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The Kids Are Alright

“Do you think,” he asks, “everything is different now?”

“Maybe,” she says again, so many maybes, “but it doesn’t matter. I’ll take care of you.”



In which Hope is bitten and becomes a vampire. Lightning tries to pick up the pieces. Also, the real hero of the story is Sazh. Spoilers for Gran Pulse.

19,460 words of shameless vampire!fic. It's pretty much my magnum opus.

Part Two





Hope is bitten a few hours after they've reached Oerba.

Oerba has thrown them all off their feet, some of them more physically than others. Vanille is whipping between giddy excitement and a sort of heartbreaking quietness that makes Lightning's gut tighten in pain. Hope is, as always, caught up in Vanille's frenzy, and he follows her with a sick-looking fascination as she tells him about the people who lived here, before it turned into-- this. Fang keeps shooting them all looks like she's daring them to make some comment about Oerba, or maybe about Vanille's frenetic pace. Snow and Sazh are hanging back, the way people hang back in cemeteries, trying to keep from stepping on the graves.

Lightning finds herself lingering in the middle of the group, sliding more by more to Fang's side. Fang looks a little perturbed at first, but when Lightning keeps her mouth shut, Fang's face kinda softens, like it does when she's watching Vanille eat or sleep or just skip ahead, Hope pulled along behind her.

"It was a beautiful place," Fang says. Lightning just nods, because she remembers when her parents died, and she had told her teacher, it was a beautiful life. "There were wildflowers everywhere." She scuffs her foot along the road, sends up dust and ground crystal. "Grass, too."

"It sounds beautiful," Lightning says. Vanille and Hope are going around a corner ahead, and she picks up her pace a little, trying to keep them in sight.

"It was." Fang breaks into a jog, rounds the corner with Lightning. Vanille and Hope are looking up at one of the metal communal houses, and Vanille is saying, "this is the last one I slept in, before Fang and I got our Focus."

"Oh," Hope says, and he's frowning like he's still trying to wrap his head around the communal thing, a village full of homes where everyone lives together. "Do you... wanna go up?"

Vanille gives him the bright, sad look they all wear these days, and says, "that'd be nice." They wait for Sazh and Snow to catch up, and Vanille regales them with a few dubious tales of past exploits and conquests, and a story of a kiss that makes Fang look uncomfortable.

"What was his name?" Hope asks as they troop up the stairs together, Fang at point and Snow bringing up the rear. Vanille is still holding Hope's hand, swinging it as they walk two steps in front of Lightning. Lightning catches the side of Vanille's smile, and braces herself.

"Her name was Sarisa," Vanille says, and her voice grows brighter, faster. "She was Fang's cousin-- very pretty. I kissed her before she left on her Focus."

"You shouldn't kiss and tell," Fang admonishes as Sazh makes a choking sound. Vanille laughs, clearly unrepentant, and they, all infected by her broken enthusiasm, twirl into the house with her.

There are heavy metal beds, like those in the barracks back at Bodhum, one stacked on top of another. The mattresses and blankets are falling apart from age, and there are seekers lying in the shadows, out of the glaring heat of the crystals and sun.

Lightning is blocking a heavy rush from a seeker when she hears Vanille scream, a shrill sound that ends with a thunderous roar and the smell of ozone. Lightning turns halfway, keeping the seeker in the edge of her sight, and feels the pit of her stomach drop. There is a vampire standing in the back of their group, a few feet from Vanille, and it is holding Hope in a lover's embrace.

Vanille is swinging her rod, and lightning roars through the air again. The ozone is thick enough to burn Lightning's throat, and she reaches out to fling fire at the vampire. Hope's body is limp, and his head is hanging back. The vampire is holding him tighter, closer, and then it's biting him, and it's nothing like the stories Lightning used to tell Serah in the middle of the night.

The vampire is crushing its way through Hope's skin and muscles and bones, tearing the flesh away, and it's now, only now, that Hope moves, head falling further to the side as he starts wailing, an animalistic sound that sounds like it's bubbling through the gaping holes in his neck and chest.

She's readying water to fling, trying to time it with Vanille's lightning, when Snow charges past her and slams his shoulder into the vampire, knocking it off balance. The vampire stumbles, its arms jerking Hope's body with it, and Hope's neck snaps to the side like it's broken. Fang slams into the vampire a moment later, and it falls, skidding up against a blasted wall.

Lightning drops the water, readying a cure as she rushes forward. Fang has already torn Hope out of the vampire's arms, bundling him into Vanille's, and Vanille's staggering back, Hope's body a dead weight dragging her down.

"Give him," Lightning says in a rush, and she takes him from Vanille's arms, falling to her knees so she can pull him into her lap. There is-- not much left. His chest and neck are torn open, and Lightning can see his veins pulsing with blood. The muscles and flesh are flayed, bare to the air, and the bones are crushed. There is too much blood, soaking through her skirt and slick between her legs. She hesitates, then presses her hands against what's left of his neck, trying to put something back together.

"Help me," she begs someone, anyone, and the cures are falling off her fingers like water. She's trying to drown Hope in them, trying to keep something together. Her fingers keep slipping through the flaps of muscle and skin of his neck, and there are pieces of him caught beneath her fingernails. The cures, she thinks, aren't working. "Help me, help me--"

Vanille is saying, over and over, "his heart, his heart-- I can't, his heart--" The smell of ozone is mixing with the smell of blood, and the sharp tang of cures. There's so much magic in the air, drowning them all, but Hope's slipping through them. Lightning is feeling heady.

