A Stalemate of Stark Passions
It’s too goddamned much to take when she witnesses those visions.
Her donned in armor crafted from the hands of a deity that weeps, intangible and unnoticeable to man. Him broken by the burden of time, laying to rest the corpse of a dead-pale girl in a dismal sea.
Cocoon, a magnificent shell, succumbing to the might of Ragnorok’s great palm. Shattered bones and shards of crystal; rotting sinew and ruddy flesh and pooling blood. A towering spiral made of lies, luminous and clean one moment, stained in bloodshed and decaying cartilage and limp, swollen bodies the next. A pink-haired girl breathing her last — Serah, shit, Serah, no.
Innumerable faces, sobbing at the deaths of their loved ones, soldiers barking orders, mindless destruction. Murky seas of dark power clouding a verdant landscape, engulfing the world whole with their invincible jaws.
It’s fucked up, she thinks. And no matter how much she wants to close the gateways that are her eyes to shield them from the onslaught of the countless images that assail them, she can’t.
Her eyes, they’re brimming with some sort of gold symbol, and she’s hearing some feminine, ghostly voice whispering to her at the rims of her mind, apologizing. Sickeningly adoring her and the rest of humanity, always forgiving…
Fuck you, Etro. You and whatever other damn gods are out there. But despite her thoughts, they’re lost amid other ones. Some that want to say sorry, please, survive.
Through daring defiance, Lightning has run Blazefire Saber through many things. Targets that lashed back. Men, beasts. Damned false gods. Yes.
Shooting down men without a caring thought to slow her down. Decapitating a Behemoth with the aid of Bravery before cutting through the guts of another soldier, watching the snake-like, slimy, gore-painted intestines fall onto her feet in sadistic splatter.
Even now, her overcoat is blotched in dingy grays and vomit-textured browns of grime. Soiled in smudges of crimson while her cape is a partially frayed mess of threads ready to fall apart at the seams. Her limbs are imprinted with whole legions of macabre lesions. The black material on her left arm is narrowly in one piece, torn and sundered by bloody patterns that tell the story of ruthlessness.
Coarse blood runs along the contours of her battle-abraded skin. It’s itchy, hot, everywhere. And when she rubs calcium-deficient, bony fingers along the undersides of her tired eyes, she realizes there’s something warm streaming along the curves of her sweaty cheeks. The wetness seeps through the barricade of her busted, garish lips and into the vast expanse of her perspired mouth.
Tears, she comprehends, tasting the saline on her throbbing, bleeding tongue. It’s then that she wonders when was the last time she’s dared to shed any at all. Or even sob — sobbing is something she’s not sure she’s ever done before.
And it’s all pretty damn hard to tell, actually, when she’s in this timeless world, perpetually wandering, aimless…
The blood-curdling, eternal-like visions cease. The aurous glow in her eyes recedes, and when she blinks it’s through the gaze of any other human being. In the intestines of some ageless temple, before the throne of some goddess — some damned goddess — she falls to her yellow-bruised knees, heaving.
Freezing sweat streaks down from a clenching brow as her useless hands fall to the tiled floor, scraping chipped nails along the gritty surface in rage.
Tears aren’t coming down anymore, but there are remnants of them. Glossy and damp, they’ve cut through the dirt and dried blood on her face in vertical designs, leaving salty cleanliness in their wake. The droplets that have managed to fall have marked the floor in pearly liquid.
Lightning never looks down in the face of the targets she’s come to confront. On her feet, her chin will always be up when it can. On her back, she will not avert her eyes from what’s above her. And so here, on her knees, if she’s gonna have to endure the aftermath of seeing the whole fucking span of the world’s timeline right here and now, she’ll do so while looking up. Up at that damned throne, at the stupid deity that’s unseen to her human eyes.
But then there’s a beat. A pulse of something, glowing a luminescent red under the threadbare, shredded fabric of her turtleneck. Power festers in her reddening veins, runs through her, ripe and ready. Clenching her chest, she looks down at where her heart is, fails to bite back a shriek when the searing pain impales her with the force of thousands of swords and bullets cutting through flesh and bone all at once.
The visions are sometimes easy to recall all in fine detail. Some of them. And so she has a good idea of what it is that that blasted goddess’s done to her.
“You bitch,” she seethes in abrupt realization, eyes refocusing on the crystal throne, nails still scratching away at the ground as if they’re the claws of an enraged beast. “Why would you — ”
Lightning doesn’t finish. The echoes of impending footsteps have her struggling up onto her straining, somehow not-fractured legs, have her taut fingers coiled around the hilt of Blazefire Saber. Against the unbearable ache of her pounding arm, she whips out the blade, and the mechanisms sing as it seamlessly becomes a gun.
She swivels around on worn legs, biting through evil agony, glaring and growling. When she fires away at the motion-blurred man that’s coming her way, she thinks she’s only hearing the sound of her blood flowing through her. The ricochets of her constant shots coming off of that impossible, dark blade he’s got are nothing to her.
