A/N: Misdirection is a continuation of my previous work: Hero's Charge. Please refer to that work before reading this one! ^_^
Welcome back, readers. Enjoy. :)
Her eyes were impossibly heavy as consciousness trickled back into her neglected brain.
Wake up. They're all waiting for you.
A bright light beat at her eyelids. Squinting against it, she turned her head away. "Too... bright. Ugnh..."
"What, Light?" said a voice, sounding far away. "What did you say?" it encouraged. She followed it with her ear. "Get her some water!" it whispered urgently.
She heard the splash of water in a glass, and felt the cool edge at her lips. She gulped at it, water soothing her parched airway. She sputtered, choking.
"Easy, Light. Go slow." A hand was clasped against the back of her head, supporting it as she drank.
She let a little more of the liquid linger in her mouth and closed her lips. The glass was lifted away from her face. Swallowing, she tried to speak once more. "Too damn bright..." Her words elicited a familiar chuckle, and the shades were drawn, cutting off the blinding light. Opening her eyes fully now, she could make out items in the room that belonged to her, as they adjusted to the darkness. She was in her own room, in her own house. "Were's Serah?" she whispered.
"She's ok. She went to get some food. She'll be back." the calm voice assured; hand lingering in her tresses as she was lowered to rest on the pillow once more.
Lightning's eyes shifted to look at the person who kept her bedside. "Hope." He smiled at her. His face was no longer frozen as she remembered it before; the youthful features were round and full of relief. Scanning the room, Sazh was leaning up against the door frame. "Sazh." She saw some commotion coming from behind him.
"In the flesh!" he confirmed, smiling broadly at her.
"Kweh! Kweh!" The chocobo chick squawked excitedly. Squinting, she could make out a cute feathery face with a long neck and a chubby yellow body atop of a pair of unsturdy stick legs. The gangly little thing was obviously too big to nest in Sazh's hair anymore. Must have had a growth spurt.
"We didn't know if you were ever going to wake up. You must have been exhausted..." Sazh trailed off. She nodded slightly.
"Welcome back, Light." said Hope, bringing her attention back to himself. He took her hand in both of his and squeezed it warmly.
She had no smile to offer as she looked back to her keeper. She scanned the room again, noting the lack of brute. A lump rose in her throat. "Snow..." She looked down at her hand enclosed in Hope's. "He's... gone. Isn't he?" She wanted Hope to tell her that Snow was alive and that he and Serah had both gone to get food. It had been a long time and surely the refrigerator was empty. The milk was set to expire the day after she left for the Purge train. There was some leftover lasagne that was probably moldy, too. Had she paid the electric bill? Useless thoughts flooded her head, trying to dilute the one undeniable fact that threatened to resurface. Then as if someone had backhanded her, her mind went blank as Hope's voice confirmed it.
"Yeah. Serah's already made arrangements for tomorrow..." he started quietly, his youthful timbre becoming thin.
"We don't need to talk about that now, Hope. Let's give Lightning a little time to wake up." interrupted Sazh putting a hand on the boy's shoulder and leading him to the door. "If you need anything, holler." He waved a lazy hand as he escorted Hope outside her room, chocobo close behind.
She leaned back heavily against her mattress. Wondering how long she'd been asleep for, she sighed, looking around the room. Her room was more functional than fashionable. Just as she left it. There was a bed, a plain dark wood desk with an alarm clock in the corner of the room with a black wheeled chair. In the other corner sat an old rocking chair; the one her mother used to rock her and Serah to sleep in. Her clothes were slung over the chair, seemingly unwashed. Stiffly swivelling around in bed, she put her feet on the floor, and hands on the side of the bed. She stretched her neck from side to side; cracking from the slight strain. Inspecting her appearance, she realized she was wearing the black cotton pants and matching camisole she'd worn the night before she'd boarded the Purge train; before all this started. Rogue beams of light peeked through the edges of the shades. It must be late in the afternoon. She wondered how long she'd been out for. Her eyes moved again to the pile of clothes. Steadying herself on the edge of the bed, she made her way over the rocker. Reaching out a hand to her white overcoat she pulled it off the pile. It was stiff. She unfolded it as best she could and held it out to look at it. The front of it was completely covered with dried blood. Snow... She sat back down on the bed with the garment in her arms, holding it against her. Did all that really happen? Was Serah really awake? Is he really gone?