"Again," Sazh's voice says, and Lightning jumps when his hand lands on her shoulder. "Try again," he repeats, and she forces another cure through her fingertips, into Hope's neck. Her magic feels stronger, steadier, and Sazh's hand is tightening on her shoulder. She looks up for a second, sees that his other hand is on Vanille's shoulder. He's crouched between them, his head bowed, and he's staring at Hope's body. Lightning looks back down, too, and pushes another cure through.

"Slow and steady," Sazh says. "Vanille, go slow and steady. Now. And now." His voice is like a drumbeat, like the pulse of the fal'Cie in Cocoon, and Lightning feels herself following it, piecing the muscle and flesh of Hope's neck back together to the thrum of his heartbeats, of Vanille's cures.

Another breath streams through Hope's neck, then the next wheezes through his mouth. Lightning moves her hands down, tries to close up the gaps of his chest. The breastbone is brittle, doesn't want to hold, and she swallows back tears of frustration. This might be the worst day of her life.

"You got it?" Sazh asks, and Vanille says, "it's steady now. I think-- I think it'll keep beating."

It, Vanille had said, not him, and Lightning pulls the pieces of skin on Hope’s chest together, stitches them with magic. When the next cure leaves her fingers, she lets her head hang forward, lets out a shaky breath. She's feeling dizzy, two steps past heady; she's not their group's healer, and this much magic, this minute control, wears her down. "A minute," she says, "give me a minute--"

It takes hours to patch Hope back together. Lightning and Vanille take turns, and Sazh holds their shoulders throughout it, boosting their magic. Sometimes, when Lightning is tilting her head back, praying that she won't pass out, she catches Snow's eyes.

"She's outside," Snow says when Lightning asks Fang? "Don't worry, we won't let anything in." He says it with bravado, but there's the same brittleness that was there when Serah turned to crystal. Lightning isn't sure if it's fear, or pain, or the same sickening, drowning self-hatred she can feel in herself.

"I trust you," Lightning says, and she takes over for Vanille so she won't have to see Snow's face.

x

She wakes up from a nightmare of Serah. She can still hear the sound of Serah crying when she sits up, groggy and uncoordinated; her mouth is dry and her tongue is thick. The old beds are rusty and the springs sag beneath the weight of her body, whining as she moves. The lights in the room are dim and flickering, throwing shadows across the floors and walls.

"Lightning?" someone asks very softly. She swallows around her tongue, tries to forget the too-real feeling of Serah crying in her arms.

"I'm awake," she says, and tries not to jump when Fang leans in too quickly, like she's pulled herself out of the moving shadows. Fang's mouth quirks up, like she's trying to decide whether to smile, so Lightning tries a smile back, asks, "what time is it?"

"Not midnight yet." Fang looks over her shoulder, and Lightning follows her gaze. They hadn't dared to move Hope, and he's still lying on the floor, head raised up on Snow's bundled up coat. Sazh is sitting next to him, his back to Lightning and Fang, and the chocobo chick is peeping softly from Sazh's hair. "He's fine, we're watching him."

"Right." Lightning swings her legs off the bed, setting her feet on the floor so she can lean forward. Her head feels heavy, fuzzy like she has a cold, or is still half asleep. "Where’s Vanille?"

“Still asleep,” Fang nods to the bunk above Lightning, “and Snow’s standing out by the door.” Fang touches Lightning’s knee, a quick and dry brush. “You should sleep some more; the magic has to have worn you down.”

“No.” She’s sure that, if she sleeps any more, she’ll hear Serah crying again, and she’ll have to watch her parents die over, and over, and over again. She rubs her eyes and the beginning of the headache in her temples, then stands up. “I want to check on his neck.”

Sazh holds out his hand when she sits next to him, her knees pressing against Hope’s shoulder. She takes his hand, intwines her fingers with his. It’s probably unneeded, he could probably boost her just as well from across the room, but-- it’s nice. Nice to feel someone’s heat, someone’s pulse. He squeezes her hand, like he understands (and maybe he does, because they all know his wife is dead and his son is crystal, that he’s the last one in his family, like they all are), and she sets her jaw, reaches out to pull the blood-soaked bandana back from Hope’s neck.

It’s raw and swollen and crusted in blood. There’s fresh blood in places, and as she watches, more blood seeps through the wet scabs. She hesitates, then pulls back the ruined shirt that’s bunched over his collar. His chest looks just as bad, maybe worse. She pulls his shirt back up to his neck, then lies her fingers along his neck, where his veins lie close to the surface. Four cures and she’s feeling wretched. By the seventh, she’s swaying a little, and Sazh is putting an arm around her shoulders, leaning her away from Hope.

“Bad luck,” he says conversationally, “him being our medic and all. But don’t worry, he’ll be fine.” Lightning thinks she must’ve made a face because he grins, shrugs a bit. “You kids are all tough.”

By the time Snow comes in to switch places with Sazh, Lightning’s half asleep again. At Sazh’s nudge, she drags herself back to the bunk, crawling onto the old, creaking springs. The rest of the night passes as a haze, waking and sleeping and waking again, turning her head to watch shadows crouch over Hope’s head. When the first bit of sun creeps through the dirty windows, she passes a hand over her eyes and sits up.

“Sleep well?” Snow asks, looking up from where he’s sitting by Hope. Sazh is sleeping on the floor near them, head pillowed on his arm; Fang is sleeping a few feet away, face turned away from them all.

“Yeah,” Lightning says, clears her throat. Her mouth tastes like sickness, and swallowing makes her wish for Cocoon and home. “Good enough. How’s he?”

“Okay.” Snow shrugs, reaches out to finger a piece of Hope’s hair. “I was thinking-- I mean, vampire and all-- Do you think?” He looks at the sunlight, then looks back at Lightning. Lightning looks at the sunlight, too, where it’s barely edging down the wall.

