Update (17/06/10): A reader has put together her own manga adaptation of Black and White! If you're interested, check out my profile for the link, or check out Redkid11's gallery on deviantART.
"I'm sorry, but I won't be coming to school for a few days. Oh, no, no, it isn't illness. My sister is in the Army – Guardian Corps – and she got hurt while she was out on patrol. I need to stay home to help her recover. ...Proof? Check the news for Sergeant Farron. She was part of the frontline defence against that freak monster attack last night."
Serah adjusted the cordless phone propped between her shoulder and cheek as she prepared breakfast. It was a messy affair as she tried to multi-task, and there was pancake mix splattering the previously spotless sleek black counter, evidence of her semi-successful attempt. She'd never tried pancakes before, but the holographic streaming of instructions issuing from her mini-computer seemed to be guiding her along well enough. Early morning light and ocean air streamed through the open windows, promising another day of beautiful Bodhum sunshine. Soon, when it was summer, the tourists would be at the beach in droves.
She whisked the mixture with her hands; using the mixing machine was out of the question. It would wake Lightning up, plus she was on the phone. At the cool, yet irritable response of the school receptionist on the other end, she sighed. "No, I don't know. It might be a week, maybe longer, depending on how long it takes for her to get better. The doctors said she should be okay within a few days, but until then she can't move, and I'm the only one who can... Yes. Yeah, I'll make sure to email all my work to Mr. Eldart. Thank you for understanding. Okay, bye."
She ended the call, wincing as she did so at the floury fingerprint left on the button, then set about pouring the mixture into a pan. Serah was a good cook, or so she was told, but it was always hard to do in her and her sister's shared apartment. Everything was so spotless, all shine and metal and newness, that she felt like a child splattering a brand new shirt with paint. And Lightning, perfectionist as she was, liked the look to stay. Serah had put some flowers in vases on the counter, on the table, by the windows, to try and lend the room a more natural touch, but it hadn't made much of a difference.
It was going to be an awfully empty, cold place to live alone in once Serah left for Eden University.
A hiss from the pan drove back the thought, and she hurried to turn the pancake over. It smelled pretty good, at least, and she smiled to herself as she raided the cupboards and refrigerator for toppings. Lightning usually restricted herself to a rigidly maintained healthy diet, but she did have a secret sweet tooth, like Serah. "Cream... Syrup... Oh, and some strawberries. Those are healthy."
Once it was finished, her mouth was watering and her stomach growling. For a first try, it really did look good. Excited at the surprise she'd spring on her sister, she carried the tray, with a jug of water, to the door, and knocked.
She eased open the door. It was dim, the curtains drawn, but not stiflingly hot: the windows had been left open overnight to try to ease down Lightning's feverish temperature. The woman herself, usually cutting such an imposing figure with her sabre and pinkish-crimson cape, was a hunched ball of sheets, curled in on itself.
"Lightning?" she said, softly. The name still jarred in her mouth, sometimes, and now was one of those times. "Breakfast's ready."
The sheets stirred, and a bare arm emerged as she twisted herself around to peer dimly across at Serah. At the movement, Lightning let out a quiet hiss that was quickly suppressed. She was wearing a black tank-top, where underneath Serah knew there was thick bandaging.
"Good morning," Serah said into her sister's silence, attempting to sound cheerful. She left the tray on the bedside table, so Lightning could take it if she wanted it, and perched herself on the end of the bed. "How are you feeling?"
Serah frowned. "Don't play the tough game. We both know that isn't true."
"Okay, I feel like crap," said Lightning, forcing herself to sit up and gritting her teeth even as she did so. "Like a monster tried to bite me in half. Better?"
It was Serah's turn to hide a wince. "Don't strain yourself. You'll reopen your wounds."
Lightning made a non-committal noise, casting her gaze away to her bedside alarm. "You should be at school."
"I'm not going, since you insisted coming home from the hospital." Serah stood, smoothing out her skirt. "Someone has to take care of you if there aren't any nurses around."
Lightning let out a frustrated sigh. She was proud beyond pride, which had made her come home last night from the hospital as soon as she could, barely supported on the shoulder of Lieutenant Amodar. The idea of being confined to a bed in a public hospital, her weakness exposed for all to see, was probably intolerable for her. Yet the idea of being babied by her younger sister looked like it hadn't occurred to her in her pain-fogged thoughts.
