A horrible tugging sensation at his navel dragged Snow back into the realm of the conscious. When he had first leaped through the portal, it felt as if his body was being ripped apart, piece by piece, and, hardly able to stand it, he allowed himself to succumb to sweet oblivion. Now he almost wished he had not, as it would certainly have helped to explain how he had managed to get hundreds of feet into the crisp, cool Pulse air; how he was now floating among the clouds and treading where naught but birds had traversed before. It was a curious feeling, but it still put him ill at ease.
By strengthening his core muscles and jerking them violently to the right he was able to twist in midair, to look behind him and slightly down. He gasped when he saw the faint dull gray outline of the bridge in Oerba—or, at least, it looked like the Oerban bridge—and soon after this revelation he began to panic. The others were not visible, no matter where he looked, and he was entirely unsure where this portal would take him. He hoped it would be Cocoon, but what if it was another Ark? Some beast would probably attempt to lay waste to him as soon as he arrived, and, being alone, he wouldn't have a chance against it.
Why did I have to jump in alone? Why couldn't I have waited for everyone else?
Of course, the answer was simple: he wanted to impress Lightning. Or was it more along the lines that he couldn't bear to see her response to his attempted apology? He definitely didn't want to wait around to see her rejection of it, and so, without thinking, he had leaped in to greet his probable death head-on.
Smart, Villiers. Don't think, just act. Way to go.
Another harsh jerk at his middle sent a shockwave of pain through his back as his direction suddenly changed. He was now traveling quickly to his left, far from Oerba. His altitude was climbing at a rate faster than he was comfortable with, and he was pretty sure that he never wanted to use a Pulse-to-Cocoon portal ever again. As his speed increased, he decided that, most certainly, he would never use one for the entirety of his life, so long as he could help it.
In an attempt to distract his mind from the pain pulsating at his middle, Snow examined his hands and was slightly surprised to see that they were hazy. He blinked several times, curled and uncurled his fist, but no matter what he did he was unable to see clearly. Closing his eyes, he inhaled slowly and released his breath. Just as slowly he began to open his eyes, peering down at his hands through the tiny slits between his eyelids, but instead of spying his hazy extremities he saw, with sudden clarity, that he was upside down and sprinting towards the surface of Cocoon.
Panic, overwhelming and uncontrollable, seized him as he foresaw his impending death by being splattered all over the streets of Cocoon. Nobody would even be able to recognize my body! The speed was so great, his angle of descent so terrifyingly drastic, that he most certainly wouldn't survive the fall without a few broken bones, a concussion, and a sudden inability to live.
Not knowing what else to do, Snow closed his eyes and began to throw out prayers to anyone and anything that would listen. He didn't try the fal'Cie, though, as he was pretty certain that they would be tickled by Snow's current predicament, and so he thought screw them and instead prayed to the supposed Goddess, and maybe a random mattress or net, that mercy would be found within them and they could, you know, save Snow's life and everything. Prayers became more fervent and unrelenting as he peeked through his eyes again and saw, with great horror, that the ground was rising to meet him, fast. To help matters, his body became as heavy as a rock, almost ensuring certain body-splatter as the cause of his death. His lips moved at a speed that even Sound would be jealous of, and he prayed for a good length of time. All together, it was probably more than he prayed in his entire life, although, to be fair, he wasn't so sure his prayers to the mattress should count.
A good length of time had passed by.
Snow rocked back and forth on his feet, contemplating this fact. He had been hurtling towards the ground, and when he had last looked, he had almost – wait, he was rocking on his feet?
Eyes flying open, Snow looked down, bewildered, and saw his feet standing on solid concrete. He gaped openly for some time, not entirely sure what to make of this strange sight, and, after a moment where his mind decided that it couldn't handle this new information and it stopped functioning, Snow was able to find his words again.
"I'm…alive?" He blinked at the ground, apprehensive of making such an assumption so quickly. After a few moments he decided that he wasn't entirely sure if he was alive or if this was some sort of afterlife that he hadn't heard of yet. Now curious to discover his state of being, Snow looked up and around, blinking at the bright sun high above him. Eyes falling down to a concrete building not far from him, he spied the words "-dential Building" in giant letters that were placed on a curved steel bar on the top of the building. Further examination would prove that almost all the buildings were made of the same concrete, and the whole world he stood in looked rather bleak and gray.
I'm dead. I have to be. This is some sort of concrete hell.
Snow never thought he'd miss Gran Pulse, but he'd take that hellhole over this any day of the week.
He spun around and noticed a faint purple outline near the building he had awoken next to. Curiosity possessed him as he stepped nearer, his nose almost pressed against the dim glow, and he peered into its foggy depths. He was almost positive that he spied trees—Pulse trees—and maybe an ocean, along with…a bridge? But what was that in the foreground…? It was a dark chocolate, with some green, and –
Snow cried out in alarm as a heavy body plowed into him, sending both he and the new-found, similarly dead life-form toppling to the ground. Battling against this potential enemy, Snow managed to sit right-side up.
