This would be their second night in Mah'habara. Granted, their surroundings had improved since their first night—at least now they were in a flower filled fissure, but all the other conditions remained the same. The fissure was still rather narrow, only now instead of having stone walls on either side of them the group remained exposed to a rather splatter-inspiring fall on their right side. Compared to the roughly hewn stone they had grown accustomed to during their first day, the grass and small flowers were a welcome sight. Still, they were unable to escape each other, nor were they able to outrun the heat.
Though Lightning blamed her decision to stop and rest for an hour on Vanille's battle with her Eidolon, the suffocating heat is what prompted her to decide that they'd remain here for the night. Here, in the fissure, they were able to receive fresh air that they appreciated far more than its stagnant counterpart inside the tunnels. Now their only real complaint, besides the temperature, was the low grinding sounds of metal against rock that emanated from the Pulse fal'Cie, Atomos, carving more tunnels in the distance. It was mildly aggravating, but tolerable nonetheless.
Vanille was supporting herself against a tree, Fang hugging her close and speaking to her in a low voice, probably comforting her after the battle that had taken place. Hope was inching himself towards the edge of the fissure, willing himself to peek over the edge of the cliff to the depths below. Sazh was laying face down on the grass, thanking it for not being stone while the chocobo chick twittered and flew in circles above his head.
Lightning stood in the background, near the exit from the cavern they had left before Vanille's battle and watched the others silently. Her eyes sidled between Hope and Vanille, for once paying equal attention to the younger girl. Perhaps she was worried she'd collapse from exhaustion or maybe she worried that she'd face another eidolon soon. A sharp intake of breath from Hope would send Lightning's attention flying back to Hope, who had crept a little too close to the edge and was shocked when loose stones detached from the rock face and fell to depths unknown.
"Sorry," Hope apologized sheepishly when he turned to see Lightning's worried countenance.
Snow settled into a sitting position besides the still-standing Lightning, his gaze taking in the same view as she. "Crazy day," he said, looking up slightly towards the woman above him. Lightning grunted in response, her eyes still locked on Hope. Biting back the crude comment that was bubbling within him about Lightning's concern for the boy, Snow wisely chose to remain quiet. His attention returned to Lightning rather abruptly when she began cursing the heat and flung some of her equipment off her.
"This is ridiculous," she hissed, unlatching her shoulder plate and tossing it to the ground with her gloves. "I can hardly breathe." Off came her cape, which lazily floated atop the Guardian Corp equipment.
Snow became especially intrigued in Lightning's actions once she got around to peeling off her sleeve, which was followed shortly thereafter by the two storage packs she carried. Hope even cast quick, successive glances over his shoulders: this was about as naked as he'd ever seen Lightning. Both men were enjoying the show.
She threw herself down at Snow's side, visibly less clothed than before, and it took all of Snow's self-control to stop himself from staring at Lightning's gloriously long legs that now seemed more exposed than ever before despite only missing her pack. Hell. Yes.
Sazh quit worshipping the grass to join Snow, and the chocobo sought the shelter of a nearby tree. As the technician sat, an uncomfortable jabbing met Snow's side. When he looked to investigate he saw Sazh's eyebrows flying upwards while he nodded towards Lightning. Snow rolled his eyes.
Fang sat across from Lightning and handed her a fruit before tossing one to Sazh as well. "Hotter than I remember," Fang commented, cutting her own fruit in half as Vanille joined their semi-circle. Vanille nodded in thanks as Fang continued. "I don't remember Mah'habara, though, so maybe it was always this hot, yeah?"
Vanille shook her head energetically and took a bite from the fleshy fruit. "I don't remember it being this hot, either, but I wish it weren't! We'll never sleep!"
Hope joined Vanille and was given his dinner by Sazh. "D'you think there's lava or something down there?" He pointed to the fissure in the earth. His voice was full of youthful enthusiasm, so much so that Vanille giggled and pushed him sideways.
"Don't be silly! It's just a big crack in the ground!"
Snow watched the two argue back and forth, a small smile on his lips. It was nice that Hope's mind was on someone other than Lightning.
