So, What Happens Next?

Pairings and Characters: Lightning/Fang, Vanille, Snow, Sazh, Hope.
Rating: M15+
Word Count: 5,450
Spoiler Warning: Contains spoilers for FFXIII, and in particular, up to Chapter 11. Ye be warned.
Summary: The more anxious you get, the closer to cieth you become, so Lightning is going to have to sort out her issues before they consume her. Old, bitter regrets, confusion, jealousy – the journey to Oerba is dangerous enough without being your own worst enemy. Lightning/Fang

Edit History: Minor edits made on 11th December 2010 for typos and clarity. Minor edits made on 12th February, including chapter titles. Major edit 27th April.

Vallis Media

Their fourth day on Pulse was growing to a close, and the shadows cast by the sheltering rocks were growing long and dark against the golden-washed plains of the Archylte Steppe.

Base camp wasn't far off from here, Lightning noted as she wearily slid her weapon back into its holster. She winced at the fresh pain in her shoulder, and rubbed the joint. It was nearly impossible to deflect a King Behemoth's swing, even with the damned l'Cie advantages they'd been 'blessed' with. Lightning scowled at the thought. Her shoulder was still going to hurt like a bitch in the morning, even with the soothing cure spell she'd cast afterwards. Maybe she'd have Hope take a look at it, back at camp.

Snow and Sazh trailed a few paces behind her, discussing that day's miserable lack of findings in low voices. Another day on Pulse, another day they reported back at base with nothing to say for their missions. When they'd chosen to come to Pulse, they'd really had no idea of exactly how deserted this place would be. There were only the ruins of a dead world, monsters and the agonized howls of the cie'th in the dead of the night.

Lightning made a small sound of derision in her throat. No matter what Fang claimed, this place really was hell.

As the three made their way back into the base camp, Snow jogged forwards to join her. Lightning shot him a look out the corner of his eye, and he wisely thought better of touching her shoulder, lowering his hand to his side. Dusk deepened as they passed between the huge rocky walls of Vallis Media, and Lightning had to wonder if Fang, Vanille and Hope had fared better than her squad had. She'd welcome any report now, good or bad.

"Hey, Light, you sure you're fine?" Snow asked her, matching her stride easily. "Those King Behemoths can put a load of oomph in their swings."

"Nothing I can't handle." Simpler to just believe in the lie, rather than putting a burden on those around her. Stress was the last thing they all needed. She clenched her fist to stop herself from touching the l'Cie brand on her chest.

Don't think about it.

The path opened up, and the camp came into view. Vanille and Hope sat cross-legged by the fire, engaged in a game that Lightning couldn't recognize – probably something from Gran Pulse. Vanille was painstakingly showing Hope the proper sequence of handclaps, singing a quiet but upbeat song in a foreign tongue, and Hope was laughing as he continued to get the hand movements wrong. It was good that Hope had left behind his burning need for vengeance, and that he could still remember how to act like the boy he was. She forced herself to relax, to ease the tension between her shoulder blades.

Fun and games had been difficult enough to come by in the past few days, as the anxiety over their Focus had skyrocketed.

"About time you lot made it back," said a voice, coming from the shadows to Lightning's right.

Lightning jerked to awareness, cursing herself. Just like that, and her forced sense of relaxation was shattered by the twang of that Pulsian accent. She'd been far too wrapped up in her own thoughts, so she hadn't even noticed that Fang had been standing there, shadowed by the growing darkness. Fang stepped into the fading light of the Pulse sun, a smirk on her lips and her bladed pole propped against one shoulder.

That light, mocking tone and raised eyebrow made Lightning scowl at her. Just how much searching had Fang's group had actually done? She looked Fang up and down with a critical eye – no obvious signs of tiredness or exhaustion. They had probably spent the day fooling around, while she, Sazh and Snow searched Pulse high and low for any sign of life.

Lightning's mood darkened. Fang and Vanille's eagerness to go back to their home world had been the deciding factor in coming. The least the two could do was help find the civilisation they were so damn certain existed.

