A/N: It's been a while since I've posted anything, and this project is definitely the primary culprit! I opted to write basically the whole story before posting a single chapter. I've written this fic entirely for, and dedicated to, my awesome beta-roomie. She had an initial idea and a request which my twisted imagination fanned into a blazing bonfire of a story, haha. You will notice that my intent was to create an AU post-LR world in which certain inconveniences from the in-game ending were not *magicked* away. The LR epilogue irked me.

All that said, I would LOVE to see what everyone thinks and definitely look forward to reviews!

Oh, and one more thing - shout-out to Elyse Estheim, whose in-canon post-LR fic has been a blast to read and compare! This post is effectively for you ^_^

Chapter 1: Survival

The world was cold and still, save the solitary sound of boots crunching over the snow-crust. Life had barely begun to stir at that hour, but it was the perfect time to consider the value of a day.

Even two years later, Lightning was still adjusting to the passage of time.

The force of it was undeniable and all around her. She thought back through the handful of seasons they had weathered, the first rounds on a brand new, untamed planet. She reflected on the births, on the signs in wrinkles and inches. This second year was coming to a close and humanity had begun to cluster together, yet they were still a far cry from civilization as anyone knew it before. Nature was strange but predictable, magic was nowhere to be found, and technology remained a distant dream.

She could have been happy with that – happy with the simple mission of survival.

She could have, if only she hadn't overdone it that first time. The gigantic, hairy creature – Hope later referred to it as a 'bear' – had blundered out of nowhere and Lightning could have easily outrun it. It wouldn't have delivered a shoulder-dislocating blow if she had simply not raised her sword.

Over a year later, she continued reaping the consequences of that single point of failure.

What was I thinking?

Lightning knew the question was pointless the instant it popped into her head, but there it was, daring her to answer. She kicked hatefully at the powder underfoot and sighed. The fact that the sun wasn't quite up only made her more keenly aware of the time that was ripe for the picking; there were a multitude of other things that needed to get done.

Like shoveling this pathetic excuse for a walkway. She gave Snow a telepathic glare.

But she knew precisely why she was here, rather than fighting back the wilderness, for the fifth day in a row. She hadn't gotten her sister back from the other side of death only to refuse a simple request for babysitting. Even if it was for the long-term.

"Never can turn you down, Serah," Lightning muttered to herself, her breath steaming in the air. She raised her hand to knock on the rough wooden door.

She could hear light footsteps scuttling around inside, and seconds later she was greeted with Serah's beaming smile and outstretched arms.

At the end of those arms hung a babbling bundle of chunky limbs and blonde curls, also known as her niece.

"She's all yours!" Serah announced cheerily, depositing the ten-month-old in her arms before she skipped out the door, her scarf flying behind her. "Can't be late for my students! You know Claire's routine. Take it easy, Sis!"

"Yeah. Sure." Mindful of the cold, Lightning stepped inside and sealed out the weather. Claire was getting squirmy, so she shifted the baby's weight entirely to her left side and strode over to the playpen.

As soon as her niece was happily gnawing on the arm of her homemade doll, Lightning shed her winter layers and gave her sword-arm a couple of slow test rotations.

The pain was still there, dull but persistent. She glared at the offending joint, letting her arm hang loose as she maneuvered around the table to warm up in front of the stone fireplace. It took her all of ten seconds to scan every nook and cranny of the living space – her only area of responsibility for the next several months.

Sure have fallen a long way. In times like these, she couldn't help but mourn the loss of godlike powers.

Lightning felt her fists tightening at her sides in an automatic response to another surge of aggravation. She took a deep breath and moved to sit on the edge of the hearth, absently watching the little girl who bore her old name hold an enthusiastic gibberish conversation with her doll.

Her mind skulked off again to revisit the initial question of the day. And honestly, her situation had nothing to do with what she'd been thinking at all. There was a more subtle reasoning behind her childcare sentence. When Serah recruited her for the task, she had basically seen it coming.

Because Serah was not the instigator.

