My apologies for the delay in completion—this is all that I have written (unedited for the most part) on the story. I fully intend to continue working on this fanfic, alas life has taken precedence over writing for a while. Thank you for your patience and I hope you enjoy the story.

Since that ever-elusive day three months ago with Orphan and Barthandelus, the survivors had begun reconstructing Oerba but rescue missions for anyone left on Cocoon was their main priority. Lightning had assumed command of what was left of the military and there were more dead than injured; it was becoming apparent that lifeless corpses were all that remained on the sphere they once called home, saving as many as possible to ensure humanity stood a chance at survival on the untamed Pulsian world. Fang had given them that, and Lightning would oversee it personally so that her sacrifice wasn't in vain.

Life would be difficult without the guiding hand of the Sanctum, and the challenges they faced seemed insurmountable but this time around the people have someone can put their faith in...

Hope had just told me of his hate for Snow and what happened to his mother; certainly, I can relate in regard to hatred of Snow. I blamed him for everything that had happened with Serah, just as Hope blames him for his mother's death. I was livid and just wanted my sister back.

When we finally reached the top and were getting off of the elevator, we found ourselves in Palumpolum. Everything was silent; the only sound besides our quickened breathing was the crisp, digital voice of the News announcer declaring the location of the infamous Pulse l'Cie: us.

PSICOM soldiers were surrounding Hope and me. I was ready to accept my fate –then there was an explosion; sparks of light blinded me, ice crystals flashed in the air, completely coating the ground. Ice was everywhere, and I knew it was the Nix Eidolon, 'Oh great, Snow, well at least he distracted the PSICOM.'

"Let's go, Hope." I looked up and saw a woman on the back of his Eidolon with machine guns blazing. 'Looks like Snow made a friend'

We ran down behind the soldiers and flanked them, providing support in taking out the PSICOM, then—'What the hell?'—Snow flew right over our heads on the Nix.

When he landed and the pair got off of the Eidolon, I was almost speechless at what I saw. The woman riding with him was gorgeous, 'why in the world is a beautiful woman like that riding around with someone like Snow'. Even in her presence I still couldn't stand the sight of him; I figured now would be a good opportunity for Hope to get release of some of that revenge he was telling me about only a few minutes ago. "Take care of him," I said and turned around, but was stopped short when I heard Snow's idiotic declarations of faith: "She's all right. She will turn back."

My patience with Snow was far too thin to hear anything he had to say, so I headed off; to my surprise though, that beautiful mystery who had just arrived followed me. I prefer to work alone, don't even know if she can fight-well, okay, at least she was good-looking so I guess it doesn't really matter if she can fight or not. I'm more than proficient enough to take care of a few PSICOM, so as long as she doesn't get in my way she can do whatever she wants.

We headed through town avoiding any soldiers until we came to an alley, where she pulled out a Calvary communication device and tried to contact Snow. At no surprise to me he didn't answer, but she kept retrying him anyway.

"So, you and Snow know each other?" I puffed.

She replied, "You could say that," gripping the device and becoming obviously frustrated "Why won't he answer? That idiot better not have gotten picked up by PSICOM!"

That's something we can both agree on: Snow is an idiot. Her seductive body and exotic way of speaking tempted me ever-so-slightly. Still, all I could think about was saving my sister and I sneered, knowing it was useless trying to get a hold of him –Snow was useless.

After several attempts she finally reached him. I couldn't help but grin when I heard her shouting into the mouthpiece; after scolding him, she passed the communicator to me "Hey, Sis!" his voice sent shivers down my spine. Without giving him an opportunity to continue, I instructed him to rendezvous at Hope's house. He kept speaking, even after I indicated the conversation was over, babbling about a way to change Serah back—consequently I disconnected.

As we fought through the streets of Palumpolum, the vixen who tagged along with me proved to be more than just eye-candy; she was skilled with her weapon, almost surgical precision, and combatives that were on par with my own. 'Who is this woman?' The question began to perplex me.

We came to another alley, and paused for a moment; then, I noticed something I hadn't before—a l'Cie brand—except different, it appeared icy almost like a strange scar.

"Who are you?" I demanded.

The question seemed to make her uneasy "Name's Fang. Sure, I've got a few screws loose, but I'm a l'Cie, just like you. Only difference is I was born on Gran Pulse." She explained.

My stomach tightened and my face grew hot. 'A Pulsian…Here, on Cocoon?' She went on, but I didn't hear any of it.

What is a Pulsian doing here? Whatever, it doesn't matter; at least we are on the same Sanctum-killing team—for now.

The PSICOM airships swarmed in overhead—we needed to get to Hope's house, quick.

"Lightning... Light…," she felt the roughness of a warm hand upon her shoulder, "wake up Light." She opened her eyes; the room was bright and the air smelled of Behemoth urine—it was Snow, "Hey, Sis," his voice resounded in her ears.

"What?" Lighting said, opening her eyes, slowly observing her surroundings and securing her hand upon her gunblade for reassurance of its presence.

"It's all right; you still have plenty of time." He said, reaching down to assist Lightning up off the floor. "I figured you must have taken a nap."

Brushing his hand away she sat there for a few moments, hands cradling her forehead. Sleep was an unkind stranger to her since Day 0 when it all started in Bodhum, only when she was too tired to hold her eyes open did the dreams and memories from the past take over. They were so real it burned all of her senses as though she were really there.

It was exactly like the first time she met Fang—just as she remembered it, and in her mind she could still smell her sweet scent under the gunpowder-filled-air. 'No time for nostalgia' she thought, pushing herself off the ground.

Her long figure reached upward with arms overhead, and stretching her neck she looked out the window from warehouse loft.

Below she saw hundreds of people gathered, "Is everyone assembled?" she asked, assuming her serious posture thru the grogginess from her nap.

Most of the survivors respected and admired Lightning despite the once held fear of l'Cie from the propaganda spread by Dysley and the Sanctum. The people of Cocoon looked to her for answers in the aftermath of the fall of Orphan. Lightning's infamous face and power witnessed by all thanks to the televised l'Cie chase was where they looked for guidance, direction, but most importantly answers, and it was her heroic acts of bravery and leadership in the events immediately after the fall of Cocoon that won their loyalty.

That is why the other leaders decided it should be her to deliver the speech about the truth of what happened on Cocoon. The truth and facts surrounding Dysley's lies to the people of Cocoon became apparent to most citizens in the series of events surrounding Eden, but it was too late and they had nowhere to go with martial law enforced upon all.

People being skeptical by nature, not everyone was accepting of this new hero. Many had their own ideas of what really happened but mostly that l'Cie infiltrated Eden and accomplished their mission by destroying Cocoon, despite the fact it sits upon the great Ragnarok pillar. Some pray for the fal'Cie to come and save them from this land of hell, destroying all and starting anew—as Barthandelus wished.

It would be difficult for them to accept the truth and many will refuse it, but they must know.

Footsteps from the creaking staircase preceeded the emergence of Serah, and a smile took over her face upon seeing her older sister, "are you nervous, Light?"

Lightning sighed, "I'm ready," while adjusting her belt.

Serah gave Lightning a hug around the neck, "they deserve the truth, and they look up to you…we all do. You can do this." She said, pulling back and wiping a tuft of hair from Lightning's face.

Lightning knew it must be done and gave a half smile at her sister—Serah always had a way of making her feel confident that she was doing the right thing.

"Let's get this over with." she said, walking toward the exit and pushing Snow aside with her shoulder.

Outside the warehouse, she walked toward the stage at the lakefront in Oerba, the platform was positioned high enough that she could see all of the people gathered.

All of her command subordinates were waiting for her at the bottom of the stairs along side her friends and the former l'Cie. When she gave them the nod to go ahead and proceed, the assembly applauded them like they were super stars.

Snow walked to the podium while the others took their seats, and he introduced Commander Farron. Lightning walked gallantly and proud onto the platform, pausing momentarily she looked at all of the citizens, bowed and stepped behind the podium; she took a deep breath, closed her eyes and remembered the climatically fateful events that brought them here.

"This is truly a time that will be forever written in the history books, as all of us born on Cocoon are now living on the place we were taught to hate our whole lives. Gran Pulse. This is our home now, and most importantly we have been given a new life, with new challenges and perilous as it seems, we will survive and future generations will never forget our strength." The crowd cheers and she continues, "We've all lost, and suffered and felt unimaginable sorrow these last few months, but we will move on. Oerba and Gran Pulse are ours now let's make our mark on the land and prove to the Gods that we don't need the fal'Cie to survive!" The audience roared.

"It is time for all of you to know the truth; what really happened on Cocoon three months ago." She paused for a moment. "When the Pulse fal'Cie Anima came to Bodhum and created the l'Cie panic—" the crowd starts to boo "— . six people were marked. We all stand before you now." The crowd gasps. "We felt exactly the same as you about l'Cie and Gran Pulse. We would never harm our home, or hurt our people. But there was no escaping our fate, we would either die at the hand of the Sanctum, or worse, turn into Cie'th for all eternity."

She continued, "it wasn't until later that we discovered the purpose behind the vestige in Bodhum."

"Voice of the Sanctum, Galenth Dysley—as you known him—or his true name: Barthandelus, had implemented himself into the Cocoon government."

The crowd had grown silent.

"Barthandelus, Lord-Sanctum to Cocoon fal'Cie, was given unrestricted power over Cocoon due to his position with the Sanctum. He brought the Gran Pulse fal'Cie Anima to Cocoon in a vestige for the purpose of creating Pulse l'Cie." Lightning drew a deep breath, "and it worked. Seven people were drawn to Anima and given brands with a focus to destroy Cocoon." The audience mumbles incoherently.

"The vestige also brought with it the last two Gran Pulsians, which had been crystallized for five-hundred years." Lightning paused. "Together, we decided to put an end to Barthandelus' reign, where he meant to sacrifice the rest of humanity in order to restore the Maker. All of the chosen l'Cie vowed to end it or die trying, and would have periled if not for the infamous Ragnarok, which created the crystal pillar where Cocoon rests. We have destroyed the fal'Cie who desired each and every single person dead in order to return the Maker. We don't need to return the Maker, this is our world and we have freedom that the fal'Cie will never know. Yes, there were many lives lost, but we are still here, alive, and have triumphed against the fal'Cie!"

"We will build a world better than the last, greater than imaginable. Without the Sanctum or Barthandelus, we are free to do whatever we choose without the fear of what is waiting for the right moment to take away everything that we love." She looked around her and all the way towards the people in the back she took a deep breath, "Follow me and put all of your hope into an unforeseen future. Take hold of this new life that you've been given and we will overcome everything that's happened. Let the towering sphere we once called home be the reminder that we are the makers of our own fate, and that can never be taken away. We are the gods now, not the fal'Cie."

The rumbling ground underneath her feet and echoes of cheers caused Lightning to feel her chest tighten. She returned the microphone to its stand, she bowed then walked off the stage—thoughts of how she could have said something different flooded her mind, but she quickly dismissed them as it was now over and it would be up to the people to fill in the blanks.

After taking a few sips of water, she heard Snow's voice over the speakers. Deciding it's probably best to listen since he is talking to everyone left in the world and if he screws up someone will need to do damage control.

Lightning felt like this would be a good opportunity to walk around the area and make sure that everything was okay. No sooner than turning the corner, a familiar face appeared. "Not bad…for a hot-headed soldier."

Lightning cracked a smile, "Thanks, Lebreau," and she gazed up at the lifeless orb she had once called home.

"We're all behind you, don't forget that." Lebreau said, hesitating a moment, "Still haven't given up searching for them have you?"

"No" she replied stoically.

Lightning hadn't given up hope on finding Fang and Vanille, she seen them fall into the infernal darkness at Orphan's Cradle but for some reason she couldn't accept that they were gone forever.

The two Oerban saviors of humanity weren't there when she awoke on the Archylte Steppe, yet everyone else was. For that reason, she knew they were somewhere in this realm of unknown, she didn't know how or why nor did she care how crazy it made her seem; Lightning was going to find them—more importantly, Fang.

"Well, duty calls. See you around, Light" Lebreau said in response to the resonance of her communication device, she swiftly threw her leg over her velocycle, the engine revved and departed.

The people lucky enough to still have their lives were in a state of perpetual shock and seeking anything that resembled civilization, comfort, home. A number of the survivors were succumbing to despair, suffering, and distrust of the new government only added to it and some would eventually disband in small groups out away from the Oerba settlement and into the unknown.

Efforts made by Lightning to keep a system of command-and-regulation in place came natural to her since due to the structure of military and it was intrinsic to her personality at this point in her life.

It was getting late and after the assembly she still had to assume responsibilities of Command, Logistics and Oerba. She realized that there just wasn't enough daylight left for her to attempt her daily Cocoon search so she headed to the Oerban military headquarters where her office was located.

Lightning took a seat behind her familiar worn wooden desk when a young soldier delivered the final Cocoon Report for the day, with a salute he handed her the folder of documents and exited as quickly as he entered.

The reports were usually just a summary of items recovered, survivors located, and incidents with monsters. 'Hm, another child was recovered from Eden. I knew they would suffer the most casualties... I wonder what will become of all these orphaned children—she was an orphan.' Lightning sighed "I have to find you."

Efforts to keep a casualty count were difficult. It was impossible to be accurate as the creatures from Pulse are scavengers which devoured the bodies before they could be accounted for and the few remaining survivors were facing their terrifying demise through natural selection instead of deranged tyrannical fal'Cie.

When she finished reviewing reports the sky had grown completely dark and it was well past the Oerban curfew yet people were still meandering about. Lightning leaned back in the uncomfortable commander's chair, kicking her feet upon her desk, rest was a distant memory to Lightning—she hadn't had a restful moment that her memory could recall. Looking through the window she could see the faint outline of Cocoon resting in the sky, 'tomorrow' she thought, feeling regret for having not searched for her lost companion today.

After securing her gunblade and adjusting her uniform she exited the building, saluting the guard at the gate she walked beside the road back to Oerba.

Thoughts flooded her mind 'What am I doing? Does any of this even matter? I don't know why but I keep searching—it seems like the moment I think I'm close, I realize you couldn't be farther away.' Beasts tripped detonation sensors placed around the perimeter of the settlements, 'I need to assign a research team to look into domesticating the beasts,' she considered at the rumble of a distant blast.

Upon arriving in Oerba she recalled speaking with Lebreau and decided to go see her. The pub was dimly lit and hidden between a factory and an apartment building. When she walked in there were so many steamy bodies polluted with alcohol that her presence did not draw attention and she sighed realizing that there was only standing room for Lightning. She walked toward the bar located in the center of the decrepit building and Lebreau smiled when she caught a glimpse of Lightning walking through. "Hey Light, I'm glad to see you here! What would you like to drink?" she shouted over the roar of intoxicated conversation.

"Whiskey, thanks" she said, leaning on the rusted metallic bar.

Lebreau reached behind her and grabbed a rather large bottle of the amber colored liquid, and she poured a half-glass for Lightning." So, you really got the people motivated with what you told them at the assembly. It's all I have heard about tonight."

Lightning looked up, "is that so?"

Lebreau continued, "It's going to take some sinking in, but they needed to know the truth about the Sanctum, and they trust you. Look around, nobody was prepared for what happened, but we survived—thanks to you."

She reached out and placed her hand on Lightning's arm, "They look up to you—we all do."

Lightning jerked back "if you say so."

She didn't really know what to say, Lightning wasn't looking for praise nor did she want the people to look up to her the way they did—she reacted with what came natural to her, just doing her job. Assuming responsibility of situations came as a second nature to her, and it needed to be done. Someone had to step forward amidst the confusion and disorientation to ensure the sacrifice made to save Cocoon wasn't all in vain.

Lebreau turned back to tend her customers and Lightning rested her shoulder on a beam with her back to the obnoxious crowd.

"Hey! I wasn't expecting to see you here," said a familiar voice.

Lightning turned to confront this intrusion, "Hope—aren't you a little young to be drinking?" Lightning asked mockingly.

His facial expression changed, "yeah, well I helped save the world and I survived an apocalypse! I'd like to see someone tell me they have a problem with it." He said while opening his pocket knife.

Lightning was not threatened by his intimidating stance but was prepared to get serious until started laughing, "Heh, you know I'm only joking, Light! There isn't a drinking age here—besides, I'm sixteen years old and my Dad used to let me drink with dinner."

'He's right after all, we did survive the fall of Cocoon…our world, our apocalypse'. Lightning did not care one way or the other honestly—Hope could take care of himself.

"How were your missions today?" She asked, in attempt to make small talk.

He poured the last of his cocktail down his throat, and sat down beside her. "Recovered three, and almost breached the Carbuncle chamber. As soon as we are in, we can begin to retrieve the stockpiles of food, but I am sure you already read that in my report"

Lightning didn't care for his sarcasm much; she shot him a glare letting him know he'd better watch his next words. "Do you have an estimate on when the facility will be open?" She asked.

He looked down to his glass emptied of its contents "Probably tomorrow, day after at the latest—hey, Lebreau, can I get another drink?" he said, rudely banging his glass on the bar.

Lightning was glad that for the most part they had been able to retrieve so many of the most useful items from Cocoon, but she was concerned about breaching the fal'Cie chamber, because the fal'Cie are still very much alive and functional on Gran Pulse 'may need extra security when they breech, there's high probability that some fal'Cie will be alive on Cocoon'. If they were to come across any other fal'Cie with intentions like that of Barthandelus, it could most certainly spell the end of humanity.

While the fal'Cie couldn't hurt people directly, there's nothing to prevent them from creating more l'Cie. She dismissed the thoughts, knowing she would find her answer soon enough. Hope was and the other drunken fools were beginning to irritate her and she needed to get out of this place before she lost her temper.

Startled slightly, she felt the glass taken from her hand, "I noticed yours was empty too," Lebreau beamed, half-full bottle in hand.

"Thanks, Lebreau." Lightning poured the warm drink down her throat, enjoying the stinging sensation as it burned her throat and then her stomach.

Lightning began walking toward the door to leave and Lebreau noticed and reached out for Lightning's shoulder, "Light, if you find the time, would you come to see me tomorrow, there's something I've been meaning to discuss with you—in private—maybe you can help me out?"

Lightning's brow furrowed, she didn't like taking time away from her obligations, but Lebreau had always been helpful, so she nodded her head and proceeded through the door.

"See ya tomorrow, Light!" Hope managed to shout to her just before the door closed.

Walking the empty streets, Lightning noticed the alcohol had already moved into her blood stream and taken a slight effect. She felt the dampness of the air creating a layer of moisture atop her skin—moisture mixed with sweat and dirt 'a shower would be nice', she decided.

Lightning walked over to the communal shower house, a danky building located adjacent to the Oerba Lake, from which their water supply came from.

Standing in front of a bench beside her locker she began to undress when she heard thud from around a corner. In an instant she placed her hand upon her gunblade, she prepared to take the head off of any beast would be so unfortunate to have crept in on her in her naked vulnerability.

Another loud thud followed by "Ow! Dammit!" a voice echoed through the ceramic walls.

'At least it's human,' Lightning confirmed and continued to get undressed, keeping her gunblade within arm's reach. As she was pulling her undershirt overhead she saw the source of the swearing walk in front of her with a limp.

"Did I ever mention how surprised I am to see you living and breathing, Nabaat?" Lightning snarled.

Jihl chuckled "I'm sure you aren't entirely surprised." She stopped at a bench across from Lightning and proceeded to disrobe as well. "You do understand that we were all fooled by Dysley, don't you?"

Completely naked, Lightning stepped in front of Jihl's face, close enough that a trickle from her breath landed on Jihl's lips, "Frankly, I don't care, Jihl. I saw him kill you…yet, here you are miraculously alive—even after millions of others died. If anyone deserved to die, it's you." She pulled away leaving Jihl speechless and continued toward the showers.

Lightning turned the handle engaging the shower, 'so much for relaxing.' The icy-cold-water cascaded down her body but she found solace in the steady sting of it. Lightning stood there with her hands placed upon the wall, eyes closed and she let the sound of the rhythm of the water retain her complete attention in effort to distract from her unwelcome shower guest.

"Maybe one day I'll tell you about what really happened." Jihl said as she walked passed Lightning and into the next stall. Lightning's rage was building due to Jihl's proximity. She rubbed the grime from her body with haste, and feeling Jihl's eyes bearing on her she took a deep breath, gritted teeth and exited the showers to redress.

It took less time to don her uniform than it did taking it off, and when she exited the shower house she walked down the stone stairs to the lake. Looking up she could see in the infinite blackness and every distant star in the sky.

She took a seat at the base of a great tree and stared out into the void, 'I wonder if Fang ever sat here watching the stars? No, she would have been hunting Behemoths or something incredible. I will never give up until I find you.' A tear was welling in her eye and she leaned back against the almost-embracing roughness of ancient tree bark.

We were still in Palumpolum and hadn't quite reached Hope's house. She and I were making small talk between battles with PSICOM; admittedly, I was quite intrigued by this Pulsian companion I had acquired.

We came to an underpass and I had asked her how she got here—she told me the whole story: Fang told me of how she woke up on Cocoon after being in crystal stasis with an icy brand, but her partner, Vanille, was still marked with a l'Cie brand. Fang warned her that it will keep turning people into l'Cie until its focus is complete. People like us—like my sister.

Fang explained how she had been picked up by Raines and his Calvary and had been searching for Vanille ever since.

I guess that's when I thought back to the purge and currently being surrounded by the PSICOM. I thought about this ever-elusive brand on my chest; my sister's fate and my own focus. "So, you're telling me Serah will come back to life someday, too?" I asked.

Fang stayed there, leaning coolly against the wall. My mind was running as fast as it could around everything it could grasp, and it still didn't make sense. Maybe I was just angry that she was telling me it's her fault all of this happened to begin with.

"Yep—we didn't do our job right, that's why it made her a l'Cie. We messed up. Sorry." Fang said nonchalantly.

I was blinded by fury and the her half-hearted apology only fueled my rage. I swung my open hand and hit her in the face—and everything stood still for a moment.

She moved her hand to her face. Irreverently, she asked, "That it?"

It was sinking in so painfully, this Pulsian woman not only came back from crystal-stasis, but she's also responsible for my sister being a crystal. I was angry. "You'd better hope so. But whether we're square or not is up to Serah."

She tilted her head and at me and replied, "You sound exactly like Snow—" I rolled my eyes and turned away "—and he didn't hit me."

Then it occurred to me: "He already knows about this?"

Why would she tell Snow any of this? He's an imbecile.

"Glad I apologized, then." She apologized to feel better about herself for hurting me.

"You apologized so you'd feel better?" I asked.

She replied, "Guess so. Do you feel any better now that you hit me?"

I scoffed. "It didn't change anything."

She rubbed her cheek. "Tell that to my jaw."

Guess I hit her harder than she deserved, but then again, she just proclaimed her responsibility for this whole situation.

We got back on route and weren't too far from Hope's place, but we stopped on some stairs for Fang to call and check in with Snow.

As expected, he didn't answer. "Snow's tough, I'm sure he can take care of himself."

It kind of worried me a little though. Not that I really cared about Snow or anything but ya know, what if— "Hey Fang, the others are safe, right? I mean, if they got caught they would have to make an announcement."

"Yeah, they would. They would have to let everyone know that the big bad l'Cie can't hurt 'em no more. The Cocoon people are a bunch of cowards." Fang said, reassuring me.

She really doesn't understand, does she? "These Cocoon people have spent centuries under fal'Cie law, in fear of a Pulse invasion. If it hadn't been for Serah I'd been out there too, hunting l'Cie." I explained.

Then she told me that it's no different on Pulse. In her world, Cocoon is just a floating nest of vipers ready to strike. Somehow, it was all beginning to make sense. She continued talking and told me how she just doesn't remember their focus, and which she cares about neither Cocoon nor Pulse as long as Vanille doesn't become a Cie'th. It occurred to me then: We're all puppets in a fal'Cie game that's lasted hundreds of years and she loves Vanille as I do Serah and we will do anything to keep them safe.

The early morning mist surrounded Lightning and with the calls of the insects and birds she opened her eyes. 'Fang…I shouldn't have hit her.'

She stood and stretched her arms upward looking out over the lake she saw the brilliant sunrise and it was something almost alien to the former Cocoon denizen.

It was a little early to report for duty but Lightning needed to get an early start to make up for neglecting her Cocoon mission the day before. Walking through Oerba she took in the unique surroundings, the homes were an awkward combination of past and present, Pulse and Cocoon, yet they appeared to seamlessly fit together.

There were few uninhabitable houses in Oerba but there weren't enough and they hadn't yet built enough shelters for the survivors. Many tents and make-shift residences littered the streets. 'What did it look like when Fang lived here?' Lightning pondered as she walked past the building where they found Bhakti.

