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His body was curled into a ball, his head tucked into her shoulder and his legs were pressed into her sides. She could feel him shaking from the cold, shuddering from his withheld tears. She wished she could offer him more comfort than this, than running her fingers through his hair and silently watching the horizon as she held him, but no wise words of healing could come to mind. The ache that he felt could possibly lessen, sure, but the regrets of the relationship that Hope never had a chance to forge would always be carried by him.
Her eyes swept over the carcass of Palompolum, tracing the skeletal remains of buildings and skyscrapers up to the dimming and ever-dark sky. She wished that the sight wouldn't have been so horrible to behold, that it could have simply been an empty, lonely city but that type of wishing never panned out for her. The horrors here were no less here than those they had witnessed on the path to this land and she would never understand why she thought it would be otherwise. As soon as she saw what was before them she had no reason to believe that they would find Hope's father in this mayhem but, still, for Hope's sake, she went forth.
They clambered through the rubble; Hope being driven by a mad desire to find his only remaining kin. He scrambled through obstacles that on any other day he would have had to take his time poking through. He ignored sights that would have made him stop and hold back his vomit, cared nothing about the beasts digging through the garbage so near to where he stood. His eyes were focused up, by a fallen billboard, towards a house that only he could still have known the location of. Hours passed but he never stopped for breath, never once paused alleviate the pangs of hunger that he must have felt by now.
Lightning did nothing but follow silently, haunting each of his footsteps with her own, watching the insane determination that suddenly overcame the boy with grievous understanding of what he must be feeling. She bit her lip, holding the words on her tongue at bay. She couldn't tell him that this was a vain effort: he would have to see it for himself.
He stopped without warning when standing on a large piece of upturned concrete, his eyes locked on the house that he had been hunting for the past two hundred minutes and a tiring amount of days. It was smashed, as were most of the buildings here, and had the fallen half of the billboard smothering its remains. If something had been inside then there was no chance it could have made it out. If someone had made it out of the house on time then lingering here would have been a stupid, deadly thing to do.
A guttural cry was ripped from Hope's throat. He charged forward, possessed by grief, and began throwing rubble away from the house. He dug deeper, as deep as he could, until he reached a large piece that neither he nor Lightning would have been able to move. Defeat being something he was unwilling to accept, he tried to call on his old l'Cie powers to assist him, forgetting that those skills were something long since lost to both him and Lightning; something lost to them when their world came tumbling down.
Still she watched on as he crouched down, pushed his back against the large block and gripped underneath it with his fingers and tried lifting it with his legs. Veins sprouted beneath the skin of his forehead, his neck, his arms. His face turned red, then purple.
Tears pricked at his eyes.
She touched his arm; he pulled himself away and kept trying to do the impossible. She stood there, watching him for a moment longer, noticed what remained of a person not twenty feet away. If Hope turned around it would be impossible to miss – hell, even if he just glanced over his shoulder…
This time she grabbed his shoulders and pulled him into her, cradling his head in her arms, running her hand down his back. He didn't resist, he stopped fighting. He lay still, then shuddered when the wind picked up. It died soon after but his shaking didn't cease.
For a long time they stood like this and Lightning began to remember those things that she had never wished to recall. Moments like this with Serah, after the death of either parent. The moments where she felt helpless, like she could do nothing to save the world that was crumbling around them. She had become Lightning so that those moments would never have to happen again.
She began to think that history has a funny way of repeating itself, that time has a cyclical and morbid sense of humor.
Movement in the shadows alerted her to the here and now, the situation that they were currently in. True dark had fallen quickly and they'd be asking for death if they stayed out here much longer. She recalled that there was something that could pass as shelter not too far back and decided to aim for it.
A murmur into Hope's ear told him the plan and he said nothing against it. Though it was unnerving to watch him move around listlessly with that lost look in his eyes, she knew she still had some things to be thankful for. If he were howling into the night then they probably would have been discovered long ago by the beasts that still clung to life.
She did her best to ignore that grieved gaze and backtracked through the empty streets.
She directed him into the concrete lean-to she had seen earlier, began to pull out the blankets that they'd need to stay relatively warm throughout the bitter nights. Hope stood still, his hands clutching his own shoulders and eyes staring out the entrance while Lightning did most of the work. She thought little of it, all things considered, and grabbed Hope's pack to set up his bed and blankets for him.
