Mystery Meat

Snow was the first to wake between the five who were graced with the opportunity to rest. Muscles in his back protested loudly as Snow stretched his arms wide over his head, unwilling to forgive Snow for sleeping on the cold, hard, merciless ground. As he made one vain attempt after another to untie the knots in his back, he cast a glance around the camp absentmindedly, taking in how much warmer it already was compared to the night before.

Not that he could really complain about the temperature. Lightning's lingering cure had done wonders in warming him throughout his slumber.

During his assessment of the camp he had noticed his coat lying in nearly the same spot he had placed it many hours earlier. Lightning no longer occupied it. In fact, she was nowhere to be seen.

Snow shot up, alarmed, eyes quickly darting from one edge of the camp to the other. He was about to wake the entire party up to go on a mad hunt when Lightning jumped nimbly over some brush and emerged from a wooded area, looking thoroughly disgruntled.

His heart calmed at once. "Where were you?" he demanded, despite his subsiding concern. Lightning wasn't one to waltz off while on duty.

"Looking for breakfast," she replied slowly, using Snow's grumbling stomach as a cue. "You forgot your coat on the log last night," she added.

Snow was skeptical of her answer. "Where's breakfast, then?" He crossed his arms over his chest, looking downwards at the top of Lightning's head.

Not caring to grace him with an answer, Lightning circled around Snow to get to the satchel she usually carried on her. She dug through its contents and pulled out Serah's dagger and turned back towards the woods. "I'm getting it," she said, flashing the dagger in the misty sunlight.

She disappeared behind a thick set of trees and didn't return immediately. Snow, shaking his head in disbelief that she'd actually attempt hide that she made use of his trench, heaved the coat over his shoulders to warm his aching body. The jacket released a smooth, creamy aroma that slowly permeated Snow's senses: at least he knew that he hadn't hallucinated her using his jacket, not when her scent still clung to it.

He resumed the guard duty that Lightning had abandoned, taking a seat near the fire on the dew-drenched earth. It was early morning still and their surroundings were eerily stagnant, devoid of life and movement. If anything tried to attack the camp in its peaceful respite, Snow would be able to hear it coming from a distance.

The stillness around him quickly put Snow on edge. Having nothing to do and not a soul to speak to always made him uneasy. This prompted him to take advantage of the opportunity to speak to Serah. This was, after all, one of the rare moments he'd have alone with his fiancee. It took several attempts at various pockets to find his prize: Serah's tear. He held it skyward, centering the crystallized saltwater against one of the few remaining stars in the sky. "You out there, Serah?" He whispered, tilting the tear to the left and right as he did so. Of course there was no audible response, but he didn't need one. He knew Serah could hear him. That's all that really mattered.

"You should see this place, Serah! It's a living hell. I can't even begin to tell you how many times I've almost been killed since we arrived yesterday!" A stupid grin blossomed across his face. "It's not all bad, though. I never would have imagined a place like this could exist. It's so different from Cocoon…it's wild, untamed, and so real! It's beautiful, in its own way, I guess…" he chuckled throatily. "Listen to me, sounding like a sap…"

A few yards away Hope shifted in his sleep. Snow paused, waiting to see if the boy would wake, but the slack-jawed form his mouth had adopted and the snore that escaped from Hope told Snow he'd be out for awhile yet.

Snow frowned slightly and continued on inwardly. You know, Serah, he thought, lifting his gaze upwards again and squinting against the lightening sky, Sis acts really different around that kid, like a mom or something.

Flashes of Nora, Hope's true mother, raced through his mind. In retaliation Snow's eyes snapped shut, damming the tears that always threatened to well at the memory. It's my fault that Sis has to be his mother. She's so stressed already and now she's got to constantly worry about keeping Hope safe. A massive fist met the earth beneath Snow. That's supposed to be my job! Nora asked me to do protect Hope—but Lightning's doing it instead!
I can't keep you safe, I can't keep my promise to Nora, and Lightning's suffering because of it.
A familiar weight began to settle in his chest, forming a hard, heavy lump that pressed against his heart. How could he even begin to ask for forgiveness for what he'd done? For how he'd failed so many?
A spark erupted within him, connecting his previous thoughts and memories of the night before. Maybe…could that be why she was so upset last night? Was she worried about Hope?
He ran over the scene from the night before in his head, continually replaying it to see if maybe, just maybe, there had been some clue to Lightning's opponent that he had overlooked. Finally, Snow shook his head in defeat.

