Close. We're so close.
The Connection was maybe a quarter of a mile away. The crudely made signs were illuminated with old technology so any travelers could see where it was they needed to go. They were almost there: they just had one final obstacle in their way.
Her blade was out at her side as she circled protectively around Hope, her eyes locked onto two wild canines that looked like they were starving. This would make the twenty-fifth occasion she wished she had been more careful with her supply of bullets, since she could have offed these guys thirty seconds ago if she had rationed them better. But, alas, she had not, and now she was here with nothing but a blade that was beginning to feel too short to protect a life.
One of the dogs lowered itself, preparing to jump but wanting to seem as if it would do nothing more than stand there. She, too, lowered into a crouch with her muscles flexed to respond. The situation forced her fighting style to change and she was at a disadvantage because of it. Hope, though gifted with a smaller blade for the journey, was still too unaccomplished to make use of it. Without a weapon, he was defenseless and open to attack. She had to remain close to him at all times or else make sure the enemies' focus was completely on her.
While waiting for the fight to start she and Hope slowly backed up towards their exit. Hope looked like he wanted to just run for it and save Lightning the trouble of a fight but he knew, from previous experience, that it was never going to work.
Finally the moment happened that she had been waiting for: the wolfhound jumped. As soon as it did, the second dog pivoted and made a beeline to flank her. She grabbed Hope by the waist and threw him to the side, using the new space to roll backwards and bring up her sword to prevent the attack. Her ungloved, freezing, numb hands fumbled with the blade but she managed to recover somewhat. Instead of aiming the point into the beast's heart, the flat of the blade smacked its head to the side.
The second dog veered in towards Lightning's ankles, snarling and teeth bared. She danced back and sliced the frigid air at its neck, its agility moving it to safety in the nick of time. A second thrust, this time aimed at its chest, was similarly unsuccessful.
The days of little to no sleep and lack of food was getting to her.
She snarled as viciously as the dog and opened herself up for attack. As she predicted, the dog that had initially jumped her was the stupid one and tried taking advantage of her defenselessness again. At the very last moment, and with a tight grip on the hilt of her sword this time, she brought her beautifully-upgraded weapon from her left hand to her right, dragging the tip across the frozen ground before lifting it and shoving it into the fell beast's heart.
She moved to remove the blade but, as she did so, a cry from Hope alerted her to the monster that had taken the time to move to her rear before attacking. An attempt was made to remove her sword but she failed the first time around and the situation didn't grant her enough time for a second chance. She cried out in frustration and whirled around, lashing out with powerful legs at the beast that was less than a foot away from her. She kicked its face and made it howl, but its claws had been reaching for her, too, and cut its way through her layers of clothes to bury themselves in her skin. She grit her teeth together to keep from voicing her pain, lashing out again with her foot at the dog that had already recovered.
She inched back towards her weapon, never taking her eyes off the living opponent before her. She needed her blade to win this and she had to get it, fast.
The monster wolf moved with her, stepped with her, breathed with her. Their eyes were locked together and, for a moment, she felt she could empathize with this poor, starving creature that was only trying to survive.
But I'm trying to survive, too, and I'm not going to lose.
She groped blindly behind her until she felt her hand wrap around familiar metal. A victorious smile nearly spilled over her face until she reminded herself that she first needed to get it loose. She tugged a few times, the wolf still eyeing her hungrily as it hunched down, ready to pounce.
Its back legs tensed.
Her arms tensed.
It growled at her and she roared in defiance.
It was midair when she wrenched her blade from her previous victory; the wolf was hilt-deep on top of her supine body by the time she realized it was dead.
She heard Hope running towards her, could hear him breathlessly ask if she was okay. She hurried to use her heel to hide the gash she had been awarded for her battle, covering it with untorn pant leg. "Yeah, I'm fine," she said, dirty fur getting into her mouth. Her arms pushed the beast off of her, tossing it to the side next to its friend. "Just a close call."
Relief washed over his face at her words. "I was worried for a second there," he said, holding out a hand to help her up. She accepted it and tried to hide her wince when her wounded leg hit his knee. "I should know better than to worry about you in a fight, though, huh?"
She tugged his hat over his eyes after testing the strength of her leg and composing herself. "You really should," she said with half a smile, putting all her weight onto her wounded limb. It wasn't bad. Walking shouldn't be an issue.
Infection, on the other hand…
Hope fixed his hat, grinning up at Lightning as he did so. His eyes followed the path of her own, and then he turned to look at the sign that Lightning was observing. "We're almost there. Finally." He jumped to her side and gave a formal bow, his hands motioning towards the exit of the damned planet. "Shall we?"
"Hell yes." They both smiled at each other, both using whatever humor they could muster to hide their anxiety about what was to come. Side-by-side they made their way to the Connection and, with Lightning leading the way, they descended down to the land they had both grown to love.
When her feet hit solid ground again she turned around and froze in her tracks. The sudden change between what laid behind and the life before her made her pause.
