Change of Heart

They were all gathered in a misshapen circle around Hope who, besides from his stirring about thirty minutes prior, had yet to move.

Snow was rubbing his face in exasperation. His body still ached from their mad hunt for Hope and their earlier retreat from the motley band of fiends. His jaw throbbed where Lightning had struck him - though he had no one to blame but himself for that. Exhaustion even consumed his mind after having been through a barrage of draining experiences and emotions within the course of a single day. Snow struggled to maintain some semblance of a calm exterior and keep everything together.

But how could he when their future appeared so bleak?

They were lost. Not physically lost, oh no—they knew right where they were on this damnable world—but rather they didn't know where to turn next for their focus. Even if they did know, the group of them would be unable to travel there, not without Hope. Lightning would likely murder the first person to even so much as hint at it, not that any of them seriously considered the option, anyway. Even carrying the boy was out of the question: they needed all the hands they could get in a fight, and someone carrying Hope meant the party was down to four, and the person watching over their favorite teenage boy would be responsible for more than their own life.

No, they were stuck here without a clue. Without Hope.

Snow pushed himself up off the ground and away from the fire; his body begged him to reconsider the motion. "So this is how it ends?" he growled, aiming the question mostly at Lightning. She returned his question with a hard glare.

Sazh, who had occupied the spot directly to Snow's left, shook his head. "Just wait. Now how long has it been since we left Cocoon? Hm?" At first his body language suggested irritation, but as he spoke his head slowly bowed and his shoulder slumped under an invisible weight. "Not a single soul for miles around. Not a single clue about this whole l'Cie mess! What I'm saying is we did well getting this far."

Snow tsked audibly, rubbing a hand over his face again. This isn't how this is supposed to end. Serah, you told us to protect Cocoon. Now would be a good time to give us some sort of a hint!

As if answering Snow's private supplications to Serah, Vanille left Hope's side for the first time that night. She sounded uncertain as she began. "But…we could go a little further."

Sazh lifted a brow in anticipation. "Meaning…?"

"There's still one place…"

Vanille's cryptic speech was starting to get on Snow's nerves, but snapping at her wouldn't have done anyone any good. He took several deep breaths before deciding to question Vanille, but Fang jumped in the conversation first.

"Vanille…are you sure?" Fang's eyes were locked on her younger counterpart. Vanille nodded in assent.

Everyone, Snow still included, mulled over all plausible and extraneous meanings of Vanille and Fang's conversation as a silence followed their words. Snow absorbed the faces of all his non-Pulse teammates, his confidence slightly boosted when they all appeared to be just as confused as he.

All except for Lightning, that is. Her mind was always eleven paces ahead of the others. "You know," she said slowly, each word forming carefully on her lips, "if we don't find anything this time, we won't get another chance."

Snow became very aware of his brand then, perceiving the gleaming red eye in the center of his forearm with a newfound wariness. This was certainly no time for mistakes. But again, even if they knew where to go…

"Oerba." Snow jerked his head towards Hope at the sound of his voice, relief flooding over him in massive waves. "The place where it all began." Vanille was already clambering over to Hope's side.

"Hope!" Snow could hardly contain himself any longer. Hope was okay. He's not lost to us forever. I can still be able to protect him, still keep my promise!

Snow watched Hope reach towards the stars, concentration plastered on his face. "The place where the Pulse fal'Cie lay dreaming. Vanille and Fang's home." Snow's heart plummeted from its height as Hope turned his arm to view his own mark of damnation with an even visage. He was too young to be dealing with such a burden.

He's just a kid. He shouldn't have to be worrying about the ticking bomb on his arm. Why does he have to be so aware of his own mortality? That's not right. A burning sensation that originated behind his eyes was blinked away as Hope continued.

"Just maybe…it will be the place we find the answers we're looking for."

How very like Hope to suddenly act like Lightning. No matter how badly he was hurt, he still tried to keep his thoughts on the mission and what to do next.

Fang placed her hands on her hips, voicing the one thought that had plagued Snow's mind earlier. "Yeah, right. If we can get there."

