The bright light of the early Oerban sun shone in through the slits of the doorway, falling directly onto Lightning's eyes. She mumbled and cursed vehemently at the glowing pink light, damning its existence and wishing it could refrain from ever rising but, despite her protests, it continued to climb ever higher. As if that wasn't enough, in response to her protests it blinded her. Angered beyond reason by this point, she bolted upright into a sitting position and glowered angrily at the doorway, a slight pout prevalent on her lips.
She had slept like hell last night. Once she had dealt the appropriate amount of damage to Sazh and Fang, and searched fruitlessly for a Vanille that had escaped unscathed, Lightning had crawled back into bed and collapsed. Despite the exhaustion her body seemed to feel, her mind was far from succumbing to sleep. It continued to mull over the events of the day and night until mere hours before sunrise, which was when she finally dozed off into a fitful slumber. Now the sun was rising and she was waking well before she was ready…
I've lived with worse. Deal with it.
With a groan she began the process of waking, rubbing relentlessly at her eyes in a valiant effort to rid herself of the sleep that still called to her. Her efforts would prove to be of little help, but she made herself believe it made a small difference. Her fingers interlaced and stretched high above her head, behind her back, and in front of her chest before she stood and began another stretching routine that took several minutes to complete, all to get her blood flowing and to make her feel like moving beyond the dwelling's door.
As she pulled her knee in towards her chest, she glanced around the room and noted that everyone was still asleep, save for Snow, who had agreed to stay on guard throughout the night. Lightning toyed with the idea of walking around aimlessly, trying to find Snow so that they could talk or something, but quickly shook it from her mind. She wasn't a stupid teenage girl that would intentionally stalk the man of her desires, nor would she pine for Snow. That wasn't her style, at all, and she wasn't about to stoop to such levels just to satisfy her pathetic inner lusts.
In fact, she wouldn't even allow him to grace her thoughts this morning. She'd purposefully keep him out of her mind.
But weren't they a couple or something? What was the point of refusing to think about him this morning? It was rather stupid.
It'd make me feel better about this, though.
didn't want to be the one to always chase him down, like she had been
last night. Lightning was the one that had to find him. She was the one
that initiated their first kiss. Then she had left and Snow hadn't even
tried to stop her.
No, she wasn't going to always be the chaser. She wanted to be chased, too.
Lightning snapped on her vest, pulled on her boots, and secured her satchel around her thigh before grabbing her gunblade and walking out into the surprisingly warm morning air. She stopped and bathed in the warmth of the morning, breathing deeply of the scent of dewy flowers - although there were no flowers, to her knowledge, anywhere near the proximity of Oerba that she had seen.
She walked down the abandoned streets, her weapon donning the guise of a gun as she sought out a prime location to exercise. The village was tiny compared to the natural features they had seen and traveled through on Gran Pulse and especially small when compared to a city like Bodhum. There was barely any room to wander aimlessly and even less space to extend her blade and go through her daily practice maneuvers. How in the world could a populace live here? There couldn't have been many people in such a limited space, that much was certain.
Lightning turned a sharp corner around a building she and Hope had cleared the previous night and walked down a narrow path that had short, metal fences on either side of her. A few yards down the path opened into a large clearing with construction materials dispersed on the outside edge and she noticed the concrete and building supplies all had a thick layer of moss growing over them. How long had this place been abandoned?
So many questions that couldn't be answered.
A single flick of her wrist extended her gunblade to its fullest extent. She eyed her Blaze Edge with a great sense of satisfaction: though she had found weapons with superior edges or firing power, she could never will herself to dismantle one of her most prized possessions to gain some much-needed materials for Sazh to utilize. This blade meant too much to her.
At the same time she was no fool. She would always use the superior blades in battle, and she would always note the ways in which she could improve the Blaze Edge. But always, always, she used this blade for anything and everything outside of the battling grounds.
She stretched her blade arm out before her; the sword became an extension of her hand. A deep breath was taken again and she closed her eyes, feeling the warmth of the air envelop her, embracing her. Her nose twitched at the delightfully fresh scent in the air and her ears pricked at the deafening silence throughout the village. She wondered if, were she to try hard enough, she could hear Snow stomping around in the distance…
She jerked her muscled arm downward, sending the edge of her blade flying to the ground before another jerk willed the sword to a stop right before contact with the cement beneath her feet.
I'm not going to think about him.
Her elbow bent slightly, drawing the weapon around the outside of her ankle. Once the tip passed her heel in its circular path, she twisted her arm violently and pulled upwards, sending the blade soaring behind her back. Without blinking, or even looking, her opposing hand reached high above her head and grabbed the hilt without a second's delay, then brought it back to a rest at her side before repeating the motion in the opposite direction.
Think about Cocoon.
She did as she commanded of herself, even as she began twirling her blade in a tight circle in front of her using her left hand. The circles became tighter and more precise as the seconds passed, stretching her muscles and making them burn despite the early hour.
