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It’s About Forking Time

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“At this rate, we’re never getting married.”

“Excuse me?”  Lightning whipped around to glare at me.

I hadn’t realized that I’d spoken aloud.  Though, she deserved to hear it, because it had been at the forefront of my mind for months on end.  Each time we’d come up with some sort of date: a month from now, sometime in the spring, or maybe winter, then again summer would be good too, Rygdea would call up with some urgent assignment.  All bookings, rentals, plans, etc. had to be trashed because off she’d go, whisked across the globe.

Fang was his second-in-command in name only; he definitely favored Lightning for anything important.  This week was the rare occasion where I was actually on break from college and was able to travel with her.  The cave we were exploring was cold, damp, and smelled of minerals that leached into your skin even after showering.

“Oh boy, this’ll be fun.  When my dad calls tonight to ask how we’re doing, I can tell him all about how I’m a veteran spelunker.  And that Rygdea hates me, and is doing this shit on purpose.”  I ran a finger along the slick wall beside me, “There is totally nothing here.”

“Just because you’re cold, doesn’t mean you have to act grouchy.”  Lightning huffed and then kept wandering further into the darkness, her flaming palm casting shadows over me.  “How many times do I have to explain?  Atomos doesn’t act randomly.  Majority of the time, his tunnels intersect with these underground pathways.  And we always find something or someone in them.”

“Sure, but all the video feed that you’ve shown me wasn’t nearly this long.  Almost like Atomos wanted you to find those temples or those people.  If, and this is a big if…  If there is something here, someone probably hid it for a reason.  We’ve had to blast through three cave-ins already… and they looked man-made.”  I stood still, trying to listen for anything besides our steps and the slow dripping of water.  “Doesn’t it bother you that we haven’t run into a single creature since we broke off from your squad?”

Her boots crunched across the rocky surface.  “Will you stop complaining?  Please.  Gods, Hope.  I haven’t been home in five weeks.  I don’t want to spend our entire time together with you bitching.”

I slumped forward and rested my chin on her shoulder.  So as not to burn her, I extinguished the flames in my hands before wrapping my arms around her midsection.  “When you invited me to visit, I pictured less dark caves with bulky gear,” I began to whisper into ear, “and more dark bedrooms with nudity.”

She reached back to pinch my nose firmly, “Did you forget we’re mic’ed?  Video feed? Everyone is watching, remember?”

To be completely honest, that had slipped my mind.  But I didn’t really care.  It would be a subtle reminder, that while the military had her loyalty, I had everything else.

“Rygdea?” I said, tapping my communicator to engage it, “Have the other teams come back yet?  Light and I haven’t seen any indications so far that we’ve picked the right vein.  Anyone see something down the other branches?”

“Nope.  Head back if you don’t find something in the next ten minutes.  Looks like a storm is on its way and we still have to shuttle everyone back to camp.”

Lightning’s boots clicked on the stone as she strode ahead of me.  Clicked.  They clicked instead of crunched into the gravel like they’d been doing the past hour.  I looked down and saw that the further we walked, the more marble pavement was exposed.  The large tiles reminded me of the Vestige, and my stomach dropped.

“We need to turn around.” I grabbed at her hand, trying to yank her backwards.  “Now.”

She stroked her thumb gently over my knuckles.  “That feeling is normal.  Anytime Fang or I get close to one of the temples, we can sense it.  Primal-ly.  It’s a hangover from when they used them to convert l’Cie.  Vanille gets violently ill; that’s why she stays behind in communications to watch the feed.”  She smiled with a bit of shame.  “Probably why you started acting out back there, you could feel it even before I could.  Sorry I didn’t warn you.  If I told you, you wouldn’t have come.  The second you called Rygdea to back out, I knew we must have been close.”

“Just to be clear.  We aren’t going to listen to our built in defensive radar that says, ‘DANGER! This is bad! Turn back now!’?  Because I’m all about listening to my running away instinct.  It’s kept me alive.”

