Lightning could feel the new uniform was too tight on her, the tugging at her chest every time she took a breath an obvious indication that whoever had measured her had done a lackluster job. She didn't know how anyone expected her to participate in any kind of combat dressed like that, but she knew that they didn't expect she would see any combat.
Out of boredom and stagnation, Lightning had sent in a request to join the military division of the Academy, hoping to get something to do in the process. Serah had suggested that Lighting settled down, but even as a joke, the thought made Lightning cringe with disgust. The only thing Lightning knew how to do was fight, something her perfect-wife sister could never understand. Any mention of 'marriage' around Lightning resulted in arguments and only served to make the older Farron remember how horrible she had done as a parent to her sister. Serah had ended up taking care of her. Lightning didn't want to spend another five years mooching off her sister's happy marriage. So, she decided to put her only skills to use.
Because of her prior military training, she had been enlisted as a Major and had been given command of a small unit, though she discovered quickly that 'commanding a unit' for the Academy meant 'collecting reports from a group of people you might only see once a month'. Most of her subordinates were all stationed in areas of Pulse or Cocoon to help with Academy work, while one or two were bodyguards to officials within the growing Academy research center, a small collection of buildings affectionately called 'Academia'. Lightning herself had been called in to fill a position as head of security for an Academy research project, a prospect that didn't please her. She didn't want to be mindlessly guarding intellectuals day in and day out for months. However, orders were orders, and Lightning could do nothing but report in to her superior's office when she was called.
A voice snapped Lightning out of her reverie and she looked up, meeting the eyes of a young woman with long brown hair. She looked intellectual, thick glasses perched low on her nose. When their eyes met, the woman flinched and recoiled slightly.
"As summoned," Lightning replied bluntly, her arms crossed over her chest. She was leaning against a wall, hoping no one would notice how tight her uniform was.
The woman gulped silently, adjusting her glasses higher up on her nose. "I-I was sent here by the director to get you. He apologizes for not being able to meet you personally, but he-"
"Fine." She pushed off the wall. "I need to speak with him about the security arrangements."
"Certainly. This way."
The woman led Lightning down a hallway. She could hear voices in every room, snatches of conversations catching her attention, but she kept her eyes forward, following the woman as she headed down another hallway and stepped outside. There was a large truck outside the building, and a number of people were loading boxes and containers into the back, yelling directions and profanities around. The woman bowed to excuse herself and ran forward to meet someone standing near the truck, Lightning's heart catching in her chest.
She could see the familiar white hair from across the space, a little longer than she remembered. Hope was taller, older, no longer a skinny teen. She scolded herself internally for letting that fact surprise her; it had been years since she had last seen him, giving him a characteristically neutral goodbye nearly seven years before, only a week after Serah's wedding. When he hadn't returned, Lightning thought nothing of it. She knew everyone had to move on with their lives eventually. She caught herself staring a moment after their eyes met and his face lit up with a smile, scolding herself again for the second time in a minute when something in the back of her mind told her he looked rather handsome in his Academy uniform.
Hope said something to the woman, who nodded and ran off to help load the truck, before he jogged over to Lightning, trying to hide the smile on his face and failing. When he stopped in front of her, he opened his mouth to say something, but hesitated, instead adopting a serious demeanor. He saluted her briskly. "Director Estheim of Section 13. I've received orders that you're to be the replacement for the head of my section's security."
"You certainly look surprised," Lightning muttered, folding her arms across her chest. The thought of Hope noticing her uncomfortable uniform made her heart beat faster.
The smile returned to his face, as if it had never left. "I didn't know you had joined the Academy, let alone that we'd be working together."
"I joined six months ago."
He shrugged sheepishly. "I've been in the field for the past year. I haven't received many communications from headquarters. The only reason I came down here was to personally see that the new security division head for my sector was qualified."
"And I guess you're satisfied?"
"Very. You know the region as well as I do, so I'm not worried." Someone shouted from the truck, and Hope turned his head to look behind him. Lightning noticed his boomerang in a pouch on his uniform before he turned back to her. "We're ready to go." He jerked his thumb over his shoulder to the rear of the truck. "Care to join me?"
She glanced at the truck's cab. "You're not driving?"
"Not allowed. Academy orders… especially after my father found out I almost got crushed by a fal'Cie the last time I operated machinery. Besides, I'd feel bad taking the comfortable seats when I'm not helping move the supplies."
Not questioning it further, Lightning piled into the back of the truck across from Hope, pulling one of her knees to her chest so that she didn't accidentally kick him. It was a tight squeeze either way, nestled in next to the supply crates, but she made the best of it, settling down to watch the buildings fade into the background as the truck drove off. Across from her, Hope leaned against the crates and stifled a yawn.