Her eyes scanned over the unfamiliar scene, trying to remember what the base had looked like before. When she left there had been little of note going on at the refugee camp aside from people sobbing and moaning and finding reasons why they shouldn't have to work and keep their mind off of things. Now, though, she was surprised to see small huts and lean-to's popping up out of the landscape every few yards. Where once a decent-sized clearing was, now a budding city of ragged people trying to make a living had appeared. The tree line was further away than she remembered, and a part of her wondered how hard it would be to find familiar faces again now that the territory had expanded.
A hand, once small and now not so much, crept into her own. She didn't even bother giving Hope a sidelong, appraising eye: they both were a little uneasy. Everything had changed so quickly that she couldn't criticize him for seeking comfort.
She gave his gloved hand a tight squeeze and pulled him forward, trudging between houses full of faces that were living and smiling. It all seemed so foreign to finally be among the living again, to be in the warmth amid shelters that were full of people. After what seemed like years in the freezing cold, treading lightly among the dead, hoping the feral beasts that were now much stronger than she wouldn't hear…
Do I belong in a place like this now? With people like this?
"I don't remember it being so loud," Hope said, wincing when a little girl nearby shrieked in delight.
Her eyes fell on the small girl as they passed; she was squirming to get away from what Lightning assumed was her brother. "Maybe we just forgot." She smirked, more to herself than to Hope. "It's not like we're great with people. We probably avoided this stuff when we could."
"I never avoid things," Hope said simply, not bothering to hide a small smile of his own.
She weaved around people hard at work improving their temporary homes. Women and young girls were gathering laundry, getting food prepared to eat, mending clothes, and doing menial tasks that they never once would have had to do on their own when they were on Cocoon. They once had everything at their every beck-and-call there, only needing to get up to take a piss or go to work.
Funny how when things go to hell they finally remember how to live for themselves.
A few men were milling around camp carrying dead animals or displaying a bunch of fish with pride. More men were off in the distance, tiny colored dots near the trees. They might have been working to get more wood for their encampment, or maybe they were working on the perimeter; either way she would find out soon enough, but probably after sleeping for a full forty-eight hours. It had been a long while since she had gotten any proper rest. Thoughts of what lay in her wake kept her turning, and dread for what might be awaiting her made her mind spin over itself.
Though she had devoted a lot of time to thinking about the situation between Serah and Snow and, admittedly, herself, she never really thought about what to do about it. If Serah and Snow were still together then…what? Should she go to their wedding, pat them both on the back, and pretend that she never tried to make a move on her brother-in-law?
Or if they were apart now, separated by a Lightning-shaped wedge, then would she be able to happily crawl into Snow's arms and let Serah fall completely from her mind?
Both options were foolish, she knew, and were extremes of the other. She didn't know how she was going to properly cope with the decisions made without her being there but she wasn't sure if she had to know. Her entire life revolved around coping, not knowing. She was good at it. Or she pretended she was. Either way, she'd deal with it what was to come whether she was ready or not.
That thought was the only thing keeping her feet moving. If indecision struck her she would falter in her tracks. All her progress would be lost in an instant; fear of the unknown would send her back to that icy coffin she just escaped without giving it a second thought.
That fear was half the reason she was the way she was. Her mastering the art of the sword was insurance, a way for her to know that, because she excelled, there was only one way a battle could end. Never once did she have to doubt herself or fear the outcome of a fight all because she had prepared well for it. If ever she was unable to deal with something in her life, she'd run off to find her newest target to overcome with her battle prowess. She could control a battle, even when everything else around her was falling to pieces.
She knew now it was another reason why she had left Serah on her own for work: she didn't know how to be a mom, but she was damn good at being a soldier. Maybe she just used the excuse of money to make her feel better about her incompetence as her sister's guardian.
This thing with Snow was different, though. Her sword wasn't helping her and running was only making the problem worse. Her body language, her rough words, her icy demeanor wasn't aiding her fight through the foreignness of the situation like it usually did. For every shove, he pushed back just as hard. Whenever she tried to force him away he'd draw ever nearer, demanding to know why he had to be at arm's reach. He wasn't an animal, wasn't a criminal, and she didn't know what to do and her ineptness had caused…this.
She sighed and brushed her hair out of her eyes, looking back over her shoulder again towards Cocoon. Goodbye, Normalcy. Hello, Chaos.
Hope was watching her steadily throughout their jaunt through shantytown. "You're not thinking of anything…irrational, right?"
She gave him a sidelong glance. "Maybe."
"Please, don't. I've had enough of irrational for a little while."
A pull drew him closer to her, dragging him near enough to push with her elbow. "I didn't ask you to come along."
"You never would have made it without me," he grinned back, tripping over a rock as he did so.
She rolled her eyes at him, not wanting to admit how true that could have been, and continued on, noticing that the huts were spread further apart at this point. The outskirts of the refugee camp were drawing near and she was pretty certain that she would be able to find at least one familiar face there. One thing she could appreciate about some of her traveling companions was that they knew when to become scarce, and the time was ripe for the former l'Cie to become so.
