Thursday morning, Lightning got up at six and quickly prepared for the day and everything it might bring, taking a shower and choosing a fresh uniform while the other one hung up to air out and eventually be washed. After fixing her hair and making sure everything looked right, she headed into the kitchen and started digging around in the fridge for some sort of breakfast. Serah was already out there, looking chipper.
"Why're you so happy?" her sister muttered.
Serah glanced out the window and smiled at the rising sun. "Snow called me this morning – they're coming home."
Lightning stopped cold. "All of them?"
"Gadot, Snow, Maqui, Caius – they're all coming back this morning." Serah couldn't hide the glee in her voice even if she'd wanted to.
Lightning hesitated a little longer, then continued digging through the fridge, finally selecting meat, eggs, and cheese along with some diced vegetables for breakfast. As she worked on slicing the cheese and cutting up the meat into strips, her thoughts wandered. The boys were coming home. It was almost surreal. After so many days, the thought of the quiet house becoming noisy again was strange. Snow would be home, and Serah wouldn't miss him anymore. And Caius would be back, and the rest of the NORA group, and everything would be great again.
"Huh?" Lightning looked at her. "Sorry… what?"
"I said, I know you'll be working, so I'll see if Snow can come relieve you around midday or so. Think you're ready to go back to normal, huh?" Serah gave her a quick, gentle smile. "And, uh… I'll send Caius to see you, too. Don't know when he'll want to turn up, so be prepped for anything."
Lightning made a face at her. "He doesn't have to come see me, Serah."
"Um, hello, you told me you missed him."
The knife in her hand struck the cutting board harder than it needed to. "Yeah, I know I did. But really, I can wait until I get home. Besides, he might get sent right back to work and I'll see him anyway." Going back to slicing, she finished the vegetables and turned on the stove, cracking the eggs into a small bowl, checking for shell pieces, then scrambled them and poured them into a pan she then set on the stove.
Serah groaned. "I'll let him do what he wants. If he wants to see you, he can. If not, I guess both of you can wait."
Lightning concentrated on the meal. "Yeah, okay. Sure."
A few minutes later, she miraculously managed to cook up eggs that were neither burnt nor too jiggly, the meat and vegetables cooked properly and wrapped in eggs and cheese. Switching off the stove, she dumped the mess out onto a plate and began to eat.
Serah had a fruit in one hand now and a piece of cheese in the other. "Hey, you did it."
Lightning flashed her a quick grin. "I'm proud of myself."
Serah giggled. "I'm sure you are."
Lightning prodded a gelatinous piece of egg. "Missed a spot," she muttered.
"Oh!" Her sister had apparently just thought of something. "I meant to tell you – the school called me."
"Well, they said their maternity leave policy allows me to have up to one month half-pay leave pre-birth, and then one month post-birth of full pay. I thought about it a bit, and… well…" Serah shrugged. "I told them that as much as I like my job, my family's more important, so… I took a leave of absence."
"You mean you quit."
"No! No, I didn't quit. They said they'd take me back if I wanted to come back. I didn't tell them I was looking at getting another job." She patted her belly. "A teacher's salary is kind of pathetic, and without–" She counted softly for a second. "–four extra pairs of hands helping to pay expenses, a little extra cash wouldn't hurt. No, we're not hurting yet, but it's a big house and I guess the government's gonna asking for taxes."
Lightning groaned. "Oh, great."
Serah sighed. "I know. Anyway, remember the women's regiment I mentioned a long time ago? That fell through, but there could always be something else."
Lightning nodded. "Well, sure. The military'll use anyone with two legs and a pulse."
Once her plate was scraped clean and all the dirty dishes were in the sink, she bade goodbye to her sister and the unborn baby, leaning down to speak directly to him (or her) a moment, then headed outside and followed the path to the ops building, as it was now coming to be called. As she went inside, she saw the fifteen recruits being walked single-file into a briefing room – likely to either be briefed about something or finish debriefing about Shadowtown – before continuing on to her office, which would soon be Snow's again.
