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Kings of Infinite Space

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Her first battle is her proving battle. The world is dark around her, peppered with stars; the floor is cold, the air is crisp, and every part of her body feels heavy. The webbed force field that ties down the sky flickers in places, the panels knocked out and fritzing. Her glasses press wedged indentations into her cheek.

She doesn't know what happened, if there was something the intruders did to her -- she can't see the l'Cie, she can't see the control room of the Palamecia, she can't see her personnel. A baritone growl penetrates her hearing; she chokes against the heavy reek of wet soil and musk.

As she wakes up further, desperately making herself aware of the beast that is crouching only a few feet away, she remembers.

She remembers the invasion of the ship, the Primarch's voice calling Code White. She remembers facing down all six l'Cie proudly, shouting for the Primarch to retreat, and then -- she remembers Dysley's voice, dismissing her. Dismissing humans. She remembers the bolt of power.

She remembers the bolt of magic.

It was too much then, and it is too much now, but one thing remains the same: Jihl has no time to come to terms with events. Instead, she is faced with a woodwraith, one of the Jabberwocky caliber. All her soldiers are gone. The monster shrugs off her attempts to weaken its defenses, and flings her like a twig into the air, too fast for her to keep a good offensive going. She scrambles, shields herself, but doesn't have the ability to keep herself sufficiently healed, nor to penetrate its hide on her own.

The defeat is humiliatingly quick. She sprawls on the ground for a second time; the world doesn't dissolve into blackness, but it does waver, and she realizes it's because she's having problems seeing straight. The woodwraith backs away, snorting with satisfaction. As it does, shards of light bleed out of Jihl's body, through her grasping fingers, and flow in a stream towards the monster. It echoes a strange wrenching in her chest. The pull makes her suddenly aware of the creature's presence, and she squints her eyes against whatever is happening to her that she cannot understand -- or stop.

The light clears. The woodwraith is gone. In its place is a humanoid figure, but tall, too tall, its face and form masked beneath golden armor and a red sheath of cloth. In its hand is a halberd whose blade is fanned like a serrated razor. "Loss for Jihl Nabaat."

"I didn't fight well," she protests, disoriented, nerves humming with misfiring impulses. "I wasn't prepared."

"Few are, for death," the entity intones. "Clear the floor for the next match!"

Death. No. Stubborn enough to stay put, but even more stubborn to not be shooed away like so much trash, Jihl tenses her shoulders in case another fight is about to happen on top of her. Her body doesn't hurt as much as she expects. Her wounds are already closing, the pain fading away even as she watches the flesh merge back together without a manadrive's assistance.

And then, inexplicably, Yaag Rosch is there by her side: a Yaag whose eyes are more solemn than she has ever seen them before, and he was already a serious man. "I was wondering when I would find you here," he says, scooping one hand under her arm to help her up.

"Yaag? You've... you're dead too, then?" she asks, dazed, hoping he will deny it.

But he only firms his lips and makes a sharp nod, his hand more urgent on her now. She scrambles to her feet; the pain is already gone. As he hauls her towards the sidelines, shreds of color fade in and out of the corners of her vision and -- like a tide rushing in -- faces suddenly rise out of nothingness, a sea of limbs that Yaag is dragging her towards that will consume her whole.

They are not alone. The chamber is full of creatures, beings both monstrous and mundane, stretching endlessly into the darkness.

She was, she discovers from Yaag, considered a casualty of the l'Cie. Judging from his weary expression as he says that, he had learned -- or guessed -- the truth. He was an officer of PSICOM as well, her right hand and fellow soldier. If Dysley did away with her so readily, Yaag could not have been far behind.

What he ends up telling her about Cocoon is far worse.

Being manipulated from birth, killed, and entered into spiritual enslavement was not among Jihl's goals for her life. She is too professional to outright rebel, though she struggles with not becoming flustered: a weakness that she's never overcome, and which was, humiliatingly, in full force on the Palamecia on her last day.

Confidence only works when you have control. Jihl has no idea what a dead person's performance level is expected to be.

But none of the impact of her situation really hits until she has just started to settle in, crouching on the sidelines and watching Yaag systematically deconstruct a mechanical Crusader. She had been told that she is here to fight -- but for no real purpose, with no reward of freedom or power waiting at the end if she does. There is no escape.

