Lightning's foot tapped impatiently. "It's not right."
"Would you settle your hyper little butt down already?" Jihl breathed, aggravated as another rose went squish between her stained-red fingers. A trailing path of petals had started to form behind her. "You're breaking my concentration with your constant worrying."
"You're thinking about it too much," Fang coached, on another topic end of the spectrum in trying to help Jihl. "Don't focus on it. Just reach for the rose like you're gonna hold it." Jihl tried again. Her 500th attempt yielded no better results than the first.
"Ughh, screw this!" Jihl threw the rose, which collided against the pillar and crushed against the stone, then fell, wilted in a heap. "I'm never going to get it."
"You're too frustrated." Fang said simply.
"Damn right, I'm frustrated!" Jihl snapped. "I can't bloody touch the damn rose without creaming it, Lightning's over here making me fret about Mums, and nothing your saying's doing anything to change things!" Jihl looked like she wanted to hit something, but unable to touch anything, she settled for angry, disruptive noises and sat on her rump in the garden. Jihl backhanded a rose moodily, which showered forth a pile of pedals, leaving the green step. "Godsdamn!"
"Don't talk to me right now." Jihl grumbled, fisting her hands in the dirt around her in exasperation. "Whine to Fang about our mothers' peril in lying for us."
Clearly too frustrated with her lack of progress, Lightning wondered if she'd even considered yet the consequences Jeanne and Cereza could face, or Raina and Farron for that case. One slip was all it'd take, they'd be discovered, and Jeanne's credibility with the council would be shot. It was too big a risk just to protect them from the vipers in that meeting hall again. Jihl's mothers had taken too much on them already for their sakes; Lightning couldn't let it happen again. "I'm going to the meeting, Jihl." Lightning decided solemnly, standing. "They have to know."
"What?" Jihl's head popped up again, "Lightning, no. Mums went over this—they've already crafted a lie and everything for us."
"It doesn't matter," Lightning shook her head. "We can't just let them risk everything to baby us. I'm the only reason we didn't tell about Sage immediately, and I'm not going to let your mothers take the blame for it again." Lightning had already started walking. It was the right thing to do; no more hiding behind their shields. She had to take responsibility.
"Light!" Shuffling started up behind her before Jihl raced to her side to reach her. She stopped, arms outstretched. "Lightning, stop."
Jihl moved in front of her and tried to blockade her way, but her girlfriend couldn't touch her for the time being and both of them knew it. Lightning simply walked around her. "They might've already told the fib!" Jihl tried to protest.
"They might not have; even if they did, they're mothers. Umbra should understand that, at least."
"Lightning, you're not— " Jihl tried to reach to grab her again and stopped with a groan. "Fang!" she barked in aggravation. "Grab her for me! She's not being reasonable." Fang hesitated to stand, then Jihl added. "She's trying to mess things up at the council meeting."
Fang stood in following, "Lightning…"
"Grab her!" Jihl said again when Lightning simply kept walking. Fang took her arm gently.
"Lightning, stop. Jeanne said to stay."
Fang tried to reason gently. Lightning glanced at her. She could see where this was going; Fang would follow Jihl's order because it aligned with her mother's, and Jihl was too agitated to really have considered her protesting. She wasn't going to be cornered out of this.
"Jeanne's wrong," Lightning pulled her arm free, "You're free to come along, Jihl, but I'm doing this."
"Oh, for heaven's sakes." Jihl groaned, "Fang, go!" Lightning unexpectedly tripped as something heavy crashed into her back.
"Hey!" Lightning snapped, stumbling face-first to the ground with Fang on her back. She turned and shoved her off, finding Jihl suspiciously standing above them. "Jihl— "
"What are you waiting for?" Jihl stepped back as Lightning swiped at her, "Restrain her, Fang!"
"Sorry, Lightning," Fang unexpectedly apologized, and a second later, Lightning felt her hand tighten over her arm. "What the— " Fang was already moving above her. Lightning would have none of that.
"Really?" Lightning lifted Fang a little to toss her off a few feet. "I'm Umbra, Fang. No offense." She started to stand.
"Don't take that!" Jihl riled up. With a growl, Fang picked up surprisingly fast and rushed her. Lightning's back hit the ground again with a thump. "Yeah, get her!"
