Getting to Know You

Typically when Lightning thought of a town, the first location that would pop into her head was Bodhum. In that city there were always people out and about; either at Lebreau's, on the beach, or plowing through each of the shops in the market district. In a city people should be talking, laughing, gossiping, running errands, moving. There should be noise. People. Life.

Not this. Never this.

Oerba was still, silent. Anything beyond the gentle embrace of the wind remained lifeless and stale. The only sign of activity was the independently swirling crystalline shards floating lazily through the air, a testament to the events that had occurred there, however long ago.

Lightning took a step forward, kicking a small pebble as she moved. The rock grating against the stone pathway sent harsh echoes reverberating off the walls and buildings, somehow creating a more desolate environment than before. A shudder threatened to overtake her body; an action she hadn't performed in quite some time. She fought to retain it and very nearly lost the battle. Her saving grace was Snow quietly walking up behind her and laying his hands, strong and comforting, on her shoulders.

All eyes pivoted to Fang and Vanille as they began their approach to their homeland. Pain and overwhelming sadness dared to overcome Vanille as her gaze slowly swept across the desolate town before her—it was uncharacteristic of Vanille to appear as she did now. The image of the normally peppy girl now appearing so haunted disturbed Lightning yet again. She was forced to avert her gaze, to find something else to dwell on, before the atmosphere began to affect her as it did Vanille.

She found Fang just a few feet ahead of Vanille and, thankfully, the elder tribeswoman didn't appear anywhere near as troubled by their now-abandoned home as her younger counterpart seemed. Her eyes, still sad, did not carry the same heavy weight as Vanille's: the ghosts of the past didn't seem to be haunting her. She considered the pathetic sight before her - the dilapidated and rusted-over buildings - with a downturned mouth. "Not how I remember it…" Fang gave Vanille a weak smile and received a haunted replica in return. Fang saw this and her smile faltered and failed. She paused, lost in thought, for a stretch of time before donning an even more impressive façade. "That battle against that damn fal'Cie really burned me out. Let's go back to our little house and see if our beds are still there. I'm bushed."

As they watched the only remaining Pulsians venture forth to their two-story home, Lightning was struck by the thought that the remaining four simply did not belong here. This wasn't their home: this was the home of their enemy. This was the home of the people that Lightning, Sazh, Snow, and Hope were raised to hate and despise. The four from Cocoon were far from welcome here, even if they had befriended the last two inhabitants of this planet and were made Pulse l'Cie. It didn't change the fact that Cocoon still hated Pulse and everything about it.

The thought made Lightning uneasy. It made her feel unwelcome. She was trespassing and she needed to leave as soon as possible.

Hope inhaled deeply somewhere behind Lightning, disrupting the quiet that had settled once Fang and Vanille had vanished. "Why?" he asked, his voice hardly above a whisper. "Why did this happen? Is this because of Cocoon…?"

Snow spoke; his voice crackled right next to Lighting's ear. "I don't know." His proximity to Lightning had gone previously unnoticed, and the sudden realization that his chest was brushing against her back sent a jolt through her core.

"Why did we hate them?" Hope continued. "Why were we at war?"

"Fear." Lighting banished the crystalline dust gathering in front of her face with a wave of her hand. "Manipulation. We were told to hate them, told that Pulse wanted us dead because they were jealous of what we had, even though we were the ones stealing their artifacts," Lightning laughed mirthlessly at the irony. "And all the while we were told to hate them and fear them…we were never once told that everyone here was dead. That would ruin the effect. We would no longer be so easily manipulated if we had no one to be terrified of."

"But why were we told that Pulse was so evil?" Hope pressed. "It's all lies!"

"The world doesn't follow the virtues it teaches, kid," Snow answered, squeezing Lightning's shoulders reassuringly before releasing and walking to the fore. "We're told to be honest citizens by the very government that uses all these lies to start up a war." Snow's grip tightened. "The war, in and of itself, is a lie, too. You can't have a war when there's nobody to fight against." He grunted and kicked a stone to the side. "The Sanctum used the war as a means of scaring the shit out of us in order to keep us in line. It made things like The Purge excusable, tolerable, because the Sanctum told us it was to keep the evil influences of Pulse away." Another grunt, this one of disgust, was given. "Bastards."

"Maybe, once, there was a reason for it – the fighting and the hatred. Now, though…" Lightning nodded towards the lifeless town. "Now the reason is lost. Now it's all just a means of control." She scowled terribly at the dust in the air. "Do you think this is all Barthandelus' doing?"

"It's the whole damn Sanctum!" Snow's fist swung to the side and hit a low cement wall to his left. Hope nodded slowly, starting to understand; Sazh remained utterly silent. "That's why we created NORA. We knew something was up, and we didn't want something as corrupt as the Sanctum-"

"You created NORA based on a hunch," Lightning corrected softly, shifting her weight to the opposite leg. "You had no proof of anything that the Sanctum was doing. You acted irresponsibly for no reason besides your hunch. The world can't run like that. We need evidence to support our actions, and we have to have a cause greater than ourselves to fight for. Not a hunch."

"But my hunch was right," Snow mumbled. Lightning ignored him.

"What's our cause then, Light? To…save Cocoon?" Hope frowned at this. "But they hate us. They want us dead…"

"It doesn't matter," she interrupted. "It's still our home. Our goal is to save Cocoon, to find out the truth, and settle this once and for all."

"We haven't heard the truth once yet," Snow said quietly.

"We're forgetting something very important here," Sazh said slowly, deliberately. All three were startled by his entrance into the conversation—they'd nearly forgotten about him. "Dajh. Dajh and Serah. Everything started because of them. That's why we're here. This wasn't some glory mission to save Cocoon; it wasn't to find out the truth. It was to save the ones we love." A hateful glare was sent skyward, towards the sphere of their home in the sky. "We'd by lying to ourselves if we said otherwise. We didn't start out as heroes. We had selfish motivations. We're no better than anybody else in this whole damn mess."

"Sazh…?" Snow strode back to Sazh, brushing past Lightning as he did so. None of them had seen the old man so serious in a long while. For a moment, Lightning realized that maybe, just maybe, he had been hiding this sadness behind his twisted jokes. Maybe there's something to that old fool after all.

Snow gave an uncertain glance towards Lightning, raising his eyebrows in question. She gave a small shake of her head, 'no', but Snow returned the gesture. She didn't understand until he began to speak that the returned shake meant I'm not going to listen to you.

"Sazh, man…what's up?"

"I can't help but wonder:" he responded slowly, reaching out a palm to the air so that the crystal dust would settle into the flat of his hand, "is this Dajh's future? What if he never wakes up? What if this is all in vain? What if…" his words fell into a dreary void as a heavy weight dragged his shoulders into a slump. Only seconds passed, but Lightning swore that Sazh seemed to age years before her very eyes as he stood there, bleak and despondent, worried over the future of the only family he had left. Eventually he passed a hand over his face, banishing the ghosts that haunted him. "I'm gonna go find Fang and Vanille," he announced, already striding forward towards the stairs the two Pulsians had ascended. He left as a far older man than Lightning remembered.

His words did not go unnoticed, and, indeed, as Lightning considered them she began to feel his spoken words tearing at her heart. She remained motionless for an unknown span of time, staring blankly at a large particle floating directly before her eyes, taunting her with questions that had no answers. What if Serah never did wake up? What would happen if she did? How would they move forward, either way?

