Cold Baths and Broken Promises
Snow stood at the cliff side for well over an hour, remaining in much the same position that Lightning had left him in. He was facing perpendicularly to the camp, still clutching Serah's tear in his oversized fist. His mind raced at unimaginable speeds, drawing conclusions where there were none to be made, ignoring the obvious, and clutching at what he perceived to be straws of hope. He didn't know what he hoped for—maybe that everything wouldn't fall apart around him, or maybe that Lightning didn't mean what she had implied, maybe…
Too many 'maybe's'. His fingers clenched reflexively around the crystal in his palm. I'm not sure about anything now…
Thoughts gathered together for a fraction of a second, reminding him of what—or, rather, who—awaited him back at camp.
I should have told her.
He had wanted to confess his doubts, to tell Lightning why he didn't believe he could remain committed to his promise to Serah. The words had fallen on his tongue more than once but had never stumbled past his lips. Always did they remain stuck in his throat, choking him until he swallowed each syllable down again, never to be uttered. His heart wanted those words to be spoken, but his mind - his instinct to survive - knew better. Though he hadn't recognized the fear and loneliness swirling in Lightning's eyes, there was no mistaking the intent behind her drawn sword, nor the resolve in her words.
But still…I should have told her.
There was one moment where her resolve had crumbled. He had known she was crying, though he hadn't been entirely sure why. With one touch, a few simple words, he could have calmed her, possibly reclaiming the kiss that should have been theirs to share in the cavern of Mah'habara; he could have told her the dark secret lying within him. It would have been so easy to take advantage of her shattered walls for his own purposes, but that was a line Snow refused to tread past.
But it didn't have to go that far. He would have been satisfied by admitting everything and maybe, just maybe, she would have divulged that she, too—
This is Lightning, he reminded himself firmly. Not some desperate woman from Bodhum.
He sighed in disgust at himself, rubbing his face roughly to help clear his muddled thoughts. The action was the first time he moved in ages. What are you thinking about all this, Serah? He wondered, holding the crystal up to the moonlight with his other hand. You probably hate me by now, huh? Self-pity began to creep in despite his attempts to banish it. I tried, Serah, I did. I tried so hard to ignore it, but it was always there for her, for Lightning. Her hating me in Bodhum made things so easy, but now…now everything's different. I've seen Lightning, the real Lightning - the one that nobody ever saw before. I've seen a part to her that makes her human, a woman, and…
White seeds erupted around him after he fell haphazardly to the ground. I can't ignore it anymore, Serah. Please, forgive me. I hope you can understand.
"Me and Vanille were supposed to take watch tonight." Snow jumped back on his feet, startled up by Sazh's voice. "Calm down, kid," Sazh added when Snow brought his fists up, taking on an aggressive stance.
"I scare easy," an embarrassed, half-hearted smile was the only apology Snow could offer.
"I can tell," Sazh nodded, taking a step back despite Snow's already lowered weapons. "But uh, like I was saying. I sent Vanille to bed. She was about to pass out and it didn't seem as if you were going to sleep any time soon. Needless to say, I appointed you to take her place."
Sazh crossed his arms over his chest, puffing out his cheeks and releasing a slow stream of air from between his lips. Snow felt Sazh's eyes on him as Snow turned his back to the technician.
"It's understandable, you know," Sazh began. "She's got nice legs."
Snow whirled back around quickly, surprised and dumbfounded by Sazh's topic of conversation. "What?"
"Nice legs," Sazh enunciated carefully, motioning to his own to make the point obvious. To clarify, he nodded in the direction of the slumbering Lightning. "Tight ass." Again, he motioned to his own, much to Snow's displeasure. "Toned stomach, fiery temper, independent, sharp as a damn whip…you'd be blind, stupid, or both to not fall for a woman like that. She's a rare find."
"Please," Snow begged, exasperation evident in his tone, "please tell me you haven't been talking to Fang."
A shrug rolled off Sazh's shoulders. "She spoke to me, actually, when you and Lightning were having your 'moment'. I try to not get involved in these little love games."
"You've done one hell of a job," Snow grunted, discretely pocketing Serah's tear. "You guys got nothing better to do than to gossip about things that aren't happening between me and Light?"
