Serah arrived home to find her husband putting a casserole into the oven and watching a pot full of boiling potatoes. Tilting her head up for a kiss, Serah inhaled deeply.
"That seems good. I'm a bit beat from work, so I'm just going to leave dinner up to you, okay?"
Snow smiled and nuzzled his wife. "That's fine. Sis did most of the work."
Serah pulled back, her eyes widening. "Did you check-?"
Snow laughed this time. "She didn't get any actual cooking in, just did most of the preparing. It's going to be fine, babe, we won't get sent to the hospital again."
Serah sighed, relieved. "Well, I don't mean to sound completely mean. She tries. She follows most of my notes. It's just, I don't get how she can-"
"Melt pots and set fire to overhead ranges?"
Serah nodded grimly. "Exactly."
Snow only smiled, stirring the potatoes. "I heard it's a talent to be either extremely good or extremely bad at something."
"Don't let her hear you say that," Serah warned, sitting down by the counter and dropping her bag to the floor by Snow's. "She only lets me get away with things like that."
Snow lifted his broad shoulders in agreement. "Dinner'll be ready soon. You have some time to shower if you want. Cally got an A on a history test," he said proudly. "Our girl's smart as a whip, isn't she?"
Serah smiled fondly, already planning on going up to check on her only child. "She had some trouble in history, so I'm glad Arial could help her with it. But she's doing well in her other classes."
"She's doing great on the track team, too," Snow added. "There's a track meet coming up in two weeks. Do you think you can make it?"
Serah made a sound of assent and started flipping through mail. "I probably can. Saturday, right?"
"Yep. Avery'll be competing, too, so I'm pretty sure Light'll be there."
"I doubt the hospital will need me, but I'll make sure to put in a few extra hours." Serah looked up from her perusal. "Where is my sister anyway?"
"Last I saw she was heading into her study."
Serah rose. "Okay, I'm going to talk to her for a bit. I'll be back."
Snow had an idea of what she needed to talk to her sister about and waved her off. "I'll get the girls down when dinner's ready."
Serah left her husband and knocked on the door to the study before entering. Her sister was seated behind her desk, a laptop closed before her. Light offered her a smile. "Welcome home. I'm sorry I didn't hear you come in earlier."
"It's all right." Serah gestured at the desk. "Are you busy?"
"No, I just finished up. Come in." Light smiled wryly. "This is your house, you know."
Serah sat down on the same chair Fang had, though only Light knew that. "You know you're always welcome here. I had something I wanted to talk to you about." Serah looked serious. "About Fang."
"Oh? Did anything happen after I left?"
"Something like that. We had breakfast at Lebreau's. There was a small accident, a waitress dropped some dishes." Serah hesitated, searching for the right words. "Fang may have... overreacted."
Light sat forward, her brow knitted. "Tell me what happened."
"She tackled Vanille to the floor. Vanille was sitting right next to her, you know, and I suppose... Well. I know Fang had a rough childhood. I think she might have thought Vanille was in danger." Serah shook her head. "No, I don't think she thought. It was more like she felt it. She did it so fast, like it was instinct."
"How is she?"
"I didn't check on her today, if that's what you mean. She looked a little pale, shaky. Embarrassed that she did that. I didn't think it'd be a good idea to offer at the time."
Light nodded. "Thank you for telling me." She tapped the desk with her fingers, looking slightly troubled. "I was actually going to ask you to look at Fang, if that was all right."
"I'd be happy to take care of her. Is there something in particular that I should be looking for?"
"This is a little private. I know you won't say anything to anybody," Light added quickly, forestalling any protests about doctor-patient confidentiality. "But it's difficult, even for me, to talk to Fang about this... particular subject. Vanille knows, though, and she might be able to give you more insight."
Serah frowned. "This all sounds very mysterious. What's going on?"
Light took a deep breath, looking as though she truly did not want to be telling the tale. "It's a bit of a long story, but when Fang got branded, her right arm - it was dismembered." Serah uttered a small gasp, but Light kept speaking, now looking slightly ill.
"I don't know what exactly happened, but she fought the branding and the fal'Cie, Anima, cut off her arm. It still makes me sick thinking about it. She was only eighteen, just like when you were..." Light trailed off, her expression distinctly unhappy. She shook herself slightly and pressed on. "She could have bled to death, so Vanille reattached her arm and healed her. It would appear her arm was - is - still functional. But sometimes she gets these painful, incredibly painful, spasms. She's told me that when it's bad enough, the pain feels the same as when she was branded."
"Dear Maker," Serah whispered, looking horrified.
Lightning slumped back against her chair, her eyes suddenly hard. "Fucking fal'Cie," she muttered, her mouth set in a tight line. "No one knows about the pain but us, Serah. Fang doesn't want Vanille to know about the pain. She doesn't want Vanille to think that she didn't heal her properly, so she keeps it from her."
"I won't tell her," Serah promised. "But... Maker. That's awful. I can't imagine..."