“Maybe,” she says, and she helps him move Hope’s body to the far corner, where the sunlight won’t (hopefully, hopefully) manage to crawl.

“I mean, it’s stupid,” Snow says after they’ve propped Hope’s head back on the makeshift pillow, and Lightning is checking to make sure he’s not bleeding out of his neck again. “It’s not like, I mean. They’re just stories.”

“You’re an idiot,” Lightning says, then excuses it all. “He’ll be cooler in the shade.”

When Vanille wakes up, she sits by Fang, and Snow and Lightning pretend not to see the way she leans down to whisper in Fang’s ear, or the way Fang presses a hand to Vanille’s thigh, where the fal’Cie’s brand lies. The morning is already awkward, a tension rising in the air. Lightning’s preparing herself to run away, just to avoid meeting anyone’s eyes, when Sazh rolls over with a loud groan. She looks at him quickly, looks away, then looks back as Sazh sits up.

“Too old for this--” His back pops in a series as he curves it back, elbows bent inwards. “Want breakfast, kids?”

Sazh whistles as he digs through their supplies, a bright tune that reminds Lightning vaguely of a pop song on Cocoon. When the tune gets too high, Sazh’s whistle goes breathy, a little shrill; the sound of it all makes Lightning’s muscles start to relax.

“Good at making food with faces,” Sazh says. “Figure you guys aren’t up for cooking, so I can do it today. Whatcha want?”

For all of Sazh’s trying, breakfast is a sad affair. Vanille looks tight and tense, flinching at any too-sudden movement, and Fang looks just as strained. Lightning doesn’t really want to eat, can barely convince herself to force the food down. Snow’s the only one to show anything like appreciation for Sazh’s efforts, and he compliments Sazh over the food, says, “the face is a nice touch. I like the mouth.”

“Yeah,” Sazh says, “that’s the only way I can get Dajh to eat his vegetables.” And like that, the conversation is killed. Vanille makes a sound like she’s been wounded and Sazh flinches, says, “I didn’t--”

They break up after that, everyone going different ways. Lightning helps Fang clean up the leftovers (too many, like no one has much of an appetite), packing away whatever is salvageable. Every few moments, Lightning looks over to the corner Hope is lying, still unconscious. Sazh is sitting beside him now, and Vanille is hovering a few feet away.

“Vanille’s still jumpy,” Lightning says, tactfully not saying, jumpier than she was yesterday. Fang tightens the straps on a pack, then straightens up next to her, looking over at the corner.

“She’s upset,” Fang says. “She thinks this is all her fault. She’s always been like this.”

“Serah’s a little the same way.” Lightning clears her throat, licks her lips. “When my parents died, I mean.” She’s said too much, she knows, so she retreats back to the bunkbeds, and lies down on one, turning her back to the room. They won’t be leaving today, probably not tomorrow, either; staying here, so close to all of them, will drive her crazy. She closes her eyes, takes a few slow breaths, and tells herself she’s going to sleep, because at least then she won’t see the way everyone’s on edge, seeing ghosts in the corner of their vision.

She wakes up in the early afternoon, when Snow touches her shoulder to wake her. She rolls onto her back, looking blearily up at him. She had been dreaming of Hope, sprawled out and bleeding through his throat, and waking up throws her, leaves her feeling confused.

“He’s waking up,” Snow says, and it takes Lightning a few moments to realize that he means Hope, and a few more to remember the way Hope’s neck and chest had been crushed through, like dried bark underfoot.

“Okay,” she says as she sits up, swings her feet off the bed. “I’m coming.”

“We thought, since you’re closest to him,” Snow explains, and Sazh moves over when Lightning reaches them, gives her room to kneel down next to Hope’s head. Hope’s eyelids are moving, light things like butterfly wings, and it reminds Lightning of Serah, of when she used to watch Serah sleep. When Serah could sleep.

She’s been kneeling there just long enough for her legs to start to go to sleep when Hope’s eyes open, just barely, just enough to see the color underneath. He breathes differently, a deeper breath, and his eyes close, then open a little more. Lightning leans forward, resting her weight on her hands, and says, “Hope.”

It takes a while for him to wake up enough to really look at her; when he does, she tries to smile at him. She must have managed it pretty well, she thinks, because his face loses some of the tension of pain, smoothing out a little.

“How are you feeling?” she asks. When he opens his mouth, though, she slaps her hand across it, says sharply, “don’t.” His eyes widen, his breath moist on her palm, and she tries to sound calmer. “Don’t talk yet, your throat must still be sore. Just nod for now.”

He nods, just a tiny movement of his chin, and she smiles. Doesn’t say that she doesn’t know if he can talk, doesn’t know if she and Vanille put everything to right. Just smiles, and says, “does it hurt?”

He nods.

“Your throat?”

A nod.

“Your chest?”

Another nod.

“Anywhere else?”

He hesitates, looking up at her, then shakes his head. She frowns, sits back on her heels for a moment. Hope is looking desperate, full of all kinds of intent, like when he’d doggedly followed her on Cocoon. Trying so hard not to hold her up, but certain to trip.

“Does it hurt everywhere?” she asks, as gently as she can, like she used to when Serah was sick in bed, before Lightning had joined the Corps. Hope looks up at her, eyes widening and flickering from side to side, then he nods.

She holds his hand until he falls asleep again, and when he’s asleep, breath easing out and pain lines growing more shallow, she brushes his hair back from his forehead, and bathes him in as much magic as she can grasp.

x

She falls asleep before the sun goes down, curled up next to Hope, and she doesn’t wake up until he screams in the middle of the night, an ugly sound coming from his ugly throat. She panics, sitting up and lashing out at nothing, and it’s only when Snow shoulders her out of the way that she comes to her-- senses.