The streets were already crowded despite the early morning hours. Hunting parties seemed to reap the rewards of what the beasts of the night left behind, and that fed the people, most of whom were not accustomed to preparing such natural meals. Everyone was hoping that the search parties would open the Carbuncle chamber as it would provide enough food to sustain them intermittently until they could better adjust to their new way of life.

Lightning navigated the crystalline familiar route from Oerba to Central Headquarters, once thru the Oerban Valley she saw the gray and red gated structure looming in the distance with her soldiers preparing their vehicles for missions to Cocoon and she quickened her pace slightly.

Upon arrival she was greeted with a salute from two gate guard military policemen, "Good morning, Ma'am." Lightning customarily returned the salute and continued toward her building.

She noticed that the captains and commanders were almost finished ordering their troops before they departed for Cocoon. She wanted to brief the Captains on the threat level of the fal'Cie Carbuncle and what measures to take should anyone find marked a l'Cie.

When the officers released their soldiers to their duties, they were called into Superior Commander Farron's office.

Lightning was standing in front of her desk when the officers entered and she immediately began her meeting: "the Palumpolum team has almost breached the fal'Cie chamber. I am sure that there are some of you who may remain reluctant to believe the Sanctum fal'Cie are our enemy. They were our protectors and life-source—I didn't want to believe it either, but the fact remains, they want to bring back Maker and in order to do that they wish to exterminate every last soul of humanity. So, keep in mind if the fal'Cie remain functional, they most certainly may brand any one of us l'Cie—potentially causing the demise of those of us who just survived the Cocoon catastrophy." Lightning explained. "I will leave it to your better judgment on how to determine if any of your soldiers have been marked, however in the event that you do find a Sanctum l'Cie, your orders are to capture and confine. Do not kill. Understand?"

In unison her officers replied, "Yes, Ma'am."

"Dismissed." Lightning commanded, allowing them to carry out their missions.

She looked around her office and scrolled through her datapad for a few moments and decided that there was nothing which required her urgent attention and they could wait. 'I will just go on to Cocoon since I didn't go yesterday' she thought, setting the paperwork aside on her desk.

Lightning walked the soldier-filled halls of the Headquarters, and amidst the commotion noticed a distinct tap made only by Sanctum Officer's Boots. 'I had a feeling that announcement would face some opposition, it's a shame it had to be amongst my own ranks.' She realized and stealthily placed her hand upon her gunblade. 'If they are willing to kill for the Sanctum, then I will oblige them to die for it as well' Lightning turned on one heel, drew her gunblade and turned to face her challenger.

"Ah! Apologies Commander, but as you know I am assigned to the Subterra team and I wanted to ask your permission for transfer to the Eden team." Jihl explained with hands up in surrender.

"Jihl, I think you just spent another one of your nine lives," Lightning spat, "follow your orders, Colonel." And she turned to continue toward the motor pool.

Lightning made no effort to hide the fact she didn't like Jihl, but Nabaat did have a number of supporters from the former PSICOM and oddly even some of the Calvary. Jihl stood there watching Lightning walk away but only for a moment before pursuing behind. "You know, although I was a leader for the Sanctum, I had to follow orders too, just like you did in the Guardian Corps." She raised her voice a little. "I want to show you that I'm really on your team. I want the same things as you!"

Lightning stopped in her tracks and stepped to meet her follower "Look Jihl, I understand that you were just following orders; it is what makes you an excellent soldier and that is why I'm allowing you to serve in my Supply Corps. As I said before, things with you just don't add up—frankly, I don't trust you."

She puffed her chest out to meet Jihl's buxom, "This is the last time I will tell you: just because we're working for the same team doesn't mean we're friends. I don't care about how sorry you are for just doing your job. Further, you will do well to remember that I am your superior officer…I won't hesitate to ruin you, Nabaat."

She stared into Jihl's eyes, waiting for her make a move. 'Come on, give me an excuse,' Lightning thought.

Jihl's lip started to quiver and she looked away with anger welling in her eyes. Tempting as it was, Lightning resisted humiliating Jihl—she just wanted to get on to Cocoon.

She opened the gate and climbed aboard her personal military-class velocycle. The ascent to Cocoon was calming and Lightning could see the morning mist being scorched away by the rising sun. Creatures were coming out of their dens and she could see all the beauty of Pulse from here. She loved the feel of the wind blowing through her hair and she removed her headgear for a moment of peace to enjoy the cool breeze.

As Superior Commander, Lightning was expected to stay behind and issue orders, or make public appearances, but never go into real danger. Lightning, however, felt it was her duty to check in with her teams, especially on Cocoon, and provide assistance when needed.

Though the possibility of discovering survivors was growing slimmer with each passing hour, Lightning was determined to comb over the entirety of Cocoon until it could be confirmed and reconfirmed that there are neither any salvageable goods nor any persons left alive. The rescue teams had searched every town for obvious survivors, and were presently engaged in the daunting efforts of rescuing the survivors trapped in buildings or underneath the cities, and all buried under the debris. The seemingly impossible task of removing the debris before the survivors died called for the most high-tech demolition and moving tools that Cocoon had to offer and most were in barely working condition.

When she arrived thru the opening at the ruins of Eden, she could see that her soldiers were already hard at work. Since Eden was where the metropolis of Cocoon, the majority of the orb's citizens resided and worked in the great city and consequently suffered the most casualties, but also yielded the most survivors.

She landed atop a crumbled highway and got off her bike to meet up with the Captain of the East Eden team.

An enlisted soldier saluted, "Good morning, Ma'am!"

She returned the salute and passed him at the soldiers digging through the rubble. She made eye contact with the Captain and walked to meet her, "Good morning, Ma'am."

Lightning replied "Good morning, what is your status?"

"We have evidence that there may be people trapped inside a building just underneath this collapsed highway" he responded.

"That's wonderful news, Captain; let's do all we can to get them out of there! I'll send orders to get some equipment over here so we can move this rubble faster." Lightning removed a communication device from her satchel and typed the order. "I must move along, Captain. I will be back later to see how the excavation is coming along."

The Captain replied with a quaint, "Yes, Ma'am."

Lightning nodded and returned to her velocycle. She navigated through the ruins of Cocoon and had become an expert at getting around the remnants of the world they once called home.

As she approached the familiar city of Palumpolum thoughts of Jihl entered her mind, 'I should have just knocked her out earlier.' Lightning thought, gradually increasing acceleration, 'henchman of The Primarch—she would have killed us all, given the chance. Jihl Nabaat is a snake and I know she's up to something.'

"Cocoon is just a nest of vipers, ready to strike." She remembered Fang's scorching words. 'She was right, after all.' Lightning confessed to herself.

Lightning had nearly reached Palumpolum with the resolution to her angst hidden and buried in scars of emotion. 'Fang...' she thought. 'Why can't I stop thinking about you? I know you are still here somewhere and I'm going to find you. I promise.' She tightened her grip on the accelerator zooming past the bent metal beams.

'Pull yourself together, this is nonsense.' She slowed her vehicle when she finally came in sight of the Palumpolum walls.

'Hope's team is down there.' She took a turn and landed on the recently constructed platform atop the fal'Cie Carbuncle's chamber.

After securing her vehicle, she headed toward the sound of commotion. 'Maybe Hope was right about getting into the chamber today, and what impeccable timing.' If something bad was going to happen she preferred to be there than receive a report about it.

As she was walking down the stairs, she saw the familiar markings of Palumpolum that haunt her dreams. "Pets" emerged from her subconscious manifesting itself out of her mouth, and she was stopped in her footsteps…pets.

Hope and I had just arrived in Palumpolum and needed to find an alternate route to gain access to the city. Fortunately, Hope was from Palumpolum and knew of a way. After traveling quite some distance we came to the Carbuncle fal'Cie chamber—the nurturer of Cocoon. Hope stated the obvious as usual, about how strange it was that us Pulse l'Cie were using a Sanctum fal'Cie to find our way. There's nothing at all strange about it, we relied on the Sanctum for everything our whole lives.

Then something occurred to me. "You know, I think Cocoon was really built for them; the rest of us are just leeches - parasites." I guess Hope and I were on the same page because he picked up where I left off.

"You think? They protect us, nurture us. Take care of, well, normal people. They treat us like we're, special, almost like…Like we're pets." He said it, and it all made so much sense! Of course!

"To them, we are just pets." My heart was pounding, my fists clenching. "That's it. Now it makes sense. I've...been so blind!" It all came crashing down on me at once. I then realized that I had relied on the fal'Cie my whole life and it was the only life I knew how to live, and when it was all taken from me I was completely lost. My life had no purpose. "Hope, listen to me! This curse, it took everything from me! My future, my dreams; I didn't want to think, so I fought instead. As long as I was fighting, nothing else was real. I was running away." I told him that we had to stop fighting without a purpose. I promised I would never abandon him.

Realizing she was zoning out blinked her eyes hard and shook her head, 'What was that about?' Lighting pondered. "What the hell are you trying to tell me?" she hissed at herself.

A young man's voice replied, "Is something wrong, Ma'am?" Lightning turned around to see a young Corporal.

"No, Corporal, I am here to see the Commander of this team." Lightning explained.

The young man stiffened up, "Yes Ma'am, I'll take you to Mr. Estheim." She allowed the kid to lead the way, although she was sure that she could find Hope on her own.

Hope had changed considerably since they had brought down the Sanctum. That very day when they awoke on Gran Pulse, he attempted to return to Palumpolum to search for his father. Unfortunately, it took two weeks just to clear a path through the rubble thru Eden from Pulse.

Once there, Hope spent days non-stop digging to find his father, mostly by himself. After witnessing the distress consuming her former partner, Lightning intervened convincing him to work for her and take over the excavation team in Palumpolum. Hope was an expert on the terrain, and it also gave him more resources to find his father.

In order to sustain the survivors until figuring out the basics of agriculture could be developed, Lightning formed a team to recover the stockpile of food left from Carbuncle. Hope was appointed Commander of that team.

From across the site, Lightning saw Hope yelling at one of the soldiers. "Do as I say, I give the orders around here!" Hope ordered to a middle-aged soldier of low rank.

"Commander, nice of you to show up!" he said, gloating in front of the humiliated man.

Lightning grimaced and was prepared to reprimand Hope when he grabbed her arm, "you've got to see this, Light!" He said, forcefully guiding her to the entrance his team was working on.

"As you can see, we will breach the chamber any moment now." Hope declared, standing tall and proud.

"I am going to need to teach you how to talk to your subordinates," Lightning snarled over the growl of excavation machinery.

She looked at the wall of rubble and saw the team working mercilessly to tear away the unrecognizable remains of Palumpolum; yet, the sight of their accomplishment was shadowed by thought of yet another l'Cie disaster.

Lightning walked to the front line, "another pair of hands would certainly help move things along." She grabbed onto the rope they were using to move a boulder blocking their way and pulled alongside the others.

Hope took the hint to grab onto the rope as well and told Lightning: "I didn't get to mention that I will be going in first when we get it open."

Hope's declaration only added to her already immense frustration. 'What if he becomes l'Cie again? Is this a way to get back at losing his father?' She thought, but only briefly, Hope isn't her problem—at least not yet.

After about fifteen minutes of pulling on the rope, there was a loud cracking sound and it suddenly slackened. From the front she heard "GET OUT OF THE WAY!" followed by a earth-shattering rumble.

A young fleeing soldier plowed into Lightning, knocking her down. Upon immediately leaping back to her feet, she saw a gargantuan boulder rolling toward her.

"Oh, shit!" Lightning shouted, activating her Grav-Con unit she leaped up a series of steel rails and jagged stone edges. Vibrations from the dislodged debris broke her escape rail, but she caught the edge with her fingertips. She looked around for a place to get a better hold but there wasn't anything. 'Hold on, just hold on,' she told herself, watching the blood released from her fingers pool around her grip making the surface grow slippery.

When she heard it slam to a stop against a wall her hands no longer grasped the edge and she fell to the ground immediately leaping to her feet and looking around to assess the damage and determine if any casualties were made in the accident. There were no obvious signs that anybody was squished but it was clear that some were slightly injured from dodging the boulder.

She didn't see Hope 'Where is he?' her heart sank into her stomach, 'Oh no, what if he got caught behind the boulder?' She looked down at the floor for any kind of blood or even a trace of Hope but saw no indication of anything of the sort.

Lightning heard commotion coming from the front and ran to investigate. 'Hope…What does he think he's doing?' The other soldiers were all mumbling about their Captain instead of their cuts and bruises. Somehow he was already inside the newly exposed cavern of Carbuncle.

Everyone stood outside the room watching in awe and terror as Hope revealed two semi-automatic pistols and began firing on the unseen fal'Cie. Lightning drew her gunblade to assist him in whatever aggression from the fal'Cie he had perceived, knowing that Hope was no match for a fal'Cie by himself.

A sudden flash of bright light covered everything in a blinding white immobilized her. She heard the gunfire stop and squinted her eyes but could barely see the shadow of Hope. 'Hope, what did you do!?'

Suddenly, an earsplitting pitched sound wave pierced her senses and forced her to her knees in pain, instinctively covering her ears. She screamed and her voice came out broken as the agony suffocated her mind, crushing all coherent thoughts, immobilizing her.

Just when she thought she would lose consciousness it stopped. She opened her eyes and took a couple of seconds for them to focus enabling her see in the dim light."Hope! Where are you?" she shouted.

She headed in the direction of splashing water, "Hope!" She heard what sounded like bubbles again, 'He must have fallen in the water.' "Get a search light! NOW!" She shouted to the frightened soldiers behind her, and dove into the pitch black water.

Lightning pulled as deeply as possible and kicked back toward the top diagonally, her lungs burned and ached for air when she returned to the surface. "Hope! Can you hear me?" In the distance Lightning heard a splash, and immediately she swam in that direction.

When the soldiers returned, they turned the beam of light toward the splashing sounds of the water and illuminated Lightning. Then, right in front of her, she could see the tips of Hope's hand, so she dove under the water, grabbed Hope by his waist, pulling him to the surface. He coughed and gasped for air as the two emerged from the water.

"Thank you, Light," he panted, "I don't know what happened back there."

Lightning grabbed ahold of the rope which the other soldiers had thrown down for them, and his team pulled the rope, returning the two leaders to the platform.

"I'm going to assess the damage and assign a party to investigate the rest of this chamber. In the meantime, I want the medics to make sure that you are okay." Lightning ordered a nearby Sergeant. She was drenched and still disoriented from the shrieking Carbuncle but her instincts told her to be the leader she is meant to be.

Lightning grabbed three soldiers and continued toward the Carbuncle. The chamber was dark and the sparkling remnants of spent magic glowed upon the walls. 'Looks like Carbuncle is dead. The last time I saw him, he had an Amber glow, but there's no way to be certain without putting lives at risk.'

Lightning halted the party and turned to the soldiers "I don't want you to allow anyone to proceed beyond this point. I don't care the rank, the position, or the urgency. I want constant guard on this position. To be alternated every 2 hours and relieved to be cleared medically by your command after each shift. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Ma'am," the trio replied. Lightning saluted and proceeded to retrieve Hope and exit the chamber.

The soldiers had already begun excavating the food surplus, which to Lightning's dismay didn't appear to be the great stockpile everyone was hoping for. She decided to go where the medics had taken Hope.

They had carried him to a private tent so that they could observe his body for any injuries, or l'Cie markings. Upon entering, Hope stood there in his skivvies—at least there weren't any obvious signs indicating that he was branded. "What were you thinking when you decided to open fire on a fal'Cie—what you did back there, you put everyone's life at risk without even considering the consequences of your actions."

He just stared at the ground without response or attempt to defend his decision.

"I want to take you off this team," said Lightning.

Hope looked up at her and said, "You know I can't leave here. I have to find him, Light—he's all that I have left. Even if I find him a lifeless corpse, I won't quit until I know for sure."

If she had a button to push it was that, Lightning could relate with what Hope was going through—she was looking for someone too. "This can't happen again, Hope. I expect more from you. We all hate the Sanctum for what happened, but you can't take it out on these people. Getting yourself killed won't change anything either."

She reached out and laid her hand on Hope's shoulder but he shamefully turned his head away.

He is going to be okay, she decided, and it was time for her leave this area and continue her Cocoon sweep. "I want a full report on what happened here today, and try to find the source of that brain-splitting shrill in the chamber."

"I'll get right on top of that, Light. Commander." Hope replied, forcing the words.

Lightning returned to her velocycle and the rest of the afternoon went on smoothly, she assisted in helping another of her teams recover a survivor who had been fending off the beasts at Lake Bresha.

The recent survivors seemed frenzied, covered and blood and on the verge of becoming feral which was indicated by pelts and scales of the beasts they fought for their lives against adorned upon their own bodies.

The sun was beginning to descend on the horizon as she headed back to Eden excavation headquarters. It was only a short ride for Lightning and when the saw the site, she could tell immediately that they had excavated out a great deal debris today. It occurred to Lightning that they were getting close enough to the survivors to order the mission to continue into the night.

There were many divisions and teams stationed at the Eden Headquarters, and when she came closer, she noticed that the Subterranean supply team was out of place. She had explicitly given them orders to remain at their duty station.

"Jihl..." Lightning spat through gritted teeth.

Her eyes were slits when she landed, and with clenched fists, she walked over the site looking for Jihl.

The Captain from earlier stopped in front of her, saluted and greeted her, "Ma'am, we are very close to breaking through the brothel, it looks like only a few more hours. I am requesting permission for an overnight continuance."

Anger having the better of her at this point, she didn't waste any time. "Permission granted, Captain. Could you tell me where I can find the Oerba Supply Commander?"

The Captain started to say something when he was interrupted..."There was a global request in the supply database for a superconductor energy platform—fortunately we had one. We responded quickly from the Subterra and were able to install it before nightfall," Jihl said, in her best hero stance.

Lightning acknowledged Jihl's explanation with a grimacing nod. She pushed passed a disappointed Jihl to where the rescue tunnel was being constructed. The Colonel followed Lighting and explained that a sergeant from the night before had heard some kind of faint music. Lightning went to investigate for herself and beyond the sounds of heavy construction equipment, she faintly heard something, 'that's music...there really are survivors down there and they have found a way to make music.' She decided to reward the sergeant with something special, 'perhaps a promotion'.

Lightning knew it was going to be a long night and decided—since they had gotten new supplies today from various teams—coffee would be a refreshing reward for all of their efforts.

"Captain Nabaat, since you have proven to be so useful today, I am assigning you to the Eden Team for the remainder of the night. I am sure they could use all the help they can get." Lightning let a half smile come over her face when she turned and walked toward the commander's tent.

Lightning naturally took a seat at the commander's desk and opened her notepad to review her notes. When she was nearly finished reading her notes, an unwelcomed subordinate entered the tent. "Commander Farron—Lightning, I have something that may interest to you."

"Captain Nabaat—Jihl, I don't care about what you have to say to me. Didn't I make that clear this morning? Now get back to work or I will cite you for dereliction of duty." Lightning said, never averting her eyes from the notepad.

Jihl released the shoulder strap of the long black case from behind her and threw it upon the commander's desk. Lightning leaped from her seat and without investigating the mysterious case, she roared, "I warned you, Jihl."

"Open it before you jump to conclusions." Jihl said sternly.

"Why? It's probably one of your Sanctum traps." Lightning stood up slowly and glared at Jihl then looked down at the long black case that was sitting there in front of her.

"It's not a trap. Just open the case." Jihl pleaded.

Lightning was going to punish Jihl, either professionally or physically, and depending on what the case contains will determine which she would impose.

She breathed deeply and unfastened the locks on the case slowly. Once all three were undone, she looked back to Jihl and opened the case.

Lightning's eyes grew wide and her mouth dropped. She stepped back, her heart pounding hard as the rage grew in her chest. Her lip got stiff and her breathing became shallow. She looked away from the box and directed her glare to Jihl, while she placed her hand upon her gunblade.

"Why in the hell do you have this?" she shouted.

"I am going to help you find her," Jihl explained. "It's a long story, and I'll explain it to you, but right now I just need to you to trust me…you need my help, and she doesn't have a lot of time."

Lightning couldn't believe what she was hearing—or seeing. 'How did she get Fang's lance? How does Jihl know about Fang and me? Ugh, none of this makes any sense! That Sanctum snake!'

"If you know where she is, Jihl, you'd better tell me NOW!" Lightning forced the desk out of the way with her gunblade point in line to Jihl's heart, she approached Jihl.

"I can't, that's why I am here. I had overheard that they were getting into the Carbuncle chamber very soon and I knew there wasn't much time left. I wanted it to all be a dream, but then I knew it wasn't. That's why I've tried getting you to listen to me. You need to save Fang."

"What are you talking about, Jihl? I swear I'll fucking kill you if you don't start talking," Lightning snarled.

"It's not what you think. Just please trust me, there's a way to save her on Pulse," Jihl explained.

Lightning didn't know whether to believe her or if this was just a low-level deception Jihl was trying to play on her. 'There's more than one way to make a person talk.'

Lightning forced Jihl against a stack of crates. She could see the beads of sweat form on Jihl's face. She got closer, so close that she could see Jihl's neck veins bulging in struggle to swallow the salt from her dry mouth.

She positioned herself in a way that Jihl's breasts rubbed against her own through their clothes with each nervous breath.

Lightning leaned in closer, so that the moisture of her breath would lie on Jihl's ear from the words. "You know what I would do to you if you did something to Fang?" she moved her left hand around Jihl's waist to pull her closer, "Of course I do." She moved her other hand up and grabbed a handful of Jihl's blonde hair, pulling it slightly, causing Jihl to let a soft moan escape her lips. "Hurts so good, doesn't it Jihl?" A bead of sweat rolled down Jihl's face and landed on her neck.

Lightning noticed the shiny droplet of lust and forcefully licked the salty evidence of Jihl's arousal away. Jihl's eyes rolled back and she nearly lost her balance. "Just imagine what I will do to you…" Jihl cowardly moaned again at Lightning's moist breath in her ear "If you screw with me."

Jihl didn't struggle to protest and only rasply replied, "I wouldn't dream of it."

"There's a fate worse than death that awaits you, Jihl. You won't have any lives to spare when I am finished with you if you fuck with me. That's a promise," Lightning shoved her away and turned back to the case upon the desk.

She ran her finger over the edges and grooves of the crafted weapon, remembering the way it tore through flesh in battle and fit into Fang's hands so inherently.

Jihl remained still, her body and mind still reeling from this bizarrely arousing confrontation with her former foe.

The construction noises outside the tent seemed nonexistent even Jihl's menacing presence faded and her face became devoid of emotion, she could hold it back it was something she had learned to do as a child—nobody need know her feelings. It was safer this way, so they can't use them against her.

We had finally made it to Dysley's chamber and were ready to get rid of him once and for all. We were running as fast as we could; once he was in sight his guard dog, Jihl Nabaat, leapt down and drew her weapon at us. She had the audacity to try and protect Dysley's escape, but no matter, I would cut her down to get to him. Then the unexpected happened; he wasn't going to leave. He even asked Jihl to leave.

The sound of his voice sent chills down my spine as he continued, "Or rather, why don't you take your leave? Humans have no business here."

What was he saying? Jihl couldn't believe it either; she lowered her weapon and turned to ask the same thing I was thinking. Dysley's response was a blast of magic that killed Jihl on impact. It can't be! More magic flew out of his staff and obliterated the roof of the Palamecia.

Snow shouted, "You monster! People are not yours to use!"

Dysley floated down to the floor where we stood and said, "What else does one do with tools?" Snow ran at him fists drawn and couldn't even touch him; Dysley had used magic to repel Snow. Dysley continued, "Cocoon is a factory built by fal'Cie; a factory built for the mass production of human falls. What can mere men do without our help? Death is all with which you are capable. You saw the fools; a mindless mob drunk on the fear of a few l'Cie."

I couldn't believe that this bastard was talking about humans like that; he's a l'Cie as well, and they deserved to know! I drew my gunblade and spoke, "If they only knew a l'Cie was the one filling their glasses."

Dysley paused and said, "l'Cie?" and he laughed, "You mean me?" he continued laughing, "Oh child, perish the thought," and began to rise into the sky, "I am more than that." He raised his staff into the air with a blinding light and his voice changed. "I am fal'Cie. My name is Barthandelus."

I opened my eyes and he had transformed into a giant monster with two heads on either side, one in the middle, and monstrous claws. He continued explaining, "Voice of the Sanctum and lord sovereign of the Cocoon fal'Cie. Your kind feared the darkness and we gave you light. You begged us for the purge and did it not come to pass? Now you spurn our counsel? You must learn your place!" There was no way I would back down; I would fight this fal'Cie even if it killed me.