As she wonders what sort of meaning could possibly come from such a place, she glances across the sloping stands, and sees Lightning Farron.

The Coliseum only allows the dead. It exists in a realm beyond all realms. It cares not for the limitations of mortals; it is ruled by no kingdom's law. Only souls are called to compete. The living have no place.

"But if it's outside of time," Jihl points out, still resisting her own diagnosis, "everyone is, by definition, dead."

"You're thinking about it the wrong way, Nabaat," Yaag counters, in that dry, clinical tone that he always used during the academy, back when they had the luxury of banter. Being resurrected must have also healed his temper. "Physical death is merely a formality. You can't come here until you've reached the end of your ability to grow further. Getting killed just happens the most common method of ensuring that."

"That's nonsense," she replies, looking down as Lightning dispatches another vespid. "She's here. And she certainly didn't stop at being a mere security officer. Things would have been much simpler if she had."

Yaag rolls his eyes and says nothing else, and once more, Jihl wonders about what he has gone through to soften him so.

She muddles over the puzzle some more, tucking herself away in a corner of the Coliseum to avoid the gaze of the other competitors. When she considers it in those terms, her presence here -- all their presences -- makes a terrifying amount of sense. They're not here to improve. There's no training to be done. When the termination of one's potential has been reached, then their soul is primed like a fruit ready for harvest. The arena exists to determine who tastes sweet, and who is worthless mush.

And if that's true, something ended for Lightning when she was still an officer, something real, and if it's only a metaphysical death -- a transition from human to l'Cie -- then Jihl will protest the logic of this place even more.

She knows that her stubbornness stems from a desire to achieve. But Jihl can't grow stronger here. She can only serve, and be served. Being perrmanently marked as inferior itches.

She turns her attention back to the floor. Lightning has finished the vespids, slicing through one last, chitinous wing -- which dissolves and reappears on the insect, healed to perfection once the Arbiter calls the match. Jihl bites her lip.

"So," she murmurs aloud, watching Lightning accept the victory with a callous nod. "This is who you were before you became a monster."

Lightning is something Jihl cannot help but be drawn to. She never had a chance to fight the l'Cie. That opportunity was taken from her on the Palamecia, along with her life, before she had the option of displaying her worth. But now, Lightning is here -- here forever by the sound of it, trapped in the same tiny cage as Jihl for eternity.

If Jihl cannot best all the competitors in this place, then she will keep at least one under her thumb, and that victory will keep her spirit warm throughout the centuries.

Like any good soldier, Lightning is trained in manadrives and teamwork. She lacks l'Cie murderousness in this state, but possesses a human's free will. The result might not be completely relevant -- who knows how much of Lightning's personality had been affected when she'd been transformed into a walking directive -- but Jihl is willing to extrapolate.

When she approaches Lightning, wary, the other woman is focused on the arena floor. Unlike many of the warriors -- Jihl herself included -- Lightning doesn't spend her time scouring the bystanders for easy victories. Instead, she's drinking in the fight itself. The woman does not glance up until Jihl is nearly at her elbow, and when she does, her expression is perplexed. She nods once, jerkily, in uncertain respect before remembering herself enough to straighten to attention.

"Sergeant," Jihl states.

Lightning's gaze fixes itself on the distance as she performs a crisp, textbook-perfect salute. "Colonel."

Disarmed by the irony -- Farron showing politeness, though with Guardian Corps distaste -- Jihl adjusts her tone. "Enjoying the fight?"

Lightning drops her hand. "The Behemoth King isn't bad. If I had to pick between them, I'd choose that one."

Jihl lets a thin smile flitter free. It's true: Lightning was fixated on the massive behemoth, not the weaker Megistotherian that serves as its punching bag. The reason is obvious. Lightning is a woman who measures herself by the strength of her opponents, not the count of her victories.

She allows their first meeting to be minor, relishing the bemusement that lingers behind. The warmth in her chest stems from smugness; she knows more about Lightning than the reverse. The advantage is squarely in Jihl's court.

She wonders if she'll like this version of Lightning, or if the woman will be as irritating as her l'Cie incarnation.

She'll have to find out.

