"You said you'd look after me."
The shambling figure was barely recognisable save for the lone, tattered patch of pink hair that still clung to the scalp.
"You promised that you'd never let anything happen to me."
Lightning trembled. Bile burned at the back of her throat. Serah was gone. There was no way that her sister could be stumbling toward her, no way that Serah could be staring at her with eyes as black and empty as bitumen.
"You left me. You left me all alone."
Bone jutted out from a gash in Serah's arm, and her mouth opened wide in a horrible parody of a smile to reveal teeth too jagged to be human.
"I'm dead because of you, Lightning! I'm Infected because of you!"
And then Serah sprang, and the last thing Lightning felt were her sister's arms around her and her sister's teeth buried in her throat. She smiled – one last embrace.
X X X
Lightning gasped and flailed. Her hands and feet skittered across the wooden floor as she slammed into the wall behind her. Chest heaving, she shoved both of her hands over her mouth to try and stifle any other noises she might make. Slowly, far too slowly, she remembered where she was. She was in an old farmhouse with the doors and windows barricaded shut. Only a few feet away was Vanille. Somehow, the red head was still asleep.
"Just a dream." Lightning rocked herself back and forth, her arms wrapped around herself. "It was just a dream."
But even as she spoke the words, she had to fight back tears. It was only a dream, but deep down inside, she knew it was the truth. If only she'd kept Serah a little bit closer, if only she'd been a better sister, if only –
"Lightning?" Vanille rubbed at her face and pushed up onto her hands and knees. "What are you doing?" Her eyes widened as she actually looked at Lightning, and in a second, she was at Lightning's side, her arms wrapped around the other woman. "What happened? What's wrong?"
"It's nothing." Lightning fought to keep from trembling. Vanille had enough to worry about without her adding to everything. "Let's just go back to sleep."
Vanille gave her a sceptical look, but Lightning ignored it in favour of going back to the makeshift nest of blankets that served as their bed. Ever since the red head had been attacked by feral dogs, she had refused to sleep on her own. Lightning had warned her that she was dangerous, that at any moment she might snap and turn on her, but Vanille had insisted, and so far nothing bad had happened. But Lightning knew that it was only a matter of time. Sooner or later, she'd snap, and when she did, she just hoped Vanille had the good sense to put her down like a rabid dog.
If only it wasn't so hard to think clearly when Vanille was curled up against her. The younger woman was soft and warm, and so very much alive. It was easy sometimes, too easy, to pretend that it was Serah there with her. But those moments always passed, and in the end, she always woke up to the same horrible world.
But whatever comfort Vanille's presence offered – and Lightning wasn't so far gone that she didn't realise how dependent she'd become on the other woman – the red head was also a constant reminder of Lightning's failure. They were only a few days from Bodhum now, but the closer they got, the more keenly she felt her failure. She was going home, but it was without Serah.
Lightning eased herself into the blankets. "Vanille, let's go back to sleep."
"Okay." Vanille scooted over to Lightning and wrapped her arms around the taller woman. "Good night."
Lightning nodded. "Good night."
As Vanille began to doze off, Lightning did her best to clear her mind, but when she closed her eyes, it was Serah she saw. And once again, her sister's eyes were like pools of tar, and her smile was equal parts deranged and ravenous.
"Welcome home." Serah's neck twisted, snapping cleanly. "Sister."
X X X
Vanille watched Lightning out of the corner of her eye as the pink haired woman guided the four-wheel drive along the narrow road. They were only a few days from Bodhum, and Lightning should have been feeling better. Certainly, Vanille was in high spirits. She'd finally get to see the beach again. She might even make a sand castle, and if they were really lucky, they'd find some fireworks. With the way everything was, what else could they hope for?
But Lightning had only gotten worse. Twice now, Vanille had woken to find Lightning pressed against the wall of whatever place they were staying at, her hands clamped over her mouth, her eyes filled with something that went so far beyond horror that Vanille could barely find any words for it. And to her shame, Vanille hadn't had to the courage to ask. Instead, when Lightning had said she was fine, Vanille had just let her get away with it. She was afraid, afraid of finding out what could rattle someone like Lightning so badly.
And on the few occasions that Vanille had tried to prey, albeit subtly, Lightning had pushed her away. The soldier was slipping back into the shell she'd been in when they'd first met. Sure, Lightning still talked whenever Vanille asked her a question, and sure, Lightning still let Vanille curl up to her at night, but where before there had been a creeping, quiet sort of warmth to Lightning's gaze, there was now only an awful coolness, a bitter remoteness. Something had changed, and for the life of her, Vanille could not figure out what it was.