The universe narrows down to this one moment, the way some outside light limits itself to the confines of her brilliant saber. It glints along the beautiful, curvy indentations, shifting in tune with the cutting sound her blade makes every so often.
Her arm’s a servant of her now-transformed blade, an extension of a brutal, piercing edge. She forces her draining body to perform a riposte, only for him to easily sidestep her messy thrust. She’s too freaking sloppy, too damn slow, too fucking weak. Huffing, she stumbles backward from an incoming horizontal strike, murky steel only some inches from cleaving through her neck. Her vision’s a schizophrenic blur.
She’s got no energy left — to retaliate, dodge, parry. All she can do is block. And even when she shakingly raises Blazefire Saber to protect herself from that already-coming overhead strike, it doesn’t help. He’s bigger, stronger, than she is, much more. Soon she’s flying, and when her saber clatters against the floor, she thinks she’s hearing herself snorting bitterly.
Of course, she’d lose against him like this — bruised and beaten and on the verge of collapsing. There’d be no escape, even if she tried to get the hell out of here, really.
He’s Caius Ballad. She knows, because of those wretched visions.
Oh well. Least she tried to put up a fight. A shitty one, but better than being a pussy, at least.
She’s rolling on the floor, and the friction burns and chafes putrid flesh. Grunting through the agonizing torment, she knows she’s absolutely screwed. But it’s what stops her momentum that makes vermillion fluid burst outward from her opening mouth, speckling her chin with crimson droplets and streams.
He’s stopped her in a face-up position with a boot that’s compressing her ribs. One by one, the brittle things snap and crack, yanking harsh grunts from her deflating lungs. Through the suffering, she forces her glacial irises on his, makes sure unbeatable rage still pulses in them.
The vocalization he speaks with is controlled, infested with desiring malice and clandestine calmness. “You fought well, given the wounds you’ve endured. It’s a shame you won’t be a warrior goddess, after all.”
“Whatever, bastard,” she spits roughly as her body breaks, her glare nestling itself in several shades of fury. “Fuck off.”
He does not reply with meager words. Instead, he smirks, a sharp twist of his lips that’s both cruel and elated. And when the dull steel of that bulky sword punctures her, breast through bones through heart, a million things scar Lightning’s mind.
Names — Claire, Serah, everyone. Regrets — How many did I kill, how many did I save? Those godforsaken visions. Useless apologies. Fucking hopes and miracles that this somehow isn’t going to be the damn end of her life among many other things.
She’s disappointed that when she breathes no longer, she can’t find it in herself to make a satisfactory sorry in her whirlwind of a mind. A billion things want to escape from her — through her mouth, nostrils, eyes, whatever. But she can’t find it in herself to inhale and exhale now. All she can do is keep glaring through a steadfast stare at his mocking face, before the taut facial muscles on her own wear thin.
This really is it, she thinks. What a piss-poor way to go out.
The life from her stilling, frosty eyes, now gone. The rise and fall of her chest — blooming radiant blood along with drenched fabric and a dirty, metallic necklace as the sword withdraws — now motionless.
There is doubt in him when Ragnarok retreats from the woman’s breast. Even after he stabs the blade into the ground, knowing of its limitless durability.
It’s a festering thought that frolics amid his suspicion even when he kneels down to run careful fingers along the curves of her cold, pale throat, his other hand pressing against her chest, searching for a slimmer of an implausible pulse. Scarlet liquid scores itself into the palm that scours her gruesome, sinewy and cartilage-peeking mess of a breast.
It is inane, he thinks. Yeul has foreseen many possibilities of the way he and this warrior would cross paths. He recalls none that were precisely like this.
Still, he tried to kill her for good. It’d be best if this woman were never in his path and conveniently out of his way. Her interference in his plans would be unseemly, and he’d rather not risk having her influence about in the world’s timeline at all.
Right on cue, right when it dawns on him that something truly is off, her breast gleams a cutting red with untamed power. Shredded meat and osseous matter mend themselves within banners of brilliant light that surround her limp form. Defying gravity, her body floats as he’s already on his feet, readying a fierce Ruinga.
Feathers flit in the still air, falling amid him. When he lets the spell loose, a part of him knows it is futile. That this is not something that will put an end to her life. But he cannot simply stand by as she’s being revived by that wretched goddess at the same time.
Even when the Ruinga is reflected and he barely dodges the incoming blast, he does not take his eyes away from her. It’s as if she’s trapped in a pocket of time, naked and pristine as the day she was born.
The worn cape flits away from her. She is not filthy, bleeding, bruised, and battered anymore. She is free from the chaos and dirt around her. Her exposed limbs and breasts and legs are ivory and unscarred in the magical light that’s still swirling around her. She reminds him of angels, the strange and delicate creatures they are.
When she lands, it is on bare feet. Her eyes are thriving with vitriol and resolve, fixed on him.