The Coliseum encompasses the void in its outskirts, but it is never empty. Thousands upon thousands of souls are there: waiting, watching, biding their time to clash. The caliber between the ranks is clearly defined in bands, categorized by strength -- but each one contains a spectrum of talent, so it is at the fringes that the fighting is worst upon. It is a curious mercy; each successively lower band is spared the worst predations from the top, because those who are more powerful are too busy fighting off those who are barely almost as strong.

First things first, of course. Jihl uses soldiers in her best strategies, so that is what she must work to replace. She trawls the lower ranks, collecting and attuning the troops she plans to use, picking fights strategically in order to win the services of those weak enough to be beaten, but not so fragile that they're completely useless. Most of the combatants scatter when they see her on the prowl, but there are a few that meet her eyes, and then accept her challenge. She takes satisfaction in strangling their pride.

She remains circumspect as well, giving wide berth to the creatures that could crush her with a thought. When they go on the hunt, it is her turn to retreat, feeling their power ripple through the Coliseum like the beat of a thousand generators humming in unison.

She wonders sometimes if she will see Dysley. She wonders what she would do.

Eventually, she goes after Lightning.

She makes her bid only when she has an arsenal again. She does not know if she can defeat Lightning without reinforcements, but when she makes the challenge, the Arbiter allows Lightning to have a second. Perhaps less surprising, it is another member of the Bodhum Security Regiment: Lieutenant Amodar, by way of introduction, and Jihl acknowledges his rank with a bemused nod.

His smile fades away when he greets her, but she's used to hostility from the Guardian Corps. She expects some trouble from him -- things have never been pleasant between PSICOM and the GC -- but he only gives her a long, veteran's stare, and gets down to business with a rueful shake of his head.

They face off against each other warily, Jihl shifting quickly to a heavier offense so as not to underestimate the two Corps. She disregards her lesser troops, and goes straight to a pair of Azure Behemoths, setting them out like chessboard rooks.

Lightning moves quickly. She's a whirlwind, almost as fast as the future version of herself, and equally focused. Jihl has seen security footage of the l'Cie, has watched the human Farron in the Coliseum, but none of it compares to being on the receiving end. Lightning's intensity is like a hurricane condensed into flesh. No hesitation lies in her sword; she swings her gunblade to kill.

Jihl twists away early, stacking both her creatures with support spells, hanging back to let them do the heavy work.The ploy is effective. Uncertain what to target first, Amodar and Lightning cycle through their options, alternating between Jihl and the behemoths. They're forced to pause frequently, switching back to defensive heals, and Jihl has more than enough time to shrug off the sting of their blows.

Finally dropping his guard, Amodar digs for his grenades, whittling at her defenses in turn -- but Jihl is quick in retargeting. She switches to Lightning immediately, interrupting the woman's healing spells and sacrificing her own behemoths for a lethal strike.

It's an unexpectedly fast turnabout. On his own, Amodar cannot overcome the strength she draws from her pawns. He tries to dehabilitate her, then to take out her minions with wide bursts of firepower -- but he can't recover quickly enough without Lightning, and Jihl promptly orders her behemoths to snap him in two.

Once it's over, Amodar kneels gracefully for his size, head bowed in acknowledgement of her dominance. He kisses Jihl's knuckles with grudging respect. At the touch of his lips, crystal tendrils spread along her fingers, white vines twining around her wrist before they fade away like a whisper against her skin. She has won the right to use him. For now.

She turns to Lightning next. The woman is crouched with her head turned away, eyes fixed upon the floor; this incarnation knows nothing about her cursed l'Cie future, but her stubbornness is just as powerful. For Lightning, Jihl does not bother to extend her hand. Instead, she lifts her baton, leaving its saber-blade sheathed, and traces the line of Lightning's throat with the tip.

Lightning doesn't flinch. The baton's point presses against her chin, harder and harder, until finally Lightning is forced to tilt her head up. Her gaze leaps up to Jihl -- just once, a flash of fierce blue -- and then she jerks it away, off to the side with her eyelids half-lowered in defense.

Jihl flicks the rod aside. Stepping closer, she seizes Lightning's jaw with a gloved grip, and claims the woman's mouth with her own.

The startled noise that Lightning makes is worth every wound that Jihl has taken. She works hungrily at the barrier of Lightning's teeth; she keeps Lightning pinned with no escape from this battlefield, pressing hard with her fingers until Lightning's jaw finally goes slack and opens, allowing Jihl into the wet heat inside.

