Play It Straight

The first fact Lightning faced once her feet were steady on this new soil of this new world was that Serah was alive and breathing and three feet from her. Serah realized it at the same moment and nearly tackled Lightning off her feet in a hug.

Lightning held Serah tightly as her sister's slim shoulders shook in what must be tears. She had no idea why Snow wasn't sweeping in, but she appreciated the moment to fully realize that she was not alone. Serah was here and alive. She had a family again. They were finally back together, and nothing, absolutely nothing, was going to tear them apart.

They parted, and then Snow entered the fray, surprisingly giving Lightning a bear hug before grabbing Serah. Lightning, stepping back to give the couple some space, then had to face a second fact.

Hope was taller than her.

Their friends around them were all exuberant, shouting and pulling each other into emotional embraces. Hope's eyes, though, cut through all the commotion. He was smiling at her, at her and only her, and she took the implied invitation and stepped up to him. She had no words, though, as she looked up at him and took in the vibrant green of his eyes and the messiness of his hair. He seemed content not to talk either, drinking in the sight of her as she was doing with him. She watched his lips part, as though he was trying to find the words, but he only hesitated a moment before speaking. "Here we are."

His voice was a comfort to her, as it had been throughout the past thirteen days. "Yeah. We made it."

They kept looking at each other, and Lightning found herself at a loss. This man in front of her had done so much for her, and she didn't even know where to begin with making amends. She didn't know if he was facing the same struggle, but as he opened his mouth to speak again, she beat him to it. "Thank you." It seemed so inadequate, that simple phrase to encompass everything they'd been through. "If not for you, I wouldn't be here right now."

"If not for you, none of us would be here, Light." He took a step closer to her, and she fought the urge to take a step back and keep a safe distance from him. "The entire world owes you, right now."

"That's... not..." Lightning shook her head. "They shouldn't be thinking like that. You shouldn't be, especially. You came back for me. I'll never be able to repay you for—"

"I don't need you to repay me, Light. I would never have left you; you should know that by now."

Lightning shook her head again, breaking eye contact in favor of looking at his shoulder. He didn't understand how much his intervention meant to her, and she wasn't certain how to articulate it to him. "I have to do something," she muttered.

"Well, if you insist on trying," Hope said, a hint of mischief in his tone. "I'll take a hug, if you don't mind. Even though you don't do hugs."

Lightning jerked her head back up to see his eyes. His smile was also playful, and she huffed. "Well, I guess that's the least I can do," she grumbled.

Hope needed no more of an invitation. His arms enveloped Lightning, pulling her tight to him. After a moment, she hesitantly wrapped her own around him. She had to admit, it was nice to share in Hope's warmth, to feel the soft knit of his shirt against her face and his heartbeat's steady rhythm beneath her cheek. Even Snow's sudden wolf whistle wasn't enough to make her stop.

When she pulled away, Hope looked down at her with an unreadable look in his eyes. "Light," he said softly. "Things... Things are going to be different now."

"Of course things are gonna be different!" Fang interrupted, swinging her arm around his shoulders. "Look at you, kid! When did you grow up and get so handsome?"

From there, the two were pulled into conversations with their friends and comrades. Hope shot her a wry grin, and Lightning just shrugged. Whatever he wanted to tell her would just have to wait.

Once everyone had settled down from the shock of being together, they had to face one third and final fact. They were on a brand new world that they knew absolutely nothing about.

There were millions of people, all completely displaced, who needed homes, food, and jobs. It was a completely daunting proposition, but everyone took it in stride. It helped that many of the residents of this new world remembered Hope and automatically accepted him as their leader. It also helped that everyone somehow recognized Lightning, and knew what she had done for them, a fact that made her uncomfortable.

"They all look at me like I'm some sort of deity," she complained one night, as she helped Hope organize his never-ending pile of paperwork in the office building he'd taken over. "And no one let's me pay for anything. It's ridiculous. This is supposed to be a fresh start for everyone."

"It is a fresh start, Light," he told her, setting a file down in favor of taking a sip from his coffee mug. "And I don't think you realize how much it means to everyone to have this chance. Haven't you noticed the optimism? Everyone is just relieved. And they need someone or something to thank for it. I mean, even just me... I have my parents back because of you."

"It still makes me uncomfortable," she said, refusing to concede the point.

It was easier than expected to settle into this new situation. It felt so natural, like their old lives were a dream that they'd finally woken from, and now they just had to find their way to where they had been meant to be all along. Homes were allocated, businesses opened, the Academy re-established. And though everything seemed to be going so smoothly, Lightning still hated the stares and preferential treatment she received. It bothered her enough to do something about it.

"We should leave," she told Serah. They were over at the Estheim's, on the back porch where Hope's mother had set out outdoor furniture, enjoying that last bit of evening warmth as the sun set. "There are cities and towns out there. Maybe if I'm in a place less... central to everything, people will get used to me and leave me alone."

"I dunno, Sis," Serah said, leaning back in her chair and taking a sip of lemonade, batting at a dragonfly that had zipped too close. "I can't say I'd object; I want to get back to teaching, and a small town might be good for that. I think Snow would be fine with it. But what about Hope?"

The question startled Lightning. "What about him?"

"Do you really want to be separated from him? You two are so close."

Lightning's chair creaked as she sat up, staring at her sister. "Yes, we're close, but... Others have left too." This statement was true; though everyone was determined to stay in close contact, most of their friends had left to seek opportunities and adventures in other locations. The four of them were the only ones who'd stayed in the city where they all awoke.

"But the others aren't Hope." Serah sat up as well, leaning forward in her chair. "C'mon, Sis, you know he's not going to like you leaving. Have you talked about it with him?"

"I haven't talked about it with anyone," Lightning said, mind reeling. And while yes, it was true that she connected with Hope more than with others, he had so much going on here. He had a government to run and a family to spend time with. Her leaving wouldn't be that big a deal, would it? No one else's departure had been.

Serah's knowing look wasn't helping her think. "I'm not saying it's a bad idea," her sister said, once again relaxing back into her chair's puffy cushions. "But I think you should talk to Hope."

"Talk to me about what?"

Lightning whipped her head around to see the man in question stepping out onto the patio. He slid the kitchen door shut and walked to him, bearing his own glass of lemonade. He stopped by Lightning and rested his free hand on the top of her chair. "Everything all right?" he asked, seeing Lightning's tight expression.

"Everything's fine," Serah said. "Lightning just proposed us getting out of the city. She wants to live somewhere a bit smaller, so she can be out of the limelight and let the whole Savior thing die down a bit."

"Makes sense. Do you have anywhere in mind?"

His reaction, or rather lack of a reaction, took both Serah and Lightning by surprise. Inwardly, Lightning berated herself for the slight feeling of disappointment, and she turned narrow eyes on her sister for the implication that had led to said uncomfortable feelings. Serah simply shrugged back, still looking startled. "We haven't really discussed that yet," Serah said finally, after a moment of awkward silence. "This is a new idea."

