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Need a second to breathe (with this fever, fever)

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Need a second to breathe (with this fever, fever)

It all started with the bar. Lightning's not supposed to know about the bar -- well, no, she's fine to know about the bar, she's just not supposed to know that Hope and Vanille are frequent visitors, even if all they do is sit in a corner and talk most of the time -- but every now and then she needs to--

It's nothing bad, okay, but she's Commander Farron of the Pulse defence, ex-l'Cie who saved Cocoon, and everyone knows who she is. So she doesn't go the bar very often, and when she does it's not to drink, or pick up, or anything like that. She just pulls her hood up, Lebreau slides her a drink on the house, no questions asked, and slinks off into a corner to hide in plain sight. It's... freeing, to be in the middle of the throng, noise thrumming around and through her, and not have a single person know or care who she is or what she's doing.

She doesn't do it too often; now and then, you know, when the pressure of being Commander rises up around her and her collar starts feels too tight. On weeks where the days she's been overseeing administration and paperwork overshadow the days where she's been able to go and patrol the Steppe. On the day after Fang came back.

Anyway, she's not thinking about Fang right now. She's thinking about the bar. Because if she hadn't been in the habit of going to the bar, shadowed in a corner and watching people live their lives around her, lives that the fal'Cie would have taken from them, she wouldn't have been in the bar when--

Well.

She barely notices men, and never looks at women. So when she saw the man leaning on the bar, talking to Lebreau -- tight leather pants, wide shoulders under a white dress shirt, dark hair caught back in a low ponytail -- what's she supposed to think when her body flushes hot with tension? She crosses her legs, pulls her hood a little lower, and settles in to watch.

And then he turns to the side, laughing, and she gets a glimpse of his profile, and it's like electricity straight through her, because he's not a stranger, and he's not a man either.

It's Fang.

And now Lightning's having a crisis. Because she doesn't like women like that. She never has. But now she can't look at Fang without seeing her like she looked in the bar -- without imagining her up against her skin.

It's. Distracting.

And she's snapping at everyone, yelling at Rosch and Rygdea in Council, and she's avoiding Fang, and she's feeling like her collar's too tight, and she can't go to the bar now, can she -- because what if she runs into Fang again?

(What if, her traitorous mind says, and she dreams that she's back in the bar again, only this time she puts down her drink, walks over to the bar, and pushes Fang back against it, pressing them together, and then she wakes aching in her own bed, alone.)

It's when she and Serah have a fight over absolutely nothing and Serah slams out in tears that she knows she really has a problem. Because the last time she made Serah cry was right Before, on her birthday, and she was wrong then and she's wrong now, but she's not up to apologising, is barely able to keep track herself of all the stuff inside her head.

So. Okay. No bar. She needs a plan B.

Of course, that's when the zirnitras attack.

It's all Vanille's fault really -- she'd made a submission to the Council to start breeding wyverns for transport, like they used to before the War. (The War of Transgression, that is, not the fal'Cie War. Most people only have to keep track of one. Most people aren't over 500 years old.) Most had been in favour, and Vanille had talked the rest around with an adorable description of baby wyverns and the reminder that the ex-Cocoon energy sources weren't going to last forever. So Vanille's been going out and nabbing eggs for her hatchery, and the ordinary wyverns were none the wiser.

So Lightning's in the thick of it, dodging the stoops and trying not to get dazed, wishing she'd paid more attention to Vanille the other day when she said she'd managed to get a special egg, and trying to cover a whole division of Pulse defence who are having trouble pulling their rifles out of their asses. You could say, she's not having the best day.

Which is, of course, when she dodges a little too slow.

She goes flying, hits the ground in an uncoordinated sprawl. It's bad, she knows that immediately, and what, does it take serious injury before her brain starts behaving like the mature adult she knows she is?

Suddenly there's a lot more noise, and world darkens, and she manages to open her eyes all the way to see the deep purple clouds of Bahamut obscuring the sky. And, oh, that's Fang literally standing over her, one boot firmly each side of her body and pouring out ruin after ruin at the zirnitra that's doing its damndest to finish her off.