The gleam of crystal binding them is not half as satisfying as the wide-eyed uncertainty on the soldier's face. Even though Jihl knows the battle is over, she takes her time in relishing this reward.

She steps back at last, wiping away the dampness on her lips with the back of her hand.

"There," she says, satisfied. "I accept your loss."

Triumph is less fulfilling than Jihl had hoped. Lightning had been beaten, true -- but there are a thousand other competitors, and Jihl has to work constantly simply to maintain her place.

Grasping the flow of the Coliseum is essential. Like the number of other senses she has gained while dead, Jihl finds herself more and more sensitive towards the Arbiter's presence. The Arbiter is not something she argues with: she can feel the justice of his verdicts, the fairness of his restrictions, as if they are part of her now. When he speaks, it is law. She cannot protest his judgement.

Other sensations have become muted. She no longer hungers; she cannot even recall the memory of such cravings. She never thirsts. She only grows weary while on the battlefield, and once she steps off the arena floor, her stamina has already recovered. Fighting is what nourishes her now. To not be allowed a battle feels like being denied the opportunity to exist.

She does not like the change. Or rather, she wants to not like the change, but the tradeoff is good: matters like food and sleep and injuries have only slowed her down before, and the longer she goes without them, the more she prefers it this way.

She uses the time for study, instead. There are a pair of pumas tussling in the ring today; their shrieks rebound through the arena, neither willing to yield, but too evenly skilled to make a quick end. The stands are half full, attended only in distant interest. Jihl does not bother to manifest as more than a whisper of color, letting her presence be known only because she is idle enough to entertain company.

If the Sanctum fal'Cie wanted to destroy Cocoon, I would have helped them, she thinks bitterly. I would have helped them destroy everything. They didn't need to kill me.

The resentment holds strangely little traction; like so much else about this world, the only things that seem to engage her interest of late are the battles. They are a thrill beyond any desk job, any political ambition. They are the only things that matter now, when everything else seems as trivial as dust. She does not need to eat, to drink, she is always and never sleeping, slipping in and out of consciousness with no sense of time lost. The matches are her only purpose, her only intent. They make her feel alive.

Rather than continue to dwell on the history that she is no longer a part of, Jihl gets to her feet. She walks in search of new opponents through a sea of impressions, feeling their lives slide over her skin in gouts of humid air, inhaling fluid with each breath.

Like her, Yaag had lost almost all his assets in his own proving match, stripped down to his sabre and talents. He has no warmachines, no firepower. The desire to recover his technology drives him to keep pushing higher, to rebuild his strength by reclaiming it, She's not sure about what he has to do to rebuild his forces, and he's too irritated to answer, but she knows he aims high. And loses a lot. She, on the other hand, benefits from preying on the weak, which means that her victims like to gang up on her at times, wounding her pride bitterly.

She nurses a particularly embarrassing loss after two of her former pumas had disregarded all tactics and leapt straight for her throat. If she'd kept her composure, they would have been no threat -- but surprise had paralyzed her, and then they'd ripped off her face.

Yaag has her down on a couch, working on the muscles in her back. She isn't sore -- any aches vanish the instant she leaves the arena floor -- but she's sullen enough to pretend it, and he's willing to humor her for a while. They go through the motions of life on occasion, for no other reason than entertainment. The downtime helps her think.

"Maybe you should give up on dreams of another Proudclad," she mumbles into the couch. Yaag had scavenged a room from somewhere; she strongly suspects he took it from another champion. "You might have to refine your fencing after all."

"Your tools are organic," he retorts. "Mine are mechanical. I have as much right to mine as you for yours."

"What if they aren't considered part of your strength?" she asks, mulishly, picking at his pride because she knows she can draw blood. "What if you'll never have them back?"

He pinches a hand in her skin and gives a twist. "Let's fight," he suggests, and she agrees.

Challenging Yaag is both good and bad. He's a partner who is closely enough matched with her that it comes down to chance and battlefield resources each time, where outcomes hinge more upon recent wins than outright strength. They're interchangeable in one another's arsenals. Despite that, neither of them summons the other -- except on rare occasions, when they crave variety, or have a particularly strange opponent. Yaag's worth too much for Jihl to use up in a sacrificial move, and he can't heal her when she's his second. Their matches together are more cosmetic than effective, though they have their fair share of wins, and that makes it worth the risk.