"Sazh? Shit, man, you died, too?"
"Sure as hell feels like it," Sazh mumbled. It was noted that his face was a ghastly shade of green. "Man, I'm gonna be sick…"
Snow quickly scrambled off the old man and helped him to his feet. "How can you be sick? We're dead."
Calculating brown orbs lifted to observe Snow for a good stretch of time. "Maybe your atoms weren't arranged back properly," he said quietly, now seeming a bit unsure of Snow. "We aren't dead," Sazh announced after another brief moment. "Judging by the sign on that building, we're in the Old Quarter of Eden. That's the residential house over there." A finger was pointed towards the building that now, from Snow's new angle, read "Eden Residential Building". "This is just some concrete jungle, not a concrete hell."
Snow rubbed his neck, a bit embarrassed. "Can't really tell the difference," he mumbled, but his words were left forgotten as he yelled in alarm. Sazh's face turned a more unnatural shade of green.
"I'm gonna go around that corner and show the road what I ate for lunch, I think," Sazh said and, with quaking legs, he delivered on his promise.
Gagging at the noises erupting only a few feet away, Snow quickly removed himself from the general vicinity of Sazh and edged to the other side of the portal, his eyes sweeping over the city that he had heard of but never before seen.
Eden was the capitol of Cocoon, both in a political and somewhat religious sense. This is where all the major decisions concerning Cocoon were made, and also where the Primarch reigned - though the two practically went hand-in-hand, Snow reminded himself. The stories claimed that this city was more advanced than any other on Cocoon, and also far more beautiful than most could imagine, but Snow definitely wasn't convinced of that. How could the stories be true, judging by what he was now seeing?
Very suddenly he ached for Lightning to join him. She would have the answers, and if not then her uncaring shrug would comfort Snow in a way that was entirely nonsensical. There was, of course, more that he wished for from her, but right now he'd be happy with anything that wasn't a cold sneer. Something that could resemble friendliness, maybe. Gods, just seeing her would put him at ease.
Snow heard obscene curses emanating from behind him, all said in a distinctly foreign accent. Hardly able to contain his grin, he turned to see Fang tangled in her sari, which ensnared her leg, and her staff was tied to the outside edge of her thigh. A minute's struggle freed her from her prison, but Snow wouldn't allow it to go without comment.
"Nice, Fang. Very –"
"Say another word and I swear I'll rip off the reason you think you're a man," Fang scowled, wiping the sweat from her brow. "I don't know what the hell just happened to me, but I never want to do that again. Next time, I'm flying."
"With our magnificent airship?," Snow said, his grin broadening.
"I," she said slowly, seemingly implementing every known method to man of keeping her temper in check, "have a flying eidolon." She grunted in annoyance. "Airships," she mumbled in disbelief. "Dumbass."
Snow let her blow off some steam with her mumbling and cursing for awhile, but soon he lost interest. He was about to ask where the others were when Sazh decided that he really didn't care enough for his lunch to hold onto any portion of it, and so he continued to share with the pavement. Fang, upon hearing Sazh, abruptly paused in her speech of why she hated portals and grinned darkly. "I take it our pilot didn't care too much for the ride, yeah?"
Snow shrugged, his mind too preoccupied with other things to partake in her jest. "Heights get to him."
"I'm gonna—oh, hey Hope," Fang said nonchalantly as Hope stumbled through the portal, his face even paler than normal. "You know, you don't look so good."
"Just…just go away, Fang. Please," Hope added, heavily sitting down on a nearby step. He put his head in his hands; feathery hair veiled his fingers. "Light said it shouldn't be that bad…"
"Goes to show she's –" Fang paused mid-sentence when Sazh began retching. "Poor guy. I'm gonna go see how he is." She spun on her now-freed heel and turned around the corner. There was a noise that sounded like liquid being displaced, and then Fang began practicing her uncouth vernacular a second time. "The hell? Is this…? Oh, oh shit, it is, isn't it? It's all over my sandal!"
Snow chuckled at Fang's distress, while Hope just seemed to grow paler. Snow attempted to see if the young boy needed anything, but just as he did Vanille tumbled through the portal, looking as bright and cheerful as ever, despite the fact that she landed squarely on her rump. "Hey guys!" she smiled, brushing herself off as she stood. "That wasn't as bad as I was expecting. It was pretty neat to see Oerba from so far away!"
Hope blinked at Vanille, his lips searching for words that eluded him. "No, it wasn't. It was horrible."
Vanille frowned, not satisfied by Hope's lack of enthusiasm, but her expression softened when she laid eyes on him. "You know, you don't look so good."
