Minus Six
II: Pandora's Box

Hope had looked and sounded as emotionally fragile as Serah was.

Only...worse.

She had been more prepared this time (after her experience with Serah), but was still as sorely surprised, if not more - she hadn't expected to recieve a Hope who had dropped to his knees and clung to her hands like they were his lifeline, his head bowed, sobbing out apologies - and Lightning had rather awkwardly alternated between trying to reassure him and getting him to stand, while Serah carried Raine out of the kitchen - and the soldier was grateful that Serah knew a private scene when she saw one, even when the younger Farron was still struggling with her own emotions.

He wouldn't release his grip on her even when she tried to pry them off gently - and it was an odd feeling to have his larger, stronger hands grasp hers and make it difficult for her to move (without hurting him) instead of the other way round - she could still remember the day when he had been just a little over half her size, and when she had had the stronger grip.

Having him behave like this, holding onto her like it was all he could do to make sure she was really there, in front of him, and alive; with green eyes filled with so much disbelief and hope and fear and guilt was just..

Lightning tried to understand, she really did - and to some extent, she did get where they were coming from. She had lost her sister to fal'cie almost a decade ago, and then gained her back later with a pack of misfits to go along.

That, however, didn't mean whatever Hope and Serah - and whoever else - went through when she was...was in that state was easier than that time. If nothing else, it looked and sounded like it was so much worse. And knowing that only made something in her ache further. She didn't want to see Serah cry again. She didn't want Hope to behave as if he would lose everything if she died.

She knew she couldn't really fault him for thinking or feeling so; his father died a year after Cocoon fell, so all he had left was her, and the former l'cie. But mostly - mostly - the one he had looked to after that was her.

But realizing all these things didn't mean she knew how to deal with this Hope that sounded completely lost.

He wasn't calming down.

At this point, Lightning didn't think he would.

It was also at this point, while she was distracted, that she felt another pair of hands - this time bigger and more muscular - bear-hugging her from behind, and they held on so tightly and quite possibly for dear life that they literally made her go "oof!" in her surprise. Whether it was her surprise, or just Hope being startled, the silver haired man released his grip on her and -

"Sis! You're awake! I knew you'd be awake! Hahah!"

Snow.

The realization took only a split second, and the part of her that had been alarmed at being gripped suddenly was washed away by irritation.

She slammed a hard, unsympathetic elbow into his stomach instantly.

In response, he released her, and groaned loudly - loud enough that Serah and Raine, who were in the living room, heard it; her niece immediately cheering, "Daddy's back!"

Lightning glared at a doubled-over Snow, her gaze flickering momentarily to the back door that was ajar before returning to him. He came from the back. Why didn't she hear the door opening?

She scowled.

"...sis still throws a mean punch," Snow croaked out, and Serah - who seemed to have decided to peek in from the doorway - squawked and begun to fuss over him.

"Lightning!" came her little sister's exasperated tone.

She glared more. Brother-in-law or no - even if her punches at his face had been reduced to cuffs and pats on shoulders - she drew the line at him hugging her. She didn't do affectionate with Snow.

"He asked for it," was Lightning's annoyed response, before her gaze flickered back to Hope, who was gaping.

His face was tear-streaked, but he wasn't crying anymore; his desperation had just about vanished, and he just... looked astonished.

"Hope...?" she asked, concerned. She wasn't sure if this was better than before; he certainly wasn't breaking down anymore, but -

He blinked. And blinked some more. Then stood up awkwardly.

Her thoughts paused momentarily. Hope was finally finding himself again. Did that...

Her eyes moved back to Snow, who was currently being ushered out of the kitchen by Serah.

Did Snow hug her on purpose?

The blond man apparently caught her look, because he winked at her just before he disappeared from the doorway.

...She really wasn't sure how to feel about that.

"I - " Hope started to say only to stop a second later. He rubbed at his wet face and eyes, exhaled, cleared his dry throat, "Light, I - " guilt and stress was apparent on his face again, though not overwhelming as it was previously - "I'm sorry. I'm sorry I - " Another jerky stop; his eyes dropped to the floor.

Lightning sighed. He was certainly not breaking down anymore, but... that didn't mean this was better.

However, this, she could deal with.

"Hey," she said quietly, moving a finger under his chin to lift it up to face hers. "Look me in the eye when you're talking, Hope."

