Death of Me
Taejin's Tower loomed before them, an ominous reminder of the trials they had yet to face before reaching Oerba, before their journey could come to an end. They intended on taking on the tower in less than a day—their pace was urged on by the unblinking eye looking hungrily upon them from their brands.
Time was their only enemy now. The monsters and Cie'th in the area were, like Snow, stubborn and unwilling to die; however, with the combined strength of the party, there were no fiends the six of them could not defeat. Unlike the beasts, the metaphysical aspect of time was unfazed by weapons or magic—this new enemy would always be present, ticking away each precious second until doom claimed them. In one way or another all tried to disregard it, whether it be blatantly ignoring their brand, as Lightning had been doing; or by acting like ignorant children and doing little else other than wreaking havoc—a method Snow and Sazh had adopted quite well. Even then, despite their best efforts, the reminders of their impending transformation were always there. Each sunset was one closer to their last, each step taken was one nearer to their fate. No matter how hard they tried, they could not escape this foe. Death was the only way to avoid time's claim.
This knowledge encouraged their pace. After the morning's delay Lightning decided that they needed to make up for lost time, and she stuck to her word. Their journey towards the tower was anything but a relaxing stroll. Despite the grueling dash towards the menacing structure, Lightning had only allowed two stops, both less than fifteen minutes in length. No person was spared from salty, dripping sweat rolling off their bodies or ragged gasps for breath. All suffered under the penetrating heat of the glaring sun, and it was made far worse by their aching muscles. Five of the six struggled to remain on their feet, ardently attempting to avoid the embarrassment of being the first to collapse out of exhaustion.
The sun was still high in the sky when Sazh, double the physical age of any other in the group, stumbled wearily in his tracks. He threw his arms before him, bracing himself for the coming fall. Luckily for him, his hand caught a solid stone, and the old pilot used the steadfast rock to break his fall.
"Wait!" Sazh gasped, leaning against the stone for support as the others sprinted onwards in their arduous trek. "I can't…I'm old…dammit…"
Snow was the first to stop—or perhaps the only one listening. He had been tied with Lightning at the forefront of the group, but at the sound of Sazh's voice he halted, and the sudden ceasing of movement nearly caused him to stumble forward. He hadn't realized his legs were that exhausted until they stopped moving.
A quick motion, a flash of a hand, and Snow caught Lightning's elbow in his outstretched fingers. "Hey," he croaked, his throat sorely parched. "Light."
She was startled into alert mode, spinning sharply around, drawing her sword in an explosion of movement and holding it up in a guard position. Her eyes gleamed with the challenge of a fight, but upon seeing the wide-eyed Snow, she gave a short sigh and sheathed her blade just as quickly as it had been drawn. "What is it, Snow?"
Her gaze followed Snow's back to where Sazh, now doubled over and panting for breath, had stopped. She rolled her eyes and unclasped the pack on her leg, letting it drop to show her frustration. "Twenty minutes. That's all."
Everyone mumbled their thanks, and several other packs hit the ground in unison shortly after, summoning a cloud of dust and dirt into the air. A couple canteens were passed around and only a few swallows of the precious water could be had by each member, lest they run out of purified liquid. Soon aching bodies followed the example the packs had set, and all were sitting or laying flat on the ground. All, that is, except for Lightning. Despite her slightly labored breathing and sweat-glistened body, she remained standing and alert, ever seeking a quietly-approaching foe that would endanger the lives of those resting.
Snow sat nearby, his head between his legs and arms draped over his knees. "You'll be the death of me," he muttered. Already he felt his calves begin to spasm.
Judging by the delighted sparkle in her eyes, Lightning had heard Snow. "I have to keep you in shape somehow," she responded lightly, her eyes raking over the landscape a final time before changing her position to stand near Hope. "How are you holding up?"
Even though Snow had distinctly heard Fang say earlier that Hope had thrown up along the way, and despite currently appearing as if he were about to collapse, Hope gave a weak smile and a thumbs up. He'd be damned if he acted weak around Lightning.
Lightning, thankfully, seemed to understand Hope's façade for what it was. She gave his shoulder a tight squeeze, offering a look that may have resembled sympathy before she stood erect once more, shielding her eyes against the angry rays of the midday sun. "We're almost to the tower," she announced to the group. Snow could see her performing some mental calculations, judging by the way she was biting her bottom lip. "We'll slow up a little. We made good time so far." She considered the tower yet again before turning back to the group. "I want to try and make it through the tower in one day—get out before nightfall. We can afford to stay a night if we have to, but, depending on how Oerba is from here we may have to run just as hard tomorrow."
"Please tell me Oerba's just around the corner," Sazh whimpered . "I swear I'll shoot myself in the head if it's not. I swear to everything holy…"
"Calm down, old man," Fang teased, stretching an arm out from where she lay to poke Sazh's forearm. "Oerba's only about an hour past the tower." She and Vanille cast each other meaningful glances. "We're almost home."
Vanille nodded slightly before returning to lying prostrate on the ground. "Wonder how much it's changed?"
The two tribeswomen began speaking quietly to each other, excluding the others from their conversation. Sazh was too busy falling asleep to care, and Hope was quickly following Sazh's lead.
"How much longer do we have?" Snow queried, massaging his calves to lessen the pain.
"Fourteen minutes," she responded quickly, her eyes roving across the eastern edge of the horizon.
Her exact response made Snow chuckle. He eyed his fellow companions, noting that both Sazh and Hope had succumbed to the sweet calling of slumber. Fang and Vanille were still whispering amongst themselves. "Light," Snow said suddenly. "About earlier…"
"Nothing to talk about from earlier," she shrugged; her eyes far off in the distance as she watched a golem messily devour a chocobo.