Sazh chuckled darkly at this. "I wish Fang and I could find something better to do, but for now all we got is to talk girl-talk about our fearless leaders." Another chuckle. "And don't deny that there's something there."
"Mind your own damn business." Snow retorted hotly. "There's nothing to talk about in the first place. Serah and I are getting married, remember? Or did you and Fang forget that?" Of course, Snow had no room to talk, but he was growing tired of everyone's meddlesome ways. As long as he could get them to shut up about the whole situation, even if only for a moment, he'd be happy.
He stormed past Sazh, back to camp. "Anyway, we're on watch. Let's go." As Snow drew closer to the fire pit he spied Vanille in the bright light emitted by the blaze. She was nodding off and waking with a start right afterwards, and he could have sworn there were traces of drool on her chin. He took a seat next to the young girl and nudged her gently with his forearm, telling her it was okay for her to go to bed now.
"I thought I'd stay up 'til Sazh got back," she yawned, her arms stretching high above her head. "You know, keep watch." Her eyes widened and suddenly she became much more alert. "Did your talk with Lightning go well? It didn't look like it at first, but—"
"Go to bed, Vanille." Dammit, was everyone watching?
She nodded uncertainly before yawning again. Sazh approached the two and Vanille offered her seat to him, curtseying cutely as she did so. As Sazh settled into position, Vanille bobbed over to the great divide between Fang and Lightning, laying down to rest directly between the two.
From there Snow's eyes slid over to where Lightning slept, admiring how wonderfully serenity claimed her in her slumber. Her mouth was a plump line rather than a thin scowl. The creases of worry that her forehead typically adopted were smoothed away; her jaw was a little less tense, which elongated her face and gave her, somehow, a more exotic appearance. Her hair was a tangled mess, and her arm was twisted oddly around her torso to cradle her head while her legs were drawn into her chest to keep her warm.
How the hell can she do this to me? Agitation ensued when he felt his growing discomfort.
Sazh noticed it, too.
"I am not sitting next to you," he said flatly, scooting his rock-turned-chair away. "We only need two people up and alert. We don't need a third member here."
Snow flushed a deep crimson, shifting uncomfortably in an attempt to hide. "Shut up, Sazh," he mumbled, thankful for the darkening sky so at least the extent of his embarrassment couldn't be seen.
"This wouldn't happen if you'd stop staring at her ass," continued Sazh, still fumbling with the rock. "So stop staring up her skirt, you perverted bastard."
"She wears shorts under her skirt, and I was not—"
"Then I sure as hell hope it wasn't me that caused that."
"W..what?" Snow spluttered, aghast.
Sazh waved it off. "Nothing, just…" A wary glance was cast towards Snow. "For the love of everything that I once considered sacred, go take a cold shower," he pleaded. "I beg you, go. Now." He pointed off towards the lake which, as luck would have it, was directly past Lightning. Sazh, being Sazh, let his finger fall in the general direction of the woman. The technician watched the annoyance budding on Snow's features with glee; which, as it always did with Sazh, ended up turning into a fit of silent laughter.
Icy eyes snapped back to Sazh. "You can burn in hell with Fang," Snow muttered, striding towards the lake quickly. Of course, his eyes still found time to wander over the sleeping figure that caused his forced march to begin with. As he passed, his eyes caught a glimpse of her exposed abdomen.
Cold shower definitely sounds good right now.
When he returned from his freezing bath with his embarrassment noticeably lessened, Snow was greeted by a very relieved Sazh. "Thank the fal'Cie," Sazh breathed. "I was afraid you'd be staring at me all night with those hungry eyes—"
"Mention this to anyone," poison filled Snow's words, "and I swear I will tell Fang everything you have ever said about her." His voice dropped low. "I mean it. Everything."
Sazh's smile disappeared in a flash. "I'll kill you, boy."
"Not before Fang kills you."
The two glared at each other for an unknown length of time before Sazh lowered his eyes in submission. "You get off just by looking at Soldier Girl. Not my business," he mumbled. "But I do think it's more of a reason for you two to admit th—"
A large hand waved the thought off before it was finished. "She doesn't want that, okay?" Lightning made her point earlier: it was Serah or nothing. That's how it had to be, despite the alarm bells sounding in Snow's skull.