Thoughts of Lebreau passed through her mind as she wondered how her business was doing. She wondered how the Commander was taking news of Sergeant Farron's supposed betrayal of Cocoon. Would they believe that she was really trying to save them? She shook her head at the thought, slicing the sword through the air in a wide arc. Why should they believe that? The media on Cocoon wasn't about to show the planet's populace that the leaders of Cocoon were actually manipulative beasts, after all.
She dropped to one leg while the other lengthened before her, pulling her hamstring taut. The sword exercises continued with periodic jabs and thrusts while she pulsated rhythmically up and down on the ball of her foot. Cocoon. Why was it worth saving? What purpose did anybody have on that planet? They went to work every day, performed their menial tasks, went home, ate dinner, slept, and then repeated the process, and to what end? Just so the fal'Cie could be amused by their little pets?
On Cocoon, the six l'Cie had fought to get away. They didn't understand what was going on. They hadn't wanted truth or justice or anything…just to get away from those pursing them. Here, though, they fought hard to survive, and in so doing it had brought them all closer together. There was a sense of community, of camaraderie, that hadn't existed on Cocoon. Here, they lived to protect themselves and others.
She had to admit, she did prefer Gran Pulse over Cocoon. If it weren't for their mission, for their ever-ticking brands, Lightning wouldn't have minded staying here permanently. Maybe once it was all over with, she could return to this world and live happily here, hunting and surviving. Maybe the others would join her. Perhaps even Snow…
The satisfying burn of her biceps greeted her, and she readied herself for the next set of exercises. Snow was far from her mind now—she focused only on perfection, on landing every hit, on guiding the blade precisely where it needed to go. Practiced muscles knew the drill and needed little direction on how to execute the maneuvers.
In her mind's eye she could see a flurry of attacks from a long pole arm—Fang's—that were aimed directly at Lightning's chest. She could see, as she had seen so many times before, the ripple of Fang's muscles as she thrust forward, her brows knit together in concentration even as she released a roar that sent shockwaves through anyone surrounding her. Knowing that a direct hit from that weapon would prove exceptionally fatal, Lightning ducked back until her behind was nearly level with her knees and, after projecting the trajectory of Fang's chosen weapon, Lightning believed she had only narrowly missed the initial attack. She jerked her abdomen inward, her legs automatically pulling up and over as she placed a guiding hand on the ground. A neat landing followed the flip, where she flashed her blade in the sunlight, a move that would only momentarily blind the attacker, but one that gave Lightning enough time to sidestep to her right and bring an elbow into her opponent's neck. This diversion, too, would give her ample time to—
"Nice work there, Soldier Girl."
Lightning, still unconsciously piloting herself through the exercises, spun sharply, sending her cape flying in a picturesque halo above her. As she spun, she brought her leg up, pulled out Serah's dagger from her boot, and held the gift blade at Sazh's throat.
"Easy! You already gave me bad enough nightmares last night!"
"You deserve worse," she huffed, angling the blade a little closer to his skin. Who the hell interrupts someone when they're practicing with a sword?
"I don't disagree with you there," Sazh grinned, unphased by the instrument of death at his jugular. He carefully scanned the area surrounding them before asking if he could join Lightning which, of course, she refused to allow. "Come on! You might like my company!" At Lightning's deadpan stare, he swore. "Give me a chance!"
"Why?" she asked, withdrawing the dagger. She sheathed it and placed it back into its hiding spot before arching a sculpted brow at Sazh.
Sazh seemed confused. "'Why' what?"
Her eyes narrowed dangerously, already tiring of the conversation. "Why do you want to be here? With me? Can't you find Snow?"
A stupefied blink was followed by another before Sazh scrutinized Lightning carefully. Shifting uncomfortably under his stare, Lightning began to tap her foot against the hard ground impatiently, but she never lowered her burning gaze from his. Finally Sazh sighed and his shoulders slumped. "If you can believe it, I really was just hopin' you and me could talk." The baby chocobo popped out of Sazh's afro, offering a sleepy chirp before flying down to Sazh's shoulder and nestling into his neck.
Lightning recalled Snow mentioning that Sazh being a bit down and out the other night. Could his sudden interest in speaking to her be related to that? She crossed her arms over her chest and figured it was worth a shot. Blue irises peered at the man that had been with Lightning since the violence began. "Dajh?" she said lightly, her face a trained, expressionless mask. Sazh's head jerked up at his son's name.
His jaw set; the corners of his mouth fell. "That obvious?" he said, offering a weak grin before backing away and sitting on the fence in the narrow corridor a few feet behind him.
She didn't want to tell him that it had been an educated guess. Instead, she shrugged while fretting inwardly. Why was he talking to her about it? Why not Snow or Fang? She wasn't good with this…communication thing. She wouldn't be able to help. He was just going to waste his breath on her.
"This place…" Sazh said quietly, his fingers outstretched to allow the crystal particles to dance between his fingers, "…creepy as hell."
Lightning snorted. She had thought the same when they had first arrived. Now, though, it didn't seem so bad...
"What do you think happened here?"
