Of Cie'th and Hips

Several days had passed since Hope had been lost and subsequently found. Though they had every intention of traveling directly to Oerba, the group of them, as tended to be normal, got distracted. At least it was for a decent cause: they were attempting to placate the Cie'th stones and complete the stones' focus in their stead. They didn't realize at the time that each mission would be a horribly time-consuming task, but now they had invested so much of their energy into assisting the unmoving stones they didn't have the heart to back out.

Of course, it hadn't been this way to start, Snow recalled.

After having discovered the first stone and heard the woman describe how she needed to kill some sort of pudding so she could finally gain her well-earned rest, the majority of the party had been moved by pity. Most had wanted to act on this poor soul's behalf. Lightning, however, had just nodded, saying that if they found time they would. Then, despite the pond being only a few hundred feet away to the north, she turned east and hopped down about ten feet to the ground below.

"Whoa, whoa, where are you going?" Snow chased after her, landing quite inelegantly compared to Lightning. "We have to help these Cie'th! That could be us some day!"

Lightning didn't even bother turning around. Her hips swayed enticingly as she marched up a gentle hill. "It will be us one day if we don't hurry to Oerba," she retorted.

That had stopped Snow. Touché.

Hope carefully jumped down the same height that Lightning and Snow already covered. He landed, fell forwards, and flapped his arms in vain to regain his balance before he toppled down onto his knees. Profanities, most of them sounding very Sazh-like in nature, flowed from Hope's mouth as he pushed himself back on his feet and ran forward to block Lightning's path. She stopped, crossed her arms over her chest and awaited Hope's explanation for his behavior.

The boy gulped before he began. "B..but Light," he protested, "if we were Cie'th stones, wouldn't you want someone to help us?"

Lightning said nothing, other than arching a brow, which Snow knew to mean 'I don't give a damn about anything you just said, so you best back away before my hand twitches.'

Hope recognized this too, judging by the look of sheer terror that flitted across his face. Though everyone knew Lightning would never hurt Hope, the kid had still been there when she had punched Snow twice within a minute, causing the giant to stumble backwards and nearly lose his footing. Considering only a few fiends had ever managed the same, it wasn't something to discredit.

Oh yes, the memory was still fresh with Hope, but still the boy persisted. "Lightning, we have to help them! It's…it's the right thing to do! They'll just wither away to nothing if we don't help!"

"Yeah, what he said!" Snow tossed in, thumping Hope's back in agreement.

Lightning stared them both down for a considerable length of time but once she realized the two wouldn't give in to her threatening demeanor, she grunted. "If I turn into a Cie'th because of this," she began, spinning on her heel to head north, "you both will be the first things I kill."

Hope beamed at Lightning's back, watching her head towards the pond.

From there, though, it had gone downhill quickly. They had spent several days on less than a handful of little quests to help their unlucky fellows. The extra time they had taken from their schedule had put Lightning on edge, even more so than usual. Every time Snow or Hope drew up beside her while they walked she cast a sideways glance over towards the brand each man wore on his arm, and there her gaze would linger for some time before sliding forward once again, a certain uneasiness present that hadn't been as pronounced before.

Time was running short. At some point they had to stop playing hero for everyone else and concentrate on themselves and their own focus. It was hard to accept but, as Snow was now reminding himself, he wouldn't be much assistance to anyone if he were to become a Cie'th. They needed to move on, and soon. Snow would mention it to Lightning tonight at camp.

For now, though, they were marching two by two towards the Tsumitran Basin, seeking out their next mark. Fang and Vanille were bringing up the rear, Sazh and Snow in the middle with Hope and Lightning, as always, in the lead. They were all chatting amongst themselves, and occasional bursts of laughter would emanate from Vanille, or every once in awhile Hope would chuckle a little louder than normal. Sazh and Snow were in just as high of spirits.

During the course of the past few days, Snow and Sazh had become fast friends. It was mostly due to Snow trying his best to avoid Lightning and all the confusing emotions her presence drowned him with, but Snow also genuinely enjoyed Sazh's company. He had helped fill Snow's mind with mindless hilarities or sexual perversions that only the two older men could appreciate, and in return Snow had less time to think about his growing attachment towards Lightning.
That also meant he had even less time to speak with Serah. When he wasn't laughing alongside Sazh, he was either making painful attempts to act as if Lightning hadn't been tearing his mind apart or slept.

