This story is for entertainment only. The only money I make is from my actual day job, which unfortunately is completely unrelated to Final Fantasy in any way.
-From The Vile Peaks to the Gapra Whitewood-
Her whole body aches. Not the good ache of a thorough workout, but the exhausted, pained kind of ache. One that she knows comes after overtaxing an already battle weary body; the type of ache that speaks of injuries untended. The type of ache that is only a breath from all out pain. She feels the burn in her thighs, her calves. Her right arm is a knot of pain from fingertip to shoulder. She has been walking and fighting and running for so long now...she can't even be certain what day it is anymore.
Lightning rolls her shoulder, hears the telltale click and crunch of bone grating against bone. Subluxated at least, possibly fully dislocated. She grunts her disgust and halts her forward march. That damn PSICOM Tracker got her good in the shoulder trying to disarm her. She's pissed all over again at herself. She'd made an amateur move, all attack and no defense. She'd been relying so much on her superior strength and speed, using rage to fuel her brutality that she'd forgotten to compensate for her weariness. She'd battled her way to Serah, then to the Fal'Cie, and on through Lake Bresha. At the very least, she should have been playing safer and more conservative. But she'd charged right in, hacking and slashing, mind bent on slaughter and left herself wide open to the attack. That Tracker had caught her dead on with a blow that had nearly taken her weapon. Hell, if she were being honest, she'd almost lost her whole arm in that little blunder. If it hadn't been for the kid's intervention...
She turns around, doing a quick sweep for him. She still can't believe he followed her. She's not sure why, what made him choose her company. She's set a relentless pace, charging into battle after battle. At best she has been poor company. At worst, she's been suicidal. With the boy along for the ride, make that homicidal. She is not a paragon of patience on a good day and today is not a good day by any stretch of the definition. At least when Snow had been around, she'd been able to direct all her ire and venom at him. He'd been a perfect target for all her self-loathing turned rage. Now, only Hope remains to bear the brunt of her temper.
Still, here he is. He's taken every barb she's hurled, stood his ground, kept all complaints to himself and just walked. He's stood behind and beside her in at least a dozen skirmishes, and pulled her ass out of the fire at least once. He stands away from her now, avoiding her eyes. Perhaps he thinks that if he draws her attention, she will once again try to send him away. If that is the case, then he is more perceptive than she has credited him thus far.
She recoils a bit at her unkind thoughts. She studies the bent head, the slumped shoulders. This is a young, hurt, frightened boy that she has been trying to ditch out here in the Vile Peaks. Not much more than a child. Years younger than Serah, and she wouldn't let her sister anywhere near this place. She'd kill someone for even thinking about leaving her alone. What the hell is wrong with her?
Her shoulder twinges, reminding her that presently, said shoulder is what is wrong with her. An injury this serious must be tended before she moves on. She holsters her weapon and immediately feels the relief in her right shoulder. She rubs at the shoulder, feels where the joint has slipped. The pain blossoms as she presses along the front of the socket. The bone slips, makes a wet, hollow sound, clicking and snapping when she releases the pressure. Definitely a partial dislocation. It's not her first, but that doesn't stop the pain from shocking and sickening her.
"What's wrong?" Hope asks. His eyes are nailed to the ground, his voice a soft whisper. Staying small, beneath her notice. Damn.
She debates only a few moments before making a decision. She cannot leave this boy alone. She needs to disabuse him of the notion that she will. She knows he won't believe words. Hell, she wouldn't believe her words at this point. So she needs to show him (and herself) with her actions.
"My shoulder is out." An act of faith and trust. Admitting weakness has never been easy for her.
He meets her eyes and pales. "That's...I mean...what can I do?"
She finds an alcove in the rock face and sits on the ground, back to the stone wall. They need the privacy from enemy eyes as much as she needs the brace. She looks at the pale, shaking boy in front of her and is uncertain that he is going to have the stomach or the strength to pull her arm back into its socket. "I need you to put it back in."
