It was time.
Everyone was in position and the three generals looked to their commander for the signal. Squall Leonhart was staring out of the large window in the war room in his office on the third floor of Balamb Garden. His dark bangs were hardly blocking his vision but out of habit and stress he ran his gloved fingers through them anyway. Without turning around he tilted his head to the side to glance at his three top Soldiers: a young, pink-haired woman with her toned arms folded in impatience, a tall blonde man with extremely spiky hair looking stoically back at Squall, and a younger, shorter blonde man who was practically bouncing on his heals with excitement and anticipation.
Squall sighed and his eyes slid closed. There was no doubt in his mind that this was the right thing to do, but no invasion mission was easy. He was the commander after all and the decision was his. This fact alone made each wounded and fallen Soldier his responsibility and telling these brave women and men that they must risk their lives was never something he took lightly.
Without opening his eyes, Squall gave one nod of his head and even though it was such a small gesture all three of the generals caught it and turned around. They made their way wordlessly to the elevator to head down to the newly added boat launching platform on the bottom floor of Balamb Garden where the other Soldiers and cadets waited.
"All right! Let's do this!" Tidus, the younger blonde, exclaimed with an obligatory air punch as he strode through the elevator's open doors.
"I wouldn't be too excited if I were you. Galbadia's army is not known for their mercy. We'll be trying to take prisoners and they'll be shooting to kill," the older blonde, Cloud, said somberly. He was one of the top Soldiers but he, like Squall, was never apt to rush into battle if it could be avoided and unfortunately this one could not be.
The woman, who everyone called Lightning, kept her silence because she was thinking along the same lines as Squall and Cloud. The adversarial nation of Galbadia was infamous for its human rights violations and extreme violence towards outsiders. Unfortunately, as of late, public opinion had swayed governmental policy and people such as L'Cie (whose only difference is their country of origin which is Gran Pulse), had started being targeted. Many were being branded with tattoos upon entering the country and as a result more prejudiced members of Galbadia were even seeking L'Cie out and doing terrible things to them. The government turned a blind eye and even implemented policies in which to further allow such atrocities to continue. This is where Balamb Garden had to step in. Garden is home to the Guardian Corps, which is a military group that strives to protect all citizens from tyrannical governments as well as prevent human rights violations. This one was too blatant to ignore as many other countries had.
Lightning strode onto the boat that would take them to the beaches in Galbadia. She had a quick discussion with the Soldier who'd be steering and then made her way to the rest of her team. She saw some familiar faces, as always Zell was there pumping his fists and being all around obnoxious and Yuna, Tidus' girlfriend, was sitting by herself, cleaning her handguns. She recognized the rest of their faces but could not put names to most of them. It was usually better that way; better not to get too friendly with anyone in a job like this.
Looking around at all of the faces she could recognize fear, apprehension, and, in Zell's case, excitement. Save for Zell and Tidus, these people did not want to be here. Of course, helping the L'Cie was the right thing to do, but sometimes it's hard to remember that on the cusp of a major battle.
She began giving her usual speech, she had done this so many times that she was hardly even hearing what she was saying. Every now and then she would catch herself saying, "don't break ranks..." or "aim to incapacitate, not kill." She was impressed how she could make such a serious mission seem so boring.
It was a short trip from Garden to the Galbadian city of Timber and Lightning didn't even bother to sit down for the remainder of the trip. Before long a cadet announced that they were almost there and everyone prepared themselves, checking weapons and whispering prayers to themselves. With a great lurch the boat hit the sandy beach and the large bay doors opened. Immediately, Lightning could tell the Galbadian army was aware of their arrival and she had to rush her troops to the nearby cover of an abandoned beach house. Bullets whizzed by as they threw themselves under cover of the house on stilts.
"Okay, this is going to be more difficult than the original plan, but we still need to make it to the square. Follow me and keep up!" Lightning ran out from the house and up the stairs inflicting minor wounds to the soldiers who stood in her path. How did they know we were coming? This was supposed to be a surprise attack, Lightning thought angrily to herself. Every once in a while she checked behind her to make sure her unit was okay but they all had seemed to have found their courage and were keeping up just fine.
Suddenly, loud sirens started going off around the town and a voice could be heard as if through a loud speaker, "Pull back, Guardian Corps, or the slaughter of the L'Cie will begin."
Ultimatums like this had been made ever since the Garden had threatened to intervene in Galbadia. Lightning's unit was obviously shaken by the announcement but none faltered. This repeated many times as they ran to the center of the town where there was supposed to be a large fountain. Lightning was certain they were not bluffing, but she needed Cloud's and Tidus' units here to decide what their next move would be.
Just as they were turning onto the main street Lightning threw out her arm to stop them. The sight that met them around the corner was one that they would never forget. There, instead of a fountain in the town square was a pile of dead bodies, presumably L'Cie bodies, as tall as a one story building. The bodies had not recently perished and some had even begun to decompose. How can people do this to one another? Lightning's emotions were not betrayed on her face but inside she was swirling with white, hot rage.
Lightning had seen many horrific things in her career but this... this had to be the worst mass killing in history. By the looks of this mass grave, the slaughter had started long before the Guardian Corps had ever stepped foot in Galbadia. Yuna had fallen to her knees in agony at what she had seen, unlike Lightning, she did not have the strength to hide her feelings of anguish. Zell had lost all of his fight and was staring at the pile of bodies in horror. Other soldiers were getting violently sick not from the smell but just the trauma of the sight.
