Part Two: To Seal A Promise
Morning (or at least Hope assumed it was) found him still with his arm wrapped around Vanille's shoulder. He blinked sleepily, waiting for the white fog at the edges of his vision to clear. He froze, expecting her to make some kind of teasing remark about their current position, but she continued to doze peacefully.
Without really stopping to think about it, he pressed his face affectionately into her soft hair and closed his eyes again. She may not be "all flowers and sunshine" but she sure smelled that way. For her to be a few years older than him, Vanille wasn't really all that much taller…
It was nice. Really nice. He wasn't sure why, but he liked the tranquility of their situation. He hadn't felt this safe and content in a long while.
However, he knew it couldn't last. Better to do something now than to be caught red-handed, so to speak. Gently withdrawing his arm from around her slender frame, he shook her cautiously awake. "Vanille?"
She hummed sleepily, opening one green eye that flashed in the glow of the Fire spell he had just summoned. He watched as awareness crept back into her gaze, and she sat up, blushing a little, stretching as she got to her feet. "How late is it?" The tribe girl wondered.
"I don't know," Hope shrugged in response. He followed her example, joints in his limbs cracking as he tried to work the kinks out of his body. His thoughts turned towards Light and the rest of the gang. Facing Vanille, he said, "We should head back, to where we first fell in."
Her lips turned down in a pensive frown. "Um…can we do something else, first?"
She looked at the tunnel where they had first encountered the Behemoth. "I'd like to bury that Chocobo. Really bury it."
Is she serious?
"Uh…are you sure? There might be more Behemoths down there." He cautiously stared down the passageway, his brows furrowing. Vanille was adamant, however.
"It doesn't feel right, to leave it to be eaten." Her tone turned pitying. "It was such a brave Chocobo; I think it really did know a way out."
Hope sighed, rubbing the back of his hair. "Fine, fine," he relented.
Pleased, Vanille smiled before linking her fingers with his and tugging him with her as they plunged into the dark depths of the tunnel. They kept four globes of Fire magic flaring brightly, on the lookout for anything large that carried the potential of fanged death. Hope concentrated on searching the shadows beyond the flames' radiance for a glimpse of blood-red eyes a good distance off the ground, but it seemed everything was safe and empty.
He found himself marveling at the fact that she was still smiling, as if nothing had happened previously. Her green gaze was set determinedly forward, intent on finding the corpse of the poor Chocobo that had been slaughtered by the Behemoth from earlier.
Just when he was convinced they had taken the wrong route, Vanille let out a little murmur and released her grip on him. Kneeling by a forlorn, feathery shape that was stained crimson with blood, the tribe girl began stroking its neck.
Glancing around warily for danger, Hope moved to crouch beside her as she gave a gasp of surprise. "What's up?"
"It's alive still! Though not for long…" For someone used to hunting animals in Gran Pulse, she was awfully compassionate of the creatures, he mused.
The Chocobo had one large eye open, blinking at them once, long and slow.
Vanille whispered reassuringly, "Don't worry, you didn't die in vain. You helped to keep us alive, and we'll never forget that. Thank you."
"Yeah…thanks." It was hard for Hope to believe that the Chocobo didn't understand their words, because its stare—murky though it may have been—was far too clear and intelligent. Hesitantly, he patted its uninjured shoulder.
Its eye closed and it exhaled once. It didn't take in another breath.
He studied Vanille inquisitively as she shut her eyes and brought her hands together, forming a peculiar triangle with her fingers. Dipping her head, she started muttering a chant of some kind, the sentences slurred by her accent.
Probably shouldn't interrupt. Must be a Pulsian thing.
Once the Oerban had completed whatever ritual she had said over the now dead Chocobo, he asked, "So how do you plan on digging a hole?"
Blinking, Vanille replied sheepishly, "I…haven't thought of that yet."
Hope groaned and clenched his fists, mind racing as he tried to formulate a plan of some sort. They had magic; surely they could do something with that? Even without their Eidolons, it shouldn't be beyond them to fashion a suitable grave for an oversized chicken!