Everything was prepared by Lightning's hand, even the meager excuse of a fire she had conjured with stolen matches and wood from expensive old furniture. It wasn't much but it was enough to give them a little light. Without the false, twinkling stars of Cocoon's sky or the Fal'Cie moon, the nights seemed much less beautiful. This fire, at least, could distract them from that.
Hope wouldn't listen to her pleas for him to sit and join her. He remained standing, lost in thought and memories. She, too, began to dive into the past, prompted by Hope's melancholy and the stillness around her. Memories from her childhood swam to the surface, trying to break through the barriers that had been built to keep those very thoughts at bay. Finding that old tactics no longer worked, her mind switched modes and remembered the night sky of Gran Pulse, remembered the warmth of sitting around a fire with five others and chatting until dusk. She remembered Snow's sideways grins, Fang's howls of laughter, Vanille's squeals of delight. Even Hope had laughed then.
She wished she could see it all again, hear it all again. Now it was so depressing and lonely that she thought she would explode. Not once did she ever imagine that she would miss those things but here, in the middle of a city filled with death, she found such an idea to be the most wonderful thing in the world.
Coldness of a different kind began to settle in. She clutched at her thinning blankets, wishing it would do some good.
Her eyes settled onto Hope's back as she tried to guess at what might be running through his mind. Was he recalling his hometown and its former glory? Memories of his old life? His now-lost family? The friends that had been left behind; saviors that would forever be remembered as villains?
She knew those thoughts were poisonous ones. Thoughts that, left unchecked, could lead Hope down a path that wasn't even worthy of being trod on by him. Right now she was the only one there to help him, to ease his pain, and she couldn't help but think she was the best and worst person alive for this job. She may understand his emotions, but helping him through it was another matter entirely.
Her Blaze Edge sparkled in the firelight, granting her an idea.
She said silent thanks to her most trusted blade and took its handle into her hands. In the same movement she grabbed her pack and slid out the extra gunblade that she always carried, placing it into her offhand and stretching that out towards Hope. Her knuckles bumped against his padded back, urging him to turn around and look at her. He obeyed her commands and, once turned, he looked at her gift with a mixture of surprise and confusion.
Words were never her thing. She struggled to put words to her feelings more often than not, and even if a sentence eked its way out it was usually never the right thing to say. It was easier for her to convey her thoughts through actions, through something that she excelled in. She didn't know if the meaning of this would pass on to Hope, but it was worth a try.
She shuffled off the extra layers of blankets and slid them away from the fire. With a flick of her wrist she extended the blade of her weapon and nodded at Hope to do the same. He was still confused, still looked a little lost but, even so, his gaze traveled down to the weapon he held in his hand while he tried to mimic Lightning's movements. It took him three or four tries before he got it, but the ring of metal sounded of his success.
A small smirk of satisfaction slid across her lips at his tiny victory. He saw it in the firelight and gave her a weak smile of his own. It wasn't his typical smile, the one usually reserved for her, but it was a start.
Silently she placed one foot in front of the other and turned her hips to face perpendicular from Hope, directing her right shoulder to face him. Her offhand, though it held nothing, was still tense and prepared to defend herself if need arose. Years of training made the stance automatic – she wasn't entirely sure how to teach it to Hope other than by showing it to him.
He glanced from Lightning to his own form, trying to copy every last detail of what she was showing him. His feet were a bit too far apart, his posture was a little lazy, and his arms were too rigid. His grip on the gunblade was nothing to be impressed by and, indeed, the weapon almost seemed to be too much for him. Still, though, he looked to her for confirmation and she couldn't bring herself to criticize his effort just then. Maybe if he decided to continue learning from her, then she'd address the problems. Now, though…
Now was a time for action. Not words.
She nodded once, sharply, then pushed the blade forward to cover half the space between her and her protégé. He quickly copied the movement and did the same, thrusting his blade with a little too much enthusiasm. Their weapons met with a loud, metallic clang that reverberated throughout their tiny shelter.
The force of the impact surprised him, and his blade wobbled considerably in his one-handed grasp. He readjusted his grip, trying to hide his embarrassment, then looked to her to continue on with the lesson.
It was a slow dance that they shared. She showed him different ways of attacking, from an upward arc to a sweep aimed towards an opponent's knees. She taught him the difference between a parry and a block, the understated importance of balance in a swordfight, how to keep the right distance from your foe, the placement of your own sword – things that it took her ages to learn properly she threw at him during their first session together, hoping it would drown him in information that he'd have to sift through and process for hours, if not days.
