Snow, Lightning, and Sazh were returning to camp after scouting the path that led south from their base. It had been a longer journey than they had intended, but neither Snow nor Lightning wanted to linger in camp without knowing what lay beyond their borders. So the three agreed to chart it out, and it had been a fiend-ridden experience.
Lightning was walking between the two men. Sazh was talking elatedly about the abandoned machinery they had found, describing the various effects each piece could have and how it could enhance their own equipment. Of course, for the first ten minutes Lightning listened with great interest, but once the sneaking suspicion that she had heard this lecture before was verified she quickly lost what enthusiasm she carried for the subject.
Sazh rattled on about ways to use a pipe to jimmy-rig a particle accelerator together, or how it could be melted to form a supporting beam for…something. Snow, having been conveniently incapacitated when the discussion occurred the first time, seemed entirely engrossed by the idea that a pipe could have such a wide variety of uses. To make matters worse, he continued to egg Sazh on to explain, to the very last detail, how a particle accelerator worked in the first place.
Honestly, of all the men to be stuck with, it had to be him?
Lightning cast Snow a sideways glance that, if he had seen it, would have screamed for him to stop speaking. But that would have been too easy.
No, instead he was fixated on Sazh, nodding his head now and again at various points of Sazh's explanation, and his complete inability to notice that she was trying to catch his attention irked Lightning beyond belief.
Only because I'm used to being in charge in the Corps., she reassured herself, turning her attention forward once more as the prickling of guilt began to seep in. That's all.
They rounded a curve in the path to be met by Vanille and Fang, the former waving excitedly at their return. "You're back!" she squealed.
"Yeah, my feet are killing me…" Sazh began to complain, but only Vanille was paying attention.
"Any luck?" Fang queried from her perch on some abandoned machinery, hardly bothering to look back to the trio.
"No sign of anyone else," Lightning responded, hands on her hips and a slight frown on her face. "But we did find plenty of bloodthirsty wildlife and crumbling ruins."
Beside her Snow mumbled something about flowers and the corners of Lightning's mouth twitched upwards. She certainly didn't forget to bring that up once or nine times during their trek.
"Long day?" Vanille placed a hand on Sazh's shoulder as he joined her on the metal ruins. He groaned slightly in affirmation.
Snow strode forward now, rubbing the back of his neck as he usually did when mentioning something he wasn't thrilled about. "Well guys, we've run out of places to search around here." He threw a few glances around the camp, one of which, Lightning noticed, settled on her for a fraction of a second before moving on. "Where's Hope?"
"He's off with the chocobo," Fang jerked a finger to her side, "getting supplies—hello!"
The chocobo darted past her, kwehing shrilly as it dashed between their heads. Sazh held out his hands as a landing pad and the chocobo chick readily settled into the familiar palms of its master. "You all by yourself?" Sazh cocked his head to his side, an action that the chocobo mimicked before releasing yet another high-pitched squeal. It took off again, hopped once on Vanille's head, then settled between the two Pulsian women, chirping madly all the while.
"Huh?" Vanille leaned closer to the bird and it noticed her sudden attention. It whirled around and charged into the outstretched palms of Vanille, who quickly held the bird at eye-level to appraise it. Its incessant chirps began again.
Lightning firmly gripped her gunblade as soon as she saw Vanille's eyebrows dart up. "His brand!" The others gasped and flew out of their seats, clamoring to find their equipment.
"We've got to find him!" Snow turned and charged down the path with Lightning right at his side. The others, still trying to find their belongings, were left in the dust.
"Snow," Lightning called, trying to subdue the panic that was quickly rising within her. "The others…"
"I'm not waiting!" Snow shouted between massive gulps for air. Lightning was slightly taken aback.
"I'm not either, Snow," she responded, her long, lean legs pushing her slightly ahead of the surprisingly quick Snow. Silence settled between them as they sprinted down the narrow trail, her arms pumping viciously at her side. Neither she nor Snow had ever ran this quickly, but fear of what would await them once they found Hope spurred them on more than any native creature ever could.
Time began to blur as quickly as the surrounding landscape, and though she knew only a short distance had been traversed it had seemed as if an eternity had crept by. Apprehension twisted suddenly into aggression as a monster of a flan impeded their progress forward.