"We were doing what we were meant to be doing," Lightning told Fang stiffly, pushing past her and into the encampment, to where Hope and Vanille were still sitting. Hope looked up at her with a grin as he failed the next set of hand movements. With more effort than seemed reasonable, Lightning forced the scowl off her face. There was no reason to take out her irritation with Fang on Hope. He was blameless, just a kid who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Wrong place at the wrong time. It was the story of Hope's life, really.

"Vanille's teaching me some Gran Pulse games," Hope explained, and Vanille nodded empathetically with his words. "It helps keep your mind off the Focus."

"It's something the l'Cie did, back before," Vanille added, giggling lightly.

Sazh let out a long-suffering groan as he stretched his body before the fire. The chocobo chick living in his hair chirped at the sudden warmth, emerging from the makeshift nest and plopping itself into Sazh's outstretched palms.

"In that case, you should teach me some of that," Sazh said. "Could do with takin' my mind off everything, just for a while."

"Then I take it you guys didn't have any luck today, either." Lightning sighed then, resting a hand on her hip. Her shoulder still ached from the blow. Easy enough to ignore for now, while they had business to attend to.

"C'mon, guys. We gotta hold ourselves together," Snow announced, pumping a fist as he strode into the warm circle of light around the fire. The leader of Team NORA was always the picture of vitality and energy, and while sometimes his boundless optimism grated, his faith in their Focus and his determination to lift their spirits was oddly reassuring.

"We're going to save Cocoon and get rid of these l'Cie brands. I can feel it."

Vanille sprang to her feet at Snow's declaration, grabbing Hope's hand as she rose. He stumbled a little as Vanille dragged him up, but the lines of worry that had marked the boy's face since the Purge were smoothing out.

Lightning crossed her arms over her chest, smiling a little. Snow certainly had a gift for inspiring people, though sometimes it felt like the blind leading the blind. His heart was in the right place, she supposed.

"What can I say? You Cocoon folk have some odd ways of dealing with pressure," Fang said, her voice amused as she left her sentry post for the warmth of the fire. "Not that I'm complaining."

"Right! And there's nothing wrong with that!" Vanille declared, spinning on her toes and launching herself in Fang's general direction.

Lightning averted her eyes as Fang laughed and caught her 'attacker', swallowing hard to banish the tightness in her throat that seemed ready to suffocate her. It seemed to ease when she looked aside. The thing was, it was happening more and more often now.

She looked down at her hands. They were clenched, so hard that her bones ached, all the way up to her burning shoulder. The laughter, the adoration and ease with which the two of them related –

It would be so easy to just put it down to jealousy, that they had the sisterly relationship that Lightning had never had with Serah.

Lightning had grown up too fast. Weighed down by the mistaken notion of protecting her only family by becoming strong, she'd drifted from Serah, until it seemed like they'd lived entirely different lives. Now it was too late, Serah was gone and all Lightning was left with was those bitter words, back on her birthday.

Exhaling sharply, Lightning forced her hands to open, coldness spreading through her body. Yes. Just envy and regret.

With practiced ease and an iron will, Lightning forced her surging emotions down, until they wouldn't dare show on her face, or sound in her voice.

Lightning drew the blazefire saber out of its holster, a distorted mirror of her face staring back at her apathetically. Cold and serene, like the edge of a blade. That was what her training with the Guardian Corps had told her. She lowered the blade, nodding to herself.

"I'm going to take a patrol of the perimeter," she said to the rest of the group, and was almost surprised at how little emotion there was in her voice.

Hope looked up at her as she moved away from the light of the fire, his eyes questioning. "Do you need a hand?"

"I'll be fine," Lightning said, as she brushed his worry off brusquely. She forced herself to look away, because Hope didn't deserve this coldness, not after all he'd suffered since the Purge in Bodhum. But if she let any emotion out now, it'd all come and then –

Then what? She didn't really know. A part of her… didn't really want to know. Her cowardice rankled, and she resolved to address that weakness soon.