A small stack of papers requiring her attention greeted her; she settled down behind the desk, picked up a pen, and began to read.
Half the stack consisted of military reports, from troop movements to continued questions of what was going on in Cocoon to continued tensions in the government, all told with a clipped, straightforward style she appreciated. None of these required her signature, only her attention, so she read as slowly as she could, several times if she had to, and did her best to pay absolute attention to what they told her. Once those were finished, she filed them away where Snow could read them, like all the others, and went to the other half. This half consisted mostly of papers that required her signature; she was nearly finished when the intercom beeped.
She touched a button. "Yes?"
"Excuse me, ma'am, you have a visitor. He says his name is–"
"Caius," she muttered, and frowned. "Sure, let him through. Been meaning to speak with him."
"Yes, ma'am." Click.
As she struggled to focus on the papers, she felt her temper rising as she thought of him walking into her office with his usual confident stride and maybe even giving her that stupid, smug smirk she usually couldn't stand. After what he had done, she knew she couldn't withhold her anger. Her temper rose enough that her fingers began to shake and her breath grew a bit shorter; feeling her pulse speed up a notch – from anger, she was sure – she set the papers aside, unable to focus any longer, and tried to calm herself. Glancing at the clock, she raised an eyebrow at the fact that it was already ten o' clock. Guess she'd been reading slower than she thought.
A knock came at her door; her heart skipped a beat.
"Come in," she said.
The door slid open, and there he was, looking more exhausted than usual, but otherwise exactly the same, although he had changed his outfit into something with a little less black dominating the ensemble. He walked into the room and the door automatically slid shut behind him. Another few steps brought him to stand before her.
"Hello, Lightning," he said.
The sound of his voice sent a bolt of electricity through her blood. Standing, she circled around to the front of the desk, deciding to forgo the pleasantries and get right to the point.
"That was stupid of you," she growled. "Really stupid, and pointlessly reckless. What is wrong you, Ballad? Did you try to get yourself killed? Immortal or not, you shouldn't be doing stupid things like that! What if you'd gotten really hurt or worse? What if something had happened to you? When you got shot, I felt it! It woke me out of a deep sleep in the middle of the night! You idiot! It hurt! And I– I was just–"
And just like that, her ability to speak shut off, and she was left standing there, fuming, in silence.
For his part, Caius hadn't moved, nor had he spoken a word. However, his expression had changed into one that looked a bit more humbled. His shoulders, once strong and squared, had lost their firmness and dropped a bit, giving him the appearance of a puppy that had just been shouted at. Lightning opened and closed her mouth several times, trying to say something else, but nothing came.
"I only did my job." Caius spoke quietly, his voice soft, as if daring her to shout at him again. "I told you, I had no idea it would be so painful. I suspected we would be able to feel each other's pain, but I did not think it would still be so fierce at such a great distance."
Lightning felt her lower lip tremble and quickly clamped her teeth down on it.
"I am sorry, Light. Really."
It took more effort than she was used to expending just to keep her lip from trembling anyway – or her voice, for that matter, when she was able to speak again. "It scared me," she snapped. "I mean, I woke up, there was a lot of pain, and you just… you just disappeared. What was I supposed to think? Huh? And what, you think that apology is gonna cover it? I was–" She regained control of her voice just before it began to shake. "I was scared something happened to you. Permanently. That I'd lost you. It was… weird, not feeling you anymore."
"And why would losing me be such a concern?"
"Did you conveniently forget that if you die, permanently, so does the whole world?"
His brow furrowed slightly. "How could I forget? It was something I planned and schemed about for centuries, and I centered my whole final plan on destroying the Heart forever. I can't forget."
"Well, you did, stupid idiot."
"Lightning, I apologize, truly. I did not mean to hurt you."
"You–" Again, she caught herself, but it was much harder this time. Could he feel her uncertainty? Could he feel the way she battled herself, desperately trying to keep from breaking down in front of him? It would be embarrassing to lose it, and he would never let her live it down. "You didn't… hurt me, you scared me because you're the crux of all of this and if you die permanently–" She couldn't go on.