Snow pressed forward with the topic. "There is," he said, beginning the massaging process on the second calf. "Where are we now, Light?"
Stillness possessed her. "Almost to Taejin's Tower," she shrugged, turning her back to Snow. The sight nearly cleaved his heart in two.
"You know what I mean," he said quietly, his lips hardly parting to speak. "Us. You and me. Where are we?"
She shifted uncomfortably, her eyes unfocused. "Hell if I know."
Fang and Vanille's eyes were boring holes into the back of Snow's head, but he somehow ignored it. "You're impossible," he sighed, throwing himself backwards to lie upon on the soft earth.
Lightning sighed in return and ran her hand through her sweat-glazed mane. "Impossible? Maybe. Conflicted? Yeah." She turned her head slightly to the side, glaring at the two Pulsians from the corner of her eye. "And if you two don't mind your own business, I'll shoot lightning bolts through your eyeballs."
Snow heard Vanille giggle before shuffling away.
"If Serah were anyone else, I wouldn't give a damn. I wouldn't be as worried. But she's not someone else—she's Serah. My sister. The only family I have left. Now I'm considering…this?" She motioned off-handedly towards Snow, who felt a nervous flutter in his stomach. She was admitting a hell of a lot more than he originally dared to hope for with his question.
"I hated you, Snow. I hated what you were, the man I thought you to be, what you stood for, and, most of all, I hated you for taking Serah from me." A sad, reminiscent aura crept over her. "Now I'm considering taking you from Serah. Not only am I a bitch, but I'm also a hypocrite." A pause. "A betrayer."
Snow struggled to his feet, and the motion was damn near impossible when his feet and legs felt like a flan. "I can't say I know exactly how you feel," he said in a hushed tone, stumbling towards Lightning so only they were privy to their conversation. "I never hated you. The opposite, really: I've always admired you, in one way or another." Lightning cast him a quizzical stare, her brows knit together in puzzlement. "Long story," Snow added. "But I do kinda know how you feel about Serah, in a way. I think she'd understand. It might take her awhile, but eventually…eventually she'd understand." He awaited a change in her expression, but her face was as indifferent and unreadable as ever. "And you wouldn't be alone. Not by a long shot."
Lightning never moved. She continued to stare ahead, the golem clearly reflected in her eyes. Snow waited for her response with baited breath.
"Time's up!" She called, whirling around on her heel. Disappointment settled within Snow, along with some relief. At least she didn't hurt me.
But did it have to be so hard for her to answer? All he wanted was to know where she believed them to be. She had admitted to considering Snow, but…that was all? She couldn't move beyond that?
He would be lying if he said he his heart wasn't heavy. Earlier, he had believed she had meant she would take Snow, for the time being, that she would try things out. Now it seemed as if they'd be stuck in the same awkward positions they'd been in…
Maybe I shouldn't get too worked up about it. I mean, it's only been a few hours since this morning…
Another quick, unnoticeable glance was thrown towards his brand. It may have only been a few hours, but how much longer did they have left?
"Snow." The way Lightning said his name sent chills up his spine, all too pleasurable. "Wake up Sazh. I don't think he—"
"I got him," Fang said, rolling on her side to close the distance between her and Sazh.
"No, you don't," Lightning snarled, disgust the main component in her voice. "Snow, go wake him up."
Fang received a confused, raised brow from Snow while he nudged Sazh's arm with a booted foot to wake him. "What was that about?"
"Nothing," Lightning said, interrupting Fang, who was just about to explain. Lightning lowered herself to Hope's side and gently touched his shoulder, slowly rousing the boy back to the waking world. "Time to get up, kid," Snow heard her murmur. Hope smiled blearily and rubbed his eyes.
Sazh was still fast asleep, despite Snow's third attempt to wake him. Just as Snow brought his leg back to really jar him to full consciousness, Vanille tumbled in from nowhere, rushing past Snow to jump on Sazh.
"Wakey, wakey!" She cooed, tickling Sazh's sides after plopping down on his chest to sit. Sazh woke with a start, looked down his nose at his chest, then burst into a string of curses before rolling to his side, effectively removing Vanille from her perch.
"Never wake a man up like that. Ever." Though flat on his belly, he made no move to stand. It took Snow a minute to figure out why.
Vanille looked slightly offended as she sulked away, her eyes narrowed rather dangerously.
"What's wrong, Sazh?" Snow asked innocently, grinning at how Sazh was squriming on his belly. "It's time to go!"
"I hope you get eaten by one of those flowers, boy." This, of course, only egged Snow on.
"I can go find some cold water, if you need it…"
"What's the hold-up?" Lightning cut in, irritated. "We need to go, so stop being stupid. We need to make it to the tower."
Distinct curses could be heard, though the volume was lessened from the grass at Sazh's lips. Hope joined Snow's side, a triumphant smirk on his mouth. "Need a leg up?"
Clarity for the situation, sidled with disgust, dawned on Lightning's features. "By the Sanctum, you're like a damn teenager. Control yourself!"
"If I could," Sazh enunciated carefully, "then maybe I wouldn't be lyin' face down in the damn dirt, girl!" He shot back, lifting his head to meet Lightning's glare from five feet below her - or maybe to catch a glimpse up Lightning's skirt to see if she really did wear shorts beneath them.
Snow, still grinning, moved to pick up everyone's pack and then distributed them to their proper owners. "Come on, man. Tuck it in. We've gotta go."
Vanille, who had hidden behind Fang—perhaps out of embarrassment—poked her head out from behind Fang's arm and asked, "'Tuck it in'…?"
