Lightning remained rooted in her spot, blinking repeatedly at the gently swaying brush before her—the only sign that Snow had been present just moments before. She had watched him leave; watched as his broad shoulders slipped between golden grass, never once glancing back to capture Lightning's expression or to see her reaction to his admission. Even if he had he would have been met with an impassive face; one that, as always, masked any inkling of emotion that tumbled through her. Her face was as stone, her feet rooted firmly in the soil below, but her mind was far from being quite as stable as she managed to appear.
He had pulled away from her, admitted that perhaps he wasn't the right man for Serah after all. Under any other circumstances—or, hell, before this l'Cie charade—Lightning would have been thrilled to hear this new revelation. She had known all along that the brute wasn't proper husband material for Serah. He was a good man, that could no longer be denied, but he and Serah were too different in too many ways. Serah was an intellectual, whereas Snow was a brawler. Serah typically would use fair judgment to solve a situation and Snow would run in, fists ready, and be guided only by his passions. Snow wasn't ready to settle down, not yet, and Serah was all-too-willing to give up her chance at a future to be with him. She was young, he was foolish. It never would have worked. Lightning knew this since the beginning of their fast-track romance.
Now, though, the situation was backwards. Snow wasn't the man for Serah because, of all things, he thought Lightning was the right sister for him. Where the hell did this come from? A day before—a single day—Lightning had been convinced that Snow thought her to be Serah, that the mistaken identity would be the only explanation for his behavior. Now, less than twenty-four hours later, he had the balls to say that he has 'reasons to believe' he's not the proper man for the other Farron girl because..because Lightning was enough for him? After the anguish he put Lightning through the day before, he thought he could just waltz up to her and say that?
But of course, after Lightning reminded him of his promise to Serah and after his response, she had been tongue-tied. She couldn't say a damn thing because her mind blanked entirely at the disguised meaning of his words. She knew what he was getting at and yet she couldn't wrap her brain around it. Snow would give up Serah, for her? Serah? The little princess whom everyone adored? That everyone loved? That every boy pined for? He'd give all that up for Lightning?
The girlish, fuzzy feeling that the thought gave her was short-lived, however. As soon as that understanding reached her brain, a newer, darker one emerged as well: he was abandoning Serah. Leaving her for the next best thing, which just-so-happened to be Lightning. He was making a mistake, a huge one, one that could cause Serah a lifetime of pain and bitterness. Nobody handled abandonment well, especially not an orphaned eighteen-year-old.
Not only that, but doubt was beginning to creep into Lightning's psyche. During her training she had heard of trauma-induced bonds. When two people undergo the same stressful, life-threatening situation a very unique link forms between them, one that cannot be shared with anyone else outside of that experience. These bonds were exceptionally strong. The shared event forces a person to completely and totally trust those that are suffering alongside them, believing that those individuals were the only ones capable of understanding the pain that was felt by them. Perhaps Snow was misunderstanding this emotion and turning it into something else entirely? Maybe he couldn't see it for what it was?
But…he knew I wasn't Serah all along.
What little space in her mind that she initially allowed that mindless thought to enter slowly began to expand. The idea that Snow's recent actions towards Lightning were purpose-driven, that they weren't blinded by false illusions slowly eased her doubts into the most girlish, mind-numbingly pointless notion of all. Somehow, all the facts and possibilities of the situation were drowned out for a few blessed, brief moments and all she could think upon was that Snow had intentionally acted romantically towards Lightning.
She never thought she'd see the damn day when that happened.
Lightning closed her eyes and shook her head slightly, banishing the inane thoughts instantly. This is stupid. It was imbecilic, really. Illogical. She had to get back to the real issues at hand. She couldn't stand here and clap her hands wildly because a boy liked her. That was childish. That wasn't her.
Footsteps appeared in the soft dirt beneath her small feet as she began pacing to and fro, her shoulders bent beneath an invisible burden and her eyes cast downward. She clasped her hands behind her back and appeared as an embodiment of a general, hard at work devising the best tactical maneuver to achieve victory.
Snow was trying to place the choice on her, perhaps to shift the blame slightly into her lap if something did come out of this; not that it would. But, more than that, he had, if she understood Snow correctly, doubts about marrying Serah all along. If that was the case, then why would he promise that Serah's crystallized tear would be her last? Obviously it wouldn't be, if he went through with his half-assed scheme. More than that, why would he promise to see Serah together afterwards? Wouldn't that almost be like rubbing salt in her open wound?
