A/N: Thanks for the awesome reviews! I was looking through the past chapters and found an entire sentence missing in one chapter... It was weird because my original document and the one I uploaded on site were fine, so I think it's a random error thingy with ff net. It's happened to me before, to my annoyance...
Anyway, you know the drill. Let me know if you spot any mistakes.
Kismet – Day 5: Outskirts of New Bodhum – Outpost Omega
"Hey, you getting any coverage?" Lazlo, a sergeant in the Fourth Platoon, asked the soldier next to him as Lightning led her team towards their base that morning. There was a rustle of clothing and armor as the guy took out his cellphone and studied it. "Nah," he said shortly. "How about you, Lieutenant?"
Lightning reached for her own phone, flipping it open. "Hmm, no," she answered, a little surprised.
"Haven't had a signal since last night," complained Lazlo. "Should we check out the site, ma'am?"
The sergeant was referring to the cell site just south of their outpost which was responsible for coverage of the cellular network from the Regiment's Southern Barracks to the western parts, where Lightning's platoon usually patrolled. The site was actually only about a metre squared with a sturdy fence and a simple-looking pole driven deep into the ground. It had been intentionally constructed to be as inconspicuous as possible to avoid attracting attention from monsters, though there had been occasions where bigger fiends had simply trampled on it or ploughed through it, rendering the function of cellphones within the covered region useless. The military radio was unaffected, however, since it used a different frequency and site.
"Let Cyall know; his team will handle it," replied Lightning before heading to the command room to get her usual morning reports.
There was heightened monster activity in the south-western region again today, so she decided to send a number of her soldiers to back Second Lieutenant Cyall up. The reinforcements were to be rotated with the other soldiers on her team in four-hour shifts and she would lead her own group sometime in the later afternoon. After splitting her remaining subordinates up into smaller squads and sending each of them off to their patrols, she made her way to her own area, a group of four soldiers trailing behind.
Almost an hour passed before she received an update about the cell site. "Looks like a handiwork of an Ortoise," remarked Cyall over the radio. "Might have been that Adamantortoise from yesterday."
"Yeah, probably. One of the reports mentioned another sighting of it last night, just by the lakes down south. Tell the scouts to keep an eye out for it."
The rest of the morning was spent patrolling and keeping the green zones free of any potential danger. Some of the latter areas had civilians strolling about and twice, the soldiers had to turn errant tourists back from venturing into the more unsafe regions. By lunchtime, the cellular coverage was back and as she sat on a patch of grass with her other team-mates, munching on an energy bar and checking her phone, Lightning was surprised to find she had received a message from Hope the evening before. He had even called her numerous times.
I have to talk to you, the message said. When will you be back?
She chewed slowly, beginning to frown. Should she respond? Yes, but she was in no mood to say anything to him now, or even think about what to say to him. Deciding to wait until she was back in the barracks later tonight to figure out an answer, she scrolled down to the next message. It was from Serah.
Tried to ring you but couldn't get through. Hope came by. You NEED to talk to him. He asked about Cid. Please don't freak out.
Her jaw stopped. Freak out? Why the hell would her sister think she'd freak out? Dismay was probably the best word to describe what she felt then. She stared at the tiny screen on her phone, her eyes glued to the name Cid. This was the first time in years that Serah actually mentioned him. Lightning suddenly realised that her pulse had quickened, her heart pumping relentlessly in her chest.
Hope had gone to see Serah to find out about Cid. Why? And what had she told him, exactly? Was that why he had left that message, why he wanted to talk all of a sudden?
Lightning quickly composed a brief reply. What did you tell him?
Unexpectedly, she didn't need to wait long for a response. Serah must be on her lunch break as well. All I know, she had typed. All I remember, anyway.
The words were almost relieving. Serah didn't know everything that had happened between Cid and her, and Lightning intended to keep it that way. As much as she loved her sister, there were just some things that weren't meant to be shared with others, and right then, Hope was the last person she wanted to enlighten.