Serah turned to leave. "If you need anything else, just ask. I'm staying home all day."
As she closed the door, it could have been her imagination, but she thought she heard the soft tail-end of a muttered, "Thanks."
Serah smiled and snapped the door shut behind her.
Serah was sitting at a stool on the kitchen counter, picking at her pancake and listening to the radio for any more news on the monster situation when there was a knock on the door. She knew that knock, one that was peculiar only to Team NORA.
"Door's open!" she called.
Snow stepped in gingerly, and closed the front door behind him as quietly as he could. Serah blinked at him in some surprise – she had been expecting him, because he liked to walk her to school in the mornings, but usually he barged straight in if Lightning was already on duty. Now he looked like if he made too much noise the building would collapse around his ears.
"Hey, Serah," he said in a low voice, dropping onto the stool beside her and sneaking a bite of her pancake. "Wow, thi'm goo'."
She made a face at him. He swallowed, grinned, and gave her a sticky-syrup kiss on the cheek. "You obsess over manners too much. I said, 'this is good'. I didn't know you could make pancakes."
Serah wiped her cheek, trying and failing to look annoyed. It was a little too hard when her boyfriend was giving her the most adorable expression. "Neither did I. I wanted to surprise Lightning with something special."
"Oh, yeah," Snow's face fell and he dropped the fork back on her plate. "I heard about what happened. Me and the rest of NORA were there, too, and we fought 'em off in the end." There was a hint of pride in his voice. "But that was weird, huh? I've never seen so many monsters at once."
"Yeah. No one knows what caused it, but I heard on the radio that PSICOM's gonna come in to investigate."
"Tch, great. So Bodhum will be crawling with 'em soon enough." Snow paused and looked around the apartment. "So, where is she?"
Serah nodded at the door to Lightning's room, and Snow jumped to his feet.
"Hey," she grabbed his arm. "Where are you going?"
"To see if she's okay, where else?"
"Snow, I really don't think you should-"
"It'll be fine," Snow said, winking and crossing the room in two strides. Whenever he said that, it never was okay, and oh for the love of the fal'Cie he was opening the door-
"Hey, sis, how's-"
Serah couldn't quite tell what happened next from behind him. There was a shout, Snow crying out in pain, a hand flying to his face, then a splash of water. Snow retreated from the doorway calling incoherent apologies mixed with grumbles, sopping wet and with a sharp red mark on his face. Serah hurried to the door and opened it.
Lightning was still in bed, arm poised to throw her empty glass, but when she saw it was Serah, she lowered it. Her thunderous expression didn't change. Lying abandoned was an empty water jug (the contents presumably now over a complaining Snow), and at Serah's feet was a hardback book: A Survival Guide to the Monsters of Lower Cocoon. That would have hurt to have it hit you, especially if it was a trained soldier flinging it at you. At least she'd set her empty plate and tray on the floor beside the bed, out of grabbing range, or she might've thrown those instead.
"What," said Lightning, almost crackling with restrained fury, "is he doing here?"
Serah stepped inside and closed the door, gingerly avoiding the patch of water on the laminated flooring. "He's my boyfriend. He's allowed to visit me."
"And barge into my room?"
"He was worried about you!"
"He can keep his pity," Lightning spat, setting her glass down on the bedside table with a louder thunk than was necessary.
Serah bit her lip to stop any retort she had to that. She hated arguing with her sister, but ever since her and Snow had started dating they'd had more and more disagreements. She loved Snow and she loved Lightning, but they most certainly did not love one another, as much as both Serah and Snow would like for them to get along. If there was one thing to understand about Snow Villiers, he saw the world in black and white: he had nothing but good intentions, so he couldn't understand why Lightning would be so ferocious in her response. He wouldn't understand her need to protect her privacy, or that her already wounded pride would take another blow at someone she detested seeing her in such a state. He just saw a good idea and acted on it without so much as another thought.
"He made a mistake," she said, a little lamely. She didn't want to take sides, but maybe if she could just get the two to understand each other-
"Yeah, he did," Lightning said coolly, folding her arms. "Good job noticing."
"Lightning!" Serah felt her hands fist at her side as she fought her temper. Apparently near-death experiences did nothing to cut back her sarcasm. "I'll bring him back in, and he can apologise, and we'll leave it at that. Okay?"