Now, however, he and Sazh were rather quiet. The older man was busy taking in the scenery, making it a point to be quite obvious in turning his head from side to side, observing the varied levels of the land. He mentioned how picturesque the steppes were. Occasionally he'd quote a poem about nature he had heard on Cocoon that reminded him strongly of the wild beauty surrounding them. Once in awhile he'd comment on how the water sparkled in the bright sunlight or, when he got really into it, he'd start describing how the shadow of the clouds resembled various shapes on the patchy grass…

Snow wasn't fooled. He had the old man pegged.

In between comments about the beauteous, complex ecosystem where they now traversed, Sazh's eyes would fall right back on the small hips that were directly before him, tilting his head with the sway of Lightning's backside as she walked. At one point Snow swore Sazh's tongue was sticking out to the side, like it had been when he was trying to think of a metaphor to describe the whiteness of the clouds against the blue of the sky. Was he trying to think of a metaphor for Lightning's ass?

Snow couldn't help himself now. He, too, permitted his gaze to wander to Lightning's behind which, he noted with some small sense of delight, was now uphill. Oh, yes, there would definitely be a metaphor suitable…

"Damn fine scenery," Sazh commented.

"Hm," Snow nodded intelligently. He may have been engaged but, damn it all, he was a man first and foremost. At least Sazh understood.

"What is?" Hope asked, leaving Lightning's side momentarily to join Sazh.

At first Sazh didn't say anything because Lightning was paying too close of attention. Once she relaxed and resumed her typical too-quick pace Sazh pointed his chin towards the Pulse scenery he had been admiring. Hope cast a quizzical look forward, to Sazh, then back up—

"Oh!" Hope's eyes grew round with realization, his face burning bright red. Still, though, his gaze hadn't been averted. Try as he may to be the mature adult, Hope was still a teenage boy. His hormones would always get the best of him.

Though it aggravated him slightly to see two males now ogling the object of his own discontent, he couldn't help but find the situation to be more than a little entertaining. Hope bobbed alongside Sazh for a few minutes, once casting his gaze in Snow's direction to see if he, too, was watching with the same ardent interest. Snow turned his head aside quickly, whistling innocently until Hope allowed himself another peek at the show.

Hope finally ripped his eyes away from the entrancing sight and replaced it with that of his shoes. "It is pretty here, isn't it?" he mumbled before trotting back to Lightning. His face was still horribly red.

Snow couldn't hold in his amusement any longer. Both he and Sazh burst out laughing, much to Hope's embarrassment, and couldn't control themselves. Eventually Sazh had to lean against a boulder for support and Snow was doubled over, gasping for breath and gripping his still-sore side. The whole party had come to a halt.

"What's so funny?" Vanille asked, looking between the two guilty men. Neither one could respond, so she inquired the now-scarlet Hope. "What?"

Hope gave in intelligible mutter, something about immature idiots, before purposefully facing away from everyone. Lightning said nothing, but Snow could see her penetrating, accusing glare.

"Hurry up and finish. You're practically asking for us to be attacked," Lightning snapped as she gave the area around them a once-over for good measure. Snow finally was able to compose himself and wiped the tears from his eyes.

"You got it, boss. Lead the way!"

Oh hell. Wrong thing to say.

Sazh and Snow both fell to pieces again, worse than before. Even Hope gave a lopsided grin, one that he quickly tried to hide from Lightning.

Fang threw her arms in the air. "I'm missing out on something, apparently. Wanna clue us in?"

"No," Snow wheezed. "You…you wouldn't appreciate it."

"Hey Fang, you wanna lead the way, too? Snow and I can just follow, so you don't have to mind us," Sazh added, somehow able to maintain some semblance of self-control through the whole sentence, which was more than Snow could say for himself. He kept cracking up throughout.

"I'll join you guys," Hope added cheerfully. When Snow saw Hope's burning cheeks and the wicked dance in his eyes, all hell broke loose.

The three men fell to the ground, laughing like idiots while the women stared at them, bewildered and annoyed.