She snorted and kissed me on the cheek, despite the recording.  “Keep telling yourself that.  When have you ever run away before?”

“I can start today.”

The path widened into a clearly framed hallway.  The walls and ceiling were square to each other and covered in the same marble tiles underfoot.  The dank atmosphere caused the wet surfaces to shine like mirrors.  Magic permeated every cubic centimeter of the air, heavy in my lungs and weighing down my limbs.  Even when we’d fought Orphan, I hadn’t felt such physical depth to a fal’Cie’s magic.  Something about the room scared the hell out of me.  Whatever was in here was something else.

The rhythmic, yet silent pulse within the room shifted any preconceived notions I had about our hierarchy in this world.  If I could put it into words, suddenly the fal’Cie seemed like royalty.  But whatever inhabited this space was far closer to a deity. 

“What… is that?”  Suddenly, Lightning let go of me and raced off toward a blurry shape in the distance.

The hallway ended and a grand multistory cavern lit up unaided.  The source of the light seemed to radiate straight from a blue crystal at its very center.

“Why does this look so famil….” Her words died off.

By the time I caught up with Lightning, she had placed her hand to the illuminated crystal.  It was a throne, with outcroppings jutting from the top like spires.  Its seat was so far off the ground that she would’ve had to make a series of running flips to reach it.  I doubted I could have scrambled up there if I tried.  The throne glowed through her palm, revealing every vein and bone in her hand.  Then something else caught her attention.  She peered around the back side of the pillar.

“There’s someone here,” she said, not particularly to me.

“Hold on,” I tried to grasp for her, wanting to pull her out of whatever trance she was in.

She would always be faster than me, stronger than me, better than me in almost every way.  But impulsivity, well, we both sucked at that one.

Before I could get a hold of her, she’d darted behind the throne and lunged for the statue.  He was kneeling prostrate.  His hair falling beside one side of his face.  Bits of crystal looked as if they were caught mid-splash, rising up around his feet.  A giant set of spikes burst from his back like frozen wings.

I threw myself at her, and barely managed to latch onto her wrist before her fingertip touched him.  Losing balance, I jerked us both to the ground.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” she said to me, finally back to normal.

I barely heard her, because like an idiot, I braced myself on the nearest object to stand.  The instant my palm made contact, an explosion rang across the cavernous room.  Dust rose from the floor and boulders dropped from the ceiling.  Rocks pelted us, and I was immediately knocked out.

Chapter Text

“Finally.  I was going to leave you here if you didn’t wake by the time I’d counted to a hundred again,” someone hovering above my face said.  The voice was female; it washed in and out of my ears without definition.  It should have been Lightning, but I could have been out long enough for a medic to arrive.

“How long was I out?” I blinked, then closed my eyes when the room blurred and spun.

“If I’d finished counting?  A little over ten minutes.  Far more time than I should be dallying on a battlefield.  Caius could return any second.  Get up.  I can’t drag you any further.”

Counting, battlefield, Caius?  Whoever this woman was, she kept speaking nonsense.  Sitting up, I took a second stab at opening my eyes.  The rubble surrounding my body wasn’t from the cave’s collapse. We were several stories up, in a ruined city, protected only by the crumbling floor above us.  A couple of paces ahead of me, the entire front of the building had collapsed at some point in the past.  I had a vantage of a rocky and blackened beach in the distance.

This wasn’t the far end of the Pulsian desert, that was for certain.  I turned to my apparent savior.  “What the hell are you wearing?” I asked, alarmed.

