New Bodhum.

Ha. Because that name isn't ironic at all.

Two years have passed since we emerged from our crystal stasis at the base of Cocoon. The evacuation was completed within about a month, and now the city's already been built using technology, around the base of the enormous sculpture that was once our home. Or rather, their home…

I don't think I ever had one.

She was in her room. Again.

Sitting on the floor, where it would probably be the least comfortable spot. Her legs were crossed, her Blazefire Saber laid upon them, in blade mode. She didn't move an inch; in fact, one might have thought she was a dead woman, but sitting up. Her uniform had barely changed; still the same brown turtleneck, still the same white vest over it, the same shorts, and the same boots.

Except now, her hair was short- cropped close to her ears and no longer draped around one shoulder. Serah had begged and pleaded with her not to cut it, but she was adamant in her decision. Her hair only got in the way.

Five minutes. The strange clock in her mind instinctively knew, from her daily routine, that she only had five minutes until she was due for nighttime guard duty. Then she would slowly, patiently stand up and exit her apartment, where she lived alone.

Serah was always urging her to date people, but few had the nerve to ask her out; those that did received a frigid look in reply, and those that persisted got threat of castration. She had to admit that she got some sadistic pleasure in seeing the terrifying looks on their faces before they ran, tail between their legs.

Snow only seemed to grin when she furiously recounted these stories, saying that one day, somebody would sweep her off her feet. He didn't seem to realize that killers don't find happy endings. They die young. Just like…


The word rang through her mind like a screaming alarm. She was not allowed to think about it. Doing so made life an agonizing hell for only a few split seconds, but it was bad enough.

Dwelling on it wouldn't work; she could only move on.

Another, quieter alarm rang; she stood up, opening her crystal aqua eyes at the exact same moment. She strode from the room with poise and elegance, noting that everything was in place now. If a single hair was awry when she returned, to get yet another sleepless night, then she'd know something was wrong.

Her door slid shut, and she stuck the key in and locked it. Compared to Cocoon, technology in New Bodhum was primitive at best. Still, they were able to function quite well despite that, though many were dissatisfied with it. Snorting to herself, she made her way out of the building.

After what they went through, she certainly knew that this was nothing. They'd camped out on Gran Pulse with nothing but blankets when they were l'Cie. Being a 'monster' might grant you magical powers, but it certainly didn't make roasted gorgonopsid taste good.

The street was incredibly old fashioned. For now, the best they could do was use cobblestones, giving the city an old-age look. The buildings, no longer consisting of shining metal, were made of dull red brick. Personally, she didn't mind the shift; the change of scenery made her feel like she was walking through an elderly movie, not that she'd admit it.

Her shoulder pad had changed, making most people give her a wide berth. The stripes were now neon blue, matching her eyes, and there were five.

Colonel was, apparently, her new title. Adomar had insisted on a promotion, bellowing in the face of anyone that tried to object (herself included). The level up had only left Lightning with a bad feeling in her gut, as she hated special treatment of any kind. However, Sazh, Snow, Hope, Serah, and even Dajh had all agreed that she deserved it.

The city was already sprawling; they had almost enough buildings to house everyone, although many people had to share apartments. Despite this, there were still many wandering the streets, which was why extra night patrols were needed these days. Lightning saw several people passing her shoot her dirty looks, and sighed. The dissent was growing, and she didn't know why.

Wasn't everything supposed to get better after all that had happened? Wasn't everyone supposed to get their happy ending? No, probably not, but that had been the impression they'd all gotten when she first reunited with her sister. Now, though, everything was spiraling out of control.

Serah was having difficulties being a teacher; the kids were unruly most of the time, often not even paying attention despite her efforts. Lightning probably would've cracked quickly and quit her job, but her sister kept at it, despite the dark circles it produced under her eyes. Snow was, thankfully, getting a full paying job and comforting her well enough. They still hadn't been wedded, putting it off until they sorted things out.

Sazh was living a good enough life, caring for Dajh as any father should. Dajh seemed to enjoy visiting Serah, going so far as to call him his aunt. Lightning was no fool, though; she could see the sadness in Sazh's eyes, which was caused by an obvious reason: the absence of Dajh's mother. None of them knew what had happened with that, and they knew better than to ask.

Hope and his father were still out on the streets; Hope was turning back into his resentful, rebellious self, but most of the time he just walked around with a sad look in his eyes. His boomerang was being used far more often now, mostly to prevent other street rats from attacking him and his dad. His father seemed to have given up, now a broken man ashamed of being unable to take care of his son.

It was all falling apart. And Lightning herself?

Nothing came to mind. She moved into an apartment, remained in the Guardian Corps, and did her job. She visited her friends and family, ate, slept, and shopped when necessary. And at all other times, she sat on the uncomfortable floor of her room.

Staring at the wall, saber in her lap.

"Colonel Farron!"

The bellow was nothing new to her; she could easily recognize Adomar's distinct voice. The imposing man marched up behind her, taking his time as he always did. She couldn't help but like the older general, whose patience was beyond anything she could even comprehend. Lightning snapped to a salute as he stopped in front of her.