Lightning's phone rang, breaking her thoughts, and she brought the thin device to her ear slowly. "Lightning..." she answered.
"Lightning, we need to get all of the survivors we can and get out of here. Now. They were tipped off somehow." She recognized Cloud's voice immediately.
"I know...It's..." she couldn't explain over the phone in the middle of all of this death. "We'll meet you back at the beach in half an hour."
"All right, hurry." Lightning heard him hang up and mastering herself she addressed her unit as calmly as if they were in basic training.
"They're too well prepared. We are to pull back and take any survivors we can with us." Even as she said this, she could see the despair in their eyes. How could there be survivors? For many of them, this was their first real mission and they had no idea this was what it meant to be a Soldier in the Guardian Corps.
"Move out." She led them back through the town as quickly as she could while keeping them relatively out of the line of fire. Never had a mission gone this badly. After a while, they could see the beach and Lightning paused while they passed to make sure all were present and accounted for.
"Let go of me!" a female voice screamed from a nearby alleyway. Lightning knew she had been the only one to have heard it above all of the noises of battle. She didn't hesitate. If anyone could be saved then this mission would not be a failure.
"Zell!" She called and the tattoo-faced man ran back to her, "Get them back on the boats. I'll be along in a minute."
"But, we –" Zell started, searching her face for answers.
"Don't argue." She ordered while her ice blue eyes dared him to disobey. She could hear the struggle getting more distant as if someone was being pulled away.
Zell nodded and reluctantly followed the unit down to the beach. Seeing that they were safe, Lighting immediately ran down the dark, damp cobblestone alleyway. She wasn't too far away because the voices were becoming distinguishable.
"It's a shame this one has to go." A gruff male voice said and a deeper male voice answered, "I know, right! If I wasn't worried about all them L'Cie diseases she's probably carrying we could have some fun!"
Lightning had heard enough, she put on a burst of speed and almost caught up to the voices. Pulling out her gun blade and swinging it open in one fluid motion; she flew around a corner and almost ran into the owner's of the voices. They were two large Galbadian lower ranking soldiers dragging a struggling red-headed woman by the arms.
"Let her go." Pointing her gun blade into the back of the larger man and using a smaller knife, putting the smaller man in a choke hold with the blade to his jugular. The men froze instantly, but she knew they were thinking of a way to escape so she pushed the two weapons harder to their skin.
"Hey now, if we knew you wanted to join the party we would have invited you." The smaller man said with false bravado in his voice. Unfortunately, for him, his shaking voice gave away his fear of the Guardian Corps general.
"I will not repeat myself." Lightning was not in the mood for games and if this woman was the only L'Cie she could save then so be it.
"All right, all right," the larger man let the woman go and it was clear something had to be broken in her leg because all she could do was slide her body on the ground in a position behind Lightning. The Soldier looked down at the woman and was temporarily distracted by the extreme pain in her eyes. Not just physical pain but intense emotional trauma had to have happened to this woman to have such a desperate look. The glance only lasted a second but it was enough for the larger man to aim a punch at Lightning's face. Luckily, she had great reflexes and dodged it easily while "pistol-whipping" him in the back of the head, and kneeing him soundly in the groin. He fell to his knees in pain and his friend, seeing that they were extremely outmatched, grabbed him and they stumbled away as quickly as they could.
"Can you stand?" Lightning asked folding her gun blade but still watching the men's retreating backs. She had made the mistake of allowing herself to be distracted by looking down at the woman before and she wasn't ready to repeat it until the coast was clear.
"I...I don't think so...," the woman was obviously ashamed at admitting this so she tried to get up anyway but her leg simply wouldn't support her. She almost fell to the hard bricks but Lightning was able to throw her arms around the woman's waist and catch her.
"It's okay. I can carry you. Put your arms around my neck." Somewhat reluctantly, the red-head did so, and Lightning bent down and gently scooped up her legs, trying not to cause her anymore pain. After looking into those haunted eyes she couldn't imagine adding to this woman's burden. But why do I care? She is just a victim. That's all. I'm just doing my job, Lightning tried to convince herself, but she couldn't help the anger that still pulsed through her. What had led Galbadia down the path of genocide?
During the walk to the beach the two women said nothing to each other, but every once in a while the L'Cie would look up at the Soldier. She wondered why this woman had saved her. Who was she? Why was she here? Did she know that she was a L'Cie? She had to. All of these thoughts swirled in her brain but she couldn't help noticing how strong the woman was. The red-head knew she was not that heavy but even walking about a mile down stairs and then through sand had to be difficult with any weight, but the Soldier did not struggle or falter. They approached a military boat and she couldn't believe it. They were the Guardian Corps. They had come to help the L'Cie. They were just too late, she thought bitterly. They made it onto the boat and she could see the other soldiers stand up in surprise but this pink-haired soldier walked right through them into another part of the boat. It looked like a kind of medical room for emergency treatment. There was a solitary bed and that is where she was laid down.
"Rest. We will be at Garden within the hour," the soldier reassured her, but instead of leaving she sat down on a nearby metal bench.
"Who...," but as the question formed in her brain it was gone just as quickly. It was as if now that she was safe everything caught up with her: the pain in her leg, the horror of watching her friends being murdered, the pure exhaustion of the past weeks. Looking over at the pink-haired soldier she knew she was all right now and with this thought her eyelids slid closed and everything grew dark.