She paused briefly in her pacing and clenched her jaw, throwing a fist through the air at top speed. Most importantly, if he had doubts, then why was the conversation at the cliff side even necessary? Had it all been one giant lie, everything that he said? She had placed so much of…her into that conversation. She had poured out her soul, even offered her own tears, and Snow was lying to her? Why didn't he just say he wasn't sure if he could go through with the marriage?
The thought that she had threatened Snow with a drawn sword never entered her mind as she contemplated.
As she paced and pondered, a new voice began to wake within her; one that, at first, was little more than a whisper acting as an undercurrent to the outrage she currently felt. As she released some steam by stomping about, the voice became more prominent until, finally, she recognized it as the tiny voice of wisdom that she had come to rely on of late. One that was always appropriate for the situation. One that had yet to fail her: What the hell is going on?
Lightning sank to her knees, but not in despair. She was overwhelmed by bewilderment and exhaustion and slight embarrassment. One moment she had been a raging lunatic hell-bent on finding the person that stole her towel to deliver them personally to a hungry behemoth, the next she was commenting to herself on how wonderfully she fit into Snow's arms, and then she was all by her lonesome and trying to figure out what Snow was doing to her.
She was a walking time-bomb of emotions and…and hormones. She felt psychotic. Her emotions were all out of whack—one moment she was giddy at the possibility of being with Snow; furious over a missing towel and because Snow was going to abandon her sister; proud that she knew Snow wasn't meant for Serah all along; and, above all, so damn confused that she couldn't figure out which way to go to find camp.
"This is pointless," she mumbled aloud to nothing in particular, sliding her hands through the dirt. She shifted her weight into her arms and stood quickly, wincing when her head pounded against her skull when all the blood rushed to her lower limbs.
She had to clear her mind of this, of Snow. A distraction was called for; a distraction of epic proportions. One quick glance downwards, towards her still-soggy clothes reminded her that she was still minus one fluffy, warm towel.
That damn piece of cloth started this in the first place. Whoever took it is going to burn in hell.
The thought of apologizing to Sazh for setting his pants on fire never entered her mind. Lightning didn't particularly care if he was innocent or not—he had annoyed her with his lewd stares. That was cause enough to set anyone's crotch ablaze.
Who has it, though? Sazh had pleaded innocence, even while he repeatedly bashed his own groin to set out the flame. Though she would love to interrogate him again, just to see the fear in his eyes once more, she knew it would be a waste of time—and time was one thing that was against them. Hope would never steal anything of Lightning's, she knew that much. Snow…
She shook her head quickly. Fang and Vanille.
Lucky for her, she knew exactly where to find them.
Lightning retraced her steps back to the lake with relative ease. Despite the length of time that had passed, Fang and Vanille were still enjoying the brisk temperature of the lake as they paddled across its glassy surface lazily, acting as if their brands weren't sprouting new arrows by the day.
Then again, Fang's brand was, in her own words, "FUBAR" anyway, so maybe it wasn't as big of a concern to the elder tribeswoman.
Lightning cleared her throat as she came to a stop at the water's edge. Vanille paused in her swimming to wave enthusiastically at Lightning. Fang stood shamelessly tall in water that barely covered her navel just to offer a salute, and an appraising eye that absorbed the sight of the still-sopping Lightning and the clothes that clung to her every curve.
"I bet Snow was happy to see you."
Of all things to mention first…
She gritted her teeth to keep the barrage of insults at bay. "Sazh and them didn't seem to have any idea where my towel is," she said evenly, examining her nails individually. "I even set Sazh's pants on fire. He still claimed he had no clue."
Vanille clapped a hand over her mouth, though more in an attempt to stifle her giggles than to hide her shock. "Did he think you were serious, Fang?"
"Who said I wasn't?" Fang winked at Vanille from across the width of the lake and then slowly began paddling back towards the shore where Lightning stood. "He saw me dig through your pack earlier," Fang explained easily, entirely unaware that the missing towel shenanigan had just sent Lightning over the deep end. "I told him that if he kept his mouth shut, I'd let him take a ride on good ol' Ragnarok here next time we take watch."
