Hello, lovelies. Here with the new chapter! Sorry this is kind of late. I had finals, and then an anime convention to attend, and now I am sick with a sinus infection.
Summer updates – I will probably not have any updates from June 21st to August 1st. This is because (drum roll please)…
I will be in Japan! Yes, you heard right. Yes, I can hardly believe it either. But somehow I was able to afford it, and thus I am on a study abroad program for six weeks, taking my Japanese lingual skills to a whole new level. I have been suffering studying the language for two years. Expect to see fantastic photos links in my profile.
So until then, I will do my best to provide new chapters in May / early June.
Lightning stirred, her eyes fluttering open.
Sunlight filtered through the blinds of her window, shining brightly in her direct line of vision and bathing her in tones of gold. The woman stifled a groan, forcing her eyes shut. Her body was stiff and achy, like she had slept on a bed of rocks. She settled back into her pillow.
Lightning let out a sudden gasp, startled by the involuntary movement of her head rising and falling.
Her pillow was breathing.
She tore away from the object, which let out a small complaint. Lightning stared blankly. Her mind took slowly to registering bits and pieces of her surroundings. She groped at the surface below her, soon realizing it to be her couch, not her bed. With reluctance, Lightning inclined her head to view what had just moved from beneath her.
It all came back in a flood: Friday morning, Serah's phone call—Hope had come over, taken care of her and, somehow, he had never left. There was a harsh, deafening pulse in her ears. Despite her jerky wake-up call, the young man continued to sleep. She sat, petrified, her breathing becoming increasingly shallow.
The thought reverberated within her mind, unanswered. Hope's rhythmic breathing filled the silent void of her living room. She watched him, driven painfully by curiosity. Each rise and fall of his chest shifted the wrinkles of his dusty blue cotton shirt. He turned to his left slightly, jaw slackening, a slight snore escaping his lips. Stray locks of silver hair fell in his eyes, obscuring his peaceful features.
A steady heat rose within her chest. It spread into her neck and face. She was…observing him—very intently. Lightning shook her head abruptly, tossing unwashed pink curls. Wrong. This was terribly wrong. Her hand wrung and twisted the blanket that partially encased the pair. The other hand clutched at her temples.
How should she wake him? Should she wake him? Should she scream at him, throw things? He had helped her—brought her food, entertainment, medicine. Lightning's temper began to stir, though she couldn't decipher if she was mad at herself or Hope.
She couldn't just leave him laying there.
A slight movement could have easily be sensed by him, like the very ground beneath them had broken out into a tremulous earthquake. The woman prayed silently that he would not wake. Lightning eased herself off the couch, replacing the blanket over Hope's sleeping form. She drew a slow breath, composing herself as best she could before reaching a hand over to his shoulder, and gave it a violent shake.
"Get up." Lightning instructed.
Hope grunted and opened his eyes. The woman folded her arms across her chest. He let out a small yawn. A few fleeting moments passed, and then Hope's eyes grew as wide as saucers. His head snapped to the right, looking directly at her with a mixture of horror and embarrassment.
Lightning's tongue searched quickly for lies. "I blanked out for a few minutes last night. When I came to, you were already asleep. I tried to wake you, but you mumbled something about being too tired to drive home." Her eyes darted back and forth. "So I let you crash on the couch."
"Oh." Hope rubbed the back of his neck gingerly and averted his gaze to the floor. "S-so, how do you feel?"
"That's good." She watched him tense underneath her cold stare. Hope licked his lips and sat up a little more, folding his hands politely in his lap. "Sorry, I really didn't mean to—you know." He laughed nervously, running a hand through his messy hair. "I intruded into your home. Kind of rude of me, huh."
Lightning snorted, "You wouldn't be breathing if you had intruded."
"Thanks… I guess?"
"Well, I feel much better. Guess I have to thank you for that." She was doing it again—retreating. The soldier-like persona overtook her in times like this. It kept her calm, level-headed. It also prevented anyone from getting too close.
But the reality was evident. A permissible moment of weakness resulted in this unfamiliar man staying the night at her apartment. Did she really consider Hope to be a stranger? She certainly treated him as such. You could never act towards a person too warmly, because they always tended to linger a little too long. Then the lingering turned into clinging, and then to smothering.
"I probably should get going then." Lightning's chest went hollow. Hope stood. Waves of pastel yellow blanket spilled off his waist over the couch. He stretched briefly and began searching for his things.