Hope made a humming noise and took a sip of lemonade, the ice cubes inside clicking as he considered the problem.

"Well, it would need to be someplace smaller than here, that's for sure. But maybe not too far away, still on the train line. There are quite a few smaller towns in the outlying region; they're pretty nice from what I've heard. I guess there's no rush though; we can take our time and look around."

"Wait, we?" Serah took the words out of Lightning's mouth.

"Of course." He took in their shocked expressions. "Unless I'm not invited?"

"No, no, no," Serah sputtered. "It's just... Well, we weren't expecting you to want to leave, but if that's you want—"

"I want to go with you."

Lightning twisted around to look up at him, and found he was looking straight at her, not Serah. "What about your job? Are your really just going to give it up?"

"Sort of." He scratched his head. "I stepped in to get us settled peacefully, but I'm planning to take on an advisory position as soon as possible. I can help out and direct things where they need to go, but I'm not sure I want to be in the thick of it anymore. Getting out of here sounds great."

"But you're always so busy with that job. What are you going to do with yourself without it?" Serah asked.

"Oh, I dunno. Sleep. Get back to my own research. Build Light a car. I'll think of something."

"You'd really want to leave?" Lightning asked, searching his expression for any sign of regret or hesitation. "What about your parents?"

"I'm not their baby anymore, Light," he said, meeting her eyes. "I think sometimes it's a bit weird for my mom to have a twenty seven year old in the house. I want to stay close enough to visit, but I think it might help her adjust if I'm not underfoot all the time."

"So not too close, but not too far," Serah mused. "You'll need to be able to get to the city for work and see your family."

"What about Caelum?" Hope offered, focusing on Serah. "It's only an hour away by train and it's close to the beach. There's plenty of houses available over there and I can get the paperwork through pretty quickly."

"That could work," Serah said, dropping her chin in her hand. "What do you think, Sis?"

"I think anyplace is better than here," Lightning said, shrugging. "Caelum sounds as good as anywhere."

Serah nodded, rubbing her arms. The air had chilled now that the sun was down and Hope noticed her discomfort. "It's getting late," he said. "We should head back inside."

Serah nodded again and stood, grabbing her empty glass. Lightning followed suite and they trekked into the kitchen. Serah moved on ahead, calling out for Snow, but Lightning was stalled from following when Hope wrapped his hand around her wrist. "Light, hold on a sec."

She turned back, a little impatient, but the feeling was quelled at the sight of Hope, his head turned and staring at nothing in particular. His eyes were narrowed like he was considering something. She twitched her arm in his grip and he released her. "Light," he said, still staring past her shoulder. "I have this idea. I've had it for a while, but didn't really want to bring it up, but if we're going to move..." he trailed off, lost in thought.

Lightning stood there waiting, now bemused rather than annoyed at his distracted state. "You have an idea? That has to do with the move?" she prompted when the silence dragged on.

He snapped to attention. "Yeah. Sorry, I'm thinking logistics. But I guess I need to pitch it to you before I get ahead of myself. Here's what I'm thinking." He leaned back to the kitchen counter, bracing himself with his hands. "Everyone's got someone to stay with or somewhere to go, you know? And maybe you want to stay with Snow and Serah or something, but I thought... I mean, we're used to working together anyway, so it wouldn't be that different, and, if you're okay with—"

"Hope, get to the point."

He stood up straighter. "I think you and I should get a place together."

She blinked. "What? Live together?"

"Yes. I mean no. I mean yes, but not like that." He looked embarrassed now, brushing his hair out of his eyes. "You'll have your own room and I'll have mine, and we can do our own bathrooms too, but we should maybe share the kitchen. It would be nice to not live alone. It's up to you, though. Just think about it."

She considered it, avoiding looking at his face in favor of the floor. This was sudden, but the idea was not exactly unpleasant. She and Hope did get along well, and while Snow was bound to have a field day when he heard, and their friends would be making all kinds of assumptions... Hope was right. It would be nice to not be alone. She looked up at Hope now, and the sight of his eyes, full of anxiety, but also excitement, determined her answer.

"Why not?"

She let Hope pick the house, figuring that she'd be fine with his tastes. She was right. He chose a small house just a few minutes walk from Snow and Serah's. "Close enough, but not too close," he told her with a wink.

It was a pretty house, full of windows to let in light and a small yard with flowers. They argued briefly about who would take the master bedroom, but Lightning convinced Hope to do the honors, once she reminded him that the massive number of books and technical manuals he'd manage to acquire in the past months needed to go somewhere out of the way, and the biggest bedroom had the most room for shelves.

Hope's parents helped them move in and they insisted on decorating the place with far more furniture than Lightning thought strictly necessary. Expensive furnishings too, more colorful than anything Lightning would have picked out for herself. But after flopping on one of the big red plush couches in the living room to watch television, she decided not to complain. It was comfortable to have a place to fully relax, a private space away from most everyone. It was pleasant to see paintings on the walls and the pictures of their friends on the mantle. It was enjoyable to have a home again.

But most of all, it was nice to be around Hope.

Living with Lightning was as easy and as hard as Hope expected.

It was easy in that they adjusted quickly to a routine. He still worked four days a week in the city, which left Lightning to her own devices. Not one to sit around all day, she got a part-time job training recruits for the peacekeeping force in town. Though they had little to deal with aside from the occasional rowdy drunk and petty thievery, she said it got her out of the house and kept her from going crazy.

Lightning kept the house clean and did most of the cooking. Hope hadn't anticipated her being so domestic, but she pointed out that he was a lot busier than her and it was the least she could do. She could cook too, though she still insisted that steak was her one and only specialty, and he got very used to coming home to a hot meal served by the most gorgeous woman on the planet.

Interacting with Lightning on an everyday basis with no crisis looming was a new, but rewarding experience. He couldn't help the little thrill that would run through his body when Lightning would call him for something as simple as picking up milk on his way home. He loved sitting back with her on the couch and flipping through the channels before they headed off to bed. He loved weekends, when she would curl up in their armchair and fall asleep in the afternoon sun. He was getting to see a new side of her, one more relaxed and carefree.

It was hard because being around her like this made Hope want so much more.

Every other weekend, on Serah's day off from teaching and prep work, the two sisters went out to lunch. Serah always chose the restaurant and every week it was someplace different. Lightning didn't know how so many restaurants could exist in such a small town, but she was convinced that by the end of the year, they'd have eaten at every venue Caelum had to offer.

On one such Saturday, Serah was distracted. "Sorry," she said to Lightning, as she snapped her phone open to check a text for the seventh time. "Snow is doing a project for me, and it's a bit involved."

"Do you need to go supervise?"