Snow flanked her right side, hugging tightly against her in the narrow passage. A horrible snarl billowed from the bowels of hell itself as Snow lunged towards the flan and drove both his fists inside its yellow depths. Its jelly-like body easily absorbed the hit and his fists—Snow should have known better, but worry had clouded his mind and judgment. Another roar, this time one of frustration, proceeded as he tried to yank his arms free from the gelatinous fiend. Lightning rolled beneath the sticky ooze that was fashioned into an arm and recovered quickly on her feet, lowering her head and running towards Snow. Catching him by the waist, she utilized her momentum to swing to the opposing side of Snow's body, throwing both away from the fiend and to the ground. They both crashed against the earth, Snow lying sideways across Lightning.
"Move!" Lightning commanded, shoving Snow off of her, forcing that despicable fluttering in her stomach away as quickly as it was brought on. Her hands, gripping the hilt of her blade firmly, glowed bright red as she used her l'Cie talents to call forth fire. The heat quickly spread down the conductive metal of her blade until flames erupted from the metal and licked the air. Lightning surged towards the monstrosity and swung the sword high above her, bringing it down with unparalleled force. The beast was cleaved in two, following the heated path the sword had carved through it. Both halves flopped helplessly towards their respective sides.
By this point Sazh, Vanille, and Fang had caught up but Lightning didn't care to share any words with them. She tapped Snow's shoulders once, pointed in the direction they needed to go and bolted off again.
Another excruciating sprint. As they rounded a bend in the path, Lightning caught a glimpse of Snow's face and noticed how closely it mirrored her own. Concern and a deep sense of self-loathing encompassed normally passive features, and she wondered if she were as readable as he.
She looked forward once again, pressed onward by her own jumbled thoughts.
I have to find Hope. I have to.
He better be okay.
I can't believe I let him wander on his own. What was I thinking?
Snow's probably beating himself up.
Hope, please be okay.
We need you, Hope.
"He'll be okay," Snow reassured, speaking mostly for himself. "He's got to be."
Lightning disagreed but didn't dare voice her concerns. Hope didn't have to be okay at all. Who said he did? He could be dead, for all they knew. It's not like the fal'Cie particularly cared about his fate. Nor did the Pulse wildlife, for that matter. Being off by himself when his brand decided to wreak havoc on his body was as good as a death warrant. The fiends would get to him in no time.
Time passed by slowly, and each step drew them further from the remainder of the group. "We're on our own from here out," Snow panted, casting a glance in Lightning's direction. Their roles had reversed now.
"Is that supposed to matter?" She rumbled, resting one hand on her gunblade as her speed increased. Her stance on the matter was evident. She barely had time to take in Snow's sweat-graced, mildly surprised and horribly anxious countenance as she raced past.
She thought she was at least two dozen paces ahead of Snow when, to her astonishment, he bounded up beside her, legs moving furiously to keep up with her long gait. His teeth were clenched tightly, a muscle in his jaw was throbbing, sweat dripped from him…but he never took his eyes away from the path in front of him.
Another monster met them at the next corner. Snow happened upon the canine first, dropping to one knee as the wild dog pounced with its teeth bared. Snow ducked his head well below the oncoming animal, waiting until the rabid dog was safely past before spinning on the balls of his feet, still crouching, and grabbing the dog's hind legs. Lightning barely had time to take the scene in: when she happened upon the struggle the beast had already lunged forward, probably sensing her approach, and its teeth were mere inches from her throat. She was startled and stopped short when the dog snapped its jaws on thin air where her neck would have been had she continued moving forward. Snow yanked on its legs and pulled it to the ground where Lightning, now recovered from her momentary shock, withdrew her gun from its holster and finished the beast off in a single shot.
Snow darted to Lightning's side, his pupils barely larger than pinpoints. "You okay?" he asked, his voice shaky as he tried to peer beneath Lightning's fringe to see her face, his hand gripping her arm. "I thought for a second…"
Lightning ripped her arm from Snow's grasp, irritated with him for sending those horrible shockwaves through her at a time like this. "It's not me you need to worry about," she snapped before resuming their grueling pace.
