*blows dust off story*
It's been quite awhile since my last update, and I'm so sorry if you guys think I've abandoned this (and on that note, if you're still here sticking with me, then HUGE props to you). Real life has been a... well, yeah. Let's just leave it as a combination of being sick (and still a little off as of today), school, and relationship (problems) sucked me into a tunnel and only recently spat me out at the other end. I'm on the mend, but it's been a real while since I've written anything, so if my writing's rusty, I do apologize. (And please feel to correct me 0_o I feel like there's bound to be a mistake or two in here somewhere)
If you've been with me since my last update in January (which, let's face it, wasn't really an update) then you'll notice I've completely rewritten this chapter. That being said, thanks to everyone who's left a review: Princess of Love and Hate, Jurie-chan, Luna, TheonLee, penscritch, tooprettytodomath, Moonprincess623, Skate95, Reading4soul, That One Reviewee, Scarecrow93, Master of Games, LawMan, H-thar, GkMader, Mylaervain, Anonymous Guest and Infatuation-x. Reading them when I was able to get back onto the interwebs just last week made me extremely grateful of my fanbase and totally inspired me to keep going. Thank you guys for being there for me—and I'm sure when I'm 100% better I'll keep going for sure. I'm going to aim for at the very least monthly updates from now on if not sooner.
Lots of stuff has also been released for LRFFXIII as well — if anyone wants to know what I think/have a chat about that, feel free to drop me a message or something. Let's just say, new Snow = erm, not-sure-what-Square-was-thinking and new Hope = wow-wtf.
Anyways, here's the remade Chapter 5. Leave a review, pretty please (let me know what you think) and I promise I'll see you guys soon.
And I've been a fool and I've been blind;
I can never leave the past behind.
I can see no way, I can see no way—
I'm always dragging that horse around.
— Florence + the Machine, "Shake it Out"
Chapter 5: Ready to Suffer, Ready to Hope
Nelde, the Akaneia Mines—51X AF
Shadows danced, almost tauntingly, on the dark stone walls. The faint flickering light was easy to discern in the darkness, but that gave Lightning no sense of security. She tightened her grip on the weapon in her hand again, to the point where it brought pain to her palm. Forcing herself to breathe through her nose, she counted the breaths and seconds quietly in her mind.
Stay calm; don't panic—think through every action before you make it.
She chanced a peek around the rock formation she was hiding behind; black shapes, darker than the shadows that cradled them, were visible barely three or four meters away from her. She couldn't tell from her vantage point just how many there were and Lightning didn't dare stay visible long enough to figure that question out. She could hear what they were saying now; their low whispers carried easily in the whispery timbre of the cavern.
"She here?" Lightning felt her muscles tense at the simple, two word question. She? Who're they talking about? Ser—the girl that the people back at that village were talking about? Or...
There was a scuffle of boots; they were moving closer; the rough, inconsistent light that came from the torches they were holding was growing brighter. "No sir," came the reply. "There's no one down there, we checked the mines and the old labs, so unless she jumped in the underground river she couldn't have gotten out."
A low growl came from someone else. "We're wasting our time. Why listen to wayward rumours when we could be out in the real wild looking?"
"Someone's got to be here," snapped the first soldier. "I know I heard something while we were down there."
Lightning pressed her back against the cold stone wall and took a silent breath, closing her eyes for a long moment. The footsteps seemed to be moving away now, the voices more muted, and the dim orange light fading as they moved away from her hiding spot. Shifting her position slightly, an idea was forming in her mind. They're looking for someone. Either it's me, or her. And whoever it is, I'm going to find out. Retightening her grip on the weapon in her right hand, Lightning made to follow the group of soldiers; with the noise they were making, it wouldn't be hard figure out exactly where they were headed, and as soon as she had her answer as to exactly who they were after, she could figure out a new plan of action from there.
Abruptly, her left upper arm was caught in a painful, vise like grip. What? How— Before Lightning could figure out how, exactly, she someone sneak up on her undetected, she was twisted around to face a red, uniformed soldier. He didn't have a weapon that she could see, but she had learned long ago never to underestimate an enemy. "Ha ha ha," he crowed at her triumphantly. "Thought we didn't see you there?" Loud footsteps seemed to be right behind her and she remembered too late that he wouldn't be alone.