It's a bit blurry after that.

Fang says to her "If you die, I'll never forgive you. You're an idiot."

Vanille says "I'm so sorry! I didn't remember how much smarter than regular wyverns the zirnitras are!" and Rosch says "We have taken a whole unit of casualties today." Rygdea says something in the background, soothing, and Fang says something sharp, words tumbling together.

Hope says, clearly, "Zirnitras poison--" and it's about then that Lightning doesn't remember anything else.

She has some nice dreams, though. Her mother comes in, pink hair tumbling to the side of her face. "I miss you," she tells her. "Me and Serah, we're doing okay though." Her mom holds her hand for an hour, while she rambles on a bit about their new life on Pulse and how Serah's going. It's around the point where she's telling mom how proud she'd be of Serah, how she's married and a teacher and so respected around Pulse that she notices mom's crying, but that's okay. She cried plenty when her mom died, she can respect her mother's tears.

She dreams Snow next, and he comes in and tells her all about how sorry Vanille is, and how she's going to pick out a special wyvern when the first eggs hatch to train just for Lightning in apology. Then he turns into a sahagin and waddles out of the room.

She dreams a circle of imps sneak into the room and cast fira over and over, and she's sweating and shaking, can't get away. She's glad when that dream fades.

And of course, she dreams of Fang.

She dreams that Fang smooths the hair back from her face and puts cool cloths on her forehead. She dreams that Fang curls up next to her in the bed, holding her close, whispering, "I need you," into her hair. She dreams that Fang sits by her quietly, keeping her company without intruding. "Sometimes I wish I'd never met you," she tells her, because Fang makes her feel so confused right now, and how can her dreams be so easy but in real life it's all so hard?

When she finally wakes up, Serah's asleep in the chair at the side of the room.

"Hey," Lightning says, and Serah shoots upright, and then there's the hugging and crying, and the apologies (Lightning), and the forgiveness (Serah).

"What do you need?" Serah asks, and Lightning might have only been awake for fifteen minutes but she is so ready to get out of this bed.

"Okay," Serah says, and within another fifteen Lightning is out of her hospital gown, into real clothes, and (to her chagrin) being assisted into a velocycle.

"Rosch and Rygdea miss you at Council," Serah says, " I think they're going to actually start shooting people if you don't come back soon."

"What, at the one meeting I missed?" Lightning says.

"Um," Serah says, and oh. Oh. Apparently Lightning's been recovering from poisoned injuries for over a week.

"I've never seen them so worried," Serah says, "Fang especially. I think she was ready to go out and find the zirnitra nests to raze them to the ground, when she wasn't looking after you."

"What do you mean?" Lightning says, and she might have just woken up from a week and a half of fever dreams but she needs to know. She needs to know.

"You were in and out," Serah says, "and then the fever got really bad. I think Fang slept in there half the time, in case you needed anything in the middle of the night."

"Oh," Lightning says, and wait, wait -- how many of her fever dreams were dreams and how many were actually real?

"She took off last night though, said there was something she had to do."

Because if she hadn't been dreaming the whole time -- well probably Fang hadn't really curled close around her in the night, but probably had done the whole cloth on the forehead thing, and --

"Wait, what did you say?" Lightning says, because if she hadn't been dreaming the whole time she might possibly have told real Fang that she wished she'd never met her, and no. No.

"She said she had something to do?" Serah says. "She took a chocobo and headed out towards the Mah'habara."

"Right," Lightning says. "Look, I'm really tired, can you just drop me home?"

Serah pulls over the velocycle so she can twist around and give her a look.

Lightning sighs. "Fine. Can you drop me at the chocobo stables, please?"

"That's better," Serah sniffs, and kicks the velocycle into gear.

Fifteen minutes after that, Lightning's on a chocobo with a bundle of provisions, promises of filthy lies to Rosch and Rygdea about her bedridden status, and no clear idea of where she's going. She'll go by the Spire first, since it's on the way to Oerba, but if Fang's not in either of those places --

Well. She'll cross that bridge if she comes to it.

