Disclaimer: Final Fantasy XIII is the property of Square Enix. No profit is being made from the circulation of this story.
Summary: Hope x Lightning. Hope's father is starting to date years after Nora's death, but Hope isn't sure he's ready for this. He turns to Lightning for support and comfort, and perhaps something else.
"I'll give you a cookie if you do this for me."
Lightning cocked a fine eyebrow at him. "A cookie to go with you to meet your father's girlfriend? That hardly seems like a fair trade, but you could probably trick Snow into it. He's gullible."
"I don't want to go with Snow and she isn't his girlfriend," Hope protested, nearly whining. He took a calming, deep breath, watching Lightning regard her fingernails callously. Serah had manicured them and Hope thought it looked rather silly with her Guardian Corps uniform, but he knew better than to comment on her feminine side showing. "They just started dating, so she's not his girlfriend."
"Right," Lightning replied.
"It's a chocolate chip cookie," Hope said.
"I don't like chocolate chips," Lightning said.
"I baked them myself—you don't like chocolate chips?" Hope said, incredulous.
Lightning rolled her eyes. "No, not particularly, I don't like sweet food, it's not healthy, but I didn't know you baked."
"I don't, I had someone help me," Hope shrugged. He put down the plate of cookies on the kitchen counter and picked one up, devouring it in one bite. Lighting wrinkled her nose but he ignored it. "So," he mumbled around the cookie, "will you come with me even if I don't have anything to offer in exchange that you don't hate?"
He watched her carefully to judge her reaction. Over the years, he had certainly learned that Lightning would do as she pleased and convincing her to do anything outside of that could be harder than pulling teeth. Her brow was creased in thought but she kept her lips straight, trying not to give away anything. In reality, though he hadn't known of her dislike for cookies, it had just been a silly way to bring up the question. He was nervous to ask, mostly because he did anticipate that she would refuse. There was no sure way to know what Lightning thought, and worse, to know what she felt about any given thing. Namely, Hope wanted to know how badly he would be shot down.
He was truly, madly, deeply in love with her, of that he was sure. Lightning had been a constant in his life for nearly four years. At first, readjusting to a so-called normal life had been the most awkward experience of his young life. With his mother gone, his father had been more proactive in his life. Between him and Lightning, Hope had people he could rely on.
But his father was lonely. Hope knew it was true, and he didn't spite his father for wanting companionship again, but he didn't want his mother to be forgotten. He just needed help accepting it, support from someone he trusted. Lightning would make things okay for him, she always tried to, but that was when she thought he needed it. This time, he was afraid she would think him silly.
"If I do this," Lightning said, breaking into his thoughts. Her face bore a grimace that worried him. "What exactly would it entail?"
"Dinner out, then they're going to a movie, but we don't have to go to that," Hope said. He stuffed another cookie into his mouth. "It's an hour, tops. Then we can go home."
"Right," she said.
"Please?" he begged.
"Where is this dinner?" Lightning asked. "And what day and time?"
Hope grinned, grabbing a cookie. "It's at this pasta place downtown on Friday at-"
Suddenly, her hand was around his wrist, her fingers like a vice. "Stop. Munching."
The cookie fell from his grasp, bounced off the counter and hit the floor, neatly cracking in half.
As if she hadn't realized what she'd done, Lightning quickly released his captured arm and looked away.
"It's fine," she said. "I jut can't stand to watch someone chew and talk. It's disgusting and I'm afraid of crumbs spewing out at me from your flapping mouth."
"Flapping mouth?" Hope repeated, smiling. She rolled her eyes. "Okay, I'll stop. But will you come? Friday, pasta downtown, seven o'clock, one hour of your time."
"Fine," Lightning huffed. "But I don't like pasta much either."
Hope straightened his tie and prayed to anyone that was listening that he wouldn't meet his end that night after some fatal gunblade accident. He felt ridiculous in his suit, as if he was swimming in clothes that were too big. He hadn't expected the restaurant to be so fancy, and he hadn't had a chance to warn Lightning after his father had informed him. Perhaps she would kill him quickly.
A glance at his watch showed he was early by ten minutes but he didn't want to be the first one at the table. He stood a few feet from the valet parking attendants, toying with the keys to his hover bike in his pocket. Lightning hadn't wanted to be picked up, something that disappointed him. Not that this was in any way a date between them and not that he was hoping for some kind of indication, some kind of sign that he wasn't hoping in vain for more than the big sister routine. That would have certainly been pushing his luck. He knew he was fortunate enough that she even agreed. Lightning wasn't exactly fond of people and going out to eat. She was doing him a huge favor.
