"Serah? How did you—"

Lightning stared for many long moments, her mind scrambling, grasping frantically at the faintest gleaming of sense that flashed through her mind. Her voice had caught in her throat; her legs refused to budge. No messages being sent from her brain were being transmitted to the other areas of her body. The only thing she could do was stare in semi-horror at the shade that resembled her sister.

How did she know it wasn't really Serah? Why was it so apparent to her and no other soul? And, if it was so apparent to her, why couldn't she do a damn thing about it? Why was she frozen in her spot, holding her breath, hardly daring to blink?

That's when she spied it again: Serah's engagement necklace, dangling from her neck, gleaming menacingly in the sunlight. Suddenly, her paralysis made a little more sense; her strangling fear became more understandable. Her eyes remained locked on Serah and her blood boiled at the sight of this…of whatever this thing was taking on the form of her sister, but ice soon replaced the flames in her veins when Snow—clueless, bumbling, idiotic Snow—opened his arms wide to welcome Serah. Sazh released an audible growl behind Lightning, though whether it was because he sensed the wrongness of the situation or because Snow was being a total bastard was beyond Lightning at the moment.

No, the only thing she could concentrate on was the sudden ringing in her ears and the violent drop of her heart into her stomach. She felt as though someone had stabbed her chest, wrenched it sideways, and then punched her in the stomach with brass knuckles when she saw Snow embracing Serah in the same way he had done to Lightning not so long ago. Lightning stared dumbly at the two figures before her, her mind alternating between loathing, hate, anger, and an overwhelming depression that threatened to send her teetering over the deep end. Each time she drew too near to the edge, she'd let her rage silently consume her again as a distraction.

But it would never last, that rage. The sadness, the crushing sense of loneliness, always seeped right back in.

Hope shifted behind Lightning, drawing near to her elbow, his face a dangerous scowl. His check brushed against her arm; his hand gently grazed over the top of Lightning's fingers, but his eyes, glinting dangerously, never left Snow.

"All the time I was asleep, I knew what was happening."

Oh, really? All this time you were asleep, you knew what was going on, huh? So that's why you're running back into Snow's arms? That's it?

Why couldn't Snow see it? What the hell was wrong with him? Was he so desperate to see Serah that he'd take this pathetic excuse of a puppet and accept that as his former fiancée?

Wait—was that it? Had he missed Serah that much?

Had Lightning really only been a substitute?

Doubts came again, and this time there were reasons for them. Indisputable proof, in Lightning's eyes, that she had been used. Undeniable evidence that Snow hadn't really cared for her, not like he said: he just wanted a warm body to snuggle up to, one that reminded him of his dearly beloved. His words probably hadn't been for her after all: they were probably all for his benefit, so he could gain something. They were probably all lies.

He never meant a damn thing, did he?

I'm a soldier, she thought bitterly. A killer. The anti-hero. I don't have the right to be happy. I fight and give everyone else the chance to have it. That's my role. My purpose. Everybody else just uses me to help themselves, don't they? Even Snow.

"I kept trying to think of a way to save Cocoon—together."

And that's when Snow snapped back to reality. He uttered Serah's name, shoved her away: repulsion, shock, horror, and the signature expression of someone who knew that he just screwed up royally was etched all over his face as he stumbled backwards several steps. He glanced quickly towards Lightning, who didn't even grace him with an acknowledging nod - her eyes remained coolly forward, sending all her hate towards the phantom-puppet before her.

Hope, sensing Lightning's rising ire, pressed himself closer to Lightning. "Let's beat the crap out of it," he seethed, though whether he meant Serah or Snow, Lightning wasn't entirely sure.

Serah rose to her feet, slowly. "You get it now," she said softly. "There are no gods with miracles to save us, no matter where you look."

Lightning's glare of intense hatred heated to unfathomable levels. She didn't know why, exactly, she was so upset. It could have been because this beast took on the form of her sister; of pure, innocent Serah. Perhaps it was because it had been a long night and her nerves were wearing thin. Or, perhaps it was because of that crushing feeling that Snow wasn't meant to be hers, that Lightning wasn't supposed to be happy, that Snow had wanted Serah all along, that she had been lied to, that every single damn time she got close to something it was ruthlessly ripped from her grasp…

Or maybe because, for the first time ever, Lightning was experiencing something akin to heartbreak at the sight of her sister and Snow together. She finally understood what she was doing with Snow, that she was taking Snow away from her only flesh and blood, and that she had endured all those trials of getting over her sense of betrayal just to see this…

Her jaw set, and her hand itched to reach for her sword. Her body was slowly humming back to life. Perhaps, within a few minutes, it would respond to her brain and she could destroy the vile monster before her that had just stolen the euphoric feeling from Lightning's gut.

"Destroy Orphan!" False Serah pleaded. "We'll save the world!"

Finally, Lightning snapped. She felt it, too, deep within her—deep within her chest, buried beneath her brand. She felt all the many years' worth of buried tears spring to her eyes, her heart felt like it stopped beating and her body went cold as the last of her walls came tumbling down. "Stop it!" she cried, and her voice shook with an emotion that echoed her despair.