As if on cue, the phone started to rumble silently. It was Serah calling. Lightning sighed heavily—she really wasn't in the mood to talk. Still, she forced herself to answer, her reluctance evident in her dull voice, "Yeah?"
"Have you spoken to him yet?" Serah was not usually so direct.
"I haven't been back to town since I last saw you. I told you, I'll be staying at the barracks for the next few nights," Lightning replied.
"You can't avoid him forever, you know."
"I'm not," she said laconically, though even she herself could hear the lie in that.
"… You're not mad that I talked to him, are you? It's just that… he had looked so earnest and serious when he came to see me…"
Lightning sighed again. She didn't know where and how Hope met her sister but at that moment, she didn't even want to think about it. Glancing at the other soldiers to make sure they were not within hearing distance, she said quietly, "I'm not mad and I really don't care what you told him. You're free to say what you want, after all." She tried her best to sound nonchalant but still, there was a hint of sharpness in her tone and, knowing Serah, she must have caught it.
"Gotta go. Duty calls," Lightning cut in firmly and snapped her phone shut, slipping it into her pouch and taking a huge bite of the forgotten bar in her other hand. Her mood was beginning to darken. This really wasn't the time to think about Hope or Serah or Cid. One mere moment of carelessness can be deadly in these unpredictable parts of Gran Pulse and as the team leader, there was no room for negligence. This was one of the times her innate ability to shut out all her distractions and focus on her goal proved invaluable.
A few hours later, she brought the four soldiers back to base to replace the team that had backed Cyall up in the last shift. The sergeant in charge gave her his report and then left to resume their regular patrols in the western regions. It took Lightning's squad another half an hour to reach the rendezvous point with the soldiers from the Third Platoon.
"How's the situation now?" questioned Lightning as she saluted a rather weary Cyall.
"Thanks for the help, Lieutenant. It's a little slow going today," he said, wiping some sweat off his forehead. "We've cleared Zones 32 and 33 but we're still getting sightings of a large number of Gorgonopsid packs and some Navidons in the neighbouring areas. A report from base just came in a minute ago, saying there's a Behemoth going all out with a Megistotherian somewhere between Zones 30 and 31."
She couldn't help the sigh of frustration from her lips. The two zones bordered Hillers Woods, which no doubt had attracted a lot of trekkers today, since the weather had changed for the better and was fine and sunny. "Of all the places to pick a fight…" she muttered. "My team and I will join you for this one." It was not uncommon for beasts to be fighting each other in the wild but this was the second time in four days that they had encountered two large fiends at odds. Better to have more soldiers on the field than dead comrades, given the ferocity of the creatures. There was always the option of simply waiting for the beasts to kill each other but because of their reported proximity to the civilian areas, she didn't want to take any chances.
As the two squads made their way to the area in question, they cut through a pack of Gorgonopsids and some Alraunes without even breaking a sweat. The borders of Zones 30 and 31 met along the Sulmya Stream, which was formed by the merging of three smaller creeks from Hillers Woods and ran barely a quarter of a kilometre before flowing into the Sulmya Gorge. The cliff was known to be one of the more treacherous parts of the region due to the rocky, uneven ground on the river banks, which usually got very muddy when it rained. It was not exactly the best place to be fighting a pair of huge, feral wildlife but it was still better than the thick, surrounding forests.
Fierce roars could be heard in a distance as the soldiers reached the area. One of the scouts came back to report that the Behemoth and Megistotherian were a mile or so away. Another reported yet another group of Gorgonopsids loitering just south-east of their position. Lightning made a quick decision to have her team deal with them while Cyall's squad stood watch for the two larger beasts. If need be, they would lure the monsters towards the stream later.
The Gorgonopsid pack was small but it was the fact that they were prowling around a huge tree, growling and snarling, that struck Lightning as a surprise, until Lazlo suddenly exclaimed, "Shit, is that someone on that thing?"
She wondered what he meant at first, then she caught side of a figure partly hidden in the tree's foliage, resting precariously on a thick branch. She couldn't tell if it was a child or an adult, a man or a woman. Acting swiftly, the soldiers made easy work of the fiends. Just as Lightning slew the last Gorgonopsid, the figure in the tree tumbled down onto the ground with a yelp that sounded unexpectedly familiar to her ears. Her eyes widened.