Hope called her name and tugged on her cape, but her concentration remained unbroken. Would a life of ignorant bliss, floating around as a speck of dust, be preferable to the harsh reality that would await Serah's return? Why would it be worth returning in the first place? Serah's fiancée would have left her for Lightning. Serah had no other family, no college. Her home wouldn't be the same home that she remembered it, and her welcome would be more than hostile, considering her status as a Pulse l'Cie. What good would it do to come back at all?

She didn't see Snow nudge Hope towards the dwelling, but she returned to reality with a start when she felt two small, warm hands encircle her own. "It's okay, Light," Hope said as brightly as he could muster. "We'll get through this—all of us!"

Lightning managed a grunt of approval and ushered him towards the stairs, Snow trailing behind. She waited at the bottom landing for Snow while Hope begrudgingly entered the second story by himself. Snow moseyed over, rubbing his neck awkwardly. "So," he said slowly, his eyes glaring at Hope's retreating form, "like Hope said: it's won't happen. Sazh is an eternal pessimist. They'll come back."

She remained still, her eyes downcast. "And then what?"

Snow didn't have an answer. Not then. He sighed loudly and braced himself against the railing opposite Lightning. "Hell if I know," he muttered darkly. He removed his bandana and tousled his hair, obviously frustrated. After a minute, he replaced his headgear, swearing quietly. "Come on," he said gruffly. "Let's head upstairs."

Lightning unsheathed her Blaze Edge absentmindedly, admiring the newest alterations Sazh had volunteered to add. "We need to clear the area first. Come on, let's go." She turned to leave, to head back to the center of town to check inside the buildings on the outskirts, but stopped after a few steps when she realized Snow, for once, wasn't following. Snow seemed torn. Glances were cast between Lightning and the stairs Sazh and Hope had climbed minutes before.

"What?" she inquired. "We need to hurry, before dark. That Dahaka fal'Cie slowed us down a lot," she added, irritated, as she took note of the low position of the sun in the sky. She made a move to leave, but still Snow wouldn't budge. She was about to give up, to go on her own, when she heard Snow take several long, heavy strides forward.

His fingers wrapped around Lightning's upper arm without trouble. "I can't," he sighed, turning Lightning and gripping both her shoulders. His eyes were clenched tightly shut and a muscle was throbbing in his jaw. He curved downwards and pressed his forehead against hers.

Lightning cursed that damn fluttering in her chest, wishing that it were physically possible to punch it out of her. "Why not?" She asked lightly, watching tightly closed eyes for a clue to his inner thoughts.

He didn't answer right away. Instead, Lightning watched his brow furrow deeper, sending a shockwave of premature creases across his forehead. His breathing became quicker, shallower; his face slightly flushed. More than anything else, though, she became quite aware of how very near her mouth was to his. She could feel his warm breath tickling her lips and, more than anything, she was largely concerned by the sudden, overwhelming desire to have her lips meet his. She wondered at the intensity of the feeling—it was horrible, as if it had been burning within her for ages and was trying to finally claw its way out. It took every morsel of her being to control herself.

Did Snow feel the same way?

Snow inhaled deeply and held the air in his lungs, a slight frown appearing. "I need to go help Sazh. He's having a rough time." Still, though, he refrained from moving.

A simple "Oh," was all Lightning could manage. She felt foolish, exposed, and far too weak. Her disappointment at his refusal to travel with her was stupid, childish, and yet she still felt it writhing within her like a snake.

Snow had begun fiddle with strands of Lightning's hair, gently brushing the tips of his fingers across her neck as he did so. She somehow retained a second shudder: she'd be damned if she let Snow know he had this sort of effect on her. She had a sneaking suspicion that this was all part of some plan of his.

If it was, then he'd have to be disappointed with the results.

"You need to go help Sazh," Lightning said with some difficulty. She'd be lying if she said she wanted him to go and, ironically enough, that was part of the reason she wanted him to leave—she didn't enjoy the idea of thriving on his presence like that. "Send Hope back out. He can come with me."

Snow's hand, still tangled in Lightning's locks, curled into a fist and a scowl took control of his features. "Damn it." With that he backed away from Lighting, eyes still adamantly closed, spun on his heels and retraced Sazh's footsteps, leaving Lightning utterly alone.

"Damn it," Lightning echoed, her back pressing hard against a nearby street sign. Why did he have to make her feel like that every time? Why did she get so much pleasure out of his mere presence? He wasn't that good of company…

They'd been through a lot together, though, and that had forged some sort of bond between them…but not enough to warrant this. No. This was entirely because of him, not their current life-or-death situation. Snow had this effect on her. Snow made her forget her walls and personal boundaries. He had been the shoulder she had shed her tears on yesterday. He was the only one willing to stand by her, through thick and thin; punches to the jaw and sharp retorts. He was the only one willing to put up with her shit and try to get to know her. It was all him.

Him. Snow. It was that simple.

But this feeling of depending on someone else…she wasn't used to it. She had counted on herself for everything up until this point, and now she had to rely on Snow to get this euphoric feeling of sappy, shitty, girl-bliss? She had to pass off that control of herself to him? The thought was troubling to Lightning, who was so used to being the one in charge of herself and everything around her. The situation was always hers to control.

This time around, everything had fallen in around her without her say-so.

Her eyes fell on another crystal particle, reminding her of what she had lost in order to gain Snow. If it wasn't for Serah turning into the crystal that Snow still carried in his pocket, if it wasn't for their lives going to hell in a hand basket, then she never would have experienced this feeling. She never would have known the joy that Snow brought her. And yet…


"Miss me?"

Lightning spun to see Hope smiling cheerfully up at her, silvery strands of hair falling stubbornly into pale eyes. Without thinking she brushed the fine strands from his face, earning a slightly embarrassed blush from Hope. "You wish," she said, patting his cheek once before dropping her hand.

He always had a perfect sense of timing.

Hope rubbed his shoulder self-consciously. "Uh, Snow said you needed me…?"

Oh yeah. "He said right. I figured you'd be a good man for the job," she said with a small smile. Hope seemed pleased by her words. "I need to clear out the area. Want to help?"

Another grin blossomed across his youthful face. "Sure!"

The two began their rounds of the town, carefully checking each building for any sign of monsters. When Lightning and the others had first arrived in the town, it had seemed as if all was quiet within Oerba's limits. She soon discovered that she was quite mistaken. There were several little fiends—and much larger ones--hiding behind corners and walls, all eager for a fight and ready to pounce upon them as soon as they arrived near their resting places. None ever proved to be more than they could handle, but many served to be a surprise to the unprepared Lightning and easily spooked Hope.

About halfway through cleaning the main plaza, Hope and Lightning—well, mostly Hope—were deeply involved in a conversations involving things that had passed and things they wished had never been. "I was made fun of in school a lot," Hope recalled, twirling his boomerang absently in nervous hands. "I was the scrawny nerd that looked like a girl, so all the guys thought it would be a great idea to constantly make me look bad. I was never any good at sports, which didn't help. I also didn't really like being around people, so I had a lot of problems making any sort of friends there."