Sazh blinked. "Why the hell do you think that?"
Snow leaned back against the rock wall, debating on whether he should share today's, and yesterday's, events with Sazh. It could have been his weariness that damaged his judgment, but in the end Snow decided that Sazh knowing wouldn't hurt. Besides, Sazh understood women a lot better than Snow did. Maybe he could impart some of that Sazh-wisdom, if such a thing existed, on to Snow.
…or something like that.
Snow retold the tale quickly, but left out no details. Every moment, from his thoughts in Mah'habara, to him striking Lightning, and then their conversation by the cliff was recounted. It took everything Snow had to banish the moisture that threatened to gather in his eyes, to exile the desire to bury his head in shame. He knew Sazh wouldn't judge him, but…still. What if Serah can hear me?
Of course, Snow had already admitted everything to her already, so it was a moot point. Regret and shame, however, have an odd ability to cause amnesia.
tale was spun, leaving Snow even more exhausted than he had believed
himself to be previously. Somehow, though, during the retelling he had
managed to find enough energy to withhold any passion from his voice. It
had been a flat, monotonous story, one that belied the tumultuous state
of his heart.
His exhaustion also caused his arm to thrum in pain, but the ache was quickly mended by the surplus of Lightning's magic within him. Even when you're sleeping and have no idea, you're still there helping me…
"Sounds to me like you already know what you gotta do, Snow," Sazh said, folding his arms behind his head and leaning back against the air. "Why not do it?"
"Because it's Lightning." It was a simple response to a stupid question.
Sazh chuckled softly, muttering something to himself. The chocobo chick rose from the depths of curls it resided in, ruffled its feathers, and flew to Sazh's shoulders to hear whatever he said. "In all this time together, Snow, I've come to respect you both as a man and as a soldier," Sazh started, his intonation reflective. "But now all that's going out the window, just for these few moments. I'm going to talk to you like I would Dajh, like a son, 'cause you're still young. You don't know shit compared to me. I pray you never have to find out some of the things I know, either," he added ominously, shaking his head sadly. He ground his knuckles into his palm to recover himself.
"You, my friend, are confused. You don't understand what's going on and, damn it, neither do I. You thought you had all these feelings for Serah, now you find out they're for Lightning, but you're engaged and, well, I don't know what happened from there. What I do know, though, is that both you and Lightning are stupid." Snow began to protest, but Sazh bulldozed over him. "I'm not done. I understand your hesitation; I get why you're not jumping headfirst into this. That's good. You shouldn't. You have to remember Serah. But," he warned, "you're both trying to pretend nothing's there. That's wrong, and it can be dangerous. If your determination to ignore Lightning fails, then all hell will break loose and you'll end up feeling guilty about a lot more than just having feelings and needing to take cold showers."
Sazh paused and Snow waited in expectant silence. Sazh scratched the chin of the chocobo thoughtfully. "There's something there between you two. I ain't no old fool, not yet. I know," he accentuated this with a tap to his temple. "I know what you should do, but what will you do? Ignore each other and then, when you and Serah get married, pretend nothing ever happened between you and Lightning and just…ignore the tension? The bubbling romance? I mean, hell, you've known Lightning longer than Serah—"
"I know," Snow whispered, burying his hands in his face. "I know. But what am I supposed to do, Sazh? If I go for Serah, then both Light and I will be awkward around each other or I'll never see her again; in fact, I know for certain that I won't." Snow recalled her implied words from earlier with a twinge of dread. He definitely didn't want that to happen.
"If I don't marry Serah, then Serah will hate me, Lightning will kill me, and I end up despised and dead. Or, hell, let's be optimistic about this shit! Lightning just might decide to stay with me and, as a result, we never see Serah again because I broke her heart and Lightning ran off and stole her fiancée!"
Several deep breaths had to be taken on Snow's part to calm down. "Do you know how badly that would tear Light up?" He said quietly, head now bowed in thought. "Her knowing what she did to Serah? She wouldn't be able to live with herself, not when she consciously betrayed her sister. I told you what she said today. Lightning meant every damn word of it! What am I supposed to do, Sazh? What?" The last word was quiet, almost a whisper. Pleading.