"You're a little young for a section director," Lightning commented casually, the silence growing uncomfortable. The only sounds were the light hum of the truck engine and the slight rattle of the crates, but they were insignificant enough that Lightning's senses started acting up, jumping at every little sound that came from the front of the cab. There was a conversation going on in there, but she could only make out sounds when someone raised their voice.
Hope chuckled. "I've been told. The Academy hires based on skill, so believe me when I say that I earned my position the hard way. They made me a section director because I'm apparently the top expert in my field."
"And what are you studying?"
"Time," Hope yawned, "and paradoxes."
Lightning glanced at him out of the corner of her eyes. He was staring out the back of the truck, scanning the horizon, despite the fact that his eyelids were drooping. He looked like he'd been awake for hours, and she wondered what exactly had him worked up enough to lose sleep over. "Time?"
Hope hummed a yes, leaning his head back against the crates.
'How do you study time?' was her next question, but she realized that Hope's eyes were already shut and his breathing had slowed, the young man already fast asleep. Instead, Lightning felt a smile pass her lips before she closed her eyes as well, taking the opportunity to prepare herself for whatever was on this other end of this trip.
When Lightning woke up, it was twilight, the sun barely peaking over the horizon. The truck was pulling to a stop, the change in velocity probably what woke her in the first place, and Hope was rubbing the sleep from his eyes. He gave her a quick smile and hopped out of the truck while it was still moving, Lightning following him before she realized where they were.
They were in the Yaschas Massif, a long grassy causeway nestled between two enormous cliff faces. Lightning remembered the area well, one of places they had explored thoroughly when they had first come to Gran Pulse. They were at the end of the Massif, where a set of decimated ruins had capped off the pathway like a sunken mine pit at the end of a dirt path. Much to her surprise, however, the disorganized rubble of the ruins had been rearranged, metal ramps and walkways supported by networks of pipes allowing better access to the area. In one corner, a massive golden statue stood in a corner that Lightning had remembered being only rocks.
When she looked over at Hope for an explanation, he returned her glance and started walking. Lightning followed, watching as a group of people ran up the ramps and started unloading the truck.
"This is what I meant when I said that you know the area as well as I do," Hope said suddenly, and Lightning looked at him again, trying to gauge his expression.
"Last I remember, this place was dangerous."
"It wasn't. That Undying Cie'th was still asleep, and we sealed off the area so no one could get in… until a week or so ago."
"Someone went in?"
"Our last head of security. He woke the Cie'th and it rampaged around the camp for a day or so before it just… vanished. The cocoon it was sleeping in disappeared and it hasn't come back. Unfortunately, our last head of security sustained injuries too grave to continue his work, so we waited for him to recover enough to move him and brought him back to base with us."
"And now here we are…" Lightning grumbled, almost feeling sorry for the poor guy she was replacing. They had fought the Cie'th before and managed to drive it back into its cocoon, but she recalled that the six l'Cie combined had barely survived the encounter.
There were loud footsteps clacking up the ramp and Lightning looked over just in time to void getting run over by a yellow and white mass as it tackled Hope, a female voice shouting "Director!" over the sound of all the air leaving Hope's lungs. Hope managed a wheezing breath as he tried to pry himself free from the grasp of the young woman, her tight embrace pinning his arms to the side. "I was so worried that something might happen while you were gone!"
"It's alright, Alyssa," Hope gasped, trying to lift his arms from his sides, to no avail. "We've brought the supplies back, and Lightning here will make sure the site doesn't get attacked again."
"Hmm?" Alyssa finally released Hope, turning to look Lightning over, giving her the chance to do the same. Alyssa looked like a typical Academy employee, dressed in the yellow and white uniform, but she had a mischevious light in her eyes, one that made Lightning instantly dislike her. From the look on her face, Alyssa felt the same. "Lightning, huh? What kind of name is that?"
"It's not any weirder than mine," Hope commented, and Alyssa turned her head to give him a smile before she turned her critical eyes back on Lightning.
Lightning ignored her. "Who is this?" she asked Hope.
"I'm Alyssa Zaidelle, his personal assistant and best researcher in the business - after the director himself, of course," Alyssa interrupted proudly. She bounced over to Hope's side and grabbed his arm, pulling it tightly to her chest. "Come on, director. There are plenty of new reports to go over. I've organized them all for you, but they won't read themselves, you know!" That said, she dragged Hope off down the ramp. He managed to give Lightning an apologetic smile before he nearly tripped off after Alyssa, trying to wrestle his arm out of her grasp.