Lightning acknowledged Hope's words with a slight nod while her eyes busily scanned the area surrounding them. She knew what it was like to be the shy girl in school. Sure, the guys liked her well enough, but she had to turn them down quite often due to her inability to balance a boyfriend between all her other responsibilities. Amongst the males she soon got a bad reputation for being the 'Queen Bitch', and, of course, since the guys had looked twice at Lightning, the girls automatically hated her and considered her a whore. "What'd you do about it?"

Hope shrugged, his eyes downcast. "I tried to ignore it. The one time I tried to fight back I got stuffed in a trash bin."

Automatically Lightning's eyes narrowed, none too pleased to hear this news. The very thought of someone daring to embarrass Hope in such a manner sent nearly uncontrollable anger coursing through her at record speed. "At least next time you see everyone, you'll be a hero, and a hell of a lot tougher than all of them combined," she said proudly, tapping him affectionately on the jaw with her knuckles.

"Yeah," Hope said, a smile creeping across his lips as he nimbly hopped over a fence. "All because I had a good teacher. The best teacher, I'd say."

She didn't reveal how touched that simple comment made her feel. Instead she grunted in reply, concealing a smile of her own.

"You know," Hope started after a pause, poking his head around the corner of the warehouse wall, diagonal from the dwelling, "I think that we—holyshittingfire!" He jumped back as a Vampire lunged towards them, jumping out from behind a large piece of machinery it had been residing behind in the warehouse. Lightning was even startled by its coming, but not nearly so much as Hope, who had started running in the opposite direction.

Lightning just shook her head and drew her blade, calming her nerves as she darted up to the lumbering beast to put it to an end. She knew Hope would soon realize his error and return, shamefaced, within a few moments. She ran her fingers down her blade, deciding then to experiment with an iced edge on her blade, when Hope appeared by her side once more, red-cheeked and boomerang at the ready.

She said nothing about his embarrassing retreat. "Slash and Burn it, Hope," she ordered. Hope had foreseen this command; already his hands were glowing brightly and a few moments later he sent a wicked storm the enemy's way.

"So," she called after a particularly ruthless onslaught on her part. She drew back and shook her arms out. "'holy shitting fire', huh? That one of Sazh's?" She watched Hope juggle a monstrously huge ball of flame between his hands, preparing to hurl it at the foe before him.

"That obvious, huh?"

"He's the only one who makes his cursing that…original."

Hope cackled, his face brightly illuminated by the explosion at the Vampire's feet. He was good with magic—very good. Better than anyone else on their team. It was so natural to him…

The beast was felled quickly after Hope's spell. He dusted his hands off on his shirt, satisfied with his work, acting as if he had never abandoned the battle to begin with. "Don't mess with us!" He jeered, shaking a fist at the ashes of their fallen enemy, "'cause me and Light are the best!"

Grinning, Lightning led Hope out of the warehouse and back onto the street.

They walked in silence for awhile, their senses becoming far more alert as the dusk settled in around them. Hope never strayed far from Lightning's side—if she'd shift, even slightly, to the right, she could feel her arm brush against his jaw. She understood his apprehension, but still, did he have to be that close?

She, however, was the only one that seemed to mind.

Soon their rounds of the village ended, with all of the enemies in the area immediately surrounding the dwelling effectively dead. They began to pick up their pace until they drew close to the stairs, which was when Hope began to fall behind, his expression clouded and troubled. His hand touched the railing of the staircase and he sighed heavily. Lightning, by this point, was already halfway to the second story. Upon hearing his nonverbal cue of displeasure, Lightning's feet slowed, then stopped. "What?" she queried, peering over the railing at Hope below.

He ran his fingers through matted hair, heaving yet another sigh. "Do we have to go up?"

Lightning glanced towards the door. She could hear Snow and Fang's laughter from where she stood. A gentle glow emanated from within, along with the smell of roasted fruits: it all seemed incredibly inviting, especially after not having a proper roof to stay under for quite some time. She longed to go inside and discover just what it was that caused Snow to laugh so much—and she wanted to hear that sound again.

But Snow had left her to ease Sazh's burden. She could sacrifice a few moments of comfort to help Hope.

"We don't have to," she stated. "Though it is getting dark."

"I know, but…do we have to go now?"

Her ears pricked again when Snow's voice rumbled through the air. She wanted to be there, more badly than she would ever wish to confess, but she had to forgo that for now. "What's eating you?" She turned away from the door and descended down to where Hope now sat on the last stair. She joined his side, stretching her legs out after she sat. For a moment she thought she saw Hope's eyes lingering on her thighs, but upon a second examination she discovered that she was quite mistaken—his eyes were clearly and obviously aimed forwards.

He sighed again, throwing his head back to gaze at the bright orb of Cocoon. "We've come a long way," he said, his eyes reflecting his home. Lightning nodded her assent, silent, not entirely sure why he had dallied and requested she do so as well. "I've come a long way too. An average, nerdy kid-turned-l'Cie, off on some big adventure…how cool is that?" A brief grin flashed across his features before it melted away. "But I didn't do it alone. I didn't change on my own. You helped me with that, Light."

She still remained silent. What was the point of this? Hope knew she wasn't sentimental or—

"We're a good team." He said forcefully, resolutely, reaffirming this thought in his mind. "Do you think so, too?" His head cocked to the side, watching her carefully, nervously awaiting an answer.

"The best," she responded with the smile she reserved only for Hope. "Fiends don't stand a chance against you and me."

He grinned brilliantly again but it faded away just as fast. Soon he began plucking at the hem of his shorts, his eyes diverted away from Lightning. "What about you and Snow?" He asked quietly. "Do you think you guys make a good team, too?"

Her body went rigid. "What do you mean? What is this about?"

Hope scrubbed his face fiercely with one hand before turning his attention back to the velvet blanket of sky above him. Lightning waited as he took in the sight of the numerous stars, of Cocoon, and it seemed to ease his frustration some. "I mean…why Snow? You hated him when we started out. You two were horrible with the way you fought. You couldn't stand him."

"Things change, Hope. Like you said: you've changed since you started this adventure. So have I. So has Snow." She tugged on her cape out of nervous habit. "People change the way they think. That changes their behavior and the way that they view the world. That's what happened with me—us."

"But has Snow really changed?" Hope swiveled around to sit on his knees, now watching Lightning intensely. "Or is it just you? Maybe you're…you're rushing into things, or making a mistake, or—"

"Hope," she said, her voice a low warning. Hope froze, his mouth still hanging open from the unspoken last half of the sentence. She had to bite the inside of her cheek to keep her anger in check. He had hit a nerve, striking a topic she had wondered and pushed from her thoughts often. Hope knew her far too well, it would seem.

Hope waited in terrified silence as Lightning regained her composure. "What is this about, Hope? Why bring this up now?"

He was hesitant to answer. He shifted, rubbing his palms together nervously. "It's just…" Head hung, embarrassed, he continued. "When I told Snow I was gonna leave him alone, I figured you'd never actually do anything. I thought for sure that everything would be done and over with that night. When I saw things kept going with you two, I was…really…unsure about things. I didn't wanna bother you guys, though, because Snow and I finally let everything go and I didn't want to be the one to stir things up again. So, that's that. But I'm worried now."

A thick, strained, "Oh?" bubbled from Lightning. Hope missed the anger and agitation behind it.