Caius yanks up his blade from its cradle on the floor, placing his free palm on his thumping chest. He wants to smirk, but he finds he can’t at the same time. So he scowls.
“Etro has intervened yet again,” he drawls, watching her touch careful fingers to her breast. It’s like looking at a funhouse mirror of something he isn’t so different from being. “She has shared with you a piece of Her heart, woman. A heart that once belonged wholly to me.”
Because she’s standing there, baring all of her skin there is to see, there are certain temptations that scorn his dignity, almost make him look down and away from her expression. At what lies below that supple dip of skin, just beneath her clavicle.
Merciless as he is to all those that oppose him, there are certain things Caius cannot deny. Many times, he’s acknowledged the beauty of women and handsome men, whether they were fighters or not. It is no different this time, minus the fact that this is the first time in a millennium that he has seen a nude lady in person.
She is attractive. But that is all it will ever be to him: a notion. An observation.
He will never love her. In fact, a part of him will always loathe her. But he will adore cutting her down for good if he must, getting one step closer toward saving his Yeuls.
From top to bottom, shimmering magic runs down the contours of her frame. Resplendent armor is left in its wake, but her glower on him still doesn’t let up. It’s as if she’s all-seeing, omniscient. And when she aims a new-looking sword at him, her sash of pure feathers sways in tune to a fine wind.
He knows what this may possibly lead to. And while there were not nearly as many visions of them taking a different path, away from the impending eternal warfare in Valhalla, that he’s seen, he knows that there is still a chance, a mote of the possibility that he can sway her from this accursed cause.
It is that or fighting with her for eternity. In a warfare of unknown possibilities, few and far in between.
“Warrior Goddess,” he speaks in a nigh-inchoate rumble. “Stay your blade. I have an offer to make.”
Undeterred, Lightning doesn’t lower her sword, and her stance only rises. Fury brims in her gaze. “Why the hell should I take offers from a dick that killed me? And one who’s plotting to fuck up the world?”
He chuckles — a low guttural sound that flees his smirking lips — and takes a step forward. The scalpel-sharp tip of her blade being closer matters not. “You and I are not so different. Have you not had enough of the absurdity of these vile gods as I have? You have been a slave once, and now you are yet again, as I am. You have seen the potential fate that awaits your beloved, have you not? The deaths of those dear to me?”
If there is a flicker of a decision in her striking glare, he finds none. “I’ve seen all of it, asshole. Everything.”
He holds out a hand to her. It is inches apart from her sword. “What I will do will set us all free. Mankind, free from the shackles the gods have always had on us. Come with me, Warrior Goddess. We can make a new world, free from the chains of these deities. We will all be free to do as we please. Meanwhile, in this doomed world, we will always be bound to fate. And so it must die.”
For a moment, her blade arm twitches as does her expression, and he is satisfied until it resolves into that familiar resolute keenness he’s come to know. “I’m sick of having to do these gods’ dirty work, too. But I’m not helping you, either. That new world you’re gonna make? Screw it. I saw what it looks like, many times. Most of the time it looked worse than hell. You’re a fucking sick man.”
His smirk drops. “But it did not always look so grim, now did it? The future is full of endless possibilities, able to change at a moment’s notice. Perhaps with your assistance, it may even be less… gruesome.”
Lightning growls. “I’m not taking that chance. I’ll find my own way to free the world from the gods. I’ll die if I have to. I’ll even work for this damned goddess if I have to.”
Caius readies his blade. “This world is beyond saving. But so be it. So you’ve decided, then?”
“I made up my mind ages ago, jackass,” she retorts, whipping her blade to her side while her shield arm comes to her chest. Her stance is tense, prepared. “I will fight.”
From there on, it’s just fighting. Bloodshed. For how long, Lightning has no idea how to measure.
Maybe months. Years. Fucking centuries. Or whatever would be centuries in Valhalla. It’s timeless here. There’s no need to eat, sleep, think.
Unaging, she and he are to be trapped here, one way or another, for however long they’ll fight. Even if not physically imprisoned here, parts of them will always remain here. Their marred pasts, cursed souls, always lingering here in some way…
She’s carved bloody patterns in Caius’s suit as he has in her unprotected flesh. They are confined in an eternal stalemate, never losing, never winning. When she is sluggish, he is too. When she is energized, he is too.
She makes a sorry excuse for a sword slash at his face, and he limps backward, narrowly dodging.
She knows that Caius’s initial plan was to manipulate the timeline to get Noel to kill him. She really doesn’t get men like Caius; those that choose to do things the hard way because of some sort of stupid code of honor they hold themselves up to.
He wants Noel to traditionally succeed him, to take his place as Yeul’s guardian. Any time before Etro gave her a piece of Her heart, Caius could’ve simply killed himself. But no, he had to do things the way he believed best.
Even though all he really was planning on doing was twisting the guts of the timeline, manipulating the events to make Noel run that blade through his heart. Using methods that were anything but noble.