The rest of the day had been uneventful and, sadly, Sazh and Snow had been moved to the rear of their troop. They were extremely close to finding their next mark but it was still too far to go considering dusk had fallen upon them.
Lightning had cast the sky a rather menacing scowl before turning to the group. "It's getting late. I noticed a cave a short ways back. I was hoping to find something better, but…" she looked up again, this time towards the clouds that were building up in the distance. "Rain," she said quietly.

"I know where you mean. C'mon, let's go." Fang corralled them into a small herd and pushed them back the same way they had arrived until they reached the small cave nestled in a long rock wall. In the far distance one of the lumbering dinosaurs was roaming and the earth gently thrummed with each of its steps, but that beastie was too large to be of any bother to them while in a cave.

Sazh and Snow followed Fang in, and trailing behind were Hope and Vanille. Lightning was outside scouting to make sure no other fiends were skulking about.

"Me and Sazh are gonna go check out the cave. You're on babysitting duty," Fang winked.

Snow nodded and watched as Hope and Vanille playfully argued over who'd get the smoothest part of the cave floor for a bed as Sazh and Fang disappeared around a corner in the back end of their stone shelter.

"Snow," whined Vanille, "Where are you going to sleep? Wherever you sleep is where Hope has to sleep, right?"

"No! I choose where we sleep, and I say it's right here!"

"But that's not fair!"

Snow laughed at their antics. "It's up to him, I'm afraid. Light and I are taking watch tonight."

Hope and Vanille both paused mid-sentence.


"You're both taking watch?"

The last accusation was from Hope, whose face contained a mixture of surprise and budding irritation.

"Yes and yes…? Is that a problem?" Snow responded, unsure of who had seemed more accusatory.

"I didn't know you called her Light…"

"We're in a cave. Why do you both need to take watch?"

With a sigh Snow asked, "Why do you both have to talk at once?"

Vanille just chuckled and bounced away, using the distraction to claim her sleeping spot on the ground, exactly where she had wanted it. This caused the severity of Hope's frown to increase.

"You don't have to take watch tonight, Snow. I'll do it," Hope said. It sounded more like a demand than a suggestion.

This again? His mind flashed back to Hope's little conversation with Snow nearly a week ago. Of course Hope wouldn't like the thought of Snow being alone with Lightning, even if it was just for guard duty. "Two people have to take watch here, Hope. It's been two people ever since we left that base camp of ours. Fang and Vanille went yesterday, Sazh and Lightning the day before…"

"Then that would mean it's my turn to stand watch with you."

Snow rubbed his neck, working out the knot that had been there since his rough landing on Pulse. Why was he arguing? If Hope wanted to take watch, he should let him. I wouldn't have to be alone with her all night. "Take it up with Light. She's the one who set this up."

"She did?"

Oh, that caused him to pause all right.

At that moment Lightning returned to their camp saying that there was nothing in the area immediately around them. She seemed to sense the tension in the air, or it could have been Vanille's overtly obvious pointing from Snow to Hope and the fists she made, because she motioned for Snow to follow her outside.

Snow, of course, did as he was told and noticed the slits-for-eyes Hope he left behind.

"What is with you two?" Lightning whispered harshly as soon as they were out of earshot from the youngsters. She looked just as aggravated as Hope; her arms were crossed and her hip was cocked to the side.

Hah. Hips.

He somehow managed to keep a straight face. "Nothing," he said innocently, even adding in a convincing shrug to achieve the desired amount of nonchalance.

"Don't give me that, Villiers. I'm not an idiot."

Snow winced. She was not in a friendly mood tonight. He dared take a peek at her face, frowning at the sight of her frown.

Those lips shouldn't always look so sad.

Snow sighed and rubbed his neck for a second time. "It's complicated…"

Her fist twitched. Shit. "Okay, okay," he resigned. Fighting with Lightning was never, ever worth the broken jaw. Ever. "He's just a little on edge because I'm on watch with you tonight."

She shook her head. Obviously that was the last thing she expected. "Why does it matter?" Lightning asked, peering at Snow curiously. "It just means he gets to sleep."

Oh hell. What do I say now? If I don't answer…well, I don't think my face can handle a fourth hit from her. But…

Another twitch.

Think fast, Villiers…think, think…

"He thinks that we're not letting him take watch because of what happened with his eidolon." It had come out as one word, and despite how short the sentence had been he was quite out of breath.