He was buying time. Composing himself. Barthandelus' balls…if he gets emotional on me… "Dunno," she shrugged, striding forward until she was directly opposite of Sazh. She kneeled and took a seat. "Maybe it has something to do with Ragnarok." She paused. "Fang." Another glance was cast around the area surrounding them and Lightning's eyes grew dark. "Maybe it has to do with the fal'Cie and all the Cie'th. I don't really know."
Sazh's face soured. "Cie'th. Fal'Cie. L'Cie. Ragnarok. Barthandelus. Purges. The Sanctum." He buried his hands in his hair, upsetting the chocobo chick, who flew over to rest on the finger Lightning held out as a perch. "It's just too much. Why us? Of all the people on the whole damn planet…why us?"
Lightning tutted impatiently. As terrible as she was with carrying on conversations, or with people in general, she still had to admit that she was pretty damn exceptional at finding the soul intent behind any conversation, the undercurrents. "This isn't about us, Sazh. Never was. We chose this path; the fighting and violence, to save the ones we love. Isn't that what you said yesterday, to some degree?" Her eyes met Sazh's again, passing a deeper meaning between their gazes. "You don't want to know 'why us'. You want to know 'why Dajh'. Why you lost him."
"He's just a kid. He was used, like a…a…"
"Tool," Lightning finished, the image of Jihl coming to mind.
"Just a boy," Sazh mumbled, his eyes glistening. Lightning saw the familiar image of a broken soul in Sazh's eyes then, and she turned to look upon the chocobo instead, scratching the underside of its chin with sudden interest.
She wanted to scream; to slap Sazh; to demand the return of the old, annoying pervert that she had grown accustomed to. This Sazh hurt too much. This Sazh struck too close to home. He reminded her of all the times she saw those same hollow, empty eyes whenever she looked into her own reflection.
She knew why Sazh came to her; why he had sought her out specifically. They two knew a pain that exceeded the pain of mere loss or hurt. They knew what it was like to feel helpless – to lose the one you cared most about and not even know if you'd truly ever find them again. Both of their worlds had been turned upside down.
They understood each other.
Lightning didn't know how to do it, but she had to find a way to help Sazh - to help herself. "We'll find them," she offered solemnly, but was surprised when Sazh angrily shook his head.
"Don't give me that shit, Lightning. We don't know a damn thing about crystals and l'Cie's, and all the other shit this concerns. We don't know a damn thing. For you to say they'll come back, sounding so sure of yourself – you're clinging to false hope. Not the truth. Not the cold, hard facts. That's not you." His mouth tightened. "I thought you was all about them hard facts?"
Lightning opened her mouth to protest, to say that it couldn't be false hope if it they didn't know exactly how it worked, but an angry hand held in the air silenced her. "Don't even say it. False hope ain't better than no hope at all. In the end, it just hurts a hell of a lot worse."
It took several moments for her to quell her anger. After all, she wasn't used to people telling her off. Normally she would have responded with harsh words or, more likely, a harsher hand; but, as she sat there and contemplated the matter, she realized that a raised hand wasn't the answer. Not here, anyway.
Was she going soft?
"What do you want me to say, Sazh?" She asked quietly. Sazh looked towards her, not entirely meeting her eyes before standing and turning , bracing himself against the low fence. He breathed deeply, and she saw his back rise and fall several more times before he spoke.
"I want to know what you really think. Don't give me that peppy bullshit that everyone's using to keep themselves going. I want to know your thoughts."
"Because. You know what it's like." His head turned and he rested his chin against his shoulder. "They don't."
"Snow does, too," Lightning said stiffly. A cold laugh met her ears.
"No. He doesn't. He didn't love Serah, especially not like you did. She was your family, your only family. Your world." He sighed and murmured Dajh's name to himself, wiping hopelessly at his eyes. "I'm tired of pretending it's okay, Lightning. Tired of all the jokes and false hope. I feel…so old now. I never felt this old." He shook his head, wiped again at his eyes. "I just want to know what you really think, Lightning. Nothin' more, nothin' less."
She bit her tongue. What could she say? She honestly didn't know the answer herself as to what she thought would really happen to Dajh and Serah. All she knew was that this man was obviously distressed, so maybe she could comfort him with—
No. No lies. We've come too far, been through too much, to lie to each other.
The hilt of her gunblade was being absently examined by the thumb of her free hand, and the familiar contours of the metal somehow soothed her scrambled mind and allowed Lightning to compose herself. If she wasn't going to speak any lies, then the truth was, obviously, the only option. "I don't know, Sazh," she whispered, her eyes flickering down to the fluffy chocobo on her finger, who was now grooming its wing. "I don't know if Serah will ever come back. I don't even know if she should come back." Sazh seemed taken aback enough to turn and face her. "Think about it: we're Pulse l'Cie, branded by the enemy. Who would want to return to a world that hates and despises them? Where their family betrays them?" She shook her head angrily, though whether she was angry with herself or their circumstances was another matter entirely. "I don't know how well Coocoon's going to receive us, once this is over. Somehow I don't think we'll be heroes. Is it selfish of us to want to bring Serah and Dajh back into the world that tried to Purge us? To bring them back just so we can be with them again?" Her hand gripped the railing of the fence. "I don't know, Sazh. I just…I don't."