"What are you going to do when we get to Bodhum?" Vanille asked.
Lightning's gaze remained locked on the road. "I don't know."
"I want to see if we can find any fireworks." Vanille giggled. "When I was young, the matron always used to let us watch the New Year's Eve celebrations on television. It was always so pretty, and Bodhum always had the best fireworks." She glanced at Lightning. "Did you and Serah ever go to the fireworks?"
Almost imperceptibly, Lightning's hands tightened around the steering wheel.
Oblivious to the sudden tension running through Lightning, Vanille continued to speak. Over the past few weeks, Lightning had opened up a bit more about Serah, and even if she always looked a bit sad, Lightning did seem to like talking about her sister, so maybe Vanille could cheer her up that way.
"What kind of fireworks did Serah like?" Vanille grinned. "She did like going to the fireworks, didn't she?"
Lightning's hands were now clenched around the steering wheel, and her eyes had narrowed to little more than slits.
"My favourites were always the ones that had different colours." Vanille's eyes were bright with memories of the past. "I bet she liked those ones too –"
"Huh?" Vanille looked at Lightning. "What?"
The pink haired woman slammed her foot down on the brakes. "I said: shut up!"
The force of the cry had Vanille huddling against the door, her hands held up as if to ward off a blow. Lightning's breath came in short, sharp, little gasps, and her eyes burned like blue fire. For the first time in what felt like forever, Vanille was genuinely afraid of her companion.
"I'm sorry." Vanille's lip quivered. "I'm sorry, so please don't yell. I promise I'll stop talking, so please don't yell."
Lightning's eyes widened and then she slumped into the driver's seat. The four-wheel drive continued to hum, its engine purring.
"Don't apologise. You didn't do anything wrong." Lightning leaned forward to rest her head on the steering wheel. "I don't even know why I yelled at you."
Vanille edged forward and very gingerly put one hand on Lightning's back. The pink haired woman's back was one big patch of knotted muscle. "It's okay, Lightning. I mean… it's okay now. You haven't been sleeping much lately, so maybe you're just tired and… do you think you could tell me what's wrong?"
"Nothing." Lightning straightened and eased her foot off the brakes, but Vanille could see the shiver run through as she drew upon every ounce of inner strength she had left. "Nothing is wrong."
But something was very wrong. Vanille was sure of it.
They made camp that night in an abandoned gas station. There wasn't much fuel left, but they found some cans of food in a storeroom up the back. Dinner was cooked over a fire in an old fuel drum, and to go with the usual cans of soup, they even had a few apples they'd picked from a tree not too far from the gas station.
The fruit was sweet and fresh, but Vanille barely tasted it. Instead, she watched Lightning, and as she watched, she felt like kicking herself. How could she not have noticed? The pink haired woman was exhausted, and now that she looked more closely, it was clear that Lightning hadn't slept properly in a lot more than a few days. There were dark circles under her eyes, and her movements were lethargic, lacking their usual efficient grace.
But what concerned Vanille the most was the long, long stare that Lightning had. It wasn't the stare she'd gotten used to – the one that sometimes confused her with Serah and brought to mind better days – it was the stare of someone who'd thought long and hard about something and come to a terrible decision. She'd seen it before, in the mirror, in the days before Lightning had come, and she'd wondered if maybe it wouldn't be better to put a gun in her mouth and taste a little lead.
She needed to find out what was going on in Lightning's head, because if something happened to her then she was dead. It wasn't simply a matter of losing Lightning's survival skills, although that was a part of it. No, Vanille absolutely refused to be alone again. If that happened then she'd kill herself, she was sure of it.
"Can you tell me more about Bodhum?" Vanille whispered. "I'd like to know a little more before we get there."
Lightning looked down at the can of soup in her hands. It had gone cold a long time ago, and now it's contents were a wet sludge that was only barely palatable. All the same, she shovelled another spoonful of it into her mouth. Vanille winced.
"I'll tell you about the sea." Lightning's voice was soft and fragile, so much so that Vanille had to strain to hear it. Her eyes, so very blue, were sad and gentle all at once, and as they drifted closed, she could almost have been asleep if it weren't for the fact her lips were moving. "I remember when I was child, my mother used to take Serah and I walking along the beach. The beaches are beautiful in Bodhum, Vanille, golden sand so fine it slips between your toes without you even noticing its there. But the sea that's what I remember best. The water is clear there, and calm, and on a good day, it's like you can see all the way to the end of the world." Lightning opened her eyes, and they were so sad that Vanille felt a lone tear trickle down her cheek. "I want to see it one last time. That would be enough, I think."