He waited for an agonizingly long time as Lightning mulled over his response. Finally she seemed to accept his answer and she visibly relaxed. "He'll get over it," she shrugged as she excused herself from the conversation and returned to their shelter.

I am brilliant.

Snow passed the threshold for camp and rejoined the other three, who were gathered around a small fire that Hope had built. Hope was smiling slightly, speaking with Vanille about what her life had been like on Pulse five hundred years ago. Snow's presence was ignored by him for the most part, but Lightning had been acknowledged many times over by now.

Snow rose from his seat when Sazh and Fang returned, the former smiling guiltily as he approached Snow. "She got the stuff," he whispered. Fang grinned at his side.

It took Snow a minute to remember their plan for exacting vengeance upon Hope that he and Sazh had brainstormed the day before. "Oh, right!" A quick glance towards Hope made Snow hesitate: would now really be the best time for revenge? They were in a cave, after all. "What was at the back of the cave?"

Sazh looked puzzle by his question. "Not much. Buncha rocks and stagnant water. Stalagmites or stalactites or whatever the hell they are."

The grin on Snow's face matched Fang's. "Great. Make sure you let him know it's there. We wouldn't want him to run outside…"

Nodding with understanding, Sazh said, "Good thinkin', Trench." He coughed. "Fang, wanna get dinner ready?" Sazh asked loudly. Fang made a show of cursing the old technician but she went outside to gather the bulging pack she had been carrying all day.

"Sorry guys, just fruit tonight." She sat down on a chair and began to pull out two pieces of fruit for each member. Snow, with no small sense of happiness, was immediately aware of the slightest difference of hue in the fruit Hope had been given.

"Back of the cave is our uh, rest stop for the night," Sazh grunted, taking a bite from his own fruit. "If you catch my meaning."

Lightning considered her meager meal. "Will this stuff make me need it?"

Vanille shook her head. "Nope! This is the good stuff!"

Lightning nodded once and took a bite. The others who had not done so already promptly followed her example. Snow ate the first of his fruit then handed his second to Hope, saying he didn't like it enough to eat a second one. Hope readily accepted his offer.

About ten minutes had passed after everyone had eaten their dinner. Lightning was already outside and the others were preparing their camp. Snow was about to join Lightning, but Hope's loudly complaining stomach stopped Snow in his tracks.

"Fang, I thought you said that those weren't the bad fruit?" Hope groaned, clutching his stomach.

"We lied," Sazh jumped in before Fang could respond. "Just like you did when you took the Oath, you bastard!"

Hope was already halfway to their rest area by that point.

Laughing coldly, Sazh shouted after Hope's rapidly vanishing silhouette. "Be glad Snow talked me out of all the other ideas!" He turned back around to face Fang and Snow. "I can rest easy tonight knowing he got what he deserved."

Fang planted her fists on either side of her hips trying to conceal her smile. "You're both going to burn in hell for this, you know."

As he made to leave the cave, Snow added, "Don't forget, Fang: you helped us, too. We'll see you there!"

Snow joined Lightning's side, still chortling softly to himself. Lightning didn't seem too pleased.

"That was childish," she scolded. "He needed sleep."

"Relax! He'll be fine in an hour or two, according to Fang. Besides, he deserved it - and it really is nothing compared to what we did have planned."

Lightning rolled her eyes and resumed her previous occupation of staring up towards the velvet night sky, which was now peppered with stars and, as always, the outline of Cocoon.

They stood silent for some length of time, noting how the camp settled down as everyone slowly fell asleep. Snow was quite aware of his proximity to Lightning, how his arm would barely brush against hers if he shifted slightly to the right. He didn't bother moving, though: both he and Lightning were flanked by large boulders. Besides, if she was uncomfortable, she had the option of moving herself. Snow was perfectly content.

The soft velvet morphed into inky black as more time passed and the rain clouds began to roll in. It became chillier as the temperature rapidly dropped on the plains, and though Lightning would never admit it, the raised bumps on her skin gave away how cold she was. Snow wouldn't offer her his jacket: she'd only refuse.

Once more his eyes took in the beauty next to him, but only briefly. He averted his gaze to the grass at his feet, kicking the thick growth with a booted foot. Surprise overtook the boredom that was beginning to set in when a light hand rested on his arm.

"Your brand…" Lightning breathed softly, lifting Snow's arm to eye level for her to examine.