“What?” she asks, and Snow says, “a nightmare. I think.”

Snow barely touches Hope’s shoulder, then says, “get me some water.” Lightning jumps to her feet, feeling stupid and confused, and stumbles to the other side of the room to find a canteen. Her left leg is asleep, feels dull and bloated, and it drags a little when she walks. When she turns back, canteen in hand, she sees Vanille and Fang staring at her from the bunkbeds.

“Here,” she says when she hands the canteen to Snow. Snow takes it, nods, and shakes Hope’s shoulder a little more.

“Hope,” his voice is gruff, with sleep or exhaustion, “you need to wake up for me. Hope?”

Hope’s making sounds like a shot dog, but his eyes are open and looking up at Snow, bright and feverish in the yellow, electric lights. When Snow shakes Hope’s shoulder again, Hope flinches, chin tucking into his neck, and the noises get a little strained.

“I am,” Hope says between the wounded sounds. His voice is gravelly, sounds like scar-tissue and crusting scabs. “I-- don’t, stop it--”

Snow yanks his hand back, and water from the canteen splashes on the metal floor like raindrops on a tin roof. When Lightning looks, his face looks pale and tight, so she looks away, at a spot on the floor between the three of them, the center of some broken triangle.

“Do you want to talk about it?” she asks, and she moves her eyes just enough to see Hope’s face when he doesn’t respond. “The nightmare?”

Hope sucks in a breath, sharp and fast and painful-sounding, and says, “no.”

“What do you want, then?” Snow asks, and he’s scooting forward next to Lightning. “Anything you want, I’ll get it for you. Promise.”

Lightning wants to punch him. Wants to beat him half to death, because she knows why he’s saying this: knows it’s all guilt, that he’s taking Hope for a bloody banner, a poor replacement for Serah. It’s wrong, and it’s the same thing that Lightning wants to do-- fix the hurt by laving everything onto Hope, throw everything into him and onto him, and make him her lost cause.

Hope’s body shakes, like a shudder of pure want, and Lightning knows what he’s going to say, because she knows what she wants. My mom, because she knows what it’s like to wake up every day and remember, like a new papercut on a day-old scab, that your mom is dead, that she’s never coming back, no matter how long and hard you cry.

“Hope,” she says cautiously, and Hope shudders again, his shoulders inching up.

“Anything?” he asks, and Snow says, an offering, “anything.”

Lightning’s closing her eyes, readying herself for the fallout, when Hope’s ruined voice says, “a shower.”

“A shower?” Snow repeats, and Lightning opens her eyes so she can roll them. Relief is making her lightheaded, and she has to take it out on them, punching Snow’s shoulder, then bopping Hope on the shoulder.

Between the two of them, they manage to manhandle Hope down to the lake at the bottom of the village without too much trouble. They sling one of Hope’s arms over each of their shoulders, and Hope hangs between them limply, only stumbling when Lightning wraps an arm around his waist to nudge him forward.

“Skinny-dipping on Pulse,” Snow says quietly on Hope’s other side. His voice sounds laughing. “Wait till you tell your friends about this.”

“Skinny-- Not with both--” Hope’s voice cracks and he has to cough, chest heaving for a moment. “Both of you?” he manages when Lightning is rubbing a cure along the curve of his ribs, into his lungs.

“Probably,” she says blandly, and when he coughs again, she says, “don’t talk, you’ll make yourself worse.”

When they reach the shoreside, Lightning pushes Hope down onto a tipped over oil barrel, grabbing his shoulders to steady him. Hope sways a little, then straightens up, looking towards the lake.

“I can,” he says, “by myself.” Lightning rolls her eyes and takes the ends of his bandana, untying it carefully.

“Don’t worry,” Snow says from behind them, and when Lightning glances over his shoulder, he’s already stripping down, tossing his clothes into a haphazard pile. “It’s nothing she hasn’t seen before.”

Hope makes a noise and looks like he’s trying to decide whether or not he should try to save Lightning’s virtue, or something. Lightning huffs, says, “what Snow means is that the Guardian Corps has communal showers and locker rooms.” She looks a little closer at his face, then says, softer so Snow can’t hear her, “calm down. I’m not going in with you, I just need to help you get in there with Snow.” Then, louder so Snow has to hear her, “that idiot would drop you if he tried to do it himself.”

“I wouldn’t drop him,” Snow says without bite. He comes closer, kneels down to pull off Hope’s boots. Hope’s face is going pink, and Lightning’s sure it’s only because of the bloodloss that his face isn’t a deep red right now. Lightning pulls Hope’s jacket off, and doesn’t bother to fold it, just dropping it on the ground crystal. She touches Hope’s collarbone, fingers lifted along the thick ridges of scabs.

“Lift your arms,” she says, and he does, slowly and with a wince. She grabs the shoulders of his shirt, lifts it slowly. It’s pulling, though, where it has dried against his scabs, and Hope’s breathing is growing faster. Lightning hisses, then says, “we’ll cut it off. In the water.”

“What?” Hope starts to stand up, sinks back down on the barrel when Lightning pushes down on his shoulders. “But-- I don’t have anything else, it can just-- If you just pull it off fast--”

“It’s stuck to the scabs.” Lightning runs her finger along the collar, where the blood is clotted against skin and fabric alike. “Pulling it off will just open up the wounds. We’ll cut it off. Then you can use his,” she jerks her thumb at Snow, who’s sitting back on his heels, naked and grinning, “shirt. He’s enough of an exhibitionist.”

“It’s a plan, then.” Snow smacks Hope’s leg, says, “up, then. Gotta take off your pants, then we’ll dunk you.”

