Character(s): Hope, Snow (with references to Snow/Hope [unrequited], Snow/Serah, and Fang/Vanille)
Warning(s): Spoilers through Chapter 11
Disclaimer: Final Fantasy XIII and all its characters are property of Square Enix Co., Ltd. No copyright infringement is intended.
Notes: Another little writing exercise as I try to pin down character voices. Concrit is always welcome on any of my fics. Set during Chapter 11, after they reach Yaschas Massif.

...

Hope had expected a great many things of Pulse-Gran Pulse, his mental Fang reminded him. He had expected it to be harsh and unforgiving to human beings. He had expected it to be filled with monsters that he could only have dreamt up during his childhood night terrors. Pulse was all these things and more. Above all, it was beautiful. That beauty, windswept and lush, did not exist on Cocoon. This was the beauty of a world shaped by more than just Fal'Cie, for even they struggled to control the land, as the dozens of Cie'th Stones littering Pulse attested.

Wind whistled through the giant plants that sprung up throughout Pulse, blowing their feathery seeds across the canyons of Yaschas Massif. A green smell floated along the breeze towards the rocky plateau Hope sat on. The sun dipped towards the horizon, and the monsters-animals, his mental Fang reminded him-started to lope off, presumably towards their dens. Hope's stomach rumbled, and he wondered if Fang had caught anything for dinner.

Hope stood up and dusted off his pants, deciding to find out. When he turned around, it was not Fang who greeted him, but Snow. Not that long ago, a surge of hatred would have accompanied the sight of Snow's stupid face, but now Hope only felt a rush of warmth when Snow grinned at him like the town drunk. The hatred had faded, along with the cowardly boy he had been in his past life. Hope had accepted that it was not Snow's fault his mother died-that fault lay ultimately with the uncaring Fal'Cie. He was oddly relieved to know that his mother had spent her last few moments with the overgrown idiot. She probably liked him, knowing her.

"Hey, I brought you dinner. I nearly lost an arm getting this-the girls got to the food before I could."

Hope could not help but smirk. Even though he was roughly the size of an ugallu, Snow could not defend against the three ladies in their party. Lightning and Fang, especially, could tear him apart with their bare hands and were not shy about flaunting that fact. "Thanks," Hope said, accepting a roasted piece of meat that likely came from an unfortunate gorgonopsid. He nibbled at it, pleased to find that someone had seasoned it.

"Good, huh?" Snow grinned as he bit into his own hunk of meat . "Sazh thought it might be tasty to drip some of that vibrant ooze we got from the hybrid flora onto the meat. Makes it taste kinda sweet. Turns out he's actually a great cook." Snow's gaze grew distant as he stared over the Yaschas Massif. "Serah is a great cook, too."

Hope continued to nibble on his meat and said nothing. He did not know what to think of Serah. She was so important to the people that were most important to him right now, but he knew nothing about her. A part of him resented her for all this unconditional love and attention she received, even when she was just a crystal.

"When she wakes up, I'll convince her to make you dinner. You could use more meat on you." Snow clapped a hand to Hope's back, sending him staggering and his meat flying every which way. "Oops. Sorry about that."

Hope gazed down at the meat that had splattered across his shirt. "It's okay. I think I have plenty of meat on me now, thanks to you."

Snow laughed. "You're a real smartass. Anyone ever tell you that?" He sat down on the edge of the plateau, next to where Hope had sat a moment ago. He patted the spot next to him, then went back to gazing at the Massif. "I'll bet all your friends thought you were hilarious, huh?"

Hope picked the meat off his shirt. Too hungry to let it go to waste, he popped it into his mouth and chewed. Snow's words stung, for he had not had any friends since grammar school. Sometime before puberty, all his childhood acquaintances had drifted away from him. They found new friends, more than Hope could hope to keep track of, while he absorbed himself in his studies and online games. Occasionally, he would hear girls whispering about how cute he was, but that never really interested him. It was the boys he wanted to notice him, but none had shown any interest.