Lightning tried her best to not appear as revolted as she felt. Never put Fang and Sazh on guard together. Ever again. The thought of waking up to nature's call and finding those two tangled in lust-driven combat sent shivers down her spine. "With Sazh? For my towel?"
Fang's grin was blinding as she set foot onto the sandy shore, exposing all her tanned glory for the world to see. Behind her, still bathing, Vanille shook her head. "You have no idea how far she'll go to get her way." The younger Pulsian laughed suddenly. "One time she was getting horrible grades in school—"
"Lightning doesn't need to know about my private tutoring sessions." The tone in Fang's voice was severe, but it was belied by the grin she still wore. Fang produced two towels from her pack, offering one with a flourish to Lightning. "No hard feelings?"
Lightning accepted the outstretched towel and began ruffling her hair gently to soak up the excess moisture. "So, not only are you a thief, you're also a whore?"
"And Ragnarok. Quite a resume, yeah? Anyway," Fang began the process of dressing, which took a surprisingly long time considering what little she wore. "Too bad it wasn't Snow that saw me. I wouldn't mind asking him, but you Farron girls both have your claws in that one…"
Neutrality was becoming a hard expression for Lightning to don. "He's marrying my sister," Lightning replied coolly, the towel lying momentarily forgotten in her hands as she glared at Fang. Vanille, sensing trouble, began the ordeal of returning to the shore.
Fang's gaze leveled with Lightning's for many long seconds before she shrugged and carried on lacing her sandals. "I bet Snow was happy to see you," she repeated.
Once more Lightning winced. She had come here to escape any reminder of Snow, not to have the man constantly shoved in her face. Typically, the comment probably would have been enough for Lightning to cause some damage to the nearest face, but she wasn't entirely in her right mind - and the image of Fang and Sazh copulating in the bushes was still burning brightly at the forefront of her mind.
Cherry-blonde pigtails appeared at Lightning's side. "Snow wasn't very happy last night. At all. We stole your towel because we wanted to cheer him up, 'cause we figured he'd be the first one you'd accuse—"
"How do you know Snow wasn't happy?" Lightning demanded, her eyes narrowing on the tiny, half-dressed figure beside her. "You went to bed early."
Vanille bit her lip hesitantly. "I wasn't really tired," she responded quickly, her eyes darting away. Suddenly her countenance brightened and she met Lightning's stare full-on. "But I did hear what Snow talked about. He's got it pretty bad for you, you know!"
She felt it coming, but could do nothing to stop it: Lightning blinked stupidly. "What?"
Fang stood after having finished clothing herself. "How can you possibly be our leader if you're so damn blind?" She rolled her eyes. "I mean, come on, even Hope can see it, which is saying something. Snow's by your side every chance he can get, always trying to be near you, around you, get you alone…it's sickening, really."
"I suggest you stop talking. Now." The fact that everyone seemed so very aware of the situation slightly unnerved Lightning, who was barely grasping it herself. Her not-so-close bond with Vanille and Fang only compounded this issue.
"Tough pill to swallow, or is it just easier to ignore?" A brow arched high towards the sky as Fang's mouth rolled into a smirk.
"It would be hard," Vanille sighed, abandoning Lightning's side to get dressed herself. A few grunts were heard behind a bush as Vanille struggled to pull her shirt over her head. "I mean, think about it. You probably feel like you're—" grunt "—betraying Serah, or that you're doing the wrong thing, or that Snow's making a mistake, or—" another grunt "something, right, Lightning?"
Lightning didn't grace her with a response.
"True enough," Fang shrugged, kneeling down to readjust the contents of her pack. "I never met Serah, so it's easy for me to forget."
Her insides began to burn at the callous mention of Serah. Lightning knew where they were going with this conversation, and she was entirely sure that she was going to hate it. Sure, some would think it nice to have a cheering squad, but Lightning didn't want anyone in her business. Besides, they weren't in Lightning's shoes. They wouldn't have to live with the consequences.
Fang continued with her train of thought as she slowly began removing the items in her bag. Ironically enough, most of the stored items seemed to be strings of animal fangs collected throughout their journey. "Snow's a big oaf, but he's not as dumb as he seems. He's a good guy. I think he knows what he's doing here. And Serah seems like a good girl. I think she'd understand."