Light shook her head. "I don't think anyone really can. Fang says sometimes the pain isn't bad, but there are times when it's unbearable. I had tried to heal her myself, but it did nothing. I don't know if maybe an actual doctor will find anything, but I'm telling you because I don't think Fang would be able to. It's very private for her."
"All right. I'll do what I can, though I might need to refer her to a specialist if I can't find anything." Serah sighed heavily, suddenly feeling weary. "All this stuff with fal'Cie and magic and crystals... I'm kind of out of my depth here and I'm sorry. I don't know what I can do, if I can do anything, but I'll try my best."
"No, I understand. I trust that you'll do your best by Fang." Lightning smiled, though she still looked worried. "There may not be anything physically wrong with Fang. I don't really know, but I'd like to at least make absolute sure of that."
"I'll see what I can do. But you're right, at first glance, Fang seems to be healthy. Maybe stressed from the past few days, but I haven't noticed anything alarming."
"It could be her mind," Light murmured, her tone so soft that Serah had to strain to hear her. "Her defending Vanille at the diner, her arm. I've seen some GC soldiers do things similar, the ones that were cleaning up the ruins in Eden or come back from long expeditions. Post traumatic stress disorder. She's lived in a war almost all her life."
Serah watched her sister gaze off thoughtfully, her elegant brow still frowning. "There are doctors for that, you know. Therapists, psychologists."
"I know. Fang wouldn't allow that."
Serah didn't know Fang well, but even she got the impression that Fang wasn't the type to talk about her feelings that way. "I can bring it up with her if you want."
Lightning shook her head. "No, let's leave that alone for now. I'll talk to her about it this weekend maybe."
"Oh? You two have something going on this weekend?"
At that, Light realized her slip and froze. Blinked. "Ah, well..." Fumbled about her brain for something appropriate to say.
Serah laughed. Her ever so composed sister looked as though she'd just been caught with her hand in the cookie jar. "You don't have to tell me. I'd be more than happy to make assumptions all on my own."
Lightning colored. "Serah! It's not like that."
"Of course," Serah said agreeably.
Shooting her a dirty look, Light crossed her arms and managed to look both irritated and embarrassed. "I asked her if she wanted to spend some time with the twins this weekend. That's it."
"Oh," was all Serah said. Light glanced at her, saw the soft look in her sister's eyes.
"That's lovely," she said, smiling hugely. "The twins must be thrilled."
"I'm not sure. I haven't told them yet."
"Well, either way, I'm sure they will be. Oh, that's really great, sis," Serah laughed, looking pleased. "I'm so happy for you."
Lightning looked slightly uncomfortable. She supposed it was kind of a big deal, though she'd drowned herself in work during the day to keep herself from wondering if the offering had been too impulsive. "I'm worried about Avery. You know how she feels."
Serah opened her mouth, but the muffled sound of Snow calling the girls to dinner interrupted her.
Light got up. "We can talk about this later. Dinner first."
Hope was home helping Vanille make dinner, both recounting the events of the day.
"What were you up to after I left Lebreau's?" Hope asked as he cleaned up leftover dishes from the previous evening. "Did you spend the day with Fang?" Fang was in the bathroom taking a shower.
"For a little while. She mostly got the tour around Oerba with Sazh and Dajh. I went back to the school." Vanille stirred a pot of stew, sampling delicately. "Hm, it tastes fine, though Fang will probably still dump an entire salt shaker in."
Hope laughed. "You know, when you mentioned how much Fang liked salt, I thought it had something to do about your cooking."
Vanille huffed indignantly. "Everybody at the orphanage liked my cooking. Even the younger kids, who were nearly impossible to please, they were so picky. It's just Fang that was... well. She just really likes salt."
"I like your cooking, too," Hope soothed. "Though you're awfully sensitive about it sometimes."
Vanille only angled him a look and took another sip. Hope grinned back and set the last dish down when Fang came down the stairs.
"Food smells good," Fang commented, not noticing Vanille's pointed look at Hope. "Dishes are here in this cabinet, right? I'll set the table."
"Just like old times," Vanille beamed at Fang. "At the orphanage, I mean. Except you're not covered in dirt and Maker knows whose blood."
Fang laughed. "That matron never let me muck up the dishes if I was like that." She snickered. "Matron did like all the game I brought in, though."
"What did you use to hunt with, Fang?" Hope wanted to know. "Your lance?"
"Sometimes. Bow and arrow was easier, though, especially during winter when the larger game migrated."
"I didn't know you could use a bow and arrow," Hope said, looking surprised. "I'd never seen you with one. No rifles?"
Fang shrugged. "Wasn't fond of those. Made too much noise and kids usually weren't allowed to touch 'em."
"Oh, right," Hope laughed sheepishly. "You were still a kid, but of course you'd be tromping around and hunting game bigger than yourself like it was nothing."
"That's Fang," Vanille said fondly. "Food's ready."
Hope carried dinner to the table and they sat down together.