"Seriously?" Sazh asked, from where he was stretched out, poking idly at the fire with a stick. "On Pulse? With all those nasty critters roaming around? Alone?"

Lightning couldn't bring herself answer him, and instead turned her back on her comrades. She just needed a little time alone, time to think. If that meant leaving for a few hours, so be it. Before the others could ask any more questions, Lightning vanished into the deepening twilight.

The unlikely group of l'Cie were quiet for a few moments in the wake of Lightning's abrupt departure, exchanging looks that varied from amused, wary, to outright incredulous. As Lightning's heavy footsteps faded away into a silence only broken by the crackling of the fire, it eventually fell to Snow to interrupt it.

"Hoo boy," Snow muttered, removing his bandana and running his fingers through his mussed, blond hair. Fang raised an eyebrow at him. Was he going to bother following that encouraging reaction up with an explanation? Snow was the one who'd known her the longest, despite their somewhat rocky beginnings.

When no such explanation seemed forthcoming, Fang sighed loudly. Maybe it was time to do a bit of some good-old-fashioned sleuthing. Time was, she'd been good at that. Well, she amended, as she eyed Vanille. So far, she hadn't been able to corner Vanille to talk about their past and their old Focus, so Fang supposed she might not be so good as she remembered.

First thing was first, though. There was no need to dwell on a past, especially when what she did recall was… unpleasant. Not when there was something else to distract herself with. Farron's moodiness and anger, for one.

Moving over to Snow, Fang mused, "No offense, but what the hell is up with Sunshine, anyway? She's been antsy as all hell since we got to Gran Pulse."

Snow shrugged, sinking down in a grateful heap next to Hope and Sazh. He jammed his bandana back on his head, but his blue eyes remained thoughtful.

"It's hard to know what's going on in her head, sometimes. She doesn't really come out and say what she's feeling." He stripped his combat gloves off, working the joints of his knuckles with a grimace. "Unless it's you're not good enough for my sister. She was pretty expressive about that," he added, his voice holding a wry note.

"Still, you can tell that somethin' is eating her. She hasn't run off like this, not since that whole ordeal when we crashed on the Vile Peaks," Sazh added, breaking up a few leftover crackers from his pack for his chocobo chick. The tiny bird chirped in Sazh's ear, and he smiled.

Vanille nodded at Fang, her curly pigtails bouncing with the motion. "She was upset over Serah and being chosen as l'Cie. She was convinced that a suicide mission was all she was good for, and when we didn't agree, she left. She… she was reaching out to us, and nobody but Hope reached back." She frowned then, clasping her hands together and looking down.

Hope snorted softly to himself. "As much good as that did, what with Operation Nora being a total bust."

"And that's a bad thing, why?" Snow teased, elbowing the boy in the ribs in a show of good-natured teasing.

"So something's bothering her. Wonder what it is?" Fang mused, tapping her bladed polearm up and down on her shoulder in thought.

Interesting. She'd been under the impression that Lightning had been over the whole angst shtick, back when they'd talked in Palompolum. Well, Lightning had brightened her outlook on life considerably since then, anyway. She'd even deigned to forgive Snow, for whatever crimes the poor guy had supposedly committed. Fang wasn't sure she was permitted to take the credit for that one, though.

Still. All through the Ark and ever since they'd gotten to Gran Pulse, Lightning had been getting more and more stressed about something. And when Lightning got stressed, they all suffered her backhanded compliments and intolerance for any who dared fall behind on her insane exploration. It had been getting worse as the days had worn on, but at least she wasn't just imagining the change in Lightning's attitude.

And Fang had thought she was antsy about the Focus and time-wasting.

"Well, when she gets back from her 'patrol', feel free to ask her. Me? I'm a wiser man than that, and those brass knuckles hurt." Snow settled back, propped up against the Vallis Media's rocky walls.

Sazh nodded in agreement, Hope merely looked thoughtful, and Vanille was trying her best not to look too interested in the outcome of that question.