Another sharp jab met Snow's ribs but this time it was from Lightning, who handed him more than half of the fruit she had been given. Snow tried to protest but Lightning thrust it into his hands. He mumbled his thanks and took a bite from the apple-sized morsel, noting how, as Lightning did the same, the juice from it dripped from her mouth down to her chin. Her lips had been dyed a lovely shade of red.
It was bad enough that she had partially stripped in front of Snow. Now she was being sexy without knowing it. It was driving Snow mad.
His attention was drawn back to the present by squeals from Vanille. She and Hope were now in a shoving match, quite far from the fissure, thankfully. Fang watched with amusement. "Over five hundred years old and she still acts like a kid," she mused, taking a bite off the core. "Some things never change with time." Her eyes wandered towards Snow, who had tossed both his overcoat and his over shirt into a pile atop Lightning's. He was down to a tight black tee.
"What?" Snow grinned. "You know you love it," he added, throwing his arms wide so Fang could get a better look.
"Put all your shit back on! You're emasculating me!" Sazh huffed.
The others chuckled and turned their heads once more to watch the antics of the younger members of the party. The fur sash around Vanille's waist had been abducted by Hope, who now ran four strides ahead of Vanille, daring her to try and get it. His eyes widened in fear when she picked up her Binding Rods and waved them menacingly.
They ran in circles for some time, but none of the adults grew bored of it. They smiled when Hope taunted Vanille, saying he'd give the fur to Sazh to use as a pillow. Snow laughed when Vanille tackled Hope to the ground and tickled him relentlessly. They gasped when Hope accidentally beat her over the head with his boomerang.
Fang, seeing that Vanille was getting ready to summon her newly found eidolon against Hope, shot up to stop her, cursing her heavily for even thinking about it. Lightning stood, stretched, and retreated to the far end of the fissure to try and find some shade, leaving Sazh and Snow alone once again.
"You're watching her awful close, you know," Sazh teased, using his hands as a pillow when he laid back to rest against the earth.
"I could say the same about you," Snow shot back, noting how even now Sazh stared luridly at Lightning while she picked up her gunblade to clean it of the blood that had been accrued throughout the day. Her hands moved down the blade in long, smooth strokes. "I know what you're thinking. That's wrong, man."
Sazh's booming laugh was magnified tenfold by the caverns and rocky cliffs surrounding them. "What can I say? It's been a long time," Sazh shrugged, focusing his attention back on Snow. Though the giant felt the older man's stare on his back, Snow still couldn't help but watch as Lightning removed her vest and revealed the cropped shirt she wore beneath.
Snow nearly choked when he also saw her navel piercing.
And consequently almost died when she unzipped her sweater until the first signs of cleavage appeared.
Holy hell. Today is my lucky day.
He absorbed the sight of Lightning one final time, committing to memory the way her top hugged her curves and ended just below her rib cage. He stared lustily at her exposed midsection, how her skirt was tied quite loosely at the front, and how her piercing sparkled in the sunlight…
"By the way you're mouth is hanging open right now, I'd say it's been just as long for you."
Snow tore his sight away from his sister-in-law and shifted uncomfortably, not answering right away. Sazh, of course, noticed.
"Boss's sister was a long time ago," Sazh scratched his chin. "But I've still got you beat."
"What? Serah? N-no!" Snow sputtered, horror overtaking his normally calm face. "No!"
"Never?" Sazh asked, wonder in his voice.
"No!" Snow repeated, nearly shouting. His raised voice earned one of Lightning's please-shut-up stares, which didn't help ease his nerves.
Sazh grinned stupidly, both at Snow's reaction and at Hope, who had left Vanille and Fang to…whatever it is that they do and clambered to Lightning's side. "We've corrupted him," Sazh motioned towards the boy, who was trying with all his might not to admire Lightning's legs, toned abdomen, or slightly exposed chest. Both men assumed, correctly, that his head was about to explode. "But why never you and Serah…? I mean, you're engaged…"
Snow rubbed his face, hardly able to believe he was actually having this conversation. Better Sazh than Lightning. "It…we weren't like that," he groaned. Embarrassed, he now kicked at the ground. "Serah's younger than me by a few years. It was…" Snow watched Hope take advantage of Lightning's distraction to stare at her unzipped sweater. "It was innocent," Snow managed through clenched teeth. Unlike that brat.