Eyes flickered back and forth, looking through a sea of unfamiliar face to find someone that would stand out. A halo of brown curls, a tall blonde head, a pretty cascade of pink—
Maybe not that one, actually.
Hell, even Gadot would be a welcome face to see after the shit they'd gone through. She was pretty sure he was capable enough to follow the road from Eden to the Connection without getting killed, and he did say he intended on finding Snow. Maybe she should start looking for the lumbering ox with the stupid hair-do instead?
"Do you remember Gadot?"
"Nope," Hope said, his eyes swiveling just as furiously as Lightning's.
"Big oaf of a guy. Stupid hair – orange Mohawk. Tried to make it look like flames. One of Snow's friends?"
His eyes raised upwards for a moment in thought. "Oh, yeah, I remember him. I liked his hair," he added as an afterthought. "It was pretty cool."
She stopped in her tracks, pulling Hope to a stop as well, and raised her eyebrow. "No, Hope, it looks awful. Don't try to think otherwise. Now," she resumed her previous pace and again yanked Hope to a jog, "keep an eye out for him and Snow's other friends, too. We might have an easier time finding them. They stand out."
He voiced a simple agreement and began searching around him in with increased earnestness. Without really realizing what they were doing they had divided the camp into something like a grid and made their way through each invisible square. She hadn't lingered here long and she couldn't recall where they had stayed for their first night; now that the population had increased tenfold and buildings had sprouted up everywhere, she knew she'd never find that same spot again.
So they searched for some time until they came upon a river that she recalled from two occasions: the first was when they crash landed on Pulse and the second was when she had come here to wash off her face after Cocoon had been destroyed. She turned around to detail her findings to Hope, but he wasn't even paying attention to her. She glanced up, to where his eyes were focusing, and saw two afros bobbing hastily towards them.
"Is that Sazh?" Hope squinted his eyes and took a step forward. Lightning saw the mini-me of her former traveling companion tumble, saw a familiar chocobo toy fly out of his hands, and she broke into a wide smile.
Half a minute later she had a pair of arms thrown around her neck and a breathless Sazh cursing at her. "You stupid girl! You gone and ran off all on your own and made me have to worry about your sorry, beautiful ass!" He pushed her out to arm's length and gave her a once-over. "Look at you! You're a damn mess! Nothing but bones and filthy skin hanging off of you!"
"Yeah," she said, now conscious of just how long it had been since she'd taken a bath. "Uh…"
Hope shook his head. "If you knew how cold it was up there, you'd have filthy skin hanging off you, too."
Sazh had, until now, left Hope unnoticed. Now that he spoke his attention was drawn to him, forcing the young boy into a hug that he was incredibly uncomfortable with at first. "You left my boy without a playmate!" Sazh said at length, pulling back to give Hope a playfully harsh glare. "You two kids would play great together!"
Hope scowled. Dajh couldn't help but giggle at his face.
"And you, young lady…you left my other boy without a playmate, too, if you know what I mean."
Now it was Lightning's turn to scowl. Hers was far more effective because Sazh changed the subject immediately.
"So, uh, mind filling in the blanks about where the hell you've been? You told me it'd just be a quick trip to Eden and back. Find out some details. You didn't mention the part where you'd spend weeks in the freezing cold dragging Hope's ass with you."
At Sazh's curse, Dajh gasped. "Daddy! You cussed again!"
"Sorry." Sazh glanced over at Lightning with a crooked grin. "We're keeping each other accountable. He inherited my best traits, you know." He ruffled his son's hair affectionately before repeating his question to Lightning. After the second prodding she went into a very brief explanation of her travels, not going into much detail about any part of it except how Hope chose to go with her: she had nothing to do with him leaving camp and had, in fact, tried to get him to return.
When she mentioned Palumpolom Sazh cocked his head to the side. "Why'd you go to a place like that?"
That's right. Sazh wasn't there when we met Bartholomew.
She wasn't really sure what to say. No mention of Hope's father had been uttered since they left that graveyard behind them. Hope, however, spoke for her and saved her the trouble of coming up with an answer. "She went to see if she could find my dad."
Sazh grunted. "Well that was a waste of time." He looked at the two faces and saw a glowering Lightning and a visibly upset Hope. "Oh, shit, I mean—"
"I mean that he came here with the Calvary. Snow said something about how they've had him for several months now; probably since we first landed here. Said it wasn't safe for him to be at his house."
A silence fell between the three. Dajh crept close to his dad and held his hand. A minute passed before Hope spoke. "You mean…my dad's here? He's alive?"
"You bet, kid. He's been asking about you every chance he gets. Every father cares, remember?"
Lightning gave Sazh a smile and a nod, silently thanking him for his words and the news that he offered, and pulled Hope into a sideways hug to help hide his tears from the public. She had witnessed him grieve, in various ways, for the fate he believed his father had met. She'd been there to see many of the unshed tears in his eyes and had watched him choke up every time he recounted a past memory that involved his father. He had been strong, but he wasn't entirely invulnerable yet. The fact that his father was alive after all of that, after their treacherous journey and all the emotions that they had faced because of it, must have been akin to a pleasant punch in the gut.