"Fuck, Fang!" Lightning groaned as the woman's weight pressed atop of her to pin. By no means a master of her Umbra strength, Lightning wasn't feeble either. When it failed to rush through her at mental command enough to kick Fang off, Lightning wrapped her arms around her to throw her off. Fang clung with her legs and rolled with Lightning enough to get them both on their sides. A strong hand braced onto her shoulder as Fang untangled their legs. Lightning found a face-full of dirt in another second and spat as Fang's weight pressured into her back, legs successfully holding down Lightning's with stronger pressure.
"That's it!" Jihl encouraged, and Lightning looked at her incredulously, "Sometimes you just need a little topping," Jihl tsked, "Hey, Serah!" she called out, louder, "You'll want to see this!"
Strength surged through Lightning. She pushed up both of them, startling Fang to collapse on her. Twisting, Lightning let gravity take her in falling— elbow right into Fang's stomach, who choked. "Ohh," Jihl winced, but before Lightning could get up, Fang's legs wrapped around her stomach and clung to her legs. Her arms looped up under Lightning's and connected behind her head.
"Fang!" Lightning barked, taut as she tried to break the hold. "Get offa me!"
"You're Umbra," Fang said quietly in her ear, "I'm Ragnarok."
"Is that repartee?" Lightning balked, incredulous in her stuck position. "From you?"
"Shh, shh!" Jihl hushed, "Sit down. This is getting good. Look at Fang, smiling back there."
"You're smiling?" Lightning balked, straining for her Umbra strength.
"Ooh! Beat her good, Fang!" Rhea cheered.
"Why are they all voting for you?"
"I'm here for you, Claire!" Serah supported sweetly.
"Really?" Jihl teased, "Those red cheeks are for Claire?" Serah made a noise like a mouse.
"Give up?" Fang asked, and Lightning could practically hear the grin in her voice.
"Okay," She could've stayed there and focused until her strength returned with a sudden push, but time was wasting. Encouraging as Fang's… amusement in this was, she wasn't going to stay put for Jihl. "I give."
"Did I hear that right?" Jihl asked in total delight. "Say it louder, Light."
Lightning gave her a dark look, but Fang didn't let go yet either. She sighed and said louder. "I give, Fang."
"Oh, that's what you said." Jihl grinned as Fang released and Lightning stood. Lightning gave her eyes as she dusted herself off.
"See if you get happy tonight," Lightning muttered darkly. Finally. She had an advantage here that neither Jihl nor Fang did. "Hey, Serah?"
"Hmm?" Serah asked, barely lifting her eyes as Fang stood up too, beautiful as she ever was.
"Watch Rhea while we're out."
Jihl looked up sharply. Lightning was already halfway across the yard. "HEY!"
"You haven't just been living with the savages," Selene said in complete distaste, "Now you've become one? When we thought you could fall no further, Raina," Selene shuddered. "How many times will you choose our pets over your own people? We should strip you of our clan and powers, you're so revolting. Poor Tethys."
Nerites had to agree. While she didn't share Selene's Holier-Than-Thou nature, there was no understanding this new, self-destructive maneuver from Raina. The woman had to be a masochist, her actions were so condemning.
"It's not your concern, Selene." Raina bit back sharply, holding Farron so disturbingly close to her breast in the Yun's protection.
"Isn't it, Raina?" Techne challenged right back, "Selene is right. You've shown yourself untrustworthy to our people on numerous occasion by now. First in your rebuke against Ragnarok,"
"Against rape," Raina cut in, and was ignored as Techne overran her.
"And now, you've joined yourself to a Yun in a hidden community none of us have ever found before. What other secrets are you hiding from us? Have you aligned yourself with the persecuted now? You make us wonder if we should expect to wake with knives in our backs, Raina."
"I'm not here for any of you," Raina snapped, "And my mate and children are none of your business."
"Children?" Roma caught with interest, both striking and infuriating Raina at once. "My, Raina, you have been busy in our absence. That must've taken a lot of work to accomplish so quickly. Spawning up a resistance, are you?"