Several more similarly scripted battles followed but there was still no sign of Hope. Lightning was about to succumb to her despair and panic, but one glance towards the equally concerned Snow leveled her head to a point where she could concentrate once again. She could not, would not, lose her head in front of anyone, especially Snow.
He would never let her forget it.
They suddenly burst forth from the confining passageway they had been traveling for what seemed like hours. Bright sunlight glared down upon them with a vengeance; Lightning had to shield her eyes before even attempting to take in her surroundings. Snow was rumbling next to her, and if they didn't find Hope soon she was sure he'd—
"Hope!" Snow cried, sprinting forward to a small stream.
Lightning followed Snow and happened upon Hope's prone body laying face-down on the rocks near the edge of the water. She kneeled down, turning him face-up on the river stones as a horrible sense of dread began to course through Lightning. Her eyes narrowed as she took in every detail of his body, searching for some clue about what had happened to Hope.
"Lightning? Is he…?"
Lightning didn't respond right away. She pulled down Hope's collar, reaching desperately to find his pulse. Her fingers settled over the tender skin of his neck and she had to take a few deep breaths to stop her fingers from shaking. Once she was calm enough she was able to feel a slow, steady heartbeat emanating from him.
She sighed, relaxing visibly
as she nearly fell backwards into the cool creek bed. Rubbing the sudden
rush of mental and physical exhaustion away from her face she nodded
towards Snow. "He's okay, just unconscious."
Why, though? No one else ever fell unconscious when their brands…
Snow's eyes met Lightning's and dared not look away, perhaps worried that she chose now to play her first horrible practical joke on him. She hadn't realized he had been holding his breath until he broke eye contact and felt Hope's pulse for himself, just to be sure. When he, too, felt the familiar thrumming of a heartbeat, he released the air he had retained within his lungs and slumped backwards.
"I thought we would lose him, Sis," Snow murmured, watching Lightning closely once she found enough energy to examine him again. She was on her knees, prodding different sections of Hope's body when the others finally caught up with them. Their worry over Hope's condition took away any chance Lightning had to respond to Snow's admission, though she had still visibly cringed when he used his favorite nickname of hers.
Vanille nearly burst into tears at the sight of Hope, while Sazh and Fang hovered overhead, each asking Lightning a thousand questions, half of which she didn't bother responding to since she didn't know the answers, either.
Snow pushed through the small crowd and scooped Hope into burly, protective arms. He looked to Lightning, a dark storm cloud threatening his normal hazy blue eyes. "Lead the way."
All questions ceased as Lightning joined Snow's side once again, this time with Hope in tow, and lead the way back to camp.
Please, Hope…be okay.
Vanille had yet to leave Hope's side. Lightning had observed Vanille sit beside him for at least an hour, holding Hope's hand and gently brushing stray strands of fine, silken hair from his boyish face as she whispered reassuring words to him. Lightning had remained silent as she watched on—they all had been, for the most part, as they awaited Hope's revival. Yet hours had dragged by without Hope so much as stirring.
It was Fang's turn to shift now. Lightning traced the movements of the elder Pulse woman, watching as she lightly placed a comforting hand on Vanille's shoulder. She seemed unsure of her actions, perhaps not really knowing what to do to help her friend in her grief, but still trying nonetheless. The two females stood there and watched Hope's chest rise and fall gently, both perhaps praying for a miracle.
Now Sazh. He had been pacing back and forth, mumbling incoherently to his feathery pet, but now he threw himself against the half-rotten log near Hope's resting spot. Lightning's ears pricked at the sound of Sazh's voice, the first understandable words that anyone had spoken since their return to camp. "I just don't know, Chocobo…" he said before his words trailed off into nothingness and silence scurried to the fore once more.
Silence. Eerie, suffocating, empty silence. None needed to question its existence, since all understood why it was present to begin with. All worried that Hope would fade into lifelessness, since his reason for being unconscious was still unknown. They would be lost without him. Despite his hardships and shaky beginnings, they now came to rely upon his bright optimism to motivate the l'Cie into action. Without him, they would be lost. Without Hope, they would be Cie'th.
Lightning's eyes lingered on the pale, prostrate young man before her and felt the emotion that she had dammed ages ago to ensure her own survival threaten to surge over its barriers. Even now she continued to try and fend it off, despite the fact that she was slowly beginning to understand that love was a necessary factor to complete their make-shift Focus.