Once the fight was over Snow said what we were all thinking "A fal'Cie running the sanctum."

Hope interjected, "I guess Eden isn't running things after all."

I didn't want to believe it and then Dysley—or rather Barthandelus—reappeared. "As I said, I am Lord Sovereign."

I wasn't sure that I was ready to fight this monster again, but I was ready to give it all I had. Sazh commented that fal'Cie don't die as easily as the rest of us. Barthandelus corrected him that ease isn't the issue but we had not fought to win.

"You should know well already the sure way of dispatching our kind." I stepped forward sure that he would transform one more; and as he said "Ragnarok" we all gasped. We knew the fable of Ragnarok; everyone from Cocoon did.

But Fang wasn't from Cocoon and she said, "What's Ragnarok?" with a look of disgust on her face.

Then she yelled in pain and grabbed her arm where her icy brand was. It made me so angry to see her in pain; she was so strong and for Barthandelus to do this to her was crossing the line. He provoked her, "Pitiful l'Cie, you've forgotten your focus," he continued, "Ragnarok is the beast one of you must become in order to lay waste to Cocoon." He said pointing at all of us. He disappeared and reappeared in front of each of us. "One of you will become the monstrosity, defeat Orphan, and destroy Cocoon." He continued to reveal the purpose of our focus and how we needed Eden to live and Eden needed Orphan and without either we would not live.

Fang stood up still holding her arm and asked him, "So if I did that…destroyed Orphan…"

He appeared directly in her face and said, "Your focus would be fulfilled."

Her mouth dropped open and the sadness, fear, and child-like naivety that she had tried to hide for so long suddenly appeared upon her face like a target. I couldn't take it, what he was doing to her. I swung my gunblade at him but he vanished.

I yelled, "Who says it has to be?"

Snow told him about what Serah had told us right before she was turned to crystal. Barthandelus just laughed and told us that Serah's true focus was to bring us together so that we could destroy Cocoon. He told us to accept the truth and with that, he flew away in his air ship.

The Palamecia was quickly descending too and we ran to an escape ship. After an air battle or two we landed on Gran Pulse in a place called the Fifth Ark.

The memory of Jihl's murder coincided with discovery of Dysley in fact being fal'Cie Barthandelus—it was a burning image in her mind that would surely never go away. Lightning wanted answers, and if playing Jihl's little game would obtain them, well she always played to win.

Lightning stood up and fastened the lance over her shoulder. If she was going to on a mission to find Fang, returning her lance would be the only appropriate course of action, not to mention the weapon being an extension of Fang's presence and power.

Jihl was watching Lightning's purposeful movements attentively, waiting for the next move to prepare to defend herself as she remained still uncertain of Lightning's disposition.

Lightning looked to Jihl, "Well, what is your plan?"

Jihl cleared her throat, "you may want to prepare for a long journey. Be ready for anything."

Lightning just looked at her and replied, "Jihl, I'm certain that I can handle whatever comes my way. If it's a journey we're going on," Lightning kept walking past her, "assign your command over to a subordinate. I'll do the same, and you're coming with me" and she disappeared out the side of the tent without waiting for Jihl to acknowledge the order.

Lightning walked over to the excavation site. "Captain, there is a situation that requires my attention on Gran Pulse. You will continue your mission and command of this operation until I send my Executive Officer up to take my place." He acknowledged the orders and saluted.

She walked over to her velocycle, pulled out her flask and emptied the container of the reality-distorting-liquid awaiting Jihl.

When Jihl emerged from behind several crates and found Lightning straddled on her velocycle, she secured her satchel and climbed onto the back seat putting her arms cautiously secured around Lightning and the engines ripped the sky toward Gran Pulse.

The atmosphere had faded to purple and gray, the sun had set on the horizon but the evening sky was still painted by its memory.

Lightning was heading out into the vastness of Gran Pulse for hope resting entirely on the words of infamous Jihl Nabaat, 'Have I given up on the promise?' she stared blankly ahead toward her destination, trying her best to ignore Jihl's touch around her waist and the warmth from being crouched into her back, Lightning was trying to withhold the urge to wretch.

'I believed that I lost everything when crystal stasis had taken my sister. I realized after it was certain you were gone that I had lost more than I could have ever imagined. I won't give up until I find you, no matter what I have to do.' Lightning reaffirmed herself amidst the mixed feelings she was fostering toward this side quest with Jihl.

Lightning could not speak of this Fang mission with any one of her former comrades; they would never that accept she was going on a journey with the villainous Jihl for long-lost Fang—besides it was nobody's business as far as she was concerned.

She landed the velocycle just outside of Oerba behind large stones a few meters from the military headquarters. "Jihl, I want you take my cycle to the motor pool in HQ, and make sure nobody sees you" Lightning ordered while she dismounting, allowing Jihl to assume driving position.

"We will need transportation to get to where we are going," Jihl retorted.

"I am aware of that and will make other arrangements for transportation. I will meet you in this exact place in about one hour," Lightning turned away and headed for Oerba, without waiting for a response.

The walk into town was a short one, and Lightning's mind was racing with the thoughts and possibilities of what's to come. First, though, she needed to find her executive officer.

She arrived at the dilapidated cargo container remodeled into a make-shift- home and took a deep breath before lifting the metallic knocker on the door. Almost instantly the door flew open "Hey Claire! What's up?"

"Hey Serah, I need to find Snow. Is he here?" Lighting asked.

"Yeah, he just got home a few minutes ago. Is everything all right?" Serah asked.

"Everything is fine, however I need him to report to Eden immediately," she replied as Snow appeared behind Serah placing his hand upon her shoulder.

"Hey, sis! Come in and…" Lightning interrupted "I really don't have time. I need you to report to the excavation site at Eden and oversee the operation until I return."

He reached over and grabbed his coat off the coat hanger. "Sure, anything Light…but what's going on, what happened?"

Lightning's eyes locked with his, "Nothing happened. I have been given confidential information that I must investigate personally." Lightning explained.

"Come on Light, you can tell me." Snow smiled with manipulative intrigue.

Lightning's brow arched and lip quivered in warning that Snow had best not pry. "You can count on me, Sis." He nodded and turned to Serah embracing her and bid farewell with a kiss.

The pair walked the dimly lit street along the lake and toward the gate, when they were within eyeshot of the headquarters Snow finally spoke up. "I know you don't want keep me in the loop but—what's going on at Eden and why do you want me to be acting Commander?" he asked while buttoning his coat.

"There's an excavation of a highway to recover survivors at Eden. As I said, I just need you to oversee the operation there and any other issues that may come up until I return." She explained, picking up the pace of her gait.

"They breeched Carbuncle and are doing an overnight excavation in Eden…You don't have to tell me what is so important that you have to handle it personally, just don't get yourself killed. You owe that much to Serah, after all you went through to get her back." Snow knew that she wasn't telling him something important—it just wasn't like her to excuse herself from anything important she had to personally oversee the missions Cocoon and never attended matters elsewhere when there was more work to be done.

The last time she had asked him to perform any duties as executive officer was three days after the encounter Orphan. Lightning came upon 'intelligence' that she deemed 'top secret' and disappeared from civilization. When she returned she had burns, scrapes and was bruised all over with scorched hair, but she didn't give any kind of information as to where she was or what she was doing while she was there only that the Subterra required her attention and for Lightning, it was back to work as usual never mentioning the incident again. Only one time did Snow attempted to ask about what had happened to her, and she broke his nose with her backhand after not heeding her warning against prying for information—he never asked again.

She walked with him to the edge of HQ guard towers and stopped. "I don't have time to brief yourself on today's events but there is a stack of reports on my desk. Go over them before you head to Cocoon and see my notes if you need my input" She explained, reaching into her satchel to hand over her data pad. "I don't know how long I will be gone, but I am sure that you can handle whatever comes up." She continued, "You have the authority to issue orders in my absence. I made you my second-in-command because of your leadership experience with NORA and I trust you. Don't let me down."

Snow looked puzzled at this turn of events, but knew from past experiences with her that it was best to not ask questions. He shook his head, "Okay, Light, you know where to find me if you need anything. Have a safe journey." He continued without Lightning proceeding to the headquarters.

Lightning backtracked and headed out into the rocky highlands to secure their transportation.

She was sprinting between monsters and imperfections in the ground, wishing for luck to be on her side should an Ochu or Behemoth be lurking in the shadows with a surprise attack.

Lightning knew she was getting close to her destination when the sweet smell of methane permeated the air. 'Nothing like shit to bring a sense of relief' she thought, feeling repulsed.

Lightning could see the windows of the metal trailer illuminated, indicating to her that the rancher is still awake. Just as she stepped onto the porch, she heard the distinct clicking of a revolver hammer.

"Sazh, I need a couple Chocobos." Lightning sternly declared.

The door knob slowly twisted downward and Lightning stepped back. The door flung open, "Good to see you too, Light."

Sazh stepped aside revealing Dahj in the background drawing a picture. "Want to come in for a moment to catch your breath?"

She leaned against the door frame and crossed her arms. "Thanks, I would love to stay and catch up but I just need to get the Chocobos and be on my way."

He replied jokingly. "Two, huh? How are you going to ride two Chocobos?"

Lightning was getting frustrated. "I really don't have time Sazh."

He walked out the door. "Okay, okay, come with me—I'll see what I can do."

Sazh and his son Dahj had moved away from the rest of the settlers and began tending to the native chocobos. He felt that it was the Chocobo that had kept him from losing himself when he was a l'Cie and they helped him to save his son. He wrangled as many Chocobos as he could and strangely enough, he seemed to attract them.

"I can't guarantee that the fastest are also the tamest," he warned as he was opening the gate.

"I just need one that will follow commands and get me to where I'm going as quickly as possible," she replied.

"Well, I think I have just what you need." He opened the stables to a pair of male Chocobos. "Well, here they are, Lightning. I hope this helps you get to where you need to go"

Lightning walked over to them and grabbed the reigns to the birds. "Thanks Sazh, I owe you."

He smiled, "Don't mention it." She mounted the giant bird and Sazh handed her the reigns to the second one. "Good luck, Lightning," he waved good-bye.

She set off in the darkness to meet up with Jihl who should be waiting for Lightning to arrive. She could hear beasts fighting with each other in the distance, just over the sound of the galloping Chocobo pounding the ground with its enormous feet.

Returning to the rendezvous point she smirked upon discovery of Jihl obediently waiting for her to arrive. "Here, hope you know how to ride one of these things," Lightning said as she handed the reins down to Jihl.

"I think I can remember, I used to train them when I was young." Jihl said leaping aboard the bird with lackluster proficiency.

Lightning just glared at her and said, "Don't fall off."

"So you're ready? Ya know, there isn't a lot we can hope to do in darkness," Jihl asked.

Lightning sighed deeply, "You have the details, where are we going?"

Jihl then realized her power, being in charge of the situation with Lightning at her command, "Well, we need to go to the Yaschas Massif," she smiled.

Lightning paused for a moment and then kicked the sides of the Chocobo, and headed toward the Massif with Jihl following loosely behind.

The Chocobo galloped through the night with Lightning steadfast atop him. Any monsters unfortunate enough to be in the reach of her gunblade were slashed with powerful blows, which unleashed a spray of blood and chunks onto the Chocobo's yellow feathers. Sazh provided birds with so much stamina that she could have pushed them all night and they would have still run just as quickly.

Lightning was racing toward the Yaschas Massif at full speed to reduce any chances that she would be stumbled upon with Jihl. "Once we are closer, we will stop and make a camp for the night," She shouted over the galloping Chocobos and roaring monsters.

The moon was high in the sky when they finally reached a valley near their destination. When Lightning hadn't heard any monsters for a while she came to a halt. "Wait here, I'm going to scout ahead to make sure this is a safe place to pitch camp" Jihl nodded her head in acknowledgement and Lightning continued up the valley. She only went roughly a half kilometer thru the valley to check for any monsters, but she had learned from experience on Gran Pulse that just because you can't see any monsters doesn't always mean there aren't any.

When Lightning returned to where she had left Jihl, she was surprised to see that a campfire was already kindled. Lightning wasn't sure the fire was a good idea, but she was hungry and was almost hoping a beast would pass so she could eat something more substantial than Ochu nuts.

Lightning leaped off of her Chocobo, walked over to the campfire, and threw her sack of nuts on the ground at Jihl's feet.

"What's that?" she said looking at the strange thing lying at her feet.

"What does it look like? Dinner," Lightning replied, walking over to her Chocobo to brush him.

Jihl set the nut sack on the fire while she attempted roasting a cup of Flan she had scooped up earlier, while Lightning strategically placed sensors around their perimeter to alert her of any trespassing enemies during the night.

Once she was certain of their temporary isolation she sat atop her sleeping roll. Thoughts of the day's events with Palumpolum, Lake Bresha, and Eden were consuming her and she began doubting her decision to leave Snow in charge.

The bizarre reality is that she is now here, with Jihl Nabaat with the first clue since the day of Ragnarok to elude of Fang's presence. 'I hope Snow makes the right decisions while I am away; and Hope finding his father…I don't want to think about that. This time, I am not going back until I find Fang. I am going to find her.' Lightning leaned back and stared into the bright, clear sky 'I need a drink,' then she remembered that failed to meet with Lebreau today as she had intended to.

When the meal was served and Lightning ate in silence, which made Jihl uneasy. Jihl attempted to make gestures, she wanted to say something, but the words couldn't escape her lips.

"Want to tell me what's in Yaschas Massif?" Lightning spoke up when she finished eating.

"There is a city there called Paddra, we need some kind of ancient fal'Cie machine which is located somewhere in that city." Jihl explained, while still chewing her food.

Lightning stood up and said, "A fal'Cie?! I have been there Jihl, and I am certain there is nothing but ruins in the Paddraean Archaeopolis."

Jihl quickly interjected. "You must have missed it then, because I know it's there."

Lightning thought about it: 'we didn't search the entirety of the city because we were running out of time with the brands on our arms, and most of it was inaccessible by fallen ruins, but we did search most of the area. How does she even know about Paddra or anything about what's there?' and said, "Okay, Jihl, how do you know it's there? How do you know it won't just brand us l'Cie and make us Cie'th like the rest of the inhabitants of Paddra—how do you know any of this for that matter?!" Lightning said with furious crescendo. "Explain yourself, Nabaat!"

Jihl sighed and set down her dinner, "I thought it was all a dream." She stood up and walked about, "at least, I wanted it all to be a dream. After Dysley knocked me out for protecting him from you l'Cie, I woke up surrounded by brilliant blue lights. I couldn't breathe, talk, or move, and I thought for sure I had turned to crystal just as that kid, Dahj. I was ready to accept my fate: an eternity encased in crystal with nothing but my memories and imagination to keep me company—and suddenly this intense feeling came over me that I still can't describe. Everything had gone dark, and I was feeling cold and lonely. I saw images of people I had never met in my entire life, and witnessing things I never knew existed. It was as if I was living inside their mind and was the most surreal thing I've ever experienced. I saw how Cocoon was created, I learned the real nature of the fal'Cie, and I saw the death and destruction of the War of Transgression; so many things I thought I knew but had no idea. Yet, as amazing as seeing all of that was, the most incredible event was what happened next. I felt like an infant wrapped in my mother's warm breast, hearing her soft cooing voice and the gentle rhythm of her heart beat and she was telling me of my fate." Jihl stopped and looked at Lightning's eyes from the other side of the fire, "Reuniting you with Fang is my destiny, and part of something that neither you nor I can ever imagine."

Lightning didn't know whether to laugh or punch her in the face, but she wasn't willing to call her a liar just yet. The tears streaming down Jihl's face, evoked sympathetic reason "So you were crystal, had some crystal dreams, and felt that it was your duty to bring me along with you?" Lightning asked, tempered words exposing her disbelief.

Jihl sniffled and wiped her tears, "I don't know. I awoke completely wet in a field. I had no idea what had happened to me; I looked around dazed and then I looked up and saw Cocoon; I was certain they had banished me to Pulse because I had failed to defend Dysley. I wandered around aimlessly until I saw some PSICOM soldiers who appeared to be scouts; I caught the attention of a soldier and ordered him to retrieve me a uniform. I walked over to the platoon of soldiers and it was as though my name had no authority, it was as if I didn't exist anymore. I knew then that I had indeed been banished. I was about to leave and face my punishment of banishment, when I heard them talking of a Supreme Commander Lightning Farron. I couldn't take it, I had been defeated, banished, and the enemy won. I had devoted my entire life to defending the Sanctum and Cocoon and I felt that I had allowed a l'Cie to single-handedly bring down the Sanctum and destroy Cocoon. I felt empty, and I wanted revenge for you having taken everything away from me."

Lightning grew angry at the revelation in Jihl's story. "So, you want revenge, is that why you dragged me out here in the middle of nowhere?" she snarled, placing her hand upon her gunblade.

"At first I wanted revenge, that's why I used my former connections to attain the Supply Commander position. Until one night, I felt this burning sensation from between my legs, like nothing I had ever felt before. I pulled my pants down to see what this searing was and there it was. It was a scorched symbol from the dream I had….A brand, you could say."

Jihl unabashedly unbuttoned her pants and revealed the scorched skin for Lightning to see. It didn't look like any l'Cie mark she had ever seen; even Fang's strange brand didn't resemble this mark.

"Okay, so you got burned in the Cocoon transition, still doesn't explain what you know about Fang." Lightning said, fiercely frustrated.

"When I put my hand to the brand I kept seeing all of these images just like those from my dream. Anytime my brand would burn, all I would have to do is place my hand over it then I have these visions. I guess it all started to make sense, like the Carbuncle chamber. When I overheard them talking I had already seen a vision of that and it all came together like a missing piece of the puzzle. I knew what I had to do, and as much as I didn't want to, I didn't want the alternative even more. We have to go to the Yaschas Massif city of Paddra and retrieve this ancient machine and then I'll let you know what we need to after that."

"What did you do at Palumpolum, Jihl?!" Lightning demanded.

Jihl replied, "It was vision, and I can't explain it, but we need the machine in Paddra to put all of this together. It's the only way I can lead you to Fang. I need you for my destiny just as much as you need me to help you find yours."

Lightning puffed, she didn't like the idea of not having a choice but to follow this snake around to find Fang—especially after the story she had just told her. She wouldn't be getting any sleep tonight, but that is just life as usual for Lightning.

The Tsubaddran Highlands were a really peaceful place; it felt like we were going in the right direction. Everything was incredibly strange about being on Pulse, and seeing the floating orb in the sky that we call home was the most bizarre. It was all so surreal but it didn't bother me as much as I thought it would have…there was actually a kind of peace to it. The monsters here were all so great and similar to those we had encountered on Cocoon, but different, wild. We continued throughout the highlands until we approached what looked like the ruins of a city. "Paddra," I heard from behind, and then Fang walked up from behind me and put her hands on her hips, looking at the ruined walls. "Ya know, I gotta say…this is weird. When we were young, we were always taught that someday we would be attacked by the demons of Cocoon. And look at us now, waltzing back into Oerba with the people we were chosen to take up arms against." Vanille picked up where she left off, "Yea, we would have never helped you guys."

What were they getting at? Now that they are home they feel bad about helping us save Cocoon? They want out?

What was I thinking— I'm being paranoid. Sazh kept talking with Vanille about how she has to complete a new focus. "Right, must have been centuries ago when Fang and I joined the battle against Cocoon. During the fight, I became Ragnarok and cracked Cocoon's shell."

She's hiding something, I can tell. The others might be convinced at of her innocence but I know there is something she is hiding, I can feel it. Fang doesn't remember a thing, yet Vanille remembers almost everything. It's not my business to say anything though, and I'm sure everything will come out soon.

I felt my heart sinking as I saw the sorrow and pain in her face as she just stared blankly at the ruins of what was once a city of her home world; I imagined of all the people that she knew and loved, all of whom are now gone forever…then I remembered my parents; I know what it's like to lose someone forever, and that's why I will save Serah. Times like this, when I can feel my emotions getting the better of me, I usually just hit something, but suddenly, just for a moment, I found myself afraid...of being alone. I stood adjacent to her with my arms crossed, as I always stand when I retreat into my mind.

I don't know how long I had been standing like that, but she turned to me and her eyes met mine. I could feel her piercing eyes looking right into my soul. I was exposed. I felt my stomach turning itself into knots, the way you feel when you get caught doing something you shouldn't be. I felt my palms getting sweaty and it suddenly got warm. Before I could break away from her trance she stepped closer, cupped my face in her palm, and said, "No worries, love, I woke up from crystal stasis and she will too." I wanted nothing more than to run away, or say something smart-assed; she was too close and before I could react she had already started walking away.

I didn't understand what I was feeling, but I could still feel the warmth from where her hand had just touched me. I didn't understand a lot of things when it came to that woman, it didn't bother me…I felt like a different person when I was around her. When I was close by her, for some reason, I knew everything would be all right.

The sky grew lighter and gray replaced black, but the sun hadn't risen over the horizon yet. It was time to start a new day and she was one step closer to Fang. Lightning stood up, yawned, and stretched her arms over her head. She walked to the other side of the still-smoking embers of the campfire where Jihl still lie asleep.

Lightning kicked Jihl in the shoulder, not hard, but with enough force roll her onto her stomach.

Startled, Jihl pushed herself up so that she was kneeling at Lightning's boots wiping away strands of hair glued to her lips by dried saliva.

"Get up, we're leaving," Lightning said before walking over to a bush where she relieved herself.

Jihl stood up and shivered at the mild breeze that was blowing up through the valley, so she adjusted her coat to keep warm.

Lightning watched her movements from behind the bush and waited to see what Jihl would do in her absence. To her surprise though, she just collected the items from around the camp.

Lightning decided to go ahead and mount her Chocobo, and Jihl followed, "Are you ready? It might get dangerous."

"Haven't forgotten how to use that baton have you, Nabaat?" Lightning mocked.

Jihl sneered and grabbed the reigns of her Chocobo, and the duo set off toward the Paddraean Archaeopolis. After a few hours on the Highlands, the city finally rose out in the distance, "There it is, The Pulsian city of Paddra." Lightning whispered to herself.

"Once we get there, be prepared to fight lots of powerful Cie'th." Lightning shouted to Jihl.

Jihl replied inaudibly, and they continued pushing forward. Finally, they reached the area where the Chocobo could go no farther. Lightning took this opportunity to ensure that Jihl was prepared to encounter the Cie'th.

"Are you sure you're prepared?" Lightning asked; to reassure that she wouldn't be forced to fight off hundreds of Cie'th alone.

"Yes, and you seem to forget that while I worked for Dysley, I was still a trained killer." she replied.

"All right, then." They dismounted, the Chocobos releasing them so that they could run away if monsters or Cie'th approached. The pair walked toward the entrance to the city when Jihl stopped at the edge of a large rock and kicked the ground.

Jihl reached down and picked up a green bottle, "Hey, would ya look! It's a deceptisol, this hasn't been here long at all."

"We must have dropped it we were here the last time," Lightning replied.

"Last time you were here—with Fang, you mean?" Jihl inquired.

Lightning just continued walking until they were within a few yards of the Cie'th when she stopped.

"Have you ever fought one?" Lightning asked while she pulled out her gunblade, inspecting it for any imperfections.

"No, but I have seen enough to know how to fight them." Jihl replied.

Lightning proceeded forward "Just try to avoid them; if you have never fought one before they might be too tough for you," she said.

Jihl felt insulted, like a novice apprentice who can't be trusted. She kept it to herself though and nodded.

Stealthily they passed the Cie'th patrolling the entryway into the city, but soon after getting deeper into the city ruins the Cie'th number multiplied. 'This city must have had thousands of people in it...and they all turned into Cie'th. How horrible, and to think we almost faced the same fate,' Lightning thought looking at all of the Cie'th.

"It looks like we may have to fight our way through. Just follow my lead and don't let them overpower you, they will be slow, but they can debilitate you quickly with powerful blows. And save that Deceptisol—we might need it to get out of here," Lightning explained to Jihl.

They jumped off the ledge and started running toward the center of the city, and surprisingly Jihl ran ahead of Lightning, "Follow me. I think it's this way," she shouted.

They ran toward a large temple-like structure which had pillars and crumbled statues around it. Lightning took a quick glimpse over her shoulder, "Hurry up! They're right behind us!" she said, running as fast as her legs would carry her.

They had almost reached the door when she heard a loud thud striking the back of her head, knocking her forward and down.

"Ow! What the…" Lightning groaned.