Hope blushed furiously when Snow didn't answer, as Vanille's eyes soon fell to the youngest male present. Fang laughed and walked past, ruffling Hope's feathery hair as she joined Snow's side to grab her and Vanille's storage cases. "Guy thing," Hope explained quickly. "You don't wanna know."
Sazh began the long process of adjusting himself while remaining face-down, attempting to retain some sense of decency. "I'm surprised you even know what it means, Hope," Sazh grunted. "Then again, you probably have had a lot of chances to practice lately, am I right?"
Hope snatched his pack from Snow and marched past Sazh towards the distant Lightning. "I hate you, Sazh."
Vanille followed after Hope, edging past Sazh as she went. Clearly she wasn't too crazy about the situation, either.
Fang still remained behind, an ever-present smirk playing her mouth. "Save it for later," she suggested, adding in a flirty wink once Sazh lifted his head to stare. She turned and followed the others, leaving the two men behind.
"Damn it, woman! You're not helping!"
Snow helped Sazh to his feet, keeping a good distance from Sazh as he did so. Even if the old geezer could barely stand on his own, Snow wasn't about to get close to that. "Sazh, man," Snow started, shaking his head. "I wouldn't normally suggest this, but…you really gotta get laid."
Snow traveled around the outdated piece of technology before him. "Didn't we already take this elevator?" He asked, scratching his head absentmindedly as he examined the etchings on the back side of the stone.
Lightning was already inside, her hand hovering over the 'descend' button. "No, we didn't."
"How do you know?" Vanille's turn this time. She cast a quick glance around the room. "Looks pretty familiar in here…"
An impatient tut rolled off Lightning's tongue. "It looks like every other room with an elevator. Get over it."
As he walked up to the side of the lift, Sazh said, "Exactly. Plus, we've been running up ramps and running in circles for the past two hours, and we must have gone up elevators a dozen times already. Now this one wants to go down. That's odd, don't you think?" No answer was received, so he spoke again. "How do you know this is the right one?"
Lightning glared at them all contemptuously before slamming her fist onto the button. Everyone's eyes were glued on the lift as they watched Lightning descend, alone.
"She'll be back," Fang shrugged while she leaned back against the far wall. "We've already been on this one, anyway. I marked the wall on the side of it, like I've been doing with all the others." She motioned with her forefinger towards a spot about five feet up on the wall nearest Sazh. "It should look like a little black scratch."
Sazh glanced at the side, muttering his approval before sinking to the floor. "Damn, I'm tired. Too much exercise for these old bones."
Everyone hunkered down, awaiting Lightning's imminent return. They thought it would be a short trip—maybe just descend, take a peek around and then return, shame-faced. No one thought much beyond that. Seats were taken in opposing corners; or some, like Sazh and Hope, chose to sprawl out on the middle of the floor.
The minutes slowly ticked away into an hour, and there was still no sign of Lightning. Hope was going mad. Snow was, too, but he was better at hiding it.
"We need to get her!" Hope repeated for the hundredth time, abandoning his comfortable position on the stone floor to pace to and fro along the edge of the room. "She could be hurt or dead or—"
Sazh pushed himself up and grabbed Hope's arm, yanking him back down into a sitting position. "Relax and shut up. This is Soldier Girl. If it was too much trouble, she'd have come back by now." Though he didn't seem to entirely believe his own words, there wasn't much else he could do. They were minus one lift, which meant they couldn't descend. The elevator a few rooms back only dropped down one floor, and they knew that Lightning was at least two levels down.
"I hate puzzles," Vanille reflected bitterly, earning stares from everyone in the group. She cocked her head in confusion. "What?" she demanded. Everyone shook their heads and went back to ruminating over their situation.
Snow stood and brushed his hands across his pants in an attempt to remove the tiny granules of dirt that clung to his palms. He made his way to the massive hole in the floor, where the lift had been, peering over the edge to assess the distance down. It was a long way—Lightning had gone down at least three floors, possibly four. He wasn't sure. "Got any rope?" He looked over his shoulder at the remaining four and was greeted with four sets of groans.
"Who the hell brings rope?" Sarcasm dripped from Sazh's voice. "I mean, how useless is that? It only would have saved our asses a few dozen times. Not enough to warrant the extra weight in our packs."
"Point taken." Snow continued scheming in his head, thinking of other possible ways to find out where the hell Lightning was. I just have to get down there first…
Quite unexpectedly, the ground beneath their feet began to shake. It scared the hell out of everyone. Snow had never seen Sazh jump to his feet quite so fast.
"Son-of-a-bitch!" Fang spat, already racing towards the door. "Damn it—she…she must have touched something! Everybody out, now!"
Nobody bothered asking why—the urgency in Fang's voice was cause enough to race like madmen to the exit. They all sprinted for the door, ducking through the low clearance to reach the walkway outside. It was a good thing they abandoned their post when they did: almost as soon as Sazh stumbled clumsily through the access point, the tower began to shift clockwise, covering what was formerly the exit with a wall of solid stone.
They stood in silence, gawking at their dangerously close call. Snow made a mental note to thank Fang for the advice. Sazh gave a low whistle of appreciation.
Fang was cut off when the ground beneath them began to vibrate every-so-slightly. Five bodies immediately began to panic; their heads darting left and right to find the next trap that could be the death of them.
Music began to play to their left, softly at first, and then it began to swell in volume. It was a charming tune, it couldn't be denied, but Snow half-wondered if that was intended irony. With the luck they'd been having, he wouldn't be surprised if a child's lullaby started playing before being mauled by that damn fal'Cie that was stalking them.
