Hello readers! I;m sorry for the length of time it took me to post the new chapter, and how long it's taken/taking me to reply to reviews and messages. College has started up for me, and it's hard to find the time to write with all the real life stuff going on. But I'll do my best to get back onto a semi-normal schedule.
I changed my pen-name (it will hopefully show later), because I like it more and it's easier to remember. And to sort of signal a new...I don't know. Something. But I want to thank everyone for staying with me, and I hope you'll continue to be patient with me as the story progresses. Your support and feedback means the world to me. I will reply to the signed-in reviews within the next day or two, and here is the anon:
kwabee patteh: I'm glad you liked it! *huggles* I like writing them that way too, so there will likely be more. And I'm glad it was funny! I worry my sense of humor might be askew. But thank you for the review. It means a lot.
Thank you to everyone, and onward to the story!
"I slept with Serah."
The way Noel shrugs grinds against Hope's already frayed nerves, and he has to resist punching his friend to the ground. Noel leans casually against the green park bench, smashing his feet on the frosted grass. He blows out a sigh, his breath visible in the cold air.
"Well, I figured it was going to happen at some point. I mean, you almost never shut up about her and her problems these days." Hope's shoulders tense at this, and he growls.
"Her problems are real, Noel, and you-"
Noel holds his hands up, shaking his head. "Not what I meant, Hope. I'm just saying, you were hooked on her for a while, even before this whole mess." Noel hunches forward, resting his arms in this lap and staring hard ahead. A gust of wind blows the boys' bangs into their faces, and they scramble to brush them away.
"What I'm not quite getting," Noel says as the wind dies down, "is why you're telling anyone about this. At all. I mean, the whole thing about an affair is keeping it secret, right?"
Hope's eyes only widen further, and he begins to pace through the grass again. His face has numbed from the cold, but he nibbles his bottom lip. "Well, we decided we should try talking with someone close to us. One person each, you know? Get a new perspective, some advice, figure out what to do. It seemed like a good idea."
Even if Serah's telling Lightning and I might be murdered when she comes back.
Hope shakes his head, pausing to gaze at the ground. "It-it's been a few days since we-we did it, and we were feeling worse and worse."
"Guilty, huh?" Noel's continuing nonchalance is a blessing and a curse, and Hope yanks at his hair. "After all, even though Snow has been a right dick about this marriage, he's still a friend. And you just slept with his wife. Who you are infatuated with."
Hope groans and presses his palms to his eyes. But the last bit pokes and prods him, and he slowly looks at Noel.
Noel's face darkens and Hope's entire body clenches. "Hope...I'm sorry, but who were you in love with before this whole relationship started?"
Hope fists his hands. His breath shortens and he waits for Noel to continue.
"I mean, you've been pining after Lightning for...I don't know, a while I guess. Longer than Serah, I know that. And Serah-she looks an awful lot like Lightning." Noel stands from the bench, his eyes sad as he looks at Hope. "I mean, that comes with being sisters, I guess. But..."
Hope's breath puffs out in more rapid bursts. His mind and body are gearing up for the words he knows are coming. His heart quickens; hearing it makes it real to him. Another problem to face in a sea of already torrential emotions.
"Hope, you got turned down hard. I get that. And I'm starting to think that maybe this whole thing with Serah is just you..." Noel stops, running a hand through his hair. "I think she's a replacement, Hope. I think this whole thing is you-you just getting over Lightning."
Noel shouts when Hope yanks him up by his collar, lifting him from the ground. Wriggling in Hope's grip, he aims a kick at his ankles, only to be swung away. "That's not it!" Hope grinds the words out, voice gravel.
"Yeah, I can tell from your reaction!" Noel snarls, kicking again. "I mean, come on, Hope! Don't you think it's just a little weird that you went from Lightning to Serah so fast? Maybe you're projecting Lightning onto her or something." Noel blinks when Hope sets him back on the ground. He adjusts his coat and stares at Hope.
Hope turns away, running his hands through his hair and shaking his head. His heart races and his legs itch to run. Escape. To be anywhere but here, where this new possibility hung like a black cloud over him.
That can't be it. No...no it can't be that. Not that. No, no...
"Be quiet." The words are harsh and Hope curls around himself. Noel furrows his brow, biting his lip and reaching out to Hope.
"Hope...I'm sorry, but I really think-"
"I said be quiet!"
"It's just-what else could it be, Hope?" Noel sighs, closing his eyes when a few snowflakes start to fall. "I-I can talk you through the other stuff, but you need to-Hope?"
Hope begins to walk away, heading down the curved path of the park. His hands remain around his middle, his body hunched over. Noel jumps, hurrying after him but making sure to stay a few steps behind.