Crossing her arms against her chest and leaning against the rock wall, Fang drawled,

"Somehow, I don't think she's going to blurt all her problems out to me. Not while you pack of idiots are eavesdropping for gossip."

Fang grinned as Vanille pouted at her. Spoiling Vanille's fun had been an essential part of her day for years now. As if a few hundred years would change that!

Still, even if it was a joke, Fang's words held a note of truth. Lightning would clam up around the rest of the party if directly confronted, so that really only left her one option. Fang sighed, looking out into the falling darkness. She could hear the howls of the cie'th from here, the rumble as the ground shook under the steps of the adamantortoise.

Bloody-minded woman.

"As well trained as our drill sergeant is, it's night time on Gran Pulse. She'd have to be Etro herself not to run-head first into a King Behemoth and not get mauled for her trouble." Fang slid her bladed pole-arm back into the straps on her back, pretending to look thoughtful. She'd already decided. "I'm gonna go fetch her, and hopefully get her to stop freaking out."

Hope rose to his feet, already reaching for his weapon and supplies. "She shouldn't be far," he said quickly. "I mean, she's fast, but not that-"

"Hm, I appreciate the gesture, but the less people around, the better, and I reckon I'm going to have to move fast," Fang told him, carefully keeping her tone light and kind. The kid was as volatile as anything these days, not that she could really blame him.

"But I can keep up, and Light trusts me. We're partners," Hope said, looking a little crestfallen at the firm refusal.

Fang shrugged, before shouldering her own pack and supplies. "And that's why I doubt she'll open up if you're around. I've gotten her talking before. Don't you worry 'bout that.

Lightning cursed under her breath as she jerked her blazefire saber from the still-twitching body of the gorgonopsid, scowling as she touched her painful shoulder. A quick, cooling cure spell eased most of the rawness away, but there was still a dull, vestigial ache remaining. A second cure spell sealed up the scratches on her cheek, souvenirs from her most recent scuffle with Pulse's wildlife.

For a walk that was meant to inspire her to be reflective and solve her problems, she sure hadn't thought much on them. Lightning exhaled sharply, folding the blazefire saber up and then sheathing it at her side. Night had fallen fully now, and the world's remaining cie'th were beginning to wander the planes. Maybe it hadn't been one of her most ingenious ideas to come out here, alone, but… The tension back at camp had been getting to her, and seeing Fang and Vanille, like that-

I'm being ridiculous, Lightning thought. What exactly bothers me so damn much about this? Grow the hell up and act like the soldier you are.

Lightning continued on down the grassy slope, moving quickly but soundlessly past a group of snoring King Behemoths. Once at a safe distance, she slowed to a stroll, her hand on her weapon's handle, but a little more relaxed.

She craned her neck up, feeling the gentle wind stir her hair. The night was balmy, the dark sky clear, with thousands of stars winking down at her from above. It was calming, in a way. The eternal light from Cocoon's cities had never allowed the stars to be so crystal clear, not like they were now. The full moon's light was bright enough that she could make out her surroundings with ease.

Continuing on at a faster pace again and keeping close to the rocky cliffs that edged the Archylte Steppe, she began to consider her… problem.

Lightning supposed that it had all started in Palompolum. There had been questions of self-worth, anger, the meaning of her existence hanging in the balance – it was hardly surprising when she'd been able to relate to the mysterious Pulsian woman. She'd been desperate to relate to somebody, she thought.

But what Fang had done, was no small feat. Lightning had made a reputation for herself as cold and judgemental, even among her comrades in the Guardian Corps. She touched the blazefire saber, sheathed at her side. Such unwavering focus had been what had made Lightning so skilled with the weapon, and it had gotten her a high rank very quickly, but she couldn't say she was a popular soldier.

At first, the other members had tried to get Lightning to open up, to participate in the happy hours and endless conversations about their social lives. Like everyone else, they'd given up in the end, unable to understand her seriousness, nor her devotion to Serah. Lightning had been content with that – all she needed was to be strong for Serah. She didn't need their false camaraderie.

