The unmistakable sound of a yawn broke the silence that reigned in the Dead Dunes.
"Hope?", Lightning stopped and frowned.
Seconds later, her partner's voice, slightly hoarse, came through the wireless device she always had attached to her right ear.
That answer so brief, besides the previous yawning, plus the fact that Hope had been lately taking a long time to make any comments when he used to spend most of the time speaking with her, made Lightning sigh. She glanced at the sky; it was getting dark, which meant they had been almost three days working coordinately without pauses of any kind.
"You tired, aren't you?"
Hope let out an annoyed groan.
"Nothing I cannot handle, don't worry. I'll be fine."
Lightning was enough time communicated to Hope the whole twenty-four hours of day to know her friend's method to knock his sleep away was drinking coffee buckets and force himself to stay awake until his body became used to fatigue.
Given the circumstances, Lightning hadn't insisted on him taking a break so far; she needed her guide, she was well aware that without him she would never have come that far in those hostile lands. But if she ended up killing her only companion and valet in such a mission out of exhaustion, they should forget about saving the world, or what was left intact of it.
She didn't need to rest as much as Hope thanks to the divine powers she received from long ago and recently and didn't fancy the idea of spending the valuable and scarce time they had left in a break along the way, but it was that or risking her friend's health.
"It's enough for today", the young woman decided. "I'll look for a place to rest this night; go to sleep and rest for a while."
"Light, we have less than thirteen days to prevent a catastrophe. We can't afford to stop just because I'm a bit tired. Furthermore, it's getting dark and you'd be alone in the desert; you know too well the monsters come out to hunt at this hour."
"I can take care of the monsters, Hope. I can sleep in the open without so much trouble, you know. I'm aware it has been many centuries since then, but I guess you remember how we kept in line the wild beasts of Gran Pulse."
"It's not the same", Hope replied stubbornly. "These monsters are feral beasts. And some of them have proven to be a threat even for you."
"Then I should get used to cast once more the shielding spells", Lightning shrugged. "You just disconnect and go to sleep."
"Please, Light, this is way more important than my sleep schedule. If you intend something happens to you because of my carelessness–"
Exasperated, Lightning raised a threatening finger and pointed it at the wireless device, which had a little camera in it so Hope could see what was surrounding her. He couldn't see her face, but that index pointing to him with unquestionable authority.
"Hope Estheim", Lightning's voice brooked no argument. "You're gonna shut your computer down, go up the stairs, enter your room and go to bed right now, unless you want me to go and make you do it myself. And I'll be nowhere near as understanding as now."
Hope took a moment to answer, and when he did, by his voice he seemed a little hurt in his pride.
"I'm not a kid to give me that kind of scolding."
"I know you're not", Lightning said without smoothing her gesture even a bit, knowing that unless she kept herself in her place, Hope wouldn't move from his. "Just stop acting like one."
Her friend snorted resignedly.
"Coming from you, it wouldn't be a surprise if you actually came here just to send me to sleep. But I thought I'd have something to say about this since I came of age…"
"Oh yeah, only to keep going on until you fall dead. Very smart on your part, Director", she stated mockingly lifting a hand to her forehead. "Keep it up and you'll become Mister Hero Snow soon."
"It's not like that", Hope protested almost offended.
"More than you think. Now, can we end this discussion without making me go to force you into sleep?"
There was a long silence. Finally, Lightning heard Hope doubtfully clicking his tongue.
"If it were you, Light, I wouldn't mind; you're the one who's out there fighting. I, in the other hand, spend most of the time between four walls and–"
"Do you think I'm iron-made?", Lightning cut him promptly; she already knew which was Hope's weak spot. "You're not the only one who needs to rest."
"Ah…", surprise left her friend momentarily speechless, who all of a sudden couldn't find any grounds for refusing her request. "Well, if that's so… Right, I'll sleep for a little while. You win, as usual. It's impossible to contradict you…"
Lightning smiled, despite herself. His last comment reminded her of their old times, of the little Hope of their journey as l'Cie, an adventure happened long, long ago.
"You better do so. You know if you don't go to sleep I'll find out, and I wouldn't want to be in your shoes if it's the case."
Hope couldn't help but chuckle.
"Besides being a warrior goddess, Etro's Champion and Liberator of Souls, now you're a cryptoseer too?"
"I don't need cryptovision when my target's a terrible liar."
* * *
Night had fallen already over the smooth, ethereal golden dunes of the desert which, in the dim light that filtered through the clouds, looked to fire silvery sparkles.
Lightning had found a hollow in a large rock that hid her reasonably from the hostile eyes and fangs of monsters, but just in case she had cast around her some magic shields like Protect, Shell and Veil. She leaned her back against the rough stone, with her sword in her lap, enjoying the silence of the night.
She wasn't sleepy, but it was nice to relax a bit after the pressure that she and Hope had been subjected the first days after learning of the doomed fate looming over the world.
