As far as Hope knew, Lightning hadn’t slept or eaten since they’d been turned into L’Cie. She would keep watch while Hope did, and she helped him scrounge up energy bars and canteens from fallen enemies, but she never took any of it for herself. She just didn’t seem to need it. She’d spent the last two days hiking, climbing, jogging, running, and fighting for hours at a time without pause, and she'd only stop when Hope’s legs buckled and gave out from under him.
Every time it happened she’d fix him with a barely tolerant stare and tell him, “We move on in two hours.” She’d keep watch while he rested, and he’d fall asleep sometimes listening to her fingers drum on the hilt of her gunblade. He knew logically that she had the advantage of age, superior muscle mass, and military training, but he still tried to match the pace she set. He drank more water, evened out his breathing between battles, and softened the impact of his feet on the ground whenever they had to jog or run. It didn’t seem to make a difference.
At the end of the third day, Hope accepted that pushing himself too hard would only slow them down more, so he stopped trying to match her athleticism and focused on just keeping up. That, at least, seemed to help his stamina and also improved Lightning’s patience with him. She suggested breaks just as Hope started to feel winded, and she found flatter terrain that made running easier and less of a drain on Hope’s energy.
When they stopped for the night Hope watched Lightning take out a pill from the pouch on her belt and swallow it dry.
“What is that?” he asked. Crazy theories had already sprung up in his mind, but he couldn’t believe she’d been sustaining herself all this time with drugs.
She glanced at him, measuring, and tossed him one of the pills. “Military issue,” she said. “Made by the Fal’Cie. I don’t know what’s in it, but it’s sustenance.”
“Is this why you haven’t been eating?”
It was white and flat, like the pills Mom took for headaches.
He closed his hand around the pill. “Can I try it?” he asked.
She nodded. “That’s why I gave it to you. I wasn’t sure you were fit enough before.”
He felt his eyes widen, but she’d already turned to scan the surrounding area. He swallowed the pill, flinching at the bitter taste, and sat with his back against a rock to wait for some kind of change.
One month after Cocoon’s Descent, a man called Counselor Binald was selected to oversee the transition from Fal’Cie rule to autonomous life. The temporary solution he proposed involved moving Cocoon’s citizens to the refurbished towns on Gran Pulse while experts determined whether or not Cocoon could be saved. The very suggestion of leaving Cocoon went over as well as anyone could expect. People already on edge from the unexplained madness of the previous month broke into riots. They very nearly succeeded in creating total anarchy. Would have, in fact, if not for Sazh.
He employed the same patient logic that he’d used to reason with Lightning and Fang and Snow at their worst to talk down his neighbors. They kept their distance from him, but they listened to him, and when Dajh appeared beaming at his father’s side, they believed him. As more and more people began to trust him, the resistance waned.
After all, he wasn’t L’Cie anymore; he was one of them.
To no one’s surprise, Sazh and Dajh were the first family to leave Cocoon. They settled in Oerba, where Sazh helped with reconstruction. After that, an average of five people left Cocoon every day.
Hope expected Lightning to leave with Serah and Snow, but Snow didn’t mention her when he called to find out when Hope would join them on Gran Pulse.
“Is Lightning with you guys?”
“Lightning? No, she’s back in Bodhum. The Guardian Corps haven’t figured out what they’re doing yet, so she’s staying up there until they can find a new posting for her. You should drop by. Say hi.”
They hung up soon after that, and Hope left a note for his father with an estimate of when he’d be back. He took one of the only trains still running from Palumpolum to Bodhum and then followed Snow’s directions from the station to the Farron house. Judging by the look of things, almost everyone in Bodhum had cleared out. Through open windows he could see empty rooms with only debris left on the floors. Someone had been by to clean the streets and even the beach didn’t have a footprint on it, washed blank by the waves.
No one answered when he knocked on the Farrons’ door, so Hope hesitated on the porch and wondered if he should wait.
He startled and looked up at Lightning framed in a second-floor window.
“I was sleeping. Wait there, I’ll be down in a second.”
She opened the door wearing clothes he couldn’t believe she owned. The black sweatpants were loose and ragged, and the navy T-shirt looked several sizes too large and bore the intricate emblem of Nautilus. The shirt hung off her right shoulder just enough to expose the sharp cut of her collarbone and a simple silver necklace. Not a belt or zipper or gunblade in sight.
“Come in,” she said, gently cuffing the back of his head.
He grinned and followed her to the kitchen. She offered him tea, but he declined.
“When are you and your dad leaving?” she asked.
“We might not,” he said. “Dad lost his job with Sanctum, but Counselor Binald offered him a position in the reorganization committee.”
“How’s your house?”
“Dad and I are fixing it.”
“Good.” She lifted a plain white box off the counter and put it on the table. “Serah sent me a bunch of stuff she baked in Oerba. Help yourself.”
Inside were more than a dozen tiny cookies frosted with a delicate swirl of chocolate and strawberry icing. While Lightning moved the kettle over the stove’s open flame, Hope bit into one and smiled.
“Don’t get excited. There’s only one baking gene in our family,” Lightning said.
He ate another four, but managed to restrain himself from devouring the entire batch.
Lightning sat down with a giant mug and sipped from it with her eyes closed.
Hope collected crumbs off the table with a moistened thumb. “Do you think you’ll stay?” he asked, eyes downcast.