Vanille drew her Binding Rods and inched to Fang's side. Snow and Hope took several steps to the fore of the group, each wielding their respective weapons. Sazh was somewhere between the two sets, fumbling with loading ammo into his pistols. "We're all gonna die in this tower," he whimpered, dropping at least two bullets.
The music grew louder and Snow's nerves were reaching its limits. Was that the song of some new fiend? Was it making its way up to them, to challenge them? Had it attacked Lightning earlier?
Lightning…where are you?
As if in response to his internal thoughts, a lift came to a complete stop only a few yards away. Relief washed over Snow in waves. He dropped his hands and, together with Hope, they both jogged forward to greet their battle-weary goddess.
"Don't ever do that again!" Hope scolded, throwing his arms around Lightning's middle and hugging her with bestial strength. Lightning gave a sheepish smile and pat Hope's head, turning her own towards Snow, nodding slightly in his direction.
Faint bruises and lacerations were scattered across Lightning's face. He took a step nearer and examined her further, noting that on every piece of exposed skin there was an injury of some type. Anger surged within him at the sight: anger, that he hadn't been there to help Lightning; fury at those that dared lay a claw on her pearly skin; rage, that she had to suffer alone because they were too big of idiots to believe her in the first place.
"I'm not helpless. I can take care of myself." She was matter-of-fact, as if this were the most obvious truth in the world.
Well, it is pretty obvious.
"I know," Snow said quietly, managing a pathetic smile. "I'd heal you, but I don't think I'd be able to concentrate well enough to do a decent job. Hope, can you…?"
Hope must have been practicing his telepathy, since Snow didn't even need to finish his request before Hope began the process of healing Lightning's wounds. He was quick and efficient and, much to Snow's displeasure, very gentle. While he knew that the kid was leaving him and Lightning alone, it didn't mean the torch he carried for Lightning had diminished any. "Light, can you kneel for a second? Thanks." Once Lightning was at his height, Hope laid careful, delicate fingers on her marred face and slowly traced her injuries with a steady hand. His face flushed, but it was difficult to see in the dark, dank tower.
Snow saw Hope's burning cheeks and the deliberate fingers, how they just nipped over her lips and brushed across her eyelashes. No, Snow didn't miss a damn movement.
Burning jealousy reared its ugly head within him once more. Figures that the only time I get jealous is when a fourteen-year-old is making moves on Lightning. The situation was so ridiculous that he could hardly allow himself to dwell on the subject. He forced himself to remember Mah'habara, to recall their pathetic duel in the narrow corridors, and with that memory in tow he quickly regained control over his emotions. Instead of seeking a fight, Snow walked away.
Hope dropped his hands hesitantly, his face now a bright red. "Done," he announced, nodding once towards Lightning. She returned the gesture, added in a thank-you, and then rose to her feet.
"This way." Lightning led the way back, through the new elevator and out the opposing side. "Don't question me this time."
Fang threw her head back and sighed loudly. "I'm never gonna hear the end of this," she mumbled. Snow caught her words and chuckled low, still keeping a careful eye on Hope. "I knew you were right all along, Light," Fang added, her voice bright and cheerful and very loud.
Lightning snorted derisively. "I bet." She led the group a few steps further, all of them shuffling their feet forward. "And, no, you're never going to hear the end of it."
The tribeswoman grinned and said nothing further.
Everyone fell into a line as they ascended the narrow, circular pathway along the inside wall of the tower. They took another lift up, got sidetracked by a hole in the wall, fought a few fiends, and then looked for an exit that wouldn't involve backtracking through the bat-infested room they had just abandoned.
Yet another hole had been blasted into the wall in the room they were currently in. Lightning stuck her head out of the opening and examined the surroundings before pulling herself back in. "The floor…"
Snow pushed his way to Lightning's side, shoving Hope carefully aside so he could examine their situation alongside their fearless leader. She held her arm out to impede his progress, and at first Snow was bewildered by the movement. That is, until Lightning kneeled down and tapped the walkway with a knuckle.
"See all the cracks?" She said, sweeping a finger over the path ahead. Snow shook his head 'no'; Lightning sighed and unsheathed her gunblade. She shot a single round into the floor directly in front of them, on the exact spot Lightning had rapped her knuckles. The cracks that had been invisible to Snow's eyes before suddenly increased in length and width, spreading like spider-webs across the solid mass of stone that created the outer walkway. Snow's jaw fell with the flooring as it broke off in large chunks and crumbled into dust before falling several stories downward.
Lightning then tested the integrity of the remaining three-inch ledge. "This should hold us," she said, cautiously planting one foot on the tiny edge. She gradually applied more weight to the stone until she pushed off with her other foot and balanced herself totally on the horribly small shelf. "Yeah. It's fine. Careful, though. Once you get up ahead where it looks like the pathway is still intact, don't put your weight on it. I'm betting it's just as structurally unsound as this bit was. I'll tell you when we get to safe ground." She inched ahead a ways on the small ledge, expecting them to follow.
"How…how far do we gotta go, Light?" Hope asked, his head peeking out from under Snow's elbow.
Lightning paused in her journey, contemplating the question. She clucked her tongue once and turned back, her steps more sure now that she knew the path was safe to traverse. With a quick hop she landed back inside the room where the other five had remained, totally unwilling to follow.
She withdrew her gunblade yet again, repeating the process she did earlier, only this time adding several more rounds of bullets into the mix. More portions began to crumble and fall, and all watched in horror as the few-feet gap that had originally existed quickly extended into one that was well over ten feet. But she wasn't done yet.
