A/N: A couple of things – for one, this epilogue has become WAY too long. It's pretty much a fluffy piece unto itself, so perhaps if you view it that way you'll see why I just couldn't pare it down :P Secondly, I appreciate your patience in waiting this out, as I hit a particularly severe bout of writer's block over the holidays. This fic has been tons of fun, and the best part, hands-down, has been reading your reviews, so I would love to hear from you all one last time after getting through this epilogue. It might be just the push I need to continue writing these things :D Oh, and I do have a little bit of vocab!

*mixing valve/riser – I am no plumber, but based on information and diagrams that I found, the mixing valve is the part of the plumbing that combines the hot and cold water lines to the shower, and the riser is a pipe that goes up from that valve to the shower head. Because the HAZMAT shower is a portable unit, however, the plumbing would not be preset, nor concealed within a wall.

(revised 01OCT11)

Epilogue: Open Up (your heart)

"Ahh! You just stabbed me in the head with that thing!" Lightning exclaimed, hands in a flurry above her head to arrest the offending object.

Serah giggled, easily dodging the attack and going right back to business on her sister's half-done hair. The bulk of it was twisted and wound up the side of her head decoratively, but several shorter pieces and wispy ends tended to fly wherever they naturally bent. Serah would have none of it.

"Don't be a baby, Sis – this is all part of the beautification process."

"One more reason to circumvent that process with my uniform."

"Well, since that old thing is temporarily out of the picture, I won't have your hair looking blah while the rest of you looks spectacular," Serah refuted, her grin reflected in the mirror as she eyed the long-sleeved, knee-length wrap dress. "Besides, I'm only getting married once, you know."

That's the whole point of marriage, isn't it?

"I don't doubt it," Lightning said plainly. She pulled at the fabric where it tied on the side, still marveling at how much more uncomfortable it was to be wearing a single closely-fitted layer, even of heavy knit material, than two layers. "And then you'll have ten kids – I'll be forced to reenlist for some peace and quiet."

Serah suddenly let out a little yelp of pain, dropping the decorative pin and sucking on her finger. "Ow, ow, ow. Lebreau warned me that they were sharp! Now I need a bandage before I get blood on my dress!" She looked around frantically for another object to secure the carefully twisted and placed lock of hair.

Must be pre-wedding anxiety. Not sure I've ever seen Serah this jumpy.

"Sis, can you hold this for a minute?" she pleaded.

"Got it." Lightning did her best to hold up the hair exactly as it was while her sister rushed out of the bunker, leaving the soldier to her thoughts. Pondering the impending whirlwind of social activity was sure to give her a headache if the hair pins didn't do the job first. Still, she had to admit feeling a sense of pride over how everything had worked out for Serah.

It had to be the strangest wedding arrangements ever conceived, but considering the narrow four month window since the armistice and the disagreeably icy onset to winter on Pulse, Lebreau had done a bang-up job putting it all together. Everyone else had been deeply involved in organizing round one of the chaos of force combination along with mass production and distribution of viral treatment.

The hangar was the only indoor space large enough to accommodate Serah's and Snow's gargantuan guest list – neither of them could seem to leave anyone off. Lightning's entire chain of command was going to be in one room. In fact, everyone she knew was coming, in addition to her own squadron and a number of less familiar members from Vargus' and Lucil's outpost unit and the medical staff with whom she was just getting acquainted. On the upside, the nature of the occasion made it perfect for bringing a number of important military personages together for a non-work-related social event.

Morale boosting and all that…

Travel and lodging accommodations for the guests were even more absurd than converting the hangar into a banquet hall. Not having enough pilots or transports wasn't something to which the former rebel force had given much thought, not that it would have done any good – there simply weren't enough ships or parts to justify bigger plans, military or otherwise, whether more pilots trained or not. As a result, Hope, Sazh, Maqui, and one PSICOM pilot had been swamped flying the only three Pulsian model transports and one Cocoon ship all over the region for days to bring in guests, from as far away as Aerma village and the Cocoon settlement. Essentially, that meant more of those months' same routine for transporting military personnel on official business or remedy shipments, but all at once rather than in shifts. Hope was running himself ragged.

And the work never seemed to be finished. Had he not been so obsessive over the hangar and insisted on getting involved at every possible chance with the wedding party invading his space, he might have had time to rest. They could have rested. Now, Hope was Maker knew where doing Maker knew what with his tools, even into the final few hours before the main event.

But Lightning had developed a fairly accurate system for filling in the unknowns of his schedule by simply observing the room. She looked over to the neatly-organized collection of shelves lining two and a half of the bunker's six walls – the toolbag from the fourth shelf on the long wall, left-center position, was missing, as were his coat, cap, and gloves.

Well, he's obviously outside, and with that set… installing fixtures?

Momentarily confused, Lightning turned back to the mirror, still faithfully holding up the section of hair Serah had been arranging. It hadn't been enough to get her into a dress with a more plunging neckline. No, her sister had to insist on sweeping the comforting trail of her hair up and out of the way as well. Lightning's entire arm began to tingle with numbness, and she glanced impatiently at the alarm clock on the bedside table/utility shelf, wondering how much longer her sister would take.

Suddenly, the lights in the room flickered and died. Panicked footsteps ran along the floor above Lightning's head for the few seconds of darkness before the lights came back on, and she had a sneaking suspicion that the incident was directly tied to whatever Hope was up to. Lightning finally relinquished the hold on her hair, grabbing the sweater he had thrown off that morning and wrapping it around her dress before pulling her boots back on to check out the situation. Beautification was as boring as it was painful, anyway.

She found out why Serah had been held up immediately upon exiting the stairwell. She and Snow appeared to be cornered by a crowd of early arrivals – guests who 'volunteered' to help with preparation but really just wanted to catch up on lost time. Snow's voice carried over the group, but even then she could not make out what was being said over the commotion of setting up everything.

Adding to the liveliness of the scene, Dajh was strutting his giant pet around the room – it had been a difficult compromise to let the chocobo stay in the hangar during the snowy season, but Hope couldn't turn the boy down. Lightning had been witness to Dajh's expertise in pulling off the puppy dog look with those huge brown eyes, and she didn't blame Hope for caving.

"Get Chaz offa the aisle runner right this second!" Sazh shouted across the room, and the boy jumped in his seat atop the chocobo, steering the bird off to the left with a loud "KWEH!" of protest and upsetting a couple of chairs in the process.

The actual work crew that Lebreau had organized was bustling all over the hangar to make final touches, spreading cloths on tables and tying juniper boughs onto chairs set up over two-thirds of the massive room for the reception, or arranging seats longwise across the center third for the ceremony, along either side of an aisle leading from the main east entrance to the platform directly in front of the west side double doors. It was a clever arrangement – even if there weren't enough chairs for all the guests to view the ceremony directly, which was inevitable, they could spill into the reception area and view from either side. As the mastermind NORA girl had explained, those seats in the central section would be cleared after the ceremony and relocated to tables, also making room for a dance floor.

This setup was deviously orchestrated to make a spectacle of me, I swear. But not without a fight.

"Lightning!" Lebreau called excitedly, running over from the half-decorated refreshments table with a notepad in one hand and a half-full glass in the other. "Crazy power outage nearly made me pour wine all over the floor! I need another opinion on a few—hey, wait, what's with the sweater? You agreed to wear that dress, by itself, and proper shoes – not boots! – and I won't stand for any backing out this close to—"

"I'm not backing out," Lightning huffed, "I'm going outside. Tell Serah I went to check on something, and I'll be right back. She'll have to fix this later." Lightning pointed at the loose section of hair draping down the back of her neck as she walked quickly toward the east exit.

Lebreau yelled after her, "It's kinda cute like that, but I'll tell her anyway!"

Try as she might, Lightning couldn't stay annoyed with the crew of friends that formed her sister's support system. Every time she got riled up, they would throw in a kind word or do something to remind her how much Serah depended on them – and more recently, how much she depended on them herself.

Crossing the room, a number of now-recognisable faces greeted Lightning on her way to the doors, and she waved back automatically. It was still a strange concept to be closely connected with such a large group of people that didn't always answer to a single source of authority, but did answer to each other. She had believed for many weeks after the armistice that she was a 'friend' by proxy, accepted by the entire command because of her relationship with Serah or with Hope, and that made logical sense considering all those two had shared with their companions over the years. There were connections she simply could never go back and forge.

And for a while, part of that sense of disconnection had even bled into her relationship with Hope. On every interpersonal level, Lightning had settled into a comfortable status quo like she settled into her broken-in boots, until the day her position was drastically, forcibly changed in its most vulnerable area.

The day her 'private life' was compromised.

-Thirteen weeks after the armistice, mid-morning-

"Is there a point to this exercise?" Lightning asked, irritated at the last minute notice, but more for another reason she was trying not to acknowledge. They stood in front of the training field on the main base in newly-issued all-weather coats and heavier uniforms of the winter season, waiting for the outpost unit's members to filter out of the PSICOM transport and form up.