You've got to be fucking kidding me… A rather sardonic voice pointed out in her mind. When she turned, the soldiers were beginning to crowd around the person and she heard Lazlo ask, "Hey, you okay?" Between the leaves and plants and her team-mates, she could only make out the top of a head and some limbs, but silver hair glinting in the sunlight was all she needed to see.
Lightning gritted her teeth and had to bite down the irritated groan from the back of her throat. Of all the places… of all the times… of all the people… Why did it have to be this way? It was the last thing she wanted to deal with now. Sheathing her weapon, she closed her eyes and took in a deep breath to calm her bubbling annoyance. Pushing past her comrades, she marched over to the person, who was still sprawled on the earth.
"Hope," she growled. "What the hell are you doing here?"
He had wanted to see her since last night and yet, he couldn't help but wonder what a nasty, sadistic sense of humour fate had to have him meet her under such circumstances. His back was a little sore from the fall, thought he was quite relieved that it hadn't been a long drop from the branch he was on and that he had fallen on a soft patch of grass. Slowly sitting up, Hope rubbed his head and winced softly.
"Lieutenant, you know this guy?" a dark-haired soldier asked.
"Old friend," Lightning answered shortly before glaring at him again. "What are you doing here?"
Hope got up, dusting himself down and reaching for his small backpack. "Trekking," he answered mildly, trying to hide his embarrassment and failing miserably. Her apparent callousness hurt his ego, too. She hadn't even inquired if he was hurt.
"Dude, Hillers Woods is that way. All civs should stay in the green zones," another soldier said dryly, pointing to his right. The look on Lightning's face indicated that that was exactly what she wanted to say to him as well.
Hope suddenly felt agitated—very agitated. It wasn't his fault that he probably took a wrong turn (or a few wrong turns…) at that sign before, or that he had been lost for the past hour, or that he found himself being chased by some Gorgonopsids when he tried to retrace his steps. It wasn't his fault that the only thing he could rely on now to protect himself was a boomerang that was probably completely useless against any monster (except perhaps a group of baby Alraunes), regardless of how skilled he was with it. It wasn't his fault that he had to resort to climbing—or more specifically, scrambling his way up—a tree for the first time in his life to avoid being eaten alive, fervently hoping that the monsters below would soon lose interest and leave him alone. His palms and knees stung slightly where he had grazed them against the rough bark.
He knew he should have just stayed in his room today and continued with his work, but no, that restless part of him that was so unmotivated to do anything productive had yearned to take advantage of the brilliant weather, and now, he was the laughing stock of Lightning's comrades. She didn't look very pleased to see him, either.
"… Shouldn't there be fences or something to keep the civs safe?" He couldn't help the cutting, defensive tone in his retort. He remembered seeing some areas outside the New Bodhum main gates that had been clearly separated from the walking paths by means of barbed wires and poles.
"No use having fences here if the monsters just knock 'em down," muttered the first soldier, who straightened up when Lightning gestured towards him.
"Lazlo," she said. "Escort him back to the tracks. We'll go ahead and meet up with Cyall's team."
"Wait a minute, Light," Hope hastily cut in as the other soldiers began to move out. "Did you get my message? I waited for you at your apartment last night but you didn't show up."
She exhaled loudly, casting fleeting looks at the backs of her team-mates, though Lazlo merely stood by, his face turned away as if to give them a moment's privacy. "No signal. I stayed at the barracks," she responded tersely and there was a brief pause before she added, "This isn't the right time. We'll talk later."
"When are you coming back?" Hope asked despite the sinking feeling in his heart.
"Don't know. Tomorrow night, probably. Or the next."
Her vagueness and indifference were almost aggravating but he just suppressed his emotions and nodded with a shrug. "Okay," he mumbled. "I—" He stopped when she raised a hand sharply and for a second, they stood there in silence. It was then that he heard snarls and roars coming from somewhere on the other side of the forest and there was a very slight tremor in the ground, as if something of incredible weight was stomping around.