"I don't want any of his idiot apologies, and I don't want to see his stupid face or hear his annoying voice. I want him out of my house."
"It's my house too!" Serah's voice was starting to shake.
"Your house?" Lightning scoffed, holding her side as she pulled herself up further. "I'm the one who pulls my weight around here, who takes care of you and pays for everything. And for what? All you do is waste your time playing love games! Just wait until he sees another pretty face. Then what?"
The bedroom blurred as unbidden tears sprung to Serah's eyes. She blinked them away, furious. She was no good at arguments, not when Lightning was at her worst like this. Her retorts cut like blades, fast and deep and hurtful. "Snow isn't like that. Stop talking like you know him!"
Lightning narrowed her eyes, not taking the bait. "You're acting like a child. You're eighteen, now, Serah. Maybe you should start thinking about your future – not that joke of a boyfriend."
She was going to cry, she was going to cry – no, no, not yet. Serah wouldn't give Lightning the satisfaction. Swallowing hard, she replied, "Yes, I'm eighteen now. I'm a woman. I can choose whatever I want to do, or whoever I want to be with!" She'd tried to keep her voice down, mature, but it rose and rose in volume until she just couldn't stop: "Why do you always have to be like this? You act so tough, like you know everything, when you're barely an adult yourself! No matter how much you try to act like it, you're not Mom!"
She regretted it immediately. Lightning's expression went through rapid changes: her mouth gaping like she'd been struck dumb, eyes wide. Then they narrowed again, and hardened to ice.
Just two words. They were all Serah needed, she was glad to go, and before she knew it she was wrenching open the door, slamming it behind her, running to the front door and pulling on a pair of sandals. She could barely see what she was doing through her tears.
"Hey, hey," an arm enveloped her shoulders as she struggled with the straps. "What happened?"
"We're going out," she managed to say, pulling on her other sandal and fastening it hastily. Then she pulled open the door, and, without even waiting to see if Snow was following, ran down the garden steps and onto the street.
Lightning had been right when she said it was her house; when their parents had died and she joined the Army, she saved up enough money to find a little, but expensive, seafront apartment. They didn't want to carry on living in a place filled with so many memories, because the weight of them threatened to choke and smother them – so they started over, just like how her sister changed and became Lightning. Things had never been the same since in many different ways, but a plus was that they were only a stone's throw from the beach, instead of the other side of town. Serah's feet carried her along the road, and before long her sandals were sinking and sliding in the warmth of the sand. She walked to the shoreline, trying to brush away her tears, trying to breath in the warm morning air and calm down her pounding heart.
"Serah." She jumped, having almost forgotten about Snow. He hung back a ways behind her, looking utterly at a loss at what to do.
She gave him a watery, tear-streaked smile. "I'm... I'm sorry. I must look really stupid right now."
He seemed to take that as a green light, because he stepped closer. "Nah, you don't. And probably not as much as I do."
Snow was soaked, and there was still an angry red mark on his cheekbone. It looked like he'd been able to towel himself down during the duration of their argument, but he was still wet, from his hair to his coat, which he was peeling off. Serah wasn't about to complain, as she watched his bare chest and arms ripple with muscle as he laid the coat out on the sand to dry.
"Your bandana is wet, too," she grinned, trying to keep the mischief out of her voice.
"Aww, dammit," Snow said, untying it. As he pulled it off, his hair fluffed up, and she laughed and ruffled it as he sat down. "I'm glad my hat hair is cheering you up, at least," he complained, trying to smooth it back down self-consciously.
She sat down beside him on his coat with a small smile, but she still felt shaky as she wiped her tears away. Then she picked up a stick and leaned forwards to draw absently in the wet sand. Trying not to think. Trying not to feel.
Snow was watching her over his shoulder. "What's that?"
She blinked and looked down. She'd barely noticed what she'd drawn: a house, and a stick figure version of herself, and of Lightning. Snow, the taller figure, with his unmistakable bandanna and hair hanging into his eyes, was only half-drawn on.
She smiled. "It's us, and my sister. Reminds me of when me and her were little, and the two of us used to play house."
"She used to play games?" Snow said in mock surprise. "Somehow, I didn't think she was the type."
"Yes," Serah said, not in the mood to go along with his joke. "I would be Mommy and she would be Daddy. She was better at Daddy because I never could remember him very well."