It all came down to the fact that her partner – she never had found a more suitable term since the first time Hope grew up – was rather set in his ways, to include a meddling protective instinct. An odd trait for a teenager, but 'odd' could describe him in general.

After Lightning had suffered a second shoulder dislocation on routine duty, he'd given her the speech: something to the effect of "botched recovery leads to insert-technical-names-for-symptoms-here equals no more fighting." That was his idea of a first warning. She had casually shrugged it off under the excuse of never-ending obligations, returning to the field after a scant three-day rest period, but the battle on the home-front was far from over.

About two weeks later, the problem shoulder began a new round of complaints after a fairly strenuous day with the settlement's border patrol. Lightning had returned that evening to the sight of their hodge-podge family gathered around the central cooking pit for dinner, so she took several cleansing breaths and made every effort to behave as expected – warm up by the fire, smile a little, say a few words here and there. The stew being handed around had smelled particularly appetizing, and she locked her focus onto that.

In hindsight, Lightning acknowledged that she hadn't stood a chance against the plot already in motion. She'd thought nothing of it when Hope held out a bowl for her to take, and she automatically reached up for it with her dominant hand. Sudden pain had zipped down her arm.

She winced – and all bets were off. Hope hadn't even uttered a word. The disconcerting mix of sadness and aggravation and outright knowing that had suffused his features was enough. He'd placed the bowl into her left hand with deliberate care and stalked off.

That had served as a second warning, and it heralded intervention. Her resourceful shadow-boy knew one inexorable way to make her comply, and that was to pull the Serah card.

The next day, her sister had sweetly guilted her into babysitting.

It was no coincidence.

He can be such a scheming little bastard—

A series of high-pitched whines from the playpen dragged Lightning back to her present predicament. Claire repeatedly slammed her doll into the floor, her cries suddenly making a crescendo when she seemed to notice her aunt was on alert.

"Oh, calm down," Lightning sighed, scooping the baby up. Claire abruptly quieted, and they stared at each other in thoughtful silence.

"I wonder if this counts as talking to myself."

Claire squealed, and Lightning rolled her eyes.

"I'm taking that as a yes."

For whatever insane reason, Lightning found that it was easier to work through the mundane tasks of caring for an infant if she kept the one-sided conversation going.

It wasn't as if baby Claire could understand or talk back. Strings of babble, shrieks, and whines uttered in context passed as what she could accomplish. This communication method was simple but surprisingly effective.

It turned out that the current topic was a dirty diaper complaint.

"Well, now I know what boredom does to people," Lightning continued to ramble, tossing the used cloth into a laundry bin. She went through the motions of cleaning, fastened a new diaper in place and hefted her niece up again. "Fight your way through the end of the world a couple of times, only to crack over a damn recuperation period."

The baby flailed and smacked her in the face as they transited to the primitive ice-box in search of a bottle.

"Sorry, I'm just frustrated. Your mommy tries to understand, she just can't. No one can."

Not even me, anymore. What right do I have to be unhappy, after everything we've survived?

"But I can't lie to myself and say I'm happy," she mumbled aloud. "Maybe I was better off without any emotions. They're just confusing and annoying."

And I wish to god I didn't have those feelings.

Claire regarded her with a strangely meaningful tilt of the head, before her chubby fist shot out and yanked Lightning's hair with the force of a mini-Villiers.

Hissing as the neck strain connected with her problem shoulder, Lightning pried open the iron grip of tiny fingers and placed her niece on the floor.

"Way to remind me what landed my ass here," she muttered, rubbing her neck. "Don't tell me you're on his side."

The baby blew spit bubbles in response. Lightning procured the bottle and absently started shaking it, until a clamping calf-tackle pulled her focus downward again. She sighed and raked a hand through her not-yet-washed, and now tangled, hair.

"Listen, you're not the problem," she explained, unable to be anything close to stern in the face of Serah's genetically-bestowed, gigantic blue eyes staring up and into her very soul. "Don't give me that look. I know my own limits. Maybe I brought this on myself, but that was my choice."

