~*Imagine That*~

"Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life's coming attractions." – Albert Einstein

~*X*~

There were birds singing.

It was the first thing Hope noticed, the shrill melody that floated to his ears on a warm, honeyed breeze. He blinked his eyes open and sat up, gloved fingers digging into soft, vibrant green grass. The sky overhead was perfectly clear, a deep, intense shade of blue that wasn't quite sapphire or cerulean. Everything was alight with the touch of summer—or maybe spring?—emerald blades glossed over with golden sunbeams. The meadow was of a decent size, rippling and flowing like an ocean all its own.

Hope took in a deep breath and tasted something sweet on his tongue, and it was only after several seconds had passed did he realize it was life. This field, this pasture, had never before known the scarlet stroke of blood and malice. If this was Gran Pulse, or even somewhere in Cocoon, it was no place that he had ever been before.

He paused, unsure what to do, getting to his sneakered feet and gazing around with a flummoxed expression. Was he dreaming? If he was…it was so vivid! Surely it was impossible?

I guess…nothing's really impossible.

At first he did naught, frowning a little and tugging at his gloves with a thoughtful expression. Everything had a crisp, clean feel to it that surprised him just a tad. Somehow, he was reminded of his deceased mother. The atmosphere had the same safe, comforting sensation that belonged with her, and his memories of her.

Something of the past.

Without much else to do, Hope started walking. There didn't appear to be any danger, and the thought seemed unimaginable in a place as tranquil as this. As he moved aimlessly forward, he mused.

That's not entirely true. I've felt completely safe before, and not just with Mom. With Lightning I know I'll be okay, although…

Lightning had, over the years, become something between an older sister and a parental figure to him. She even offered to let him stay at her house when his father worked late and he was left alone at home. Granted, she was often away herself on military duty, but there was obvious compassion in the gesture. Her concern meant the world to him, however…Well, he missed his mother still. Time had helped to heal the wound, but the scar would always be there.

Always.

Too busy thinking, Hope almost ended up tripping down a hillside when the ground suddenly started to slope. It was so abrupt, this incline, that he had to pinwheel his arms for a heartbeat or two before he regained his composure. He narrowed his eyes against the light, bringing a hand up to shield his gaze with opaque shadow.

There was a patch of flowers now, trees closing in on one side, appearing to have sprung from seemingly nowhere. It was rather startling, and the depths of their color instantly attracted his attention. They were tall, delicate things—the flowers—with elongated deep green limbs and leaves, coupled with velvety, frail petals swept with random shades of the rainbow. Every single sample of the flora was different from the other, even if it was in a somewhat miniscule fashion, only adding to the field's incredible beauty.

To be honest, the small clearing before him made Bodhum's annual fireworks display look pale and uninteresting, quite a feat if you had been attending the spectacular celebration previously.

Hope glanced around, but besides the chirping of the invisible birds and a small scarlet butterfly, there was nothing else present.

Shaking off the last remnants of his unexplainable apprehension, he very, very carefully waded through the field, attempting to avoid the possible ruination of an innocent plant. There was a flat gray stone in the center of the meadow, warm from the unending sunrays, conveniently placed to allow optimum viewing of the elegant display without having to flatten anything. He sat himself there, drawing his legs up and peering absently down, wondering not for the first time exactly where he was.

The last thing he remembered was dozing off at Lightning's place—was he dead? Did he die in his sleep? Was this Heaven, Hell, or somewhere in-between? The notion sent a prickle of fear sliding down his spine in a jittery wave, but he chased the ridiculous idea away.

He was probably just having a particularly lucid dream. Yes, that was it.

Time passed, though how much and how fast he wasn't certain. The air was far from stifling, and the temperature was just right. Not hot, not cold. Perfect. The whole world here was just that, perfect.

Lightning had taught him there was no such thing as perfection.

Hope shifted, standing up on the rock and lifting himself up on the tips of his sneakered toes to get a better view of his surroundings. His brows furrowed and he noticed that the trees were actually layered only thinly. Behind them was something he couldn't quite make out for sure. Judging by the glittering tangerine glow that sparkled and danced in the (afternoon?) light, it was probably a creek or another form of running water.

Deciding that anything was better than just sitting and doing nothing, he cautiously endeavored to exit the meadow, heading for the glimmer he had seen beyond the miniscule clump of trees. However, before he entered the patchy shadows of the tiny forest, he turned and—exceedingly carefully—plucked a particularly appealing one from its hallowed position beside its brethren. He touched the tips of his fingers to its silky, waxy exterior and found that it was actually made of tougher stuff than he had formerly believed.