Lucil had the look again – the one reserved for Lightning's questions. It didn't matter how reasonable the inquiry. She would smirk, and her expression always read "Silly girl…" whether or not she thought as much in actuality.

"Unless otherwise stated," Lucil said with mock condescension, "all exercises serve the purpose of building 'morale'." Then, outright laughing, she threw in her own two cents. "Good ol' military catch-all. And there are occasional benefits, or else really sucky disadvantages, to having that reason as justification."

Lightning just shook her head. "I have yet to see a benefit."

"What are you talking about? Today, we have the privilege of familiarizing the PSICOM half of my unit with the base – every single part of it. I mean, these poor guys are thirteen weeks new to the command! They have no idea where to buy supplies, where to get the best food, where to unwind…"

It was easy to follow Lucil's train of thought. "Just promise that the pub is a final stop. After duty hours," Lightning said firmly.

"Only if you promise to stick around and have a little fun." While she sounded friendly, it was clear that Lucil's stance would be firm on the issue. Lightning had a sudden feeling of déjà vu, and recalled facing a similar easy-going but forthright personality in her former superior from Bodhum, and again with Fang.

Thanks for the practice run, guys.

"Remind me again how I got roped into helping your unit with the guided tour," Lightning muttered, dodging the impending obligation to 'hang out.'

"Like you had anything better to do today, or tonight," Lucil fired back, but at Lightning's response – or conspicuous lack of one, more accurately – she changed her tune. "Oh, so you did have plans. Too bad duty calls, Sergeant Grumpy-gills."

Yeah, Hope's just coming back from a week's worth of non-stop flights. No big deal.

"Name-calling isn't going to help your case. It's unprofessional." Lightning took out her gunblade and extended it, checking the components for nonexistent buildup in an effort to clear her head of the negative thoughts.

Lucil was unmoved. If anything, her grin widened. "I see the stick is still firmly in place. Seriously, loosen up – I'm not going to report you for being less-than-stone-faced. Friends don't do that."

Mildly stunned by that declaration, Lightning blinked her wide eyes. When Lucil showed interest in her gunblade, she handed it over, wondering what the other sergeant was puzzling over.

"Something's weird about your retraction mechanism. What did you do to it?" she asked, turning the blade over before testing the transition back to its gun form in one rapid, fluid motion. "Nice! Whatever it was, I like it!"

"Hope modified it for me," Lightning explained quietly. "Why don't you ask him to fix yours?"

Lucil hefted the weapon, running a hand over the barrel. Uncharacteristically dying down in her enthusiasm, she didn't seem too keen on the idea. "Nah, that's okay. He's really too busy for anything else right now. Maybe I'll ask at a better time, eventually." She absently passed the gunblade back without even glancing Lightning's way, straightened up from her relaxed position against a supply crate and headed toward the nearly complete formation of PSICOM sentries.

What happened? Did I insult her weapon? No, she wouldn't be pretentious about that. Maybe she's just disappointed.

"Wait, Lucil," Lightning said, taking hold of her shoulder. "I could ask him for you. I know he wouldn't mind – he loves fine-tuning projects."

Shrugging, she walked on. "I'll think about it. For now, let's get on with the tour." The subject was closed for the better part of the day.

By the time they had finished with the dedicated military facilities and moved on to the commercial district, Lucil was back to her old self, pointing out her favorite shops and taking questions from the unit at every turn. The sentries had never been part of a command that included civilian components and an integrated dependent community – PSICOM was strictly military as a rule. Their eagerness and curiosity fueled a never-ending stream of requests for more information, despite the odd looks directed at them from a number of shopkeepers and customers along the way; had the sentries' helmets not been removed, it would undeniably have been worse. Lightning was content to just observe both sides of the phenomenon and offer a supplementary bit of information here and there.

Now I see why she wanted me to come along: crowd control.

The hangar was the structure farthest north on base, and therefore their final point of interest before heading back to the Vestige as Lucil planned. But at 1430, they still had an hour and a half before duty hours expired.

"Come on, Farron," Lucil pleaded in a hushed voice, taking her aside from the group momentarily. "It'll only be forty-five minutes early by the time we get to the pub. And it's Friday. Have a heart."

Lightning would have none of it. "No. I won't be responsible for any incidents that result from drinking 'on duty,' even if it's by technicality. Why can't we just give them a tour of the hangar?"

"You're kidding, right?" There was the look again. "Hope never leaves the hangar unlocked when he's gone, and the only other people with access are Sazh and Maqui, who are also gone. So we might as well hit the road." Lucil looked so pleased with herself that Lightning almost didn't want to burst her bubble. But she did anyway.

Reaching into her coat pocket, Lightning produced a ring of keys and flipped to a brassy one with an 'H' carved into one side that would open the smaller south entrance to the building. She held it up in front of Lucil as proof.

"Can't open the main entrance, but it's not like we need to taxi a ship in there," Lightning said, preparing to head toward the door to the southernmost section of the hangar. A fleeting, mystified look passed across the other sergeant's face.

Lucil cleared her throat. "Guess that settles it, then," she muttered.

"Don't look so down about it," Lightning said, trying to improve her friend's sharply negative turn. "I promise I won't take off from the pub for a little while, if that helps."

Sighing, Lucil motioned for the unit to join them. "Sure, it helps. Lead the way," she replied. The smile wasn't too convincing.

Lightning gave the group a fairly thorough tour of the hangar, excepting the bunker. She was almost certain Hope would not have approved of that invasion of his personal space.

I don't approve myself, not with so much of my stuff lying around.

Even with the extra diversion of the largest structure on base, it took less than half an hour to cover the purpose and parts of the facility, inside and out, and they were on track to arrive at Lebreau's pub early anyway.

"Aren't you glad you decided to see things my way?" Lucil remarked as they stepped inside the Vestige, meandering toward the bar. Apparently, the change of scene had done wonders for her mood – she went from mildly gloomy to energized in no time.

Lightning lagged behind in that particular brand of energy, the kind that fed on social situations. "More likely to regret it," she muttered, taking a stool next to the very thirsty sergeant and resting her chin on a hand. "Not even sure what you hope to accomplish with such a limited selection of drinks."

"Quantity over quality, my friend." Lucil flagged Lebreau down and asked for two of 'the usual' before turning to Lightning again. "Ever had a Chu-hi?"

"No. Should I have?"

Lebreau was back in a flash with the two drinks – they were suspiciously colorful. Sliding the frosted glasses over the counter, she tweaked an eyebrow at Lightning and tilted her head toward Lucil. "Don't let this crazy red-head drink you under the table, now. Consider yourself warned."

Doubt that her tolerance is higher than mine. Game on.

"Thanks," Lightning replied as a courtesy, "but I'll be fine."

Testing the bright green beverage, she knew somewhere in the back of her mind that the exceptionally sweet flavor and fizziness was a deceptive cover-up for a fairly strong drink, or at least one that took the express train to a person's head. Three or so Chu-hi's later, Lightning began to find Lucil's conversation inordinately fascinating, more so than the competition of tossing back drinks, and after one more she couldn't stop herself from full-on participating in the dialogue. It wasn't long before things drifted to the dominant subject of Lightning's mind and took the inevitable turn for the worse.

"'Not absolutely sure?' What the hell kind of answer is that?" Lucil said, a little too emphatically.

Defenses down, Lightning felt the impact of that accusation and reacted impulsively. "I-I don't know, the truth?"

"Was it true?"

"I don't know, okay! What should I have said?"

Even somewhat inebriated, Lucil gave her the 'stupid question' look clear as day and immediately replied, "'Yes!' That's what you should have said! It's Hope, for crying out loud! And if that isn't the truth, we have a problem, Farron."

"I told you to call me Light," she shot back, frustrated. "All my friends do."

"I know. I got that. But there's a little conflict of interest here, and I aim to straighten it out right now." For seeming so tipsy before, Lucil sounded awfully serious.

What does she expect from me? And what happened to 'loosening up'?

Sighing, Lucil pushed the empty glass away and faced her, and it was in that moment that Lightning realised she had met her match. There was no way that 'crazy redhead' was anywhere near as far gone as herself.

Must be a special tolerance for these colorful whatever-they-are's. Crap.

"I thought the goal was having a little fun," Lightning offered, swirling around the remaining liquid and ice in the bottom of her glass and hoping the mood would lighten up again.

"Yeah, it's all fun and games until someone gets hurt," Lucil said. "So I need you to listen up and answer straight, because I won't be asking again. What is Hope to you?"

Lightning laid her head on the counter and groaned inwardly, making a valiant effort to sift through the muddle of thoughts and feelings surrounding her nebulous image of Hope.

Somewhere between a friend and a lover… No, that sounds terrible. Just a cliché cop-out answer. There has to be a better way to explain this.