Fang blinked in surprise as she chewed. "It's good."
Vanille rolled her eyes. "Of course it's good. Did you think I forgot how to cook?"
"No, not that. It's better." Fang swallowed and when she grinned, quick and easy, Vanille's breath caught at how young she looked. "But you need more practice," she declared.
Vanille huffed in outrage. "More practice-"
"It's okay, I'll help you practice," Fang said earnestly, her eyes wide and completely guileless. "I'll eat the rejects until you get it just right."
There was a loud thump, not dissimilar to the sound of a shoe making an unfriendly encounter with a shin, but Fang only grinned and dug into her food cheerfully.
Vanille rolled her eyes and tucked her feet back to her side. "What did you do today, Hope?" The redhead pointedly asked.
Taking the hint, Hope cleared his throat, though he was sure there was still a small smirk on his face. "Nothing much. Helped with the patrol, finished up some paperwork, helped Light get the latest squad prepped. Just an average day's work, really."
Fang looked up, interest clear in her eyes. "Is that what Light does? Train?"
Hope nodded. "It's part of it. Not all that she does, though. Most GC would see her on either the training field or locked up in her office or down in R and D."
"Does she still fight?"
Hope's brow furrowed. "You mean, does she still go out into the field? No, not so much anymore. Not because she can't, though. I think since she got promoted so fast, she just doesn't have the time anymore. Light's got a lot of projects she's overseeing now."
Fang nodded slowly, absorbing the information. She was so engrossed that she missed the looks Hope and Vanille exchanged: Hope's cocked brow and Vanille's knowing smile.
"I can tell you a bit more if you want," Hope offered. Vanille's smile widened when Fang's body subtly leaned forward, her expression eager.
"Well, if you don't think you or Light would mind..." her voice trailed off as she realized that it might be rude to gossip. Or pry for information.
"I'm sure Light wouldn't mind," Vanille assured her. "Besides, isn't it mostly common knowledge at GC anyway?"
Hope caught her look and smiled agreeably. "No, it's fine. To be honest, I don't know about everything Light does. She usually trains the specialized squads, sometimes fills in for new recruits if an instructor isn't available. I heard she was heading a few projects to get old Cocoon technology adapted to Pulse's atmosphere and working again, though I don't have any specifics."
Fang drank in the information as though it was her mission. It was exhilarating, oddly, to imagine Light training soldiers, working in labs and in an office. It was like another side to her that she'd never known. Well, Fang admitted to herself, of course she wouldn't have known. Light was a sergeant then, one who spent her time outside fighting Pulse beasts.
"Is Light's position important?" Fang asked hesitantly. "I heard that guy, the one with her earlier today, call her colonel."
"You mean Maxwell? That's her adjutant, her aide," Hope amended. "And yeah, Light's pretty important. Being a colonel is nothing to sneeze at," Hope chuckled. "It's higher than lieutenant anyway."
Fang felt a rush of warm pride fill her and she had to look away briefly to hide the faint blush of pleasure that colored her cheeks. Claire was someone needed, someone who did important things and made herself valuable. She blinked in surprise when she realized Hope was talking.
"-squad training has been coming along okay, though we're still struggling to hold back gorgon herds during spring. We've had to increase the number of contracts available for the extra help, but thankfully that'll be over soon."
"The Corps are pretty overworked during spring," Vanille said, looking sympathetic. "I've seen some bounty hunters in town and even they looked a bit worse for wear."
"Would it help if I took a job?" Both Hope and Vanille turned to Fang, surprise evident in their expressions.
"Well, you don't have to, Fang," Hope started.
"And it's pretty dangerous," Vanille added.
"I want to," she added firmly, "if it'll help."
Hope and Vanille exchanged looks.
"Are you sure, Fang?" Vanille asked gently.
"Of course I am," Fang replied, looking annoyed. "I said I want to help and I mean it. Besides, weren't you lot on me about getting a job earlier today? What's with the change of heart?"
"It's not that at all," Hope hastily added. "We don't want to force you into it, but the Corps would really benefit from your help."
Fang nodded as though the matter was settled. "Give me the details tomorrow. I'll be ready for the job whenever you are."
"Oh, it'll probably take a few days," Hope replied, stirring the food on his plate. "We'll have to put together a team for you."
Fang's head jerked up, her eyes narrowed. "I don't need a team."
"Just for some help," Hope said, his tone reassuring. "The Steppes can get pretty hectic and we never let anyone but a trained squad go out there."
Fang scowled. "They'll slow me down. I work alone. I don't need to babysit a squadron of prissy soldiers for a walk in the Steppes."
"They'll be well-trained, they won't slow you down," Hope protested.
"I don't care. You don't have to worry about me, I work alone. I'll be fine."
Hope shifted uncomfortably. Fang got the feeling there was something he didn't want to say, not outright anyway. "Fang, I really do have to insist that you bring a squad. At least some back up," Hope pleaded.
"I'll be all right," Fang repeated. "You're acting strange. You know I'll be fine. You've seen me go on hunts before."