In training we were always told that attachments like love were detrimental to the mission. Such entanglements wouldn't allow us to make the necessary and proper decisions, or it would add unneeded stress to the soldiers making choices for the betterment of society. It was a strong factor, a force to be reckoned with. It made the wisest of men into illogical fools. In battle, fools wound up dead. I had to live to protect Serah. I couldn't afford to make any mistakes.
Her gaze refused to budge from Hope. I've come to rely on these people. We're…family, almost. The attachments I have for them are what keep me going. Without them, without Hope and Snow and the others…I would have been lost a long time ago.
She took in the others at camp. Love had been present in her life before. It wasn't exactly something that could just disappear. Her parents had been loved by Lightning once, long ago, but they died when she was still at a tender age that it was getting more and more difficult to remember her parents' faces, much less how she felt towards them. She had loved Serah, but it was not a love most people would recognize. She did everything in her power to make sure Serah was always safe and comfortable, but very rarely did Lightning shower affection on the young girl. She wanted to make sure Serah could live the life Lightning never could, but…but now Serah was a l'Cie. She, too, was ripped from Lightning. To replace her, Lightning was given Snow, Hope, Sazh, Fang, and Vanille.
Did she love them, too?
They're useful, she shrugged. Fang is an amazing fighter. Sazh is great with machines. Vanille is the best healer I've ever seen. Hope…
Her brows were knotted together, confused by the onslaught of words that followed the boy's name. Quiet. Kind. Caring. Lovable. Aims to please. Bright. Deep. Mature. She paused, hardly daring to even think it.
Hope…my second chance to make things right.
She damned the heaviness in her chest, swearing that she'd never have another sentimental thought in her life as she pushed off of the ruins she had been leaning against. Lightning had grown tired of the quiet, of the reminiscing and the thinking. She needed to distract herself with something…anything, really.
Another sweep of the camp reminded her that Snow had not been present during her reflections. He had mentioned something much earlier about visiting the spring. Lightning decided to join him just then. Three sets of eyes watched her retreat into the heavy brush on the outskirts of the clearing.
She fought her way through the thick grasses, wondering how Snow and Sazh ever managed their naked retreat this morning. Various ideas of what their withdraw must have been like floated through her head until she finally emerged from the brush about twenty feet from the spring. A quick inspection of the area assisted her in finding her target, Snow, sitting in contemplation at the water's edge with his coat cast aside. He had yet to notice her presence.
Lightning, appreciative of the serene silence over the ominous one in camp, didn't bother to disturb the peace with the announcement of her arrival. Instead she positioned herself directly to Snow's left, by his branded arm. She ignored his questioning expression and instead looked out towards the gently rippling water, admiring the way the surface reflected the sky above.
Neither said anything, though Lightning remained quite aware of Snow's gaze upon her. Reeds swayed gently in the wind to either side of them, whispering quietly as it passed through the grasses and disturbed the spring before swirling back into the sky, which had become a hazy pink. Daylight had come and gone unnoticed.
In her peripheral vision, Lighting noticed Snow finally turn his gaze to take in the same beautiful scene that she had witnessed. His eyes closed and he slowly inhaled the scent of nature.
"You know, for how peaceful it is…you'd never guess this place was a deathtrap."
Lightning tugged at the shorter grasses beneath her. "Yeah," she nodded, yanking out a handful as her thoughts drifted back to Hope.
Snow ran a hand through his hair, which was without its typical cap. He sighed as golden strands fell unsystematically in every direction, some blocking the sight of his icy blues while others stubbornly reached skywards, reminding Lightning of the chocobos they had seen on Pulse when they first landed. His strong, chiseled features were furrowed in thoughtful melancholy.
Something was bothering him. He was horrible at hiding it.
Snow's head dropped between his knees. "I'm not doing very good, am I?" he asked hesitantly.
Despite having no idea what he referred to, Lightning shook her head. "Nope."
"Thanks for the honesty," he smiled haphazardly before heaving yet another sigh that tugged at the seams of his ever-tightening shirt.
Love? Doubtful. Attraction, on the other hand…
Lightning, startled by the sudden appearance of the treacherous thoughts, shook her head more vigorously this time.