I just don't know anything anymore, Serah. We've come all this way and have no idea what to do next. I may not even be able to figure out what our Focus is. I just don't know how we can make it.

Eyes still closed, he brought the tear to his lips and then back down to his heart, wrapping his fingers into a meaningful embrace. Dammit, Serah! I can't do anything! Everything's gone right to Hell since you left. I wish…I wish you were still here. I need you, Serah. I…

Lightning stumbled through the underbrush then, shattering Snow's thoughts to pieces as he hurriedly jammed the precious memento of Serah back into its hiding place. Before daring to speak to Lightning, he quickly wiped his forearm across his eyes to destroy the evidence that he had ever been remotely upset.

"Breakfast?" He managed to sound intrigued as Lightning approached. His face fell as she came nearer to view, her hands bloodied and carrying a gray hunk of something that looked strangely unappetizing.

"Yeah," she nodded, throwing the slab of grayish meat onto the make-shift stove that had gone unnoticed until now. "I'm not touching the fruit here," she added after waking the fire from its slumber in the coals.

Snow grinned broadly at the comment. "Point taken. What is it, though?"

Lightning didn't respond right away. She worked the fire for a bit longer, readjusted where the oven sat over top, then looked at her hands. As she took in the blood and gore that remained, her eyebrows knit together in puzzlement. "I don't know."

Snow's eyes regarded the sizzling meat with a newfound distrust. For all he knew, that was dinosaur ass.

If it weren't for the fact that those things look damn impossible to kill, I wouldn't put serving us dinosaur ass past the things Lightning was willing to do. Still, though…it could be munchkin.

Snow hesitated momentarily. It probably was munchkin. He ripped his eyes away from the meat to ask Lightning just that but halted his question when he was met by Lightning's inquisitive gaze. Narrow eyes contrasted a rounded, open mouth: there was definitely something on her mind. Words were dancing on her tongue, tickling her lips and demanded to be spoken. Lightning's will would never succumb to such things, however, and Snow had been around her enough to know.

Still. It was worth a shot. "What?" He grinned lopsidedly.

Lightning's mouth snapped shut and was replaced with a resolute line. "You don't want to eat it, then don't."

"I just want to know what it is!" Snow shot back, his words chasing Lightning's form as she marched towards a tiny collection of water at the back of the camp. She scrubbed her hands for a good few minutes before returning to the fire to care for the sizzling meat.

"Mmm, something smells good!"

Hope had, apparently, woken up during Lightning's excessive hand washing session and was now mimicking Snow's stretching routine. He left his bed - which, Snow noticed, lacked Lightning's cape - and took a spot between Lightning and Snow, hugging closer to the former, and observed the meat that had been the topic of debate.

"Yes! No more Pulse fruit!" he cheered. "Did you catch it, Light?"

Lightning ruffled Hope's hair affectionately before casting Snow a why-can't-you-act-more-like-Hope expression. "Sure did," she nodded. As an afterthought, she told Hope he could have the first cut. Of course Hope readily accepted the offer.

Sazh had awoken by this point as well. He didn't bother with any hellos—he was everything but a morning person—and instead said he'd be hitting the showers. Hope jogged alongside Sazh to join him and Snow, after being on the receiving end of several irritated tuts, decided rather quickly that he, too, wanted to freshen up.

The three men stood in the center of a wide and relatively shallow river. At its deepest, where they were currently, the pure water only managed to lap against Hope's shoulders.

The older two men were complaining about the hard rocks they had used as pillows the night before while Hope was completely preoccupied by something in the distance.

"Why do the girls get to use all the soft shit for a pillow?" Sazh demanded, striking the water for good measure. "I mean, we're a team, right? Shouldn't we be, I don't know, sharing?"

"Vanille and Fang use their fur as pillows," Hope offered, turning his attention back to the conversation.