Hope finally relented. "Light will kill me if I let you go out there alone," he mumbled, avoiding her eyes. And wishing he wasn't the one telling her this.
Fang made an annoyed sound. "She knows I don't need one."
"You should tell her that," Hope muttered under his breath, not meaning for Fang to hear him.
"I will," the hunter said. "I'll tell her this weekend."
"This weekend?" The redhead looked at Fang curiously. "I don't think I heard you mention that you had something planned this weekend."
Fang suddenly flushed, the earlier argument forgotten. "I didn't mention it."
She fidgeted under the combined looks from Hope and Vanille. "Light said I could spend some time with her," she mumbled under her breath, her face almost scarlet with embarrassment. She'd wanted to keep the knowledge to herself a little longer, like a secret. It wasn't like she was going to hide it from anyone how overjoyed the invitation made her. Not at all.
"Oh!" Vanille clapped her hands together and smiled hugely. "I'm so happy for you, Fang! Is it just going to be you and Light? Oh, goodness, it's going to be like a date!"
"What? Date? N-no! It's not a date!" Fang blustered, her face on fire. "It's nothing like that!"
"We'll have to get you something really nice to wear! Oh, I wonder if any of those clothes we got you were nice enough. Where will you be going? Did you have a place planned?" Vanille asked, cheerfully running over Fang's protests with all the tact of a bulldozer.
"Van, wait, it's really not a date! I mean, we won't even be alone, ou-Light's -" Fang tried hard not to think about how close she came to saying 'our', "-kids will be there, Maker's sake." Any hope of quelling Vanille's thoughts of dates were crushed when the redhead squealed.
"You're going to see Light and the twins? Oh, this is so great! I'm so happy for you, Fang," Vanille cried, seizing Fang into a tight hug. "I know you just met them, but you're going to love them, they're such sweethearts. Oh, but I shouldn't tell you much about them, it's better if you find out on your own, right, Hope?"
Hope blinked, caught in the storm of Vanille's enthusiasm. He smiled agreeably. "I think so, too. You'll like them, Fang, if you don't already. I'm sure they'll love you. They're good kids."
Fang thought of the sweet smile Arial had shone her way and the furious glare the other one, Avery, had shot at her the day she met them. She tried to hold on to Hope's words against the sudden terrifying thought that they would not like her at all.
Vanille seemed to sense her sudden doubt and she smiled up at the hunter, her eyes warm. "Don't worry, Fang. I'm sure everything will be okay."
Fang managed a shaky smile back. "I hope so."
After dinner, Serah shooed Cally and the twins off to finish homework. Light idled around, listening to the sound of her sister speaking to Snow over washing dishes. She was dithering, she knew. It annoyed her that she was, so she marched up the stairs and found herself lingering at the threshold. A one blonde and a pair of pink heads were leaned over various surfaces, apparently completing school assignments. Light took a deep breath.
Ari looked up and saw her mother at the door. "Mom?" Avery glanced up as well, a questioning look on her face.
And without any effort at all, she smiled at the girls. "How's the homework coming?"
Avery shrugged. "It's okay."
"How's your history paper coming along?"
Avery scowled down at the holographic screen. Arial rolled her eyes at her sister.
"It isn't," she answered for her.
Avery turned her scowl to Ari. "Shut up."
Cally laughed. "She's been staring at the same blank page all night." Avery shot a glare at her cousin, who only turned back to her homework with a smirk.
Light settled beside Avery on her bed and flipped her textbook open. She glanced through the topics, smiling still. "How about I help you with some ideas?"
She glared resentfully at the blank page. "I know the topics," she muttered. "I just don't know why we have to write about it."
"Because it's good for you."
She looked dubious. "I think it's stupid."
"Yes, but you still have to do it." Light looked over at Ari. "Have you already finished your essay, sweetheart?"
"Last paragraph," Arial said smugly.
Avery's scowl darkened. "Show off," she said under her breath.
Light brushed her palm over Avery's head, gently tugging an errant lock of hair and quelled the squabble before it could begin. "Let's start here," she suggested, pointing to a passage.
After getting Avery started on her paper, Light knew she was stalling. Cally had already finished and left the room to speak with Serah and Arial had her head bent over her cell phone messaging a friend.
"Girls," she started. Two pairs of green eyes looked up. Somehow, she found her resolve in those eyes and steeled herself.
"I wanted to talk to you about something," she said. Something in her tone gave her away and Arial looked at her in almost heady anticipation while she was all too aware of the way Avery tensed, her expression becoming closed. Light unconsciously stroked her hand down Avery's back, trying to relax the stiff posture. The simplest and most forthright route, she decided, was best.
"For this weekend, we don't have any plans. Would you like to meet Fang?"
"Of course!" Arial exclaimed excitedly, almost bouncing on her seat. "Fang said it's okay? We can really meet her?"
Light smiled at her enthusiasm and nodded.