"At ease now, Colonel," he said, chuckling a bit. "We don't want you pulling a muscle, now do we?"

"No, sir."

"I'm here to give you new orders, Farron."

"Fire away, sir."

He laughed his booming laugh again, throwing his head up high. Lightning allowed one flicker of an utterly humorless smile to appear on her face. She folded her arms, giving him the look that clearly said, 'Get on with it'.

"Well, Colonel," he said at last, after what seemed like a few minutes of scrutinizing her face, "I'm relieving you of duty for a week."

An uncommon thing occurred at that moment: Lightning's mouth dropped open.

"But, sir!"-

"No arguments, Farron!" he barked. Then he winked at her. "Don't worry about it, Colonel, you'll still get paid. You've never taken a vacation before, so I figured I'd have to force it down your throat."

"I don't need a vacation, sir," she replied stiffly, seething inside. After a few moments of staring at her even more, he shook his head.

"I'll have to disagree with that, Farron," he said, more gently. He swiveled about, preparing to head back deeper into headquarters. "Your eyes are bloodshot."

The new headquarters of the Guardian Corps weren't much to look at; just a small building with soldiers coming and going every now and then. The small roof that hung over the entrance drooped rather sadly over it. Lightning was currently storming away from said location, seething inside.

She wasn't so much mad about taking a break- or at least, she wouldn't have been, if she had had a reason to take a break. However, what she hated the most about this forced leave was that she would have zero purpose during this time.

She would spend her entire free time doing exactly three things.

She would visit friends and/or family. She would eat. She would sit in her room, staring at the wall.

Lightning hated not having anything to give her drive; it made her feel like some kind of suicidal invalid, with virtually no life who just wanted it all to end. In a way, that was exactly what she was, though.

Only she didn't want life to end.

Lightning knew that she had to be strong, if only for her younger sister. Serah would be devastated- maybe broken entirely, if she died. Lightning was reluctant to admit that that was probably the only reason she was holding on so tightly.

The streets seemed to fly past her in her rage, and Lightning resisted the urge to scream in frustration. Why was her life like this? Was she really only useful as a l'Cie?

She thought she could see Barthandelus in her mind's eye, laughing at her and informing her that that was exactly the case. Lightning scowled fiercely and banished the image to the dark corners in her mind, where several other tabooed subjects resided. Out of pure habit, she placed her hand on the handle of her Blazefire Saber, feeling its reassuring leather grip in her hand. Well, she'd just have to wear away the week, then.

Or maybe she could go travelling for a bit. There wasn't a problem with that; she wouldn't mind a visit to the ruins of Oerba, since it was where…

Blank. Yet another taboo.

She sighed, relenting. Okay, so the subject of Fang and Vanille didn't have to be forbidden. They did sacrifice themselves to save Cocoon and its residents after all. That didn't stop any of the rest of them from missing them. A lot.

Although Lightning would never admit it, Fang's sarcasm and wit had kept them all in high spirits, no matter the tough situations they were in. She'd found a very close friend in the woman, and she could picture the two of them chatting in a bar (despite the fact that it was weird and out of character for her). Fang, despite being a pain in the ass at times, could really listen to her ranting and put up with it easily.

Vanille, on the other hand, was like the group's own personal cheerleader. Her words of encouragement didn't really serve much of a purpose, but they'd all grown so used to them it was unusual to not hear her cries of, 'Keep it together!' Vanille's unique weapon also helped matters, usually tangling up the opponents so much that they were helpless when one of the rest of them finished them off. Lightning thought that of all of them, Hope probably missed her the most.

She couldn't even begin to count the times she'd had to punch Snow in the stomach to prevent him from teasing Hope about it. It would only hurt the boy.

Lightning trudged on through the streets, feeling like she was merely a wandering wraith. Her mind wandered to a picture of a Shambling Cie'th with pink hair, but to let out a chuckle at the thought of it would feel like forcing herself to laugh. That was another thing she thought she hated: she didn't even have to keep amusement to herself anymore, because she didn't have any. She could never be sure whether or not that was good or bad.

Suddenly, she remembered. Damn! Tomorrow was the yearly holiday, of the day in which Cocoon had tumbled from the sky, only to be stopped midfall by the enormous crystal pillar. At first, it had been a day of reflection and sorrow, but after most of the story came out (courtesy of Amodar himself, no less), many regarded it as a day of celebration. Lightning was thankful that most people didn't know who the l'Cie that had saved them were, as she preferred to be left alone.

Well then; she'd just have a quiet day. Maybe she'd treat herself to lunch, but there was no way she'd be going to the town square to hear the new Primarch's inspiring speech to, 'hope for the future'. She and Hope had had a good laugh about that last year, thinking about the irony.

It hadn't been real laughter, though.

Oh, quit sounding like a whiny little bitch drowning in pity, she snapped at herself. It wasn't as if things were going to fix themselves if she did that.


That sound had been drilled into her mind a million times, and it made her act on pure instinct at that very moment. She rolled forward, just barely in time to dodge the bullet. In a flash, her Saber's Edge was out and in front of her, deflecting even more shots. The darkness easily hid the attacker, but Lightning couldn't stop the feral smile from appearing on her lips.