There were tears gathering in his eyes again, and so much guilt - "I'm sorry - "

"None of it," she interrupted firmly, "was your fault."

He looked ready to protest, but she didn't let him cut her off. "Serah only got as far as telling me that I blacked out after touching that...green water. Which is barely a start." She took a while to calm down. Like you. "But to begin with, I should have controlled my curiosity and not touched the water. You said it yourself; it's an unknown substance and we don't know what it can do. And yet I chose to touch it."

"But - "

"Hope," the first hints of warning had entered her voice. "It's not your fault. It's mine. I touched it even when I knew we had no idea what it could do."

He deflated, but he looked like he still wanted to dispute that.

And somehow she had a feeling they would be agreeing to disagree, because the first hints of defiance and fire appeared in his green eyes.

She rubbed the bridge of her nose again - why did she have the feeling she would be doing that a lot more frequently from now on?

Again, she sighed. The lethargy that had vanished with her surprise at both Serah and Hope had decided to make its comeback. Tenfold. The dull headache came back with a vengeance. The aspirin she took - three pills - didn't help, but she wasn't about to risk taking more.

And something, once again, was draped over her shoulder, and...in and around her. Something so strange and comforting at the same time. Something that was soothing her frayed nerves.

Lightning didn't know what to do with it. Honestly, she didn't. She tensed up twice earlier when that...sensation came, and now, she didn't even feel the urge to be on guard anymore. It was strange.

Like she was already getting used to it.

(the soldier part of her warned her again that this should raise alarm bells, only they weren't ringing, and it was so quiet - )

"Light?" There was a tinge of worry and a spike of panic in Hope's voice. "Are you okay? You don't look so good."

Suddenly, all the older Farron wanted to do was to go back to bed and sleep this exhaustion away.

Etro, thought the soldier wearily. Why am I so tired?

"I'm fine," she muttered, and shook her head, half-hoping it would help in making the lethargy leave. "Come on," she said, already turning to head to the hall, "I want to know what happened, and now is a good time as any."

This time, that presence didn't leave her.

Hope rubbed wearily at his face with both hands; elbow resting on his knees.

She glanced at the man sitting next to him.

It was strange, to see Snow this serious and silent, but Lightning appreciated that Snow could be serious when needed. He cocked an eyebrow back at her; waiting now like the silent, steady support he was probably trying to be for Hope.

Then Hope exhaled. His fingers clasped together in one tight ball before he placed them on the table; on top of the stack of papers that had been scattered messily earlier.

"When you touched the water, it..." his face twisted, as if unsure of how to describe it. "It...ran up your arm. It literally...kept going up, swirling, until - " his green eyes dropped to her...her chest?

Hope rubbed at the bridge of his nose, a little awkwardly, and averted his gaze from her. There was a faint tinge of pink on his cheeks.

And from the corner of her eyes, she noticed Snow smirk, though he wisely kept his mouth shut.

"Keep going," she told Hope, tone otherwise unreadable; arms crossing.

In response, he cleared his throat. Whatever was it that Hope had thought, he had successfully shoved it to the back of his mind with a hard kick.

It made her want to grin, just a little. He was definitely a young man who had just got out of teenage-hood.

But she didn't smile; right now, she wanted answers.

"Your...your brand, it was on your chest, right..?" he asked, completely serious.

And because he was serious, Lightning ignored the slight pinkness on his cheeks and answered accordingly.

"It was." Her hand moved to press at the place where her brand once was. And she was suddenly alarmed - was he trying to say it reappeared?

"Don't worry. It's not there." Hope immediately clarified; and she felt herself suck in a breath she didn't realize she was holding. "We - uh, I mean Serah - checked...um. Checked around you just in case too. There's nothing." He was being evasive, but not for reasons Lightning couldn't understand. She ignored the way Snow's lips were twitching.

Still, she tried feeling around that same area over her thin shirt, waiting and dreading to feel the familiar bump only to find none.

Opposite her, Hope continued.

"It's just...that green water thing - it was...focused onto where your brand once was. Your arm was glowing green, you were glowing, but it was the brightest around your brand. And then you - " he stopped, eyes darkening, and exhaled again before pushing on. "You drew your hand back so fast you were literally falling backwards. I almost didn't catch you. The water - it left you then."

He was silent again.

Lightning didn't say anything this time, and waited expectantly.