Placing the flower behind his ear for safekeeping (never mind the reason) Hope continued on towards his destination. The slender brown trunks towered over his head, their branches rustling in the ever present breeze, and occasionally a single leaf was enticed into making the slow freefall to the ground. He kept his eyes focused on the earth, evading slightly upraised roots, occasionally putting a hand out to stroke the peculiar texture of the trees' bark. He could feel the curious, abnormal smoothness even through the tough material of his gloves.

Gradually, he started to notice that something was different. Odd. The usual tranquil sensation that pervaded his surroundings changed. Became a bit tenser. Whatever it was, it was now strong enough for him to easily detect it.

Hope's fingers clenched into fists at his side, and he stopped just before he reached his goal—yeah, that was running water all right—dawdling on the edges of the trees' collective shadows. They weren't thick enough to totally blacken the woods, but the branches did succeed in impeding his vision. He tensed, staring off behind him, eyes narrowed to slits.

"Who's there?"

Nothing.

"Come on out!" He dared, turning and slowly backing up in the direction of the creek.

No reply.

No matter how hard he ravaged the forest with his gaze, he couldn't discern any foreign shapes besides that of the trees. His skin crawled uncomfortably, and Hope curled his fingers around the boomerang in his back pocket.

Okay. Definitely getting a creepy vibe here.

Despite this, he sat down with his back to a sizable boulder that jutted from the earth beside the creek. The flowing water flashed in the sun as it tumbled and whispered past him, disappearing into another portion of the forest.

Wait. What?

Hope scrambled to his feet, blinking stupidly at the trees that had unexpectedly sprung up. Now he was in another clearing, and during the brief interval that he had turned his attention from the landscape, it had changed. Again.

"Okay…" He reassumed his previous position, this time carrying his weapon tight in one hand. His dubious tone evidently amused someone, because he heard a giggle only a second after his one word declaration of surprise.

He rocketed upwards and immediately assumed a fighting stance, drawing his arm back and glaring around him with a challenge in his green eyes. "Okay! Show yourself!" He warned.

This time he did see a shape slinking, catlike, through the woods. Directly in front of him. Instantly he concentrated all of his attention on the figure, performed a swift mental calculation on where it would be by the time he threw his boomerang, and let it fly with a grunt.

It struck its target, producing a familiar squeal of pain. Lightning would be proud, if only he hadn't hit…

Hope was too astonished to catch his weapon when it returned, and it ended up smacking him hard in the chest, driving all of the air from his lungs. That didn't even begin to stop him from gasping out, "Vanille?"

His chest constricted as she dragged herself from the trees, leaning on one for support, scowling playfully at him as she smiled through the obvious ache the new cut on her shoulder clearly produced. Luckily it had only been a glancing blow, and it was really more of a shallow, though long, scratch.

Hope was busy gawking at her, honestly not hearing whatever she was saying now.

She…hasn't changed at all.

She didn't look a day older than she had four years ago, when they had defeated Orphan—and she and Fang ended up becoming Ragnarok to defy their destinies and save Cocoon from its devastating future.

"Hope?" Vanille inquired curiously in that outlandish accent she and Fang shared.

"Ah—er…" Snapping out of his petrified trance, he jogged hurriedly to her side, examining the scrape on her shoulder. "I didn't mean to hit you. Are you okay?"

"This? This is nothing," she shrugged, waving off his anxiety.

"Well…here, take this." Still a bit dazed, Hope removed the green scarf he wore around his neck and twined it tightly around Vanille's shoulder. "There." Taking in a slow, deep, lungful of the clean air, he looked her straight in the eyes. "Where am I?"

In response, a brow was arched. Placing her hands on her hips, she remarked teasingly, "I don't even get a proper hello?"

"Oh! I…Er…" A helpless smile spread across his face, mirroring Vanille's own. "It's great to see you, it's just—"

Suddenly she skipped forward and crossed the last of the distance between the two. Wrapping her arms around his lean frame, Vanille held him close, and he was just as shocked as ever by her spontaneous hugs. If he remembered correctly, she had always been taller, though only barely. Now they were on even footing. Hell, he was actually at least a few inches above her now.

With her warm body pressed against his, her light hair tickling his cheek and her distinct smell in his nose, he couldn't allow himself to honestly think that this was all just a dream.

Hope could actually feel her heartbeat, slow and steady and very real, through the fabric of her blouse. It was considerably calmer than his. At first he returned the embrace hesitantly, but then it became tighter and he was reluctant to let her go.