Caius, you fucking moron, she almost says, nearly impaling him with Overture’s dented body of steel. Think you got some sort of honor to uphold? That what you’re doing is out of goodwill and that your methods are well-intentioned?
She hates guys like him. Really despises him.
She knows Caius has had to switch up his tactics, now that she’s got a piece of Etro’s heart in her chest. He’ll have to find a way to impale himself and her at the same time, right in their hearts. How exactly he plans on doing that, Lightning’s not sure. If only one’s stabbed, Etro’s heart will persist, and the deceased will revive, just like she did the first time they met.
While she’s gotten to see the myriad, uncountable ways of how the future can play out with Etro’s Eyes, and the dateless environment of Valhalla helps her remember some of them, she can only recall some at a time. There are so many damn possibilities that she can’t recall them all at one moment. Only a fragmented few. And the easiest ones to remember are the personal ones — Serah, Noel…
It’s not fair that he gets to use chaos and she doesn’t. All because he’s got the bigger piece of Etro’s heart, while hers is small, with a thinner pulse. Oh well. They’re still equals, despite his advantage in that regard.
He wallops her with a firm kick to her gut, but the pain’s nothing to her. Not when she’s been hit there in this shitty realm by him a million times already. So even as she goes careening through the air, she’s still got the willpower in her arms to cast a messy Aerora his way. The stormy gales snatch him away from earth, smash him into the structure of some forgotten building while her body impacts into the stony grooves of a pillar.
Simultaneously, they hit the ground like ragdolls, lying and reeling. Her cradling her bleeding abdomen in a fetal position, him on his side and his head resting on his bruised, lacerated arms. Spiderweb cracks from the damaged bones of the ancient city expand outward from where their bodies struck the stone.
Chunks of stone batter Caius’s straining form like a harsh rainfall, and she wishes she could laugh at the sight through her busted lungs.
For some sort of karmic repercussion directed at her for daring to think that at all, the universe punishes her. The falling pillar slams into her with the force of a waterfall, pries the worthless breaths from her mouth.
Flesh tears. Her ribcage breaks along with her spinal column under the evil weight. But she’s felt that same agony for millions of times already, from fighting with him. So against all the crushing pain, her apathy of it reigns supreme.
She’ll get the fuck back up as soon as she can. She’ll strangle that asshole if she’s got to. Sure, fuck the gods and their curses, she agrees with him on that. But screwing over the world for some girls in the hope they’ll get to live in freedom — in a world that likely will only chain them to fate even further? Fuck that.
It’s another stalemate. And as the heart that’s not hers beats and flashes a brilliant red sometime after she’s died — probably the thousandth time it’s done that — she almost wonders why she’s fighting at all.
She’s got no time to think. They’re already standing from gritty heaps of debris, fully healed, filthy with musty grime. Already re-clashing their blades, him smirking and her glaring.
“You are an admirable opponent, Warrior Goddess.”
“Stop calling me that, prick.”
There are times where Caius forgets why he is here at all. They are rare, and his focus on his goal is nigh absolute, but when he’s been at this miserable conflict with Lightning for an unidentifiable but certainly long period of time, clanging down Ragnarok on Overture with brute force over and over again — taking in the sound of something like grinding whetstone endlessly — he is bound to lose sight of his cause every now and then.
No matter. Eventually, he will find a way to satisfactorily end their lives at the same time. And when the goddess is slain, he will gloat at this unwise, young woman in his dying moments. Then the Yeuls he’s failed will be free; free to venture into the sea of a beautiful world, unchained from fate.
Another clash. It’s so powerful that their swords go flying from their grips, over the edge of the gray edifice they’re standing upon.
“Your sister is doomed to die, as is this world. She will not make it to the timeless shores of this realm. You cannot sway her from her destiny.”
“Shut the hell up!”
This is one of the moments where he’s forgotten the main reason why he’s fighting. All that is on his mind is how mercilessly splendid Lightning looks when she throws herself at him with her hard-knuckled hands.
When she thrusts a scathing fist into his face, his smirk widens, even as he falls back. Slabs of battle-damaged stone are what cushion his fall, cracking some of his backbones. Ah, more physical pain. It is nothing to him, after all the time he’s spent living and dying in many ways.
But her face, the emotional force behind her blows as she straddles him with iron-strong legs? The straining noises that she makes with every punch? They are everything to him at this moment.
She is magnificent in her wrath. Wrath matched only by him.
This, all he perceives even as bloody lumps of his pulp-smashed flesh and tendons splay themselves among her gauntlet-covered knuckles, staining both brilliant armor and her beautiful, sharp features.
Masochism entwines his movements. He marvels at the pain wrought by her, brings a shaking hand to his chin, channeling Cura. The green conjury seams open wounds and severed facial muscles, coalescing around his smug expression. Her continuing onslaught reopens some cuts and births new damage. But Cura keeps some sealed and mends them at the rate she makes them, enough so that his face is injured but still intact.