She sat up again and cleared her throat. "Look, maybe-maybe I could call it… love, but that seems so unstable. People say they love each other, and then it's like they've set a timer till everything blows up and it's over. They find out they aren't compatible, or that the feelings were just a product of circumstances, and they end up leaving over someone else or just breaking it off. I've seen it plenty of times in the military, believe me, and I don't want that to happen. Not with Hope."

"Hmm," Lucil considered, "so what you're telling me is that saying you love someone is pretty much jinxing the relationship, and it's probably not true anyway."

The rationality in her conclusion could not be denied. "I guess so, yeah."

"Why the hell did you believe Hope, then?" Lucil asked slyly.

Lightning had no idea how to respond to that one, and she stammered, "I didn't say— I mean it's not the same thing! We're talking about Hope, here. He'd never lie about something like that."

"Not sayin' that's not true, but come on – you've gotta admit that it's because you want to believe him, even if it's doomed to failure according to that whole 'love is unstable' load of crap you just gave me. So go ahead. Admit it." The triumphant look on Lucil's face was a powerful deterrent.

And it put Lightning on the defensive. "Why should I?"

"Because if you won't, you might as well break his heart. I know you don't want that."

"Of course I don't!" Lightning exclaimed, slamming a fist onto the counter and rattling the glass. "I just got finished explaining to you how telling Hope I love him would probably come full circle and do just that! Unless I take a little more-more time, make sure this is undeniably 'love' – you know, like Snow and Serah mean 'love' – I'd rather not risk it. Is that good enough for you?"

Lucil backed off the pressure and finished the last of her drink over the few seconds of contemplation, but was clearly not satisfied. "Almost," she said quietly, "but I don't really think time is going to change anything, considering it's been nearly three months since you were 'not absolutely sure,' and I seriously doubt you're staying in the barracks anymore." At those last words, her eyes glinted with the promise of a challenge.

"So I have a little proposal to settle this."

"Let's hear it." Exasperated, Lightning honestly liked the prospect of getting out of the emotional gray zone, by force if necessary.

"Alright," Lucil began, lacing her fingers and stretching her arms out in front of her. "Let's say that I currently have a little advantage over you – just enough to maybe even the odds between us in a sparring match. I propose we get out of here and have that match. Best two out of three wins, and the winner makes the choice."

"What choice?"

"Of whether you grow a spine and tell Hope you're in love with him. If I win, you're biting the bullet. Deal?" Lucil extended her hand to cinch it, not even reacting to Lightning's dropped jaw.

"What makes you think I even—"

"I said, deal? Don't tell me you're that afraid of losing…"

Curse every competitive bone in my body… all two hundred and six of them.

Lightning finally relented, firmly shaking the offered hand once. "Deal. But that means if I win, you have to drop this and not bring it up again. Ever."

"Sure. Training field in fifteen minutes?" Lucil was already off the stool and leaving some change for the tab.

"It isn't that far of a walk," Lightning remarked.

Laughing as she passed by with coat in hand, Lucil merely said, "In ten, then. Hope you sober up fast." Before exiting, she turned to announce curfew once again to the unit's remaining members in the bar, and with a flash of red, she was out the door.

The training field was obscured in dusk, its far edge lit unevenly by the lights along the adjacent barracks buildings. Lightning crossed to one of the illuminated areas where Lucil was already waiting, testing her gunblade and simultaneously loosening her shoulders in preparation. Following suit, Lightning shrugged off the coat and laid it aside, then extended her own blade – even with her center of balance wavering from the alcohol, it felt completely natural to maneuver the weapon. In fact, it felt much more stable than walking had, and the crisp, chill air was further exhilarating.

Just as the silence of warming up had begun to feel uncomfortable, Lucil announced the terms for victory. "Okay. Best two out of three – disarming is a win, or alternately forcing a fatal position. I'm sure it's nothing new to you."

Lightning gave the gunblade a final swing and brought it to the ready. "Brings back memories."

"Well in that case, enjoy." Taking a more defensive stance, Lucil called the start.

Lightning immediately charged forward, sliding down and swinging low toward the ankles in an attempt to force her opponent's move. It was a success, and Lucil struggled to keep a step ahead, blocking direct blows from the faster weapon while she narrowly avoided the kicks and added acrobatics Lightning continuously wove in as they crossed blades. It wasn't long before Lucil misjudged the timing on a back-hand slice, and Lightning's foot caught her wrist with enough force to dislodge the gunblade and send it tumbling to the dust.

Despite victory in the first round, the twisting maneuvers and glare of the lights around them were beginning to have more of an effect on Lightning, and she felt dizzier going into the second round than she would have liked to admit. Those factors, coupled with Lucil's catching on quickly to her patterns, put Lightning at a distinct disadvantage. It wasn't four moves into the match when she tripped backward after a flip, landing on the ground still armed, but with a crimson blade at her throat.

"Match," Lucil said smugly. "Guess we have the pleasure of a third."

They took their time in the final round. The first thirty seconds or so were spent searching for weaknesses and planning an approach for both parties before either one of them made a move. Deviating from the norm, Lucil suddenly lunged from an awkward angle – while Lightning easily side-stepped the attack, she was unnerved by the pace that had been set. Generally, she preferred to make the first move. Turning, she crossed blades with Lucil three times before trying a kick to the off-hand side, an almost predictable play, the motions automatic—

—and felt her leg arrested by the trouser fabric and jerked abruptly forward, upsetting her previously inhibited balance and momentarily forcing her to forget the blade in her hand while she got her bearings. In that split second, Lucil relinquished her own gunblade and grappled Lightning's sword arm with both hands, twisting the forearm as she pulled in and delivered a knee to the diaphragm, and then snatched the weapon that Lightning unwittingly released as she flinched from the combined assault.

Foiled by winter wear. I'm never complaining about the uniform skirt ever again.

Winded from the struggle but smirking victoriously, Lucil looked down at the captured gunblade, giving it a couple of test swings before she offered it back to its owner. "Think I'll add something to my terms…"

Maker, what more do you want? I've already been humiliated…

"Not exactly in a position to refuse," Lightning said blankly, wiping the beads of sweat from her forehead and concentrating on maintaining her dignity somehow. That was a tall order, what with being half-drunk, disarmed, bested in a sparring match, and soon to be emotionally exposed.

Lucil smiled ruefully. "Tell Hope you love him, but first… ask him to modify my gunblade, too. I get the feeling he'll miss it altogether if you make the request after dropping the line of all lines."


Would fulfilling just the last half of the terms be so wrong?

Fortunately for Lightning – or possibly to her detriment – the long walk back to the hangar was less sobering than the situation demanded. She considered the stupidity of taking Lucil up on that challenge in such a state and felt irritable at intervals over having lost, but was unable to fully process the ramifications of what she was about to do. Not surprisingly, Lightning felt more uneasy over the terms than she had thirty minutes before, but the lump of dread in her stomach was being cushioned by the warm, settling feeling of a pretty strong buzz, kept in check only by the surrounding cold. Yes, panic would come, but it wouldn't be for a solid hour or so.

Stumbling into the south entrance, Lightning struggled getting the key back into the lock to secure the door behind her and growled in agitation as she realised that it was pointless to bother with it – Sazh and Maqui would be using the place later anyway. She shoved the key-ring back into her pocket and headed into the main hangar.

The transport was back in its usual spot on the north end, and her whole being felt a little lighter at the sight. It didn't sound like Hope was out and about though, a confusing break in his routine. He normally would spend at least a couple of hours doing follow-up maintenance after an extended trip, and it was only 1945 by her watch. Hope could not have been back for more than an hour, not with the lingering smell of fuel still in the air. And so Lightning went instinctively to the bunker.

Starting from the base of the stairs, assorted tools in and out of bags, pieces of outerwear, and random parts left a little trail announcing Hope's presence in his living space. Lightning picked her way through the sudden explosion of clutter to the back of the room. She grinned unreservedly at the sight.

Hope stood on a basic A-frame ladder, partly behind the HAZMAT shower which had been pulled away from the wall, surrounded by pieces of pipe, little cans of solvent cement, and fittings as he reached up to reattach what appeared to be the back of the original showerhead. His impossible-to-miss yellow boxers had been exposed a bit from the combined pull of the tool-belt around his cargo pants and the rise of his hooded sweater as he stretched. When Lightning tripped on a stray section of pipe on the way over, he visibly jumped on the step, rattling the ladder, and looked over abruptly.

"Light?" he called, startled but obviously pleased by the look on his face as he lifted the safety goggles up onto his head. "I was wondering when you'd show."

Lightning wasn't too confident in what sort of response might be forthcoming, so she opted to sit on the floor and lean back against the foot of the bed. She shrugged, losing the smile.

"Yeah, sorry I'm late," she offered softly, distantly aware that she was staring and doing a horrible job of hiding the tumult of emotions that wracked her mind.

What am I doing? I don't think I can handle this…

His expression had become troubled, likely influenced by her oddly lingering gaze. "Geez, you have a long day?"

