Gran Pulse. Always a dangerous place by day, it became even worse at night. In Cocoon, the streets were well-lit at all hours, but in Pulse there was nothing but the stars in the sky to light their way. So, the group's travels were always called to a halt at sunset, when food would be gathered and they chose a place to bed down for the night. Tonight, they'd found an open area through a narrow gorge: only wide enough for the smaller monsters to fit through, and remote and hidden enough the flyers wouldn't even think to look there for easy pickings.
Watch duty was always split between two people, every night. That meant everyone was able to get some sleep, but one person could stay alert for monsters, or worse. Lightning, Snow and Fang were often the first to volunteer, Sazh always more reluctant (not that it was because he was afraid of being in the dark alone, no sir, not by a long shot, really) but Vanille and Hope were considered unofficially exempt, being the youngest. Not that it stopped them protesting, but Fang countered she'd cover Vanille's shifts for her, and sometimes Hope managed to grab a shift out of sheer stubbornness, of not wanting to feel useless or belittled just because he wasn't an adult, that he could do anything the rest could just as well. If he wasn't allowed, he'd become irritable and sullen.
Proving his point he really is just a kid, Lightning thought with some amusement.
Tonight, it was Lightning's turn for second half of watch, Sazh having woken her and dropped to sleep with a relieved sigh almost as soon as he'd hit the floor. Unlike him, she didn't mind it – she was a disciplined, thoroughly drilled soldier, and could manage just fine on less than ideal hours of sleep, had done for the long weeks of their travels. The moon hung high in the sky as she strapped her equipment back in place, washed her face using one of the water flasks so she would be awake and alert more quickly, stretched her sleepy muscles into cooperating.
Her routine complete, she positioned herself in a crouch at the entrance to the gorge, using the shadows cast by rocks and foliage to ensure she was hidden. It was by no means comfortable, but she was the most vigilant (Or most paranoid, Snow would roll his eyes) of them all, and would leave nothing left to chance or carelessness. She flipped her gunblade out of its leather sheath, and switched it to its gun form. Solid, cold metal reassurance in her hands.
And so the long watch began.
It was silent, or as silent as Pulse ever was at midnight, so overflowing with life as it was. There was the continuous chirping of some insect – Lightning didn't know the name of it, though Fang and Vanille undoubtedly would – and every now and then, a wind would pick up and rustle the plants on the high cliffs overlooking their camp. At present, there was even the occasional lonely howl of some monster in the distance.
As if in response, a muffled, soft whimper struck the air from behind her. Her head whipped around so quickly her neck cracked. She scanned the camp, checked the treeline, the rocky cliffs, the ashy remains of their campfire, her sleeping comrades– No, not comrades. Friends.
She tensed. It was impossible to tell where the sound had come from, whether it had been one of them, only vague outlines in the darkness. There was the big bulk of Snow, who clasped to his heart his tear crystal, glowing faintly white-blue between his fingers. He slept holding it every night, and even after he'd fallen asleep, never let it slip from his hands. Vanille had once asked him why he did it, and his answer was so typically, reassuringly simple: I want to share my dreams with Serah.
Sazh slept with his chocobo still nestled in the safety of his hair, though throughout the night, it had sometimes emerged squawking and squeaking in annoyance, to nip him on the ear to stop his snoring. (It worked for all of a minute, before the snoring would inevitably start up again.)
Vanille was curled up closest to the remains of the fire – she liked warmth. Fang was sprawled beside her, tattooed arm hooked over the smaller frame; a lioness, lazily protective, yet ready to spring to awareness at a moment's notice. They knew Pulse better than anyone, and didn't take its dangers lightly, even surrounded by friends as they were.
Closest to Lightning was Hope, hugging his knees to his chest, face buried in his arms. He'd made a habit of sleeping sitting up, perhaps because it meant his back was unexposed, even if it meant propping it up against an uncomfortable rock or tree trunk. Had their travels together passed on to him some of her own soldier habits? A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth – but she quickly smoothed it away. Now wasn't the time to get distracted over trivialities.
The silence and stillness hung over the camp like a blanket, and Lightning had no intention of disturbing any of them unnecessarily. She turned around to peer back through the high-walled gorge that made the entrance to their camp. Through the small gap, she could see half of Cocoon hanging up in the empty air, shimmering a darker blue against the night sky. Quiet and beautiful and remote.
She rose, hefting her gunblade and pointing the muzzle at the entrance to the gorge. The sound had unnerved her; she would do a little scouting, make sure it wasn't a monster or Cei'th.
No sooner had she taken a step forward that something seized her ankle. Beartrap-tight.