Nerites rolled her eyes. Her sisters could be so childish in these outlandish, manipulative claims. So, Raina had taken a Yun 'mate.' It was filthy, low, and a harsh blow to Tethys, but her sympathies for their kind and Fang— Gods, her sickening sympathy for Fang— had always been blatant and distasteful to this council. Despicable and traitorous as her actions continued to be, she wasn't starting a resistance elsewhere. Raina had no taste for subtly, as she'd demonstrated thousands of times over again. She'd never be able to pull something like that off behind the scenes. Most likely she'd run off to live with that 'mate.' Disgusting, Nerites agreed.
"I'd have nothing to do with any of you if it weren't for my eldest!" Raina spat, "Not to plot, rejoin, or participate in any manner. I've proven that for fourteen years!"
Jeanne shot into the air for attention, supremely aggravated. "Sisters! Can we keep one track of attention? Raina's relationship is not the point of this meeting, nor does it have bearing on what we've come to discuss today."
"It does have bearing, Jeanne." Nephelai defending. "Farron's presence here is something we need to discuss if she and any offspring Raina's brought with her intend to stay. Are those your intentions, Raina?"
"Or we could have someone escort Farron back," Roma suggested with a sly smile. "Bring your… family back home, Raina."
Raina stiffened, between a rock and a hard place. "She doesn't need an escort home, Roma."
"Fine," Roma said, smile not fading, "No problem then. Farron's going home after this meeting today."
Farron nudged Raina noticeably, and worse, Raina took in the Yun's worries and said, "No. Farron's going to stay… for a time."
"Might we remind you, Raina, that you are a guest here, and that call is not your own." Hecate suggested coldly, dull eyes flickering to Techne, her wife.
"It doesn't really affect the Umbra either way, does it?" Raina challenged openly, her lack of subtly showing badly. "Farron and my girls will stay with me at Jeanne's."
"Doesn't affect us?" Soteria unexpectedly voiced, "She's a Yun living in Paradiso, worse, the one you broke Tethys over. The effect is great, Raina. If we're not breeding with her, she should not be allowed in Paradiso."
"You won't hear a word from any of us," Raina snapped, "What senseless manipulation of the Ordinance is this from? That a guest is not permitted unless she's being raped? I am reminded of how I left so easily from this conniving place!"
"Raina," Cereza cautioned quietly and looped an arm to draw her back with Farron. She spoke something quietly Nerites couldn't quite hear, but then Jeanne spoke again over all of them.
"Enough, sisters! If Raina stays with Farron and any other child she might have, they'll stay under the same roof at my house. We are not here to discuss our opinions or distaste over Raina's choices since leaving us; what we do need to speak of is the Sage's location that has recently been revealed to us, and— "
The grand hall doors boomed open, doors that stretched 100 feet high. Only an Umbra could move it. Nerites, along with the rest of her sisters, looked to the grand doors where a short pair of heads strode in, black and blonde accordingly. "What is this?" Roma scoffed, "A family reunion? Raina cannot even control her offspring over barging into our meetings!"
"I have information concerning the Sage." Lightning announced blatantly, staggering the whole room at once for a second time that day. Nerites eyed the stalking girl as Jihl came in behind her, hissing something quietly. When the other sisters were too preoccupied to speak, Nephelai asked simply. "What information do you hold about the Sage, child?" her eyes flickered over Jeanne. "We'll discuss other matters later."
"Jeanne didn't know anything," Lightning announced boldly, much different from her shier demeanor Nerites had witnessed on two other occasions. "I didn't tell her until today, and I wouldn't have told if it weren't for her and Cereza, and my mom and dad. So, you should all be damn grateful because they're the reason I had any change of heart at all to reveal these things."
"Lightning," Raina breathed like panting, and went for her, but Lightning continued anyway, holding up a hand to her mother.
"I knew the Sage," Lightning announced to all of them, freezing Nerites grip on the railing she overlooked to the child below. "He was kind, like a father to me, but he hates all of you. He wants to see the Umbra destroyed. He's responsible for our kidnappings, and the reason why Jihl and I were freed. After years of indoctrination; he thought he had us in his pocket to do his bidding. And he did with me for a time."
"You were spies!" Roma accused suddenly, eyes lighting up with the accusation.