When it looks like Snow really can get Hope in the water without dropping him on his head, Lightning starts to strip. She folds her belt in loose loops, lies it to the side with her sword. Folds up her vest, then shimmies out of her skirt, stepping out of it carefully. She’s unzipping her shell when she hears a splash and Snow laughing.

“Cold, huh?” Snow says, barely loud enough for Lightning to hear, and Hope says something too soft for her to catch. She pulls of her shell, folds it slowly. Stands there for a moment, in panties and a bra, then grabs her knife and heads for the water.

The water is cold, enough to make her balk at the edge. Snow has waded in deep enough that the water is up to his shoulders, and Hope is floating in front of him, probably only held up by Snow. They’re far enough away that Lightning can’t see their faces, not when it’s this dark, but she’s pretty sure they can see her, so she wades in, bending her knees so the water comes up to her stomach, then her breasts.

By the time she’s reached them, she’s standing on her toes to keep her mouth above the water. Snow grins at her over Hope’s shoulder, and she rolls her eyes, then looks down at Hope. “How are you doing?” she asks, and Hope blinks, then kinda shrugs, an awkward movement that sends ripples through the water.

“‘s cold,” he says. Lightning smiles, then grabs his hips under the water, slides her hands down until she’s holding his knees, and starts to pull him back. Hope stiffens, trying to pull away, and asks, “what?”

“The idiot went too deep. He’ll drown us all.” Lightning keeps wading back, pulling Hope with her, and Snow follows, laughing. When Lightning can stand on the flat of her feet, she stops and leans forward. Hope’s shirt is soaked through, and there’s fresh blood on his neck. “Best we’ll get,” she says.

Snow stops laughing, but there’s still a stupid smile on his face. He leans over Hope’s shoulder, asks, “is it that bad?”

Lightning shrugs, flips open the knife. “It’ll come off, but it’s going to tear some of the scabs. Hope?” She waits until he looks at her. “Tell me if it hurts, ‘kay?” Because it will, she knows. It’s going to hurt like hell, and it’s going to bleed like hell, too. But maybe if he thinks it might not, or if he thinks that she doesn’t know it will, they can get through this a little easier.

Hopes takes a breath, nods, and Lightning slides her fingers under the collar of his shirt, pulls it away from his neck. Hope flinches, and before he can tell her to stop, or say that it hurts, she press the knife to edge of the fabric, and starts to cut.

It’s bad. It’s really, really fucking bad. The shirt’s stuck to his chest, little pieces of fabric healed into his skin, and when she digs it out, piece by tiny piece, he digs his fingers into her shoulders and begs her to stop, tells her it hurts. Snow is talking over the sound of Hope’s voice, saying, “it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s almost over, she’s almost done,” and every time he says that, she drops a piece of fabric in the water, and starts to dig out another one.

By the time she’s half-done, if that, her hands are slick with blood and Hope’s face is white. Snow’s face, when she looks up, is also white, and he’s staring right at her. Lightning lifts her hand to push her hair back from her face, then stops. Puts her hand in the water to wash off the blood, then lifts it again. Pushes her hair back, and lets out a breath. She feels shaky, like the bottom of the lake isn’t steady beneath her feet.

“Again?” Snow asks, and Hope moans, turning his face away.

“Yeah,” Lightning says, “again,” and Hope doesn’t beg anymore, or say that it hurts.

When the last of the shirt is cut away, Lightning snaps the knife closed and slips it into the side of her panties, where it lies against her hip. She’ll have to clean it later, take it apart so she can get Hope’s blood out of the hinges. Wash her hands, too, dig the threads and pieces of skin out from under her nails. Now, though, she sets her hands on Hope’s shoulders, her thumbs running along his collarbone, and she pushes a little magic in. Enough to close the wounds, turn the blood into a thin layer of scabs.

When Hope looks at her, his head still lying back against Snow’s body, Lightning has to look away. She looks at his throat, where a little blood is still trickling down, and she lies, very quickly, “I’m sorry. I didn’t think it’d hurt that much.”

“I know,” Hope says, so stupidly trusting, and Lightning wades back, says, “I’ll go get you something to wear,” just so she can get out of there, and away from Hope’s pale, tired face.

She wades back up to the shore slowly, feeling for the lake bottom with each step. The sand is shifting beneath her feet, and her head feels heavy. Pushing through the water is sapping her, and when she finally breaks out of the water, the weight of her body threatens to push her to the ground. She staggers up and over to the oil barrel, and she sinks down on it, puts her head between her knees to breathe for a moment.

“Tired?”

Lightning jumps, grabbing the knife and turning as she staggers from the barrel. Vanille squeaks, steps back and lifts her hands.

“Sorry,” Vanille says, “I didn’t mean-- I thought you saw me when you came out of the water.”

“No, I--” Lightning presses her hand against her chest, where her heart is beating painfully hard. Then she realizes she’s still almost naked, and wet, and she feels heat rush through her, staying in her cheeks. She drops the knife on top of her belt and grabs her shell, tugging it on. “What are you doing down here?”

“I came down to help.” Vanille moves closer, sinks down onto the crystal. “You were already in the water, so I thought I’d wash his clothes. They were pretty--” Vanille pauses, waves a hand. “Stained?”

“I can imagine,” Lightning mutters as she grabs her skirt, tries to pull it up. Her legs are still wet, and the skirt clings to her skin. She curses softly, twists the skirt as she tries to shimmy it up. “How’d it go?”

“Alright.” Vanille is quiet for a moment, then she says, as Lightning is fastening her skirt, “better than you guys, I think.”

Lightning feels her hands slip, and she stands very still for a moment. Her fingertips feel cold.