"Is that really it?"
"Yeah, that's really it. And you can apologize forever – I'm still mad at you. I'm not gonna forget soon."
"But can you forgive me?"
Lightning looked him in the eye. While he was irritated and a little hurt, he was also stern, but wasn't about to let her go without knowing he was forgiven. Groaning softly, she said, "Yeah, sure, I forgive you. I mean, how could I not forgive you? You make it hard sometimes, you with your– your 'youness'."
His lips twitched. "I see. Thank you."
"Whatever. You're dismissed. When Snow gets back, I guess I'm back working with you." Realizing her tone was still pretty clipped and angry-sounding, she folded her arms, telling him in no uncertain terms that, if he wanted to avoid getting shouted at again, he should probably leave.
Caius nodded and turned away, heading for the door. "When you come home tonight, will you still be angry?"
She dropped her arms and placed her palms on the desk behind her. "Probably."
He stopped in his tracks. "Why?"
"Sometimes I don't get over my anger easily. Deal with it."
As he stood there, she got the impression he was thinking. Staring at his back, she willed him to leave. If he did, she could get back to work and maybe let herself go, get these stupid emotions out. All the anger and whatever else in there was so bound up that it squeezed her chest in a vise.
Then he turned, walked up to her, and cupped her face in both hands, thumbs firm against her cheeks, his dark eyes gazing into hers so intensely that she felt naked.
"Lightning," he said, quietly, softly, gently, "please don't be angry with me."
She caught herself staring at him. His face hovered very close to hers – dangerously close – and the sensation of being so close to him made her anger slip a tiny bit, lips parting slightly, losing herself in the depth of his eyes and the emotions of his heart. "Alright," she whispered, realized how softly she'd spoken, and took a breath, speaking slightly louder when she said, "I'll try not to be, but I can't make any promises. Good enough?"
His expression softened, bringing out a smile. "Thank you."
She sighed. "Whatever."
Feeling his amusement, she let her scowl dissipate a little. Still smiling, he brushed his thumbs across her cheeks, then turned and left the room, door sliding shut behind him with a snick. Lightning stared after him, raising a hand to touch one cheek, before she snorted and went back to work.
The evening was peaceful when Caius finally untangled himself from his duties and made it back to town. Instead of returning to the inn, however, he stopped on the beach and stared at the Villiers household. Something told him to go in, but after Lightning's somewhat dismissive treatment of him that day, he wondered if she was still angry at him. He hoped not. After Snow relieved her during her lunch break, she'd been sent out on a patrol with Falcon and he had patrolled with Thunder. The most exciting thing about his patrol had been chasing off a small group of frogs that had decided to take up residence near the compost area. Some of them were the size of beach balls and made somewhat disgusting squishing sounds when kicked.
The sun had begun to set at about five thirty, which was when he left work, and was touching the horizon when he made it back to town. It took until the sun had gone down a bit more before he decided to go inside, though, only to find that the man of the household was nowhere to be seen. His wife, too, was nowhere to be seen – only Lightning, standing at the sink, hands in dishwater.
Stopping just inside the door, he wondered what to say or do.
"I'm glad you're back."
He blinked. "What?"
"I said I'm glad you're back." She didn't look at him when she spoke. Shyness touched his heart.
He relaxed a little and walked further in. The sunset stretched his shadow across the floor and up the wall, wreathed in golden light, and he eyed it, silently thinking that the shadow looked rather sinister. Wordlessly, he walked into the kitchen, then leaned on the counter, gazing at her.
It took a moment for him to understand what she meant. "Certainly."
"Don't sound much like it." Taking her hands out of the dishwater, she scrubbed a plate, then a trio of forks, and set them on the drying rack. As she worked on another set of utensils, she looked at him. "I'm sorry I got mad at you earlier, by the way. I was just–" She snorted softly. "I was having problems."
"Don't you always have problems?"
Taking a fork out of the water, she waved it at him. "Should I see if you're done?"
He had to fight to keep from smiling. "No need."