"I umm…" Lightning began, clearing her throat and concentrating on enunciation as she looked down at her hands, "ended up hanging out with Lucil for a while after work."

Unexpectedly, Hope simply studied her for a few moments before chuckling, then cracking up. "Oh no…" He dropped the wrench he had been using to secure the riser pipe as he clung to the ladder, getting bursts of words out in between the bouts of laughter. "Should've known it was… bound to happen! Did she time this?" Finally, wiping the tears from the corners of his eyes, he settled down. "Let me guess. Chu-hi's? How many?"

Had Lightning had her wits about her, she would have spent more time dwelling on the reason behind his reaction, but in that decently-buzzed state, she focused on answering the much easier question instead.

"Four, I think, or was it five? Stupid sugary things really packed a punch."

Hope was still grinning ridiculously. "Impressive – guess the sugar high's keeping you together. I made it to seven once. I'd tell you all about it, if I remembered." He climbed down, stripped off the work gloves and walked over to Lightning, folding down onto his knees right in front of her.

"Feel sick?" he asked gently, helping her out of the all-weather coat, letting it drop off behind her. He placed a hand on her forehead, and then carefully against her stomach.

Still touchy from the sting of one lost battle already, Lightning immediately snapped, "No. Should I?" Slowly but surely, she was beginning to come down from the high, and nausea had to be the lowest-priority concern on her mind – far, far behind losing that sparring match with Lucil and the requirements entailed.

"Not necessarily, but it's pretty common." Potential danger averted, Hope sat on his heels and easily dismantled the buckles of the vest over her turtleneck, giving Lightning a few teasing kisses as he did so.

"Mmm… green apple. Good choice on the flavor," he said, continuing to rein in the passion she could feel coursing under the surface. What she wanted – still, so many weeks later – was for him to let go and break past the flimsy barriers that remained, past the most recently readjusted 'line.' To that end, Lightning got to her knees as well, driving home a more fervent point with her mouth as her hands found their way around him and up under his sweater and undershirt, cold fingers crossing warm skin and eliciting a shiver.

Just when she was starting to lose her train of thought and give in to careless foreplay, Hope backed off, but hesitantly so.

"Don't," he said in a breathy voice, "take this… the wrong way, but I need to… finish that pipe connection first."

Perturbed, Lightning held on tighter. "What on Pulse could go wrong in the next few minutes?" It was infinitely easier to deal with Hope's body than his heart, and she could feel that blessed distraction slipping through her fingers.

Couldn't be worth making me think about what I need to say.

Hope had to practically pry her free, explaining with a laugh, "Honestly, I just wanted to get a shower in – you know, wash off the engine smell. That's all." He sprang up quickly and returned to the ladder.

"If I cared, you'd know it by now. For the record, I don't," Lightning grumbled, slouching back against the end of the bed.

Exhaling in mock impatience, Hope put his gloves back on, climbed the steps and got back to work. "It'll only take five minutes, I promise."

Lightning set the timer on her watch, and the start button beeped as she pressed it. "I suggest you work efficiently, then."

"You're seriously going to—? Fine," Hope muttered. He took the first three and a half minutes tightening the connections with the back of the shower before speaking again. "Light, I'll need you to help me with something to make that deadline. Do you know where the shut-off valve is for the waterline, upstairs?"

"That unsightly blue wheel sticking out of the wall?" she asked pointedly.

"Hey, don't rag on the color-coding – but yeah, that's the one. I need you to climb through the hatch and turn it once all the way, then back a quarter-turn. Gotta see if these seals hold."

Lightning stood, steadying herself briefly against the footboard. "On my way," she said, taking the few steps to the escape ladder and climbing cautiously up to the already-loosened hatch, pushing it open to crawl out. Once in the hangar, she approached the large, blue hand wheel and gave it what felt like a solid turn. A few seconds later, water could be felt surging full-force through the connected pipes.

Hope shouted from below, "It's good, Light! You can come back down!"

But by the time she had gotten down the stairs and through the room, intending to make good on that five minute promise, the situation had changed drastically. Already off the ladder, Hope gripped the piping fiercely with a hand towel from his position against the back of the shower and called out for assistance, but it was clearly too late. The pressurized water in the pipe had begun to spray from connections around the mixing valve, and when Lightning reached the base of the escape ladder to attempt another climb up to secure the source, a shower of steaming water burst from the fittings, spraying outward and upward to rain over them both in that cramped end of the room. It thoroughly drenched Hope as he backed away hastily and sloshed through the growing puddle between the escape hatch and the HAZMAT shower.

Shortly after she started the climb, Lightning's hands slipped on a slick rung and she felt herself being caught by the waist and swept aside as Hope rushed by, scrambling up through the hatch to cut the flow. She cursed her slowed reaction time and retreated out of the spray zone, but couldn't shake the sudden questions that filled her head.

Oh no. Did I give that valve the quarter turn back? And since when do we have hot water?

Moments later, it was over. As soon as Hope had reentered the back of the room, soaked and looking soundly beaten by his project, Lightning stepped up to him and took his hands. As she pulled the wet gloves from them, feeling a little guilty at her part in the mess, he muttered under his breath, "Not quite what I had in mind for that shower."

She looked up from his hands to his face. "Hope, what were you trying to do, anyway?"

"Not flood the bunker, obviously, while installing the line from the water heater," he replied self-consciously, seeming unsure when Lightning began to lift up his dripping sweatshirt from the back.

"Right," she replied, and tugged the bulk of it over Hope's head as he bent down. "The water heater that's been here since…?"

"Since I brought it down from the settlement a while ago," he admitted reluctantly, pulling off the sleeves himself before escaping a few steps to hang the hoodie on a hook next to the tiny closet to dry. "It's been an ongoing project. I know you said you were used to cold showers, and you really didn't care, but you have no idea how cold it gets down here in the winter, and I kind of assumed… Light?"

With a firm, steadying grip on the nearest shelf, she had frozen in place, still staring at him in disbelief and letting it all settle in her mind. There had been so many 'projects' like this, so many little things that she simply couldn't pay back. Not in equivalent terms, at least. The bunker was a far more organized place in recent weeks, conveniences cropping up here and there that she never recalled requesting: warmer blankets, more towels, a gunblade rack, a mirror over the desk… How he found the time to even bother with those sorts of things was beyond her.

It occurred to Lightning that he wasn't looking to be 'paid back.' He wanted her to be pleased, content – taken care of. That swelling sensation returned to her chest, even stronger than the day Bartholomew had spoken with her about the necklace, and she thought back to those months ago when she had been so afraid to lose Hope, back to what Snow had told her. It seemed so childish at the time, his romantic idea of the 'right moment.'

So this is what that moment feels like.

Without Lucil's extra shove, it could have been a missed opportunity – Lightning could have easily backed down, tucking the thoughts away to herself for safe keeping. Even having made up her mind, she felt the internal struggle to maintain a safe status quo rather than invite trouble. But she pushed through.

"Hope," she said finally, looking down from his puzzled face, "I…I meant to tell you something earlier."

"Something else wrong, besides the Chu-hi overload?" he asked with a half-smile, evidently nowhere near the point. "You seem a little more sober now."

Wish I wasn't, just yet.

Lightning took a deep breath. "It's just… Lucil wanted to know if you could make the same improvements to her gunblade that you did to mine. I promised to ask."

"That's all?" Hope asked skeptically, tweaking an eyebrow, but she nodded. "Well, no problem there – just tell her to bring it by sometime in the next couple of days." He had removed his t-shirt and hurriedly ran a towel over his upper body and hair, but stopped to pull down a second towel from the nearby rack and hold it out to Lightning. "You should change, too. Unless you want to catch a cold."

Snapping to action with a start at the suggestion, she walked over and took the towel. It was hard enough to try and give her heart a voice, so Lightning simply continued to stumble along with more familiar protocol, managing a quiet request.

"Help me out?"

"Oh. Sure," Hope said easily, but she could tell he hadn't fully adjusted to their new level of intimacy yet. His hands were careful in slipping off the damp, unfastened vest, and even more so in dragging the zipper down the length of the familiar sleeveless turtleneck, but he smirked when his fingers brushed the navel ring just below.

"Haven't slept well since discovering this. You're full of surprises, Light – you really are." Removing the sweater entirely, he tried and failed a couple of times not to let his eyes linger on the remaining black undergarment and ever-present pendant; he then hung the turtleneck on a hanger and reached up into the closet, going for her usual tank top.

"Wait." Lightning arrested his raised arm, swinging underneath it to face Hope and use the loops on his cargo pants to pull herself against him, a barrier to the closet. "Equal ground, right? It's fair."

Trying to stick with the most recent rule. Progress is progress.

He couldn't help but give up and settle his hands on her hips, running his lips in a series of warm, soft kisses from her jawline to her shoulder. "I think this is a little too fair to me," Hope replied, "and I can put on a t-shirt, if you'd like."

