"Are you okay, Serah?"
The pink haired woman turned to look at Snow. What a strange question. None of them were okay. They hadn't been for months now. But that wasn't what he meant. He didn't know how to say what he meant.
"I'm not sure." Serah looked out the window at Bodhum – what was left of it, anyway. "I… I knew it would be the same here as everywhere else. I knew that it would be bad. But knowing that isn't the same as seeing it." She pressed her hands against the car window. "I'm being stupid, aren't I?"
Snow's hands tightened around the steering wheel. She'd always loved his hands, so big yet so gentle. He had a fighter's hands, but when he touched her, it was always so softly, like he was afraid she would break. Sometimes she wished he would be rougher with her. She wanted to feel his hands on her and know that she wasn't dreaming, that he was really there.
"It's not stupid. You grew up here. This was your home and now… now it isn't anything." He sighed. "It's a big damn graveyard."
Serah bit her lip until she was sure it would bleed. Snow was right. Bodhum was every bit as dead as everywhere else they'd been. Rubble and garbage littered the streets, and great waves of debris clung to the shore. They'd seen a few Infected picking through the remains of an outdoor theatre, and in the rear-view mirror, a pack of feral dogs tore into a corpse that couldn't be more than a few days old. Someone had managed to get all the way here, and now they were dead, left to the dogs.
But the worst thing was that she could still recognise most of the places they passed. They were by the sea now, on their way to the pier to see if they could find a boat to take them over to the island where, hopefully, they'd be safe. They weren't far from her house, and she'd spent almost her whole life walking these streets.
There, on the left, was the burnt out skeleton of the ice cream shop that Lightning always took her to when she'd finished her school exams. Her lips trembled, and she clutched her hands together so hard that Snow had to reach over and pry them apart before she hurt herself.
Now, they were passing by the shops that lined the streets opposite the beach. There! Right there was the store where she liked to buy her clothes – cheap but tasteful, since for a long time, there had never been quite enough money to go around. Right next to it was the jewellery store where Lightning had bought earrings for her – earrings she'd lost in the chaos of Eden City. And there was the little café she and Lightning always went to whenever her sister had the time. Lightning would order coffee and a blueberry muffin and Serah would order the same thing. And like clockwork, Serah would finish hers first and Lightning would cut her muffin in half and offer it to her.
She had to swallow a sob. Lightning had always been there to look after her – she'd even called to let Serah know she would be in Nautilus for a few days with her squad. It was supposed to be an easy job, a reward for all her good work. Look after all the revellers and then sneak onto a ride or two once her shift was over. But Serah wasn't stupid. She knew how things had really gone for her sister. The Infection had hit Nautilus every bit as hard as Eden. If it hadn't, help would have come by now.
It wouldn't do her any good to think about it, but Serah couldn't help herself. Every time she closed her eyes, she saw her sister fighting, dragging her squad along because she'd never, ever leave someone behind. But they'd die – all of them – buried beneath the swell of Infected.
Lightning had always protected her, but who had protected Lightning when she'd needed it most? Had her sister died alone? Had she been in pain? Had she thought of Serah? That last one made Serah bow her head in shame. She knew Lightning. The older woman's thoughts wouldn't have been about herself – they would have been about Serah. That was why Serah had to live. She wouldn't let all of Lightning's sacrifices be in vain. Someone had to remember her sister. Someone had to remember all the little things that made Lightning who she was. Lightning deserved better than to lie dead and forgotten in some gutter so many miles from home.
"Serah." Snow stopped and struggled to find the right words. "Sazh didn't ask, but I don't think he'd mind if we talked to him. Are you sure you don't want to stop at your house?"
And then, to her shame, Serah began to cry. She thought she was tougher now, that all the months of fighting and killing and running had made her strong. But she couldn't go back to that house now. She couldn't go back to the only home she'd ever know just to see it in ruins with every inch of it a reminder of what she'd lost.
"No." Serah scrubbed at her cheeks and willed the tears to stop. "I don't want to see it. We need to get to that island, Snow."
"All right." Snow's gaze moved to the four-wheel drive ahead of them. Sazh had healed up pretty well since they'd almost lost him, but he'd lost half a step when it came to speed. The older man hid it well, but he still had a long way to go before he felt fine. Serah had done her best to patch him up, but without a proper hospital and medication, it could take weeks for Sazh to feel normal – if he ever did again. "We're getting close to the pier now. You'll have to show us the way once we get there."
Serah nodded. "I can do that. And Snow, if Sazh asks, I wasn't crying."
"He'll know, Serah. He isn't stupid."
"Maybe, but he'll know not to ask about it. He's good that way." Serah wiped her face with a cloth. Sazh had a lot to cry about, but he'd never given himself the luxury. "If Dajh asks, I'll tell him I stubbed my toe on something."
"That might actually work." Snow reached over to squeeze her hand. His touch was gentle, though his hand was so much bigger than hers. "But you know, it's all right to cry about stuff like this."
"You big softie." She squeezed his hand back, feeling all the calluses she'd come to know so well over the past few months.
"Only for you." Snow eased the car to a stop. "Now look sharp, we're here."
Serah climbed out of the car, stopping only to make sure that her hunting rifle was loaded and that her pistol and knife were in place. Their plan was simple: they would get to the piers, find a boat and then load up half their supplies and half their ammunition. If things went wrong at the island, they wouldn't need the rest of their supplies. But if things went right, they could always come back for the rest. And at least this way if something happened to the boat, they wouldn't lose everything.
The piers were a mess much like the rest of Bodhum. The one closest to them had been smashed to kindling – there was a ferry buried in it bow first. The ferry itself wasn't in much better shape. The bright green paint had begun to fleck away, and rust covered much of the bow and starboard areas. There had to be a hole below the water line as well, since the front end of the ship was several feet lower than the back. Not far away, a few turnstiles clattered in the sea breeze, garbage blowing past from bins that hadn't been emptied in months.
"Serah, can you lead us around?" Sazh asked. He'd hopped out of his car with Dajh and Chirpy. The little bird wasn't quite so little anymore. Instead, he was the size of a cat – too big to fit into Dajh's jacket pocket, but quick enough to keep up as they walked along.
"I can." Serah lifted her rifle. "We can skirt along the edge of the piers. All of the ferries are docked on this side and all the private boats are a bit further along."
"Sounds like a plan." Sazh nodded at Dajh. "Keep an eye on Chirpy, son. If he starts acting funny, let us know."