Her mind immediately echoed back, You're bringing this on yourself, you know. I'm not afraid to draw a line.

For the second time that morning, she booted Hope out of her head. Unlike their remote electronic connection before the previous world's annihilation, it wasn't as simple as strolling into interference.

Either way, that did nothing to prevent him – in the flesh – from busting in through the front door in that same span of seconds, a flurry of snow in his wake before he threw himself against the door to close it. He heaved an exasperated breath and shook off a cloud of flakes before he finally looked up, blinking in surprise.

"Oh. Good morning." Hope cleared his throat and relieved the door of his negligible weight. Whatever had driven his previous frustration, he buried it instantaneously. "I was… looking for Snow. You're over here awfully early."

Lightning lifted the baby from the floor and regarded Hope with a raised eyebrow. He might have closed most of the distance on her height, but the pale and snow-blasted beanpole of a boy was much less intimidating in reality than he was in her head, where she could only hear his voice.

"Serah had class," she deadpanned. "Your concept of early is off."

"Who cares? I've got a love-hate relationship with the concept of time," Hope grumbled. He glared balefully toward the fireplace. "There's never enough of it, but it still feels too slow. It's a shame I need it so much."

Shaking her head, Lightning hauled baby and bottle to a seat at the table. She sometimes found it difficult to reconcile the words coming out of the sixteen-year-old. It helped to make less eye contact when he talked, so she concentrated on the little pompom atop his hat. That, at least, fit.

"Hope, whether or not you approve of or believe in my definition of earliness, it's definitely too early to wax philosophical."

He joined her at the table, leaning his chin onto his propped hand as he checked his watch-less wrist for an imaginary readout. "So when's my window?" he asked wryly. "Will sunrise be late enough for deep thoughts?"

Lightning snorted. "Don't be ridiculous."

"Wouldn't dream of it."

"Fine. Don't be a smartass, then."

"Hm…" For a moment, Hope cast his eyes upward in thought while he adjusted the knit cap on his head.

Nora must've made that, Lightning mused. He'd never stand for a pompom otherwise.

He suddenly met her gaze to deliver his profound conclusion.

"I really can't promise anything," Hope declared. He cracked a smile, as if it might soften the blow, and raised his index finger. "I need my daily quota of smartass comments to cope with reality, and I can't throw them out at just anyone."

"Lucky me. You could at least try to dial it back," Lightning retorted, begrudgingly amused. She made a show of flitting her eyes down to the drowsy baby and back up again. "Doing a bang-up job of getting back on my good side after you've gone and sentenced me to this."

Hope shrugged. "I'm not naïve enough to expect forgiveness this fast. And for the record, you could've turned Serah down."

"Like hell," she grumbled, her former annoyance surfacing again. "You knew that."

"Then you could've avoided aggravating an injury to the point of complications," he stated flatly, the picture of seriousness. "Using roundabout methods to help you isn't beneath me, Light." Hope hesitated as another thought softened his features, but he seemed to reject it and took a different track instead.

"I understand what you were thinking, but I know this is better for you in the long run. I'm sorry I had to get Serah involved."

"Tch, I recall a certain god who operated like that," she muttered, instantly regretting it from the wounded look that arrested Hope's face, as if the words had stabbed him in the gut. He hastily wiped off the reaction and got up from the table, heading straight for the door.

Lightning mentally slapped herself. "Hope, I didn't mean—"

"That god almost sentenced you to the Chaos," he interjected bitterly, facing the closed door. "I just want you to consider your own needs, for once. You're not a goddess, or a savior, or anyone else's weapon anymore."

He turned for a moment, hand already on the knob. The way his eyes flashed in the firelight dared her to contradict his claims.

The Hope behind that look was not the one standing there.

"Now, if you'll excuse me," he declared, "I really do have to find Snow."

And with that, he was gone.

Hope's abrupt arrival and departure gave the impression of a boy-shaped storm blowing through the house, with a frigid snap at the end that left Lightning dwelling on her own pathetic state. She spent the rest of the day locked in a fierce psychological battle.