Jihl leaped up the stairs to the temple and was about to enter the building when she realized that Lightning was not with her. She looked back and saw Cie'th gathering around—Lightning was in trouble. "Oh shit, I'm coming!" Jihl drew her baton, cast a haste spell and ran back to assist.

Lightning reached for her gunblade, but was met with the crashing arm of a Cie'th.

"This is going to be bad!" she said while looking around at all of the Cie'th, who were approaching from behind and surrounding her.

Jihl stood over Lightning, and with paralyzing force unleashed a barrage on the Cieth, allowing Lightning to get up. "Come on, let's go! Get inside!" Lightning said with her gunblade blazing— they were far too outnumbered to attempt winning this fight.

The two forced their way to the temple, but for every Cie'th killed three would take its place. The door to the temple was within eyesight when Jihl screamed and fell to her knees. Clutching her lower stomach, she screamed. "No! Not now! Please not now!"

Lightning reached down and grabbed Jihl's jacket, dragging the incapacitated villian with her left arm while slashing Cie'th with her right. "Come on, Nabaat! Pull yourself together!" Lightning shouted.

It didn't take long for the Cie'th barrage to render them both immobilized. Lightning lay on the ground looking at the monstrous Cie'th preparing to kill her, and shouted, "I won't go out like this!" with declaration that this would not be how she dies.

After another blow from the Cie'th, she felt her life escaping her, 'I am not going to make it…I'm sorry, Fang…'

A faint image of something flying behind a Cie'th was the last thing she saw before the darkness consumed her, "Snow."

Snow flew his bike over the Cie'th who relentlessly assaulted Lighting. He fired rounds from his machine gun at the Cie'th until it ran out of bullets.

He leaped off his velocycle with fists tearing down into the legion of Cie'th. Then suddenly, the Cie'th dispersed and he ran over to Lightning. He slowed in his approach when he saw Jihl, who was lying next to a knocked out Lightning, with her hand still clutching Jihl's coat.

Snow ignored the tormented moans of Jihl and focused on the lifeless body of his future sister-in-law. "Light! Wake up!" he shouted, dropping to his knees and shaking her. "Damnit, Sis, why did you come here?"

He looked around, the Cie'th had retreated for now but he knew he needed to get them inside the building to heal. He looked over to Jihl and asked, "Can you move?"

Jihl moaned in agony in response.

"Guess that means no. Well, let's get you two inside." He walked over to the doors and opened them, peeked inside for any monsters. Then he went back to Lightning and Jihl where he aligned their bodies. He bent down, put both arms underneath the women and lifted them up onto his shoulders.

Snow walked up the stairs and into the building, setting them down on benches that ran along the back wall. The sound of lurking monsters reminded him that he had forgotten to close the door. He ran back to close it, and reached deep into his coat pockets for potions. Hand finding purchase, he ran back to the incapacitated duo.

He opened the bottle of Phoenix Down, tilted Lightning's head back, and poured the thick substance into her mouth. Immediately her eyes opened and she began heaving and gagging—which indicated that she will be okay.

Since Lightning was coming to, he directed his attention at Jihl. "Here, can you heal yourself?" he asked, hovering over her with the Antidote in his hand.

She writhed and vomited on his boots. Snow stepped back, looking down at his green-spattered boots. "Gross! Ah, that's nasty! That's the thanks I get, geez."

He rolled her over and removed her hand for access to the infected area, which awkwardly happened to be on her groin area. Finally, he unbuckled her belt so that he could pull her pants away; she said something incoherent between her sobs. Snow misinterpreted it meaning something along the lines of being shy at him seeing her genitals. "Hey, don't worry. I have had to patch up plenty of women in NORA, and countless Cocoon survivors too. I won't hurt you." Then, she stopped struggling and just laid there with a blank stare as if she had given up on trying anymore.

Snow pulled her pants down just enough to expose the area that she was gripping. "Oh my god, what IS that?" he said, leaning away from the area. Then he looked to the Antidote in his hand. "I don't think this will help. What happened to you?"

She didn't respond to him at all, but a solitary tear ran out of the side of her eye hitting the floor underneath the bench.

A coarse voice spoke behind him, "She has a brand. It's not l'Cie, but what I saw is definitely a brand," said Lightning, who had finally sat up.

Snow tilted his head to the side as if the mark would change its shape or form and said under his breath, "Heh, I bet that's not the only thing you saw".

Unfortunately for him, Lightning heard what he said and he crossed the line. She reared her foot back underneath the bench and with a powerful blow, kicked him in the ribs.

Snow landed on his back, and after coughing hysterically for a few seconds he said, "Whoa, I was just kidding!"

Lightning wasn't though, nobody disrespects her like that and gets away with it. She stood over him with the tip of her blade close enough to his inseam that if he moved at all, he might never have the ability to make children again.

"Just so we're clear, and I won't repeat myself: Don't ever make presumptions about me or my personal life." Lightning then holstered her weapon and looked over to Jihl whose markings were now clearly visible.

Lightning crossed her arms, "So, what happened back there?"

Jihl just stared ahead saying nothing.

Lightning bent down so that she was only inches away from Jihl's face, "Look, you almost got us killed. I know you weren't injured by the Cie'th." Lightning looked down to Jihl's exposed groin, "that's a brand, isn't it?" she demanded.

"You wouldn't understand," Jihl said with new tears forming in her eyes.

"Understand what?" she asked.

Snow walked over and interjected, "Look, I don't know what's going on here, but I really wasn't expecting to find you like this."

"You're trying my patience, Snow. How did you find me?" Lightning replied.

He said, "I just followed the trail of monster carcasses. Ya know, I did just save your…"

"That doesn't mean I need you hanging around." Lightning interrupted, and walked away to investigate the building.

Snow stood there and shouted, "I just thought you may want to know what is going on with Cocoon."

Lightning stopped and glared at him. "You followed me all the way out here just to give me a report on Cocoon? I can't believe this."

"Well, yes, sort of. Last night when I checked the reports on your desk, I found something strange about one of them. The Palumpolum incident report was, well, it just didn't make any sense." Snow explained.

"You couldn't sort out an incident report for yourself?" Lightning asked sarcastically.

"I checked it out, Lightning. That's why I went looking for you. This is serious. It's Hope—"

Lightning cut him off and said, "Yeah I know, Snow, I was there. There was an incident, but nobody was hurt."

"Then how do you explain this?" He pulled out a folded piece of paper from his coat pocket.

She grabbed the paper from him and unfolded it. "What the hell is this?" she exclaimed.

"It's exactly what it looks like," Snow continued, "I couldn't believe it either, so I went to Palumpolum where I tried to talk to him. He was digging a hole and when he looked at me his eyes were completely black. He wouldn't talk to me, so I just headed out to track you down." he continued, "In the moonlight I could see a path of dead monsters heading out into highlands. I knew it had to be you, so I followed them until morning when I came across the coals of a recent campfire. I figured you were headed to Paddra since you came all this way out here, and sure enough, there you were."

"It's why I need you to come with me, Lightning," spoke a cracking voice from behind her.

They both turned to face the woman buckling her pants. "What did you do to Hope!?" Snow demanded.

"We need to get what we came here for. Just trust me, there's not much time," Jihl replied.

Lightning stepped closer to her. "You're not telling me something, Nabaat."

Snow was getting anxious and confused. "Wait, why are you here with her? Lightning what's going on?"

"I didn't do anything! I have this wretchedly painful brand and it shows me these visions; if we don't get that device, it's all going to be over" she explained.

Lightning was growing more impatient with Jihl's ambiguous answers. "What's going to be over, Jihl?"

Snow puffed and handed Lightning a copy of the incident report. Attached to it was a drawing with a handwritten note attached. The drawing was a depiction of Cocoon falling off the crystal pillar and crashing down, killing every living thing on Gran Pulse. The note read, "I'm sorry it came to this. You will never understand the despair of being all alone. I lost everything I love, and so I will bring back the Maker and maybe we can get it right the second time around. Farewell, Hope." 'The Sanctum fal'Cie will stop at nothing to kill everyone. I knew there was something different about Hope...I didn't see any brands on him. What happened back there?'

"I'm not buying it! You're behind all of this, aren't you?" Snow shouted, exposing his fists, ready to fight Jihl.

"No, I'm not! If you don't want to believe me then that's your problem. The only person that needs to believe me is Lightning, she needs my help, and I need hers." Jihl explained.

Snow turned to Lightning with disbelief. "You're not actually buying this, Light?"

Lightning didn't say anything but grabbed him by his arm and they walked toward the door. She stepped out with Snow and examined the ground.

"A-ha, there it is." She released his arm and stepped over a fallen statue where she bent down and retrieved Fang's lance. "This is why I believe her. She knows things she couldn't possibly know about, Snow."

His jaw dropped. "She's a liar, Lightning! She almost killed us on Cocoon! Then she miraculously survived, and then managed to just show up on Pulse after it was all said and done. And I don't even want to imagine how she got Fang's lance."

"I know, okay. I don't trust her and she knows it, but I believe her. You don't have to, but I made the decision to follow her out here and I am going to see it through." Lighting started walking back inside the temple, "Thank you for telling me about Hope, but I left you in charge. Take care of it."

Snow crossed his arms and looked away angrily.

Then, Jihl walked over to them. "But don't kill anyone at all…not even a Cie'th."

Both Lightning and Snow turned their heads, saying: "What?!"

"Just don't, okay? Don't let any more people die. Trust me, there is something here that will change everything, even the Cie'th," Jihl said.

"Okay, I give up. Now she can change the Cie'th?" he laughed and slammed his fist into his palm.

Rolled her eyes and sighed, "Just do what she said, Snow. We will see if she's lying soon enough. In the meantime, I need you back at Cocoon and Oerba. You have to get to the bottom of whatever is happening up there." She told him.

"You're right, Sis. I trust your judgment, but what are you doing out here with her anyway?" he asked.

Lightning glanced down at Fang's lance and replied, "I am on a retrieval mission."

Snow nodded and reached out an arm to give Lightning a hug; as usual she moved away from.

"I get it, Light. I wish you would let me go with you, but I get it. Here, take this though," and he handed her a wristband mobile device. "Your frequency is directly synchronized to mine; it's basically a two-way radio. If you need help, let me know…and check in once in a while, okay?"

She equipped the wrist band and smiled, 'Yeah, I know how you like to answer when people need you, Mr. Hero.'

He gave Jihl a final glare and turned away, returning to his velocycle.

"So what is this place?" Lightning asked when they returned to the temple's main room.

Jihl replied, "This is the temple to a goddess. It's odd, I feel as though I have seen this place a hundred times." Moving slowly across the room observing it's grandeur.

They walked through an open doorway which led to a long hallway. The walls were painted with haunting remains of the culture that once reigned. It appeared that this place was important by the incredible craftsmanship of this very old and dilapidated but still beautiful temple

They stopped at a book shelf that had seen better days, with piles of dust slowly replacing the books.

"What now?" Lightning asked.

"We have to be close," Jihl replied, looking around the book shelf for a doorway. "There should be a door here."

Lightning impertinently looked at the book shelf, 'Hm, well if it's supposed to be here, then I guess we should get this thing out of the way.'

She pulled out her gunblade, "move," she told Jihl. And Lightning took a step back.

Then, with fury she leaped at the shelf, striking it with such force that the book shelf splintered down the middle and fell over.

Sheathing her gunblade Lightning smirked, "It looked like the bookshelf was giving you some trouble, Nabaat."

Jihl moved the pieces of wood, searching for an opening in the wall. "Yeah, you got rid of the furniture, but there isn't a door." Perplexed, she continued, "that doesn't make any sense. There's supposed to be a door right here."

Lightning just looked at her; she didn't say anything, but the look spoke for itself.

"Maybe we passed it. Or there's got to be another hallway," Jihl said, while looking for a door.

"Maybe you don't have a clue what you're doing here, and never really did." Lighting replied and leaned back against the wall.

"Look, there's got to be a door." Jihl said before pushing past Lightning and backtracking through the hallway.

Lots of things crossed her mind in the moments that she just stood there waiting for Jihl to find what she was looking for. 'What if Jihl is lying? What if Fang is lost forever? 'She felt her face getting hot—she was angry. Not just at the situation, but at the uncertainty which surrounded her.

This was really the only lead she had found on Fang since Orphan's Day, and she was just along for the ride with no control over where it would take her.

Lightning felt the muscles in her chest constricting, "I won't go through this again!" she shouted, slamming her fist into the wall.

The structure began shaking, first mildly, but steadily increasing in momentum. Lightning was barely able to maintain her footing and saw Jihl at the end of the hallway squatting with her head between her legs in a doorway. 'Oh great, what the hell is it now? Just my luck, the building is going to fall down on top of me,' she thought.

All of a sudden, the shaking stopped. She heard Jihl shout from the end of the hallway, "You okay?"

Lightning just patted the dust off her cloak. Obviously, Jihl could see her, and she wasn't in the mood for rhetorical questions.

"What did you do, Lightning?" Jihl questioned her, and then turned around to observe the room they had been in earlier. "You found it!"

Lightning finished dusting herself and walked toward Jihl. "Found what?"

"There it is!" Jihl pointed to a protruded brick, "I knew it was here. So, it was a switch instead of a doorway, huh? Haha, well you know how visions are—they aren't always a hundred percent accurate," Jihl humored.

"Exactly, well, that and I don't trust you," Lighting snapped.

The pair walked back into the main room. "What now?" Lightning asked.

"Pray," Jihl replied.

"Pray? You said there would be a machine that would do miraculous things. Where is it, Jihl? What the fuck are we doing here if not to get the machine? I didn't come all this way to nearly get myself killed just to say a prayer. Now you better make something happen or you will regret the day that Barthandelus didn't kill you," Lightning said, clenching her jaw and fist.

Jihl didn't seem fazed by Lightning's intimidating demeanor and proceeded to get on her knees at the base of the statue that was now standing in the center of the room.

The statue looked like nothing she had ever seen before but faintly resembled a fal'Cie only like nothing she had ever seen on Gran Pulse or Cocoon. It looked old as well, like it had been there much longer than the temple; as if the temple had been built around the statue instead of the other way around.

It was certainly beautiful, and unlike anything man-made or fal'Cie made for that matter. It was certainly a woman with powerful features. She was standing but appeared as though she was being torn asunder, yet her face looked at peace. It was truly a sight to see; she stared at the statue for a few moments before walking toward it slowly.

She felt a swelling of emotions in the pit of her stomach; she was nervous. 'This is it, huh Fang? This is what will bring me to you.' Lightning knelt down imitating Jihl's stance, "So, we pray. What exactly do I do?" Lighting asked calmly.

"Just think about what is troubling you the most. She will guide you," Jihl said with her eyes still closed and on her knees.

'What troubles me the most? You already know what's troubling me. What good does thinking about it do? It's not going to fix anything,' she thought, and then looked up at the face of the statue. 'Why does Jihl think you can solve anything? So you're some type of goddess, huh?' Lightning thought.

"I can't believe I'm actually doing this. So, I just think about stuff and something is supposed to happen. Right?" she asked, feeling quite ridiculous doing so.

"That's right. Don't be afraid to let your thoughts run deep, she will help you," Jihl replied, unwavering from her praying posture.

Lightning closed her eyes and focused on the otherworldly sounds of the decaying ancient structure. It was calming, like the rhythm of her breathing or the beating of heart. 'I can't believe I am actually doing this; so I telepathically talk to the God or Goddess of this temple, huh? I'll play along. Even if following Jihl gets me nowhere, I will search forever if I have to. Where do I even begin? I want to save her, I want to bring her back to me, but I don't know how or even where she is. I know why she's gone…she wanted to save the world, to save me. I know she's alive, I can feel it. Is it really so absurd to believe in? Maybe I'm just crazy. I don't care, I will find her. '

The room became silent, and everything seemed to away from her. With eyes shut tight, she remembered the loss of her parents, the loss of her sister, and the loss of Fang. Her heart flooded with emotions with each passing thought.

Anger, when she thought of Barthandelus, who had used her to destroy Cocoon, taking away everything from her. Helpless, when she thought of the pain she felt at the loss of Fang and the hopelessness she felt at not even knowing where to begin to put closure to that chapter of her life. Melancholy, at the fact they had saved Cocoon and so many lives. Even if it wasn't what they wanted, it was better than the elusive end.

Lost in her thoughts, she didn't care that Jihl was right next to her, she didn't care that the building she was in was surrounded by hundreds or perhaps thousands of Cie'th. She even forgot that she was on her knees praying to the statue of a Goddess.

Her hands cupped her face—she didn't know what else to do. Her strength had gotten her though everything, and her perseverance kept anything from keeping her down. It's how she got this far in the first place and giving up was something she didn't know how to do.

All the doubt that had clouded her mind was now memory as warmth cascaded over her.

Lightning opened her eyes and everything around her had changed. She was no longer in the temple.

Lightning was sitting in the middle of a meadow surrounded by wildflowers. The sun was bright in the sky with just enough of a breeze to sweep the fallen petals up in a whirl around her.

Her senses were completely alive as she inhaled the fresh floral aroma. In the distance, she heard music, maybe the sounds of a choir.

"I'm dreaming. Must have gotten too comfortable and fallen asleep," she said to herself.

Standing up, she dusted the shards of grass off her backside and looked down to see ensure that she had her gunblade. Thankfully, it was still attached to her side.

The field of flowers stretched as far as she could see, but she could still hear the melodies from the choir far in the distance. So she headed in the direction of the music.

'This is the most peaceful dream I've had in a long time,' she thought.

Walking in such beautiful scenery allowed her to clear her mind and relax for a moment—even if only subconsciously.

The sun was shining brightly over her head and the terrain hadn't changed at all even after walking for what seemed like several hours. Still, the choir sounded just as far away as it had the first time she heard it.

At least she knew that the origin of the music was moving and she was following in the right direction—whatever direction that may be. She stopped and looked around only to see that her surroundings hadn't changed either. "What the hell is going on?" She shouted.

She spun around hoping that something would change: a beast, a person, a different breeze, just anything to confirm that she wasn't lost in limbo.

Nothing changed, except that the music had disappeared or faded off. All alone, she stood there in the middle of nowhere. Lightning's anger was growing with each passing second, and she didn't know why.

"Fine, if you're too scared to approach me, then I will come to you!" She shouted to the wind.

She unsheathed her gunblade and tilted her head down, charging into the flowered meadow like a raging bull.

She dashed through the flowers and the tall grass leaving a trail behind her. Lightning's lungs were burning and her legs were aching, but she refused to stop. She ran toward the wind and toward nothing at all—she was running into the unknown, away from the unbearable.

Suddenly something out of the ground caught her foot, causing her to tumble face first into the dirt.

Lightning laid there face in the dirt for a moment, thankful nobody was around to see her humiliation. She rolled onto her back and let her breathing return to normal.

When she sat up, she turned to see the culprit which had caused her to trip.

"A rock. Just a little rock." She sighed

Instead of being brought down by a Great Behemoth, an Army, or some crazy person with a death wish, it was a little stone—which lay in wait for the unsuspecting rage-filled trouble-seeker.

She smiled, sitting there, she removed the dirt that had implanted itself in her hair, and when she wiped her brow, the sweat and dirt left a black smear across her forehead.

Lightning fell back onto the flower-covered-ground and stared into the sky, and she watched the fluffy clouds as they passed by. "What a strange dream I am having. I have never seen such a place as this in my life," she said to herself.

After laying there for a few moments, voices approached from afar. 'Someone's coming.' Sitting up would give away her position, so she held her breath trying to determine which direction the sounds were coming from. She knew that she was hidden in the tall flower field and decided to stay there until she knew more about the trespassers who seemed to be coming from behind.

The voices in the distance became clearer as they headed right for Lightning. 'It's a group of women. A covenant, maybe—would explain the singing.'

As the group grew nearer the voices became more distinct, 'almost sounds…familiar? It can't be.'

"Fang," she gasped.

Her heart sank, and it was suddenly difficult to breathe. 'What's happening?! I've never dreamed of her like this. It's always some recollection of past events. Oh, please wake me up! I can't do this.'

Lightning lay there a few moments breathing heavily, sweating, 'Get a hold of yourself, this is nuts! It can't be her.'

Then, with complete disregard as to whether it was a covenant or a pack of foes, she leaped up onto her feet; and she stood there, looking ahead at the women who were only about fifty meters away.

Her heart was beating fast and with every breath she took she held it in a little more. 'Oh my God, it's her. She's so beautiful. I have never seen her like this—we have never met this way in my dreams before.'

Fang was accompanied alongside three other women, all of which stopped immediately at seeing Lightning leap out of the meadow. The women stood in the ready to attack Lightning.

'Maybe she doesn't recognize me.' Lightning thought.

"Hey, you there, what are you doing here?" one of the women shouted at Lightning in the same accent which Fang and Vanille spoke.

'They must be from Oerba,' Lightning thought, but didn't move from her position—not even to unsheathe her gunblade in response to the party's attack stance.

Fang said something to them that Lightning couldn't quite hear, then she disbanded from her group and walked toward Lightning.

"I know you're alone out here," Fang said to Lightning as she walked closer with her lance still drawn. "You left one hell of a single path behind you, if you're wondering how I know."

'Is she messing with me? Or does she truly not recognize me?' she thought, unwavering from her position even with Fang's most intimidating approach.

"So, what are ya doing out here alone? Where are ya from?" Fang asked when she reached Lightning.

Lightning said nothing, only stared in Fang's eyes for any hint of game or deception.

Fang secured her lance over her shoulder, "Well, I know you're not from Oerba," she declared with a smile.

"You don't look like you're from any tribe I've run into either." Fang said while slowing observing Lightning's body.

"You've got no tattoo either. You must be from the city, yeah? Did someone leave ya out here?" Fang asked, placing her hands upon her hips.

"Looks like they beat the crap out of you, then blindfolded you and sent you running out here as far as you could go," Is what she concluded after carefully inspecting Lightning.

"In any case, I guess you're lucky we were passing through!" Fang smiled and motioned at her comrades to move forward to her position.

'She really doesn't know me,' Lightning's chest was feeling heavy and felt tears begin stinging in her eyes. 'This can't be happening, it's not real. This is just a dream, Light, get a hold of yourself.'

Lightning hoped that Fang couldn't see the torment in her eyes, she thought about pulling out her gunblade to cut her way out of this situation, to force herself to wake up; yet, she wouldn't move a muscle.

"Hey, girls, this one don't talk," Fang shouted to the women who were walking toward her. "Looks like she got beat up pretty bad, too!"

The taller one laughed. "Haha, you will take care of her, right, Fang?"

Fang's face grew red and she turned to Lightning, "The name's Oerba Yun Fang, by the way. I go by Fang, though, less of a mouthful"

"She's from the city, too." Fang said to her group.

"The city? Well, let's bring her along then," the short-blonde replied.

'What city? Who are these people?' Lightning was about to speak up when the last one said something that distracted her whole train of thought.

"What if she's a spy sent from Cocoon!" shouted a high-pitched voice from behind the other taller women.

Fang nodded at the accusation and crossed her arms, looking at Lightning, "She's got a point. You're not from Cocoon, are ya?"

Lightning didn't flinch at the accusation, only glanced up at Cocoon. It was a perfect sphere, undamaged at all. It all started making sense, and if she had shown expression for seeing Cocoon in its present state it would have meant death.

She returned her stare back to Fang, knowing that she would have been killed by these women if she confessed to being from Cocoon.

"Before Ragnarok…I am in the past. What has Jihl done to me?'

"You don't look like any spy I've ever seen. Besides, you know what my girls and me would do to ya if you were." Fang said with a half-smile. "Vanille you need to stop reading those magazines. She's not a spy, just look at her!"

'Vanille? Oh, of course it's her! If I hadn't been so stuck on Fang not knowing me I would have saw it earlier. She looks much younger though…Fang looks a bit younger as well.' Lightning thought.

The tall woman had the largest muscles she'd ever seen on a woman—possibly even bigger than Snow's.

The short blonde had very strong features, and a chiseled jaw that may have developed from killing beasts with her bare teeth.

Vanille appeared to be barely a teenager, and her voice was just as perky and high pitched as ever.

Fang was taller than she seemed on Cocoon, perhaps more proud, but as beautiful as ever and appeared to be around the same age as Lightning, maybe a little younger.

"Don't speak do ya?" asked the tall woman. "Well, our Fang here is a pro at getting pretty girls like you to talk," she teased.

Fang jabbed her arm, "I can't believe you! And just so you know: she had nearly gotten ate up by a Flan!" Fang smirked and continued "Poor girl, if I didn't do something to make her snap out of that trance, she might have dropped dead right there."