"I...I...um....uh..." he stammers and steps back. She sits and waits. If he can't do this, she's not sure what she's going to do. She can use painkillers and potions, mask the pain, try to work around it. It will not be the first time that she has had to fight injured, or run through pain. But until the injury is corrected, she cannot heal. She can't use any sort of magic on her joint until the bones are back in place. And the longer she leaves the injury untended, the more likely it is that she'll lose full use of her arm. She does her best to keep her face neutral, attempts to mask the fear of becoming an invalid before becoming a Cie'Th.
Hope stops stuttering and retreating, apparently having come to a conclusion. "What do I do?"
She feels relief and apprehension in equal measure. She squashes both, focuses on the practicalities of field medicine rather than the abstracts of 'feelings.' She guides him through the process as best she can. She watches his thin fingers trace the knots of bone, feeling the separation in the joint. "You have to pull the arm up and forward. Try to do it in one smooth motion." She sees his fear, feels her own anxiety ratchet up. He cannot do this if he is afraid. "You can do this," she assures him, waits until he nods. He grasps her arm, one hand around her elbow, one around her wrist. He's become so accustomed to healing her that his magic leaks out now. She feels the cool healing magic wind its way from his fingers through her arm. She relaxes as he twists and yanks. The pain is exquisite, the sound atrocious. Her vision whites out and she's gone.
"Oh no, oh god, oh no. Light? Lightning? Oh please, oh god." The boy's hysterics bleed through the haze of pain, pulling her back to the surface.
"Lightning? Please wake up. I'm sorry. I didn't mean it. Please get up."
Hope is in a panic and she can't figure out why. Waking up is hard; thinking is harder. She can't clear the cobwebs enough to figure out why she's even sleeping. When had she decided to take a nap? She cracks open an eye and sees Hope's pale face. His pupils are dilated and he looks like he's going to keel over. An adrenaline dump, then, but she can't figure the cause. She's just sitting here and everything is quiet. Had something knocked her out? Was he hurt too?
"I'm really sorry. I didn't mean to make it worse." He's pleading, hands wringing with worry and eyes full of fear.
"What?" She says, the only thought she can formulate.
"Your shoulder." As soon as he mentions her shoulder, memory floods back in. She shakes her head to wake up and rolls the injured shoulder. It feels like it has been crushed. There is a creeping soreness and bruised ache that pounds from her fingertips to her neck. But the sharp agony of the subluxation is gone.
"It's better. Thank you." She starts to move but he presses her back against the wall.
"No wait. Stay! Better? You passed out!"
"Well, having a dislocated joint relocated hurts like a son of a bitch, Hope." She's not trying to be harsh, but the pain has shortened her fuse and flared her temper. Hope flinches from her, but doesn't step away. She tempers her irritation. "You did well. Thank you." He looks like he's calming, accepting her words as truth. He touches the swollen joint and she feels his soothing magic pour over the injury, easing the ache. His hands flutter over and around her, landing briefly only to skitter somewhere else.
"I thought I'd made it worse. Your eyes rolled back and you got so white..."
She stills his hands and pulls him beside her. He comes without resistance. She can feel the tremors that wrack his body and is once more struck by how very young this boy is. She finds herself wishing for a blanket or cloak. He is cold and clammy from shock, and she's probably not much better off. She pulls him against her, drapes her good arm around him. "You did very well, Hope," she reassures. He shutters against her, fighting back tears. Her heart breaks a little as she watches this brave boy fight to be a man. "Very well. Rest now. Go to sleep, okay?"
"What about you?" He sniffles.
"I'll keep watch for a bit." Her exhaustion tells her that it will be a very little bit. He looks at her for a moment before nodding. He settles, head pillowed on her lap, her left arm across him, her right hand resting in the thick platinum of his hair. He sighs, whispers "mom" before finally sleeping.