"You're quiet today." Snow studied Hope, his blue eyes bright in the waning light. "Something on your mind?"

Hope shrugged and sat down next to Snow, brushing their thighs together on purpose. It sent a forbidden thrill up his spine. "Not really."

"I overheard your conversation with Vanille this morning." Snow grinned. "You do like her, don't you? You weren't just teasing her?"

"Vanille?" Hope blinked. "You think I like Vanille?"

"Vanille is a real hottie. You should go for it, man. Try to score." Snow grinned. "Just because we're l'Cie doesn't mean our lives are over."

Hope finished picking meat off his shirt. "Heh." He forced a smile. There was little chance Snow would understand him. Despite being an enormous idiot, Snow seemed to have everything going for him. People loved him-even Lightning had started to come around. He was as strong as a behemoth king. And he was engaged to, from what little Hope had seen of her, the prettiest girl on Cocoon. He needed to derail this conversation. Snow was the last person he wanted pitying him.

"So you think Vanille's a hottie?" Hope's lips curved into a smirk. "What would Serah think?"

"Ah." Snow looked mildly alarmed. "I meant for you. That Vanille was a hottie for you. Not for me!"

"So, I should score with her, huh? Did you score with Serah?"

"Hey, hey! Don't ask that so loud! Lightning might hear you." Snow's gaze darted back to the camp, but luckily for both of them, she was busy giving Sazh a gun-cleaning lesson, even though Sazh knew perfectly well how to clean his guns. To his credit, he did not complain, and only showed that world-weary expression that Hope had decided must be Sazh's default expression.

"So, did you? Score with her?" Hope asked in a quieter tone, more curious than he wanted to admit. It would be something to imagine Snow with Serah. He would be bare-chested again, as he had been at Hope's apartment. Perhaps he would even be completely nude. Hope wondered if Serah liked the muscles, if she ran her fingers over their dips and curves, if she appreciated their firmness. Hope would appreciate them, if he was allowed to touch. Face heating when he realized the direction his mind was turning, Hope busied himself with drinking from his canteen.

"Sure I did," Snow admit, his face beaming red. "But Serah means a lot more than just a score to me." Snow finished his meat. "All right, I confessed. Your turn. Do you like Vanille?"

Hope sighed and set his canteen between his knees. "No."

"Really?"

"Really. Besides-" Hope glanced back at the campside, where Vanille lay on her stomach, rapturously watching Fang sharpen her new spear. "-even if I did, I don't think I could score with her. I might even get killed trying, if Fang found out."

Snow laughed and glanced back at the two Pulse-born women. "Do you really think they're, er-you know?"

"Yeah. I do."

Snow grinned a little, his gaze fixed on Vanille and Fang. "That's hot."

"Bet you wouldn't say that in front of Serah."

"Oh, come on, ease up. I love Serah, but that's still hot."

Hope leaned back on his hands and stared up at the darkening sky. The wind had turned a bit chilly, and he shivered. "Bet you wouldn't say that if they were both guys," he said, as lightly as he could. Every fiber of his being seemed to vibrate, waiting for Snow's response as if he were strings on a harp, waiting to be plucked.

"If they were as hot as guys as they are as girls? Damn straight I would."

Hope nearly fell off the plateau. He gaped at Snow as he scrambled back upright. "Are you serious?"

"Sure." Snow dipped his head, face still red. "I did see people before Serah."

"Er. You saw guys?" Hope stared, his mind whirling. He tried not to think too much about it, and he definitely refused to picture it. He would not be able to hide his reaction if he did.

Snow shrugged. "A few times. Bet you think that's weird, huh?"

"N-no." Hope managed a smile. "I-" He tried to make the words come, but they died on his lips. He cleared his throat, but the words still failed.

"It's okay. I shouldn't have said anything about it. I talk too much, like Sis says." Snow moved to get up.