"We already met her," Avery muttered. Her shoulders were stiff, her face the complete opposite of her sister's. "Why do we need to do it again?"
"We're going to spend time with her, like really spend time with her," Arial said, her joy deflecting any assault upon it from her twin. "Where are we going to go? Did you decide where, Mom?"
Light shook her head. "Not yet. I'll need to speak with Fang again, but I'll tell you when I find out." She rubbed Avery's back, worried at her silence. "Do you not want to go?" She asked, even though she already knew the answer.
Avery kept her eyes on her screen, her fingers fiddling with the pen. "Not really." There was a storm brewing inside her chest, something that railed against seeing Fang, but something else that was at least curious and she tried to snuff it out. She didn't want to see Fang, she didn't want her family to see Fang, she didn't want anything to do with her because she should have just stayed asleep. Shouldn't have come back, she thought again, biting the inside of her cheek to keep from yelling at her mother because that wasn't right. Her mother hadn't done anything.
"Baby?" Light prodded gently. "If you really don't want to go, we don't have to."
She looked up at Light and saw blue eyes waiting patiently. There was the conflicting feelings again, glad that her mother wouldn't force her to go, but yet wanting her to.
"But I want to go see Fang," Arial protested, scowling now at Avery. "Just because Avy doesn't want to-" A single look from Light had her snapping her mouth shut, but still glaring resentfully at her twin.
Avery shifted uncomfortably. "Do you want to go?"
Light drew back, surprised. "Me?"
She nodded wordlessly.
Light sat back, frowning in thought. "Why do you ask?" She hedged.
"Because I guess if you and Ari really want to go, it's okay. I can go." Avery straightened her shoulders, looking like a general making a very grave decision. Light just managed to stifle the smile that rose at the image. "It's just a weekend," she added, as though to convince herself.
Light laughed and drew Avery's face against her shoulder, kissing the top of her head. "Then let's all go together, all right?" Light smiled at the muffled "okay" and caught the approving look on Arial's face. "We'll have fun. I'm sure of it."
The next day, Hope drove Fang to the Guardian Corps' headquarters.
"You should talk to Light about the squad thing fairly soon," he'd said, a faint smile on his face. "Knowing her, she's probably already putting together some guys. Also, we need to get some gear for you, too."
"Gear? I have my lance."
Hope had smiled and suggested she talk to Light again.
And with that, Fang found herself deposited in front of Light's office as Hope fled with some vague excuse about turning in his report. Fang could only frown at his back as he strode quickly away, wondering why he had been blushing.
"Ah, Fang is it?" Fang turned and saw that officer who had been with Light from the press conference. He had an easy smile on his handsome face, his uniform impeccably pressed, his hand held out. Fang scowled at it and did not take it.
Without missing a beat, he gestured to Light's office. "I'm afraid the colonel is not in her office today. I don't think we've been officially introduced. I am Lieutenant Maxwell, Colonel Farron's assistant."
Fang didn't like the casual way he said Light's name and kept her scowl on her face. "You're her assistant?" She tried to remember that he didn't like women. And preferred men. And she should not punch him because Light would probably not like that.
"That I am." He tilted his head and seemed to wait expectantly, his body relaxed as though he was not face to face with a hostile Yun.
Fang almost growled. "Where's Light?"
"The colonel is out on a training exercise," Maxwell said easily. From behind his easy demeanor he watched Fang with sparked interest. She certainly was very attractive, he thought, despite the belligerent manner. Or was it in spite of it? He almost smiled at the notion before he caught himself. He saw the way she eyed him, sizing him up as though he were an enemy soldier. Any other man would have quailed under such scrutiny, but Maxwell had endured much worse, especially with a superior like Colonel Lightning Farron.
"Would you like me to take you to her?" He offered, taking care to appear as much the helpful assistant that he was supposed to be.
Fang grunted affirmation. "I need to talk to her."
"Then I am at your service. If you'd follow me?" Maxwell started down the long corridor. Fang fell into step beside him, her posture slightly stiff. She was not short of stature and it irked her that he was taller. Fang wondered what Light saw in him.
As though he'd read her thoughts, Maxwell said, "The colonel has several duties, so I do apologize that she's not in her office today. I do try to assist in some of those duties, though I am regrettably inadequate in some."
The words were out before Fang could stop them. "What does Light do?" She remembered what Hope said about her duties, but wanted to hear it from Maxwell.
"The colonel is involved in several departments and projects, but her most, hm, prominent position is an instructor."
"She's primarily a trainer?"
Maxwell nodded. "Indeed. I believe she would prefer to be out in the field, but she would like to be closer to home for her family."
The girls, Fang thought. Of course. Light had to raise them alone. Never mind that Serah and Snow and Vanille were there, she had still been alone. Guilt and shame burned low in her gut.