His frame seemed weak, and his young and boyish face did nothing to make him seem like he would be a challenging opponent. Despite this, he was eager to learn and, better yet, he learned quickly. He could be a passable swordsman if he dedicated enough time and energy to it, but she doubted that he would ever excel at swordsmanship like she had.
Then again, he had surprised her before. Maybe there was still a chance for her to be surprised again.
They went back and forth, their blows becoming a little stronger as time passed; their movements would become a little faster. His footing, as ungraceful as it was, was becoming surer.
Their blades would meet high in the air, then one steeled sword would push the other aside to meet at the base of their torsos. She would draw her weapon back, slowly, and move to thrust it forward but he would parry it with a slash to the side. She tried to use her feet to unbalance him, use her cape to disorient him, and at first her tactics succeeded. After awhile he began to formulate plans to counter her and, though they were simple, they would effectively stop her feeble attempts to trip him up.
For well over an hour they went back and forth, one teaching while the other did his best to keep up. It was distracting and exhausting for both of them, she knew. The sheer force of concentration on his face mixed with the tiny beads of sweat that gathered on his brow was a good enough sign that he wasn't thinking too much about the tidings the day had brought. She had succeeded in what she had attempted to do and, just this once, she wasn't afraid to revel in her victory a little.
She didn't bother to stop the training until she could visibly see that his tiring was affecting their swordplay. His movements were getting sloppier and he wasn't paying as close of attention as he had been. His sword was dipping lower than she had recommended and his posture was suffering.
She stepped out of the way of one of his strikes, grabbing his wrist before he fell and impaled himself on her spare blade. "You did good, kid. Let's get some rest."
"I'm not tired."
He looked at her with suspicious eyes but didn't argue further. He went back to the fire and settled down near his bed, grabbing a tiny bag of food to snack on before he lay himself down. She joined him moments later, sipping at the warmed water that had been ice not long before.
They sat in silence. Lightning watched as Hope's eyes focused on the fire and could see nothing beyond that. She had hoped he would go straight to bed, but it would seem that it had been an idle dream at best.
After some time had passed, he looked at her from the corner of his eyes. "I didn't think I'd find my dad alive," he said finally. "But you traveled so far to get here, and I didn't want to give up without trying."
Her gaze landed on the fire, too.
"I knew I wouldn't find him. It didn't make any sense to come here. What were you expecting to find, Light? You were going to come without me…"
What was I expecting to find? I was expecting to find your father. I expected to find him dead. I expected to bury him, for your sake, and then bring you back something to remember him by. One day I expected to bring you back to his grave.
After seeing your face when Serah and Dajh returned, after seeing how sad you were, I couldn't sit by and do nothing.
She shrugged at his question. "I don't know. Just thought it was worth a shot."
He folded his hands, pressed them against his chin in thought. "Thank you. For coming out all this way just to look for my dad. I…I really appreciate it, Light. But…"
His sentence fell into nothing, and probably would have stayed there had Lightning not encouraged him to finish his thought.
"But everybody's probably worried about us. I think it's time we went home."
The foreignness of the word made her blink stupidly. Hope gave her a forced smile, his eyes shone oddly bright yet again. "Pulse was a better home for me than this place ever was. I don't have many good memories here, you know?" He furrowed his eyebrows then lay his head in his arms. "I miss them. They're my family now." His voice cracked and he paused. "And I miss being warm. I say we go back."
She turned her head away from him and nodded, the shadows of her profile dancing in the firelight. "Not much left for us here, anyway," she grunted.
Another watery-eyed smile, followed by soft thanks. An almost peaceful silence fell between the two of them: now that they knew where their next steps would lead them, now that they knew that they'd be going where live beings would be waiting, their journey seemed far more tolerable despite the outcome so far.
Her chin nestled into the fleshy part of her forearm and she watched Hope with a certain interest as he considered the fire in front of him. His eyes were crinkled in thought, in sorrow, but there was a strength about him that had not been there before. Maybe it had something to do with the finality of their journey, of knowing that he wasn't alone despite being the last remnant of his family. Now he was among the ranks of Snow, Fang and Vanille, of being the last of their bloodlines roaming the planet. Now he was an orphan with all of the others. Though it was odd, she didn't doubt that it instilled a certain sense of camaraderie in him. Now he finally belonged somewhere where he may not have fit in before.