Hope blinked furiously a few times, Snow noticed, and he refused to face the group. "Go ahead without me," said Hope, his voice thrown to the stars.

Vanille grabbed Hope's hand and pulled him into a sitting position, her own eyes very close to watering. "We can't just leave you!"

Hope stood unsteadily, a sickeningly false smile planted on his lips. "I'll be fine," he reassured Vanille before addressing the others. "You've all taught me so much. Showed me how to fight—"

He wavered slightly on his feet before stumbling forward. Snow reached out and easily caught him, pulling the young, discouraged boy into a tight embrace. "What did I tell you?" Snow reprimanded, but as he felt Hope's shoulders heave in a silent sob, his tone became as shaky as Hope's footing had been. "Leave the fighting to me." The corners of his eyes began to moisten more than he was comfortable with, so Snow lowered his head to avoid the stares of all the others.

"I'm scared," Hope choked, tearing Snow's heart apart a little more than it already had been.

If Snow were to be honest with Hope, he would have told the kid that he was terrified, too. He was fearful of their fates. What happens if they become Cie'th? Or crystals? Was it better to be a monster or a rock, neither or which quite human? One promised death while the other life at the fal'Cie's whim, like Cid had been. Was being a puppet any better of a fate?

But it was the thought of losing his new family, of losing Hope and Lightning and the rest, that truly frightened him the most.

Is Hope thinking the same things? I can't even process these thoughts myself. How could he, only fourteen years old, possibly even begin to understand what he feels? Or maybe he felt weak and worried that he'd end up dying on the journey…?

How can I let him know that everything would be okay?

Lightning chose to inform Hope instead. She strode forward, placing a firm, soothing hand on Hope's arm. That same concern that Snow had seen her carry the night before when Hope had his nightmares was once again present, but it was swiftly replaced by a smile.

And oh, what a glorious smile it was!

Lightning's face glowed with a gentleness that Snow was not accustomed to seeing on her, and indeed he had never seen anyone wear that countenance quite like Lightning. It was almost natural for her to seem so truly soft and loving; for her eyes to be a little more round and a little less lethal; for her lips to be drawn into something other than a straight, thin line. This new Lightning caused Snow's heart to flip and soar within him.

But it wasn't just the new side of Lightning that sent him aflutter. As he looked between Lightning, her countenance a bright spot in the darkening night; to Hope's downcast, tear-stricken face, still hugging close to Snow, he realized then that this, this, is what a family is. They were picking up the broken pieces that Hope had left behind and, between Snow and Lightning, they were trying with every morsel of their being to make things right again. The two heroes of the group had put aside their petty differences to lift Hope back onto his feet…or try to, anyway.

This is it. My own big, happy family.

And so, with this thought in mind, Snow couldn't help but observe with some sense of pride as Lightning threw her hardened demeanor in the wind and lowered herself to Hope's level, that radiant glow still present. "You're not gonna go through this ordeal alone, you know," she said softly, but Hope hadn't looked up. He was missing this moment.

Then, suddenly, Snow's stomach jerked violently and a vein in his temple threatened to explode when Lightning placed a gentle hand on Hope's face, tracing his jaw until she grasped Hope's chin and forced him to look upon her.

What the hell…

Snow both marveled at Lightning's blatant display of what he hoped was maternal affection and secretly envied Hope for being the recipient of such an act. Snow would have killed for—

For what? He thought harshly, quickly dissolving the path his mind was beginning to tread down.

Hope reacted in an opposite way from what Snow expected. He writhed away from Lightning's touch, pain and distress contorting his face into a grimace. "But that's what scares me! I don't...I don't want to see you get hurt because of me!" His eyes were burning into Lightning's, sending a message that Snow didn't particularly care for. Hope covered the silent communication quickly with his arm, shedding his tears into the folds of his elbow. "It would be better for everyone if I just stayed behind."