It helps that she manages to pick up the trail of the other chocobo as she approaches the spire. She follows it between the spiky crystal blooms near the Spire base, but Fang's nowhere to be seen, and eventually the tracks wind their way back into the longer grass of the Steppe, heading towards the Mah'habara.

Oerba, then.

It takes her two days to get there, and with every jolt the chocobo takes, with every time she slides off and her legs give way, she's reminded that she just woke up out of a week and a half of poison fever and recovery from serious injury.

She doesn't even know why she's going after Fang anymore, when she spent so long avoiding her, but if she thinks about never seeing Fang again, something twists sharp inside her. She can't let that happen. Fang's too important, and this is so much more than a glimpse at a bar. Fang's been beside her from Palumpolum, nearly from the beginning, and she doesn't know what to do if that companionship just vanishes. How she feels, it didn't start from that night in the bar -- that just made her aware of it.

Of course, when she finally gets to Oerba and slides off the chocobo in the main square, Fang comes out of the door of the orphanage just in time to see her crumple to the ground.

Typical.

"I'm an idiot," she rasps as Fang reaches her.

"Too right you are," Fang says, gruff, but her hands are gentle as they help Lightning inside.

"Look," Lightning says, "I need to-"

"Whatever it is, it can wait," Fang says, and manhandles her embarrassingly easily into what is clearly Fang's nest of blankets. "You need to rest or you're going to relapse."

Lightning's got a great comeback to that, because this stuff, it's important, but Fang tucks her in and her eyes slide closed and really, surely it can wait a little longer?

When she wakes up the sun is shining low through the windows. Fang's nowhere to be seen, but she's left a canteen pinning down a note in -- hah -- the Pulse alphabet, which Lightning is very bad at reading, a fact Fang knows very well.

"I suppose I deserve it," she says, drains the canteen, and starts to decipher the note.

In the end, it could have been worse -- the note says "On the jetty. Try not to collapse again." and at the bottom Fang's drawn a stick figure with Cocoon x's for eyes -- and Lightning's smiling when she's finished.

By the time she's untangled herself from the blankets and found her boots, the sun has dropped below the windows, and she kicks up puffs of dust across the long shadows in the square. Without the cries of the wandering Cie'th, Oerba's quiet and still. It's peaceful, and she has to wonder why Fang doesn't come here more often.

The stairs up to the jetty feel endless, and she has to stop at the top to catch her breath before she can start down the long walk to the end. Fang's there, though, she can see the silhouette at the end of the jetty, dark against the setting sun.

By the time she gets there, it's more of a controlled collapse rather than a graceful descent to the wooden boards.

"Smooth," Fang comments, and Lightning's too out of breath to do more than slap out a hand in retaliation.

She doesn't say anything else though, and eventually Lightning squirms around on the boards, in a miracle of coordination managing to get both upright and next to Fang.

"So," she says.

Fang hums a noise in reply, but doesn't say anything else, and it's clear to Lightning that she's going to have to make all the overtures here. But, okay -- it's her screw up. She's going to fix it.

"Was I dreaming," she says, "when I said that sometimes I wished I'd never met you?"

Fang's shoulders go tight. "No."

Okay. She can fix this. "Okay," she says. "I didn't mean it like that. What I meant was, that sometimes I find you really confusing."

Fang laughs, and it's sharp. "The feeling's mutual."

Lightning doesn't know why that makes her feel so sad, all of a sudden. "Sorry?" she says, because she's still going to fix this. She has to. "I don't mean to be."

"It's okay," Fang says, but it's really not; her shoulders are still too tight, her tone too neutral. "I know what I can and can't have, and it's no more than I deserve, anyway."

"I don't understand," Lightning says, and Fang shakes her head.

"That's okay," Fang says. "You don't have to." Lightning can only see the side of her face, painted harsh in the lowering sun, and it's set, tense. Sad. She's messing this up.

"I'm messing this up," she says, because she doesn't think she and Fang are on the same page, and Fang's arms are tensing like she's going to lever herself up, and that cannot happen. "Please don't go. Can we start again?"

After a moment, the muscles in Fang's arms relax, and Lightning can relax a little with them. "Okay," Fang says.