Her body reacted before her mind did; years of training and survival instincts that seemed to have been ingrained into her very existence made her raise her right arm with her weapon, intent on taking out the soldier who had grabbed her before his friends caught up to them. But as fast as she might've reacted, someone else was faster: a painful, threatening pressure on her fingers wrenched away her gunblade, throwing it to the ground, before her arm could make contact with the first soldier and that same pressure was quickly moved to her right arm. A rough hand pushed back the hood of the cape she was wearing as a torch was shoved close to her face.
Forceful fingers tipped her chin up as Lightning found herself meeting the gaze of the soldier who'd first grabbed her. She found only triumph in his hard amber gaze, and perhaps underneath it, some semblance of... What? Relief? She didn't have time to properly figure it out. "Look," he pointed out to his comrades. "Pink hair. Think she's the one?"
One of his friends squeezed to the front to take a closer look. "Who else would it be? We can't have two rouges out there, can we? It's gotta be her."
The first soldier snickered again. "Well, if it is her, we'll be heroes. The commander's gonna love this." He nodded at the soldier who was still gripping her right arm. "Bind her." He dropped his other hand on her chin as he spoke directly to her. "Listen up, girl. If you know what's good for you, don't struggle."
I can't get caught here. The thought was like a brand of fire in her mind. She had no idea who his commander was and no desire to find out. I have to get free. Knowing that it would be over if the soldiers did indeed succeed in binding her, she had to find a method of escape before that could to keep her thoughts and breathing calm, she saw her chance when the first soldier dropped her arm to hand her to the one that had wrenched away her weapon. Seizing the brief moment of freedom of her left hand before the other man could grab her, Lightning slammed the heel of her hand into the throat of the man still holding her, simultaneously trying to wrench her other arm free.
The man let go of her with a cry of pain, holding his throat — in the moment of surprise that she'd managed to buy for herself, Lightning spotted the glint of her weapon lying a few feet away. Kicking away the first man to lunge for her, she dived for it, managing to roll forwards and straighten back up with the weapon in hand. Both arms still throbbing, she raised her gaze upwards to face the remaining four soldiers that were slowly rounding on her.
Strangely, she felt somehow elated, detached from the entire situation she had been thrown into. This was a situation she could deal with: simple combat. There was none of the self-doubt that had plagued her since waking up in the metal facility in the ruined future, none of the regret or sense of failure that had eaten at her since finding out about the other girl — in her mind, Lightning still refused, or could not, associate the stories she'd heard with her sister. It's not possible. Somehow, her desire to know was being fueled by what she now knew as denial of the fact.
But here, right now, there was none of that... and no time to worry about that. She had to get out alive; gauging the soldiers in front of her. They were all armed sans the one that she'd kicked away from her: it appeared that he hadn't yet recovered from it. Good. One less to deal with. The first one that lunged at her with his long spear was rapidly dispatched with a quick flick of her wrist that disabled his right arm. Slashing upwards at the one that'd come to help his friend, she knocked away his weapon fairly easily before throwing him back into the other two soldiers that had dashed forwards, weapons and torches raised.
Taking a few steps back, Lightning paused to catch her breath before she turned to go; she didn't intend on killing any of the soldiers that lay just behind her. It was a strange feeling, to be sparing lives when her instincts screamed at her to pull the trigger and to hide the rather large trail she already knew she was leaving. But I can't... She tried to tell herself that it was because it made sense not to want to add anyone else to the list of people that were after her, but she knew her heart—now—well enough to know that that wasn't the case. Years—centuries—spent in crystal sleep had granted her dreams and memories that she would've wished she couldn't relive. I can't do it... because if she's Serah, then I...
A flash of pain down her upper right thigh wrenched a hoarse cry of pain from her lips as she whipped around, wiping all previous thoughts from her mind. Lightning found herself facing the panicked, pain-wracked face of the first soldier she'd disarmed. She found hatred and desperation in his clear indigo gaze, and with his helmet gone, he couldn't have been that much older than her... physically. It took her a moment to figure out what, exactly, he'd attacked her with in her moment of—What? Hesitation? Weakness? She wasn't completely sure, but the scarlet stained blade of the field knife he was gripping so tightly in his good hand was a testament to that weakness.
Staring almost stupidly at the weapon in the soldier's hands, she didn't realize at first he was speaking to her, the words hoarse and guttural. "You... You're not getting away. You killed my sister... and you'll pay for it."
