solemnly and added, "Thank you, for teaching me what's right." He walked out the door, shutting it quietly behind him.


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