"No," she said, typing in a response. "I trust him to do this; he's just sending me status reports. It's really fine. Sorry again, Sis."

"Don't worry about it."

The texts continued, making Lightning roll her eyes, but they finally eased off after Serah finished her dessert. "Success?" Lightning asked as they headed out to the car.

"I hope so."

"What did you have him doing?"

"Moving furniture."

Lightning stopped with her keys still in the car lock. "Moving furniture? That requires supervision?" She asked over the car.

"It is a very large and heavy piece of furniture."

Lightning considered this, then shook her head scoffing and opened her door.

When they reached the house, she noticed that Hope's car was gone, likely meaning that he'd gone to visit his parents. However, when she tried the front door, it was unlocked. This was uncharacteristic, but she didn't have a chance to fully consider the implications as Serah laid a hand on her shoulder. "Hope didn't leave it unlocked," she said, reading her sister's expression. "There's something I need to tell you. This could possibly make you mad, but I'm really hoping it won't."

"What?" Lightning flipped her keys in her hand and clenched them, taking in her sister's wide eyes and apparent agitation.

Serah wrapped her hands around Lightning's fist. "Snow and I... Well, it was my idea, so if you don't like it, you cannot take it out on Snow. We bought you a housewarming present. And like I said, it might make you mad, but I really wanted you to have it, and I think if you give it a chance, you'll like it too."

"Serah, what did you do?"

"Come and see."

Serah pulled her into the house and led her through the front hallway and back into the kitchen and living space. There, tucked up against the wall, was an upright piano. Next to it, a short shelf held books and sheet music. Three panels of painted flowers hung above the piano, and a vase of pink roses rested on a lace doily on the left side of the instrument. The sight sent a powerful wave of nostalgia through Lightning. It was like a snapshot of her life, so long ago that it was almost forgotten, had been brought to life before her eyes.

"Well," Lightning said, taking in the sight. "This is a surprise."

"Please don't be angry." Serah grabbed her hand. "There's this shop downtown that sells them, and I saw this one and just wanted it for you. I told Snow and he agreed, and we saved up the money and Snow came in with the deliverymen while we were at lunch and got it set up and tuned. I know I should have asked you, but I just really wanted to do this. Please don't be angry."

"I'm not angry, Serah," she said, eyes still on the piano. "I'm just surprised."

Serah quieted down and stepped back and Lightning moved over to the piano. It was a beautiful instrument, she'd give Serah that much. She carefully pushed up the fall board to reveal the pristine keys. She avoided touching them, but ran a finger along the gold lettering embossed on the fall board.

"I know it's not a grand," Serah said softly, coming up beside her. "But it's still something."

Lightning made a noise in her throat that might have been agreement. She cautiously laid her fingers on the keys, but didn't push them. She could almost hear her mother banging around in the kitchen and Serah crying, all mixed in with the slow stumbling notes of a sonata. If she turned her head, her mother might be right there, ready to scold her for her inattention.

"Do you want to play?"

Lightning pulled her hand away like it had been burned. "Not right now," she said, quickly backing away from the piano. At Serah's crestfallen expressions, she gentled her voice. "Maybe later. Give me a chance to get used to the idea."

Her sister nodded and darted over to throw her arms around Lightning. "Thank you for not being mad," she breathed, her voice wavering. "I just wanted to do something special."

Lightning allowed the hug, and then unwound her sister's arms from around her neck. "Thank you," she said. "It's a nice gift. Snow's going to be wondering where you are though. We should go."

Serah nodded eagerly, perhaps wanting to distract Lightning from overthinking the present, and Lightning took one long look at the piano before following Serah out.

When she got back to the house after dinner at Serah's, Hope's car was parked in the driveway. He sat at the piano, plinking out random notes. When she entered, he looked over at her. "New hobby?"

Lightning sighed, and before she thought better of it, slumped down on the piano bench beside him. "It was Serah's crazy idea. I used to play, but that was a long time ago. She and Snow bought it and snuck it in."

"How old were you? When you played," he clarified, at her confused expression.

"Teenager. It was before our mother died; she used to teach lessons to get some extra cash. We had a grand piano that my dad bought her, and it was the one thing she refused to sell when things got tight. Back when he was alive, I used to play under the piano while she taught. She started teaching me when I was only three."

Hope smiled. "I would have loved to have seen that."

Lightning clasped her hands and stared down at them. "I didn't even really like to play. She had to force me to practice all the time, but she was so determined that I would be good. And then she got sick. One of the first things I did after she died was sell the piano. Serah cried when they took it away, but... We needed the money, and I just couldn't even think about playing with her gone. I only did it for her."

She stared down at the keys, not wanting to look at Hope during this confession. He fidgeted next to her, and then hesitantly laid a hand on her knee. His fingers on her skin burned like a brand and she tensed, her muscles tightening beneath his hand and his fingers twitching in response. Instead of pulling away, though, he reached his other hand and untangled her fingers from where they were trying to strangle themselves in her lap. He brought one hand up to the piano.

Lightning was caught between focusing on his hand on her knee and her hand on the keys. In the end, she chose the keys, the easier of the two to face. She curled her fingers a few times, and then dropped her thumb.

The note rang through their house. At least the piano was in tune; it had that much going for it. Lightning bit her lip and slowly played a scale, followed by an arpeggio and a couple chords. Hope squeezed her knee and let go when she added her left hand into the mix. Her fingers felt clumsy, though, out of practice, and she let the notes fade and drew her hands back into her lap. She drew a shaky breath.

Hope still sat beside her and his arm came up again, this time to rub her back. "Light," he said softly, his face far too close to her ear, his breathing rustling her hair. "You don't have to do this if you don't want to. We can get it taken out of here. Serah will understand."

"I..." His face was still too close. What did she want? Did she really want this instrument in her house? Did she want to learn how to play again, take the time to practice, as if nothing had changed, as if she could just go back after all this time? Or did she want to have it sent away, pretend like this wasn't part of her, like her distant past was nothing? Her mother would have wanted her to keep it, and so would Serah, but what did she want?

"Easy," Hope murmured, his hand still running up and down her back. "You don't have to decide tonight."

"I want to decide," Lightning said, still focused on the keys, like they'll sound out her answer. "I'm not one to sit around and mope over things. This is stupid; it's just a piano."

"Lightning," she heard the note of reprimand in his voice. "It's obviously more than that to you."

She swallowed, and stared down at the keys. Hope's hand kept rubbing her back in a slow and steady rhythm, a sharp contrast to the cyclone of thoughts whirling around her brain. When she spoke, it felt like the words were being ripped from her throat. "It just hurt, to see it sitting there in the living room," her voice quavered, and she cursed it, and her eyes for their tell tale prickling. Hope squeezed her shoulder, offering his silent support. "It was just this constant reminder that she was gone, and that I was all alone. So I shut it all away. I sold the thing and pretended nothing was different. I shut it away for years and years. And while this isn't the same piano, when I saw it, I thought my heart would stop. For a second, it was like it all had never happened, like I was a kid again, like somehow she would be right there. But I can't go back. I'm too different, my life is too different, everything is just different.