It is a loop that he wishes to be endless.
She is easy to read, in spite of what she thinks. So young, so passionate. Despite their age difference, though, they have been together longer than any other two humans have been. And there are flashes of wisdom in those pretty irises of hers every now and then.
Among those he’s come to know, disregarding his Yeuls, Lightning is the only person who understands him so deeply. Because of the visions she’s seen; because of her circumstances; because of the rage and sorrow that drives her actions, just as he is also fueled by such emotions. Even if she disagrees with him in her mighty fury and biting remarks, there is no forgetting the protection she very much desires for her sister; no forgetting her desires to destroy to do what she thinks is right as she seeks to accomplish her goals.
These are truths she could never keep hidden from him.
No other person could be a worthier equal to him.
“We are so similar, you and I,” he croaks against the pressure of her fists. “Tell me, dear warrioress, how does it feel to die over and over again? To watch your precious sister die a number of ways with your cursed Eyes of Etro? How does it feel to easily massacre hundreds to protect and save your few beloved?”
Lightning doesn’t let up on her assault. “Can it, Ballad. Just fucking die already, you piece of garbage.”
“Later, perhaps,” he replies, cracking his dislocated jaw as her punches let up and she heaves, resting weary hands on his chest. She is too drained to do much of anything else. He savors the malice in her cutting, shaky pupils. He stops casting Cura, chuckles. “Do tell me, have you yet seen the futility in your quest to protect this world from its inevitable demise?”
“I never will, fuckface,” she spits, groaning as sweat tracks down her mucky, dirt-sludged face. “I won’t let our war end, not anytime soon. As long as we’re fighting here, I’ll find a fucking way to save the world. And keep my sister alive.”
He leers at her with an intense gaze. “So you have no plan then. That should be expected of you, warrioress. You hone your rage like a sword, impressively so, but your tactics are questionable.”
For once, she’s actually smirking at him. He does not expect it, because he’s sure he’s pressed the buttons that would usually enrage her further. Her lips are busted and dirty, but the movement of them isn’t deterred by those qualities.
“Yeah, well, your motivations are fucked up. Think you’re some honorable saint? Think what you’re doing will really give your bastard seeresses that so-called freedom? That freedom you’re betting on being in that shitty new world you plan on making?”
At this, something in Caius twists and screams. Some emotion that’s boiling in his gut seizes bits of his expression as he narrows his gaze at her. It guides one of his hands to ball into a tight, whitened fist.
Before Lightning knows it, he’s cracked her right against her jaw without holding back. And even though she goes crashing into more uncaring rubble from the sheer power of his blow, likely breaking some of her bones, nothing stops him from crawling to her, narrowly holding back the angry sounds he wants to make.
He straddles her, rams uncompromising fist after uncompromising fist into a face she’s weakly healing. Despite his strikes, her egotistical look remains.
“You’ll not speak ill of any of them in such a manner, wretched wench!”
At this moment, he thinks her not to be a worthy equal. That she has managed to rouse his abyssal-resting rage with seamless ease astounds him, however. Many have spoken of Yeul in such a way, but for a reason that he believes to be related to how long he’s known and been around Lightning — here on the cruel, timeless coast of Valhalla — he finds himself easily reacting in a way only befitting that of non-immortal men.
Her response is laconic with satisfaction, keen with boiling rage.
“You talk shit about my sister all the time. So I’ll talk shit about your stupid Yeul all I want.”
It dawns on Caius that perhaps he has abused Lightning’s buttons too much. And now that she’s starting to push his, the realization he’s already known falls upon him through a perspective he never considered.
They are dangerously similar, he and this woman. But it is not only to his advantage. It is also to hers.
They know each other too well. They have fought for too long.
And he still has not yet devised the best plan to go through with, despite his immortal experience and his knowledge of the world’s fate. Just as she has, they have battled here for what is or isn’t an eternity, without a clear strategy.
Without a clear plan. They hinge on emotional impulses, drink upon it as though it is the only key to a world full of free will. They always have, actually.
All because of the nature of this realm. All because of their eternal war. All because he has been distracted by her for too long. And especially all because that conniving goddess granted Lightning a piece of her heart.
It is hard to think up a possibility wherein she and he will be satisfactorily killed at the same time. Because there is a passionate feeling that boils in his heart at the thought of seeing her dead.
He cannot tell if it is pleasure or hate or something else, truth be told. But somehow it keeps him from ending this all.
He is sure that if he knows this, she does as well. He does not know if that is good, bad, or ultimately means nothing at all. And when he stops pummelling her face into a grotesque heap of filthy sinew and splatter-patterned lesions, he does so only because he is too weak.
Though nighttime does come to Valhalla, it comes at irregular intervals. Random and without time to guide its passage, it comes when it pleases.
They wake up under a starry sky after a severe clash on what could be the trillionth night of their conflict.