"You're damned if you do and damned if you don't," Sazh quoted sagely, quickly checking over his shoulder to see if the others were still asleep after Snow's outburst. "But what would you regret less in the long run? Taking the chance or choosing the easier course?"
Snow stared into the flickering remnants of their fire, hands clasped, searching himself for the answer. If he were to leave this thing with Light behind him…would he always wonder?
That's not even a question. I'll always wonder.
He knew he would. Instead of seeing Serah in Lightning, he'd forever see his soldier girl in Serah. He wouldn't be able to love Serah for being herself—no, if he felt love towards Serah, it would be because Serah was his last reminder of Lightning. He wouldn't have a tear as a reminder, just a young woman. Just Serah. Maybe that feeling would fade with time, but Hope's advice rang true with either sister. Not matter for how long, nobody deserves to live in anyone's shadow.
Yet, if he went for Lightning, he had no guarantee of anything working out in his favor. In fact, he knew she'd refuse him and walk away forever; then he'd be without either Farron girl. Or, if Lightning did have something inside of her that pined for Snow, then…well, no. She would never hurt Serah. She would never do what Snow was considering.
"I've said it before, but I think you could use a reminder: if you aren't happy, Trench, you can't make anybody happy. Going back to Serah is just settling for her. You know that as well as I do."
Snow drummed his fingers against his knees nervously. He couldn't take it far, but…he could try.
But if he tried, he could never go back.
He touched his arm absently, feeling the warmth radiate from it as the pain was numbed by Lightning's skill. He had to try. There was no question about it, not anymore.
Snow spied Sazh out of the corner of his eye. "We're shit at standing guard," Snow mumbled. Much to his relief, Sazh laughed.
Morning came and found Lightning storming the mostly empty campsite, her eyes narrow, dangerous slits. "Who the hell stole my towel?" She cried, emptying out everyone's bags to find the evidence and, thus, find the culprit. Snow and Hope hid in a corner far from the scene, despite their innocence. They were well aware of the fact that they'd seem the most likely.
When no response reached her ears, Lightning whirled around and stomped over to where the two males, and only current residents of the camp, cowered. "Where is it, Villiers?" She hissed, pointing a thin finger in his direction.
Snow, on any other day, would have been able to respond with a quick and witty remark. Today, however, all he could do was make strangled noises while opening and shutting his mouth, words completely escaping him.
Lightning stood before them sopping wet. Her hair hung limply at her shoulder, dripping water onto her turtleneck. Her vest was missing, presumably because she didn't want to drown that, either. A fresh droplet, stemming somewhere from the crown of her head, slowly seeped down her brow to the tip of her nose, pooling with other similarly located drops until, with their combined weight, it fell from a perilous height to crash against the hard ground below.
The drama of the droplet would have amused Snow more were it not for the look of death that he was currently on the receiving end of. However, that being said, at least Snow was smart enough to keep his eyes on Lightning's face—Hope hadn't achieved that higher level of consciousness yet. He stared hopelessly at her skirt, which clung tightly to her thighs and buttocks.
Of course Lightning completely missed this. Hope would forever be that innocent little boy in her eyes, despite his previous attempted murder only two days before.
And his constant staring up Lightning's skirt some time ago.
And his staring down Lightning's shirt a couple days ago.
No, Hope's wandering eyes went unnoticed by the fire-breathing Lightning.
'Innocent little boy' my ass.
"Villiers. My towel. Where is it?"
Somehow Snow rediscovered words again, probably driven on by the irritation of watching Hope stare at Lightning's thigh with evident yearning. "I don't know!" An unnaturally high pitched voice escaped Snow, making him cringe. Even Hope was dragged from his lust-driven stupor to cast Snow a what-the-hell-was-that glance.
He's really good at that, Snow thought suddenly, and then shook his head. "Ask Sazh! I didn't do it! Why are you blaming me?"
Now it was Lightning's turn to give Snow one of her why-the-hell-do-you-think-I'm-blaming-you eye-rolls.
It was going to be one of those days.
"Light, I didn't steal your damn towel," Snow responded, exasperated. "It's just a towel! Go ask Fang or Vanille for theirs."
Her eyes narrowed even more until they were deadly slits. She took a step inward, causing Hope to gasp sharply in excitement as even more leg was revealed. "If you didn't do it, then who did? Hm?"