She wanted to be angry, and every so often she caught herself grumbling and scowling at the napping baby or other innocent, inanimate points of focus. The door itself ought to have been reduced to ash. But the flames of indignation and resentment consistently wore off, leaving only emptiness with a side of confusion.

Some time later in the afternoon, Lightning carelessly stumbled over a toy and finally hit her breaking point. She snatched up the offending object, turned to the oblivious Claire and let her thoughts burst free.

"You know, all I wanted to do was take care of Serah!" Lightning exclaimed, gesticulating with the crude rattle. "I never asked to be anyone's weapon!" The baby followed it attentively up and down, from side to side, stretching out her hands toward it. Suddenly feeling ashamed, Lightning deflated in a long, heavy sigh and dropped the toy into her niece's grabby fingers.

"But that's all I was, for centuries," she said more quietly as she turned to the fire again. Its warmth seemed sympathetic. "That's all I'm good for."

Claire babbled in her direction, and she shook her head. "Yeah, you're right. I'm not even good for that right now."

Lightning jumped at the sound of the door creaking open, spinning to face any potential threat head-on. Instead, the room was filled with her sister's laughter and Snow's exuberant voice as they crowded inside, their conversation unbroken by the familiar routine of de-bundling. Once Serah caught sight of the baby, though, she rushed over and plucked her from the playpen, attacking her with kisses and all manner of syrupy, barely-intelligible greetings.

She eventually shifted her gaze to Lightning, and her sunny smile faltered.

"Hey, Sis… Was Claire a handful today?"

The baby squealed in apparent protest.

"Minus one pretty foul gut-bomb, she was perfect," Lightning answered evenly, trying to appear more relaxed by leaning against the stony frame of the fireplace. She shrugged for extra effect. "Easy day."

Serah hummed suspiciously for a moment, but one sniff inspection of the baby had her scurrying back to the bedroom for a diaper change.

"Wish the rest of town had a day like yours," Snow threw in, collapsing into a chair at the table. "It looks like we're in for a pretty rough winter."

Lightning crossed her arms, narrowing her gaze at him. "What are you talking about? The weather's been following normal patterns, and the border patrol has a solid handle on the wolf problem. Don't tell me there's another new breed—"

"Oh no, nothin' like that," Snow corrected, waving off the assumption. "A lot more challenges to running a settlement than storms or wildlife control – supplies, for one. Then there are your garden-variety religious sects, which is the biggest pain in the ass of all. This place doesn't operate like Yusnaan. We've got hardly any infrastructure and way too many people!"

He growled to himself and leaned back to stare up at the ceiling, tipping the chair slightly until he could prop his boots on the table.

Lightning narrowed her eyes disapprovingly at the barbaric habit. But she was far more interested to get to the heart of the matter.

"So what's the main issue? Are people sacrificing food stores to some imaginary god?"

"Not exactly," Snow sighed. He took note of Lightning's scowl, directed at his feet, and righted himself in the chair. "It's like this. In the spirit of being straightforward with people for once, we've told the ones who weren't from Nova Chrysalia how they ended up, y'know, materializing on a brand new world. Fun conversation, if you've ever had it: 'Oh yeah, I get that you, uh, died a few centuries back, but then this savior sort of killed god, and this saint guided the dead, and this ancient seeress replaced Etro…" Snow stopped and threw out his arms in a grand gesture.

"…So congrats! Somebody dragged your soul back out of the Chaos. Welcome to Earth.' You get the picture."

Lightning continued to eye him skeptically. "What's your point?"

"Just that these people are kinda lost and confused – even the ones that were still alive in the end. They'll take anything to create some solid ground again, and that ground is this settlement," Snow explained, propping his elbows on the table. He aimed a wry grin at her. "They literally worship the dirt that you and Vanille and Yeul walk on. I'm shocked that you haven't noticed the horde of followers out there, Miss Former Savior."