Lightning found herself backing away from the words like they were something dangerous—and perhaps they were. They hit her like a physical blow in the chest, because the trail of destruction she was unwittingly following seemed to dig a hole for her that she couldn't climb out of. She was breathing too heavily, but she couldn't control it. You killed my sister. Mind impossibly numb, there was absolutely nothing she could say: nothing came to mind, and cognition seemed beyond her in that moment of emotional upheaval.
There was no point in protesting her innocence; she knew he wouldn't believe her, and perhaps the story that had led her here, to this very spot, was unbelievable to the soldier crouched on the ground in front of her. The weapon in her right hand seemed unresponsive; whether that was because her own limbs were frozen in place, or because she wouldn't let herself react to the wound she'd just received, Lightning didn't know.
Stumbling backwards, towards the moonlit entrance of the cavern, she knew the soldier wouldn't be able to pursue her; she couldn't seem to make it past his final sentence no matter how hard she tried. Ignoring the sharp twinges that kept shooting up her right leg, the soldier's final sentence seemed to hang over her like a sword dangled from an impossibly fine thread. Without completely processing what, exactly, she was doing, she found herself looking back just once. The words seemed simple, but she had no idea where they came from, nor what she wanted to express with them. But she couldn't say anything that would explain the overwhelming emotions that wouldn't let her retaliate to the hatred aimed her way. "I... I'm sorry."
The simple, two word sentence carried her own grief and sense of failure... not that she expected in any way for the man to understand. My sister's gone too. And just like you... I can't bring her back. But you have someone to hate... something to strive for.
I don't have anything.
Caer Pelyn, the Nalbina Stronghold—51X AF
"Serah?" The question came before he could control it. "No—no way."
Lehran was still trying to control the woman opposite him; he had her shoulders gripped and was speaking in rapid, low tones Hope couldn't hear from where he was sitting. Trying to contain his inner turmoil that consisted of sickened shock, he found himself gripping his hands tightly together in his lap. No. It's not possible... is it? No matter how hard he tried, Hope couldn't associate the image he'd always had of Serah with the description that Nephenee had just given him. There has to be some sort of mistake...
Time seemed to stretch on forever until he was aware that Nephenee had placed both of her palms flat on the rough wooden table surface, staring down at him like he'd been the one murdering civilians since arriving. "Explain." Her voice was curt and brutal, and her eyes were like bright chips of ice. "How do you know her?"
Hope took a moment to take a calming breath. Maker, please let me get this right. "No...no," he repeated quietly. "That's not who I was looking for." Somehow his hands had come up to grip the sides of his head, tangling themselves in his hair. "But... I think I know who you're talking about." He didn't want to admit his own fears and doubts—didn't want to admit how close he was to giving up. "But she's supposed to be... dead," he finally admitted, almost afraid to look up to gauge Nephenee's reaction.
I hate that word. Dead. It's got a severing finality to it... like something we can't ever fix. And that's something I don't want to ever believe.
There was a thump across from him that made him jerk his head up. Nephenee had sunk into the chair opposite him and was gazing at him with an intensity that seemed to dwarf her anger only a few moments before. Searching out of the corner of his eye, Hope saw that Lehran had also sat down and was staring at him, one warning hand still on the shoulder of woman beside him. "What do you mean?" Lehran inquired quietly, his voice low but holding the same intent that was burning in Nephenee's gaze.
Hope closed his eyes; the vivid images were still there, as though they were only heartbeats away and tangible enough for him to grip with outstretched fingers. "Just before I left... where I came from... she died." She was a seeress — and her visions killed her. But even so... she wanted to save the future. Not destroy it.But somehow, he didn't think those details were necessary, nor did he want to delve into that topic. He had yet to figure it out and process it for himself; Hope didn't think he was ready to tell that story to someone else.
"Are you sure?" The blunt question came from Nephenee. "You're positive she died in your time? She couldn't have lived?"
Shaking his head, he tried to dislodge the memories as though by saying no, he could deny what'd happened. "No... there was no way. At least, I don't think so... But Serah wouldn't—she wasn't that kind of person!" he finally burst out. "She wouldn't kill for no apparent reason, I know it." The Serah I knew, at least, would never have done so. But... suppose she survived—what if she's changed? Could she have changed like that?
"You don't know that," the magenta-haired woman snapped back. "People change. Or maybe you didn't know her at all." She spoke the last sentence with a challenge burning in her gaze as though she was daring Hope to contradict the fact. Hope found that he had no answer to her last statement: whether it was because he couldn't yet process it for himself, or because he didn't want to, out of the fear that Nephenee might be right, he sat there, silent and feeling the sense of defeat creeping up on him.
