Fang pulled herself up over the lip of the cliff and automatically checked around her to make sure that none of Gran Pulse's more enthusiastic fauna were headed her way. An aerial monster circled above in the sky, but it didn't seem particularly interested in her—and more importantly, wasn't interested in the convoy behind her. Fang slung her spear to her back and dug the rope out of her pack. Jako was on his way up with the smallest of the miners strapped to his back, and she didn't want to waste any time once they were there. She wanted all of the miners and the support people up here before night fell, because they would be a lot easier to protect if they were all together when the local wildlife started looking for dinner. Since Vanille was in their group, she was highly interested in having the best defensive position.
She unpacked all the materials she'd brought up with her—tools, rope ladder, pitons—and settled back to wait for Jako and the miner. It wasn't long before she saw Jako's enormous hands appearing over the edge of the cliff, and she went forward to help him. The miner was considerably shaken by being so far above the ground with nothing but a rope harness to keep him secured to Jako, but he wasn't hurt, and he quickly set to work securing the ladder so that the others could make their way up one at a time. Jako joined Fang in keeping watch for monsters, most of which were keeping a curious but wary distance. That was a blessing, because they had no l'Cie among them, and any fight was going to be very dangerous.
Other miners were first up so that more ladders could be arranged to speed up the entire process, but once that was done the support group came up first, led by Vanille and two more hunters. The remaining two hunters would wait until last in case something tried to come at the group still below, along with the remaining herbalist.
Vanille waved cheerfully, though it'd been only a few minutes since she and Fang last saw each other, and set to work getting the base camp set up. This valley was fairly sheltered, which was part of why it had been chosen to start the new mine over other sites with equally accessible mineral ores. Oerba was running short of some of the materials it needed to maintain its equipment, and it was time to range further afield. The elder had mentioned building some kind of transit system to prevent everyone having to go up and down in a rattling mining elevator, but that was far in the future and not Fang's problem. Her problem was keeping everyone safe while they established the mining camp.
The entire process went fairly smoothly, more so than Fang would have expected. By the time the other hunters brought Rain up to help Vanille set up the medical tent, the miners were already planning an expedition into the cave.
"Not by yourselves, you won't," Fang said firmly when the head miner approached her to let her know their plans. "Who knows what's in there. I'm not having you end up squashed by some hungry beast." This was her first opportunity to be in charge of an expedition like this, and she wasn't about to screw it up.
She took a quick minute to organize a rotation of guards for the camp, and then went to find Jako. The two of them ought to be plenty capable of handling anything in the cave, barring extraordinary circumstances.
"I'm coming with you," Vanille said suddenly from right behind her.
Fang turned with the denial already on her lips, and Vanille planted her feet and put her fists on her hips. "What if one of you gets hurt?" she said. "You'll want someone able to patch you up before the smell of blood attracts anything else."
"And if you get hurt, we're down a medic," Fang pointed out.
"I'll be fine," Vanille said. "You taught me how to fight, remember?"
Fang gritted her teeth. Trying to fight with Vanille would just delay her further, and she didn't have time. "Fine," she said, "but stay behind me and be careful."
"Sure thing," Vanille assured her, checking to make sure that her medical kit was all ready to go.
Jako raised an eyebrow when Vanille joined them at the cave entrance, but didn't say anything. "Ready?" he asked.
"Let's do this," Fang said, and let him lead the way.
They had to stop often for the miners to take measurements and discuss the sturdiness of the stone, but they were not much troubled by any stray creatures as they made their way through the caves. The floor was uneven beneath their feet, not carven as the entrance to Yaschas Massif was. Fang led the way, with the miners and Vanille in the middle while Jako brought up the rear.
They had gone far enough that Fang was about to call a halt when the narrow, twisting passageway suddenly opened into a massive, soaring cavern. It was so vast that Fang wasn't sure she could even really see the other side. A faint reddish glow seeped down from above, where it looked like at least a portion of this cavern was open to the sky and the setting sun. She wondered what had made it.