Sazh nodded once, slowly. "I have a question, and you ain't gonna like me for it."
"I already don't," Snow muttered. Sazh heard this and grinned.
"Good, now I don't have to worry." Heaving a large breath he continued. "Why Serah? I mean, from what I know, you had a whirlwind relationship. She's a lot younger than you. And…" Sazh's eyes flitted towards Lightning. "You've been watching her awful close lately."
Snow considered the question for a long stretch of time. Why Serah, indeed? He pursed his lips in thought, grabbing the engagement necklace that hung from his thick neck. Because I loved her. No. I love her. It's not past-tense.
His attentions wandered back to the woman that muddled his thoughts so much during the past few weeks, watching her teach Hope how to properly care for a gunblade. Watched as Hope eagerly took on the lesson, as Lightning guided his hands down the polished steel…
"Serah found the good in everything, in everyone. She was beautiful, intelligent, and so…easy to love. Everything was so simple for her. Everyone was her friend. She was charismatic. It was easy to fall for her. And…"
His throat caught, but not because of his reminiscent memories. He realized then how childish it all sounded, and that it had every reason to sound that way. Serah was a child, despite the mature mindset she would often adopt, especially around Lightning. She was younger than Snow, still a teenager, and her thoughts reflected that. The mere fact that she was so willing to abandon her chance at a college education to be with Snow spoke volumes, though Snow was wont to admit he was glad to hear of her decision at the time.
And Snow had been nothing more than a boy then, uncaring of the world and his responsibilities. He knew nothing of what he was getting in to. Though he always wished to help the world around him, sometimes it was for all the wrong reasons. He wanted glory, he wanted to be the hero, the good guy. The one that would make women pine for him, make them weak-kneed and swoon, but at the end of the day he would always have his damsel to return home to.
He tugged his necklace nervously, carefully avoiding Sazh.
I love Serah, he reminded himself. But why should he have to remind himself of that? If he loved her, it should be self-evident. It shouldn't need excuses or explanations. Why was he doing all the above?
"I made a promise." He didn't know why he said it. Didn't know how it slipped out.
Sazh pat Snow's shoulders a few times before heaving himself up off the ground, adding his own coat to the growing pile in the corner. "You gotta find your own happiness, Trench. No promise will help you there. If you ain't happy, you can't make anybody happy." With that he left to join Fang and Vanille.
Snow grumbled to himself, throwing his bandana into the collection. He ran a hand through his hair, stewing over the conversation that had just transpired. Up and away he goes, as if he didn't just blow everything to damnation. He noticed Lightning's lingering gaze as it settled upon his messy mop of hair.
"What?" he spat, immediately regretting his tone. Lightning's eyes narrowed and she chose then and there to start ignoring him. Hope cast Snow a dirty look, only provoking Snow further. Biting the inside of his cheek Snow stormed off into the narrow, stone corridors of Mah'habara that they had earlier escaped from.
He spun sharply around a corner, throwing himself against the nearest wall, inhaling deeply to calm himself. Why am I so upset? he wondered, once he had regained some of his senses. It had only been an honest question from Sazh: why Serah over Lightning? Any man would ask that. It was understandable. Why, then, was he livid about it?
Snow closed his eyes to help him think. He wasn't angry with Sazh, that much he knew. Though he had snapped at Lightning, she had been undeserving of the irritation. Hope deserved to be chewed out over anyone with the way he blatantly refused to allow Snow and Lightning to be alone together, but Snow had yet to lose his cool around him…
But that didn't explain the frustration and anger coursing through his body. It didn't tell him why he was shaking. He wanted answers.
And so he thought some more.
He recalled the first time he had met Lightning. She had come on Guardian Corps business, intent on investigating the actions of N.O.R.A. to determine whether or not they should be watched closely or shut down completely. Snow was enraptured by her presence and the boys all dared him to approach her and use his suave personality to woo her, as he had done with some of the other ladies in town. He learned quickly that she was not like other women: he was humiliated by her quick words of refusal and belittlement.
After some time had passed he met Serah, and with no small thrill discovered that not only did she resemble Lightning, but she was also Lightning's sister. With Lightning hating everything Snow stood for, and likewise hardly paying him any heed, Snow decided to take this opportunity by the horns.