Shadows claimed Sazh's face as he stood, impassive. "So why fight?"
"I'm not about to give up." She took a step forward, placed a fist against Sazh's shoulder and pushed him gently. "You're not going to, either. There's more to this than just Serah and Dajh now." She glanced over her shoulder, towards Cocoon. Sazh turned, his gaze following the path Lightning's laid before. "We've got a whole world depending on us now."
Both were silent as they considered Cocoon, and all the possible scenarios their return could bring, for many minutes. They were standing close, she noted, and at any other point she would have been annoyed and stepped away. Now, though, she was happy for the company of a man that understood her on a level that none of the others could even begin to fathom.
She also felt a twinge of guilt as she recalled all the times she hated Sazh and wished him dead, all the times where he had masked his fear for Dajh with a misplaced joke. He had done so much for them as a whole – from upgrading weaponry to sewing patches on their clothes to flying planes. Snow, even, had been able to conquer his fears and seek out Lightning's affection because of Sazh…and yet, she had treated the older man harshly in their time together.
"Sorry about last night," Lightning mumbled, avoiding his gaze as it fell on her.
"My ass will heal," he shrugged, but then his eyes crinkled as a smile replaced the earlier frown. "You know, you ain't half bad."
She rolled her eyes and started to walk away, the chocobo chick flying from her finger, but Sazh called her name once and she stopped. Turning back, she found him walking towards her, his open palm held out parallel to his shoulder with his elbow bent. Lightning recognized the gesture from her earlier days in the GC.
Without thinking, her hand clapped inside his palm and they pressed their elbows against each other, one soldier recognizing another.
"When this is done, don't forget about this family, Lightning."
The corner of her mouth rolled into a smirk. "Fang and Hope would never let me," she chuckled.
"And you and Snow better invite me over…or offer free babysitting for when I go on a hot date."
"I don't do drool and shitty diapers."
Sazh raised his eyebrows, truly baffled. "Then why the hell are you with Snow?"
Their trek through Oerba was, as Snow had promised the night before, long and arduous.
The six of them had stood at the top of the ramp that morning and peered down towards the monsters at the beach side, all complaining heavily about how many hours that it was going to take them to clear through the mass of monsters below. Snow joined the chorus for a portion of the complaints, then shook his head and said they might as well get started. He cracked his knuckles and rolled his head from side to side before jogging down to the beach, where the first beast lay waiting. With a grunt he leaped easily from the lumbering monster's grasp and rammed a fist into the Vampire's skull.
Lightning jumped down from where she stood and pulled out her gunblade, firing off a round for good measure. Hope hurled a fireball at the Vampire before running down to join Lightning's side. The other three agreed to start on the fiend further ahead, as all were well versed with how to handle the beings in the area surrounding them.
But that didn't make it any easier.
After the first few hours, the six of them were splattered in blood that wasn't entirely the fiends'. Snow was sporting a few bite marks on his collarbone; Hope had a nasty gash on his arm that, thanks to his spells, had already scabbed over; Vanille had donned a nasty purple bruise on her forehead for quite some time before Hope finally mentioned it to her; one pair of Sazh's pants had been shredded beyond repair; and Lightning had more than her fair share of shallow lacerations along her legs that she refused to have healed.
"A reminder of what not to do next time," she had growled when Hope approached her with glowing hands. After taking that hint, and a few others, Hope had skulked away.
Now they were about halfway through the town, next to yet another rusty old building that no soul lived in. They were all pretty exhausted and wanting a short reprieve before moving on. Even Vanille was dragging her feet towards the door of the building, her head hanging.
Lightning put her shoulder against the door and pushed against it, but the years of rust refused to allow it to move inward. She bit her lip in frustration, dug her heels in, and attempted again but received the same result. Hope suggested trying the next building, but Lightning would have none of it: the damn door was going to open for her, no matter how long it took. She stepped back and prepared to ram herself into it when Snow sidestepped into her path, grabbed the handle, and shoved his shoulder into the door with all his weight behind it. Needless to say, it opened without a hitch.
Lightning stepped in behind Snow, throwing her eyes all around the cold metal room, searching for some sign of another fight. All that met her eyes, though, were maps of areas long since forgotten, a globe of Pulse and a smaller one of Cocoon, posters, a chocobo figurine, and a list of, presumably, the fal'Cie of Pulse.
"Huh. I guess Fang wasn't lying about going to school…" Snow flashed a roguish grin at Lightning as he slowly wandered around the room.
"O, ye of little faith." Fang elbowed her way past Vanille and Hope towards Lightning and stood with her hands on her hips, viewing the room with a distant smile on her face. "Makes me feel old, standing here again…"
"Well, you are older than shi—"
"Shut it, Farron," Fang growled.
Lightning smiled at the annoyance blossoming over Fang's features, quite pleased that she had finally found the proverbial button to press. She committed this to memory as she stepped to the side, the other two already piling into the doorway behind her. Vanille squealed once inside and ran to the seat in the front left, throwing herself into the chair and humming happily.