Her heart stutters. She mumbles, "not remotely," but lets him remain where he is, cradled and safe in his mind. She keeps watch until pain and exhaustion finally claim her.
She runs and runs, searching for something in a maze of metal hallways. She can't shake the feeling that she is too late. Her heart pounds so hard that the blood in her body reddens her vision, pulls a scarlet veil across the whole landscape. She's not alone, but she can't find her companion either. She stops to search, knows someone should be with her. Feels that he should be at her back, on her heels.
She feels heated breath on her neck, spins, finds the space behind her empty. Panic sickens her as she reaches for her holster, comes up empty. She's losing things at an alarming rate--weapons, companions, her focus. She abandons the search for her missing companion, begins running down hallway after hallway, catwalk after catwalk. One door is the same as the next. None of the open anyplace new, or reveal her objective. She breaks into a sprint, gets a flash of platinum out of the corner of her eye that brings her up short. Something pulls her toward that flash, but it's wrong, out of place: a distraction.
She continues running, spies a bandana and trench coat, bent over another body.
And she knows that this is where her search ends--where all searches end. She tries to yell her sister's name, can't seem to choke it out. She runs but can't get closer. Her head shakes, her body trembles, each in counterpoint, both in denial. She knows what is going to happen even as her sister metamorphoses into diamond-bright crystal again.
She's too late. Too late to save her, too late to stop it. Snow is there, holding her crystal hand and the rage returns. She's at his side in an instant, her weapon in her hand before she realizes that her rage at herself and her impotence has turned her deadly, and she's raising her weapon, screaming...
She wakes to a dead leg and a sore neck. Her shoulder throbs in time with her racing heartbeat. Her dream disturbs her all the more for its truth. She shakes her head to dispel the last of the anger and the dream images. The urge to hurt is difficult to suppress. She deals with her own pain by lashing out at others. It's her way. She sits for a moment, takes her time rolling up the anguish and anger and pushing it as deep as it can go inside her.
Hope sleeps on, head pillowed on her thigh. Her leg is now ice cold from the reduced circulation and she knows she needs to move him before the situation gets worse. Emotions in check, she checks the time, notes that they've been resting for the better part of seven hours. They need to start moving again.
"Hope." She uses her left hand to nudge him, her right to pat at his head.
He snaps awake like she'd thrown freezing water on him. He sits up, face turning a bright shade of scarlet. He starts back-peddling before she cuts him off. "We need to get moving."
"Oh. Okay." His color tones down to a more reasonable shade of pink as she hauls herself to her feet. "How...How's your arm?"
She rolls her shoulders, pulls her weapon, swings it and re-holsters. The joint twinges and complains about the fresh abuse, but doesn't howl in agony. "Much better," she states with a nod. "Thank you."
"You're welcome." He blushes again. So young...she banishes the thought. Yesterday he was a boy. Today, he's a warrior.
She gathers up their few supplies and says, "I'll take point."
They march onward, she in the lead and he silent behind her. She spies enemies, eager to charge in and exterminate them, but she pulls herself up. She needs to be mindful now. She's playing hurt today, and rushing to battle with everyone and everything will get her killed. Not to mention the kid.
She casts her thoughts to him, wonders again if she's doing the wrong thing with him. This is no place and no path for a green kid. True, she'd been younger than he when she'd picked up her first weapon. But she'd had no one to care.
She glances back at Hope, and acknowledges finally that neither has he.
Still, in order to serve their better interests, she chooses stealth over brute force, avoiding nearly as many fights as she engages. Despite this effort, she can see the boy tiring. She feels her resolve to keep him with her wither. Perhaps she should send him back. Staying with her, by her side, is a death sentence. Her plan to take the battle to Eden will surely kill her, she knows. In fact, she's counting on that death. That, and taking as many Sanctum bastards with her as she can on her trip to Hell.
Should she really drag this boy to Hell with her?