"I can never go back," she whispered. "I can never be what I was. Even after everything that happened with Lumina, I can still never be what I was. So what's the point of trying?"

Hope was silent next to her, and Lightning figured it was past time to be done with this conversation. She wiped her traitorous eyes, but when she set her hands on the edge of the bench to hoist herself up, she found that Hope's hand had crept up to her neck. To her surprise, he gently tugged her over to him, wrapping his other arm around her shoulders until she was cradled in his arms. She tensed, but he continued to hold her anyway.

"When I was... possessed by Bhunivelze, things were so surreal." Hope's words startled her, even more than their positioning. Hope's time on the Ark was a difficult topic they rarely discussed, and she unconsciously relaxed in his embrace as she focused on his voice. "I was just his puppet. He wanted me to make you laugh, so I would make you laugh. He wanted me to lie to you, so I would lie. It was awful, but it doesn't change the fact that I was in there somewhere. I was still feeling things; they were just so buried underneath the layer that was him that I couldn't recognize them anymore. And that part of me was trying so hard to break free. Sometimes it almost would, like when you almost got yourself killed by Caius. The part of me that was... well me, was screaming and worried about you, it was just drowned out by him and his indifference.

"I was still the same person, deep down, through all of that, and so were you. You may have locked away your emotions, Light, but that didn't make you a different person. Even when Bhunivelze stripped you of your feelings, you still found it in yourself to care about the people you were trying to save. You are an amazing woman, just the way you are. And I don't think that Serah is trying to make you change and go back to who you were back then; that doesn't seem like something she would expect or even want. I bet she just hoped having something from your childhood would make you happy."

Lightning sighed. He was probably right, about Serah at least. "You have too much faith in me," she murmured, dropping her head onto his chest. She shouldn't be allowing this, but his arms were too warm, and his heartbeat too steady beneath her ear. She didn't want to move.

He chuckled, his chest rumbling beneath her cheek. "And you don't have enough," he countered, and she felt her lips draw into a smile.

He squeezed her even tighter for a moment, and then loosened his hold, but he didn't go far, leaving his one arm around her waist. He raised the other hand to her face, brushing strands of hair out of her eyes. "Don't feel pressured to be any different, Light," he told her, eyes and face serious. "You're perfect the way you are."

The intensity in his expression took her off guard, and Lightning tried to turn her chin to avoid his gaze, but before she could, he closed the distance between them and her eyes closed instinctively. His lips were soft. So soft, and warm, and the way they moved, slowly but firmly against her own sent a shockwave of sensation through her body. She trembled in response, but Hope's palm against the back of her head held her steady as he deepened the kiss.

Stunned, Lightning gasped, breaking the kiss and drawing back. Her breath came in short little gasps, harsh and loud in the small and intimate space. She watched Hope's eyes open and he met her gaze. He was completely still. As they'd sat at the piano, the sun had set, leaving their living room dark, and the evening shadows clung to his face and obscured his eyes. She stared at those eyes, trying to figure out where this had come from, what had justhappened.

"Light," Hope whispered, and the word was enough to break the spell. Lightning abruptly stood and withdrew from the piano. Hope made to follow, his eyes wide in the dim light, but Lightning stopped him with an upraised hand.

"We'll keep the piano." It was all she could say, because saying anything else would mean acknowledging that something had changed between them. It would mean dealing with the fact that he had kissed her and she had liked it. Hope sat back on the bench, a mix between guilt and disappointment in his eyes, which confused her even further. What was he thinking?

She fled.

Hope woke up the next morning to the sound of Lightning playing scales on the piano.

They didn't talk about the kiss.

Hope stared at his computer screen, where the traffic reports blared their gloomy news. He sighed and grabbed his phone, loosening his tie as he dialed. "Hey, Light," he said once she'd answered. "I'm not going to make it home tonight; the trains are down."

"Anything serious?"

"Some sort of electrical fire or something. They're repairing it and everything should be back up by tomorrow. I'll crash at my parents'."

"Alright, that's fine. Thanks for letting me know." Did he detect a hint of disappointment in her voice, or was that just wishful thinking? Probably the latter.

"And then don't forget, tomorrow I have that stupid dinner thing after work, so I'll be home way late. Sorry."

Lighting chuckled over the line. "It's fine. I can survive on my own for two days. Don't miss me too much."

He grinned. "I'll try, but no guarantees. Will you be okay?"

"I'm a big girl, Hope, I'll be fine. If I get lonely, I can always go torment Snow."

"True. Okay, I gotta go. Sleep tight, okay?"

"Sure. Night, Hope."

Hope clicked the phone closed and laid it on his desk, sending it spinning with his fingers. While he knew this whole situation was beyond his control, and that Lightning was more than capable of taking care of herself and would be laughing at him for worrying, he couldn't help it. The idea of not going home put a bad taste in his mouth.

If things were different, he could buy her a present or send her flowers as apology, but she'd find that ridiculous and it would probably make her uncomfortable anyway. Bad idea. But on the other hand, he'd seen first hand when random strangers would bestow her with kindness or tell her she was beautiful. Hell, he'd listened to a guy ask her on a date. And been stunned into silence when she accepted. Such things always took her aback and she always played it off, but the situations softened her a bit as well.

And maybe, just maybe, the flowers would shock her a little. Make her think of what had happened a month ago, make her acknowledge it. He hadn't dared to bring it up for fear of driving her away, but if he could just get her to admit that something had happened...

His mind made up, Hope pulled up a list of flower shops in their town. This could backfire spectacularly, but if it even made her smile once, it was worth it.

Not having Hope come home wasn't lonely, exactly, but it was quiet. Lightning made herself dinner, watched their usual television programs, and fell asleep. Easy enough.

In the morning, she had to make her own breakfast. Though she handled most of the cooking, Hope insisted on making breakfast, partly because he woke up before she did so he could catch the early train. Her scrambled eggs were runny and she burned the toast. Not a great start to a day.

She wasn't scheduled at work for the next few days, so she spent the morning grocery shopping and running other errands. She came home to an empty house, and scowled at herself as she put the groceries away. Hope was usually at work this time anyway, so there was no reason for the house to feel so big and for her to feel so restless. She was being beyond ridiculous.

She couldn't seem to chase the feeling away. She played the piano for an hour, turned on the television, and tidied up the downstairs. Her usual activities, but today, what usually passed quickly seemed to drag on and on. She was debating going downtown again just to do something when a knock on the door echoed through the house, startling her. She opened it, and was greeted by a short and scrawny delivery boy bearing an overflowing vase of delicate flowers. "Delivery for you, ma'am."