"One last time?" Vanille murmured before the words sank in. Suddenly, it all made sense. "Lightning," she said slowly. "What do you mean, see it one last time?"
Lightning said nothing – and that said everything.
Vanille pushed to her feet, and the can of soup beside her tipped onto its side. "Lightning, tell me what you meant!" She didn't care if she shouted. She needed to know.
"I think you know." Lightning's smile was serene. "I think you know exactly what I meant." She tugged her knees up to her chest. "I'm tired, Vanille. Tired of everything. Tired of fighting. Tired of feeling guilty. Tired of think about all the things I've ever done wrong." She looked up at Vanille. "How long do you think we'll last? A day? A week?" She laughed. "A year? It doesn't matter. In the end, we'll be like all the others." She chuckled softly, brokenly. "Everything ends, Vanille. What does it matter when it ends?"
Vanille dragged in a harsh breath. She was crying. With a growl, she grabbed Lightning and hauled the other woman up to her feet. "You promised!" she screamed. "You promised we'd go to Bodhum together, and see the beach, and live as long as we could and –"
She stopped short as Lightning pushed her away. In the blink of an eye, the pink haired woman had her pistol drawn and levelled at Vanille's head.
"I can make it quick." Lightning's voice was calm, even, like they were discussing the weather. "Neither of us will feel a thing, and neither of us will have to worry about anything ever again. It can all end here. It'll be just like falling asleep." She shook her head slowly. "That's better than what Serah had."
Vanille took a slow step back.
"I lied, Vanille." Lightning stared down at the pistol as though the weapon held the answers to all the questions in the world. "I'm not okay. You're not okay. Nothing is ever going to be okay." Her lips curled. "Bodhum is a dream. This whole journey… all of it was a dream. When we get there, do you know what we'll find? Ashes and death. But we both knew that already. And after that, what next? Are we going to go somewhere else? Are we going to go find another dream to chase?" She snarled. "Wake up, Vanille. There are no more dreams. All our dreams are dead!"
"But… but…" Vanille shook her head frantically. "Before… we made snowmen… we were happy. You said you cared about me. You said we'd stay together as long as we could. You promised, Lightning! You promised!" She scrubbed at her cheeks. "You weren't lying then, I know you weren't lying. Say it, Lightning, say you weren't lying!"
"You're so much like Serah." Lightning whispered. "But I couldn't see things clearly then, the way I see them now." She waved one hand at their makeshift bed, and then at the four-wheel drive and trailer packed with all their worldly belongings. "Is that how you want to spend the rest of your life? Is that what you're fighting so hard for?"
"No, it's not how I want to spend the rest of my life." Vanille clenched her fists. "But it's okay if I'm with you. It's okay so long as I'm not alone." She took a step forward. "Lightning, please."
For the first time, Lightning's hand trembled. "Stop right there. Don't take another step."
"You won't pull the trigger." Vanille took another step forward and then another. "You're scared, scared because you're right – maybe we won't find anything in Bodhum, and maybe there won't be anything thing there but ashes and death, but does that have to matter? The beach will still be there, and the sea will still be there, and if you put down the gun, we'll be there too." She smiled. "You and me. We'll be there."
"It won't last." Lightning bit her lip. "It can't."
"You're probably right." Vanille laughed softly. "But however long it lasts – even if it's only a day – that's okay with me. I just don't want to be alone. So please, don't do this."
Lightning flinched and Vanille dove forward. The gun went off and blew a hole in the wall before it skittered out of Lightning's grasp. In a flash, Vanille was on her back, pinned to the ground, but she refused to give up. They rolled end over end, and somehow, Vanille managed to scramble her way to the top.
"You don't get to do this!" Vanille wailed as she rained blows down on Lightning. They were weak, ineffectual, and it took only a moment for Lightning to grab her by the wrists. "You don't get to just quit! You're broken, I'm broken, the whole damn world is broken, but that doesn't mean we get to give up!" Vanille wrenched her hands freed and grabbed Lightning's shirt. "Do you think Serah would want you to give up? Do you think my friends would want me to give up? They're dead, and that hurts, and nothing in the world can change that, but if we die too, if we roll over and give up, then what does any of that mean? Who's going to remember them if we're gone?"
Lightning shoved her off and stumbled toward her gun, but Vanille lunged forward and threw her arms around Lightning's leg.
"Stop!" Vanille screamed. "Please stop!"