"Hope, what are you doing?"
"You won't shut up," he growls, not even looking back. "It's making it hard to think."
Noel narrows his eyes but remains with Hope, walking with him as he leaves the park and starts down the sidewalk. Snow begins to cling to them as they head down the block, snaking past their coats, melting on their skin, and sending cold trails down their backs.
Hope eventually eases his arms back to his sides, but his eyes stay on the ground. The world around them is sparsely populated, people sticking to the warmth of their homes and businesses during the day. Hope is grateful for it; he has no desire or energy to deal with anyone else. He silently thanks Noel for staying silent as they wander aimlessly around, his mind still reeling.
What if he's right? What if I just screwed up Serah's marriage-screwed up Serah-because I'm not over Lightning. Betrayed Snow. Fucked up a bunch of lives.
He nearly groans again, and his eyes are hot. Head throbbing, Hope finally stops and looks up at the sky, wincing when a snowflake lands on his eye.
What if-what if that's all it is?
Hope shakes his head, looking back down. Raising his hands, he studies the palms, now red from the cold. A giant hole rips in his stomach, draining him of all his energy, leaving his muscles a liquid. He sways slightly, feeling far too empty and heavy. Noel's hand lands on his shoulder and he closes his eyes.
This can't be happening. But what else could it-
His eyes snap open, a gasp ripping out.
"Hope? Hope, what is it?" Noel pulls on him but Hope barely feels it. Barely registers anything else but his speeding thoughts, this frightening realization. Hope clamps a hand over his mouth and Noel, alarmed, leads Hope back to the park. Throws him onto the nearest bench and yells to wait there while he looks for some water.
Hope just stares, hand still over his mouth, stomach churning. The hollowness leaves him as quickly as it had come, but a hard weight takes its place. His neck heats up and his free arm begins to travel around his middle again.
If that's true-
He pictures Serah, bawling her eyes out, breaking down in front of him. Telling him how alone she is. And him, telling her he feels the same way.
Then saying they should hang out.
If that-this is really true...
Then there's Serah giving him advice. Saying Lightning will always love him. Helping him study. Cooking him dinners. Them watching movies together on her couch, sharing popcorn, laughing at the cheesy lines and grabbing each other when the murderer comes from behind.
At the theater. Yelling at her in the car. The kiss in the library. Telling her she can make it in college, and cursing Snow for not being there for this woman who needed someone. And the other night; the way she needed him. The way he needed her. So different, so warm and more than Hope knew he could ever imagine.
Oh... Oh no...
Her eyes, her hair, her face, her smile, her laugh. And he knows she looks like Lightning, and maybe at first that was it.
But she's not Lightning. She's Serah. Serah, who's lonely and hates it. Who gets scared at the psychological thrillers and jumps when I do. Serah who laughs and smiles wide and leans in close. Serah, who's warmer than-than Lightning. She talks to me about anything and-and-
-she isn't Lightning. I know that.
I know that.
"Drink this before you pass out. You're looking faint, you idiot! Why didn't you tell me sooner?" Noel shoves a bottle of water in his hands, startling him from his stupor. Hope blinks at the bottle, holding it loosely as he looks up at Noel.
"Hope, you're starting to freak me out. Do I need to-"
"Serah isn't Lightning."
Noel stops, raising an eyebrow. Throat tightening, he answers slowly, "Yeah...I know that. And I think you're-"
"Serah isn't Lightning," Hope says again. "And...and I know that. Have known it." Noel's eyebrows disappear into his bangs, but Hope shakes his head. Stares down at the container in his hand. Noel swallows at the terror in Hope's eyes.
"I think I love her, Noel." Hope closes his eyes, hissing at the burn he feels behind them. "And If I love her..."
He doesn't finish. Can't finish. Silence stretches between them and Noel sits beside Hope, bumping arms with him. "Hope...are you sure?"
Hope doesn't answer; only gazes at the water bottle and wonders which is worse. Using Serah as a replacement.
Or being in love with her.
"I slept with Hope."
The words tumble out of Serah's mouth before she can control it. Her mind hadn't even processed it, her gut hadn't warned her; her mouth just moved and even though she planned to tell Lightning, it would have happened later in the conversation.
Not after, "Hello, Serah. How are you?"
The silence on the other end makes Serah's already twisted guts strangle her liver, and she leans against the wall. She considers banging her head until she gives herself a concussion, but her sister would only freak out more, and that would do her no good.
Serah is well aware of what Lightning could do if something happens to her.
Please say something. Tapping her foot, she closes her eyes and braces for impact. Say something. Say anything. Just say it!