Hope stepped forward tentatively, looking around slowly, closely examining the charts and diagrams plastered on the walls of the schoolhouse. He picked up the chocobo model and turned it upside down, blushing as he quickly righted it again. Curious, Snow joined him, taking the model from Hope into his own hands and repeating the process. Instead of blushing, Snow blinked a few times, smirked, and held up the undercarriage of a very male chocobo for Lightning to see.
"They, uh, really take an in-depth look at Chocobos," Snow said, his hair doing little to hide the mischievous glint in his eye.
Lightning, too, went over and grabbed the chocobo, eyeing it with a bemused expression. "Don't feel too jealous," she said, patting Snow roughly on the cheek.
In a flash he grabbed Lgihtning's wrist and, with that same devilish grin, he leaned in and whispered, "Don't judge me yet…"
Cheeks hot with embarrassment, Lightning yanked her hand away and stalked to the far corner of the room, whipping around to glare at Snow, who was trying desperately to stifle a laugh.
How can he joke about that? We just kissed! The bastard!
Her glower didn't relent until Snow held his hands up in defeat and turned back to talk to Hope, who was examining some giant chart on the wall. She saw Snow's face fall into a frown while he observed the large poster. Lightning debated on seeing the chart for herself, but decided against doing so. Enough depressing things haunted her this day without adding to the mix.
Speaking of which…
Not a peep had been heard yet from Sazh, and after a moment of searching, she understood why.
He was nowhere to be seen.
Another evaluation of the room affirmed her suspicions that he was indeed absent from the mix – Hope and Snow still hovered by the chart, Fang was toying with the chocobo with a cheeky grin plastered on her face, and Vanille had reclined back in her chair, yawning widely. The latter caught Lightning's worried eyes and mouthed 'what's wrong?'
Lightning gestured around her head, forming an invisible afro – the universal sign for their technician. Vanille searched for him as well and, upon finding nothing, she shot up from her chair, eyes wide. Once again, Lightning gestured in the air, patting it, motioning for Vanille to relax, which, of course, she didn't do. This isn't a situation for everyone to get all riled up over, she thought irritably. Instead of speaking aloud and causing everyone else to be alerted, she briskly walked to Vanille's side and whispered that she'd handle it.
"Sazh's been acting weird all day…"
"I know," Lightning said shortly. Sazh is missing. This isn't the time for a conversation. 'Wait here. I'll be back."
Lightning shook her head sharply, silencing Vanille. Without another word Lightning turned and slid around the outside edges of the room, her quiet footsteps barely making any noise. She tried the door on the far end and, upon finding that it was still creak-free, she easily slipped out of the classroom.
Once outside she barely had to look for Sazh—he was about ten yards in front of her, perched on a small piece of rubble and scratching the chocobo's chin as he had earlier in the morning.
"Why aren't you inside?" Lightning was angry, she had to admit. Who just slips away in a fiend-infested, abandoned town without telling anyone? Only stupid morons, that's who.
"I prefer fresh air," Sazh flashed a grin towards Lightning. "It was too cramped in there. Guys get a little ripe smellin' in close quarters."
Hip cocked to the side and her arms folded across her chest, Lightning frowned and said, "Don't pull that with me."
The chocobo continued to receive Sazh's affection, even as he looked up curiously at Lightning. "Nothin' gets past you, huh?"
"No small talk," she interrupted, her hand slashing through the air to cut him off. "Why aren't you inside?"
"I already told you why," he said slowly, keeping his anger in check. Chocolate eyes flashed dangerously towards her before snapping back to the bird in his hands.
Sighing heavily, Lightning leaned back against the far wall to Sazh's side, noting the pink tousle of hair that popped out from behind the classroom door. "You're a pathetic liar."
"I'd think that was a good thing," he grumbled: his eyes, too, were locked on the young Oerban now bobbing towards them. "What's she doing out here?"
"She's worried, I'd imagine."
As if in response to Lightning's guess, Vanille's slow steps broke into a quick trot that ended when she wrapped her arms tightly around Sazh's shoulders in a bear of a hug.
"Don't be afraid," she cooed quietly, her embrace tightening. Pink curls were lost in a sea of ebony, and Vanille's eyes were brimmed with tears.
"What?" Sazh was wriggling his hands out from where Vanille had them pinned so that he could release his pet. Vanille separated from Sazh but still held his shoulders at an arm's length, her gaze turning on him affectionately.
"You're afraid, aren't you?" Her head cocked to the side, curls bouncing. "Of your memories?"
Silence followed before Sazh, unblinkingly, began to speak. "How did—"
That small, knowing smile appeared again on Vanille's lips: the same one that had appeared so often before when all others seemed to be lost in their confusion. It was as if she was aware of something; as if she knew something that no others had yet comprehended. "I can tell," she said simply, her eyes bright, and Lightning held back a shudder—Vanille always had been overly perceptive with things, be it the situation of the group or the conflicting struggles within a person's mind. "But you shouldn't be afraid. You're memories are good memories. They remind you of why you're fighting." She paused and bit her lip, her stance fidgety. "Come inside with us, just to take a look before we leave. Okay?"