A wave came, sloshing around their ankles and retreating, and when she looked again, her picture was almost gone, just vague lines in the sand. She dropped her stick. "I hate it when I argue with her. I hate it so much. I always get upset."
Snow rubbed the small of her back comfortingly. "What did you say to each other?"
Serah trusted Snow, and they'd been together long enough for her to feel she could confide in him about anything, no matter how embarrassing, or how horrible it made her look. So she told him, not keeping anything back, at all the hurtful things Lightning had said, all the ugly, mean-spirited things she'd said. "She said things she didn't mean. She should be happy for me, with my grades, that I'm going to university and that I have a boyfriend like you, but she doesn't act like it. Now she's so distant... She never used to be that way. She tries to be so tough, so grown-up and mature, that sometimes I don't even recognise her any more. I wish she'd realise she doesn't need to try so hard."
Snow just listened, and when she was done, flung himself back on the sand and stared at the sky.
"Man, having a family sounds complicated."
Serah looked at him sidelong in surprise. "What do you mean, 'sounds'? What about your family?"
"What family?" he replied nonchalantly. "Don't have one."
"What? Since when?"
"Uh, since forever?" He frowned at her. "I didn't tell you? I'm an orphan. Everyone in NORA is."
"I guess I fit right in, then," Serah murmured softly, fingering her cat earring – the NORA logo. Then she leaned down and wrapped her arms around him, and he pulled an arm around her, pulling her close. She buried her arm into the warmth of his shoulder, breathing in the scent of his hair. "I'm sorry. I never asked."
"Well, now you know. I don't exactly like talking about it," said Snow. "Besides, NORA's all the family I need. And you," he grinned at her, lopsided, and she smiled and ran her fingers along the whiskers of his jaw. Then his expression grew more serious. "I should apologise, too. For earlier – for barging in without thinking."
"No, no," Serah rushed out, "The argument was between me and her, not you."
"But if it wasn't for me, you wouldn't have argued in the first place. You tried to stop me, but I was an idiot and didn't listen. I'm really, seriously sorry."
"Silly," she smiled, and leaned forwards. He still tasted of syrup and pancakes as she kissed him, a little too shamelessly needy, but after only a fraction of hesitation he returned it.
When they broke apart, they just stared at one another for a while, in silence: Snow's intense blue-eyed stare, Serah wondering sometimes at just how glad she was that he was there for her. That they were there for each other. And maybe that was exactly what they both needed. She still didn't know if it was love, or want, but it was definitely need. On days when her sister's distance was just too much for her, he was always there, in a way her friends couldn't be, who would never understand how much that kind of loss could hurt, and now it made so much more sense why he did.
She had no idea how to put any of this into words, so she said instead, "Thank you."
Snow moved a strand of hair from her eyes. "No, thank you, for putting up with me. I'm a dumbass sometimes."
"We all do stupid things sometimes – do things we shouldn't, say things to each other that we don't mean." She smiled and gently pulled away, sitting up and brushing sand from her legs. "I'm going to go back and talk to her. Um... You probably shouldn't come."
Snow sat up, stretching. "Yeah, yeah, I know. A book and a jug of water to the face kinda got that message across."
Serah laughed despite herself, and helped him to his feet.
"If you need me, I'll be at the beach house. Just, uh... take it easy with your sister, and you'll be fine."
Snow was dusting sand off his coat with what he must have thought was a knowledgeable expression. She laughed and poked him in the side.
"Leave the motivational advice to me, in future."
"I thought it sounded good..."
Laughing, the two went their separate ways, Serah feeling in much better spirits than before. She still had a tightness in her chest, though, still had a horrible feeling of shame. She would have to face Lightning.
She pushed open the door, everything as she'd left it. An abandoned plate on the table, Lightning's door closed.
She sighed, took a deep breath, and pushed it open.
Lightning had her face turned to the wall, covered by hair. She didn't respond as the door opened. Asleep, maybe. Serah cleaned up the wetness on the floor, picked up the tray and glasses before she could start throwing things again and put them in the kitchen. She picked up her book and left it on the side. Then she went to the curtains to open them. "Some sunshine will make you feel better," she said softly, though Lightning was probably asleep. Even if she couldn't hear her, Serah hated the idea of getting the silent treatment for days on end.