Please. Lightning was torn. With Hope here, it was like perpetually drowning in lukewarm water. If he was gone, she would be left in solitude. Lightning loved solitude, basked in delight at the chance of being secluded. But this didn't feel like the comforting solitude she normally welcomed. It felt empty.
"Coffee," she said. He slung his bag over his shoulder, looking up at her. "You want some? Before you leave?"
Hope cracked a smile. "How well are you feeling?"
Light blatantly stared at Hope for a moment. His posture was fixed—a snapshot of him pouring sugar into his coffee. The last of the granules slipped out and Hope reluctantly crumpled the little pink packet it before setting it down next to two more empty ones. She continued to stare as he reached over to pick up his spoon and stir the contents inside his cup.
Fifteen minutes ago, Hope had been waiting outside Lightning's apartment while she showered. She had exited in jeans and a dark green sweater, with slightly damp hair and a pink tinge in her cheeks. She looked healthy, which was a large improvement from yesterday, and a good breakfast would do anyone good after having a twenty-four hour stomach flu. The Morning Glory café had been a short bus ride away from the apartment complex. There had been nothing but silence between the pair after his breakfast proposal, so her sudden vocalization had thrown him off somewhat.
"Do you always put in that much sugar?"
Hope leaned forward slightly, eyeing the black pool in her ceramic cup. "You drink this stuff plain?" Light shrugged. "Well for me, it's got to have a little bit of sweetness."
Light snorted "Three packets of sugar, two flavored creamers. That sounds like a little bit of sweetness."
A waiter rounded their table with a stack of plates balanced carefully on his forearms. He flashed a big smile as he set down their respective dishes. "Here you are, spiced apple and blueberry compote stuffed French toast, and for the lady, the fall harvest omelet with roasted garlic house potatoes."
"Thank you," said Light. Hope shook out his napkin with a quick snap of his wrists and smoothed it down over his lap, eyeing his breakfast. The brioche they had used for the French toast was perfectly golden brown. Fruit compote dripped out onto the plate, mingling with the crème fraise and honey artistically drizzled over the top. Lightning's dish was equally attractive, garnished with a butternut squash puree and fried sage leaves.
Light looked at his dish quizzically.
"So I like sweets."
Light raised an eyebrow.
"A lot," he murmured, chewing his first bite quietly. He had taken a bit of the blueberry one first. It was robust and tangy, with hints of citrus—a nice contrast between the creaminess of the brioche. He was also picking up hints of lavender from the honey. Hope licked his lips. "They never disappoint here."
"It's…pretty good." Light's voice betrayed her obvious state of enjoyment. She had already eaten half the omelet. "So, how did you find out about this place? I've never heard of it."
"Brother of a father of a girl whose cousin used to go to culinary school with me."
Light wrinkled her nose.
"Yeah, I know. It's been around for a while, and the place still isn't very popular. But the food is superb."
The interior of the Morning Glory café was sleek and modern—the room was painted in pastel green and yellow. White table clothes hung from every table, and a fresh flower in a rather oblong-shaped vase sat atop. Behind them was a photograph of a curvy metal sculpture from the art museum downtown. Eyes returning back to the table, Hope took a sip of his coffee and grinned, "Ah. Perfection."
"All that sugar and yet you look like an overgrown twig."
"That's why my roommate used to call my coffee diabetes in a cup, not obesity," Hope flashed a grin and took another dramatic swig of his drink. The mug hit the saucer with a loud clank. Silence filtered in between them, soon engulfed by the quiet buzz of the surrounding tables. Hope began to fidget. "You know you didn't have to come with me today if you didn't want to."
"What else would I have eaten?" She replied almost instantly, scooping up a small mound of potatoes.
"Forget to go grocery shopping this week?" He teased.
Light forcefully set her fork down. It shook the table, ice cubes rattling around in their water goblets. Hope flinched.
There was a long pause before her lips moved. "I…" Her voice trailed off.
"How are we doing?"
Their waiter seemingly spawned from nowhere, hovering over Hope's left shoulder. The silver haired man glanced as his plate, about half devoured. He straightened up in his seat a bit, turning to the waiter. "Fine, I think this is all we're getting."
"Are we paying separate or together today?"
The pair uttered the words simultaneously. Light shot an unnerving glare at her dining partner, but Hope just laughed. He caught the woman's gaze with his own, determined blue eyes. "Together."
The waiter chuckled in a comedic manner. "What a gentlemen. Count yourself lucky miss, these are a rarity." He gave a flirtatious wink before disappearing into the background of the café.
"I can take care of myself," she snapped quietly. Light stood, tossing down her napkin.
"Where are you going?"