Lightning was crouched next me, weapon balanced across both her knees, surveying me with just as much scrutiny.  The gunblade wasn’t even her Blazefire or any of the other sabres she’d found and modified in recent years.  It was long, straight, and not remotely military issue.  Neither was her outfit.  I’d say her mostly metallic ensemble (boots, breastplate, belt, gauntlets, shoulder things) was probably more protective than her usual canvas getup, except, a flash of skin at her upper thigh revealed that her armor wasn’t pants.  Basically, her boots almost reached her underwear, and those were barely covered by the leather ribbons of a loincloth.  Why her knees were protected by enormous pointed guards, but her hip joints were bare confused the hell out of me.

But, the most unsettling thing about her was easily her face. I’d spent years, initially unintentionally but then later with full intention, observing her features. Flesh would fill out specific areas, scars would develop, lips would chap in winter, and freckles would form in long summers.  This woman had none of those things.  She was a blank slate, almost like someone had seen her from a distance, known she was beautiful, and then sculpted what they’d assumed would suit her best.

All of the qualities that made her radiant, terrifying, awe inspiring, and otherworldly were there.  This was the woman who brought down a planet.  However, this was not a woman I remotely knew.

“Why did you count to a hundred?”  Out of all the questions I could have come up with, I asked the stupidest one.  I didn’t bother formulating another.

She lifted a knee, letting the blade teeter in a calculated motion until its tip clinked against the face of my watch.  My timepiece flashed every letter and number simultaneously.  No date, no time, just an endless loop of the Cocoonian alphabet and numerical system.

“Time doesn’t pass in Valhalla.  It is always dusk.  When I need to know things, for instance how long I’ve been dressing a wound, I count seconds.  I’ve tried making tallies in the Goddess’s palace.  Originally it was for days passed.  But things written become arbitrary, and the longer I spent here, I lost track.  I could never tell if I’d been gone days, weeks, months, or if only minutes had passed since I last stood marking the stone wall.  Thus, I only count if necessary.  Counting aloud is the safest bet.”

“Oh,” I responded a little dimly.

“My turn.”  She stood, then grabbed my hand to pull me to my feet.  “How did you get here?  I don’t see a gate.”

“I don’t even know where here is, much less how we got here.”

Her eyebrows pinched along with her frown; less wrinkles formed than I was accustomed to.  “I never said I didn’t know how I came to be here, I was questioning your arrival.”

The more she spoke, the more the cadence of her voice seemed off.  Her sound, her patterns, her damn vocabulary appeared formulaic.  Each word was modulated, reined in, like she’d almost forgotten what conversation was.  Or, conversely, how talking to me should be entirely different than talking to anyone else.

“Light.”  As I spoke, she flinched.  “I don’t understand a goddamn word coming out of your mouth.  Probably a concussion, or maybe I’m in a coma.  Either way, if you think you’ve spent years wherever we are, then you need to get your ass over here.”

She’d been striding a couple of paces ahead of me, leading us somewhere.  I clasped at her belt where it arched above her hip to allow free movement of her legs.  Once I’d hooked it, I yanked forcefully and spun her into my arms.  I slipped my free hand to the back of her neck, so as to pull her flush to my body.  What I expected to be a soothing gesture for the both of us had an entirely different effect.  Simultaneously she bit my shoulder like a feral canid and kneed me in the gut.  Obviously, I released her.  Blade already drawn, she jumped back and took a defensive stance.

“What the hell was that?” I said, shaking myself out.  Thankfully, I’d barely been able to feel her teeth through my heavy gear.

“Just because I’ve hugged you as a child in pain, doesn’t give you the right to attack me like that.  I thought you were going to...”

For the briefest of moments, whatever was interfering with her personality fluttered away like a curtain before immediately snapping back in place.  Fleetingly, she was recognizable, then all at once she wasn’t.

“I give up.”  I bent over, scratched my head, and shook my hair in frustration before standing straight again.


 

Finally in the thick of it, the absence of time began ringing true.  Lightning led us through the maze-like abandoned city.  The journey could have lasted anywhere from hours to mere minutes.  The ache in my extremities was the only indicator that we’d been traveling a heck of a long time.