She leaned down and mentioned going to see Mister Estheim tomorrow after they rested, ate, and washed up. Hope, not trusting his voice, nodded in assent and wiped tears from his eyes, thanking Lightning in the process. She didn't say anything else on the matter; she only squeezed his shoulder.
Sazh waited until the moment had passed before offering to show Lightning where they were staying and she willingly followed his lead. This time she committed the landscape to memory so she wouldn't have to repeat the search she just went through. Much of it was familiar, just different, and that made the going easier.
At least, it made it easier when it came to directions.
She glanced around and remembered things from the start of their journey on Pulse. She remembered how Fang had stood on that rock over there and made the announcement to the entire group that Lightning was an ass. She recalled how Vanille had approached Lightning here, at this spot near the giant hole in the ground, to suggest they throw Snow into it and bury him after he ate the last bit of dog jerky. Over there was where Hope had gotten lost, and beyond that was where she had seen her first glimpse of the grieving man that Sazh tried to hide inside. And, maybe half a mile away, was the spot where Hope fought his eidolon.
She stopped and looked in the distance.
There. That was where she and Snow had run off together to find Hope.
She remembered the battles that she and him and gone through together to get there. Remembered that it was the first time she had been grateful for his presence because he had prevented her throat from being ripped out by some rabid animal.
She sighed. It was all so long ago. It felt like years. She felt like a different woman.
She felt saddened and weighed down by all the memories.
Her eyes traveled back to their center and found Sazh standing still in front of a hut that Hope and Dajh had entered. He was smiling at her, but this smile was without joy. It was humorless and sad.
"Brings back lots of memories, huh?"
"It wasn't that long ago. It's hard to forget."
Sazh looked around and it seemed like his eyes paused at all the places hers had. She wondered what his memories were of this place. "A part of me wants to forget. It's hard to come back and be…yourself after all that shit that happened."
"It wasn't all bad though, Sazh."
He sighed. His shoulders hunched forward. "No, it wasn't. That's what makes it so hard."
Lightning didn't know what to say. She knew what he meant, even if she couldn't fully appreciate the implications of it.
"I can't shake the weight off of me and it's starting to take a toll. I'm not the happy dad that Dajh wished for. I'm not the same friend that Snow had. I'm just…"
"…broken," Lightning finished. She heaved a sigh and kicked a stone at her foot. "I know."
He gave a half-hearted smile. "You usually do."
She glanced up, her eyes roved around the camp. "Have you heard what it's like up there?" At his nod, she continued. "It gets worse the further you go in. It's like the streets of Eden all over again, with all the bodies and everything, but just…worse. The first thing that I thought when we got back was that I don't belong here anymore. That I don't fit in with these people; that I can never fit in with these people. I didn't before. I don't know how I could now." She paused and looked down. "How can we, after everything that we've done? After everything we've lost?"
She was silent for a little while. They both heard Dajh and Hope laugh from inside the hut and it did nothing to raise their spirits.
Sazh turned to her. "Is there an answer to that? Something uplifting? You've had some sage words before, soldier. Don't fail me now."
She shook her head. "I'm just as lost as you, Sazh. I don't know where to go from here. I just know that I have to stop running and deal with it. You, though…you need to stop trying to forget. Fang's not dead, she's just watching over you and Dajh for a while."
"Yeah…" He smiled wistfully. "Probably telling Vanille that I'm being one helluva sorry ass right now, too. Saying shit like she needs to come down and whip my butt into shape."
"Don't give her a reason to do that. Her punches hurt like hell."
Sazh laughed. It was genuine and warming to hear. He reached over and put a hand on her shoulder, shaking his head. "I'm glad you're back, 'cause now I don't have to waste time thinking about how much I miss you. Now, come in and have a bite to eat before you go wash your smelly ass."
Before she probably would have hit him for saying that. Now she only gave a half-cocked smile and followed him through the entryway.
A couple hours had passed since she had first come into the hut that Sazh and Dajh shared. Almost as soon as she had entered she had been offered several things to eat ranging from too-familiar fruits that she now craved to dried fish that she wondered how she lived without. She ate without restraint and almost felt bad when she had come to realize she and Hope had eaten their way through all of Sazh's stores. Sazh couldn't even be bothered to care and only made them promise they'd help him gather more the next time he went out.
Following that, Sazh took Hope out to show him where the bathing areas were for men. Awhile later he came back and got Lightning to do the same. She followed him wordlessly, only speaking her thanks when Sazh stopped a good distance from the bathing hole so she could continue on alone.
She didn't dally in her bath. As she did with most things she was thorough and efficient with her cleaning, scrubbing the dirt and stink off of her until her skin was red from the effort. Satisfied with her progress, she lifted herself from the water, put on the spare clothes that Sazh had borrowed from Lebreau, and scrubbed her own clothes clean.