Probably Hope was already asleep. Since that last conversation they hadn't spoke again and coming from him it was an unmistakable sign that he hadn't an eye on her.
Covered by the dark of the night, Lightning couldn't help but remember over and over the chain of misfortunes that led the world to the brink of utter obliteration. And she, who was largely responsible for the situation, the only thing she could do was trying to turn back the ominous countdown with Hope's help until they found out how to neutralize Chaos' forces. This required constant and perfect coordination of the divine strength and power of the warrior and the brilliant intelligence and logic of the scientist.
In that moment, the wireless device, which was still on, made a weird, dry little sound. Lightning sat up, her senses alert, until she realized she had been listening a paused, quiet breathing through the device for a long time.
The young warrior shook her head, although a half-smile touched her lips.
"Hope", she called softly.
The answer took a while to arrive.
"Have I not told you to go to bed?"
"I did", Hope said sleepily; Lightning raised a brow.
"And you didn't turn off the device?"
"Of course not", by his voice Lightning knew her friend was smiling. "I told you I'd try to protect you, didn't I? If I'm not with an eye on you, I won't be able to watch out for you."
"It's kind of amusing you're the one who's 'watching out for me'."
"Well", Hope pondered a bit ironically. "Technically now I'm older than you."
Lightning smiled, recalling her surprise when she reunited with him and saw him turned into a young man taller than her, much more mature and, she had to admit, much more attractive too.
"Right. How old were you before… all this?"
He didn't answer right away. He seemed to be thinking through the issue.
"I'm not really sure… Guess I'm between twenty-four and twenty-six. Noel told me at one point he and Serah met me as a twenty-seven-year-old, but I don't quite remember that. Perhaps the paradoxes altered somehow the past, who knows."
"Yeah", Lightning murmured. "Playing with time never ends well."
Hope remained silent. Yes, time had been infinitely crueler with them than with the rest of their comrades: he was the only one who hadn't been able to enter the Historia Crux, while Lightning had been trapped in a realm where time didn't flow.
Silence stretched for several long moments.
"What are you doing?", Lightning asked then quietly for not startle Hope just in case he fell asleep.
"I'm looking at the sky", her friend muttered. "It's particularly beautiful tonight."
Lightning smiled to herself; she could well imagine the young man lying on his side in bed, his disheveled silver hair on the pillow and his light aqua-green eyes fixed on the window of his bedroom, lost in his endless dreams.
She looked up and watched the sky, covered by those dense clouds that reminded her so much of the ones that always covered Valhalla.
"But it's cloudy", the young warrior noted. "It's always so cloudy."
"You've been here for a short time", Hope laughed. "It's passing much more light through than usual tonight. Nights usually were almost total darkness, you know."
If Lightning knew it was because Hope warned her about the dangers of night-time every now and then. She only cared about the vicious monsters that went hunting at that late hour; among her divine powers was a feline night vision. That's why she hadn't noticed this before.
"Maybe", she admitted not so thrilled. "Even so, it's still so dark. I don't like it."
"I know that. Sorry for giving it so many thoughts, it's just…", Hope hesitated for a moment. "Time ago, watching the sky was daunting. When you looked up, all you saw was darkness, not a shred of light that could guide you. It perfectly symbolized how we lost hope in the future."
Something in Hope's voice made Lightning's heart to clench, forcing her to breathe deeply to loosen the pain. He didn't usually talk about his life in Nova Chrysalia unless it was to provide her some data that might be useful to them in their mission; they had no time to spend talking about what they had been doing during all the time they had been separated.
For the first time, Lightning thought that while she had lost her sister, at least she slept for centuries. However, Hope and the other survivors were forced to move on.
"But you can't lose hope", the young woman said frowning. "You can't lose yourself, Hope."
"There's a difference between me clinging to the slightest possibility of salvation and the others doing the same as me. Over the years, many decided to put an end to their lives", Hope said sadly. "I'd be lying if I said I didn't think about it more than once. Sometimes, my name is nothing but a burden to me."
"It shouldn't be", Lightning tilted her head in surprise. "Hope is such a nice name. It's one of the most beautiful feelings in the world."
"It's also one of the cruelest", the young man muttered bitterly. "Hope doesn't give happiness, Light. It only drives you to keep going, in search of something that can lead you to said happiness… or doom you to a life of delusion."
His answer greatly surprised Lightning. She had never put it that way, since hope was all that kept her alive and allowed her to keep fighting. However… Hope was right. And the warrior guessed, beneath his words, her friend's fear: not doing anything but lead her to a delusion, unable to give her the happiness she craved for.
At Hope's sad silence, Lightning tried to cheer him up.
"You can compare your name with mine. Yours is a beautiful concept, whereas I only bring misfortune to anyone close to me."
"That's not true", Hope snapped immediately. "You may think my name's nice, but I think yours is a million times better. It's the pure energy that shakes the skies and lights them up in the chaos of the fiercest storms."