At last. Something to do.

Without a second thought, she raced toward the shadows, and the direction of her opponent. The shots rang out faster this time, intent on slowing her down, but she didn't heed that fact. Each one bounced effortlessly off her saber, spinning away on the ground. The increasing speed of the shots told her that her attacker was becoming slightly nervous, and she almost laughed.

She was enjoying this sudden game of cat-and-mouse. And she just couldn't stop.

Her blade slashed the shadows in front of her, but she caught no resistance apart from air. Someone darted past her left, and she pivoted and stabbed in that direction.

Whoever it was cried out, but kept moving. Lightning dashed after them, ignoring the fact that there were now several citizens gathered around, staring in shock at the scene before them. She rolled her eyes in exasperation, when the sudden mental picture of a stray bullet hitting one of them entered behind her eyes.

Suddenly, this fight didn't seem quite so funny anymore. As she gathered her wits about her, she looked around, and swore. The attacker was nowhere to be seen. As she stood there, muttering and probably looking psychotic to most of the viewers, she became aware of a pain in her right side.

She looked down to see blood spouting from the spot, before unconsciousness took over, and she sank unwillingly into its depths.

Serah sat at the edge of her sister's bed, clasping Lightning's hand in hers. She stared at the bandages pressed up against her side, willing the blood that was beneath to stop flowing out. Her sis just had to wake up, no matter what.

"How's she doing?" came her fiancé's voice, striding up next to her. Serah smiled fondly up at him; Snow hadn't changed a bit, still being her support in life. In Lightning's living room, Hope and Sazh both sat on the couch, staring down at their laps in worry.

Their connection from all being l'Cie remained; when one was hurt, the rest couldn't stand it. They had to make sure she turned out alright. Serah knew that they were all thinking the same thing:

That Fang and Vanille should be here.

"A street rat told me that someone attacked her, and shot her," said Hope, suddenly speaking up for the first time. Serah couldn't help but cringe at the term, 'street rat'. It was used for all those forced to wander New Bodhum's streets because there weren't yet enough buildings. Hope wasn't trying to be a hypocrite; he knew very well that he was the same as them.

Serah sighed and looked back at Lightning, who was now mumbling to herself slightly. She frowned a little; her sister always slept soundly, and never seemed to have nightmares. Of course, that might have been because she was so good at hiding her feelings. Now, however, Lightning was twitching just like any other person who was dreaming would.

"No, I'm not sorry," she muttered. Serah blinked; usually, people said the opposite.

"Why ask me? No, it wasn't my fault! You goddamn hypocrite!"

By now, everyone was staring at the unconscious woman; out of the corner of her eye, she saw Snow tense, probably thinking he would have to restrain Lightning.

"You asked me to, you bastard!" she shouted suddenly, sitting up so fast that Serah gave a little squeak, and jumped back a little. Her sister was breathing heavily, but her eyes were open and glaring at something only she could see.

"You okay, sis?" she asked hesitantly.

Lightning started, looking over at Serah as though seeing her for the first time. "Serah, what"-

Then her face quickly morphed, from fear and confusion, to its utterly blank and emotionless state. Serah felt a twinge of anger at the sight of it.

"I'm okay," deadpanned Lightning. Her eyes, even her body language, said nothing. If she was in pain from sitting up, Serah couldn't tell.

And before she could stop it, the word came out of her mouth. "Bullshit."

If there was anything she could have said that would get a response from everyone in the vicinity- her sister included- it was that. Hope stood up so quickly that he had to sit back down from lightheadedness, Sazh choked, Snow actually fainted, and Lightning's eyes widened with shock.

It wasn't much of a response, but it was enough for Serah to keep going.

"You're never alright!" she yelled, hating herself for the words, but knowing they had to be said. "You always, always shut people out, and you just work, and you never ever smile or laugh or anything! Even if something's funny, I bet that you don't even feel the need to giggle anymore, do you! How long have you had nightmares? Have you even slept lately? Why are you doing this?"

By the time she'd finished her shouted speech, Hope and Sazh had edged out of the other room, Snow was still unconscious (and drooling), and Lightning appeared to be completely immobile, staring at her sister with unveiled surprise on her face.

But she was Lightning Farron, and she recovered quickly.

"I'm only one soldier, Serah," she replied eventually, her voice soft and still devoid of… anything. "I only fight, I only kill. You have Snow, Hope has his father, Sazh has his son. Fang and Vanille are resting up, the world's getting past whatever happened in Cocoon, and everything's finally being set straight again. No one needs me. So what's the point in trying?"

It was almost as though the voice didn't really belong to Lightning; yes, Serah saw her mouth move, but surely that hopeless, lost sound didn't come from her sister? Someone else had to be talking over her.

But quickly, reality kicked in again, and two things registered in the young woman's mind.

One: Lightning was a hell of a lot closer to the brink than any of them thought.

Two: Her sister really needed a boyfriend.

The latter was something she couldn't help but think, but it was clear that Lightning needed some kind of support. Her tough exterior was holding up tremendously well, but it was clear that her insides were shattering. Her sister was broken, she realized- and had been a long time ago, but by what?