"Hey." Hope caught her by the wrist. There seemed to be a pattern to these exchanges: Hope says something, Light gets offended…and then she storms off. He wasn't about to permit another repeat. "You went to the bathroom just before we ordered."
"Gotta go again."
Hope pleaded this time, "Please...sit down. Please?" Light jerked her hand away. She hovered for a few moments, between her seat and the path that would take her to the restrooms. Finally, with much hesitance, Light rejoined him. Hope studied her hardened features, trying to make sense of it all. Granted, he was already treading on a bed of egg shells from staying the night at her place. Hope sighed. In retrospect, he probably should have woken the woman up the minute she dozed off against his shoulder.
"Do you…" He began, but the thought could not manifest into a proper sentence. Hope licked his lips in a second attempt. "Your…paycheck—is it, is it not sufficient enough?" Watching the woman tense up, he knew he had guessed correctly. Now she was going to speak. He expected some sort of snappy retort, or long brooding silence.
"Don't tell anyone, okay?" She sighed, rubbing little concentric circles into the base of her temples, "especially Serah."
Hope watched her curl her hands around her mug and stare pensively into the coffee. Her eyes narrowed, lips tightened, as she slowly collected her thoughts.
"It's enough to make a living, working at that place," she stated. Eyes flickered from him back to her cup. "But when I was working at—" she struggled with the next word, "—PSICOM, I was able to afford an apartment like that. So I've been cutting back on things like grocery shopping, cable. Not a big deal."
Hope stared at her, open-mouthed. "Anything else?"
Light shrugged. "Like I said—not a big deal."
He frowned, recalling the chilly air of the apartment. "Are you not running your heat?"
"Listen, kid," Hope flinched when she punctuated the word. Her mouth widened to speak, then snapped shut again. "Sorry." Light wrung her hands. "Sometimes, when life throws you an unexpected curveball, you have to make the necessary sacrifices—"
"By starving yourself?" Hope shook his head. "No. Light, I don't think—"
"—You have no idea what it's like to be in that kind of situation," she snapped. "This isn't the first time this happened. When our parents died, who do you think was responsible for scraping up enough money just to get by?"
"You'd be surprised, actually," Hope replied coolly. "When you're fourteen and your dead-beat dad is suddenly missing, and your mom had really, really expensive hospital bills that she couldn't even afford." His fist flexed closed, embedding his nails into the flesh of his palm. "I've been there. It isn't easy. Hell, what is any scared, parentless fourteen year-old supposed to do? But at least now you have people to support you."
"Do you know how much I would have given? Just to have someone to help me through it… At least you had your sister." He stared down at the table. "By the way, I've only got one punch left on the card for Brunoise."
"You had to bring this up now?" Light asked with a hint of malice in her voice.
Hope shrugged. "I was getting a little tired of the other conversation." He set his fork down on his empty plate and folded his arms. "But if we have to go back to it, here's my two cents: find some help. Whether that's talking to Rydgea, or looking for a roommate, or even your sister—I don't know. I don't feel comfortable knowing someone is going hungry when they don't have to."
"Why do you even care?"
"Because," he felt a heat rise into his cheeks. Hope swallowed. "You're my friend…" His voice trailed off. Is this how friends acted towards each other? He always did his best to help out Maqui or Lebreau, even Rydgea and Yuj, but not like this. This felt…different. Here he was, sitting in a café with this woman, treating her to breakfast—amongst the other things he willingly bent over backwards to do. Hope looked down at his watch. He should have been at work five minutes ago, but somehow, he didn't care.
Because he'd much rather be here.
"Friends?" The word sounded foreign coming from her. Knots formed in Hope's stomach. Yes, they were friends, and that's all they were. His heartbeat was embarrassingly loud, and he wondered if she could actually hear it. Or detect the heavy blush in his cheeks. It would give anyone the wrong impression.
"Yes. Friends." Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the check already set on the table. Hope reached into his back pocket for his wallet, and set several wrinkled bills down. "You know—people who you spend time with, rely on, and occasionally get a free meal from."
Hope blinked. "Huh?"
"If we're…friends," She turned from him and focused her gaze onto her lap. "Just—whatever. Don't complain about wasting your money on me afterwards, is all." She folded her arms across her chest and looked up. "Seeing as you already pulled your money out."
"Okay then," he beamed.
"Could you at least let me cover the tip?"
"Why are you so insistent to pay for something?"
"Because…" Their waiter returned to the table, swooped down and grabbed up the payment.
"Keep the change," Hope said.