The fork now went to the facet to be rinsed. "I'm almost done." As he watched, she rinsed the utensils, made sure no suds were still on them, and set them in the drying rack. Picking up the bucket of water in the sink, she tipped it and dumped it all out, then grabbed a towel and dried her hands "There. So, what're you here for?"
"Do I need a reason to be here?"
She shrugged. "No, I guess."
He glanced at the refrigerator. "I brought something back for you from Academia."
The rhythm of her drying her hands on the towel stuttered. "For me."
"Yes. Is that so hard to believe?"
She finished drying her hands and dropped the towel on the counter. "No, no, just– uh–" Folding her arms and cocking her hip, she narrowed her eyes at him. "Okay, fine. No more suspense. What'd you bring me?" When he opened his mouth, she pointed a finger at him. "It had better be dead."
An eyebrow went up. "Depending on your point of view, it was never technically alive to begin with."
The finger lowered. "So? What is it?"
"There is a small white container in the fridge. Go look in there."
While she hid her curiosity on her face, it reached his heart as well as her feet when they carried her briskly to the appliance in question. She opened it and dug around for a moment; he folded his arms and waited, feeling his pulse go up a tiny bit. The only question in his mind concerned her possible responses to this gesture. He hoped she didn't take it the wrong way.
"What the–" She pulled out the container, the lid popped off. "What are they?"
"Those… are strawberries."
"Um…" Plucking one out with two fingers, she examined it. "What do you do with them?"
He had to struggle to keep from chuckling. "You eat them, Light."
Turning it over and over in one hand, she bounced it in her palm, then brought it to her nose and gave it a quick, cautious sniff. Apparently, it didn't appear threatening, because her next action involved holding the tip against her front teeth and taking a tiny, tiny nibble, hardy even a bite, of the seedy fruit. He practically held his breath, waiting to see what she would do, as she chewed slowly. Her expression didn't change.
"What do you think?"
She stopped chewing and looked him in the eye. "Hate to say it, but…" She swallowed, then took another, bigger bite, leaving only a sliver and the stem. Red berry juice stained the corner of her lips. "It's good. Kind of sweet, kind of sour… it's good." She spent a few moments chewing. "Thanks."
"You're quite welcome."
She held out the container to him. "Here, take one."
"And I'm sharing. Take one."
Mentally rolling his eyes, he did as she asked. The burst of flavor that resulted brought back a flood of memories, mostly of the first time he had ever tried the fruit centuries back and staring up at a clear blue sky, smelling a sweet prairie breeze, feeling the sun on his skin. To enjoy it here, with the woman he never expected to call his "friend", only added another good memory to his life.
By the time the entire container, which had held five plump and perfectly ripe berries, three of which she had taken, their fingertips were stained red and everything smelled and tasted like strawberries.
She rinsed out the container. "Good stuff."
"I'm glad you liked them."
Turning to face him after cleaning the container, she leaned on the counter and smiled at him. "Never thought I'd be doing this with you, of all people," she said, her voice warm and soft. "Guess I was right – someday we might even call each other 'friend'. I think I can do that, Caius."
He nodded and returned her smile. "So can I."
"I'm not mad at you anymore."
He tilted his head. "Were you really upset, or merely attempting to get me to feel guilty?"
The shyness, which had lingered throughout their encounter this evening, grew a little stronger. "Uh, well… maybe a little of both. It really did bother me. I wasn't kidding about that." Shrugging, she turned and began to rinse her fingers off with hot water and soap. "Just be more careful, okay? Please?"
"You needn't worry about that."
Nodding, she finished scrubbing, dried her hands, and looked at him again, the shyness now joined by a little bit of awkwardness that lingered in the still evening air.
"Lebreau's going to open a restaurant and I guess the whole family wants to visit when it's finished." The words came out in a bit of a rush, her voice strong, but the tone betraying the feel of the evening. "I, ah, I just wanted to ask if you'd– would you go with me– with us when it… opens?" Her cheeks turned a little pink, even as she looked him in the eye without wavering.
