It's a Date

Lightning checked into the hotel Yeul told her about, having to explain her situation when the manager questioned her as to why she was traveling alone since it wasn't trade season yet. An hour later, she was finally able to get to her room, located on one of the middle floors of the building. The room had a veranda; she kicked off her boots by the front door and stepped out onto it.

This high up, she had a breeze blowing across her face, though it wasn't that fast and not much cooler than the air below. Merchants shouting and people talking sounded quite tinny up here. She heard chocobos, winged predatory beasts overhead, the bustle of activity, and trees rustling in the wind. She was just deciding to go back inside and get comfortable when her stomach growled, and rather loudly at that.

She clapped both hands over it. "Hey, no need to fuss…"

It grumbled at her.

Patting it, she glanced around, shrugged, and left the room again.

She was back out on the promenade – a roughly circular plaza surrounded by trees with flowering bushes in the center – a few minutes later, strolling along, searching for someplace to eat. At this hour, it was too hot for much activity, so the city was largely deserted. She spotted a restaurant packed with people to the left and a shady open-air café off to the right; she picked the café. Reaching into her pack to make sure her coins were safe, she headed toward it. As she got closer, the plethora of mouthwatering smells that reached her about drove her crazy, and soon her stomach was practically swearing like a sailor for her to hurry up.

In the shadiness, she realized the café was actually more of a full-fledged, if small-sized, restaurant and relatively busy at that. There were a number of open tables; two girls sat at one of them. It took her a second to recognize them as Malo and Anhui, with Malo pointing out her presence to her sister. They scrambled to their feet to approach her.

Lightning figured two familiar faces was better than none. "Hey, girls."

Malo looked a little wary. Anhui, if she felt similarly, hid her feelings significantly better with a maturity that surprised Lightning for her age. "Hey. You're staying?"

"I am, yes."

Malo still looked unsure, but Anhui smiled. "When I saw that bracelet, I figured. Well, if you're stayin', might as well get used to us. Our parents let us wander in the city because we're keen on bein' huntresses someday, so you'll see us a lot!"

Lightning folded her arms. "Do you nag the hunters?"

"Uh–" Anhui blinked. "Maybe…"

"Yes," Malo said flatly.

For the first time since she'd arrived, Lightning almost grinned. "Then you're keeping busy. That's good. Idle hands are never a good thing. That said," she added, dropping her arms again, "I'm pretty hungry. You?"

"Just sitting down," Anhui said. "Wanna join us?"

Lightning nodded. "Sure."

The three of them approached the counter and waited patiently for the cooks to finish up an order. Lightning leaned closer to the menu propped on the counter, trying to read it. Her eyes hadn't quite adjusted to the darkness yet, so it was a little hard for her to read whatever was printed on it.

"How old are you two?" she asked.

Anhui beamed. "I'm fifteen," she said. "Malo is eleven."

"Eleven and a half," the girl corrected, folding her arms and trying to look fierce. "Get it right!"

Again Lightning scrutinized the menu. "Do you mind me staying?"

"Nah," Anhui said, shrugging one shoulder. "You're kinda cool and awkward."

"And funny," Malo said with a giggle.

The prospect of great, noble, legendary warrior Lightning being considered "awkward" or "funny" was pretty odd to her. "Alright then," she muttered.

Anhui leaned on the counter, picking up the menu. Lightning gritted her teeth. "Ever been to this place before?"

"No," the woman said.

"Try this." Anhui held the menu up and pointed to an item.

Unfortunately, the menu was written in the Pulse alphabet, which was unfamiliar to her. While she could recognize numbers and certain letters for their similarities to Cocoon's alphabet, the language as a whole was alien. Mentally shrugging, she decided to trust her new acquaintances and followed the girl's advice.

A few minutes later, the three were seated around a table. Lightning found two kabobs of juicy, grilled meat drizzled with a spicy fruit sauce on a bed of vegetables on her plate. The beverage was sticky and blue, icy cold to the touch and very sweet. It had a flowery scent, but a pineapple sort of taste with a spiciness resembling ginger. Lightning decided it was really weird, but good.

The girls each had grilled meat with a fruit and vegetable salad with the same juice she had. They ate slowly; she realized how fast she was eating when they stared at her.