"For me?" she asked, her voice full of skepticism. "I think you have the wrong house, kid."

"No, Miss Lightning, it's for you. I definitely wouldn't screw up an order to you. There's a card and everything. Here."

Lightning accepted the vase, her eyebrows still raised. Sure enough, tucked into the flowers was a small envelope. Shaking her head, she told the boy to wait, walked the flowers back to the kitchen, and grabbed some money from the junk drawer. She passed it to him and he tipped his hat at her before running off.

Lightning shut the door and moved back into the kitchen, eyeing the flowers like they might transform into a deadly enemy. Who in their right mind would send her flowers? The white and pink blossoms were pretty enough, she supposed, opening up to the sun like that, but something like this belonged on Serah's table, not her own. Narrowing her eyes, she pulled the card out and tore it open.

Laugh if you want, but I felt bad for not coming home. Enjoy the flowers.


She stared at the card. Hope? He had bought her flowers?


She considered the flowers again. He had bought her flowers. Just because he felt bad for not coming home. Flowers were a symbol, usually bought when someone wanted forgiveness, but he didn't need forgiveness for this; he couldn't control the trains. She bit her lip and looked at the flowers again. Was there some sort of extra significance here? They really were pretty. But why would he do something like that for her?

She pulled her phone out of her back pocket and hit his speed dial. The phone rang and she was greeted by his voicemail message; she hung up without a second thought. No explanation from the source then.

She touched one of the blooms, slowly, as though it might shock her if she wasn't careful. It was soft, and she rubbed a petal between her fingers with an appreciate murmur. They were beautiful. But again, what had prompted this? It had to be more than just not coming home. Or was she reading way too much into the gesture?

She gave up and decided it was time to go pick on Snow. And maybe get some answers.

Snow was at his kitchen table, surrounded by coloring utensils, scribbling on a sheet of paper. Lightning raised her eyebrows and walked over to investigate.

"Don't even say it," Snow warned, not even looking up. "Serah is assigning this book report project where the kids have to turn a novel into a children's book, complete with illustrations, and she wants to show an example. Grab a pencil and help."

Lighting shook her head and joined him at the table. "The point of the project is?"

"Hell if I know. Ask her. Here." He slid her a piece of paper and Lightning considered it. The outline was obviously by Serah, far better at art than her sister and her husband. Lightning shook her head and grabbed a utensil and started coloring the girl in the picture's hair brown, matching what Snow was up to.

They worked in companionable silence for a moment, focusing on staying in the lines. Snow finished his current page, and took a moment to yawn and stretch before fishing out another. "Where's Hope?" he asked, shuffling through the pages.

"Stuck at work for a meeting. Trains were down yesterday too."

"That sucks." He found the sheet he was apparently looking for and grinned down at it. This one had bunnies instead of humans on it, and Lightning decided she didn't want to ask. "Got lonely all by yourself?"

"Hardly." Lightning continued shading in the character's clothing. "Though..." she paused, picking her words carefully. "I guess Hope thought I was?"

"Hmm?" Snow questioned, sifting through the colored pencils.

"He bought me flowers."

That was enough to still Snow in his search. He looked up at Lightning. "What?"

"Hope bought me flowers. Had them delivered this morning."

Snow looked at her slack-jawed for a moment, and then sat back, crossing his arms. "Well, well, well."

His smug expression irritated Lightning. "What?" she snapped.

"Nothing. We've just been wondering how long it was going to take the kid to make a move."

"Make what kind of move? What are you talking about?" She dropped her pencil, completely off balance, but covered her momentary lapse by leveling a glare at Snow.

"Can't believe you missed it, Sis," Snow said, disregarding her expression. "He's been in love with you since he was fourteen. Of course, you couldn't see the way he stared at you when you weren't paying attention, I guess, but it was pretty damn obvious."

"What was obvious?" Serah asked, coming into the kitchen.

"That Hope's been in love with Lightning since he was a teenager."

"Oh. That."

Lightning turned to glare at her sister, who took the look in stride. "Lightning, calm down," she said. "It's not a big deal. And I don't know about when he was fourteen, but when Noel and I saw him in Academia, he definitely cared about you a lot."

"What?" Lightning knew Hope cared about her. They were close, and she liked that. But she'd never really considered that there might be more going on than she realized on his side. And yes, there was that one kiss, but she tried not to think about that, and when she did, she chalked it up to just an odd fluke, brought about by a night of somewhat painful confessions. "This is..." There were no words for what this was.

Snow chuckled, shaking his head. "I can't believe you missed it. It's so obvious."

"We don't know if he's in love with her anymore, Snow," Serah warned, hopping up to sit on the kitchen counter. "It has been a very long time. But... no, it wouldn't surprise me. He does care for you very much, Sis," she said to Lightning.

Lightning stared down at her hands. Hope? In love with her? It seemed so impossible.

"Don't overthink it," Serah advised, sensing her internal panic. "If he wanted you to know, he would tell you."

Trying to get to sleep that night was pure torment. Her thoughts kept jamming together in her mind. Hope? He just could not be in love with her. It didn't seem possible. Yes, he did care about her; that was easy enough to acknowledge, as she cared for him too. But love? That kind of love? Men didn't love Lightning that way. They just didn't. Romantic love was Serah's department, not Lightning's.

And yet... even in her panic, she couldn't deny that her heart was accelerated, not just because she was working herself into a frenzy, but because... It was a nice thought. The idea of Hope having feelings for her was both comforting and exciting. And then she let herself think about that one night they never talked about, the night he kissed her, and her pulse jumped even more. She finally let herself think about the soft feel of his lips against hers, about his hand tangled in her hair and his breath blowing against her cheek, and how they both had frozen, not in shock, but because they didn't want to draw away.

After tossing and turning for what felt like eternity, Lightning gave up and climbed out of bed, scowling. Damn the man for doing this to her.

The house was dark when Hope got home. It was late enough that the lack of light wasn't a surprise.

Inside the house, he found the vase of flowers sitting on the kitchen table. His note was resting to the side. The sight was a relief, considering he'd half expected them to be in the trash. He knew she'd called him, but he hadn't stopped moving the entire day. He was mentally and physically exhausted and so damn glad to be home.

Lightning had left him a plate in the fridge. He ate it cold, looking at the flowers the entire time and cursing that he'd been in a meeting when she called. It would have given him an idea of what she thought of the gift, and made it easier to figure out where to go from there.

He headed up the stairs. By habit, he eased open Lightning's door, and was started to see that her bed was empty. It'd obviously been slept in; the sheets were twisted like she'd been restless and her pillow was on the floor, but her bed was just that. Empty. He considered it, a sense of dread weighing him down.

He checked the den and the bathroom, but she wasn't in either. He fingered his phone in his pocket, and then sighed and walked to his bedroom, loosening his tie. Wherever she was, she'd be fine, and come back when she felt like it.