"Lieutenant, we're engaging," a voice crackled over the radio by Lightning's shoulder.
"Be there soon," she replied and ran off with the rest of her team before Hope could even open his mouth. He stared after her, disappointed and dismayed, before turning to move when Lazlo gruffly said, "C'mon."
He followed the soldier without a word. The man was quiet but not unpleasant and made no attempt for small talk as he led Hope back to the safe tracks.
"… So what are they fighting?" Hope decided to ask out of curiosity.
"Megistotherian and Behemoth. Place is too close to civs for them to be around," Lazlo replied.
"Hopefully they'll manage to get the Behemoth before it transforms," remarked Hope, recalling a few nasty incidents years ago when he and the other l'Cie had fought the feral creatures. Lazlo appeared surprised by his words.
"You know your stuff," he said, rather impressed.
"I've fought a few of them before, a long time ago. Not alone, though. It was with Lightning and some other… uh, friends..."
"You and the Lieutenant go way back, huh?"
The neutral observation stirred something inside Hope. He rubbed the back of his head, feeling a bump beginning to form there, and simply said, "Yeah."
"So you've fought Behemoths before, but you couldn't handle those Gorgs?" Lazlo wasn't sneering but the incredulity in his voice was evident. Hope chose not to answer. The only reason he was helpless now was because he couldn't use magic anymore but give him a Manadrive and it'd be a different story. Five minutes later, as they reached a tiny creek, there was a buzz and another voice called from Lazlo's radio, "Sergeant, return ASAP. We need all the help we can get." The ambience of an intense battle could be heard in the background.
"Shit," Hope thought he heard the man say under his breath. Lazlo pointed upstream and said, "Follow the water that way and you'll get back to Hillers Woods. The area around here should be safe enough but be quick about it." Without waiting for an answer, the sergeant turned and sprinted back, returning an affirmative over his radio.
Hope stood motionless for a moment, his pulse beginning to quicken and beat loudly in his eardrums. He didn't know how long he was standing there for but when his feet moved, they didn't bring him to the direction of the Woods. On impulse, he raced after Lazlo instead, all common sense and care for his own safety thrown out the window, a persistent question thundering in his head—Is Light okay?
A dry voice responded sensibly in his head, pointing out how experienced and skilful she was as a fighter, and that he was probably over-reacting, but still, he didn't know why he didn't stop. It was as if the message sent to his legs by his brain was intercepted somewhere between his head and his feet, somehow, and disappeared. Panting, he moved towards the noise—vicious bellows, merciless gunshots, angry cries and crashes of what sounded like trees snapping like twigs.
When he reached the battlefield, he saw the huge, bloody form of a dead Megistotherian that had been gored through the neck lying by the river bank, the water diluting sticky, brownish blood. There were a handful of injured soldiers on the sidelines and he could see Lightning and the others engaging in a heated battle with a Behemoth King, the monster tossing its head restlessly while lashing out. Lightning evaded the attack easily and as fluidly as he remembered but some of her comrades were not so agile and the sharp claws sliced through skin and hitting armour, sending them flying backwards.
He shouldn't be there—he knew that—but without even thinking, he ran to the closest soldier who was firing at the Behemoth and said urgently, "Give me your Drive!"
"The fuck is a civ doing here?" The man yelled amidst the chaos. "Get out of the way!"
Hope wanted to punch the guy but instead, he made a quick grab at the device dangling at the soldier's hip, ignoring the man's protests and screams for him to retreat. As he gripped the Manadrive tightly in his hands, he felt the familiar surge of magic running through his veins and unleashed a powerful Firaga on the Behemoth, recalling, even after six long years, that the monster absorbed Thunder. A few shouts of surprise at the strength of the spell came from the soldiers further away and Hope allowed a brief moment of satisfaction in knowing that he still possessed his natural talent of magic and affinity to it. He thought he saw Lightning looking at him and yelling out something but the spell he cast had shifted the attention of the Behemoth towards him, the beast snarling loudly, part of its body singed. The smell of scorched fur mixed with the monster's blood was revolting.