Though he could think of a thousand reasons why every member of their group would steal Lightning's towel, Snow didn't dare mention it. They'd make him pay later, as they were all somehow becoming masters of practical jokes and revenge. So, instead of answering honestly, he gave her a pleading look and said, "I don't know."
Hope, still enraptured and with limited blood flow to his brain, responded with "Sazh."
Lightning rounded on him now, kneeling down to Hope's level. Normally this would be a less-threatening posture, but Hope saw it as anything but. He gulped visibly and raised his eyes to Lightning's face, which was a smart move on his part.
"Sazh?" She repeated, hate in her voice. "Why would Sazh…?" she paused in her speech, her mind already at work. A light went on somewhere and she stood rapidly again, now glaring at Snow.
How does he get off so easy? He thought bitterly, but then stifled a laugh. If it really was Sazh, then Hope would definitely pay. "What now?" Snow drawled.
"You had something to do with this." It wasn't a question. It was a statement. A false one, but a statement nonetheless. He didn't even have time to defend himself as Lightning spun on her heel and retreated to where Sazh was last seen.
Both Snow and Hope breathed a sigh of relief. "I thought we were goners," Hope said, wiping invisible beads of sweat from his brow. Snow conferred upon him a scathing look.
"You?" He said incredulously. "You get away with murder when it comes to Lightning. I didn't even do anything and she wants to kill me, and I wasn't the one staring at her legs with my tongue hanging out."
Hope was quiet for a few moments. "Do you think she noticed?"mhe said finally, his eyes carefully avoiding Snow's.
Thoughts of getting even with Hope entered his head. Oh, I could scare the shit out of him right about now, he thought vengefully, but, as it always did, his conscience got the better of him. "I doubt it," he admitted, disappointed at his inability to go through with his cunning scheme. "Sazh's gonna kill you, though. I hope you know that."
Hope's face paled when he heard a pained yelp in the distance. "I never thought of that," he said weakly. "I don't want to die."
Snow smiled and shouldered his pack, which had been forgotten at his side. "Don't worry, I'll watch your back. You know," he tossed in, "to show you that I forgive you and everything."
Hope gave an uncertain smile that turned into a lopsided grin. "Thanks, Snow."
They both turned quickly to see Sazh emerge from the brush to their right. "Well, isn't this a damn fine moment. So warm and cuddly. Would you like me to give you two a moment alone, before I exact my revenge? Or would you rather I do it now and get it out of the way?"
It was now Hope's turn to be terrified into silence. He slinked away behind Snow, whose only protection against the mad-eyed Sazh was a little stick that lay pathetically far away. "What are you talking about?" Snow said, attempting his best befuddled expression that instead appeared to be slightly frantic.
Sazh began rolling up his sleeves. "'What are you talking about?'" He thundered. "'What are you tal'—do you know what that madwoman just did to me? " he bellowed, scaring the chocobo chick from its nest. "She set my damn pants on fire while I was wearing them!" Sure enough, a thin trail of smoke lazily wafted up from Sazh's groin. "I won't ever be abl—what the hell is so funny about that?"
Snow was unable to breathe. He had fallen to the ground at some point, but didn't really remember it happening, and was currently gasping for a breath of air. "Hope," he wheezed, pushing himself up with great effort. "Hope, she stole your idea…"
Understanding dawned on Hope's face, along with misplaced pride. "She did!" he squealed. "I was going to set your pants on fire! I told Lightning one night that I was gonna do that, and then she went and stole my idea and did it herself!" He clutched his side as he cackled devilishly, much to Sazh's agitation.
Sazh lowered his head, ready to charge and tackle Hope to the ground when Lightning emerged from the tall grass behind Sazh and grabbed his shoulder, throwing Sazh back onto the ground. "Where the hell is it, Sazh?"
Sazh groaned and rolled on the ground in pain. Snow ceased laughing—Lightning was taking this too seriously. "Light, calm down—"
She rounded on Snow, drawing her fist back. "I didn't ask you!" Her fist flew through the air, but Snow was, by now, a master of being decked. Through practice he also figured out how to not be hit. He raised his hand and caught the dangerous weapon in the nick of time, holding her tiny fist firmly within his larger one. "I just want my damn towel back! That's all! Just give it to me—"
"What is wrong with you?" Snow demanded, shaking Lightning gently and, for his own safety, he pinned her arms to her side as an afterthought. "It's just a piece of cloth! You're fine!"