So he started dating Serah.
He hadn't done it intentionally of course, but looking back on it now, well, it was easy to see. Serah was Snow's ace-in-the-hole to acquire Lightning's attention. It was a sure-fire shot at easing her hatred towards him. Maybe make her jealous.
It didn't work.
Lightning despised Snow even further, growing more hostile than any had
ever seen her. Lightning demanded Snow call things off with Serah but
Snow refused to do so. He recalled his own delight in seeing his
girlfriend's sister teeming with rage at his disregard for her request,
but why he had been so delighted had eluded him until now: he desired
Lightning to notice him. Wanted it so badly that he even accepted her
anger as positive attention.
Was he so pathetic that he'd stoop to such a level—using Serah—to gain a place in Lightning's eyes, no matter how low the standing was that he received?
Snow groaned. He was no hero. He was an ass.
But it didn't stay that way, he thought desperately. I fell in love with Serah and—
Did he really, though? How do I know I loved her? Maybe I just pretended I did so I wouldn't feel so badly about what I was doing…
No. That wasn't true. He loved Serah, and he promised to care for her until the end of his days. He promised Lightning he would—
--why did his promise to Lightning mean more?
Snow clawed for Serah's tear, needing a reminder of her to keep him leveled. His hands fell to his sides when he realized her crystal remained in his trench coat, above Lightning's discarded clothing, utterly forgotten.
Guilt and yet more anger washed over him in waves. Knowing nothing better to do with himself, he opted to vent all his pent-up emotions against the cold, unmoving stone of the cave, repeatedly punching it despite its unwillingness to give.
He ignored the burning sensation as the flesh of his knuckles began to tear and separate. He deserved it for what he did to Serah.
Pain wracked through his hand as he felt his middle knuckle break, but still he continued. He deserved it for lusting after his sister-in-law.
Blood seeped from his knuckles, trailing down his forearm and dripping to the floor. It didn't matter. He deserved far worse for allowing Serah to vanish from his thoughts these past few days.
It was a small price to pay for his betrayal.
Two strong hands gripped his shoulders then, seizing him from behind and spinning Snow sharply around.
"Leave me the hell alone!" Snow cried and, in a blind fury, sent both his fists flying outwards, grimacing as pain rippled through his hands when they connected.
Lightning had caught his right hand easily, but the left struck her squarely in the chest and sent her flying backwards in the narrow passageway. Her back met the hard stone behind her and the force with which she hit bounced her forward again.
She doubled over, gasping for breath as Snow kneeled down, anguish distorting his features.
"Oh hell no. No, no, no…Lightning? Lightning, are you okay? Talk to me, Light," he whimpered, separating the wall of hair that had spilled between them to examine her face. Her eyes were shut tightly, her mouth a severe frown. "Light…Light, I'm so sorry, I—"
"Shut up, Snow," she wheezed, her mouth a thin line. "I'm fine."
Snow wanted to argue, ask how she could be fine when, even now, he could see a purple outline of a bruise forming above her zipper; while she was doubled over and unable to catch her breath.
She righted herself slowly, only once touching the spot where Snow had struck her, and even then it was only a fleeting touch. He saw her set her jaw, though whether from pain or annoyance was anyone's guess.
They stood there awkwardly,
only inches apart. Snow, though aware of Lightning's lack of
clothing, didn't even bother to appreciate her form. His eyes alternated
from the purpling bruise to Lightning's pained expression, one that she
was quickly trying to hide.
He wanted to embrace her, apologize profusely and beg for her forgiveness.
He wanted to turn around and beat the wall some more.
He deserved to jump off the cliff.
Instead he remained where he stood, motionless and unblinking.
Silence settled between them as she took his left hand in hers, the same hand that had so violently lashed out against her attempt to save Snow from damaging himself further. Lightning examined it closely, using her fingers to test various parts of the delicate bones and tissues. Once she was satisfied with the extent of her search, her fingers began to glow that too-familiar green.
Lightning was healing him.