"Well, that's not what I expected to hear."
Serah releases a heavy sigh, her chest loosening and her body melting against the wall. The line crackles from her breath but her sister's voice comes through. "I hope I don't have to kill him."
"No! No, please don't kill him. It was totally mutual." Serah swallows, free hand curling around her hair. "And...I might have started it."
"You started it?"
Serah bites her cheek at Lightning's disbelief. Now is not the time to say something like, "What? Can't I start a sexy love affair?"
"Yes, I started it." She swallows again, her mouth so dry it burns. "And-and-I feel-"
"Yes! But, I also don't want to stop-I don't know, are we seeing each other?" Serah shakes her head, picking herself up from the wall to pace her living room. "I mean, we agreed to just see where it goes, but I don't even know what that means! Are we supposed to date? Do we just do what we did before? And don't get me started on Snow and how I'm going to sort this out."
Serah moans, wiping at her eyes. "I'm such a bad person, sis! I started an affair! I have a husband, but I had sex with-with Hope!" She huffs, flailing her arms. "And it was great, don't get me wrong, but what about Snow? Oh, goodness, what am I going to do? He'll never forgive. He shouldn't forgive me! And I know I should stop, but Hope-Hope is just so-so-I don't even know how to explain it. He's just something else. He's been so kind and gentle with me, but other times he knows when to really toughen up, and Snow-"
Serah stops, gasping for breath and clutching her sore stomach. Lightning 'tsks' on the other end, and Serah can picture her rolling her eyes. "Please remember to breathe."
"Okay," she says in a small voice, wilting a bit. She takes several deep breaths, but Lightning stops her from speaking again.
"I don't think I need to tell you that telling me about this-"
"I know! I know. But-but Hope and I talked and we both agreed that if we talked to someone about it...it might be easier to figure out what to do." Serah toes a hole into her carpet, biting her lip. "He went off to tell Noel a little while ago. I-I knew you'd call, and I'm sorry, I didn't mean to start off that way. And you should have seen Hope when I said I'd tell you..."
Lightning chuckles and Serah grabs the sound and holds it; not all is lost if her sister can find humor in the situation.
Or the opposite, but Serah is an optimist.
"I'd imagine so." A pause, and this time Serah does not interrupt it. Her body absently seeks the couch, her legs weak. "But you need more from me than that, don't you?" A sigh from her end sends Serah's heart hammering, and she grips the phone tighter. "Serah, what have you gotten yourself into?"
Serah almost gasps, her eyes burning. Suddenly she's little again, and Lightning is the new mommy, telling her what she did wrong. Telling her how to fix it, who to say sorry to.
"I won't tell Snow, but you already knew that. You come first. No matter what."
Her racing heart brakes to a stop so fast it rattles her chest. She curls around herself, shaking her head. "Light-"
"Hush. I mean it." Serah closes her eyes and listens to her sister's breathing. Rocks herself to it, chest filling with warmth and wishing Lightning were in front of her. "I don't know where you need to go from here, Serah. I don't think I can know. But sooner or later, you'll need to tell Snow."
"I-I know. I know, I just-"
"You don't know what you want. And you don't want to tell him until you're sure either way." A pause, and Serah rocks faster. "I had a feeling. Before I left...seeing the two of you. But I didn't want to say anything. Perhaps I should have."
Serah shakes her head, only just remembering that Lightning can't see her. "No. No, I'm glad you didn't. Things were hard then. I-we-we had kissed. He had kissed me, and I kissed back but...but then we just-stopped talking after that."
Lightning hums before speaking. "Do you regret what you did?"
"I hate that this will hurt Snow. But no, I don't regret what we did." Serah is surprised by the force in her force, and her heart hardens with it. "I don't regret it at all."
"Do you understand all the reasons why you could be doing this?" She pauses, and says a bit more quietly. "All the reasons he might be?"
Serah just barely hears her sister shudder out a breath and her own throat tightens. "Remember...who Hope had a crush on? And...this is awfully soon after-"
Serah can't hear the last part; she pieces together the rest on her own and her heart fills with dark, cold dread. She closes her eyes and shakes her head, mind grabbing all the memories she has with Hope. The earliest ones, seeing him as a young boy, and the newest ones. Of the entire confession of loving Lightning and of all the things he's done and said since then. The looks he's sent her; his painfully gentle hands and his harsh words and his eyes. A quiet storm; rarely truly calm.
"No." Her eyes open slowly and she smiles. "That-I don't think that's it. I don't know what it is, but it's not that."