"Claire…" Serah figured that it wouldn't hurt to use her real name, since everyone around them knew it.

"What… happened?"

To her surprise, Lightning's face twisted in fear and confusion. She hunched over, actually whimpering slightly, mumbling something. Serah leaned forward, feeling guilty that she'd gotten this sort of response.

"I can't," her sister whispered. "I just can't…"

Serah did the only thing she could think of right then: she hugged her sister tightly, regardless of her injuries.

"It's okay," she murmured, patting her on the back. "You can talk when you're ready."

Snow stood, like most other New Bodhum citizens, in the large square. Rygdea, who'd been elected primarch because of his uplifting ideals, was centered on the large podium in the middle, with residents gathered all around. Today was the grand celebration of The Fall, as many called it. Already, street vendors were everywhere, selling exotic Pulse items and delicious food. The thought of seeing so many children laughing, instead of being miserable on the streets, made him smile. There was indeed still hope for the future.

Behind him, Serah was succeeding in reigning in her class, who seemed to finally be coming around and cutting her some slack. Her glanced at her, grinning when she smiled back and waved. Beside her, one of the children tugged on her arm, saying something.

Snow looked away and frowned slightly. Whatever had transpired between Lightning and Serah the previous night- apart from Serah's foul mouth suddenly making an appearance- was unknown to the rest of them. His fiancée had firmly stated that they weren't to bother Lightning, who had apparently promised to get some rest and then enjoy the festivities the next day.

He had spotted his sister-in-law to-be, dressed in some of the little casual clothing she had- jeans with slits near the bottom, a black tank top, and some black flats with her lightning pendant still around her neck. He thought that he'd seen her survival knife at her belt, and wouldn't have been surprised if it really was there.

It was, he had to admit, a refreshing look for her; it certainly had many heads turning in the street. This did not go unnoticed by Lightning, who never failed to shoot dirty looks at anyone who stared too long at her endowments. Naturally, he couldn't help but think that Fang would've thought this hilarious.

"Yo!" came a shout. He turned to see the members of Nora (no longer an acronym, but named after Hope's mother at his insistence) walking over. Lebreau grinned from where Yuj had his arm slung around her, Maqui waved furiously, and Gadot rolled his eyes.

"Hey, Hero!" he called.

Snow trotted over, seeing no problem with joining his friends; Serah could take care of herself. Of course, it helped that he had just seen Lightning walk idly into the square, and her eyes had immediately latched onto her sister. He trusted her to keep an eye on his future wife.

"What's up?" he asked, placing his hands behind his head in his typical manner. "Enjoying the celebrations?"

"Duh," said Lebreau, rolling her eyes. "Though I'm surprised that Adomar actually gave us a break. Seemed to me like that man was never going to cave!"

Snow smirked. Nora had recently agreed to help the Guardian Corps out with guarding New Bodhum, since… well, they needed all the help they could get. Adomar had quickly cracked down on their little rebellious organization, quickly whipping it up into a more organized group. Looking at his comrades now- dressed in their usual attire- he couldn't really say that it had worked.

The look on Maqui's face was unmistakable- a look of guilt.

"All right, what're you all up to?" he asked, warily.

Now they all looked peevish, with Yuj scratching the back of his head, and Lebreau letting out a rather high pitched laugh.

"Well, we kinda set off a stink bomb…"

"… In Cranky Lenora's shop…"

Snow groaned, slapping a hand to his forehead, before sighing in exasperation. "Come on, you guys, you know I'm going to get the blame for that."

Gadot sniggered. "Yep. We know."

Of course they did.

"Yeah, we can't have her kill us!" cried Lebreau. "We're too young to die!"

"You're damn right you are, mother fuckers!" came a distinct female voice from somewhere in the crowd. Gadot swore colorfully, before the four of them tore away, quickly followed by a very pissed off brunette, whose stormy gray eyes were flashing with fury. Snow quickly hid behind a couple of innocent passerby; thankfully, she seemed too intent upon her prey to notice him.

Suddenly, Lightning was beside him, watching the scene with something akin to amusement.

"Is that the famous Lenora I keep hearing about?" she asked. Snow was relieved to hear that she sounded more at ease than before; maybe her break was finally doing her some good.

"That's her," replied Snow, shrugging. "She's almost as scary as you, sis."

The glare she sent him almost made him wet himself, and yet simultaneously proved his point.

"Well, she does beat you in colorful language," he admitted.

"Does she?" asked Lightning, no longer sounding all that interested in the topic. He glanced at her again, this time seeing a blank expression settle over her face. He noted how unhealthily pale she looked, and that the dark circles were clear under her eyes. She really didn't seem well, that was for sure.

He opened his mouth, about to ask if something was up, but she cut him off.

"Looks like Rygdea is about to give his speech." She snorted a bit. "I do respect him, but he's just not the right one for this job."

Snow couldn't help but agree on that one; the man had spunk, but he just didn't have the patience or sense of responsibility that came with a real leader. Unfortunately, there was no one else to do the job.

"Who do you think should lead?" he asked her.