What he wasn't expecting to see was Lightning, sleeping on top of his bed. It took him a few moments staring to really adjust to the idea. She wasn't in his bed necessarily; the covers were still tucked around the mattress and she was curled up on top of them, but she had dragged out one of his pillows to support her head. She looked adorable, snuggled up with her hair going everywhere.

Hope didn't know how long he stood there, drinking the sight in. He'd seen Light sleeping often enough, but in this context in the muted light of the hallway lamp, she seemed so vulnerable and relaxed and... soft.

His hands clenched at that thought, because thinking that way and seeing her in his bed made him want to test the theory out. He wanted to run his hands over the inviting skin on display and see for himself just how soft she could be. He had to catch his breath for a moment at the thought. But even as his mind went wild with hypotheticals, he knew he couldn't do that. For whatever reason, she'd fallen asleep in his bed, but he was not going to take advantage. Not when they were possibly, maybe, finally, making progress.

That thought grounded him. He quietly set his stuff by his desk and grabbed a throw blanket from the closet in the hall. Trying his hardest not to disturb her, he tucked the blanket around her. But of course, she woke up.

"You're home," she mumbled.

"Yeah," he whispered. "I'm back. Go back to sleep."

"I can't," she was still half-asleep, her eyes struggling to open, and Hope's heart melted even more, if that was even possible. "I'm in your bed. Softer than mine."

Hope chuckled under his breath. "You're welcome to stay," he said, daring to run the back of his hand over her cheek. "Go back to sleep, Light."

Sleepy and disoriented, she listened and curled back up, her eyes closing. "Missed you," she murmured. "Liked my flowers." And then she was out.

Hope stared down at her, a brilliant smile lighting up his face. Barely daring to breathe, he leaned down and dropped a soft kiss on her forehead before drawing back. Okay, so he'd be sleeping on the couch tonight, but that little scene right there made it so worth it.

Now he just had to figure out how to handle things tomorrow.

Much to her surprise, the morning after Lightning fell asleep in Hope's bed was refreshingly normal, instead of the expected awkward. Hope made her breakfast and left for work with his lunch and coffee thermos in hand, like he always did. The only sign that something was amiss was the vase of flowers, still sitting on the kitchen table.

Lightning leaned against the back of the couch and considered the flowers again. This was just like after he'd kissed her, when he'd stayed quiet and not mentioned that anything had happened. Why would he do that? He'd bought her flowers, and she, in some fit of insanity, had fallen asleep on his bed. Why hadn't he said anything? If Snow was right and he was in love with her, shouldn't he have brought it up? Done something?

But how would she have reacted if he had? Probably not well, if she was being honest. This was risky, this game he was starting to play, and there was a huge chance it could end in heartbreak all around. Normally such things would have her running in the opposite direction. So did she want do run, or did she want to play? Should she reciprocate?

Wait. That was it. That's what he was doing.

He was waiting for her to make the move. He'd bought her the flowers, but left her alone after. Hell, he'd kissed her, and then never mentioned it again. He was giving her time to process, and letting her decide what would happen next. He was putting all the cards... Not just the cards. He was putting his heart in her hands.

Lightning leaned backwards and let herself tumble down all the way onto the couch.

"He is," she said aloud. "He's in love with me."

She covered her eyes and shook her head, but it must be true. He was in love with her.

Was she in love with him?

It seemed like such a stupid question. If she was in love with him, she would know, right?

That seemed like a dangerous question. Instead of dwelling on that, she took the easier mental path. Ifshe was in love with him, and he was in love with her, what would life be like? How much would it change? They were already together all the time, so it wouldn't be that different. But there might be certain perks...

She thought about him kissing her on his way out the door, instead of just waving. She thought about him coming home and wrapping her in his arms the moment he walked in the door. She thought about what those embraces could lead to, and surprised herself by blushing.

And she wanted it. The thought had her stomach churning in fright, but her blood bubbled with excitement; the two sensations together made her dizzy. It would be terrifying, but it could be amazing. How could she not have realized this before? Was she blind? Yes, she had the perfect life now, but it was missing something. It was missing this.

And not just the physical aspects. If they were really together, she'd have someone to rely on. Someone who really cared for her; someone who wouldn't leave. He was already her best friend, her closest confidant, but if she took this step, things could get even better.

She realized she was smiling like a fool. Just thinking about him like this had her ready to burst out of her skin. There could only be one explanation for her reaction. She was in love. She was in love with Hope. And for the future spinning around in her to become reality, all she had to do was tell him.

But how?

Now what?

She should have just told him the moment he got home from work that night.

She didn't.

The weeks passed and she said nothing.

In addition to biweekly lunches with Lightning, Serah also insisted on one other tradition, adhered to whenever Fang and Vanille dropped into town. Girl's Night Out. Lightning thought the whole concept was ludicrous, Vanille got just as excited as Serah, and Fang didn't mind just going along with it, if only to see Vanille happy.

Currently, they were driving to some out of town nightclub Serah had read about and wanted to see. Vanille had scooted herself up between the seats to flip the radio to some station with loud and trashy music, and she and Serah laughed and sang along to the more questionable lyrics in the back. Fang flung insults and innuendos back at them to keep them on their toes, but they just giggled in response. Lightning didn't join in, but her relaxed posture as she drove and her fingers drumming the beat of the music on her leg gave her away. She was having just as much fun as the rest of them.

Lightning was difficult to startle. The woman had an iron self control and a sense of discipline to match. Even when she was relaxed, there was still a sense of focus and danger around her, like the deadly soldier in her was just waiting to get loose.

Luckily, Fang was well practiced at breaking that careful facade.

She waited until Lightning had just taken a sip of her second drink when she pounced.

"So, want to tell me when you and lover boy are finally going to hook up?"

The sight of Lightning choking and coughing on her drink was just so satisfying.

Vanille and Serah burst out laughing, and Fang smirked and pressed forward. "I don't get what's taking you so long. I mean, Vanille and I don't swing that way, but for a man with that face and that body, I might be convinced to make an exception."

"It's not," Lightning sputtered between coughs. "It's not like that."

The sight of Lightning bent over, clinging to the bar for support, made the other women laugh even harder. Fang clapped Lightning on the back. "It should be. You live with him. Your bedroom is what, ten feet from his? How have you not succumbed to the temptation yet? You two are already technically living in sin, might as well get the rest of it over with."

"Oh, Fang," Serah said, still smiling. "Don't tease her."

Lightning finally recovered enough to glare at her. Fang just cocked her head, lips pursed. "Oh, Sunshine," she said, shaking her head. "You're hopeless. Pun fully intended." The woman made an exasperated sound, and Fang grinned as she grabbed Vanille's hand and dragged her out onto the dance floor.