He kisses her temple when he takes her; she backhands him with a smile when it's her turn. They fight whenever they run into one another, except on the days when they're idle enough to talk away the hours until their next matches. It might be friendship, except that that word feels hollow somehow, empty -- and Jihl faintly remembers that once, there had been other things she cared about. Plots, organizations. Leadership. Facades. There had been other things she'd done.

But they have all fallen away by now, withering under the glory of the Coliseum floor, of never-ending battles, of the sweetness of each victory and the chaos of each match. Jihl forgets how many times she has knelt. She forgets how many opponents she has crushed. She remembers nothing, nothing but eagerness for the next fight to come.

She beats Yaag the next time they clash, and hits him hard enough across the face to dislocate his jaw, laughing all the while.

It's glorious.

Lightning is different.

Jihl never interacted directly with Sergeant Farron; she had precious little time with the l'Cie Farron, but the PSICOM surveillance reports feel burned into her memory. All l'Cie are monsters, even the ones that look stable. They have no choice: either they serve fal'Cie orders, or become transformed into shambling husks. If they want to survive, they must be willing to do anything in pursuit of their goals -- anything and everything at all. That is why they can never be trusted. That is why they are always no better than beasts.

But the human Farron was never burdened like that. The orders she follows are those of the Guardian Corps, drenched in military training and obedience. In the Coliseum, Lightning is reserved, all somber ferocity in contrast to Amodar's jovial laughter, his triumphant thumbs-up -- but both of them fight to win.

Dealing with this human Lightning is strange, and Jihl is drawn to her the same way that a wounded trooper might obsess over the gun that had paralyzed them from the waist-down. She wants to simultaneously destroy and own Lightning, but more than that: she wants to understand just what the other woman is doing here at all.

"Did you know she doesn't have a soul?" Yaag asks her one day, working over his Masamune with a cloth.

The news pulls a protest from Jihl's throat. "Then how can she enter the matches? She shouldn't have the right," she argues, and feels -- yes, a defensive pride, an affront. Only the worthy should be at the arena. It's not a place for cheap copies. "And if she doesn't have a soul, then what is it that binds her to serve?"

"Something else, I suppose," Yaag shrugs, and sheathes his sabre. "I'm up next. Wish me luck."

She is too disgruntled to honor his request verbally, but she lingers to watch his competition, appreciating the art of his swordwork. Something has changed in him, something she missed out on after her death: Yaag is more relaxed now, or possibly resigned. She doesn't know how long he's had to come to terms with their situation, but it's a curious serenity, and one she finds fascinating.

But every now and then, there are flashes of his old anger, his old determination and arrogance, and sometime he sneers and mocks and calls out any l'Cie in the ranks -- and she finds familiarity in that too, this amalgamation of past and future that is becoming something else thanks to the Coliseum, a distillation of a warrior's spirit that purifies him into something far beyond his own identity. They joke, they argue, they ignore one another, but their truest interactions are on the Coliseum floor. Everything else has become as ephemeral as mist.

Yaag fights. She fights. She can only wonder what she's becoming as well, these days.

Retaliation is inevitable: Lightning and Amodar call her out on the floor one day.

They are more composed this time, more strategic; they go into the fight expecting her to summon reinforcements, and have planned accordingly. As an allied match, it is two against one, meaning that the Arbiter has given Jihl free rein to call upon an entire fireteam if she wishes.

She ends up needing to.

At first she starts off slow, assuming she has enough time to take them both down at leisure. Amodar is generous with his battlefield banter, delivering gracious, almost affectionate taunts as he flings grenades into clusters of her minions. Lightning trades reports with him, following his lead with terse affirmatives, and keeping her guard up.

They take out her PSICOM units first, focusing on them even when the behemoth presents the largest threat; they switch back to defensives as soon as they see her sacrifice the behemoth for power. Several times, they're fast enough to clear out the entire set of minions, leaving Jihl scrambling for resources, suddenly powerless in the face of efficiency. Slowly but surely, they work her over until she's pulling out two behemoths at once, hoping to keep at least one alive for sacrifice -- and then they both suddenly reverse their efforts onto her, bludgeoning her until she drops to the floor, choking around a punctured lung, her fingers no longer able to grip her baton.