Frail, Lightning commands her limbs to move, only to find that she’s got none. She’s bleeding out, but her inhumane heart’s keeping her conscious, replacing old, leaking blood with new blood as her fibrous flesh rebuilds itself gradually.
Her arms are cut at the humerus. Her now-armorless legs, bisected at her thighs.
She hears a baritone grunt right beside her and turns to see that Caius is in the same state as she is, glaring at her with practiced hate.
Endlessly, blood pours out from their slowly healing flesh, paints the wet sand around them with dark hues. A cerise glow stems out from the severed bone and skin, and it moves at the pace of a snail, restructuring cell after cell and tissue after tissue with no haste. Their veins are also brimming with the rich light, and though the power is warm, Lightning wishes it could be goddamn faster. They can’t heal themselves with several Curagas like this either, limb-less.
At this rate, relying on their hearts, she and he will have to wait for the duration that she remembers to be a day or two. And because they’re paralyzed and she’s sure her spine’s screwed up, they can’t move their bodies.
So stupid, this situation. When they die from a stab in the heart everything gets healed in an instant, but if they’re damaged like this and unable to patch themselves up? The hearts heal them so slowly.
“Oh great,” she grumbles, undeterred by Caius’s gaze. “Could’ve at least killed me, Ballad. That way I wouldn’t be fucking stuck.”
He snorts, but Lightning doesn’t catch much amusement from the noise. “It is a shame you could not do the same for me, warrioress. As I am right now, I cannot turn into Chaos Bahamut to save us the trouble.”
From there, they just look away from each other, up at the blinding stars that run across teetering visions. The tranquil waves lap in the dim distance, and the inkiness of the sky has tainted Valhalla with an overseeing shadow of indigo.
The smell of salt wafts into her frigid nostrils. The sticky sand beneath her is damp, freezing. And because she’s sick of thinking — thinking only leads her back to her past memories of pain, and being reminded of those things is something she knows people should avoid at all costs — she decides to talk with him.
Lightning hates not taking action, being unable to do things. So as her stare stays fixed on the glistening starlight, she takes in a saltwater-tasting breath, preparing herself. Then she speaks her mind.
“You ever wonder how long we’ve been here?”
A low chuckle. “How could we ever not wonder?”
In spite of all the crap she’s got against him, she snorts. “Point. You ever get sick of — ” — she latches an unsteadying gaze on her begrimed, frayed feather sash, watching bloodstained feathers flit away one by one in the gentle sea breeze — “all this fighting bullshit?”
Caius can be a dick. A secretive one. But she knows that he never lies. And she figures that since they’ve known each other for so damn long, it’s worth it to toss out the personal question. Try to see if she’ll get a good response.
A guttural sound of contemplation. “Are we not both ailed by this unending conflict, dear Warrior Goddess? Tired from the controlling, sinister gods that puppeteer our very strings?”
Of course, he answers it with questions. But at least this time he’s admitting partially to how he feels.
Lightning rolls her eyes. By now she knows the many ways in which Caius ticks. No more questions. She’s satisfied enough with what she’s implicitly gotten out of him, but at the same time, she needs to know more.
“If you’re still trying to get me to join you, give it up,” she gripes, weak anger dominating her intonation. “I’m never helping you.”
“I do not intend to focus my efforts on such a laughable notion,” he rasps back.
Just another brief silence, before she pipes up again. If she’s gonna get some real answers out of this bastard, see things from his perspective because she’s got nothing else left to do that feels rewarding in some way — unable to act as she is now — she needs to tell bits and pieces of herself first. The parts she’s bottled up; personal ones.
Even if she may just end up hating herself for doing that.
“You know, I’ve always been sick of all this fate bullcrap. Fighting. Losing Serah every time I think I’ve got her. Not knowing how the hell I’m gonna save this world. Not knowing if she’ll make it.”
“You’ve finally answered my questions,” he says, satisfied and smug.
She despises that he’s bringing that up. She’s never usually answered them directly.
“Whatever. Now answer mine. What’s your plan to make that world of yours? How do you feel about everything?”
She feels his eyes chip away at her, so she turns her neck to look back at him. There are flames in his amethyst stare.
The only reason he’s even going to be telling her these personal things at all, she knows, is because they’ve known each other longer than they’ve known anyone else. They’ve been alone together for god knows how long, and need the means to vent out their feelings, be it through fighting or talking. There is an innate, twisted sort of bond in that.
"I feel many things," he begins in a frail whisper, something so uncharacteristic of him that she wonders if she's really speaking to Caius for a bit. His expression reminds her that she is. "I am like you, warrioress. I am lost."
Something douses the ancient rage from his eyes. And for a moment, as she’s hypnotized by them, Lightning thinks she’s seeing the eyes of the man Caius Ballad once was. The eyes of a guardian who was once a good man. The one who didn’t have the Heart of Chaos.
Maybe there’s still a mote of that man in Caius, after all. It sounds like a pipedream, but between the way his features unclench as hers do, she finds it’s rather easy to believe.
