Author: Raziel12 PM
The Estheim family is headed West, but to make the journey they'll need a guide. A Western themed AU. NOT connected to Stetsons and Fal'Cie.Rated: Fiction K+ - English - Adventure/Family - Lightning & Hope - Chapters: 18 - Words: 61,595 - Reviews: 103 - Favs: 61 - Follows: 25 - Updated: 03-04-11 - Published: 01-18-11 - Status: Complete - id: 6664946
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
I still remember the first time I met Lightning. I was a few months shy of my fourteenth birthday and my family and I were headed out West. There was land out West, plenty of it, and my father had worked hard to save the money we needed to buy a great big patch of it. We were on our way there, having pulled up stakes from the big city, to start out new in the big open spaces of the West.
There was only one problem. The trip out West wasn't a short one. In fact, it took just about three months, and that was with good weather and even better luck. The terrain out there was tough and the wildlife was mighty dangerous. As it was, the land might be fertile and plentiful, but to get out there and actually live long enough to enjoy it, you needed a guide. Father was a clever fellow and he'd had a guide set up for just on a year now, but when we arrived at Midgar, the last real town before the land gave way to the wilds of the West, the news wasn't good. Our guide hadn't made it back for his last trip and all things considered, that meant he was probably dead.
Without a guide there was no way we'd make it out West and with everything we owned packed up into a pair of wagons, it wasn't like we could just turn back either. So we needed a guide and we needed one fast. My father asked around and the word was that there was a saloon out on the southern edge of town where a man could find a guide if he wanted to head out West.
Mother had some friends in town, people we could trust, so my father left her and the wagons with them and brought me along with him to look for a guide. We found the saloon easily enough, but really, it wasn't much to look at. The woodwork was all half rotted and weather-beaten and there was an old fellow out the front with no small number of empty whiskey bottles scattered on the porch around him.
Things weren't much better on the inside, either. The scent of tobacco was heavy in the air, along with the smell of spilt liquor. It was dark in there too, the kind of twilight brought on by bad company as much as bad lighting. The bar was at the far end of the saloon and there were tables scattered about in haphazard fashion. There was a poker game going at one of them and as we drew near, they laid down their cards to look at us. I didn't like the look in their eyes. If their eyes had just been cold that wouldn't have bothered me too much. Strangers were strangers, after all, and in places like this, strangers were rarely welcome. No, it was the greedy gleam in their eyes, a glitter that spoke of promises broken and decency long forgotten.
"I'm looking for a guide out West," father said simply. "And I've got fifty dollars and food for the trip for the man to do it."
A low rustle ran through the saloon at that, carried from the tables closest to us, all the way to the scruffy clumps of men by the walls and bar. Fifty dollars was a lot of money, especially to people this. In the end it was one of the poker players who stood, a tall fellow, blonde, and powerfully built. Still, for all that he was fit looking, there was a meanness about him that came not so much from anything that showed on the outside, but from what little you could tell about what was inside.
"I'll take you out West. How far are you headed?"
Father nodded once, crisply. "I'm headed out to the Archelyte Steppes."
The tall man whistled. "That's plenty far, stranger." He grinned and there was something cruel in the expression. "You make that wage a solid eighty and I'll see what I can do for you."
"You'll see what you can do for them?" The words came from far down the back of the saloon, the speaker all but lost in the shadows. Yet there was no doubting that the speaker was a woman. "For eighty dollars, you'd better see what you can do for them."
"You butting in on my business, Lightning?" the tall man said, turning to pin the speaker with a sharp look. "There's no call for that."
"I've no care about your dealings, Seifer. But that man isn't here on his own, or did you miss the boy beside him? No, he's got no need for your sort, Seifer." The words were softly spoken, but in the sudden hush that had fallen over the bar, the woman, Lightning, seemed to snap them out, and each carried the force of a whiplash across the back.
Seifer snarled, his tall frame taut with fury and turned back to father. "You going to listen to some trash like her?"
Father said nothing for a moment, but I could see him peering into the shadows to where the woman sat, and though I couldn't see her much at all, he seemed to be weighing his words up very carefully. Finally father spoke. "I fancy myself a fair judge of character, and I think I'll take her word for it."
The expression on Seifer's face was an ugly one and I couldn't help but take a step back as the tall man's fists clenched at his side. But before he could speak, the woman was talking again, voice as soft as before, but just as biting.
"Leave the man be, Seifer. If you've a problem, then it's with me."
And then, for the first time, Lightning stepped from the shadows and into the light and I'm not ashamed to say that I stopped and stared, for only a statute could have seen her then and remained unmoved. She wasn't dressed like most of the other people we'd seen about town, especially the types who roamed the wilds. Instead of the usual browns and blacks, her trousers, and jacket were dark grey. Her vest, showing just a little as she stood, her jacket swinging open, was a lighter grey and her shirt was fine spun white linen. Despite the dust that seemed to cling to everything out here, the whole of her clothing was somehow unsullied, a little worn perhaps from long years of hard usage, but clean and well cared for.