Hope did have to admit it was easier to worry about his crush on Lightning than his father's own romantic entanglements. The distraction was was welcome, better than feeling like it was a betrayal to his mother. He knew it was a selfish idea. She wouldn't have wanted anyone to be sad, let alone feel lonely, despite what it meant for Hope's father. It still hurt though, and it was why he did need Lightning there, even if it wasn't what he was dwelling on.
He just prayed she arrived before his father and Martha.
Hope wanted to send up a silent "Thank you" but he forgot as he turned. He had always found Lightning attractive, her lean figure the picture of beauty that he unsuccessfully compared girls his age to. She looked perfect that night, everything he could have hoped for. Her hair was neatly tied to one side, floating over her shoulder in much more controlled curls than he was used to seeing. He shirt was a pale cream, short-sleeved sweater trimmed in black with two pockets at the stomach. Her legs were covered by wide black pants with a high waist. She looked every bit the tall, glamorous, stylish Amazon.
"You're staring," she said, her face coolly masked in all seriousness.
Hope clamped his mouth shut, glad she hadn't said "gaping" instead.
"I forgot to...well, I forgot to mention...so I didn't know," he said lamely.
A slight smile tugged the corner of Lightning's lips up. "I heard of this place from Serah and Snow."
"Oh...that's good," Hope said. "I mean, just that you look good and that's good."
"Right," Lightning said.
Hope felt like he was about to blush and tried to think of ice and wind, something to make that heat rising in his cheeks disappear. He was sure that she realized his embarrassment. Seeing her look so sleek and fashionable really did make his heart flutter. It was the way he sometimes imagined Lightning, as if she was a giant with so many mysteries hidden inside, a grand and elegant fortress.
"Hope?" she said. "Shall we go inside?"
She must have been repeating herself from the tone. Hope reprimanded his wandering brain.
"Sure," he said. He started to turn away again, hopeful that putting her out of sight would help him compose himself again.
"Hold on," Lightning said.
He froze and so did time as she reached forward, stuffing her black clutch in his hands without preamble, and grabbed his tie. The gesture was simple and sweet and enough to destroy any hope of feeling respectable. He wanted to tell her so badly about all the things that bubbled in the pit of his stomach.
"There, all straight," she said. Lightning grabbed her purse back and smiled.
Hope nodded, spinning quickly, and walked into the restaurant. He could hear the click of her heels behind him as he approached the hostess at her podium. The night was off to a fabulous start, his face already showing how embarrassed he felt.
"Hello, how can I help you tonight?"
Hope cleared his throat, trying not to be too loud. "There's a reservation for Estheim, for four."
"Of course, Mr. Estheim, your parents are already seated," she said.
"She's not my mother," Hope said instinctively. He felt a full, heated blush creep up his cheeks and regretted it immediately. Why couldn't he control the words that kept spilling from his mouth? He was certainly a verbal klutz.
"I'm sorry," the hostess said. "Right this way."
She gestured for them to follow her into the seating area. As they passed a few tables, Hope felt a hand come to rest on his shoulder. Lightning walked close to him, in such proximity that he could feel her breath on his neck every few steps.
"Relax, Hope," she whispered. "Things will be okay."
Lightning didn't make promises lightly. He was too surprised by her to say anything, nodding slightly and looking down at the hostess's shoes in front of him. The two things conflicting within his life seemed to shift. Lightning was there for him. Whether or not he ever got the courage to pursue her romantically or not, it didn't entirely matter that night. Hope couldn't genuinely relax, but he could trust that she wouldn't let him suffer through all of this. She would make everything with his father and this new woman in his life work out, whether Hope liked her or not.
"Oh there they are," Hope heard his father say, interrupting his thoughts.
His bright eyes immediately snapped up. At the table, Bartholomew was getting to his feet, his napkin sliding off his lap. The woman beside him bent to pick it up quickly before she stood too. She was slight in a black, tight dress that came to her knees. She was young, younger than his father by several years, though still older than Lightning, or so Hope prayed. Her hair was a vibrant, deep red.
"Hello, Hope," his father said. "And Lightning, it's been quite a while."
"Yes, it's nice to see you again, Mr. Estheim," she said, stepping forward and offering him a handshake to distract from Hope's indecision. He was eternally grateful. He knew that he and Martha were staring at each other and he desperately wanted to stop, to keep from behaving awkwardly, but he couldn't look away.
"It's wonderful that you could come," Hope's father continued. "This is Martha Cross."
When she reached over the table to shake Lightning's hand, she smiled nervously. Hope wasn't the only one who was on his guard with this meeting. He pulled his hand out of his pocket and stood up straighter.