The women laughed hysterically. "Oh yeah? What about do you say about that one in the Sulyya Springs?"

Fang's face flushed, she smiled and replied, "Ah that one needed my help too, thought she might drown in the springs!"

The massive woman cackled hysterically, and stumbled like a drunken giant. "Bwahaha! If that's what you want to call it, eh girls?"

"Would you shut it, Leiden? If you're trying to embarrass me in front of our new friend, it's not going to work!" Fang turned to Lightning, who was just standing there, arms crossed "I apologize for my friend Leiden, she doesn't have any manners. After all, she grew up in the Subterra and was raised by Juggernauts."

"Aye, any where's better than Oerba! Whole place smells like dead fish, and not because it's beside a lake either!" she laughed.

Vanille interjected. "Hey now, that's not fair Leiden, Oerba isn't that bad. You spend a lot of time there for someone who doesn't like it!"

Leiden who had slowly stopped laughing replied, "Well love, it's because everything is so cheap and easy there, who would want to leave? …Plenty of hooch, too!"

Vanille just smiled; she had absolutely no idea what Leiden was talking about.

"All right, that's enough. Why don't we try to help this girl find her way home?" The short blonde puffed.

The short woman stepped closer and looked up into Lightning's eyes. "Where are ya from, dear? Don't look like you're from anywhere close to here. Do ya remember anything about how ya got here?"

'What should I tell them? They seem nice, but if I say I am from Cocoon, I will become their sworn enemy.' She took a deep breath and said, "Paddra."

Vanille clapped and Fang smiled, "So, she does speak! It looks like you're losing your game, Fang. Beatrix has beaten you to it!" Leiden exclaimed.

'Damn, that woman is obnoxious…It's interesting that they all sound the same, even though they're from different parts of Gran Pulse.' Using her best Pulsian imitation, Lightning told them, "I don't know how I got here."

"No worries dear, we will help you get back to the Holy City!" Beatrix exclaimed and she put her hand on Lightning's arm. "As a matter of fact, we were just heading to back to Oerba. If you don't mind tagging along with us, we can take you to the Oerba Station. You can catch the train to Paddra from there."

'I will follow Fang anywhere…' Lightning mentally sighed. She had found Fang, even if only in a fantasy dream world created by Jihl, everything about it seemed real—nothing like a dream at all.

They set off walking through the meadow and eventually the terrain began to change while they traversed the plateaus. The Pulsian women sang ancient spiritual melodies to pass the time as they walked. Lightning soon realized that was probably the choir she had heard in the meadow earlier.

When the party reached Taejin's Tower they came upon a monster; the first Lightning had seen since arriving in this world.

Lightning, who had been attentively been watching her long-lost partner, hadn't even drawn her gunblade when the Pulsian hunting party massacred the unfortunate beast.

Leiden stood over the kill and looked back to Lightning, "What's the matter love, don't have any beasts in the big city?" she chuckled at Lightning, whose hand rested atop her weapon.

Lightning just smiled at the challenge. She decided she would show them what a Cocoon soldier is all about next time they ran into a beast.

She enjoyed their company; they were free and unreserved, so very different than Cocoonians. When they turned to continue, there in front of them appeared the tallest structure Lightning had ever seen.

From the distance she could see the Tower reaching into the clouds, "This is Taejin's Tower."

Fang laughed. "Sure is. Never seen it this close before eh?"

'I have but, it was in ruins.' She thought, but said, "I suppose I haven't."

"Years ago, my mother gave her life while constructing it. Was her focus, ya know," said Leiden with a bit of remorse in her voice. "Yep, Dahaka picked her himself. She promised that it would be finished and she would come back to us, but…" her voice trailed off.

"It's okay Leiden; I read in the magazines that we will be knocking Cocoon out of the sky very soon! Before they even know what hits them!" Vanille told her in attempts to reassure her that her mother hadn't died in vain.

'So that's what Taejin's Tower was for; they meant to use it as a ladder into Cocoon. It must have been one of the first things to be destroyed in the War of Transgression.' Lightning thought, while staring into the sky at the great tower.

"Right, enough about it!" said Leiden.

The women traversed the bridge beyond Taejin's Tower toward Oerba, and somewhere near the middle Fang coyly asked, "Got a name?"

'I can't believe it. I am meeting her properly. This is great, but I will never forget the way she looked when she rode in with machine guns blazing at Palumpolum.' With a smirk, she replied, "Lightning."

"That's quite lovely!" Beatrix complimented.

"What a strange name. You're one of those Monks that live in that Goddess chamber? Your armor looks strange all right, like theirs; not to mention Paddra is Holy or whatever." Leiden asked.

Lightning said nothing, only kept walking; she didn't really know how to answer the question anyway. Yes, she had just come from a goddess chamber, but she was certainly no monk. She had only been to Paddra a couple times anyway. She didn't know much at all about it at all, except that was the last place she was before she woke up here, and the whole place was swarming with Cie'th around the Goddess Temple.

It was nearly dark by the time they reached Oerba, but the city lights illuminating the sky reminded her of her Bodhum home. The streets were crowded with people and different aromas permeated the air. It was beautiful and loud, just as a city should be.

They walked the many streets of Oerba, and it was immediately evident to Lightning that the majority of the city had been covered by crystal dust in her own time.

"Aye! Ya smell that?" Leiden said, inhaling exuberantly though her nose.

Lightning cocked her head, having no idea what this woman was talking about.

"That's the smell of a good time, in case ya were wondering Light. Don't mind if I call ya Light, do ya?"

"Fang, take ya sister home then meet us over at the tavern. Let's show this Paddraean how to live a little!" Leiden said, throwing one of her heavy arms over Lightning's shoulder. Lightning grimaced and stepped away from the sweaty appendage.

"Oh Fang, please don't take me back yet. I promise I won't get in the way!" Vanille pleaded.

"Sorry Vanille, you're still just a bit too young to get rowdy at the tavern. Let's go, I'll ask the matron to let you stay out past curfew with your pals if it will make ya feel better." Fang explained, and they headed off in another direction.

Fang stopped and turned back to the group, "don't get started without me" she shouted.

Leiden replied, "Got it!"

Beatrix turned her larger partner with hands on hips, "You didn't even ask her if she would like to leave now or have a drink."

"Oh, forgive me Magister, would you like to have a drink or get on back to the Sanctuary?" Leiden sarcastically asked.

Lightning smiled, though she didn't like being taunted by the monstrous woman, "I'd love a drink. I'm just not sure if you can keep up with me."

Beatrix and Leiden violently burst into laughter, and Leiden confidently accepted Lightning's challenge, "Ha! The mage thinks she can drink more than me, eh? I will have to see this! Tell ya what, if you win, I'll take you back to Paddra myself!"

"Let's go then." Lightning gestured to Leiden.

After walking two blocks up and a right turn, they reached the pub; Leiden kicked through the doors as if they were her own.

"Ay Sheila, I need a bottle of absinthe and cold brews for me and my friends—keep 'em coming too, because it's going to be a long night!" Leiden said, taking a seat at a table across from the bar.

She kicked her mud-covered boots onto the adjacent chair and gestured for Lightning to join. Lightning obliged the boisterous huntress and took the seat across from her.

Leiden poured the green liquid into shot glasses and in unison the two emptied the contents into their bellies. Just when Leiden was about to pour second round of drinks Fang returned. "Hey! Thought I asked ya to wait for me," she said, smiling, as she walked over to the join the party.

"Haha, I thought ya said go ahead and start without me! Anyway, drinks are on me, your little friend here thinks she can drink me under the table," Leiden laughed and plopped her feet down to the floor. "Here ya go; I saved a chair for ya!"

Fang sighed at the sight of mud and dirt and wiped it away before sitting between Lightning and Leiden.

They carried on for many hours over two bottles of absinthe and innumerable beers. Lightning learned that Vanille had come to Oerba from Paddra after her parents left on their Focus and never returned. That seemed to be the story of most of the people of Gran Pulse, orphaned by the fal'Cie.

Lightning wondered for a moment or two about what life was like on Cocoon in this time, but quickly forgot the thought—she was spending priceless time with Fang. The kind of moments she could have never experienced before due to their Focus; the looming destruction of Cocoon and the looming reality that they would be Cie'th or crystal forever made laughing and smiling nearly impossible.

The Pulsians were very kind and free spirited and yet so hardened by war and endless battles with the beasts that roamed the land. For the first time in a very long time, Lightning was able to let loose of her fears, her responsibility, and her pain. Maybe it was just the alcohol, maybe it was being amongst good company and her beloved Fang, or maybe it really was just a dream—she didn't know or care.

Lightning was belligerently intoxicated, slurring her words and ready to either vomit or pick a fight, but she wasn't alone; Fang was a chemically altered version of her former self as well.

Neither Fang, Lightning could hold up to the not-quite-as-drunk Leiden. "Well Light, looks like you and Fang are ready to call it a night, eh?" Leiden laughed.

By this point, Lightning had long lost her false Pulse accent, and had begun to speak in her own Bodhum dialect of drunkenness. None of them noticed, and if they did they didn't say anything.

"Hey! Hey, Leiden! Hey, don't tell us when we've had enough!" Fang said, waving an unsteady finger at her friend.

Lightning concurred. "Yes, we will tell you when we've had enough! Besides, I can't let you win!"

Beatrix spoke up from her bottle of wine and said, "don't worry dear, I will concur that you and Fang drank more than Leiden." Leiden almost interrupted her but Beatrix placed her hand upon her thigh and winked.

Lightning smiled in accomplishment "That's right. Thank you."

Fang smiled cockily. "See girls, I'm telling you, this one is special! I could tell the moment I put eyes on her!" Lightning's cheeks flushed slightly at Fang's comment.

The older two Pulsian women just looked at each other and smiled, "Well, let's get you guys out of here." Leiden said.

Leiden and Beatrix followed behind Fang and Lightning, who were laughing and stumbling down the street alongside the lake. When they stopped it was in front of a small cottage, "Well we made it!" Beatrix said.

"Hey, we're here!" Fang shouted.

"Right, let's get you two inside here so I can get back to the pub!" Leiden said, pushing the two from behind.

Lighting shrugged her shoulder removing the beastly woman's hand off of her, and Fang did the same. "There ladies, that's no way to act!" Leiden laughed.

"Go on Leiden, before I roll you down the street myself," Fang said with no impediment that the woman she had threatened was three times her size, and she walked in the door with Lightning right behind her.

Leiden just grinned and shook her head, "Don't do anything I wouldn't do!"

"We will come back to check on you in a few hours, make sure you didn't burn the house down or something," said Beatrix, and they turned to walk back to the tavern.

Fang shut the door behind them and looked at Lightning "You're not ready to call it a night, are ya?"

"Depends on what you have in mind; what do you have to drink around here?" Lightning said, with a seductive grin.

Fang smirked lifting an eyebrow, "Hm, I may have something," and she disappeared behind a door.

'Is this really happening? Am I really here, with Fang…alone? I have got to be dreaming.' she looked down to her arm and pinched the skin between her fingers, "Ow!" she said, seeing the blood rush beneath her skin.

She looked around the room at the Oerban culture surrounding her. 'Sort of reminds me of a Bodhum beach house—maybe a little shabbier and outdated, but it's really not that different.'

The paintings, photographs and treasures represented the trophies of a hunt. Lightning noticed that Beatrix or Leiden were in all of them, save for one; a small photo in the corner. She moved to observe it closer, and in the painting, Fang stood proudly over a lifeless cacutar with her lance held high.

"What do ya think?" Fang asked, reaching from behind to give her a filled glass.

"Nice Cacutar," Lightning replied and took a sip of her beverage. "This is delicious by the way, mmm."

"Thanks, we made it ourselves, out of Flanberries. As for the cacutar, that little bugger was my first one," she chuckled "guess I wanted to remember it."

Lightning half-smiled, "First cacutar, huh—playful aren't they?"

"Yep," she replied.

Fang leaned against a wall across from Lightning, "So, what would you be doing now if you were home? I always knew you Templars were wild." she taunted.

Lightning explained, "Templars? To be honest, I haven't really gotten used to things the way they are now."

"I know what ya mean. It is getting harder to adjust to things lately, what with the war looming and all. Won't be much longer though—Cocoon won't even know what hit 'em!" Fang assured her.

'You will trigger the War of Transgression. It will mean the end of Pulse…the end of all of this.' It occurred to Lightning and she frowned.

Fang immediately saw that her words had taken the wrong effect. Subtly, she reached over and moved the wisp of hair on Lightning's cheek to behind her ear. "Hey love, don't be sad. I know it seems scary now, but when it's over we won't have to worry about that den of vipers ever again."

Lightning's heart was racing, and her skin was on fire, 'Fang you're so close…. Oh, how temptation waits. I hate it that I can't change any of this…or can I?' she thought.

Fang and Lightning sat there in awkward silence for what felt like an eternity to Fang. Lightning finished the rest of her drink in one big gulp, "I can't believe I've found you."

Fang smiled. "What do ya mean? I am the one who found you."

"This may be only a dream, but it's my dream and I get to decide what happens," Lightning declared.

"Haha, right. You feeling all right, Lightning?" replied Fang.

Lightning bit her lip and with a hungry gaze she said, "I think I may after this."

Lightning leaned forward and softly placed her lips upon Fang's. The kiss deepened and Lightning closed her eyes, holding her breath she could Fang do the same. Fang's arms embraced her and the warmth from Fang's body could be felt on her stomach, and it caused her knees to buckle, but then she felt Fang put her arms around her waist and caught her.

Their kiss deepened, and Lightning slowly darted her tongue at Fang's mouth. She parted her lips and welcomed Lightning, moaning at the feeling of her moist, alcohol-flavored tongue dancing around inside her mouth like a clod.

Lighting loosened her grip from behind the taller woman's neck and moved her hands down her back allowing them to rest on Fang's hips pulling her body closer. Their breaths were deep and staggered from the pressure between their lips and tongues. Fang removed one of her hands from Lightning's side and slowly reached up Lightning's side until her hand found its target; a fully erect nipple clearly protruding from underneath Lightning's jacket. Lighting let out a deep moan of pleasure from Fang's fingers and palm while their tongues played with each other.

The force from Fang's body caused Lighting to crash into the wall behind her, knocking several paintings off the wall, but distracted neither of them at the sound of glass breaking. Lightning's hands slid farther down Fang's back and she grabbed hold of Fang's firm ass. Fang started pulling at Lightning's jacket in attempts to get at the prize that waited underneath. Lightning sensed her frustration and pushed herself away from the wall, never losing contact with Fang's lips, and started helping her with the jacket. Once removed, Fang tossed it to the floor and they start moving toward another room, knocking over anything that stood in their way. When they come to a door, Fang fumbled with the door knob and pushed the door open, not bothering with the light switch.

Lightning could not form a clear thought at all. The alcohol took away all inhibitions, and she was finally carrying out the actions she had long-dreamed of, when she had all but given up hope of ever living those fantasies.

Lightning was attempting to remove Fang's sari when they stumbled over something causing them to fall backward onto Fang's bed.

"Ow!" chirped a voice in the dark.

Startled, Fang stopped in the middle of what she had intended on doing and jumped up just as quickly as she had fallen. She leaped over to the light switch and as soon as she flipped it on said, "What the hell are you doing here Vanille!"

Lightning stood up too, and looked down to see Vanille lying in the floor wrapped in blankets. 'Damnit, what is she doing here?' she thought; feeling the coldness settling where Fang's warmth was only seconds ago.

"I didn't think you would mind…I just didn't want to stay at the orphanage; since you left I hate it there!" Vanille replied.

"It doesn't matter Vanille, ya can't just sneak out like that!" Fang replied sternly.

Vanille just looked up at Fang, and then turned to Lightning, who were both half naked. She looked down and blushed. "Hehe, Fang, I didn't know you were…ya know…"

Fang cocked her head and placed both hands on her hips. "Yeah, what of it?" Then looked down and sighed. "You can stay tonight, but you have to go back first thing in the morning. Got it?"

Vanille nodded, then Fang pointed toward the doorway. "Just sleep on the sofa, not my floor, okay?"

The pink-haired-girl leaped up and threw her arms around Fang squeezing as tightly as she could. "Oh, thank you Fang!" she grabbed her blankets and trotted out to the sofa, winking at Fang as she closed the door behind her.

"Sorry about that," Fang said, nervously looking at Lightning with embarrassment.

"Don't worry about it, she really seems like she needs you," Lightning replied.

"Yeah, she does, but every time she runs away like that, the orphanage sends their goons out here looking for her. I left there mainly to get away from those assholes," Fang said.

'It's no wonder they were so close on Cocoon…' she thought, and then said, "Well, we don't have to stay here and wait for them to show up. Want to take a walk?"

Fang smiled "That would be great! Better leave a note for Beatrix and Leiden in case they get worried."

They grabbed their articles of clothing strewn about the house, Fang wrote her note and was sure that Vanille was asleep then they left. The night had gotten cooler, it was probably cool earlier but they have sobered up some since they first arrived at the cottage. They walked around several streets talking about small stuff like what it was like at the orphanage, how she got her tattoos, and what her clan stood for. Lightning avoided giving too many details in response to Fangs inquiries about her own past, but she did share the important things, only vaguely. They were getting closer to the bar they had left earlier; Lightning wouldn't have paid any attention to it if it weren't for the sound of Leiden swearing that she would kill someone tonight followed by a loud thud.

"Wasn't that your friend, Leiden?" Lightning asked

"Yep, sure was," Fang laughed

"Sounds like she may have found some trouble…" Lightning replied

"Ah, she always does. She's a big girl, she will be fine. Haven't met a man yet that she can't handle," Fang replied proudly.

Then just as they were about to continue walking past the bar, Beatrix came running out, shouting for Leiden to get out of there. Fang and Lightning looked at each other and ran over to see what Beatrix was going on about. Then Leiden came stumbling out with blood soaked fists. "I've done it this time! That bastard is as good as dead." She said panting.

"What happened?" Fang asked

"Some prick thought he could cheat her at cards, and when she confronted him he pulled a blade at her," Beatrix replied. "You know that's a mistake when Leiden's been drinking…hell, it's a mistake when she's sober!"

"We got to get out of here girls. Now!" Leiden said pushing through them.

"Sure, but where are we goin?" Fang replied.

"I don't know!" Leiden shouted.

Lightning thought about it 'if she's running from the police, they would never think to look for her in a holy city.' So she said, "Maybe they won't look for you in Paddra."

Leiden replied. "Hah! Now you're thinkin! Besides, I said I would take ya there myself for beating me at drinkin'."

"Let's go this way, I think there's a train leaving now! If we hurry we might be able to catch it!" Beatrix said, as she quickly turned down a poorly lit alleyway.

The group ran as fast as they could, and as it turns out, Lightning was quite a bit faster a runner than the Pulse women. As soon as they arrived at the platform, the train was slowly pulling away.

Lightning quickly jumped on the last car, followed by Beatrix, and Fang. Lightning and Fang both turned to help Leiden get aboard, and just when they thought all was going to be okay, they heard something that shouldn't have been there.

"Hey! Wait for me!" Vanille shouted, running as fast as she could.

'How the hell did she know where we were? I thought she was asleep. She followed us…I should have known she would, she's lost without Fang…like a puppy,' Lightning thought, unsure of how to help Vanille get aboard as the train had already picked up speed.

Fang turned to them and said "I'm sorry, I can't leave her." She positioned herself to jump, looked back and said "Don't worry, I'll meet up with you in Paddra." And she leaped over the side of the train, rolling off to the side.

'I would have done the same for my sister,' she thought, and watched for Vanille to catch up to where Fang had landed.

"Don't worry about her, she's just as tough as the rest of us. If she said she will meet us there, you can count on her." Beatrix said noticing that Lightning had a concerned look about her.

"I know." She replied

"Right then, so what are we going to do about tickets? That fucker at the tavern took my money and I didn't think to grab it from him before I gutted him," Leiden said opening the door to the car.

"I guess we can just hide in the cargo car. Better than prison, isn't it?" Lightning said, noticing that it was the car that they had climbed aboard anyhow.

The train ride was uneventful. At every stop they would hide underneath a box or inside a crate while they loaded and unloaded the car. Beatrix consoled Leiden, since she was very nervous it seemed. 'Perhaps they're lovers?' Lightning thought, noticing how affectionate they were together. The sun was on the horizon when the train had finally reached the Paddraean Archaeopolis. It was a magnificent city and far grander than Oerba. It reminded her of Eden, only in a Pulse type design. 'A city dedicated to the fal'Cie…' she thought.

"Well, looks like we made it!" Leiden said, standing up with arms raised above her head as if to stretch her long figure. "Where do ya live around here? Please don't' say you live at the temple either."

Lightning didn't know what to say, she didn't have much knowledge about Paddra aside from the ruins, and it was so much different now than it is in her time and the only thing she was really familiar with was in fact the temple. She said nothing, but it meant everything to Leiden.

"That's okay love. We can figure it out, don't you fret a bit! Let's get a room for now. Beatrix, how much Gil do you have?" Leiden said

"Enough. Let's go," Beatrix replied.

Lightning followed them though the marvelous streets of the city, and just as they were approaching a large Inn, she could see the temple that she left Jihl in. 'I wonder what's there. I should probably go back. Maybe I will find out what really happened to me. That's what I'll do after these two fall asleep.' She thought.

Once they were checked in at the hotel, Leiden went straight to the shower to wash away the blood and the shame of murder. Beatrix laid on the bed while Lightning stared out the window, taking in the city. When she heard snores from Beatrix, she decided she was far too impatient, and must find out how she got here, plus by the time she returned Fang may have arrived. She knocked on the door to the shower, and told Leiden she would be right back, but Leiden didn't reply; she figured she must be lost in thought.

She exited the lobby and was back onto the street; she looked in the direction of the temple and noticed something happening. She walked a bit closer to get a glimpse of what was going on and could tell that someone important had just arrived because of all of the security surrounding the temple and the commotion surrounding it.

She pushed her way through the gathering of people to see what and who it was. She finally made it to the front, and saw a robed person. Then he turned to wave at the crowd and she saw his face. Her eyes turned to slits and she gritted her teeth. 'BARTHANDELUS.'

There he was standing only feet away from her. Looking the same as he always had as Galenth Dysley 'l'Cie? You mean me? Oh child, perish the thought. I am more than that! I am fal'Cie. My name is Barthandelus. Voice of the Sanctum, and Lord-Sovereign of the Cocoon fal'Cie' She recalled the words that burned hot as acid to her ears. Through rage she was flooded with flashbacks of the day he killed Jihl; when they discovered the truth about the fal'Cie; then the encounter on Oerba when he shape-shifted into her sister singing the Ragnarok lyric; followed by the last encounter she had with him where she had turned into a Cie'th, confronted with every last inhibition, and then lost the only thing that made her feel human..

She had destroyed him on Cocoon and would do the same on Pulse. Without hesitation her hand moved for her gunblade and unsheathed it. She let out a roar through gritted teeth, and it leaped up into the air aimed at striking down on Dysley's neck.

He was surrounded by twenty security staff; none of which had reflexes that were prepared for her speed. None except for Barthandelus, who waived his hand and a magical shield, pushed Lightning away before her blade could even get close to him. The force knocked her right into 3 guards who grabbed her arms and the other took her weapon.

The crowd was almost silent and chattering amongst themselves words like "assassination", "crazy", "monk". Lightning was oblivious to all of it, except the fact that she could no longer move and Barthandelus was now standing close enough that she could smell the fabric of his robes. He just looked down at her and said "hmm" in his wretched voice. Then he looked to the guards who were awaiting his orders for what to do with the criminal. "Do not harm her. Take her to my chambers and leave her there. I'll deal with this matter myself".

The crowd had grown in just the last couple moments and she could hear them all gasp when he gave the guards that order. Still none of this mattered to her; she said "You son of a bitch! It was you! I should have known it was you! You're behind everything that happens to them! I'll kill you!"

Dysley only smiled and laughed under his breath before turning to walk into the temple, and the guards picked Lightning up to carry her around to the side of the temple and down some stairs into the basement. Lightning only resisted slightly, but knew that once she was in the seclusion of the basement she would just kill them and wait for Dysley.

The room was dimly lit, and smelled of new machinery. The walls were covered in blue drapes with symbols written upon them which she decided to be a type of language she had no exposure to. The guards threw her into a chair and started to strap her hands down to the arms of the chair. One even made a comment "Heh, you're gonna get it. You're lucky he didn't let us handle you. You don't just try to assassinate the Chancelor." Then another of them interjected "Yeah! He is the only link between us humans and the Goddess, you know. Without him, we won't have the Goddess' blessing when we take out Cocoon." The last one said "What's the matter? Siding with Cocoon? I bet you are. I bet you're a traitor!"