Yet more distinctive even that the grey and white of her clothing were the splashes of colour about her person. There was the scarf about her neck, a deep, almost bloody red, and beneath her grey Stetson I could see pink hair, a shade I'd never seen before. But it was her eyes that caught and held me most, for they were a brighter, truer blue than anything I'd ever seen. And her eyes were burning now, blazing with an a fierce intensity so great that for all that she stood much smaller than Seifer, I couldn't help but think that she somehow measured more than him on any scale that mattered.
"That's the last time you'll be interfering in my business, Lightning," Seifer said and he bit off each word like it was poison and his whole frame tensed and shivered as he turned to face her. He was mad down to his boots, that was plain enough, and he meant to have satisfaction.
Faster than I thought a man his size could move, he drove forward at Lightning. Yet as fast as he was, she was faster still. In all my life, I never thought I'd see someone move as fast as she did. At the last moment, she stepped neatly to one side and his fist swung past her face. He rounded on her quickly, lashing out in a storm of blows, but she was too quick for him, all but dancing through the blows, each movement smooth and easy and perfectly controlled as she made him miss by what seemed like miles. Finally, she struck back. She drove on hand up and into his gut as he rushed past and a shudder ran through him before she whipped her other hand into his chin. The blow snapped his head back and she caught hold of his arm and swung him up and over her shoulder.
He sailed through the air and crashed onto a table. The table broke beneath his weight and he laid there, sprawled half unconscious amidst the broken bits of wood. Lightning didn't move, merely gazed down at him with a coldness that I could feel from across the room. For a long moment, he just stared back at her, shaking his head to clear it, and the hate was clear in his eyes as he dropped one hand to the gun at his belt –
And then he stopped. It took me a moment to realise why, but then I saw. Lightning's hands were no longer folded over her chest, instead one hand had dropped to her waist and her jacket was pushed back just far enough for me to see the glint of metal. There was a gun there, elegant in the simplicity of its deadliness and her hand was there on the handle, loose and easy.
"You've lost your pride already, Seifer. Move again for your gun and you'll lose your life, as well, unless you think you can beat me to the draw."
Seifer gave a grunt, but dropped his hand to the ground. Lightning turned away from him tossed some coins at the bar before she walked right past father and I and out onto the dusty street. Father watched her for a moment and then smiled.
"Come on, Hope, I think we've found ourselves a guide."
A guide? I couldn't help but be puzzled, for this Lightning hadn't said a word about being our guide, hadn't even looked at us. Still, when we got out, she was there with a gold chocobo already saddled and ready. She met father's gaze for a moment and then glanced over to me and then back to him.
"You said you needed a guide?" Her words were soft as before, but hard.
"Yes," father said. "I've a wife and son." He pointed at me. "We call him Hope. As for me, I'm Bartholomew Estheim, although most people make it Bart. I've land out West but I'll need a guide to get to it."
Lightning nodded and then her eyes shifted again, not hard, but cool, calculating, like she was taking our measure. "It's a tough journey out to the Archeltype Steppes, tougher too for city folk."
"How'd you know we were from the city?" I blurted before I could stop myself. I winced then, as her eyes shifted to me, afraid somehow that I'd offended her.
But if she was angry, she'd didn't look it. She merely raised one eyebrow the smallest fraction and then she seemed to lose herself for a moment, almost as though she were looking at me and seeing someone else. And then she was back in the present and though she didn't smile, her eyes were softer – but still plenty hard – and her voice was cool, without being cold. "Asking questions is a good idea, Hope, but be careful how and when you ask them. To answer you, I could tell you two were city folk from the way you dressed and how you spoke. Fact of the matter is, only someone from the city would be fool enough to speak so loudly about fifty dollars in a place like that." She cast a disdainful look back at the saloon. "Still, Bart, you've got to know that most city folk can't make a journey, at least not without all sorts of trouble."
"We can make it," father said. "I'm not raised out in these parts, but I can be rugged when I need to be. Hope's tough too, even if he's got a bit of growing left to do and Nora, my wife, was born in these parts."
Lightning nodded. "If you're sure, then for fifty dollars you've hired yourself a guard." And then she added, more to herself than us. "Besides, it's about time I left this place behind."
The walk back to where mother was staying with our wagons was an odd one. Father wasn't a talker in the best of circumstances and Lightning turned out to be plenty quiet too. In the end, I spent most of my time just watching her and she was interesting to watch. For one, she moved with a curious mix of elegance and restraint, almost like she was afraid of letting go in case that deadly energy that we'd seen earlier with Seifer spilled out of her. But mostly it was the way she watched things – everything, really. Her eyes were always moving, ticking off each person, each thing, each motion she saw. It might've been the middle of the day on a busy street, but she determined not to be caught off guard. And it wasn't like she was trying to do it, in fact, I got the impression this sort of thing was just part of who she was, or else was so ingrained that it was second nature.
Only once did her eyes stop and rest on anything more than a split-second. As we walked past a saloon, a drunken man stumbled out with his gun in one hand. Likely as not, he meant no harm, was probably too drunk to even do anything, but the moment he looked our way, a great current of energy swept through Lightning. Her stance, poised, grew almost rigid and her eyes blazed with that cold blue fire and the drunk, poor man, could only stop and stare in sudden, shocked terror, before his gun slipped from his fingers. Not bothering to pick it up, he stumbled back into the saloon and it was only then that the tension drained from Lightning.