"No, I like this," Lightning said into his neck, not that it was news to him. In fact, she felt the vibrations of a throaty laugh at that response, and heard it again at her glare of resistance as he grabbed the towel draped over her arm and rubbed it against her damp hair.

On the sporadic occasions they'd been fortunate enough to spend time together, he had adapted to strike a balance between their differing needs, something she was working to appreciate, however limiting it felt.

Case in point: cock-blocking towel. Maybe things will change after tonight.

Leaning back to settle the towel on Lightning's shoulders and look her in the eyes, Hope teased, "Never would have guessed. How much do you like this, exactly?"

Lightning knew she was fast approaching the outer rim of that magical 'right time' window, and something had to be done. There was no backing down. She wrapped the towel around her, leaned against Hope, and swallowed the lump of fear.

"Let me rephrase. I love this – everything that's you." It was soft and simple, but Lightning buried her face in his neck at the last words, burning from that exposure, her pulse racing. She felt the effect travel through Hope with a jolt and heard the skipped beat of his heart.

Guess I am full of surprises. Might as well keep it up.

-Present, pre-wedding-

"Hope, there's a dead section about five meters to the right!" Bartholomew yelled up at the roof of the hangar. From Hope's perspective, his father was about the size of his thumbnail, standing there in his wool suit and overcoat at least fifteen meters below.

To Hope's left, Snuggles scratched around impatiently, not too keen on waiting for the work at hand to be completed. "Take it easy boy, we're almost done," Hope reassured the wyvern, tossing a treat his way and concentrating once again.

"My right or your right?" He shouted the question back down, readjusting his toolbelt in the process.

"Your right!" came the reply, and Hope scooted cautiously along the roof's edge just shy of the southeast corner, stopping at approximately the correct location to pull up that section of the strand of bright, clear bulbs. Sure enough, five in a row were burned out, likely damaged from the sudden overload of electricity – it had been enough of a surge to temporarily interrupt the building's power. The voltage output regulator would have to be adjusted again.

As Hope carefully replaced the damaged bulbs with the remaining ones in his bag, he noticed with passing interest that someone had joined his father down below, but he sharpened his focus at the contrasting crimson fabric below the sweater and the flash of pink as said person glanced up to lock on to his eyes. He grinned.

Lightso you did end up going with red. That's what perfection looks like.

"Oww!" he cried suddenly, cursing under his breath at the sharp jab to his finger from one bulb's broken glass casing. He was much more wary while finishing up, no longer looking to the distraction below.

Letting the now lit strand drop back to the line of the roof, Hope stood and slowly made his way through the thin but slippery layer of accumulated snow over to Snuggles. Only recently had the wyvern begun to accept a rider, and only in the last couple of weeks had he been comfortable with anyone other than Snow. Tentatively, Hope untied the leash and patted the giant pet's side, slinging the toolbag over his own shoulder and hoisting himself up onto Snuggles' back with only a single, sharp "Rrrak!" of complaint. Directing Snuggles with two firm slaps on the wyvern's neck, they took off and sailed down in a wide arc, stirring up flurries on the ground at touchdown. He tied Snuggles' leash onto the long-distance tether next to the building, tossing up a final treat before leaving Snow's pet.

Hope jogged across the packed snow to Lightning and his father. "So, what do you think?" he said excitedly.

"Flashy. Lebreau may kill you for making her almost spill that expensive wine in the dark, though," Lightning said casually, but she smiled. The biting air had given her cheeks a pleasant flush, completely unobstructed by her hair for once, and he fought the familiar impulse to take her in his arms.

Wrong time, wrong place.

Instead, Hope removed his coat and wrapped it around her shoulders despite the little glare of protest she tried to communicate. Anything akin to public displays of affection was still challenging for her to accept, but she was coming around.

"Dad thinks it's a nice touch, don't you Dad?" he remarked, looking to Bartholomew for support.

Through his spectacles, Bartholomew was once again giving him the 'all-knowing father' look, the same expression he'd aimed at Hope for the past month whenever Lightning was around. It was always there, hidden behind even the most mundane and irrelevant conversations. Uncanny how his instincts had honed in on the situation.

He knows. I'm sure of it.

"I can guarantee Serah will appreciate it, if she gets a spare second to escape that mob and come outside – the poor girl needs a break. On that note, she's got enough to worry about without knowing that your decorative lights caused the power surge, so I would keep it under your hat, son," he advised with a chuckle, starting to walk away. "Don't know about you two, but I'm getting out of this weather."

It had gotten progressively chillier since Hope started the project, and the hazy winter sun was far too weak to take off the edge. "Think he's got the right idea, Light," Hope said softly, taking her icy hand, a gesture that was generally allowed so long as they weren't in the middle of a group.

"Whatever." Lightning stubbornly refused to be cold. "You need to get ready anyway. This particular look," she commented, tugging down the dark green cap to cover his ears, "as cute as it is, won't be wedding-compatible. And it's unsat for you to be comfortable while my head is being stabbed by pins."

"Fine," Hope agreed, sliding an arm around her waist. "I'll clean up nice for you, I promise. Minus the hair."

She let out an exasperated sigh. "I like it messy. Shouldn't need to repeat myself."

Going around the building to enter the south door, it thankfully wasn't a challenge for them to circumvent the steadily growing commotion filling the entire hangar – most of which centered around the happy couple – and then head down the bunker's stairwell.

Lightning immediately cast aside her outer layers and returned to the chair in front of the mirror, trying in frustration to get the errant lock up into the rest of her twisted updo. Her intense concentration on bringing the hair under control made Hope want to laugh, but he squashed the impulse.

Too many potential projectiles around her to risk that one.

Making good use of the time, he stripped down, showered, dried off and changed into slacks and a dark gray, button-down shirt before she finally let go of the hair in defeat.

"I give up!" she huffed, crossing her arms. "Damn it, this is the most pointless thing…" Lightning let the words die out when he approached from behind and lifted the section of hair to tuck it in smoothly with one of the back hairpins, her expression in the mirror shifting from aggravated to intrigued. Already making progress, he let his hands fall to her bare neck and tried lightly massaging some of the tension out, leaning down to whisper in her left ear.

"I see a point." Hope watched the fire flare up behind her eyes in the reflection.

That should do it.

In his estimation, nothing was quite as gratifying as a successful change of mood when it came to Lightning. Hope did not consider himself a subject matter expert by any stretch of the imagination, but in his experience, the soldier essentially ran like his ship: in manual, he could influence her direction, in autopilot he was less than useless (and likely in the way), she did not come with a reverse function to back out of anything, and if something was broken he had to investigate the symptoms to find and fix it. The key difference was that Lightning could shift into autopilot at will, or even without thinking about it, something that certainly came in handy for her line of work, but on occasion made it difficult for Hope to get through to her. It took time and effort for him to figure out the best methods to keep her in manual, and subsequently help her to open up and relax.

Over the course of their short relationship, and particularly over the past few weeks, he'd discovered that the fastest way to accomplish that transition was deliberate physical contact.

Honestly expected it to be more complicated, but who's complaining?

So when Lightning spun round in the chair, stood lithely, slid her hands into his back pockets and kissed him passionately, Hope was far from surprised. And once again, it took him back to that first night, the night she quietly admitted that she loved him. He had wanted to immediately race upstairs, locate the proper radio equipment, and make a broadcast to the world in the overwhelming joy of that moment.

But of course, one thing had led to another. And another. And so on for the next month.

Clumsy and wonderful. She must not have been let down…

-Thirteen weeks after the armistice, evening-

"So you… love me," he stammered, still not believing his ears.

Lightning just nodded against him. They stood there like that for what seemed like hours, breathing in and out of rhythm, before Hope shivered involuntarily from the cold seeping into his remaining wet clothes. Lightning let go of the towel and reached down to undo his cargo pants.

"You should take these off," she suggested. "They're soaked."

Eyes widening with surprise, Hope swallowed hard. It was more than a simple request for him to change clothes – that much he could discern. She had been patient, and he saw no good reason to hold her back now.

This should be interesting, as long as I don't screw it up.

It was fortunate that Snow had given him about a million pieces of advice over the years about women and sex (despite initial resistance from Serah), the most valuable being that first times are never, ever anything short of awkward. Though Hope had a sneaking suspicion that he was alone in the 'first' sense.

Furthermore, handling Lightning could not possibly have been the same as handling Serah, no matter how much Snow insinuated in his stories. Hope knew those things going into it, but he couldn't bring himself to care. They were already there, half-naked and cold from the shower incident. Letting go was effortless.

But as fascinating and exhilarating as that night was in its novelty, complete with a fair share of the anticipated awkwardness, his associated memories mainly consisted of a blurry mess of sensations. What Hope recalled most vividly was the next morning.

He had woken up on his back, exhausted, sore, and blinking at the ceiling as it came into focus. A blur of yellow caught his eye.