“I could hear you,” Vanille says, very softly. “Across the water.”

“Right.” Lightning tries to fasten her skirt again, but her fingers are still cold, numb. She can’t get them to bend properly. She’s staring down at them when Vanille reaches out, grabs her skirt. Tugs it forward to get more slack, then does up the snaps.

“I’m sorry.” Vanille grabs Lightning’s vest, shakes it out, then holds it out. “I don’t think-- You’re stronger than us, you know. I couldn’t do that. I don’t think Sazh could, either, or Snow. Maybe Fang, but she--”

“For you, she would,” Lightning finishes. She takes the vest from Vanille and slips it on, belts it. “Maybe she would for Hope, if you asked her.”

“Maybe,” Vanille agrees. “So it’s really only you. It’s not fair, is it?”

Lightning thinks about it for a moment, about Hope bleeding in the water, and Snow holding him still. About how she had to cut his shirt out of his skin. About Serah, and their parents, and their house with the three mortgages and the lifetime of memories. “No,” she says slowly, “not really,” and when her voice shakes a little, she tells herself it’s because Vanille is hugging her too tight, thin arms wrapped around Lightning’s waist.

She wraps her arms around Vanille’s shoulders, and presses her cheek against the top of Vanille’s head, and thinks of how much it feels like hugging Serah again.

x

Hope sits up to eat the next day. He’s already sipped water, just in little bits, enough to ensure Lightning that his trachea and esophagus are still separated correctly, that the water won’t leak into his lungs and drown him. She’s pretty sure the food will go the same way as the water, but she’s not entirely sure, so she’s sitting next to him, watching like a hawk.

“Like a mama chocobo,” Sazh mutters, and Hope smiles and rolls his eyes, the biggest smile Lightning has seen since the vampire tore his throat out. “Well, here. Dig in. Best in the house.”

It’s poached eggs, courtesy of a nest Vanille found earlier this morning. Sazh even deigned to make a face out of the herbs Fang found, and so two yellow, milky-looking yolks gaze wetly up at them all, over a broad, parsley-green mouth. Lightning can’t decide if it’s adorable or revolting, so she shrugs and looks at Hope, waiting for him to eat.

He throws up five minutes later, a nasty, gut-tearing retching that digs into Lightning’s bones. The eggs come up first, then clots of old, crusted blood. He keeps retching, flecks of fresher and fresher blood until there’s a line of blood, red and wet, running from his mouth. Lightning rubs his back as Vanille murmurs over his head, pouring a cure into his body.

“It was probably too soon,” Lightning says when Hope has finally calmed down. Hope’s eyes look haunted, like he’s reliving everything, and Lightning reaches out, grabs his hand and holds on tight. “Just water for now. Little sips. You’ll get better soon.”

He dozes off like that, laid up in his corner, his head still pillowed on Snow’s coat. When she’s sure he’s finally asleep, she lifts his fingers from hers, pulls her hand away. Snow crouches down beside her, reaches out to touch Hope’s shoulder.

“How is he?” he asks. Lightning shrugs, looks away.

“Good enough. It doesn’t seem like there’s anything--” she wants to say lasting, but she doesn’t know if that’s true. She doesn’t know how much of the stories are true, if they have to hide Hope away in the corner like this, where the sunlight can’t reach the tips of his out-flung hands. “We can probably get going in a few days, once his body has enough blood.”

As soon as she says it, she realizes what she said, and she freezes, running over the words again. “I mean,” she starts to correct herself, but she has to stop. She doesn’t know what she means, doesn’t know what any of this means. Snow shifts beside her, his shoulder barely brushing hers, and he says, “yeah, I know.”

In the early evening, when Hope wakes up again, Lighting crouches in front of him, asks him, “can we try something?”

Hope swallows loudly, his throat moving in ripples, and Lightning stares at the scars, sickened and fascinated. “What?” Hope asks, his voice still subdued from the food fiasco of the morning. “I’m not-- not really hungry, so if it’s that, I don’t really want to.”

“No,” Lightning says, “no, it’s-- We just need to know, the sunlight and everything.”

“Oh.” Hope’s voice is going high and strained, like it does when he talks about his mother. “Oh. I. Do you think?”

“We don’t know,” Fang says from across the room. She’s standing in the sunlight, and the sun backlights her, makes her face an empty shadow. It’s unnerving, Lightning thinks, and with the way Hope flinches, she’s pretty sure Hope thinks the same thing. “We have to know before we decide where to go from here.”

“If I, that is-- Will you leave me?”

No. We’ll just change things.” Lighting stands up, holds out her hand. “Come on, Hope. Get up.”

He takes her hand, lets her pull him up, then lead him towards the line of light in the floor. His hand is cold and clammy, and it is shaking. Two feet from the light, he balks, pulling up sharp. She lets go of his hand and steps back, moving to the side so she can see when he touches the sunlight; she’s hoping that it’s a great deal less life-shattering than when Serah turned into crystal.

“I don’t,” Hope says in a very small voice, barely loud enough for Lightning to hear. Lightning is still trying to decide what to say to encourage him when he reaches out, stretches forward on his toes, and lets his fingers cross over into the sunlight.

Lightning takes a deep breath, holds it so she doesn’t throw up. Then lets it out in a whoosh a few moments later. Nothing has happened.

“Hope,” she says, and he flinches again, pulling his arm back quickly, clutching it to his chest. “Did it hurt?”

“No,” he says slowly, “it didn’t feel like anything.” He looks over at her, then at Fang. “Should I try again?”

Lightning looks at Fang, too, and Fang nods, so Lightning nods as well. Hope sidles a little closer to the edge of the shadows, and this time, he holds his entire hand in the sunlight, up to his wrist. Still nothing happens, and Lightning can feel the pit of her stomach drop.