They crept through the waterfront together. Snow was up front with Serah over his shoulder and Sazh bringing up the rear. The boy and his chocobo were in the middle, and they hadn't gone more than a few steps before it became clear how little Chirpy liked being there. He wasn't trembling or hiding his face behind his wings, but his eyes hadn't stopped moving from place to place. They weren't alone.
The ferries they passed weren't fit for the sea. Months without maintenance had left them in poor condition, rusted or punctured from hitting the piers. There hadn't been time to moor them properly, or perhaps whoever had been on them had panicked or died. But as they reached the last of the ferries, Serah allowed herself to hope. This one had been moored securely, and the rust hadn't gotten to it as much as the others.
"Think we should have a look?" Sazh asked.
"I think so." Serah frowned. "But we need to be careful. There could still be Infected on it."
They had to find a plank so that Dajh and Chirpy could get into the ferry, but once they were on it, Chirpy began to shiver. Cheeping quietly, he huddled by Dajh's legs until the boy bent down and lifted him into his arms.
"There are Infected here, all right." Sazh pointed his shotgun around the passenger cabin. "So where are –" There was a flash of movement in the corner of his eye, and he spun, finger on the trigger. "Dajh, get down!"
The boy ducked – and just in time. An Infected barrelled through the far doors, clothes all but rotted off its frame. It charged, shrieking and howling, its hands outstretched into claws. Sazh's shotgun roared, and the Infected flew back, blown almost in half. But another had come in from the stairs and glass flew every which way as another two broke in through the side windows.
"Damn it!" Sazh growled. "They must have been lying here all this time."
Serah brought her rifle up. In the cramped space of the cabin, there wouldn't be time for a second shot if she missed. As Snow blasted away another one with his shotgun, she squeezed off a round. The bullet hit one of the Infected coming through the window right between the eyes and blew out the back of its head. Sazh took care of the last one and slowly calm returned to the cabin.
"Stay here." Snow inched forward. "I'll check if they're dead." They were. "Serah, where's the helm?"
"The let's not waste any more time."
The door to the wheelhouse was locked, but Snow put his shoulder to it, and it wasn't long before it snapped open. It was empty inside, although there was some dried blood on the helm and the front window was broken. Serah's hands tightened around her rifle. Whoever had been manning the ship at the end must have been dragged out.
"Can you two take a look around and make sure that everything is okay? I can get things going here."
Sazh hadn't always been a good man. He'd done things as a kid that he wasn't proud of, and he'd spent the better part of a year on a boat getting straightened out the old fashioned way – with blood, sweat and tears. If any of them could get the ferry going, it was Sazh.
Serah shared a look with Snow. "All right. But be careful, Sazh. We'll be back soon."
X X X
"Are we going somewhere safe, daddy?"
Sazh opened and shut all the drawers and cabinets in his search for the keys. "Maybe son. I hope so."
After a good five minutes of tearing the place up, he finally found the keys tucked away into some maps in one of the bottom drawers beside the helm. This would make things much easier. He'd learned how to hotwire a car as a kid, but he wasn't sure how much of that would apply to a ferry.
"Listen, son. This place we're going to. It isn't safe – not yet. That's why you and Chirpy need to stay close to me all the time and to do exactly as I say. But we can make it safe, okay, and then we won't have to be afraid anymore."
Dajh's smile was almost too bright for Sazh to bear. "Okay, daddy."
"Good. Now keep your eyes open while I get this thing started."
It took a few more minutes, but at last, the ferry gave a deep groan and the rumble of the engines filled the air. The control panels lit up and he bit back a smile. The fuel gauge read almost full.
"Serah, Snow, how are things going?" Sazh shouted.
Serah and Snow appeared in front of the window. The big man had blood on his shirt, but otherwise, he seemed fine.
"We ran into a few Infected, but we're okay and they're gone." Snow grinned. "It sounds like everything's going fine."
"It is. Now we just have to double back for some supplies." Sazh glanced at Serah. "Think you can stay here with Dajh?"
"I can go, if you want." The pink haired woman knew how much he hated to be away from his son.
Sazh thought the offer over for a moment then shook his head. "I don't want this to take any longer than it has to, and I can carry more than you." He smiled faintly. "And I trust you with Dajh." There was more he wanted to say, but that was all he could bring himself to say. "Come on, Snow. Let's get going."
As the pair of them made their way back to their vehicles, Sazh kept a keen eye on their surroundings. At the same time though, he had a question or two he needed to ask.
"How's Serah holding up?" There was no use beating around the bush with someone like Snow, and he knew the other man liked to hear things straight up. That was one of the things he liked the most about him. Snow hated lying or being lied to.
"Not so good." Snow bit his lip. He'd talked to Sazh about this a few times as they'd gotten closer. He didn't like talking about Serah behind her back, but he couldn't keep this inside anymore and it wasn't like he could talk to Dajh or Chirpy. "She's trying not to think about it, but…"
"I know." Sazh peered around a corner and stepped over the remains of one of the Infected they'd killed earlier. It had been quick – a single shot from Serah's hunting rifle to the head. "If I saw my home town again, I'd be messed up too. Will she be okay though? We'll need her on that island."
"She'll be fine." Snow chuckled. "You saw her on the ferry. She might look small and delicate, but she's all steel inside. At least, she is now."
"I hope you're right." They were back at the cars. "Get our backpacks loaded, and I'll keep watch." He sighed. "I think two trips ought to be enough. Then we'll get the cars hidden in one of those alleys we passed. I doubt it will happen, but we don't want anyone passing by and stealing what we leave behind."
"You think there are other people here?"
"Probably not. But it's better to be safe than sorry." Sazh had lived by that mantra for months now, and he wasn't about to change.
"Fair enough." Snow dug into the backseat for the backpacks. "Keep an eye out, will you?"
Sazh was right. It took them two trips to get what they needed, and then they parked the cars in one of the alleys. Once they were done, they headed back to the ferry. It was hard not to be excited at the thought of somewhere safe, but he was smart enough to know that it wouldn't be easy. Nothing ever was anymore.
"Can we blow the horn?" Dajh asked.
"Not yet, Dajh." Sazh sighed. "We don't know if there are more bad things around. Once everything is safe, then we can blow the horn."
The little boy perked up and ran his fingers through Chirpy's feathers. The chocobo had taken up a position near the broken window and was preening as the stiff sea breeze filled the wheelhouse. Snow and Serah were outside enjoying the breeze too. "Hear that Chirpy?"