"I'm used to being gawked at like some spectacle," Lightning muttered. Her left eye twitched irritably at the memory of so many hundred stares – on Cocoon, on Nova Chrysalia, and still on the new world. "Just one more reason to avoid people in general. But I still don't see how a cult following is about to wreck the whole town."

Snow stretched for a moment, his expression grave when he met her eyes again. "Well, word travelled to the nearby villages a little too fast – that 'following' has overcrowded the settlement and diminished supplies, especially once they all holed up here for the winter. It's not that no one saw it coming…" He looked away, his brow furrowing at whatever thoughts had come to mind.

"It's just that no one listened to him," Snow said, fixating intently on the grain of the table. "We all know Hope's got the experience to back his suggestions, and we stick up for him, but most of the other council members don't know him from Adam. Rosch just sees some kid hanging around with me and Noel. That guy's tough as nails, but we really can't argue with popular support. Hope just comes off as…"

Snow paused to scratch his chin thoughtfully. "Well, kinda defiant to him."

"That's probably because he is defiant," Lightning surmised. "I'm still trying to understand why he's so pissed off at the world, lately."

At least it's abundantly clear why he's pissed off at me.

Snow laughed boisterously, but the sound had a sarcastic edge to it. "I think that's pretty obvious, Sis. You try leading the survivors of humanity for a few centuries, only to end up going through puberty again. No one takes him seriously – most of 'em don't even believe he is who he says he is. Some of these people weren't around for the rise and fall of Academia or the launching of New Cocoon, and the ones who were don't remember much."

"I thought Bartholomew was on the council, though," Lightning began, pushing off the stone at her back that was beginning to aggravate her right shoulder. She joined Snow at the table. "Can't he vouch for his own son?"

Frowning, Snow further explained, "That's actually more problem than solution. Just makes it seem extra crazy to believe this scrawny teenager used to be pushing thirty when his forty-something dad's right there, much less that the kid preserved humanity and basically ruled the world. Nevermind the fact that Mr. Estheim, Senior died nearly a millennium ago. And if Hope explained the whole truth behind his age, he'd probably be declared insane, or worse. There's a limit to how much people can accept. Pretty sure they'd draw the line at possessed-by-god-and-remolded-into-a-puppet-boy. Y'know, because… god demanded innocence?"

He scratched at his head in puzzlement. "To be honest, I'm kinda fuzzy on the logic, there. Brainwashed teenager doesn't equate to innocent in my mind. Maybe Bhunivelze had a nasty sense of humor."

"Tch. Guess I can see where the council's coming from," Lightning huffed. "It's thickheaded and insensitive, but it sounds about right for collective adult reasoning."

"That's pretty harsh, Sis," Serah remarked from the bedroom doorway, shuffling carefully toward the table with Claire.

Lightning inclined her head to the sound. "You mean my understanding of people, or those people treating Hope like an ignorant schoolboy?"

"And here I thought you two were in a spat." Serah giggled, to which Lightning rolled her eyes.

"I'm temporarily upset with him for good reason, and I said so to his face. It sounds like these council members are just plain patronizing."

"Yeah, well, they must feel pretty stupid now," Snow said. "He predicted that our fuel supplies wouldn't last half the winter if the 'cultists' didn't go home from their pilgrimage. Suggested we work out a trade deal with that sketchy bandit outpost in the mountains; it's the only place within a hundred miles that's still got active coal mines. Fang and Noel were all for it, and ol' Bart backed his reasoning, but everyone else had trust issues or some kind of righteous aversion."

Lightning pinned him with a threatening glare. "And what about you?"

Snow immediately raised his hands in defense, letting out a nervous chuckle before he explained, "Oh, you better believe I was on his side. Hope knows his stuff. You saw the warrens back in Luxerion – proof positive for what happens when a scared population decides to squat in the religious center of the world. He wasn't the one who founded that mess of a city, but he did try to fix the problem. Unfortunately, the Wild Lands development initiative disappeared after he did. Then the people just settled in for the long haul. Sound familiar?"