He continued. "You were coughing up blood when I caught you. You were bleeding from your nose. You weren't breathing properly. Then you blacked out. Then - you woke up - or at least, I think you woke up, but - "

His fingers dug into the skin of his hands, and his gaze dropped from hers.

"You...you just stopped breathing."

She remained silent. This was where Serah had gotten to, when Hope scrambled up to her.

Despite all the confusion Lightning felt, she knew this was the difficult part to talk about; and it showed in the way concern was flickering in Snow's eyes, and in the way he placed a reassuring hand on Hope's shoulders.

He exhaled again, and looked at her; his gaze dark and shadowed, pained and searching; looking as if he was trying to reassure himself again that she was there -

"You wouldn't breathe," he said, voice haunted, "And - you stayed that way for a couple - maybe five - minutes."

Five minutes.

More than enough to incur lack of oxygen to the brain.

"And when you breathed - when you started breathing again, it was - it was - " She could see the tears forming in his eyes again. "It was just so wonderful."

He rubbed at his nose with both hands; kept them there, but continued, more quietly now.

"We - Sazh and I - brought you back here. Got a doctor to see you. He couldn't find anything wrong, said you were just sleeping. All of us were relieved. But - but then - you - you stopped breathing again. I - I don't - " His voice trembled.

This was when Snow took over. He squeezed Hope's shoulder, and looked at her directly.

"You relapsed. You stopped breathing, five minutes, and then started again," he said, voice serious, sad, but composed (thankfully, Lightning thought). "And no one knew what to do, aside from trying to get you to breathe again."

Silence.

"And it was a pattern - stop breathing, start breathing, stop, start, stop, start. You - " Snow faltered, and the first hints of pain and worry were there in his tone. "You just wouldn't wake up," he said. "We were - we were watching you, constantly, because we didn't know when you would stop breathing and we - we didn't know if you would breathe again if we didn't do anything and - " he stopped, likely because he was beginning to ramble.

Another period of silence.

"We didn't know what to do, and we didn't know what's wrong. No one could figure it out." he said at last. "And this went on for - two weeks."

Now this she had to respond to, eyebrows shooting up, hands uncurling of their own accord.

"Two weeks?"

She was - two weeks?

Two -

"Two weeks. It happened less and less gradually but - it still happened. " Snow said. "Hope - " he gestured at the younger man beside him, " - was a lifesaver. He created this device that kept track of your breathing and heartbeat so that we didn't have to stick to the chair next to your bed around the clock. If you stopped breathing, it would transmit to that baby there," he pointed at the black box hanging by the wall, "which will let out a really annoying shrill beep that would wake everyone in the house."

Her mouth opened once, closed, then her eyes darted from Snow to Hope to the black box to Snow again. "Device?"

Snow poked at his left ear.

Her hand moved instinctively to touch her own - and felt something smooth, cold and metallic clasped on her ear, at the bottom - much like a earring.

Why didn't she notice it before? He - Hope had designed it cleverly - she would have noticed it if it was somewhere else, or if it was bigger. But this was weightless, thin, and near unnoticeable unless she decided to look for it in a mirror or touch her ear.

"It was a lifesaver," Snow said again, his tone unusually somber, "We would have ran ourselves ragged otherwise. You relapsed a few more times after that. And then..." He searched her features for anything possibly wrong. "And then you woke up."

Her gaze moved back to a silent Hope who was studiously staring at his hands; she was still fingering at the - device absently.

"I...see." She said, though she honestly really didn't. That wasn't to say that she didn't understand what had happened, she did, it was just... how could she even begin to describe her confusion and...everything?

Lightning tilted her head slightly, and tried to remove the device - "It's definitely served its purpose then. I - "

"No!"

She paused. Or was it froze?

Hope had shot up from his seat, leaned over the table, and grasped her hand, pulling it away from the device.

"Hope - "

"No! I - " he jerkily stopped, and his grip tightened. He exhaled. "Just...please, Light. Don't take it off."

She stared, too surprised to say anything.

"Please," Hope begged; his hand was trembling. "Just - for a little while more. Don't - don't take it off. Please. I - I - we still don't know if - we - we don't - it's not even hindering you from doing anything, right? You barely even feel it there, so - so...please."

"Sis.."

Lightning glanced at Snow.

Her brother-in-law didn't say anything, but his face was grave and worried enough that she knew he would like her to keep it on too.