"I didn't notice," Hope mumbled, burying his head further. Vanille clucked disapprovingly to herself before joining Hope's side, her hand moving in comforting, rhythmic circles on his back while she allowed some of her magic to seep into him.
Sazh and Fang were still around the corner, but Fang's shouting and cursing had subsided. It was rather silent on their end, to be honest, but Snow thought little of it. Vanille and Hope sat there wordlessly, Hope lost in concentration as he tried to refrain from copying Sazh's actions while Vanille did what she did best: comforted.
Snow, standing off to the side, alone, began to wonder where Lightning was. It didn't feel right without her, and, he had to admit, he was a little worried. What if she was trying to do some fool's errand on her own in Oerba? What if she was so sick of Snow that she didn't want to face him again? What if she didn't make it through the portal in one piece? How could they go on without her?
Snow, who had begun to pace, retraced his steps back to the portal opening and peered inside, recalling how he had somewhat envisioned Sazh before he had arrived. Could he do the same for Lightning? Waiting was not something Snow was good at: he wanted to know when, and if, she would show up.
He pressed his face against the portal and was surprised to discover that it refused to give. He had believed it'd be a two-way deal, but apparently that was not so. He continued to search for his dearly beloved but saw nothing other than the faint reddish hues of the setting Pulse sun.
"Where are we?" Hope finally spoke, his voice cracking midway. Snow didn't take his eyes from the portal.
"Eden. Sazh said it's the Old Quarters or something like that. I dunno, never been here."
Hope was quiet, but the sound of skin brushing over cloth could still be heard. "It's not what I thought Eden would look like," Hope sighed. A glance in his direction confirmed that he had once again buried his head in his arms. "Are you sure it's Eden?"
"You two are getting along pretty well today!" Vanille said cheerfully. "Did you let bygones be bygones?"
"I don't even know what that means," Hope mumbled, and out of the corner of his eye Snow saw Hope's head fall between his knees, which were pressed tightly against his chest. "I think I'm gonna hurl, though."
Snow felt something very solid hit his chest, and his eyes widened when he saw the waves of pink beneath his nose. He heard the squeak of leather being ground together as Lightning's fists tightened a few feet below Snow's head. "Move, Snow," she seethed without so much as a 'hello'. Snow, knowing he was already pushing it, didn't point that out and instead stepped aside rather abashedly, although he did cherish the moment where they touched, no matter how volatile it was.
Lightning glanced around, probably assessing everyone and everything. Her brow furrowed, her frown deepened, and she spun quickly back to stare accusingly at Snow. "Where's Sazh and Fang?"
"Around the corner. Sazh got sick, Fang's helping."
"I bet," Lightning muttered, kneeling by Hope's side. Vanille's lips were downturned at this point, but she quickly reclaimed her typical smile. Lightning lightly grabbed Hope's hair and tugged his face up so she could examine it. He gave her a weak smile, proclaimed that he felt fine, and tried to resume this façade. Lightning, however, asked Vanille if she had any more of a certain Pulse fruit, which she did, and Lightning took it from Vanille's outstretched hand. "I figured out that the leaves help with stomach problems," she told Hope, offering him a dull green leaf. "Tastes horrible, but it'll help."
Hope gingerly accepted Lightning's offering, but peered at it cautiously. "Maybe Sazh should have it. He's already gotten sick—"
"Which means he's got nothing left to lose," Lightning said lightly, gently pushing the leaf towards Hope's mouth. "Eat it."
Hope did as he was commanded, which he didn't seem too happy about. His lips puckered and his eyes watered almost immediately after the greenery was placed into his mouth, and he had considerable difficulty swallowing, but once he did and a few minutes passed the color began to return to his face. Lightning saw this and nodded with satisfaction, standing once again.
She took more time observing their surroundings, and Snow was enraptured by her facial expression. Her eyes were wide, almost thoughtful as she examined each building, her lips moving soundlessly as she thought to herself. Every now and again the corners of her lips would fall, her eyebrows would knit together in puzzlement, and her eyes would scan the area very quickly until she found the answer she sought, which would then ease her back into her thinking. After awhile she announced with a sigh, "Something's not right. This is Eden, the Old Quarters or, more commonly, the Residential Quarters, but…" she shook her head. "It's not how I remember it."
"What do you mean?" Snow asked, earning him a puzzled frown. He'd take that over the angry Lightning any day.
"I mean that it's not right. When I was here for my initial GC training, I was stationed in that building –" she pointed to the building that both Sazh and Snow had noticed. "—so I got to know this part of town pretty well. It was never quiet. There were always people everywhere. GC initiates always occupy the building, too. It looks like it's the afternoon, which means that they should be off of training. That's when we'd get our free time, so we should at least be seeing some of the newbies walking around. Instead, there's…nothing. Nobody."