She didn't answer.

"You don't think that Dysley was a good leader, do you?"

"Of course not," she snapped, angrily spinning on her heel. "Any candidates I would consider are probably dead."

"You thinking of Raines?" he asked her. Big mistake.

She whirled back to face him, her face twisting into an almost frighteningly dark countenance, her eyes seeming to turn red with rage. He found himself take a step back, in order to try to lessen her wrath; it didn't work.

"Don't. Ever," she hissed, blue eyes seeming to turn to white hot ice. "Mention. Him. Again."

Snow could do nothing except stare as her face crumpled back into its exhausted, flat state. For a split second, at the mention of one man, she'd come alive, possibly the most pissed off he'd ever seen her. In that moment, he'd seen a million emotions rush through her eyes- panic, fury, and… he was almost sure he'd seen guilt.

But his sister was quickly moving away through the crowd, slipping past people and ignoring several catcalls from a few jerks nearby. She was gone before he had the chance to call her name again, vanishing in the mass of former Cocoon citizens. He coughed a bit, realizing that Serah suddenly stood next to him, her class gathered behind her, staring curiously after her sister.

"What was that all about?"

Snow opened his mouth to answer, but was once again cut off, this time by the sudden appearance of Primarch Rygdea. He was dressed in simple military wear, having stated that he wasn't about to dress up like, 'Mr. Bartie'. He recalled how reluctant Rygdea had been to take the job on in the first place, as it gave him bad memories of how he'd killed Raines.

Raines… he'd been the primarch of Cocoon for a short period of time, and then he died again. Lightning had freaked at the mention of him, and he realized that it was just possible that she might've been the one who delivered the finishing blow the first time. He couldn't be sure, as he'd been unconscious, but he resolved to ask Hope the next time he saw him, remembering that Hope was the only one who could say for sure, apart from Lightning herself.

"People of Cocoon!" called Rygdea, smiling in that strained way that was different from his easy grin that he used to have. "The first thing a good ruler must do is admit his faults. It hasn't been an easy year for us; we've been troubled by overcrowding, food shortages, and power outages."

He paused for a moment; Snow noticed that most of those around them were muttering or scowling. He hid a grin; Rygdea was the master of come-from-behind speeches.

"But that, under any circumstances, doesn't mean that we can't be victorious in getting through all this!" he said, now sounding more optimistic. "So long as we can live, and breath, we can work together to improve our lives. All we need is"-

He didn't get that far.

A sharp, shrieking cry rang out from above, causing several to clutch their ears in discomfort, Snow among them. Simultaneously, everyone's heads turned upward, to a shadow that seemingly appeared out of nowhere, circling above the square. Then, a single scream rang out, as the thing dove down toward them, revealing an enormous Wyvern.

Snow dove away quickly as the thing crash-landed in the square, roaring as hordes of terrified citizens fled from it, not wanting to become meals. Snow yelled for Serah, feeling fear that she'd get hurt, but she was pushed away by the panicking masses.

"Snow!" she cried, before her voice was muffled.

A different roar rang out, and he turned to see a Behemoth rampaging through the city, swiping aside innocents like they were mere insects in comparison. Using his agility, he climbed the roof of the nearest building, almost having to shove people out of his way in his hurry. Once he arrived, he found a sight that only filled him with despair.

Throughout New Bodhum, all sorts of 'Gran Pulse Nasties' were swarming about, attacking random people and violently tearing at buildings. He noticed that none of them were going near the base of the crystal pillar that was on the edge of the city, but all were causing uproar and panic. Screams and gunshots from responding soldiers were all he could hear.

It was pure chaos, and he had no idea where Serah was. All he could do was try to help fight them off, and hope that they'd be alright.

Lightning hissed in pain, glaring fiercely at the Megistotherian in front of her. She hadn't come face-to-face with one of the silver-furred beasts since before becoming human again, and her fighting skills weren't nearly as on par- not to mention that she only had her survival knife. The blade was currently flipped open, and covered in yellowish blood. Only a few moments ago, the thing had been able to knock her back with a huge amount of force with one of its enormous paws, hence her current pain.

She was pretty sure that one of the claws had dug into her arm, leaving scratches that only made it harder. There was also the fact that her side was screaming at her to rest, and she thought she could feel her bullet wound bleeding again through her bandages, as she'd forgotten to take her potion that morning.

The Megistotherian collapsed, choking slightly at the throat wound she'd given it, while frightened people on the side of the street began to cheer. She ignored the praise, choosing instead to hurry on to another street, and see if she needed to fight off another monster. She felt bile rise in her throat at the sight of a Wyvern tearing into a human being, who had at the very least fainted from fear or pain.

She really wished that she'd brought her gunblade; it would've been a huge help in this situation, at the very least. It just wouldn't be enough to keep up with the multitudes of monsters that had invaded, using her survival knife. Still, she was grateful enough to have brought it, at least. If she hadn't, she'd be dog food by now.

The Wyvern proved almost impossible just to fight off, let alone kill; it managed to smash her into the walls of nearby buildings several times, only further inflaming her gunshot wound. She only barely managed to stab it in the head when Guardian Corps soldiers backed her up, shooting and distracting it.