Staring back at her, he considered her offer. Once upon a time, she had told him that others may think the two of them were together if they were seen in public as a pair outside of work or other official business. No doubt that was connected to her shyness.
"You don't have to," she said, and raised a hand to gesture with as she spoke – a further sign of nervousness, he knew. "I mean, it's not necessary. You can stay here and–"
He took two steps forward and caught her hand, stopping her midsentence. "Why would I not take the opportunity to spend more time with you, Light?" he murmured, and secretly reveled in the way her cheeks turned a brighter shade of pink and her hand quivered a second in his. "Have we not discussed this? The more time we spend together, the better things will be between us, or am I wrong?"
Her fingers twitched. "Yeah, I did say that."
"Then–" He gazed into her eyes. "–I accept. Of course I will accompany you."
For the circumstances, she kept her composure brilliantly, gazing back at him calmly, lips closed, expression neutral, although he felt her heart beating faster than normal. His, too. "Of course you will. You can be a gentleman, I know, and you'd never let a woman go to something like this alone."
His fingers rested across the two bones of her forearm. There, he could feel her pounding heart. "Of course not."
Smirking, she drew back, and he let her go. "Good. It's settled."
"Will it be a date?"
Then her composure broke and her expression turned into one with so many emotions, it was unreadable. "Oh, don't start that with me. It's not a date. I'm sure someone–" He heard her say the word "Lebreau" under her breath. "–will think it is, so don't you get in on it, too."
"You look beautiful when embarrassed." As soon as he spoke, he sensed her temper rising and held back a chuckle at the half-flustered expression she now directed at him. Despite the circumstances, to see her flushed cheeks and scowling brow and feel her irritation somehow made her exactly that: more beautiful. To be able to stoke those feelings in her was a temptation he couldn't resist.
In the back of his mind, a whispered reminder of what could result from such things came to him – a broken heart, a desire to be "just friends", happiness he did not deserve and never could – and nearly sobered him then and there.
"I apologize, Light." He spoke quickly to defuse the situation. "I didn't intend to upset you."
Then she sighed. "No, you're fine. Friends pick on each other."
"Ah, yes, they do. Thank you."
"Do you really think I'm beautiful, though?"
Every drop of blood in his body immediately turned to ice as his heart nearly stopped. "I–"
"Tell me the truth. Do you?"
He looked away. "It does not matter," he said, and changed the subject. "There was something I wanted to ask you."
She groaned, but said, "What's that?"
"I heard of an incident involving Snow and Serah years ago that he brought up while we were in Shadowtown. If I said 'Bodhum summer date', would you understand what that meant?"
Her lips formed a faint smile. "I remember."
"Gadot said you needed therapy."
She looked out the window. "Don't know about that, but it bothered me a lot, if that's what he was getting at."
"May I ask what happened?"
The evening was very peaceful, the air so still that he simultaneously heard the crickets outside and the television in the master bedroom, turned down low. Her deep breath seemed almost loud in the silence. A joint popped as she shifted her weight and placed a hand on her hip, turning toward the entrance, then moved that direction, leaving the kitchen, and he followed a few steps behind.
"It was a month or two after they'd met. All she'd told me was that she had a boyfriend and his name was 'Snow' and he was wonderful and gorgeous, but I hadn't met him yet. I wouldn't meet him until about two weeks before the Purge started." As she hesitated, she rubbed her forehead with her free hand. "One afternoon, she said she was going on a date with him and that she'd try to be back by midnight. She wasn't. Two-thirty in the morning, I had to go to work that day, and I was still awake and worrying." She sighed. "I can still remember exactly what time she came back – two-forty-one on the dot. She was so happy, and I ruined it."
She faced him. "I shouted at her and tore into her. We didn't speak again for almost three days. She avoided me and I felt guilty the whole time." She looked at the floor. "She's my sister, and at the time my only family, and I love her and I'm kind of protective of her. I, uh… when I'm worried about the people I care about, I get angry."
"Is that the true reason why you were angry at me?"
