A/N: SE owns this, etc.
I would like to note that ages are not present in this story. It's through Lightning's eyes, and she views herself and those she "grew up" with as antiquated. Whether or not it is true can be up to you to decide...please take from it what you will. As always, reviews are greatly appreciated.
It was a sight that had become too familiar to her during her lifetime. Though different people were always involved, the impact it had on her never changed, never wavered. Each time she stood before a casket and looked inside to view its inhabitant, she reinforced her beliefs that it was better to be hardened and alone than deal with the great pain that would consume her heart and soul with each passing.
This, though…this time could very well be the worst. A small room contained a smattering of old friends and allies, some of which she had failed to keep contact with over the years while others she had seen on an almost regular basis. It pained her to see that the number within the chamber was a dangerous few: a sign of how many funerals before this one she had attended. The deepening wrinkles upon everyone's foreheads, proof of their great sorrow and old age, was nearly as heart-wrenching as it meant that they, too, would soon be buried beneath the ground, like so many before.
As she searched the room for more familiar faces, her eyes locked onto a relatively young black man who stepped from his seat; the dark sleeves of his coat were encircled around the waist of a woman much older than him. She shed tears openly while he slowly led her forward, his hand rubbing her back in comforting circles as he aided her. When he passed, the young man's eyes locked onto Lightning's and, with an affirmative nod, acknowledged her presence silently. Lightning nodded back to the ghost of Sazh's younger self, hardly able to believe that it was Dajh she now looked upon. Every bit of him echoed his father, from his proud walk to the halo of curled hair around his head. This boy had undoubtedly been subject to just as many funerals as she had. Death was a familiar aspect to both of them, which could explain the similar paths that they both followed. He, too, had become something of a lone wolf and, following Lightning's lead, led a solitary life devoted to protecting others from the harsh blows that resulted from the untimely death of a loved one.
Dajh led the woman up to the casket and Lightning watched her weep as she leaned over the wooden box, her tears splashing upon the cold corpse within. Things were said between her tears, words that no one dared try to interpret for fear of a fresh onslaught of grief overcoming them due to understanding far too well what she meant. Lightning, especially, tried her best to ignore whatever it was that the woman uttered. She didn't want the reminder of what it was she had lost.
After a few minutes Dajh leaned over and once more took the elbow of the aging woman, slowing urging her to return to her seat. Quietly, she turned and pressed her weight into Dajh, allowing the signs of her sorrow to fall onto the young man's suit coat. As she neared, Lightning examined the visage of the woman and, with a shock, recognized the mussed hair and brown eyes that lifted to meet Lightning's own.
Before she could pass by, Lightning reached out and touched Lebreau's hand, offering a consolatory squeeze. Lebreau looked to Lightning, startled at first, but once recognition dawned on her she mustered up enough strength to give a half-hearted smile. Their hands released and as Lebreau passed Lightning wondered at how long it had been since she had last seen the snarky woman. She knew, too, that this would more than likely be the last time they'd see each other again.
Yuj and Maqui, now no longer teens, stepped forward together, each with a woman attached to their sides. Maqui's girl – no, wife, Lightning corrected upon seeing their matching necklaces, bore a very round belly and the full face of an expecting woman.
The four stopped before the casket and paid their silent respects; both young men removed one of the many necklaces that they wore and laid it to rest within the padded confines of the deceased. Both young men exchanged glances that were quickly hidden beneath lowered lids, turned together, and returned to their seat, totally oblivious to Lightning's presence.
A sound of uncomfortable shuffling happened to her left as more people stepped forward, snapping Lightning's eyes over to view the person who took a seat next to her. The sea-green eyes, platinum locks, and surprisingly youthful face met Lightning's critical glare head-on and immediately her expression changed when she viewed the man that she had expected to come for her, if not for the dead.
Hope slid next to her, his great height casting shadows over Lightning's legs and head as he sat. He gave her a soft, sympathetic look and grabbed her hand, pulling it to him and clasping it within his other palm. She could tell he was concerned; she knew he wanted to offer comforting words or extend an offer to stay and help out for awhile, and because of this Lightning was thankful that the atmosphere prevented him from speaking. She couldn't bear to tell him no, not when he still cared so deeply for her despite the years that had passed.