The entire afternoon was spent racing everywhere, fighting off the monsters where the damage was at its worst. She thought she caught sight of Sazh with his Vegas, shooting furiously at one of the Gorgonopsids while Dajh hid behind him. She felt a twist in her stomach, hoping that Dajh would be alright.

Hope didn't know where to start. All he could see was people, monsters, and more people, sprinting around and shrieking at the top of their lungs.

He clenched his teeth as his father's grip on his shoulder tightened, and he held his boomerang ready. So what if he could no longer be a Ravager? He could still help!

"Hope!" yelled his father. "I know you want to help, but we need to get out of here!"

Hope growled low in frustration, but Bartholomew Estheim was right; he wouldn't be able to do much with only a boomerang for a weapon. Not for the first time, he wished he were a l'Cie again- when he was actually capable of doing something.

Someone bundled into them, screaming at the top of their lungs. Hope unceremoniously shoved them out of the way.

His eyes widened as he beheld an enormous behemoth stampeding toward them, before it reared up on two legs in its Execution Mode.

"Watch out!" yelled his dad, but Hope wasn't about to back down, telling himself that he could easily handle a behemoth. His grip on his boomerang tightened, as the beast loomed up before him. He blinked; it was way huger than he'd originally thought. Realizing that this was a stupid idea, he willed himself to move out of the way, but his muscles froze. Every part of him tensed, waiting for the thing to knock him into oblivion.

His father shoved him aside, just in time to be snatched up by the monster. The behemoth bounded away, roaring in defiance at the several Guardian Corps soldiers that shot at it.

"DAD!" shouted Hope, trying to push his way through the crowd after his father. "DAD!"

It was no use; Bartholomew Estheim was dragged away through the streets before Hope could even get to the next intersection. By now, people had taken refuge inside numerous buildings, leaving more room for Hope to run. He didn't see how he could catch up to his father, though, unless the behemoth was miraculously slain. Some unknown force within him kept him running, though. He couldn't stop; if he did, then his dad would…

"Damnit!" he yelled at the top of his lungs, noticing that several people gave him strange looks. He sank to his knees, feeling a lump rise painfully in his throat as despair washed over him. It was all his fault; if he hadn't been so proud as to think he could handle this, then his dad would still be with him. They'd be sheltered from the attack, watching while the military handled it, maybe joke about it later together.

Something crashed into him from behind, and he and the unknown person rolled over and over, before they finally came to a halt.

"I'm so sorry!" the person cried, now atop him. Before he could move, a pair of emerald eyes fixed on his, and he froze from shock.



Sazh noticed Miss Soldier Girl sprint by, looking very unusual in civilian clothing, but he couldn't pay much mind to it. He was too busy shooting the snot out of yet another monster, while he could hear Dajh sobbing quietly behind him. Every time he attempted to get to shelter, another monster blocked his path. He now had his back to a wall, and was doing his best to fend off monsters.

But his guns would soon run dry on bullets, and the beasts just seemed to keep on coming. Goblins were in the square now, and he couldn't get the haunting picture of them tearing Dajh in half out of his head. Sazh wheezed a bit, already exhausted.

Just how long could he afford to keep this up?

Several Imps began winging their way towards him, shrieking at the sight. He winced as he noticed them charging up their Fires, knowing that he'd be going to sleep with some horrible burns later- if he didn't just die from not being able to fight back, that is.

"Need a little help?" called Snow, to his surprise. "I still got some grenades left."

"Save them for later, Trench Coat," joked Sazh, trying hard to hide just how relieved he was.

Lightning groaned a bit, noticing that, despite the many corpses (human and Pulse creature alike) that littered the ground, there still seemed to be monsters everywhere the eye could see. Thankfully, most of the civilians had gotten to shelter, leaving the rest of them to do their job. She clicked her tongue in annoyance, rubbing her arms and momentarily forgetting that they had feral blood all over them.

Blood didn't make her squeamish, but that didn't mean that she liked it. Lightning scowled, wishing that she could just wash it off. More than anything, she wanted to take a hot shower.

Quit complaining, she thought angrily. "You didn't shower for weeks while you were on Pulse." The fact that she was talking to herself didn't escape her, but it also didn't surprise her. That was probably what spending weeks cooped up in your room did to you.

A piercing scream came from nearby, causing Lightning to quicken her pace, scowling. What idiot had decided not to get indoors?

To her great surprise, Hope was desperately battering away at a Goblin with his boomerang. Cowering next to him, without the aid of her Binding Rod, was Vanille of all people.

The girl's right pigtail had come undone, leaving her hair oddly mismatched. It was still the same coppery color, and she was still adorned in her tribal wear. She was still trying her best to cheer Hope on.

In short, it was still Vanille.

Priorities first, she reminded herself. Leaping forward, she slashed the beast across the face, causing it to give an agonized screech. The thing fled, wailing, down the street, only to be shot down by the soldiers.

"Hi Light!" said Vanille cheerfully. "How've you been?"