"Did you notice?"
Still buried in his thoughts, he answered vacantly, "Huh?"
"The floor here…it's really flat. A lot of creatures must have walked on it." She ran her hand over the smooth dirt, disturbing only a few pebbles. "Guess not even Fang and I know everything about Gran Pulse."
"Yeah…" A Quake spell was out of the question, unless they wanted to be buried alive. "Okay," he decided with a nod. "We can use some Water to soften the dirt, but it'll take a lot of work to make something big enough for that Chocobo." Hope met her eyes and told her honestly, "We probably can't bury it. I'm sorry, but we don't have the tools or time or anything."
To his surprise, she didn't argue. She just took off one of her many tribal bangles and slipped it on the scaly leg of the Chocobo. Stroking its matted feathers one more time, she queried tentatively, "Can we look a little further down this tunnel?"
"I want to see where it was going. What was it heading for?" Vanille rose to her feet, redirecting the Fire spheres and sending one of them shooting down the passage. They watched the orange glow bounce off of the tunnel walls and become only a distant, burning smudge in the oppressive darkness.
Hope grimaced. "But…there might be more Behemoths down there."
"They don't like to share territory," she reasoned. "If there's any food, that one must have been the only predator around down here. There can't be much to eat underground."
He would really rather not, be he had to admit, the concept was intriguing. The platinum-haired boy simply shook his head and beckoned for her to follow him. Vanille fell into step at his side, carefully avoiding the prone corpse of the Chocobo in the process.
"We're not walking long," he warned. "Light and the others must be worried about us by now."
"Okay," she promised.
Their footsteps were the only sound in the tunnels—the magically created ember orbs nearby didn't make enough noise to be heard. It was like an uneven heartbeat from an immense creature, echoing in their ears and lingering there for a few seconds. As was typically the case with Vanille, he felt stronger, braver when she was there. Like…like maybe he could be a hero or something. Whatever she wanted.
Maybe this is how Snow feels with Serah.
An unexpected light glinted sharply in his eyes, and Hope shut them tight against the glaring pain. Raising a hand in an effort to shield himself, he peeked through his fingers to see the source of the sudden and rather unsought for gleam.
It was…cave moss, of some kind. Pale green and gray, stretching to encompass one entire wall. He inched closer, Vanille at his heels, trying to understand what he was looking at, exactly.
To his astonishment, a ripple of glowing white passed through the moss, creating the illusion of an ocean wave. Like the kind that was imitated by the "sea" in Bodhum. As his eyes adjusted, he looked closer and saw what seemed to be fiber optics of some kind embedded into the wiry plant itself. He and Vanille exchanged startled looks.
"Do you know what this is?" He put in a query for curiosity's sake, though he already suspected the answer.
"Not at all." Vanille placed a hand out and touched the moss, lean fingers running through the harmless material. As another ripple washed across its surface, she gasped.
"What is it?" Hope endeavored to see if there was anything painful about her expression, but instead, the tribe girl appeared flummoxed.
"I…Hmm." Tilting her head, she motioned for him to shush.
Hope froze, expecting to hear the thump of Behemoth paws, but there was nothing there at all.
"Oh! Do you hear that, Hope?" Vanille smiled brightly. "Water!"
Really straining his city-slicker ears for all they were worth now, the boy realized she was right. There was a faint hiss bouncing at them from nearby that could only be the sound of water falling into something.
"That must have been what the Chocobo heard! Let's go take a look!" Vanille bolted past him, and Hope had no choice but to follow. Their feet pounded against the stone as they jogged, and he sincerely hoped—no pun intended—that they wouldn't encounter something monstrously nasty skulking in the shadowy corners where even the Fire didn't reach.
More of the strange glowing moss lined the walls as they went, and their gazes were inexorably drawn to the mysteriously beautiful display of ivory ripples on either side of them. The air lost some of its heavy, old taste and acquired a fresher, damper tint to it.