He clutched at her hand, fighting back his own tears that almost immediately began to plague him as he watched the proceedings and looked around at those who were attending. He saw how few were left, and of the six l'Cie who had journeyed together to Gran Pulse…
If the silence was stifling before, it was nearly penetrating now. The small frame of a woman began to ascend the steps at the front, her body held proudly despite tear-brimmed eyes that could barely be seen behind a dark veil. Her steps faltered before the casket as she looked in, and Lightning watched, aghast, as a horribly bony hand protruded from the long sleeves of the black dress the woman wore, reaching into the box timidly, almost fearful of what it would be that she should come in contact with. At the last moment her hand retracted and recoiled to her mouth, and it was at that time that she collapsed to the ground, her body heaving with great sobs of untold sorrow. Dajh wasted no time in leaping to this woman's defense: before anyone could react, he was already at the front, bending down, grabbing Serah around the waist to pull her up and lead her away from the scene, out the doors, and outside.
Lightning felt several eyes set on her, their judgment falling on her shoulders. They expected her to go forward, considering everything, or perhaps they believed she should have been the one to follow after Serah instead of the ever-courteous Dajh; either way, she felt their quiet disbelief and, as per her fashion, she did her best to ignore it for this last time. Hope, understanding her view despite the lack of communication between them, also remained motionless. He did not stand to go forward; he simply remained where he was, his hand still covering Lightning's in his protective way, and his narrowed eyes dared anyone to continue with their unfair judgment of the woman he admired.
Seeing that no others were rising, the funeral was soon thereafter disbanded. Lightning stayed in her seat, listening, and overheard conversations that murmured about Dajh having to take Serah back to her house due to her condition. At that Lightning felt a pang of guilt for not being with her sister but, this one time, she had to lay her concerns for her sister aside. She had other things on her mind this day, things that could no longer be ignored.
A gentle pat on the top of Hope's hand sent his attention reeling back to Lightning once the crowd in the funeral parlor began to dwindle even more. She asked him, politely, to visit Serah and make sure everything was all right and, when he was done with that, she wished for him to spend some time with Dajh, considering he really had no one else that he was close to. Hope, of course, protested, saying he had missed Lightning, that it had been years since they last spoke and that he greatly desired to stay with her. Lightning didn't oblige his requests, but persisted with her own until he had no option but to comply.
He dallied for nearly another half hour, making small attempts at conversation but, when he saw that his attempts were failing, he instead sat silently by her side and offered what comfort he could. Once the room was empty, and Lightning reminded him of what he had agreed to, the man who she had known as a boy finally stood and agreed to leave. Before he did so, she slipped a small piece of paper into his hand and instructed him not to open it until he had reason to. A quizzical look was passed on from him to her, but she kept her eyes forward and locked on the casket. Finally he got the picture and slid out of the door.
She wasn't sure how long she remained in her seat near the back of the building, but it had to have been for quite some time. Once she rose, against the protests of her body, the crimson red of the sun was leaking through the western windows, casting a warm glow on the wooden casket that contained a cold carcass. Her eyes fell once more on that damned thing that haunted her memories and nightmares and she swore that this would be the last accursed funeral she would ever have to attend.
Sliding out from her seat was easy enough, but the trek to her destination seemed to last hours. Her legs, heavy and leaden, dragged; dread for what it was that she would have to face overcame her.
Why did she come? She knew what this would be like. She knew the emotions that would come out to play. She knew that everything about this place would only bring back vile memories that were best left buried in her subconscious; memories of the past that were best left undisturbed.
She slowly climbed the few stairs to where the casket, now closed, sat, highlighted by the waning sunlight still pouring in through the windows. A quick glance outside, past the grassy hillsides, informed her that night would soon be upon her. Though she didn't want to tarry here too far beyond the initial rising of the moon, there were so many things left to do before she left that she doubted she would be able to leave on time.
Weathered fingers clasped the edges of the wooden frame; her knuckles were nearly white from the strength with which she had hold of the lid. She bit her lip, unsure if she should proceed, not wanting her memories, the few good ones that she had, to be tainted by the image that she would soon witness. Hair, now a very pale pink from age, spilled over her shoulder, forcing her to whisk it away with a flick of her hand. With it went her doubts: she had to do this. It was her final goodbye.
He deserved as much.
Her strength wasn't entirely what it used to be and she was surprised by the heavy weight of the casket's lid. She puffed a bit as she lifted the weighty wood above her head and it took much out of her to swing it fully open. When she did she forced herself to first concentrate on the plush red interior of the coffin, still unable to bring her eyes downwards. The only thought that she allowed herself to think was that they made a foolish choice of color: red was not the proper shade. It never suited him.