Amodar is gracious; he offers Jihl a crisp salute as her lifeforce is drawn towards him, though the smug rounding of his smile lets her know that he has not forgotten his Corps rivalry. That much, she can accept. If he was harboring true spite, he could have gloated far more.

Lightning, however, stands there coolly. She doesn't smile. She doesn't frown. Her thoughts are prisoners inside her skin; they don't show themselves even in her gaze.

Jihl shivers, remembering how she had humiliated Lightning on the floor. She doesn't know if Lightning will respond in kind -- or if she plans to slight Jihl by turning away, letting trails of crystal radiance chase behind her like a desperate supplicant.

Then Lightning unsheathes her gunblade. She presents it forward in a silent command, and Jihl bows her head, pressing her lips to the cold metal in submission.

The Coliseum is endless, though the rooms are like its inhabitants: only there erratically, like bubbles of matter attracted by the gravity of the soul, connected by temporary need. Its dimensions are unbounded by anything so primitive as physical space. Some days, Jihl seeks out a practice floor and finds ruined cities. Some days, there are jungles whose vines choke out the sun. It's fascinating.

The sense of detachment lingers, however, taking root inside Jihl's mind. There are always rooms, always places to walk, and sometimes that's all she does: walk across bridges that dissolve into mountains, which dissolve into forests, which dissolve into sand. She travels endlessly and encounters no one, until the Arbiter's call comes inside her chest, tugging like the warm hand of a lover, and her next step brings her directly onto the Coliseum floor.

There is no delay between when she pauses from one task and begins another; there is no transition, no need for rest or idle action. She can finish a fight and start another almost instantly, audience and opponents shifting with a blink of her eyes. The Arbiter blesses her with his voice each time he invites her to come. She is no longer disoriented by warping space.

To her battles, she brings the rain.

One time when Jihl returns from wandering, a fresh set of combat strategies taking root in her mind, she finds herself mulling over the latest odds. She's had a string of magnificent failures, in thrall to three new fighters now, and has had most of her units stripped away by the victors for their own uses. Lightning is no longer on the summons list; she and Amodar paired up to topple a Juggernaut that had taken down Jihl the other day, meaning that the status quo is reversed temporarily.

She's considering what options to take in rebuilding her strength when she hears the creak of leather, and glances up, startled, to find Lightning sitting beside her.

"I have a match after this," the woman says. "It's a Centaurion. A tough one. I'm allowed a second."

Jihl tests for internal response, seeking a tug of obedience that would indicate to her that this is right, that Lightning commands her strength for the time being. There is none -- but she feels no ownership over Lightning either. For the time being, they are equals. "I'm not your vassal," she declares. "Call on someone who is."

"I'm suggesting an alliance match." Lightning shifts uncomfortably, touching the sheath of her gunblade. "You'd be a willing partner."

"Then take Amodar."

"He's already cleared the Centaurion, as the Sangui Annihilator's second."

Jihl lifts an eyebrow. The reason for Lightning's odd behavior is clear now: if the rankings become too mismatched, she'll only drag down Amodar's options, and risk losing the partnership entirely. "So, you'd like to catch up to him."

Lightning nods.

The potential boons are intriguing. Normally, Jihl works her way around the more direct powerhouses by defeating those who best them in turn. Creatures that use brute strength to overpower the field are not her favorites. Centaurions are among the category that she tends to avoid, but this opportunity seems solid. "Very well. Let's go."

As Lightning's second, Jihl can't call her own reinforcements; her resources are different this way. Limited only to her manadrives, she shifts between offensive and defensive, bolstering them both while cracking open the Centaurion bit by bit. At first she mistimes everything -- trying to sabotage while Lightning's healing, switching to protections just as Lightning lashes out with a spell -- but the rhythm is easy to fall into, and surprisingly entertaining.

This Centaurion is one she hasn't fought before, though she's familiar with the basic style. It summons its blade; Jihl switches to it instantly and then stays on it when she sees that Lightning's had the same instinct. Together they weaken the mobile sword, whittle it down to nothing, and then they bring their combined strength to bear upon their foe.