She stepped back after a while, still grinning brightly with all of the flowers and sunshine he could remember and more. "That's better! Now, you said you had a question?"

Well, he hadn't necessarily said that but apparently she could sense it. He nodded at her.

"Alright then! Fire away," Vanille invited merrily.

"Where am I? Am I dreaming?"

She tapped her chin. "Are you?"

He gave an exasperated sigh. "That's the problem. It's all so realistic, I don't really know."

"That's actually kind of funny," she chuckled to herself. "I thought I was dreaming."

"But…aren't you…frozen in crystal?" Hope muttered unwillingly, as if saying those words aloud cemented the girl's fate for all eternity.

"So? I'm not allowed to dream?" And then she changed the subject without warning. "You got taller!" Vanille accused, gesturing at him.

"It's been four years," he pointed out. "I can't exactly stay the same height forever."

"I've been this way for hundreds of years."

"Most of which you slept through. Don't you ever think it's time to wake up?"

Abruptly, her expression sobered a bit. "Always," she murmured sadly.

The last bit Hope said had been added jokingly, teasingly, with no harm or ill will intended. However, the words seemed to affect her greatly, though he only saw the depths of that pain for a single instant.

Talking to her as he was, in such a clear landscape, he had almost entirely forgotten that she was a crystallized statue beside Oerba Yun Fang.

Before he could apologize, Vanille brushed it off and smiled once more, with genuine feeling. "That's all right!" She announced without even a trace of sorrow in her eyes as she looked at him. "If we're both dreaming, we might as well make the most of it!"

"Um…yeah…but there's nothing to do here," Hope muttered, watching as she walked over to the stone near the creek and settled down there.

"We can always talk. Tell me what I've missed!" She patted the spot beside her with an encouraging nod in his direction, smiling all the while.

Relenting, he went to sit near her, plucking a blade of grass and toying with it absently. He sought to find something, anything, that would tell him that everything happening with Vanille was all just a dream.

There was nothing in that particular train of thought's favor. This reality seemed as real as the one he existed in, undoubtedly fast asleep at Lightning's place.

"Well," he began slowly, gaining momentum as he went along. "As you can imagine, Cocoon was in chaos after everything that had happened with Orphan. After a while, a few people started to take charge and tried to get everything in working order again. Sazh and my dad are two of them, and a couple of others got the military straightened out. Of course, the military turned around and instantly started asking Light for help."

"Is she in charge now?"

"No, she gave that position to a guy named Amodar. She still works with the military though."

Making a thoughtful sound, Vanille gazed off to the side for a few seconds. "What about Snow? And Serah?"

"They got married a few years ago. And even though Snow wants a kid, Serah wants to wait until things settle down a little."

"People still paranoid about Pulse?"

Hope nodded. "But the situation is really starting to smooth out."

"And you?" She turned to look at him again.

He frowned at the blade of grass pinched between his fingers, and he let the green slip float away on a sudden warm gust of wind. "I want to help Light out."

For a moment, he imagined he saw a flicker of worry slide through her pale green eyes. "You're going to join the military?"

"Hey, I've handled worse than what's going on now, right?" He endeavored to reassure her, but Vanille didn't look convinced.

"That was when you had magic," she pointed out. "And your Eidolon."

"Even without Alexander, I can find a way. And they've got technology that acts like magic," he insisted.

She surprised him by simply replying, "Oh, okay."

Hope wasn't sure what else to really say. Though plenty of things had happened during the period between their last encounter, nothing seemed to be particularly noteworthy, at least to him, though most likely Vanille would beg to differ.

"Vanille?"

"Hmm?" She hummed, upbeat as ever and not appearing at all uneasy.

"Tell me a bit about Oerba." A smile turned the corners of his lips up. "I never really got to hear much about it before."

He expected her to launch into an energetic spiel over her hometown—(now a depilated wreck overrun with monsters and Cie'th)—but instead she ran her hand over the grass as if she was petting a chocobo, her expression pensive.

"You know we all shared our houses," Vanille started carefully, as if telling an important story. "But we were also from different clans. That's why Fang and I don't have the same title."

"Oerba Dia Vanille and Oerba Yun Fang, right?"

Looking pleased that he remembered, she nodded. "Right. So, we always helped each other out, and we knew everyone's names and no one was ever hungry or cold because we were basically one big happy family."

Hope noticed her eyes dull a little, and he grimaced. "Oh…sorry. I'm being kind of inconsiderate, huh?"

She shook her head furiously. "No, no, it's good that you're asking. That way…someone can remember."