But then this whole mess with the Pulse fal'Cie, Serah and the Focus happened. My whole reason for living was taken away in the space of days.

Lightning edged by a small group of goblins, her grip tightening on her weapon's handle as some of them nearly detected her presence.

With nothing to live for, in her despair she'd nearly dragged Hope down with her. Even in spite of realizing this, she'd felt nothing. There'd been just anger and grief. And then, suddenly, there was Fang.

Along with Snow, she'd given Lightning reason to keep hoping, to keep living on. Fang was someone who understood Lightning's motivation and her mindset. After all, everything Fang did was for Vanille, even back then. That they'd worked together so well on the battlefield had only increased Lightning's respect for the woman. Her teasing, unrelenting comments had eventually worn down Lightning's barriers, and until lately, Lightning had almost been prepared to call her 'friend'.

And if she's such a 'good friend', why am I such a mess?

Ever since they'd rescued Sazh and Vanille from the Palamecia, though, all of that had changed. There were no teasing comments, no laid back conversations – she'd even deigned to be in a completely different party when they felt it was necessary to split up.

The more rational part of Lightning understood – Fang just wanted to protect Vanille herself. But the less rational part of her, the part that had decided to mess with her carefully-sorted emotions, noted that Fang had practically ignored her from that point onwards.

Was the camaraderie a lie? Or was I just a lowly replacement, to be used mercilessly until she could get Vanille back? Was there really no friendship between us at all? And when she acts like that with Vanille, like… like… lovers, it makes me angry, makes me feel used -

Lightning froze, her breath coming hard, her eyes widening as it hit her.

It wasn't envy of their sisterly relationship, it wasn't even stress of their Focus getting to her. It was a childish, fully-blown jealousy that Vanille had the attentions of someone that Lightning cared for. Clenching her teeth, she slammed her fist into the rocky wall of the Archylte Steppe, staring at it, nearly too afraid to ask the next question of herself.

Then why do I care so much?

The yawning pit of anxiety in her stomach opened up, threatening to devour her. She didn't want to know the answer, not really, Lightning realized. She didn't want to know why the relationship between Fang and Vanille bothered her, she didn't want to remember the dreams that woke her up at night and threatened to destroy the whole persona she'd built for herself all these years. She didn't want to let herself imagine the feel of –

This is not who I am! I cannot be feeling these things. I cannot be this person.

Lightning's iron control over her emotions was rapidly disintegrating, the rules of her training fleeing her mind even as she scrabbled after them. She had to restore balance, she had to-

The frightening consequences of the question were so damning, that Lightning failed to detect the rumble of the King Behemoth as it noticed her presence.

Fang jogged along the sheltering cliffs of the Archylte Steppe, following the sporadic trail of carnage Lightning had left in her wake.

Well, at least we know she's definitely in a bad mood, Fang thought wryly as she passed the corpses of a few goblins. If she's exhausted herself on the small fry, maybe she'll be less inclined to sock me one and call it a night.

Though, she did wish Lightning had chosen to go stalking off while the sun was still in the sky. Fang rolled her eyes at that thought – she supposed Lightning had just planned to be all inconsiderate like that.

Picking up the pace, Fang darted past a group of goblins, wondering just how far Lightning had decided to go on her 'patrol of the camp's perimeter'.

Sure, she'd known it was a bullshit excuse when Lightning had left, but seriously, this woman was far-ranging like a bloody scout. Didn't she have any notion of a decent distance? Fang cursed Lightning's name again, almost wishing the other woman did bite off more than she could chew, going walkabouts like that. Self-preservation was clearly pretty low on Lightning's list.

Fang paused for a moment, listening. She could hear the breeze rustling the Archylte Steppe's grassy slopes, the movements of the adamantortoise in the distance. If she strained, the howls of the cie'th echoed faintly through the valley, the poor bastards that they were.

There was a roar, coming from up ahead. Fang cocked her head thoughtfully, and listened again. It sounded like a King Behemoth was having trouble with some prey – it was the clang of a metal, again and again, against the behemoth's tough hide, that finally tipped her off.