She couldn't take hearing their reasoning. It was all lies that they were fed, and it made her all the angrier. She did a back flip causing the guards to lose their grip on her arms, and knocked the third one back, making him drop her gunblade. They tried to strike her with their batons but Lightning knocked them out of their hands, taking a mental note that they looked strikingly similar to Jihl's weapon.

The guards stood before her with shaking knees and terrified faces. Lightning said "I don't want to kill you. So I'll give you three seconds to retrieve Barthandelus before I make you regret your misconception about the reality of your situation."

They just looked at each other, and then one spoke up with a shaky voice "Yes ma'am. But, who is Barthandelus?"

Lightning sighed remembering he hadn't even exposed himself to her until he was cornered on Cocoon. "Dysley. Get Dysley down here. Now!"

They shook their heads in affirmation, then began running as quickly as they could; Lightning put her gunblade out in front of one of them and said "Not you, I need insurance that they won't just bring a small army down here to get me" He frowned but acknowledged her request, and took a few steps back.

Lightning stood there, her mind examining every possible scenario as to what in the world was happening. She knew that Barthandelus was as bad as it gets, but he himself told them that fal'Cie don't have the power of will, that's why they create l'Cie, to carry out the deeds they cannot. 'This just doesn't make any sense'.

She heard a door open from up the stairs. With her gunblade in hand she awaited the monster that was approaching her. She thought about how powerful Barthandelus was in his fal'Cie form, but she would die trying if it meant keeping these people safe from the Sanctum.

All of the scenarios that played in her mind, none of them included what she was seeing walking down the stairs toward her. "Lightning, I've been expecting you." Jihl said with a smug look upon her face.

Lightning's mouth held agape for only a moment before she said "Jihl. You're behind this? You brought me here for this?"

Jihl laughed "Don't think so highly of yourself Lightning. I've been preparing for this moment almost 4 months; you were only a small step in a much larger picture than you or I could ever imagine."

Lightning glared at her and said "How? How is any of this possible? What is this place and why the hell is Barthandelus here!"

Jihl walked around Lightning toward the last guard that remained behind, gesturing for him to leave immediately. He did, and she replied to Lightning's question "Ah, where do I begin. Let's start with when you thought I was dead." And she took a seat at the desk sitting in the middle of the room. "As I told you before, I woke up and saw visions of everything that had happened; I didn't lie. What I failed to mention is what exactly my mission is, and how you fit into the puzzle. Also…this is real ya know. She sent us here because this is our destiny."

She paused for a moment and kicked her feet up on the desk "It all started thousands of years ago, when the great Goddesses Lindzei and Etro ruled the planet. Something terrible happened and that's when Lindzei took half of the fal'Cie and half of the people to build Cocoon, where they would live in the sky. Over many years, the people of Cocoon forgot that they too came from Pulse and grew more and more scared of the great world below. It was forbidden that anyone from Pulse have contact with anyone from Cocoon and vice versa, because the fal'Cie and the people of Pulse resented Lindzei for building paradise in the sky and leaving the rest of them on Pulse to live life in misery with natural disasters, feral beasts, and disease. Their resentment and fear of Cocoon have only provided the Sanctum with the fuel they needed for the fire. As we all know, the fal'Cie are powerless to hurting humans. But as we all know, humans have the freewill to kill and destroy as they please."

"Thanks for the history lesson, but why would these people ever want to live on Cocoon? This place is beautiful and natural. Chance exists here, unlike the seasons and weather being always on time like the hands of a clock. You still haven't explained why you are here" Lighting replied

Jihl took her feet off the desk and stood up "Don't you understand? Everything has been predetermined. We were supposed to come back here. I came to let Barthandelus know it's time. You Lightning, you came here to provide the spark that was needed to set the War of Transgression in motion. The Goddess Etro herself selected us to carry out her will. The Goddesses and the fal'Cie are eternal, where our lives are only a blink of the eye to them. Can you imagine the honor we were bestowed with?

Lighting's face was red with anger and she stepped in front of Jihl with her blade held to her neck "What are you talking about, you lying bitch?"

"Oh, such strong words. No matter, even if you did kill me, it's too late. Ragnarok was already summoned and it's all in the past for us. It will happen that way no matter what. Haha, and you're going to love this! It's all your fault that Vanille and Fang are cursed to become Ragnarok. It's your fault your sister and all of your friends were cursed with the l'Cie brand." Jihl said spitefully "Isn't it funny how love makes people do crazy things? Pathetic if you ask me".

"Pathetic indeed" said an eerie voice from behind. "Pitiful little l'Cie. Always questioning your fate, and never being obliged or thankful to the fal'Cie who granted your every wish. No matter, there is nothing you can do to change it. Just sit back and enjoy the show", said Barthandelus.

Lightning prepared herself to charge at him, when she saw the magic welling in his hands and it knocked her back into a wall; she fell unconscious.

We had been traveling the Mah'habara Subterra for days, or maybe a week; I was difficult for me to keep track of time since we had arrived here. This place was so huge, the scale of it was inconceivable to me. On Cocoon, everything was no further than a few hours away; here though, everything is different, so wild and untamed. Even the fal'Cie are different from those on Cocoon.

When we came to an opening outside the underground tunnels, the whole area was covered in flowers. Vanille ran ahead, towards a patch of flowers she recognized from Oerba. Fang hadn't really spoken much since the Tsubaddran Highlands. When I saw her walk over to Vanille, I knew something was about to happen. I stood a few feet away, averting my gaze to the valleys and dips, but couldn't stop myself from eavesdropping.

"It's my fault Gran Pulse ended up like this, isn't it?" Fang said, keeping her back to Vanille. "I remember everything – I became Ragnarok – I scarred Cocoon. And I left Gran Pulse in this mess. It was me."

Vanille's brand started glowing, she was about to lose it. I knew that she was hiding something! "Don't say that!" she said.

Then, up from the ground arose her Eidolon. Hope stood beside me while Snow and Sazh stood away a bit as we watched the two Pulsian women bring it down.

Even after capturing Hecatoncheir, Fang was still angrier than ever. "I couldn't figure it out. Then I heard that story from Raines, and it all made sense." She paused, and Vanille still said nothing. Fang continued, "You already knew Ragnarok meant the name of destruction.

Vanille spoke up while Fang's back remained turned to her "It wasn't fair. You had to do everything and I didn't have to do anyth—" This caused Fang to turn around and confront the explanation.

"That is no reason to lie to me!" she stepped closer to Vanille. "You think that's what I want?" Fang raised her fist in the air preparing to strike Vanille. "You of all people"

Vanille braced herself for the impact of Fang's fist and whimpered. I saw the look on Fang's face change and she patted Vanille on the head with her knuckles, just as I had Serah so many times when she deserved it. 'Like a sister,' I thought.

She grabbed Vanille's shoulders and told her that she's no longer alone. Fang hugged her while Vanille wept into her shoulder. "We have a new family now."

We continued through the Subterra, and my mind kept going over the events leading up to where we found ourselves now. It was starting to make sense finally. Some things didn't exactly add up, but the pieces were beginning to come together. Vanille was hiding the truth from everyone, including the person she had travelled through five hundred years of crystal-stasis with. My heart ached for Fang, and I wished that there was something I could do to ease her pain, but I knew that it wasn't my business to get involved in.

In the end, we caught a ride on the fal'Cie Atomos and ended up in the Sulyya Springs, where everyone agreed to camp for the night.

Vanille confessed to meeting Serah prior to the Purge and it made my mind spin. I can't say that I was angry, or sad, or anything of the sort, I felt sort of…abashed.

I walked over to where Snow was standing staring up at Cocoon through Serah's crystal teardrop. Seeing my approach, he handed the teardrop to me and told me that Serah wanted to talk to me. Then he asked me to skip the lectures.

I drew my gunblade at Snow and pinned him on the ground with it. "Once we're home, you're getting married, right?"

He was taken aback at my question. "Don't scare me like that."

I replied, "You are getting married aren't you? Don't let her down, you hear me." And threw the teardrop back at him.

He stood up. "Don't you worry. This teardrop will be her last. I'll make sure of it."

That was all I needed to know…but he sounded doubtful that we would see her again. I made him put a stop to that sort of thinking, since it is he who convinced me to never give up hope.

I stood there and thought about that for a moment, and something occurred to me… I don't know what happened to me over the last few weeks aside the obvious l'Cie transformation. For some reason though, I was coming to terms with Snow and Serah's relationship.

I had become more rational, even considerate. I wasn't losing my will to fight, but I was developing feelings I had never experienced before…and I didn't want to think it would ever end.

I walked over to the campfire that Fang had lit only a few minutes prior. Hope and Vanille were off looking for viable food; they seemed to go off on their own often since we arrived on Gran Pulse, but it was none of my concern.

Sazh was sitting on a rotting log dismantling his pistols to clean them, which reminded me that I should do the same with my gunblade.

I stopped short of the fire and looked down into the flames, the warmth of it was causing the exposed skin on my legs to turn pink, but I was too distracted watching Fang through the corner of my eye to care. I saw her standing directly across the fire with a familiar look of anguish upon her face, and I thought, 'that's probably how I look all the time'.

'Fang blames herself for everything that has happened. She believes she failed her mission from the start which caused the destruction of Pulse and subsequently led to me and the others becoming l'Cie. It must be terrible carrying around that kind of guilt.'

I tried to imagine how I would feel if it were me in her situation, and I began to feel lonely. I thought about my parents' death. How I wasn't able to save my sister from the fal'Cie. The aimlessness of this whole escapade only to discover that everything I thought I knew was lies. She probably feels the same as me.

I looked up at Fang, and her eyes met mine, I wanted to say something, but the words never came; she just smiled and turned to walk away.

"Wake up you!" said a vague voice followed by a feeling of being drenched in water cold enough to cut like knives.

She gasped, opening her eyes to see a blurry image of what appeared to be a guard standing before her. Trying to stand, she noticed that her arms were restrained as well as her legs and that she was tied a wall of some sort.

"It won't do you any good trying to break free. His eminence has special plans for you." The guard said coyly.

"She's awake?" asked Jihl in a catty tone.

The guard affirmed her question and moved out of the way for Jihl to observe for herself.

When he stepped out of her line of sight, Lightning could clearly see that she had been moved somewhere different than the temple she had been knocked out.

Jihl stepped in front of her with baton in hand. "You know, I am surprised that you didn't figure me out. I mean, it was quite obvious if in my opinion. Did you really think that I could be so disgustingly timorous?" placing her baton underneath Lightning's chin.

Lightning spat at her, causing a wad of foamy spit to land on her cheek. Jihl reached up with her hand to wipe it off, then rose the baton up and struck Lightning in the ribs.

Lightning flinched at the pain from what was most likely a broken rib, but did not make a sound.

Jihl turned to the guards. "Take her up to the podium," she ordered, and walked toward the doorway. She paused before entering and turned back to Lightning, smiling. "You're going to love what we've prepared for you."

The guards walked around to Lightning's back. She felt a rumble followed by the sound of squeaky wheels. They were pushing her toward what looked to be an elevator. As hard as she tried to break free, she was no match to whatever kind of chains they had her bound with.

Once inside the elevator a guard stood on either side. The one to her right said, "If I were you, I'd be pretty scared. You don't just try to assassinate the Chancellor." This caused the other guard to chuckle, but the rest of the ride was silent.

When the elevator stopped it appeared that she was on a rooftop of some sort. They pushed Lightning out and toward the center. When they positioned her, it became apparent that she was not on a rooftop; instead it was a stage, and there were thousands and thousands of people in the crowd jeering at the sight of her.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, here she is! The spy from Cocoon!" she heard the announcer over the hundreds of speakers that lined the stage and out into the audience.

Her heart sank down into her chest. 'They found out. Jihl must have told them.'

"Here it is, you can see for yourself. The time has come. Cocoon is about to strike, and we need to beat them to it!" the announcer continued.

Barthandelus came up from behind Lightning, followed by Jihl, and the crowd cheered.

He walked in front of Lightning with a microphone in hand. "Please, ladies and gentlemen. Let's show Cocoon that we will not standby idly while they send their spies in to find out our weaknesses and strike when we least expect it. We must prepare for the war now! It is imperative. Etro herself has shown me that this is the beginning of the end!" Barthandelus said allowing the crowd to applaud.

"No!" Lightning shouted, but could not be heard over the cheers.

Then the announcer interjected. "Sorry to interrupt Chancellor, but it looks like our team is ready to infiltrate the other spies!"

Lightning could see several screens down the length of the crowd televising what the announcer was talking about. 'Oh no. They found them!' she thought.

The Paddraean Swat Team appeared to be ambushing the hotel that Lightning had checked into with Leiden and Beatrix.

"1,2,3!" The police said before bashing in the door to the hotel room.

Lightning was breathless at what she saw. "Fang!" she shouted.

"Arrest them for treason!" Jihl shouted through her police radio.

Fang was ready for the fight took out a few of the police with her lance before they were able to stun her. Vanille stood behind Fang, shaking, without even putting up a fight. Once Fang was subdued the police handcuffed them both.

Lightning sighed and put her head down in disappointment. Jihl leaned close to her ear. "Looks like you get to see what happens to traitors on Pulse."

"I'll kill you Jihl," Lightning spat.

"Hah! In case you have forgotten, it is you who is tied up and have been identified as a Cocoon spy. The whole world knows you—" She was cut off by an explosion, followed by a rumble that shook the entire platform.

Within seconds they were surrounded in a cloud of dust and smoke. Lightning could feel her hands and feet being released and she was ready to reach for her gunblade when she was grabbed by what felt like a beast that carried her away from the stage.

Lightning kicked and attempted to resist, but to no avail, she was still weakened by the blows from Barthandelus and Jihl.

The beast carried her down several alleyways and into the back of what appeared to be an abandoned warehouse, still unaware of who or what had a hold of her.

It finally released its grip from around her torso and set her down. "There love, looks like we were able to get you out of there without being spotted!" Leiden said.

"We have to save Fang! You don't know what they will do to her!" Lightning said as she turned toward the entrance they came in.

Leiden reached out a large hand and grabbed her shoulder, causing Lighting to turn back in angst reaching for her gunblade which had been removed.

"We can't! Not yet, all of Pulse will be looking for you, and we don't even know where they have taken her yet! Let's just lay low until we know where she is," Beatrix pleaded

Leiden reached around her side and pulled Lightning's gunblade out from her satchel. "Lookin' for this? I found it laying on the floor in the basement of that building they had you at, thought you might want it back"

Lightning glared at Leiden and grabbed her weapon without saying anything.

"We heard all of the commotion from the outside and saw a video of you attacking that Chancellor or whoever he is," Beatrix said.

"Then we heard those buggers making rumors that you were from Cocoon, and we knew they were goin' ta let you have it for sure!" Leiden interjected

Beatrix continued. "We couldn't just let them do that to you; not after putting your neck on the line to save us from that mess back in Oerba."

Leiden put an arm around her shoulder. "Yeah, you're one of us now! We don't just let crazy Chancellors and their goons capture and torture our friends."

"That is why we won't let anything happen to Fang or Vanille either!" Beatrix said walking over toward a large stack of boxes; she pulled out a crate, broke the top off and reached down into what looked like packaging peanuts.

"Here, you know how to use one of these?" Beatrix said, throwing a metal device to Lightning.

Lightning examined the device realizing it was a chest plate and when she flipped the switch found that it was a very old Anti-Gravitational type of armor. As soon as she equipped it, she scaled the walls breaking several empty crates with her gunblade, and left the Pulsian women in awe.

"I think she will be fine" Leiden remarked.

"Here you go Leiden, you can have the rest." Beatrix said after she had equipped herself with a several grenades and pistols upon her belt and an automatic grenade launcher in hand.

Leiden reached into the box and pulled out what appeared to be a turret gun that looked as though it belonged atop a vehicle; she placed it over her shoulder, and strapped hundreds of rounds of belt ammo over the other shoulder. "This is all I will need!" she said with a cheeky smile.

Beatrix pulled out another crate. Removing its contents she revealed a projection device that she placed on top of the pile of boxes near the center of the room. When she flipped the switch, it showed the news broadcast that Lightning had seen from the stage when they arrested Fang.

"They won't take the cameras off of those two. This is one sure way to find out when we can make our next move," Beatrix said pointing to the image.

"That Dysley is a fear monger. This will be all he needs to start the invasion on Cocoon," Leiden said with a bit of hesitation.

"Thought this is what you wanted?" Lightning asked

"It is, but ya know. Just didn't want it to happen like this." She turned with a questioning look upon her face. "What made ya wanna go after the Chancellor anyway? I thought you were a monk."

Lightning crossed her arms and looked away. "I don't know anymore. I used to think I had it figured out, but now, I feel more in the dark than ever."

Beatrix walked over and put her hands on Lightning's shoulders. "I know we accused you of being a spy when we first met, but as you know, we are all on our toes just waiting in fear of the one day that all of Cocoon comes down to murder us with our backs turned. You should have known that if you attacked him you would be called a traitor, and a spy working for Cocoon."

Leiden continued, "Whatever your reason was, you could have asked us to help. We aren't fans of him either, but it's dangerous going after someone like him alone. Could have gotten yourself killed ya know. We stick together, got it?"

Lightning nodded and averted her eyes to the image on the projector. "Where are they taking her?"

Leiden looked puzzled as well; but Beatrix said, "Looks like Dysley and his minions are going to meet them at the train station. Wonder where they're going?"

"We should follow them," Lightning replied

"Sounds good to me; we don't want to lose them!" Leiden said as she loaded a belt of ammo in her gun.

Beatrix sighed and nodded in agreement, and the women headed out the back. They ran through the gray alleyways until they were within sight of the train station. There were more policemen than spectators, but Lightning could still clearly see Jihl waiting at the train car as they were dragging a struggling Fang up to the train platform, with a crying Vanille walking slowly behind.

"How are we going to intercept them?" Beatrix said

Lightning smiled. "Leave it to me. Just be ready to fight your way through the crowd." She hit the switch on her Anti-Grav plate and leaped into the air, running over the crowd on top of their heads so quickly that she appeared to be nothing more than a flash of pink and white.

When Lightning reached the train, she dove for the engine car and landed just short of the window. She peeked into the control room and saw that the conductor must have stepped away, which made her plan easier.

She climbed into the engine car, taking a seat in the conductors chair and pressed the large red button in front of her; which made the train horn blast. Looking at all of the controls, she noticed a lever which appeared controlled the acceleration. She pushed it forward and sure enough the train started moving. 'Nobody is stopping this train now,' she thought as she impaled her gunblade into the control panel and then cut the lever off.

Looking out the window and down the train, she saw Leiden and Beatrix blasting their way through the police barricade. Leiden boarded the train first and kept shooting into the crowd of police with unrelenting assault while Beatrix got aboard the car just behind her.

Lightning climbed out of the window and jumped on top of the train, so that she could run back to meet up with Leiden and Beatrix. The Paddraean police weren't giving up just yet, and they continued their barrage of bullets flying at her. When she reached the junction where the two cars met holding Beatrix and Leiden she slipped in between them kicking open the door to the car in front of her.

To her surprise though, nothing was left of the car except charred remains of what used to be a dining car. 'Looks like Beatrix took care of it already,' so she turned to go into the other car, when she felt a huge rumble that nearly knocked her off of her feet and the door in front of her flew open with a cloud of smoke.

She tilted her head down and rushed inside the car following the sound of Leiden's battle cry; her gunblade slicing through anything standing in her path. The party fought through the policemen and guards on every train car, and it seemed as thought it would never end.

"Just how many of them are there?" Leiden shouted above the explosions and gunfire.

"Let's just worry about getting to Fang!" Lightning replied.

"Well I'm almost out of ammo, so we better find her soon!" Beatrix said as she was reloading her grenade launcher.

Then all of a sudden, everything got quiet. The policemen and guards they were fighting with immediately retreated to the front of the train.

"Wonder where they're going? Cowards." Leiden chuckled.

"Look!" Beatrix shouted pointing out the window of the train.

They had armored flying tanks riding alongside the train, evacuating Jihl, Dysley, Fang, and Vanille as well as the guardsmen and police.

"Damn it!" Lightning said at the sight of what was happening.

"Looks like they weren't going to let us win that easily," Leiden said in disappointment as she saw the last of the tanks fly away.

"Well we can't stop the train. I made sure of that." Lightning said.

"Guess we will just have to jump or ride it out till it stops itself," Beatrix thought aloud.

"Or till we get blown up! Looks like they sent bombers after us," Leiden said pointing up at the aircraft approaching in the distance and continued "Oerba is only a few miles from here, that's probably where they're taking Fang and Vanille."

"I say we take our chances on the train; sounds better than getting blown to bits on foot." Beatrix said.

"So it's decided! Leiden, go back to the cargo car to see if you can find some additional ammo and Beatrix and myself will go into the control and see if we can't make this thing go a little faster!" Lightning said before walking toward the front of the train car.

Unfortunately since Lightning severely damaged the control panel, there was nothing they could do to make the train go faster. The good thing was that the engine car stood a better chance at the barrage of bombs they were likely to endure before they reach Oerba.

It didn't take Leiden to return with arms full of new weapons and ammo. "Looks like they were preparing for war. The cargo car was filled with all sorts of goodies, ripe for the picking!" she laughed setting the weapons down. "I just got the best looking ones, but you can go back and see for yourself if ya like."

Beatrix reached down to resupply her grenade launcher. "I like the one I have, thank you."

"Suit yourself. I'm going to take this flame thrower attachment and put it on my turret. How about you, Lightning?" Leiden asked.

Lightning didn't really care for using other weapons but, as it stands her gunblade wasn't going to be very effective against flying bombers. She reached down and grabbed a mini-machine gun, a rocket launcher and attached a couple grenades to her pistol belt.

She knocked the glass out of the front window with her boot, and prepared for the frontal attack, just as Beatrix and Leiden did for the side windows.

When the bombers finally reached them, they dropped bombs all around but none making a direct hit. Lightning stepped up onto the control panel and positioned herself so that she was half out the window. She put the rocket launcher on her shoulder and took aim at the bomber that had just flown by while Leiden unloaded her turret at them. The pair took out the bomber and before they could celebrate they felt a rumble that nearly knocked Lightning out the window.

"Girls, this is bad! See that bridge that goes over the lake at Oerba? I think they're going to try to blow it up!" Beatrix shouted.

Lightning directed her attention at the bombers flying ahead of them toward the bridge, and noticed one of bombers coming up on her just over head. "If I don't get to Oerba before you, make sure you go straight for Fang. Don't let them hurt her!" Lightning shouted just as she hit the Anti-G button on her armor.

Lightning leaped up and unsheathed her gunblade hooking it into the hull of the bomber. She swung back and forth to gain enough momentum so that when she unhooked her gunblade she would be able to slide down the underside of the bomber to grab hold of the rear. Once she was attached to the rear, she worked her way toward the cockpit, pulled out her mini-machine gun and sprayed the pilot with bullets.

After removing the pilot from his seat, Lightning quickly took control of the bomber before it crashed. She observed all around her at how many bombers were left and took notice at which ones the Pulse women were going after. Finally, she zeroed in on a bomber that had almost reached the bridge, and she pushed the bomber to full throttle. When she was close enough to it, she leaned up and put her arm outside the hole in the cockpit and unloaded her gun at the other bomber.

She was able to breach the fuel tank but it wasn't enough to bring down the plane. 'I need fire,' she thought.

It occurred to her, that maybe if she could hit it just right, that a bullet from her gunblade might create enough spark to ignite the fuel tank. She reached into her pocket for a bullet, and loaded it into her gunblade. 'Here goes!' she fired the round from her weapon, and was certain she had missed when out of nowhere the bomber was engulfed in flames and started downward where it crashed.

She flew ahead to make sure no more bombers were able to prohibit the train from crossing the bridge. A few bombers were able to drop missiles on some of the rear cars, and broke off part of the bridge behind them, but the engine car kept rolling forward.

Lightning noticed there was another train blocking the station at Oerba, so she flew ahead and flipped the switch to unload her bombs over the parked train so that the others would know it's there and to abandon the train before it crashed.

After she saw Leiden and Beatrix escape their impending doom, she flew ahead, not even waiting to see the display of mangled trains.

Searching the ground, she saw groups of people gathered around the town center and what appeared to be the symbol of fal'Cie Anima adorned to the tall building standing in the middle.

"They're going to make her a l'Cie as punishment for being with me," Lightning whispered to herself in disbelief.

'What am I going to do? I have to stop this! I can't just bomb the city. Ugh! I don't care what they do to me; I can't let this happen to her!' Lighting thought as she looked for a place to land the bomber.