Serah wanted to save the world? Together? It echoed too many conversations with Snow. It echoed far too many of Lightning's fears—that Lightning could do nothing without Serah, that in the end Lightning was useless to protect anybody. In the end, everybody could do their own thing without Lightning and they'd be just fine. It was entirely selfish, she realized this, but it was time for her to face the truth of it all. She was on this journey for something far more than just "saving Serah"—she was here so she could regain a purpose within her life, to feel loved and needed, and all that seemed to be shattering. This specter had reclaimed the one thing that Lightning had gained, she thought—

"You can't do that. You love me too much."

Lightning stood there, at a loss, too lost in her own irrational thoughts to make sense of anything.

"You do. Don't you, Claire?"

It was hard to miss the devilish twinkle in Serah's eyes, the all-knowing smirk that played her lips. Lightning's hands transformed into fists, ready to strike, when Snow finally roused from his slumber.

"Enough already!" Snow stood—protectively?—before Lightning, his face grim and full of regret and loathing. "Listen up. We are all shooting for the same goal here."

Are we Snow? Are we really? What goal are you hoping to attain through all this? Power over me? Making me feel like shit right now? Sex? What was the point?

And then, as if to assist Snow's inability to see, Serah transformed into the beast she truly was—Barthandelus.

A small voice within her almost laughed. Lightning herself had to fight the urge as well. Of course it was Barthandelus—who else would it have been? Only he would have known how to pull the strings so well. Only he knew how to bring about the depths of despair that Lightning now felt. Only he knew how to manipulate the situation to his advantage. She should have seen it sooner.

"And the result of that is this." The head of the Sanctum held his arms wide, like Snow had when he welcomed Serah back into his loving arms. Snow recognized immediately who was being mocked.

"You son of a –" he charged forward wildly, his own teeming emotions guiding his swing. It was an effort as fruitless as any other against the mastermind of the Sanctum: the old man merely vanished, only to reappear a few feet away. Snow recovered quickly, rushing forward yet again, but his fist was blocked by a shield that sent him flying backwards, towards Lightning, and he crashed onto his back.
Lightning didn't even bother to check if he was okay. Instead, she used her training to calm herself down to a point where her emotions didn't blind her vision, to where she was the cold soldier she was used to being. While she settled, Barthandelus began speaking.

"You betray your fal'Cie to chase after dreams and shadows," he said slowly, deliberately. Lightning knew what he meant—they betrayed Cocoon's fal'Cie's orders to try and save themselves, and their world. In the mean time they chased the shadow of hope that was saving Serah, and, in Lightning's case, the dream of maybe finding her real purpose in life, the one that didn't involve bending everything around Serah's will.

The dream that could have involved Snow.

She berated herself for the thought, focusing intently now on the old man before her.

"The world you claim to wish to protect now faces the end of days with no hope of salvation."

Lightning grunted. "I didn't think fal'Cie had the means!" The fal'Cies' destiny was chosen for them already. They could do nothing outside of serving the humans that had become their pets—that is, they couldn't do anything aside from giving those same humans a hazy focus to complete. Ending the world wasn't in their job description.

Although he did a hell of a job ruining my world.

Barthandelus smirked in his all-knowing way, only making Lightning more resolute in ensuring that this bastard was going to get the flaming shit beaten out of him.

"Oh, it won't be fal'Cie who destroy her," he said mechanically. "For centuries now Cocoon has provided generously for its human inhabitants' every want and need. Coddled them, one might even say. The result being a deep-seated fear and hatred of change and all things alien."

Lightning saw Fang shift out of the corner of her eye. She also noted that Fang's weapon was drawn, and a mirthless smile was on her lips.

"Fed, nurtured, and ready to detonate at the slightest spark. The seeds of destruction take root, even now."

That's when it all started snapping into place within Lightning's head. "What did you do to Cocoon?" she spewed venom at the elderly man before her as her body finally responded to its deep-seated desire to draw her weapon.

Barthandelus grinned again. "I resigned, appointing Raines as Primarch in my stead."

Snow seemed shaken out of his regret and self-loathing at this revelation, which had also affected Lightning. "Raines? He's alive?"

He seemed so…eager at that thought.

Of course he is. If Raines recovered from his crystal stasis, that means Serah can, too.

That sadness and guilt penetrated her heart yet again.

"The puppet is restrung to serve my needs, yes. Its eyes had long since turned to glass. Of course, the Calvary's eyes will see our friend as nothing more than a traitor to their cause. They'll say the fal'Cie got to him, too, or some such drivel. And imagine—when I spread word that it's Orphan tugging at his strings—what happens next."

Lightning's head lowered, ready to charge, but Sazh's voice somehow dragged her back, away from the violence. "You're gonna use the Cavalry to take the thing out?" He said incredulously. Snow turned to look at Sazh, and then came to rest on Lightning. She felt—actually felt—the longing in his gaze, but she had no doubt in her mind that the yearning was for Serah. Not her.