"Give me one reason." Lightning's eyes burned into Vanille's. "One good reason and I'll stop."
Vanille sniffled miserably. "Because I need you. Because I can't do this on my own." She met Lightning's gaze, and sobbed. "Because if you can't live for yourself or Serah, then maybe you could live for me."
For a long, long moment, Lightning said nothing. Finally, she nodded. "That's three reasons, Vanille. I asked for one."
Vanille gaped, and then she began to laugh. It was a hysterical sound and she felt tears pour down her cheeks. "I hate you." Vanille mumbled as she fought to control herself. "I hate you so damn much."
Lightning sagged to the ground. "I hate you too." She looked away. "But I suppose, I need you."
Vanille scrubbed at her cheeks. "Promise me that you won't ever do anything like that again. Promise me that you'll fight for as long as you can to keep us both alive." She paused. "Promise me on Serah."
Lightning sucked in a deep breath. "Only if you promise me on Fang that when the time comes, if there's no other way, you'll let me kill us both."
"If we're really going to do this – try and live I mean, then we're going to need weapons, a lot more than we have now." Lightning closed her eyes. "I know where we might be able to get them."
Vanille shivered as Lightning tucked her pistol back into its holster. "Where?"
"There's a Guardian Corps training facility about a day from Bodhum." Lightning's eyes opened and for the first time in days, Vanille saw something other than bleak despair in them. This was the Lightning she'd come to know, the one who'd fought so hard for so long. "There should still be some equipment there that we can use."
"Do you mean it?" Vanille asked. "You're not lying?"
"No, I'm not lying." Lightning's gaze hardened. "I promised you on Serah that I'd fight, and I meant it." Her lips twitched up into a dark, twisted smile. "Besides, I've always wondered what the end of the world would look like. I guess the two of us are going to find out."
X X X
In her dreams that night, Lightning saw Serah again. This time, she didn't run, and she didn't stand there. Instead, she raised her pistol and shot Serah in the face. As her sister's blood spilled onto the pavement, she could hear her own laughter, tinged with madness, spilling out into a world of fire and shadow.
X X X
Vanille eyed the Guardian Corps training facility warily. They'd pulled up just outside the perimeter fence, and even from a distance, the place seemed the very opposite of safe. The chain link fence was topped with barbed wire, and it looked like it might be electrified, but it was riddled with holes.
"Do you think it still works?"
"Stand back." Lightning examined the fence closely. "No, it looks like the power is down. Get the bolt cutters, we'll go in through the gate."
They eased the car in through the gate, and trundled into the heart of the facility. There were about a dozen buildings in all, most of them organised around a few main roads that led out into large, open fields that Vanille assumed were for training. Theirs wasn't the only vehicle there. Cars and trucks lay idle, and there even a few tanks posted at the main intersections.
"We'll be heading for the armoury," Lightning said, as she guided the car around a blood stained armoured personnel carrier. "If we're lucky, it will still be intact. If not, we can always search the rest of the facility."
Lightning smiled coldly. "Think guns, Vanille. Lots of guns." She chuckled. "And explosives."
Vanille wasn't sure what to make of that. Since their confrontation, Lightning's personality had taken another turn. There was a bloodthirstiness in her now that didn't sit entirely well with Vanille – even if it did remind her a lot of Fang – but it had to be better than the hopelessness that had been there before. And if Lightning had slaughtered the last few Infected they'd come across with a great deal more viciousness than was necessary, then that wasn't too bad. After all, the Infected needed to die.
In any case, Vanille definitely like the idea of having bigger and better guns, as well as a few explosives. If Bodhum was like any of the other towns they'd come across, they were going to need them if they wanted to carve out a home there – and Vanille definitely believed that they would. Lightning had promised on Serah, and that had to mean something. Maybe it would all end in tears with Lightning kill them both, but at least the pink haired woman had agreed to make a go of it.
"We'll get the car as close as we can." Lightning's brows furrowed. "Guns can be quite heavy."
They were as quiet as possible, but in the still, afternoon air, the four-wheel drive was unbearably loud. However, they managed to make it over to their destination without any sign of the Infected.
"Do you think they moved on?" Vanille asked as they climbed out of the car. As always, she checked to make sure she had all of her weapons. She'd come too far now to die because of something stupid like forgetting to bring a pistol.
"Maybe, but I doubt we're that lucky." Lightning nodded at the door of the building in front of them. "Stay close and keep you eyes and ears open."