"They wear enough of it to share between the six of us," Sazh huffed, dipping his head into the water, much to the dislike of the chocobo chick who had fled to the safety of Snow's already-washed mop of hair. "I mean, my neck has about seventeen different knots in it thanks to these damn rocks, and they get their beauty sleep on nice, fluffy little pillows! Let's see how they like using a rock as a damn pillow for a change!"

Definitely not a morning person.

"I'm sure Lightning could make you one," Snow suggested, hardly paying attention to Sazh's rant as he gently shoved Hope backwards in the water, earning a grin from the youngster. "She'd gladly kill something and skin it for you."

Like our breakfast.

Sazh laughed bitterly at this. "That soldier's more likely to shoot bolts up my ass," he grunted, watching Hope's vain attempts to make a connecting swing against Snow, who had done nothing more than lazily block the hits. "But you could have given me your damn coat last night to use as a pillow. Soldier Girl had the fire—she didn't need all that extra material! I was cold, too!"

Hope nearly toppled over face-first into the water. "You gave Light your coat?" he inquired.

"I guess I didn't realize it was a crime," Snow shrugged, offering his hand to the chick atop his head. The bird accepted the invitation and hopped down, nuzzling the wall of fingers that sheltered it from the water below. "Besides, she looked cold." He scratched his neck with a free hand. "You were awake, Sazh?"

"Damn pillow. Couldn't sleep."

Hope was watching Snow with great uncertainty. Snow returned the gaze with his own equally confused stare. "What's eating you, kid?"

Hope made no attempt to smile. "Nothing," he shrugged, taking another jab at Snow. This one truly caught him by surprise; hitting him squarely in the chest and sending a greatly-exaggerating giant staggering backwards towards the bank. It was a good thing he did, too—his new proximity to land made him acutely aware of the fiends inching close, and one of the killer flowers was in the lead.

Snow tossed the chocobo back towards Sazh. It flew towards the unmistakable afro and buried itself deep within its depths. "Time to go!" Snow called, not daring to take his eyes off the nearing beasts. Those things were fast, and one slip-up could cost them dearly.

Sazh released the most artfully crafted string of curses Snow had ever been witness to. At the end of it all, he shouted, "It's gonna be a damn cold retreat. A cold, breezy, embarrassing retreat."

Hope practically ran to the shore and donned his clothing in a flash. "Let's fight! What are we waiting for?"

Snow nodded towards the still-naked Sazh in a foot of water, to Snow's own pile of clothes, and the ever nearing horde. "The girls would never let us live this one down," Snow said, in all seriousness. "And besides, we're no match against all those guys. We'll play hero another day."

Sazh barely had time to collect his pants before the three took off on a dead run back to camp, eagerly pursued by the largest motley crew of fiends Snow had yet seen on Pulse.

They arrived on the outskirts before Sazh and Snow were able to clothe themselves fully, having now escaped from their hunters. All three, with Snow leading the chorus, vowed that they'd blow the planet to hell just to kill the voyeuristic flower alone. Sazh grabbed Hope, who had begun to venture into camp, and hissed that if he dared tell a soul it would be him running naked from the fiends next time.

In front of Lightning and Vanille.

Sazh's somber attitude was the only indication of seriousness that Hope needed. He nodded quickly and said that he'd never mention a retreat to Lightning anyway, but he still couldn't escape Sazh's grasp until he swore an oath never to mention it again. Once Hope agreed to the terms and conditions he was released.

Snow chuckled at the younger boy's retreating form. "Awful harsh, man."

Sazh, however, had burst into fits of laughter. "Did you see the look on that boy's face? I scared the fire out of him!" his laugh boomed throughout the camp as they approached Lightning, who was still by the fire and had been joined already by Hope. "Could you imagine how mortified Hope would be if he was runnin' naked in front of Lightning?"

Snow's smile faltered slightly. Hope really was attached to Lightning. Something as embarrassing as retreating in the nude would kill the kid.

Hope's attachment to Lightning was made even more evident as Snow and Sazh took positions on opposing sides of the two. Lightning was smiling, actually smiling, as Hope related something back to her. The wicked dance in her eyes as Snow looked on spoke volumes.