Never her.

The growing smirk on Barthandelus' face sealed the man's fate: everyone drew their weapons, even as he finished laying out his intentions, and the noise of Vanille's rod striking the ground returned Lightning to battle mode. "Perhaps. Or perhaps I'll feign the howling of Pulsian wolves and let the fear-addled sheep slaughter themselves first. Either way, the end is at hand." He laughed in a way that nearly made Lightning shiver. "But what of yourselves? Will you enjoy the festivities beside me?"

Snow's head finally snapped back towards the former Primarch, glaring mightily.

"Or perhaps," Barthandelus raised his staff high in the air, a blinding glow surrounding him as his mechanical bird flew down to greet him. "Greet the end here, in the land where it all began?"

"Kiss my ass!" Sazh bellowed, firing off an entire clip once Barthandelus transformed into his terrifyingly large alter-ego. Hope, who had been hugging close to Lightning's side, immediately laid his hand on Lightning's shoulder, and she saw the faint glimmer that was a protective spell encase her. His hand dallied on her skin before he darted to the opposite end of the field, doing the same for Vanille, Fang, himself, and then Sazh—Lightning noted with some satisfaction that Snow went without.

"Vanille! Hope! Behind the group, support roles! Fang—saboteur, now!" Lightning issued her orders clearly, concisely, needing the chance to melt back into her former commanding role. When she was nothing more than a soldier, she didn't have to feel. She only had to concentrate, to think logically and get the battle done. As long as she had a goal, a target to kill, she could handle the confusing rush of emotions that threatened to swallow her whole. At least, for now.

"You need me to fight!" Fang hissed. "I'm better than—"

"You're the best saboteur we have, so do the job I give you!" Lightning shouted as she lowered the tip of her blade to the ground, dancing between raining blows of missiles and other such nonsense that Barthandelus was sending her way.



"You need my spells! Lightning! You need me!" Hope cried as he watched Lightning's blows fall fruitlessly on Barthandelus.

"I wouldn't if Fang would do her damn job!"


"Shut the hell up, Snow," she spat, whirling around once to face him. "I didn't ask for your opinion, and I don't want it now!"

Fang continued to argue with Lightning while Lightning charged forward endlessly, her blade working tirelessly against their hardy foe. She didn't particularly care that her attacks were less effective—it'd just mean more time on the battlefield, more time away from…from everything else.

Finally, after seeing Lightning's many attacks hardly scratch Barthandelus, Hope dashed between Snow and Sazh, roughly shoving the former to the side, and stood directly in the center of the battlefield. She saw that familiar fire in his eyes, the same one she had caught a glimpse of when he had darted into the caverns of Mah'habara, and she knew what was coming. Quickly, she hopped down off of the puppeteer and tucked herself into a neat somersault that carried her far from the imminent explosion that was to follow. She may not have seen it, but she felt its searing heat on the back of her legs and neck, and was nearly deafened by the roar that came after.

Lightning stood by Hope's side, preparing for her next assault. "I told you," Hope huffed. "Next time, listen to me."

His eyes locked on hers, and Lightning knew that his words were meant for more than just this battle. She didn't have the energy at that moment to backhand him.

But, damn it all, she wished she did.

The battle was nearing its end after well over an hour of endless combat. Lightning had never endured a battle such as this and, she had to admit, it had taken its toll on her. Mentally speaking she was just okay: she could focus on the battle so long as her eyes didn't happen to land on an equally-struggling Snow, who would cast her sideways glances every time he so much as felt her eyes upon him. Twice now their gazes had locked, and twice she hmphed audibly before destroying one of Barthandelus' creepy-ass heads that he wore. While Snow proved to be effective at allowing her to strike much harder, he was also causing her to make stupid mistakes like striking when she should have healed or defended.

In addition to making mistakes that nearly cost her, Lightning's disrupted mental judgment also meant that Hope, Vanille, and Sazh had nearly bitten the dust more than once. Hope had saved Lightning's ass four times already, and though it was usually Lightning who issued the orders on when to heal and when to change battle paradigms, Hope and Sazh took it upon themselves to pick up Lightning's slack: they, being a little more flexible in their l'Cie abilities than Snow, would switch to whatever role they believed would assist them the most without so much as saying a word to Lightning.

Physically, though, Lightning was, by far, the worst off. She had been relentless in her efforts of attacking the foe throughout the entire battle. Though her body was conditioned for such events, she found that her lack of sleep and the grueling day they'd had left her feebler than she was comfortable with. More than once she found herself knocked down by one of Barthandelus' attacks, and at one point her leg was split open in a nasty gash that nearly had her muscles spilling out of her thigh. It was a disgusting sight, and both Vanille and Snow had spied it at the same time. Vanille had cried out in dismay and tried to scramble over to Lightning's side, but Fang had yanked her back and shielded Vanille from another assault by Barthandelus. Snow's eyes had narrowed and he began sprinting across the battlefield to aid Lightning, but Hope, with a vicious snarl, lurched forward to Lightning's side and his healing spell flowed forth from his hand. His eyes locked with Lightning's, nodding once when the spell was complete and helped her to her feet, which was when she took off again to seek her vengeance.