A few minutes late with the ferry angling away from the pier and toward the island – Sazh had bumped into a few things, but he felt he'd done well all things considered – and Serah and Snow came back into the wheelhouse. The pink haired woman had a map with her, which she spread across the table.
"This is where we are now." Serah pointed at the map. "Here's where we want to go."
"Why there?" Sazh asked. Serah hadn't pointed at the main pier for the island. Instead, she'd pointed at a much smaller one a few hundred yards away.
"The Infected don't move around much unless they're chasing after us." Serah's eyes narrowed and there was something almost ugly in her voice as she continued. "We'll run into a lot less of them if we go through the pier that wasn't used so much. It's open too, not boxed in like the other one, so if we need to run for it, we'll have a better chance."
That they probably wouldn't get far was left unsaid.
"Sounds like a plan." Sazh stared at the map. The research facility was made up of more than a dozen buildings close together. "That's a lot to clear out, Serah. I was hoping this wouldn't be so complicated."
"Most of those buildings are small." Serah nodded firmly. "The two buildings we're interested in are the tourism centre and the main research centre. I've been to both. If we can secure one, we should be able to use it as a safe place while we clear out the others."
"I see." Sazh pursed his lips. "So you're saying we go in there as quietly as we can and clear out one of those buildings."
"Yes. Then we can clear out the others one by one."
"You've been thinking about this a lot, haven't you?"
That hardness crept into Serah's voice again. "My sister brought her work home with her a lot. I wasn't supposed to read her reports or books, but I did. I needed to know what made her hurt inside so much."
Sazh's eyes softened. "It's all right, Serah. We'll get through this. And wherever that sister of yours is, I'm sure she's happy you're still around, and she's damn proud you've made it here."
Tears prickled at the corners of Serah's eyes. "I hope so. I really do."
X X X
Serah glanced through the scope of her rifle as Sazh eased the ferry against the pier. It would have been nice if they could be quieter – the ferry was the opposite of quiet – but the pounding waves and tearing winds would do a lot to hide the noise. Besides, there was no telling if they'd have been able to find another boat that worked. As Snow and Sazh moored the ferry, she kept a close watch over their surroundings.
The pier was nothing more than a few bits of wood jutting out into the sea. At the far end, there was a narrow stone staircase that led up to where all the buildings were. She glanced to the side. It was a good thing they'd avoided the other pier. A storm must have damaged it because it was a hair's breadth from falling apart.
"We'll need to be careful going up those stairs." Sazh scowled. "Too narrow for my liking."
"It's the only way." It was either that or scale the hill, which was rough and steep and covered in dense foliage. Serah rubbed her palms on the front of her pants. When had she started to sweat so much? "Let's move."
They inched their way up the stairs. Serah was glad it was only midmorning. The shrubbery on either side of them might be overgrown and they might have to push their way through it, but at least they could see. It would have been a nightmare to go this way at night. Finally, they reached the top of the stairs.
Serah's jaw clenched. The Infected had definitely reached the island. The two sheds closest to her had been torn apart like kindling. Buried beneath the rubble was a body, a lone leg sticking out. The blood dried on the ground around it couldn't be more than a few days old.
Serah cleared away the rubble and then hissed. The body was definitely fresh and from the uniform, it belonged to one of the researchers. They must have tried to hole up here. But even with solar panels and water, they'd still need food. And food meant going back across the water to Bodhum. They must have brought the Infection back with them, and in a place like this, it would only have been a matter of time before it got out of hand.
"There are Infected here."
"Damn." Sazh glanced down at his son. "You heard her, Dajh. Keep an eye on Chirpy and stay close."
They crept past the ruined sheds and toward the tourism centre. Garbage was everywhere – all of the rubbish bins had been knocked over or ripped apart. The tourism centre and main research centre were on the opposite side of a large, open square. And in that square, amongst the wreckage of a dozen stalls and information stands, were the Infected. There were two dozen of them, and as the first one turned and bellowed at them, more of them began to appear from all the other buildings and side streets.
"Move…" Serah whispered as the Infected began to charge. "Run!"
They broke into a ragged run toward one of the larger buildings – there was no way they could get to the tourism centre or the main research centre through all the Infected – but halfway there, Dajh tripped over an empty soda can.
The boy went down, and Sazh turned, scooped him over his shoulder and ran, Chirpy following as best he could. Behind him, Serah and Snow turned, firing into the crowd of Infected.
"There's too many!" Sazh cursed as another crowd of Infected rushed in from the other direction. How many people had been on this island? "We need to find somewhere to hole up!"
Serah shot another one of the Infected in the head and looked around for somewhere, anywhere they might be safe. There was no time to look at the map, and even though she'd memorised it, her mind was a complete blank. She was going to get them all killed. After everything they'd been through, she was the one who was going to get them all killed.
Suddenly, her mind snapped back into action.
"This way!" She grabbed Snow and waved for Sazh to follow. "There's a maintenance building back here. We can hide in there." But as much as she wanted to sprint for the building, she couldn't. Sazh and Snow were carrying backpacks filled with supplies – heavy backpacks. "We won't make it in time. Drop the backpacks and run!"
Snow and Sazh took one look at the horde of Infected and did as she asked. They reached the maintenance building a few moments later and all but threw themselves through the doors.
"Barricade the doors!" Snow slammed the doors shut and yanked the leg off a metal chair to jam the doors closed. As the Infected pounded on the doors, he and Sazh grabbed anything they could find – tables, chairs, a shelf – and shoved it in front of the door. Serah helped as well, jaw clenched as she shoved an information stand toward the doors.
They were so busy with the doors that none of them heard the low growl come from behind them. But Chirpy did. As the first of the Infected behind them lunged at Dajh, the chocobo leapt to meet it. For all that he was small – and Chirpy was still very small – he was loud and he was vicious when he needed to be. The little bird pecked and clawed at the Infected's eyes and the ruckus was enough to steal Sazh's attention away from the Infected outside.
"Dajh!" Sazh dropped the stool he was holding and grabbed Dajh by the scruff of his shirt. There wasn't time to be gentle. He needed to get his son out of danger. "Chirpy, move!"
The chocobo must have understood because it jumped off as Sazh fired his shotgun. In the confines of the foyer, the blast was deafening, even over the howls of the Infected. Blood sprayed onto the ground, and Snow and Serah turned.