"Oh, shut up, Roma." Persephone unexpectedly snapped. Usually mild, moderate, and wise with her choice of wording, she just seemed annoyed by this point. "If Carme had come back in a manipulated state, you wouldn't hear a word against her. Let the girl speak for once."
Lightning only acknowledged the appeal with a small glance, then continued immediately, taking her advantage fast. "A few of you, mostly my mom and dad, have since brought me out of the delusion, and I'm here to help. Jihl and I both know the extensive layout of Sage's location and what kind of resistance you can expect in storming the place. We'll give you exact details of everything we know about the place. I want the warfront to succeed more than anyone now, and Jihl always has.
So, if there's any blame to lay, it's that I wasn't broken from Sage's manipulation when everything he'd been saying seemed to be true of the Umbra. And that's not Mom's fault, or Jeanne's, or anyone who's dissented the general way of things here." Lightning said, meaning exactly opposite in who's fault she did consider this to be. Nerites arched an eyebrow. This one had an opinion and a wicked tongue like her mother, if more subtle in accusing Nerites fellow sisters of rape, at least. Deathly subtle, even, laying the blame elsewhere to be had. It might've even been too good, considering the shy girl Nerites had seen this one come from to this.
"Lightning," Nerites called out to her, drawing the little one's head from far below. "No one doubts what you've been through, and I've no doubt you've conditioned yourself into many terrible things to survive," Nerites scrutinized her with watchful eyes. "But that being said, this seems an awfully convenient time to put the word forward about knowing of a Sage when we've been scanning Cocoon for over a month in search of him or them, wouldn't you say?"
"I wouldn't," Lightning objected boldly, "Jeanne and Cereza never made me aware of the war effort until today, knowing I wasn't ready to let go. I don't think it's much of a surprise that the arrival of my father comes with finally snapping me from delusion at all. The Sage's hold on me rooted with a story of my male father escaping the Umbra; since the Umbra all know that's not possible, and my father just came in the same day, I think you can all judge where my proof came from."
Interesting, Nerites thought speculatively. She seemed to have a ready answer for everything; this was not the Lightning they'd seen before. "And what made you sure, Lightning? The manipulation could not have been so easy to break of with a simple, friendly appearance of a face."
"It wasn't," Lightning answered easily, and Nerites eyebrow lifted as her hair extended, revealing a champagne coloring that matched her father's. "This was only the last of things," Lightning said, lifting a strand of it as proof. "Jeanne, Cereza, Jihl, and my parents broke me from the rest throughout the time we've been here."
"Fair enough, Lightning." Techne claimed from the other side of the hall, "Would you be willing to send your father in reconnaissance of everything you're about to tell us?"
"What?" Lightning slipped up, choking over the suggestion. "No! Dad doesn't— "
"I see." Techne interrupted. "You won't send someone you love to this location, but you're willing to send all of us? Hmm."
"Techne, that proves nothing," Thalia threw back, "Except that she loves her father. We, ourselves, just decided it'd be way too dangerous for Farron to go."
"So, you'd feel comfortable riding in blind on a claimed previously-brainwashed girl's testimony that she's changed?" Techne tossed back.
"Even if you would, Thalia," Selene said with supreme eyes of distaste. "Clearly, we've made an impression. Assuming she hasn't told you anything before this, Jeanne," Selene's eyes ticked in the woman's direction, judging for something Jeanne seemed to pass, "How do we know this isn't another of her games? I don't know about you, Sisters, but it seemed to me Lightning had honest intentions to help us procreate, hmm?" Some other Umbra seemed unsettled in agreement.
"I wouldn't send the Umbra to their deaths." Lightning claimed boldly, interpreting Selene perfectly.
"Wouldn't you?" Selene posed in distinct distaste.
"I'm sending my mother and Jihl's with you!"
"A thing that could easily deterred with a little misleading. Clever child," Selene murmured in distinct suspicion. "Why don't you say it plainly? You disapprove of the rapes, have sympathy for Ragnarok and her kind, most especially since meeting your father, and now you intend to gallivant us into a foreign world on your word alone that there's one Sage sitting unexpectedly waiting for us?" Selene offered her a smile at the murmur rising around the room, "Kudos, child."