"What did I tell you, boy?" Sazh thundered as he chased Hope around camp. Hope cackled devilishly as he skillfully evaded each of Sazh's attempts to take Hope down. Both ran considerably faster as Lightning wondered aloud whether or not the flower was trying to pollinate with them. "Damn, lying fool!" Sazh bellowed, giving up on his chase to rest against a nearby tree. Hope, too, came to a stop a considerable distance from both Snow and Sazh.

"You'll pay for that, Hope!" Snow vowed with a grin, cracking his knuckles ominously. "Remember the Oath!" Snow felt a tinge of satisfaction flood through him when he noticed Hope's face pale.

By this point in time Vanille and Fang had both stirred from their slumber, not exactly thrilled that the rambunctious behavior of the men had caused their wakening.

"So much for chivalry!" Fang jeered, making a rather rude Pulsian gesture towards Snow before storming off to the spring. Vanille, after casting a curious, questioning glance towards the remaining four, took her cue and ran after Fang, asking what chivalry had to do with anything.

Lightning, shaking her head, bent down to check if the now-browned meat was near finished yet.

Snow left Hope and Sazh to their own battle, personally not really minding if the story was leaked. It was a damn funny one, but by the way Sazh was throwing vengeful glares in Hope's direction, Sazh thought anything but.

He kneeled by Lightning's side and observed the meat once again. "So…did you remember what it is yet?"

"Why do you care? Even Hope doesn't mind," she scowled. "Food is food."

Snow threw up his hands in exasperation. "Don't tell me you're offended because I questioned your cut of meat?" Snow paused. "Besides," he added, his smile falling slightly, "that kid would do anything to please you. He really admires you."

Lightning sighed, but otherwise wholly ignored Snow.

"I'm serious," Snow pushed on, knowing he would soon be treading on dangerous ground. Lightning didn't like to be reminded of her soft side; that was common knowledge. Lowering his voice, he proceeded to say, "Every chance he gets he's always standing by you, or as close to you as he can manage. On the Palamecia the other day, he said he wanted to fight like you so he could protect you. We made him swear that he wouldn't tell you about that…that incident, but he'll forsake his oath just to get a laugh from you. The kid adores you, Sis." He saw Lightning visibly cringe at the use of her nickname, but the verbal onslaught that Snow had come to expect did not ensue. "And…and I think you adore him, too."

Cue the punch in the face…now.

Snow waited for her fist to connect, but there was no reason to. She merely sat there, an unreadable expression on her face as she stared blankly at the flames of the fire. What was she thinking?

"I saw you last night," Snow continued slowly, hardly believing his luck…or his own stupidity at daring to press on. "When Hope was having his nightmare. You ran over to him and—"

"I know, okay?" She snapped, pushing past him and the other two boys, who were now partakers in a ferocious battle where Sazh chased Hope while dodging a boomerang, to gather more firewood. Her voice was quiet, hardly audible, not wanting to invite any others into the conversation. "He reminds me of me when I was a kid. Exactly like me. I'm just trying to help him." She paused in both work and speech. "Scary thought," she said huskily before resuming her inspection of collectible wood.

"Why is that a scary thought?" Snow asked softly, kneeling down to gather an armful of heavier logs that she had set aside. He tried to catch a glimpse of Lightning's face, but her hair was an effective veil. It cascaded down from her crown in an iridescent waterfall, capturing the early morning rays of the sun and reflecting them back in all directions. His frown deepened. "You did your best, Lightning."

"Sometimes, Snow, your best isn't good enough." At this she tucked champagne-tinted locks behind her ear and looked Snow evenly in the eyes. "Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you'll never be the hero." Her voice wasn't laced with tears. It wasn't reprimanding, bitter, angry—it wasn't really anything. It was matter-of-fact, nothing more. That bothered Snow more than anything. He would rather have had her scream, cry bitterly, or beat his face black and blue until unconsciousness overtook him. Anything would have been better than acting as if this absurd twisting of reality that stemmed from her own guilt was an undeniable truth. "I'm not a mom, Snow. I'm a soldier. I was trained to kill, not nurture. I was forced to be Serah's mother, to protect her, and look where that effort got her." The tinder she had found thus far lay momentarily forgotten in her hands. "Now Hope is in the same boat we were: be the soldier or be…" Lightning fell back to sit on still-moist ground, carelessly tossing the components for the fire aside.