"You've been staring at mine and Hope's all week," Snow said slowly, carefully ensuring his voice was more steady than he felt. His mind had gone something near insane when he comprehended that it was Lightning who graced him with her touch.

She dropped his arm almost as quickly as she had grasped it. "I've been worried." Lightning bit her lip and consequently made Snow swallow hard. "We're wasting time."

Snow nodded. "I wanted to talk to you about that. I think we should move on now--"

"Oh?" Her hardened stare fell upon Snow. "You're the one who suggested we go on this mad hunt."

"Actually it was Hope. I just agreed with him."

Lightning scoffed. "So you're blaming the fourteen-year-old?"

"He's wilier than he looks!" Snow countered. If only she knew what he was doing earlier. "Besides, I didn't realize then that there were so many Cie'th that needed our help. We can't possibly help them all. If we tried, we'd turn into Cie'th ourselves, and that won't help anyone."

Lightning measured his words for a moment. "Always playing the hero," she finally said, her eyes downcast.

Why did she suddenly look so sad?

As if to answer his unasked question, Lightning began to speak. "We're running out of time. Look, the eye on your brand—" she picked up Snow's arm again and pointed to the red orb that had appeared recently. "It's the same as everyone else's. What if Oerba doesn't work out? We're already so short on time. There's no second chances."

She hadn't let go of Snow's arm. Instead she gripped it firmly while speaking to no one in particular. "I refuse to give up, but what do we do when we just don't have enough time? To go all this way and become Cie'th…that's just my kind of luck," Lightning spat bitterly.

"Hey, hey," Snow consoled, grabbing Lightning's shoulders without really thinking. "You're not that unlucky. I mean, you did get stuck on this hellhole with me. I couldn't think of a better example of good luck than that!"

Lightning rolled her eyes, but the smile that she had attempted to fight off managed to peek through.

I made Lightning smile? He double and triple checked to be sure his eyes weren't fooling him. Holy hell, I did! Take that, Hope!

Snow was warm all over at the sight of what he had accomplished. It was no small feat, to be sure. "Wait, wait. Is that an expression of happiness I spy? No, it can't be. The mighty Lightning does not smile!"

Lightning punched Snow's chest lightly—for her—and tried to suppress her amusement yet again. The small struggle went on for awhile before the moment passed, but when it had they both became acutely aware that Snow still had his hands upon Lightning's shoulders. He didn't particularly care to remove them, either.

"Tell me something," Snow said, lowering his head to be even with Lightning's. Her gaze met his and they were transfixed with each other while Snow marveled at the swirling hues of Lightning's eyes.
At first they would appear a stormy grey, like the clouds above. A transformation would overtake them and the greys parted, and in their stead flecks of blue would arise, sometimes frosty like the icy glaze upon the snow, and other times softer like the pale skies of summer. Behind the colors lay an equally complex layer of emotions, one that, at first glance, spoke nothing more than indifference. This was the Lightning that Snow had come to accept and know, but now, peering at her from such a close distance and urged on by an intense desire to understand Lightning, he saw there was far more to the woman than what a single glance could translate. Beneath those lovely eyelashes lay all her emotions, rawly exposed and meshing together to form a mystifying and saddening tale that Snow vowed, then and there, to read further until every portion of her story was understood by him, and perhaps him alone.

Lightning tore her eyes from Snow's and instead opted for a quizzical expression while she shimmied out from his grip. "Tell you something? Like what?" she asked as Snow's arms fell to his sides, defeated.

"About you. I don't know anything about you," he replied honestly. What had transpired between them just then shattered a few more of the strings that had held up the former image of Lightning he carried.

"I kill things," she shrugged, picking at invisible threads on her shoulder.

"You're very good at it. Tell me something else." This wasn't curiosity any longer. He was being driven by desire now, one that had nothing to do with bodily lust.

"Why, Snow?"

"Do it."

She sighed, seemingly annoyed. "I don't know what you want me to say."

"Tell me your greatest fear," Snow suggested, eyeing her carefully for a response. If he truly wanted Lightning to come to depend on him, this was the best place to start.

Lightning sighed again, massaging the bridge of her nose as she thought. "I don't know…" she trailed off, her eyes became distant. "Does this matter?"

"I have all night, Light. I'll keep pestering you, and you know it."