"Oh, bloody hell, Light!" Fang swore, snatching her bladed pole off her back as she charged in the general direction of the battle, and clenching her teeth. "You actually pissed off a King Behemoth?"

A short run later, and Lightning and the King Behemoth came into view. Both looked battered and weary. Lightning's right arm was tucked uselessly to the side of her body, the blazefire saber clenched in her left hand. She was circling the behemoth warily, panting.

Lightning staggered backwards as it lashed out with its front legs, the blow leaving gouges in the ground where she'd been, not moments ago. With a bitten-off oath, Fang dropped her pack and ran past her, raising an arm to stop Lightning from re-engaging the behemoth.

"I can't believe you!" Fang roared back at her, sinking into a battle stance. "You picked a fight with a King Behemoth, alone?"

Lightning met her eyes, and Fang was nearly taken aback by the loathing and anger in her eyes.

"It picked the fight with me first," Lightning growled. What the hell was she so ticked off about, anyway?

"And it didn't cross your mind to run the hell away? Are you bloody suicidal?" Fang demanded, turning her back on Lightning again as she sized the King Behemoth up.

It must have taken out Lightning's shoulder early on, she noted, but even so, Lightning had done some reasonable damage to the beast. Were this entire situation not so stupidly foolhardy, she might have been impressed. Lightning certainly was a force to be reckoned with.

Huh, I think I know how to deal with this-here beast.

Fang didn't wait to hear Lightning's impish retort, and she too a deep breath. She pelted towards the beast, sweeping in low with her bladed staff for a feint and bringing the following end slashing up for the King Behemoth's jugular. The behemoth bellowed as the blade struck it under the chin, lumbering backwards. Hardly a square hit, but it'd be one with a warning – she'd damn well get it properly next time.

Fang adjusted her stance, spear held loosely in her right hand. She let a smirk cross her face as she sidestepped the behemoth's next lunge for her, whipping her weapon out and slicing open its side with a clean and easy slash. Behind her, Fang heard Lightning scramble away from the behemoth's charge, and send a few rapid spells to deal a little extra damage.

That'll do it, Fang noted with a tight grin, as the Behemoth began to slowly back away. Better to let this end in a draw, 'cause without a good synergist to back us up, it'd be an uphill battle.

Not relaxing until the beast had lumbered out of sight, Fang finally let out a weary sigh. She turned to Lightning with a smirk – and only just ducked the wildly-flung punch in time.

"What the damned hell are you-" Fang started to demand, deflecting the next blow with a scowl. So, looks like Snow had been right. The bloody woman had one hell of a left hook!

"Why did you come after me?" Lightning demanded, clearly forcing herself to lower her fist and stop, you know, attacking her ally. Resentment, anger and guilt simmered in her blue eyes, her face locked in a grimace and tension rolling off her in waves.

Cursing tightly, Lightning stowed her blazefire saber in its holster. She seemed to be heavily favoring her right shoulder still. Fang wondered briefly what she'd done to it, if a cure wasn't doing the trick.

"You know, normal people would think a 'thank you' might be in order, since I just saved your reckless behind," Fang told her, crossing her arms over her chest and leaning against the rocky cliff. Lightning turned away from her abruptly, and hovered her left hand over her shoulder as she invoked a weak cure spell.

"I didn't ask you to follow me," Lightning said harshly as the cure completed, and began to walk away. She was practically bristling with anger. "You are the last person I wanted to see."

Fang watched her go, tempted to give this insane plan up. Lightning clearly wasn't thinking right – attacking an ally was hardly the behaviour Fang expected from a trained soldier, even if she was from Cocoon. But Fang had told the rest of the group she'd work out what was up with Lightning, and hopefully get her to ease up on her insane demands of them.

Fang supposed she was just stupidly stubborn like that. So instead of letting Lightning go, as her usual keen sense of self-preservation would have dictated, Fang jogged after the angry woman. She ignored the dark glower on Lightning's face and fell into step beside her.