They went over to the door, and Vanille turned to face their surroundings as Lightning fiddled with the keypad. To Vanille's surprise, the door gave a low hiss and jerked open.
"How did you get it to open? Keypads run off electricity."
Lightning shrugged. "This is where I did my basic training. The facility has its own generator, as well as a few solar panels to ensure power to essential systems. I'm betting the generator died a weeks ago, but some of the solar panels must still be working."
"Solar panels?" Vanille gasped. "We could –"
"We can't stay here." Lightning waved at the tattered fence and the wide-open space all around them. "There's no way we'd be able to fortify a place like this. Besides, there's no telling how much longer the solar panels will be working. They were designed for back up, and after the winter we've had, they're probably on their last legs." Her voice softened. "Besides, aren't you wondering what happened to all the Guardian Corps who were stationed here?"
Vanille shivered. She'd thought about that, but the more she thought about it, the less she wanted to know. "Never mind, let's go inside."
The inside of the building was dark save for the faint light cast by a few emergency lights. The air was stale too, and the floors were lined with dust and old, dried blood.
"The ventilation systems aren't working properly." Lightning turned on the flashlight attached to her rifle. "Stay close, and do not touch anything."
They crept down the corridor, past locked door after locked door. As they stopped to peer around a corner, Vanille glanced through the small window built into one of the doors, and gasped. The flickering lights beyond the door illuminated a scene out of a nightmare. Tables and chairs had been thrown about a small coffee room, and huddled against the walls and door were the bodies of about a dozen Guardian Corps officers. In the middle of the room, their battered forms twitching, were a handful of Infected.
"Vanille…" Lightning whispered. "Don't look."
Vanille nodded and then cried out as one of the Infected locked eyes with her and hurled itself at the door. The metal door shook, but held firm, and Vanille hurried after Lightning.
"What happened here?"
"They must have been overwhelmed, probably caught off guard too." Lightning led them down another long corridor and through a large hall. The bodies of Guardian Corps officers and Infected were strewn about everywhere along with shell casings. There were even scorch marks on the walls, floor, and ceiling. "They must have put the whole facility on emergency lockdown. That means all the doors, and all the windows – everything would have been locked. That's why we haven't seen that many Infected. Those outside must have wandered off, and the rest must still be locked in here."
"Oh." Vanille fought back a wave of nausea. They'd passed a lot of rooms on the way here. How many were filled with Infected?
Finally, they reached the armoury. The door was thick, at least several inches of metal, from the sound it made when Lightning tapped on it.
"We can't cut through this." Lightning frowned. "I'm going to have to turn as much of the power back on as I can, but that means the doors are probably going to unlock – it's part of the emergency start up sequence."
"Unlock?" Vanille shook her head. "But if they unlock –"
"It's our only chance." Lightning looked down the corridor. "And at least here, we'll have a fighting chance." She knelt by the keypad. "Are you ready?"
Vanille took a deep breath. She needed to stay calm. One breath after another. "Do it."
Lightning's fingers flew across the keypad, and then there was a whoosh as the whole corridor went dark. A second later, the power kicked back in, and the lights flared back to life. Behind them, the door groaned and swung open.
"Keep watch, Vanille." Lightning disappeared into the armoury. "Buy as much time as you can."
Vanille nodded grimly. Lightning was trusting her, and she refused to betray that trust. Almost a minute passed before she heard it, the sound of footsteps. The doors at the far end of the corridor burst open, and the first of the Infected appeared. It was a young man, his face contorted into a mask of inhuman fury. Behind him were a dozen more Infected, and as they laid eyes on Vanille, they began to howl and scream.
"Lightning!" Vanille shouted. "Lightning, they're here!"
"Hold them off!" Lightning growled. "I'm counting on you."
Vanille lifted her shotgun. Before she'd met Lightning, she would have fired as soon as she saw the Infected, but the other woman had taught her how to hold back until the Infected were close enough to feel the full force of the shotgun. The Infected pounded down the corridor, some of them stumbling as they bounced off the walls and bumped into the others beside them. She eased her finger down on the trigger.
Bang. The first Infected flew back, its body blown almost in half.
Bang. Another Infected went down, it's head torn off.
The shotgun clicked empty, and Vanille dropped it to the ground. In the same motion, she drew her revolver and levelled it at the Infected. She'd found it a week ago, and what it lacked in terms of ease of use or the number of bullets it could fire before reloading, it more than made up for in stopping power.
The Infected continued their headlong charge, and she lined up her shots. Her mind was on autopilot, the fear she felt shoved back as she realised a very simple truth. For once, Lightning was relying on her to protect her. For once, Vanille would have a chance to prove her worth. And she would not be found wanting.