Lightning takes a breath. "Okay, starting over. I'm sorry for - avoiding you recently. And I'm sorry for saying that I wished I'd never met you, I don't think that. And in my defence I had a pretty bad fever."

"Don't remind me," Fang says, but her face is relaxing a little. Okay. Lightning can do this, even if she's a few mana short of a cure right now.

"So - I followed you out here because I thought you might be upset at what I said, and it was important to me that you know that I didn't mean it. And that you're important to me, our friendship is important to me."

"I accept your apology," Fang says.

"Okay," Lightning says, and it's what she wanted, so why does it seem like there's still more to fix? Why does Fang still look sad? "Serah said that you helped take care of me while I was sick, so, thanks for that."

"That's okay," Fang says, and they listen to the waves for a moment.

There's something about Fang's demeanour, her bearing -- Lightning can't put her finger on it, but something's definitely still not right.

"Why did you come all the way out here?" Lightning says. There's something in this, Fang's sudden and unscheduled visit to Oerba, that she hasn't worked out yet. "And why Oerba?" she adds, before Fang's even opened her mouth to reply. "I mean, I know it's your home town and all but you almost never come here. I would have thought that you would come more often, especially now that the Cie'th are gone."

"It's complicated," Fang says, but not in a way that says she's not willing to speak; more that she's gathering words to explain. "Oerba -- it's still home, but it's more than that now. It's." There's a beat, while the waves shush under them and the sun starts to dip below the horizon. "It's a cairn, now. For Yun, for Dia, for Tir, for Wei -- for all the clans. It's loss, and peace, and reverence, and respect. It's a place to come when you need to grieve, or let go, or think, or when you need to speak to those who came before."

It hits Lightning right in the centre of her chest, hard enough that she shakes out her next breath. She could have used somewhere like that, back when things got hard; back when her and Serah were suddenly alone, full of grief and with nowhere to go.

She swallows hard, and this fever really has left her a complete mess, hasn't it?

"That's beautiful," she says, and if her voice is wobbling, Fang doesn't comment. "Do you--" And then it strikes her, Fang's bitter laugh at her confusion, and 'the feeling's mutual'. What Fang might think she can't have. Fang's going somewhere to grieve and let go... and something that she might not have dreamed after all.

"Do I what?" Fang says.

Lightning shakes her head. "What did you come here to let go, Fang?"

Fang hisses out a breath, turning her face away. "Don't."

"I dreamed that you held me and told me you needed me," Lightning says, and Fang's shoulders tense. "Or was it real after all?"

"No," Fang says, but Lightning's on the right track now, she knows it.

"It was, wasn't it?" she says, and Fang does push herself to her feet this time.

"Lightning, stop."

"No," she says, because she's so close now, she knows it.

"You don't get it," Fang says and spins around, her face backlit by the sun. "I know what I can and can't have. I can't have this, I know that, and you don't need to humiliate me by dragging it out more and more. That's not why I came here."

Lightning swallows. "I didn't come here to let you go," she says. "I--" and has to take a breath before she can continue, but if Fang feels humiliated, well, Lightning can take one for the team too. "I saw you at the bar the other night."

"What are you talking about?" Fang says, everything about her closed off.

"I was in a corner, and I saw you at the bar, and I thought you were a man," Lightning says, and she can feel her cheeks heat. She looks out at the ocean instead, because she can look at Fang or she can keep talking but she can't do both at once. "And I was attracted to you."

Fang snorts. "That makes me feel better."

"Just -- I'm getting there," Lightning says, and takes another breath. "And then I realised you were, you, and I got all confused, because I kept having these feelings, and I'd never even looked at another woman before, and I didn't know if it was just because I'd thought you were a man before, and I didn't know what to do or how to handle anything. And then the wyverns came and mucked everything up."

"And then I kept dreaming about you, and I was so confused still, and then you went away and I had to go after you. Because, I couldn't let you think that I wished you out of my life, because that's just the opposite. I want you in my life, and I realised that night in the bar wasn't the beginning but just me realising how I felt."

Fang's breath in is loud over the waves. Her tone, when she speaks, is exactly neutral. "And how do you feel?"