"Looks like a concrete and not-as-friendly version of Pulse," Fang huffed as she emerged from around her corner, Sazh holding on to her shoulders as she helped him towards the others. She noticed Snow looking at her sandaled feet with some disgust, which caused her to raise her left foot and waggle it in the air. "Reason number two for not wearing sandals."
Hope, always unable to contain his curiosity, asked the one question that everybody else didn't want to: "What's the first reason?"
"Dinosaur shit," Fang said promptly, in all seriousness. Sazh rolled his eyes, but Vanille quickly jumped to her friend's defense.
"It's true!" she squealed. "Why do you think I wear boots?"
"Can we please get back on topic?" Lightning said, exasperated. Snow nodded in agreement, but stopped when a question flew to his mind.
"What was with that portal?" he asked, earning groans from most of the group.
"If you hadn't jumped in head-first, you'd know the answer," Lightning growled, not too keen about the distraction.
Sazh, who was now sitting on the ground near Hope, took a deep breath. "Easy, girl. Don't rush in with your claws out." Lightning whirled around to glare at him, but Sazh was too sick to really give a damn. "I'll make it easy to understand, Snow. Basically the machine uses electromagnetic energy to rip our atoms apart, one by one, and we go flying through a—well, simply put, it's kinda like a magnetically charged road that we can't see. Right before we land, there's a machine that orders our atoms back together, and viola! We're humans again. It's almost the same way the computer terminals work when we ordered supplies on Pulse from Cocoon, except with people."
"But…I saw myself. How could I see myself if…?"
"You didn't actually see yourself. Your mind just wasn't able to comprehend what the hell was going on, so it creates the perception of you traveling and seeing yourself. I blacked out for the first part," Sazh sighed. "When your atoms are torn apart, then you aren't really a person, you know? But they still function how they should, and once your body is recreated all the signals of 'what the hell just happened' get sent through your brain, so your brain creates a hazy image of what may have happened through the…the memories that your atoms have of the travel. All this happens in the split second it takes for us to solidify before exiting the portal."
"You almost sounded smart there for a second, old man," Fang cooed, squatting by Sazh's side. Sazh gave her a weary grin, then allowed his head to fall against her shoulder.
"I don't know if I like the sounds of that," Snow mumbled.
Lightning's hands flew to her hips. "I don't like the sounds of us waiting around here while something's obviously wrong, so if you don't mind, let's get down to business. We need to figure out what's going on and where everybody-"
"Wait!" Vanille cried, shooting up with surprising speed. Her finger pointed up to the top of a nearby building, which was one of the tallest around. "Somebody's up there!"
All eyes snapped to where Vanille was pointing and, sure enough, all pairs of eyes confirmed what she had seen. A lone figure stood there, almost stoically, facing away from them. A small circle hovered above it, dancing about the person's head with little rhyme or reason. From his position, Snow thought the person to be on the short side, but then again Snow was pretty far away. But still, the idea that there was somebody else out there, somebody that wasn't just one of the six, sent a thrill of joy through Snow. For a long time he had almost forgotten about the existence of others. Yeah, sure, he talked about saving them, but he had never really thought about what he was saying. It just sounded good at the time.
Now, though, he was faced with indisputable proof that there were others out there, and one was right in front of him. He desperately wanted to speak to them, to once again converse with a personality that wasn't as snarky as Fang's, as annoyingly bubbly as Vanille's, as unpredictable as Lightning's, or as hormonal as Hope's. Of course, the person could always prove to be worse, but that was a possibility that never crossed Snow's mind.
Eyes snapped back to Lightning when she began to charge towards the building while the others still gaped at the long figure standing high above. "What are you doing?" Snow asked, running to catch up.
She cast him a quick glance. "Finding out where everyone is," she stated simply, already eying up the building. "I'm going alone."
"Like hell you are," Snow growled, his long gait easily catching hers. The others were shouting behind them, but none seemed to feel like tagging along. Instead they just watched, defeated, as Snow and Lightning burst into the building and began their ascent up a murderous flight of stairs.
"Why didn't we just jump up the building?" Snow groaned, his calves beginning to burn after the thirteenth landing.
Lightning grumbled ahead of him. "What would you do if you saw some half-crazed person leap over the side of the building, demanding to know where everyone went?"
Snow pondered the question for a minute. "Which one of us is half-crazed? 'cause if it were you, then I'd run away, as fast as I could. Without a doubt."
"You're digging your hole deeper, Villiers," she snarled, snapping around a corner so quickly that her cape slapped Snow across the face.
"You did that on purpose!"
"Get over it."