She sat on the edge of her childhood bed, numb, clutching the tangible reminder of her loss. Her heart felt heavy, and she stared at the wall, willing the crushing feelings to keep their distance. Numb was desirable right now. Serah's already made arrangements. Hope had said. She took to her feet, reluctantly parting with the bloodied memento, and padded barefoot into the kitchen. Hope noticed her and stood up at the table as she entered the room. She waved her hand dismissively at him. "Sit." He did so, watching her carefully. Sazh sat on the other side of their long table. Their faces were filled with concern as she took a place at the table. No one spoke for a moment, Hope just stared at her. "How long was I out?"
"A couple days." said Sazh.
"How did we get here?" she motioned around her, posing her questions to the older man.
"The kids from NORA found us and brought us back here. Serah said we were all passed out next to each other with this little guy watching over us." He motioned to the feathery mass beside him who stood up proudly when motioned at. "But I guess we weren't crystals anymore. They loaded us up on their bikes and the rest is history. I was unconscious too, so I don't actually remember anything..."
"Is Dajh alright?" she asked, remembering the spirited little kid Sazh so fondly spoke of. The little chick warbled happily at the mention of his name, flapping its fledgling wings.
"Yup. He's just fine. He's sleeping now; safe and sound."
"I'm glad." she said honestly. They had quite a few rooms in this house. Room enough for every one of their companions that remained. She hadn't seen Fang or Vanille since she'd seen him last, and neither of them now occupied the kitchen. Things still seemed disconnected in her mind. "What happened?"
"We're not quite sure yet, but apparently they did it. Fang and Vanille saved Cocoon and achieved their focus." offered Hope. "People are already making their way to Gran Pulse from Cocoon. Wait until you see it, Light. What they did - it's amazing."
The fact that they were sitting in her kitchen was proof enough that Cocoon still existed. She stared out the window. "They changed into Ragnarok then?"
Hope nodded, opening his mouth to add to his explanation but was interrupted.
"Hey guys! I'm back! Is Light-" Serah appeared in the doorway to the kitchen from the vestibule and stopped. A wide smile graced her features as she saw the older Farron sitting at the table. She pushed the paper bag of groceries onto the counter nearest to her and dashed to Lightning, throwing her arms around her in a tight embrace. Lightning's heart pounded nervously in her chest, but she felt relief at finally being reunited with her sister. "I'm so glad you're ok! It feels like you've been sleeping forever!"
Lightning's mouth opened and she couldn't stop herself from blurting out an apology. She pressed her face into Serah's soft torso and clutched onto her, balling her fists in the small of her back. "Oh Serah." Her voice was broken. "I'm so sorry."
Serah ran her fingers soothingly through her sister's hair. "It's ok, sis. There wasn't anything you could have done. Hope told me what happened. You all came for me, and now we're home and Cocoon is safe."
"But I couldn't bring him home." Lightning looked up at Serah, her face desperate. "All he wanted was to be with you again, and... I...I..." she diverted her eyes.
"I know." Serah touched Lightning's bruised cheeks. "I know he loved me." Her face was calm; accepting. Lightning wondered how she could look so put together. Usually she was the one crumbling, not Lightning. "We'll be together again. I just wish that I could have touched his face one last time." Her expression turned wistful.
Lightning hid her head in Serah's belly again. "Serah..." If you only knew what I'd done. Would you hate me? First I betray you, and then I let him die. Her head felt abnormally heavy, as if all the thoughts in it were weighing her down.
She patted Lightning's head after a few moments. "You should go have a bath, sis. You'll feel better. I'll get something started for dinner."
"I'll help!" said Sazh, pulling Serah's frilly pink apron over his head and posing cutely to break the heavy mood in the room. She giggled at him, turning her attention away from Lightning and to the paper bag filled with groceries on the counter.
Lightning stared at her hands in her lap, his blood still under her fingernails.
"Light. C'mon. Let's go." Hope had his arm around her shoulder gently helping her up. She couldn't meet his gaze; not in the state she was in. He walked slowly with her back to the bedroom and sat awkwardly on the bed, hands in his lap, fidgeting. "Light, I'm sorry." he whispered.