Hope took a few steps back and readied a Blizzaga and, as if she could read his mind, Lightning leapt up to deliver a few swift slashes on the Behemoth's back, distracting it just long enough for him to attack with his next spell. He didn't even notice the other soldiers gaping at him but, seeing the advantage they now had, they quickly intensified their assault on the monster. As he continued to cast magic, Hope was stunned to find that it was almost exhilarating to be fighting again after so long, especially with Light around. It reminded him of the battles and hardships they had endured together six years back and the judging by the way her attacks complemented and supported his, he realised that perhaps some part of her was also enjoying it.
It did not take long for the Behemoth to fall. The creature, clearly weakened and hanging so low it was practically on all fours, raised its head to the sky to sound a long and deafening, almost mournful howl before tumbling onto the ground—battered with bullet holes and cuts, half black with soot and some limbs raw with freeze burns. Bluish-green blood oozed out from the wounds with an unpleasant stench.
Hope was panting and he didn't even realise that he was staring at the carcass until someone smacked him lightly on the back and said, "Hey, you're pretty good for a civ, eh?"
He turned to see a guy about his age, with fair hair and smudges of dirt on his grinning face. A few of the soldiers were walking over to him, some looking relieved, some suspicious, some puzzled, but almost all fatigued. Lightning, who was giving orders to her subordinates to see to and look after their injured team-mates, approached him with her gunblade still in hand, dripping with blood—the only hint of dishevelment on her. When she looked at him, he couldn't help smiling stupidly and remarking, "Just like old times, huh?"
She looked neither pleased nor unhappy about him being there, her eyebrows raised, somewhat amused that he could still be humorous at a time like this. He blamed it on adrenaline. "I don't recall you ever ignoring an order, though," she said flatly.
He turned red. He turned even redder when she unexpectedly gave him a small smile, poked his shoulder and said, "But thanks for the help." The simple gesture—so different from her behaviour in the forest just now—was enough to lift his spirits slightly and for a while, it felt as if everything between them had returned to normal.
Just then, a tall, bulky man with a scar on his cheek came up, his expression worried and concerned. "Lieutenant," he called urgently, casting a sideways glance at Hope and nodding curtly. If the man was astonished by his presence, he didn't show it, or maybe he had more important things on his mind.
"You okay, Cyall?" Lightning was looking at a gash on the guy's arm.
"Yes, ma'am." He nodded and then said in a grave tone, "Do you remember the report from the First Platoon regarding the Behemoths they encountered about a week ago?"
She seemed surprised at his words. Bending her head down, she frowned deeply for a moment. "Yeah…" she answered slowly. "They defeated two of them and then another appeared out of nowhere."
"The scouts said they didn't even have enough time to react to the third one. It was like it was in a frenzy—just rushed through the forest they were in and into the battlefield, almost as if it knew where to find the other soldiers. They lost six men that day," Cyall carried on. "The report also stated that as the second Behemoth lay dying, it emitted some sort of strange, wailing screech; uncharacteristic to its kind."
Lightning paused. "… You think it was a call for help?" she questioned rather sceptically.
"Yeah," the soldier admitted a little hesitantly. "I think that maybe the first two Behemoths, or at least one of them, anyway, was the young of the third, and, well… mums get mad when their kids are in trouble, right?"
Lightning grew silent, a thoughtful look on her countenance, a finger tapping her bottom lip. Hope could almost see the gears rolling and clicking into place in her head. "That Behemoth just now…" she started carefully, glancing at the fallen beast. "It did the same thing, too, didn't it? That roar before it died?"
Cyall studied her momentarily, his gaze narrowing, before he spun around and shouted towards the soldiers standing by the edge of the surrounding forest, "Get back from there! Bring the wounded towards the stream. Stay away from the trees." He looked at Lightning, saying, "Doesn't hurt to be too careful."