As she made her way back to the hut she wondered why, other than his initial comment, Sazh hadn't mentioned anything about Snow. Should that make her uneasy? She'd have thought he'd have been more…more something about the subject. Now she was faced with this looming unknown that even Sazh wasn't speaking about and it was disheartening.
He was happy to see you alive and well. He probably didn't want to say too much about Snow after I shut him up. Don't think too far into it.
She easily found her way back to Sazh's abode and strode inside, surprised that she was the only one home now. She peered outside and her eyes glanced over the horizon to see if she could make out Hope's shape against the others, but of course that was no use. This wasn't the abandoned streets of Cocoon: this was a refugee camp. Before, any human shape was almost definitely Hope. Now it was more likely to be that guy that tried to kill her in Eden than her little protégé.
She sighed and went back inside, pulling her covers out from her pack. Days without real rest had taken its toll and she didn't know how much longer she could fight the lull of sleep. She lay herself down onto the floor and wrapped the dirty blanket around her, pulling it close so she could revel in the warmth of the land and blanket combined.
The sound of people working outside in the still-bright day was hard to miss. Even harder to ignore was the fact that she was alone in Sazh's hut. There wasn't a fire to help guard against wandering beasts. There wasn't the danger of something lurking on the edges of her vision. There wasn't anything. Not even another person.
When was the last time she was safely alone?
She pulled the blankets tighter against her for comfort, hoping Hope or Sazh would return soon. Hell, even Dajh would be better than this!
This is pathetic. I don't even like sleeping by myself now. Wow. Way to go, Lightning.
Her silent thoughts were soon answered when a fresh, clean, weary-eyed Hope entered the hut with Sazh trailing behind. She pretended to be asleep while Sazh fished around for cleaner blankets for the young boy to use. Hope, impatient for rest, flopped himself down on the floor a few feet from Lightning and was almost instantly asleep. A few minutes later Sazh draped a blanket over his body and quietly snuck out of his own living space. Now, with the company she had come to expect throughout her travels, she was finally able to drift off into a peaceful slumber.
When she woke she wasn't sure how long she had slept or where she was. She had only slightly opened her eyes because of Hope's laborious snores emanating from his corner, but as soon as she heard distant laugher and people chattering she nearly jumped out of her skin. She didn't remember grabbing her gunblade, but judging how it was poised for an attack she certainly had reached for it at some point during her rude awakening.
Feeling wide awake now, she stood straight out of her crouch and tousled her hair, trying to collect herself. Was she really so unused to the commotion that people made?
She rearranged her clothing as she stood, tugging on the too-long shirt or too-short dress that Lebreau had, supposedly, allowed her to borrow and noticed right away how much it bagged around her chest. With a quick peek through her pack she found a pair of warm, wollen tights that she had lifted from some abandoned house near Eden and pulled them on under her skirt. She was a fashion disaster, but somewhere during her weeks in a frozen hell she had ceased to care about how she looked.
Fingers raked through her hair again to tame it and, after checking to make sure her gunblade was strapped securely to her waist, she tiptoed forward to peer outside.
There was a massive fire at an unsafe distance from the hut. There were several dark figures around it, eating and laughing and talking to each other like normal people are supposed to do. Once her eyes adjusted to the scene she could make out many other similar fires in the background and surrounding scenery, all just as bright and illuminating and as much of a give-away to predators as this one.
I'm hopeless, aren't I?
She muttered something to herself and thought about going back to bed to avoid the nightmare that awaited her outside, but her stomach grumbled in protest to the idea. With a heavy sigh she went to where Sazh's stores had been, completely forgetting that she and Hope had emptied them earlier. Now, twelve angry sighs later, she was back at the frame of the hut and staring outside like a feral beast who got their first scent of a fresh kill.
She smelled food out there.
Damn, damn, damn.
She had spent so much time in a small group, traveling alone, or with nobody other than Hope that the idea of a large group interaction just to get something to eat froze her in place. Their laughter was incredibly off-putting – it was loud and obnoxious and it sounded stupid. They acted like nothing terrible had happened, like this was all some party, like the chaos wasn't still going on around them. She didn't, and couldn't, fathom it. How could they act as if their world hadn't literally collapsed just a short while ago?
Was it really so easy for them to put everything behind?
She sighed and wrapped her arms around her chest, leaning her head back against the wall. She'd have to get used to it soon, she knew. She wasn't sure how she could accept living amongst people who had wanted her dead a month prior, though. How could she stop looking over her shoulder for an attack? On Cocoon, both before and after the Fall, she was the most visible member of the party; people had recognized her from some propaganda that Raines had promoted. What if her presence would put the others in danger?
People laughed outside. The volume of it made her cringe; habit made her check to see if enemies approached because of the sound.
I'll never be normal like them.
Now she bit her lip, looking out towards the fire again. If she squinted her eyes, she could just barely make out the shapes surrounding it. Most were indistinguishable, but she could see a couple afros, one large and the other small; one stupid mohawk; and another large man sitting between the two. The other shapes were probably former NORA members and maybe a couple friends.