Lightning guffawed quietly. "Because you're nothing more than a child," she taunted, but Snow didn't take the bait. If he would have, they'd be gone on some petty argument. Snow dropped her taunt and gave her more time to consider the question and the earnestness with which he asked it. Once again, as suddenly as before, she took Snow's brand in hand but, this time, she traced over it with a finger. "This."

Snow shivered when he was subjected to this new, unexpected touch from Lightning. It was not unpleasant in the least. The fire coursing through him could vouch for that. Remember Serah. You can't forget her.

"That?" he breathed. At the moment his attempts to recall his fiancée was becoming a very difficult thing. He was literally inches away from Lightning, and this was the first time she had ever laid a soft hand upon Snow, something that wasn't a fist or a firm grasp.

Lightning nodded, never taking her eyes away from the brand that stared back. "This," she repeated, jabbing the eye with her nail. "I'm afraid you'll—everyone—will turn into Cie'th. That it will be my fault."

Snow continued watching Lightning trace the arrows, too afraid to return the touch lest she pull away and disappear. He didn't want this moment to fade. "Why would it be your fault?"

She shook her head, etching the pattern with more force now. "I don't know," she admitted. "But I'm afraid that you and Hope and the others will turn into Cie'th. At least with a crystal you'll return at some point. I can't get you back when you turn into a monster."

"Light," Snow began, but didn't know how to complete what he wanted to say. Thoughts of what he wished he could have done flashed through his head, mixed with thoughts of Serah returning and of Lightning…

Of Lighting doing what? He wondered to himself. It didn't take him long to realize that the statement simply was as it had been: Lightning. He simply thought of Lightning.

"I won't leave you, Light," Snow said tenderly, placing a hand over the now furiously-tracing one of Lightning's. "I'm not going anywhere, not even to be a Cie'th. I've been here since the start, through punches to the face and everything. That won't change."

Lightning seemed taken aback by Snow's words, or perhaps by how comfortably her hand now rested in his. She stared for a long while at the two hands joined together before shaking her head violently and pulling away, no doubt thinking of the one person Snow was both trying to shove from his mind and desperately bring back.

"Sorry about your face," Lightning mumbled after freeing herself from Snow's grasp yet again.

Snow managed a laugh, though he was genuinely hurt that Lightning had snatched herself away so quickly. "It's good practice. I can take hits from the fiends a lot better now than I could, you know--'

A voice from the shadows interrupted them. "I hate you, Snow."

Both Snow and Lightning whirred around to the cave entrance, both wearing guilty expressions on their face as if they had been caught doing something much worse than standing awkwardly close to each other. Hope stood there, face pale and his body slightly shaky, watching the two with a suspicious gaze.

"What?" Snow said thickly.

Hope looked between the two, now uncertain about what he had walked in on. His eyes came to rest on Snow again, sending accusing glares in his direction. "The fruit," he said lightly, though judging by his expression there was something else on his mind that had nothing to do with the simple act of revenge.

"Sazh's idea. Not mine." Snow grinned, taking half a step away from Lightning and slamming his back into the hard rock behind him.

"Uh huh. Sazh said the same about you, before I burned his pants." Now Hope looked over to Lightning, who did little more than stare at the ground with such ferocity that Snow secretly feared she'd set it on fire as well.

"You burned his pants?" Snow blinked.

"No. But I might."

Lightning seemed to recover herself and stood tall once again. "You should get to bed, Hope. You've already missed over an hour of rest, and you could use it now more than ever."

Hope leaned against the cave entrance, his eyes glued on Snow once again. "Oh, I'm not tired. Wide awake now. If you're tired, Light, then I'll take watch in your place."

Lightning shrugged and turned back towards the wilderness. "I'm fine. Snow, go to bed. That's an order."

Snow, knowing a dismissal when he heard it, tried to conceal the bubbling irritation fermenting within him. He nodded once to Lightning, bopped Hope lightly on the head and went in to set up a bed for himself.

The last thing that he saw before drifting off to sleep was Lightning placing a hand on Hope's shoulder and guiding him inside, sheltering both from the rain that had begun to fall. Hope offered Lightning his spare blanket, which she of course refused at first, but somehow Hope convinced her to take it.

Snow pulled his coat tighter to his body, damning himself for not offering it to her earlier.

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