Hope watched Vanille as she ran; half-skirt flapping, skirt swirling, pigtails swinging, and he couldn't help but admire how graceful she was. Like a cat, even if she didn't have the same feral grandeur as Fang or Lightning. The weird luminescent plants cast an otherworldly glow on the tribe girl, and he was unable to stop gawking just a little. Luckily, she couldn't see.
Eventually they ended up in a wide cavern with a high ceiling, a glistening, clear blue waterfall crashing into the ground to form a small pond beneath their feet. It was so clean that Hope could easily espy the bottom, and there was nothing of danger within the water except for some small, blind, white fishes.
Though Vanille rushed right in to look around, Hope paused just within the interior and glanced about with a wary air. He didn't think it was so smart to charge into the place, especially considering the monster that had been guarding the path to get there.
"Is something the matter?" The tribe girl inquired, kneeling by the waterside and tracing the paths of the fish with her eyes. He wondered idly if she was considering catching one and cooking it. (It couldn't be any worse than the Behemoth from the previous night.)
"Nah." He walked inside and poked about, checking for any signs of land-bound life. More of the glimmering moss lined the walls, causing an electric shine to pass over the surface of the water every few seconds. Doubtlessly, the poor Chocobo had tried to lead them here, since water meant sustenance and sustenance meant life.
"Okay!" Standing, Vanille gazed steadily at him from the other side of the pool. "Let's get back to the others now. They're probably worried sick!"
"Right," he agreed with a nod. She flashed a grin before crossing the rock slope that acted as a makeshift bridge back to his end. As she started to make her way towards him, Hope spotted two shapes hurtling themselves at her from the very back of the cavern. They were the size of big dogs and thrice as heavy.
With red eyes.
"Vanille!" He shouted, panicked. He pointed behind her. "Run!"
"Huh?" She turned and her green eyes shot open wide as the miniature Behemoths lumbered ever nearer, long tongues hanging out of their still developing teeth. She shot at him so fast that he stumbled a bit as she passed. The wind she had generated from her mad dash hadn't even completely faded before she spoke again. "Wait…look!"
Hope tensed, drawing his boomerang, but the cubs—he realized now that's what they were—hadn't given chase. They waddled around on their stocky limbs near the water, dabbing their paws in as they attempted to spear a fish. Their guttural mewling sounded almost piteous.
"Oh…we must have killed their mother." Her green eyes turned sad, her voice sympathetic. She had her hands drawn up to her chest, her fingers intertwined.
"I guess…" Despite himself, in spite of how much he hated fighting Behemoths, he couldn't help but feel kind of like a monster as he watched the hungry cubs and their sad efforts to catch themselves something to eat.
I had my mom taken away from me. He scratched the back of his head guiltily as Vanille murmured something in compassion for the beasts. If they can feel pain and sorrow, I must have just inflicted the same torment on them.
Sighing, he turned halfway to his companion and muttered, "Let's get them something to eat before we go."
A smile brightened the entirety of her face. "Do you really mean it? I was going to suggest the same thing myself!"
He laughed a little. "I thought so."
This is just so they don't chase us down the tunnels, Hope lied to himself as he stepped back at Vanille's bidding. The girl took her Binding Rod out and started casting the hooks, seeking to snag one of the fishes. Their empty white eyes betrayed their inability to see.
"Were you a fisher?" He asked, studying her relaxed stance.
She nodded. "Fang was more of a hunter, but we switched up sometimes."
"Oh." Hope sought to imagine life in her hometown, Oerba, but he couldn't properly picture living five hundred years ago, let alone living in Gran Pulse. But she and Fang were good, strong people, so he supposed it couldn't have been all that bad.
Giving a whoop of delight, Vanille yanked her arm back sharply, causing three fishes to fling through the air, still attached to her Binding Rod. He wiped some stray droplets from his face and knelt to examine her catch. Each of the fishes was about the size of his hand, and they flopped about weakly on the ground. They were pale, slender fellows and he mused about what the contents of their diet could possibly be in such an underground, remote area.