The gunshots echoed throughout the stone chambers, assailing their eardrums without mercy. Whenever a piece of the walkway held after one shot, she'd toss another round in its direction to test it. If it held after the second, she'd drain a third. This process continued for what seemed like half an eternity before holstering her gun, satisfied with her results. "About fifteen yards," she replied mostly to herself before jumping back on the ledge and restarting her crossing.
"Well, I'm certainly happy you look so damn pleased with yourself," Sazh huffed, poking his head over Fang's shoulder to see the damage. "But, please tell me how you plan to get an aging old man and a giant down this pathetic excuse of a path?"
Lightning didn't miss a beat. "Balance. And pray."
"Fantastic." Sazh was nearing hysteria. "Fantastic! Pray! That's all you have to say? Pray? Pray to who, huh? You ever think of that? And how the hell am I supposed to cross this shitty thing?"
Fang lay a consoling hand on Sazh's ass. "Calm down. I'll help you through it."
"Don't touch me, devil-woman!" Sazh thundered, backing away several feet, his hands raised defensively. "I'm not going near that ledge! I'll find another way—I'm not going! Do you hear me, Lightning? I'm staying put, dammit!"
Nobody was really sure what to do. Everyone had broken down at some point—or almost everyone—but none had blatantly refused to continue on. Fang and Vanille exchanged shrugs while Hope and Snow stared, dumbfounded, at their older counterpart.
Then Lightning appeared with thunder cackling behind her.
She was pissed off.
Lightning stormed up to Sazh, who was too busy having an utter meltdown to really notice. Snow didn't even see her wind-up, but the resounding smack that reverberated off the walls spoke volumes.
So did the red welt that already blossomed across Sazh's cheek.
Lightning wavered, her hand drawn back for a second strike if needed. Her nose hovered inches from Sazh's own, and she carefully awaited his reaction. Slowly, very slowly, his body lessened in rigidity and his shoulders slumped, his head bowed and the hairs of his afro tickled Lightning's face.
"I deserved that," he mumbled, reaching up to touch the angry welt on his cheek. He winced when his fingers grazed over it. "I don't like heights," he admitted. "Especially when there's a chance that I'll fall to my death. A very likely chance."
Lightning lowered her hand. "You're a pilot."
"I never said it made a lick of sense, girl," Sazh muttered, his fingers still gently brushing against the reddening lump. "You didn't have to hit me so hard, you know. This hurts like hell…"
"Well, at least now you can be part of the club," Fang grinned, laying a firm hand on Sazh's shoulder, leading him back to the ledge. "Me and Snow are already lifetime members. All it takes is one hit from Lightning to join!"
Snow snorted. "I guess I'm good for a few lifetimes, then."
Hope and Snow watched as Lightning moved quickly back to the front of the group, the sensual swaying of her hips hardly going unnoticed. "I can add another lifetime membership for you, if you'd like," she threatened, glaring back at Snow before disappearing around the corner and, presumably, mounting the ledge once again. Snow couldn't help but give a low whistle, shaking his head at her disappearing backside.
The eldest of the group was being led by Fang and Vanille now, both encouraging him to attempt the crossing, reassuring him that everything would be just fine. After some convincing, he finally consented and, with Fang's hand guiding him, he took a careful step atop the ledge and began his slow trek across the gaping chasm.
Hope's fair head was peering carefully down to the depths of the tower, tentative about the idea of crossing. An uncertain gaze passed between him and Snow, but it was broken by the appearance of Vanille's strawberry-blonde curls bobbing between the two. "Come on!" She grabbed Hope's arm and gently pulled for him to follow. "Follow me! We'll get across in no time!"
Hope took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, nodding once. "Okay," he sighed, eyeing the distant floor with apprehension. "See you on the other side." He saluted Snow once and carefully stepped onto the precarious path immediately behind Vanille.
"Hero's gotta take up the rear," Snow said to no one in particular. He scratched his neck, watching the five ahead of him progress across the gap. Lightning was very nearly to the other side, her long, powerful legs making easy work of the tiny platform she had to work with. Sazh was a good ways behind, inching carefully across, and every once in awhile he'd bury his head into the stone wall, shouting about how much he hated Lightning and that this scheme was her idea of a way to kill him. Fang, inches behind Sazh, would coo at him, telling him that everything would be fine and that she'd reward him if he shut up and made it across without event. Vanille and Hope were quickly gaining on the slow-moving Fang and Sazh, but Hope would stop every now and again to peer down or backwards to see his progress, and so he started to fall behind.
"Guess it's my time to go," Snow sighed, standing tall and stretching his muscles before starting. He was nervous, he had to admit—compared to the others, he was at a serious disadvantage. After all, he was Mister Thirty-Three Centimeters himself. Big feet and tiny paths over a gaping drop of doom just didn't seem to mix well.
The three-to-six-inch boundary of stone that was their only method of crossing proved to be incredibly difficult to traverse. All too quickly he became overly familiar with the feel of rough stone scratching against his jaw as he hugged tightly to the wall in an attempt to lessen the space he consumed, hoping, in vain, that the effort would decrease the work involved in the crossing. He even tried sucking in some air and holding his breath.
Overall, he looked utterly idiotic.
Lightning must have reached the far edge, because he heard her call out, "Maybe if your feet weren't the size of a chocobo's head, you wouldn't have to look like such a moron."
I can see her damn smirk, too. It wasn't hard to visualize—he had become overly acquainted with that expression as well.
"Maybe," he huffed, nearly having a heart attack when his foot slipped and dangled over the black abyss below. "But you know what they say about guys with big feet…" Perhaps he could have afforded a chuckle, were he not so concerned with the precarious situation he now found his life in.