She emptied the revolver, but still the Infected came on. There was no time to reload, and so she went for the pistol tucked into the back of her pants. It was her last weapon, and while it lacked the punch of the revolver, it would have to do.
"Lightning," she cried. "Hurry up!"
Then Lightning was there, and with a gun that Vanille had never seen before.
The blue-eyed woman snarled. "Get down."
The gun roared in Lightning's hands, the tall woman's whole body drawn taut to brace against the kick of it, as it spat swift, metal death down the length of the corridor. Vanille closed her eyes and covered her ears. It was like the world was ending. A few seconds later, it was over.
"What is that?" Vanille asked as she got to her feet.
Lightning tapped the gun affectionately. "I won't bother with its name, but think of it as a cross between an assault rifle and a shotgun." She smiled faintly. "It's the first time I've ever fired one outside of training." Her lip trembled. "If I'd had one back in Nautilus maybe…" She shivered and shook her head. "Never mind. There are bags inside the armoury that we can use. Get them filled with as much as you can and we'll take them back to the car."
The inside of the armoury was like something out of a video game. Vanilla didn't even know the names of all the guns and explosives, but she filled as many of the bags as she could, and got them ready.
"What is with all this stuff?" Vanille asked. "And how come they didn't use it?"
"I can't say for certain." Lightning had a pair of bags hanging off each shoulder, but even so, they'd have to make more than one trip. "But I can guess. This Infection – we never saw it coming. I was sent out to Nautilus, something about riots, and the next thing we know, there's Infected everywhere. Once the news got out, I'm sure they mobilised all of the Guardian Corps to try and contain the spread, but you know how that must have gone." Her lips curled. "I'm betting they got caught off guard, either that, or some of the Infected must have slipped through the perimeter. One minute they're discussing deployment, the next, they're getting eaten."
"That doesn't explain why all the weapons were in there though." Vanille struggled beneath the weight of the bags she carried.
"Not just anyone can open the armoury." Lightning peered down the corridor and then waved Vanille forward. "You'd need to be a lieutenant or higher to open it, and judging from some of the bodies we passed, the senior officers were some of the first to die. When the power cut, or they started the emergency lockdown, there was probably no one left alive who knew the codes to get it open."
"But you knew the codes." Vanille tilted her head to one side. Had she been travelling with a general or something? "What rank are you?"
"It doesn't matter, not anymore. But, no, I wasn't high up." Lightning chuckled softly. "My commanding officer was one of the officers here. He was a good man, Vanille. I think you'd have liked him. He died in Nautilus, but he gave everyone in the squad the codes. I suppose he figured at least one of us might make it back here alive."
It took them several trips to get everything they needed from the armoury, and then they were off to Bodhum.
X X X
Lightning steered the four-wheel drive around another burnt out car and tried to ignore the hole in her chest where her heart had been. Bodhum was a wreck. Unlike most of the towns they'd passed through, it hadn't been ravaged by fire, but the Infected had been no less brutal in their assault here than elsewhere. Badly decayed bodies were scattered here and there, some little more than bone. Worse, however, were the packs of feral dogs that roamed the streets, some even giving chase as the car hurtled past.
Most of the shops were in ruins. Some had been looted, but others were buried beneath loose branches and debris. Her eyes narrowed. At some point, a storm must have swept in, and with no one to clean up the mess, things had fallen apart. Nature really was quick to take back what was hers.
She eased her foot down on the accelerator as they passed a group of Infected. They gave chase, shrieking and yelling, but the car easily outpaced them as she hit one of the wider streets and let the four-wheel drive stretch its legs. What would happen if the Infected ran into the feral dogs? Would they turn on each other, or would the dogs be wise enough to run. If she and Vanille were lucky, maybe they two groups would wipe each other out.
Beside her, Vanille dozed quietly in the passenger seat, exhausted by another night spent watching her like a hawk. She stared down at her hands. She couldn't blame Vanille for being worried. She'd given the red head good cause to worry. She remembered pulling her gun on Vanille, but the words she'd spoken, the things she'd said – she still couldn't quite bring herself to believe that she'd said them. For the first time, perhaps in months, Lightning felt like she was thinking clearly, and she was disgusted with herself.
Vanille had asked her to live for her sake if she couldn't live for herself, and Lightning had to admit that maybe that wasn't so bad. She swallowed thickly. Serah was dead. Every rational part of her mind knew that, but only now had she begun to accept it. Vanille was not Serah – no one could ever be Serah – but perhaps Vanille was special in her own way.