"Uh, you okay?" Malo asked.

Lightning plucked a piece of meat off one of the kabobs with her teeth and chewed more slowly. Despite being a bit warm, she still wanted to devour the plate whole. Each time a piece of food hit her palate, a pleasure center in her brain lit up. Had she really gone that long without eating food?

Well, yeah, actually, she had.

"Fine," she said after swallowing. She returned the now-empty kabob to the plate, picking up a vegetable. "Just really hungry."

The girls exchanged looks. "We can see that," Anhui muttered.

Lightning forced herself to not eat anything more once she polished off the vegetable. Giving her stomach a chance to come down off its high, she leaned back to relax a bit. "You come here often?"

"Sometimes," Anhui said, nodding. "It's a hangout for our age group, families–"

A quiet commotion grabbed their attention; they looked up as one to see a group of hunters, sans their weapons, approaching the restaurant. There were about a half-dozen of them, including Caius walking at the head of it, though sideways as he spoke to those behind him. A tall man with brown hair and one with black hair and icy blue eyes also walked behind him. The other three were unfamiliar as well, including a bright-eyed, very tall man who laughed and joked with his companion.

"And frequented by the hunters," Anhui said.

Detecting a dreamy note in her tone, Lightning cocked an eyebrow and looked at her.

The hunters sat down at one of the larger tables, then had a brief verbal brawl where they argued over who would take the orders to the counter. Finally, the brunet stood and scribbled on a piece of paper, then walked away with an expression of annoyance on his face to do it for them. Caius sat where Lightning could easily see his face; he glanced her direction and caught her eye. She noticed the sudden curiosity their violet depths, tapping her fingertips on the table, wondering whether to speak to him.

As she picked thoughtfully at her food, the girls finished their meals. They eyed her a moment, which she was aware of, but she said nothing. Anhui scooped up her sister's plate and stacked it atop her own.

"We can't be out all day," Anhui said. "You gonna be alright?"

Lightning glanced at Caius again. His expression was perfectly even, but the curiosity was still there. "Yeah," she said. "I'll be fine."

The girls nodded and carried the plates back to the counter, where they were taken by a cook. The brown-haired man greeted them, patting Malo's head when she looked up at him with a big smile. Before they left, both girls waved goodbye to her; she had enough time to smile and nod back at them before Caius sat down across from her. At the next table, the hunters quieted; Lightning sighed.

"Caius," she said by way of greeting. "Talk."

He blinked at her. "Hmm?"

"Talk. Spill. Whatever. You got a million questions rolling around in that head of yours. What's on your mind?"

He folded his hands on the table. "It's an interesting coincidence, meeting you here."

Yeah, it's weird. "I was hungry."

"I saw that."

Pause. "Alright, famished. What's your point?"

Instead of answering, he smirked and lifted an eyebrow very slightly. All her hairs stood up. Conditioned to expect a furious beatdown from him, since that smirk was normally a prelude to another war, they reacted on their own, as did the rest of her body. It was a struggle to bring it under control, and a greater struggle not to react badly.

When he still didn't respond, she wondered if he was just being a jerk. "What?"

The smirk lingered, but lost some of its bite. "Claire," he said, "I'm not threatening you, and I'm no enemy of yours that I'm aware of." Finally, the smirk faded. "So, Yeul allowed you to stay?"

She touched the bracelet. "Yeah."

"I know Miyoki said it was none of our business," he said, "but I feel the need to try: why did you come here?"

One eyebrow twitched. "I… needed to get away from home a while."

"Why?"

"That's for me to know, Caius. Deal with it."

"Again with the bitter tongue," he said, dropping his arms to a folded position on the table. "Fine, I won't pry if it's such an issue. Will you be here long?"

She breathed deep. "Yes."

"You sound anxious."

Was she? Flexing her fingers, she scrubbed an index fingertip on the table, looking down at it. Yeul had told her the army wasn't coming soon, so just how long would she have to wait? How much time did she have to get on friendly terms with this man? How long would it take for her to get over her bitterness with him and stop wanting to let some sort of hatred up through the cracks in her surface?

"Maybe I am," she said. "So what?"

"Claire, honestly, what have I ever done to you?"