Could she really waltz out there and introduce herself, knowing the risks that her presence introduced?
Her eyebrows furrowed further and she cast a quick look around the blaze, noticing only two slight figures present. One was definitely Lebreau – she could see the outline of too-large-for-Serah breasts from here - and the other was small and slight enough to potentially be her sister. This new information made her tap her fingers against her forearm in thought.
If that was Serah…
I don't know what to do.
Going out there, showing herself off to the public…what good would it do? What good would joining this camp do to the people she loved most? She had forgotten how much the people hated her on Eden after a couple weeks of seeing nobody other than Hope, but now that she had to join society once more the memories came flooding back. Soldiers and citizens alike shirked away from her, accused her, tried to kill her on more than one occasion. If she went out there, she'd put Snow, Serah, and others in danger. She could risk exposing them for what they are – for what they were. Was it worth it?
Besides that, what if Snow and Serah were still together? How could she know? How could she join him again without knowing?
Her gaze fell on Hope and recalled their conversations while on Cocoon. She remembered how she promised him she wouldn't run away any more; how she promised herself that she wouldn't run away anymore. Hope had told her that he needed her here with him while he acclimated to being around people again, and if he was going to try then shouldn't she?
It's easier for him to say. He wasn't recognized on the streets like I was. People called me out as soon as they saw me.
She sighed and buried her hand in her hair, totally at a loss. She promised herself to do everything she could to keep those she cared for safe, but she also promised others that she'd stop running away as a means to solve her problems. What happens when two oaths collide with each other?
Snow's voice brought her attention back up to the fire. He was facing her, though he couldn't see her in the dark. She could see his face now that he was leaning close to the flame, cooking fish on a long stick they had fashioned for such an event. He was smiling, talking to someone in their circle, looking more relaxed and at ease then she remembered him being in a long time.
See? He's fine without you. You were up there, thinking about him every quiet moment that you got, and here he is having fun with his friends.
An irritated grunt escaped her. Would she ever win this battle with herself? The battle of doubt, frustration, loneliness? She knew she was worth a lot in a military setting, but when she was outside of one, when the fighting stopped…
What happens when the fighting stops? What is she worth then?
Maybe I should try to find out.
But do I really want to know?
For many minutes she stood there, debating, wondering what her next move should be. One hand was caressing the gunblade at her side, toying with the idea of sneaking out for some exercise while everyone was occupied. Another part of her tugged to run off and find Oerba to live in peace and solitude, ensuring that her identity wouldn't compromise the safety of her friends. A third considered joining Snow, Gadot, and maybe even Serah at that fire just to try and figure out what the hell was going on. A fourth just wanted to hunker down and cry.
She wouldn't let that last one win.
So she stood there, debating, while Sazh commented on how the fire needed more wood. Snow, as he always had, was the first to volunteer to fetch more.
His path was taking him directly towards the hut that she stood in.
The shadows encompassed her body and she was still while she watched him pass not five feet away from her to the side of the abode, undoubtedly gathering an armful of lumber that was stacked there. She barely dared herself to breathe as he did so; she was afraid his name would escape from her mouth as he passed.
She watched him go; could see the new hole in his pants with the blood and grass stains surrounding it. She saw his new hat that helped stave off the cold, noticed that his hair was growing longer and hanging further in his eyes. She could smell sweat and deliciously cooked fish, with a hint of trees added to the mix. His beard was growing out a little, too, and she didn't know if she liked it.
And was he thinner? He looked like he was. He looked better when he was heavier.
She watched him walk past, watched his back as he returned to the fire and dumped a load of logs at Sazh's feet. He said something and again the sound of his voice sent a stupid thrill of undue happiness in her gut.
She didn't know if she was ready to face him quite yet, but seeing him and hearing his voice had raised her spirits already.
Sazh grunted about that hardly being enough to last for the night, earning a groan from Snow. He turned and, for the second time, approached the hut she and Hope currently resided in to get more wood. This time she didn't wait in the shadows.
As soon as he walked past, around the corner, she peeled herself from her cover and trailed after him. She stopped two feet from him, watching him sort through the wet and dry pieces of lumber for the fire.
How do I let him know I'm here? What do I do with myself? I left him. I left him for weeks. And I don't even know if he's still with Serah anymore.
Her mouth opened so many times to start a conversation and each time it closed in failure. She didn't know how to pick up the pieces, the pieces that she broke herself. She had been gone for a long time – what if Snow was angry with her?
She gave a small sigh of frustration. The sound must have been louder than she anticipated: it scared Snow out of his skin.
"What the hell?" He had dropped the logs in his hands and jumped back a foot, peering wildly into the darkness to see who was present. "Lebreau? Is that you?"
She faintly remembered the extra slack in her shirt and wondered if she should take that as a compliment. "No. It's not."
At her voice Snow froze. She wished they were closer to the fire so she could make out his countenance. He was always easy to read, but in the dark she couldn't use her judgment to come to any conclusions. Then again, that skill hasn't helped me much in the past when it comes to him.