Light sighed, "Never mind." She scooped up her purse, stood and hastily pushed in her chair. "We should probably get going."
"Yeah." To inform Lightning that he was supposed to be at work at this moment would only further complicate things, so he refrained. The pair exited the restaurant, stopping just outside the doorway before parting ways.
She placed a hand on her hip. "So. How are we going to work out the rest of these cooking lessons?"
"That is a good question." Hope shrugged into his jacket. "I don't think it would be right of me to ask your sister for money to rent out that space—the rooms are kind of expensive." He fumbled with the zipper. It occasionally would snag about a third of the way up while zipping. "My place works. I mean, the kitchen is a bit smaller than the one we've been using, but I've got more than enough equipment."
"Seems logical, you wouldn't have to haul any of that stuff around," she noted. Hope chuckled, and the woman frowned at him. "What's so funny?"
"Sorry. I was kind of expecting…never mind."
Light's frown deepened.
"You just took to the idea so quickly. It seemed a bit out of character for you," he teased. The woman rolled her eyes.
"I'm not that unreasonable." Her posture stiffened. "I think—"
Hope jerked her back by the elbow, a split second before a cyclist sped out from nowhere, zooming past them. Light stared for a moment at the space she occupied beforehand, completely disoriented.
"Thank you." Light swallowed.
The young man nodded. "No problem. They aren't supposed to be riding on the sidewalk anyways."
"There will always be an idiot to be the exception to something." She smoothed out a few wrinkles in her blouse. "Like my sister's husband."
"You really don't like Snow, do you?"
"Not particularly," her lips curved into a faint smile and then vanished, "which is why I'm not looking forward to Thanksgiving."
Hope took a seat on the nearest bench. Light joined him, leaning back and stretching out her legs. Her neck craned upwards, allowing her head to rest on the bench. Hope stared down into his hands. "I wonder what I should make this year."
Light eyed him. "You mean you're not going anywhere?"
"Not really," he admitted. "I mean, Rydgea and the others have their own respective families to visit—the same for the people at Eden." Hope sighed, turning his attention to the streets. Traffic was light during this part of the day. Cars came and went, with an occasional blare of the horn, but nothing like rush hour traffic. Hope sighed again. It was probably a good idea to start heading over to Eden. He cringed at the thought of Fang—she wouldn't be pleased with him being late.
He looked at Light. She looked at him. They held each other's gazes in silence.
Hope chuckled, "Sorry, you first."
Lightning pursed her lips. "Would you be interested in... maybe joining us? For Thanksgiving—I'm sure Serah wouldn't mind an extra guest. She actually loves that sort of stuff."
His heart fluttered briefly inside his chest. Thanksgiving dinner with Light? He was shocked that she had even entertained the idea.
"You don't have to," she cut in rather quickly. "It was just a thought."
"No, I'd love to!" Hope waved his hands frantically. "Ah. Sorry, it was kind of an unexpected question." A smile spread across his face. "Yes. I'll come for dinner. I don't mean to impose."
"Not at all," she replied. The woman folded her hands in her lap, shifting in her seat. "You were gonna say something?"
"Oh. Oh yeah—er, I have to go. I'm…kinda late for work."
Her eyes widened. "Right."
"See you," he added sheepishly before standing up and heading off.
He paused in mid-step. "Yeah?" Hope waited politely. He could hear her struggle to speak.
"Thanks…again. For the food."
Hope turned to face Light. "You're welcome. Anytime."
She cracked a faint smile from the bench. "I'll pay next time."
"Okay. But I'm going to have to hold you to it." He waved a short goodbye before rounding the corner.
The commute to work was much longer than Hope anticipated, yet it seemed relatively short in his mind. His thoughts had been focused elsewhere. Not on his work, but on Light. And no matter how many times he tried to shake them, to switch subjects, his brain rerouted his thoughts back to her. Hope hadn't felt this way in ages: joyful, invincible, yet scared out of his wits all at the same time. The bus hissed into the next stop—his stop and Hope clabbered up to the front, exiting the vehicle. He was met with the lesser stale air of the city: Brisk, November wind that ruffled his untamed mess of hair and left it in further disarray.
Despite the cold, Hope felt warm. The warmth settled in his chest radiated out into his entire body, moving him forward. Hope glanced at his watch. He was nearly thirty minutes late. The reminder put a damper on his spirit, and all good feelings rushed out of him as he doubled his pace, rounded the corner, and headed into Eden.