"There are more of them!" Serah glanced at Snow. "Keep barricading the doors. I'll help Sazh!"
But the words were hardly out of her mouth when another half dozen Infected charged. They came from the corridors of the maintenance building and from a storage closet on the opposite end of the foyer. Most of them still wore their uniforms. Sazh blew two of them away, eyes narrowed in grim determination, before the third one reached him. They went down, struggling, and Serah took a breath then fired a shot that went right through the Infected's temple. But then the other two reached her. Rather than try and get another shot off – there wasn't any time – she swung her rifle like a club. It clipped the first one over the side of the head, and the Infected tumbled to the ground, hissing and spitting. Then she drew her pistol and fired four shots in rapid succession, two into the one still on its feet and another two into the one she'd knocked down.
Her breathing was coming in great gasps now and the edges of her vision had begun to blur. How fast was her heart beating? She wasn't sure, but it was like thunder in her ears. More Infected came, and Sazh stumbled back to his feet. He fired again and again, and Serah turned back to her rifle and joined him. The foyer wasn't that big, which helped, but that meant they didn't have the luxury of missing. Every shot needed to count, or the Infected would be on them in a flash.
One of her shots went wide and another one of the Infected closed the gap. Behind her, Snow bellowed, but he couldn't help, not when the furniture he was piling in front of the door was the only thing keeping the other horde of Infected out. She blazed away with her pistol, but the weapon only managed two shots before it jammed. For a split-second she could only stare stupidly at it, before she scrabbled for the knife at her waist.
The Infected slammed her into the front counter, and the hard wood dug into her back. Stars flashed in front of her, and she jammed her knife up into its gut. It wasn't enough – she needed to stab it in the head – but then Snow was there, and his face was terrifying to behold as he tore the Infected off her and threw it across the room. Sazh finished it with his shotgun, and inside the foyer, all was still.
"I've barricaded the front as much as I can," Snow said. "I think it'll hold."
Serah hobbled back to her rifle. "We need to make sure that there isn't anywhere else they can get in."
They did their best to ignore the hammering on the front doors as they moved through the maintenance building. It was terrible – an unrelenting clamour that echoed through every corridor and stairwell. The building wasn't that big, but there were a lot of rooms, most of them small. Cleaning supplies had been kept here along with the equipment needed to repair the facility's solar panels and other bits and pieces.
More Infected were in the building, and they dispatched them as best they could. Above them, the lights flickered on and off. The solar power still worked, but some of the lights needed to be replaced. One of the corridors was flooded – a bathroom basin had been left on.
At the backdoor, they found the last of the corpses. It couldn't have been more than a few days old. The middle-aged man had clawed at the door, but it had been barred shut and locked. The keys were on the floor, covered in his blood. The cause of death was clear from the wounds that covered his body: the Infected. As for the windows, all of them had been boarded shut. It was a perfect fortress – or it had been until someone had brought the Infection inside.
"We need to get up on the roof," Snow said. "We might be able to find a way out from there."
They took the largest stairwell they could find, and no sooner had they opened the door than two Infected were upon them. Sazh's shotgun rang out and the sound of it filled the stairwell. Serah fought the urge to cover her ears as Snow fired as well, his shot every bit as loud. Next to her, Dajh held Chirpy against his chest like a life preserver. The poor boy deserved better than this.
Out on the roof, there were more Infected. Serah shot one in the head and it tumbled off the roof to land amidst the crowd of Infected below. Snow and Sazh took care of the rest, and then they went over to the edge of the roof. Serah reeled back.
There had to be at least a hundred Infected down there, maybe more. She wasn't sure they had that many bullets. And as she watched more Infected came from other parts of the island, drawn by the sounds and smells.
Someone had tried to set up a safe zone here, but something had gone wrong and now everyone had become Infected.
"Daddy?" Dajh wrapped his arms around Sazh's leg. "What do we do?"
For the first time that Serah could remember, Sazh didn't have any words of comfort for his son. "I don't know, son. I don't know."
X X X
They went back inside after that and holed up in one of the rooms. None of them could bear to look at the crowd of Infected outside and the sounds of them clawing at the doors made Serah want to put her gun in her mouth and pull the trigger. The nearest building was too far to reach from the roof, and if they tried to run, they wouldn't get far. They were trapped. If only they had their backpacks, they might have enough ammunition to thin out the Infected from the roof, but she'd told Sazh and Snow to drop them. She'd been right then – they would have been run down with the heavy backpacks on – but being right didn't make her feel any better.
So they slept huddled together until Dajh gave a cry that woke all of them up.
Serah shook herself. Night had fallen. But through a crack in the wooden plank covering the window, she could see what had caught Dajh's attention. Fireworks. Someone had set off fireworks on the beach at Bodhum.
"There are other people there!" Sazh shook his head in wonder. "There have to be. If we could reach them…"
"How?" Snow asked.
It didn't matter that these people might not be friendly. They were dead unless they got help.
Serah looked around. There had to be something. She'd gotten them into this mess, and she would get them out of it. Then it hit her. Her parents had taken her and Lightning to the beach many times when they were little, and every time there was a festival, they'd seen people lightning bonfires on the beach.
"Smoke signals!" Serah cried. "We'll send up smoke signals from the roof. They'll have to see them if they're still around in the morning."
Sazh gave a short, desperate laugh. "That's so crazy that it just might work."
X X X
Vanille climbed out of the car as Lightning's frown deepened. The smoke signals had continued unabated throughout the morning. But there was more.
"I know those smoke signals." Lightning's eyes were hard, ugly chips of sapphire. "They teach them in the Guardian Corps."
Vanille looked over her weapons. Good. Everything was ready. "What are they saying?"
"Help. Trapped. Help." Lightning pulled the boot open and grabbed a backpack full of ammunition. "There's someone there, Vanille, and they know Guardian Corps code." Her hands shook until she wrapped them around the straps of the backpack. "But don't think they're good because of that. In Nautilus… in Nautilus, a lot of Guardian Corps went bad. And look at me."
"We'll worry about that when we get there." Vanille put one hand on Lightning's wrist. She could feel the other woman trembling. And Lightning's hands – they didn't seem very different from hers at all. Those long, slender fingers that looked best when they were moving – quick and sharp – over weaponry were still now and pale. "But how are we going to get there?"
Lightning pulled her hand away. "We're going to steal a boat."