Nothing looked even remotely like a good place to land, and right when she was about to give up she noticed the emergency eject button. It was then that she decided to aim the bomber for the lake and just eject herself over Oerba.

Once she gained enough altitude and had the right heading, she pulled the eject lever and was shot into the sky still attached to the pilot seat. Upon her descent, a parachute was released and she hovered over Oerba, but nobody seemed to notice her descent. They were all too distracted at the Cocoon spy traitors, the train wreckage, and the barrage of bombers that were shot out of the sky before their eyes.

On her descent, Lightning scanned all of the faces and looked deeper into groups larger than ten or twenty for any indication that they may be holding Fang. She landed on top of a large building, so that she would have unrestricted access to finding Fang.

She heard the blasts of grenades followed by the sound of a turret. To her astonishment, Leiden and Beatrix had already found Fang and they were working their way down a street that led to what looked like a government building.

Lightning hit the switch on the Anti-G plate once more and leaned over the wall of the building, running down it as if it were the ground; then just when she was a few feet from the ground, she felt it stop working, so she quickly leapt forward out into the crowd.

Running through the crowd with all her might she pushed passed all of the spectators. When she reached the guards she pulled out her gunblade, slashing through them all like butter.

Leiden, Beatrix and Lightning met up with each other in front of the government building which sat directly underneath the Anima fal'Cie. "Are you ready?" Leiden shouted over the roar of her turret.

Lightning nodded and ran up the stairs to the entrance of the building using her gunblade to crash through the doors.

Upon entering the building they were ambushed and flanked from both the street and within the building. In the corner of her eye she could see Jihl standing on the balcony above. "I'm coming for you Nabaat!" Lightning shouted, watching as Jihl smiled and turned away.

"We need to block this door!" Beatrix shouted, drawing her attention.

Leiden directed her fire at the base of a large marble pillar. "Get out of the way girls!" Leiden said just as Beatrix shot a grenade into the street.

Lightning leaped out of the way when she saw the pillar start swaying; slashing the remaining guards left in the lobby she continued toward the staircase that lead to where she had seen Jihl.

Lightning stopped at the sound coming from behind, causing her to look back at Leiden who was sinking to her knees.

"Nooooo!" Leiden screamed in a blood thirsty roar.

There were only a few more guards left, since she blocked off the entrance with the pillar, so Lightning finished them off before going to check on what had happened to cause her to scream.

"No! What have I done?" Leiden screamed through gritted teeth.

Lightning ran over to the pillar and saw Beatrix trapped underneath it, with blood coming out of her mouth. She couldn't move, all she could do was stand there watch the enormous woman weeping over her trapped friend who lay there helplessly dying.

"I'm so sorry Bea! I should have just fought the street with you instead of trying to block it off! What was I thinking?" Leiden said almost incoherently through sobs.

Beatrix coughed blood and reached up to cup Leiden's face. "It's alright. It doesn't even hurt. You need to put a stop to this. Put an end to this Cocoon terror, and bring peace back to Gran Pulse." She began gurgling blood, it was filling her mouth too quickly to swallow yet she still tried to murmur the words "I love you" before her body lay lifeless.

Leiden stayed knelt over Beatrix for a few moments until she looked up at Lightning, eyes cold. "Let's kill that bastard, and I'll kill every last one of those snakes on Cocoon myself!"

Lightning just nodded and waited for Leiden to get on her feet and head for the stairs before following.

When they reached the top they headed down a long corridor. "If they are doing what I think they are, then they have taken her to the fal'Cie chamber," Leiden said.

"Making her a l'Cie, aren't they?" Lightning replied

"Not just a l'Cie. They will grant her the power to turn into Ragnarok," Leiden continued, "I want to personally make sure that Cocoon and this Chancellor never see the light of another day!"

The two picked up their pace, running down the corridor until they reached a giant doorway. "Let's get this over with," Lightning said, pushing through the door.

Before her eyes was exactly what started everything to begin with on Cocoon. Anima. The room was almost exactly how she remembered, and in front of her stood Barthandelus with his robot bird perched upon his shoulder with Jihl at his side. She scanned the room for Fang only to find her suspended in the air by magic, and Vanille was knelt on the floor beneath crying.

"I knew that a few hundred police and security guards were no match to you and your new clan," Jihl said with a smirk.

"Let her go! It's me you want!" Leiden said, throwing her turret down on the ground. "Bea's dead. What've I got left? Let her go! I'll become Ragnarok!"

Dysley laughed. "Fools, do you really think you can change anything? Lindzei and Etro have provided for this moment to happen for thousands of years. You believe that a few humans can change anything? If the great fal'Cie are powerless to stop it, why must you persist with these delusions of grandeur?

"But you think she's a spy from Cocoon! It's me! See I'm the one running around with the Cocoon spy!" Leiden pleaded.

"She's from Cocoon, I'm from Cocoon, he's from Cocoon. Who cares? You and everyone on this forsaken place will all be dead within a few years anyway!" Jihl argued.

"Liar!" Fang shouted from above.

Lightning got furious and drew her gunblade preparing to charge at Jihl. "That's it! You're dead!"

Barthandelus waved his hand and encapsulated Lightning in the same magic as Fang suspending them both in the air side-by-side. Lightning looked at Fang, who adorned the same sorrow on her face as Leiden. "I'm sorry Fang."

Fang's fists clenched and a solitary tear rolled down her cheek.

"Aw, what's the matter? Your girlfriend doesn't like you anymore, Lightning?" Jihl laughed

In that moment, Leiden pulled the pin on a smoke grenade and picked up her turret. She started firing in the direction of Dysley and Jihl, but striking Anima instead awakening the fal'Cie. In the confusion though, Dysley managed to lose his magical hold on the two, which sent them plummeting to the ground.

"You lying son-of-a-bitch! I'll kill you both!" Leiden shouted over the roaring of her weapon.

Once the smoke cleared it was obvious that Dysley had used his magical shield to protect himself and Jihl from the rampage, while his bird Minerva circled around her creating a bulls eye.

Lightning stood up, and was about to charge at Jihl when she was knocked to the ground from behind. She rolled over to see what had been brave enough to hit her from behind, and in that instant Fang straddled her placing both hands around her neck "Why didn't you tell me? How could you do this?" Fang pleaded with a crackling voice from the anger swelling in her throat.

'This is all my fault. I deserve this' Lightning just stared into her eyes without resisting, or even trying to explain as the darkness began to shroud around her.

The vice-like grip was released slowly from Lightning's throat and she felt a warm droplet fall from Fang's face. "I can't believe this is happening. Do you know what you've started? I can't believe it's you-I can't believe that I…" Fang's voice trailed off.

Fang stood up and reached for her lance, glaring viciously at Jihl and Barthandelus who were still quite occupied with Leiden's rage. Fang looked behind her to see Vanille still sobbing on the ground so she shouted "Get out of here Vanille! Now!"

Lightning stood up beside her, gunblade drawn "Whatever I may have caused, it's not too late to change it! Let's take them out!"

Fang ran at Dysley in a dash without even acknowledging the sincere words Lightning had proclaimed. Lightning leaped in the air toward Jihl, but was stopped abruptly and knocked her back into the far wall passed the fal'Cie by the force of the Ultima spell that Barthandelus cast on Leiden through the Minerva bull's eye.

Lightning pushed herself up to her knees with weak muscles and what felt like a broken rib, looked up to see Fang suspended in midair with Vanille once more directly underneath, both manipulated like marionettes by Barthandelus.

Lightning stood to her feet but only to observe the ever elusive events unfolding in brilliant colors and ghastly sounds of a fully alive fal'Cie with fingers reaching out to encapsulate Fang and Vanille "No!" She shouted and started running to save them.

"Excellent, He accepted you! Your next destination will be Taejin's Tower and right into the Fifth Ark where one of you will become Ragnarok. Enjoy your stay on Cocoon. We will meet again!" Dysley said as he raised his staff in the air and with a blinding light and he disappeared leaving Jihl behind.

Lightning was stopped in her tracks by the light, but as soon as she regained composure she saw that the fal'Cie had moved, it was rising and with every second becoming more out of her reach. Running so fast she thought her legs would leave her body behind she approached the edge of the platform where the fal'Cie had been only seconds ago. With a pause, she sprung in the air reaching for the fal'Cie, but not far enough. Looking down she saw that she probably wouldn't survive the drop, so she spun around and did a back flip where she was able to reach out to grasp the edge of the platform by only the tips of her fingers.

"Well, looks like you have a situational problem, Lightning" Jihl sneered as she knelt down to look at Lightning who was barely hanging on and the tips of her fingers turning purple from the bruising of holding her body weight on the sharp edge.

Lightning looked up and spat in Jihl's face "If you're going to push me off, then do it! But I'm warning you now, you bitch, you had better hope that I never see you again."Declared Lightning.

Jihl wiped the spit off her cheek and grinned "I really hate repeating myself you know, but because you sound so serious I will. As I said before, I need you for my destiny just as you need me for yours. Me killing you, or you killing me won't help either of us attain what we want…now will it? Your little princess is still alive somewhere, and like it or not, you need me to help you find her." Jihl stood up and extended her baton in a motion to invite Lightning to grab a hold of it if she wanted to live.

Reluctantly she obliged knowing that she would kill Jihl regardless, she grabbed the weapon, and with one swift motion Jihl threw Lightning up into the air by the end of her baton. Drawing her gunblade in mid-air she when she landed she spun around to strike Jihl, but only swung at air. Jihl was nowhere to be seen-she had disappeared. "You low life! I'll find you, and when I do, the end of my blade will be the last thing you see!" Lightning shouted.

Watching the fal'Cie still rising up through the opening atop the ceiling, Lightning decided she would just follow it to the tower and keep fighting. She heard commotion coming from the entrance to the room and when she turned to look, she saw the whole hallway crowded by Oerba police and military.

Leiden was regaining consciousness and barely had time to even sit up when the police surrounded her, and had her handcuffed…for a number of treacherous crimes, including the murder and she was certain that death was coming to her.

Leiden wasn't going in without a fight, so she head-butted the officer behind her and kicked the feet out from under the other one to her side. In the commotion she pulled the pin out of the last grenade she had strapped to her belt and in what seemed like slow motion, she turned to Lightning and winked just before the explosion.

Lightning just stood there blankly, she felt used, dirty, and helpless to stop anything that happened. Then she felt a searing burning sensation underneath her jacket on her stomach. It as though it would burn a hole right through her.

She pulled up her shirt to see the source of this pain "Oh no, not again!" Lightning shouted as she disappeared as well.

The images around her faded into nothingness and Lightning found herself surrounded by darkness. From behind she could feel a surge of heated air that steadily increased in intensity. Unsure of where to go, she decided to walk away from it. She wasn't sure what was around her, but anything with such intense heat couldn't be good. Walking undeviatingly ahead, the memories of what had just happened flooded her thoughts.

'How could any of it have been possible? It's not possible to travel through time, it goes against everything. And what was Jihl doing there? Was it all a dream? It had to be, because neither Fang nor Vanille ever indicated that they knew me from their past. Besides, Barthandelus would have ever-so-nonchalantly rubbed it in my face. Well he did, sort of, when he kept taunting Fang. Even if Fang didn't remember, wouldn't Vanille have said something? None of this makes any sense…I never should have followed Jihl. I can find Fang on my own, I don't need anybody else. I never have.' Lightning's thoughts rambled on. 'First, I need to find a way out of this limbo, or whatever it is.'

"Claire!" An unfamiliar masculine voice shouted.

Lightning pulled out her gunblade ready to fight the individual brave enough to call her by her legal name. "Show yourself!" She replied.

"Claire, you have to come with us honey." The same voice continued followed by incoherent whispers.

'Honey?' She thought. "Keep talking like that and I'll cut your larynx right out of your throat!" she shouted.

The area in front of her cleared away, dimly, allowing Lightning to see the events taking place in front of her.

Lightning walked close enough to the image that she almost felt as if she were there. What she saw was a young girl staring blankly out of a window with a teddy bear wrapped in her arms. 'That's…me.'

"What the hell is this? You bastard I want to know who the hell you are and how you know about this!" Lightning screamed into the darkness.

"Claire, dear, you can't stay here any longer. You must come with us." An older woman's voice spoke from behind the child.

The crash of lightning and the roar of the thunder from the storm outside the window became so audible that Lightning remembered how the house shook with its ferocity. 'Why? Why am I seeing this?'

"Someone must have tampered with the fal'Cie Phoenix for this type of weather!" The man said to the woman, both frightened at the rarity of the storm.

"Claire, this storm is too dangerous for you to be standing so close to that window, aren't you scared?" The woman asked compassionately.

The young Lightning remained stationary in the same position; the man said to the woman, "If she won't come, we will just have to take her."

The woman replied, "She's just a little girl who lost her only parent, we can't just pluck her up like some criminal; why don't you go comfort the other child and let me handle this one."

"Sure thing, Wilma, if you need anything just give me a shout," the man said as he walked out of the room.

Wilma walked closer to the young girl and put a hand upon her shoulder. "Dear, I know you must feel lost, but you must remember your sister, you must be strong for her."

The younger Claire shrugged her shoulder away from the woman and squeezed the bear she held even tighter.

"Claire, you must come with us. You are too young to be left on your own, and you want to stay with your sister don't you? I promise that we won't let anything bad happen to you or her," the older woman pleaded.

Suddenly, a crash of lightning struck directly in front of the window, shattering the glass, forcing both the little girl and the old woman on their backs and knocking out the power to the house.

"Claire! Claire! Where are you! Are you okay?" the woman shouted through the darkness.

The roar of the thunder was deafening. "Wilma! Are you okay?" the man shouted from the hallway.

"Yes Jack, but I can't find Claire! Oh dear, I hope she isn't injured!" Wilma said.

Lightning struck once more in the distance, illuminating the room and showing the young girl standing once again at the window.

Wilma grabbed her by her shirt to pull her away from the open window. "Claire, come on we must go, now!"

The girl wouldn't budge.

"Claire, I mean it, we have to go!" Wilma said more forcefully.

"Claire, cut this out, you're going to get hurt," Jack said walking back into the room.

Finally the girl turned to face the two social workers. "My name isn't Claire. Don't call me that ever again. Claire is dead."

Wilma placed a hand over her mouth to prevent a gasp at the sadness and shock she felt at the words coming from the young girl.

"Stop that nonsense!" Jack protested.

Wilma reached behind to Jack's wrist and glared at him before turning back to Claire. "It's okay sweetheart, you can be whoever you would like."

Jack shook his head in disbelief.

"My name is Lightning, and I never want to hear the name Claire ever again." The young girl proclaimed.

"Anything you wish honey, let's just get out of here so that we can get you two to safety." Wilma said with sincerity.

The young girl agreed and proceeded to follow the man and woman out of her home with her sister.

The image faded and the warmth from behind her crept up once more, except much faster.

'I bet Jihl is behind this. That bitch! When she took me to that temple, she was able to read my mind or something. I'll kill her!' Lightning thought.

Lightning began running to escape the heat, but it was much faster than her, and soon she was sweating bullets and becoming slower and slower. 'Great, so this is how I go out…in a puddle. Never would have expected this one.'

Her legs felt like they were made of iron and she was stumbling in the melting pot around her. It didn't take long before she could no longer find the strength to move and she dropped to her knees "What do you want from me!" she cried.

It was becoming difficult to breathe due to the intensity of the heat, and she was soaked from head to toe in sweat.

"If you want me dead, then just kill me you coward!" She screamed with what energy she had left.

Lightning leaned over, too weak to keep herself in the upright position. 'I am so sorry, Fang…I wasn't strong enough…to keep myself…alive.' She closed her heavy eyes, and succumbed to the darkness.

Lightning lay waiting for death to come upon her. There were no flames to be seen from the inferno surrounding her, all that existed in this realm was darkness. The more she resisted dying, the faster life seemed to be drawn out of her.

Lightning had stared down her mortality several times in the course of life and especially as a l'Cie; yet even laughing in the face of death, she had never felt more condemned than she did at this moment. In the hopelessness she found herself feeling more isolated than ever and reminded of the image she had just seen of herself, a young teenager, and being forced to overcome the loss of her last remaining parent.

All of a sudden, she no longer felt the heat. For that matter, she couldn't feel the ground which she lay upon either. Lightning was unable to differentiate between her eyes being open or closed in the pitch black void that surrounded her.

"You felt alone then, didn't you?" An indeterminate gendered whisper spoke in the distance.

"Yes," Lightning muttered.

"You pushed everyone away from you." The whisper spoke once more, sounding almost like a heavy gust of wind.

"I had to. For Serah." Lightning weakly protested. "Who are you?" she asked.

"Life was hard for you?" The whisper asked in the same tone.

"I had to be strong. That's why I joined the Guardian Corps…to take care of Serah." She explained.

Lightning paused for a moment, confounded, she asked, "Am I dead?"

"Do you wish for death?" The whisper asked, this time sounding like a distant boom.

Lightning pushed herself back up to a sitting position "Never," she declared.

"Why do you fight?" The whisper asked gently.

"I won't let the people I care about slip away from me ever again!" She replied contemptuously.

"You blame yourself?" The whisper asked, the sound resembling the release of a pressure valve.

"I know that I could have done something to stop it!" Lightning shouted.

"It is your destiny. Why do you question your fate?" The whisper cooed like a summer breeze.

"Because it's mine to determine, the fal'Cie, nor anything else will control the outcome." Lightning proclaimed.

"The events that happen to shape your destiny are just as important as the causatum. You defy your purpose?" The whisper said in the same breezy tone.

Lightning stood up into the darkness on shaky legs. "My purpose is to find Fang. I would rather die searching for her and know for certain that she lives or is dead, and if she is dead when I find her then I will have to accept it. But if she is alive and there is a chance that I can save her, then nothing can stand in my way! Even if it means being damned to an eternity in this abysmal place; I will not give up!"

"Your convictions are strong. I will show you that which you desire." The whisper roared like a tornado.

Lightning pulled her gunblade anticipating a fight, she said, "Show me what you got!"

From all directions Lightning heard the shifting of the world around her. She felt as though she was levitating since the only movement she could feel was that of her own volition. From beneath her feet another image appeared, just as it had before, in front of her.

A vividly brilliant display of Eden in its prime appeared before her and the bird's eye image flew from the highway through the buildings and right into Orphan's cradle where she saw for the first time herself as a Cie'th. 'I don't remember this. I remember being in a cold dark place…sort of like this one, except it was unbearably cold instead of hot...oddly enough, everyone was in that place as well, and none of it really made any sense.'

Fang lay dying underneath the bodies of the Cie'th and miraculously transformed into Ragnarok. Vanille in her usual passive position, pleading for an end. Ragnarok failed once more, and the Barthandelus/Orphan duo relentlessly tortured Fang. 'That's when I woke up. From the start, I could never bear the sight of Barthandelus taunting and tormenting Fang.' The energy released by the group transforming back into human form unleashed enough force to destroy this form of Orphan and permanently shut Barthandelus up.

Lightning witnessed them destroying Orphan. 'We were all so strong, and Fang was so brave…' She recalled.

When Orphan was defeated Lightning saw Cocoon fill with darkness and saw herself floating above Fang and Vanille. Almost overcome by emotion she remembered that she had no recollection of what happened after that moment. 'I must have already turned to crystal'

Fang and Vanille transformed into Ragnarok and used the magic and friction from the descending Cocoon to create a crystalline lava that stretched to the ground on Pulse and encapsulated all of Cocoon; then suddenly the whole thing froze solid forming a pillar that held Cocoon in the sky above Pulse.

Immediately after freezing the crystal, Ragnarok whipped its tail in a precise motion setting the crystallized bodies of Lightning and the others safely upon the ground. In an instant Fang and Vanille were returned to crystal stasis and resting within the capital of the pillar.

"She's alive!" Lightning shouted; allowing a tear to form in her eyes at the magnitude of the emotional response, having witnessed the events she was unaware of.

The images then showed the people evacuating Cocoon, Lightning taking charge of the situation. Followed by the first encounter with Jihl since Cocoon, as well as Lightning going off to the Faultwarrens unsuccessfully in search of clues that might lead to Fang. The images then followed through the escapade with Jihl on Cocoon and through the Mah'habara Archaeopolis and into Paddra where Snow rescued them, and finally Lightning stumbling upon the statue that sent her into the past. Then the images went upward toward Cocoon and showed Hope standing atop the Crystal case that held Cocoon holding some type of staff. He lifted into the air and brought it back down, shattering Cocoon in a blinding light.

"Why are you showing me this? Who are you?" Lightning demanded.

The images faded once more and all that was left is darkness.

"I granted life through my blood. Because of me, it is you that the fal'Cie fear the most." The whisper spoke in a gust-like tone.

"Etro," Lightning gasped.

"I have long awaited you Lightning. You do not believe in fate, yet I can name the countless events that took place; the cause for each and every event to happen in life. Do you wish to see?" Etro's whisper spoke like a cold winter breeze.

"That's not necessary, I believe you. But what do you want from me, Goddess?" Lightning asked.

"You must reunite Cocoon with Pulse. Lindzei still wishes Cocoon's people remain on Cocoon, but to do that is to curse humankind to annihilation," Etro continued. "You will find that which you seek, Lightning. Fang awaits you to unlock her crystal tomb."

"How do I save Fang? Tell me!" Lightning implored.

"Your brand will lead the way; just follow your heart." Etro's whisper said fading into the void.

She reached down to touch the area on her stomach that the searing brand was located, and realized that it was just as she suspected. "Don't leave without telling me! Please!" Lightning shouted.

The air around her began getting heavy and she remained floating—or so she thought, since she could not feel any kind of solid surface. The air made her feel lightheaded and a euphoric sensation overtook her senses. 'I guess this is what Jihl was talking about at the camp at Yaschas Massif,' Lightning closed her eyes and let the feeling carry her off to a deep slumber.

The battle with the Pulse fal'Cie Dhaka wasn't an easy one; not due to the fact that he was a difficult opponent, but the fact that we knew Oerba was just beyond this broken tower and we had no idea what was awaiting us.

We had to keep going even though the daunting task seemed to be at our own peril. Our brands grew in detail with each passing day, and none of us wanted to wait for it to become completed to find that we had failed to completed our focus.

Sazh said, "The view from here ain't that rosy." I felt bad for the two Pulsian women, because from here their home looked like nothing short of a ghost town.

"You want to wait here?" I asked.

Vanille protested "No. I need to see for myself." Together we walked to the edge to observe what Sazh spoke of.

Vanille and Fang both blankly into the distance in awe at the spectacle. "It's all gone," Vanille whispered.

Fang followed by saying, "Every trace of color." She became clearly upset, and then she asserted, "We're chasing shadows. The whole idea of losing our brands is hopeless!"

I could tell that she was beginning to give up hope; to be honest, I think I might have felt the same if it were me looking into the desolate place I used to call home.

Snow chimed in as he always does. "There's got to be a way."

Vanille replied. "You think…you really think it's possible?"

Hope grabbed her hand and assured her that anything is possible and that's the reason we came here.

I looked to Fang who was still staring at her homeland. "There's no going back now."

Confidently, looking at me out the corner of her eyes she replied, "You think I don't know that?"

I couldn't imagine the thoughts that were going through her mind, and I didn't want to pry, so we headed down. Fang remained behind the group for a few moments, I guess to gather composure before going home.

Walking on the crystal dust, it became apparent that it was fine as powder and the closer we got to Oerba the more Cie'th seemed to appear. I noticed that the crystal powder liked to find a home in the crevasses of my gunblade and made a mental note that I would need to clean them once we found a place to rest.

Fang and Vanille both carried a somber look upon their face when we finally entered the city; it was in ruins and completely devoid of life, save for the roaming Cie'th.

Hope asked Vanille, "Which is your house?"

Vanille chuckled. "What do you mean, which is ours? All of them. They're all ours."

Fang confirmed. "Yep, everyone in the village."

I thought it was such an alien concept to share everything and never place solitary ownership over something as constitutional as a home.

"So, you want to take a look around?" Hope asked.

"We'd better. Got to find something to help us lose these brands." Fang insisted.

Sazh interjected, "That's not the only reason we're here. You're finally home. Make the most of it."

I knew that was what Fang was wishing, she would never ask though. We walked around defeating whatever Cie'th appeared to be an imminent danger to us, and I was constantly reminded that I needed to clean my weapon and possibly do a little bit of upgrading my equipment before I found myself in the next major battle, otherwise I might find myself in some serious trouble.