"It's not true," Lightning finished, offering her hand to Sazh once he neared the end of the rather nonexistent path. Fang hopped easily off the dangerous rim, and though Snow couldn't see it, he knew she was comforting Sazh in some odd, Fang-like way.
Ahead of Snow, Hope cackled. "Burn!" He turned his head quickly, offering Snow a wide grin, but the movement was too sudden. His balance was lost and, as he tumbled back, his fingers scrabbled madly at the wall before him. No holdings could be found, and Snow watched Hope fall backwards, almost in slow motion. Hope's eyes went wide in fear, his arms circled in windmills fruitlessly to try and regain his balance. There was no use to any of his movements.
Without even thinking, Snow's arm shot out in a desperate attempt to grab hold of Hope's falling body. All he wanted was for his fingers to connect with Hope's wrist, jacket, hair—anything.
He felt the collar of Hope's jacket firmly in the grip of his hand, and Snow was momentarily filled with relief.
It was incredibly short-lived. Relief quickly morphed into terror once Hope's excess dead weight dragged Snow downwards as well. He saw his life flash quickly before his eyes, noticed that many of the images contained Lightning, and a sense of dismay overtook him when he realized he'd never even gotten the chance to kiss her yet before his death.
That simply wouldn't do. He reached out, up, as his body disappeared beneath the ledge and he felt his fingers grab hold of something. A quick glance up confirmed what it was that had saved his life.
Snow clung on to the three-inch wide, jagged edge of the damn pathway that had got him into this situation to begin with. Of course he'd have to catch the most pathetic piece of pathway possible—that was his luck. The shoulder currently responsible for Hope's life was already burning from the odd angle with which he was holding Hope—slightly behind him, with his arm rotated severely to the right. The three fingers that were responsible for the lives of both men were cramping already. They were too tense and clinging to too small a space to hold out for long.
The deep rumble that was Snow's voice echoed loudly off the surrounding stone. "Lightning!" he bellowed. He called out again, but his voice was drowned out by Vanille's scream. She had, apparently, reached the other side and was now witnessing the events unfold before her eyes.
Her scream was quickly muffled, and Snow heard Lightning hiss at Vanille to shut up, the worry in her tone prevalent. Scuffling of feet was heard and, when Snow dared to peek up once, he saw that four team members had gathered at the edge of the path, Sazh standing furthest back, eyes fearful and flitting downward, nervously mentioning something about a rope.
Lightning was already down on one knee, quickly assessing the situation presented to her. Snow could feel the intensity in her eyes; could nearly feel them sweeping over him, wondering how good of a grip Snow had on the ledge and on Hope. "Fang, let me see your lance." As Lightning spoke, she never removed her eyes from Snow's sweat-drenched body and Hope's trembling, mute form beneath. When Snow glanced helplessly in her direction, he saw her give him an imperceptible nod.
Fang didn't seem to grasp Lightning's request—she was too busy trying to calm a quietly sobbing Vanille. "Now!" Lightning roared, Sergeant Farron quickly returning to the fore. Fang quickly figured out what was being requested of her and produced the lance with little more hesitation, which was a good thing for Snow - or so he thought.
A long string of vulgarities reverberated throughout the tower. "Barbed wire. Damn it all, Fang!"
"Sorry, I wasn't expecting this sort of situation to arise!" Fang cried, her voice pitched higher than normal. Lightning ignored Fang as she considered Snow sharply again.
"How good of a hold do you have, Snow?"
"If you don't help me soon, we're both going down," Snow replied through gritted teeth. He knew the situation wasn't good—the fear in Lightning's eyes spoke volumes. The tiny footing above simply wouldn't suffice to hold someone as they leaned down to pull Snow and Hope up. In addition, the distance between where Lightning currently kneeled and the location of Snow and Hope's dangling bodies was too great of a span to bridge with an offered hand.
Crossing this was a damn fine idea.
Lightning pinched the bridge of her nose in thought. "Snow," she said, her head snapping back to him. "Do exactly as I say. Do not question me. Understand?"
"I feel better about your damn idea already," Snow groused . He looked down when he felt Hope writing beneath him and saw the reason — the collar of Hope's jacket had shifted and was now strangling him. Hope had his fingers tucked beneath the collar, his hands fighting desperately for space so he could continue to breathe. Panic quickly began to settle in, along with a newfound sense of urgency.
"Hope, Snow, listen to me." The same sight must have caught Lightning's attention as well. Her voice caught in her throat as she spoke to both males. "You both are going to be fine. Snow, swing Hope up to me. Hope, when he does that, I need you to grab my hand. Okay?"
Hope gave a strangled plea for them to hurry as a response.
"Snow, once Hope has my hand, you're going to take his arm and let go of the edge. Do you understand?"
"No, I don't!" Snow snapped, blinking sweat furiously from his eyes. "First off, I can't possibly pick up enough speed with what I'm holding on to in order to throw Hope up there. Two: even if I did, my weight would snap his arm!"
"What?" Hysteria was threatening to overtake his normally cool demeanor.
"Do you trust me?"
Snow's head bowed for a moment, eyes closed. He perceived Hope's struggles just a few feet below, feeling him twist and jerk awkwardly beneath his fingers. Lightning's eyes were glued on him—he could feel those sparkling eyes searching him, impatiently awaiting his response. He opened his eyes, set his jaw, and nodded towards Lightning. Her face softened in return.
"On the count of three," she began, but was interrupted by Snow.
"My count." Quickly he prepared himself for the task ahead, ever mindful of the situation Hope was in below him. "Get ready, Hope." You're about to hurt like hell. "One, two…three!"