"I can't, Vanille," Sazh sighed, his voice hollow. "It…hurts. Dajh, he…he may not come back. I just—" he broke off, closing his eyes tightly while the chocobo chick fluttered near Sazh's cheek, obviously concerned.
What happened to our Sazh?
Lightning's eyes spotted Snow's lumbering form approaching them, looking from Lightning to Sazh, concern etched into his features. His silent entrance allowed him to remain unnoticed by the others.
"It hurts us, too, Sazh," Vanille reprimanded softly. "The memories of what Oerba was like. The memories of our family. We…we lost ours, too, you know? There's no chance we can get them back. We don't have that hope, not like you do for Dajh." She became quiet, her eyes downcast. "We don't even know what happened to our home…"
Her sad smile turned into a genuine grin, a transformation that only she was able to pull off, and the brightness returned to her voice. "And while the memories might make us hurt, we'd rather remember than forget. We don't want to hide from our pain and lose what we have left of our family." Tiny hands firmly clasped over much larger ones. "You shouldn't let your pain make you forget, or miss out."
Snow arrived at Lightning's side and nodded once, solemnly, at her before addressing Sazh, who jumped when Snow spoke. "Yeah," Snow said, "and didn't Dajh wish for you to be happy?" Sazh turned and blinked at Snow, his expression unreadable. Silent understanding passed between the two for a moment before Snow continued. "It's time you kept your promise, don't you think?"
Vanille only grinned more widely up at Snow as she withdrew her arms from Sazh's shoulders and held out a small palm for Sazh to take. "What's it going to be?"
Sazh was quiet as he studied his hands, folding them and pulling nervously at his fingers. "You're right," he admitted quietly. "You're right. It's time to stop feelin' sorry for myself." He stood, brushed his hands off on his pants without making eye contact. "Thanks", he mumbled, taking Vanille's hand and patting it once, twice before letting it go. She just laughed and bounded away happily towards the classroom door, where Hope and Fang now waited expectantly.
Turning to Lightning and Snow, Sazh rubbed the back of his neck, shrugged, and offered a man-hug to Snow, who grunted and embraced Sazh, knocking the breath from the older man. He staggered slightly when Snow released him and patted Sazh on the back before walking away.
"They're a piece of work," Lightning said, scrambling to find something to say. It had been an awkward few minutes, but she had somehow stuck it out.
"I could say the same for you." Upon receiving a quizzical stare, Sazh continued with, "I mean, when I first met you on the Purge train, I thought you was some crazy woman with a knack for violence." He paused thoughtfully. "Can't say my opinion's changed much, but now, at least, I know you ain't so hard assed as you pretend to be."
With an exaggerated sigh and roll of her eyes, Lightning replied, "Don't tell Fang." She turned, making ready to return to the schoolhouse. She motioned for Sazh to follow and, after a moment's delay, he did.
"But I tell Fang everything. She rewards me well."
"Don't. Just don't. If you do, I'll—"
"Don't ruin the nice, fuzzy image I have of you right now!" Sazh said. "Let me revel in your kindness for a minute before you start sendin' death threats this way." A wicked grin spread. "While we're bein' friendly, how was your alone time with—"
Lightning growled, grabbed Sazh's shoulder, and thrust him towards the door of the schoolhouse.
"I ain't allowed to finish that question, am I?"
She hid her smirk as she jostled Sazh forward once more without another word.
Upon reaching the door, where the rest of the gang now gathered and offered their silent support, Sazh hesitated again, but this time the hesitation was brief. He nodded once to Vanille, to Fang, and then to Lightning and muttered something about him having to go in.
Hope, with a soft, concerned expression, said, "We don't need to go back in. We can keep going, if you want. It was just cool to look around."
Sazh shook his head. "This is probably the only time I'll get to see Oerba. I gotta take in all the sights!" With a smile he pushed in past Hope into the schoolhouse and, as he entered, the four remaining offered him congratulatory cheers while Lightning silently trailed Sazh. She watched him close his eyes after entering and he inhaled deeply, slowly. She was considering asking him if he was okay but, after realizing how stupid the question was, she instead clapped Sazh's shoulder.
Snow sidled over to where Lightning stood and raised an eyebrow at the fact that Lightning was even willing to touch Sazh. "Something I should be concerned about?" he motioned towards Lightning's hand, still on Sazh's shoulder, with a playful smile on his face. Lightning gave him a scathing glare while Sazh perked up to his normal self.
"Hell yes you should be!" he boomed, drawing a chuckle from Vanille, who had entered moments earlier. "Women can't resist my…" he ran his hands down his body sensually while he adopted a sleazy drawl, "…finer charms." A wink of an eye and he continued. "I had to pry her off me out there. She practically threw herself on me. Took all I had to say 'no', but, it was hard…I mean, she was like an animal!"
"I can imagine," Snow said earnestly. "I'm surprised you escaped with your innocence intact."
"I am, too. And a little disappointed." Sazh looked crestfallen.