That meant Serah would too, and... so would whoever else.

She sighed, feeling weary.

Her hand itched to rub at the bridge of her nose again.

But instead, she moved her other hand to fold it over Hope's, and squeezed lightly.

"Okay," she said, quietly, a wry smile crossing her face at the sight of relief on Hope's face, "only because you're clever enough to make it so it wouldn't hinder me from doing what I need to do. I'll keep it on."

It had been her turn to talk after that. Only...she didn't have much to say, because she only remembered jerking her hand back from that strange green water, then waking up exhausted, with the most terrible headache ever.

(And she hadn't felt compelled to say anything about the presence lingering all around her, why?)

After that, the topic turned to the still crystallized comrades of theirs.

Hope was giving her a conflicted look.

"I don't think it's a good idea to use that water on Fang and Vanille anymore, Light. I just...don't know."

And Lightning could see where he was coming from. They didn't know what it did to her; what would it do to Fang and Vanille in their crystallized state?

That was when their conversation came to a halt, and Lightning left the house ("I want some time alone," she had told the other two males simply).

But even so.

Why did she feel like he should use the water on them?

He should, because...he should.

She felt the urge to rub at the bridge of her nose again.

Nothing made sense. Nothing.

What the hell was wrong with her? Did something invade her mind? if it was the usual her, would she have agreed with Hope and not do it? Would she have...

Etro, she was going insane.

Her head pounded.

"Waaaark!"

She blinked, startled out of her reverie.

" - ight!"

Someone was calling her.

Hand moving instinctively to the sword hanging by her hip, she looked around sharply.

" - Light!"

Her pale blue eyes honed in on the direction that sound came from. It sounded pretty far.

"Light, HELP!"

A sharp chill ran down her spine.

She could recognize that shape of hair anywhere, even from the distance.

Only two people she knows have such hair, and only one would have a chocobo with him at almost all times.

Dajh.

"Waaaarrrkkkk!" the chocobo cried sharply.

From where she was, she could see it flapping its wings, backpedaling with Dajh on its back, and trying to strike at something she couldn't see, blocked by the boulder -

It sounded panicked, alert, defensive.

She sped towards them.

A gorgonosopid.

Why, why in the world was there a gorgonosopid near Oerba?

(for that matter, when had she ventured out of Oerba and why didn't she notice - )

The copper wolf-like monster snapped its jaws at Dajh and the chocobo - growling menacingly.

She had to act fast.

Lightning could see it lean forward slightly - it was preparing to jump. And there was no way - no way - the chocobo could evade it, given how swift that creature was.

And she would not be there in time.

She skidded to a halt, gripped her sword tightly before loosening, lifted her hand backwards -

"Breathe in, hold, andloose the spear. That's how you throw it, Light. That's lesson one for Oerban hunting style."

Her sword sailed, cutting through the air with a crisp, sharp sound - she didn't wait to see if it would hit, again speeding towards them; but that didn't mean she wasn't watching where it was going -

Hit, damn you.

The weapon pierced into the monster's eye.

"Aim for the eye if you don't know their weakness. Or if their skin istoo hard to pierce. The eye."

And it howled.

She didn't stop; it wasn't down yet. She merely bought Dajh and her a little time.

Now, she would be there in time.

Another fifteen steps.

The gorgonosopid growled at Dajh and the chocobo again, this time with far, far more menace in it; blood dripping down from its eye, the sword still there -

Ten steps.

"Waaaaark!"

Seven steps -

She sprung, somersaulting midair - and landed on top of the monster. It howled again, surprised, and tried to shake her off; to which she responded by gripping one of the spikes jutting out from its spine tightly. At the same time, her other hand curled itself around her sword and drew it out in one swift motion - blood splattered -

The piercing cry of pain rang in the air.

She didn't wait.

Lightning shoved the sword back into it, from the top; downwards into its flesh.

It jerked.

Then it fell.

A couple long beats passed, and the former soldier exhaled, once more drawing her sword out before getting off it.

The chocobo in front of her flapped its wings, leaning forward a little, beak brushing against her gently.

"Wark."

She petted it back gently, flicking her sword shut before placing it back in the sheath.

Her eyes shut momentarily, and she sighed. She could still feel her heart beating terribly fast, her shoulders tense; the adrenaline wasn't all gone yet.

"T - thank you.."

Dajh.