He trips behind her, falls to the ground. She halts her progress over the bridge, and sighs. This isn't working. She tells him so, argues with him, lays it all out, unpacking all her buried feelings; bringing all her rage and grief to her aid.
The pain from her chest drives her to her knees. I'm dying. The thought only vaguely disturbs her. Hope argues with her, tells her she can't leave him. Doesn't he understand that she's going to get him killed? She's having enough problems keeping herself alive right now. To be responsible for him, for his life. It is too much! She clutches her chest, howls at him "You want to get tough? Do it on your own!"
When Odin appears between them, disbelief can't cover the sum of her feelings. How could this have happened? What nightmare brought this situation about? Then Odin focuses on Hope, brings his mighty sword down at the prostrate boy. She yells "look out!" knowing that it will be useless. Hope curls on himself, balls up on the ground. She leaps, willing herself to make it in time; she brings her Edged Carbine to bear.
The blow rattles through her and her injured shoulder screams. The joint cracks as Odin forces his blade down harder. She disregards the shiny agony in her shoulder as she glances at Hope. At least he's not dead...yet. She readies herself to battle this Eidolon, keeps herself between it and the boy as long as possible. The Eidolon swings again, aiming for Hope. Why must it try to hurt him? Why can't it leave the boy alone? Lightning doubles her effort, moves as fast as she ever has before. The blows rain down like meteors, rattling her teeth with every strike. Long seconds of battle have her slowing down just as Odin starts warming up. A hit rattles her, brings her to her knees as her head spins and swims. The Eidolon eyes the boy again, aims its sword. She sees the intent, knows that this strike will be a deathblow. Lightning throws herself in front of him, the long blade catching her across her back. She stumbles, falls, feels blood gush down her back from the deep burn of rent flesh.
The cool relief that settles over her shocks her back into action. Hope stands behind her now, casting every spell he knows to protect and heal. His audacity and nerve have her on her feet parrying each attack, determined now to protect him from the beast that she knows she has unleashed. Odin pounds at her with ruthless efficiency. He (it) is unwavering in the onslaught. She sticks and moves, conjures every natural and unnatural skill she has to keep herself and the boy alive. It is an eternal moment before the Eidolon ceases the attack, yields to her, retreats back into slumber.
The silent aftermath of battle roars. She sways for a moment, stunned and exhausted. This whole experience should have killed her, yet still she stands. Against all odds, she and Hope still live. She should feel triumphant after such a victory. Vindicated. She feels only cold silence. The darkness reaches for her and she grabs it with both hands, welcoming the inviting embrace of emptiness.
Consciousness comes on slow. It flows and ebbs as she wraps the darkness back around herself. She lingers in the twilight space between here and gone for an endless moment, hoping to cling to peace just a while longer. But the simple act of hoping for peace has forced her to break the surface into the waking world again. She works at peeling open her eyes, feels how herculean this simple task has become, and gives up in favor of waking her dead limbs. After all, as a warrior, her mind has always followed her body.
The tremble in the voice gets her attention. She focuses on it, uses it to motivate.
"I'm...here." It's the most intelligent thing she can come up with at the moment.
"I know. Dumb question." His hand lands on her back, tracing the length of her shoulder blade, sending tendrils of healing magic into her. She sighs in relief.
"I'm alright." She braces her hands on the floor, pushes herself until she's sitting. Vertigo swirls the world around her, blends colors and shapes until her stomach spins in rhythm with her head. She blinks and swallows.
"You have a funny definition of alright," Hope deadpans. She stifles the chuckle, admits that he's right. Her definitions of everything have always been more than a little screwy.
She looks at him, remembers the horror of the mighty Odin bringing his sword to bear on Hope, and she grabs his arms. "What about you? Are you hurt?" She runs her hands over his head, down his arms, searches for injuries.
"I'm okay," he squeaks.
She continues her search, comes up with nothing but a scraped knee. She lets out a breath she hadn't realized she was holding. She touches the scrape and bruise, calls her own magic up to ease it away.