We went inside several buildings, most of which in remarkable condition considering they had been abandoned for over five-hundred years. One of the buildings we searched contained a very modestly constructed robot which caused Vanille to become quite excited.

"Oh! Bhakti!" She shouted, causing the little robot to roll slowly toward her. Shockingly it was still functional after so many years of being left alone to the elements.

"Friend of yours?" Sazh asked.

"Yeah!" Vanille continued, "You're okay, I was worried." She said placing a hand over the robot, just before it shut down.

Fang walked up from behind. "He wanted to say goodbye."

Sazh interjected, "He's not ready for the scrap heap yet. Bit worse for wear, but it's nothing that I can't fix. Just need to track us down some parts."

The sun was beginning to descend over the distant mountains; having finally reached our destination, we decided to go ahead and rest.

"So what did you do for fun around here, Vanille?" Hope asked.

"We played all kinds of sports, danced to the most amazing music you ever heard, ate the most delicious food, and so many more things. We just basically celebrated life any chance we could get, right Fang?" Vanille replied with enthusiasm.

"Heh, that's right." Fang concurred.

I examined the run down home and part of me was in awe at the similarities Cocoon shared with Pulse. They are just like us, except neither of us were aware of the other. There are so many things that perplexed me, but I don't think I really cared to find the answers.

"Well then, I'm going to go find us some grub! Anyone want to tag along?" Snow said, stretching his arms behind his back.

The room remained silent and everyone just glared at Snow. He made an awkward gesture and said, "I'll take that as a no, then. Well, I don't want to hear any complaints about what's for dinner!"

I rolled my eyes and turned around to continue my investigation into this Oerban home.

"Guess I'll go look for some of the parts to fix this little robot," Sazh said, walking out the door behind Snow.

"Come with me, Hope; I'll show you around! I know it's been a long time since I was here, but from the looks of it not a lot has changed," Vanille said, taking Hope's hand and practically pulling him out the door.

I picked up a Chocobo doll and turned to Fang "So, you lived here?" I asked.

"I guess you could say that, I spent a lot of time here." Fang replied.

"Gran Pulse sure has some strange customs," I said.

"Ha! No stranger than Cocoon!" Fang chided.

I knew that Cocoon's customs must be alien to her as Pulsian traditions are to me. I wanted to learn more about her, and what better place to learn about someone than their hometown.

I smiled and tossed the stuffed Chocobo doll at Fang just before walking out the door as well. Fang just stood there for a moment; analyzing the doll she smiled before she followed me.

"Ya know, I bet you would have liked it here in Oerba. Before the war it was a really fun place to live—beautiful too, believe it or not." Fang said from behind me.

"I can imagine that," I replied, walking up the street that led to several houses.

"You said you spent most of your time at the house with the toys; where else did you spend your time?" I asked nonchalantly

"Not far from here. Wonder if it's still there?" Fang replied.

"Let's check it out," I said allowing Fang to walk ahead of me to lead the way.

From the look of things, the war hadn't really damaged the town all that much. I had always imagined ruins of demolished buildings, but from the look of things, it looks like everyone left in a hurry.

We walked past several houses most of which looked similar to the each other and finally we came to what appeared to be a shack-home, and Fang stopped. "Here it is. Looks a bit more shabby than the last time I saw it, but I guess you'd expect that after five-hundred years."

"Kind of small, isn't it?" I replied, placing my hands on my hips.

"Yeah, well, I did a lot of travelling so it was perfect for me and my friends to come back and stay however long we needed to then go back about our business." Fang explained.

"Let's go inside." I said walking toward the door.

"Um, sure." She replied somewhat reluctantly.

Upon opening the door I felt as though I had stepped back in time for a moment, and yet just as all of the other homes, it was apparent that a great many years had passed.

"Look the same?" I asked

"Yeah, it does. It's just like I remember it." Fang replied with a stoic posture.

She walked around the room observing things and then left to investigate another room. I remained in the first room, and I just happened to look down; what had caught my eye was a very detailed picture of a Cactuar. I reached down to pick it up and blew the surface dust off.

"You like that?" Fang asked humbly.

"I was just admiring it." I replied, surprised.

Fang smirked. "Ah, thought you might say that," she said; causing me to shrug my shoulders and set the photo down on an adjacent table.

"Whatever." I replied somewhat embarrassed at her remark.

Then she held up something in her hands. "Look what I've found!"

What she held in her hands appeared to be a bottle of alcohol. "You really think we should be drinking?" I said.

Fang chuckled. "Hey, how often have you had a taste of five-hundred year booze? Besides, what's a couple drinks gonna hurt us? I mean, we're already l'Cie, I don't think it gets much worse."

I shook my head, knowing nothing good could happen with all of us drunk. I didn't protest though, instead I said, "Well, let's get back. The others are probably waiting for us."

We walked toward the door and Fang took a long last look letting out a deep sigh before she closed the door and we walked back.

The aroma of the food that Snow had caught permeated the air; which caused my stomach to rumble and I picked up the pace a bit.

Fang laughed. "Hungry?"

"You have no idea!" I replied.

Walking up the stairs I could hear the others chatting with one another, and when we entered it was visible that Vanille was stirring something in the pot on the stove.

"Hey Light! Sazh got the stove working, and Vanille said she knew how to cook the fish that live in the lake, so dinner is on Vanille's tonight." Hope said enthusiastically.

"Ah, you're not making what I think, are you Vanille?" Fang inquired.

"Hehe! How did you know?" Vanille replied sheepishly.

"Well if that's what we're having, then I guess nobody will object to a bit of this then?" Fang said pulling the bottle of liquor from behind her back.

Snow stood up and walked over to put an arm over Fang's shoulder. "You've got to be kidding! That has to be five-hundred years old. Where'd you get it?"

"I haven't had a drink since Dajh was born, but I sure could use one now." Sazh interjected.

"You went back to the cottage, didn't you Fang?" Vanille asked.

"Yeah, it's in about the same condition it was when we left it too." Fang replied.

The fish dinner was actually savory, and I didn't even know that Vanille could cook. Shortly after we were all finished eating, Fang popped the top of the bottle of liquor and everyone waited in anticipation for Fang to take the first sip. She took a whiff and by the look on her face, it wasn't going to be a pleasant drink.

"Bottoms up!" Fang said before turning the bottle up to her lips.

She took one big gulp from the bottle and swallowed it making the most disgusting face I had ever seen her make.

"That good, huh?" Snow asked.

Fang coughed and passed the bottle to him. "See for yourself."

Snow made the same disgusting face as Fang, and passed the bottle to Sazh who did the same and by the time the bottle made its way to me, Vanille walked over with some cups she had found in a cupboard near the stove.

"Here, this might make it easier!" She said with a smile.

"Having a drink, Vanille?" Fang asked.

"Nah, I figure Hope and I will just go build a campfire or rummage through some houses; isn't that right Hope." Vanille said with a grin, jabbing Hope in the ribs with her elbow to provoke an agreeing gesture.

"Haha, okay then. You two have fun." Fang replied.

We sat there sipping on our drinks for probably an hour, talking about everything except our ever elusive brands. Remembering the better times, I suppose.

Sazh found a deck of playing cards on a shelf, which led to none other than a game of poker. It was fun teaching Fang how to play, but once she caught on, she ended up taking all of our money. After I lost more Gil than I was comfortable with, I poured myself another drink; deciding now was as good a time as any to go ahead and clean my gunblade, so I excused myself and walked out.

I walked down to the lakefront and gathered some drift wood to kindle a small fire before sitting down to dismantle my weapon. Maybe it was the alcohol, but my intrigue in Fang was becoming amplified, and I was having difficulty concentrating on my gunblade and it fumbled out of my hands.

I let out a loud sigh. "Having trouble there?" Fang unexpectedly asked from behind me.

I didn't acknowledge her nor did I avert my eyes from my weapon, not quite sure why, but whatever I was feeling I didn't really want to confront it.

She took a seat across from me and placed her lance at her side, leaning back to rest on her elbows. The shades of orange and red were reflected off the lake from the sun and she said "Ya know, it used to be so beautiful here; trees and flowers everywhere. There would always be children and adults playing on the beach, even at night there would still be boats on the lake."

"Sounds similar to Bodhum." I replied, never taking my eyes off of my weapon.

Fang took a sip from the bottle of alcohol she had brought out with her. "Nothing about this place seems familiar, huh?" she asked.

I thought it was a strange question but it must be how she's feeling. I looked up and replied, "No, but I guess it's a lot like Cocoon, when you think about it."

"Hmm," she hummed as she continued staring out at the lake.

Pointing out across the lake at the ruins of what appeared to be a bridge. "Know how that train bridge was destroyed?" She asked.

"How should I know? The war probably." I replied.

"Probably." She said softy.

I continued cleaning my gunblade and she sat there lost in thought for what felt like an hour. I don't know what I was anticipating; maybe I was just enjoying being alone with her in the sunset. Then out of nowhere she asked me, "Do you believe in reincarnation?"

I cleared my throat. "What do you mean?"

She shifted her body to face me. "You know, when people die, they are reborn to fulfill their destiny."

I thought about it for a moment and replied, "I don't know. I've never really thought about it. Why do you ask?"

"I've just been remembering things that happened before being turned to crystal." Fang replied with a sad look upon her face.

Fang must miss the people she lost. I too know what it's like to feel alone in the world. My heart melts when I think about the sadness she must feel for the state of the world she tried to protect…unsuccessfully.

"You couldn't have changed anything, it's the fal'Cie that have caused all this; they've manipulate us all like puppets." I reassured her.

"Yeah." She said taking another sip of her drink.

I was at a loss of words; she wasn't in a rampage to kill everything in sight, like I would be if it were me looking at Bodhum in this condition.

I saw her looking up at Cocoon with an emotionless expression donned upon her face, and I thought of Serah. "We will find a way to fix this, Fang." I said as I put my gunblade back in its holster.

She half-smiled, but didn't say anything. I then became determined to get her mind off what was bringing her down. "So, what would you be doing right now if there had never been a war, and you were just living a normal life?" I asked.

Fang smiled and turned her head to face me. "Hm, well. Probably the same thing we're doing right now. Drinking, and chatting, maybe playing a game or two." She sat up and moved a bit closer. "What would you be doing if you were still on Cocoon and Anima had never arrived?" she asked inquisitively.

"I don't even have to think about that. Working. I was always working, day and night. If there was an extra shift I was always the first to volunteer, maybe if I hadn't worked so much…Serah wouldn't have been branded and none of this would have happened." I said, not even realizing it until the words were already spoken and I knew I couldn't take them back. Must have been the alcohol taking away my inhibitions.

"All work and no play, huh?" Fang said jokingly.

"Yeah, that's how I was promoted to the rank of Sergeant so quickly, not to mention was well beyond my peers in my skills and experience…I guess everything comes at a price though." I said, feeling a bit remorseful for my ambitions.

"It takes passion to be so driven. Serah knows you love her; I'll bet she's dreaming about you this very moment." Fang consoled, almost naturally placing her hand upon my knee.

My heart began racing at the warmth from her hand. "I hope you're right." I replied, taking a drink from my cup of five-hundred year old alcohol.

"This isn't bad once you get used to it." I said, wincing at the tingling liquid going down my throat.

Fang's hand remained on my knee which caused my palms to sweat and I felt my stomach doing flips. I was hoping she couldn't see that her touch was making me flushed and thankful the only light remaining was that from the small fire I had built.

"This has always been my favorite drink when it comes to alcohol. When I came across it back at the cottage I just wasn't sure if it would have kept its flavor all these years, but I couldn't just leave it." Fang replied.

"It definitely carries a punch." I laughed

"Ha! Cocoon women just can't drink like the women on Gran Pulse." Fang taunted.

I wanted to rebuttal the insult but before I had a chance, she caught me by surprise and asked me the very question I've been curious know about her.

"So Light, did ya have a sweetheart back home?" Fang asked shyly.

I felt my cheeks and ears get very warm at the question. "No," I paused then continued, "I didn't have time for much else besides work. I mean, sure I went on dates occasionally, but never anything serious." I stopped to look away and asked, "What about you?"

Fang sighed. "I remember meeting someone just before the war, but I don't recall what exactly happened after that. So, I guess the answer is no."

I wasn't sure of the feeling that statement inspired, but I certainly didn't appreciate the mental image of Fang with some nasty Pulsian man sweating all over her and doing what I can't even imagine. A chill went up my spine at the thought.

"Getting cold?" Fang asked.

No, I just thought of something is all." I asserted

"Must not have been a pleasant thought" Fang laughed.

"It wasn't." I said, returning a smile.

Fang reached her other hand toward my face and moved a strand of hair that had fallen over my eye; my body froze at the contact of her touch. I had never been comfortable with that degree of proximity to anyone, except Serah. My breathing got heavy and my head was spinning. I couldn't contain my composure any longer, maybe it was the alcohol, and maybe I was just freaking out, either way I had to do something.

I stood up and walked to the water's edge. My body fully aware of the areas that Fang had just touched and the spot where her hand rested was turning cold quickly. Fang followed after a few moments and stood at a small distance away from me.

"Sorry for invading your space. I suppose alcohol knows no boundaries." Fang said with uncertainly.

I regained a bit of composure and I replied, "Don't apologize. It's my fault. I just don't like people getting too close."

"I would never hurt you, Lightning." Fang pleaded.

"I'm not into taking chances." I declared.

Fang reached out her hand to put atop my shoulder, which caused me to shrug it away. "Just stop." I said sternly.

"You can't run forever, ya know." She argued.

I spun around to face her "Who will stop me?" I spat.

I turned to run away and she caught my wrist before I could move.

"I will," Fang maintained.

Fang put her other arm around my waist and drew me close to her. I couldn't breathe, I was panicking, I wanted to resist but my body wouldn't allow it.

Fang stared into my eyes for what felt like eternity in the glow of the moonlight and gentle flames. The rhythm of her breasts rising and falling against mine slowly brought my breathing slower. I closed my eyes and allowed my senses to take over, which were acutely aware of everything; I could smell the musk of dried sweat and the way our pheromones seemed to come together. I felt her steady arm pulling me ever-so-slightly closer to her; I could almost taste the sweet aroma of alcohol lingering on her breath.

She leaned down and brushed her lips against mine, causing my body to start trembling. Fang then released the hand which held my wrist, placing it on my neck and pulling me toward her. Once more I felt her lips upon my own, pressing gently and I reciprocated.

I could barely hold myself up on shaky legs so I reached my arms around her waist pulling her into me, causing a soft moan to escape her lips. In that instant, I felt my lips open slightly enough for her tongue to slip through and touch my own. I thought my heart would leap out of my chest at the intensity of what I was feeling; I had never felt anything like this before. The only thing keeping my feet upon the ground was Fang holding me there; I was afraid that if she let go I would float away, so I tightened my own hold around her waist.

Both of our tongues danced around in each other's mouth. Our breathing increased in tempo, and just when I thought it couldn't get any better she moved her lips from mine and blazed a trail down to my neck, where the steam of her breath and the touch of her lips made my body do things it never had before. I let out a deep moan. I felt like I was on fire and I felt the area between my legs was quickly becoming moist.

Fang's mouth moved up to my ear lobe where I felt her mouth enclose around it, gently sucking and slightly nibbling the sensitive skin. I couldn't handle it. I knew then that I must be dreaming because nothing could possibly feel this poignant. Then Fang whispered in my ear. "You don't know how long I've wanted to do that. My desire for you is stronger than anything I've ever experienced. This curse of being a l'Cie pales in comparison to the destiny I feel when I'm with you."

My knees buckled at the words she spoke, and she caught me; looking into my eyes she kissed me with more emotion than I knew was possible.

In what felt like centripetal motion, we moved from an upright position to a position where I found myself lying on the sand with the exquisite pressure of Fang's body atop me. She held herself up with her left arm while the right remained around me. I couldn't think, all I could do is feel, and it seemed that even my body had no control over that.

Fang's eyes never left contact with mine as she moved her hand down my side and up to my face where she drew an outline of my jawbone with her finger tips just before leaning down to kiss my lips once more. It felt like electricity as her hand moved gently down my arm; finally stopping at the palm of my hand where she drew circles with the tip of her finger. I was trembling in the fervor of it all; Fang took my hand and pulled it to her lips where she kissed each of my fingers, she then whispered, "I have been in love with you since the moment I laid eyes on you. I will never allow anything to hurt you, I promise."

In the array of emotional I felt and the magnitude of it all, I felt tears welling in my eyes. I had never felt so phenomenally wonderful in my life, and it was all too much for me. The walls of my guarded demeanor had been penetrated by this mysterious woman, not only that, but she reached into my heart and shocked it back to life.

"I love you Lightning, everything about you astounds me." Fang said, then kissed my cheek which was about to become streaked with warm tears.

"Fang! Lightning! Hey, where are you guys?" Hope shouted from not far away.

Fang's expression turned to one of sadness, and I'm sure mine did as well. She leaned down to kiss me. Fang stood up and then reached her hand down to help me up. "Guess they're lookin' for us. Kids ruin everything, don't they?" Fang scoffed.

I just smiled in response, and dusted the sand off my backside. I was still having difficulty collecting myself after what had just happened, and while I wasn't sure how far it would have gone with Fang, I certainly wasn't ready for it to end.

"Down here!" Fang shouted to Hope.

"Oh, okay! Just making sure you didn't get eaten up by something." Hope said just before walking away.

Fang and I just stood there for a moment, probably thinking the same thing; how we both wish we could be together under different circumstances.

She broke the silence. "Well, I guess we'd better get back, unless you plan on sleeping down here tonight instead of an actual bed."

I smiled at the suggestion, and as she turned to start walking away, words I thought I would never utter came out of my mouth. "I love you, Fang."

She stopped in her tracks and turned around to me. So I continued, "There's just something about you that draws me to you, and I find myself unable to think about anything else at times."

Fang looked down. "I know exactly what you mean. Do you remember when we first arrived on Pulse and the fal'Cie damaged the ship causing Vanille to fly out?"

"Yes, why?" I asked.

"I don't think it would have been the same outcome if you hadn't jumped out with me." Fang said.

"What do you mean? We had to save them." I questioned.

"I know that," Fang explained. "What I'm saying is, I was more concerned with ensuring that you were okay, and I knew that someone else would have taken care of Vanille. Up to now, she's the only person left that I could call family…am I terrible for feeling that way?"

"I didn't know you felt the same way as me. I didn't want you to get hurt is why I jumped out after you. If you were up for freefalling, then I was going with you." I paused and considered the meaning behind that statement. I realized that I didn't even think sealing Serah's fate if I hadn't survived, which is why Snow asked Fang to save Vanille and Hope instead of doing it himself.

Fang smiled and wrapped her arms around me. "I promise that no matter what happens, I will never give up on protecting life, even if it seems damned and hopeless."

I squeezed her tighter. "I promise too."

Fang then whispered in my ear, "I would rather die than allow something happen to you. I want you to know that."

"Hey, are you guys coming back or what?" Vanille shouted.

With that, she broke our embrace and winked at me before heading up to meet Vanille.

Lightning opened her eyes to an indistinguishable sight, accompanied by muffled thuds in the distance. She lay there for a few moments only to realize that the thuds were becoming louder. As she regained her vision it became clear that she was back where she started in the temple. 'Maybe it was all a dream,' she thought.

Moving her arms up to push herself off the ground, she felt an excruciating pain from her ribs, reminding her of the beatings Jihl had inflicted upon her; affirming that what she experienced was not a dream.

"I have to find her," Lightning proclaimed.

Holding her breath, she pushed herself up and reached into her satchel for a potion. Hand finding purchase, she put the bottle to her lips, tilted her head back, and let the thick, bitter-tasting liquid slide down her throat. Within moments her pain subsided and she was able to stand. It had grown darker in the room and she knew that it wouldn't be long before nightfall.

Reaching to her side she felt that her gunblade was where she left it but that Fang's lance was missing. Frantically she searched the grounds around her but found only debris from the deteriorated temple. "Jihl," Lightning said through gritted teeth.

The banging thuds seemed to grow stronger with each passing moment and Lightning was certain it was the Cie'th trying to get in. She knew that exiting the way she came in wasn't a possibility, so she looked around for an alternate escape and noticed a hole in the ceiling with the only feasible thing she could climb being the goddess statue resting underneath it.

Lightning kept her gunblade ready in hand in case of a surprise awaiting her at the top and she began her ascent up the statue.

While climbing the goddess statue, she couldn't help but recall the conversation she had with Etro and how the instructions she left were so vague. 'What I experienced couldn't have possibly happened. It defies everything I know. That seems to be the trend these days though. I don't even know where to begin. I know that Fang is trapped in the crystal, but what can I do to save her?' Lightning thought but as she reached the top and looked up to see Cocoon she saw the message was clear as day what she needed to do.

"Hope, what have you done?" She whispered to herself.

Cocoon was fully lit just as it had been before the fall of Orphan's cradle. 'That can only mean one thing. It's impossible though!' She shook her head in disbelief before leaping across the roof of the temple.

The roof wasn't very stable and cracked with every step she made. Once she made it to the edge to look down at the Cie'th, to her amazement, there were only a couple roaming aimlessly. 'What was the banging then?' She wondered.

Moving stealthy she walked over to the edge nearest the entrance and saw a lonely Cie'th banging unrelentlessly at the door.

'Well, that's odd.' The Cie'th was not only aberrantly banging on the door, it was also holding something in its hand. Lightning moved closer and closer trying to see what the Cie'th held when a piece of the ledge that held her up broke off. A large slab of rock fell down beside the Cie'th, drawing attention to Lightning.

She quickly leaped out into the street before the piece that held her up completely fell, and in doing so saw the object the Cie'th possessed "Fang's lance…but how?" Lightning asked herself.

Killing one Cie'th wouldn't be that difficult so long as she killed it before the others could come to assist the solitary Cie'th, she decided. With her gunblade already in hand, she prepared for the beast's attack, but strangely, when the Cie'th approached her it stopped in its tracks and just stared at Lightning. 'What the hell is going on?'

The Cie'th then raised its arm that held Fang's lance and threw it on the ground at Lightning's feet. Untrusting of any abnormal behaving Cie'th, Lightning didn't avert her gaze from the monster. A strange feeling came over her as she stared back at the monster; it was almost as if the creature was in despair. Of course she knew that all Cie'th were just l'Cie who failed their focus, but it had never been a notion to her that they could actually feel or think. "What? What do you want?" Lightning asked the beast.

The Cie'th only stared, but then began convulsing as it raised its arm preparing to attack. Lightning was prepared, but sensed that the other Cie'th were rapidly approaching her location, when suddenly the beast struck upon itself. It turned away as if almost telling Lightning to go now if she wants to live. Unsure of what to think, Lightning just reached down and grabbed the lance but noticed a piece of fabric with an emblem attached to it; but before she could analyze it, she decided it was more important to escape, so she just shoved it into her pocket and threw the lance over her shoulder before running as fast as she could through the horde of Cie'th toward the gates of the city.

When she was finally safe from the Cie'th and outside of the Archaeopolis, she knew that she wouldn't get far on foot at night, particularly because of the damaged condition she was in. So she stopped in an open area, where she found an enclave of large rocks that would provide protection while she rested and waited out the night. She lit a very small fire for warmth but made sure that it was surrounded by rocks well enough that it was dimly lighting the enclave and a monster would need to be very close in her vicinity to see the light.

Lightning hated not being able to rush back to Oerba to find out the situation with Cocoon, but decided she would take this time to prepare for whatever would be awaiting her in Oerba. She pulled out her gunblade and began sharpening the blade with a rock. Every altercation she encountered in the past few days were evident on her blade. Nostalgia took over while she sharpened, recalling that first day in the meadow when she met Fang, and the way she was so obviously captivated with Lightning.

There was a heavy gouge in her blade and she recalled getting that when she leaped from the train onto the plane, immediately followed by remembering the look on Fang's face when she found out that Lightning was from Cocoon. Lightning's heart was beating faster and she was sharpening so quickly that if her hand slipped even a millimeter she would certainly lose a finger on her blade. She was taking her frustration at the hopeless situation out on her precious weapon, and was brought back to reality when the vibrations of her arm caused the lance to slide off her back and jab her elbow.

Lightning was breathing heavily through her nose when she looked back to see the lance. Putting her own weapon to the side she picked the lance up and admired its beauty, running her fingers along the grooves and edges. It then occurred to her that the Cie'th also threw a piece of fabric at her along with the lance. She reached in her pocket and pulled it out. Holding it up she clearly saw the emblem. "The Supply Corps. This came off of Jihl's uniform. Why did that Cie'th have a piece of Jihl's uniform?"

Lightning pondered for a moment. 'What the hell is going on here? What did you do Jihl?'

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