"What the hell did I do to you? What more can I do to prove—"
"This isn't the time for that, Snow! Get a grip and realize that there's more going on here than just you and me!" She had paused at the twentieth landing, her hands tightly gripping the railing as she peered down at Snow. "You continually fail to notice that we're the only ones who have any idea as to what's going to happen to Cocoon. In fact, you all act like it's no big thing. Don't you get it? The fate of Cocoon—of the people of Cocoon—it's all depending on us. But you keep running around like some dumb puppy—"
She lost her words then and frustration overtook her stoic demeanor. Throwing her hands in the air she resumed her two-steps-at-a-time pace and leaped up the next flight in a flash.
Snow was right behind her.
"When will you get that life can't just be about one target? A lot of things go on at once, and you've got to deal with them as they come! You can't be like Vanille and run away from everything all the time!" He grit his teeth through the pain that now seared through his thighs. "We're a team. If something is bothering one of us, then it affects everyone. It affects our performance. We need to fix this, Light!"
"You're right, Snow." She glanced over her shoulder at him, sweat gracing her temples. "We need to fix this now. Would you like the make-up sex here, on the landing?" He heard her sigh irritably. "This can't, and won't, be fixed anytime soon. You don't even get why I'm upset: you think it's all about you hugging that pathetic excuse of Serah that Dysley created. You don't see it!"
His fist pounded against the "27th Floor" sign as he roared in anger. "That's because there isn't anything to see! Nothing! Why are you being so damn stubborn about this?"
"Because everything's hinging on it, Snow," she said quietly, suddenly turning to face him as her hand rested against a door. "Now shut up. We're at the roof access."
She shoved a hand over his mouth while simultaneously opening the door with her spare hand. The sunlight pouring through blinded Snow momentarily, and he raised his hands to shield them from the sudden onslaught of light. When his vision was once again restored, he realized that Lightning had already stepped onto the roof, but she was frozen in her steps.
Snow quickly stepped forward, beside Lightning, and saw the sight that he knew had thrown Lightning's mind into disarray.
Standing no more than ten feet away from the pair of them sat a young girl holding a red balloon. It wasn't so much the cuteness of the children's song that she sang, or the way her bright yellow sundress set off her light skin tone that had caused Lightning to pause; rather, it was the girl's cherry-blonde hair that was tied into a ponytail over her shoulder, the way her mouth was upturned into a soft smile and the tiny frame of the child that so closely resembled the very person that forced Snow and Lightning apart. She looked hauntingly like Serah, so much so that Snow feared this to be another ploy of Barthandelus'.
The girl stopped mid-song when she saw Snow approach. Wary eyes settled on he and Lightning, and Snow nearly shivered again at the striking similarities of the child to Serah. Lightning, regaining her composure, squatted down near the ground, a friendly smile on her face. "Hi there," she said kindly, and Snow was taken aback at the stark contrast between this tone and the one she had used on him moments prior.
Still cautious, the girl edged away from them, to the opposite side of the roof. Dark blue irises focused on Snow, who must have appeared as a giant, and even Snow could see that she was scared. "I…Momma said not to talk to strangers," the girl stuttered quietly. Snow rubbed his neck and backed away, but Lightning remained where she was.
"You're a very smart girl," she said. Cocking her head to the side, she added, "We won't hurt you; we just want to ask a tiny question. My name is Lightning, and this is my friend Snow."
Though nodding slowly, the girl still gripped her balloon tightly, fiddling nervously with the strings. "I'm Teresa," she said shyly, still edging towards the door. "My momma is probably looking for me, though, so…I should go home."
Lightning nodded as well. "Okay, we'll let you go home. But can we ask you our question now?"
Once the door handle to the stairs was firmly in her grasp, Teresa seemed a bit more confident. "Okay," she said slowly, cracking the door open. "But just one!"
"Where is everyone? It's so quiet. We want to find them," Lightning said enthusiastically.
The woman Lightning had become during this moment was so drastically different than any of the other sides of Lightning that Snow had previously seen that he could do nothing but stare at her, dumbfounded. No matter what, Lightning was almost always the cold-hearted soldier or the silent maternal figure while managing to be the leader and, though Snow was loathe to admit it, she was also essentially the hero of the group, the one the others looked to for strength. Now, though, she had adopted childlike qualities as she spoke to this Serah look-alike: her mouth was slightly opened and upturned, her eyes were soft and gentle, and her voice lilted in a sing-song way as she spoke with the young girl. Of course, Snow admired all these things, but more than that he wondered why she suppressed this side of her when it seemed to come so naturally.
Why won't she open up?
Snow was forced back to the situation at hand when the girl pointed out to the west, standing on her tip-toes as she did so. "They're at the party with the Primarch! Momma was gonna take me, but she's not feeling well, so we stayed home and…" The girl frowned and tugged her balloon closer to her. "She's gonna wonder where I am. I have to go home. It was nice talking to you, Miss Lightning and Mister Snow!"
"You too," Lightning smiled as they both watched the girl disappear behind the heavy metal door that was the exit. The gentle patter of little feet echoed throughout the stairwell and they listened to it for a few moments before they settled into silence.