"I don't -- I'm not thinking very clearly right now," Lightning admits. "But I know I care for you a great deal, and I know I find you attractive. I'm not really sure beyond that."

Fang says nothing, and Lightning swallows. "How do you feel?"

"I," Fang says, and laughs again. Her voice has lost all of its iron control, rough and shaking. "I came here to let go of how I felt, only for you to arrive a day later and hand me everything I've wanted but thought I couldn't have. I can't even tell you--" and now Lightning can look, Fang slumped back against the jetty post like it's the only thing holding her up, shaking her head.

"Hey," Lightning says, and Fang tips her head down to meet her gaze.

"Hm?"

"Come here?" Lightning says, and sort of collapses back against the boards, feet still swinging off the edge.

Fang doesn't say anything, but she does push off the pillar and slump down on the boards instead.

"Would you--" Lightning says, but she's faced down worse than this; she's faced down Orphan itself with Fang by her side. Together, there's nothing they can't accomplish. "Would you hold me again?" Lightning says. "Like you did when I was sick."

"Light," Fang says, her voice rueful. "I think you'll find there's almost nothing I won't do for you." She shifts over in a rustle of silk, and a moment later Lightning's being manhandled again, tucked into the warm circle of Fang's arms. And -- yes, she remembers this, although it's overlaid with the dreamlike feel of the fever; the warmth, the security, the care; even the feel of Fang's body against hers.

"I need you," Fang breathes in her ear, and presses a kiss to her temple.

Lightning wriggles an arm free and wraps it across Fang's back, fingers clutching tight at the warm skin across her shoulderblades.

"As I have come to realise," Lightning says, "I need you."

She tucks her nose into the crook of Fang's neck and breathes, letting the shush of the waves and the warmth of Fang's body soothe her hurts.

"Come on," Fang says some time later, from a great distance away.

"Mm?" Lightning says. It's dark, or maybe her eyes aren't working. "Whe--?"

"We can't sleep here," Fang says. "Not tonight anyway, you might catch a chill. If you get back sick Serah will skin me alive."

"Ser' put me ona choc'bo here," Lightning slurs.

"I can believe it," Fang says. "She'd skin me anyway, though," and then her warmth is going away, and Lightning makes a distressed noise. "Shh, it's okay," Fang says, and Lightning's being picked up and held back against her warmth, and oh, that's okay then.

"I got you," Fang says, and Lightning lets go.

When she wakes up this time, back in Fang's nest of blankets in the orphanage, Fang is curled around her. Lightning smiles, relaxing back into her embrace. Everyone is where they should be, and here in this place of absolution, they can heal, and be at peace.


Epilogue

I. It isn't time, no

"What do you mean, 'gone'?" Rosch says.

"We~ell," Rygdea says, dragging the word out, "I dropped by to see how she was recovering and she wasn't there."

Rosch pushes to his feet. "We should send out search parties immediately. What if she's relapsed and wandered off into the Steppe? We need to-"

"You need to sit down," Serah says, swinging around the doorway.

"I bumped into her on the way back," Rygdea says, shrugging apologetically.

"...Ah," Rosch says, and sits.

"Look, she wasn't doing well here so I packed her off to Oerba for a few days," Serah says brightly. "Warmer climate, near the sea, it's perfect for a recovery! She'll be back before you know it."

Rosch stares.

"Don't look at me like that," Serah says, afronted. "Fang's with her. She'll make sure she's okay."

"Serah," Rygdea says, taking her attention, "How many days do you think they'll be gone?"

"Well, it's two days to Oerba, and then recovery time, and then two days back..." Serah says, looking sideways while she thinks. "So, probably... mid next week!"

Rosch flinches, and Rygdea hurriedly steps forward. "Okay, thanks Serah, good to know! I'm sure she'll be back before we know it, yes-"

Rosch waits until she's safely out the door before letting his head thunk down onto his desk.

"It's not that bad," Rygdea says, coming back inside.

"Yes it is," Rosch mumbles.

"You'll handle it," Rygdea says, his hand coming down warm on the back of Rosch's neck.