Snow took a step back as Hope's brand began to burn a bright blue. A monstrously huge eidolon, by far the largest of any among the sextet, burst forth from the emanating light, solidifying yards away from where everyone now gathered. Snow barely had time to see it unfold itself and tower above the trees before being thrown back by the shockwave of energy that resulted from its summoning. Air fled from his lungs faster than Snow could replace it after having landed wrong. Sazh and Vanille, having been thrown back as well, were in equally difficult situations.

"Mention ordeals and look what comes along!" Fang shouted, spinning her staff in an entrancing dance to draw the moving fortress' attention away from the others.

Lightning had already drawn her blade but her eyes had never left Hope. "This is not an ordeal! This is a gift. Hope!" At his name, the boy turned. "This is the kind of power you have inside. And it's telling you not to give up. Trust me!"

"Oh, I get it. It's here to show you the way. Show you that you've got what it takes to get back on your feet and do this thing!" Fang added, flourishing her staff yet again.

Hope gaped at the eidolon, who watched the proceedings with intelligent, knowing eyes. "You mean, that came from me?" Hope stared a moment longer, slowly drawing his gaze back down to his brand. He nodded once, affirming something with his own mind, then ran in front of Lightning and Fang, the former asking if Hope was ready but was cut off when a huge explosion, summoned from Hope, erupted at the base of the fortress.

Snow saw Lightning grin—actually grin—before charging into the fray.

Snow struggled to sit upright so he could see the battle unfold but fell victim to a familiar pang in his side, sending Snow clutching for his ribs. That beast was no pushover, not if merely summoning it re-fractured a few ribs. However, knowing the extent of the damage already, Snow knew he could still sit and not be injured further, and so, using his desire to witness the fates of the three fighting as a motive, he pushed himself up quickly. He inhaled sharply when the movement jarred his fragile bones and sent pain wracking through his body.

Vanille crawled over to Snow. "Are you hurt? Poor thing," she whimpered, her hands already glowing green. A slight disappointment settled in Snow, who had privately wished it would have been Lightning to cure him again.

After all, she did wonders the first time…and it came in handy, he recalled, still able to feel the faintest thrumming of her l'Cie powers within him.

Vanille's hands pressed against his tender ribcage as Hope's fight unfurled a few dozen yards away. Snow watched the young boy's movements, ready to pounce in to rescue him at any given moment. So tense was he that Vanille even suggested that he should try to relax, as the cure would work better that way. Completely uncaring about how potent the cure was at this point, Snow ignored her advice and tensed still further as one punishing blow fell dangerously close to Hope, but thankfully Lightning had pulled the boy aside just in time.

Hope edged closely around Lightning's body to get a better aim on the eidolon. Once he reached the opposite side he had started on, Lightning charged forward and Fang leaped before Hope to act as a shield, now that Lightning had gone. Fang held up her steel-lined staff as another strike rained down on them, shielding both she and Hope from a majority of the blow. Lightning had dodged the entire attack by leaping up to the midsection of the eidolon, hacking away at everything she could before withdrawing to catch a breath, drawing close to Hope's side yet again. Hope had been throwing spell after spell in the fortress' direction, never once relenting in his assault. Fang, realizing that her taunts were only putting Hope in danger, took several steps sideways to help minimize the chance of Hope being hit, but the constant barrage of strikes put her on the defensive for the remainder of the battle. She always remained prepared to leap back before Hope, though, in case any stray missiles threatened to harm him.

The familiar warmth of a cure began to spread through Snow as Lightning soon realized the futility of her physical attacks and opted instead to use her considerable magic skills alongside Hope. She and Hope synchronized their spells, sending blizzards or mini tsunamis out simultaneously with little more than a word between them. They worked together well. Very well.

Snow grew tired of watching and struggled to his feet, ready to join the foray and fight side-by-side with Lightning and Hope, but Vanille stopped him by grabbing the tails of his coat and yanking him back to the ground. "Oh no you don't!" she scolded. "They'll handle it!"

An irritated snort was all that Snow could muster—Lightning and Hope had both coordinated a desperate attempt to heal Fang, who was about ready to topple over from exhaustion. Snow noticed, too, that Hope had found the time to reach out with a shaking hand and lay it upon a nasty gash Lightning had on her arm.