Lightning could do nothing but just gape at her. Vanille and Fang, trapped in crystal for two years now, were back? Speaking of which, where was Fang? She was never that far behind Vanille.

The orangette seemed to interpret her look correctly. "I don't know where Fang is," she stated, wilting a bit. "She wasn't there when I woke up."

Lightning just watched, deep in thought while Hope placed a comforting hand on Vanille's shoulder. So, Fang had woken up slightly before Vanille? That wasn't unusual, but why wouldn't Fang wait for her longtime friend and companion?

"You know, it's the funniest thing," commented Vanille suddenly. "Before I woke up, I had this weird dream. There was a really creepy voice, and they were all like, 'Claire is dead.' And I was kinda like, 'No, no, she can't be dead!' And what do you know, I was right!" She laughed nervously, probably noticing the strange look Lightning was giving her.

"Huh," murmured Lightning. "Funny…"

"I know, right!"

Hope looked distinctly uncomfortable. "Uh, Vanille…?"

"Oh!" She looked stricken again, turning back to the boy. "I'm sorry, Hope, seeing Light again distracted me! We've still gotta find your dad."

Lightning jerked her head up, wondering if she heard right. "What?"

"A behemoth took Dad," mumbled Hope, staring down at his shoes furiously. "It was my fault, too…"

"It wasn't your fault, son," called a deeper voice from one of the streets. Bartholomew Estheim emerged, looking shaken but not seriously injured. Hope tackled his father in a bone-crushing hug, while Vanille grinned and 'awwed'.

Lightning merely looked away, determined not to ruin this reunion with her bluntness. She chose instead to study the damage around her, before noticing something strange.

No more monsters were appearing, and the wyverns flying overhead were speeding off the way that they'd come.

"The beast just dropped me and ran off," said Hope's father, looking confused. "I'm not sure why…"

Lightning wasn't even listening, as she noticed Sazh, Dajh, Serah, and Snow hurrying towards them. Snow, Serah, and Sazh appeared thrilled by Vanille's appearance.

"So, how are all of you?" asked Vanille, clasping her hands behind her back.

Instantly, the atmosphere changed to one of discomfort. All of them looked slightly awkward, as though unsure what to say. Vanille seemed to get the message.

"Guess it's not all sugar and rainbows, huh?" she murmured, looking at Sazh.

"Got that right."

The moment she walked in the room, she knew that something was different.

Lightning could sense it- something was out of place. The small, prickling sensation on her neck informed her of this, and she frowned to herself, eyes searching the room for anything not where it should've been.

Almost magnetically, she was attracted to a slip of paper on the kitchen counter. Someone had been there recently, but the note didn't say anything all that meaningful. Just an address:

1133 Jettison Lane, New Bodhum.

Lightning stared at it for a few moments. Though she had at first fully intended to just get rid of it, her curiosity got the better of her. Why leave her this address, anyway? Whoever they were, the deliverer must've been confident that she would choose to investigate. The note crumpled in her tightened fist; she was going that night.

It didn't take long to get there, but she couldn't help but stop to take in the damage of New Bodhum. Bodies still littered the streets, and dried blood could be found on various cobblestones. The night sky was obscured by the looming figure of Cocoon, and she thought she heard a far off roar, probably from one of the monsters that had attacked.

Which led her to another question- what in hell was going on? Nothing was right, everything was wrong; the settlement was falling apart, many people reacted negatively to the government's assurances, and now monsters were spontaneously raiding the city. Lightning realized that this, at last, gave her a purpose again.

She was going to find out what was wrong- why so many horrible things were occurring- because, even if she didn't, there were others who deserved happiness. Serah, Hope, and Dajh all deserved to have full lives; they didn't need their innocence tarnished.

A sudden bout of dizziness hit her, and Lightning remembered that she hadn't slept all week. She placed a hand to her forehead, recalling Serah's words to her easily enough.

"How long have you had nightmares? Have you even slept lately?"

The answer to the first question was simple: since she'd first moved into her apartment. It might've even been before that, when the faces of those she murdered in the soldier's line of duty flashed before her whenever she attempted to rest. There was one face, in particular, that wouldn't leave her alone.

Cid Raines. Damn him, damn him, damn him. No one would ever know that he was the main reason why she could never slept- because he didn't just look at her sadly, like all the rest- he taunted her. He mocked her for not being strong enough to walk away with her heart intact, he teased her for not being able to just get over it. Rygdea killed him too, he said, but he didn't feel the constant, cutting pain of guilt in his chest.

Lightning wanted to scream in frustration. She wished that she'd been asked to accompany him to the Sanctum, and die there with him- anything but killing him herself. But a promise was a promise; after what happened with Serah, she would never break one.

Why couldn't he just leave her alone? She was probably dying of sleep deprivation because of it.

There's also the little fact that you refuse to confide in anyone, whispered a little voice in her head, which she ignored. So what if she did? She couldn't without revealing that she'd killed Raines on purpose.

Lightning blinked. Her thoughts had brought her outside the place she was looking for, a small place with no windows. Steeling herself, she knocked on the door.

The first sign of life was a loud crash, followed by a stream of profanities from what sounded like a young woman. Lightning jumped back barely in time to avoid the door slamming open, revealing an extremely tall young woman.