Snow had stopped mid-sprint, his eyes darting between Hope and Lightning, before slinking back to his guard duty for Sazh. His stance was exceedingly defensive, to the point where the excess energy from Barthandelus' attacks had little effect on their brutish guardian: instead, it invigorated him with some semblance of strength that allowed him to rush forward, bellowing, his fists drawn back and prepared to pummel the first thing he laid hands on. Surging, raw emotions guided his attacks; a deep hatred and loathing that few understood but all appreciated, as his assaults were indeed putting a dent in the fal'Cie's armor.

Now Lightning stood with her gunblade lowered at her side, her eyes taking in the sight of the faltering fal'Cie before them. She knew it was almost defeated, but the prospect of what would come after its defeat was almost more daunting to her. She'd have to face Snow eventually, she knew that, but she wasn't sure how to avoid him for the time being. This battle was the only thing stalling the inevitable.

The thought of stalling, of purposefully giving this last stretch less than her all, came to mind. She wondered if she could pull it off without the others—namely Fang—catching on. A third and fourth glance was cast around at her troops, and the thought was dispelled from her mind at the sight of her haggard friends.

Vanille was supporting herself with her rods, leaning against them as she wearily raised her hands to throw a spell Sazh's way. Her eyes were heavy and her face and body were muddied and splashed with flecks of blood. Sazh appeared worn and tired, to the point where he could barely even stand without stumbling over himself. Fang was battered and bruised from shielding Vanille and Lightning as often as she had, and her favored staff had broken at some point during the fight, leaving her with a newer and less useful weapon.

Hope and Snow both appeared relatively similar: their clothing was torn at spots, and both sported blood on their coats and gloves. Hope's pant leg had been singed by his own spell that had backfired, somehow, and, strangely enough, Lightning swore she noticed a similar feature on Snow's pants. Both were exhausted, and yet both were still fighting valiantly, giving the battle everything they had. Hope was stumbling now, though, and would have fallen flat on his face were it not for Fang reaching down and steadying him with an even hand. He gave her a bleary smile and somehow mustered enough strength to conjure up another hailstorm.

Fang, after waiting out a deadly rain of blows from Barthandelus, charged forward, her polearm split into its three sections as she leaped high into the air. One section struck the left-most singing head in the eye, interrupting the spell it was preparing to cast. She twisted mid-air and wound her weapon around herself and, when everything was pulled tight, she released her gathered energy and delivered another devastating blow to the already-weakened head beside the first one she attacked. It died, faded away, and Fang, with a triumphant roar, landed safely back on the ground in time to receive another protection spell from Vanille.

Not wanting to be outdone, Sazh charged forward, his weapons emanating a cold energy. He grinned, tapped the icy sides of his guns, with his nose, and fired off a barrage of shots to the exact opposite heads that Fang had struck. "We men will get this shit taken care of!" he shouted, his enthusiasm masking his exhaustion. An entire clip from both guns was released, but the effect hadn't been as powerful as Sazh had hoped. Unbeknownst to Sazh, Lightning had charged Barthandelus and managed to be directly in Sazh's line of fire: as a result, Lightning had been forced to deflect Sazh's bullets, lest she be their primary target. "Oh. Oh shit."

"Watch where you're shooting, idiot!" Snow cried when Sazh backed himself near the giant. Sazh yelled something intelligible right back, just before Barthandelus began to charge for his next attack.

Hope collapsed as Barthandelus prepared his barrage of missles. Fang grabbed Vanille and tossed her by Hope, running over soon after to guard them both with an upraised staff, shouting Hope's name while Vanille summoned a potent revitalization spell. Snow protected Sazh as best he could, but the overgrown man glanced up to see Lightning fending for herself. Their eyes met and Lightning gave one of her signature glares before darting between the falling projectiles and nimbly jumping upon Barthandelus' shoulders to drive her sword into the monstrosity's skull, which was what she had been intending on doing before Sazh disrupted her. After over an hour of battling, it seemed as if their attacks finally had an effect on the main portion of the fal'Cie—its defenses had been lowered enough that her blade struck true. Moments later, Barthandelus was defeated…but not without saying a few final words.

The six of them stood there as they observed Barthandelus' retreat with weary eyes. None could compel themselves to so much as attempt to chase after him. When the portal appeared, Lightning knew it lead to Cocoon—to their ultimate goal. She knew Barthandelus was baiting them. She wanted to follow through with the plan, to go through the gate and seek their ultimate goal, but it wasn't because of any noble cause like finding Serah—it was simply so that she wouldn't have to deal with Snow again tonight, in Oerba. She wanted to be engaged in battle so that her mind could be free from thinking and dwelling on what had transpired between Snow and her sister. She just wanted to forget and move on.