Mother was staying with our wagons at a bar called Seventh Heaven, which was run by an old friend of hers named Tifa. When we got there, mother was out front and when she saw Lightning with us, she gave father a sort of funny look.
"Good afternoon, stranger," she said primly to Lightning. "Who might you be?"
"I'm Lightning," Lightning replied, her surname conspicuous in its absence. "I'm your guide."
"Our guide?" Mother looked surprised for a moment, but hid it well, her pretty features creased for only the briefest of moments. "I'm pleased to meet you then."
And then she was pulling father inside the bar and I followed them as best I could. Behind me, Lightning was already looking over our wagons keenly, her mind already on the job ahead.
Mother dragged father over to a corner of the bar and I stopped following them just long enough to wave at Tifa who was behind the bar. Tifa was pretty with eyes like wine and long black hair and it was easy to see why all the folks who dropped in were so sweet on her. Truth was though, she had eyes only for a courier by the name of Cloud who shared the living quarters upstairs with her, even though they weren't married or even, according to what I'd overheard, even in any sort of relationship. Still, she was a friend of my mother's and she'd give me a bottle of soda pop for the small price of a smile.
I snuck as close as I could to mother and father without being too obvious that I was trying to listen in. Tifa worked out pretty quick what I was doing and moved over to wipe a table next to me and make some small talk so we could listen in.
"She's our guide, Bart?" Mother said, voice worried. "I can see she's plenty tough – she'd have to be to survive out here – but you've got to have noticed it too. She wasn't born out here, and she's got to have lived well to pick up clothes like that. Do you really think she can take us where we need to go?"
"Look, Nora, I know she's lived well and I can tell she wasn't born out here just as easily as you can, but there's toughness in her stronger than anything I've seen and you and I both know I've met some pretty tough folks." Father sighed. "I don't think you should worry too much about what she was – think about what she is instead."
Tifa smiled at that and cleared her throat to get my folks' attention. "I'd listen to Bart, Nora. Lightning hasn't been here too long, but I can tell you this: she's plenty tough, maybe not born tough, but she'd been made tough, made tough in the way that only long years of hardship can. And that's the toughest sort of tough." Tifa punched her right fist into her left palm. "Trust me, after all, I'm pretty tough myself."
I grinned. Tough was an understatement. According to mother, Tifa had been seen no small amount of trouble back east and she had something a reputation in fisticuffs. Besides, in the short time I'd been in Midgar, I'd seen her knock several overeager patrons from pillar to post for trying to do more than just admire her looks from afar. Strange as it sounded, it had been quite pretty to watch her knock around men almost twice her size like they were ragdolls. Yes, if anyone could just Lightning properly, Tifa could.
"If you're sure," mother said softly.
Father looked at Tifa, grateful, and then nodded. "I'm sure, Nora. I've seen her type before. People like her can go two ways. The bad ones are the worst kind of poison there is, but the good ones, the ones like her, are the best sort of folks you could ever hope to meet in a situation like ours. Sure, she's gruff, maybe even cold, but she's honest through and through and her word is as good as gold. Sure enough, you'll see, she'll not let harm come to us as long as she can help it."
"Fine." Mother sighed. "I guess that's how it is."
It was then that Lightning appeared in the doorway of the bar. It occurred to me that she had probably heard every word that we'd spoken, but she looked calm enough. She looked at me first and then at Tifa, and she gave the other woman a curt sort of nod as their eyes met, wine on sapphire. Then her eyes were on mother and father and she stood there calm and easy, waiting for mother to speak.
Mother looked at Lightning again, long and lingering, and Lightning looked back at her. Finally, mother seemed to see what she wanted and her face broke out into one of those warm, lovely smiles that father and I would have given all the money in the world for.
"Why don't you stay for dinner, Lightning? Tifa and I will be cooking and I'd like to get to know you a little better," mother said.
For the barest second, Lightning's features softened and then that cool, indifferent look was back, but there was a warmth in her gaze that lingered a fraction longer before she forced it back. "That's mighty generous of you, Nora. Just give me a moment to see to my chocobo outside."
X X X
First of all, I neither own Final Fantasy, nor am I making any money off of this.
So anyway, I've been tossing around various ideas for a longer FF XIII fic set in a Western AU and this is what ended up happening. In case it wasn't made clear at some point during the chapter, things are from Hope's POV. You might also have noticed that I've been a little inconsistent with the setting. For example, they use guns, but there are chocobos. This is a matter of personal preference, since I think chocobos can fit into a Western setting (whereas velocycles probably wouldn't work so well). For those of you wondering about the bartender or the tall man in the saloon, the choice of names was deliberate. I thought it would be fun to translate some of the other FF characters into the same Western setting as Lightning and the others. Finally, for those of you who are wondering, this story is NOT connected to Stetsons and Fal'Cie in any way.
As always, I appreciate your feedback. Reviews and comments are welcome.