It took only one deft movement using her free foot to turn around. Finger on the trigger of her gun, aimed down at her captured leg, ready to shoot--
She lowered her weapon and stared down at him. His silvery blond hair fell into his eyes, obscuring his face, but it was clearly his pale arm clutching her boot. His grip was firm, but his shoulders shook. His arms shook, his whole body shook, like she was the thing anchoring him in place rather than the other way around, and he was desperate not to let go.
He mumbled something, so quiet she had to strain to hear against the blood roaring in her ears. She took a deep breath, willed herself to calm, her heartbeat to return to normal.
"Don't go," he'd said. Words slurred by sleep.
Lightning crouched down, delicately trying to prise her leg free. "Hope, what--?"
He moved, grabbing her arms this time. "Don't--" He gave a small hiccup, face still tipped to the floor, "--don't leave me."
She reached out and lifted his chin with her finger. He was crying, or had been, face blotchy and red, but it looked like he was still asleep. Great, they had a sleep-walker in the group, one more thing to worry about at night--
Lightning drew back as Hope's grip relaxed under her touch, and he let go, leaning back again. "M'alone," he slurred, hugged a hand to his chest – his hand marked by the fal'Cie – pulled his knees up, withdrew into himself. "I'll be... I'll be alone, Mom. I don't... want..." His sentence trailed into nothing.
"This again." Her puzzled, hard stare softened a little. She placed her gunblade on the ground beside her and touched his shoulder. "Hope, I'm not your mother."
He made no reply, just ran his fingers over his glove, and bare skin, tracing the stark black lines of his brand. She watched, not daring to move, not daring to speak. She was no good at dealing with people when they were upset, didn't want to do the wrong thing and make things worse, even if he was just talking in his sleep, wouldn't remember anything the morning anyway.
...There was an idea.
Lightning moved to sit beside him. He was still. She shifted closer; he was still. With hesitant, tentative moments at first, like he was an easily-startled bird, she wound an arm around him, pulling him close, letting his head rest against her chest. Hope made a quiet little sound – whether of contentment or irritation she couldn't tell – but soon settled and returned to the quiet, even breathing of sleep.
She made sure her gunblade was close at hand. It would be a long night.
The first signs of dawn were beginning to bleed into the sky, wild and beautiful, furious Pulse red. Mixing with the brightening velvet sky and fading stars. Lightning blinked, half-awake, having been in a near meditative state she so often fell into on her long vigils. So it was with surprise she noticed Hope snug against her, before gradual recollection came. What she didn't remember at all was at what point he'd intertwined her hand in his, fingers laced together, like if he didn't hold on to her in some way, she would try to leave again. She sighed, yet found the corners of her mouth twitching up again despite herself. He was a good kid. A stupid kid.
And she was just as stupid. If she could, she'd kick herself for the whole stupid idea. She felt stiff and awkward, trapped between him and a bumpy, rough tree trunk, feeling every rise and fall of his chest. It was a strange and unfamiliar feeling. She didn't remember the last time she'd held Serah like this. She did remember her parents holding her like this, a long time ago, when she was small, much younger than Hope, but it was just a fuzzy memory, warmth and unguarded smiles.
Her vision blurred with unbidden wetness, and she blinked it away just as rapidly. She was tired, she was being stupid, that was all.
Hope stirred, lifted his head from where it rested under her chin. Green eyes, misty with sleep, peered up at hers, and his brow furrowed in confusion. "Light...?"
Her answer was automatic: "Go back to sleep. It's not sunrise yet."
"It's fine. I don't mind."
Hope's face was a whole range of expressions – he still looked sleepily confused, mixed in with a little surprise, cheeks tinged punk in embarrassment, and a spark in his eyes that was something like gratitude.
He studied her for a moment longer, then asked, "Were you crying, just now?"
Look who's talking, she thought dryly, but kept it to herself. "No."
Which didn't stop her blinking a few times, hard, just to make sure.
"Oh." Hope lowered his gaze, and for a second she wondered if she'd glimpsed a flicker of disappointment there. "I just thought... Something woke me up, and it sounded like... Never mind," he mumbled into his chest.
"I sighed, if that's what you mean."
"No, I, ah... Forget it."
"You should sleep," she said, quietly. "We have a long day ahead of us, and you'll be tired otherwise."
"Yeah." A pause, and: "Thanks. For... you know. I think... I think I had a nightmare. But then I must have known: Light's there for me."
Lightning looked through the tiny gap in the cliffs, out at the brightening sky, at Cocoon in the distance. She took a deep breath of the predawn air, and tried not to think much of anything.
"Always," she said.
He smiled one of his small and genuine and elusive smiles. Then he rested his head back against her, and drifted back off into sleep: the now peaceful place where the image of his mother, walking away from him with a gun in her arms, would no longer haunt him.