"I promised to protect you, and this—you and Snow being together or…or whatever—is something I can't protect you from. You're going in alone, and I'm just…" he groaned. "I don't want you to get hurt, Light. I don't see how you'll get out of this without hurting in some way. I don't…that's…the last thing I want. I don't want to see you hurt at all." He laughed darkly. "And besides, I'd kill Snow if he was the one that hurt you."

I believe him.

"I know I can't protect you from everything. I probably can't protect you from anything, really..." He blinked, hard. "It's your life, and it's none of my business, and whatever else you want to put in there is fine, too. I know. It's just that…" He heaved another sigh, scrubbed his face again.

"When I first met you, you were so intense. You made me forget about my mom and instead you made me think only about surviving. You taught me everything I know now. You showed me how to act when life got me down, and through it all you were always there to help me up when I fell down - or you got in the way when some fiend was trying to eat me." He chuckled weakly at that. "But at some point I thought that I was too weak to carry on. I couldn't protect myself or anybody else. I thought I was useless. But then, my eidolon…"

Hope's words faded into silence, but Lightning didn't need him to continue. She already knew what he was trying to say. Hope had nothing to keep him motivated, and so he lost his faith and his will to fight. He fell apart and decided it would be best to remain behind, to give up and accept the inevitable. When that happened, he had gotten his prized summon and found the strength to carry on.

"I realized somewhere around that time that you were the only one that had been there consistently, constantly helping me to get through everything. You taught me to fight, to stay positive about a situation, and to never give up. You're…you were my friend and my mentor. You were all that I had, really. You gave me my dad back, and…"

He was having a difficult time now. He was pausing often to bury his head in the crook of his elbow and taking deep breaths. "I would do anything to protect you, Light. After everything you've done for me; after everything we've been through together and all the stuff you've dragged me through…I owe you that much." He stood and offered a shaking hand to Lightning. Even standing, he was only a head taller than the soldier beside him. "What I'm trying to say, Light, is that you're the only reason I'm still here. I owe you everything. If you want to…to go on with this…Snow-and-Lightning plan, then…okay. But if something ever happens and you get hurt some way, then I'll still be here, Light." His eyes were fixed on hers, palm still outstretched. "You've done too much for me. I won't abandon you, not ever."

Lightning was completely thrown. This was the highest praise anybody had ever offered her, and by far the kindest thing anyone had ever said…yet it was coming from a boy, a teenager. Then again, Hope was beyond his years, and she knew all he had said was sincere. That was all that mattered.

She accepted Hope's hand and allowed him to assist her in standing, though she needed no help with the task. Her anger had melted away quickly—Hope hadn't given her reasons why she and Snow shouldn't try things out. Instead, in her mind, Hope had told her that, rain or shine, Lightning would always have a friend in him. It never occurred to her that Hope had meant something else entirely—the very thought was unthinkable. It had, after all, taken her ages to accept Snow's affections towards her. Accepting Hope's would have made her brain explode in the process.

"You did good work today, kid," Lightning said, still clasping Hope's hand in hers as she led them up the stairs. "You deserve some rest."

Hope's smile had faltered at the word 'kid', but he reinforced it soon after. "Yeah," he agreed with a casual shrug. "I'm pretty tired. I think I'll go right to bed."

They heard the four above them burst into laughter again. "You sure? Sounds like a good time up there…"

"I'm sure," he responded flatly, his eyes skittish. He seemed suddenly desperate to get away. Once they reached the top of the stairs, he slid his hand quickly out of Lightning's and tore inside, ignoring everyone else. He ripped off his coat and scarf and climbed into the bed furthest from where Lightning now stood. Everyone paused in their conversation to watch.

Snow and Vanille were the first to their feet. Vanille ran over to Hope while Snow went directly to Lightning. As Snow approached, Lightning could hear Vanille quietly asking Hope what had happened, and she even watched Hope bury his head into the disintegrating mattress beneath him.

Snow's arm automatically reached out for Lightning's elbow. "Glad to see you're back!" he said, grinning widely, turning to look at Hope when a loud groan escaped him. "What's eating him?"

Lightning merely shook her head, unsure herself. "Let Vanille figure it out," she mumbled, already unfastening her satchel and cape. As always, Snow tried his best to avert his attention, but, as always, she found his eyes wandering back to her. He'd watch with great interest for several seconds before catching himself and turning away again. She rolled her eyes and removed her vest before stretching out her arms.

"Sorry I didn't help out there," Snow said, picking up Lightning's things and folding them absently, tossing each folded object onto the end of one of the beds. He got to the satchel, examined the scratched exterior with a frown, and then added it to Lightning's heap. "Sazh was pretty down and out," he said quietly. "About Dajh."

Lightning nodded once, curtly, deciding it wasn't really any of her business. "Well, he seems fine now."

Snow nodded. "That's Sazh for you. He'll be on the brink of depression one moment, and the next he'll pick himself back up in time for a sex joke."

She snorted and watched Snow remove his trench coat and the coat beneath that, placing those on the bed directly next to Lightning's. He tugged on the scarf tucked into his belt a few times before it came loose. "He always perks up in time for a sex joke," he mused.

"I prefer him when he's brooding," Lightning said, her eyes grateful for Snow's distracting muscles. "Less annoying that way."

Snow, more observant than Lightning gave him credit for being, held his arms wide. "You know you love it," he said, sweeping his hands over his body. Lightning rolled her eyes again and tossed her sheathed Blaze Edge at Snow's head. He caught it with ease and placed it atop Lightning's cape.

"Hey lovebirds," Sazh cooed, earning a laugh from Fang. Once again Hope moaned, and Vanille fussed over him even more, patting his back and muttering something inaudible. Lightning ignored the younger members and instead focused her intense hatred on Sazh. "Come on back here and join us!"


Snow placed a hand in the small of her back and gently pushed her forwards. "Relax and socialize, for a change!"

Lightning rubbed the bridge of her nose. "With them? Do I have to?"

"Yes. Yes, you do." Snow's hand slid a little lower, still pressing her forwards. "Besides, we may not get many more chances like this. Who's to say how much longer we have left? This could even be the last time—"

"It won't be."

"Who's to say it isn't?"

That made Lightning pause. In all honesty, she couldn't be sure…not about anything, especially the time they had left together. Lightning recalled the day before the fireworks at Bodhum, how she had decided that, after the fireworks, she'd take Serah on a vacation so they could spend some much-needed time together and catch-up with each other. Soon after Serah had announced that not only was she a l'Cie, but she was also engaged to Snow. Then Serah disappeared and Lightning's journey began, and all this took place within the course of a few days.

"When," Lightning said, rounding on Snow and grabbing his wrist, "did you suddenly become Mister Pessimistic? You're supposed to be the team's cheerleader."

"I am what I need to be in order to get the job done," Snow said with a straight face. He took a step nearer to her, his face breaking its indifference and slipping into a daring, coy smile. "But if you'd rather we be alone, then I can show you where I'm sleeping tonight…"

Lightning had been watching Fang and Sazh whispering quietly to each other, prodding each other flirtatiously. Snow's comment wrenched her from her observations. She shook her head, recovering quickly. With a repressed smile she said, "I thought you'd be too tired out after your 'counseling session' with Sazh …?"

The surprise on Snow's face was exactly what she had sought. Satisfied by his gaping, Lightning strode over to where Fang and Sazh sat and joined them on the floor on the far side. She noted the strange robot that rested at Fang's side that seemed inoperable. She was about to ask when Snow sat beside her, his face contorted into amused irritation. It was an odd combination.