Snow paid heed to every word and action in his attempt to better understand the woman before him.

"I'm not a mom, Snow," she repeated. "I'm trying to teach Hope the lessons I learned the hard way, to steer him away from the path I had to take to survive…but the more I try to steer him away from my path, the more he follows it." A sigh escaped shapely lips, noiseless and buoyant in the crisp morning air. She wiped away invisible beads of sweat from her forehead, exasperated with herself. "I'm talking like an idiot," she muttered.

"He's becoming you because you're his hero," Snow said gently, daring to lay a comforting hand on her slight shoulder. Her skin prevails, he thought suddenly, but he didn't have time to reprimand himself just then. "And Serah…she…"

Help me find the words, Serah.

Lightning stood before Serah could answer Snow's prayers. Immediately she placed a hand in the same location Snow had touched and winced, as if she had been burned. It was almost imperceptible, but Snow swore he heard Lightning whisper her sister's name, almost pleadingly. Lightning leaned down, still ignoring Snow, and gathered the sticks and logs she had placed aside earlier until she had collected a heaping armful. "None of this matters," she mumbled, almost to herself. A transformation reinstated the soldier that they all came to expect her to be as she stood erect and proud, her chin high. Only one thing betrayed her resolve: her eyes darted in every direction, carefully avoiding Snow's bewildered stare. "If we don't get moving ahead to find our focus, we'll be Cie'th. That's what we should be concentrating on. Not this."

Snow stood as well with his own armful of wood, his mouth resembling a fish's gaping maw as he tried to search for the words to say. He had been dismissed, but that didn't mean he was finished. The reappearance of Hope and Sazh nearby, both muddied, reemphasized the finality of their conversation. He felt the frustration welling within him as he fell into step behind Lightning, who had been joined by an eager-for-breakfast Hope. The two talked animatedly in front of him—or, rather, Hope was further explaining the spring ordeal in greater detail.

"…and then-get this, Light-the flower was chasing Sazh. He turned about four shades of red-four!- and started swearing…"

Snow watched as Lightning's face lifted into the tiniest of smiles as Hope went into retelling the tale with great enthusiasm and Sazh, from a distance behind them, began hollering at Hope for even bringing it up.

She always acts so damn different around the kid!

Despite Snow's attempts to make Lightning smile, the greatest he ever earned was the most insignificant of smirks or a roll of the eyes. Not once in his memory of knowing Lightning had she ever expressed happiness, no matter how minor its form, in the company of both Serah and Snow. Yet along comes Hope, Mister Sunshine-and-Rainbows himself, and within a few short weeks he can crack the barrier that Snow had been trying to demolish long now?

Or why could Hope get away with calling her 'Light'? Snow would say 'Hey, Sis!' and be beaten down by a barrage of words, and yet—

That's not true, he thought abruptly, remembering their discussion earlier. She didn't say a word when I called her 'Sis' earlier. She just…cringed.

"I can't wait for breakfast, Light. What did you catch?"

At that Lightning cast a dirty look over her shoulder towards Snow. "Wild dog."

Hope contemplated this for a moment. "I remember eating Cocoon's wild dog. It wasn't bad."

Dammit! Even that makes her smile! How can he do that, just hop over after she has as close to a breakdown as Lightning will ever get and make all her troubles float away? I try to talk to her about it and she gets pissed off and clams up. Hope just tells a story and stormy skies fade back to blue.

...Why does this even matter?

"The mystery meat is a mystery no longer!" Snow teased, his grandiose entrance into the present earning a backwards glance from Lightning. She quirked a brow, probably wondering if the flower did more than just chase his naked-ass down during their misadventure. In fact, she even asked Hope that exact question.

I hate always being right.

The chocobo chick flew over Snow's scalp and landed neatly on Hope's shoulder, chirping excitedly for no apparent reason. "Oh, he's probably hungry. Mind if I go get some fruit for it to eat, Light? I'll get some for the rest of us, too," he beamed brightly.

Lightning nodded as she removed the meat from the fire, giving him yet another small smile of her own.

Hope took his leave immediately after eating the surprisingly tasty meal, the chocobo chick following behind. He left a thoroughly agitated Snow in his wake.

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