When the match is over, Lightning is the one to accept the crystal bond for the prize. She allows the light to seep into her outstretched hand, and then delivers a curt nod to the Centaurion. Jihl's gains are far fewer -- an elevation in rank above the Centaurion, and over anything else that it defeated -- but she's satisfied. Her blood feels pleasantly warm. It was a good fight.

Lightning waits until they've both exited the floor before she speaks. "Thank you." Her eyes are straight ahead, looking away from Jihl, into the void; her voice is low, apologetic. "I'll be able to match with Amodar after this. We won't have to repeat that again."

The words rub like sandpaper. Jihl's footsteps stop cold. Of course: now that the rankings are rebalanced, Lightning won't need to team again with her. Paired back up with Amodar in a set, any future fights will be covered. Lighting's taken care of. If not for bad luck, this partnership would have never happened at all.

Jihl bristles, and isn't sure why.

In the Coliseum, no victory lasts forever. To hear Lightning try to make that kind of promise is offensive. The indignity of it burns, like a pain that Jihl's forgotten how to feel, lingering long after she's left the arena floor.

Pride alone is sufficient cause for Jihl to make the next move. She isn't disposable, and to be passed over by Lightning -- Lightning -- in polite dismissal is more than Jihl can stand. She won't tolerate it.

She won't.

She submits a request for Lightning, solo. She gets Lightning and Amodar together. The Arbiter gives her leeway for her summons, and Jihl -- irritated at the inconvenience -- fights recklessly, all on the aggressive, pulling creatures out and slaughtering them just as quickly, until it feels like she's flaying herself open in exchange for power. Amodar and Lightning clear all her allies once before she can do anything with them, and she doesn't care -- she uses her own life as fuel instead, tasting blood even as energy crackles and throbs in her hand.

It's awful. It works.

She stalks off the floor once it's over, dragging Lightning by the arm. Lightning, eyes narrowed, follows; she has no reason to obey without a match involved, but Jihl's silence hauls her along as effectively as a leash.

Rooms don't exist in the Coliseum unless someone wants them. Jihl forces one into place through sheer willpower, building a sparring ring of stone and dust and a sky overhead that is burned clean by sun. There are no true fights outside the arena -- light squabbles are tolerated, but unmonitored violence is so utterly pointless, it's unheard of. Jihl has no reason to attempt an unranked spar.

That's not her intention. She whirls around; unable to heave Lightning like a doll, she shoves the other woman against the nearest pillar instead, feeling the resistance of Lightning's strength already pushing back. Unwilling to lose the advantage, Jihl follows up with her own body, her hands fisting in the other woman's uniform. She stares at Lightning, feeling the anger raw and naked upon her face -- but more than that, a bitterness at being ignored, at being thrown away again without a chance to prove herself, at being pushed aside by someone who had discounted her as easily as their l'Cie incarnation must have stepped over Jihl's body.

She realizes, distantly, that she's breathing hard.

Lightning has the right to leave -- this isn't a match, this isn't a fight -- and Jihl expects that she'll blink and find herself holding thin air, but Lightning ruins it all, all of it, with a simple, husky question.

"What is it that you want from me?"

The question severs Jihl's voice. Her mouth was already opening, prepared with a host of insults that would be as sharp as any attack -- but she's caught short, unprepared for simple honesty. It's not revenge. She's beyond that now. It's not punishment. The past is as good as dust; Jihl no longer cares about it. The woman below her is a copy of the living Farron, with neither soul nor future -- and none of that has any relevance either. The only things that are important now are the Coliseum, and the people who fight inside it.

Jihl finds herself staring at Lightning, her fingers slack with hesitation.

"I matter," is the only thing she can manage, a summation of everything she might have said while alive and dead. It's the affirmation she repeated throughout her military training. It's the protest she might have given to Dysley.

It's one last whisper that a ghost might make before fading away.

She chooses to close the distance between them instead. Lightning's mouth is softer than the first time Jihl kissed it; her lips are hesitant, not hard. But she does not struggle, and she does not flee, and Jihl presses the advantage, lapping at Lightning's throat. There's a soft, strangled gasp in her ear when Jihl nips Lightning's skin; there are calloused fingers in her hair.

The desert slips around them, melting away into a seaside dock. The dock dissolves into a city sidewalk. Their environment changes, over and over, until finally they're both standing in a room that Jihl no longer owns: her chambers back in Edenhall, pristine and intact. Blue sky stretches in every window. There's no hint of the disasters that marred them both.