Every ounce of muscle in Snow's body coordinated their efforts, lending Snow enough strength to bring Hope's body far back behind him, feeling the jacket catch and constrict even more around Hope's throat. Out of the corner of his eyes, Snow saw Hope's hands still scrambling at the collar, at his neck, panicking about his suddenly limited ability to breathe.
"Get ready, Hope!" Snow cried. Hope had to be ready. If he wasn't, if Hope missed Lightning's now-outstretched hand, Snow doubted he'd be able to manage a second attempt.
As Hope rounded past Snow's back in a wide arc, Snow heaved upwards, literally dragging Hope to Lightning. Lightning reached out quickly, grabbing at Hope's already falling hand.
Why was Hope falling?
Snow couldn't piece it together at first. And then, in one horrifying moment, he understood: Hope was falling because Snow was falling.
Snow had lost his grip.
The four gathered around the edge again, all inhaling sharply. Lightning recovered quickly, lunging down to wrap strong fingers around Hope's wrist. The other three, finally coming to their senses, dashed forward and grabbed hold of her body, ensuring Lightning didn't tumble over the edge with her two favorite boys.
Hope let out a roar of pain, proceeded shortly thereafter by a loud pop. His shoulder, under Snow's weight, had popped out of its socket, and was now supporting Snow from a completely inhuman angle.
And yet…and yet they were alive.
Lightning hung over the edge of solid walkway, her torso only being held up by the strength of her own core. Fang, Sazh, and Vanille all gripped her waist or legs, digging in with the heels of their feet to prevent any untimely deaths from occurring.
Hope clung to Lightning's forearm, tears streaming freely from his eyes due to the pain. No whimpers escaped through his lips, though; other than the salty liquid flowing from his eyes, he made no indication he was in pain, despite the current condition of his shoulder. It was contorted at an odd angle, loose and limp, unable to work properly, but still…he held on to Snow.
Or, rather, Snow held on to Hope for dear life.
"Snow, climb up!" If Lightning was feeling any pain or strain, she wasn't about to show it. She stared down, past Hope to Snow, wearing a calm expression, as if this were an everyday occurrence.
That same feeling of tranquility was not shared by Snow, who didn't even have the slightest idea on how to go about using a teenage boy and a lean woman as his ladder to safety.
"How?" Groans from above followed Snow's query.
"Grab Hope's waist, first."
Snow did as was instructed, feeling particularly guilty when Hope released a small sob when Snow's weight shifted from Hope's arm to his middle.
"Up to Hope's shoulders."
"Do it, Snow." Hope, his face tight in determination, though paled with pain, spoke this time. "I'll live."
Snow didn't respond. Instead he carefully climbed up Hope's middle, wrapping a giant hand around Hope's chest and heaving himself up to the boy's shoulders, attempting, for Hope's sake, to place most of the weight on Hope's good side. Hope refrained from crying out this time, though he bit his lip so fiercely that it was bleeding freely.
"Now, grab my arms and work your way up. Fang or Sazh, one of you needs to help him up."
How the hell can she be so calm?
Snow began to climb upwards again, only pausing in his ascent when his fingers – sore and stiff – wrapped around Lightning's tiny arms. He felt the solid mass of muscle beneath the soft pads of his fingers and silently thanked Lightning for being the woman she was, thorns and all. If she wasn't, they'd all be dead four times over.
His gaze followed Lightning's trunk to solid ground, which was only inches away and about a foot above him, where Fang was waiting with outstretched arms. "Come on," she urged, wiggling her fingers impatiently. "Come to momma."
Snow reached out and felt Fang's horribly strong grip cut off the circulation in his hands. Fang began scooting backwards, slowly dragging Snow to his salvation on the safe path above. Once he tumbled onto solid ground, he almost cried in thanks. Sazh and Vanille both flew over to his side and wrapped their arms around him. "Never do that again!" Sazh demanded, very close to tears, pushing himself away from Snow. Vanille still clung to him.
But he couldn't get carried away with celebrating. Not yet.
He got back to his feet, gently pushing Vanille away and cautiously returning to the edge. He saw Fang standing over Lightning, trying to determine the best way to go about business. Snow motioned Fang away and warned Lightning to hang on.
Though his body was exhausted and felt like mush, Snow still lowered himself into a squat. Immediately he could feel his leg muscles begin to burn, but he pushed beyond the pain, concentrating fully on the task before him. Slowly, carefully, he inched forward until he hovered over Lightning's middle, where he then proceeded to wrap one arm easily around the underside of her waist and the other snaked around the broadest part of her chest which, at any other time, would have prompted some sort of comment from Sazh.
The close proximity to Lightning, being able to feel her breathing beneath him, renewed Snow and gave him newfound strength. His muscles contracted easily, lifting the light weight of Lightning and the lesser weight of the nearly-unconscious Hope. Ever so slowly, he reeled Lightning in, and as she neared the ledge, Fang and Sazh approached, ready to grab Hope, and Vanille was dancing on her tiptoes nearby. As soon as they hauled the young boy to safety, Snow gave one final, great tug and pulled Lightning up as well.
Lightning's legs cleared the precarious edge, and, once they did, exhaustion overtook Snow once more. He released a breath he hadn't known he was holding and stumbled back and sideways to the wall, Lightning still in tow. His back struck unforgiving stone, but he didn't care—it was a wonderful reminder that they were safe.
All of them. They were all safe.
He scooted an extra few feet away from the ledge, still clinging to Lightning dearly, fearful to release her lest she somehow be placed into another precarious situation. He sank into a sitting position, plopping Lightning between his legs.
Lightning, of course, wouldn't stay. She wrangled herself from Snow's weakened grasp and rose back to her feet, curtly stomping towards the somehow-still-conscious Hope. Everyone, sensing the wrath of the l'Cie in her, scattered at her approach.