And the red head had been right. What would Serah think if Lightning threw her life away now? She didn't know if heaven and hell were real – at this point, life was pretty close to the latter – but if they were real, then what would she tell Serah when she got there, that she just gave up and left Vanille to fend for herself?
Lightning smiled. She knew how Serah would take something like that. Her sister would be horrified, and probably spend a few minutes whacking her upside the head and calling her ten different kinds of stupid. Only Serah had ever dared to treat her like that – until Vanille had tackled her to the ground. It was funny, but if things had been different, she probably wouldn't have given Vanille a second glance. But here they were, as close as two people could be.
"Lightning?" Vanille blinked and sat up.
"Are you okay?" Vanille looked at her carefully.
"I think so." Lightning pursed her lips. "Stay awake, we're nearly there." She smiled and pointed out the window. "Oh, and look over there."
Vanille turned and then let out a cry of joy. They were alongside the beach. It was golden sand for as far as she could see, and a host of palm trees swayed in the brisk, sea breeze. The clear waters of the ocean lapped at the shore, and overhead, birds circled, their cries filling the air. Only the debris washed up along the shore – a mixture of vegetation, garbage, and bodies – marred the scene, but even still, it was a finer sight than anything she had seen in months.
"It's so beautiful."
"It is." Lightning pointed up ahead, slowing the car a fraction to let Vanille get a closer look at the beach. "My house isn't far."
A few minutes later, Lightning pulled up in front of her house. It wasn't large, and the garden had been torn apart, but for the most part, it seemed intact. Someone had even gone to the trouble of boarding the windows and barricading the door.
"Don't let your guard down, we need to make sure it's safe."
Lightning forced the door open and peered inside. The familiarity of the place washed over her, and she had to fight to stay focused. There was a pile of garbage in the living room – someone had tried to live here – but so far, there was no sign of the Infected. Quickly, she swept through the house, Vanille on her heels. They were alone, except for two bodies on the back porch. It was an old man and an old woman, their hands joined. Their temples bore identical gunshot wounds.
"What do you want to do about them?" Vanille asked softly.
Lightning's gaze drifted to where the old couple must have been looking when they ended things. She swallowed thickly. The horizon. The beach. "Leave them there, at least for now. I'm going to go fix the front door and get some old cans rigged up as an alarm." She paused. "We can stay here, I guess."
Vanille followed her back to the front door and then drifted over to the living room. The old couple hadn't touched any of the pictures on the mantelpiece. In fact, they'd even added a few of their own. It made Lightning want to cry.
"When was this taken?" Vanille asked. She had a picture of Serah and Lightning in her hands.
"That's from when she graduated high school." Lightning had to blink back tears. "I was so happy that day, so damn proud."
"She was always smiling," Vanille said. "That's what everybody at university said." She paused, uncertain. "She must have loved you a lot, Lightning. She looks so happy in this picture."
Lightning took the picture and ran one finger along her sister's face. It hurt to admit, but there were times when she struggled to remember exactly what her sister looked like. There was so much blood, so much horror between those idyllic days and now. "There are some other photo albums that you can look at if you want."
Vanille looked surprised, but then she grinned. "Maybe later. First, let's go look for some fireworks."
"Fireworks?" Lightning chuckled. "Why not."
The search for fireworks was no nearly as hard as Lightning had feared it might be. After about an hour of driving around, they found a supermarket that still had some. They had to kill a few Infected – something they'd gotten very good at over the past few months – and scare off a few feral dogs, but they made it back to their house with quite a haul. Serah would have loved it.
It was going on sunset by then, and after securing the rest of the house, Lightning helped Vanille up onto the roof.
"I used to sit up here all the time with Serah." Lightning murmured as the sun began to set. The water was bathed in shades of orange and yellow, the waves a susurrant rustle against the shore. "Even after all that's happened, it's still beautiful."
"It is." Vanille reached over and put her hand on Lightning's. The other woman didn't pull away. "I used to watch the sunset with Fang a lot when we lived at the orphanage. We'd climb up onto the roof, and the matron would scream at us to get down." She giggled. "Eventually, she got sick of yelling and started to join us up there. It's a nice thing, the sunset in the mountains, but I think this is better." She scooted over until she and Lightning were side-by-side. "Thank you for taking me here, Lightning."
"You didn't give me much of a choice."
"I didn't, did I?"
"We're at the end of the world, Vanille." Lightning's eyes drifted to the horizon, to a sky set ablaze by the setting sun, and now drifting slowly into the dark, black ash of night. "How does it feel?"