She looked up at him. "For what?" she asked quietly, her eyes bleary, blinking away a blurred second Hope.
"I was weak. He died because I wasn't strong enough." Hope muttered, his hands clenched into small fists. When she looked at Hope, she saw herself. "I wanted to protect you and in the end I couldn't even do that. A-and then he died. And poor Serah." Hope sniffled, wiping his eyes with his sleeve.
Lightning gathered Hope into her arms, taking a seat beside him on the bed, and crushed him in a firm hug. She felt him sob against her stroking his soft silver strands of hair for a long while before speaking. Her voice was a gentle tone against Hope's ear. "It isn't your fault. He died how he lived. There could be no other way for him." This she believed. He died a Hero's death; protecting the ones that were precious to him. "We all did what we had to do. We've all lost something dear to us. Now we have to live for them." She felt Hope tighten his embrace on her. She would tell Hope whatever she needed to make him feel better about things, but when it came down to it, she didn't want to live. The cool unconsciousness had been preferable over this stabbing pain of loss. And now that she was awake to face the real world, the light seemed too bright; voices too harsh. Everywhere she looked things were painted dull colours as if she'd been looking through weary, used up eyes. She felt so small in the big picture; like it had all happened so long ago, and to someone else. Something fundamental had changed within her; a piece of her soul had been ripped from her and there was nothing she could do to stem the bleeding. She felt as though life may have been too painful to continue with; the same way she'd felt when her parents died suddenly and she'd been left alone to take care of Serah and fend for herself. Serah was an adult now though. No longer was she the crying child with the scraped knee that Lightning had to tend to and soothe with comforting words. Life was harsh, and it may have been better to learn that the hard way. Even though she entertained the thought of death, she'd been given life as a gift from his hands. She couldn't waste it; he'd not die in vain. I have things to atone for first. She looked up at the ceiling and wondered if he was watching them. Do I even deserve absolution? She didn't think so.
Turning the hot water tap full on, she turned to the vanity. Looking at herself, she studied her expressionless face. She looked well rested on the outside; sleeping for two days had done wonders for the dark circles under her eyes that had been slowly creeping up since the Purge Train incident. If she looked healthy on the outside, maybe she could keep up a facade of mental health as well. Uncertain of what she would do now, Lightning found herself skipping from plan to plan, dismissing ideas and creating new scenarios for her future. She felt mentally capable, but she was far from stable; and almost completely unable to commit to a coping strategy.
Steam billowed from the tub, fogging the top of the vanity, as the hot water finally kicked in. It always took forever to warm up; she'd have to call a plumber to take a look at it. Again, meaningless thoughts invaded her mind as she tempered the hot water with cold, placing the plug in the bottom. Standing up, she noticed the bottle of bubble bath Serah had bought her for some birthday past. She always kept everything Serah gave her for her birthdays; never wanting to make Serah think she didn't like and or appreciate her gifts even if she had no intention of ever using them. Reaching for it, she twisted the cap off and poured a stream of the thick pearly liquid into the tub. It smelled like fresh honeysuckle after a night rain. Putting the bottle back she undressed, tossing her clothing carelessly aside and pulling her hair up into a messy mass on her head, regarding her form in the mirror again. She stood nude looking at herself for a long while standing rigidly at first; then trailing a pointed finger down her neck, to the hollow at her throat. Her fingers were calloused but nowhere near as large or as heavy his hands had been tracing circles in her flesh. Placing her fingers against flat of her chest, she pushed them down between her breasts, tipping her head back slightly, eyes closed, slipping into a fantasy.