Snow watched Lightning's countenance darken, and once again he saw the demons battling within her, waging a war that he hadn't been witness to since they first landed on Gran Pulse. As he had then, he wished desperately that he could help her, to ease her burdens, but this time not as a friend—he wanted to prove to her that she could count on him, and that he cared for her more deeply than he was ready to admit to.
"Light…?" He said tenderly, stepping nearer to her side. An unsteady hand reached towards her, but she pulled away at the last moment and marched resolutely towards the edge of the building, surveying the west, where the girl had pointed. Snow stood silently behind her, watching her, his heart feeling as if it would burst out of his chest and die at her feet.
"Look," she said, nodding in the direction she had been staring. She was oblivious to the internal struggles of Snow, and he supposed she didn't want to know, anyway. Burying his rising emotions, he joined her once more and peered out over the edge.
"Looks like a hell of a party," Snow said quietly, hardly able to stand the sight of Lightning in his peripheral vision. She was so close, but she wouldn't let him any closer…
"There are thousands of people there…" she continued, her eyes narrowing. "Raines has to be there, too. The Calvary must not have arrived yet, or else it'd be pandemonium."
"What should we do?" She was always the one with the plan, always the one to focus on the target. Why couldn't she focus on him?
She peered over the edge of the building, down to the concrete ground below. "Meet up with Sazh and the others, tell them what's going on. We go from there."
Snow, not even sure what it was that he had seen, nodded, took the small AMP device from Lightning, and hurled himself over the edge of the building, closely behind Lightning. Right before landing he hit the button on top of the mechanism and felt a strange charge of electricity course through him when his fall was cradled by some sort of static electricity. His body floated for a moment before pressing the button to release his static bubble, and once he did he handed the device back to Lightning, his hand lingering over hers when he did so. She snapped her hand back and jogged towards the group, leaving Snow alone with his thoughts while he walked slowly behind.
Is this it? Is this the end? After everything, she's just going to act this way towards me? I've apologized already! I told her what happened, what was going on, and she's just…acting like…I don't even know what she's acting like! What's going on?
What do I do if she leaves me?
She can't leave me.
I need her here. She's…
She's my Focus. She keeps me going. Without her…I'd lose whatever hope I have for the future.
"Hello? You with us, big guy?"
Snow shook his head vigorously and found Fang hovering inches away from his face, her index finger poking his forehead. "You gonna listen to Sunshine, or do we have to fill you in again later?"
"Oh, uh…" Snow's fingers automatically found his headband. "I'm listening, sorry."
Fang gave him a once-over before spinning on her heel and backing up parallel with Snow. "You're both acting weird. All this tension is stressing me out," she whispered. "Kiss and make up, dammit."
"Trying. Not working."
"All right everyone," Lightning began, kneeling to the ground. She pulled a paper from her back, looked at it briefly, and turned it over. From what Snow could see, it looked like a—
"Where'd you get a map of Pulse?" Fang asked sharply.
"The dwelling we stayed in on the first night in Oerba," Lightning responded casually, grabbing a pen from somewhere within the depths of her pack. She quickly sketched out several rectangles of various shapes and sizes, and after a few minutes she sat back and admired her work.
"Art definitely wasn't your strong point," Sazh smirked, supporting himself on his knees. Lightning scowled at him before drawing a large 'X' on the map.
"This is where we are," she said, her mouth tight. "This," she drew another 'X' some distance away from the first, "is where we need to be."
"What's there?" Hope asked, settling in between Lightning and Vanille to observe the former's handiwork. His eyes leveled with Lightning's while she answered.
"That's where everyone is. According to what we heard, there's some sort of party or something going on there. The Primarch is there, along with thousands of people. We have to get there, fast, before something happens."
Vanille scooted closer to the map, chewing nervously on her lip. "What do you think will happen?"
With a deep frown, Lightning admitted that she didn't know. "What's obvious is that Dysley is planning something. Raines is the new Primarch. That means that the Calvary is out for blood. If the Calvary figure out that it's…Orphan or whatever that's pulling the strings, then they're going to go after Orphan, which is exactly what Barthandelus wants. We have to stop them."
"Doesn't Bartandelus want everyone dead?" Fang said slowly. "Y'know, as some sort of sacrifice? If that's the case, then wouldn't this be a prime time to start that whole slaughtering process? There's a huge crowd of people, all in one spot. If Barthandelus doesn't kill them, then they're going to get caught in the crossfire of the Calvary and Raines."
Lightning nodded, mostly to herself. "That's what I'm afraid of. We've got to get everyone out of there, but first we should consider getting to Raines. If we make ourselves visible before finding him, then we risk him escaping."
"Wait, wait, wait," Sazh interrupted, leaning over the map. "We've got a long distance to cover before getting to Raines. What if the Calvary arrives before we get there? It's gonna take awhile, after all."