"Okay. Let's take it to them. Great job." Hope beamed at her before picking up the wriggling, slimy creatures. Aiming as if he was about to toss his boomerang, he launched the trio of fishes straight across the pool. They landed beside the Behemoth cubs with wet slaps, and the bulky animals immediately began devouring the fare, their hunger made even more evident by the ferocity of which they ate.
Vanille watched them interestedly, and he wondered what she was thinking so hard about, or if it was even about the Behemoths at all.
"Alright. Let's go." Hope turned and headed for the exit, looking over his shoulder and adding, "Coming?"
"Huh?" She blinked. "Of course!" Swiftly jogging to his side, she fell into step beside him.
The luminescent moss continued to cast its pale glow across the two as they journeyed, and Hope prayed that Light wasn't overreacting too badly about his safety. Likely Vanille was doing the same, except her concern was probably directed at Fang.
More Fire spells were lit (just in case) and a silence fell between the two that lasted for a few minutes.
"Do you ever wonder…about us?"
He looked at her curiously. "What do you mean?"
"I…um…when all of this is over, what do you think will happen?"
Did she mean "us" as in…the pair of them, or "us" as in the whole group? It was hard to tell. Better to be safe. "I don't really think about it."
She exhaled sharply, frustrated and hiding it thinly. In response to his dismissive statement, she moved on to a new subject. "So many things are different. I'm like a fish out of water sometimes."
Stopping, and by doing so forcing her to do the same, he met her gaze questioningly.
"Five hundred years." She paused to let that sink in. "Half a millennium, Hope! All of my other friends, everyone I knew…they're gone."
"Ah…I know, and I'm sorry. But me and the others? We'll be there for you. We can't replace your old friends, but at least know that you won't be alone."
Vanille studied him from the corner of her emerald eyes, her emotions unreadable. "You're very wise, Hope."
"Heh, thanks. I try." He gave her a goofy smile, and she playfully hit his arm.
They continued on, the silence never finding its way back between them because they kept up a constant stream of conversation, even if most of what they said was meaningless.
Snow cringed, slapping the back of his neck and checking his palm for a smashed corpse. "What's biting me?" He asked incredulously for the fourteenth time that afternoon.
"Gnats, mosquitoes, viperflies…" Fang replied airily, her voice sounding distant thanks to her present position halfway within the hole she was currently digging.
The muscular blonde held Serah's crystal tear aloft, watching the rays of sunlight bounce off of its cerulean surface. He ached all over from his own laboring to clear the cave-in, and his joints in particular really hurt. Sunburn was the last thing on his mind, compared to the wretched insects.
The pounding of bullets against flesh reached his ears, and Snow pivoted around to see Sazh shooting a few warning shots at some creatures that were wandering too close. They shied away from the dual-wielding man, meandering back onto safer pastures.
"Snow, get back down here unless you're helping Sazh with guard duty!" Lightning demanded.
Pocketing Serah's tear, he slid back into the crater and looked about. The ground was sloped and uneven, but it would be only a matter of time before they opened a hole. After that, Vanille and Hope could crawl out and they would be on their way.
Simple. In theory.
Suppressing a sigh, he took hold of a particularly heavy boulder and began hauling it out, the muscles in his arms bulging from the strain.
He'd gladly take a little pain if it was for the youngest of their party, after all. Serah would do the same.
"It's getting late. I think. Did we go the right way?" Hope came to a halt, eyeing his surrounding suspiciously. His steps had become more and more unsure until he was certain they were going in the incorrect direction.
Vanille, hands on her hips, shook her head, which made her pigtails swing. "No, this is it."
"What makes you so sure?"
She giggled. "I don't know, maybe my uncanny sense of direction? You grew up in Cocoon, you would get lost easily. We're still in the Archylte Steppe, just…under it." With that, she pressed on.
Hope shrugged, letting her take the lead since it gave him time to let his thoughts wander. He kept his ears peeled for danger, but luckily, there was nothing for now.