He caught Lehran's sharp look towards Nephenee before he heard the man clear his throat. "You mentioned you were looking for someone. Not...her. Can you tell us who?"
Hope felt his breath catch painfully in his throat, splintering any words he would've wanted to say. How can I ask them about Light now? He wasn't sure if he wanted to know anything anymore—it seemed that everything he asked destroyed a little bit more of the world and people that he'd known. What if... He was almost to afraid the thought. What if Light's "changed" too? What will I do then? He was torn between knowing and not knowing; not knowing which one was worse than the other, he was afraid to make a decision between the two. But the words were uncontrolled, disobedient of his rampant emotions and thoughts, and they came before he could make a conscious decision not to, and by the time he'd realized what he'd said, it was too late to take them back. "I'm looking... for her sister."
He heard Nephenee crack her knuckles, though he didn't know whether it was intentional or not. "Her... sister," the woman repeated slowly. "Was she with you before?" Her voice was tightly controlled and kept carefully flat, but Hope didn't think he wanted to know exactly what Nephenee was feeling at the moment.
Hope found his right hand bridging his nose, rubbing at his forehead with two fingers, trying to control the uncomfortable throbbing that had developed in his temples. "No... no, she wasn't." But she's someone I want to find... if there's any chance that she ended up even somewhere near where I am, I want to find her.
"You mentioned she looked like... her," Lehran supplied quickly, as though he was desperate to keep the conversation going in a specific direction: Hope wondered whether it was for his sake, or Nephenee's. Hope nodded numbly, watching the two exchange glances before Lehran let out a sigh. "No. Apart from... her, we haven't seen anyone like that."
Unsure of whether he was supposed to feel relieved or not at the response, Hope realized that he felt no less empty than he had done just a few minutes ago. Nothing's changed... I still don't know—and don't know if I want to know. The sharp sense of defeat had not quite left him, and through the mess of emotions that were throttling his brain that he had neither the energy nor the will to figure out, it took him a few heartbeats to figure out that Nephenee was talking to him again.
"So what about you? What did you do before coming here?" Her tone was edged with suspicion—not that he blamed her for it. I'd be suspicious too, if I just found out the person I met knew a murderer.
Hope debated for a heartbeat, wondering through numb thoughts just how much to tell them. Lehran and Nephenee didn't seem to know about the other things that had plagued his timeline just before it had been swallowed in chaos, and he decided to keep things simple for their sake... and his own. "I, well, I was a researcher." He wasn't sure how detailed he wanted to be—he knew as well as anyone who would've been present in the last few moments of Academia that there were things that could've been done better... And things that could've been prevented. That's for sure.
"For what?" Curiousity was evident in Lehran's tone as he shifted his attention back to Hope.
He bit his lip for a moment, before deciding to answer truthfully. After all, who is it going to hurt now? "Energy," he answered simply, before elaborating a little. "Well, how to produce enough energy to sustain a large civilization." But I couldn't do it—all that time spent investigating graviton cores and how to use them couldn't stop what happened from happening.
"Interesting," the man across from him mused, though whether it was directed at him, or whether it was just something from his thoughts that he'd said aloud, Hope wasn't sure. Lehran seemed lost in thought, while Nephenee tapped her fingers in an irritated, regular rhythm on the table surface. Long minutes dragged on in silence until she finally broke it, standing up and stretching her arms before rearranging the gauntlet on her left wrist.
"We've chatted enough tonight. I need a break." Pointing up the dark stairway, it was clearly a dismissal. "Feel free to use any of the rooms on the left." Following her directions, Hope found the darkness of the upstairs landing somehow comforting. Without the inconsistent flickering of the dim lightbulb downstairs, the throbbing headache that had developed sometime between finding out the identity of who might very well be Serah and the resulting tumult of chaotic feelings.
Hope hadn't expected to fall asleep at all; thoughts kept plaguing his mind like an incessant nest of angry bees, keen to never leave him alone. But somehow, sleep came easily—it was as though his mind had also decided enough was enough.
I just hope we'll figure everything out. Everything'll be okay... right?