"You've known Fang for a while?"

"I've known her forever," Vanille laughed. She twined two of her fingers together and showed him. "We're like this."

Something unpleasant writhed inside of him, down deep in his stomach. "Wish I had a relationship like that," he sighed wistfully, resting his chin on his palm and drawing his knees up.

She glared at him. "You do!" At his perplexed look, she added as if it were obvious, "Lightning!"

"Oh…" It wasn't exactly the same, but still…

He yelped and clapped a hand to his head as she withdrew her hand, and he gingerly touched the spot she had bopped him, rubbing the sore through his silver hair. "What was that for?"

"For being so clueless," Vanille giggled, patting his shoulder in a soothing fashion, and he let his glower wither away, replacing it with an exasperated, albeit amused, smile.

"I didn't know you could hit that hard without your Binding Rod," Hope joked, still massaging his aching scalp. He checked to see if there was any blood on his glove, but fortunately it was gore-free.

"Of course! How else would I skin a bear?"

Her off-handed manner of stating this almost caused him to miss it. He glanced at her doubtfully. "You? Skin a bear?"

"Yep! And killed it, too."

"When?"

"Oh, that was a long while ago." Vanille lift her fur half-skirt off the ground a smidgen, displaying the brown pelt with obvious pride. "I made this from it."

Hope didn't know what to say besides the necessary, "Wow." He ran his gaze over her slender frame and had trouble visualizing her going toe-to-toe with such a ferocious, violent, bulky ursine.

"What?" She asked, reading his skeptical look. "Don't believe me?"

She's lied before, he thought privately. But I don't think she is now.

"I believe you," he told her honestly. "Oerba sounds nice." He pegged the last part on in an effort to get back to learning more about her.

Vanille stared at the creek, with its glistening golden water, with a vaguely melancholy expression. "It was."

"Hey," he reminded her as something came to mind. "Remember what I said?"

"Huh?" She lifted her head and met his eyes.

"It makes me happy when you smile."

"But…You were joking with me!" She accused, pointing a finger at him.

"Was I?"

"Wouldn't you know if you were?"

"Maybe."

Throwing her hands in the air, Vanille exhaled sharply. "You're hopeless sometimes, Hope!"

"Or…am I?"

His mysterious remark was met with another playful smack to his shoulder. "Hey! Are you taking after Light or something?" He protested.

"At least I'm not punching you." She grinned hugely, just like she used to. "I felt sorry for poor Snow sometimes."

"Don't mess with Lightning, simple as that."

"Don't annoy her, actually."

"Shame it's so easy."

"Fang isn't afraid of her," Vanille scoffed.

"Are you?" Hope inquired, beginning to chuckle.

"Of course! She's a Lady of War!"

"A One Woman Army," he agreed.

They descended into laughter for reasons they both didn't really know, because the current situation actually wasn't all that funny. However, Hope found it to be a wonderfully liberating feeling, to be laughing until his lungs hurt with the girl he only saw in his dreams.

After they managed to catch their collective breaths, they just smiled at each other for a handful of heartbeats.

"Oh!" Vanille reached over and Hope felt his face flame for some reason as her fingers brushed his ear. She pulled back and flourished the rainbow flower he had picked from the meadow beyond the forest. "Where did you find this?"

"Over there." He pointed past the trees. "But everything keeps changing, so I doubt it's still there."

She twirled it between her fingers. "These used to grow all over Oerba." Blinking, she added slowly, "At least…I think. Did they grow in the spring or summer…?"

Hope's brows furrowed. "Doesn't it bother you?" He blurted.

Her face displayed mild surprise. "Doesn't what bother me?"

"The fact that you forget things that are important!" He continued without delay. "Oerba is your home so of course every memory matters…but when you start to forget the details, doesn't it—"

Vanille pressed one finger to his mouth to silence him. "Of course it does," she said; withdrawing her hand to brush the flower's petals again. "But as long as I remember the most important things, I'm not too bothered about it. What are you worried about forgetting?"

"My mom's voice," he stated bitterly. "It's fading and I can't really recall it clearly."

"But you remember what she looks like, right?"

"Of course."

"And what she did for you?"

"Yeah…"

For the second time—(that day?)—Vanille pulled him into a tight embrace, and he felt her tuck the flower back behind his ear. She rested one hand on his back, the other on his hair, stroking him soothingly in an almost motherly way. "Then don't trouble yourself about it," she advised.

As soon as he was released, Hope leaned back against the boulder they were resting by; its surface warm from the sun, and it was with a shock that he found he had to remind himself this just had to be a dream.