"Martha, this is Lightning Farron," his father said. Hope finally met his father's eyes. They were certainly worried.
"It's nice to meet you," Martha said, her voice sweet.
"Likewise," Lightning said.
"And this is my son, Hope," Hope's father added tentatively.
Hope stepped forward, widening the gap between him and Lightning as she let him brush past and found the seat beside Bartholomew. He felt a tiny bit of comfort ebb away at that.
"Hello," Hope managed.
"Hi, Hope, your father has told me so much about you," Martha said. "I hope that we can be friends."
Hope nodded but wanted to frown. As they all sat down at the table, he glanced at Lightning. She had been watching him out of the corner of her eye, unfolding the menu in front of her inconspicuously.
"So I hope you like pasta, Lightning," Hope's father's said, shifting the conversation to something much more platonic.
"Of course I do," she said, smiling. Hope knew it was a slightly forced smile, and he was grateful again for her being there.
"This is a great place," Martha added.
Unfortunately, the conversation hit a snag and the quartet began to diligently study their menus. Hope could see Martha's arm out of the corner of his eye. He wanted to crawl under the table like a small child and throw a tantrum, anything to stop this awkward situation from happening. It was bad enough to be forced to have dinner with her and his father, but the silence would be his undoing.
"So Martha, tell me how you and Bartholomew met," Lightning's voice said. She sounded as if she were a million miles away from him, but he latched onto her mentally, steadying himself before he slid out of his chair and bolted.
"Well, I'm an avid reader," Martha said. Hope saw her eyes flick to his father and smile caress her lips. "I read about your father in a magazine, about his design career, and well, I just thought I would call his company and get a quote for designing and building an addition to my house so I could have an office. Well, I liked what they told me, so I made an appointment to discuss it with him. After that, we sort of hit it off. He asked me to lunch, and then dinner, and well, here we are."
"It was really surprising, even to me," Bartholomew added. "I didn't actually expect her to say yes."
"What line of work are you in?" Lightning asked, nodding at Martha.
"Journalism," she replied. "I'm a producer for a news broadcast. It's growing a lot quicker with the fal'Cie gone. We were some of the first people to run stories on that, and we're always striving to be the most factual program on television."
Hope glanced at Lightning. The corners of her mouth were being tugged at by amusement. He had a feeling that his father hadn't seen it fit to enlighten Martha to just who she was having dinner with that night—and Hope didn't see why he should either. He also knew Lightning wouldn't herself. Poor Martha.
Did he really think that?
She was really beautiful, Hope thought, as he glanced at her again quickly, then back to his menu. She was waxing on about the purity of the message the news media had a duty to present to the people and he didn't really care. She wasn't as beautiful as Lightning, but she wasn't unfortunate. He was thankful that she didn't remind him of his mother. He had been afraid of that possibility, but she wasn't as warm, wasn't as...motherly.
Of course, Hope bitterly thought, she was too young for his father.
He jumped as he felt a hand fall on his lap. The other three at the table looked at him curiously, Lightning's eyes slightly admonishing. She had been trying to calm him and he had been too high-strung to know what was happening.
Hope blushed and muttered, "Sorry, I just got a chill."
His father's look morphed into something strange and unreadable.
"You know, I just have to tell you, I love your blouse, Lightning," Martha said.
Hope wished that Lightning had grimaced, but she remained the picture of a perfectly socially capable person. How did she do it? The longer they sat at the table, making small talk, the more Hope wanted to scream. His collar felt too tight and he really hadn't read a word of the menu.
"Well, then you would get along with my sister," Lightning said. "She's the stylist, I just consult her when I need to look presentable. Normally, I'm lost as far as clothing goes."
Hope didn't like this farce. He didn't like the way his father would glance between him and Martha every few minutes. He didn't like the way Lightning was pretending, for his sake, to be this polite woman. He didn't like that Martha seemed to lean away from him, as though he might lash out with his butter knife at her.
"I'm sorry, I don't think I can do this," Hope said suddenly, standing quickly enough that he bumped into the table. The ice cubes in the water glasses clanked. He spun, his father calling his name as he stalked away.
He wasn't ready for any of this. His mother's face swam in his head and he blinked rapidly to keep from letting that bring tears to his eyes. It had been years since she died. He had had every opportunity to come to terms with it and for all intensive purposes, he thought he had, but Martha brought all those feelings of loss back to him. She reminded him that his mother had really left him, and Hope didn't want to feel that anymore.