She dipped one of the smaller cookies in her tea and promised, “If I can.”
Hope made lieutenant in the Guardian Corps during the third phase of Cocoon’s reconstruction. He missed the surprise promotion party Snow put together because he’d volunteered to help remove the structure supporting Cocoon—as in, Fang and Vanille. The process took several hours and most of the project’s annual budget, but when the engineers announced a complete success, every person involved seemed thrilled.
He boarded one of the last ships back to Cocoon and there he got the message from Lightning about his party. He ran from the station all the way to his house, but when he got there he found only a note and a thoroughly scrubbed-down living room.
Congrats, kiddo! Sorry I didn’t plan the party better. I’ll try again when you make captain! -Snow
(P.S. I left you a cake in the fridge! -Love, Serah)
Hope smiled and checked inside the fridge where a red-frosted cake waited for him. CONGRATULATIONS, LIEUTENANT ESTHEIM!
“She wouldn’t let us have any.”
Hope had his gunblade to her head in the time it took to recognize her voice. He lowered his weapon, sheepish, and said, “Sorry. Jumpy.”
Lightning shook her head, unfazed as always. “Don’t apologize. I should have stomped louder.”
“Funny. Want a slice?”
Because he didn’t have chairs in the kitchen, they took their plates out to the living room.
“Snow decorated,” Lightning said wryly. “But when you didn’t come home, Serah made him clean it. And then she helped when he didn’t do it to her satisfaction.”
“That explains where my crumbs went.”
“I’ll tell Snow you miss them.”
He put his socked feet on the table and she followed suit a moment later. The cake, like all of Serah’s baked goods, was just sweet enough to barely graze his taste buds. Cherry frosting was a new favorite of hers, and he made a note to himself to heap praise on her the next time he saw her. If he was nice, she’d make him one like this for his birthday.
Just as the silence had reached its most comfortable point, Lightning said, “Dajh left you a present,” and Hope got the wind knocked out of him by a puppy-shaped missile.
Fortunately, he’d finished his cake and scraped the frosting off with his fork, so the carpet suffered no stain when the plate landed on it top-side down. The puppy, meanwhile, planted two paws on his chest and barked close enough for Hope to get an earthy whiff of wet dog food.
Lightning snickered into her glass of milk.
“His name is Fang,” she said.
Hope grinned, suspecting she’d approve.
The absence of the Fal’Cie presented the citizens of Cocoon with an enormous amount of work that took them more than a decade to figure out. The Fal’Cie had taken care of an almost unimaginable number of tasks, and finding ways to carry out those tasks without the Fal’Cie proved to be a full-time position. One that Primearch Binald was more than willing to take on.
Under his leadership, employment peaked as jobs opened up left and right to make up for the lack of sentient machinery. He sent soldiers to patrol on Gran Pulse and protect the citizens who’d decided to make a new life in the rejuvenated towns there. He also provided regular transport from Gran Pulse to Cocoon and had the crystallized L’Cie brought to a comfortable facility in Palumpolum in case they woke up someday.
Hope would visit the facility some nights and try listening to them. He’d study someone, frozen in a timeless arch, and wonder what that person's focus had been.
Sometimes Sazh found him there. Sometimes Lightning did.
Snow rarely visited Cocoon anymore since Meadow started school, but Hope knew he spent hours on Pulse looking for any crystallized L’Cie they might have missed.
One night, Hope fell asleep with his back against the wall and the frozen form of an old woman before him. He woke up to pressure on his shoulder and when he looked up, Lightning sighed and pushed his bangs aside.
“Her name is Delilah,” she said.
Hope sat up, eyes wide. “You can hear her?”
“No.” Lightning sat next to him, her bare shoulder hot where it pressed against his. “I knew her. Delilah lived next door, gave free piano lessons to Serah. Her husband went missing around the same time our parents died. The Fal’Cie said he’d been captured by a Pulse L’Cie, but no one would send someone to rescue him. So she went. Before she left, she gave us her life savings to pay for our parents’ house.” Lightning’s eyes fixed on the hands that covered the old woman’s face. “She must have known she wouldn’t come back.”
Row after row of crystallized L’Cie glistened in the fading daylight, their faces twisted, anguished, and obsessed.
Hope turned his hand so his knuckles touched hers.
“I wish I could hear them,” Lightning said, closing her eyes.
She hooked his index finger with hers.
The day Lightning made captain, no one threw a surprise promotion party for her. Hope had told Snow to wait a year and really catch her off-guard.
Instead, she spent the night at home, the way she usually did, and Hope invited himself over, the way he usually did.
They ate from a sprawl of takeout boxes on the living room floor, quiet and almost reflective. Then Hope put his plate down and refilled his glass, and she did the same.
They toasted her, silently, and then Hope touched his liquor-sour lips to hers. He didn’t move away, and neither did she.
Eventually he drew back, having done nothing more than press his closed mouth against hers.
While Lightning’s thumb kneaded a tense cord in his neck, Hope waited for her eyes to open.
“You sure about that?” Lightning asked, her voice low, her eyes still closed.
Hope nodded; she couldn’t see, but he wasn’t thinking about that.
She figured it out anyway, and the glass rolled noiselessly out of her hand across the carpet as she reached up to pull his arm around her.
Her eyes opened, she smiled, and then he kissed her again.