She nodded, forgetting that she was mostly invisible, too.
"Is that you?"
"Yeah." There was an uncomfortable pause that she felt the need to fill. "I got back this—"
The explanation that was on the tip of her tongue ceased midway through the first sentence. She saw him approach and half expected a punch to the gut for all the grief she probably put him and Serah through. It was the least she deserved, she knew, and part of her wanted it to happen just so she could feel better about herself.
Instead, like she should have expected from Snow, he slowly reached out with his hand to touch her cheek; to caress her jaw. Their close proximity let her see the unbelieving, unsure smile on his face. As his hand traveled up, to tuck a piece of damp hair behind her ear, his smile turned more crooked. "You're back?" he asked, his voice quiet. "I'm not imagining this, right? You're finally, actually back?"
"Yeah," she mumbled, annoyed with how embarrassed she suddenly felt. She was thankful for the darkness that hid her blush. Her hand, of its own accord, reached up to rest on his forearm, exactly where his brand used to be. She looked at the bare skin, remembering the anguish the sight of his mark used to bring to her, and swallowed down the emotions that tried to rise up.
So long. They had been apart for so long. So much time had passed – time that, when she was a l'Cie, would have been more precious to her than it was now.
It was time she shouldn't have wasted.
She looked up at him, wishing he could see how sorry she was without her having to admit to it. She had made so many mistakes and, even though she still didn't know where they stood, she wanted him to know that much. She wanted him to know that she cared.
"I think I'm back for good," she added. His eyes didn't sway from hers. "I don't know yet if that's a good thing."
At this utterance Snow let out a quiet laugh that held a trace of emotion in it. Without waiting for permission or even explaining himself he pressed his lips lightly against hers, sending flutters of hope into her stomach. She wanted to respond in kind but was so afraid of the unknowns that she didn't dare.
"It is," he said softly once he parted from her. His thumb flicked over her cheek and trailed down to her neck. The smile he wore faltered. "I was starting to think you had died up there."
The corners of her mouth tugged up into a cocky smirk. "You're not the only one who's too stubborn to die."
At that he let out a laugh, instantly releasing all the tension that she didn't even realize was there, and he hugged her tight to him. She could definitely smell sweat on him now, a sure sign that he had at least been keeping busy. The lingering scent of fish and stale beer was there too, reminding her of her hunger. She lifted her arms up and wrapped them around Snow's middle, drawing him closer to her, half hoping she could inhale the smell of food to fill her stomach.
His hand was running down the length of her hair, getting tangled in the uncombed knots that she hadn't worked out yet. Their sudden silence made the noise around the distant campfire more prevalent and both could hear the wonderings of where Snow had gone. Neither one of them thought to sate the curiosity of the others.
They stood together, wrapped in the arms of the other, rocking gently with the wind, both mostly content with the lack of conversation. Lightning, of course, had a million questions on her mind but she had at least figured out that the person at the fire near Lebreau had been Maqui, not Serah, and that brought her enough peace of mind to remain still in Snow's arms for now.
She felt the feather-light touch of his mouth against her temple. "Don't leave me again. I could barely stand it when you went off on your own in Taejin's Tower, remember? A month without you was insane. Don't put me through that twice."
The implications behind his words were not lost to her. Questions invaded her mind like locusts; all of them were about her sister.
"Light," he said softly, his breath hot against her skin, "I…can guess what you want to talk about. Please, let me enjoy this for a while. I'll tell you everything later." He was practically begging her for her silence on the subject. "Just know that I'm free now. We're free." Another kiss to her forehead coupled with a tight embrace. "Okay?"
She nodded but was still a little unsure. Free? Is that really what I should call it?
Could she really enjoy this moment knowing the hurt that Serah must be feeling, the hurt that she caused? How could—
Oh, okay, that's how.
Snow kissed her again, this time with more passion and force than the last. Her train of thought was completely, utterly derailed.
She lost track of time, and herself, somewhere around when she was pinned to the shack with her legs wrapped around his waist.
They lay next to each other in the hovel that Gadot and Snow had been sharing, both wrapped in flimsy blankets and propped on their hand to talk to each other. She didn't know how he had arranged for their privacy, but it had been granted to them for the entire night.
She tugged her hair out from under her while he recounted the events that had happened at camp since she left. So many familiar names being mentioned had surprised her, especially when he revealed the prominent role people like Bartholomew and Rygdea had risen to. She supposed she shouldn't have been surprised, considering their prominence before, but still she was.
It also didn't escape her notice that any and all mention of Serah had been eliminated from his discussion, despite the numerous times people like Maqui and Yuj were discussed. She knew why he did it, and so she acknowledged his wishes and remained silent about her sister even though not knowing what happened was killing her.
When his story finished he answered whatever questions Lightning had, which were few, all while tracing a finger along the skin of her back. She didn't remember his hand snaking under her shirt but he was perfectly happy with whatever skin contact he could make with her at this point, however minimal.