Out of the corner of his eye, Maxwell saw the shadowed expression fall over Fang's face, but made no indication of it. How interesting, he thought, filing away the information. If he didn't know better, that was regret he'd just seen. It was not the colonel's duty to tell him every little detail about her relationship with the Yun, but it didn't make him any less nosy or curious. And the colonel was such an enigma, even though he'd worked with her for years, that any small detail about her past might as well have been a great revelation.
"She is also involved in other non-combat projects, as I said," Maxwell continued. "R and D sometimes, with salvaged technology on Cocoon and occasionally investigations when she is asked."
"Sounds like she does a little of everything."
"Something like that," Maxwell said. "Ah, here we are." They approached a set of double doors leading outside. Maxwell unlocked the doors with a code and led the way through a large bare field stamped flat from boots. Fang saw training equipment and obstacle courses placed at even distances from each other. Everything from gun racks and targets to rope tied to stripped tree trunks filled the field, with men practicing at each one.
"There's the colonel."
Fang's attention immediately snapped to where Maxwell pointed.
Light's back was to them, her attention focused on a squadron of soldiers in sweat-soaked shirts and khaki pants despite the relative cool spring morning. Light herself was dressed in a light leather jacket with the GC shield emblazoned on the back, similar khaki pants and boots. Sunglasses shielded her eyes, but her head was uncovered, her hair ruffling slightly in the wind. Her arms were crossed over her chest and Fang imagined her expression was forbidding from her tone.
"Dead. All of you. You know what happens to slow asses? Dead asses. I put you on the field and I'll be the laughingstock of the whole Corps. I do not teach soldiers to get out there and be meals for gorgon packs, I teach them to survive and make it back home with their asses alive. Now go run that course again before I knock you all down to traffic duty to escort little old ladies across the fucking street."
Even though the lashing was delivered without her ever raising her tone, Fang could feel the bite of it hit deep as though it'd been aimed at her. Beside her, Maxwell sighed. "Ah, there's the pride of the Corps, her sweet voice raising the spirits of all us lesser beings."
Light turned, recognizing Maxwell's voice. Surprise had her brows rising, the sunglasses still covering her eyes, but she quickly gathered herself. "Fang. I didn't know you were coming today."
Fang smiled awkwardly. "Hope thought it'd be good for me to talk to you about some things today."
"I see." Light glanced at Maxwell, who was watching the pair with avid interest. "Thank you for escorting Fang. You are dismissed, Lieutenant," she added pointedly. Maxwell merely grinned and threw up a smart salute, striding away back indoors.
Fang couldn't resist. "Why'd you pick him?"
Light turned to her with a questioning noise.
"That guy. He's a little strange."
"Maxwell?" Light hummed thoughtfully. "I suppose he is. He has his uses. He's quite good at what I need him to do."
Fang felt a faint thrum of jealousy and jammed her hands in her jacket pockets. "And what's that?" It came out sounding more hostile than what she'd meant and the corner of Light's mouth twitched.
"Secrets. He's good at keeping them and rooting them out." Light chuckled. "Granted, he is a gossip, but he knows when to keep quiet."
"Oh." Fang hunched her shoulders and felt small for challenging Light over something that she had no business with. "You trust him."
Light nodded. "I do. Well, after this long, I'd have to." She angled a look at Fang. "Did he say something to you?"
"No, I just... no, I'm just being stupid." Fang smiled again, feeling like a fool for being jealous. If Light trusted Maxwell, well, that didn't mean she had to trust him, but she could be less suspicious. But she'd keep an eye on him, all the same.
"All right. Well, since you're here, what do you think of this squad?" Light pointed to the men she'd been chastising earlier. "You've caught me at a bit of an inopportune time as I haven't been training them for very long. They'll get better, though."
Fang glanced over the squad, watching how quickly they ran laps, scaled high walls and crawled in the mud. "They're all right, I suppose. A bit slow, as you said earlier."
Light's mouth twitched again. "You heard me."
Fang grinned. "Can't really say what you said wasn't true. Traffic duty doesn't sound like great fun, though."
"It's quite safe. Also pretty boring." Light lifted her sunglasses up and perched them on her head. "You would despise it."
Fang found herself staring at those familiar eyes, remembering how she had admired the icy blues as they blinked at her sleepily. She realized she was staring and turned back to watch the squad. "Yeah, you know me. Danger and excitement get me going."
"Speaking of which, I heard you planned on completing a few contracts."
Fang stood up a little straighter, pride swelling in her chest. "I want to help, if that's all right." It was a bit more than wanting to help, though. Fang knew she had been absent for too long and that their relationship had changed. But she couldn't wallow about in self-pity. She had to do something, something to prove that she wasn't just good for destroying things.
"Of course it'd help," Light said. "We've built up a fairly decent operation and method for dealing with the spring herds, though we're still a little undermanned. Accidents happen, too, especially when there are nests involved."
Fang nodded. "Dangerous on the Steppes during spring."
"Right. Anyway, I'm sure you have your own ways to do it, but I'm going to get this squad set up and get you the gear for it. It should be all ready in a few days," Light added, turning back to observe the training exercise.