“Thank god,” she breathes, and Fang laughs, says, “you’re a lucky kid, Hope.”

Hope sits down way too fast, like his legs gave out on him, but he looks happier than he has in days. When Lightning pulls him into the sunlight, he even laughs a little, a rough, painful sounding laugh. “I am,” he asks, “aren’t I?”

He lies in the sun for the rest of the evening, sprawled out like a cat. Lightning touches his throat, pushes a little magic into the healing tissue, and feels for his pulse, the steady beats that thump against her fingertips. When the sun is finally going down, Hope turns onto his side, towards Lightning, and asks, “where’s everyone else?”

“They’re looking for supplies,” Fang answers. She’s moved closer to them, and she’s making some sort of stew for dinner, a hodgeposh of meat and lumpy vegetables. “We’re running low on food.”

“Oh.” Hope reaches out, touches Lightning’s wrist, and Lightning looks down at him, tries to smile. “Because-- You didn’t want them to see. If something.”

Lightning nods, feels a headache from the sharp, jerking motion begin in the back of her head. Fang makes a sound, then stirs the stew faster. “If it-- We had to know.”

“I’m not mad,” Hope says, but he pulls himself laboriously to his feet, waving off Lightning’s hand. “I’m tired, I’m going to bed.”

Lightning watches him head for the corner to grab Snow’s coat, then move to the bed Lightning’s been sleeping in. When he lies down, face to the wall, she turns back to Fang, grabbing a sprig of parsley to shred it to pieces.

“He’ll get over it,” Fang says; her voice sounds careless, but her knuckles are white. “He likes you. He likes all of us.”

“Maybe.” Lightning tosses the parsley into the stew, ignores Fang’s quiet complaints. She’s still sitting next to Fang, listening for the sound of Hope’s breathing, when everyone else troops in. Vanille is in the lead, a bundle of leafy greens in her arms, and Sazh is right behind her, balancing a half-dozen eggs. Snow brings up the rear, and he’s lugging what looks like the hindquarters of a wolf.

“Got a haul,” Snow says cheerfully, looking over towards the bed. “How’s the kid? Upgraded him to a bed?”

“Something like that,” Lightning says. Fang snorts, mutters something that sounds unkind. Lightning rolls her eyes, moving over so Vanille can sit between them. “Don’t wake him up; he’s upset.”

“Upset? Why?” Sazh has crouched on Lightning’s other side, and he’s holding out his hands, muttering, “take some before they fall.” Lightning takes two of the eggs, brown and speckled with blue, and sets them to the side. Takes another one, rolls it between her hands.

“He just is,” she says evasively, cupping the egg in her hands. It is small, fits perfectly between her palms. She wonders how thin the shell is, how easily she could crush it. Then wonders if she should crack it into the stew.

“We had to check something,” Fang says, a great deal less evasive. Lightning breathes in, stares at her, and Fang lifts an eyebrow back. “But now we know he can be in sunlight.”

It is painfully silent for a moment, then Snow says, loud and furious, “what did you do?”

“Don’t yell,” Lightning snaps, “you’ll wake him up--” Snow grabs her wrist, drags her to her feet, and she lifts her hand to punch him. Stops, because the egg is still in her hand. He turns on his heel, still holding her hand, and storms for the door. Lightning follows him, stumbling on one step, then pushing Snow’s shoulder to get him moving faster. When they’ve clattered down the metal stairs, she stops, ripping her wrist from him.

“What did you do, Lightning?” Snow asks, voice too loud and too slow. “Did you just-- God, did you just throw him into the sunlight?”

“Oh shut up,” she screams, and she throws the egg at him. He ducks, and her aim is too wide, too wild: the egg flies over his head, shatters on the ground behind him. Shell and yolk splatter across the ground, shining wetly in the light from the moon and stars and Cocoon above. She stares at the yolk, and feels something like tears in the back of her throat. It has been a long, long time since she cried, but she is so exhausted, and when she thinks that it’s only been a week since her birthday, she wants to scream.

“You’re such an idiot, you don’t ever-- This is reality, Snow, and you don’t ever-- We had to do it, and we knew that the rest of you wouldn’t open up your eyes.” Her voice, she knows, is getting louder, and shriller. She can’t remember the last time she screamed like this, either. Probably at Serah, over something stupid; a lost earring, or a stained sweater. She can’t remember getting so mad over something so painfully, stupidly, impossibly real. Something like making a kid reach out and touch the sunlight. But it’s real, it has to be real, and if she can convince Snow, then she can convince herself, too. “This is reality.”

Snow is half-turned away from her, looking towards the shattered egg, and he’s not saying anything. Small mercies, she thinks, or maybe no mercy at all. She takes a breath, holds it so it won’t come out a sob. When she rubs the back of her hand against her forehead, then pinches the arch of her nose, she feels the pricks of tears in the corners of her eyes.

“This is so stupid,” she hisses, and when Snow still doesn’t say anything, or turn to look at her, she spins around and stalks back up the stairs.

Inside, Hope is still lying on the bunk, but his breath is heavy and tight now; he’s awake. Fang, Vanille, and Sazh are still sitting in the middle of the floor, circled around the pot of stew, and they all look at her when she comes in, stare without shame.

What?” she snaps, and Vanille looks away, a deep blush rising on her face. Fang looks away, too, slower than Vanille. Sazh just shrugs, sinking back on his hands.

“Nothin’, just wondering if you wanted to eat with us,” he says, like a peacemaker, and Lightning has to take a moment to unclench her hands, to close her eyes and count to ten and not scream at everyone and everything, because for once, hitting the nearest monster isn’t making things better, because for once, the nearest monster isn’t really a monster, but a little boy.