She was seething. Anger was bubbling from her eyeballs, and poor Hope was on the receiving end. Hope began to apologize, his drooping eyes becoming alert. His tongue was moving as quickly as possible, trying to get his words straight, but all speech was stopped when Lightning raised her hand.
Hope nearly choked. "W-w-what are you going—"
A shrill cry echoed through the tower when Lightning roughly swung her hand down to grab Hope's shoulder. The second hand followed quickly thereafter. She had a firm grip; her knuckles were white from the strain.
From Snow's location, he could see Lightning imbue Hope with a withering glare. Hope began to apologize again, even as a slight tinge of green began to overtake the paleness of his face, but once more his words were cut short by Lightning jerking his shoulder back into place with a loud pop.
"Next time, pay attention to what you're doing. We can't afford to make mistakes." Lightning's voice was barely above a whisper, but it achieved the desired effect. Hope was quaking, and not just from the pain or the sudden onslaught of nausea. "Vanille, heal him. Fang, Sazh: go clear out the room right ahead. Wait until Vanille is done. Take Hope with you."
Fang and Sazh nodded silently, both casting Hope a sympathetic glance. Vanille was already hard at work; in fact, she had begun healing Hope before the words even escaped Lightning's mouth. Snow, on the other hand, remained forgotten on the sidelines. He found himself not giving a damn.
Vanille, having successfully completed her given task, rose to her feet and helped Hope up as well. He gave her a warm, sleepy smile, thanking her for her work. Vanille nodded once and slid her hand into Hope's, coaxing him to follow. He did, but not right away. He broke from Vanille's grip and made his way to Snow. He tentatively held out his hand, withdrew it, and dropped to his knees to envelop Snow in a tight hug, even though he still sat against the wall. "Thank you," Hope mumbled, sincerity flowing from his words. Snow returned the embrace, too tired to think of a proper response. Hope withdrew his arms quickly, wiping conspicuously at his eyes before retreating with Vanille and the others.
Lightning watched the backs of the four of them disappear around a corner. Once they were completely out of sight, her posture slumped. She slowly, heavily walked over to Snow then, and, just as slowly, she sank to the empty space to Snow's right.
"You'll all be the death of me," she mused, running her fingers through wild locks. Snow broke into a soft smile.
"Hope alone will be the death of me," he responded, lifting a heavy hand to help tame Lightning's mussed hair. "That was quick thinking on your part," he added after a moment.
Lightning shrugged. "I should have had Fang summon her eidolon." A small smile played on her lips, sending a jolt through Snow's core.
"Why didn't you?" He asked lightly, carefully avoiding Lightning's eyes. He didn't want her to discover the sudden spark of lust that lay within Snow's own gaze.
At that she smiled sheepishly, her hands falling to her sides after fighting her tresses in vain. "She never would have let us hear the end of it." She donned an impressive imitation of Fang. "'Remember that time I saved Hope and Snow? I was fantastic, yeah?'"
Snow's smile broke into a grin. That was too good to be improvised. I bet she's been practicing Fang's accent… "She would have, too. Good thinking."
Another lapse of silence fell between them, but the sounds of a fight could be heard from the next room. Lightning's eyes wandered first towards the sounds of battle, then back to the nefarious ledge. Shadows fell over her face, aging her several years. It pained Snow to see it.
"I thought you guys were…" words failed her, and soon the conversation fell into nothingness. Her hands reached up, gripping the cuff of his coat's sleeve tightly. Snow watched a muscle in Lightning's jaw throb as she fought for control over herself, over her emotions.
Snow tucked a few stray strands of champagne hair behind round ears. "I'm still here, Light," he whispered. "We both are. Me and Hope." Though still slumped against the wall, he reached over to Lightning, winding a hand behind her shoulders. His hand found the opposite shoulder and, with a quick jerk, he pulled her body over, dragging her with ease over his legs and hugging her tight to his chest, allowing her head to rest easily in the crook of his neck.
Lightning curled herself into a ball as Snow's arms wrapped around her. He didn't need to say anything—his actions spoke for him well enough. He was there for her, even when she didn't ask for him to be. He would always be there, rain or shine, and he wasn't about to leave her side. He'd be her shoulder to cry on. If possible, he'd try to be everything for her. All she had to do was allow him to be close.
Her body quivered beneath him, and he felt her muscles tense and relax as she allowed some of her fears to be vented and released, but he still allowed the silence to continue on. She didn't need his words – just him. Snow knew that and, so, his arms only tightened around her.
No further thoughts entered his mind. His desire for her only increased as time went on, but he made no move to take her in this state. That's not how he wanted it to be. Not at all. Instead he enjoyed the moment, because it signified something of great importance to him: Lightning Farron had come to depend on Snow.
A small smile returned to his lips as he buried his face in Lightning's tangled mane.
Fang came around the corner to announce that the room had been cleared and camp prepared. She stopped short in her tracks, the strangest sight greeting her eyes.
Lightning was curled into Snow's chest, hardly visible beneath Snow's massive arms. Her legs trailed behind her, one wrapped lightly around Snow's.
Snow's face was buried in Lightning's hair, his arms encircling her body protectively.
Both were fast asleep.
Fang chuckled to herself, then poked her head into the room to call Sazh outside. He promptly followed, perhaps hoping for his promised tumble with Ragnarok.
He, too, saw the same sight as Fang, and his reaction was similar. He stopped dead in his tracks as he considered the strange sight before him. It took a moment for everything to sink in, but once it did he gave Fang a broad, proud, knowing grin and tapped the side of his nose.
"About damn time."