"Uh...thanks." He's uncomfortable now, but she feels better, so that's all that matters.
"How long have I been out?"
He rubs the back of his neck. "I'm not sure. Not too long." The answer is cautious. He fears dredging up their earlier interrupted conversation. "Lightning? Am I really getting in your way? I'll do better, I promise." His eyes are glued to the ground.
She knows that she should send him away. If not for her, then for his own safety. That Eidolon nearly killed him. The Eidolon that had come for her, to offer a failing L'Cie peace in death. She almost caused him to die...right before her eyes.
Just like Serah.
She stares at the top of the platinum head and makes a decision. She will do for this boy what she could not for her sister. She will keep him safe for as long as she lives.
"Hope, I was wrong."
"I was wrong, trying to send you away. I won't do it again. You are not in the way. I shouldn't have said that to you. If you want to stay with me and fight, I'll welcome the help. I'll teach you what I know, help you get stronger. If that's what you still want."
His eyes are wide and hopeful. She tries not to think about the shine in them. "Yes, I want that." She accepts his assurance. He accepts her word.
"Okay. We need to move. We still have a few hours to go before we reach The Gapra Whitewoods, and I want to get there today. We'll rest once we get there."
Wide eyes meet hers and she pulls herself upright. He nods at her, scrambles to stand up. She looks him over, making certain that she hadn't missed anything in her last perusal. He is remarkably uninjured, which is far more than she can say for herself.
She stumbles a bit at first, still dizzy and lightheaded from her most recent bout of unconsciousness. Hope reaches out a steadying hand. She gives herself a moment before taking the lead and trudging onward.
They reach the Gapra Whitewood with little trouble. Lightning can only feel relieved. She's still rattled by her battle with the Eidolon. She shouldn't have survived that battle. She knows that. She knows she wouldn't have if Hope had not thrown in his lot with her. She glances back at her shadow. He's come a long way in a very short time. She looks at him, sees the wellspring of strength hidden within the small frame. Her early assessments of him had been so wrong. She'd thought him a burden.
"We should be safe here. You rest. I'm going to look around."
Hope settles himself on the ground, back to the rock face behind him. He lets out a relieved sigh. Lightning watches him until he lays down. He's been keeping watch over her more than he should have. She'll have to do better, take care not to get killed. This boy is now her responsibility. She can't run off and be reckless, despite her deepest desires.
She sits across from him, keeping watch for a bit longer. She'll need to sleep some before moving tomorrow. Her injured body demands it from her and she cannot flout it again.
Hope sighs out "mom," while he's sleeping again.
"Not by a long shot," she utters. She's quite a poor substitute for a mother. Look at what a great job she's done looking after her sister, after all.
With derisive thoughts of failure firmly in her mind, Lightning drifts off to sleep.
She runs. The familiar route now so foreign. The catwalks are covered in sand. Her ankles ache from running and buckling. It's as if she's moving through molasses. She is searching, but doesn't know what she seeks. Her pulse is a frantic staccato beat in her throat, her temples, her breast. She pants as she runs, spins.
Odin rises before her, and she stops, slips in the sand beneath her. The sky is dark, but Cocoon hangs bright and scarred above. How can that be? She is on Cocoon. Isn't she?
Odin calls down lightning. It hits her without pain, but burns the sand at her feet. The Eidolon draws its weapon, reminds her of her own. She reaches into her holster, finds an Airwing in place of her Edged Carbine. Panicked, she hurls the weapon, watches as it disintegrates into sand, pours around her. She gropes in the sand, finds that Odin's lightning has transformed the sand at her feet to glass. She picks up the fulgurite, brushes sand from it to stare at a shining crystal tear.
Odin still hovers above her, weapon aloft and ready to crash upon her. She clutches the tear, closes her eyes and braces herself for death.
The word jars her, brings her up. Serah's tear is gone, the Airwing is reformed of lightning glass, slowly disintegrating in her hand. Odin is gone. Serah is gone. Only Hope remains.