Her eyes came up to his. "Yes."
"You were worried?"
"Yes, I was."
"Why didn't you simply tell me that?"
"I just didn't, that's all." Those were the words that came out; her emotions told him a different story. They surged like the tide just beneath the water's surface, their fathoms alien to him. "I was thinking of going to bed early, since I guess we're back to patrolling like normal tomorrow, but if you were going to hang around…"
"Whether I did was entirely dependent on what you would be doing. If you were to go to sleep early, I would just go back to the inn."
"But what about–" She shook her head, cutting herself off. "Alright, whatever. I'm not sure what there is to do around here, actually. Don't much feel like watching TV and I'm… kind of at a loss."
He glanced outside through the entrance. "The sunset."
"What, watch the sunset?"
Nodding and giving her a quick smile, he went out to sit on the front steps. After a moment, she followed, sitting beside him, only half an arm's length away. Knowing she was so close, sensing her presence, knowing he could reach out and touch her easily, calmed his nerves. They sat there in silence, staring across the beach and through the buildings on stilts in the shallows at the sun as it continued to sink.
"It's really beautiful," she said.
As he looked sideways at her, trying not to be obvious, again the whispered reminder came to him. He had to choose his words, his actions, his every waking moment around her, so carefully. Before he could speak, though, he had to let his gaze linger. The first time they had stood here, on this very beach, had been when they had first arrived here from the strange land of Valhalla. Back then, he had not truly seen the land, nor her, too focused on what he had left behind and convinced this would never be his home. Yet he could think of no other term to refer to it by. It was his home, and not just because his eternal companion lived here.
Then she looked at him. To look away would make him appear somehow guilty, so he held the gaze.
"How many sunsets do you think you've seen?"
He didn't bother to guess. "Too many."
"Hmm." She glanced across the beach and the water, then back at him. "Are you happy here?"
"Now I am, I suppose."
"With you, I am not lonely, and… where else can I go? Where else would I want to go? I am content here, with you, and the rest of your family. As long as I am wanted and accepted, I will remain here with you, and as your eternal companion, wherever you go, I will follow."
She nodded and looked at the sunset again. "Have you ever considered the–" He heard her swallow. "The possibility of becoming a couple someday?"
Only centuries of practice and self-control kept his sudden flurry of emotion from reaching his features. "Of course it has crossed my mind. We are in a unique situation, and considering that it does not allow us to be with mortals, we may have to deal with that sometime in the future." Choose your words carefully. "But, I would never want to ruin our friendship with passionate emotion."
"Yeah, no, me neither." She didn't look at him as she spoke. "You hear about things like that happening. Friends let tension get the best of them, they get into a relationship, and it falls apart. You and I worked too hard and too long to get to this point to let something like that get the best of us. Can we… can we agree not to let that happen, Caius?"
He raised a hand to her shoulder. "I understand. I will do my best."
"Let's not ever ruin this, not ever."
"No matter what."
"It's pretty much perfect the way it is."
It was a struggle not to let his soured emotions and negativity slip through the walls of his heart. If she ever found out the truth … and he stopped right there. As her companion, he had a duty to respect her wishes and do his best to adhere to her desires. That was the unspoken promise he had made that had taken root in his heart.
Dropping his hand from her shoulder, he gazed at the sunset.
"Thanks for everything," she whispered.
Without looking at her, he let a faint smile reach his lips. A sturdy friendship was not something he had had for such a long time, and perhaps, it would be enough to face the centuries ahead. "You are always welcome, Light," he said, and that was all they did – sit in silence, content to do nothing else, and watch the sun until it had disappeared below the horizon entirely.
Back in chapter 13, Caius promised to introduce Lightning to strawberries, which is why (fourteen chapters and a few months later) he brings them back from Academia for her, in case anyone was wondering. Anyway, I want to say that sometime this year, I will be publishing an AU/rewrite of LIGHTNING RETURNS, but only after I play through the game myself. I'll be sure to let everyone know when it actually happens. It will probably be at least as long as this story. Thanks for reading!