Lightning wasn't one to judge people solely on first impressions, but she knew right from the start that she hated Alyssa with every fiber of her being and that only her enormous self-control was the only thing keeping her from snapping the woman's neck the next time they met.
As Lightning had expected, the security for the research site was abysmal, so she spent a few hours going through all the materials her predecessor had left behind, redrawing plans that she would present to the members of her new section in the morning. When she finally emerged from her tent for some fresh air, the sky above was dark, the only light coming from the moon and the faint glow of Cocoon's crystal appendages from the unseen distance.
There was someone standing up near where the Cie'th cocoon had been, and Lightning was going to threaten them a bit when she realized it was just Hope. The closer she got, though, the more powerful the urge became to just stop and stare at him. Why had she never noticed the way his hair seemed to glow in the moonlight or the way it accentuated his eyes, bringing out the lighter tones in them when the sunlight made them seem a darker shade of green? She'd already seen him standing in the moonlight before, back when wandering through caves had rendered their sense of time obsolete, but she had never noticed those things about him. Now that she saw them, she wondered exactly why she hadn't and what had changed to make her see them.
Suddenly Hope twisted, hand on the pouch for his boomerang, to face in her direction. "Who's there?" he asked, his voice clear.
Lightning stepped out of the shadows, hands raised in mock surrender. "Don't shoot. Only me."
Hope relaxed, dropping his hand. "Oh, Light. Sorry. You startled me. I didn't think anyone else would be up at this time of night."
"What are you doing up?" she retorted, hands on her hips.
"Don't give me that," he chuckled, "like I'm up past curfew."
"You might be. I'm thinking of imposing one."
"And miss things like this?" he asked, gesturing up to the moon. Lightning found herself staring at the moonbeams splayed across his face before she managed to follow his gaze. "Besides, I think better at night. Something about the atmosphere of this place…" He trailed off, staring up into the sky.
Lightning watched him for a moment. "You never did explain your research to me. Studying time, was it?"
Her works broke him out of his reverie and he seemed to compose himself again, a passionate light in his eyes. "Yes. I'm studying time, and here is the best place to do it."
"Why is that?"
"This place was once the thriving city of Paddra, a society of people ruled by a young woman who was always named Yeul. The people of Paddra followed Yeul as their Seeress, who would look into the future and see things that would happen."
"The name sounds familiar…"
"Paddra Nsu-Yeul. She wrote some of the Analects we stumbled across. I managed to date some of those documents, and a few of the ones written by Yeul about the war five hundred years ago… date back nearly five hundred years before that!"
"How can anyone predict the future like that?"
"Because the people of Paddra believe in one timeline. When something significant in the timeline changes, the entire future changes and Yeul was said to have seen the new future the moment it came into existence. Her visions accounted for everything from apocalypses to paradoxes, and she recorded them in a device that works in conjunction with that," he pointed over at the golden statue across the ruin, "to display them."
"You don't sound so sure about that last one."
"Only because we haven't found the device that goes with it. All the evidence points to its existence, even documents specifically describing its purpose and design, but we have no idea where it is. It might be buried in here somewhere; it might not."
"And what exactly is a paradox?"
"A paradox is something that's out of place in the timeline. It's something from the past that ended up in the future or something from the future that traveled to the past or even something that changed locations because of a warp in the timeline. Every paradox that occurs changes the future because it has an impact on the time period it appears in. When the cause of a paradox is resolved, the timeline returns to the way it was before the paradox occurred."
"Explain that one."
"Say our meeting here is the result of a paradox. Something changed and we both ended up in the same place at this moment in time. If whatever caused the paradox is resolved, then this meeting would never happen, we wouldn't have met here, and neither of us would have any memory of it ever happening… because, in essence, it never did."
Lightning scowled. "Certainly sounds like I picked a bad question to ask. I'm getting in way over my head with this intellectual stuff."
"Sorry," Hope smiled sheepishly. "I never really get a chance to explain this kind of stuff to anyone, since everyone here knows that as a basic principle. I guess I got overly excited."
"No need to be sorry. I just never knew you were this… nerdy."
There was a moment of silence between them before they both broke into laughter, filling Lightning's chest with warmth. Something about that bothered her, not knowing why such a simple action made her feel so different. It was something she would think about later.
Hope excused himself, saying he was going to sleep, and Lightning wished him a good night before turning to stare up at the moon, wondering just what about it had made tonight feel so different. In the end, she added it to her list of things she was still trying to figure out and made her way back to her tent for some well-earned rest.