Part III

Hope's mother passed away, and he couldn't focus on anything else. He didn't want to. He stopped writing the letters. None arrived. He didn't even inform Lightning of what had happened.

He wanted a life that didn't remind him of his mother. For years, visiting the lake had been something for them and them alone.

Now he wanted nothing to do with it. Those parts of himself died. He wondered how much of it was real. Had he just imagined a means of happiness for himself? One of the last letters he'd received had included a note from Lightning about running out of stamps. He'd been supposed to send her some.

With his mother's death, the letters stopped coming.

Perhaps he'd spent his childhood wishing for something so much, that his mother had coddled him. She'd always let him believe in things long past his classmates. Perhaps Lightning didn't exist. And he rather she didn't.

Now was the time for real life to begin.

The years slipped by and Hope began to question everything about his life. Whenever he tried to find pictures of his summers in Bodhum, there was no evidence. Even the letters hidden deep within his closet were gone. He finally asked his father in a desperate plea for his sanity.

His father sighed and looked at him with a sadness that accompanied any discussion of Nora.

"Son, what lake house?"

"You know the one Mom and I visited every summer? The one in Bodhum."

Bartholomew winced, and then removed his glasses so he didn't need to look at his son. "Bodhum's a rundown town. You've never been there."

"Yes, I have. I went there with Mom." He was becoming indignant.

"No son. I don't know where you're getting this idea from. It was a place I went with my father. I would always tell you the same stories about it whenever your mother was doing poorly. It was the only way I could calm you. I'd tell you what it'd be like if we all went together. It doesn't even exist the way it did in my stories. You would curl up on your mother's bed, and the two of you would make up your own tales for hours. You even invented characters you would meet during your adventures there. I drove past it on a work trip recently. No one lives there anymore."

"That…" Hope couldn't finish. None of that could be true. It had felt real.

Hope was in his late twenties. He'd studied until he became an expert in his field. He had a steady income. He'd never bothered with love. Only one woman had continued bothering him despite his disinterest. She was his personal assistant, Alyssa. He didn't harbor any romantic inclinations toward her, but he was already past the age when his parents had married and had him. He wasn't sure he wished to stay a bachelor forever.

A feeling, which he couldn't describe, stole his attention one morning. A summer breeze, signaling an oncoming rain shower perhaps, had blown through his office. It had smelled of the pink roses the florist down the street sold. The fragrance had never traveled that far before, but it convinced him to leave his desk.

He didn't even visit Kreiss Flowers, nor had he ever before. A feeling of nostalgia pulled at his core. He climbed into his car, rolled down the windows, and drove past. About a mile into his drive, he realized that he hadn't locked up his office, nor informed anyone of his impromptu vacation. Promptly he left Alyssa a voicemail, and then turned off his cell phone.

He didn't even have to follow the road signs. Somehow, he'd memorized the turns by heart from his childhood in the passenger seat. Before nightfall, he'd arrived at the lodge.

He found Villiers' Villas abandoned. The windows were boarded up. The parking areas were covered in leaves, and the buildings were overtaken by plants. Even the cabins closest to the shore had collapsed decades ago.

Had this place ever been open? There was even more proof of his memories being false. What on earth had compelled him to come?

Evening was fading into nighttime, and he hadn't eaten since breakfast. It would be an even longer drive home in the dark. He pulled away from the lodge and traveled along the main road looking for any business that might have snacks. Most of the storefronts had their closed signs up and their lights down.

Finally, he came to a gift shop at the far end of the road. It had windchimes hanging from the eves and hand painted signage denoting they sold knickknacks, cold drinks, books, maps, and other assorted gifts. Their lights were still on, so he pulled over and slunk out of his car.

A bell on the door rang when he entered the space. Display carousels of books took up the front portion of the room; he had to shuffle between them to get to the cooler. It hummed loudly, taunting him with the ice cream sandwiches inside. An old fridge held chilled sodas.

He was surprised that no shopkeeper had come to bother him with help he didn't need. Whoever they were remained very quiet. They drummed their fingers on a counter, impatiently waiting for him to make his purchase.

"Are there any motels in town? I was planning on staying by the lake, but it looks like the lodge has been shut down," he called as he made his way past display cases of jewelry and intricate glass figurines. A glinting, green, crystal flower momentarily distracted him.

The shopkeeper made a dismissive sort of grunt.

He knocked over a six-foot-high stack of model airship kits to rush to the counter.

The woman behind it had pink hair that fell over one shoulder in loose curls. She was younger than him, barely twenty-one if he were guessing. Her skin was smooth and tanned from time spent openly in the sun. The blue of her irises sparkled as they reflected the lights of the mismatched display cases. The paleness of her hands suggested she usually wore fingerless gloves. She set down the manual she was reading. The muscles of her arms rippled with the action. They seemed more suited for wielding a sword than a book.

Hope dropped his bottle of soda. The lid shot off and foam exploded from the opening. Brown liquid sprayed in every direction and coated the inventory, floor, ceiling, and woman. She growled angrily. Soda dripped down her throat in little amber trails. He stood dumbfounded.

She made a disgusted noise that he knew meant, "get the hell out."

Hope laughed. He knew he shouldn't have, but he couldn't help it. Even without all the fur, Lightning was Lightning. She looked like the sopping mess he'd first spotted digging through the trash can. His laughter just made her angrier and she gritted her teeth.

"You're real." He laughed even harder. Awkwardly he ripped open the foil wrapper on his sandwich. He tasted metal and paper as he took a bite larger than the area he'd unwrapped. "Oh my god," he garbled through a full mouth. "You're here." Chocolate dough fell in crumbles from his mouth. "Call me crazy. But, I would very much like to get to know you. My name is…"

All the cuckoo clocks on the far wall began sounding. They each announced the thirteenth hour that had long since passed.

"Hope," she said, finishing his sentence for him. She shivered as if a chill had overtaken her body. "Your name is Hope, and you've kept me waiting."

He blinked.

Like a feral animal, she effortlessly vaulted over the counter. Only her hands touched the surface. The next place her hands came in contact was the front of his button up. The fingers he'd just admired curled at the fabric. Her soda-sticky lips pressed against his forehead. He swallowed the remnants of ice cream and crushed her in a hug so firm it made his arms shake.

The memories should've been of innocent summers spent with her. He was overwhelmed when they were replaced with new ones. In every thought, she appeared exactly as she did in this moment. There were endless fields where enormous creatures roamed. Cities that glowed brighter than neon. Ships that hovered. Sleeps that lasted centuries. Moments and bodies that froze. Petals that unfurled in a white room. Fates that not even gods could control. Promises that were yet to be fulfilled.

He pulled back long enough only to whisper, "Not as long as I have."

She smacked at his chest, and responded on the verge of tears, "You said we'd be together. It wasn't supposed to take twenty years. It's like you forgot me."

He cupped at her cheeks and gently rubbed her tears away with his thumbs. "I could never forget you, Light." The kiss he gave her this time was less desperate, yet more impassioned, and thankfully devoid of fur.

author's note: This story originated from the idea, that even if Lightning were an entirely hairy "monster"...Hope would still be into her. Obviously it's come a long way since that initial premise.

As always, my beta yinuj was irreplaceable in humoring and nourishing my weird Hoperai tangents.