Arms crossed tightly over Lightning's chest as she bit the inside of her cheek, attempting to keep her temper in check. "Two things," she stated crossly. "First: you don't even know Serah, so don't claim to know how she'll act. Secondly: stop talking. Really. And hurry up and finish changing, Vanille. We need to get going."
"That was three things, O Wise Leader."
Lightning saluted Fang with two fists, one finger raised proudly in the air on each hand.
cute," Fang said, yawning and slowly stuffing her hand-made necklaces
back inside her pack. "Did Snow teach you that fingering?" The
nonchalance with which she spoke, and the innocent fluttering of Fang's
eyelashes, nearly caused Lightning to lose all restraint and beat the
living shit out of Fang. Somehow, someway, she refrained.
But only just.
The tinkling of beads replaced Vanille's grunts. "Oh, hush, Fang. You're not helping."
Lightning mumbled incoherently as she resumed drying herself off once again. "There's nothing between me and Snow," she said dully, cursing how rehearsed it sounded. "He's my brother-in-law." A pause. "Almost."
"Almost," Vanille repeated sadly, appearing from behind the bushes fully clothed to lay a caring hand on Lightning's elbow. "Right."
A rude noise emanated somewhere from where Fang stood. "I saw you two in Mah'habara. If I hadn't walked in, there would have been steam billowing out of the place. Well, before Hope blew Snow's arm to hell, anyway," she added thoughtfully. She shook her head. "But I digress. Don't deny that there's something there. We're not idiots, and you're horrible at hiding it. You can't even stand by him without getting this look of aggravation on your face—"
"Snow annoys me."
"Right," Vanille grinned.
The invasion of personal space on Vanille's part, and Fang's amazing capacity to annoy the hell out of Lightning was beginning to really rub Lightning the wrong way. "I don't want to talk about this," Lightning announced. She turned sharply on her heel and made to leave the waterfront, but two hands grabbed her arms and yanked Lightning backed with tremendous strength.
Lightning wasn't the least bit surprised to see that it had been Fang that had restrained her. Only she and Snow were physically capable of possessing enough strength to hold Lightning back.
"You're going to hear us out. We've bit our tongues long enough. Almost, what…three days, Vanille?" Vanille nodded. "Way too long. Time to listen, Light."
"I have no reason to listen to you." She had gone beyond simple refusal. She was acting like a child, and she didn't give a damn.
"You do too!" Vanille reprimanded lightly, her eyes bright. "We're a team! And I know we've never really talked before, but it's just 'cause we were so…we are so different." She bit her lip again and looked down. "I didn't know what to talk about, but now I do! So you've gotta listen!"
"Fantastic." To be honest, the lack of communication between Lightning and the other two females never particularly bothered Lightning. She didn't require a close bond with people of the same gender: especially not like the one Snow had with Sazh. She still had no desire to speak with Vanille and Fang, not when this was the topic of conversation.
"Don't give us that!" warned Fang, yanking Lightning down to a seated position on the ground where she was joined on either side by the two women. "We've saved your ass plenty of times. More than I can count, which is saying something. I can count pretty high."
"And if you try to move, I'll use one of my spells to make sure you stay put," Vanille chimed in, somehow managing to twist her bright voice into an ominous one. Vanille could, and would, stoop to such a level to get her way. Lightning had no choice but to comply. That did not, however, mean she had to make it easy for them.
She stared directly forward, her eyes fixated on the gentle lapping of foaming waves on the beach opposite of them. Fang began to speak, but Lightning, trained in the arts of completely ignoring others, focused instead on the gentle whistling of the wind between the reeds a good ten yards from them. Her concentration shifted yet again to the waters, and this time, as Vanille's voice picked up where Fang's left off, Lightning imagined how much simpler this entire process would have been had she merely sent a bolt into the pure water as soon as she entered the area. Seeing the electricity course through the two women would have meant that they'd either be incapacitated or dead—it didn't particularly matter which at that point—and it would have spared Lightning this entire conversation. If she were to throw Snow into the water, then all her problems would be erased…
A sharp jab met Lightning's upper arm. "Stop daydreaming!"
Giggling erupted to Lightning's side. Vanille made no attempt to hide her amusement. "Her eyes were glazed over. Looked like a good dream."