The two men broke into a giggle-fit when Lightning's glare increased in intensity. "You sound like little girls," she added snidely.
Sazh grunted in disagreement. "We're too manly to be little girls. I mean, testosterone drips off us in mass amounts."
"That's disgusting, Sazh."
Snow donned a lopsided grin when Sazh, while carefully picking up the chocobo figurine in the corner to examine it, said, "Would you rather hear about what else drips—"
"Sazh! Shut up!" Lightning's face contorted in repulsion as she marched away while Sazh and Snow, along with the eavesdropping Fang, burst into laughter behind her.
Is this what I'm going to put up with? Snow's never quite like that alone. It's probably worse when Gadot's around… At that she groaned inwardly. What if Snow, Sazh, and Gadot were together in one room? Then I'd be wanted for murder.
She soon found that her feet had carried her to the chart that Snow and Hope had examined earlier and, to her surprise, Hope had returned to continue his inspection. Her elbow brushed against his arm and, once alerted to her presence, he shifted sideways to offer her some room. Hope sighed quietly and rolled his eyes when Sazh and Fang began laughing obnoxiously together. "Don't they ever shut up?"
"If only we were that lucky," Lightning muttered, tousling Hope's hair before focusing her attention on the chart before her. After reading the title her face fell into a frown: it was a chart about the War of Transgression against Cocoon, and the events that took place during the war.
The chart itself was large; maybe twelve feet by five, with tiny, cramped writing describing the different occurrences throughout the war—from the initial attack that Pulse led against Cocoon to the appearance of Ragnarok. The timeline presented was filled with many tragedies, including the destruction of several villages on Pulse. A side note mentioned the approximate number of casualties from each attack.
The numbers were staggering. So many had died. Hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands…
"It's terrible, isn't it?" Hope said quietly. Lightning, however, ignored Hope; ignored the jokes passed between Sazh, Fang, and Snow in the background and their laughter. Instead she leaned forward, consumed by the information before her, and as she began to realize the magnitude of Pulse's loss, her frown became more severe.
Of course, Pulse wasn't entirely innocent in the war: the timeline listed a handful of initiatives led by Pulse on Cocoon and, as was common knowledge, the war had begun because Pulse attacked first. That said, the attacks by Pulse never seemed to be especially successful and, obviously, the results had been far less dire to the citizens of the world above. Why, though, was there such a difference between the casualties on Cocoon and the ones on Pulse? The Pulsian folk seemed tough, if they were anything like Fang and Vanille, and they certainly didn't lack the ability to fight back.
Was it because of the difference in the fal'Cie on the two worlds? The fal'Cie of Cocoon spoiled its citizens and protected them from any harm. The people of Cocoon were the fal'Cie's pets. Here, though, on Gran Pulse, whenever the fal'Cie weren't attacking the citizens of the planet, they were ignoring them. They were more focused on cultivating the land and, as a result, the people were left to fend for themselves. Had that been a key factor in the proceedings of the war?
She read on, memorizing the names of the villages that had been destroyed and the numbers that had died next to each name. Initially she had thought that, perhaps, the citizens of Pulse had transformed into Cie'th, but now she wondered…
Her nose was only inches from the poster now; her eyes slowly and deliberately scanned every word, vowing to never forget the horrors that Gran Pulse had to endure throughout. Whatever happened to wartime conduct? To the rules concerning the safety and rights of civilians? Why didn't they apply here? Had all of Pulse's citizens been seen as monsters? As people who deserved to die? Is that why those who came in contact with the Pulse vestige in Bodhum were forced to be Purged—because of that undying fear of anything relating to Pulse?
The image of Vanille consoling Sazh came to mind, as did the memory of Fang advising Lightning about Snow while gazing upon the old photograph of a life long gone. How could anyone see them as monsters? How many more like Fang and Vanille died because of Cocoon's inability to understand? Because of Cocoon's brutality?
The anger—that uncontrollable anger that she hadn't felt since she attacked Snow soon after being branded—returned and roiled her blood. How could the people of Cocoon be so damn stupid? Why couldn't they understand what they were doing to the planet beneath them? She may be a soldier, and she may be skilled when it came to killing humans and monsters alike but, dammit, the war and the losses were pointless! Even she could see that!
She clenched her fists and readied to make the poster, that horrible reminder of the truth, pay for the knowledge it had bestowed upon her. Her hand, however, hovered near her ear, uncertain. What point would there be in hitting the poster? All she'd manage to do is hurt her hand…
Hope reached up and took Lightning's fist in his palm, gently pulling it downwards. "Attacking an inanimate object won't do anything, Light," he said, his fingers lingering a few moments around her hand before he withdrew.
"I know," she said gruffly, her cheeks hot. I feel like an idiot. She was very aware of the eyes of the others on her, and of the awkward silence that had fallen around the room.
Fang shuffled around near the exit. "The war was tough on both sides. Maybe a bit more for us but, hell, we started it, yeah? Maybe we got what we deserved." She offered a shrug, one that was too casual and indifferent to be genuine, before stepping outside and holding the door open. "At least we're able to travel together and not kill each other. That seems like an improvement."