Blue would have done him some justice. Perhaps a pale, powdery blue – to match his eyes.
They were closed now, unable to view the aging woman that leaned over him. It was probably a blessing that he hadn't seen her for so long – he would have been disappointed with her frail body and arthritic limbs.
She took in the sight of him lying there with his hands folded neatly over his chest, which was garbed in a black suit and red tie. Resting just below his hands were two entangled necklaces that bore the NORA emblems, gifts for the afterlife that had come from two young men who still held their leader in the highest respect, even in death.
Her eyes raked over his body as a flash of irritation consumed her. He should be in his normal clothing, she thought acidly. He had hated suits: he had even protested against wearing one to his wedding.
His skin was taut over his skeleton, signs of his weakening and his struggle to eat because of the disease that had taken him. There were barely any signs of the muscle that used to lay hidden beneath his clothes. If someone were to look at him now, they would have assumed he was a tall, bony man that probably had some sort of desk job.
It pained her to think that this is what he had become over the past several months – he had probably begged for death several times only to have his request fall on unwilling, deaf ears. She knew she would have done the same, were she in his shoes: it would have been preferable to lying in bed, waiting to die a slow and agonizing death. Had she known about his condition sooner, she would have come and aided him in his passing, to make it more honorable, even if it meant the wrath of those closest to him. It would allow him to remain the hero he had always been, instead of an infirm old man who was forced to rely on others to bathe and feed him. Knowing that he had died as he wanted to would have been worth every ounce of contempt that would have come her way.
But instead...this happened.
It was a travesty, really.
Gingerly she reached inside and took hold of a cold, dry hand, enveloping it within her own and bringing it to her chest, clutching on to it as if it were more precious than any gem. She could not tear her eyes away from the still-handsome, though rather haggard, face of the man she had once known so well.
He had provided her with so many good memories, had lifted her up and believed in her when so many had spoken poorly about her. He had been her fount of optimism, always believing that the impossible could be achieved because Lightning was on his side.
Once he was married he was still Lightning's best spokesman, even though his wife often wished he paid her the same respect. It had caused fights, Lightning remembered, and he was forced to quiet himself when in his wife's company in order to maintain some small semblance of peace within the tempestuous household. But if they were ever alone, he and Lightning, even for the briefest of seconds, he would affirm his belief in her strength and abilities, in her choices, and she was always silently thankful for those words.
Words were, however, all that could be shared between the two. Their attraction for each other was mutual, she knew that much: one would often catch the other passing glances in their direction; looks that were packed with unfulfilled desire, but they dared not tread beyond these simple gestures out of fear that they repeat old mistakes.
They had nearly fallen once, long ago when they were l'Cie: they were so alone, so afraid, so uncertain of their future. They had sought out the company of the other only to express their apprehensions, but it ended with them in a tight embrace, his hot breath whispering murmured words onto her jaw as he slowly searched for her mouth…
Yes, they nearly fell for each other then; nearly became a single body of entangled limbs in the dead of night, sharing their passion together at the edge of the lake. Somehow they managed to pull themselves apart, embarrassment and shame constituting the reason for their separation - although it had been difficult for them to remove themselves from their the one person who could fulfill them. From then on in their journey, she made sure that they were never alone again. As much as she cared for him, she loved Serah more. She could not hurt the girl that she had fought so hard to protect.
So the years passed, each recalling the deep affection that they held towards the other whenever they were in the same room, but because Serah was part of the equation they had no choice but to lay their feelings aside. Their glances were always filled with that same fiery passion – nothing they did could stifle their affections for each other, no matter how hard they tried. Every visit to Serah's abode became a test of her own self-control and a reminder of the joy that she longed for and couldn't have for herself; one of the reasons why she was so miserable and alone now.
Time passed ever more quickly, becoming little more than a blur of memories for her, until it stopped suddenly at the moment when Serah stated that she thought she was pregnant. At this news the loneliness and bitterness that Lightning felt within began to seep out and tumble from her tongue before she could stop herself. Her mistake would have caused a severe wound on the relationship between she and Serah if it hadn't been for him saving the day. He, knowing Lightning in a way that seemed unfathomable to most, knew trouble was brewing and quickly spoke to cover the words that had begun to tumble from her mouth. She was forever appreciative of this and from then on felt indebted to him.
Her debt, however, was eventually repaid: some years later he arrived at Lightning's doorstep, thunder and storm clouds rolling in behind him. As the rain began to fall he announced what it was that was troubling him: Serah was infertile, her womb was barren, and he would forever be without the family he had always longed for.