"I know because-because of how he acts around me. I can just...tell. I can tell that's not it. And Lightning, you didn't see him when-when I went over there. When I started this affair. He may have kissed me, but I'm the one who went back to him. And he tried so, so hard to say no to me." Serah shivers at the memory, clenching the phone. "I just-I don't think he was thinking of you. No offense," she adds quickly, eyes worried.
"Serah, are you sure?"
"Yes," she says it the same way she stated her lack of regret. Blinking rapidly, she says in a quiet voice. "I'm more worried about my side of things. What if-what if it all goes wrong? I mean, Hope is just-I don't think I can lose him. Even if we're not lovers, I can't lose him as a friend. He's just-"
Lightning laughs again and Serah's eyes widen. "He's changed things, right? Changed you. It's like he's become a rock?"
"And you just can't imagine him not being there," Serah says, blinking the tears away. She rubs her face, feeling heavy and tired. "I don't want to lose that. He's done so much for me, and I don't want to ruin it."
"But you want to keep going." A statement, not a question. Serah closes her eyes and lays on the couch, letting her hand trail on the carpet.
"Then you'll have to risk it, won't you?"
Serah nods, smiling a bit. "Yes...yes I will."
Quiet settles between them and Serah takes comfort in listening to her sister's steady breathing. She imagines she is little again, without these grown-up problems of missing husbands and love affairs and indecision. Puts herself back in a world where she counts her sister's breaths until they lull her to sleep.
"I'm sorry I wasn't much help."
"No." Serah smiles wider, shaking her head. "This helped a lot, Light. I-I wasn't thinking clearly. I needed an outside perspective. And...and someone to tell. Get some of it off my chest."
"I'm sure we'll be talking about it more. Maybe it'll get better if we do that."
"I know it will." Serah runs her fingers through her hair, opening her eyes to stare at the ceiling. "Thank you, Claire."
She pretends not to hear the small intake of breath, and that the sixty seconds silence that follows doesn't happen, and merely smiles when Lightning mutters, "Of course, Serah."
"Now, enough of my problems. What's been going on? Kill anyone for stealing your coffee yet?"
And they talk for two more hours, about tiny unimportant things. About Lightning's life and Serah's life, and back when they were little, when their biggest worry was schoolwork and dinner and when mom was coming home.
The chilled air ruffles Hope's coat and hair as he comes toward Serah's house, shivering from the cold. His cheeks are red raw after his long walk around the town, having only stopped by a cafe after separating from Noel. Moving his fingers makes them throb, the muscles rigid and bones ice.
Staring at Serah's house, his stomach churns and tightens, unsure of what to say to her. He is still not entirely certain if his realization from before is true, but it rings closer than the other scenario. Nothing else really fits. I've tried to come up with other things...but-but this one feels the most-the most right. Or am I just mistaking it for something else? I don't understand it.
And if I do...what then? What do I tell her? And what about Snow? What if this doesn't work out? And what the hell am I expecting for 'working out' anyway?
Why can't this make sense to me!
Groaning, he runs his hands through his hair, pulling on the ends until it hurts. He kicks at the gathering, powdery snow and swears under his breath.
What do I say to her! What do I do?
The headache from before has only spread from his left temple to his right, and back again. A steady pounding in the base of his skull compounds the pain, and he wants nothing more than to curl into his own bed and forget the world for a few weeks. The talk with Noel may have alleviated some of his guilt, but it adds new problems he is not ready to face.
Shaking his head, he reaches into his pocket, hissing at his hardened fingers. Before long he's waiting for Noel to pick up his phone, staring forlornly at Serah's home before his eyes close at Noel's voice.
"Hope?" There's an edge to his voice and Hope almost smiles. "Are you doing any better?"
"Not really," he mumbles back, hunching his back when a gust of wind blows through him. "Kind of lost."
"In what sense of the word?"
Hope growls. "You know what sense."
Noel chuckles, but it dies down when Hope remains silent. "Then what is it?"
"I don't know what I'm supposed to do." He tilts his head up, glad there are no more snowflakes to attack his face. "What do you do when you think you love someone?"
"I'm not seriously having this conversation with you, am I?"
"Well sorry for-"
"I'm not talking about the whole, 'she's married' thing. You're already well aware of that, and you went and did it anyway. So all that's left to do..." Noel pauses and Hope knows it's on purpose; knows he's trying to psyche him out.
And it works, if the way his heart flips is any indication.
"...is ask her out."
"I know, it's hard to believe that such a complicated problem could have such a simple solution."
Hope shakes his head, taking a step back and staring into the streets and sidewalks, as if he were looking for an escape. "But, Noel, this is way different."