Despite the situation, Vanille laughed. "I've always wanted to do that, but I never could, since I used to live in the mountains and Fang was a ranger."
A pained look crossed Lightning's face. "All the other Guardian Corps officers knew that Serah was my sister. It used to drive her crazy when I asked them to watch out for her." She closed her eyes and did her best to focus on the sound of Vanille's breathing only a few feet away. Serah was gone. She needed to move on otherwise she'd lose her mind – if she hadn't already. And she'd made a promise to Vanille, whatever her promises were worth.
They edged along the piers and a frisson of tension ran up through Vanille's spine as they came across the bodies of several Infected. They hadn't been there long, maybe a day or so. The blood was still fresh.
"Someone's been here." Lightning's eyes narrowed and Vanille saw that eerie glitter in them again. Whatever softness was left in Lightning vanished, replaced by the cold, brutal ruthlessness of a soldier who'd survived the end of the world. "If there's trouble, Vanille, shoot first and ask questions later. If anything happens to me, you take the car and run." Lightning handed Vanille the keys. "Leave me behind."
"No!" Vanille rounded on Lightning. "Stop doing that! I'm not leaving you behind and nothing's going to happen. We're going to be fine, and tonight we'll find more fireworks and –"
"Idiot." Lightning's lips twitched. "But maybe you're right." She lifted her rifle. "I promised you, didn't I? And I'll do my best to keep that promise. What else is there, anyway?"
Vanille didn't like the sound of that one bit, but it was the best she'd get. Together, they continued along the piers, and they came across more signs of other people. None of the ferries were in decent condition, but on one of the piers they found fresh footprints in the dust and ropes that had been freshly cut. Someone had taken a ferry.
"Well, what now? None of the ferries work."
"This way." Lightning led them further along the piers until they reached the area where smaller, private boats were moored.
"None of these look good." Vanille didn't know the first thing about boats, but the ones in front of them had clearly seen better days. Perhaps a storm had hit, but many of them had been smashed up against the pier, and others had tipped over. It would be the worst joke in the world if they survived the Infection only to drown on a leaky boat.
"You're right." Lightning's eyes scanned the waterfront. Finally, her gaze came to rest on several boathouses on the far end of the pier. "We can try those."
The first boathouse was locked, but a few gunshots made short work of that. As Lightning tossed the lock aside, Vanille peered into the darkness within.
The red head yelped as Lightning grabbed her and shoved her back. Vanille stumbled away as Lightning went down, an Infected on top of her. Three more Infected lurched out of the boathouse and Vanille raised her shotgun and fired. The blast caught the first of them square in the head, and it went down, blood spraying all over the door. Her next shot took care of the second, but by then the third was too close. It grabbed the gun, and she fought, struggling to wrench the weapon free only to be thrown off her feet as the Infected tossed her aside like a ragdoll. She skidded across the concrete and tasted blood when her head bumped into the ground. Where was Lightning? Why wasn't Lightning helping her? The only reason would be if… if…
Then the Infected lunged. It got its claws around her shoulders, and she drove one knee up into its chest in a desperate bid to force it back. Dimly, she was aware of a wet thud before a single gunshot rang out, and the Infected on top of her fell to the side.
Then she was up on her feet, Lightning's hands moving quickly over her as the other woman checked her for any injuries.
"Vanille!" Lightning shook her by the shoulders. "You stupid girl! What were you thinking? I told you what to do if an Infected grabs your gun! If it's too strong, you drop your gun and use your pistol or your knife. You don't stand there wrestling with it!"
"I'm sorry!" Vanille threw her arms around Lightning. The scent of gunpowder and blood clung to the older woman, but Vanille only burrowed her way deeper into Lightning's arms. A lifetime ago that smell would have driven her away, now it had come to mean everything in the world to her. Gunpowder and blood meant Lightning, and Lightning meant safety.
"Idiot. You can't make me promise you something and then die." Lightning dragged in a deep breath. "Come on, we need to see if there's a boat in here we can use."
The boat was in surprisingly good condition. And the sight of it made Vanille giggle. It really didn't make much sense to have something like this anymore. It was one of those fancy yachts that rich people had, not too big, but more than big enough for two people and some of their supplies. Lightning need some time to get the motor working, and then they went back for their supplies. Apart from some food and water, Lightning insisted on arming them to the teeth.
"How do you drive a boat?" Vanille asked as Lightning eased the boat out into the harbour.
"Can I try?" Vanille put on her most appealing smile.
Lightning looked from Vanille to the sea then shook her head. "No."
Vanille grinned. Well, at least she knew Lightning wanted to live otherwise she'd have let her drive. But as quickly as her mirth had come, it faded. The island was growing closer every moment, and she had no idea what they might find there.
X X X
"Vanille, use the binoculars and tell me what you see."
Vanille nodded. Lightning hadn't said much during the trip, though she had told Vanille how to work the boat in that cool, clinical voice she used whenever she wanted to explain something. If only they could stay out here on the open sea forever. With the wind in their face and the water around them, they didn't have to worry about anything. But sooner or later they'd have to go back to land and the Infected.
But for a moment, as they'd lingered in the middle of the harbour, Vanille had allowed herself to dream of an impossible future. In that future, Lightning would be happy and that hollowness behind her eyes would be filled with quiet cheer. The other woman wouldn't smile – Vanille had a feeling that even before things had gone bad, Lightning had rarely smiled – but that wouldn't matter. Vanille would know that she was happy and that was enough. But all dreams had to die in the end, and it wasn't the light of day that killed this one so much as the little voice in her head that still listened to reason. There weren't going to be any more happy endings, only tragedies of different scale.
With a quiet sigh, Vanille pointed the binoculars at the island. There was a ferry at one of the piers, although there didn't seem to be anyone on it. It might be a bit tight, but their boat would probably fit on the other side of the pier. As for the smoke, that was still coming, which would explain why there weren't any Infected at the pier. They'd probably been drawn to whoever was trapped up there. She told all of that to Lighting.
"We'll land at the dock. The Infected will find it harder to smell us with all the smoke, and if we're quiet, we may even be able to surprise them."
"There could be a lot of them though." Vanille hugged her shotgun. "I mean… what used to be there?"
"A marine research facility, a lighthouse and a tourist centre." Lightning looked away. "It might even have been safe there for a while."
"But… but…" If they could clear off all the Infected then – "Why didn't you say anything about this earlier?"
"I think you know why."