Vanille skipped next to Fang. "And plus, we're relying on each other now! There's trust between us!" She chuckled. "Maybe we're learning."
Lightning said nothing, her anger still bubbling. Try as they might to alleviate her fury, it did little to quell the flames in her veins. The stupidity of the people, of the leaders from both worlds—Pulse and Cocoon—was unbelievable. They were driven by fear and misunderstanding and unwillingness to communicate. They were fools, all.
I was no different. I feared Pulse, too, until Serah was taken on the Vestige.
She shook her head, telling herself it was an entirely different matter, and joined Snow and Hope as they stepped outside, back into the salty Oerban air. Snow was casting her sidelong glances, obviously worried, but she tried to ignore it. She had nothing to say, after all. Maybe he, too, sensed that there was little he could verbally do for her, as, instead of words, he reached over and squeezed her hand tightly, briefly, before placing that same hand on her shoulder and guiding her forwards, towards the bridge.
"No more stops for today, I think. We've been playing tourist long enough," he said, using his free hand to shield his eyes from the sun. "Let's just head straight for the bridge and see what's beyond that." He dropped his hand from his brow and glanced over his shoulder at the others gathered behind him and Lightning. "Sound good?"
A cacophony of groans and assent met Lightning's ears and, without further ado, they continued forward, past the doors of the buildings on either side of them, and ever towards the bridge, towards their fate.
The battles were no less grueling, but they had become routine by this point. Hope, Fang, and Lightning had become an especially effective team when they worked together and it showed when the battles became shorter, though still intense. Snow, Sazh, and Vanille formed a second team due to the limited space they had to fight and would travel ahead to the next set of fiends to take them on. It was an effective method, although the lessened manpower was more tiring.
The sun was still high in the sky when they reached the beginning of the bridge. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief and sat on the cracked concrete for a short breather.
"Wonder what's beyond here?" Snow said, perhaps more to himself than anything. Lightning took a seat at his side, offered him her water flask, and shrugged.
"It used to be another village. Well, I mean, there was a big plain, and then there was a village," Fang said, her eyes distant as she remembered. "Vanille and I snuck over there a couple times. Nearly got eaten by fiends a couple times, too."
"With you leading the pack, it's a wonder the two of you even survived," Lightning sniped.
"I've saved your ass more times than I can count!" Fang shot back, clearly annoyed.
"Please. You're too old to be saving anybody's ass, let alone mine."
"If there's any ass I'd like to save, it'd definitely be yours, Lightning."
Lightning's head swiveled around to glower at Snow, who hid his smile behind the water flask as he took a drink. Once finished, he nudged her in the side and cackled devilishly, and Lightning heard Hope groan.
Fang, however, hadn't forgotten the debate. "I'm old? Hah! I was frozen in a crystal. I never aged a day. Hell, I look younger than you do!"
"I just look older due to the stress of having to save your ass every day," Lightning said evenly, nearly grinning in satisfaction when Fang spluttered in annoyance, at a loss for what to say next. Finally, after trying to form several incoherent sentences, she began cursing again, threw her hands in the air, grabbed her pack, glared at Lightning, and stalked away.
"One point for Farron," Lightning said, quietly enough so that only Snow could hear. He choked on his water.
Hope shouldered his pack again after their brief respite. "Best go find the harpy," he sighed, trudging forward. Sazh followed suit, commenting on the fact that Hope had just told his first joke. Vanille only shook her head and jogged to catch up.
Snow stretched his hands over his head and stood, offering a hand to Lightning, which she declined. She stood on her own and handed Snow his gloves that he had removed and readied herself to continue on. Before she could take a step, Snow leaned forward and pressed his lips against her forehead, smiling warmly at her when he stepped back.
"Just a few more hours 'til we stop for the night," he said happily. "Then we can be 'us'."
Lightning, unsure of what to say, nodded, smiled, and turned to leave. Snow grabbed her hand and went with her, their fingers intertwined.
She had to admit, the feeling of holding somebody's hand—a hand that didn't belong to a child—was nothing short of awkward for her. Her arm was at a strange angle and her palm was sweaty from using her gunblade throughout the day. Yet, that said, she had to admit that it felt…nice. Right, somehow. His large paws easily contained Lightning's, with some room to spare, and he was surprisingly gentle for a man his size.
That same damn fuzzy feeling began spreading through her, and she began to wonder when she became such a girl.
They broke apart once they caught up with the group, both taking the lead once again. Fang was still muttering darkly, cursing Lightning out, but said nothing particularly violent or hateful as they tread forward.
No need to apologize to her. She's just ticked off because I won.
Satisfied that she hadn't caused any lasting harm to the strange relationship she had with Fang, and still feeling the warmth that Snow's touch had imparted upon her, Lightning's steps quickened, pulling her ahead of the others.
And then she stopped, suddenly, and the rest of her group gathered around her. Then their jaws dropped, and Snow took several steps to the fore.
There, standing no less than twenty feet away, stood Serah.