A/N: This story directly follows Eventual Destination. If you haven't read that one, then this won't make any sense.
Chapter 1: Starting Today
"At this rate, we're never getting married."
"Excuse me?" Lightning whipped around to glare at me.
I hadn't realized that I'd spoken aloud. Though, she deserved to hear it, because it had been at the forefront of my mind for months on end. Each time we'd come up with some sort of date: a month from now, sometime in the spring, or maybe winter, then again summer would be good too, Rygdea would call up with some urgent assignment. All bookings, rentals, plans, etc. had to be trashed because off she'd go, whisked across the globe.
Fang was his second-in-command in name only; he definitely favored Lightning for anything important. This week was the rare occasion where I was actually on break from college and was able to travel with her. The cave we were exploring was cold, damp, and smelled of minerals that leached into your skin even after showering.
"Oh boy, this'll be fun. When my dad calls tonight to ask how we're doing, I can tell him all about how I'm a veteran spelunker. And that Rygdea hates me, and is doing this shit on purpose." I ran a finger along the slick wall beside me, "There is totally nothing here."
"Just because you're cold, doesn't mean you have to act grouchy." Lightning huffed and then kept wandering further into the darkness, her flaming palm casting shadows over me. "How many times do I have to explain? Atomos doesn't act randomly. Majority of the time, his tunnels intersect with these underground pathways. And we always find something or someone in them."
"Sure, but all the video feed that you've shown me wasn't nearly this long. Almost like Atomos wanted you to find those temples or those people. If, and this is a big if… If there is something here, someone probably hid it for a reason. We've had to blast through three cave-ins already… and they looked man-made." I stood still, trying to listen for anything besides our steps and the slow dripping of water. "Doesn't it bother you that we haven't run into a single creature since we broke off from your squad?"
Her boots crunched across the rocky surface. "Will you stop complaining? Please. Gods, Hope. I haven't been home in five weeks. I don't want to spend our entire time together with you bitching."
I slumped forward and rested my chin on her shoulder. So as not to burn her, I extinguished the flames in my hands before wrapping my arms around her midsection. "When you invited me to visit, I pictured less dark caves with bulky gear," I began to whisper into ear, "and more dark bedrooms with nudity."
She reached back to pinch my nose firmly, "Did you forget we're mic'ed? Video feed? Everyone is watching, remember?"
To be completely honest, that had slipped my mind. But I didn't really care. It would be a subtle reminder, that while the military had her loyalty, I had everything else.
"Rygdea?" I said, tapping my communicator to engage it, "Have the other teams come back yet? Light and I haven't seen any indications so far that we've picked the right vein. Anyone see something down the other branches?"
"Nope. Head back if you don't find something in the next ten minutes. Looks like a storm is on its way and we still have to shuttle everyone back to camp."
Lightning's boots clicked on the stone as she strode ahead of me. Clicked. They clicked instead of crunched into the gravel like they'd been doing the past hour. I looked down and saw that the further we walked, the more marble pavement was exposed. The large tiles reminded me of the Vestige, and my stomach dropped.
"We need to turn around." I grabbed at her hand, trying to yank her backwards. "Now."
She stroked her thumb gently over my knuckles. "That feeling is normal. Anytime Fang or I get close to one of the temples, we can sense it. Primal-ly. It's a hangover from when they used them to convert l'Cie. Vanille gets violently ill; that's why she stays behind in communications to watch the feed." She smiled with a bit of shame. "Probably why you started acting out back there, you could feel it even before I could. Sorry I didn't warn you. If I told you, you wouldn't have come. The second you called Rygdea to back out, I knew we must have been close."
"Just to be clear. We aren't going to listen to our built in defensive radar that says, 'DANGER! This is bad! Turn back now!'? Because I'm all about listening to my running away instinct. It's kept me alive."
She snorted and kissed me on the cheek, despite the recording. "Keep telling yourself that. When have you ever run away before?"
"I can start today."
The path widened into a clearly framed hallway. The walls and ceiling were square to each other and covered in the same marble tiles underfoot. The dank atmosphere caused the wet surfaces to shine like mirrors. Magic permeated every cubic centimeter of the air, heavy in my lungs and weighing down my limbs. Even when we'd fought Orphan, I hadn't felt such physical depth to a fal'Cie's magic. Something about the room scared the hell out of me. Whatever was in here was something else.
The rhythmic, yet silent pulse within the room shifted any preconceived notions I had about our hierarchy in this world. If I could put it into words, suddenly the fal'Cie seemed like royalty. But whatever inhabited this space was far closer to a deity.
"What… is that?" Suddenly, Lightning let go of me and raced off toward a blurry shape in the distance.
The hallway ended and a grand multistory cavern lit up unaided. The source of the light seemed to radiate straight from a blue crystal at its very center.
"Why does this look so famil…." Her words died off.
By the time I caught up with Lightning, she had placed her hand to the illuminated crystal. It was a throne, with outcroppings jutting from the top like spires. Its seat was so far off the ground that she would've had to make a series of running flips to reach it. I doubted I could have scrambled up there if I tried. The throne glowed through her palm, revealing every vein and bone in her hand. Then something else caught her attention. She peered around the back side of the pillar.
"There's someone here," she said, not particularly to me.
"Hold on," I tried to grasp for her, wanting to pull her out of whatever trance she was in.
She would always be faster than me, stronger than me, better than me in almost every way. But impulsivity, well, we both sucked at that one.
Before I could get a hold of her, she'd darted behind the throne and lunged for the statue. He was kneeling prostrate. His hair falling beside one side of his face. Bits of crystal looked as if they were caught mid-splash, rising up around his feet. A giant set of spikes burst from his back like frozen wings.
I threw myself at her, and barely managed to latch onto her wrist before her fingertip touched him. Losing balance, I jerked us both to the ground.
"What the hell is wrong with you?" she said to me, finally back to normal.
I barely heard her, because like an idiot, I braced myself on the nearest object to stand. The instant my palm made contact, an explosion rang across the cavernous room. Dust rose from the floor and boulders dropped from the ceiling. Rocks pelted us, and I was immediately knocked out.