Vanille reeled. She knew exactly why. Not too long ago, Lightning been set on killing both of them. "Oh." What was she supposed to say now? "I…"
"We could live there, I suppose, if we cleared it out." Lightning out to sea and despite the fact they were only a few feet away, she had never looked so alone. "We might even last a few years."
"We'll worry about that later," Vanille whispered. Lightning didn't sound okay at all. She could practically hear the gears turning in the pink haired woman's mind – a wonderful mind when it came to killing things – as it considered all the possibilities. "What do we do once we land?"
A quick glance at all the weapons they'd brought was her answer. "Get all of those loaded. If things go bad – and they could go very bad – we may not have time to get them loaded or to reload the guns we're used to using. If that happens, it might be better to just grab another gun and keep shooting." Her lips twitched. "We even have a few grenades from the armoury in there. Have you ever thrown a grenade?"
Vanille shook her head. She'd never thrown a grenade, but she'd always wondered what it would be like. "No."
"It's not hard." A faint smile crossed Lightning's lips. "Pull the pin and then throw the grenade. You'll have four seconds. If you can, get behind cover."
"Sounds like fun."
"Yes, it does." Lightning's fingers traced a path across the barrel of her rifle. "I'm in the mood for a fight."
It wasn't long before they landed at the pier, and Vanille helped Lightning unload all their weaponry. There was a lot of it – too much for a simple fight. Lightning wanted to go to war. As they started up the stairs, the pink haired woman tossed Vanille the keys to the boat. If something went wrong, Vanille was supposed to run back to the boat and get away. But she had no intention of doing that. If Lightning died, Vanille wasn't stupid enough to think she'd last much longer. She would either go crazy or be killed by the Infected. It would be better to die with Lightning.
They split the weapons up into two backpacks, and Lightning took the lead up the stairs. Whoever had gotten there first had already cleared most of the shrubbery away, but even so, Lightning left nothing to chance. Her eyes moved over everything, narrowed in the cold, predator's gaze that Vanille had grown so accustomed to.
"Stay behind me." The barrel of Lightning's rifle was trained at the top of the stairs. "Once we get to the top, the buildings won't be far. If we're lucky we won't be spotted. If not, we'll be caught out in the open. Remember, shoot first and ask questions later."
"Right." Vanille's usual shotgun dangled from a strap around her shoulder. Instead, she carried one of the rifles they'd taken from the armoury. In front of her, Lightning had the heavy-duty weapon she'd used back in the armoury – a cross between a shotgun and an assault rifle. Vanille had tried to use it once, but the kick and the weight were too much for her to handle.
"Come on." However close to the edge she was, Lightning was all business now that she had something to fight. "If there's shooting, keep low and don't run in straight lines."
At the top of the stairs, Lightning waved Vanille back and then darted forward. A moment later, Lightning gave the signal for her to come up. Hidden behind a ruined shed, the two of them looked down the street. There were scores of Infected clustered around the building where all of the smoke was coming from.
"I don't think they've noticed us."
"What do we do?" Vanille asked. The Infected must have spent almost an entire day hammering at the doors of the building.
"We kill all of them. And if the people in that building are bad, we kill them too." Lightning bared her teeth. "I'll go in first. Let me shoot. If any of them get closer than twenty yards, put them down. And remember, Vanille, choose your shots."
Vanille gulped. This plan was insane. What kind of person picked a fight with a hundred of the Infected? Someone carrying enough weaponry to wage a small war, that's who. And there wasn't really any other way to go about it. If they wanted to help the people in that building then they needed to kill the Infected. At least the street here wasn't wide enough for all of the Infected to attack them at once, and there were narrowed side streets and gaps between buildings where they could retreat.
"Vanille, are you ready?"
The Infected continued to pound and claw at the doors. With each moment, their howls and cries grew louder. Vanille didn't want the world to end like this, but if it had to, at least she'd get to face it all with Lightning. "I'm ready."
Lightning strode out into the middle of the street and opened fire. The roar of her gun was a single unbroken peal of metal thunder, punctuated by the deep, wet thud of metal rending flesh. The sound of it echoed off the buildings, and Vanille fought the urge to cover her ears. The onslaught shredded the Infected closest to Lightning, and as the others turned and charged, she stood firm, her whole body braced against the recoil of her weapon, her fine features wrought into a snarl.
This was personal, Vanille realised. Lightning would never be able to save Serah but this – each kill, each death – was a way of atoning for that mistake. Every one of the Infected was a reminder of her failure, and Lightning wanted to wipe all of it away. She would do the only thing she could – fight – and she would do it until there was nothing left.
On and on it went, until at last the gun clicked empty. But there was no time to reload it. The heavy drum magazine was cumbersome to replace, and more Infected had already closed the gap. Lightning dropped the weapon and went for the rifle she'd carried with her since Nautilus. She'd killed dozens of Infected with it already, what were a few dozen more?
Behind Lightning, Vanille raised her rifle to her shoulder and fired. She couldn't snap off a head shot the way Lightning could, but months of running, hiding and fighting had taught her well. Never mind the way the rifle dug into her shoulder with each shot, Lightning was counting on her, and she refused to let the other woman down.
Vanille's rifle barked, spitting four or five shots at a time. They were ugly shots – some to the chest, others to the legs and only a few to the head – but they bought Lightning the time she needed. The pink haired woman dropped Infected after Infected with ruthless precision.
But there were so many Infected. Lightning backed up, still shooting, and Vanille hurried to cover her as the other woman was forced to squeeze off a few shots from her pistol before reloading her rifle.
"Vanille!" Lightning barked. "Grenade!"
It took a moment for Lightning's words to sink in. Grenade? Vanille almost dropped her rifle in her haste to pull a grenade out of her backpack. Remembering Lightning's instructions, she yanked the pin out and then hurled it toward the mass of Infected.
Lightning grabbed Vanille and pulled the two of them around the corner of a nearby building. The grenade exploded a second later, and the ground shook as clods of dirt flew every which way along with bits and pieces of the Infected. Vanille swayed, ears ringing, and Lightning tugged two more grenades out of her backpack and hurled them around the corner. The manic screams of the Infected were once again drowned out by the roar of an explosion, and Vanille found herself on the ground, staring up at Lightning.
"Get up!" Lightning barked.