Fang stiffened. "Squad? You're giving me a squad?"
Light was still watching a private panting like a bull after the run, making a note to cross him off the list of prospectives. She made a sound of affirmation and did not see Fang's reaction. "Yes. Not this group, of course. I have a better trained one lined up, hungry for action. Requisitions should have a standard gear pack for you and you're free to get anything else you might need."
Fang wasn't sure how to describe how she felt at that moment, but later on, when she wasn't feeling the sting of indignation, she would probably describe it as insult and something very close to hurt. Insult because Light assumed she needed help, like she'd gotten weak or something during her sleep, and hurt because it felt like a backhanded way of saying she wasn't worthy of... Fang refused to finish the thought.
"I don't need a squad."
Still Light did not sense the impending danger beside her. Afterwards, she would wonder how she could have missed it. Nothing was quite like a Yun with injured pride. "Oh, don't worry about it. They're seasoned veterans, they'll keep up with you."
"They'll slow me down," Fang said, struggling to keep her rising temper in check. "I don't need a damn squad to babysit."
Frowning at the unusually rough tone, Light turned back to Fang. "My men are well-trained," she said in a measured tone. "They're hardly green. They'll be your backup and they're quite competent." Almost defensively, she added, "I've trained all of them in some form or another."
Fang breathed in sharply, her hands clenching and unclenching. She heard her words and understood their meaning individually, but what came out of her mouth was: "I don't need your damn babysitters."
Light drew back as though she'd just been slapped. She was vaguely aware of her squad finishing the exercise and were probably waiting for further orders, but there was a dull hum in her ears as she stared at Fang. Green eyes glared back at her. Light sucked in an audible breath and closed her eyes briefly.
When they opened again, only sheer iron will kept Fang from taking a step back at the sight of pure glaciers looking back at her.
"Those men are decorated soldiers. Good, loyal soldiers who have taken every filthy, dangerous job because nobody else could-or would-do them. Don't you dare insult them."
Again, Fang understood the words and their meaning, but what got her hackles rising was the subtle, slithering threat lying beneath it. Light was threatening her. Threatening her.
"I don't care if they're war heroes," Fang growled, her voice pitched low. Her head was pounding and the sound of unsheathing claws went unheard. "I can take care of myself and I don't need some bunch of Cocoon vipers-"
"Vipers!" Light's eyes narrowed, her jaw setting grimly in what Fang recognized as part of her fighting stance. "Listen well, Fang, because I won't say it again. Cocoon as it is today is different from the Cocoon from five hundred years ago. I don't care how you feel about it, that squad is going with you."
Fang bared her teeth back in a snarl and shoved herself toe to toe with Light, purposely invading her space. She didn't quite appreciate their differences in height, topping Light by about two inches, until now. And she saw by the way Light glared, forced to raise her gaze to meet hers, that it annoyed her at that moment. Fang almost smirked.
"I don't take orders from you, colonel," Fang sneered. It was really a magnificent sneer, full of disdain and utter arrogance. Fit only for a Yun, Light thought furiously, her ire given away only by the telltale twitch of an eyebrow. She wanted to wipe that sneer off Fang's face. It should have alarmed her that the options she was weighing was either a right jab or a nip on those full lips.
Instead, Light only smirked back, making Fang blink in confusion. "So be it, then. I do have to let you know, though, that I can keep you barred inside the town boundaries."
Fang grinned back humorlessly, sharp and full of teeth. "Your little walls can't keep me in."
"Oh, but you haven't seen our walls. They're not so large, but they can keep one little Yun penned in just fine." Light's smirk never left her face and her voice became just a little patronising. "I think it's in your best interests-and mine, of course-to take what's being offered."
"Doesn't sound like much of a choice, colonel," Fang growled, managing to instill the last word with such contempt that Light was certain her vision turned red. Had Fang been a soldier and spoken to her in such a tone, Light would have upbraided her so fast and hard Fang wouldn't have felt the upper layer of her skin for a week. And Light would probably boot her off to the most miserable position in GC, which was probably something along the lines of cleaning up trainee gear after drills. The thought of Fang on laundry detail had Light quirking the corner of her mouth in amusement and some of her anger dissipated. Fang blinked in confusion.
"You always have a choice, Fang," Light murmured. She tilted her head to the side and arched a brow questioningly. "You know, most people would be thankful for a squad of veteran GC soldiers to back them up out in the Steppes. There are a few contracts in the mines as well, to clear them up to open more transport lines. Those are even more dangerous, and that's not even considering the planned Paddra expedition taking place later."
Fang reared back her head, her fists on her hips. She hissed out a breath, struggling to control the clawing temper in her throat. This was Light, she thought. She doesn't understand. I can't lose it with her. Never with her. Finally, she said, "I can take care of myself. I don't need you to put your soldiers on me. I'm a damn hunter, Light. I've hunted these lands since I was eleven. I know the terrain like the back of my hand."
Light nodded once in acknowledgement. "I understand that, but these contracts aren't easy. Even the Corps has trouble managing them. My men can help you."
