The Silent Guardian

Snow leaned heavily against the guardrails of the Lindblum, his mind deep in thought. Something had been bothering him ever since he had regained consciousness at Hope's house. He wasn't quite sure how to put it into words to ask Lightning about it, but he knew it had something to do with her healing him. It was the only explanation.

He placed a hand against his rapidly-healing rib-cage. Oblivion hadn't completely overtaken him while Lightning had healed him: awareness claimed him from time to time. He recalled waking a couple times, never enough to open his eyes, but enough to know that something was going on.

The first time he woke, he felt two pairs of hands on him—one grabbing his shoulders, another tickling his back. Why the hell someone was tickling his back he'd never know, but there it was.

The second occasion, though, was bothering him currently. He remembered arms embracing him; thin, strong arms with a secure hold. Someone's hands were on his abdomen and a strange warmth was coming from them. A cure, no doubt, but it was unlike any cure he had received before: this one was lingering. He could still feel it, deep within him, within his very being. He could feel the traces of the magic running its course through his bloodstream, still healing the broken bones and repairing the damaged muscles. It was refusing to leave; it had ensnared itself within his body…and he found he rather enjoyed it.

The remnants within him were wisps of Lightning, an electrical shock that hummed through his veins and provided him with wondrous warmth and comfort in equal parts. Every last drop of her remaining stamina must have been put into that spell, and she must have concentrated more than normal when it was applied. As the magic took its course, it left traces of her everywhere. He enjoyed how he had a bit of Lightning with him at all times - right now it was as close as he could possibly be to Serah.

To be honest, the thought of Lightning thrilled him just as much as it terrified him. Lightning was an imperfect physical reflection of Serah: the subtle differences of appearance were virtually diluted compared to their striking similarities. What reminded Snow most of Serah, however, was the stark contrast between their personalities. The impressions they had imparted upon Snow were as different as day and night. Serah's aura had been lighthearted, tender, and had always danced around Snow while enveloping him with love. Lightning's, however, was a resonation of power that invaded Snow to his core, unrelenting until it struck chords of awe and wonder within him. What Serah had lacked in strength of body she made up with strength of heart. Lightning compensated for her hardened heart with a shielded mind and a quick draw. Sometimes it amazed him that the two were even related but, when he truly allowed himself to consider their differences, Lightning's steeled walls made his heart ache for Serah's easy-going conversations and natural ability to love all the more.

He reached into his pocket as he turned to head back inside, aiming for the one thing he would never see of Lightning and his only reminder he carried of Serah: a tear.

As he walked back into the Lindblum, he gave a startled intake of breath—when he tried to picture Serah's face, it was Lightning's that had floated to the forefront of his mind. He hadn't even noticed he was reminiscing upon the wrong image until several seconds had passed.

"Snow! There you are!" Hope jogged over to catch Snow. "Lightning told me to tell you that we're about to board the Palamecia, and that we're all needed up on the bridge."

This was no time to be thinking about it. "All right! Let's go kick some Sanctum ass!" He managed to give Hope a reassuring grin, diminishing all traces of confusion and frustration that had been present seconds before.

The two walked together towards the bridge. Snow, sticking to his word, forced all traces of Serah, Lightning, and his jumbled thoughts into a lonely corner of his mind.

Lightning was weaving effortlessly through PSICOM soldiers while simultaneously tossing bolts with great accuracy over her shoulder. Muscles in her legs shuddered violently as she leaped high in the air, twisting sharply to face the Huntress that Snow had launched skyward. Lightning let out a menacing snarl as she released her pent-up fury on the woman, her unforgiving blade colliding with the unfortunate soldier's body. As gravity finally kicked in and began accelerating Lightning back towards the floor, she gave one final upwards thrust to the undercarriage of the Huntress, ending her life abruptly.

"Nice work!" Fang said approvingly, her staff held resolutely within her hands to shield her from the punishing blows of an Orion. Her distraction cost her, though: the Orion's arm swept past her staff and crashed into her exposed side, easily tossing Fang several feet. She landed in a small heap, crumpled and bleeding, seemingly defeated even as she struggled to stand with the assistance of her staff.