Vanille stumbled, tripped and then sagged against the side of the building. Her ears were still ringing and the whole world seemed to have slowed down. She could see Lightning a few feet away, leaning around the corner so she could spray bullets into the Infected that had survived the grenades. The pink haired woman's lips were moving, but Vanille couldn't hear a thing she said. Was she screaming? Was she crying? And then the familiar weight of her shotgun was in her hands as Lightning pulled Vanille to her feet.
"Vanille, I need you to fight."
Lightning needed her? Vanille shook her head to try and clear it and then stumbled around the corner. One of the Infected was on her at once, but she'd been in this situations so many times, she didn't even need to think about it. Her shotgun tore the Infected almost in half, and she barely even noticed the gore as she lined up her next shot.
The Infected were everywhere. They'd killed dozens of them already, and still more of them came, scrambling over the corpses of the others. Vanille fired her shotgun again and again, and when it was empty, she pulled a submachine gun from her backpack and used that instead.
Beside Vanille, Lightning continued to blaze away with her rifle. More than once, she'd been forced to stop and reload, but the motion was so ingrained in her that it took almost no time at all. Aim. Shoot. Aim. Shoot. It was the same thing over and over again, and right now, Lightning's entire world was what she saw down the barrel of her gun.
Watching Lightning kill with an efficiency that should have frightened her, Vanille realised something, and it nearly broke her heart. That rifle was Lightning. It was battered and worn, and it probably wouldn't last much longer, because of all the use it had seen, but there was still something beautiful about it. It was the strength it had, a strength that could only come from hard use and deep exhaustion. Lightning's slim finger on the trigger, her blue eyes gazing down the barrel, and her pink hair kicked back by the wind and the shove of the rifle against her shoulder. Woman and weapon doing the only thing they knew how to do, the only thing there was to do now that the world had gone to pieces.
Another Infected leapt at Vanille from behind, and she turned, riddling it with bullets. Another lunged from the side, and Lightning dropped it in it tracks. Then Lightning's rifle jammed and without a moment's hesitation, she tossed it to the ground. Her hand swept down to pull her pistol from its holster, and she fired with that until she had enough room to go for the rifle in her backpack.
The whole time, they'd been moving toward one of the side streets. Now, Lightning turned and pointed to a narrow gap between two buildings.
"There's too many of them. We need to get somewhere narrower. Come on."
Vanille nodded and followed as Lightning sprinted down the street. The Infected gave chase, howling and screaming.
"Move!" Lightning shouted. "Come on, Vanille! Run!"
Pain rippled through Vanille's side. She was trying her best, but the backpack full of weaponry was heavy and she'd never been very fast. Behind her, the Infected were gaining, and she forced herself to push on. But she could barely breathe now, and flashes of white coloured her vision.
"Keep going!" Lightning stopped, turned, fired and three of the Infected went down.
Vanille staggered the last few yards to the narrow gap between the two buildings. She shrugged off her backpack and sank onto her knees. She needed time to rest, to breathe.
"Not yet, Vanille. We're not done yet." Lightning shoved a gun into Vanille's hands. "Keep fighting."
Something close to a sob burst from Vanille's lips. There was nothing right about this. They were stuck between two buildings firing into a mass of screaming, raging Infected. These things had been people once. Most of them still had clothes on, and Vanille was blowing their faces off, shooting until their heads and chests became splatters of mangled flesh and blood on the walls. Bile burned at the back of her throat, and still she kept on shooting and shooting because what else could she do?
Vanille's shoulder hurt. Her sides hurt. Her ears hurt. Everything hurt. And then suddenly… suddenly there were no more Infected. Lightning had stopped shooting. The gun slipped from Vanille's fingers, and she stared at everything as if seeing it for the first time. The Infected were piled up in front of them, arms and legs thrust in different directions, chests riddled with bullets and heads filled with holes. Blood had turned the dust around the pile of bodies into a reddish brown mud.
"Don't look," Lightning murmured as she half-carried, half-dragged Vanille back toward the building where the smoke signals had come from.
But Vanille couldn't help but look. They'd killed all the Infected. Somehow, they'd done it. But she didn't feel any better. She didn't feel any stronger. Her lips twitched and she fought to keep down a burst of mad laughter. She hadn't even noticed that at least a dozen of the Infected had been children.
"You didn't kill them." Lightning's words cut through the haze. "I shot the children. You only killed the adults."
It was a lie. It was a big damn lie.
"Okay." Sometimes lies were better than the truth. "What… what do we do now?"
"Call out to the people in the building," Lightning said as she pulled them around the corner of a nearby building. "Tell them to come out slowly where we can see them. Tell them to put down any weapons they might have."
"Fine." The reply came from an older sounding man. "But we've got a child with us. Don't shoot."
Vanille wanted to cry. "We won't!" she shouted. "We won't shoot unless you make us. We don't shoot children!"
"Good." Lightning nodded at Vanille. "Stay here and run if anything happens." Then she stepped around the corner to get a better look at the people they'd saved.
As quickly as she could, Vanille reloaded her shotgun. She didn't care what Lightning said. If something happened, she'd shoot every damn one of them to keep Lightning safe. What about the child? No, even if things went bad, she wouldn't shoot the child. But what if the child tried to shoot them? No. Not even then. But deep down inside, she knew what choice she would make. She wanted to live, and she wanted Lightning to live, and she wanted so, so much for these people to be good so they could all get along and maybe… maybe then Lightning wouldn't be so empty inside. Maybe then Lightning could feel like she'd saved somebody worth saving. And maybe then the world would make sense again.
As Lightning moved out into the open, Vanille peered around the corner. The first man to come out of the building had dark skin. He lowered his shotgun to the ground under Lightning's watchful gaze, the pink haired woman's rifle trained on him the entire time. There were two other adults behind him, but Vanille couldn't get a good look at them with the sun in her eyes. But Lightning could see them, and what she saw must have terrified her.
Lightning took one slow step back after another. In her hands, the rifle began to shake so badly she could barely keep it pointed forward. Vanille rushed out to help, and what she saw floored her. Serah Farron was standing right there, almost exactly the way Vanille remembered her from university. True, they hadn't been close, but there weren't that many people with pink hair.
Serah's lips were moving, but Vanille couldn't hear her. All she could hear was Lightning.
"Not real…" Lightning whispered as she shook her head from one side to the other. Her breathing came in fast, wheezing gasps, and a cold sweat had broken out across her brow. Her eyes were wide and staring, glazed and filled with horror. Why?
And then Vanille got it.