If only you knew.
"See? You're daydreaming about him now, too!"
Fang shook her head, raising her hands in the air in mock surrender. "She just may be hopeless, Vanille." She cocked her head to the side, considering Lightning with sparkling eyes. "Too bad it wasn't Hope that you fell for, then, eh?"
"…what?" Lightning repeated, her nails beginning to dig a new set of holes into her palm.
A sympathetic pat was the only answer Lightning received. "It's okay," Fang consoled. "Some of us aren't very good at the whole 'girl talk' thing."
"So what if I'm not?" Lightning huffed, jabbing the ground with her knuckles in lieu of Fang's face. "I had better things to do in my life than sit around and gossip with people like you. I had a sister to feed, a job to keep, and a house to maintain by the time I was a teenager."
"And that's half the problem!" Fang said triumphantly, accentuating her point with an exaggerated sigh. "You're so used to having to give up every aspect of your life to provide for Serah that you can't see a good thing when it's right in front of you! You just assume that it's yet another thing that you have to pass off to her!"
"Lightning," Vanille said carefully. "Are we really wrong? Can you honestly say that we are?"
Lightning struggled to say the words, to utter the lie, but the words failed to come.
"Let me have a turn, Fang." A deep breath was taken by Vanille, perhaps to ward off her fear. "Listen, Lightning. I've heard a lot of Snow's conversations with Sazh. I walk behind those two when we travel, and I'm usually awake when they talk at night. Most of what they talk about is…incredibly dumb, but not all of it. Last night I went to bed early because I knew they'd talk about something important, for a change, and I was right. Snow talked a lot about you."
Silence fell for a brief moment between them before Vanille carried on. "Snow told Sazh everything last night: everything that he'd been thinking, saying, doing, all of it. He's miserable. He feels really, really guilty. But he's not running away from it. He's trying to do what's right, what's best, and—"
"How does he know what's best?" Lightning interrupted quietly, though her voice was strained. "He's got two choices in this whole stupid mess. Either he marries Serah and gets on with his life, or he chases after me like some lovesick puppy and he breaks off his promise to my sister. What, to you, seems like the logical choice, Vanille? You're the one that seems to know so much. Tell me!" Her voice slowly escalated until it was just shy of shouting at the young girl who sat only a few inches away.
Vanille flinched but didn't rise to take the bait. "Would you rather he marry Serah and secretly be pining for you the whole time?"
Jaw tight, Lightning responded, "I'd rather he stop thinking about me entirely."
Vanille was quiet now, perhaps thinking about the best response. Fang picked up the conversation, though she was much more placid the second time around. "Listen, Light. We heard your conversation with Snow yesterday. You can't push the man to marry Serah, not when his heart isn't in it. You're dooming their marriage by doing that. How would you feel if the man you married secretly desired some other woman? Don't you think that'd cause a lot of problems?"
Still Lightning refused to answer the obvious. The idea that Snow perhaps didn't care as much about Serah as he ought disturbed Lightning. She was still outraged that Snow would propose to her sister when there were doubts on his part, but it also made her feel a little less guilty on the inside. A little less worried that she would hurt her sister in the long run. A little more confident that maybe, just maybe, Snow marrying Serah wasn't how it had to be after all.
"Light, you've given up everything for your sister, and that's amazing and all that. Now Snow comes along, and he just-so-happens to be the one person that's able to see past your hard-ass exterior to see something in you that drives him crazy. He puts up with your crazy mood swings and fist to the face and everything. Yet, with you, old habits die hard. You don't get that forcing him and Serah's marriage is the easy path, yeah, but not the right thing to do." Fang nudged Lightning gently with her elbow. "What you're doing is noble, sure, but you can't give up your entire life to protect your sister. She has to live her own life at some point. She has to experience the world in full. What you think is 'betrayal'…it's not. It just feels like it is because, for the first time in a long time, there's something that you want for yourself that Serah won't be able to have. Serah will understand why things happened how they did, I think."
Lightning mulled over the idea in her head for a good span of time, not entirely convinced. She did not, however, want to carry on this conversation any longer. Too much time had passed, and she could almost feel the newest arrow being etched into her chest. "You can almost make sense sometimes, when you're not being a bitch."