"Hope!" Snow thundered, jerking a free hand towards Fang. At Snow's prompt, Hope cut off the ice storm he had been conjuring and focused instead on sending a cure Fang's way. The healing magic immediately took effect and began pulling the skin taut right before their eyes. Fang gave Hope a grin as she regained her footing, but it quickly turned into a roar as she chased down the Orion, seeking revenge.

"Nice job, Hope," Lightning said, backing away from the remaining few soldiers to stand between Snow and Hope. Snow cast her a sideways glance. She always had time to compliment Hope, to lift his spirits, no matter the situation.

Hope never took his eyes off the circling soldiers before him, but Snow could see his glowing smile. "Lightning, Snow! Let's go!"

All three charged forward at Hope's signal. Hope stopped first, immediately throwing out every elemental spell that he could in as fast a procession as possible. Lightning rounded around the first soldier and took on the second, but not before kicking the first one into Snow's outstretched fist. Snow met the poor soul's face with a monstrous force guiding his swing, following up with a second to the man's stomach. A few more jabs later, the man was either unconscious or dead at Snow's feet—he didn't bother checking. Both Hope and Lightning were finished with their fight and Fang rejoined them minutes later.

"Thanks for the help!" she jeered, marching past them towards corridors beyond. "Now, stop wasting time. We have to find Vanille!"

Lightning didn't wait another moment. She joined Fang's side and the two quickened their speed, leaving Hope and Snow in the dust. "Come on, kid," Snow groaned, shuffling his own feet forward. "We're not done yet."

Hope nodded and picked up Snow's pace, moving in relative silence. "One day," Hope vowed suddenly after watching Lightning dispatch a rogue soldier ahead, "I'm going to be able to fight like Light. I'm going to be able to protect all the people around me…and I'll be able to watch out for her, too."

Snow heard the earnest admiration in his voice and saw how the determination brightly burned within his eyes. Snow couldn't help but allow his own gaze to settle where Hope's fiery gaze still lingered—on the slowly disappearing posterior of Lightning. Even from this distance it was hard to miss the prowess that emanated from their silent guardian.

"Yeah," Snow heard himself say. "She is something, all right."

Snow found his feet moving faster along with Hope's; noticed that he drew up besides Lightning without really knowing why; and, to add to his amazement, he cast a sidelong glance at his fiancée's sister to silently appraise the beauty behind the hard, power-ridden exterior.

Her pale rose hair was streaming behind her as she ran, but a few stubborn strands clung desperately to the glistening sweat collecting along her jaw line. Stormy eyes swept over the area ahead of her, constantly scanning from right to left in search of anyone who dared impede their progress - and Snow silently pitied the ones who did. Her arms pumped with each step, and as they did so her muscles contracted and flexed until her arm was seemingly nothing other than lean muscle with skin pulled taut over top. It was the same story with the rest of her body: pearly skin was wrapped tightly over her frame, accentuating each curve of muscle…and things otherwise. He wondered how her skin would feel beneath the scrutiny of his touch—would her solidness prevail or the suppleness of her skin?

But of course Snow's inspection didn't stop there. Every once and again he dared make another attempt to assess Lightning, and after each attempt he noticed something new and different about her that he had somehow missed the first time. His second glance took in her profile, noting how deceiving her feminine features were. She was no delicate flower, but one look by a stranger would make them think otherwise.

His third glance focused on her lips: shapely, smooth, delicate, soft. They were tantalizingly moist, even after all the exertion and stress that they had undergone within the past hour. Snow's thoughts wandered to contemplating how her lips would taste—

Shit. I hope this is just loneliness talking.

Deep inside, beyond the dark recesses of his mind in places he dared not tread, he knew it wasn't loneliness speaking. It was far from it, perhaps the exact opposite. Right now, however, he had more pressing matters to deal with, like his current life-threatening situation, and decided that this issue would be considered later, when his heroic rescue mission was done and over with.

Coincidentally, at that precise moment, Vanille and Sazh blew their way through the wall of the airship. Snow always appreciated a good sense of timing, and that was a damn fine example of one.
Happy for the brief reprieve from his own traitorous thoughts, Snow only allowed one thought to permeate his mind from that point forward: survival.

So. Here they were, on the fal'Cie-forsaken Pulse. What a grand day it had turned out to be.