Serah was alive. And Lightning hadn't been the one to keep her that way. Lightning had failed – at least, that's how she'd think about it. Lightning had left and Serah had survived without her. In Lightning's mind it would be the ultimate betrayal. She'd given up on Serah being alive, but Serah had survived.
But it was worse than that.
A feral snarl twisted Lightning's features, and she brought her rifle up. "You're not real!" Lightning screamed, and Vanille flinched back. She'd never seen Lightning so angry. "Serah is dead and you're not real. None of this is real. I stopped looking, and I'd never stop looking, not unless she was dead so you can't be real!"
Lightning's arm twitched and Vanille saw her finger tighten around the trigger, so she did the only thing she could. She hurled herself at the other woman. The shot went high, punching a hole in one of the boarded up windows. They rolled end over end, and it was a testament to everything that was wrong with Lightning that Vanille managed to wrestle the rifle out of her hands. Vanille stripped the magazine out of the rifle and tossed the gun aside.
"Lightning, stop!" Vanille screamed as Lightning clawed and thrashed, her movements devoid of her usual skill. "Stop! That's Serah – your Serah, and she's alive."
"She's not!" Lightning's chest heaved, her breathing coming so fast it was a wonder she hadn't passed out. The words came out as a wail, and Vanille stilled as Lightning began to weep, curling up on herself and burying her face in her hands. "It can't be her. I gave up on her, and she died. This isn't real. This is just another dream, just another, another –"
Lightning passed out.
Tears trickled down Vanille's cheeks, but she couldn't find the strength to wipe them away. Then she heard the footsteps behind her.
"Stay back!" Vanille drew her pistol. "Don't come any closer!"
They stopped, and slowly, Vanille lowered her gun. There was nothing but understanding in the dark skinned man's eyes and the big man – the one who should have looked scary – just looked sad, so sad. And Serah… the pink haired woman was crying harder than Vanille had ever seen anyone cry.
"Please…" Serah dropped to her knees beside Vanille and stretched her arms out. "Please."
Vanille looked down. She hadn't even realised. She was holding Lightning, the other woman pulled flush against her chest with one hand as the other held her pistol. A tremor ran through her, and she put her pistol down, but her other hand refused to let go of Lightning. It wasn't supposed to be this way. Lightning was supposed to be strong, and if she wasn't, then Vanille had to look after her until she was strong again.
"Please." Serah's voice was soft and broken. "Please let me hold her."
Vanille wouldn't let go of Lightning – she couldn't. But Serah was Lighting's sister, and Vanile was… was… was some dumb kid Lightning had run into in Eden City. She wasn't anything. Her whole body shook, but she forced herself to move, to let Serah cup Lightning's pale cheeks in her hands. Even unconscious, Lightning's face was a mask of pain.
"She thought you were dead." Vanille tightened her hold on Lightning. "We both did."
That was too much for Serah. With a wild cry, she flung herself at Lightning and began to sob, her face buried in her sister's chest.
"We should go inside," the older man said. Behind him were a young boy and a chocobo. "We haven't cleared out the other buildings, but the one we came out of is safe. We could set up there for a while."
Vanille nodded, but as she and Serah stood, the big man came forward to help. She waved him off. Despite how awkward it was she needed to be the one to carry Lightning.
"Let me carry her."
"No." Vanille's back creaked, but her mind was made up. "She's carried me long enough. Let me carry her at least this once."
Serah stared at her for a moment, and then she smiled, and even with all the tears, it was a beautiful smile. Eyes filled with warmth, she ran her fingers along Vanille's cheek. "I get it. She carried me too when we were younger."
Then they went into the building. Lightning would have called Vanille foolish for trusting these people so quickly, but Serah was with them, and they'd had several opportunities already to get the drop on her. Besides, it was hard not to trust a man who'd somehow managed to keep a boy and his pet chocobo alive through the Infection.
X X X
As always, I neither own Final Fantasy, nor am I making any money off of this.
This chapter has been a long time coming, and now that I've written it, I'm not quite sure what to make of it. I had always planned for Lightning to find Serah again, but as her problems (of the mental variety) got worse and worse, it became increasingly obvious that their meeting couldn't be a simple affair. Lightning believed that Serah was dead, and as hard as it was, she made some kind of peace with that. Seeing Serah alive – knowing that she gave up and stopped looking – is not something she can easily accept.
This chapter is also one of the first where we look through Serah's eyes. Normally the chapters with Sazh in them are shown through his eyes, but I think this time it needed to be Serah. Seeing the ruins of Bodhum affects her more deeply than Sazh or Snow. Bodhum was her home, and seeing it like that could only have reminded her of Lightning and what she thinks must have happened to her older sister.
As for the massive running battle with the Infected, Lightning and Vanille had a number of advantages. Foremost amongst all of these was their possession of an arsenal of high-powered weapons. Given room and the time to fire, those kinds of weapons will mow down a crowd of people. Vanille's confusion during the battle stems from the fact that she's never had to find a battle this big. During the major outbreak, she and her friends hid. In contrast, Lightning fought in Nautilus with the rest of the Guardian Corps until they were overrun.
With regards to the rest of the story, we're getting to the end now. I think there will be two more chapters (one of them an epilogue of sorts), and then I'll release a chapter with more detailed author's notes. Some of those may amuse you (e.g., the half page scribble that started this whole story, not to mention the fact that according to the original plan, Nora should have died ages ago and Hope should be with Fang!).
Finally, I want to mention a few things. Some people have asked about what I'm going to do after I've finished this story. Well, I'm going to start hammering away at Whispers of the Gods, for one. However, I also intend to start another project. Fans of anime (or people who've been reading my deviant art or blog) will probably recognise what it's about based on the title: Final/Fantasy. If that isn't enough of a clue, I'll say this. The only thing cooler than Lancer!Fang is Saber!Lightning. Oh yeah. I've also updated Final Fantasy XIII Omake Theatre, so if you want to know which pet (Chirpy vs Mr Cuddles) reigns supreme in Diana's affections, take a look.
On an unrelated note, in the next month or so, I will be releasing three short stories on Amazon as eBooks (the term short story is deceptive, since they are each between 15,000 and 20,000 words long). One is a high fantasy, another is a darker fantasy, and the third is a paranormal Western. If you want to follow what's going on with those, I'll keep you updated on my blog and deviant art (see my profile for links).
As always, I appreciate feedback. Reviews and comments are welcome.