"I'll shoot them all," Rosch says.

"Nah, I'll confiscate all your weapons," Rygdea says, and despite himself, Rosch smiles.

 

II. Just you, me, and the stars

"Shoo," Serah says, and Snow honest to Pulse pouts, widening his eyes as far as they can go.

"But Sera~h-"

"Shoo," Serah says again, smiling, and softens it with a kiss. "I have things to do."

"Well, I wouldn't want to hold you up," Snow says against her lips, and then holds her up anyway, kissing her again.

"Come on," Serah says, laughing, "shoo."

"A hero always obeys," Snow says, smiling for her, and sketches a fancy bow before heading out.

Serah smiles all the way to her desk, sobering as she sits and pulls out her stationery. She does this every now and then, when there's something to tell; and always on the anniversary, even if there isn't. Back in Bodhum, she'd take it out onto the jetty; there's no ocean out here on the Steppe but she's resourceful -- she'll go out into the grass, away from the town, where she can be alone, and burn it there, let the wind take the ashes and dust up into the heavens to Etro.

Dear mom, she writes. Claire says that you would be so proud of me. I've always hoped that that was true but today I think I can believe it.

 

III. I'm sick of laying down alone

"I'd like to kiss you," Fang says.

They're snuggled into the blanket nest for the night, Lightning half-draped over Fang, and there's no way Fang will have missed the way her heartbeat kicks up.

Lightning's -- she's nervous, there's no other word for it. Of course she'd like to kiss Fang. But she's never--

She lifts her head. Fang's looking at her, steady, and she blows out a breath. "I've never kissed a woman before," she says, and Fang smiles.

"I think you'll find," she says, easing Lightning down onto her back, "that it's rather similar to kissing a man," and then she's leaning in, hair falling to the side to brush Lightning's cheek.

Lightning can't help the way her eyes flutter closed at the first brush of Fang's lips. They're soft, gentle, and oh, Fang's wrong, this is nothing like any of the kisses Lightning has had before. She's never felt out of breath from just a simple kiss before. (Then again, she's not tried this while in recovery from a fever, either, but she's sure as Pulse not going to stop.)

Lightning forces her eyes open when Fang pulls back. Her eyes are dark, pupils wide. "Can I," Fang says, and her voice is wrecked, low and rough, and Lightning shivers. "Light, let me love you."

She's nervous, but this is Fang. Who stood by her side when they were all but strangers. Who was her strength when she was weak. Who stood against the fal'Cie at her side. She already trusts Fang with her life. Why is she nervous to trust Fang with her body?

She nods, jerky. "Yes--" she says, and Fang swallows the word from her mouth before she's even finished speaking, tongue sliding against hers. It's hot and slick and devastating, and absolutely nothing she's prepared for.

Fang pulls back before she's quite ready, peppering her with little kisses, her mouth, her jaw, the side of her throat. "I'll make it so good," she says against the hollow of Lightning's collarbone, fingers working at the snaps of her shirt. "Just let me--"

"I trust you," Lightning says, breathless, and Fang makes an inarticulate noise and slides her tongue over the curve of Lightning's breast. "Oh," Lightning says, and Fang unsnaps her bra and rolls her nipple between her teeth, and, "oh, Fang-"

Her back's arching without her conscious control, slick ache building between her legs, and Lightning can't stand much more of this, Fang's mouth on her a direct line to her nerves. "Fang, I need--"

Fang lifts her head, her mouth slick and open, and Lightning can't help but curl a hand around her neck and pull her down for another kiss, just as devastating as the first. "Fang," she says, gasping for air, "I need."

Fang smirks, and slides both hands into Lightning's waistband. "Ready for this?" she says, and Lightning can only nod as Fang slips the waistband down.

She's not a stranger to sex, but she still gasps at the first touch of Fang's fingers, sliding against her folds. Everything's different, because this time it's Fang, here with her, and how could she not have realised that Fang meant everything to her, after all this time? How could she have been so blind?

And then Fang dips her head, licking into her, and Lightning's not really thinking of anything at all, except heat, and more, and faster. And always, always, Fang.