"That," he said quietly, "was low. Even for you."

"Soldier Girl," Sazh corrected, obviously overhearing Snow's words, "ain't beneath anything." He ignored Lightning's glares and continued with, "But I'm interested in hearing what just occurred to make you say that."

"I second that notion," Fang said, leaning forward and resting her elbows on her knees.

"Not going to happen," Snow said, leaning back and placing his weight on his arms. "Anyway, now that Light's here and Vanille's with Hope, I guess we can have us some adult conversation."

"Then I guess you'll have to leave the circle, big guy," Fang said, prodding Snow's boot with her own foot.

"Just because you're a 500-year-old harpy doesn't mean—"

"You wanna call me that one more time?" Fang's eyes flashed dangerously. "Go ahead. I dare ya."

Snow grinned. "What…a '500-year-old harpy'? It's the tru-" he was interrupted when Fang punched his jaw, not bothering with holding back any of her strength. "What the hell?" Snow yelped, cupping his already bruising jaw in his hand. "That was uncalled for! Why the hell am I always the one who gets punched in the damn face?" He poked his jaw and cringed. "Shit, this hurts like hell!"

"Maybe," Lightning said, the familiar green glow already working at her fingertips, "your jaw wouldn't be smashed so much if you stopped talking." She held her hand out to Snow's face, and Snow dropped his own hand rather quickly. He closed his eyes when Lightning graced him with her cure, and she was suddenly reminded of their first time alone in Hope's house, where this whole damn mess had come to a head. She put more energy into the spell, forcing the memories away as she concentrated…but she still noticed the odd expression of bliss that Snow donned as she worked her magic on him: his eyes were half-closed, the corners of his mouth upturned into a soft smile. He was enjoying this. That much was obvious.

Lightning was frightened by that. She quickly finished her task and withdrew her hand, folding it neatly inside the other and tucking it into her lap, furrowing her brows and staring at her knees, which were tucked neatly to the side. Why did he enjoy a simple cure?

Snow scooted over until his shoulder was pressed against Lightning's. He gave her another warm smile in thanks.

Lightning allowed the butterflies to wreak havoc in her stomach for a few seconds before effectively killing them. "What's that?" She nodded towards the robot next to Fang.

"Huh?" Sazh craned his neck around Fang to see what Lightning referred to. "Oh, that's just some broken piece of shit—"

"Hey!" Fang punched Sazh's shoulder lightly. "Not funny!"

Clearing his throat and rubbing his arm, Sazh corrected himself. "Some robot, which is also, I might add, a broken hunk of metal-ow! Woman! Stop!"

Fang's glower spoke volumes.

"Fine!" Sazh said, dejected. "We found this—this—and it's just waiting to be fixed. I guess it was Vanille's or something, I don't know."

"You trained him quick," Lightning grunted at Fang. The Pulse woman only laughed.
"I can give you some pointers, if you want," Fang offered. Snow grinned at Fang's words, shook his head, and flung his bandana at Lightning's face while she considered the offer.
Lightning caught Snow's bandana with a deft hand and began winding it up, preparing to lash out. Snow held up his hands defensively when she wound it too tight. "Touch me with that and I swear I'll call my eidolon to whip your ass."

Lightning had to admit that she was glad Snow wasn't fawning over her like some pathetic, love-sick puppy. Instead of doing everything in his power to win Lightning's affections and acting hurt by her teasing, he would shoot a retort back at her, challenging her in one way or another. Nobody else would have tolerated her antics, but Snow reacted to them…perfectly.

Lightning shook her head, returning the headgear to its proper owner. "Your eidolon? Against me? Please. I'd eat your eidolon for lunch."

Snow was oddly quiet at that. Lightning watched his eyes glaze over in thought while he replaced the black material onto his scalp, deeply entranced and pleased by whatever ideas ran through his mind. What was it that she had said?

"I know what you're thinking, big boy," Fang was grinning stupidly again. "And I'm pretty sure Lightning wouldn't appreciate you picturing her with the Shiva Sisters…"

"I can't even begin to describe how interested I am in your mental images right now," Sazh said earnestly. "All I heard was 'sisters', 'Lightning', and 'eating'. I have no idea what the conversation might have been about, but—"

"Wait." Lightning's voice cut through the clamor, and she now turned to face the scarlet Snow. "Sisters? Your eidolon…it's…two sisters that turn into a motorcycle…that you can then ride?"

"I didn't choose them," Snow said sheepishly. "They came to me, and it sounds a hell of a lot worse than it is."

"…summon them, damn it!" Sazh persisted, hitting the floor with the flat of his fist. "I want one for myself!"

"Sazh, they're not even human—"

"I don't care!"

Lightning groaned inwardly. "I'm surrounded by idiots," she muttered.

"—don't understand why you always get the sisters!" Sazh was clearly annoyed. "I mean, come on! Why can't I catch a break? My eidolon—well, let's just say that I thought it was a man until Vanille informed me otherwise…and I'm still not entirely sure if she's right. But, I mean, sisters—"

"Sazh." Snow held a hand up. "Shut it. I'm serious." Silence fell between them for a few moments before Snow decided to break the tension he had created. "This old man here had a question for you, Light."

"What?" Sazh spluttered, aghast, snapping out of the stupor Snow's eidolon had placed him into. "N-no! No I didn't! Don't listen to the bastard! I didn't have any sort of question for you!"

"What's wrong, Sazh? Scared?" Fang teased, prodding his forearm with a long finger. "You were so interested earlier…"

"I didn't have to fear for my damn life at that point in time!" Sazh looked at Lightning. "Don't listen to these guys—I don't have any questions for you. None!"

"Obviously not." Lightning turned to Snow and felt her insides squirm at the sight of his grin. When the hell did I become such a damn girl? "What's all this about?"

"Well…" Snow's face dropped. "Um…ah…"

"So articulate." Fang shook her head before adjusting her position. She swung her legs behind her and rolled onto her stomach, supporting her head on her palms. "Sazh—and Snow, for that matter—are both rather interested in hearing about your romantic life."

Lightning's countenance turned stony. "What?"

"You know. Boyfriends and sex and playthings—that sort of thing. He wanted to know." She pointed to Sazh. "Also him." Her finger moved to Snow. "And her." Then Vanille. "And me."


Fang sighed. "Is that your response to everything?"

Lightning said nothing: she spied the trouble with answering that question.

"Come on," Fang pushed. "We'll tell you ours if you tell us yours."

"Fang, you're a whore. You and Vanille already told me about your 'private tutoring sessions'…"

Snow and Sazh both choked. "Wait, what?" Snow said, his gaze alternating between Lightning and Fang. "Private tutoring?"

"Apparently Fang was getting bad grades in school—"

"You have schools on Pulse?" Snow asked, genuinely surprised.

"Shockingly enough, we weren't uneducated idiots. This may surprise you, considering your superior intelligence and all." Fang flipped her hair over her shoulder and began examining it. "And you definitely misunderstood, Light."

"I called you a 'whore' then and there. You didn't—"

"It wasn't the time to discuss it," Fang said, waving it off. "My 'private sessions' were that I demanded this one guy in my class teach me some subject that I don't remember. In return, I wouldn't burn down his house."