Why are you feeling lost? She can’t ask him, though. She needs to say something else about herself.
There’s no bullshitting her way through this one. He’s right in saying she’s lost and has no idea what to do. And though she really doesn’t want to outwardly accept it, she has to, if she really wants to know what’s making him tick the way he is.
“Well, I feel pretty lost because I can’t remember any visions of a future where the world gets to stay alive. Maybe there were some, but I can’t recall them no matter how hard I try to. I don’t know. My Eyes of Etro don’t work the way Yeul and Serah’s do. And I’m sick of protecting and saving what I want to while having to destroy something or someone. I’m tired of being a slave.”
He nods slowly. His bandanna is a shredded, dirty mess beside him, and he’s got no dark feathers in his hair anymore. He’s looking at the remnants of his feathers that fly off in the stark wind.
“I know not how I feel for you. For the Yeuls I have grieved over, some of which I do not even remember individually. For this world. I have grown doubtful over the course of our war.” He laughs quietly, and it’s a rough, broken-sounding laugh. “I wonder if what I seek to do, making a world free of gods, will instead only destroy what little free will the Yeuls have. It is a possibility among many others. Would that instead be cruel of me to do?”
“Depends on who you ask,” she says, hearing the gradual magic race along her torn flesh. “I want Serah to be here, where time doesn’t pass so she’ll live, but at the same time, I’d be killing what little freedom she’s got by doing that, right? Trapping her in this crappy realm.”
Even in questioning, they reach a stalemate. But it’s not bitter, and the tang of the air between them is a little lighter, a little less burdensome.
“Warrior Goddess,” Caius rasps, facing her again. “When was the last time you’ve felt joy?”
Lightning laughs hoarsely, briskly, and not at all out of happiness. Fucking joy. “Ages, Ballad. You?”
Again, he snorts. “For a similar time.”
She can’t believe this. That she and Caius are actually having a civilized talk that isn’t devolving into some sort of argument. Lightning wonders if she’s high or some shit. But then she shakes her head, realizes that warm, fuzzy feeling that scourges her heart.
She can’t tell if it’s fueled by hate or sympathy or something else. But what she does know is that, for the first time in what could be eons, she’s feeling understood, less lonely. Not nearly as lost as before.
And just as she’s coming to that revelation, she feels warm stuff glide down her cheeks, wet and cathartic. Mirroring her — just like she’s looking at some twisted reflection of a person she’s not so unlike — tears scuttle from the red rims of Caius’s eyes.
She thinks she’s hallucinating at first. Caius, an immortal, battle-hardened man crying.
He’s tougher than her from living longer than she has. Several tears slide down her dirty, pretty face while only two do from his eyes.
They’re not saints, defying fate the way they wish to. They’re mangled, doing what they think is best, consequences be damned. Or so they used to think that way. It’s how she thought back when she saved Cocoon, how he behaved back when he first met her.
Now, having dared to truly comprehend the other, they are unsure. Amid messy feelings of hate and love, they have no fucking clue what to do. And because they’re two people of action, Caius and she, they rely on this conflict to act out what they can.
Because they truly don’t know what’s the best way to save the ones they love, what to do regarding the state of the world. Now that they've actually thought about the limitless consequences of what they once so readily wanted to do, they're stuck.
Lightning doesn’t know if that’s a good thing or not.
Another night, they make contact with each other in ways that were once foreign to them. No cold steel separating them. Nothing separates them, in fact. Her warm, wounded flesh just smacks against his battered skin in a plethora of brutal yet soft ways. He’s got her smaller physique trapped against a crushed building’s uneven, jagged wall.
These are actions Caius would find laughably implausible to execute during their first ten thousand battles. But it has been ages since they’ve lost count. Between the emotions that twist his inner being into many entities at once — entities that desire too many unclear things at a moment’s notice — and his ever-growing recognition of how foolhardy his initial plan was and the cutting repercussions that would likely result if he went along with it, he must vent out these crushing feelings every now and then. For an eternity.
They are stuck in a loop in Valhalla due to their lost, aimless natures. All that makes it bearable for him to endure is her presence. He has suffered the pangs of loneliness long enough. They have been there ever since the first few Yeuls died.
At least now, he need not worry about losing someone he is undeniably close to, whether it be through hate or love or some flickering in-between.
Enemies. Lovers. For Caius, over time in this cursed war, the line between the two has grown wavering and faint.
Caius has his means to ventilate. Sometimes, fighting is the perfect solution. Certain times, talking works best. Other times, doing this is what feels right.
Lightning’s hands scrawl unforgiving, gore-ridden markings in his temples as she nips his upper lip. Bird-curved and strong, they hold him in place without even trying. He’s hunched over her so she can reach his lips at all with her inferior height, and the hold he’s got around her dark-bruised waist effortlessly keeps her there, beneath him.
She’s only letting him dominate her because he’s won their last battle.