"I get it, I get it," Snow mumbled, pulling out Serah's tear. Lightning refused the temptation to look away, forcing herself to catalog the feelings of guilt and frustration within her so she wouldn't soon forget them.
"I'd promise Nora I'd keep Hope safe," Snow said softly, tossing the tear in the air before catching it and repeating. "I promised Serah I'd keep her safe—promised you I'd keep her safe. I swore I'd save Cocoon and complete our Focus. So far I'm zero: four."
"Five," Lightning corrected.
"Five," he repeated, an embarrassed smile forming. "Right."
The gentle lapping of water replaced their conversation for some time. "You haven't broken any promises, Snow. Not yet, anyway," Lightning said, drawing her knees closer to her chest as a stronger, chillier gust of wind tore through.
Snow was visibly surprised by her admission, and Lightning couldn't blame him. Normally she would never have missed an opportunity to blame Snow for all the things he screwed up on, but the events of today made Lightning realize that sometimes things happen that were beyond their control.
"Serah's a crystal; not exactly dead," she ticked this off on her finger. "Our focus…facts have changed since we first set out. We've had to make on-the-go decisions based on the information that we had at the time, and as we found out something new we had to adapt our way of thinking and how we approached our Focus, like changing our paradigms in battle," she added, knowing the relation to a fight would help him comprehend the concept. "And Hope…" she looked to the water again to ease the pang in her heart. "We still have Hope."
Snow nodded in understanding, pocketing the tear to turn his attention instead on Lightning. At first she refused to give in to the scrutiny of his gaze, but his persistence paid off. When she turned to face him she was met with that same soft look he had given her at Hope's house.
"How do you do it, Sis?" He said, finally breaking his stare by looking down. She winced at the name, but he didn't see it: he was staring at the ground, his cheeks slightly pink.
Was he blushing? Why?
…Oh, shut up already.
"Always have a target," she shrugged. Snow rolled his eyes. "No, listen to me, Snow. My parents died-" at this his attention snapped back to Lightning and the intense interest he now viewed her with was unsettling. "—and left me to care for Serah. I didn't know what I was doing. I was barely old enough to care for myself, and all of a sudden I have to watch over my sister?" She shook her head slightly. "The only thing that kept me going was knowing I had to protect her. That was my target, my mission. As long as I had that, as long as I had Serah to protect, I could push on."
Snow considered Lightning thoughtfully now. "What happens when your target is gone? Disappears? Turns to crystal? What then, Light?"
'Light'? Since when did he refer to me as 'Light'?
He realized his error seconds later. "Er, sorry…Lightning."
She waved him off. "Light, if you want. I don't mind."
Anything's better than Sis.
But why do I hate 'Sis' so much? He is going to be my brother-in-law, after all…
Once again that aggravation welled within her, rearing its fiery head.
This needs to stop. It's not practical. It's not right!
"…Light? What happens afterwards?"
Lightning bowed her head, ashamed of herself and truly unsure of what her response would be. Snow must have sensed her darkening mood, as he laid a warm, friendly hand on her shoulder, much like he had in the morning. To make Lightning feel even worse, he smiled gently at her.
"It's okay. We don't need to know. Heroes barge headfirst into any situation, right? We don't need to think this through."
The terrible blaze of jealous frustration settled within her and was replaced by a new, creeping heat that originated where Snow's hand was now resting. She sensed this fresh, foreign delight within her, much as she had earlier, and bolted up without a second thought.
Heroes don't get excited at the innocent touch of her sister's fiancée, especially when there's a young kid who may never wake up just a few hundred feet away.
We can't always be the hero.
"Sometimes, Snow, we just have to take things one day at a time." She offered a helping hand up to Snow, who gratefully accepted the offer. "Come on. Hope will be waiting for his hero."
Snow grinned widely. "Then you best go run along. You'll be the first thing he pines for."
She didn't bother holding back. He deserved it.
Lightning returned to camp - to Hope - with stinging knuckles, feeling much better about her wandering thoughts earlier.
Her heart nearly somersaulted as she emerged from the cluster of grasses with Snow stumbling not far behind, rubbing his aching jaw.
Hope was stirring in his sleep.
Their Hope wouldn't fade after all.