Hope watched as the soldiers, although surprised by the order, began to leave the perimeter of the nearby woods, some limping away with the help of others. When he turned back to Lightning, it seemed as if she had paled a little, and just as he was going to inquire, she cursed, almost inaudibly, "Fuck." Kneeling down, she placed a palm on the ground.
He was about to ask her what was wrong when he felt it. There was a faint but pronounced tremor in the earth, rattling upwards from his feet to his head, gradually increasing in frequency and intensity. His eyes widened. He knew what it was. Something big was coming their way.
Lightning and Cyall exchanged a swift look. "Heads up! Retreat to the other side!" she yelled to the soldiers, splashing across the narrow stream and scanning the dense woodland area in front. Hope scrambled to follow her, feeling the vibrations in the ground growing stronger. He, too, cast a glance back, anticipating a very pissed-off monster crashing through the trees any moment now. His pulse spiked.
"Stay as far away from—" Lightning never even got the chance to complete her sentence. With a monstrous roar, another Behemoth King—this time much larger than the one they had just defeated—came charging through the forest and straight at three unfortunate soldiers who were yet to cross the stream. The first man bore the brunt of the attack and was killed instantly by the beast's horn. The other two were gored and thrown aside like unwanted dolls, screaming hysterically in the air before slamming onto trees and the ground with loud cracks of breaking bones.
Even looking back, Hope could never remember exactly what happened those next few minutes. He couldn't even remember if he had been terrified or excited or both. The situation was even more chaotic than the previous battle due to the extreme ferocity of the Behemoth and the panic that spread among the rest of the soldiers at the sudden ambush. Lightning was shouting out orders but in between the monster's angry lashes and snarls and her comrades' disarray and blind shooting, it was difficult to mount effective attacks. Hope kept by her side, continuously unleashing his most powerful spells.
Although the Behemoth's movements slowed considerably after four consecutive Firagas, it also grew more frantic and mad, almost as if it was possessed by uncontrollable fury. Hope didn't know how many soldiers were still standing and how many were wounded or killed. He just continued casting spell after spell, revelling in the familiar tingle running up his spine that was either caused by his pumping adrenaline or the use of magic. His sight was beginning to get hazy and he didn't know if it was due to the smoke and sparks from his spells or the stream being splashed around during the fight. He also had to make sure he wasn't too close to the cliff. In the heat of the fight, some of the soldiers had very gradually but surely moved closer and closer to the ledge, barely a hundred metres down the river. He heard someone shouting, telling them to watch out for it and to keep away, though, with the raging disorder and turmoil, he doubted they even heard the orders.
The next thing that happened brought the entire battlefield to an instant halt in Hope's mind. Just as he was preparing his next spell, an upward swipe of the Behemoth's tail sent a torrent of water splattering down on him and some nearby soldiers. His vision temporarily impaired, he wiped a hand over his eyes at once and the first thing he saw was the sharp, wicked curves of the feral creature's horn descending upon him.
Hope didn't know precisely what happened after that. He didn't hear his name being shouted or feel someone shoving him away. One second he was standing shin deep in the water, the next he was on his back, getting soaked through. One moment Light was standing beside him, the next she was in the air, the end of the Behemoth's horn punctured through her abdomen and her blood raining down—an image that burned itself into his memory. Sounding an almost triumphant roar amidst the gunfire, the beast flung her towards the cliff, her gunblade spinning wildly in the sky before landing on the earth with a clank. Looking back, it was a wonder that she hadn't just fallen on her head and snapped her neck. The impact of the throw was so strong that it was almost as if her body bounced on the rocky ground for a while before tumbling down the edge of the stream into the gorge below.
Hope's breath caught at his throat, his green eyes staring downstream at the rim of the cliff in horror, his heart beating painfully in his chest, unable to believe what he had seen and what had happened. His entire form was shaking, trembling uncontrollably, and his head was filled with only one word—No no no no no no no no no no no—
On the battlefield, the soldiers didn't even stop.
"Lightning!" He didn't even realise the cry was his own. Without thinking, he scrambled to his feet and raced down the stream, stumbling every few steps, completely oblivious of anything that was happening behind him. When he reached the edge, he didn't even pause to see how far down the drop was. He just leapt.