"If the Calvary gets to Raines first, then they'll kill him. Whether he chooses to die or Rygdea simply does it himself is anyone's guess. Anyway, if that's the case, then we work on getting the people out of the area. Something bad'll happen, and they don't need to be there for it."
"How are we gonna get them out?" Hope asked, his eyes once more raising to Lightning.
"Simple," Snow said, stealing Hope's attention away. "We're l'Cie. That'll scare the shit out of everyone."
Everyone nodded in agreement at that.
"Now, how are we getting there? If you're map is scaled right, then I sure as hell don't want to walk that far."
Lightning stood, a small smile on her lips. "Like Snow said: we're l'Cie. We travel in style." At that a bright pink light erupted from her chest, and Lightning's hand clasped between her breasts. She bowed her head and in a quiet, almost otherworldly voice she uttered Odin's name.
Snow had never before seen Lightning's eidolon: since landing on Pulse, Lightning had relied solely on her swordplay and her magical abilities to win her victories, never her summons. Snow secretly wondered if she feared the eidolon would turn on her, and so for that reason she refused to rely on its strength, but he would never be sure. Either way, when he witnessed Odin appear within the depths of crystals that shot from the ground and saw the towering form of the intimidating killer, and when he felt the shock wave of energy released by the being, he was intimidated.
Lightning leaped high into the air almost instinctively before the creature released its energy, and once the wave passed the timing was so that she twisted and rocketed head-first towards the ground. Odin caught her and flipped her back into the air, where Lightning rolled and righted herself before landing elegantly before the summon. With a single word from Lightning, Odin transformed beautifully into a magnificent steed that Lightning clambered onto.
Everyone stared in awe at the two for a moment while Lightning adjusted the sheath for her gunblade. Fang quickly shook herself out of it and mumbled something about show-offs. Snow just shook his head and felt jealous of the dumb horse.
"We'll probably only need three eidolons. No point getting carried away with the summons. Snow, yours is a motorcycle, right? That means two can probably ride it. Fang, you can fit the other two on Bahamut without a problem. Figure out who goes with who, and then we'll prepare to leave."
"I'm with Snow," Sazh said immediately, crawling towards Snow's feet.
Fang seemed offended. "What? Why not with me?"
Sazh blinked up at Fang. "Your eidolon is a dragon. It flies. In the open air." He grinned devilishly. "Plus, I sure as hell would rather ride a motorcycle made out of two women than fly on an obviously male dragon."
"Men," Fang mumbled, gathering the two younger ones with her arms. They stood off to a distance, signaling to Lightning that they were ready.
"All right. Don't engage the enemy unless I give the signal—a fireball to the sky. We need to see what's going on before we rush in like madmen. Got it?"
"You got it, boss," Fang saluted.
"I'll follow you, Light," Snow said.
"I'll follow Snow," Sazh added.
Lightning rolled her eyes while Odin shuffled its hooves impatiently, his shining eyes looking down upon the two men. "Ready to go?"
Snow and Fang asked for a moment as they summoned their eidolons. Hope and Snow were already too familiar with Bahamut, so they paid little attention as the dragon was called forth from the depths of another dimension. All eyes – specifically the male ones – were on Snow as he summoned Shiva. He recalled that only Fang had been present to see the summon, so the others were in for an interesting show.
He felt a distantly familiar coolness within his veins, almost as if his blood were beginning to freeze over within their walls. It wasn't all throughout his body, though; it was concentrated in his forearm, the one that bore his brand. The cold shot down until it was directly beneath the surface of his skin, on the palm of his hand. Using a great burst of energy, the cold exited his body and coalesced into a small ice crystal that he threw into the air and caught with his other hand, crushing it after catching it. He felt a grin spread across his face as a coveted thrum of power coursed through him, and, knowing it needed to be released, Snow called Shiva's name. The shards flew from his hand and hovered a few feet away, liquefying while a strange symbol appeared in its depths. Sazh gasped openly when the outlines of two women appeared, spinning slowly around the outer rim of the aquatic sphere. The two sisters shot from the ball and quickly took shape, flanking Snow.
Sazh was already beside himself, and Lightning looked displeased. His grin growing, Snow made a fist in the air and said, "Show 'em how it's done!"
Heeding his words, the ice eidolons quickly joined hands and began to fuse together to form a motorcycle. By this point, Sazh's eyes were wide in wonder and Lightning seemed pissed off beyond belief.
"Disgusting," she spat and, reacting to her tone, Odin reared back and snorted in Snow's general direction.
"They picked him, Sunshine," Fang smirked, helping Hope mount her dragon. "Don't blame Snow for it."
"Who the hell would have imagined that? Why are the two sisters—oh, for crying out loud, forget I asked," she mumbled, her fingers knotting into Odin's mane.