If the last thing I remember was falling asleep…then no matter how realistic this is, it can't…

"I missed a lot of your birthdays," Vanille mused aloud to herself. She clapped her hands together. "Maybe I should sing 'Happy Birthday' for you?"

"Um…no. That's not necessary," he hurriedly explained.

She giggled again but, to his immense relief, didn't pursue the topic.

If this is all just a dream…then there's no harm in me telling her…right?

Over the years, his various feelings for the girl had bottled themselves up and the pressure behind the cork had been steadily increasing over time. It was one of the reasons why he thought he was hallucinating—his desire to talk to Vanille again had conjured a perfect replica of her from his memories. He had something he was positively burning to say, but…

Dream or not, I have to do this. It's like Lightning always said—it's not a matter of can or can't, there are some things you just do.

However, when he looked her in the eyes, Hope felt his resolve falter and his tongue tripped over itself. Instead, he found himself removing the flower from its position near his ear and holding the plant out to her. "You're like this flower!"

His outburst was evidently quite startling. "Um…thank you?"

Idiot, idiot, idiot!

"What I mean is," Hope swiftly went on. "Is that you appear really delicate and weak, but like this flower, you're actually tougher than you seem. See?" He gathered his courage and took her hand, pressing her fingers to the soft petals.

"Oh!" Realization blossomed in her emerald gaze, and she smiled gratefully. "D-Do you really mean that?"

"Yeah, and just like this flower, you're beautiful too."

She brought both hands to her mouth with a gasp and turned away, and he had the feeling that she was blushing hard. "Y-You're not joking, are you?"

His mouth went dry, and he had the urge to say yes, he was followed by a laugh to lighten the suddenly oppressive atmosphere. Instead, he forced himself to nod, and when she didn't turn around to check his reaction, he stuttered an affirmative.

"Hope…" Vanille faced him again, her eyes brighter than usual. "That's really sweet."

"Heh…really?" He scratched the back of his head, averting his gaze. The unseen birds seemed to choose that moment to explode into a veritable symphony of chirps. "Great."

As was the norm, she invaded his personal space and placed a quick, warm kiss on his cheek, and he heard her giggle slightly.

He started to feel uncomfortably hot, and he tried to ignore her snickers, but inevitably ended up joining her as they both fell back onto the grass, their feet now resting at the base of the rock, the creek whispering not far above their heads.

Flipping so that he was on his side and facing her, Hope—still grinning—met Vanille's eyes and couldn't, wouldn't, convince himself that this wasn't happening for real.

~*X*~

Hope could tell that Lightning was somewhat annoyed and confused at the same time, and despite the dangers of an annoyed Lightning, he couldn't quite bring himself to care.

He wasn't sure when he finally woke up. The meadow and forest that existed in his mind was still incredibly vivid, even in his memories, and the best part was that he could remember everything about it.

You don't remember dreams this clearly…right?

So, early in the morning, he went racing around Bodhum to find a florist specializing in Gran Pulse flowers. He shelled out the needed cash required to buy the (rather expensive) plants and then hightailed it to the memorial shrine built for Oerba Dia Vanille and Oerba Yun Fang.

Of course, the citizens weren't allowed near the actual crystallized statues of the two women, but the shrine was an impressive work of architecture made to honor the two heroes that saved Cocoon from mass destruction.

Lightning, for some inexplicable reason, had accompanied him all morning and was standing behind him now as he knelt and placed the special bouquet of rainbow flowers at the bottom of Vanille's In Honor Of plaque. For Fang, he set down a different set of flowers the colors of bronze and burgundy.

Sensing Lightning's curiosity, Hope said without straightening or facing her, "I had a dream about her."

"Vanille?"

"Yeah." He looked down and frowned. "It was so incredibly vivid, I'm sure it was real. But…it couldn't be, could it?" The last bit sounded fairly dejected.

Hope blinked in surprise as Lightning clapped a hand to his shoulder, the hint of a smile on the edges of her lips. "Nothing's impossible, right?" Without further ado, she walked off, not bothering to wait and see if he was following.

Before going after her, he touched one of the rainbow flowers.

Nothing's impossible…

Hope smiled. "…Huh. Imagine that."

~*X*~

Author's Note: I fear everyone is badly out of character, four years in the future or not. However, I wanted to write something after playing the game and this seemed like a great idea! I was inspired to write at all by the fantastic Zaz9-zaa0, who is definitely worth checking out!

My first Final Fantasy story—ever—so reviews are appreciated!