"Yeah. It's always like this," Lightning ground out, pressing her fingers to her forehead. The trade-offs for more comfortable living never seemed to pan out, no matter what world they happened to be on. She actually missed those first months in the wilderness, when it was just her, and then just Hope on her heels, and gradually the whole group of them banding together to survive. They lived day to day with no guarantees, but also without the complications of mass humanity.

Of course, it couldn't last. Not with baby Claire on the way, and not with the increasing number of people who found them, begging for protection. They eventually crossed paths with Rosch's group, and the merger was unavoidable.

With a heavy sigh, Lightning pushed up from the table. She walked past Serah and the baby, ruffling Claire's golden curls and briefly hugging her sister before she collected her things.

"Thanks for bringing news of the outside world," she said tiredly, not looking at Snow while she donned her coat and boots in a rush. "I've been completely out of the loop this week."

"Don't mention it. But hey, there's more where that came from—!" Lightning heard him call out, just before she stepped back into the winter evening. She didn't feel like intruding on their space any longer.

The wind had an extra bite, and she was halfway across the open courtyard to her house before she noticed that something was off. Despite the chill seeping into her socks, she stopped in her tracks.

Her eyes panned over the scene. The powdery ground was an icy blue in the twilight, and the outlines of their homes stood out starkly against it. A moment later, she noticed what was missing – the orange glow from their central fire-pit, gently radiating to push back the night. Tonight, there was no such fire. Not even smoldering embers.

And the others had apparently gotten the memo, because Lightning was the lone idiot standing out in the cold. Grumbling at the inconvenience, she jerked herself back into motion and tromped the rest of the short distance home.

She had barely stepped into the dim light of her own doorway – and begun to question why the fire was even lit – when a pile of wooly linens landed in her arms.

"For you," Hope's voice sounded from beyond the pile. He peered around it with a small, ironic smile. "Sorry, I just let myself in. We're under fuel rations and a curfew, now. I imagine Snow mentioned the situation."

"I think he tried," Lightning said. She shoved the pile back onto Hope, nearly toppling him, and snorted when he staggered backward with a huff.

"Guess somebody's still in a snit," he muttered.

"You could've waited ten seconds." Proceeding to take far more than that stated amount of time to remove her extra layers, she felt a twinge of satisfaction when he started tapping his foot on the floor.

"So, my dad tried to plead his case with me again," Hope sighed, finally channeling his impatience into conversation. "Really pulled out all the stops, this time. Round number eighty-nine of 'Please stay here with us, Son!' featured worried Mom, second chances, an especially juicy bit about Cocoon-age social conventions…"

"He does have a point," Lightning said off-handedly. She swept by and snatched the linens, startling Hope again, then disappeared into her bedroom to dump them on the lumpy mattress. She planted her hands on her hips and pretended to take stock of her sparse belongings, allowing her mind to take stock of the compounding situation.

So much for the separation period.

It didn't surprise her in the least that Hope had strayed back to crash in her living room – or more appropriately, returned from crashing at his parents' place. He'd succeeded in living with them for a grand total of one month out of the year, but propriety demanded that it was technically his residence.

And while neither of them had much use for propriety, this week had presented the challenge of facing an angry roommate every morning otherwise.

Blowing out her perpetuated frustration in a long sigh, Lightning decided to set their quarrel aside in the interest of preserving the peace. For the night, anyway. Hope looked more run-down than usual.

She heard her counterpart clear his throat. Sensing his discomfort at the prolonged silence, she asked loudly, "I take it you didn't enjoy your week back home. Remind me again what the problem is?"

"Oh, just my refusal to abide standard teenage treatment, plus the creep factor of my parents being blissfully reunited," Hope called back from the main room, an obvious sulky tone to his voice. "I love my parents – I really do – but old habits die hard. It was a logical choice."

Distantly, she could've sworn she heard him mutter, "Besides, aren't you tired of being alone?"

Lightning considered giving him an honest answer. The question was rhetorical, and clearly not meant to have been heard, but it occurred to her that she could've thrown it right back. Instead, she steeled her resolve to get down to more important topics and strode out of the dark bedroom.