“Fine,” she says, when the pricks in her eyes are gone, and her cheeks aren’t feeling so hot. Sazh smiles at her then, and scoots over, patting the floor next to him.

“Sit on down, lady.”

x

Snow avoids her the next day, and Vanille seems even more gun-shy than the day before. Fang ignores her with a professional ease that’s painful. The only one who doesn’t pointedly look away from her whenever she catches his eye is Sazh and, when he finally wakes up again, Hope.

It’s nearly noon when Hope finally stirs, with a quick in-taken breath that seems synonymous with nightmares. Lightning and Sazh are playing cards with a partial deck they found in another building, and they pause, look over as Hope sits up.

“What time is it?” Hope asks. Lightning pulls a card, then tosses it to the center, follows it with a card from her hand.

“Nearly noon,” Sazh says, and he picks up the card Lightning tossed, then pulls one from the pile. “Want breakfast?”

“No-o.” Hope drags the word out as he stumbles over to them. He stands next to them, looking down at the card pile for a moment. “I’m not really hungry. What-- What are you playing?”

“Buncle. Pull in if you want.”

Hope hesitates, then sits down, close enough that his knee is pressed against Lightning’s thigh. Lightning stares down at her cards, then glances over, and winces. He looks dreadful, really. There are bruises around his eyes, dark and angry looking, and his lips are pale. His hand shakes when he reaches out to grab a card, and he fumbles, jostling the deck. Lightning licks her own lips, her mouth suddenly dry.

“Hope,” she says, and blinks when he looks at her, his eyes fever-bright. “You look--” like death warmed over “--tired. Did you sleep enough?”

“Yeah, I did. Just--” Hope hesitates as he pairs off two of his cards, tosses them on the discard pile. “Just sleepy. I think, maybe, the sun...” He trails off, staring down at his cards. Lightning looks down at her own, not sure what to say.

Sazh, apparently, doesn’t have that problem, because he says, “Lightning, it’s your turn,” then turns to Hope and says, “it’s cool, I was the same way when I was a teenager. Lazy as hell. Drove my mom to distraction.”

“I-- Oh.” Hope looks as incredulous as Lightning feels, but she thinks she can see a little relief in his face, too. Like just that, Sazh’s little off-handed comment, can right all the wrongs that Lightning and Snow haven’t been able to mend.

Lightning swallows back a smile, and tries not to roll her eyes, and tells herself she feels grateful as she pulls a card.

Sazh slaughters them in the game and laughs about it, says something about the kids being years too early if they think they can bluff him. Lightning can’t fault him, because she’s crap at cards, always has been. Serah’s loads better, and if Serah was here-- But Serah isn’t, so Lightning waves off a second game, leaning back on her hands. The sun coming through the window is warm, and Hope is still sitting beside her, and if this is as good as it can get, she’ll take it.

“I’m not mad, you know,” Hope says suddenly, when Sazh has gone off to try to find replacements for the cards missing in their deck. The suddenness of it is a little startling, but the words aren’t, not really. Lightning can still remember being young, and angry, and hurt; and she’s pretty sure Hope gets a little more leeway this week, because there is something off about him, something wrong that says things have changed.

“I know,” she says. She leans a little on her right arm, just enough so she can bump Hope’s shoulder with hers. “Even if you were, it’d be okay.”

“But,” Hope says stubbornly, “I don’t want to be.”

“Okay.” Lightning stretches out her legs, fixes her skirt a little, then leans back on her hands again. “Okay, then. You’re not mad.”

“Okay.” Hope stretches his legs out, too, next to hers. Sitting side-by-side, his feet don’t quite meet her calves. She wonders how long it will take him to be as tall as her; if he’ll ever be any taller than he is now. “Thanks.”

“Yeah.”

She stares at their shoes for a long time, then the rivets in the metal floor. It’s not very comfortable, and the village is too quiet. She’s warm, though, and she can hear Snow and Fang bickering from down near the lake, their voices carrying over the streets of crystal. Sleepiness is stealing over her, and when she turns and looks at Hope, she can only say, very quietly, and a little sadly, “your skin is burning.”

He stays in the shade the rest of the afternoon, his skin pink and tender looking. Lightning hovers around him, realizes she’s hovering, and tries to drag herself outside. Lasts for five minutes, maybe six, before she climbs the stairs again, and hovers over Hope. He’s starting to look frustrated, and she’s starting to feel frustrated.

“It’s fine,” he says sharply, when she reaches out to touch his cheek. She ignores him, lays a finger against his skin. It’s hot against her skin, but it doesn’t look like it’ll blister.

“Serah gets sunburns, too,” she says thoughtlessly. “Hers are usually worse, though. She forgets that she burns so easily.”

Hope is quiet for a long time. When he does talk, his jaw moves beneath her finger. “Do you think, if I stood in the sun long enough, I’d burn?”

She thinks about it. Imagines him standing in the sunlight, head tilted back so he can look up at Cocoon, where his mother is dead and his father is missing. Thinks about how long it’d probably take, hours and hours of the sun beating down on him, before he’d erupt. And then she thinks about the aftermath, about greasy ashes smeared on the ground, maybe a few fragments left. Teeth, bones. Maybe a little hair.

“Maybe,” she says, “but it’d take a very long time.”

Hope nods, then stops. Lifts his head and looks at her. “Do you think,” he asks, “everything is different now?”

“Maybe,” she says again, so many maybes, “but it doesn’t matter. I’ll take care of you.”

“‘kay,” he says, simple and trusting, and when he lets his head fall forward onto her shoulder, she pulls him close, and listens for his slow, steady heartbeat.







Part Two
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