When he pushed through the front doors, he took a gulp of the fresh, night air and ran a shaking hand over his face. He just wanted to climb onto his bike and escape.
"Hope, don't you dare," Lightning's voice cut into him.
He whipped around, anger driving him. "Don't I dare what?" he demanded.
Suddenly, her arms were around his shoulders and her lovely, perfumed hair was pressed into his face. Lightning's body was strong and warm against his. He closed his eyes, letting her hold him, the trembling of his body finding hers to ground and dissipate them. It was as if she was soaking up all of his panic, absorbing it, and releasing it back as strength.
"Don't you dare," she repeated. "You will be fine. I'm here for you."
Hope felt himself nodding. It was silly that after all they had lived through together that he would have misgivings about the normal course of life, but he wondered if he wasn't the only one. Readjusting, after saving Cocoon, after losing his mother, Fang, Vanille, after being a fugitive l'Cie, was hard to do. Perhaps he hadn't done such a good job as he thought. Perhaps he was lost. Lightning was the only one who would ever understand that feeling. It was one of the reasons why he loved her so much.
And she was hugging him. He was probably about to die.
"I'm okay," Hope said finally, his voice soft in her ear. As she stepped back, he noticed that her eyes fluttered opened, like the flapping of delicate and quick hummingbird wings.
"We don't have to go back in if you don't want to, but I think it would be for the best if we did," Lightning said. She tossed her hair a little, letting motion fix the curls that he had crushed. "It will probably be less awkward if you do this now rather than put it off."
"I know," Hope said. "I...thanks, Light."
She smiled a lopsided smile and shrugged her shoulders. It was uncharacteristic, her attempt to lighten the mood a bit. She wasn't good at accepting two things, compliments and thanks.
"I'll do this," Hope said firmly.
When he let go of all his misgivings, Hope found that Martha wasn't quite as bad as he thought. As he and Lightning returned to the table, she had apologized, and though Bartholomew tried to stop her, she told him what she needed to say. She understood that this was difficult for him. She wouldn't try so hard, and she didn't want him to either.
Lightning had been right after all. He had to relax.
He had ordered something delicious and forgotten the name by the time he finished eating it. Lightning had been crafty and hid most of her food by pushing it onto his plate when no one was looking. She was serious about disliking pasta, much to Hope's amusement.
He still wasn't amused with the situation, but it was better than he felt before fleeing the restaurant. The mood was lighter. His father was smiling as they waited for the valet to get his car.
"It was great meeting you two," Martha said, looking at Hope with a hesitant smile. She knew they were on shaky ground, so she gave short little wave and slipped into the car as the valet opened the door for her.
"Yeah," Hope said, not quite certain he didn't mean it.
"Thanks for coming, and staying," his father said quietly, patting his son's shoulder. Hope was glad his father didn't do something terribly mushy and hug him. It would have been too much. "Have a good night, Lightning. Good to see you."
"Yes, same to you, Mr. Estheim, Ms. Cross," Lightning said. She gave a short wave as well, distant but sincere.
"Your bike, sir," the valet said to Hope, gesturing toward the hovering mechanical vehicle, ready to hit the street.
"Thanks," Hope said. He handed the man a tip stiffly, then turned to Lightning.
"I guess I should catch one of those cabs," she said, her eyes looking past him at the yellow cars waiting at the corner.
"I can take you," Hope said quickly, before she could wave one over. "It's the least I can do, after all of that."
"All of what?" Lightning asked.
Hope swallowed the growing lump in his throat. "I know it was really a lot to ask you for. And I made tonight a million times harder than it should have been. I'm still just a lost little kid, aren't I?"
"No, not at all," Lightning said, surprising him. "Hope, I'm not an expert on things like this, but I know how hard it was for you to lose your mother like that. I knew you would be alright tonight, but you didn't. All I did was tell you that."
Hope frowned. "I couldn't have done it without you, Light."
"I don't believe that," she said. She stepped forward, invading his personal space once again that night, her fingers catching the cuff of his suit and she led him to his air bike. "Come on, I think we should go before we hold up the valets."
Hope wanted to protest but she presented far too reasonable an argument. Furthermore, as she climbed on behind him and wrapped an arm around his waist, he began to think once more about how close she was to him, holding him to steady both himself and herself. Hope relished it, knowing it wasn't intended to be so intimate or important. He wouldn't read into it anymore, he promised himself. The same relaxation that had come with accepting his father's choices earlier in the evening washed over him. Perhaps Lightning was right and furthermore, was trying to teach him something that would ultimately fix his problems.