Of course, she was content with it, too. Even with Serah nagging at the back of her mind.
"Well?" He said after a moment. "Care to fill me in on your side? I didn't even know you were here – Sazh kept it from me, the bastard."
She gave a one-sided shrug. "I told him not to tell people. I wasn't sure if I was ready to see you yet."
"You got me whether you're ready or not," he grinned. She flicked his forehead.
"Hasn't that always been the case?"
"Pretty much. I'm persistent."
She smirked at that, then considered where to start the story. Her finger dug at the wood beneath her while she told of her journey from the Connection to Eden, Palumpolom, and finally back here to the camp. Snow was a better listener than she anticipated him being; he was interested at every point and tried hard not to interrupt with questions, though he sometimes did. She answered to the best of her ability, but sometimes she felt like those answers just weren't enough.
"Why did you go back for his dad?" Snow asked. She tried to explain it to him, how Hope's expression when he saw Dajh and Serah returning was one of sadness and not joy. She tried to explain her thoughts: how she felt terrible that he had lost so much, had nobody to welcome him back, and didn't have anything but memories relating to his parents. His face had haunted her and made her feel guilty the entire way to Eden until she finally determined to turn around and head back to Palumpolom.
This, to Snow, was hardly an adequate explanation. "You left for weeks and put yourself in all that danger because you wanted to get Hope a photo of his mom?"
She frowned in thought. "No. Yes." Snow raised an eyebrow at that. "I guess I've seen Hope feel like crap enough times that I wanted to do something to make him feel better, for a change."
"If you wanted to make him feel better then you should have flashed him some skin. That would have been better than any photo."
She watched his sleazy grin double in size. Her fist found its mark on his shoulder.
His face turned serious and his hand came to a rest on the curve of her waist. "I know you left so me and Serah would get back together," he said quietly, his eyes downcast. "After two weeks went by, then three weeks, I started to think you left for good just to get away from it all. Then four weeks started creeping up and I heard about what Cocoon was like from the expedition crews and I started to worry."
"Sorry," she said, not sure what else to say.
He shook his head. "Don't be too sorry. I needed the extra time. I think it helped me - you know, with Serah. If I had done it sooner than I did, I'd probably feel guilty. I still feel a little bad, but now I can see that it was for the best. For all of us."
Her eyes swung sharply to his. He shook his head. "Just wait a bit. You haven't even finished telling me your story."
It took a lot of effort to leave that topic aside for the time being. She took a deep breath, saw Snow's apprehensive expression, and closed her eyes. She was annoyed. Why, she didn't know. Was it because she'd been wondering what happened for slightly over a month and she still was being told to wait for an answer? Did she want to know where Serah was, what happened to her, what she might be feeling? Or was it because it kept biting at the back of her mind, keeping her from the contentment she so dearly wanted to experience but felt too guilty to receive?
It took a lot of effort for her to restart her story at the point where she left off. The journey to Hope's house was given with sparse details; she glazed over the heart-to-hearts that she and Hope had, thinking that they were intensely private, no matter how much they may have involved Snow. She got to the part where they had found Hope's house, destroyed, and was surprised to see how moved Snow was by the mentioning of Hope's grief. For his sake she pretended not to notice and moved on, getting to the end of the story where she returned to Pulse in less than five minutes. "That's it," she said at the conclusion.
Telling stories had never been her thing.
Snow gave a low whistle of appreciation anyway. "Your trip sounds terrible. I don't know how you made it through all that."
Her nails scratched against the wood while she shrugged. "I've had worse months."
He was trying to get her to look at him. She flashed a small smile. He didn't seem satisfied by that. "Are you okay?"
At that the pace of her scratching increased slightly. With a nod she said, "Of course I am. I'm back."
At her response he frowned, watching her fingers work against the flooring. His brow was crinkled in thought. "That's not what I mean, Light." Her eyes flitted up to meet his and she was met with a concerned gaze. "I've been having trouble dealing with this shit. With the…the normalcy and everything. Sazh has. The NORA gang has, too, but not as bad. Knowing what we've been through here, I have a hard time believing that the Goddess of War herself is going to be totally okay with living in a refugee camp collecting berries to eat while being surrounded by people that I'm afraid to talk to because they might recognize me. So, maybe I'll try again: are you going to be okay?"
With that her eyes leveled with his, wondering how he was able to see into her mind so well when she could barely grasp what was going on in her own world.
She wondered then if she should tell him what she had thought of earlier, when she first landed back on Pulse; the thoughts of how she didn't belong here anymore and how she didn't believe she was fit to be a member of normal society. Then she recalled her security concerns, the reasons why she felt it would be prudent of her to leave this place behind. She bit her lip and looked to Snow, saw the honesty in his face, and before she could think herself out of it she blurted out everything that had been bothering her since she had returned.
By the end of it all she was tight in Snow's embrace, listening to the low rumble of his voice whisper that he knew, he understood, and they would both work to get through it.
Together, this time.