Her conscious mind didn't seem to want to accept such reasoning, though, as it fed the lies of tactically speaking, it would be wise to charge the enemy now and waiting will only give Barthandelus more time to prepare. She knew something was wrong with these statements, and her sergeant's mind nagged at her to reconsider, but she would have none of it. They would move on, today, after they caught their breath.

She turned, holding her head high, and informed the group of her intentions, maintaining an even composure all the while. She felt the heavy stares of her teammates, heard the almost-silent mutterings of Sazh and saw Fang's exaggerated eye roll, but she wouldn't bring it up. They'd have to accept her decision without any further ado.

Far more aggravating was Vanille's sad, pity-filled eyes that weighed heavily on Lightning, and Snow's shame-filled glances in her direction. Perhaps the others sensed that Lightning's patience was about to snap, because they decided to separate of their own accord.

Fang was the first to speak. "We'll break first, like you said," she said with a small sigh. A tap on Vanille's shoulder alerted the young girl that Fang wanted her attention. "I saw some scraps a bit further back that might work wonders with your weapon…" With that, the two left, casting dark looks Snow's way as they passed him.

Sazh stood towards the back, his arms crossed and his mouth tight. "Snow, come with me to the terminal. I'm gonna hack into it and get some supplies. I can use your stupidly big arms to help me carry them back here." Snow, looking like a little boy about to be scolded, heeded Sazh's words and turned slowly to trail after Sazh, who had already begun stomping towards the ancient computer.

Hope was the only one left, and once everyone was a good distance away, Lightning willed herself to give him a small smile, which was not returned. Instead, she saw his normally placid blue eyes transform into a squall of gray. His head was lowered, casting shadows across his face, and in that moment he was both wonderful and terrible to behold. Lightning could see – no, sense –the thunder cackling around him, could feel his silent strength and power, despite the arduous battle they had just taken part of. His body was bruised and battered, the dark circles under his eyes spoke of his exhaustion, and yet he still managed to contain all of that while he held Lightning's steady gaze with his own.
He needs rest. Forcing him to move on is wrong.

Wrong? Another voice chimed in. This is wrong to you? No, 'wrong' was stealing your sister's fiancée. 'Wrong' was kissing him on the roof. 'Wrong' was hoping you could have a future with him.

No. 'Wrong' was going through all that just to see him run back to her—not even her. Just an image projected by Barthandelus.

She didn't remember it happening, but she found herself sitting on the bridge with her head in her hands, her mind in overdrive. Had she been foolish to think Snow would ever truly move beyond Serah? To fall for Lightning? Serah and Snow were made for each other. They fit, didn't they? Serah was the damsel in distress, he was the hero…and what was Lightning?

She was the battle-weary soldier. A bloodstained sergeant. Not Serah.

What had she expected to happen? She had known that heartbreak would be the only outcome. When did she become so delusional as to believe otherwise?

Warm hands wrapped partially around her upper arms, and she felt a familiar heat flood her body. A glance down made her heart skipped a single beat: she spied gloved hands.
But they belonged to Hope.

She sighed and relaxed her body to allow his cure spell to course through her more easily. "Thanks," she mumbled when she felt the sinews of her muscles pulling together. Her leg still ached, but it was already noticeably lessened than the unbearable pain from earlier.

Hope didn't say anything; instead his hands trailed further down her arms, still healing. Light fingertips graced her elbows, where they lingered.

"How bad do you feel?" He asked quietly, and although the voice belonged to Hope, it was deeper, huskier—full of battling emotions.

"I'm fine," she said automatically. Hope tutted and pressed forward, his chest pressing against the back of Lightning's head.

"Yeah, right," he muttered, his fingers continuing down towards her wrist. "You're not a very good liar."


Silence fell between them. She watched Hope's feather-light fingers dance over her skin in a healing trance. The rhythmic circles traveled from her upper arms to her wrists again and they distracted her from the painful memories and thoughts that plagued her.

There was a hesitation in the dance, and a sudden rigidness overtook Hope's body as a new harshness entered his voice. "Snow's an idiot," he said, forcefully. Lightning grunted in response. "I mean it, Light. He doesn't deserve someone like you. If I thought it'd make you feel better, I'd kill-"

"Enough," she said quietly, suddenly feeling very weary.

Even the thought of him dying was too much to endure right now. How much more death and loss could she take? First she lost her parents, then her childhood and social life, then Serah…now, when she thought she had gained something - someone - it got torn away from her by an illusion of another woman. Was it her lot in life to have fate make a mockery of her? To tempt her with happiness and then suddenly snatch it away?

What was she missing? What was she not understanding?

Hope's arms encircled her shoulders and hugged her tightly, his chin resting against the crown of her head. She felt his presence, and also a prickling sensation at her eyes.

How could she feel so lonely with so many people surrounding her?

"I'm here for you, Light."

She allowed one tear to fall for all the things she had lost and never regained. Nothing more.

"You damn idiot! Give me one damn good reason why I shouldn't blast your ass back to Cocoon!" Sazh hissed as he beat the keyboard of the terminal. He had been deathly quiet since they left Lightning many minutes prior.