Lightning hesitated, meeting his eyes. This wasn't the same man. He was younger and had none of the burdens she had seen in Valhalla. Why was she overreacting to his presence? Was he going to hurt her, or was she just so used to expecting him do that… well, she expected him to?

"I'm…" She breathed deep, then exhaled her anger at last. "I'm sorry, Caius. Really. Things have been a little weird lately and I…" Groaning softly, she rubbed a hand across her face. "You're absolutely right. You don't deserve any of this. Forgive me."

The fingers of both his hands interlaced on the table as he continued to gaze at her. "Alright," he said with a nod, "I do. You still must prove yourself on the group hunt. We will be going out to the Steppe."

Lightning thought this over. "Alright."

He nodded. "Before you can go on any major hunts or start getting commissions for your catches, you'll have to prove you can actually perform. You get paid per pound of meat you bring in," he explained at her puzzled expression, "so the bigger your catch, the more lucrative your pay. The biggest ones bring in some impressive bounties. The next group hunt is in five days, but I and two others will be going on a patrol tomorrow morning. You can take along then."

"Alright," she said. "When and where?"

"The plaza in front of the ravine entrance. Be there by sunup, which is–" He looked off to the side, then back at her with a sly curve to his lips. "–five."

She mentally rolled her eyes. The Guardian Corps had a habit of dragging people out of bed at four. Five would be like sleeping in. "I can handle it."

"I'll expect no less from you than I do from those born and raised here," he told her. She gazed back at him without wavering. "I'm difficult to impress. You'll have to do very well. Exceptionally well."

She leaned over closer, made sure she had his gaze, and said, "I will."

He leaned toward her. "We'll see."

The two of them continued staring at each other, gazes locked, for a good ten seconds or so in a subconscious contest of wills. After a bit, she saw a vaguely impressed expression cross his face as one eyebrow went up, ever so slightly. She gave him a haughty smirk; the corner of his lips twitched in response. Finally, he stood; she did the same, still gazing calmly back at him.

There was something disarming about his demeanor, some human element that had been missing all the times she'd met him face to face before. As she gazed at him, examining his features, she saw that the weight he'd carried was missing and the lines of his face were softer, as though he frowned less often. The face still belonged to her rival, the man who'd tried to kill her so many times, but she could get used to it.

"If that's all…"

She snapped out of her trancelike study. "Uh, y– yeah, that's all. Should probably get going now."

He nodded, turning away but looking over his shoulder at her. "See you at five."

"It's a date."

He nodded again before returning to the table with all the other hunters. While Lightning couldn't hear what one of them said, she guessed it was some sort of teasing because Caius suddenly looked embarrassed and gave the one who'd spoken, the brown-haired one, a very severe look. This immediately cracked the rest of them up, filling the place with laughter. Caius sat down heavily and pointedly ignored them until the stopped. One of the others gave her a curious look she returned with flat disinterest; he smirked.

As she made sure everything was cleaned up, and after thanking the cook, she glanced at Caius again to find him looking at her. They gazed at each other, Caius still with unabashed curiosity, Lightning still trying to cope with the understanding that this man wasn't the same one she'd known.

Then she nodded and left the restaurant.

At the top of the staircase, Serah discovered she was back in the throne room where she and Noel had ended up the first few times they'd tumbled into this strange place. With nothing between her and the vast, black emptiness of the great void, she suddenly felt very small and very scared. If Noel were here, she would feel better, but she hadn't been able to find him, nor any sign of him. It worried her.

Before walking toward the small, feminine shape with its back to her – another Yeul, she gathered – she decided to try shouting one more time.

"Noel!" But her voice just escaped into the void, not even tinny, no echo, nothing at all.

With no response, she continued on to Yeul.

"So," she murmured once she was within earshot, "what era are you from? My future? Past?" She moved closer, glancing around at the ruins. Rocks and trees tumbled in the void, carried by some stream of energy or wind she couldn't see or feel, ever silent. The stars were as bright as ever.

"I am the one who lives in all ages."

Serah blinked, looking back at the girl. "What?"

"I die in all ages, and suffer countless partings, again and again." The girl looked sidelong at her, green eyes fixed on the woman's blue ones. "Do you know where you are, and what this place is?"