Then she took the medical kit and pushed up Lightning's shirt to expose her bandaged stomach. The bandages were bloodstained – probably from where she'd sat up so quickly and suddenly earlier and threw things across the room. Another pang of guilt. Delicately, without trying to wake her sister up, she unwound the bandages. It didn't smell good, but the wound was still to fresh to be festering at this point. The doctors had speculated there had been something particularly nasty about that monster's bite that would make the wound harder to heal, and maybe the smell was part of it.
She must be in so much pain, Serah thought. And she won't even show it.
Biting her lip, trying not to look away, she checked the stitches and then used water and antiseptic to clean the wounds. As soon as the cloth touched her skin, a hiss escaped from Lightning, and she pushed her hair back to stare up at Serah.
"Sorry," she murmured. "It'll only sting for a few seconds, then I'll be done."
Lightning didn't say anything, just watched her work with an almost detached, clinical interest, like it was someone else entirely being re-bandaged. Serah could barely stop her hands from trembling under her sister's scrutiny. She was waiting for her to shout, to tell her to get out again, maybe she was so mad she'd kick her out of the house forever. It was impossible to tell what she was thinking, and that just frightened Serah more, her mind running off in all kinds of directions.
When she was done, she packed up her things. Lightning was still watching her, but when Serah glanced back, she looked away immediately.
"Is it comfortable...?" Serah ventured quietly. "Not too tight?"
Lightning took a deep breath. "It's fine."
She turned to the door, wishing she had the courage to say something – anything. She didn't know what to say, how to say it, how Lightning would react.
She didn't need to. Lightning grabbed her wrist. "Sit down." Her eyes were as serious as ever, betraying nothing.
This was her way of saying she wanted to talk. So Serah put her bag down again, and sat. "Yes?"
The silence stretched on between them. Lightning was a woman with few real acquaintances – in or outside the military – and even fewer friends. The closest she had was her good-natured superior, Lt. Amodar, though she would probably scoff at that, and then there was Serah. She talked very little, except when it mattered. Actions, for her, were always louder than words, and it was a matter of interpreting them. Like the hand still holding her wrist: she didn't want Serah to go, until... something.
Serah took Lightning's hand in her own, feeling all the rough callouses from her gunblade. She almost felt like they were children again, but it had always been her sister who took Serah's hand in hers. And she hadn't been Lightning, then, and her hands and her expression were not hardened and cold. That lump in Serah's throat rose again, but no, no, she would not cry.
"I'm sorry," they blurted at the same time. Then they stared at one another, wide-eyed.
"No, you shouldn't apologise-"
"Yes, I should. I was in a bad mood, and-"
"I shouldn't have let Snow-"
"It wasn't your fault he-"
Serah burst out laughing in relief, and Lightning continued to stare. She just laughed, and laughed, was overwhelmed by the sheer ridiculousness of it all, was so happy neither of them were mad at each other, that she just kept laughing until she was crying into Lightning's chest, her sister patting her back a little more awkwardly than Snow.
"I'm n-not sad," she said, wiping away a tear as she regained her composure. "I just... I'm sorry. You're hurt, and I've acted like such a spoiled brat."
Lightning shook her head. "You've been helping a lot. You're way more mature than most girls your age... lots of them can't even deal with the sight of blood. Or cook. And I'm grateful, even if... even if I don't say so. If I was stronger, none of this would've happened."
"You don't have to be in the Army..."
"We've had this discussion a hundred times." Lightning looked at the ceiling. "I want to protect... I want to protect this town. That's why I fight."
Serah didn't move, feeling the rise and fall of her sister's breathing and her steady heart in her ribcage, like Snow on the beach. She loved the two of them so much, though she knew that had been a lie – it was her she'd signed up to protect. As long as Serah was okay, the rest of Bodhum could go to hell, and they both knew it.
"Promise me we won't fight again," Serah looked up at her sister. "Please. I can't stand to hurt you."
Lightning looked a little nonplussed at the request, and replied, reluctantly, "I'll try not to."
"That's not a promise."
Lightning half-sighed, half-winced. "Yes. I promise. I won't fight with you again like that." She paused, then added: "Your boyfriend is still an idiot, though."
Serah grinned and flung her arms around her sister – but not too tight. "That's all I needed to hear."