After everything Snow said, it sounds like my day wasn't the worst.

Near the hearth, Hope was busily arranging his blankets onto the nest he usually inhabited. He snapped his eyes up when Lightning approached the fireplace, but she kept her gaze on the flames.

Where do I even start? If he needed to talk to me about his issues, he damn well should've said something before. Maybe I can work my way around…

"So, you didn't like having your own room?" She flexed her fingers in the heat, savoring the tingle as they fully defrosted. A part of her mind – the part hell-bent on reconciliation – gave an approving nod to the many practical benefits of his company, not the least of which was a well-made fire.

Hope flopped back onto his nest. "Hmph, even my subconscious rejected the place. I must've drifted right out of my room every single night. Mom wouldn't press the issue, but I could tell it really disturbed her to find me sleeping at the front door. They started bolting it shut, just in case."

"In case you wandered out into the snow?" Lightning asked, trying to dampen the concern that started to creep up her throat with the question. "You've never done that before…"

His eyes locked onto hers and she cut off, bowing to his pleading, silent request that awkward situations remain unmentioned. Lightning was well aware that Hope did not typically sleep at the door or attempt escape. On the occasions when he did stray from the fireside, he found the foot of her mattress.

The first time it had happened, she'd accidentally kicked him, awakening in rapid response to his startled yelp. She had since adjusted to having the equivalent of a large dog curled up there, at increasingly frequent intervals.

And now, said puppy-eyed boy looked supremely embarrassed. Hope rolled onto his side and Lightning blinked away, finally realizing she'd been staring at him in confusion again.

"You think I'm losing it, don't you?" he nearly whispered.

"No," Lightning said firmly. "I think it's a coping mechanism. Do you…" she started in again, biting her lip as she concentrated on the best phrasing. "Do you have strange dreams, when it happens?"

God, I sound like a therapist. Of all the ridiculous things…

Hope rolled back toward the hearth and looked up at her, but his eyes seemed to see right through her to a distant mark. "I'm not sure if they're dreams. It feels like they were real, once."

"You can tell me about them," Lightning suggested, tacking on hastily, "If you want to, I mean." She sat at the side of the nest, mechanically going through a sequence of shoulder stretches.

Hope proceeded to cocoon himself in one of the top blankets, his muffled voice uttering softly, "Thanks, but no."

With that, a strong defense was suddenly and clearly built around the topic, so Lightning let it drop.

"Did you eat dinner already?" she asked instead.

The Hope-cocoon shrugged. "Food rations will be limited, before long. Have to cut corners somewhere."

"Dinner is the wrong 'where.' How do you expect to grow up without proper nutrition?" Lightning asked, chiding herself internally for stumbling into lecture territory again. It always seemed to happen.

"I expect to survive, for now," Hope grumbled. "Maybe I can half-hibernate for the rest of the winter. Bears do it."

Lightning elbowed his leg through the covers, earning a muffled curse and a half-hearted knee to the back.

"Don't talk to me about bears. Somewhere in that brilliant mind of yours, you've got to know that hibernation requires more than a three percent body fat reserve."

"Which I have," Hope retorted. He peered over the edge of the blanket just enough to shoot green daggers at her.

Smirking under a sense of impending victory, she pushed it a little further. "Not for long, if you cut your rations."

Lightning had half-expected a comical outburst of self-righteous explanations and tossed linens, but Hope just propped himself on his elbows and eyed her in a curious, scrutinizing way. He tilted his head and she crossed her arms, every feature warning him to butt out, and he acknowledged the unspoken demand with a slight smile.

"I'm sure you've got better uses for your time than teasing me," he stated coolly. "Like washing your hair, maybe?"

She knew the withering look that overtook her face clearly communicated the message of "I will end you," and left it at that for a few tense seconds. Hope just dissolved into a fit of laughter, though.

Gross. Is it really that obvious?

Growling, Lightning threw the nearest blanket at his head and left the vicinity to find the water bucket. The pipes were still frozen, but there could be no more delays.