Not only did he have to fight his way through an entire airship and deal with traitors and traitorous thoughts alike, he also had been a mouse in a maze of monsters that he hoped he'd never have to see again; had a mini melodramatic meltdown in front of Lightning and the others; watched Fang go slightly ballistic (to the point where he actually thought he might die); got shot at in an airship and watched as Hope was almost splattered on the ground; jumped on a big-ass Eidolon to prevent said splattering; and, at the end of it all, they landed in the middle of some horrible grassland where giant two-headed birds, sadistic behemoths, and the ever-lovable munchkins all proved that they could, at any given time, molest and murder them.

Oh, did he forget to mention the giant dinosaurs that could probably kill them just by looking their way? Because Pulse had those, too. Yet, it has to be mentioned that those were definitely Snow's favorite. Sure, they could take a step a thousand feet away and cause a big enough earthquake to rend the earth in two to swallow them whole, but at least the dinosaurs were so horribly slow that they were able to be outrun before they could take that step. The same couldn't be said for the other little beasties of this world.

Needless to say, they were slightly on edge.

Snow threw himself against the log nearest Lightning, rubbing his sore biceps. "They even have killer flowers here!" he moaned, earning the tiniest smirk of amusement from her. "I leaned over to look at one and it almost ate my face." Snow sighed in disgust. "Fang, Vanille…I hate your planet."

Sazh gave a hearty laugh from his stump. "Welcome to Hell!" He boomed, throwing his arms wide.

"Watch what you say, funny man," Fang snapped, taking her own seat next to Vanille after giving Sazh a glare that dared him to continue. She then tossed them all some native fruits to eat. "Be careful with these: too much and you'll be behind the bushes for the rest of the night."

Lightning scrunched her face, repulsed, pulling the fruit that she had been dangerously close to taking a bite from away from her mouth. "Thanks for the warning," she grimaced, setting the fruit far to her side.

"So you aren't going to eat?" Snow asked incredulously. Lightning shook her head and said that she really didn't want to find out how much her body could handle of the fruit. Snow frowned at the response and dug through one of his many pockets, not relenting in his search until he found his prize: a small bag of chocolate snacks. He offered them to Lightning, who accepted them with a simple thank-you, but Snow couldn't help but notice how her eyes danced with delight when she popped the first mini-cake into her mouth.

"No fair!" Vanille whined, tossing the core of her fruit aside. "I didn't know you had chocolate!"

"I need the calories more than you do," Lightning said, taking a small bite out of the second cake.

Snow shook looked away and shook his head vigorously once he realized his arousal at the way she was nibbling the snack. Eating had never looked sexier, in his mind.

I really hope this is the loneliness talking.

By the time they all finished with their meager meal it was well past dusk. Five of them created a make-shift bed out of the scant materials they could find. Vanille and Hope were on the eastern edge of camp, Fang not far from Vanille's reach. Sazh and Snow were lying on the other side, both using smooth rocks as pillows. Snow currently was utilizing his huge coat as a blanket. Sazh made some joke about cuddling for warmth, but added after a short pause that he didn't want to feel emasculated next to Snow. Snow gaze a short chuckle and responded with a "suit yourself!" before turning towards the fire to fall asleep.

But sleep wasn't going to come easily tonight.

When Snow rolled over it was more than just the fire before him. Lightning was sitting near its perimeter, dropping her sword into the blaze and pulling it out every now and again to examine the searing, serrated edge of the blade. When it ceased glowing she would poke its surface, testing for something—Snow wasn't really sure what, or even if she actually was testing it for anything. All he knew is that the process went on for quite some time, and as she carried on her face fell further and further until it was overcast by an all-consuming shadow.

The process became somewhat maddening to Snow as the minutes dragged into an hour; it was always: drop blade into the fire, wait until it's scorching hot, remove, let cool, poke, repeat…all the while her face darkened dangerously. Her eyebrows were furrowed so deeply that they threatened to join together in mortal combat, her frown was severe, her eyes narrowed to slits.

She was fighting some fiend worse than the killer flowers, two-headed birds, and earth-shattering dinosaurs: at least those fiends could be fought with weapons and dispatched with sheer physical power. This enemy was far different. It would never die, never need to catch its breath. Whatever lurked in her mind would not rest when she needed to, and it had no need to bandage its wounds. It would always be waiting for her, and the monstrosity would catch her at her best or worst times. It tore Snow apart knowing that this was no enemy he could aid her against. Lightning was going to battle it alone, and she would never allow another to step in to fight in her stead. He couldn't be the hero here.