"I'm-I'm glad you did." Hope grabbed Snow's arm, his hand covering Snow's l'Cie brand. Snow's skin felt warm, despite the cooling air. "I'm-see, I don't like Vanille because-because, well, girls aren't-I mean I don't-"

"It's okay. I wondered if you might be." Snow grinned and stood. He towered over Hope, yet his size no longer seemed intimidating. On the contrary, it comforted Hope. "You don't look at girls the same way most kids your age do."

Hope blinked. Sometimes, Snow surprised him with bursts of insight that others could not manage. Hope shivered again as the wind blew past them. It ruffled Snow's golden hair beneath his bandanna. He had never spoken of his secret before, not even to his mother. He felt more real now, especially since Snow seemed all right with it-and even shared his inclinations, at least in part. Yet, Hope yearned for more than Snow's acknowledgment. Snow's strong arm still felt warm beneath his hand, and he wondered if Snow might-

"It's a little chilly tonight." Snow dropped his coat over Hope. "You can sleep with this tonight, all right? But make sure to take good care of it."

Suddenly drained, Hope sagged under the weight of the coat. He let go of Snow's arm and dropped his hands into his lap. He felt felt too hot inside of his own skin as Snow's earthy scent filled his nose. They were all in need of a bath, and no doubt Sazh would insist they visited one of the springs to wash up tomorrow morning. Hope tried to think of nothing more than how he would need to make sure to bathe away from Snow-out of sight, out of mind.

Snow rested a hand on Hope's head and smiled. "Don't worry, short stuff. You're gonna make some lucky guy real happy one day. Smart guys as pretty as you aren't so easy to come by." He walked away then, heading back to the camp.

Hope sighed and closed his eyes. Snow's scent remained inside the coat, almost as if he were still there, wrapped around Hope tight, warm with need and desire. Hope hated Serah for a moment. It was stupid to hate a girl he did not know, a girl who probably deserved all the love she received-who deserved Snow pressed against her at night, warm and hard, thinking only of her. But the emotion still coursed through him until it faded, like a brief poison.

Serah was a lucky girl. Snow would never give up on her. He seemed immortal when they fought, taking the most amount of damage, challenging their enemies to protect all of them, and yet he walked away with only a few bruises. Only in Palumpolum, after the fall, had Snow shown any weakness-and he had quickly recovered. He would never die on Serah and leave her behind. He would always be there, chasing after her, at her side, wherever she needed him to be. Hope pressed Snow's coat to his nose and drank the scent in, that enticing tang of male sweat and the remnants of cheap cologne. Once, he had hated this man, but now Hope longed to be in his future wife's place.

The wind picked up again, sending his hair fluttering across his face. Hope opened his eyes and stared down at his hands. He peeled back his glove to reveal his brand-the same brand as Snow's and everyone else's. The brand that had cost him his mother and made him a monster, but also won him the first real friends he ever had. A brand that had somehow allowed him to admit who he really was-and to be accepted as that person. He studied the brand, the arrows and the red eye in the center. He wondered how much longer he had before this new life ended as miserably as his old one.

"Hope."

Hope looked up and saw Lightning frowning down at him.

"Come sit by the fire. It's getting cold. We should keep close together, in case those triffids sneak up on us again overnight." Lightning made sure he stood up, then led him back to the camp.

Everyone looked up when Hope entered the camp. Snow lay close to the fire, grinning like a moron again, seeming smaller without his coat. Vanille leaned against Fang and beamed, while Fang nodded at him. Sazh gave Hope the thumbs-up sign and hid his guns before Lightning decided to teach him something else he already knew. They all seemed happy to see Hope. And Hope was happy to see them. Even if he did not have everything Serah had, perhaps he had enough for the moment-more than enough. He had friends now-even a family, if one stretched the definition.

Hope was willing to stretch the definition. He smiled back at everyone and pulled his glove back over his branded wrist.