"It's the Void Beyond," the woman said. "That's all."

"Here," the girl continued, "you can see all your heart's desires come true. Here, the dreams of men are washed ashore and come into corporeal form. What you dream, whatever you can imagine or conjure in your mind, you may touch, feel, taste, hear, see, here, in the endless mold. Alter the fabric of spacetime as you please. It will be as real to you as your own body is now."

Serah walked toward the throne, stooping slightly to look down. One of the staircase landings was visible below, but beyond that, only starry darkness. She swallowed the bile that involuntarily came to her throat and stepped back again, unnerved by the emptiness. Was this what Valhalla felt like? Noel had told her it was a vast emptiness, the only inhabitant being Caius himself. Was it like this? Was it worse?

"Why do you continue your journey and stand in his way?"

Startled, Serah pivoted in place. "I–"

"Every step you take brings you closer to your death and the end of time. Did I not tell you time is fractured and in flux, and the future is deeply uncertain?"

Serah sidestepped away from the throne as Yeul came uncomfortably close. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up in unison. "But I ca–"

"But now," the girl said, gazing up at her unblinkingly, "your journey ends here. Sleep in silence for eternity, safe from the world's end."

Serah fidgeted and dropped into a battle stance, suddenly aware of a second presence. The girl faded into wisps of darkness, the tendrils darting off into the great void. Something scuffed the stone behind her; she whirled, hopping back at the same time, lifting her golden bowsword and setting an arrow. Before her, very black against the blue-white hue of the throne, was Caius.

"I don't understand," she said, taking careful aim. If he held still half a second, she could hit him.

He scoffed at her. "You needn't."

Her hands shook, but she steadied herself and released the arrow of energy. Somehow, he dodged it, and it struck the throne, dissipating into the air. She set another arrow, but had to roll to the side to avoid a swing of his massive sword just overhead. Tumbling and kicking, she rolled to her feet, quickly switching the bow out for the sword and bringing it up, halting his second strike.

Wordlessly, he forced it aside and sent out a blaze of energy at her feet; she hopped over it, only to get hit in the face with a graviton burst that sent her flying. Tumbling to the edge of the stone, she stopped just in time and hauled herself away from the edge. With a ferocious war cry, she launched herself at him, blade to blade, raining sparks into the shadowy recesses of the ruins.

Caius looked surprised, eyebrows up, as she forced his sword back with her whole body. In her travels, her legs had gotten thicker and her arms stronger; now she showed off that newfound strength coupled with her l'Cie-like powers to finally make him stumble.

"Stop ignoring me!" she shouted. "What's going on? Where's Noel?"

He righted himself; she switched the sword to the bow and fired an arrow infused with cold energy. It blasted him in the chest, just above his heart, sending him back, hard, into a pillar. A chill settled over her: if she kept this up, she might just make him angry, and if she made him angry, she was done for. At this rate, however, she couldn't afford to stop fighting.

Before he was on his feet proper, she fired a series of cold arrows that shattered on impact, flinging shards of ice as they sparkled through the air. He grunted, leaping to his feet, and blasted her away with fire, launching her into the air. Flailing like a fish out of water, she managed to twist and land, hard, on her feet. She toppled forward, narrowly keeping from doing a faceplant.

"Let's try again," she said. "Where." She readied a blazing arrow. "Is." She pulled it back to her ear. "Noel!"

And fired.

It struck him in the center of his chest, again above his heart, lighting his armor on fire. Transforming the bow into a sword again, she came up, raining down a flurry of fierce blows he narrowly deflected. At the same time, he used his free hand to slap out the flames before catching the front of her outfit, stopping her cold.

Suspended in midair, she grasped his forearm and bit down.

He immediately dropped her, recoiling. There were bite marks around the joint of his thumb now, one of which had broken the skin. She spit out the blood, wiped her mouth, and stabbed at him. He stepped back, trying to regain the upper hand, but she was smaller, quicker, had the element of surprise and used it now, finally unleashing a burst of arrows that flung him back into the ruins, where he fell to his side and lay very still.

Serah collapsed to her knees, watching him. He wasn't breathing, eyes closed, body totally immobile. It seemed as though she'd either knocked him out or killed him.