"Can't I have anything of my own around here? Why the hell does everyone have to take my stuff?"
Something clicked in Snow's brain, connecting her current outrage over a missing towel to a former conversation. "Hope, Sazh, leave. Now." Hope was hesitant at first but seemed to think better of it after a few seconds. He helped Sazh to his feet and together they left through the same patch of grass that Lightning had come through.
"Now," Snow said, rounding on the still-squirming Lightning. "This isn't about a towel. What's wrong, Light?"
She kicked violently at his shin. It hurt like hell, but he'd be damned if he'd let her go. "Nothing's wrong with me, Villiers. You know what I want. Give it back."
"I don't have a clue what you want, Light. It's more than a towel, though. I got that much." His eyes burned into hers, his icy blues cast ablaze.
"What do I want? I want to be dry and warm. I don't want to be sopping wet so you idiots can sit there and stare at me like a piece of meat. I just want a towel, not to be degraded!"
"You were pissed before that even happened! Don't lie to me, Lightning!" I know she's lying. She can't be telling the truth. I don't know how I know, but…I do. I know.
Lightning's struggle continued noiselessly for a minute before ceasing, her eyes growing dark in contemplation. "It doesn't matter," she sighed finally, the tension in her body lessening. "It doesn't matter anymore. Let me go, Snow."
Curious, pale orbs lifted and met Snow's. All that anger from earlier melted away and, for the briefest of moments, Snow witnessed something incredible: hurt, pain, and fear swirled around and radiated from Lightning. Her walls crumbled then, just for a moment, and she was no longer the half-mad soldier from a few minutes ago; no, now she was a frightened woman, scared of something that Snow was not privy to. Her world was crumbling away from her, drifting endlessly, and her towel, an everyday thing in her life going missing was just the straw that broke the proverbial camel's back.
"I'm not letting go, Light," Snow breathed quietly, daring to pull her in a little closer. Lightning didn't fight the movement, though her body stiffened.
"You need to, Villiers," Lightning warned, but it was a weak caution at best. Her weary voice and skittish demeanor proved that. He took advantage of her apathy and drew her flush against him, hugging her tightly to his body, his chin coming to rest against the soaked mop of hair atop her head. He felt the cool lake water soak through his clothes, seeping onto his skin and sending chills through his body, and yet he didn't mind much—he'd seize his opportunities with Lightning when he could, no matter the condition either of them were in.
"I won't, Light. I'm too stubborn to die, and I'm too stubborn to let go."
An orchestrated silence fell between them, neither one knowing what to say next. They knew they shouldn't be this close, knew they were on dangerous ground. Snow knew that he was one slip-of-the-tongue away from admitting everything. He knew that she was one mistake away from leaving him.
He didn't want her to leave.
"I'm not Serah, Snow."
Snow wasn't sure how to take this, and he wasn't happy that she had to bring it up just then. He sighed and held her tight against his chest, despite her squirming. "I know you're not Serah, Light. Believe me. I know."
"Then why the hell are you doing this?" Her protests became more aggressive in her effort to escape his clutches. Snow relished her warmth one final time before releasing her.
"Because," he said simply, shrugging once, "you're Lightning. That's enough for me."
Snow began to walk away to allow her to mull over what he had just admitted, however vague the admission may have been. He was stopped when slender fingers wrapped around his wrist, around his brand.
"You promised. You promised Serah." She was accusing Snow.
She's always accusing me of something.
"I promised to make her happy by marrying her," he said slowly, still facing forward. "I have reasons to believe I can't do that. If Serah's not happy, then…well, she deserves better."
Her grip tightened until it became painful. "Don't you break her heart, Snow. Don't break your promise to my sister."
At this he turned slowly around, his countenance thoughtfully curious. "What's worse, Lightning? Keeping my promise when I know I won't be able to be a proper husband, or breaking it and letting her find her happiness somewhere else?"
Lightning didn't respond and so Snow
took his cue. Following Lightning's example from the day before, Snow
left to rejoin the others without a backwards glance.