Abruptly, she halted in front of a doorway several flights up some decrepit palace.

“Wait here,” she said, motioning me to sit on an ornate but rotted bench.  “I need to ask her what to do with you.”

“Who?”

My question was left unanswered as she disappeared through the two-story high double doors.

“Great,” I mumbled to myself.  “I’m gods know where, Light has brain damage, and this is probably hell.  But what am I doing?  Waiting patiently for someone to pass judgement.”  I nudged a loose corner of the stone flooring, causing a pebble to break loose.  “A smarter person would take this chance to run.”

The door groaned open.  “That won’t be necessary.  Follow me.”

The room we entered was less like the darkened city and more like the underground temple. Tapestries depicting fal’Cie victories hung from the walls, radiant blue light spilled from an enormous throne, and the floor gleamed from regular maintenance.  The ceiling had caved in, exposing the ever twilight sky, and a deep gash in the building separated us from the throne.  Lightning had made the repairs she could, but the makeshift bridge of pipes and beams seemed questionable at best, lethal at worst.  She’d even mended the tapestries with knots and misshapen woolen stitches scattered amongst the silk.

“The Divine and Sorrowful Goddess Etro refuses to explain your presence here.  Only, that as I have done with Noel, I must ferry you from the Unseen Realm back to the land of the present.”

After extending her hand, the air near her fingertips crackled in a golden light.  With a snap of her fingers, a person sized seam appeared.

“Come,” she said, gesturing toward the glowing, sparking, pocket of air like it were a totally normal threshold.

“Perhaps, there’s a less electric means of transportation,” I said, hesitantly edging toward it.

“Do not question the Goddess.”  Her voice was even, but carried weight.

“Fine, fine.  If I’m already dead, what’s a little shock going to hurt?”

Clearly she’d had enough of me, because I felt her boot hit my back sending me tumbling forward into an expanse of nothingness.  The disorientation barely lasted before I lurched forward, my feet slogging through tall, wet grass.

Lightning took a deep breath behind me, then let it all out.  She repeated this several times until I turned around.  Her eyes were closed as she took in the moisture, and sun, and pollen which lifted off the blossoms crowding our feet.  Every second since I’d awoken had been more confusing than the one before it.

“I can’t believe she let me come,” she whispered cupping her hands over her mouth.

“I take it you don’t visit Pulse often?”

We’d arrived within the Yaschas Massif in the midst of spring.  I hadn’t visited there in years, but I could recognize it on sight.  Getting home from this distance would be a trek, but the pass was doable in this season.  If it were winter, getting to Oerba would require more equipment.  Especially with Lightning flouncing around in her underwear and pretend-pants.

“I’m gonna call Rygdea, see if anyone can either pick us up or meet us halfway to Oerba.”

Not wanting to be rerouted through various communication centers, I didn’t bother with my watch.  I pulled my phone from one of the pockets on my vest and located his personal number.

Positively nothing happened.  No ring.  No attempt at connection.  The screen lit up with his name, then immediately cycled back to the home screen as if connection were an impossibility.

“Duck.”

I half-yelped, half-gagged as she snapped me behind a bush by the back of my collar.  Expecting to see a monster, I peeked between the leaves.  All I actually saw were two human figures wandering aimlessly through the foliage.

“We took a wrong turn. I’ve seen that same boulder three times,” a young woman said.

“Different boulder.  I know my rocks, trust me,” a male still in his teens replied.

“And I know when we’re lost.”

“And it’s a heck of a lot harder when we don’t have lamps and signs saying ‘Academy basecamp this way.’”

“Because no one needs lamps and signs when the sun is out.  They can see the ruins are that direction.  Some of the buildings are visible from here.”

“Well, then you navigate.”

I felt embarrassed for them and sympathetic for Vanille and anyone else who had to listen to me and Lightning bicker constantly on the Comm Devices.  Note to self: you never know when someone is listening.  Try not to be a jackass.