At this point Sazh, who was already on the motorcycle behind Snow, leaned forward and whispered into Snow's ear, "She's jealous."
"What'd you say?" Lightning hissed, urging Odin forward until his foreleg was pressed uncomfortably against Sazh's knee. Her eyes would have burned holes into Barthandelus' head, were he present.
"I…I said…I said 'go us!'"
"Really, Sazh? That's the best you could do?" Snow mumbled under his breath.
"Shut your damn mouth, Trench!"
"But, really, that was horrible—"
"Be quiet, both of you!" Lightning's head snapped back to the direction of where they needed to be heading. Her eyes were narrowed in concentration, and a few moments later she said urgently, "I hear Raines' voice." Snow strained his ears, but it didn't take long for him to pick out the distinctly monotonous tone of Raines. "We need to leave, now!" And, without another word, she was galloping off towards the setting sun. The Shiva Cycle, after a moment of shocked apathy, was now zooming behind her, a thin sheen of ice trailing behind it. Fang disappeared into the sky with the youngest members of the group.
Snow watched the blur of Odin's legs pound over the pavement and watched in wonder as the eidolon easily cracked the ground beneath its feet with its powerful gait. It wasn't a beautiful horse, now that Snow really looked at it: if anything, it was almost ghastly. Its body seemed part mechanical, part skeletal, part man and horse, creating an odd combination of elements that was almost too much to behold. It emanated power and energy, though, and judging by the looks of it, Odin would have no issue destroying any who dared threaten its l'Cie master.
In a way he was glad Odin had chosen Lightning. If she wouldn't allow Snow to protect her, then at least this beast could do the job.
But, then again, she never really relied on Odin, either, did she?
With a sigh Snow leaned into the handlebars of his motorcycle and shifted gears on the bike. Sazh was humming happily behind him, his fingers tapping the bike in what Snow knew to be an inappropriate spot, which brought a slight smile back to Snow's lips. At least somebody was enjoying themselves…
Lightning suddenly charged up the sides of the building, the hooves of Odin glowing with electrical energy that allowed him to pull off such a gravity-defying stunt. Not wanting to be outdone, Snow yanked the handlebars back, earning a cry of alarm from Sazh as the bike quickly lifted into the air and supported itself on roads made from ice.
A heavy thump above him signified that Lightning had landed, and a similar noise a few moments later announced Snow's arrival as well. Lightning was sitting high in Odin's saddle, gazing out to the city beyond. Sazh and Snow pulled up near her to observe the sight she was now taking in.
Snow gasped. They were literally a hundred feet above and away from a huge racetrack, and Raines' face was plastered all over large television screens.
"That was fast," Sazh said, scratching his chin.
"Our eidolons are fast," Lightning shrugged, still taking in the sights.
"Why the hell didn't we use them to travel on Pulse?"
"Walking seemed like a better option at the time."
"Shittiest reason ever."
"Why's there a race going on?" Lightning asked quietly, her eyes barely even blinking, even when Fang swooped down on Bahamut behind them. Hope was holding on to Vanille's waist with a deathly strong grip, his eyes tightly shut. "What is Raines doing?"
Fang casually glanced out towards the race. "Nobody ever knows what you Cocoon people are doing, especially when it comes to your Primarchs. Let's just agree that you're all crazy and go from there, yeah?"
"He's planning something, Fang. That's the only reason for all this…"
"Well, if this is part of his grand scheme, then we should destroy it, don't you think?" Fang grinned, brushing stray strands of hair from her eyes. "No point letting these shenanigans carry on."
"What if that's what he wants us to do?" Vanille queried, gently trying to pry Hope's hands away from her abdomen. It was a battle that she soon lost.
Sazh sighed sadly and removed himself from the back of the motorcycle. "Nobody has any idea what's going on. We've been manipulated through this whole damn mess. We don't know what we're supposed to do, so let's do what we do best: let's go crash this party."
Snow looked over to Lightning, waiting for her response. None came, so he asked timidly, "Well? What do you think, Light?"
She turned to face him, her eyes bright and mischievous. Without a word she kicked Odin's sides and together they leaped from the building, soaring high and far from its rooftop and landed easily on the track, far behind the racers and cameras.
While the others scrambled to summon their own eidolons, and while Fang and Snow prepared to follow after, there was a strange drum of excitement that coursed through them. They knew that their adventure would soon be drawing to an end, that they could soon resume their normal lives, though of course with a few new friends. They knew that what immediately awaited them would be the challenge of a lifetime, and that they'd have to rely on each other more than ever before in order to make it through.
Most of all, though, they were pretty damn excited to be taking their eidolons onto a racecourse in order to scare the living hell out of everyone.
though, found that his mind wasn't entirely focused on the task at
hand, for he had been the only one to witness the grin that spread
across Lightning's lips as she looked at him and jumped from the