Strangely enough, during the few seconds he was descending down the waterfall, sprays of water wetting his face, he was reminded of the time he and Vanille had fallen from that aircraft when they had first arrived on Gran Pulse, only to be saved by Fang's Bahamut.
Hope plummeted into the pool below with a heavy splash, cold water blurring his eyes and stinging his skin as he quickly rose to the surface and took in a breath of air. Blinking hard and looking around, he coughed more than yelled Lightning's name. It didn't help that the sound of the waterfall was louder than his voice. As the current took him further downstream, he scanned his surroundings for any sight of her, breathing hard and in despair. Then, a few metres in front of him, a hint of pink among the white and green of his environment and what he thought looked like arms flailing about caught his attention. His spirits rose. He took in another deep breath and quickly swam forward, bumping into some low-lying rocks along the way. Swimming with the current was easy but reaching her was much tougher and more tiring than he thought.
"Light!" he called when he was finally within arm's reach, stretching out as far as he could to take hold of her shoulder and fabric of her uniform. He thought he heard her utter something but with the water flowing fast around them, it was hard to tell. He couldn't see how bad her condition was but when one of her hands grabbed on to his collar and he saw that she was trying to tread water with her other hand and legs, his relief was evident. At least she was still conscious, or partly conscious, anyway. Now he just needed to get them somewhere dry.
That proved easier said than done as the river was wider here; the banks higher up and the flow of water relentless and unforgiving. He tried to move against the current to reach some of the hanging branches from the trees by the sides but with Lightning's additional weight and their wet clothes, he was beginning to tire. Once or twice both of them went under for more than a few seconds and he expended all the energy he could to bring them back to the surface, gasping for air. Helpless, he was starting to panic. His thoughts were haywire and a mess.
I can't let Light down, a sudden, clear sentence formed in his head, giving him the strength he needed to keep his hold on her and fight against the unforgiving force of the current threatening to pull them below.
Then, true to his name, a ray of hope. The river flowed into a large lake, breaking off into two smaller streams at the other end. The water in the lake was a little calmer, though not shallow, but it was enough of a golden opportunity for Hope. With an unexpected surge of energy, he swam towards one part of the shore he could see. Closer and closer he came to edge of the lake and finally, close to exhaustion, he stumbled up the muddy ground and half carried, half dragged Light with him. When they reached dry, solid ground, both of them coughing and hyperventilating, Hope laid her against a tree and wiped the water from his face, drained of his energy but wanting to assess her condition immediately. She was shivering, despite the day being warm and sunny.
There were gashes, cuts and bruises along her arms and legs and he didn't know if she had any broken bones, but their priority remained the wound on the lower left of her belly where her hand was clutching, bathed crimson, wet with water and blood. He brushed away the soaked tendrils of pink hair from her eyes, wondering if she was conscious. She was breathing fast, blinking hard to clear her vision. Uncharacteristically in a daze, her gaze darted from corner to corner, glancing around wildly before finally settling on him and staring blankly, as if wondering if she was hallucinating. He had never seen her so fazed.
Yet, the first thing she managed to murmur when she had caught her breath was, "Fuck."
Hope reached out to move her fingers away from her abdomen and as he looked at the gory, gaping hole, panic began to overwhelm him again. When he had travelled with the others in the past, not once had any of them ever suffered such a major injury. He had healed wounds before but never ones as deep and serious as this one. The smell of blood was nauseating and the amount flowing out was extremely alarming and enough to make him throw up. He trembled with dread and horror. He could barely imagine the agony she was going through.
"What do I do? Light, what are we going to do?" He couldn't help the despair in his voice as he stammered. He could heal but without magic, he was useless. Somewhere along the way down the river, he had lost the Manadrive he took from that soldier. It had been the last thing on his mind when he was looking for her. Why hadn't he held on to it?
She leaned back on the tree trunk, her breaths short and quick, sapphire eyes holding his stare, and said, unexpectedly calm, through the pain, "There's a Drive in my pouch."