She withdraws her soaked, swollen lips from the callous kiss, scowling as she makes a disgusted grunt. “Dick. I’m gonna win the next round for sure.”
One half of his lips cruelly curls upward. “As if I will let such a thing happen.”
He grabs her breasts with careless hands, digging into the scarred, crimson-painted skin. When he captures her lips again, he’s pushing her harder against the wall so much that the friction damages epidermis on the back of her back-and-forth moving body.
Rivers of vital fluid rush down her sweaty thighs and rhythmic-shifting hips as they do down his pectoral muscles and sturdy abs, dripping down onto naked feet and coarse stone. He and she move like great wavelets, in a motion that is not unlike the tides of Valhalla’s murky ocean.
Sometimes, they swim out into the wintry-feeling, caliginous sea, seeing who can swim farthest. In doing so, they drown countless times from the sheer deprivation of their strength. Since they always go so far that the ruined city is a speck in the ash-colored distance by the time there’s a winner, they always die a lot before they make it back to the shores in clumps of searing, sore muscles and drenched limbs.
With a sharp flick of her head, Lightning whips the sodden drape of pink hair away from her eyes. Her lips twist into a sneer as she bestraddles him with her rusted-over, cuisses-covered thighs. Her fine fists take refuge at his sides, in control and restraining.
“I win this time, asshole.”
Before he whispers back a response, she’s already going to work, assaulting him with succulent kisses to his throat, where the material of his suit’s torn so she’s got enough exposed skin to work with.
The rumble of his neck is faint on the unending touches of her fervent lips. “I will claim victory next time for certain, dear warrioress.”
They’re broken, living in a screwed farce of some war straight from the books. All they’ve got is each other. Lightning doesn’t know if it’s a curse or a blessing; if it’s hate or love that drives her to run ardent kisses along his wet, injured face.
She knows she’s sick of doing meaningful things, though. Why bother when fate inevitably turns out fucking up her efforts in some way, getting numerous people killed in the process — like what happened when Cocoon fell? And while hate runs through her bones at the sudden thought of leaving Serah alone to die, she doesn’t know how to safely combat the emotion without Caius to take out those feelings on.
Strangely, with him, she feels complete. For better or worse. It’s like they’re two sides of the same coin, an unhealthy combination of loathing and adoration.
She knows that they’re both aware of what could happen if they were to end it all here, stab each other in the heart simultaneously. Many possibilities, bad ones. Really shitty ones.
They now need each other too much to do such a thing. They don’t know what to do after this. They won’t know how to handle the crushing, unpredictable aftermath with the weight of the world on their slim shoulders, now that they’ve thought deeper about what their intentions and plans could’ve done to it and their loved ones.
So their stalemate is a truce he and she silently agreed upon. Stay here, locked away from the rest of the living. Let it all unfold on its own. Leave it to the gods that started the whole mess in the first goddamn place. Call it selfish, whatever. The world’s fucked regardless. It’s always been.
Before, they wouldn’t think that at all, she’s sure. They’d rely on harbored wrath, act without a care in the world if it meant they’d save the lives of the ones they loved, not caring how that protection would be received or how the resulting destruction would affect everything else. They’d just blindly believe that defying the fates they despise always brings the best results.
Now she’s sure it really doesn’t. And she’s sure he knows that too. And as she darts her tongue into his mouth, lost around emotions of love and hate, not knowing which one she feels more toward him, there are at least a few she’s sure she’s feeling. He’s feeling it too, she’s sure.
Glad. Relieved. At many concepts all at once. That she’s not alone and that she’s got someone to be around that she’s not so different from. That she’s finally feeling free from fate even though she’s technically not. That she’s feeling a trace of a feeling similar to joy.
It’s happening again. Them crying at the same time at that uncomfortable feeling they feel so deeply at times like this. This time she barely holds back a sniffle, and when Caius brings up a gaunt hand to her face, brushing away the tears, he does so with the gentility of angels. His fingers are rough against her supple skin, but are also kind.
For her very first time in Valhalla, Lightning smiles faintly. “Thanks, Ballad.”
She means that in more ways than one.
Caius’s tears fall to the mucky sand, and his face is softer. It’s not a smirk he’s giving her. It’s a smile, barely noticeable as her own.
“My pleasure, Warrior Goddess.”
There are times where their rage at each other is raw and unyielding. But there are also moments like these, where they’re feeling a certain way for each other. While Lightning’s not sure what exactly the feeling is — something between tenderness and awe — she knows she doesn’t want it to end so soon whenever she gets to experience it.
So she savors his gentle caresses along with his warm, inviting tone. She hopes it’ll last for eons. She leans into the touch. He cushions her as she lies against his chest, both of them breathing softly.
And so their silhouettes unite under a barren, overcast sky.
“Really,” she murmurs. “Thanks, Caius.”
“And I thank you too — ” — he runs a caring palm through her scalp and rosy tendrils of hair, snorting — “Lightning.”