Snow's shoulders slumped, his head hung. "Sazh, I don't—"

"Do you even know what the hell you just did to that woman?"

"I don't—"

"Of course not! You so stuck on yourself that you can't see the damage you causin' others!" Sazh huffed, his eyes darting quickly to the screen when the terminal began to beep irregularly. "Dammit." He punched more keys until, finally, it played a cheerful-sounding tune that signified they had gained access to the main public server on Cocoon. "You just broke that soldier, fool," he began again, this time more vehemently. "She had her hopes all up, was bein' all nice, and was as damn near to giddy as a woman like that gets, 'cause she thought you was all into her. And what'd you do, hm?"


"You done fucked up!" Sazh roared. "She looked like you ripped her heart out and fed it to those damn dinosaurs!"

"It wasn't that bad—"

"No?" Sazh laughed coldly. "What the hell do you know? You're an idiot, remember? I just told you that you were." More buttons were being pressed as Sazh placed his order, and the items were being created and mixed in the dispensing receptacle. "You just confirmed her doubts, boy. She was lookin' for a reason to not get involved, and your little display with that ugly-ass Barthandelus just gave her one hell of a reason."

Snow, though not entirely understanding why hugging the illusion of Serah was such a dreadful thing, knew that Sazh was probably more than correct in his analysis of the situation. He knew the truth behind his friend's words. Not knowing how else to properly vent his frustrations, Snow hit a fist against a piece of the concrete bridge that had somehow bent sideways, and was lying perpendicular to the rest of the cement. He felt the pain and remembered Mah'habara. He remembered Lightning coming to him. Remembered hurting her and pushing her away.

Would she come back to him again?

Snow looked over his shoulder and saw Hope with Lightning, embracing her, and he knew that he had hurt Lightning one too many times. She wasn't going to linger and help Snow heal while ignoring her own wounds.

Sazh shoved a handful of potions into Snow's hands. "You better try your damndest to make things up with her, 'cause if you don't, Fang and I'll beat the shit out of you. We'll enjoy it, too."

Fang and Vanille were the first to return. When they did, they were met with a stony-faced Lightning and an unreadable Hope.

"Ready to go?" Lightning asked, taking note of the shared glance between the unmoving two girls. "What now?" she snapped, her patience waning by the second.

"It's, well…" Vanille struggled to find the words that she so desperately sought, but Fang touched her shoulder, nodded, and picked up the conversation in her stead.
"I'm tired as hell. Vanille can barely walk straight. Sazh is cursing like a sailor and he's gonna start throwing punches soon. We need rest, Lightning."

Lightning stood and adjusted her gloves and shoulder plate. "Fine. We rest when we get to Cocoon."

Stupid idea? Yes. Fang knew this, too.

"That's the dumbest plan you've ever had!" Fang cried, her stance widening. "We don't know what's waiting for us on the other side of this gate. By the sounds of it, it's gonna be war. You're going to march dog-tired troops into that mess?"

A curl fell into her eyes as Lightning met Fang's dumbfounded stare. "That sounds about right."

"Stupid bitch," Fang grumbled, which caused Hope to protest. "Just 'cause you don't want to deal with Snow doesn't give you the right to sacrifice us!"

Silence fell immediately after Fang spoke. Lightning, not knowing if she should be angry, embarrassed, or shamed, merely stewed quietly in her spot, reflecting on the truth of Fang's statement. Without a sound she brushed her hair out of her eyes and strode forward, shoving past Fang, and made her way back to Oerba. She passed Sazh and Snow, the latter trying desperately to gain her attention by reaching out to her, but she snapped her hand away and continued on. Sazh transferred all the supplies he carried into Snow's already over-burdened arms, then jogged to catch up to Lightning.

"Where we goin'?"

"I'll figure that out once I get there."

Her angry footsteps stopped in front of a large warehouse near the bridge; the warehouse that they had cleared earlier without really exploring it. She threw her shoulder into the door and, as usual, it didn't budge. She swore loudly and readied her next assault when Sazh and Hope appeared at her side. Their combined strength reopened the doors and, without waiting, Lightning walked in and began setting up her bedroll in the furthest corner. There was a hideous black spider lurking there, along with a damp spot that looked like it probably had all kinds of bacteria in it, but she didn't particularly care – she just wanted to be alone.

"Fang and Vanille got watch tonight," Sazh said. Lightning grunted in approval as she draped her flimsy blanket over her bedroll.

Hope, after many minutes of debating, threw his bedroll down just a few feet away from Lightning. He almost reconsidered when he saw the gargantuan spider, but after throwing an excessively large fireball in its direction, and after seeing it was quite crisped, he was able to prepare his bed.

The other three arrived with Vanille in the lead, almost frantically setting up her bed. Fang followed shortly thereafter, red in the face and pissed off. Snow was some ways behind, a combination of fury and shame expressed on his countenance.

Lightning was glad to see him shamefaced.