She didn't know if it made sense. But it fit.
His reverie broke and he turned to watch her, now. Thoughtful eyes examined hers and then a smile broke out. "Do you think Snow would be better with your sword than me?"
The question took her by surprise, but only for a moment. "His attacks would be stronger. But he's too big of a guy – he'd be clumsy. You could develop some finesse if you wanted. He'd just be…Snow."
Hope was pleased by the answer and nodded his head several times.
"You didn't ask about Sazh."
He looked back to her, his head cocked a little to the side. "Should I ask about Sazh?"
"Okay. So, uh, do you think Sazh would be better?"
"No. He would suck. A lot."
This answer actually garnered a small laugh from Hope, one that she was even happier to hear in the increasing darkness of the night. The sound of her dried lips crackling into a thin smile was sure to be heard throughout the cement lean-to, but she didn't care. Again she leaned over and nudged his shoulder with hers. "Go to bed."
He settled into his blankets near the fire and, for several minutes, she watched him gaze at the dancing flames of their diminishing fire, hypnotized by its dance. As minutes dragged on his eyelids drooped until, finally, they closed for the duration of the night.
Left alone in a city full of death, hiding in the remains of what was once someone's house, watching the sleeping form of a boy who had just discovered he was the last of his family made it difficult for Lightning to sleep. She tried pulling the covers over her head and resting her chin on her chest, but that aggravated the already tense muscles of her neck to a degree that made it impossible to imagine sleeping in that position.
She tried lying down, but her desire for rest faded quickly once she heard distant howls that she didn't like the sounds of.
Air puffed out of her mouth in an aggravated sigh: she would be losing another night's worth of sleep tonight, it would seem. She could barely count how many times this had happened but, if she had to guess, she'd say for every night she had slept she'd been awake for one and a half nights besides that.
She never thought cold would bother her, that silence would bother her, or death, or chaos. But she had never been quite so alone or quite so vulnerable before. In the Guardian Corps she had her squad, as useless as most of them were, and no real danger was ever really present. While a l'Cie she had the others, people that she'd dared to consider friends, people who would watch each other's backs. Now, though…
Now the only thing to comfort her were thoughts and memories. Now the only warmth she felt was by sitting close to a fire that couldn't be built too bright. Her companion was a boy who was trying his best to be bright while his world faded to gray.
It was…it just…she…
Her chin rested on her arms again. I miss Snow.
Why had she gone without him? Why had she insisted on leaving without so much as saying a word to him? Making Sazh swear not to tell anyone where she went?
No, she shouldn't question why. She knew damn well why she did it. Maybe she should be asking herself why the hell she bothered to trust herself with these types of instincts when all they ever did was steer her wrong?
She had given Snow so much shit over the past few months; always believing he only had the worst of intentions, thinking that he just wanted some ass while Serah was gone and that she was the closest to Serah's image that he could get. She never imagined that he would have actually fallen for her, and even those days where she briefly considered the notion she would dismiss it soon after.
She had truly, truly believed that, if he was left alone with Serah, he would quickly forget about Lightning and return to his former flame. But Hope's words seemed to imply otherwise – those nights where he could have been thinking about Serah, reminiscing about her, he instead chose to dwell on Lightning. He had shared intimate memories with Sazh about the older Farron girl and not the younger. In fact, Serah was largely left out of all conversations between the two men, unless it was how to get over her or break up with her.
Why the hell didn't anyone think to share this information earlier? It probably would have spared everyone a huge migraine and—
Hell, be honest with yourself. You wouldn't have believed it. Maybe you still shouldn't believe it.
You'd be stupid not to, but since when has that stopped you?
She glared at the fire, berating herself for all the times she had shoved Snow away, accusing him of cheating and taking things too lightly when really he had faced just as difficult of a dilemma as Lightning had. The idea of walking away from Serah had never been easy for him, after all.
Seems like he was a nice guy after all.
If she returned and found him back in Serah's arms then she sure as hell wouldn't blame him. She didn't even have a right to be mad or say "I told you so". She couldn't say a damn thing after the way she treated him.
But if he was still there, waiting for her as a free man…
She looked away, knowing that she was blushing even in the dark. Her stomach knotted and her skin crawled at the very thought, but…
…but if he was waiting, he deserved an apology.
And then she'd punch him in the face and kiss him.