What theAre those my?

They were. He wondered for a moment exactly how his boxers could have ended up on the ceiling, hung by a piece of the exposed metal grating above, but the warmth of smooth skin making unimpeded contact with his entire right side, beginning under the pink locks splayed over his shoulder, was explanation enough. Half a second later his face heated up at the recollection.

Lightning stretched out against him, her eyes fluttering open and lips curling into a smile. She lifted a hand to ruffle his hair.

"What on Pulse are you blushing about?" she mumbled, draping one leg completely over his hips.

"Oh, nothing," Hope replied with mild sarcasm. He glided his hand down the length of her back, hesitated, and kept going until his hand rested on the back of her thigh. "Would love to know how my boxers got stuck on the ceiling, though."

They can stay there for all I care right now. How can someone so hardened be this soft?

Lightning turned her face up, took in the sight, and let out a strangled laugh. Then she sat upright and looked around the room, her eyes finally landing on the black bra caught on the top of the HAZMAT shower. "Pretty sure it's the same way that happened."

Fun aside, it took all of five seconds to fall back into foreplay on a Saturday morning in the privacy of one's own bed, but Hope winced when Lightning reached around his sides to pull herself over him.

"What? What's wrong?" she immediately asked, looking as confused as he felt.

"Good question." Hope shoved away the covers and sat up, inspecting the sore sites on both sides of his lower back, just above the hips. "Are those… bruises?"

So playing with fire will get you burned, but playing with Lightning gets you… yeah, that makes sense.

When he looked up, Lightning's expression was pained, and she pushed the covers around the offending spots and backed away to the foot of the bed, gathering her knees to her chest. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to—"

"Don't worry about it," Hope said, smirking. "I knew you had strong legs, but that's impressive. Serves me right for taking the top."

It was her turn to blush. "Tch, whatever you want, I guess."

The sudden change of tone was perplexing to Hope. "No, that's only half the equation," he responded, reaching toward her but retracting his hand at the invisible barrier he could feel in the air between them.

"Light, I'm not incompetent – I'm sure you've done this before, and maybe things are supposed to work differently than I thought. Honestly, I don't care what's typical. If you want something, just tell me."

Looking guilty – whether over the previous harshness of her tone or the dredging up of past experiences, Hope couldn't be sure – Lightning leaned back against the footboard with her arms crossed, biting her lip.

"I'll tell you what's 'typical'," she said quietly. "Blame it on peer pressure, stress, my tendency to take on challenges – whatever you want – but yes, I slept with other guys a handful of times. I was eighteen and newly enlisted." For that brief second, Hope felt the tiniest pang of jealousy. But Lightning wouldn't meet his questioning eyes, and simply kept going.

"Anyway, I gave that up entirely by the end of the year once I discovered how soldiers like to talk to each other about their 'conquests', and that was the end of it. There's nothing more to say." She looked up after that, her eyes asking him silently to let it lie. In all fairness, the past was past, and Hope didn't want her to feel any worse than she already seemed to feel about it.

Couldn't have been anything serious.

"Comparatively speaking then, if you don't mind my asking," Hope began apprehensively, "how was I?"

Smirking, probably at his uncertainty, Lightning simply replied, "Most things about men are pretty similar, but you know how to use your hands and I like your mouth. There's really no comparison."

His entire being burned with embarrassment and pride, simultaneously. In fact, the subsequent redness in his face didn't have a chance to diminish, for at that moment soft footsteps sounded at the base of the stairs, and seconds later Serah rushed around the scattered tools toward the back of the room, already visible from Hope's perspective at the head of the bed as she started into a conversation. He waved his hands and tried to call out for her to give him a minute, but it was too late.

Stupid open door policy. Sazh must've unlocked the main entrance. My fault for not shutting the door to the bunker, though.

"Hope, you won't believe what happened at the lab this morning, but I had to come right down and tell you in person—" Her voice caught in her throat as she came in full view of the bed and noted the presence of a very shocked, very naked Lightning across from him on the covers, who'd barely had time to lean in and wrap her arms tightly around her knees for protection.

"Oh Maker, Sis! I'm sorry, I'm so sorry…" Her blue eyes were as wide as saucers as she covered her mouth, looked up to the ceiling at the yellow boxers, and then turned and fled from the scene. Initially, both Hope and Lightning were too stunned to speak, but it was almost as if the effect of the incident cancelled out the former tension between them. When they finally faced each other again, Hope shrugged.

"She'll live," he said casually, stretching. Lightning's face was much darker pink than her hair, but she looked up through tangled bangs with a half-smile and shook her head at his reaction – she didn't seem to have any intention of bolting.

"I take it you've been walked in on before," Lightning said frankly. "Not that you seem to care, considering the grotto."

Hope grinned mischievously. "Yeah, guess I got over it, somewhere between showering in random places and high fevers in the clinic. Either way, it's too cold to be an exhibitionist here." Chill bumps had formed on her arms and legs, so he extended his hands in invitation and she took them, letting him guide her back to the warm end of the bed.

All things considered, that could have gone much worse.

-Present, in the bunker shortly before the wedding-

Lightning absently wondered if the door was locked so she could be rid of the red obstruction of a dress – she nearly jumped out of her skin when their blissful period of time suspension was harshly interrupted by the buzz of static on Hope's transceiver.

"Hope, come in!" Maqui's voice shouted over the device. "Where the hell are you?"

She was tempted to grab the transceiver from his belt and fling it violently across the room, but she kept the desire in check, breaking contact and backing away resolutely so Hope could take the call.

Something had better be on fire.

He held up the radio and pressed the PTT button, but he still clutched the gathered fabric on the side of her dress with his free hand. "Maqui, what is it?"

"That surge tripped the breaker connected to my sound equipment for the reception music, and I lost my key to the control room, so I need you in here ASAP! Serah will kill me if I screw this up!" he said in a rush, probably hopping around with anxiety on the other end. Sensing the inevitable, Lightning took the initiative to cover her tracks and button up Hope's woolen shirt.

"How did you already lose… nevermind. I'll be there in five," Hope said curtly, replacing the transceiver on his belt.

When he looked at her again as he tucked the shirt back into his slacks, both his expression and tone softened. "Sorry about this, Light. Raincheck?"

Like I can say no to that face.

"Gotta love those," she sighed, not so much expecting the level of intensity in the kiss Hope delivered before releasing her to rush up the escape ladder, and it left her lower lip tingling and her head reeling. Lightning collapsed back into the chair and let her heart rate settle.

She barely noted the new presence when Bartholomew walked into the bunker not one minute later.

"Am I interrupting something, Miss Farron," he inquired, hands in his pockets.

Lightning blinked rapidly, feeling a little twinge of embarrassment at her flustered state as she absorbed the words. She sat up straight and smoothed her dress.

"What? No, of course not. But if you're looking for Hope, he's in the control room with Maqui."

Bartholomew raised an eyebrow skeptically. "That so? Then I hope those two hurry up and finish whatever project it is this time. People are already starting to take their seats."

That time already? Maybe we took a little more than five minutes…

Looking down self-consciously at her military boots, Lightning muttered to herself, "Great. My feet are about to hate me." The red pumps mocked her from their place against the footboard.

Following her line of sight, Bartholomew chuckled at the soldier's obvious anguish. "Well, I'll take my leave, but be careful rushing around the hangar in those heels. I should track down my son."

Once he had made his way up the stairs, Lightning begrudgingly removed her boots and socks and stepped into the uncomfortable dress shoes, walking awkwardly around the room to get adjusted.

I'm going to end up barefoot.

For the life of her, Lightning could not understand her sister's reasoning in having the Pulsian natives' matchmaker perform the rites. She had a sneaking suspicion that it had been Snow's hokey idea. That or Serah had done it as a gesture of goodwill. They still exchanged vows in the Cocoon tradition, but the hand-binding aspect was new, as were the drums pounding out a strange rhythm from time to time in between each phase of the ceremony. To her left and right respectively, Hope and Lucil seemed completely absorbed in the spectacle, though when Hope subtly took her left hand to intertwine their fingers she doubted he was paying full attention.

"What are you thinking?" she whispered next to his ear.

A smile spread over his face, and Hope replied, "Nothing much. Just how those two are so right for each other. Don't think I could've predicted that match if I didn't know them both pretty well."

"True," Lightning agreed. "Proved me wrong."

To be fair, love has a funny way of sneaking up on people. Not that Snow did anything remotely like 'sneaking' into my sister's life, so maybe love just catches me off guard, period.

The ceremony was over before they knew it, and all across the hangar everyone stood and applauded as Snow and Serah made their way down the center aisle, wrists still connected by a red, silk ribbon. Lightning suspected that they would be bound together for the entire evening – rituals always seemed to include some element of needless discomfort.