She was back there with him, her hand was now his in her mind's eye, caressing the soft sensitive skin between her breasts where her brand had been. He made sounds in her ear, nothing she understood linguistically, but her heart understood the significance. His eyes were slightly crinkled at the corners as he smiled down at her. Did I ever smile at him? She was sure she hadn't; she was too busy wallowing in self-imposed inner turmoil to ever show him any real tenderness until it was far too late. There was a lust for him that fuelled her actions, but she never once demonstrated to him the depth of the feelings she harboured. The transcendence of the animalistic urges had happened easily; they were still there, but they had evolved into something else. Cupping her breast, he moved the tip of his index finger over her pert nipple, causing her breath to catch in her throat, still grinning at her. Rushing water was in her ears, the air becoming heavy; her skin beading moisture. She could feel the warmth of his breath on her neck and shoulders as she arched herself against the hand that palmed her breast, wanting to feel more of the probing curiosity. She took a step back, pressing her thighs against the counter, water splashing under foot. Snapping out of her indulgent fantasy she cursed, looking at the soaked floor, quickly reaching for the tap to halt the honey-scented overflow. "Dammit."
Grabbing a couple of drab towels from the linen closet, she tossed them hastily on the floor to sop up the water. She closed her eyes and exhaled slowly; her knees giving out, sitting down hard on the plush stool in front of the vanity. Clutching her pink-haired head in her hands, she grasped the strands roughly, tears spilling onto the flooded floor at her feet. Would there ever be a day when he didn't invade her every thought; her every regret; her every desire?
Dinner was eaten in silence. And although Serah was an excellent cook, the food tasted like ash to Lightning. She wasn't hungry and pushed the food around her plate, mouthing the odd piece of cooked vegetable. Sitting in the kitchen with her sister and the others only catered to her loneliness; a painful reminder of those who should have occupied the empty chairs at the big table. She took her leave of the group a few minutes after service had started. She needed some air and escaped to the back deck. Sitting alone outside gave her a temporary sense of relief; the weight on her chest lifting slightly so she might be able to breathe a little. The air was cool on her agitated body and the sounds of the night soothed her weary mind.
After a time, Sazh had sought out Lightning to recount the story as he had experienced it. After Snow had been struck down, Vanille, Fang and he destroyed Orphan to fulfil everyone's focuses. Once Orphan had fallen, the eternal friends joined together to save Cocoon as best they could. Vanille had vowed never to let harm come to Cocoon, and she made good on that vow. Sazh had explained the crystal column that now joined Gran Pulse and their world, and made mention of the news reports that those left in charge of the government were making plans to explore and populate it. He said that Cocoon had sustained some major damage in areas directly within the vicinity of the column Ragnarok had created, but the human casualties were minimal.
Serah had come out to the deck and brought some glasses of lemonade with her, expertly balancing them on a tray. Sazh politely took a glass, excused himself, and retired to the house to give them some privacy.
They sat in silence for a long moment.
"The vigil is tomorrow after sundown. I'm not sure what he would have wanted, but he wasn't one for big complicated things. I figured that Gadot and the rest of NORA would want to be here, and I told them to invite who they thought should come." she paused again, fidgeting with her hands. "I'm going to make some of his favourite things..." she stared off into the creeping darkness. "The hospital is swamped, so they can't prepare his body yet." She sighed slightly. "I figured by the time they get around to it, cremation would be better."
The perpetual lump in her throat rose again, and she only nodded taking a sip of the lemonade mechanically. Were they really having this conversation? She looked at Serah. Her face was long; eyes sunken. Her playful innocence had all but disappeared. How cruel that she should have to make arrangements for the man that had gone to Hell and back to save her. Fate didn't even see fit to let her see him one last time before it tore him from their lives.
"I keep expecting him to walk through the door, and laugh at me for thinking that I could get rid of him so easily." She gripped the edge of the table. "Heroes don't die." She quoted him, choking back tears. She hadn't seen Serah break down yet, and her eyes weren't red rimmed. Being strong was something she had little practice at; she never needed to be strong, Lightning saw to that. She had protected Serah as well as she could over the years, making sure that she never had to suffer at another's hand. But now they both suffered, and Lightning felt that she was the one at a disadvantage. Serah quickly turned in her chair to look at Lightning.
"Tell me. Tell me how it happened. Sis, I need to know."
She met her sister's longing gaze, but Lightning didn't want to go back there. It was too dark.
"You were there with him, right?" she prompted.
Lightning only nodded.
"Did he say anything?"
Lightning shook her head; her hand balled into a fist. He hadn't had a chance.