He looked at her foolishly for a second. Of course she would have one! He mentally reprimanded himself while quickly rummaging through the waterproof pouches she always carried by her left hip. There were a couple of vials of potions in there, too, but he knew from experience that they wouldn't aid much for an injury like this.
When he took out the Manadrive, both of them audibly sighed in relief. But when he started to cast a Curasa spell, she stopped him, "Wait."
His eyes widened, staring at her in confusion. She swallowed hard, took a glimpse of her bloody stomach, and gasped slowly, "I think there's something in there."
He stared at her in dismay. A closer inspection of the wound revealed that there was indeed a foreign material lodged within sanguine flesh. It looked metallic and smooth. Somehow or another, a piece of the Behemoth's horn must have chipped off and embedded itself in her during the attack. Looking at the sharp object protruding out slightly, his face turned paler. Stammering again, he told her what it was. He had to take a deep breath and force himself to swallow down the bile crawling up his throat.
"Hope." Light's low voice shifted his attention to her face. Her eyes were half closed but he could still see the steadiness and resolution behind them. A part of him absently wondered how she could remain so calm and cool even with a piece of metal lodged in her body while he, the uninjured one, was a mess. "Listen," she whispered, her breathing laboured, as if each intake of air hurt. "Can you reach it?"
He glanced down at the wound, then back up to her and nodded mutely.
"I want you to get a good grip on it," she continued with some difficulty. "And pull. No matter what I do, just keep pulling, and don't stop… You got it?"
He nodded again. Leaning closer to her, he reached out to the wound, pulse racing and breaths short. His face must have shown how terrified he was because her own hand wrapped around his to hold him firmly and when he looked up at her, her gaze was unwavering. "Don't stop," she repeated softly.
It was something he never wanted to experience ever again—reaching his fingers into blood and warm wetness to find an edge of the metal piece he could hold on to, pulling with all his might, hearing her stifled grunts and involuntary whimpers of pain echoing in his head, suddenly understanding what she meant when she had told him not to stop because knowing he was hurting her—knowing she was suffering—made it just too easy to give in to the temptation. He felt her hands on his shoulders, keeping him steady, before he realised that she was actually using him as leverage to push against him while he pulled.
The twenty seconds Hope took to completely remove the object felt like a lifetime in his mind. His whole hand was covered in blood by now but without another thought, he tossed the metal piece aside and pressed a palm to the wound, the Manadrive already in his other hand, casting Curasa. Lightning was lying back on the tree, panting heavily, and as he worked to heal the injury, he was surprised to find his vision cloudy, as if water was dripping from his hair into his eyes. Only when he blinked did he realise they were actually tears. When he glanced up at her, she just stared back at him silently, her pale face tired and fatigued.
The Curasa only stopped some flow of the blood, so he continued with one regenerative spell after another until the wound began to slowly close, the magic greatly speeding up her cells' mitotic abilities. When he was done, the Manadrive had less than half of its charge left. He hadn't realised he had used so much magic on her.
He could have melted into the ground in relief then. Feeling completely drained, he turned back to Light, wanting to ask her how she felt, but her eyes were closed and her head hung limply, her breathing shallow but audible. She made no response when he shook her gently, calling her name. Seeing her like that—damp, unconscious, with a large patch of red on her uniform and his hands still stained in her blood—an overpowering sense of comfort, consolation and thankfulness washed over him and for a moment, he simply knelt there, staring at her motionless form, his limbs suddenly frozen in place and a deafening buzz in his head.
Maybe it was the adrenaline again, or the urgency of the situation before, or maybe it was the fact that he realised the only reason he had come so close to losing her—the only reason Light had almost died—was because she had taken that Behemoth's attack in his place. When he moved, he found himself pulling her into his arms and hugging her tightly, not wanting to let go. He buried his face into her wet hair and as both of them stayed there under the tree, gradually getting warmed and dried by the soft rays of the sun, Hope cried quietly.
A/N: What were the chances of Hope meeting Light like that? Practically nil, I would say, but because this is a fanfic and it's Final Fantasy, that makes it a hundred percent...