Fang was shaking her head already. "No. I work better alone. You know that."
"Not always." Light grabbed Fang's arm before she could pull away, ignoring the answering growl that rumbled from her. "No, don't turn away from me." Light kept her grip on her until Fang glared back resentfully.
"Fang, we're not l'Cie anymore." Light sighed and finally allowed some of what she felt show through. "We can't do the things we did before. That isn't a knock on your abilities, I know that you're good, that you're probably better than what any of the Corps has to offer, but on this I can't-god, I don't know how to say it." Light sighed again and aimed her eyes skyward, as though the answers were there. "I don't want you to get hurt." Because I can't lose you again.
Her admission had both avoiding each other's eyes for several moments until Fang awkwardly cleared her throat. "I-I guess, if that's what you meant. It's all right. I just-it felt like you didn't trust me."
That had Light shaking her head. "No, never. I trust you the most." Light realized what she'd just said and both colored at the slip. Light also became aware that she was still holding Fang's arm, the jacket sleeve warm under her hand. Fang never wore jackets. She never needed them. Fang was always impossibly warm, even when it was cold enough that our breaths frosted in the air. She quickly released Fang, her fingers tingling ever so slightly from the loss of contact.
Fang smiled, almost shyly. "Were you really going to keep me locked up here?"
She laughed lightly, glad for the break in tension. "I don't know. That depends. Will you take the squad?"
Fang shrugged nonchalantly. "If they're as good as you say, I suppose it can't hurt to put them through their paces. The instant they slow me down, though, I'm booting them back here."
"Fair enough. I doubt it'll come to that, but I suppose we'll both see." Light smiled back.
Fang opened her mouth to reply, but something caught her attention. She glanced to the side and grinned. "Colonel, I think we have an audience."
The squad was still standing at attention and listening avidly as best they could to what was certainly an unusual occurrence: Colonel Farron apparently having a very intense argument with the Pulsian woman. However, after Fang mentioned their presence, the squad found themselves almost scorched to the bone by a blue-eyed and very haughty glare. They quivered in fear.
"Don't you all have things to do?" Light barked. The squad scrambled away at their commander's suggestion.
"Idiots," she muttered, a very faint pink tinge on her cheeks.
Fang smiled fondly at her, feeling her body relax entirely. Light caught her look and smiled back. They stood almost awkwardly together until Light broke the silence with a glance down at Fang's jacket.
"You never needed one before."
Fang shrugged. "Vanille wouldn't let me leave the house without it."
"Oh. I do the same with the girls."
Fang looked at her intently, her interest fired even more at the mention of her-their-daughters. "Not let them leave without jackets?"
"Yes. It's still chilly in the mornings, even if they get driven to school."
Fang looked wistful. "They have a school here?"
Light laughed. "Of course. It was one of the first things built."
Fang shook her head, still looking amazed. "You know, I was never much of a student. I snuck out a lot."
"So I gathered. I'm afraid the security's been upped a bit at ours, so the girls are there all day and a bit afterwards."
"Are they... are they good at it? School?"
Light tilted her head and smiled. "Why not ask them yourself? You are going to see them this weekend, aren't you?"
Fang's heart hitched and she had to breathe in deeply. "You talked to them? They said it would be okay?"
Light nodded, looking a little shy for just an instant. "Yes. They're fine with it. Ari... Arial is especially eager to meet you again."
"Oh." Fang had no idea how to expression the elation that filled her, so she only grinned at Light. "That's good. I'm really looking forward to it, too. Where are we going to meet?"
She chuckled now. "Well, since we're meeting you, I was going to leave it up to you."
Fang's eyes widened. "M-me? I pick?"
Light looked mischievous, a glint in her eye that made Fang want to panic. "Indeed. It's only fair, I think. I'm sure you have some old haunts you want to show them."
Fang almost started sputtering, but stopped herself. "Old haunts. Right. I'll... I'll come up with something."
"Excellent. I'll send you over a more definite time, but Saturday morning sounds good?"
Fang worked out the days in her head. "Saturday... that's two days from now. Um." Two days. Maker, she had two days and she was at a complete loss as to where to take the girls for a first time meeting. Or second was more accurate, she supposed. Fuck. "I think so."
Light almost reached out to pat Fang's shoulder in sympathy. "Well, I have some more work to do. I'll see you later." Light strode off, leaving Fang in a daze of joy and panic. It wasn't until later when Hope managed to track down Fang that she was able to leave the Guardian Corps.
Author's Note: I am not dead! I am, however, exceptionally busy with college and work, hence the (overlong) delay. My apologies to readers who've stuck with me and have been patient. Thanks for your support!
So, this chapter was sort of quiet and talky, though pretty long... Not a lot happened, but we're getting there! I hope it didn't bore everybody to death :( But leave a note or review on your thoughts/feelings/rantings/etc.
Once again, credit goes to E.G. Szyslak for her advice and help on this fic.