"I think he was gone... when I got to him." she admitted, replaying the horrific scene in her mind, clinging to him begging him to stay with her. His last breath parted from his body before she ever even got near him. Her heart throbbed painfully in her chest; every beat accented by a pang of self-loathing. "I tried... to revive him." It was true that she tried, but she failed him. She failed them. He should have been sitting out here on their deck right now with a glass of Serah's special lemonade; laughing at some inane joke; relaying the story of their adventure to his loving fiancee. Serah could have been smiling. But instead they came up short. She looked at the thin glass of lemonade sitting before her. It was sweaty from the ice, the lemonade a light yellow. She had drank half the glass during the conversation, but she could not recall the taste. The only taste that remained on her tongue was bitterness. Bile rose in her throat as her hand tightened around the glass and, standing suddenly, she pitched the delicate piece at the siding of the house. It shattered shrilly, sending shards and ice and cold liquid in all directions. Serah rocked in her seat at Lightning's sudden display of violence.
Turning on her heel, the older Farron disappeared through the patio door.
The house was quiet. After her little outburst everyone had left her alone, and Lightning wasn't sure of what to do with herself. She had tossed and turned in bed, every time she closed her eyes he was there waiting for her, bloody and broken. She glared at the clock advising her that it was well into the wee hours of the morning and that soon the sun would be up. The blade Serah had given her for her birthday sat by her beside and she took it in hand toying with it; the same blade with which Hope intended to exact revenge on the now conspicuously absent Hero. She ran the flat of the blade along the inside of her forearm over and over, staring absently, breathing slow and deep. The metal was cold against her thin skin; she could almost see the pulse in her wrist. Her heart ached with loss and clenched with anger all at once as she pressed the flat of the blade firmly against the thin skin. Puling it away, she closed the blade and slammed it down on the side table.
Huffing, she walked over to her closet and opened the door noiselessly. Pulling her extra uniform out of the closet, she tossed it on the bed. Stripping down to her bra and panties, she caught her reflection in the long mirror on the wall. She'd never felt the touch of a man, and she never wanted to feel one again if it didn't belong to him. Shaking her head and blinking back tears, she dressed in the spare set of clothes. Retrieving the boots from the closet, she sat on the bed to put them on, spying the stained uniform from the corner of her eye. She finished buckling her boots and took the jacket in hand, reaching inside the hidden breast pocket where she kept her ID, and house key. The pocket was snug, and her fingers fumbled around inside it grasping a soft piece of fabric. She pulled it out, metal and plastic hitting the floor. Recognizing the black piece of cloth, her eyes again welled with the insubordinate tears. It unravelled to reveal the silver bloom she'd saved and kept close to her heart. When did he -...? She raised the clean cloth to her nose and inhaled his unforgettable scent, eyes closing, brows knit together sorrowfully.
Rolling the bandana up into a long strip, she secured it with a knot between the two leather bands that already adorned her upper arm. Looking at her reflection in the mirror again, she stroked the new decoration with her index finger. Living wasn't going to be easy but she had to do it for him; she owed him that much. Reaching into her desk drawer she pulled out a small, thin picture book. The cover depicted two pink-haired little girls holding hands and smiling for the camera. She opened it and placed the averia between two pages. Using a rubber band, she secured the book closed and stashed it in her leg pack. Retrieving the key from the floor, she set it on the desk. Stuffing her ID back in the breast pocket of her clean uniform, she glanced around the room once more before she opened the door and turned out the light.
Stepping silently down the carpeted hall, she heard the faintest of sobs coming from Serah's room. It was a first that Serah wanted to be alone with her grief; usually she would cry on whoever let her. The company of other people made her feel better, but this time it was different. Her little sister seemed stronger now. Lightning told herself that Serah would be ok, eventually. The rationalization was empty and selfish on her part, but she didn't care. She owed Serah a steep debt she felt she could not repay anytime soon, especially if she was broken.
Lightning hoped that her young companion remembered the promise he made to her. If something happens to me, I need you to watch over Serah. At least Serah would have someone to stand by her who wasn't tainted.
Crossing the kitchen to the vestibule, she grabbed the doorknob of the front door and turned it, stopping for a moment to bow her head solemnly. Can sins ever be forgiven?
She didn't know, and couldn't find the will to find out for herself.