She couldn't help smiling. The dreamy metaphors were typical coming from Hope; it was hard to believe a scientist like him could lose himself that much in his own fantasies. And she had noticed at once the dual sense that her friend had put in his simile.
"It's not even my real name. It's just a nickname."
"You think so? I'd say it isn't. It may not be your birth name, but Lightning is your real name because it is the one you chose yourself. Not everyone has the courage to change who we are."
A bitter half-smile touched Lightning's lips.
"Changing your name doesn't mean changing who we are."
"In a way, it does change us", Hope said sweetly, as though his words could hurt her. "I highly doubt you're the same as before after you became Lightning."
That kind of comments disturbed the young woman in a manner she couldn't explain. It was as if, somehow, Hope could read through her, even when he didn't know all the details. But he was the only one to whom she had revealed bits of her past, and it was clear her friend's privileged mind did the rest by tying loosen ends.
"At this point I have no idea about who or what I am", she said half jokingly.
"You're Light for me", the young man whispered, his voice gently smiling to her. Lightning felt a strange shiver running down her back. "For the rest of the world, I don't know, and to be honest, not that I care about. But for me, having spent years watching a sky covered by darkness, light is everything."
His words left a long silence in the air. Lightning felt a sudden warmth in her cheeks, and she shook her head, unsuccessfully trying to cool them off. She knew the feeling, typical of Hope's warmth, but she had never experienced that way before.
She wasn't sure if she liked it or not. For the time being, it was kind of awkward.
"Really? Even a light that faded and left the world to itself for centuries?", she answered, some of her bitterness surfacing with her words. After seeing the state of the world after she entered her crystal stasis, Lightning couldn't help feeling guilty for it. And for leaving her friends alone in that entropic realm, too.
Hope sighed wearily.
"On your day you did what you considered to be right. I won't be the one who blame you for choosing to protect your sister's memory", after a brief pause, the young man whispered. "I'd have done the same thing."
"What? Crystallizing yourself for your sister's memory?", Lightning couldn't help but close her eyes, feeling pain in her heart by remembering Serah.
"Well, not exactly a sister…", Hope, who at the end of the day had been an only child, admitted. "But I would do it for a person I loved that much."
His remark could've been a coincidence, but for Lightning it seemed there was something more behind his words. She wasn't sure if she wanted to know. It appeared to be a personal thing, and she wouldn't be who tried to make him spill it.
"I didn't do it just for Serah…", the young woman murmured. "My battle against Caius was lost since we began our duel. My only chance was to enter crystal stasis and wait for my moment. That was my fate."
Once again, Hope let out another sigh, but he said nothing.
"What?", Lightning asked at his deliberate silence.
"Such a cruel fate… You were forced to give up with Serah as your last hope. And yet, the gods continue playing with you and your feelings. As Lumina does, too."
He had a point. That Lumina girl got Lightning in her nerves every time she crossed her path with her. She painfully looked like Serah… and yet she was so different to her. So unpredictable.
"I'm not the only one who seems to be a toy of the gods", she replied wrinkling her nose. "You're involved too, Hope. I don't know why, but you are. And you shouldn't be."
To her surprise, Hope softly chuckled. She wasn't expecting that reaction, specially since her friend wasn't too fond of the gods.
"Maybe I should, maybe not. I don't know. But the question is, I am involved", he said, and Lightning could almost visualize his sweet smile. "And I got involved myself. Whether it's my fate or not, I don't care. But I did it because I wanted to. I don't need any orders from any god for that."
Lightning smiled as well, an amused chuckle that partly soothed her growing blush. She couldn't help it, that kid still had something that made her most sensitive side emerge from her concealed heart.
"I wish I could have a bit of your will, Hope."
"Shouldn't I be the one to tell you that?", the young man joked, momentarily surprised; his tone became a serious one then. "You're my mentor, Light. If I have it, it's because of you. So you have it, no doubts about that."
She shook her head, sighing sadly.
"If I had, the gods certainly must've taken it from me."
"There's no god able to make the light fated to illuminate all Nova Chrysalia fade away", Hope paused, and then he continued a bit jokingly. "You're not alone out there, right? You still have me."
Lightning smiled, despite herself. Yes, she still had Hope. And she knew he wouldn't leave her.
Her friend would live up to his name. She knew it because she taught him to do so.
"Right", she nodded, watching the sky with a wistful look, knowing that Hope and her were sharing the same image in their eyes in that moment. "You're not alone either, Hope. I'm with you too, and I will. Whether it is or not my fate."
Hope smiled as well. Lightning knew it.
That night there was a lot more light than any other that had fallen over Nova Chrysalia for five whole centuries.
And there was also in the hearts of both warrior and scientist, separated by space but bound by a meaningful name and a shared fate in time.
"I know. More than ever tonight."