As soon as the glowing husband and wife had turned toward the far back corner of the reception area, the tiny woman responsible for performing the marriage rites stepped forward, lost in all her headdress-and-robe decorum, to direct the congregation to shift their chairs to the tables in preparation for dinner. Lightning felt distinctly that she had heard that voice before, but she dismissed the notion, already caught up in the crowd.

The transition was uncomfortable, not surprisingly, as Lightning bumped elbows with superiors, colleagues, and subordinates alike while maintaining balance in the accursed high heels and carrying her own chair toward the beckoning safe zone – in the form of a round table marked with the sign 'FAMILY.' Hope had been flagged down by Maqui from across the room, and she wasn't sure if his absence made the situation better or worse. Either way, the already self-conscious soldier could've done without facing oddly flirtatious looks from some of her own squad members. One corporal had the audacity to wink.

Oh, they're in for a rude awakening next week.

But once she reached the destination, one look at Serah effectively wiped it all away. For that moment, her sister emanated joy – it was powerful and infectious. Every single person in view of the bride wore a heartfelt smile, and Lightning was convinced that the air around them was warmer than in the rest of the barely heated room.

"Sis!" Serah yelled over the chatter and scraping chair legs, waving her unattached hand emphatically. Lightning made time squeezing through a large gathering of adoring friends to get around the table and push her chair in next to her sister's. For once feeling caught up in the energy around her, she wrapped Serah in a tight hug.

"You deserve to be this happy," Lightning said sincerely.

When she pulled back, Serah hastily swiped a tear that had escaped to her cheek. "It's as close to perfect as anyone could hope for. I'm just lucky." She suddenly cocked her head to one side, twisting to get a good look at her sister's updo, and then her brow crinkled curiously.

"Huh, I see you showed that stubborn hair who was boss." She held up her bandaged finger, evidence of the struggle.

Lightning smirked. "Tried and failed. Hope fixed it for me."

"Surprise surprise," Serah replied deviously, looking past Lightning to wave and shout toward him as he wove through the labyrinth of people. "Hey Hope, you've been holding out on me again!"

The surge of giddiness that hit her when he jumped up to wave back, and at the way his gaze shifted from Serah and automatically landed on her face, took Lightning by surprise. She wondered for a split second if everyone else in the room could see what she saw in that smile, or could feel the magnetism that pulled them together. It seemed as tangible to her as the cord tying Snow to her sister.

Probably kidding myself about this business of discretion.

Immediately after dinner, the guests began to meander from table to table again, sipping on wine and making conversation or gravitating toward the dance floor, but those at the head table – NORA on Snow's side, and Lightning, Hope, Bartholomew, Sazh and Dajh on Serah's – didn't feel the need to move, particularly not while Snow continued to regale them all with tales of his crazy adventures. Hope feared that if he laughed much harder, dinner would not sit well, so he had offered to get another bottle of wine from the refreshments table.

"'Ere you are!" a strikingly familiar voice said to his right, and he nearly dropped the bottle at the sound, turning to see the matchmaker as she set down her refilled glass. When she pulled back the beaded hood of her robe and faced him, Hope was dumbstruck.

Elise poked his chest repeatedly. "Not even a how do ya do, then? An' after all my help!" At that, he came to his senses.

"O-oh, it's great to see you Elise, but… you're the matchmaker?" he stammered, and then a much more pressing thought occurred to him. "Does that mean you worked on me?"

The frail woman chuckled devilishly. "Well aren't you clever, but it was no work at all gettin' you closer with that impatient friend o' yours. Tiny nudge at best. And goin' well so far, from the looks of it." She gave Hope a conspiratorial wink and patted his arm as she turned to leave.

He continued in bewilderment, "So the stargazing was a setup?"

"A spot-on suggestion, more like. Jus' let me know when you 'ave use for one o' these," she said slyly, taking his free hand to place a neatly bundled, red silk cord in the palm and folding his fingers closed around it. Even after Elise had disappeared into the sea of people, Hope stared after her, his thoughts a chaotic whirlwind. Shaking his head, he frantically shoved the red cord into his pants pocket, grabbed the wine and took off for the table.

Does Light know? Would she freak out if I told her about this?

Hope still must have appeared flustered when he returned to his seat, from the collection of questioning looks he received as he placed the bottle on the table.

"Geez, what was the holdup?" Snow jibed, his permanent grin gaining an edge of mischief. "You know there's only one kind of wine over there. No sense in deliberating."

Stuffing his hands into his pockets nervously, Hope felt the evidence of his strange encounter brush the fingers of his left hand and stumbled on his response. "Right, sorry, I just… ran into a friend at the table. Kind of a surprise."

"Really," Bartholomew began with a smirk. "Doesn't seem to have been a pleasant surprise. A former girlfriend, perhaps?" Everyone else at the table lost composure and broke into yet another round of boisterous laughter, excepting Lightning. She choked on her wine, and at that, the volume of laughter grew exponentially.

Wow, Dad. Still a lot of catching up to do, apparently.

"No," Hope denied vehemently, taking his seat to give Lightning a few firm pats on the back. Once she had calmed down to a state of agitation-covered embarrassment, he finished his defense. "For your information, Dad, I don't have any ex-girlfriends. I ran into Elise, from Aerma village."

Bartholomew narrowed his eyes behind his glasses, but eventually asked, "Elise? Sounds familiar, but could you refresh my memory?"

"Tiny laundry lady, uses a cane, super-friendly and kinda spunky… ringing a bell?" Hope offered, and his father's eyes lit up.

"You must mean the matchmaker! Can't believe I forgot her name." Bartholomew scratched his sparse beard thoughtfully.

Hope was downright stupefied. "Am I seriously the only person who missed that little detail? Would it have been so much trouble to let me in on the fact that my friend the laundry lady was some kind of renowned matchmaker?"

"I didn't know, either," Lightning replied quietly. She sipped the wine again, looking contemplative, and Hope wondered if she would come to the same conclusion he had.

Serah seemed a bit out of the loop. "Well, I only found out through Snow, and I met her today for the first time. Why does it even matter, Hope?" Her wide, blue eyes innocently questioned him, and he wanted to slap himself for not dropping the subject, particularly when Snow was chomping at the bit to jump in. The glinting eyes of the currently bandana-less man looked back and forth between them, probably drawing dangerous conclusions.

He was the only one who knew something was up that night, and I'd like to keep it that way. Ugh, Serah's been so much better about keeping her mouth shut…

"I felt like an idiot for not recognising her, that's all." Polishing off the last of his wine in one quick gulp, he stood and held out his hand for Lightning to take – he had formulated a halfway decent escape plan. "Wanna dance?"

Wanna get away? Please get this message and cooperate

After an agonising two seconds under her "Have you lost your mind?" stare, Hope saw understanding in the barest softening of that gaze, like ice thawing in her eyes. She set down her glass, muttering a barely audible, "Sure."

"Now this I have got to see!" Snow immediately exclaimed, effectively setting off an avalanche of disaster. Hope felt his insides churn anxiously, but he couldn't even fit in a word of protest before it all crashed down. He wished that the seething aura of infuriation around Lightning could actually dampen Snow's enthusiasm, but it had been proven that punches to the face, staring down the fal'Cie, busted plumbing, and prison cells had little effect on the man.

The groom was already on his feet and bursting with excitement. "C'mon Serah! In fact, let's all get out there. Time to liven up this wedding!"

Five minutes later, the whole group was joining the steadily growing crowd in the open center of the room.

Thanks a lot, Snow. I can't really dance, I'm pretty sure Light can't either, and now I think she's going to kill both of us.

Hope was well aware that the only thing anchoring Lightning's feet just beside the dance floor was that stubborn refusal to never back down from a challenge – it certainly wasn't his presence or any real desire to participate. She had gone completely rigid, gripping the back of the nearest chair like it was the railing at the edge of a precipice. He wisely decided to give keep his hands to himself and avoid being too pushy.

Once her knuckles were no longer white on the chair, Hope cleared his throat. "You know, this isn't going to get any easier. Maybe we should just take the initiative before Snow drags us out there."

"I'd like to see him try," she growled, before saying more quietly, "It's hard enough to walk in these shoes."

"So take them off."

Lightning finally looked up at him, still annoyed but apparently amused. "So you can step on my feet? No thanks."

"Here, then," Hope said obligingly, wriggling out of his own shoes and kicking them under the chair. "Now will you?"

She lit up in that wonderfully understated way he'd been fortunate to enjoy on occasion, and continuously sought out, but there was no time to take it in. Immediately after stepping out of her shoes, Lightning began pulling him by the arm onto the floor.

"Sure took your sweet time gettin' here," Hope heard from his left in the midst of gradually fading music and pleasant chatter. His head snapped over to Sazh, a godsend in light of Snow's pestering, and the interruption made the dance floor claustrophobia slightly less unbearable.

Hope laughed nervously. "Cut me some slack! I have literally avoided this moment for, oh, almost ten years." He was distantly aware that Lightning had edged away, and wondered if those words had come out wrong.