The creeping feeling down the back of her neck told her she was about to find out, moments before one of the miners let out a shout of surprise and bobbled his lantern at the same time that something massive blocked out the dim light from above. In the suddenly unreliable light, Fang just saw the flash of talons and got her spear up in time to take the blow instead of her shoulder. Jako shouted a warning and she heard the hasty retreat of footfalls behind her. She hoped Vanille was among them, but she didn't have time to worry, because the beast tried to knock her down with a swing of its forearm, and she didn't have time for that.
She and Jako fell into the familiar pattern of guarding each other's backs while trying to fend off the creature, but without l'Cie powers this was probably an exercise doomed to failure. Fang grunted in pain when a claw tore at her shoulder.
Something flashed at the edges of her vision, and the creature let out an unearthly shriek. "Come on!" Vanille shouted, somewhere to her left. "We're all safe, let's go!"
Fang sidestepped toward Vanille's voice and heard more than saw Jako doing the same. She was still braced for impact, but none came, despite the enthusiastic thrashing she could hear. She took the gamble and ran for it, hearing Jako's footsteps pounding behind her, and they both ducked into the passageway. The miners had gone farther up and were waiting with their lanterns, while Vanille stood at the entrance with something very like black string blanketing both her hands.
Fang looked back and saw what must have been a net entangling two of the monster's limbs and its head. She looked back at Vanille, who gave her a very good impression of a cheery smile. It would've been better if she hadn't looked like she were terrified under it.
"That was remarkably stupid," Fang said, and then hugged Vanille tight. "Thank you."
"I wasn't just going to let it eat you," Vanille said, but leaned into the hug anyway. "Let me see your shoulder."
"It'll wait til we're back at camp," Fang said. "I don't want to hang around in case that one had any friends."
"Good idea," Jako said, and they rejoined the miners to head out of the cave.
By the time they got back to camp, her shoulder had settled into a throbbing sort of pain that also burned, and Fang somewhat regretted not having Vanille help her back there, but she kept going out of sheer stubbornness. While they'd been gone, the others had set up all of the tents and gotten dinner cooking. Fang could smell roasted meat on the evening air, and her steps picked up despite her weariness.
"You go on ahead and see Rain for that arm," Vanille said to Jako, nodding at the gash on his forearm where Fang guessed he'd missed a block. "I'm going to take care of Fang's shoulder before dinner."
Jako gave her a casual salute with his uninjured arm and headed off toward the campfire. Vanille plopped down to sit cross-legged in the deep grass and looked up at Fang expectantly as she unslung her medical pack.
Fang sat down next to her, careful not to jar her shoulder, and unhooked the blue fabric pinned at her shoulder. It was bloodstained, but not torn; nothing she couldn't mend, anyway. Vanille's fingers were warm and careful on her shoulder when she started to clean the wound, but even so, it stung. Fang set her jaw and refused to make a sound.
"It's not too deep, at least," Vanille said, and Fang nodded to show that she'd heard and then thought about something else, anything else, while Vanille worked.
"I was trying to help you," Vanille said at last, reproachfully, when the wound was clean and she was packing a bundle of sharp-smelling medicinal herbs against it.
"I know." Fang squeezed Vanille's knee with her uninjured hand, and sighed. "But what would I do if you got hurt?"
"I knew what I was doing," Vanille said. "I know I'm not as strong as you are, but I can fight. Or don't you have faith in your own teaching ability?"
"I do," Fang said. "It's just that I want to protect you."
Vanille leaned around her to secure the bandage, and on the way back she intentionally let her arm brush against Fang's chest. "Well, funny," she said, her tone deliberately light, "I want to protect you, too."
Fang turned her head and found Vanille's face very close to hers, close enough to lean forward and kiss her. Vanille smelled of the wildflower perfume she liked and medicinal herbs, an oddly pleasant combination. A very Vanille combination.
"Thank you," Fang said, and Vanille kissed her softy before starting to pack up her kit.
"You're welcome," she said, and then scrambled up with her pack already on her shoulder and a mischievous grin. "Race you to dinner!"
Fang laughed and let Vanille have the head start. It seemed like the least she could do.