Vanille followed Lightning's gaze. "It feels fine."
As darkness fell over them, Vanille tugged Lightning to her feet. "Come on, let's go set off the fireworks."
Lightning pursed her lips. "We need to be careful. It's probably going to draw the Infected."
"Then we can drive down to the beach," Vanille insisted. "Come on!"
They drove down to the beach, and Vanille filmed everything with Bhakti as Lightning set off the fireworks. They kept the engine of the car running, and both of them were armed to the teeth.
"Look at that!" Vanille pointed, her eyes wide with delight as the fireworks painted the sky with brilliant plumes of red, green, yellow, and blue. "It's so pretty!"
Lightning looked at the fireworks and then at Vanille. "Yes, it is."
They stayed out there for twenty minutes, setting off fireworks of every size and description. When the first of the Infected came, they tossed aside the sparklers they were holding and fought their way back to the car. Some things would never change, and others things would never be the same.
X X X
The next morning, Vanille awakened to an empty bed – and for once, it actually was a bed, with blankets and everything! She was about panic, and then she saw Lightning. The other woman was starting intently at something outside the window.
"What is it?"
"Look." Lightning pointed to the harbour. There was a thin trail of smoke rising from an island. "It started some time last night."
"What do you think it means?"
"I can't be sure." Lightning paused. "But watch. It stops and starts."
"Stops and starts?" Vanille frowned as a break appeared in the column of smoke followed by another a few seconds later. "That… it looks like a smoke signal. Do you think… are there other people there?"
"Maybe." Lightning dragged in a deep breath. "Do you want to look? They might be good people, but they could also be bad."
Vanille bit her lip. After all this time, had they finally found more people? "I think we should go. They might be bad, but what if they're good?"
"Fine." Lightning nodded. "But we'll have to find a boat first. And, Vanille." Her eyes grew hard. "Don't second guess yourself out there. If there are people there, they might want to hurt us. If you even think that you're in danger then you shoot first. We can ask questions later."
X X X
As always, I neither own Final Fantasy, nor am I making any money off of this.
Well, you can probably tell that we're getting close to the end of things. Naturally, though, we're not going to get there without a bit of rough and tumble. One of the things that's always fascinated my about zombie apocalypse scenarios is how they can turn even the most normal people into paranoid psychotics, and how they can make even the most demented decisions seem completely rational. Case in point: Lightning.
Luckily for Lightning, however, she isn't alone. Vanille is every bit as screwed up as she is, but in a different way. Put together they are, somehow, functional, which is one of the parts I enjoy the most when it comes to writing this story. A zombie apocalypse can make monsters, but the very worst monsters are always the ones inside our own heads. They're also the ones we can never outrun.
As for the ending of this chapter, well, I'm sure you can guess who or what may be causing the smoke on that island. Also, the gun Lightning uses after exiting the armoury does exist, and if there ever is a zombie apocalypse, I'll make sure I get one.
I'm also curious to know which set of characters people find the most interesting. We started with several groups:
1. Sazh and Dajh (Team Father and Son)
2. Lightning (Team Very Crazy)
3. Fang (Team A Little Bit Crazy)
4. Vanille (Team Way Crazy)
5. Nora and Hope (Team Mother and Son)
From there, however, the groups changed, with some running into others and so on:
1. Sazh and Dajh + Serah and Snow (Team Happy Families)
2. Lightning + Vanille (Team Totally Crazy)
3. Fang + Bahamut (Team Nature Lovers)
4. Nora and Hope + NORA (Team Lucky)
Let me know which team you enjoy following the most, and if you like, try suggesting an alternate team name.
Finally, I'd like to mention a few other things. As always, you can follow my blog at razieltwelve(period)wordpress(period)com for updates on the status of my stories, along with a host of other goodies. This time, it's an article on H. P. Lovecraft. If you're interested in who he was and what makes him special as a writer (at least to me), give it a look. You can also look at my tumblr (which has nothing to do with my stories) over at survivingaustralia(period)tumblr(period)com. And last of all, you can also try my deviant art at razieltwelve(period)deviantart(period)com.
And now, finally (really finally), I'd like to mention this thing that's going on with regards to Fang/Lightning February. You can find story prompts and other stuff over at fangrai(dash)February(period)tumblr(period)com. Drop by and lend everyone your support (and yes, I'm aware of how odd it seems to mention this in a story that is devoid of any FLight).
As always, I appreciate feedback. Reviews and comments are welcome.