The magic was pouring from her in vast quantities, but not enough to match the way his body greedily lapped up her energy. He filled his own magical reserves, unwillingly, before his body decided it high time to heal the damage he had inflicted upon himself. His skin pulled together, mending itself until nothing remained of his wounds other than thin, pink lines where open gashes had been.
Snow closed his eyes, holding back guilt-ridden tears that threatened to spill over. He had raised his hand against Lightning and instead of screaming at him, cursing him, beating him…she was repairing him.
"Light," he whispered thickly, feeling her grab the other hand to repeat the process. The magic, her magic, flowing within him was so warm, so comforting. Forgiving, almost.
All his memories of Serah had flown away as quickly as Lightning had come.
He felt his knuckle be set back into place, but that was by Lightning's own skilled hands and not her l'Cie abilities.
Snow wondered then if she remembered healing him at Hope's house, so long ago.
"I'm sorry," he echoed, her words still ringing in his ears as if it had been yesterday. "Forgive me."
"For what?" She asked lightly, her eyes flickering to Snow before resuming the final length of healing. When she was finished she withdrew her hands from him completely.
Snow, at the absence of her touch, opened his eyes and drew his scant knowledge of medical abilities to the forefront of his mind, struggling to summon his own cure. His fingers, aided in no small part by Lightning's stockpile of energy he had hoarded within him, began to glow as well. He placed his palm on the flat of Lightning's chest, barely above her breasts and brand, where the bruise was beginning to well.
The warmth of her skin made Snow forget his troubles from earlier. With much courage and little hesitation, Snow slid his entire hand beneath the sweater Lightning wore until her bruise was no longer covered by cloth, just Snow's skin.
Her heartbeat nearly doubled, but Snow blamed that on his magic now invading her body. He was no healer, not by a long shot, but he hoped she understood that he was trying to make things right.
When the bruise vanished entirely, Snow took another step in towards Lightning, pressing his forehead against her own while tenderly laying a hand on her shoulder, his other remaining directly over her heart.
"For everything," he whispered, closing his eyes yet again and inhaling that creamy scent that was Lightning's.
Lightning was stiff beneath him, but she had the option of retreat if she chose. She did not, and this instilled no small amount of confidence within Snow.
They stood there for an unknown length of time, neither daring to move. Snow, at one point, peeked through narrow slits to observe the woman that had become his salvation and damnation. Her eyes were closed as well, but her brows were deeply furrowed and her lips downturned.
Those lips shouldn't always look so sad, Snow thought. A fleeting idea to rectify the situation entered his mind, but was quickly interrupted.
"Snow? Lightning? Where are you guys?"
Fang. Damn it all.
Lightning flew wildly back from Snow, her eyes wide in shock and horror. Snow watched her reaction with a sinking heart.
Fang strolled around the corner and paused at the scene. "Uh, sorry…you guys were gone for awhile and…uh, should I leave?" She asked hesitantly, noting Snow's disheveled hair and Lightning's mostly-absent clothing.
"Why should you leave?" Lightning asked coldly, striding past Snow to join Fang's side. "We were just talking about Snow's engagement." She glanced quickly towards Snow. "We were just about to come back out."
"Really now," Fang wondered, observing the crestfallen Snow. "Well, Hope's been going crazy at camp. I wouldn't be surprised if he comes charging in here soon. He practically forced me in here to find you." She looked between Snow and Lightning several times, a small smile on her lips.
Hope. Hope again.
Lightning tried to smirk but it appeared to be more of a grimace. "I'll go back now," she said quickly, pushing past Fang before breaking into a jog towards their base for the night.
Fang lingered behind. "Wanna tell me what's going on?"
Snow rubbed his knuckles, hardly daring to trust his voice. What the hell was he doing? What the hell did he just do? Why the hell did Hope have to send Fang in here?
"I wouldn't know where to start," he smiled weakly, running his fingers absently through his hair. It was near enough to the truth.
Fang crossed her arms over her chest. "You can start with what happened just now. I saw enough to know that you weren't talking about any engagement."
Snow threw his hands in the air. "I might as well start thinking about it now, shouldn't I?" he hissed, storming directly past Fang, fists clenched, and followed Lightning's footsteps back to camp. His fury had returned, but this time it was aimed at Hope.
He was sick of his shit. The kid was going to pay.