Sazh scratched his chin. "You're one psychotic woman. I like that." He and Fang exchanged wicked smiles and turned to Lightning.

"Your turn," Fang said simply.


"Fine. Snow's turn."

"What?" Snow spluttered. "No. Nono. I don't think—"

Sazh sat upright quite suddenly. "Okay, even I have to know now. How many, Trench?"

Snow groaned and shifted away from Lightning. "I am not having this conversation with you."

"How many?" Sazh persisted, oblivious to the anger rising within Lightning.

'How many'? What, do guys keep tallies or something? Is that all a girl is to them—another number for their headboard? Her frown deepened. Had Serah been one of the numbers on Snow's list? Was that all he was after with Lightning…?

"Yeah, Snow," Lightning said casually, studying her nails. "Tell us."

Snow was quietly watching Lightning, who was still picking at her fingers. "You're pissed," he said quietly. "And I didn't even say anything."

How can he tell? "No, I'm not," she said with some effort. "I want to know."

"You want to know now, sure, but you'll get all pissy—" he heaved a heavy sigh of defeat when Lightning's glare didn't falter. "Fine," Snow began again, staring hard at the wall behind Lightning. "I've had four or five girls…" he shrugged, rubbed his neck. "Think whatever you want of me for that."

Lightning's glare sharpened. "And my sister?"
"Hell no!" Sazh and Snow both responded at the same time, making Lightning look between the two men curiously. Her eyes landed back on Snow, whose face was flushed and downturned.

Lightning let the awkward silence sit around them for a moment. "Good," she said finally, allowing her body to relax. If his answer had been anything different, she probably would have beat his ass and ignored him for the rest of her life. "Carry on."

He was startled by this. Snow glanced over, wide-eyed, and considered Lightning for a few moments before smiling with embarrassment and uncertainty. "Okay then."

Fang released a breath she had been holding for some time. "That," she said simply, "was nerve-wracking. I wasn't about to see this relationship that I put so much time and effort into creating go crumbling to the ground." Sazh snorted in laughter beside her. "So, moving on. My number is around two-and-a-half. Not a lot. But it's not quantity…it's quality, right?" Fang winked at Sazh. "This guy'd know."

Lightning buried her head in her hands. "I don't even want to know."

Fang laughed, then prodded Sazh with her elbow. "How 'bout you, old man? Let's hear it!"

Sazh's face fell as he tapped the wooden floor beneath his fingers, reminiscing on times long passed. He shook his head imperceptibly before returning to his normal, cheerful self. "Unlike you kids, I was a bit more honorable. I was only ever with…with my wife."

"What?" Snow nearly shouted. "I don't believe you! You're lying!"

Sazh got upset by that. "Why the hell would I lie about that? I'm telling the truth!"

"But…but you…!" Snow spluttered, too shocked to form a coherent sentence.

"It's been three damn years, boy!" Sazh said defensively. "Leave me the hell alone!"

Lightning chuckled as Snow and Sazh continued arguing back and forth. She had to admit: she was surprised by everyone's responses. She thought that Fang's would be triple what she admitted to, and Sazh's…well, she didn't know in their right mind would ever willingly sleep with Sazh, but she figured he may have paid for quite a few companions…

Fang rounded on Lightning now, determination burning brightly in her eyes. "You know ours. Now spill."

Lightning's face remained impassive. "No."

"Yeah, come on," Snow pressed, nudging her with his shoulder. "I'm up for some juicy gossip. Let's hear it!"


"Don't you think I deserve to know?"

"I don't know," Lightning admitted. "But they definitely don't." Truth be told, she felt slightly embarrassed. She had always been an exceptionally private person. It was none of their business. Besides, Hope was only a few feet away…

Her eyes slid over to Hope and Vanille. She noticed that Vanille had fallen asleep at Hope's bedside, her head resting at Hope's shoulder while her body was propped up in a chair. Hope remained still, unmoving—he had seemed to have fallen asleep as well.

"I bet hers is around ten," Fang said silkily, her eyes gleaming. "At least. She seems like the type to vent some steam with anything—"

"Hey!" Snow said sharply. "Watch it!"

Sazh laughed at Snow's words. "Careful, Fang, or you'll anger the bear!"

Fang nodded her head, conspiring. "I know," she muttered. "Light," she said, this time more loudly. "If you don't tell us, then I'll be sure to tell Snow all about that one time we were taking a bath and you totally—"

"Don't you even dare think about it," Lightning hissed. "I'll kill you without a second thought."

Fang's eyebrows shot up. "Oh, really? Well, I think that if I told Snow, it'd be worth it. Or you could always just tell us and I'll forget about the story…"

"You wouldn't dare."

Fang grinned in her smart-ass way and proceeded to speak. "One day Light, Vanille and I were taking a bath—"

"None!" Lightning blurted, not wanting Fang to proceed any further with the horrifying tale. She blinked, realizing her error: she should have just shut Fang up with a swift jab to the nose. Instead she had panicked and the word slipped from her mouth before she could stop it. With a groan, Lightning closed her eyes and began cursing vehemently beneath her breath. "I swear to the fal'Cie, Fang: one day, I will kill you when you least expect it."

Everyone was oddly quiet, making Lightning even more uncomfortable. She felt like dying—her insides were twisting. Everybody here was judging her, she was sure. She was certain that they were finding reasons for her to be so virginal. 'Maybe', they'd think, 'she's too stuck-up to consider being with anyone. Maybe she thinks nobody is good enough. Maybe…'

The silence continued to stretch on and on—it seemed to last forever. Lightning could hardly stand it anymore, so she stood quickly and took a step towards the door. Snow's hand shot up and grabbed her wrist, but Lightning jerked it away quickly and continued on her march.

She got outside and braced herself against the railing, berating herself for rising to Fang's bait. She'd kill the wench. She really would. She'd throttle her, beat her over the head with the blunt end of her blade, maim her, and then she'd kill her.

No, no. That wouldn't be bad enough. She'd have to starve her first, then beat her—

"It's not a bad thing, you know," Snow said breathlessly, standing in the open doorway behind her. "In fact, I'd say it's a damn good thing."

"Shut the hell up," Lightning grumbled, clenching her fist. "I don't want to talk about it."

"Too bad," Snow said, taking a few daring steps forward. "I'm tired of only talking on your terms. We're going to have this conversation now. I deserve that much."

"Oh really?" Lightning whirled around. "Says who?"

Snow didn't reply. Instead his eyes met Lightning's and stared her down. Irritated, Lightning turned away. She knew it would be considered a sign of her defeat, but she didn't care. She didn't want t deal with this, not now. She was too annoyed with herself. She was letting herself down.

"So…never, huh?" Snow began, taking a place at Lightning's side, closing the door behind him.

"Shut up, Snow."

"Did you ever date?"

"Snow. I'm warning you."

"Why the hell can't I know?"

The urge to hit something overcame her. As always, the first thought that came to mind was to aim for the skull, for Snow. Her fist clenched even tighter and she grew angrier, but instead of striking out she gripped the railing and squeezed it with all her might. "Snow, you've slept with four or five women. You can't even remember how many you've been with. I, on the other hand, haven't even had a…a boyfriend. I never had the time to have one—I mean, I didn't even have time for school, let alone a guy in my life. I was too busy with other things. And now I find out that you sleep around with all these girls and—"


"I mean, how the hell am I supposed to feel? The most I've ever done was make out with Gadot when I was really drunk and I find out you've—"

"Wait, what?"