"Was that necessary?" Vanille asked, once they were lost in the sea of bodies. "That wasn't very nice, Fang."

"You laughed."

"Well, yes, but—"

"Lightning just needs someone to push her in the right direction. That's how she's always been. Trust me."

"Alright, then. I hope you're right."

Lightning ignored the two of them for the rest of the night. She stayed at the bar, switching to water after she finished her drink, and rebuffed the advances of the multiple good looking men who ventured over to try their luck without even batting an eyelash. "Sunshine," Fang murmured from across the room where she and Vanille were doing shots. "Damn, but you've got it bad.

On the way home, Vanille and Serah passed out before they even pulled onto the autoroute. "Amateurs," Fang grumbled, earning a grudging smile from Lightning. The woman flipped through the stations and settled on some rock station, with a guy crooning softly along with his guitar. His voice was almost hypnotic, and Fang lounged back in the seat, crossing her arms and legs. The streetlights flashed by in long streaks as they sped down the highway; the darkness was comforting. Perfect atmosphere for what Fang had in mind. "So," she said, looking straight ahead at the road, her voice quiet. "You want to tell me what's going on?"

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Lightning raise an eyebrow. "Going on with what?"

"Don't be coy. I still haven't gotten an answer from you."

"I already told you—"

"You lied, Sunshine. Don't deny it."

Lightning sighed, which was confession enough. "This is really none of your business."

"Never stopped me before. You like him, and he's crazy about you. You'd have to be blind not to see that. So what seems to be the problem?"

Lightning didn't answer for a moment, but Fang knew to just wait. The man on the radio continued to sing, about confessions, ironically enough. She tapped her leg, counting the seconds, and suppressed a smile when Lightning started to talk. "I do... care about him," she said. "And I've thought about taking things a step further. I'm just not sure exactly... how to do so."

Now they were getting somewhere. "Not exactly hard to do, love. Just walk up to him and lay one on him. That man's been waiting for you for over a thousand years. If that doesn't prove devotion, then I don't know what does. It's not going to take much to get things started. So what are you waiting for? The right moment? A gilded invitation to his bed?"

"Do you have to be so crass?" Lightning took one hand off the wheel to scrub her face. "Hope deserves more than that. He deserves more than me, honestly, but if I'm going to do this... I want to do this right."

"Ah. And there's the problem right there." Fang nodded. "The right moment." She took a second to consider what to say. Lightning was clueless at times, but Fang had once been in the exact same situation, so she really couldn't throw stones. Which made what she was about to say all the more important. "There is no right moment," she finally explained. "Anyone who says otherwise is an idiot. If you sit around waiting for the right moment, then it will pass you right by and you'll miss your chance and have nothing but regrets. Vanille and I spent centuries getting our shit together, and there is nothing I regret more than all that wasted time. Trust me. Just get it over with."

"You make it sound so easy."

"It is easy. You're making it harder than it has to be."

"Easy for you to say."

Fang scoffed. "Funny, Sunshine. I would never have pegged you as a coward."

"Fang," Lightning's voice took on a dangerous edge.

"Just saying," Fang said, leaning forward to turn up the radio. "Think it over."

They spend the rest of the drive in silence, but Fang could see Lightning mulling over what had been said.


After dropping everyone off at Serah's, Lightning returned home to find that all the lights on the ground floor were off. She walked upstairs. Hope's door was open, the light shinning like a beacon in the loft. She stopped and glanced over at her own door, and then sighed and walked over to his bedroom.

She stopped in the doorway. He was sitting on the edge of his bed, head in his hands. "Hope?"

He looked up at her, but immediately directed his attention to the floor. She took in the slump of his shoulders and the tension in his hands as they scrunched the fabric of his pants. Something was obviously very wrong.

"Hope?" she asked again. "You okay?"

"I just... Could you come here?" he asked, looking over at her. "Just for a minute?"

"Hope." Her voice was sterner this time. "What is going on?"

"Lightning, please just come here."

The stiffness in his voice startled her, and she considered him more closely. He looked drawn and stressed and angry, and while she was sure his ire wasn't directed at her, it was still unsettling. She gazed at him and he stared back, and she detected a challenge in his eye.

Never one to back down, she entered his room and stepped right in front of where he was leaning against his bedframe. "You want to tell me what's going on?"

"I don't want to talk about it."

She scoffed. "Well, then why are you—" She was cut off as Hope wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close.

The hug startled her, and Lightning stiffened in his arms, but the man refused to let go. She was debating shoving him away until she felt that Hope was shaking. Though she couldn't detect any falling tears, he was obviously a wreck. Lightning felt her heart soften, and her body followed suite, her arms wrapping around Hope of their own accord.

She held him tightly, and his answering squeeze communicated his appreciation. She murmured for him to take deep breaths and he followed her advice, getting his agitation under control. Hope calmed down in her arms as she held him, relaxing against her, and as his body pressed even closer to her, she became very aware of the muscles in his back beneath her fingers and the press of his chest against hers. She could sense the moment when Hope became aware of the same feeling, that this hug was changing from comforting to... well, something else. She expected him to pull back, but instead he kept her close and began running his hands slowly up and down her back.

Lightning's eyes closed. She couldn't help it. The press of his hands both soothed and invigorated her. Her head dropped into the crook between Hope's neck and shoulder and she took a deep breath. The inhalation led to her getting a wiff of Hope's cologne, and that, combined with the feel of his hands, was driving her crazy. One of his hands slipped up her back to pull her hair away from her neck and he dropped a kiss along her throat, eliciting a shiver. His kissed her again, long and slow and hot, and she clenched the fabric of his shirt in her fist, fighting for a sense of equilibrium. The low gasp from Hope when he released her neck cued her in to the fact that kissing her was affecting him just as much as it was affecting her.

Lightning might have pulled away at that point, ready to run, but Fang's words rang through her mind as she and Hope stood, cheek to cheek. She didn't need a proper moment or declaration. She just needed him. With that thought, she turned her head and caught Hope's lips with her own.

He stiffened for a second but caught on quickly. The kiss was fast and furious, and deep. Lightning opened her mouth to him and he took the invitation to explore her mouth. His hands dug into her back as he pulled her forward between his legs, and Lightning's hands ended up on his hips as she grabbed for anything to keep her on balance. He groaned in response, but Lightning swallowed the sound with another intense kiss. One of his hands slipped down to toy with the hem of her shirt and Lightning arched back, anticipating the hot touch of his hands on her skin.

Hope shocked her when, instead of giving her that touch, he drew away from her from her with a pained groan. He let go of her and pulled himself back to sit on the bed. As soon as he was settled, his hands snuck back around her waist, drawing her in until her thighs bumped against the baseboard. "Light," he said quietly, his eyes bearing into hers. "Is this what you want?"