Fang laughed easily and Vanille joined in, her laughter sounding like bells against Fang's booming guffaws. All three females made to stand, and just as they did the three men all appeared on the scene, approaching cautiously and conspicuously to ensure their presence was known.
Sazh clung to Hope's shoulders, ducking behind him once they came in view of Lightning. Hope seemed slightly irritated by the situation, but was too busy chomping away at a fruit clutched in his hands to really bother dispatching Sazh. Sazh continued pushing Hope forward, peeking occasionally from behind the far-shorter boy's shoulders to catch a glimpse of Lightning.
Snow trailed far behind, his boots kicking at stray sticks that impeded his path. Lightning's eyes immediately fell on him, and more than once she caught his sheepish gaze falling on her. His eyes would dally, taking in the still-damp figure of Lightning before straying away again to rest on the sandy shores of the lake.
"I bring an offering to the angry storm goddess," Sazh pushed Hope towards Lightning. "Does this please you?"
Hope rolled his eyes as he stumbled to a stop a few feet in front of the girls. He took another bite from the fruit and waved absentmindedly at Lightning while he finished chewing. "Just set his pants on fire again," Hope suggested before taking a third bite. "I missed it last time."
Lightning, happy for a chance to break away from the tiny space between Fang and Vanille, strode forward a few steps. She brushed the sand from her legs and attempted to do the same with the tiny grains that were embedded into her clothing. "You did miss it, didn't you?" Lightning wondered, tousling the platinum locks upon Hope's head. Hope's eyes narrowed in delight as he finished off the fruit, turning his attention back to Sazh. He was hoping for a show.
Sazh's eyes flew wide and he instinctively moved to protect himself. "Wa—wait! I got one better!"
The four of them watched as Sazh fumbled over towards Snow, who had been watching a songbird in the distance the entire time. Sazh grabbed hold of Snow's muscular upper arm and began to drag him in the direction of Lightning. Snow, not entirely sure what was going on, shoved Sazh easily backwards and told him to knock it off. Patience growing thin, Sazh whipped out one of his pistols and aimed it at Snow's prized possessions, saying something about 'no more cold baths'. Muttering darkly, Snow readjusted his bandana and took a step towards Sazh. The elder man quickly grabbed Snow's arm and, keeping his gun aimed low, directed Snow towards Lightning.
"I offer you Hope," Sazh said, breathless, "and, well, this guy. He's a great cuddler, I can tell you that."
Snow's jaw clenched where he stood, but that was before Sazh propelled him forcefully towards Lightning. Snow stumbled forwards, tripping over Fang's forgotten pack. His momentum was entirely lost by that point, and he was launched towards Lightning, only barely managing to remain on his feet by using Lightning as a force to stop himself with. He reached out and took hold of her shoulders, ramming into her before regaining his feet and stepping back. He quickly righted himself but instead of backing away, he chose to remain within inches of his highly favored femme fatale.
He rubbed his neck awkwardly while the others snickered behind him. "Hey."
"Hey," she responded, looking upwards at his face through long lashes. His cheeks were brightly tinged.
"Does this satisfy the angry storm goddess? She won't…she ain't gonna burn my pants no more?"
Lightning considered Snow for some time as she deliberated over her answer. For whatever reason, something Snow had said ages ago popped into her head just then, and the memory made her smile in the same manner as it had when he first said the words: "You're not that unlucky. I mean, you did get stuck on this hellhole with me. I couldn't think of a better example of good luck than that!"
Maybe you're right, Snow.
Lightning would be the first to admit that she wasn't entirely sure how to handle the situation. She didn't know what course of action was right or wrong. She didn't know where to go from here.
What she did know, though, was that this was no longer a fantasy created for an alternate reality. This was occurring here, now, whether she was prepared for it or not. Lying to herself about how she felt towards Snow, towards the man that should have been her brother-in-law, would only intensify that problems surrounding the situation. This was a challenge; one that was just as wondrous, new, and exciting as it was horrifying and confusing.
And Lightning wasn't one to run away from a challenging.
So for now, for this moment, she could play along with them while she gathered her wits about her and prepared for the hardest struggle she had yet to face.
"For now, Sazh," Lightning said, that same small smile still stretched thinly across her lips. "For now…this offering is satisfactory."
The brilliant grin Snow offered her in return almost erased her doubts and worries over Serah and the future.