Remembering the fight in Oerba, she backpedaled, readying her bow.

Sure enough, a bit later, he suddenly came back to life, eyes abruptly opening and staring directly at her. The element of surprise was gone, though, and he simply blasted her away, looking extremely annoyed. Her already sore and hurting body landed back-first against a pillar; she slumped to the stone, trying to catch her breath. If he'd been playing with her before, he certainly wasn't now.

"I'm impressed," he told her, standing up and looking normal again, while she lay with her bruised and battered body screaming at her not to move. "Noel gave up far more quickly than you have."

"Where is he?" she demanded, somehow crawling to her feet.

Caius looked at her carefully. "He sleeps, never to wake, in a dreamscape where he knows only joy. Accepting his defeat, he let himself be swept away…"

Bristling, she forced herself to aim an arrow, suddenly glad for her improved endurance. Three years ago, one punch in the stomach would have laid her out. "I don't believe you! I know Noel, and he would never give into you!"

"I know him well, and I tell you…" He curled the fingers of one hand into a fist. "…he did!"

She sidestepped the blast, getting singed but little worse, expecting him to attack her. Slapping at some flames on her clothing, she shook herself, body pleading for rest. Caius was up on the throne now, sitting there like he owned it, one leg propped up, staring down at her.

"Why are you doing this?" she asked of him. "Why do you want to kill everyone?"

"To save her."

A cold, horrible realization passed over her. "Wh– you… You'll destroy time, just to save Yeul?" It was disturbing, it was cruel, it was immoral, and it was evil.

Caius slipped off the throne, landing in front of her, towering over her. "Each time the future changes," he said, "the seeress must see it, and her life is cut short. What was a miracle to all of you on the Day of Ragnarok was a sentence of death for Yeul. So often have I seen this…" He trailed off, gazing down at one hand with the fingers splayed. She saw the hurt, centuries of hopelessness, so much affection, and felt the twist of a knife in her gut. "Century after century, those who gave birth to her were forced to surrender her to the will of the people and the goddess." He looked into her eyes; she saw something raw in their depths. "I have protected her, watched over her, been there for every birth and witnessed every death, and I can do nothing to stop either one!"

Serah understood. "She's like your daughter." And you, her adopted father. "You love her like one."

"And I will end her suffering!" The evil-looking blade of his came off his back, coated in ancient dust, scratched with countless battle marks, and hovered in front of her nose. "The foundations of history will crumble. I will finish my goal. You have been a thorn in my side for too long, and now that meddling is over."

Serah wondered what it would be like to die.

Should I accept my fate with dignity?

"I will destroy Etro and build another Valhalla where this world once stood," he continued. "Without time, without life, or death, Yeul shall finally be free!" He smirked at her, and pulled the blade back, past his shoulder. Serah, wide-eyed, waited for death.

The blade approached.

And stopped.

The rosehaired woman blinked, staring at the blade so close to her face. Confused, she lifted her head, mouth open slightly at her murderer's expression. His eyes were unfocused, a thousand-yard stare in them, and he was gazing at her, but also through her, into her, beyond her. The blade continued to hover. Only the steady expansion and contraction of his chest told her time hadn't stopped flowing.

Serah leaned back, away from the blade. The expression on his face changed to one of shock, of dismay, of sudden realization. Still his eyes were unfocused.

She scooted back.

An eternity and a half later, he blinked away the glaze, eyes refocusing. Blinking again, he looked at her, and this time his gaze wasn't so harsh.

"You're her sister."

Bewildered beyond belief, Serah stared at him, heart pounding her ears. She dare not risk breaking whatever trance had come over him, but this was more befuddling than any action he had performed to this point. Meeting his gaze, she tried to understand. Of course she was Lightning's sister, but didn't he already know that? He must have at least overheard her telling Noel about her sister, or gazed through time to see her…

"Caius…?" she tried.

Slowly, he withdrew the blade and replaced it on his back. Confusion settled over his features, the thousand-yard stare returning for an instant. Instead of responding, he backed away and turned his back to her. In a flicker of purple light, he vanished.

Serah, sore, with bruised knees, climbed to her feet, staring at the spot where he'd gone, more confused than ever.