Something strange occurred to him, and unable to stop himself, he murmured, "Vanille?"
"Yes?" She replied in a sing-song tone.
"If I had to be trapped underground forever with someone, I'm glad it was you."
"Oh…m-me too, Hope."
Hah. She was so cute when she blushed. Hope hung onto that thought for a little longer than necessary, because it made him feel warm all over.
He decided to keep going. "You know what? You asked me what I think will happen after all of this. I've got an answer."
"Yeah. What do you think of us going exploring together?"
She tilted her head to the side, curious. "Exploring where?"
"There's a lot of the world I haven't seen. I don't know if you've seen it all, or feel the same, but I'd really like to go take a look at everything there is to see. Someday." Hope smiled at her, and she mirrored it.
Nodding, she said, "I'd really love that, Hope."
"Then it's a promise."
Vanille looked off to the side. "A promise…" She repeatedly softly.
Hope blinked and then gasped, a full-fledged grin spreading across his young face. "Hey! There's some light up ahead, and it's not moss!"
There was a patch of white-yellow radiance at the very end of the passage they were in—and it was undeniably sunlight. Literally, the light at the end of the tunnel.
He took off at a sprint, with Vanille hurrying to catch up. The platinum-haired boy, once upon a time, would have already collapsed from the amount of walking they had done today. That was a long while ago.
However, the tribe girl had always been athletic. She bounded to his side, quick as a deer, and gripped his shoulder to stop him. He skidded to a halt, but before he could ask her what was up, she placed a quick kiss on his lips, which lasted for a single heartbeat.
Hope's mind ceased all activity for a second. Unable to form a coherent sentence, he gaped at her.
Vanille winked. "That's how we seal promises in Gran Pulse." With that, she raced down the tunnel, making Hope wonder if she was telling the truth or not. The butterflies in his stomach insisted that he go after her, so he forced his legs to move and did just that.
"Hey!" She shouted, directing her call towards the ray of sunlight. "Is anyone there?"
The reply wasn't long in coming. "Vanille!" Fang, naturally. "Are you all right?"
"Hope? You there?" Sazh this time.
"Yeah, I'm fine too."
"Good. Let's get you two out of there." Lightning appeared at the top of the rock slide. Kneeling, she extended her hand, her figure becoming a dark silhouette against the sun. Vanille paused and nodded at Hope to go first. The still somewhat dazed boy scrambled up the slanted, jagged rocks and reached high to take the ex-soldier's offered hand.
She pulled him out and, to his surprise, caught him in a brief hug. "You okay?"
He bobbed his head up and down to show he was, and Light flashed him a rare smile. Fang, meanwhile, was assisting Vanille in exiting the network of tunnels. The two women were grinning widely at each other and chatting already.
"So, everyone's alive?" Snow asked casually, swinging his arms. Hope noticed that everyone was covered in dirt and Sazh and Snow looked a little worse for wear than the others. Likely because they had been on monster patrol.
"Yep! Thanks, everyone!" Vanille gave the party an appreciative smile, which Hope quickly adopted. As the tribe girl launched into the story regarding their temporary imprisonment underground, he found his thoughts wandering back to the unexpected kiss.
Was that really some kind of Pulsian thing?
His eyes hurt from the strength of the light compared to the constant darkness underground, and he lifted a hand to shield them from the intense solar beams.
"You sure you're okay? You look out of it," Light remarked in that off-handed way she used to hide her concern.
"Huh? Y-Yeah, I'm fine. Just a little tired."
The ex-soldier arched an eyebrow, not convinced, but simply said in way of reply, "We'll rest here for tonight. Then we have to get moving, we've lost a lot of time."
"Time. Right." Hope touched his L'Cie Brand, frowning at it and all that it stood for.
Well, he decided with a degree of finality. If that really is the way to seal promises in Pulse…He lifted his eyes and met Vanille's. I'll have to be sure to return the favor.
Author's Note: And there we have it! Want to drop a review? I really love those things. These two are my favorite couple in all of Final Fantasy, if you can't tell. XD