"Well, that's bully for you, but you aren't getting rid of me that easily, girl," Fang told her with a grin, one that would have normally put even Lightning at ease, if the other woman hadn't been glaring so determinedly into the distance. Fang knew better than to reach out for Lightning physically, so she walked along beside her, waiting.

It didn't take long for Lightning to start to crack under Fang's scrutiny.

"Go back to base camp," Lightning said, scowling. Her voice was so tight, so harshly devoid of emotion that Fang had to raise an eyebrow. Oh yeah, something was definitely up with her. Lightning had never outright rejected Fang's company, for all her usual sternness.

"And why would I do a stupid thing like that?" Fang asked, with a soft laugh. Lightning didn't seriously think she was going to buck up and take orders, just like that? After Lightning had clearly shown she wasn't fit to be left alone like this? Pfft. Delusional Cocoon folk. That was another thing that hadn't changed in five hundred years.

"I don't need your help."

Lightning was still refusing to look at her. Fang was really getting nowhere, just trying to sneak the information out from under Lightning's nose. Lightning was a smart woman, after all, and she'd probably appreciate a direct approach the most. Though first, Fang had to get Lightning to look at her, preferably without that frightening anger.

And Fang had thought it would be damn-near impossible to emulate Bahamut's "come here so I can rip your guts out" look that well, too. The more you know.

"Clearly, the King Behemoths reckon you do need a little help, or they wouldn't be picking you off like you were the weakest fiend in the swarm," Fang mused, and her lips quirked in half a smile, as Lightning's relentless walk faltered for a moment. Oh, that woman had some pride all right.

"Besides, I've been meaning to have a talk with you-"

Lightning whirled with a savage curse, her left arm drawn back to wallop Fang and mean it this time.

Fang had expected no less, and in one, smooth motion, she brought her forearm up to solidly block the blow and slammed an open-palm strike into Lightning's right shoulder. Lightning cried out as shockwaves went through the injured joint, falling to her knees and clutching at it, hunched over and panting.

Damn, Light. You really don't want to talk about it, do you? What's got you so worked up?

Dusting her hands off, Fang sighed and walked over to where Lightning was crouched. She knelt in front of the other woman, frowning at the weakness of the cure spell. Maybe it'd do a bit more good if Lightning was actually focused enough to complete the spell properly – clearly, her attention was all over the place, bad enough that it was affecting the strength of her magic, too.

"Etro's hands, you're not thinking straight," Fang muttered. Finally, Lightning looked her in the eyes – Fang was nearly taken aback by the intensity and honesty of the emotions in them. Shame and guilt, burningly intense – Lightning quickly looked away.

"Okay…" Fang drew the word out slowly, her thoughts racing. Maybe she knew the problem. Maybe. And a big part of her hoped that she was right, even if it seemed to be causing Lightning agony. "I don't think it'd be such a wise idea to take you back to camp right now, not with you… like you are. You might scar Hope for life."

Lightning shook her head, removing her hand from her shoulder as the cure spell ended. "I'm fine."

"I think I'll be the judge of that, Light," Fang said, with a snort. "Listen, when I was tracking you after you decided to go on walkabouts, I saw a small fissure that looks like it'll lead to a cave. We'll rest up, talk a bit about whatever the hell is going on in that brain of yours, then we'll see about getting back to the others. That's the way it's going to go down, so help me Etro."

Fang helped Lightning to her feet with a grunt – the other woman was deceptively heavy for her lithe build. Might be all that raw strength and steely muscles, Fang mused. Not a bad grip on her, either, and the way she swung a blazefire saber was enough to make a woman drool.

Not that it really mattered, when Lightning was now refusing to have a bar of her company, even outright attacking her over it. Fang had to say, though, it was certainly the most violent rejection of her friendship she'd come across. Even counting the numerous exes, the Pulsian generals, commanding officers that hated her loose-cannon ways…

Why are the attractive ones always the ones who want to kill me? Fang lamented, making sure Lightning was following along behind her as they began the short trek towards the cave.