The boy wriggled his way down from atop the chocobo.

She exhaled again, and felt a sudden relief flooding in.

If she hadn't been there. If she hadn't been there.

And maybe it was the relief and dying adrenaline (how did she even manage to move so quickly before?), but the dizziness returned with a vengeance. Her vision swam, and she could feel herself stumbling -

"Wark."

She could feel herself leaning against the chocobo - when had it moved to her side?

But all the same, she found herself thanking it mentally.

"L - Light! Are you okay?" Dajh, frantic.

Lightning exhaled, shutting her eyes, and she held up a hand to stall his words.

It was another couple long beats before she felt it safe enough to slant her eyes open at Dajh.

"You," she told the boy who shrunk at her sudden sharp tone," should not have been wandering this far out."

Dajh looked down, scuffing his foot. "I'm sorry."

Lightning grimaced, rubbing at the bridge of her nose again.

"Why are you this far out?" she asked him. She knew the boy had an adventurous spirit, but he was smart enough to know where he could and could not go for safety reasons.

It was like he suddenly remembered something, and his gaze shot towards a crevice in the rocks a short distance behind him.

"Oh. Oh! Light, it needs help!"

He was suddenly tugging at her arm, pulling her forward.

"It?" she repeated, frowning, but let herself be pulled as she released the chocobo (which walked by her side faithfully, and she wondered if it was watching out for her in the event she has another episode of dizziness).

"It's injured!"

As soon as they reached the boulders, Dajh bent, and his hands shot forward into the fissures to pull out...something.

"It's okay, it's okay.." Dajh muttered quietly.

Lightning bent down next to him.

In the boy's arms was a small white furry creature of some sort; with sharp, pointed ears, little claws, and reddish, leathery wings that twitched slightly.

It was also streaked in blood, and trembling.

Lightning had no idea what it was.

She wondered if it was even safe for Dajh to hold.

(it is, something in her said, and the soldier part of her relaxed. It is.)

"Kupo..."

The creature nipped at Dajh's palm gently, weakly.

"It was helping me escape from the gorgonosipid pack," the boy said quietly, "then it got injured. But there was another one still chasing me, so I hid him here.."

And played bait, Lightning mentally supplied in her head.

The soldier did not know whether to praise his actions or scold him for his recklessness.

"Please help him." Dajh stared up at her with tears-brimmed eyes.

She eyed the creature silently.

"Wark," chimed the chocobo. Its feet tapped at the ground lightly.

Lightning sighed.

"Let me see," she moved to take the small creature into her arms.

"Kupo," it whined softly.

Dirt and cuts covered its little body. She could see a large claw mark on its belly, the gash wide and open with blood flowing out slowly.

Though she had never seen this creature before, she could tell the accumulated injuries were serious.

And there was some part of her that knew for certain - from the way it slumped in her arms to how shallow its breathing was - it was going to die, quite possibly in a couple minutes.

She didn't think she'd make it back to Oerba in time even with the chocobo.

Her pouch held medical items for emergency situations, but - damn it.It wouldn't be enough, and to begin with, she didn't even know what this was and if what she had would work for it.

If only she could still heal like when they were l'cie...

Something surged in her.

She could feel heat emanating from her palms.

"Light?" Dajh stared at her. "You...your hands are glowing."

The soldier didn't respond; she was staring too.

Soft white light, warm and gentle, was flowing from her hands to the creature. Something, from her very core, was moving to her arms like water running down a stream, into her palms, before releasing it.

And the wound - that large, open gash on its stomach, was closing.

She stopped breathing.

Was she healing it?

Its left ear twitched.

"Kupo.."

The creature's blue eyes cracked open to meet hers.

"Kupo!"

She couldn't stop herself from sucking in a sharp breath.

She'd healed it.

一一一

A/N: Yes, she can heal. No, not l'cie, as I've mentioned previously, and yes, I've a justified reason, much like I've reasons for all the little things that may or may not be noticeable at this stage - and no, you won't know till later. :)

On other news - my apologies for how late this is. I've also been having a bit of difficulty with tenses. Sometimes I go present tense, and then jerk to a stop, because, hey, it's supposed to be in past tense. So it's all very...jerky. Which is why...well. I don't know if I'll switch to present tense from next chapter onwards, but this is just a fore-warning that it might happen.

Thanks to Rae for beta-ing, and hope it was a good read.

- Ext.