Fang was waiting for him. Hope instantly froze. She was seated at an empty table, a spread of documents before her, reading glasses settled on the bridge of her nose and a pen poised over an inventory spreadsheet. Considering the woman usually did them in her office…
The Australian woman looked up from her work. "Why, if it isn't Hope."
Hope swallowed. He caught the faint sound of giggling. Vanille had taken up post behind a wall that divided the kitchens from the dining area. His heart dropped into his stomach. Today was going to suck.
"Eheh," was all Hope could manage. No amount of profusely apologizing was going to get him out of this predicament.
Fang capped her pen, let it fall onto her papers, and leaned back in her chair.
"Tell me somethin' Esthiem, why is it that out of all my employees, you're the one who seems to have the habit of being chronically late?"
Fang elevated her eyebrows.
"I was kind of…"
The woman rose from her chair, placing a hand on either side of her hip. "I'm waitin'."
"My friend was sick last night and I went over to help her, and then this morning there was no food and we went out to eat. I sort of lost track of time and I'm sorry—please don't fire me." The entire explanation seemed to stick together, like one long, drawn out word.
Fang snorted. "Who says I was going to fire you?" She shot him a menacing look. "I will if this happens again. You should've damn well called me if it was somethin' like that. Maybe I would have been more understanding." Her arms folded across her chest and she jabbed a thumb in the direction of the kitchen. "Now get yer ass in that kitchen and outta my sight before I change my mind."
"Yes ma'am!" Hope scurried as fast as humanly possible back into the kitchen.
Meanwhile, Vanille lost it. She was laughing her head off as Hope shamefully headed back into the employee's area to change into his uniform.
"It's not funny," Hope mumbled.
"You getting chewed out by Fang? Of course it isn't—it happens all the time," said Anya. Hope had barely noticed her presence. She was at the counter peeling a hotel pan full of potatoes.
Ignoring their jeers at his tardiness, Hope made his way around the back, quickly changed, and took a seat next to Chef Anya. He picked up a potato in his left hand and studied it for a moment. The brown, leathery skin and malformed lumps stared back at him.
Vanille clasped her hands behind her back. "So what did you do?"
"Yes, do inform us," Anya joined in with a cat-like grin. "C'mon, Cupcake, you know the boss would never get rid of you. You're too good."
"Gee, thanks," Hope grumbled. He took a paring knife to the tuber and began peeling. The shavings fell into a large bowl before him, which was already preoccupied by other bits of potato skin. Two potatoes down, and his hands were already coated with the starchy pulp. It felt sticky and unpleasant. It annoyed him, because usually he was able to ignore the sensation.
Hope sighed. "Do you remember my student?"
"Not personally, but yes, I know about your cooking lessons. How are they going?"
"Good, actually, except that's why I was late today," he began, and picked up a new potato. "Well, it's more my fault." Hope rolled the potato in his hand. "My student, she was sick, so I went over to her place to help her out."
Anya's expression narrowed. "That doesn't really explain why you were late today."
Hope stabbed his knife into the potato, prying out an eye. "That's the thing—I kinda fell asleep at her place. We got breakfast this morning and I lost track of time."
Vanille let out a sudden squeal, looking up from her seat where she was polishing silverware. "Ooh! How scandalous."
"Not…really," Hope frowned.
"No I think she has a point," Anya countered, waving her potato in the air. "She's older than you, isn't she? That would make her a cougar. Ah, this is interesting."
"It's not like that!" He protested, but the women giggled. Somehow, the other chefs had gotten used to their antics, and they did their work quietly, ignoring the pair. Hope felt a steady heat rise into his cheeks. "It's not like that."
"Sure it isn't," said the pregnant woman, rolling her eyes. "You keep me updated, okay? I want to know all the juicy bits of your relationship development." Anya clasped her hands together. "To be young and in love, how I miss it."
"You're not that old!"
"Honey, when you're married for five years and expecting a baby, anything news like this is entertaining," Anya informed him, continuing to peel. Hope averted his eyes back to the potatoes, and joined the woman in work. The chef took notice of his withdrawal, and placed a hand on his shoulder. "Hey, everything okay?"
Anya licked her lips. "You like her, don't you?"
Hope deposited his potato into the water bath. He stared into the milky water, swirling with clouds of starch, as if all his problems would be answered by concentrating his thoughts into the pool. The answer to that question…he already knew it. He had known for a while now. All he had to do was think of Light—her clear blue eyes, soft pink lips that would occasionally break into the faintest of smiles. How her scent was so akin to the fresh air after a rainstorm.
Hope couldn't help but laugh.
"Yeah…yeah I do."