Vanille and Sazh struck up a loud, forced conversation about sleeping arrangements—which was pointless, as Lightning, Hope, Sazh, and Vanille had already claimed their spaces—while Hope and Fang ruminated quietly in a corner together. Lightning busied herself with menial tasks until she felt someone watching her.

"What do you want?" she spun around quickly, her tone expressing her exasperation.

"To talk," Snow said timidly. "Upstairs."

Lightning blinked at him once, her arms hanging limply at her sides. "No." With that she bent down to untie her boots, but Snow caught her arm.

"We need to talk. Please."

"Touch me again," she hissed, "and see what happens." Her voice was venomous ice, and Snow knew that she was serious. He backed down, looking like a beaten puppy.
Lightning continued to ready herself for bed. Even while the others still spoke, she threw herself under her meager covers and rested her head on her hands, staring hard at the burned carcass of the arachnid only a few feet away.

Snow can burn in Hell with that spider.

Why should she talk to him? Their pathetic excuse of a romance barely lasted a day before he ran into the loving arms of an imaginary woman. He had spouted all that shit about being ready, about moving on – hell, he had even taken off his engagement necklace – and, what's worse, she had believed him. She had been ready to begin handing her heart over to him – and for what? So she could watch him run into her sister's arms?

Oh, the irony. It kills. Thank you, Fate. I owe you.

At least she found out what it felt like to be in Serah's shoes. At least their fling had barely started before it was over. That certainly had to be good for something.

But how long will I be alone for?

She paused at that. Would any man ever see her romantically, or would they ever dare to try? Perhaps they'd all end up being like Snow—try and gain Lightning's affections and then run away once they saw her for what she really was?

Was she capable of loving? Was she capable of being loved?

What was wrong with her?

Why did everyone leave her when she needed them most?

She closed her eyes, forcing herself to inhale slowly. I need to calm down. I'm getting carried away. Overreacting. Being dramatic.

The air in her lungs was released as slowly as it had entered, and once her blood pressure dropped back down to a normal level she was able to comprehend that the room was very quiet. Everyone must have turned in early, she believed.

Turned in early…like me and Snow. Barely lasting a day. But if it was so short, why did it hurt like it did?

She pulled her shabby blanket around her shoulders and stood quietly. Suddenly, she didn't want to be here. Some cool air was needed to clear her head.

Lightning tiptoed to the stairs, pausing when she saw Fang sitting near the stairwell, carefully pulling the curls of Sazh's afro while he slept with his head on her lap.

"Fresh air?" Fang asked quietly, releasing the curl so it snapped back in place. Lightning nodded once, solemnly, though she was almost disgusted by the sight of the two. "Good. If you need to talk—"

"I don't. Thanks," she said flatly, already halfway up the stairs. Her feet carried her the remainder of the way, where she opened the door to the rooftop. As she did so, her nose was assaulted by an array of aromas, all delicate in nature. As her eyes adjusted to the dim moonlight, she understood why – she was surrounded by flowers, hundreds of them, all of various types, and all in bloom. The bright petals appealed to her eyes and, with little extra thought, Lightning took a seat on a bench and leaned over to smell a daisy.

Serah loved daisies.

A frown possessed her lips when she recalled a time when, only a few months ago, Serah had brought home a bouquet of pure white daisies. Lightning had demanded to know who had given them to her, but the only response she had been given was "an admirer".

There was no doubt who the admirer had been.

She grunted and leaned back into the bench, clasping the blanket to her chest with one hand and holding the daisy to her nose with the other. As she remembered times long gone, she spied a large shape looming a few feet before her.

"Daisies don't suit you," Snow smiled weakly.

"Go the hell away. I told you I'd make you pay."

Snow's forced smile faltered. "Daisies just don't match. Too weak and delicate. We need something else for you."

"I said 'go away'. What didn't you understand?"

Snow was silent as he slowly peered over the flower beds, his hands clasped behind his back. "I made a mistake today," he announced, leaning down to examine a flower before righting himself again. "Seeing Serah—"

"Not Serah," Lightning interjected.

"Seeing the image of Serah took me off guard. I was relieved to see her. I thought maybe things would end. This whole l'Cie thing, I mean. She—the image—ran towards me. I didn't know what to do…"

"So you welcomed Serah back with open arms. Got it."

He sighed and rubbed his eyes in frustration. "I don't understand what's so terrible about what I did! I hugged the stupid thing. I didn't have sex with it!"

"That's not the point!" Lightning barked. The wind blew and a door creaked open behind a flowering bush. "The point is that you ran back to…to Serah without so much as a second thought. That says a lot."

Snow nodded where he stood, then leaned over to pluck a blossom. He lifted it to his eyes, scrutinizing it carefully, then turned to face Lightning, his face buried in shadows. "A rose."


"A rose. It suits you."

"How original."

Snow bit the inside of his cheek and drew nearer to Lightning, his eyes locked on the flower's petals.

A rose. Common. Everyday. Thanks, Snow.