"…four or five women and I—"


"And then I blurted it out in front of Fang, that stupid bitch! I'll kill her!"

"You and Gadot…why the hell didn't I know about this?"

Lightning blinked stupidly a few times before she realized what she must have admitted. "No. I never said that." She stood erect, her expression fierce. "If you ever tell anyone I said that, ever, I will—"

"You made out with Gadot? And I never knew? He's my best friend! He never told me! Damn it, when did this happen?"

Lightning groaned again, rubbing her forearm viciously. How could she be so stupid? Why the hell did she just go off on some tantrum? What was wrong with her today? If she wasn't pining after Snow then she was being a moron and telling all this shit that was best left unsaid!

But if anybody did have a right to know, then it'd be the man standing before her, intensely interested in whatever response she was willing to part with. Lightning groaned for a third time and turned around. She reached up and grabbed the edge of the roof and, with ease, pulled herself up onto it. Snow followed shortly after.

She took a seat on the peak of the shingled building, staring at the bright planet that was her home. She recalled the event that Snow now questioned her on and felt a twinge of sadness in her. It reminded her of Bodhum, of home, and Lightning missed Bodhum terribly.

"Four years ago," Lightning said quietly. Snow inched closer to her, determined to catch every word. "I was scheduled to work that day, but we were overstaffed. I got the day off. Serah wasn't home. I think she was still at school or something. It was the anniversary of my mom's death."

Lightning brushed her hair to the side of her head and began inspecting it, much like Fang had done earlier to her own locks. "I was…down and out, I guess. I went to LeBreau's. I was there all day and for a big portion of the night. I was already drunk when Gadot got there." She drew her knees tight into her chest, bracing herself against the chill of the wind. It was a cold night.

"Believe me, I'm not attracted to that lumbering oaf. At first, when he got there, I insulted him. He got a few in him and began insulting me. We almost got into a bar fight. Some other guys came in and insulted me, so Gadot went after them. It was a short fight. After that, there were arm-wrestling matches against Gadot, followed by some gambling, a few rounds, some more insults. Next thing I know there's another bar fight, and somehow—I don't know how—Gadot and I ended up outside on the beach acting like dumb teenagers. I didn't really know what I was doing…." She looked back to Cocoon and wondered where Bodhum was located on that bright sphere, wishing she could go there once again.

"I woke up the next morning really hung-over, but my thoughts were still pretty lucid. I remembered everything that happened and I felt like an idiot. I found Gadot a few hours later, told him that if he told anybody about what happened, then I'd cut off his left testicle and shove it up his nostril."

Snow burst into laughter at that. "That would explain why he never told me, and why you scared the hell out of him."

Lightning smiled despite herself. "Needless to say, I never drank again after that."

"Damn," Snow said, punching his other palm. "Ruins my grand scheme…"

"What, get me drunk and make me your fifth or sixth tally for the headboard?"

Snow looked at her quizzically. "No…to find out all the rest of your dirty little secrets," he said, grinning goofily. Lightning rolled her eyes and laid back against the gently sloping roof, resting her hands behind her head. Snow remained sitting, placing his weight on one arm, nearest Lightning. His eyes never left her. "The other girls were a long time ago. A long time ago," he repeated. "You'd never be 'just a tally' to me. I hope you know that."

Somehow, she did know. She just refused to verbally acknowledge it.

"You know," Snow said, shifting slightly so that he was nearer to Lightning, "I have to say that I'm pretty pissed at Gadot…" he trailed off but Lightning was intrigued.

"For not telling you?"

Snow shook his head. "No, not that." He grinned bashfully. "I'm pissed that he beat me to the punch."

Lightning was at a loss. What do you say to something like that? She decided that silence was better than sounding stupid, so she turned her head slightly away from Snow and watched Cocoon for awhile longer, noting the awkward tension that was settling between them. She was thinking about this, considering the possible reasons why things suddenly got weird, when something blocked her view of Cocoon.

Or, rather, someone.

Snow hovered above her, inches from her face. His arms and knees were to either side of Lightning, supporting his weight without adding any pressure to Lightning's body. Without his bandana, which still lay against the far wall indoors, Snow's hair fell into his eyes and some strands tickled Lightning's nose, but she didn't dare move. She wasn't entirely sure what Snow's intentions were, but she knew her heart had suddenly begun to race within her chest.

"I could fix that, you know," he whispered, lowering himself down to rest on his forearms. He was now barely an inch above Lightning—she could feel his warm breath on her cheek. When she inhaled, her chest pressed against his. If she were to shift at all, her body could upset his balance and cause him to come crashing down…

"Fix what?" she said lightly, hardly daring to breathe. Her eyes met his, trying their best to hide the excitement within her. She wouldn't let him win this.

"I could make myself even with Gadot," Snow said lightly, his eyes taking in the sight of her eyes and lips. "It's not like I don't want to. Hell, I've thought about it since we were on watch together in the cave. It's been on my mind for ages."

"Really now…" She still didn't know what to say, and she didn't trust herself to speak. She'd sound like a fool, some love-sick fool. She didn't want that.

"Yeah…" The distance between them closed until there was barely a hair's breadth separating them. Snow's lips met her jaw once, twice, leaving a burning trail to the sensitive skin near round ears. He hesitated there, his lips hovering over her earlobe, and his breath sent a shudder down her spine that she couldn't contain. The movement affected Snow somehow, as he suddenly had to bite his lip and raise himself up and away from Lightning about an inch. He closed his eyes and his lips were moving, but no audible words reached Lightning. He shook his head slightly, mouthed something, lowered himself, and pressed his lips yet again against Lightning's skin, this time on her neck. While one arm supported him fully, the other was traveling slowly up the opposite side of her body, memorizing the curves of her waist as it went. It traveled on up, across the side of her ribcage, over her shoulder, caressing her neck and cupping her cheek as he busied himself with her collarbone.


Once again he had to pull himself away, this time shaking his head more violently. "I could make myself even, right now, with Gadot," Snow said quietly, eyes closed yet again. He removed his hand from Lightning's face and, now with both hands on the ground on either side of her, he pushed himself further away yet. "I could have made myself even with him a lot of times before, too, when you weren't…you. I could have had you. I could have. Hell, you don't even know how badly I wanted to. But it wasn't right. I couldn't do that to you. I would never do that to you."

He pressed himself up entirely, his elbows locked at his sides. He buried his head in his shoulder, rubbing his face against the sleeve of his shirt. Finally he opened brilliant blue eyes and gazed at Lightning's shocked face affectionately.

"You confuse the hell out of me, Light," he said, his face soft. "I don't know what to think. Part of me is telling me that the timing is right, to go for it and hope for the best. The other half is saying that you're not ready for me yet, that you still aren't sure whether or not to pursue this. I have to say, I hate that half, but…I can't help but think it's the side with all the sense. You're not ready for me yet. You're still trying to figure out how Serah will work into this."

"But I will tell you this much: I'm determined to make this work, hell or high water. I'm just…waiting for you to get to that point, too." He lowered himself down again and kissed the corner of her lips, dallying there for a few seconds longer than he had anywhere else.