She snaps to awareness with a speed that compliments her years of training as a soldier. The past few days have taken their toll, eroded her efficiency. She sweeps the landscape with a glance, finds everything quiet and Hope fast asleep. The boy's rhythmic breathing soothes her overtaxed nerves. Her dreams have been dark, though she remembers only impressions of them. Chasing the memories only sends them farther away, spinning off into the forgotten.
Lightning stands up ready to do a sweep of the area, finds her head light and stomach churning. How long has it been since she's eaten? She thinks, realizes that she can't pinpoint a time. That means it's been too long, especially with the way she's burning the candle at both ends. Sleep helped her, but food is necessary now.
And what about Hope? How long since this boy had eaten? Guilt gnaws at her. She's been more than selfish with the relentless pace she's set. She's a soldier, trained to ignore her body if necessary in the face of a mission. But he is only a boy. Until a few days ago, he was in all probability, a child of means. A sheltered and protected child. He was no warrior or scavenger. He is still growing. He must be beyond hungry by now.
"What do I feed a growing boy?" She whispers. True, she had to grow up fast, fend for herself and her sister. But they grew up together. She hadn't been an adult, even if she'd assumed the role. Now, she is an adult. It is her responsibility to look after this boy, make sure he eats and sleeps. What good would protecting him in battle do if he passes out from malnutrition?
Lightning sifts through her pack, searching for rations. They taste awful but they are full of protein and carbohydrates. They probably won't come close to replacing everything he's used in the past few days; still, they are better than the nothing he's been consuming. She can forage later, see if she can come up with berries and nuts. There would be no decent wild meat to be found in the immediate areas; nothing that she would risk unless faced with imminent starvation.
She pulls out four ration bars for Hope, a flask full of water. She'll be sure to make him finish it all before they set off into the Gapra Whitewood. Feeling better now that she's set a plan of action, she wakes Hope.
"No, you should have some too."
He is being difficult. She should have foreseen the possibility.
"I already ate," she lies. He needs the food more. She will be fine for a little while longer.
"Don't lie to me!" he snaps. His tone pulls her up short, raises her hackles. "You were the one who was hurt yesterday. You need this more than I do." He pushes the ration bars back at her, folds his arms across his chest.
Yesterday his defiance would have irritated her. Today, she finds it...endearing. "Very well. I will take one, and you will have the other three." He opens his mouth to argue. "No arguments. " She snatches the bar, unwraps it and begins to chew.
His posture reeks of annoyance and he opens his mouth to continue arguing when his stomach weighs in on the debate. Loudly. Annoyance melts into sheepish embarrassment as he takes the first ration bar and devours it in two bites.
They eat in silence for which she is thankful. Lightning spends the time considering their path through the Gapra Whitewood. When they finish eating, Lightning cleans up their makeshift camp area, wipes any trace of them from existence and sets out on the chosen path.
"I'll take point."
The words pull her from her thoughts, shock her. She considers rejecting the offer outright for a moment before she sees his determination. He is digging his heels in, ready to argue with her. He reminds her so much of...herself at his age. Young, fiery and in way too deep. Oh well. She learned. He will too. "Are you sure you can handle it, Hope?"
"It's not a question of can or can't," he parrots back to her.
"Alright. I've got your back." He smiles a little and starts running a bit, widening the distance.
"Don't get crazy, Hope. Stay focused." And be careful, she adds silently.
He hurls himself at the first fiend he sees, slamming his newly learned Blizzard spells into the Thexterons. The beasts fall under his onslaught, feeding his rage. Too much like her for his own good.
He moves through the Whitewood like a mad thing, only slowing when he spots a group of downed PSICOM soldiers. She catches his hand as he reaches for them, stopping him from losing his edge. Taking more innocence in order to keep him alive.
And she can't help but wonder, is she doing the right thing?
Let me know what you think.