Faint morning sunlight and voices woke him from his sleep the following morning. For a moment, Hope was disorientated as to where, exactly, he was, until everything that'd happened the previous day crashed over him like a ruthless tsunami. Pinching the bridge of his nose between both hands, he tried to give himself a pep talk before the voices from downstairs broke into the thoughts he was trying to gather.
"We can't take him with us, Lehran, are you crazy?" He recognized the voice as Nephenee's—she sounded angry again.
The responding voice was calm, reasoning. "Why not? He has experience. He knows what's at stake: he's seen what could happen to the end of the world. We could use him." It took Hope a moment to realize they were talking about him. Getting up quietly, he crept over to the doorway, listening at the top of the stairs.
Nephenee's voice lowered a few decibels. "He knows her. What if he's a spy? We can't just trust some stranger—have you no sense, Lehran?"
Hope heard a frustrated sigh followed by the scrape of chair legs on the floor. "Don't be so suspicious, Nephenee. Besides... you can't deny that we'll need people like him to solve this world's problems." The intensity in Lehran's voice increased. "Do you want to see what happened to your brother to happen again?"
There was a long silence that hung in the air, polluting it like moth eaten curtains still hanging at an old window.
"You didn't have to bring that up," came the reply finally; there was a tone of defeat and bitterness in Nephenee's voice. "I know all of that... and Maker go to hell if I ever let something like that happen again. You know that, Lehran. I don't need you to remind me of the stakes." Angry footsteps faded downstairs, as Hope heard the scrape of the same chair again.
He heard Lehran call after her. "It's settled then."
Nelde, Lake Akaneia—51X AF
A stiff wind blew the lake's surface into choppy waves, but even from his vantage point, Hope could see that the water was grey. It wasn't reflecting the colour of the sky—something was wrong with the water. The pine forest around him felt dead; there hadn't been any stir of life in it since they'd entered it the night before. He heard Nephenee flick open her hand drawn map again. "Shouldn't be far now," she muttered. "Lake's just north of the old mines."
Shifting his foot uneasily on the forest floor, he was only rewarded with the crunch of dead and dying pine needles. Nephenee drew level with him at the edge of the trees, watching the figure of Lehran in the distance. The man had gone out to the lake to collect a water sample—Hope could see him bent right at the water's edge at the moment. "This lake is fed by the mines," Nephenee informed him quietly. "That's why the water is so polluted."
Since setting out, the young woman had seemed unnaturally subdued; Hope hadn't seen any of the anger that she displayed the first night, nor did he see any of the same defeat that he'd felt when Lehran had brought up the subject of her brother the morning after. She mostly kept to herself: alert, but apart from the small conversation Lehran had made with him on their walk. She reminded him a little of Lightning, but he refused to entertain the thought; Hope still wasn't quite sure how he was going to deal with that situation.
And on the way to the mines that they'd told him about that first night, Hope had seen their desperation for himself. Outside of Caer Pelyn, the city that he'd woken up in, he'd seen the evidence of the world's end... just as Serah and Noel had described to him in what felt like so long ago. Dead, decaying forests and streams, they were lifeless and bare, devoid of life. The people in the secluded cities had most of what little the world had left to offer: the villages that still lay scattered in the wildlands outside displayed nothing but hunger and despair. And when you see people that desperate... I guess it's not really a surprise that they want to fight for it... what's left of it, anyways.
They'd skirted around what Lehran had told him were the remnants of Cocoon; of that fact, Hope was glad. He didn't think he would've been able to stomach the sight or the thought of what might've happened. No one would've been here to save Fang and Vanille in this timeline. The thought of losing more ties to the life he'd once had was overwhelming in its concept, and painful in its process. He figured it was best not to dwell upon for it, until he was sure exactly what he was going to do.
He looked up to see Nephenee had already walked out ahead of him; following her, Hope winced when the boggy water that surrounded the perimeter of the lake squelched under his boots. Just like she'd told him, the grey wasn't from the sky above at all, though he could feel winter coming soon. It was a sickly grey, stained by specks of ash and cinder. Stalks of dead reeds fluttered weakly in the fall wind, their leaves stained the same ash grey.
He stopped when he caught up to the two, but not before he caught the alarmed look on Lehran's face. "What's wrong?"
The man looked up at him for the briefest moment before pointing at the lake's edge just beside them. In the grey mud, half washed away by the uneven waves that lapped hungrily at the waterside, footprints were visible. Hope didn't understand the implications of this particular fact until Nephenee spoke brusquely behind him.
"Someone's gotten here before us."