"Oh shut it. If Dajh can follow along," Sazh emphasized, nodding in the direction of the ten-year-old dancing with one of the clinic staff a few meters away, "you two have nothin' to worry about. Just go!"

Thanks to a well-intended shove from Sazh, Hope was instantly a hand's breadth from his partner's face. Lightning froze and refused to look up, obviously regretting her rashness and probably contemplating routes through the mob that could get her out with no collateral damage.

Beside them, Lucil suddenly jumped in from amid the clusters of bodies, her red hair and deep purple dress unmistakable, and poked Sazh in the shoulder as the music began to play again. "Sorry to butt in, but you know how it is with slow songs. Got a partner?"

"I do now!" Sazh replied cheerfully.

As they spun away, Lucil aimed a snarky salute over Sazh's shoulder toward Lightning that left her more aggravated than anything else. She grabbed Hope's hands and planted them securely on her hips, and then took his shoulders. "He's right – let's just go."

"Roger that," Hope muttered.

Her eyes flashed, and he started moving.

Slap immunity is a beautiful thing.

It turned out to be much simpler than Hope expected – the dance required no more than a series of turns and mirrored footwork, which straightened itself out after a few missteps and lots of observation. The flowing, steady music had a calming effect as well. Before long, his mind had the freedom to wander from its concentration on the task, back to the incident that had set them in their predicament. Back to Elise, and the terrifying red cord…

"Something wrong?" Lightning said, her voice just loud enough to be heard over the music. She twisted a few of the lower strands of his hair around her finger. "Is it about the matchmaker? Tell me."

With the added element of conversation, Hope automatically drew her closer, leaning to her ear. "Yes and no… I just can't believe Elise—"

"Set us up, right? Not surprising, and I don't really care," Lightning said nonchalantly.

Hope hesitated, finally stammering, "That-that wasn't exactly the main point of concern." His hand itched to pull the cord from his pocket and explain everything fully, but he didn't want to wreck the otherwise amazing experience of effortlessly following along with the music while simultaneously being able to keep her so near in a public situation.

Should've taken Yuj up on that offer for ballroom dancing lessons.

But his train of thought was derailed as Snow and Serah passed close to them for a moment, just long enough for Snow to punch Hope's shoulder playfully. "Geez, haven't you ever heard of the 'six inch space' rule? Contrary to popular belief, even lovers need breathing room."

"Snow!" Serah scolded, with an equally harsh glare, jerking his attached hand back by the red cord with enough insistence that they moved away again. Still, it was sufficient to paint Lightning's face in embarrassment, and Hope felt her hold on him loosen and slip away entirely. The song was ending anyway, but that fact couldn't lessen the blow as she hurriedly wove her way across the crowded dance floor and out of sight. Rather than add insult to injury by chasing her down and making a scene, he let her go.

So she panicked. She just needs to think it over and move on, like usual.

Upon retrieving his shoes, Hope saw the red heels still in place and picked them up. He carried them back to the table, but finding that Lightning was not there, he simply ducked out of the party to drop them off in the bunker.

Not like she'll wear them again anyway.

It turned out to have been the best decision he could have made. He immediately noticed the absence of her boots and coat, which merely narrowed Lightning's location to somewhere outside, but the betraying factor was his missing transport keys.

Slinking out through the south entrance, Hope padded through the few inches of new snowfall around the building to where the transport was parked, out on the north landing area. The silent, starry atmosphere was a sharp contrast to the rowdy celebration within the hangar's walls. It immediately put him at ease.

The main cabin was cold and empty, but a soft, blue glow was visible through the cockpit entrance, so Hope casually entered and sat in his pilot's seat. Lightning had crossed her beaten up military boots and propped them up beside where the solar lamp rested on the center of the dash, and he shut it off to let her feel the safety of the darkness and see the stars, not wishing to be abrupt. She never had responded well to that.

Maybe Snow was right – maybe she did need breathing room.

Silence prevailed for several minutes before, surprisingly, she spoke up. "Taking the blame isn't going to help. I know you want to."

"What? But it was my suggestion to—"

"No. Snow doesn't know when to butt out of other people's business," she snapped. "One of these days I will get him."

"You know he's just teasing, though," Hope replied weakly, not exactly sure why he was trying to defend the instigator of the trouble. "If you didn't get so riled up, he wouldn't keep doing it. And while we're on the subject, why are you ashamed for people to know about us, anyway?" The truth kept pouring out, so he simply shut the source before it worsened.

Digging a hole. Excellent start.

Despite the darkness, he could tell that her body tensed. "I should ask you the same thing. Why do you care if Snow runs his mouth about what he thinks happened back in the village?" Lightning countered, not waiting for a response before she continued. "Because it's personal, that's why. Would you prefer that I make out with you in public?"

"No, just not run off when someone like Snow decides to have no tact. I always get stuck covering for it," Hope muttered. "In every other situation, you're fearless."

Sighing, she turned toward him and said carefully, "Well, this… is a new 'situation' for me."

Hope laughed out loud. "How do you think I feel?"

"Based on your tone, I'd say agitated but relenting," Lightning answered plainly. She put down her boots and stared intently out the windshield at the stars.

Well, she got that dead on.

"Come sit with me, if you want," he requested, not quite sure what to expect.

It certainly wasn't the reply she gave.

"Hmm… I'd rather save that raincheck for a more secure location – no offense to the transport."

The amusement in his expression was lost to the dim lighting, but it remained in his voice when he corrected, "No, that's not what I meant! Just sit. Relax."

"Isn't that generally how things start out?"

"Sit on the floor, then," he countered.

"That won't make a difference, and you know it," she replied, and after a momentary delay they both stifled a chuckle.

But Lightning finally did move, taking a seat on the floor and leaning her head back against the seat between his knees. She tilted her face up to look at him, but winced at the motion.

"Hairpins," she huffed. "Enemy number two, after high heels."

Immediately attacking the problem, Hope began removing the pins one by one, letting the twisted locks fall as he said to them both, "Serah will understand. It's getting late anyway."

"I couldn't care less," Lightning said calmly. "Oh, and you didn't tell me what really happened with Elise that made you a nervous wreck earlier."

It's going to come out sooner or later.

He pulled the wound ribbon from his pocket carefully, handing it down for Lightning to inspect. "She gave me this, and I thought that if I told you it might—"

"Freak me out? Why?"

"You do know what it is, right?" Hope asked, puzzled.

"Yes," she replied, running her thumb over the bundle. "It's a silk cord like the one Snow and Serah have. By itself, though, it can't 'freak me out', not unless you were giving it to me with all the obligations attached."

The comment made a deep place in his heart seize up with fear, but it wouldn't do to let that come out. Combing his fingers through her loose hair, he asked with as little emphasis as possible, "Because of the suddenness of it, or in general?"

"Mainly the suddenness. I'm not one hundred percent sure what to think about marriage, but I don't have any reason to rule it out so far," she answered evenly.

Relief washed over Hope, and with a clearer head, he thought of the perfect way to keep her at ease.

"Why don't you hold onto the cord, then?" he offered. "Even if you decide to throw it away later, my only real concern is that you're with me, however this works out. It's in your hands."

Looking down at Lightning, the waves of hair that framed her face had a softening effect – that or she really was as moved as her expression suggested. He had absolutely no desire to take his eyes off that image.

"We'll see," she said finally, and Hope noticed a slight swish of air before he felt the cord catch behind his neck and gently pull him down to her.

I'll take that as a good sign.


Lucil: DRUNK!LUCIL IS DRUNK. (No, seriously, why wasn't I like this

Light: [is mildly disturbed that Lucil is challenging her to a duel over
whether or not she bones Hope]

Light: DRUNK!LIGHT IS DRUNK. (Now imagine how much more boning there would be
if she was drunk the whole story. SO MUCH MORE BONING. IMAGINE IT.)


Bartholomew: [with a camera] ME TOO

Hope: O_o

Light: O_o

Light: oh god why

Hope: Hey, you know what would be random? If, after all that bullcrap we went
through, I fell to my death off this bloody hangar stringing lights for a

Light: Yeah, I'm sure glad the author didn't go that way with this story.

Hope: Be a big shock, though. Not cliché at all.

Light: If it helps, I'd cry for a few years and then get with Sazh.

Hope: That's a nice mental image, thanks for that.


Hope: So this red string symbolizes our true and undying love.

Light: Yep.

Hope: It's very meaningful and sentimental and stuff. I know because the
matchmaker told me, and she's all spiritual. And kind of crazy.

Light: Yep.

Hope: Huh.

Light: …

Hope: …

Light: ...wanna go use it for kinky bondage sex?


Bartholomew: [still filming]

Light: O_O ok seriously wtf

And that's a wrap! Thank you all for reading XD I have made several corrections and updates to all of the chapters this fall, so everything should be up to speed now. I just felt it was worth the little break from writing my prequel to make sure the original got some special fixer-upper treatment!

- Hthar