He's just a kid with a crush on Sis, he reminded himself, though he wasn't entirely sure why he needed to do so. Lightning was his sister-in-law, or will be. It's probably because she looks so much like Serah. Yeah. That's definitely it. I just think he's hitting on my girl.
Snow, still under the watchful eye of Vanille, wished he could have joined the fight, even as both Lightning and Hope reverted back to their offensive magic and grew nearer to bringing the fortress to its end.

"Where's Sazh?" Vanille asked suddenly, noting his absence. Snow tore his eyes from the mad scramble to the finish line to see Sazh laying spread-eagle a few feet away. "Sazh!" cried Vanille, falling over herself to get to the older man's side. Sazh sat up and mumbled something about him just taking a little nap.

A low rumble erupted from the battle and when Snow turned, Hope had already absorbed the power of the eidolon. Lightning was saying something to him now, her hand resting easily on Hope's back while she kneeled to be level with him.

Why is he the only one that can experience that side of Lightning? Snow thought furiously. Serah, even you said that Lightning was nothing but a soldier when she was with you. What's different with this kid? Why does she treat him so different than her own sister? You and I would have done anything to be treated like that. Hell, all I want is something other than a damn fist in my face, for a change!

Snow was up on his feet, with some help from Vanille, still ruminating over Lightning's split personality. His thoughts were rudely interrupted by a sharp pain in his side—Vanille hadn't done near as good of a job as Lightning had. Sazh appeared on Snow's open side and asked if he was all right. A nod from Snow meant they could regroup with the others, who were now offering each other celebratory high-fives.

"That's some beast you tamed," Sazh puffed, respect coating his voice. "I'll tell you that."

Hope grinned, almost bashfully. "Yeah," he said breathlessly, admiring the brand on his arm with a new light. "I always thought the eidolons appeared to set us free through death. But now…I think maybe they're here to snap us out of our slumps."

Snow stepped forward after successfully pushing his petty jealousy over nothing aside. "Oh, like the one you were just in?" he cackled.

Hope rubbed the back of his neck, mirroring the action Snow so often performed. "I'll ask for help earlier next time," he replied, another pink tinge coloring his cheeks. It became even more vibrant when Vanille ran to Hope, pulling him into a tight hug.

Ladies' man. Snow felt a smile forming.

"I told you. On Gran Pulse, we're family." Vanille pulled away from her embrace to consider Hope with a stern eye. "You can moan all you like, but you're stuck with us!"

Sazh wagged a finger in the air. "You're never alone in Hell!" he laughed. Fang rounded on him and chastised the poor man for his comment. When Fang was finished Lightning cast her eyes towards each member of the party, settling first on Vanille, then Fang, Sazh, and Hope before finally meeting with Snow.

Though she had asked everyone else if they were decided on what to do, she had paused…no, hesitated when she stopped at Snow. Though her countenance betrayed nothing of her inner thoughts, her eyes glittered with something that Snow couldn't quite place even though recognition danced in the corner of his mind.

He was entranced, completely unable to break free from whatever spell she had cast. He could have convinced himself later that he was only trying to understand that glimmer in her eye but right then understanding was the furthest thing from what he desired. At that point all he could do, all he could think of was how utterly amazing the woman standing before him was. So similar in beauty to Serah, but her strength and mystique added an entirely new element to the mixture. It was a deadly combination, though, as it was slowly luring Snow in, daring him to forsake any and all promises right then and there to take the bait.

But her eyes…!

Damn it all, I know that look!

Only a few seconds had passed but already Hope was watching Snow carefully, distaste and annoyance prevalent on his young face.

"So, you decided then?" Lightning said casually, extinguishing the fire that had sparked in her eyes. Snow, too, snapped back into reality and nodded his assent, trying with all his might to hide his embarrassment by punching the air with great enthusiasm and mentioning something about making Serah proud.

The others all began to chatter about setting out in the morning as they began their short trek back to camp with Snow and Hope trailing behind.

"Good job, Hope—"

"What was that all about?" Hope demanded, stopping in his tracks but refusing to so much as take a glimpse at Snow.