"Maybe, but not as much as you think. At this point, what do you have to lose? You already decided to stay with her, right? Might as well have some fun. Well, more fun, anyway." Hope's cheeks warm slightly, and the burning pain that comes makes him wince.
"But I really-what if I am-" Hope stops himself, closing his eyes and tensing all over. He pictures Lightning giving him the mantra that pulled him through his time as a l'Cie, and guided him through his life ever since.
There are some things in life you just do.
"Fine," he says, his voice shaking slightly. He jumps at a door slamming open, whipping around to see Serah at her doorstep. She's dressed in a heavy brown coat and a thick pair of jeans, but what catches his eyes is the bright red scarf she has tied around her neck. "I'll ask her," he mumbles, giving her a wave. "I'll go for it."
"That's what I wanted to hear. Good luck."
"Thanks, Noel." Hope straightens out when she starts walking toward him, her pace quickening when she spots how red his face is. "Thank you." He ends the call and pockets his phone, smiling as wide as he can as Serah comes up to him.
"Hope! Ho-how long have you been out here?" she asks, touching his cheek when she reaches him. "Your lips are blue!" Hope's eyes flutter when she brushes his lips, and he grabs her arm, squeezing gently.
"A while. Longer than I should have," he says quietly, eyes warming as she worries over him.
"Then get in, you dummy! You'll catch a cold if you stay out here too long. Why didn't you call me, I would have picked you up." Hope hums, watching her eyes as they search him for any other signs of injury or illness, and his chest starts flooding with warmth.
"Wait until Light hears about this. She'll be calling you, by the way. Said she wanted to talk to you a bit too, but don't worry! It's not bad. And what are you staring at? Are you okay?" She grabs his face in her hands, rubbing the skin with her fingers. "You really were out here too long, weren't you? Why did you do this to yourself?"
She's...just something else. And I-I think I lo-
"Hope, please say something-" Her words are muffled when he pulls her against his chest, as if holding her would stop it from exploding from all the heat and love and things he can't describe that pour into it. He rubs his cheek on the top of her head and sways with her, breathing hard.
"You're Serah," he whispers into her hair, arms tightening around her slender frame.
"Y-yes..." She tries to look up, but Hope melds her against him and all she can see is his coat.
He shakes his head, running his fingers through her hair. His body burns from the warmth that hits him. It pulses through his body and he shudders. He wants her to know and to understand all the things he's thought of and realized, but uncertainty hits his heart and he can't form the words.
"You're you." The words are forceful and he kisses the top of her head, rocking her more. Serah blinks, tilting her head slightly. Slowly, her arms wrap around his waist and she nuzzles his chest. Hope's breath catches and something inside him loosens.
"Yes, Hope. I'm me."
She understands. She knows about this, at least. I can tell her the rest later, but I need her to know that it's her I see.
Soon he releases her, settling for holding her hand as she steps away from him. Her cheeks flush and she smiles, shaking her head. "You're something else, Hope."
He blinks, mouth parting. A chuckle slips away from him and he grins. "You think so?"
"I know so."
"Well, the feeling's more than mutual."
He swings her hand, glancing toward the sky. Serah's eyes follow his, and she asks, "How'd your talk go?"
"Weird and awkward. But I feel better. I think. And yours?"
"Pretty much the same. But...it's nice. It's nice to have someone to talk to about it. Get advice from."
"Not if it's Noel." Hope scowls, but the smiles pokes through. "He was pretty much waiting for us to have sex."
"Oh no, tell me that's not true." Her voice almost cracks and she stomps the ground when Hope just laughs. "There's no way it was that obvious! Lightning had a feeling too!"
"S-She did?" Hope's jaw drops and shoulders slump. "I guess we're more obvious than we think." Hope stops, glancing back at Serah. Bouncing his foot, he licks his lips and asks, "But...if we're that transparent...maybe we could, I don't know. Maybe...make it more official. Go on a date of some sort. Out in public, but be private or something. Hold hands and all."
Serah's eyes widen and for a brief, terrifying second, Hope thinks he's ruined everything. But then she smiles and laughs, pulling him toward her house. "Well yeah! Of course. We have to be a little careful but...I'd love to go out on a date with you." She turns her face away to hide her blush. "It's silly, isn't it? I mean, after what we did...but then we still get all nervous about-about a date."
Hope catches her from behind, whispering in her ear, "I don't know, I think it's kind of refreshing."
"Oh, stop!" Her giggles lead him into the house and he follows after her, cheeks throbbing, but in a good way now. It's getting easier, he decides as he kicks the door closed. Serah looks back at him and he touches her face. Moves in for a kiss.
Bit by bit, it's getting easier.