The urge within Lightning to tilt her head to the side, to have Snow's lips meet hers, flared to new heights. She was tired of waiting; tired of the delays. Tired of thinking and reasoning and feeling guilty. She wanted her happiness, her joy, without any negative feelings jumping to the fore. She wanted that so badly, and yet it seemed as if she was doomed to forever feel guilty about everything. Something as simple as a kiss was becoming a battle between good and evil within her. All the arguments were the same as before. Nothing was new, and no side was going to be the clear victor.

She was so tired of waiting for one side to defeat the other, though. So tired…

Snow pulled himself away, rolling off to the side and sitting up, facing away from Lightning, who hadn't moved throughout Snow's entire display. He hung his head, cursing beneath his breath. After a moment he composed himself enough to speak.

"Let me know when you're ready to move on, Light," he said, holding his hand out for Lightning to take. She took it uncertainly, her breath still held within her lungs. What had was almost like a dream to her, and she could barely believe it had truly happened. Snow led her to the edge of the roof but stopped her from jumping, just for a moment. "When you're ready to move past Serah and see the bigger picture. I'll…" he turned slightly and brushed the hair from her face before urging her to jump down, which she promptly did. "I'll be waiting."

She took a few steps into the dwelling and moved to hold the door open for Snow, assuming he had followed. When she turned around, he was nowhere in sight.

She lay awake for a good portion of the night, her mind uneasy. She continued to replay the events on the roof over and over again in her head, wishing she would have had the courage to make a move, to return Snow's gestures…and yet, her conscious had forbidden her from doing so. Each kiss Snow laid upon her sent Serah flying to the forefront of her thoughts. At first her thoughts had been too jumbled to create a coherent train of thought, but now that she had settled in she had plenty of time to consider the events of the night.

Snow was ready to move on. He was done dwelling on Serah, done with the guilt. That was something Lightning still struggled with. How had he done it? How had he moved on? How could it have been so simple for him?

He never loved Serah. That explained a lot, sure, but it raised just as many questions as it had answered. He may not have loved Serah, but did Serah love him? Why had he pursued their relationship? Why had he proposed?

Lightning rolled onto her side and let her eyes fall on Snow's empty bed for the umpteenth time that night. Fang and Sazh had said Snow agreed to take watch that night, but when Lightning had walked outside to see him, to talk with him some more, she still couldn't find him. Where had he gone?

Another sigh escaped her. What would she have said even if she had found Snow? There really wasn't anything more to say. He knew her thoughts about their situation, for the most part. He was convinced he was in the right. Lightning was still unsure. There was nothing more to be said until Lightning made up her mind. Her mind, however, was refusing to be made. No matter which stance she tried to take, her mind would rebel against her and give her hundreds of reasons why she was wrong. She'd never be able to make up her mind this way. Not ever. Not alone.

"Fang?" Lightning stood and stretched her legs and arms out a bit before prodding the woman on the bunk above her. "Fang, wake up." If she couldn't make up her mind, then she'd get somebody else to make it for her.

"No," Fang groaned, curling the blanket up to her chin. "Five more minutes?"

"Wake up. I need to talk to you." Why the hell was she talking to Fang about this? She'd probably have better luck with Hope or something…

"It's in the middle of the damn night," Fang whined, peeking at Lightning through half-open eyes. "I don't want to talk to you."

Lightning growled and sent a small spark from her fingers into Fang's scalp. Fang woke with a yelp and frizzed hair. "You damn wench!" Fang croaked, her hand flying up to try and pat her hair down. "What was that for?"

"Next time, listen."

"When the hell do you ever want to talk to me? Go talk to Hope or something! Why wake me up?"

"Fang." Lightning turned her back to Fang, staring resolutely at the bed Hope and Vanille claimed. "Please."

Not at all happy with the situation, Fang clambered down from the top bunk and, still attempting to flatten her hair, she made her way to the far end of the room, near a desk where they had formed their circle earlier. "I'm only doing this because you said 'please'," Fang muttered, dragging the chair out and sitting in it. She crossed her legs and waited for Lightning to initiate the conversation. "I really would like some sleep tonight, though, if you don't mind," she added after a minute of silence.

Lightning considered her words carefully. She picked up the robot that had remained forgotten on the floor and dusted it off some, staring it at far more forcefully than she needed to. "If you went off on some vacation when you were engaged and came back to see that Vanille had stolen your fiancée…how would you react?"

Fang rolled her eyes and leaned forward, her elbows on her knees. "This, again?" She groaned. "I thought you were done with this!"

"Shut up and answer the question."

"I can't really do both of those at once, now, can I?"

Lightning glared at Fang, who succumbed with a shrug. "Fine." Fang spun around in her chair and grabbed something off the desk, looking at it for a good stretch of time. "I'd be mad as hell," Fang admitted, still examining whatever she held in her hands. "Of course I would be. I would be confused and I'd feel pretty damn betrayed. Anybody would." She paused and held out her hand. "Here, I want you to look at this."

Lightning extended her hand and took the item Fang offered. She brought it before her eyes and was surprised to see it was a picture of Fang and Vanille together, right outside the very dwelling they now rested in. "You and Vanille," Lightning remarked, handing the photo back to Fang, who was nodding.

"Yeah. Me and Vanille." She glanced at the picture again. "Vanille and I were always close growing up, like sisters. I know that she'd never hurt me without a damn good reason. Yeah, I'd be angry as all get-out if that happened, but eventually I'd calm down. I think it'd be pretty stupid of me to lose my fiancée and my sister all in one blow because I wasn't mature enough to talk it out with Vanille."

"But you'd still be mad," Lightning said lightly, her heart sinking.

"You can't expect Serah to not be mad, Light." Fang rubbed her eyes and yawned. "That's being naïve. You've got to accept that it's inevitable that she's gonna be pissed. You can't do a damn thing about that. But in the end, you two will be okay. You're sisters. Family. Family sticks together, no matter what."

"Even if I steal my sister's fiancée?"

Fang sighed and banged her head against the chair. "You're so dumb…no wonder you and Snow get along," she muttered. She lifted her head and considered Lightning again. "We've already been through this. You know the reasons why that statement is stupid. You know why you're not willing to accept what's going on. You know it all. You know as well as I do that, in the end, you have no reason to not go after Snow other than your own cowardice. So, what'll it be? You gonna take your happiness and let Snow have his, and let Serah find her own later, or are you gonna let everyone be miserable in the long run because you're too stupid to take a chance?"

Lightning paused and tapped her foot, contemplating. She knew Fang was right. She was making stupid excuses and repeating the same things to herself in order to refrain from feeling guilty; to refrain from having to make a hard decision. She couldn't keep passing the buck—eventually she'd have to go for it or withdraw completely. She couldn't hang in this limbo anymore.

She nodded, reaffirming the decision she had come to. She knew what had to be done. She wouldn't allow the indecision to paralyze her anymore.

"You're not half-bad when it's a one-on-one conversation," Lightning said, fiddling with the robot's arms before setting him down.

"You're not as hard-assed as you pretend to be," Fang yawned as she stood to push her chair in.

Lightning snorted and turned for the door. "Maybe," she said, pushing the door open and bracing herself against the cold breeze outside.

"Where are you going?"

Lightning paused, a small, glowing smile on her lips. "I think I'm ready."

Fang chuckled quietly and crawled back into her bunk. "Go get 'im, tiger."

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