It was Cranky Lenora, of all people. The gray eyed woman took her in- uniform and all- and the first thing she tried to do was close the door.

Anticipating this, she stuck her foot in to prevent it. Lenora snorted a bit.

"You look like hell," muttered the woman at last. "Guess you'd better come in, then. The military can have whatever the fuck they want, I don't care."

Nodding once, Lightning stepped inside the cramped room. The reason being: it was stuffed full of various tools, spare parts, and half-completed devices. Lenora proceeded back to another room, tripping over a screwdriver in the process.

"I'm a mechanic," was Lenora's short explanation. She unceremoniously shoved aside a few scraps, before seating herself on a chair. "So what the hell does the military want?"

"Nothing," replied Lightning curtly. Lenora reminded her inexplicably of Fang- only sulkier, angrier, and much more of a foul-mouth. Heck, she even had black-brown hair as well. She was glad that she'd sat down; Lenora was at least a head taller than her.

"Then what the hell do you want? I'm closed, and I'm still trying to build something."

"I got a note from someone anonymous, telling me to come to this address."

Lenora rolled her eyes. Lightning took in her attire, noting that she wore baggy Capri pants, a bulky hoodie with the sleeves rolled up, and thick work boots. In a way similar to Snow, a bandana was tied around her head, leaving her long, straight hair to fall down her shoulders.

"Anonymous, notes, why the hell should I give a shit?" she asked. She kicked at a screw. "If they want business, the bastards should just come themselves."

Lightning decided to change the subject. It was odd; normally, she was the one to brush people off in a conversation.

"You weren't hurt today?"

"Fuck no I wasn't," spat Lenora. "Who do you think I am?"

Lightning's only reply was to raise an eyebrow.

Lenora held out her hand to her, revealing a ring with a small red button on her left hand's ring finger. "See this?" She pushed the button.

Lightning's jaw dropped when gleaming metal suddenly extended out from her shoulder, encasing Lenora's arm until it was completely hidden by the shell, transforming Lenora's hand into a massive claw. It appeared to move with her regular arm, as well.

"My pride and joy," proclaimed Lenora loudly. "I call it TALON. Stands for, 'Trips Assholes Like One Nelly.'" Seeing Lightning's look of confusion, she added, "Nelly is the name of a douchebag I used to know."

Lightning could only stare as the encasing retracted back to Lenora's shoulder. The woman stood, wandering over to the other side of the room and grabbing hold of a wrench.

"Where did you live before?" she asked.

"HA!" yelled Lenora so loudly, Lightning's hand went to her Blazefire Saber. "Lived in Eden, the lower regions. Eheh, region…"

Lightning almost face-palmed. Was this really a grown woman?

"Anywho, I had a business that kept me running pretty good. Ever heard of Lenora's Garage? Course, once those little fuckers in PSICOM found out who I was, they tried to fucking arrest me. Needless to say, they're all dead now."

"I'm going back," said Lightning suddenly.

Lenora stared at her blankly. "Go wherenow?"

"Back to Cocoon."

"You're fucking crazy."

"You're one to talk."

Lenora blinked a few times, before slapping her knee and laughing raucously. "I like you, ya know? You got spunk! But seriously, go see a psychologist. Nostalgic much?"

"It has nothing to do with nostalgia," muttered Lightning. "I just… feel like answers are there. I want to know why the world's so messed up."

"World's always fucked up," said Lenora, shrugging. "Don't see any point in trying to change it. On a lighter note, can I come with? I gotta get out of this shitty place."

"No." Lightning did not want someone who was clearly unbalanced with her on her journey. While Lenora could clearly hold her own in a fight, she had no idea what she'd run into back in the floating sphere. It was too big of a risk.

"I'll follow you, ya know, so it's really not much use."

"Fine," snapped Lightning. "Pack lightly. I'm leaving tomorrow morning."

"You might as well just spend the night here," said Lenora, shrugging. "You can have the bed; I never use it that piece of shit."

"That's fine," replied Lightning shortly, surprised at how quickly she'd made up her mind. Were either of them thinking this through, really? So she had done stupid stuff before, but this probably topped it. Serah was going to kill her.

On the other hand, Lightning finally had a purpose in a life that had one seemed meaningless to her. Now she could act, maybe help the people she loved.

Even if she couldn't help herself.

Author's note: Wow, really angsty beginning. Lightning's almost suicidal, but that's the intention. I really wanted to give the impression of inner torture; hope I succeeded. Oh, and if you don't like swears, then you won't like Lenora (she does it a lot). Lenora's purpose is not merely comical, she is important! A few questions:

1. What do you think happened to Fang?

2. Any theories on who Lenora is?

3. What do you think was with Vanille's dream?

4. Conspiracy theories, anyone? In other words, what do you think is going on?

5. Fal'Cie will appear… any guess on which ones?

6. For any FMA fans, does anyone else think that Cid/Light is a lot like Royai?

Anyway, thanks for reading, everybody! It took me ages to finish this first chapter… gotta get working on the second… please review, and I'm open to plot twist suggestions!