Snow, unable to watch Lightning's internal struggle any longer, was about to get up and offer Lightning his coat as a blanket, and maybe someone to talk to just to ease her mind when the most curious thing of all happened. Hope, who had wiggled far away from Vanille during the course of the night until he was distant from the rest of the group, began to cry out softly in his sleep. From his position Snow couldn't hear a word, but at the sound of Hope's distress Lightning jerked her blade shut and hurried to kneel by the young boy's side. Her voice, strong and low, managed to carry through the still night air.

"It's all right, kid," she said softly, and Snow could tell she was brushing hair from his face in a motherly fashion. "I'm here. Be strong."

At this Snow marveled. Behaving in a maternal fashion was probably the last thing he ever expected to see from Lightning, aside from an emotional breakdown but, as sure as this planet was a living hell, she was sitting just a few yards off, comforting the young boy throughout his nightmares. The shadows were still present on her face but had lightened considerably. No, her countenance now resembled a mother fretting over the well-being of a son instead a woman struggling for control over her soul.

The image made Snow's heart ache in a way he couldn't understand. He wanted nothing more than to reach out to Lightning, maybe go embrace her and say the same things she now spoke to Hope: that everything was going to be okay. He did not, however, want to say them to act as her father-figure or even just to be a friend. Snow wanted Lightning to know that he was there, and because of that fact everything would be fine. He wanted to say that she could finally let go and allow him take her burdens and ease them away from her heart. She didn't have to carry them alone.

Thoughts of the big, happy family Snow always craved floated into his head just then, but instead of banishing them he played with the idea of what Lightning would be like as a mother. Before tonight, he would have said she'd probably sooner become a Cie'th than be a mom but this changed his perspective. Now he had little doubt she'd protect her family with a ferocity that would be unmatched…but she would be far more than just a protective entity that had done nothing more than offer an egg in her spawn's creation and kick anyone's ass who messed with said spawn. She had the capacity to be gentle, caring, and loving: things Snow never knew Lightning was capable of.
Now, because of Hope, she had stepped into a maternal role and was doing an excellent job: the way Hope had grown into a man during their short time together was proof enough of Lightning's ability to nurture and tend to a wounded boy and ease his pain.

Snow's hand came to rest on his abdomen.

Thoughts drifted further still into wondering what Lightning would be like as a wife. She's quick and agile, he thought silkily, amusing himself greatly with that thought alone. She's got a temper, too. She'd probably be abusive. At that he shuddered slightly. She already was abusive. His jaw was proof of that.

No. She's not the same Lightning that she was. She's a lot different now: she's changed, just like Hope has. Hope's gone from a boy to a man. Lightning's gone from a hardened soldier to a woman.

Almost, he added dryly, remembering their battles on board the Palamecia earlier that day.

He propped up his head to give himself a better view of Lightning. By this time she had removed her cape and draped it over Hope, tucking in the edges to ensure maximum heat retention. It was a chilly night, after all. Once she finished she stood, looking out to the vast wilderness that extended out before her and heaved a great sigh that seemed to stem from the bowels of the earth itself.

And so she remained, ever still and silent, keeping watch over Hope and the others without complaint despite the quickly-dropping temperature and her lack of a proper meal. She was their own silent guardian, the glue that held them all together. She deserved some sort of thanks, but what could Snow do to show his appreciation?

When Lightning finally turned around to resume her seated position on the log near the fire, she noted something new draped lazily over the half-rotten wood: Snow's over-sized trench coat. She gave a confused and slightly suspicious glance in the direction of Snow, who was slumbering peacefully on his outstretched arm.

Lightning hesitated, but then noticed the raised bumps on her arms as the wind began to pick up. Without a second thought she quickly threw the coat over her shoulders and hugged it tightly against her body, thankful for the wonderful warmth and comfort it provided.

In the shadows a slightly shivering Snow, who was using the lingering remnants of the spell Lightning had cast on him to warm his body, couldn't help but smile. Now we're even.

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