Snow didn't really know what to say, so he held up his hands in defense as he, too, refrained from traveling further. "Whoa, whoa. What?" Lightning had reached camp already but discovered their absence. Snow saw her glance between the two of them and shrug as she began to recreate her fire.

Hope's arms were now folded across his chest, glowering frightfully at Snow. "She's not Serah." He punctuated each word slowly, emphasizing his point. "You can't look at Lightning like that."

Snow was truly taken aback. "What?" he said dumbly.

"She's not Serah! She…she might look like her, but she's not! You can't treat Lightning as if she is!"

Why the hell is he so upset?

"Listen, kid…"

"I'm not a kid!" Hope snapped, his eyes burning with that same passion that Snow recalled far too well from their confrontation. Still, though, Snow had to give Hope that much—in the past few weeks Hope did seem to have grown. His face was leaner, harder. He stood taller, chin up, shoulders back…no. Hope wasn't a child any longer. "Lightning is Lightning. Not Serah. You can't treat her or…or look at her like she is Serah." Hope fumbled for his next words. "I think it bothers her," he finally managed, though his voice seemed saddened by the very thought of Lightning being remotely upset. "Nobody wants to live in anyone's shadow. Don't make Lightning live in Serah's, Snow."

Snow stood speechless as Hope marched into camp, entirely unsure of what had just transpired. Did I just receive relationship advice from a fourteen-year-old?

Does Hope think that me and Lightning…?

Wait, was Hope jealous?

Snow chuckled quietly as he pulled out Serah's tear, hardly able to contain himself from spilling the events then and there to his betrothed. The two men were jealous of each other, and it was, quite possibly, the most misunderstood jealously that ever existed between two males.

Once camp had been set up, Snow snuck away to spend time with his fiancée. "I know Light isn't you," Snow began, leaning against a tree not far from their site as he stared into the crystal. "I was just thrown off when she gave me that look that you used to—"

Holy hell, that was it! That was it! The look Light gave me…it's the same one you'd always give me whenever I did something right. But what does that mean, coming from Lightning? What did I do right? Why did I get it?

Snow soon left Serah out of the conversation entirely and instead opted to ask himself the questions. At first they simply revolved around Lightning's personality, but at some point in time they took a turn for the worse.

He slumped against the tree and slid downwards to the grass, pocketing Serah's tear without a second thought. Why does seeing Hope with Lightning bother me so much? It wasn't as if Lightning resembled Serah so closely that he honestly mistook Lightning to be her. The memory of Lightning brushing her fingers against Hope's face sprung to his mind, sending a familiar fire through him that at any other time would have shamed him, but right now he needed to understand this jealousy.

Dammit, why do I feel like this every time?

Slowly, surely, each piece of the puzzle began to fit together. Memories of Hope's house, how he had paid far too much attention to the movements of Lightning's legs and his genuine regret that she had suggested Serah be the one to tell Lightning's name. Recollections of the thrill Lightning's cure, of how he at first believed it was because her presence was so close to that of Serah's. Thoughts of how he wanted to do nothing more than comfort Lightning in her troubles and let her cast all her cares upon him to carry. Of how he would do anything for one damn smile from her. How he would kill any beast to be in Hope's shoes, even for the briefest of moments.

Snow put his head in his hands. No. No. This is not happening. I won't allow this. I can't, I won't. I'm engaged! I promised Serah! I'm…I'm in love with Serah! Fat tears threatened to fall from his eyes, but his hands were too shaken to wipe them away. Shit, Serah, help me. I can't believe I'm even thinking these things. I'm so sorry Serah, please, please forgive me! Help me center myself again!

Snow clawed desperately for his only remaining memento of his love again, regretting that he had ever pocketed it away. He held it up to the light of the distant campfire but his heart nearly burst when he did so.

Lightning's profile was defined in the firelight and her image was dancing in the hexagonal prisms at the center of the crystal he now held.

He couldn't contain himself any longer.

For the first time since he had lost Serah, Snow Villiers, the hero of NORA, was unable to dam back his tears.

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