Her lips parted, but he didn't let her answer. "I want this. I've wanted this for years, because I've loved you for years, and I know you probably haven't felt the same way, but I don't want you to feel pressured—"

Lightning cut him off, covering his lips with her finger. "I used to watch you," she said. "Back in Valhalla." His eyebrows drew together at the abrupt change in subject, and Lightning pressed forward with her explanation before she lost her nerve. "I used to watch you and everything you did and I told myself it was because I was so proud of what you were accomplishing. But I was proud of everyone else too, yet I watched you more than the others.

"I didn't understand why I was so drawn to you, and I didn't have time to really figure it out. But I've had that time now. I know what I want now. And it's this. This is what I want. You are what I want."

She watched Hope's eyes widen at the confession, and she dropped her finger as his face changed, his mouth drawing into the most dazzling smile she'd ever seen. She wanted to keep looking at him, memorize his face and this moment, but he didn't give her a chance. He pulled her forward on top of him and kissed her.

It was a sweet and happy kiss, despite the awkward positioning as Lightning was still hanging halfway off the baseboard. She broke away from him, laughing, and left him to crawl up to a more comfortable position on the bed, but he immediately followed and flipped her over so he could hover overtop of her. He was still smiling, and she couldn't wipe the smile off her face either. His face softened at the sight. "You are so beautiful," he whispered, and closed the distance between them.

His kissed her slowly this time, giving her time to really taste him. His hand found hers to clasp, and as he kissed her, he maneuvered himself on top of her, pressing his weight into her body. The satisfied sound that made it's way out of her throat from the contact made his chuckle, even as he continued to kiss her. She bent her knees to brace her feet against the mattress and met his hips with her own, using her free arm to pull him closer. He ripped his mouth away from hers to gasp at the increased connection, and it was her turn to chuckle.

"Not fair," he managed to get out, which only made her laugh harder.

He pulled back to look at her, and she smiled up at him. "Look at you," he said, eyes alight. "You don't even know how amazing it is to see you like this. I've been dreaming about this for so long, and now..."

"Get used to it," she told him, still smiling. She just couldn't seem to stop.

"You and me, huh?" he asked, the same expression on his own face.

"Yeah," she said. "You and me."

He leaned down to kiss her again, and this time when his hand slipped beneath her shirt to push it up so he could stroke her skin, neither pulled away.

He made her breakfast in the morning, before dragging her back to his bed.

This time, there was no turning back.

Serah made a beautiful bride. Lightning could admit this from where she sat at the piano in the reception hall, playing the music for the couple's first dance. The notes flowed freely from the instrument, her fingers accustomed to the keys. As she watched Snow sweep her sister around the room, she couldn't help but think that this was the best ending. Her sister was deliriously happy with a man who would take care of her and make her happy. This is what their parents would have wanted for her.

Lightning brought the song to a soft conclusion, and the entire room burst into cheers as Snow dipped his wife and kissed her. Lightning shook her head and stood from her place at the piano, smoothing down her dress. She nodded to the pianist from the band as he took her place, and their jazzy upbeat music accompanied her as she slipped to the side of the floor. Snow and Serah were still dancing, lost in their own little world. As she watched, a familiar arm settled around her waist and a flute of champagne appeared in her field of vision. She accepted the glass and Hope leaned in to whisper, "You know, it's not polite for the maid of honor to outshine the bride."

She turned and looked at him, both amused and skeptical. "The only person in this room thinking that is you."

"Not the only one," he murmured, dropping a kiss on her cheek. "There's a few men in the vicinity with wandering eyes. Going to have to invite a few of them outside for a little rendezvous if they keep it up."

Lightning scoffed and elbowed him in the ribs, but he just pulled her a little closer. She allowed it, taking a moment to enjoy the security of him at her back. They watched Serah and Snow, the latter twirling his bride and sending her many layers of skirts whirling, both laughing. "I didn't know Snow could dance," Hope said.

"Neither did I."

"They look happy," he said, squeezing her side.

"Yeah," Lightning responded, basking in the hazy glow of her sister's joy. Serah's smile was infectious. "They do."

The music changed into something slower and Lightning could see the couples around the room standing from the dinner tables preparing to join Snow and Serah on the floor. Hope took her glass and set it on a nearby table and then took her hand. "Would you do me the honor?"

He led her out on the floor, and as he tugged her to him, Lightning caught Serah's eyes peeking over Snow's shoulder at them. Her sister winked, and Lightning couldn't help but smile. This whole feeling of contentment was still a little unfamiliar, but it was something she could definitely get used to.

"That was nice of you, playing for their first dance." Hope's voice pulled her out of her reverie.

"It's what Serah wanted."

"And what Serah wants, Serah gets?"

"That's the way it's always been. What other explanation is there for me being able to put up with Snow on a regular basis?"

Hope chuckled. "Oh, c'mon, Light, you talk a big game, but everyone knows you like him. Serah's intervention notwithstanding."

"I think like is a bit strong of a word."



"In that case, does it feel like you're losing a sister or gaining a brother?" he asked with a wry grin.

She laughed. "Gaining a brother, I suppose. Can't lose the only family I have."

"Your family's only going to get bigger now."

"Don't be getting any ideas."

"About Snow and Serah having kids?" He flashed her an innocent smile, which earned him a light pinch where her hand rested on his shoulder, but he just laughed and tightened his hold on her. They swayed in silence. Lightning let her head rest on his shoulder and closed her eyes, trusting that he would keep them upright and away from the other couples. The music washed over her like an ocean's wave, and she found herself feeling like she could float away on this sense of total serenity. She always scoffed when people spoke of wishing a moment could last forever, but she had to admit, staying like this for eternity didn't sound like such a bad thing.

"Light? Are you happy?"

Still feeling a little lethargic, Lightning lifted her head to look at Hope. "What do you mean?"

"Are you happy?" he asked, his forehead touching hers. "With the way things are? Is there anything else that you want? I'm not saying we need to change what we have, if you're fine with it, but are you happy?"

"Where is this coming from?" she asked, frowning a little as she considered the question.

"From nowhere. I just want to make sure I'm doing everything I can to make you happy. I don't want you to ever feel like you're missing out on something."

She looked at him and shook her head. Of course he would worry when there was no need. She smiled at him, and could see his face immediately relax at the sight. Funny, how well they could already read each other. "I already have everything I could ever want," she said quietly, squeezing his hand.

He took in her words, and once he'd processed them, his smile, in the low light, was something she would never forget. "Yeah," he said, pulling her just a little closer. "We do."

"Just you and me," she murmured, laying her head back on his shoulder.

"Of course, Light. Just you and me. Always."


Well, if you were wondering why I haven't written the second installment of Astraphobia yet... Here is your answer.

This thing is long. I tried to catch all the typos, but if I missed something (and I'm sure I did) please let me know.

I hope you enjoyed, and remember, reviews really do make the writing world go round.