He wanted to laugh, suddenly and loudly, but instead he sent the air bike into motion, letting it leap forward as though it could exhibit his controlled energy. Lightning's fingers gripped the fabric of his suit and he let a smile touch his lips. The night air had gotten chillier during dinner and it bit at his cheeks as he accelerated and cruised through the downtown area of the city.
When they arrived at Lightning's apartment, Hope swore it had only been seconds since they left the restaurant. He knew it took longer, because if he had driven that fast, Lightning probably would have given him an earful for being reckless. Instead, she headed silently for her door, not sparing him a glance. She expected him to follow and Hope knew he would. They didn't usually spend time at her place, but Hope had been there a few times before.
Lightning let them into the living room, flipping on the lights and throwing her purse on the couch without a thought and continuing on to the kitchen. Hope paused, glancing around. There weren't a lot of personal touches in her home. A few photos sat on the end tables, Serah and Lightning, Serah and Snow, Sazh and Dajh, Snow and Hope.
"I'm having a glass of wine, would you like something?" Lightning called from the kitchen.
"No, that's alright," Hope said, his voice low but audible.
When she reappeared a few minutes later, Lightning had loosened her hair, her glass in hand catching the light and sparkling a deep red. She cocked her head slightly to the side at him and Hope realized he was still standing in the middle of her apartment, looking entirely too much like a lost puppy.
"Thanks again," he said awkwardly. He mentally kicked himself. She must have been tired of listening to him thank her.
"You can sit down," Lightning said. She made a demonstrative show of walking to the couch and falling into it gracefully, the liquid in her glass balanced perfectly so as not to spill it. Hope wondered how she was put together that she could move like that, like the world moved around her instead.
And that thought led to other thoughts, like how he desperately moved around her as though he was a piece of furniture too.
"I think I should go home," Hope said, feeling torn between the desire to stay and the desire to flee.
"I don't think so," Lightning said. "Sit."
"I'm not a dog, you can't just tell me to sit," Hope said before he could stop himself.
Lightning raised an eyebrow at him in challenge and Hope quickly sank down onto the plush sofa before she could verbalize the look on her face. A warm blush stained his cheeks and he hoped he didn't look like a tomato or a strawberry.
"You're not getting out of this, Hope," Lightning said quietly, her controlled voice so smooth in his ears. She leaned forward and put her wine glass on the low coffee table then settled herself again. Hope watched her closely. She seemed to be all legs, perfect, lean and sexy legs. He wanted to stop thinking about her like this, or to never stop, either one, but not thinking about her secretly was the goal.
"I don't know what I'm not getting out of," Hope said.
Lightning's expression only changed slightly, the corner of her mouth quirking up at the side in a slight smile. Ever so slowly, she reached out to him. Hope's first instinct told him to run, for he was certainly going to be strangled or stabbed or beaten for putting her through all this. He had been a foolish kid, a dumb, unassuming animal who fell for it and was going to be shredded and eaten.
Her hand came to rest on his knee.
Hope stared. He didn't dare move. He didn't dare breathe. Lightning watched him, and waited, seeming to expect something, but he couldn't respond, not without falling to pieces. Her slight smile disappeared. A light pink, ever so faint blush touched the apples of her cheeks.
"I'm sorry, I don't know what I was thinking," Lightning said softly, glancing away.
"No, it's—no, it's not that, no!" Hope stammered.
He leaned forward, closing the distance between them and catching her by surprise. Hope Estheim had kissed a few girls, but he forgot the finer points, pressing his lips against Lightning's and thinking of just how clumsy he felt. It didn't matter, however, because Lightning certainly wasn't clumsy, and she wasn't easily distracted by surprise.
Hope decided, somewhere along the line, clumsy or not, it was a fabulous kiss, and he relaxed. When he pulled away, slowly, not without regrets, Hope realized that his hand had tangled itself in her hair and she was smiling at him, the slight smile that Lightning wore so beautifully.
"Don't say anything," she warned him quickly. "You're not going to babble and you're not going to read too much into this."
"Do I do that?" Hope asked.
Lightning chuckled. "Sometimes. But not this time."
"Then what am I supposed to do?" Hope said.
"You're supposed to relax, Hope," Lightning said, her voice trying to convey a softness that she didn't normally share with other people. "And maybe, you're supposed to kiss me again."
Hope looked at her, biting his lip in mock contemplation. "I guess I can do that."
AN: When I started this, I wasn't sure where I was honestly going with it, so it sat on my hard drive for the better part of a year until I made up my mind to give it some sort of closure. In any case, I still feel like it could go somewhere else and I might continue it sometime, or I might call it done in its awkwardness. In any case, I'm marking it complete for now.