"A rose," he enunciated clearly, bravely taking a seat next to Lightning. She drew her knees underneath her, withdrawing from his presence. "It looks…feminine. Delicate. Beautiful." He glanced up at her. "There's a lot of layers to the petals. It smells amazing." A slight smile on his part was not returned by Lightning. "But everyone knows that there's more to a rose than just that. It looks beautiful, but if you're not careful when you reach for it, it fights back. It resists—its thorns will dig in to you."

What is he trying to say? That I dig my thorns into everyone?

Snow looked frustrated. "The only way to get the flower without damaging it is to slowly reach for it; to know where the thorns are, to understand that they're there, and just…work with them. Maneuver around them, you know?"

"Does this have a point?" she snapped, feeling satisfied by the hurt that sprang into his eyes. Despite that, he continued with his thought.

"Then, sometimes, even after finding the thorns, the person reaching for the rose is still careless. He's too rough, grabs the flower, treats it badly, and injures himself…and the rose, too." At that he lifted his thumb to show a deep laceration. He then showed Lightning the stem of the rose, which was slightly bent from his efforts of pulling it from the dirt. "Look. What I'm trying to say is that I treated you wrong today. I acted without thinking, and as a result I hurt both of us, in one way or another. I'm sorry."

Lightning said nothing.

Snow sighed and broke off the stem of the rose, examining it a final time before tucking the flower behind her ear. "Beautiful but strong. Always prepared to defend itself. Yeah. Definitely a rose."

At that point Snow had the audacity to lean in and kiss her.

She was stupid enough to allow it to happen.

He was nervous, she could tell that much: where before he had been more aggressive with his display of passion, now he was carefully pressing his lips against hers, ready to jump away at the first sign of trouble. He knew he was walking on dangerous ground. As a few seconds went by without him being injured, he relaxed a bit, bringing his hand up to stroke the side of Lightning's face, to tuck the flower snugly back behind her ear yet again. Calloused hand found the back of her neck, pressing her head into his a bit more forcefully, and as he did so she felt his tongue gently gliding over her bottom lip. She very nearly granted him entrance, too.

She was so damn close to it that she became angry with herself for giving in so easily.

The hand that held the daisy soon dropped the small flower in her lap, then reached up and grabbed Snow's wrist, thrusting him backwards. "I can't forget what happened today that easily, Snow," she said, averting her gaze. "I need to think. I need you to leave."

He growled, frustrated, and leaned in again: this time hot kisses traced her jaw, the sensitive folds of her neck, her shoulder…she didn't want it to stop. A part of her wanted and needed the attention. She craved it in more than a physical way—in a sense, it almost reaffirmed that Snow's intentions had been entirely for her all along.

She could almost forget that she had taken second place when Serah appeared.

Her mind, always ahead of her heart, had already ordered her hands to push Snow back.

"No, Snow. I said no."


"She told you to leave, moron." Both heads swiveled over to see Hope standing near the doorway, his face donning a stubborn frown. His eyes were locked on Snow, and his footing was rooted to the ground. "So leave."

The two males glared at each other for some time before Snow stood wordlessly and departed, his knuckles white from forming tight fists, leaving a confused Lightning in his wake.

"What was that about?"

"Nothing," Hope said quickly, stepping nearer to Lightning. "I woke up and saw that you were gone, and so I...I came to see if you were okay. I mean, not that you couldn't defend yourself or anything," he added quickly. "I heard Snow arguing with Fang for a bit before he came up here…and then I came up soon after." The seat Snow had taken previously was now claimed by Hope, who was gently taking Lightning's hand, much to her discomfort. "So…are you okay?"

"Yup." She was thoughtfully silent for a few moments as she carefully removed her hand from his and clenched the blanket tight around her shoulders. "That was uncalled for with Snow. You shouldn't have called him a 'moron'."

"Well, he is a moron, and you've called him worse," Hope huffed. Lightning couldn't really argue against that, so she absentmindedly reached up and stroked the velvety petals of the rose, her thoughts immediately flying to Snow. Hope, perhaps sensing her darkening mood, reached up and peeled away a lock of hair hanging in Lightning's eyes. "You don't..." He bit his lip nervously as he dropped the curl to the side. "You don't look okay."

"Just tired."

She was far from tired—her mind raced at a hundred miles a minute, trying to understand Snow. How could he not see the big deal about letting another woman run into his arms? Why couldn't he understand Lightning's worries over where he really stood with Serah?

She felt a strange, comforting, pulsating sensation emanate through her body, originating at her temple. Her eyes traveled over to see Hope's hands glowing purple, and very soon after that her body became heavy and her eyes weary.

"Dammit, Hope," Lightning yawned as her head fell onto Hope's shoulders without her consent. While she sure as hell didn't want Hope sending her to sleep in such a manner, she knew she desperately needed the rest. She wouldn't have gotten it any other way; not with the road her mind was taking this night.

Hope chuckled, almost uncertainly, in response to Lightning's comment. "G'night…Claire," he said quietly, almost as if he didn't want Lightning to hear.

Lightning didn't even have a chance to respond: she was already fast asleep.

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