There, she dismantles Lightning's armor, piece by piece, as fal'Cie sunlight stretches across her bedroom floor. She peels away layers of cloth. Underneath, there are scars: pale leftovers from training and combat. There are no l'Cie brands.

Jihl checks every inch to be sure. She checks it with her fingers, with her mouth; she runs her hands along Lightning's body, feeling Lightning shiver at the contact. There's a flush on Lightning's skin; her neck is spotted where Jihl had marked it. Lightning's pupils are wide, wide and waiting, until Jihl finally is satisfied and leans down to taste between her thighs.

It's almost as sweet as battle. Almost.

Lightning calls her out in return two rounds later, when Jihl is preoccupied in sorting through her summons and is reduced by one behemoth. She's been watching the matches in hopes of improving her tools, tired of using the same beasts over and over. Bioweapons are too familiar to deviate from, but routine is equally wearying. She should branch out.

The Arbiter's call comes right as Jihl is preparing herself to challenge a wyvern, and Jihl rolls her eyes and steps onto the floor.

Surprisingly, Lightning chooses to go solo this time. Barred from her full range of reinforcements, Jihl selects two pumas, planning on using the beasts as strategic timing boosts. Lightning, however, is remarkably quiet. She changes tactics this time, plays conservatively, and keeps her focus on Jihl; her attention never wavers. She barely pays any heed to the pumas, chasing Jihl down across the field, pressing hard until Jihl is breathless from backpedaling.

Jihl sacrifices the pumas easily, but the magical stuns give her barely any leeway room. She can't slow Lightning down long enough. She can't get a good enough strike off. Giving up on the pumas, she calls forth a PSICOM officer instead with the intent of healing -- but Lightning presses through that as well, shredding the man like a wad of rags, until Jihl finds herself staring at the edge of a gunblade all over again.

The fight is strange and fierce. Lightning never lets up. She doesn't stop, she doesn't speak; she only watches, as if they've both abandoned the need for words like so many scattered bullet casings on the floor. No matter where Jihl runs, Lightning is there. No matter where she retreats, Lightning follows.

The loss comes as only a mild surprise. Jihl's baton goes spinning across the floor. There are no reinforcements that can fix this. There's nothing she can think to do.

And then -- on the floor of the arena, in front of everyone, all of time and space and the Arbiter himself -- Lightning pins her down, a knee pushing between them insistently until Jihl is forced to part her knees. Her hair is pinned and tangled under both their bodies. She can't hear the Arbiter's verdict through the pounding in her ears; she can't sense anything. Her lungs clench when she tries to breathe.

Her skirt is rucked up around Lightning's leg, and her wrists are trapped under Lightning's hand, and all Jihl can do is arch her neck, her lips parting as Lightning claims her.

Fresh warriors march eternally through Coliseum's gates. Jihl meets them in passing, always seeking fresh strength to add to her arsenal. They speak of calamities after her time, of cities laid to waste and governments rebuilt outside of fal'Cie control -- but their words do not interest her. Such matters exist outside the Coliseum. They have nothing to do with the battles; they are of no concern of hers.

The Coliseum whispers like an ocean. Jihl fights and wins. She fights and loses, rebuilds her forces, tries varieties of allies and tactics. Some days, she fights with Lightning. Some days, she fights against her. Some days, Yaag is Jihl's opponent, riding on machines that rip her limbs apart. Some days, Jihl is the one grinding Yaag's face into the ground.

The pain always fades. The wounds always heal. They always defeat one another and are defeated in turn. Jihl doesn't know how much time has passed, but she knows that it doesn't matter: they have forever until forever runs out.

Until then, they will be fighting like this over and over and over, repeating the same conflicts in preparation for the moment when time itself loses its strength and melts apart like hot taffy. Alliances constantly change. Enemies and friends reshuffle in a never-ending flux of chaos. Within the cradle of the Coliseum, destruction renews itself without fail, leaving no victory untouchable forever.

Between one endless moment and the next, as Jihl is adding her voice to a chorus that is screaming for more blood, she finally realizes something that makes everything clear at last:

The fal'Cie may have taken her life, but in exchange, she has gained paradise.