She saw then the fire for Lightning was doubly rekindled in his eyes, saw the ferocity with which he burned for her and, once again, she was left in a dangerous spot, just as she had been at the lakeside so long ago. She wanted him to succumb to his lusts, to fall, but the tiny spark of good that still niggled within her heart persisted in doing the right thing. Instead of inviting him inside, as her body ached for her to do, she grabbed him a towel and took him to a nearby public restaurant so they could talk of his problems. He understood what she was doing, and whatever his intentions had been when he first visited dissolved.
From that point on it became apparent that she could not be close to this man. There was too much temptation, too many troubles in his marriage that could send him running back to her, seeking her solace and wisdom. Knowing this, she grudgingly packed her bags and, without a word to anyone, she left.
It seemed like a decade since that day: she had not seen hide or hair of her sister, or her husband, until now...and suddenly she regretted ever leaving. She should have been there for him, for Serah, but she had been wallowing in her own self-pity and self-loathing for all this time instead.
So much time had been lost. There were so many things that she wanted to take back, but now it was useless. She had taken for granted their mortality and now that she was faced with it…
His hand was still pressed against her heart as she whispered her confession to his deaf corpse, admitting the feelings that had swirled within her like a tempest for so long. Each word had, before, seemed like a curse upon her – no woman should ever love the husband of her sister – but now they were no longer seeming so vile and black. They only rang with the bitterness of love that could never be, despite the years of fervent wishing otherwise.
Tears, something that had been alien to her for ages, gathered in the corner of her eyes, and as they fell they traced the once angular, strong features that now lacked the same youthful grace they once contained. She felt old and alone and did not doubt that she would soon be the next to go to the grave. In fact, she was certain that the next funeral should be her own, but she hardly cared about such a trivial matter. After everything, eternal sleep would be welcome. She had enough of this life and its disappointments, of the constant death that trailed after her like a lost puppy begging for a home.
She heard a strong voice behind her, saying her name harshly, and she knew that it was Hope, who must have opened the letter she had passed to him. World-weary eyes leveled with his and saw how fraught with despair and anger he was. He paused briefly when he saw Lightning hovering over Snow's dead body, his hand clutched in hers, her face shining with tears. Immediately the edge to his voice disappeared and he carefully walked forward, fear in his eyes. He produced the letter she had written to him from his pocket, holding it with a shaking hand in front of her.
He asked her why the hell she had written this, why she had given it to him so secretly and advised him that he wait to open it. He demanded answers, to know what prompted her actions, if it was something serious and, if it was, then he wanted to know about it. She could only blink slowly at him, her eyes distant and focusing on images that could no longer exist outside of her mind, and then she slowly turned her head back to the man in the casket. She kissed the hand that she had always dreamed of holding and returned it to the chest of its owner. With great sadness she lifted her arms and pulled the lid back down, her eyes never leaving the face of the hero she still loved, even while the shadows of death began to claim him. With a heavy heart she let the wooden lid drop with a thud that rang with finality.
A minute was taken to compose herself before she turned back to Hope, who looked no better off than her. His still-young face was etched with concern and heartbreak. Moisture that had not been present just moments ago acted as damning evidence to what he must have been feeling, to the emotions that they both shared.
Not unmoved, she reached forward and wiped the wetness from his cheeks, smiling gently at him even though her own visage was equally wet. She took the paper that was outstretched and glanced over it quickly, making sure that everything in her will was how she wanted it to be. She was prepared for what was to come and wanted to make sure that those she loved would be provided for when her time came to pass.
She nodded once and returned the parchment back to Hope, adding a quick kiss to his cheek for comfort.
"Memento Mori, Hope."
His face was puzzled, questioning. For all his learnedness, he had not been taught the most essential lesson of life – one that she had neglected to heed until it was too late.
One last glance was cast to the casket that contained the source of her ancient dreams and current heartache. It reeked of the chance for happiness that she had let slide by. She didn't want this man that stood before her now, so alive and full of passion and vigor, to experience the same fate as her; didn't want him to regret everything when it was far too late to change anything.
She slipped her arm through Hope's and leaned on him for support, feeling the throbbing ache of her heart spread to her bones. She was tired, so very tired...but she still had time to impart one final sentence, a final lesson: a reminder to live life accordingly.
With a grim smile she said, "Remember that you are mortal, Hope. Remember that you, too, will die."